Civil War

August 5, 1864: Battle of Mobile Bay

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“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

Continue reading

Corcyra Fears

Civil Unrest

 

 

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

April 27, 1864: Jacob Thompson

Jacob_Thompson_-_Brady-Handy

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

October 1, 1863: Wheeler Begins His Raid Into Tennessee

Joseph Wheeler

 

 

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

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.

Saving Lincoln: A Review

 

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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

Civil War History and Inevitability

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

Return the Flags

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‘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:

Minnesota returned fire Wednesday when a Senate committee voted to ignore a request from the state of Virginia and keep a controversial Civil War battle flag.

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.

Members say Minnesota is obligated to return the flag under a 1905 congressional resolution that says flags captured in battles should be returned to their originating states.

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.

Minnesota refused to return the flag.

Last year, Virginia’s Legislature and governor signed off on a resolution urging the Minnesota Historical Society to ‘‘facilitate’’ the flag’s return to Virginia.

The Historical Society again refused. Continue reading

November 5, 1862: Lincoln Removes McClellan

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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

Review of the Lincoln Trailer

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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

Did John Pope Claim that His Headquarters Was in the Saddle?

 

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

Father John Ireland and the Fifth Minnesota

 

 

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

June 25, 1862: The Seven Days Begin

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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

John Brown: Problem Child of American History

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Our history has its share of odd characters, but surely none odder than John Brown.  An Old Testament prophet somehow marooned in Nineteenth Century America, John Brown preached the wrath of God against slave holders and considered himself the bloody sword of the Almighty.  It is tempting to write off John Brown as a murderous fanatic, and he was certainly that, but he was also something more.

The American political process was simply unable to resolve the question of slavery.  Each year the anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces battered at each other with no head way made.  Bleeding Kansas was the result of Stephen A. Douglas’ plan to simply let the people of the territory resolve the issue.  Where ballots cannot, or will not, resolve a question of the first magnitude in a democracy, ultimately bullets will.   A man like Brown, totally dedicated to the anti-slavery cause, was only too willing to see violence resolve an issue that the politicians would not.

Brown attacked a great evil, American slavery, but he was also  a murderer, as the five pro-slavery men he had dragged from their houses at night and hacked to death at Pottawotamie in Kansas with home made swords would surely attest.   His raid on Harper’s Ferry was a crack-brained expedition that had absolutely no chance of success, and yet his raid helped bring about the huge war that would ultimately end slavery.

 After his mad and futile attempt to start a slave insurrection at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, Brown was tried and hung for treason against the state of Virginia.  He considered his trial and treatment quite fair and thanked the Court.  Brown impressed quite a few Southerners with the courage with which he met his death, including Thomas Jackson, the future Stonewall, who observed his execution. 

Brown of course lit the fuse for the Civil War.  He convinced many moderate Southerners that there were forces in the North all too ready to incite, in the name of abolition, a race war in the South.  The guns fired at Harper’s Ferry were actually the first shots of the Civil War.

Brown, as he stepped forward to the gallows, had a paper and pen thrust into his hand by a woman.  Assuming for the last time the role of a prophet, Brown wrote out, I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

Abraham Lincoln commented on Brown at his Cooper’s Union  speech on February 27, 1860 and took pains to separate the Republican Party from Brown: Continue reading

The Real Fighting Irish: A Review of Notre Dame and the Civil War

The peaks of Notre Dame history are shrouded in the mists of war.

Father Hugh O’Donnell, President, Notre Dame-1941

I think it was in 1964 when I read my first book on the Civil War, The American Heritage Golden Book of the Civil War, and I immediately thereafter developed a life long passion for the subject.  Over the intervening 47 years, I have read hundreds of books on the War.  Truth to tell, more than a few of the books I have read on the Civil War have left me with a ho hum feeling, not telling me much that I haven’t read many, many times before.  I am therefore always pleasantly surprised when a tome on the Late Unpleasantness can give me lots of new information, and such is the case with Notre Dame and the Civil War, by James M. Schmidt.  Mr. Schmidt, knowing of my interest in US Catholic Chaplains in the military, was kind enough to send me a review copy, and I am glad that he did, as he has brought forth facts and new pieces of information about Notre Dame and the Civil War that I have not read elsewhere.

Many Protestant denominations in the country were ripped asunder North and South by the Civil War and the decades of turmoil leading up to it.  Not so the Catholic Church in America.  As a global Church, it was not unusual for Catholics to find themselves on different sides in civil wars or national conflicts, and there was never any threat to the unity of the Church in America.  Individual Catholics fought bravely for both the Union and the Confederacy.  The Catholics of Notre Dame, except for a few students from the South, were whole heartedly for the Union.

Even before the Civil War, as Mr. Schmidt brings out,  Notre Dame students were preparing to fight.  Two student military companies were organized in 1858, part of the craze for militia companies, well drilled, in fancy uniforms that swept the nation in the late Fifties.  It was fun being a part time soldier:  drills, nice uniforms, parades, pretty girls cheering on the side lines.  Many of the students of course were soon to have first hand knowledge of darker aspects of military life.

Schmidt skillfully relates the fever to enlist in the Union army that swept through the students of Notre Dame after Fort Sumter.  Along with their students, Notre Dame priests also served as chaplains.  Most famous among them was of course Father William Corby, who marched and fought with the Irish Brigade and who gave them mass absolution on the second day at Gettysburg before they charged into battle.  The book relates the adventures of Father Corby, but also relates the stories of other Notre Dame priests who served as chaplains, including Father Paul E. Gillen, Father James Dillon, Father Joseph C. Carrier and Father Peter P. Cooney, all of whom will be featured in posts in the future.

The Sisters of the Holy Cross of Notre Dame also got behind the war effort.  Sixty of the Sisters would serve as nurses during the war.  The role of Catholic Sisters as nurses in the Civil War is one of the great largely unsung stories of the War.  Usually nursing Protestant soldiers, the Sisters, through their bravery, skill at nursing and simple charity and kindness, often turned fairly anti-Catholic men into friends of the Church and not a few converted to the Faith.  Mr. Schmidt gives these heroic women their due.

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