The film Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece, was controversial at its release and remains so. At three hours the film was a pioneering effort using then cutting age technology to produce a movie that stunned viewers with its cinematic quality, something that no one had ever seen before. At the same time the film, based on the pro-Ku Klux Klan novel the Clansman by Thomas Dixon, a friend of President Woodrow Wilson, drew outrage from Grand Army of the Republic Union veterans and black groups with its depiction of the Klan as noble heroes attempting to fight against evil Unionists and its depiction of blacks as little better than beasts who walked erect. Race riots broke out in cities where the film was shown. President Wilson viewed the film in the White House and was reported to have said, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true”. The White House denied the remark, and in the wake of continuing protests, Wilson eventually condemned the “unfortunate production”. The film used quotes from Wilson’s scholarly works to buttress its negative depiction of Reconstruction and its positive depiction of the Klan. Considering the fact that Wilson imposed segregation on the Civil Service it is difficult to discern what he found to be “unfortunate” about the film. Continue reading February 8, 1915: Birth of a Nation Debuts in Los Angeles
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 Christmas Bells Ring On
While in Wisconsin, my family and I visited the Civil War museum in Kenosha. It has quite a few fascinating exhibits, including period battle flags, uniforms, films, a toy soldier exhibit showing the stand of the Iron Brigade on the first day of Gettysburg, etc. One of my favorite features of the museum is their gift shop which has a huge collection of used Civil War books for sale. I never fail to find often rare books on the Civil War. Here is a list of my purchases for 43 dollars earlier in the week:
- Jefferson Davis: American Patriot 1808-1861, Hudson Strode (1955)-Poor Jefferson Davis, portrayed as the Devil incarnate by the North during the War, he was often used as a scapegoat by Southerners after the War. The simple truth is that Davis was a gifted man who brought the Confederacy close to independence against all the odds. Hudson Strode was the first historian to have access to many of the personal papers of Jefferson Davis and launched a vigorous counterattack to the image of Davis as a bloodless pedant, revealing him instead as a passionate and complex man.
- The Hidden Face of the Civil War, Otto Eisenschiml (1961)-The Austrian born Eisenschiml was an oil company executive, and a tireless Civil War historian. He is perhaps best known for his 1937 look at the Lincoln assassination which posited that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was behind the assassination. I regard this theory as completely loony. However, Eisenschiml was never afraid of controversy and is always entertaining to read. In this volume he savages both the North and the South for incompetence in the waging of the Civil War.
- The Celebrated Case of Fitz John Porter: An American Dreyfus Affair, Otto Eisenschiml (1950)-Eisenschiml takes on the case of General Porter who was court-martialed and removed from the Army for his actions at Second Bull Run, and who fought for 25 years to clear his name, a fight he ultimately won.
- Lincoln’s Scapegoat General: A Life of General Benjamin Butler, 1818-1893, Richard S. West, Jr. (1965)-A book in defense of “Beast” Butler. I like seeing arguments made for impossible cases, and attempting to convince me that Butler was not the most incompetent Union general is close to an impossible task.
- General Sherman’s Son: The Life of Thomas Ewing Sherman, SJ, Joseph T. Durkin, SJ (1959) A biography of the Jesuit son of General Sherman written by a Jesuit. Go here to read about Father Sherman.
- Grant Wins the War, James R. Arnold (1997)-A good one volume look at the Vicksburg campaign, the most decisive campaign of the War.
Continue reading Civil War Book Haul
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 Wisconsin
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 November 7, 1864: Davis Proposes Enlisting Slaves in the Confederate Army
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 The Great Beefsteak Raid
“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 August 5, 1864: Battle of Mobile Bay
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 Corcyra Fears
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 April 27, 1864: Jacob Thompson
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 October 1, 1863: Wheeler Begins His Raid Into Tennessee
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.