American Civil War

Visiting the Lincolns: A Review

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On Saturday night, September 21, 2013, I was master of ceremonies at a performance of “Visiting the Lincolns” performed by Michael Krebs and Debra Ann Miller in Dwight, Illinois.  The performance was masterful.  Mr. Krebs and Ms. Miller have been performing as Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln since the mid-nineties and they gave a highly polished two person play.  The audience was very much a part of the play, as the premise of the play is that the members of the audience are unexpected visitors at the White House who appear just before the Lincolns on Good Friday 1865 are due to leave to attend a play at Ford’s Theater.

The play is a mixture of comedy and drama as the Lincolns deal with the task of attempting to entertain their unexpected guests.  Mrs. Lincoln serves lemon juice and cookies as she and Mr. Lincoln discuss their courtship,  and their sorrow over the deaths  of their sons Eddie and Willie, as well as Emancipation, the War and the other events that made the Civil War an unforgettable crossroads in American history.  Mr. Krebs and Ms. Miller demonstrate both the bickering, that the Lincolns did on occasion historically, and their deep love for each other.  The play is enlivened with some of Lincoln’s stories and constant interaction between the Lincolns and the audience.  One of the more dramatic episodes occurs when Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln are reading amusing dispatches from Union generals and criticizing the incompetence that was often a hallmark of Union high command, when Mrs. Lincoln lightheartedly begins reading Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby, not realizing that the letter consoled a mother for the loss of her five sons, and the reading awakens Mary’s constant grief over the loss of her two sons.  It made the dramatic hallmark for the evening. Continue reading

September 19, 1863: Battle of Chickamauga Begins

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An intelligent observer of the American Civil War in early September of 1863 would have reached certain conclusions about the War thus far:

1.  The Union was losing the War in the East.  After many spectacular battles and huge casualties, the battle lines in Virginia remained much the same as they had early in the War:  the Union controlled the northern third of the Old Dominion state and the South controlled the Southern two-thirds.  A stalemate of more than two years duration favored the Confederacy.

2.  The War in the trans-Mississippi was a side show that could be ignored.

3.  In the West, between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, the Union was clearly winning, with control of the Mississippi wrested from the Confederacy, with New Orleans and large sections of Louisiana controlled by the Union, and with Tennessee largely under Union control.

4.  The northern Presidential election in 1864 would probably prove decisive.  If Lincoln could make progress in the East and continue to win in the West he would likely be re-elected.  If the Confederacy could maintain the stalemate in the East and reverse the Union momentum in the West, or at least slow it to a crawl, Lincoln would be defeated and the Confederacy would win its independence.

General Braxton Bragg, the irascible commander of the Army of Tennessee, clearly understood that the Confederacy could not continue losing in the West, and that is why he rolled the iron dice of war at Chickamauga in a desperate attempt to stop the offensive of Major General William Rosecrans and his Union Army of the Cumberland.  Bragg proved fortunate, and his hard luck army gave the Confederacy one of its great victories, and the chance to change the whole course of the War.

Below is the passage on Chickamauga from the memoir of John B. Gordon, who during the war rose from Captain to Major General in the Army of Northern Virginia.  Gordon did not fight at Chickamauga, but his wonderfully colorful account of the battle, ground he was familiar with from being reared there in his childhood,  written with his usual entertaining purple prose, captures well the facts of the battle, and how this victory was treasured by the South, even as its benefits to the Confederacy were ultimately thrown away due to a lack of pursuit and the desultory, and unsuccessful, siege of Chattanooga. Continue reading

The Tullahoma Campaign: Not Written in Letters of Blood


I beg in behalf of this army that the War Department may not overlook so great an event because it is not written in letters of blood.

Major General William Rosecrans to Secretary of War Stanton after the completion of the Tullahoma Campaign.

Mention Gettysburg and almost all Americans will recall that it was a battle fought during the Civil War.  Mention the Tullahoma campaign, and almost all Americans will give a blank stare.  A pity, because the almost bloodless campaign demonstrates one of the finest pieces of generalship to be found in the War.

After the battle of Murfreesboro in December 31, 1862 to January 2, 1863, the two opposing armies seemed to go into suspended animation for a period of half a year.  Bragg withdrew his Army of Tennessee to 30 miles south of Murfreesboro at Tullahoma, Tennessee and contented himself with observing Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland and awaiting events.  Rosecrans seemed content to stay in Murfreesboro indefinitely, reinforcing and resupplying his army.  Calls to remove Rosecrans became frequent, along with frequent entreaties for Rosecrans to attack Bragg.  Rosecrans refused to move until he was ready.  On June 23, 1863 he was ready.

Here is the account of the campaign written by Union Lieutenant-Colonel Gilbert C. Kniffin in 1887 for The Century Magazine and which later appeared in Battles and Leaders.  I admire both its conciseness and its accuracy: Continue reading

September 8, 1863: Confederate Thermopylae

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A near miraculous Confederate victory, and the most humiliating Union defeat of the Civil War, the Second Battle of Sabine Pass fought on September 8, 1863 indicates how badly a battle plan can go awry when confronted by a brave and determined foe.

In 1863 the Lincoln administration was eager to deter Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico from trading with the Confederacy.  To accomplish this, Major General Nathaniel Banks ordered Major General William B. Franklin to lead an amphibious force up the Sabine River in Texas, capture  Confederate Fort Griffith and occupy the town of Sabine Pass.

On September 8, 1863 Captain Frederick Crocker, United States Navy, steamed up the Sabine to attack Fort Griffith, his force consisting of four gunboats and eighteen transports, loaded with 5,000 Union troops.  Opposing this armada were 46 Confederates with six cannon at Fort Griffith.

The Confederates were mainly Irish dock workers who had formed the Jeff Davis Guards at the beginning of the War.  They were commanded by Lieutenant Richard, “Dick” , Dowling, who had immigrated to America from Ireland with his family as a small child.  A successful owner of a chain of saloons before a war, Dowling now faced a military situation that would have alarmed any professional soldier. Continue reading

Nuns of the Battlefield

Nuns of the Battlefield

Visitors to Washington DC might be surprised at first to encounter a monument to nuns and sisters entitled Nuns of the Battlefield.  It was erected by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 1924 to honor the some 600 Catholic nuns and sisters who during the Civil War nursed soldiers on both sides.  It bears this inscription:


Anti-Catholic propaganda prior to the Civil War often focused on alleged lurid misdeeds involving nuns, the completely fictional account written by Maria Monk being a typical example, thus combining both bigotry and near pornography.  A convent was burned by an anti-Catholic mob in 1834 in Charlestown, Massachusetts, their minds poisoned by just such allegations.

Nuns and sisters prior to the Civil War would not wear their habits outside of their convents for fear of insult or attack.  Then, in the words of Lincoln, the war came.

Nuns on both sides swiftly volunteered to served as nurses, and they proved superb at this task.  Mary Livermore, who served on the United States Sanitary Commission and who would later win fame as an early fighter for the rights of women, wrote this tribute after the War:

“I am neither a Catholic, nor an advocate of the monastic institutions of that church . . . But I can never forget my experience during the War of the Rebellion . . . Never did I meet these Catholic sisters in hospitals, on transports, or hospital steamers, without observing their devotion, faithfulness, and unobtrusiveness. They gave themselves no airs of superiority or holiness, shirked no duty, sought no easy place, bred no mischiefs. Sick and wounded men watched for their entrance into the wards at morning, and looked a regretful farewell when they departed at night.”

Soldiers were impressed both by the quality of the nursing they received from the nuns and their good cheer and kindness.  Generations of bigotry melted away by the ministrations of these women of God.  A Confederate chaplain recalled this incident between a soldier and a sister:

“Sister, is it true that you belong to the Catholic Church?”

“Yes, sir, it’s true. And that’s the source of the greatest happiness I have in this life.”

“Well, I declare. I’d never have suspected it. I’ve heard so many things . . . I thought Catholics were the worst people on earth.”

“I hope you don’t think so now.”

“Well, Sister . . . I’ll tell you. If you say you’re a Catholic, I’ll certainly have a better opinion of Catholics from now on.” Continue reading

Old Abe the War Eagle

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The mascot of the Eighth Wisconsin infantry during the Civil War, Old Abe became a symbol of the Union war effort.

Born in 1861 the female bald eaglet was captured soon after birth by Ahgamahwegezhig (Chief Sky) a member of the Ojibwe tribe.  Traded to Daniel McCann for a bushel of corn in the summer of 1861, he sold her to the Eau Claire Badgers a company of Union volunteer infantry for $2.50.  Captain Perkins of the company named the bird Old Abe and a perch was made for her to stand on, and a soldier assigned to  look after her.  The Eau Claire Badgers became part of the Eighth Wisconsin and Old Abe became the regimental mascot.

Old Abe served with the regiment throughout the War and witnessed some thirty battles.  During fighting she would spread her wings and shriek.  Press coverage of her was extensive.  Confederates referred to her as the Yankee Buzzard and placed bounties on her head.

A soldier wrote home after the battle of Corinth: Continue reading

August 19, 1863: Lincoln Fires a Spencer Rifle



How times have changed!  On August 18, 1863 Christopher Spencer, inventor of the revolutionary Spencer repeating rifle, was able to walk into the White House and show one of his rifles to President Lincoln.

The concept of a repeating rifle was not new, and examples of such weapons had been produced since at least 1779.  However, teething problems with the new technology made them impracticable as mass weapons until shortly before the Civil War.  Benjamin Tyler Henry developed the famed Henry repeating rifle in 1860.  Although never officially adopted by the Union army, this rifle was highly thought of enough by Union cavalry troopers that thousands of them purchased them privately, and they were equally prized when captured by Confederate troopers.  The rifle could fire off 28 rounds per minute, compared to a rifled musket that could barely manage three rounds per minute under ideal conditions.

The Spencer repeating rifle was developed by Christopher Spencer in 1860.  A seven shot weapon, it could manage 20 shots a minute and proved durable under battlefield conditions.  By the end of the War, most Union cavalry and mounted infantry units had Spencers and their firepower was often devastatingly effective on the battlefield.
War department conservatism is often blamed for the fact that the Spencers were not more widely used during the War, especially by the infantry, but the truth is that the ability to supply Spencers to replace all of the Union rifles and rifled muskets simply did not exist during the War, and supplying the ones that could be manufactured to units cavalry and mounted infantry was a wise choice since they greatly magnified the combat power of the most mobile forces that the Union had. Continue reading

What’s the Matter Stephen Foster?

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Something for the weekend.  That’s What’s the Matter by Stephen Foster.  The Civil War probably killed Stephen Foster.  The most notable American composer of his time, in a day when copyright enforcement was nil, Foster always just managed to scratch out a precarious living.  As the beginning of the song indicates with the coming of the War many of the songs he had written in peace were no longer in demand.

Broke and suffering from a persistent fever, deserted by his wife who had taken their daughter to live in Pittsburgh in 1861, Foster fell in his hotel room in New York City on January 10, 1864 and gashed his head on a wash basin.  He was admitted to Bellevue and died three days later, at age 37.  Ironically his most successful song, Beautiful Dreamer, was published a few months after his death: Continue reading

July 18, 1863: Assault on Fort Wagner

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We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers….We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company – what a body-guard he has!

Response of the parents of Colonel Robert Shaw as to whether they wished to have his body exhumed and brought back to Boston.

The 150th anniversary of the second assault on Fort Wagner, the Confederate fort on Morris Island, guarding entry into Charleston Harbor, made immortal by the film Glory (1989) depicting the attack of the 54th Massachusetts.  The 54th sustained the following casualties out of 600 men:  29 killed, including the commander of the regiment, 25 year old Colonel Robert Shaw, 15 captured, 52 missing in action and 149 wounded.  The white regiments that participated in the attack also sustained heavy losses.  A total of 1515 Union casualties against approximately 174 Confederate casualties.   Ironically Fort Wagner would be abandoned by the Confederates in September, it being too difficult to keep the Fort supplied in the teeth of a continual Union bombardment, and the water supply in the Fort being contaminated by the number of corpses in the soil surrounding the fort from the two unsuccessful assaults.

The courage shown by the men of the 54th put the lie to the fairly common belief, completely at variance with history, that black men could not make good soldiers.  The 54th would go on to fight in several more battles during the course of the war.

Sergeant William Carney of the 54th earned a Medal of Honor in the assault.  Despite being wounded several times he placed the national flag on the parapet of Fort Wagner, and when the 54th retreated he brought back the flag in spite of being wounded twice more.  He told the men he gave the flag to:  “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”

A correspondent for the Tribune was present for the assault: Continue reading

Memoriae Positum

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(Reposted from 2012.)

 He leads for aye the advance,

 Hope’s forlorn-hopes that plant the desperate good

For nobler Earths and days of manlier mood;

James Russell Lowell

Memoriae Positum, memory laid down.  The Latin phrase is a good short hand description of  what History accomplishes.  In 1864 the poet James Russell Lowell wrote a poem entitled Memoriae Positum in tribute to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw who died heroically at age 25  leading the unsuccessful assault of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first black Union regiments, on the Confederate stronghold of Fort Wagner at Charleston, South Carolina on July 18th, 1863.  The poem predicts that Shaw’s memory will live forever and feels sorrow only for those, unlike Shaw, who are unwilling or unable to risk all for their beliefs.  It is a poem completely out of step with the predominant sentiments of our day which seem to value physical survival and enjoyment above everything else.  Here is the text of the poem: Continue reading

July 15, 1863: A Proclamation

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President Lincoln throughout the Civil War issued several proclamations calling for prayers, fasting and thanksgiving.  The famous proclamation in October 1863 creating Thanksgiving was just one of a them.  Here is a proclamation he issued on July 15 in the wake of the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg.  Note how he calls for repentance and submission to the Divine will.  He recognizes the hand of God in both the national triumphs and sorrows.  Such language would sound strange to most Americans today if uttered by a President of the United States.  More is the pity.  Here is the text of the proclamation: Continue reading

July 11, 1863: First Assault on Fort Wagner

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The longest siege in the Civil War was that of Charleston, South Carolina. 567 days the city was besieged by Union naval and land forces, only being taken by Sherman’s troops after the evacuation of the city on February 15, 1865 by the Confederate Army.

The siege began in July of 1863.  Union troops landed on Morris, Island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, their goal to take Fort Wagner.

Fort Wagner

Brigadier General George C. Strong, portrayed in the video clip at the beginning of this post, was in command of the Union brigade of troops that landed on Morris, Island.  He attempted to take Fort Wagner on July 11, 1863, only to have his attack bloodily repulsed, sustaining 339 casualties to only 12 for the Confederates.  He would try again on July 18, an attack made famous due to the participation of the 54th Massachusetts.

The season of freedom – introduction: the men of Milliken’s Bend

Milliken's Bend



A guest post by commenter Fabio Paolo Barbieri on the battle of Milliken’s Bend during the campaign to take Vicksburg:

Many of us have seen an excellent movie called GLORY, telling the story of the doomed but heroic assault by the black troops of the 53rd Massachusetts against the formidable coastal confederate Fort Wagner. With due respect for those brave men, that movie had the wrong subject. If they wanted to tell the story of black victims of oppression and dehumanization, taking up arms and proving themselves men on the battlefield, there is an episode that does it much better than even the fight for Fort Wagner; I mean the battle of Milliken’s Bend (June 7, 1863).

As the situation of Vicksburg was growing dire, and Grant’s wide-ranging operations had driven any hope of support far away (taking of Jackson and battles of Champion Hill and of Big Black River Bridge, mid-May), the Confederates pinned their last hopes on attempts to break Grant’s inevitably long supply lines. A union depot was known to exist at Milliken’s Bend, upriver from Vicksburg, and an elite unit, General John Walker’s Texas cavalry division, was dispatched to destroy it.

The Texans attacked late in the night of June 6-7. The garrison at Milliken’s Bend had had some advance warning of their arrival, and were reinforced by the experienced white troops of the 23rd Iowa; but the bulk of the local garrison was made up of two nominal regiments, the Louisiana Ninth and Eleventh: black volunteers, most of them escaped slaves, who had been enlisted for only a few weeks, with as much training as could have been expected for that period, officered by white soldiers promoted directly from private for the purpose, frequently illiterate, and often armed with out-of-date, broken-down Austrian rifles. Numerically, the defenders and the attackers were about equal, but given the different levels of skill and training of the Texans, the outcome would have seemed to be inevitable. The Texans broke the Union line, screaming “No quarter! No quarter!”, and the Iowans and the Louisianans became separated from each other, each understandably convinced that the other had left.

And then the unlikely thing happened. Driven from their positions, pushed back till they had their backs to the river, the Ninth and Eleventh Louisiana did not break or even waver, but met the Texans man to man. Twice they retook the battlements from which they had first been forced. Massed and pushing in a tiny space, literally face to face and eye to eye, fighting with the bayonet more than with the gun, the superior skill of the Texans ceased to matter; and the resolution of the former slaves not to be driven back, at whatever cost, became the deciding factor. The savage melee went on from dawn till midday, when the two gunboats “Choctaw” and “Lexington”, warned of the attack, finally reached the battlefield, and a few rounds of naval artillery convinced the Texans to seek friendlier climates.

There was, indeed, “glory” at Fort Wagner; but Milliken’s Bend, I think, means more. First, the troops of the 53rd Massachusetts were well trained and armed and meant from the start to be a front-line unit; while the 9th and 11th Louisiana were the lowest grade of troop, meant only for “garrison duty”, doing the jobs that better and more expensively trained units would be wasted on; and few people would have blamed them if, faced with such a unit as the Texas cavalry, they had abandoned the field. Second, however you look at it, Fort WAgner was a defeat; Milliken’s Bend was a victory. And in spite of its small scale, it was a victory of some significance. The Confederate attack had been altogether misguided: Grant’s supply line no longer ran through Milliken’s Bend, and even if the Texans had won they would have achieved precisely nothing. But the waste of Texans at Milliken’s Bend also means that this elite unit was not sent, as its overall commander, General Taylor, had pleaded, to attack a vulnerable New Orleans; and if they had been, Grant’s whole strategy might have been in trouble. Continue reading

Johnny Reb?

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Something for the weekend.  The things you find on the internet!  Johnny Horton in 1958 singing his hit song Johnny Reb to Walter G. Williams, the supposed last surviving veteran of the Civil War.

Shaun Mather at the Rockabilly Hall of Fame describes the incident:

The first night in July saw them back at Bradley’s Barn where they worked up a  follow up, Johnny Reb. Penned by Merle Kilgore, it was another saga song, even  having the marching drum beat. Horton’s own, Words was a nice ballad and  Driftwood’s, Sal’s Got A Sugarlip was a mid tempo novelty item with a semi  Slow Diddley beat, which he recut on the 6th. Johnny Reb and the later take  of Sal were issued before the end of the month. In a glorious publicity stunt,  Horton visited the last survivor from the Civil War, 116 year old General  Walter Williams. His daughter cranked up his hearing aid too high and as  soon as Horton started singing, Williams grabbed for his ears, a grimes  across his face. Horton thought the old timer didn’t like his song, but  once the problem had been sorted out, they tried again. This time the  veteran tapped his foot and was moved to tears. Slightly disappointedly,  Johnny Reb only reached fifty-four on the pop charts but rose to number  nine on the country charts.

Mr. Williams died in 1959.  Alas, researchers after his death concluded that he was probably a fake Confederate veteran.  Williams claimed to have been a foragemaster in Hood’s Texas brigade and to have ridden with Quantrill’s raiders.  Williams said he had been born in 1842.  The 1860 census listed him as five years old.  The National Archives listed no Walter G. Williams as having served from either his birth state of Mississippi or the state of Texas where Williams’ family settled and where Williams resided. Continue reading

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