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
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 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.
Something for the weekend. The incomparable Kathy Mattea singing the Civil War song The Vacant Chair. Originally written in 1862 to commemorate Second Lieutenant John William Grout, 15th Massachusetts, who was killed at age eighteen at Ball’s Bluff, one of the early battles of the War, it proved immensely popular North and South as the nation eventually mourned approximately 620,000 vacant chairs. Continue reading
“Fr. Whelan, a Catholic priest from Savannah came in and spoke words of cheer to the condemned and prayed for the forgiveness of their crimes. This lone priest was the only minister of the Gospel that ever came into the prison to speak a kind word or set aright our misguided souls. He made regular visits to the prison, consoled the dying and anointed the dead of his faith. Too much praise cannot be accorded this reverend gentleman for trying to turn sinners to Christ; but in the Last Day, Heaven will cry out for vengeance on ministers of other denominations for their indifference toward their kindred confined in prison.”
Charles Fosdick, Company K, 5th Iowa Volunteers
Hattip to commenter Jim Schmidt. Faithful readers of this blog will recall my post Priest of Andersonville in which I related the story of Father Peter Whelan, a Roman Catholic priest and Confederate Army chaplain who, on his own initiative, ministered to the tens of thousands of Union prisoners of war at the infamous Andersonville prison in 1864. Continue reading
Lincoln, in his war address to Congress on July 4, 1861, made his views regarding secession clear and, I believe, is his longest treatment of the topic. It has always struck me as interesting that Lincoln thought it necessary to clearly distinguish between secession and rebellion, and took up so much time in an address to Congress to do so. Lincoln always understood that the war of ideas was just as important as the war on the battlefield, something some of our Presidents have failed to understand to their cost. A good summary by Mackubin Thomas Owens of how Lincoln’s position on secession had a long heritage among American statesmen prior to the Civil War may be read here. My own views on secession are set forth in the comments here. Lincoln on secession:
“It might seem at first thought to be of little difference whether the present movement at the South be called “secession” or “rebellion.” The movers, however, well understand the difference. At the beginning they knew they could never raise their treason to any respectable magnitude by any name which implies violation of law. They know their people possessed as much of moral sense, as much of devotion to law and order, and as much pride in and reverence for the history and Government of their common country as any other civilized and patriotic people. They knew they could make no advancement directly in the teeth of these strong and noble sentiments. Accordingly they commenced by an insidious debauching of the public mind. They invented an ingenious sophism, which, if conceded, was followed by perfectly logical steps through all the incidents to the complete destruction of the Union. The sophism itself is, that any State of the Union may, consistently with the national Constitution, and therefore lawfully and peacefully, withdraw from the Union without the consent of the Union or of any other State. The little disguise that the supposed right is to be exercised only for just cause, themselves to be the sole judge of its justice, is too thin to merit any notice.
Jefferson Davis was always a friend to Catholics. In his youth as a boy he studied at the Saint Thomas School at the Saint Rose Dominican Priory in Washington County Kentucky. While there Davis, the only Protestant student, expressed a desire to convert. One of the priests there advised the boy to wait until he was older and then decide. Davis never converted, but his early exposure to Catholicism left him with a life long respect for the Faith.
When the aptly named anti-Catholic movement the Know-Nothings arose in the 1840s and 1850s, Davis fought against it, as did his great future adversary Abraham Lincoln.
During the Civil War, Pope Pius wrote to the archbishops of New Orleans and New York, praying that peace would be restored to America. Davis took this opportunity to write to the Pope:
Easily the most controversial figure in the Civil War, probably the most controversial figure in American history, Nathan Bedford Forrest has always been the subject of fierce debate. Self-made millionaire who rose from poverty with much of his money made as a slaver trader; a semi-literate whose tactics and strategies as the most successful cavalry commander of the Civil War are still studied at military academies around the world; a brilliant general celebrated by the South and condemned by the North as the perpetrator of a massacre at Fort Pillow; a man who killed in combat 31 Union soldiers in the War but who after the War constantly had former Union soldiers visit him to shake his hand; and a racist who helped found the Ku Klux Klan after the War, but who also made a remarkable speech near the end of his life.
In 1875 Forrest was invited to address a meeting of the Independent Order of Pole Bearers, an early black civil rights organization in Memphis, at their Fourth of July barbecue on July 5. Forrest was told by many whites that he should not accept, but Forrest went. Just before he spoke he was presented a bouquet of flowers by Miss Flora Lewis, a daughter of one of the members of the Pole Bearers. Here is Forrest’s speech. Continue reading
Edward Coles, the second governor of Illinois, is largely forgotten today, which is a pity. His actions in 1824 helped lead to Union victory in the Civil War.
Illinois came into the Union as a free state in 1818. However, a majority of settlers in Illinois initially came from the South and some of them brought slaves, illegally, into the Sucker State. In 1822 Edward Coles, a 36 year old native of Virginia who had settled in Illinois in 1818, was elected Governor. Coles came from a slave-holding family, but he had long been convinced that slavery was morally wrong. When he arrived in Illinois he freed his ten slaves and deeded to each head of a family 160 acres of land to help give them a new start in a free state. He ran for governor because he was alarmed with the growing strength of pro-slavery forces in his new home state. In a tight four way race he won.
As Governor, Coles fought against laws in Illinois that discriminated against blacks and against indenture laws that attempted to establish black slavery in Illinois under another name. In 1823 pro-slavery forces had a call for a constitutional convention put on the ballot in 1824. Had a convention been called, there is little doubt that Illinois would have been transformed into a slave state. Working feverishly, Coles and his allies narrowly defeated the call for a constitutional convention at the ballot box in 1824 and Illinois remained a free state. Had the Civil War begun with an Illinois that had been part of the Confederacy, or, more likely, split in two as Missouri was throughout the war between rival Union and Confederate camps, it is hard for me to see a Union victory. Illinois contributed a quarter of a million men to the Union cause, and without those men the war in the West could never have been won.
It has long been an article of faith of many admirers of Jefferson Davis that, while he was in Union captivity after the Civil War, he received a crown of thorns from Pope Pius IX woven by the hands of Pio Nono himself. The Museum of the Confederacy in New Orleans has it on display. It is a romantic story and appealing on an emotional level. It is also false. The Pope did send the imprisoned Davis his photograph with the text from Matthew 11:28 ‘Venite ad me omnes qui laboratis, et ego reficiam vos, dicit Dominus.’ (Come to me all all ye who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest, sayeth the Lord.)
Something for the weekend. Stonewall Jackson’s Way, sung by the endlessly talented Bobby Horton who has waged a one man crusade to bring Civil War music to modern audiences.
Of Thomas Jonathan Jackson, nicknamed Stonewall by General Barnard Bee at the battle of Bull Run, it was said he lived by the New Testament and fought by the Old. Certainly throughout his life he was a convinced Christian. As a young man he would attend services of various Christian denominations. In Mexico, during his service in the Mexican War, he attended mass, although sadly he did not convert to Catholicism. Instead he eventually became a Presbyterian. His Bible was his constant companion, and he would often speak of God and theological matters in private conversation.
Jackson in his professional life was a soldier. Just before the Civil War he was a professor of natural and experimental philosophy (science) and artillery instruction at the Virginia Military Institute. As a teacher he made a good soldier. His lectures were rather dry. If his students seemed to fail to grasp a lecture, he would repeat it the next day, word for word.
His home life was a mixture of sorrow and joy. His first wife died in childbirth along with their still-born son, a tragedy that would have crushed many a man less iron-willed than Jackson. His second marriage, like his first, was happy, but heartache also haunted it. A daughter died shortly after birth in 1858. A second daughter was born in 1862, shortly before Jackson’s own death in 1863.
He and his second wife established and taught a Sunday school for black slaves. At the time it was against the law in Virginia to teach slaves to read, but apparently that is precisely what Jackson and his wife did. One of the last letters he ever posted was his regular contribution he mailed off throughout the war for the financial support of the Sunday school for slaves he and his wife had founded. Continue reading
In the case of McDonald v. the City of Chicago, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Second Amendment applies to the states. Read the decision here. The decision was 5-4 which is absolutely stunning since I think that there was no intellectually respectable argument to be made that the Second Amendment does not apply to the states.
The bill of rights applies to the States due to the Fourteenth Amendment. In the opinions written by the majority justices, emphasis is given to the importance that the drafters of the Amendment placed upon the rights of freed slaves after the Civil War to keep and bear arms for their defense. A good day for the Constitution at the Supreme Court.
Paul Zummo, the Cranky Conservative, and I run a blog on American History: Almost Chosen People. Yesterday Paul raised the question: Is Robert E. Lee Overrated?
Yeah, the post title is somewhat deliberately provocative, but it’s also meant to be a serious question that I hope will spark some discussion. I was going to ask it in the comments to Donald’s post below, but thought it might be useful fodder for debate in its own right.
This video is unsurpassed for conveying in such a brief time, with each minute representing one year, the major events and shifting areas controlled by the Union and the Confederacy during the War. It also graphically portrays the human cost of the War as the seconds roll by and the dead and wounded toll grows ever higher. Continue reading
The American Civil War was the bloodiest in our history, a total war of attrition waged on our own territory, which an at times none to congenial peace. It is, thus, all the more inspiring to read about the reunion which was held at Gettysburg in 1913, celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of the war’s bloodiest battles. An open invitation was made to all those who had served in either army, north or south, and been honorably discharged, and more than 50,000 men came to the three day event.
Personnel from the United States Army Quartermaster Corps and Engineer Corps arrived at Gettysburg National Military Park in 1912 to plan military and civilian support for the encampment. The engineers surveyed the field adjacent to the fields of “Pickett’s Charge” where they laid out the arrangement for “The Great Camp”, divided into areas for Union veterans and for Confederate veterans. Soldiers installed utility systems, erected hundreds of tents to house the veterans, built picnic tables, benches, and boardwalks throughout the camp. By the first of June the sprawling Great Camp occupied 280 acres, included 47 1/2 miles of avenues and company streets, was lit by 500 electric arc lights, and 32 bubbling ice water fountains were installed. Over 2,000 army cooks and bakers manned 173 field kitchens, ready to provide three hot meals per day for veterans and camp personnel alike….
The first veterans arrived on June 25 and within days the Great Camp swelled to overflowing. Every veteran was provided a cot and bedding in a tent that would hold eight men. Meals were served from a kitchen at the end of each company street and varied from fried chicken suppers to roast pork sandwiches with ice cream for desert. By the end of the reunion, the army kitchens had supplied over 688,000 meals to reunion participants. Invariably the days were hot and the thermometer topped 102 degrees on July 2. Heat exhaustion and physical fatigue resulted in hospitalization of several hundred veterans. Over 9,980 patients were treated by medical personnel for ailments ranging from heat exhaustion to stomach disorders. Remarkably, only nine veterans passed away during the week-long encampment. Despite the heat and often dusty conditions, nothing could keep the aged men in camp and hundreds wandered the battlefield. Many visited battle sites where they or their comrades had been fifty years before. Confederate veterans especially were pleased to find old cannon mounted on metal carriages to mark the locations where their batteries had been during that fateful battle. Invariably, the presence of khaki-clad US Army personnel caused a lot of excitement. The soldiers were there to guard camp supplies, give demonstrations, and provide services to the veterans who delighted themselves discussing the modern weapons of war. Many an aged veteran was eager to explain how much things had changed in fifty years to any soldier who was handy and army personnel were constantly entertained by the old soldiers at every turn. [source]
One of the major events of the reunion was a reenactment of Pickett’s Charge. Confederate veterans assembled to walk the three-quarters-of-a-mile across open fields towards Union lines, retracing the charge which on which fifty years before 12,500 men had set out and suffered 50% casualties. As union veterans watched the men in gray approaching them across the field again, many eyes were far from dry. And as the Confederate veterans approached the wall, their old adversaries broke ranks and came forward to meet them, not with lead and steel this time, but with the embraces of friendship.
I have had a few posts, here, here and here, on the famous Irish Brigade that fought for the Union in the Army of the Potomac. There were however other Irish units, North and South. This song celebrates Kelly’s Irish Brigade that fought for the Confederacy in the West. The Brigade was actually a regiment, the Washington Blues, organized by Joseph Kelly, a grocer in Saint Louis, prior to the Civil War. Kelly was an Irish immigrant as were most of the men in his regiment. They provided good service for the Confederacy, and you may read about them here. Continue reading
Something for the weekend. As we enjoy the fun and festivities of the Memorial Day Weekend unofficial start of summer, it is fitting and proper that we recall why Monday is a National Holiday. Tomorrow I will have something for our readers who favor the gray over the blue. Continue reading