American Civil War
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
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
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
(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
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
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.
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.
A guest post by commenter Fabio Paolo Barbieri on the battle of Milliken’s Bend during the campaign to take Vicksburg:
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
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
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have proclaimed a second Fortnight for Freedom from June 21-July 4th, and, as last year, The American Catholic will participate with special blog posts each day.
I confess that I am not likely to see the Hand of God very much in most human events. Where some can clearly see Divine handiwork, I do not, perhaps because, in the words of Saint Paul, I “see as in a glass, darkly.” However, even I find it hard not to look at the events on the Fourth of July one hundred and fifty years ago, with the retreat of Lee from Gettysburg and the surrender of Vicksburg and not suspect that God was saying something through his human instrumentalities. At any rate it was left to Mr. Lincoln on November 19, 1863 to attempt to make sense of the terrible crisis that the nation was living through.
Presidents during their presidencies make hundreds of speeches. Most are utterly forgotten soon after they are delivered. Even most of the speeches by a president who is also a skilled orator, as Lincoln was, are recalled only by historians and trivia buffs. Yet the Gettysburg address, given 146 years ago today, has achieved immortality.
Lincoln was invited to say a few words at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. The featured speaker was Edward Everett, one of the most accomplished men in American public life, who gave a two hour oration. It is a fine example of nineteenth century oratory, full of learning, argument and passion. It may seem very odd to contemplate in our sound bite age, but audiences in America in Lincoln’s time expected these type of lengthy excursions into eloquence and felt cheated when a speaker skimped on either length or ornateness in his efforts.
Lincoln then got up and spoke for two minutes.
We are not really sure precisely what Lincoln said. There are two drafts of the speech in Lincoln’s hand, and they differ from each other. It is quite likely that neither reflects the exact words that Lincoln used in the Gettysburg Address. For the sake of simplicity, and because it is the version people usually think of when reference is made to the Gettysburg address, the text used here is the version carved on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial.
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle- field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate…we cannot consecrate…we cannot hallow…this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. Continue reading
A stirring tribute to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who, with his boys of the 20th Maine, quite possibly saved the Union at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863. A professor who volunteered to fight, Chamberlain was typical of those who stepped forward, North and South, and risked their lives for love of their country, at a time when the question of what that country consisted of was being decided on the battlefield.
Here is Chamberlain’s report of the 20th Maine’s role in the defense of Little Round Top which he wrote on July 6, 1863:
Somewhere near 4 p.m. a sharp cannonade, at some distance to our left and front, was the signal for a sudden and rapid movement of our whole division in the direction of this firing, which grew warmer as we approached. Passing an open field in the hollow ground in which some of our batteries were going into position, our brigade reached the skirt of a piece of woods, in the farther edge of which there was a heavy musketry fire, and when about to go forward into line we received from Colonel Vincent, commanding the brigade, orders to move to the left at the double-quick, when we took a farm road crossing Plum Run in order to gain a rugged mountain spur called Granite Spur, or Little Round Top.
The enemy’s artillery got range of our column as we were climbing the spur, and the crashing of the shells among the rocks and the tree tops made us move lively along the crest. One or two shells burst in our ranks. Passing to the southern slope of Little Round Top, Colonel Vincent indicated to me the ground my regiment was to occupy, informing me that this was the extreme left of our general line, and that a desperate attack was expected in order to turn that position, concluding by telling me I was to” hold that ground at all hazards.” This was the last word I heard from him. Continue reading
Introduction to the movie Gettysburg. Released on the 130th anniversary of the battle, I will have it playing at my home during the 150th anniversary next week. Overlong, and historically suspect, especially as to its Longstreet-could-do-no wrong perspective, it still is a masterpiece. It captures perfectly the desperate nature of the battle that has become the symbol of that fratricidal conflict. The late Shelby Foote once said that to understand this country you needed to understand the Civil War. I concur, and I would also suggest that it is impossible to understand the Civil War without understanding Gettysburg, a battle which marked the end of Lee’s perceived invincibility and gave Lincoln an opportunity to explain to the people why so many men had to die so their nation might live.
Stay tuned to The American Catholic for several posts in the next few days on Gettysburg and the Civil War.
Well this is interesting. A film about Lincoln told from the perspective of Ward Lamon, Lincoln’s friend and self-appointed bodyguard for Lincoln who appointed him as United States Marshal for the District of Columbia. The film uses computer graphics to place the film within period pictures. An independent film, it received funding via Kickstarter. Go here to view the film’s website. I find the concept interesting, albeit gimmicky. I will have a full review after I view the film. It just arrived from Amazon so look for the review in a few days. Continue reading
An interesting character in his own right, a Confederate senator from Georgia during the Civil War and a powerhouse in Georgia politics his entire life, Benjamin H. Hill in a speech in 1874 uttered this statement on Robert E. Lee that captures that very great man perfectly:
“When the future historian shall come to survey the character of Lee he will find it rising like a huge mountain above the undulating plane of humanity, and he must lift his eyes high toward heaven to catch its summit. He possessed every virtue of other great commanders without their vices. He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression; and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy and a man without guile. He was a Caesar without his ambition; Frederick without his tyranny; Napoleon without his selfishness; and Washington without his reward. He was obedient to authority as a servant, and royal in authority as a true king. He was gentle as a woman in life; modest and pure as a virgin in thought; watchful as a Roman vestal in duty; submissive to law as Socrates; and grand in battle as Achilles.”
The video clip above from the movie Glory depicts the raid on Darien, Georgia. Commanded by an old Jayhawker, Colonel James Montgomery, the commander of the 2nd South Carolina, go here to read about him, with the participation of the 54th Massachusetts, the raid degenerated into the looting and burning of Darien, much to the disgust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the 54th. Here is letter to his newly wed wife in which he details his opinion of the raid: Continue reading
The largest cavalry battle of the American Civil War, indeed, the largest cavalry battle in American history, the battle of Brandy Station was almost an anachronism when it was fought, wiser cavalry commanders like Nathan Bedford Forrest realizing that cavalry fought much more effectively when dismounted, using their mounts only to get swiftly from point A to point B. In another sense it was a harbinger of things to come, indicating a new aggressive spirit in the Union cavalry and a signal that the days of Confederate cavalry supremacy in the East were coming to a rapid close.
Hooker, still in command of the Army of the Potomac, realized that Lee was massing his army in Culpeper County, Virginia. Jeb Stuart’s cavalry corps, 9500 sabres, was camped around Culpeper. On June 5 Stuart held a grand review before a huge number of civilians, with simulated cavalry charges. The review, sans cavalry charges, was repeated for Lee on June 8. Hooker, assuming that Stuart was readying a raid on the supply lines of the Army of the Potomac, ordered General Alfred Pleasanton, commander of the Army of the Potomac cavalry, to launch a spoiling attack on Stuart to disrupt his plans.
This Pleasanton did on June 9, crossing the Rappahannock River at 4: 30 AM, General John Buford aggressively leading his 1st Division against the Confederates. While this engagement was in progress, General David Gregg, crossing the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford, attacked the Confederates from the South commencing at 11:00 AM, causing the Confederates to withdraw before Buford in order to meet this attack.
A confused engagement followed with the Union forces withdrawing, per Pleasanton’s orders, at sunset. Union casualties were 907 to 523 Confederate. In spite of this, Union cavalry morale soared, taking justified pride in having surprised Stuart and having slugged it out for ten hours with his cavaliers for what at worst was a drawn battle. Stuart, although he did his best to paint the battle as a victory was embarrassed. He and his troopers had been totally surprised, indicating a shocking lack of pre-battle intelligence by his command, the essential mission of any cavalry force. That the Union force retreated and sustained heavier losses in no way negated that his Union counterparts had fought his men as battlefield equals. Confederate newspapers were scathing as to Stuart, who had hitherto enjoyed excellent press, being taken by surprise. For a proud man this was all a bitter turn of events.
The increasing effectiveness of the Union cavalry was shown to good effect on the first day of Gettysburg when Buford and his cavalry division saved the Union army with the delay they gave to the Confederates on the first day, helped by the absence of Confederate cavalry, caused in part by the fight at Brandy Station and Stuart’s reaction to it.
The battle had an enormous impact on the coming Gettysburg campaign, spurring Stuart to launching his grand raid just before the battle of Gettysburg, which effectively left Lee “blind” at a crucial moment in the campaign. Here is Stuart’s report on the battle, Fleetwood being another name given to the battle of Brandy Station: Continue reading