Something for the weekend. One of my favorite Christmas carols has always been I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. It is based on the poem Christmas Bells written by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day 1863. Still devastated by the death of his wife in a fire in 1861, he had been rocked by news that his son Charles, serving as a lieutenant in the Union army, had been severely wounded at the battle of New Hope Church in November of 1863. In a nation rent by civil war, along with his personal woes, one could perhaps understand if Longfellow had been deaf to the joy of Christmas that year. Instead, he wrote this magnificent poem of faith in the power of Christmas: Continue reading
The men of the 24th Wisconsin weren’t sure about this. They were coming under heavy fire and from the looks of things they were being asked to commit suicide. Charging uphill into Confederate entrenchments, how could they win? When their second standard bearer went down, they were convinced this attack was a very bad idea. Then an eighteen year old Lieutenant stepped forward and grabbed the flag. Turning to the men he yelled, “On Wisconsin!” and began clambering up Missionary Ridge. With a roar, the men followed, the Lieutenant eventually planting their standard on top of Missionary Ridge. That night of November 25, 1863 the corps commander of the 24th Wisconsin, hard bitten regular army, Major General Phil Sheridan, tearfully embraced the young Lieutenant, and told the men of the 24th to take care of him, because he had just won the Medal of Honor. He had too, although like many of the Civil War recipients, he would not receive the Medal until decades after the War.
In the battles and campaigns that followed the young Lieutenant, who had lied about his age to join the Union Army at 17, rose steadily in rank, eventually commanding the regiment and ending the war as a 19 year old brevet Colonel, the youngest colonel in the Union Army. In Wisconsin he would ever after be known as the “boy colonel”.
After the War, he briefly studied law, but in 1866 he re-enlisted in the Army as a Second Lieutenant, retiring in 1909 as a Lieutenant General. Continue reading
On November 7, 1864 Jefferson Davis made his annual speech to the Second Confederate Congress. Most of the speech was a valiant, albeit largely delusional, attempt to place a happy face on the desperate military situation confronting the Confederate States. However, there is one section which finally brought out into the open the question of enlisting slaves in the Confederate Army. Long rumored to be under consideration, bringing it before Congress was a testament to how bad the military prospects were for the Confederacy, the protestations of Davis to the contrary notwithstanding. However, even at five minutes to midnight for the Confederacy, Davis still raised the proposal as a possible move in the future, not an immediate policy. To many members of the Congress it must have seemed ironic that a War begun in defense of slavery, had now reached such a dire pass that they were being asked to liberate slaves to preserve their new nation. Here is the portion of the speech of Davis dealing with the issue: Continue reading
One of the more colorful episodes in the siege of Petersburg, the Great Beefsteak Raid of September 14-17 helped cement Major General Wade Hampton III as a worthy successor to Jeb Stuart in command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Learning that a large herd of cattle were being grazed by the Union at Edmund Ruffin’s plantation on Coggin’s Point on the James River, Hampton decided to launch a raid behind enemy lines with 3,000 troopers, capture the cattle and drive them back into Confederate lines to feed the Army of Northern Virginia that was on starvation rations.
Hampton and his men seized the herd on September 16, and got 2,468 of them back into Confederate lines on September 17. Along with the cattle he brought back 304 Union prisoners, having suffered 61 Confederate casualties during the course of the raid. President Lincoln referred to it as “the slickest piece of cattle stealing” he had ever heard of. An exasperated Grant, when a reporter after the raid asked him when he expected to defeat Lee, snapped, “Never, if our armies continue to supply him with beef cattle.”
In 1966 a heavily fictionalized film on the beefsteak raid, Alavarez Kelly, was released. Here is Hampton’s report on the raid: Continue reading
“Damn the torpedoes!”
Bold Farragut said,
“Damn the torpedoes!
Full speed ahead!”
And, lashed to his rigging
With never a squeal,
He led his fleet into
The Bay of Mobile.
The Southern forts thundered
With vigor and vim
But grapeshot and canister
Never touched him.
The waters were mined
With a death-dealing load,
But Farragut simply
Refused to explode.
And fought till the Southerners
Gave up the fray.
(He’d captured New Orleans
In much the same way.)
So remember, if ever
You face such a plight,
There’s a pretty good chance,
“Straight ahead!” will be right.
And while “damn,” as you know,
Is a word to eschew –
He knew when to say it –
So few people do.
Rosemary and Stephen Benet
The Federal Election Commission Chairman has some chilling things to say about threats to freedom of speech:
I think that there are impulses in the government every day to second guess and look into the editorial decisions of conservative publishers,” warned Federal Election Commission Chairman Lee E. Goodman in an interview.
“The right has begun to break the left’s media monopoly, particularly through new media outlets like the internet, and I sense that some on the left are starting to rethink the breadth of the media exemption and internet communications,” he added.
Noting the success of sites like the Drudge Report, Goodman said that protecting conservative media, especially those on the internet, “matters to me because I see the future going to the democratization of media largely through the internet. They can compete with the big boys now, and I have seen storm clouds that the second you start to regulate them, there is at least the possibility or indeed proclivity for selective enforcement, so we need to keep the media free and the internet free.”
All media has long benefited from an exemption from FEC rules, thereby allowing outlets to pick favorites in elections and promote them without any limits or disclosure requirements like political action committees.
But Goodman cited several examples where the FEC has considered regulating conservative media, including Sean Hannity‘s radio show and Citizens United’s movie division. Those efforts to lift the media exemption died in split votes at the politically evenly divided board, often with Democrats seeking regulation. Continue reading
Jacob Thompson of North Carolina was Secretary of the Interior under James Buchanan. Resigning his cabinet post to follow the Confederacy, he joined the Confederate Army and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, fighting in several battles in the West.
On April 27, 1864 he met with Jefferson Davis who appointed him to lead a delegation of “special commissioners” to Canada. In effect, he was the head of the Confederate Secret Service in Canada. During 1864 he would concoct plots to free Confederate prisoners in Union POW camps with the help of copperheads. He met with disaffected Northern politicians to plot the formation of a Northern Confederacy. He was behind a plot to burn New York City in revenge of the burning of Atlanta. He was accused of meeting with John Wilkes Booth, although this has not been proven, and after the War Thompson vigorously denied any involvement with the assassination of Lincoln. Continue reading
In most histories of the Civil War the focus tends to be on the big battles and this is understandable as they were very important. However, this distorts our view of the War as it often takes our attention away from other facets of the War that loomed large to contemporaries and often had an impact on the conflict not much less than major battles. One overlooked facet is the constant raiding that went on throughout the War by partisans and cavalry. The Confederates were masters of this type of warfare, and these raids often slowed, if not crippled, the operations of major Union armies, as supply depots were destroyed, railroads cut, telegraph lines ripped down, and general havoc raised with Union rear area logistics. One such raid began on October 1, 1863, led by General Joe Wheeler, commander of the cavalry of the Army of Tennessee.
With Rosecrans bottled up in Chattanooga, Wheeler went into Tennessee, for nine days, raising alarms through out the Union forces in that state, as he hit the supply lines that Rosecrans needed to keep his semi-besieged army supplied. The shining moment of the raid for Wheeler came when he attacked an 800 wagon Union supply column, capturing 500 of the wagons, and killing approximately a thousand mules badly needed to haul Union supplies. On his return to Confederate lines his command was roughly handled by pursuing Union cavalry under Brigadier General George Crook, but his mission to complicate the supply of the Union Army of the Cumberland was successful. Here is Wheeler’s report: 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.
In the past year three films on President Lincoln have been released: the truly odious Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, the superb Lincoln and now the low budget, funded by Kickstarter, Saving Lincoln. I am pleased to report that I think Saving Lincoln is much closer in quality to Lincoln than Vampire Hunter. The film has an intriguing take on Mr. Lincoln and I was both amused and moved by it. My full review is below. The usual caveat regarding spoilers ahead is given. Continue reading
I’ve been on a bit of a history kicker lately, particularly Civil War history, even if by chance. On successive occasions I read Tony Horowitz’s Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, followed by April 1865: The Month that Saved America by Jay Winik. It was purely coincidental that I read those books back-to-back, though they serve as proper bookends to Civil War history. I also happened to finally see Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
First a review of the works themselves. Midnight Rising is an excellent recounting of the events leading up to John Brown’s raid, the raid itself, and of course the fallout. Horowitz’s account is fairly straight, though one can’t help but detect a bit of admiration for Brown peeking through his narrative. You can probably make a good argument for both the proposition that Brown was a complete lunatic and that he was a hero who stood on principle (though probably more the former).
Winik’s narrative is engaging, and if you are unfamiliar with many of the details of not just the events of April 1865, but of the Civil War in general, then Winik’s book is a very good primer. Unfortunately it suffers from a few severe, though hardly fatal defects. First of all, Winik litters his story with repeated digressions, filling in biographical details of the main figures – Lee, Grant, Lincoln, Davis, Forrest, Sherman, Booth, even Johnston. Again, this may or may not infuriate the reader depending upon his knowledge of Civil War history. It felt like padding to me, and unnecessary padding at that.
Second, while he gets his history mostly right, there are a few notable lapses. Most grating to me was his discussion of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and their respective writings on nullification. Like many other writers, he contends that Madison supported nullification in the Virginia Resolutions, when in point of fact Madison completely rejected the doctrine of nullification throughout his life and merely argued for a concept known as interposition in the Virginia Resolutions. This is a relatively minor point, but Winik makes a handful of errors, especially with regards to Lincoln’s attitudes towards having extra protection on the day of his assassination. Winik makes Lincoln seem callous about his own security, but it was Edwin Stanton who denied him an extra bodyguard.
Finally, Winik’s fundamental thesis is overstated (and also restated repeatedly in a seemingly unending epilogue). Though the conclusion of the war was a momentous occasion in American history, Winik overstates the willingness and the capability of the south to engage in guerilla warfare to prolong to conflict. Certainly Lee could have decided to rebuff Grant’s peace overtures, and Johnston could have listened to Jefferson Davis’s appeals to continue the fight, but would the south have kept the Union at bay as effectively and as long as Winik speculates? I suppose that is a matter of some conjecture, but I think Winik drastically overestimates the ability of any sizable confederate band to harass the Union for much longer.
As for the movie Lincoln, I’ll largely second Donald’s review. It was an epic film, and Daniel Day-Lewis was simply outstanding. I’ll admit I even got choked up at the end – a rarity for me as usually only Field of Dreams ever makes me cry.
Beyond the merits of these works, I wanted to explore some of their themes – or at least some of the thoughts that they inspired in me directly or indirectly. Continue reading
‘But they’re wearing blue, grandpa. They are yankees.’
‘No son. They’re Americans.’
Rough Riders (1998)
The video above matter of factly displays the flag of the 28th Virginia captured by the 1st Minnesota on July 3, 1863 during the repulse of Picket’s Charge. The 1st Minnesota of course had its moment of glory when it delayed a Confederate attack with a charge that left 82% of the regiment dead and wounded, buying time with their blood for Union reinforcements to hold the line against the advancing Confederates, and likely saved the Union Army from defeat at Gettysburg.
One can understand the significance of the captured flag for the people of Minnesota. Of course the flag also has significance to the state of Virginia, and a conflict has been simmering for years over the refusal of Minnesota to return the flag to Virginia:
The flag, which features the stars and bars of the Confederate emblem, was captured by the Minnesota 1st Volunteer Regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. The 28th Virginia Infantry regiment, a re-enactment group based in the Roanoke, Va., area, has tried for years to regain possession of the flag.
In 1998, then-Minnesota Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III rebuffed a request from the 28th Virginia Infantry regiment, saying the law applied only to flags already in the War Department’s possession. He also ruled that the group had no legal standing to request the flag.
By November 5, 1862, Abraham Lincoln had reached the end of his patience with George B. McClellan, Commnder of the Army of the Potomac. The story of the War in the East for the Union in 1862 was largely the tragedy of Little Mac. A superb organizer and trainer of troops, and not a bad strategist, McClellan lacked all tactical ability and could not win battles. Additionally, he simply was afraid to risk the fall of the iron dice of war. McClellan had created the Army of the Potomac and made certain that the men under his command were well supplied, paid on time, and well-equipped, and as the above video indicates most of his men were fond of him. If some other general could have acted as field commander, McClellan would have made a fine chief of staff. As it was, the Army of the Potomac was not going to meet with success as long as Lincoln left him in command, and his removal was inevitable. Here is the text of the order removing McClellan and turning a page in the Union war effort: Continue reading
The idea of reviewing movie trailers I find somewhat humorous, but I think that Grace Randolph in the above video does a good job of attempting such a review in regard to the Lincoln movie by Spielberg being released in November. In an earlier post last week, which may be read here, I took issue with Spielberg’s historical ignorance and/or political bias regarding how, in his view, the Democrat and Republican parties have switched positions. This will not deter me from attending the film, as I attempt not to allow the politics of those involved with a film to influence my opinion of the film. Having said that, like Ms. Randolph I have concerns as to whether Daniel Day-Lewis will create the suspension of disbelief to allow us to view him as Lincoln in the film. Continue reading
One hundred and fifty years ago today General John Pope was busily engaged in having his Union Army of Virginia thrashed by the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at the Second Battle of Bull Run. In the 1880’s Pope wrote an article for Century Magazine, one of its many articles by Civil War commanders which would later come out in the four volume set Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, in which Pope did his unconvincing best to defend his conduct in this fiasco. Go here to read it. At the end of the article Pope claimed that he never said that his headquarters was in the saddle.
There are other matters which, although not important, seem not out of place in this paper. A good deal of cheap wit has been expended upon a fanciful story that I published an order or wrote a letter or made a remark that my “headquarters would be in the saddle.” It is an expression harmless and innocent enough, but it is even stated that it furnished General Lee with the basis for the only joke of his life. I think it due to army tradition, and to the comfort of those who have so often repeated this ancient joke in the days long before the civil war, that these later wits should not be allowed with impunity to poach on this well-tilled manor. This venerable joke I first heard when a cadet at West Point, and it was then told of that gallant soldier and gentleman, General W. J. Worth, and I presume it could be easily traced back to the Crusades and beyond. Certainly I never used this expression or wrote or dictated it, nor does any such expression occur in any order of mine; and as it was perhaps served its time and effected its purpose, it ought to be retired. Continue reading
One of the titans of the Catholic Church in the Nineteenth Century in the United States was Archbishop John Ireland, the first Archbishop of Saint Paul, Minnesota. Future blog posts will cover his career as Archbishop. This blog post is focused on his service during the Civil War. Ordained a priest only a year, Father John Ireland at 24 in 1862 received permission of his bishop to join the Fifth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. He joined the regiment immediately after the battle of Shiloh.
At the battle of Corinth on October 4, 1862 the Fifth Minnesota saved the day for the Union with a charge that stopped a Confederate breakthrough of the Union lines. Running short on ammunition, the troops received additional cartridges from Chaplain Ireland who ran down the line dispensing ammunition. When the fighting was over, the soldiers noted that their chaplain tirelessly tended the wounded and administered the Last Rites to soldiers whose wounds were beyond human aid.
The troops were very fond of their young priest and built him a portable altar from saplings. His sermons were popular with the men, being direct, blunt and brief. He was noted for his sunny disposition, quick wit and his courage. He was also an enthusiastic chess player, and would take on all comers in the evenings in camp.
Before battles he would hear the confessions of huge numbers of soldiers, with some Protestant soldiers often asking for admission to the Church. He was always ready to pray with any soldiers no matter their religion, and give them what comfort he could in reminding them that God was ever at their side during their time of peril. On one occasion he went to the side of an officer who had been shot and was bleeding to death and had asked for a chaplain. the Archbishop recalled the scene decades after the War. ‘Speak to me,’ he said, ‘of Jesus.’ He had been baptized — there was no time to talk of Church. I talked of the Savior, and of sorrow for sin. The memory of that scene has never been effaced from my mind. I have not doubted the salvation of that soul.”
Father Ireland was mustered out of service in March of 1863 due to ill-health, but he never forgot his time in the Union Army. He was ever active in the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, and would write about his experiences as a combat chaplain. Unlike most Catholics of his day, he was a firm Republican, the friend of Republican presidents including McKinley and Roosevelt, and never forgot why the Civil War had to be fought, as this statement by him regarding the rights of blacks indicates: Continue reading
One of the more important series of battles in American history, collectively known as the Seven Days, occurred in Virginia 150 years ago this week. By driving away McClellan’s larger Army of the Potomac from Richmond, Robert E. Lee ensured that the Civil War was not going to be a quick Union victory, and that the Civil War, instead of a minor blip in US history, would, by the beginning of 1863, be transformed into a revolutionary struggle that would destroy slavery and alter the Union forever.
Before taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia after the wounding of General Joe Johnston at the battle of Seven Pines, Robert E. Lee had acquired the nickname of “Granny Lee” due to his construction of fortifications and a perception that he was too cautious and lacked an aggressive spirit. Few nicknames in history have been more inapposite. As a commander Lee was a gambler and far preferred to attack the enemy than to passively await an attack. After taking over command from Johnston at the beginning of June, Lee began working towards a big offensive to drive the larger Union army away from the outskirts of Richmond. To accomplish this he began to draw reinforcements to Richmond from throughout Virginia, most notably Jackson’s Valley Army.
From June 12-15th he had the cavalry of his army, brilliantly commanded by Jeb Stuart, ride around McClellan’s army to ascertain what portion of McClellan’s army was north of the Chickahominy River.
Lee got the information he needed from Stuart’s reconnaissance. McClellan had about 25,000-30,000 men north of the Chickahominy. The remainder of his army, about 60,000, was south of the Chickahominy, in front of the Richmond defenses. Lee’s plan was bold. Leaving about 25,000 men in the Richmond defenses, he would take the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia, and attack McClellan’s troop north of the Chickahominy, giving him a two-one battlefield superiority over the Union forces that side of the Chickahominy. The plan of course was contingent on McClellan remaining passive in front of Richmond. Lee planned on cutting McClellan’s supply lines by turning McClellan’s flank after winning on the north side of the Chickahominy and crossing to the south side and forcing McClellan to retreat or to be destroyed by the converging Confederates from Richmond and Lee’s forces. The plan was daring and complicated, especially for an army as green as the one Lee led. Continue reading