Sunday, January 25, 2015

Gettysburg National Military Park's Winter Lecture Series Takes a Look at How Veterans Viewed Gettysburg

Here's an excellent lecture delivered by Gettysburg National Military Park's Supervisory Historian Chris Gwinn. A part of the park's Winter Lecture Series, Gwinn's talk is titled "What Gettysburg Meant to its Veterans." In it, Chris examines how the personal experiences and opinions of Gettysburg veterans about the battle and the battlefield fit into a larger discussion about reunion, reconstruction, and reconciliation. It's well worth your time.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Seven Days: Turning Point?

"No military campaign had more influence on the Civil War than these Seven Days' battles." 

This proud claim greets visitors on an interpretive sign as they arrive on the Gaines' Mill Battlefield. In this post we will consider the merits of the statement.

The Watt House - located on a plateau above Boatswain's Swamp, served as Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter's headquarters during the Battle of Gaines' Mill.

I viewed the statement yesterday, as I made my first trek to the battlefields of Gaines' Mill and Malvern Hill. The Richmond National Battlefield unit of the National Park Services operates both sites, and maintains nice hiking trails with interpretive signage. Gaines' Mill - the third of the Seven Days' battles - took place on June 27th, 1862. After establishing a strong defensive position along the slopes of Turkey Hill overlooking Boatswain's Swamp, the Army of the Potomac's 5th Corps Commander Fitz John Porter beat back successive assaults against his position throughout the afternoon. Finally, in the growing dusk, Robert E. Lee unleashed more than 30,000 men in a final assault that broke the federal lines. Darkness allowed Porter to safely withdraw his forces across the Chickahominy River.

The Army of the Potomac continued its retreat toward the James River over the next several days, finally halting on July 1st to occupy a strong position on the slopes of Malvern Hill. The federal position offered excellent fields of fire for artillery, and also received support from gunboats located in the James River. Despite the strength of George B. McClellan's position, Lee launched a series of disjointed, bloody, and ultimately unsuccessful assaults. This failure brought the Seven Days' battles to an end.

The Union gun line atop Malvern Hill.

Let's return to a consideration of that interpretive sign - "No military campaign had more influence on the Civil War than these Seven Days' battles." Freeman Tilden would smile reading this lead sentence. It's a provocative statement, and as Tilden set down in his six principles, "the chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation." I've spent a good deal of time since analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the argument.

For context, let's look at the entire statement (courtesy of the Historical Marker Database):
No military campaign had more influence on the course of the Civil War than these Seven Days' battles. George B. McClellan's army of more than 100,000 Union soldiers landed at Fort Monroe in spring of 1862, and fought its way up the peninsula. By mid-May the Army of the Potomac lay on the outskirts of Richmond, hoping to capture the capital of the Confederacy and perhaps end the war. If that strategy succeeded the nation might be reunified, but without abolition of slavery. Confederate General Robert E. Lee chose not to wait for the Federal army's next move. Instead, he seized the initiative, and on June 26 advanced across the Chickahominy River with nearly 45,000 soldiers. That action opened a week-long series of battles that resulted in the Union army retreating to the banks of the James River. With Richmond secure, Lee's army moved north, defeating Union forces at Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas (Bull Run), and then marched toward Maryland and the first invasion of the North.
A historian could advance any number of campaigns as "most influential" on the course of the war, and make a compelling argument supported by evidence. Rather than engaging in such a debate, I want to look more closely at the evidence that supports Richmond National Battlefield's claim. How did the Seven Days' Campaign influence the war? The marker provides us with two primary examples: 

Altering the Military Situation: While he had held several important posts already during the war, the Seven Days' battles introduced the world to Robert E. Lee as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. In Gaines' Mill, Lee achieved his first significant victory of the war. And the results of the Seven Days' not only neutralized McClellan's threat to the Confederate capital, they also gave Lee an opening which he used to transfer the seat of war from the gates of the Confederate capital to the banks of the Potomac River, and beyond.

Emancipation: Against the backdrop of the Seven Days' battles, President Abraham Lincoln continued to grapple with the issues of slavery and emancipation. He wasn't the only one. During the first half of 1862, Congress had debated the Second Confiscation Act, which extended the power of the Union military to free Confederate slaves. The act passed on July 17th, 1862 - just a few short weeks after the battle of Malvern Hill. A few days before the act passed, Lincoln first consulted with a few members of his cabinet on issuing an Emancipation Proclamation. Secretary of State William Seward eventually convinced Lincoln to await a Union victory before issuing such a document, but Lincoln's mind on emancipation had been set.

The crest of Malvern Hill viewed in the distance from the perspective of the Confederate advance.

Glenn David Brasher's recent book The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation argues that "the contributions that African Americans had made to both armies, coupled with the failure of McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, played a role in turning many Northerners in favor of emancipation." Throughout the campaign army officers and the northern press noted, and abolitionists highlighted, the invaluable support roles that the Confederacy's enslaved labor force filled for its armed forces. An increasing awareness of how African Americans could support the Union war effort, coupled with the lack of success in securing victory in a limited war, changed many hearts.

The first half of 1862 had brought encouraging signs for the Union war effort. Victories in the west and McClellan's slow but seemingly unstoppable march to the outskirts of Richmond signaled a swift end to the rebellion. Yet by July stalled progress in the west, and McClellan's defeat changed the outlook dramatically. The end of the war appeared farther away than ever before, and support for the type of limited war favored by McClellan waned. Most importantly, the President of the United States no longer believed in the success of a limited war that reunified the nation but left slavery in tact. The aftermath of the Seven Days' battles brought a new commander to Washington - Henry Halleck. It brought a call for 300,000 more troops to swell the ranks of federal armies. And it caused the Lincoln administration to settle on a new a war policy, one that coupled victory with emancipation.

Did the Seven Days' battles have the greatest influence on the direction and outcomes of the Civil War? It's a debatable statement, but also one that has a lot of evidence to support it. What do you think?

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Library Corner - The Iron Brigade: A Military History

The Iron Brigade: A Military History
By Alan T. Nolan
Published 1983 (First Edition 1961) by the Historical Society of Michigan

Over the past few years, I've developed quite an interest in the Iron Brigade. My curiosity in the Army of the Potomac's elite Westerners first began when I waded into Alan D. Gaff's On Many a Bloody Field: Four Years in the Iron Brigade, an excellent and exhaustive study of Company B, 19th Indiana. Gettysburg National Military Park's now-retired supervisory historian Scott Hartwig continued to fan those flames of curiosity. At Gettysburg's Sesquicentennial in July of 2013, I attended his excellent interpretive program entitled "The Last March of the Iron Brigade." While retracing the steps of the brigade, Hartwig spoke of his favorite war recollection, Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers by Rufus Dawes. On this recommendation, I later picked up Dawes's amazing account, and it didn't disappoint.

As my interest developed, I became keenly aware of a glaring gap in my knowledge of Iron Brigade (not to mention general Civil War) historiography: I had not yet picked up the late Alan T. Nolan's classic, The Iron Brigade: A Military History. I rectified this situation late last year, when I found a copy for sale at my favorite used book store, and I snapped it up. Finally, over Christmas, I buried my nose into Nolan's descriptive accounts of the standup fight at the Brawner Farm, of the horrific morning along the Hagerstown Pike at Antietam, and of the brigade's "last stand" at the hastily built barricade on Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg.

For a book that first appeared in 1961, it has withstood the test of time. Nolan's treatment of this famed brigade is comprehensive and complex. Rather than obsessing over the minutiae of battlefield tactics and maneuvers, the author's success lies in his ability to make his story a human drama. Through the book I came to know the men, and especially the officers, of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin, the 19th Indiana, and the 24th Michigan. I learned about their home towns and their motivations for fighting. I contemplated their thoughts on Union and emancipation, and began to understand the importance of politics and political connections in army life. I read about the daily experiences of soldiers in camp and on campaign, and recognized how discipline, rewards and punishments, and unit pride all contributed to the brigade's development into one of the best fighting forces of the war. In thoroughly acquainting his readers with the officers and soldiers of the Iron Brigade first, Nolan lent more power to his account when he brought them to the battlefield.

It would be difficult to find a unit anywhere with a more impressive combat record than the Iron Brigade. During the war, Confederate regiments that faced the brigade in the field without exception suffered astounding casualties. Correspondingly, the Iron Brigade lost a higher percentage of soldiers killed in combat than any other Federal unit. At Gettysburg, the westerners left nearly two-thirds of their number on the field, the greatest proportion of Union casualties in the war's largest battle.

In total, Alan Nolan's The Iron Brigade continues to serve as a model for a comprehensive, modern, unit history. My only regret is that this book wasn't longer. Nolan chose to essentially wrap his book up after Gettysburg, noting that battle casualties, expiring enlistments, and army reorganization destroyed the original fabric of the brigade. He summarized the record of the brigade between Gettysburg and Appomattox with a short epilogue chapter. While I understand why Nolan made this choice, the post-Gettysburg period of the brigade's history is one that I think is worthy of a more expansive study. I found myself wanting to know more about how the soldiers of the brigade coped with the increasing stresses of combat fatigue, the uncertainty of fighting alongside new recruits and draftees of unknown quality, and the challenges to morale when external forces disrupted unit cohesion and pride. This one critique aside, I would recommend this highly readable account as one of the very best unit histories that I've read.

I also note that, though scholarship is always evolving and improving, the popular history and popular culture related to the Civil War even today tends to focus on political and military leadership at the highest levels, men like Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Ulysses S. Grant. While I recognize the importance of studying their decisions and actions, I have personally become increasingly interested in learning about the war from a lower vantage point: from the view of soldiers and field officers at the regimental and brigade level. And as someone who thoroughly enjoyed HBO's Band of Brothers miniseries, I wonder if and when someone might take on a similar type of project focused on a Civil War unit. While I hesitate to trust Hollywood once again in the telling of a Civil War epic, I can't say I wouldn't be excited to see someone like Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg bring the story of the Iron Brigade to the big screen. Just a thought.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Winter Around the Capital

Tonight I had a little fun browsing Civil War photographs on the Library of Congress website, which I do from time to time. Here's an interesting albumen print depicting the 2nd Maine Infantry drilling over a wintry landscape. Viewed at a high resolution (which you can download here), the image yields a number of interesting details.


First - the presence of Sibley tents confirm that this photograph was taken in the winter of 1861-1862, as they were not generally used later in the war.


The layout and built environment of the camp - including evergreen boughs and festive arches arranged amongst the tents, several log structures, and large banners hung reading "2nd Maine" and what appears to be "Camp Jameson" - suggests that the 2nd Maine had inhabited this location for some time.


This photograph appears in volume one of Francis Miller's The Photographic History of the Civil War. The caption for the photograph in part reads:
This picture shows the Christmas Day parade of the Second Maine Infantry at Camp James near Washington, 1861.
Despite this caption, I am inclined to believe that this image was not captured on Christmas Day, but certainly sometime around Christmas. Searching for weather conditions around the capital in December of 1861, I found the diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, a Patent Office examiner, on the Library of Congress website. Taft's diary reveals weather above freezing and no snow on Christmas Day 1861, and nothing that would create a snow covered field in the days leading up to Christmas. Taft reported snow on December 23rd, but, in his own words, "not enough to remain on the ground." Taft's account does indicate snow during the first week of January, 1862. He reports extremely cold weather and a light covering of snow on the ground. Perhaps the photograph was captured at that time.


Further evidence supporting a photograph date close to Christmas is derived from Maine In the War for the Union by William E.S. Whitman and Charles H. True. This book, published in 1865, provides details of the 2nd Maine's winter encampment at Camp Jameson on Hall's Hill in Arlington, Virginia, within sight of the United States Capitol. The description reads:
The men while at this post took great pains to make their quarters neat and comfortable, and they were models in this respect which were not surpassed. At Christmas the encampment was decorated with evergreens, arches and other ornaments, and presented a very picturesque appearance.
Either way, a fascinating image of a full Civil War regiment early in the war. The 2nd Maine served two years with the Army of the Potomac, returning home after the Battle of Chancellorsville. Many of the regiment's men who enlisted for three years instead of two famously served in the 20th Maine after the regiment disbanded.

Monday, December 1, 2014

150 Years Later, Considering the Legacy of the Sand Creek Massacre

At dawn on November 29th, 1864 - just over 150 years ago - Colonel John M. Chivington led a command of approximately 675 U.S. Cavalry in an unprovoked attack on a village of approximately 700 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians along Sand Creek in the Colorado Territory. Over the course of the day, the troopers killed more than 200, mostly women, children, and the elderly.

I noticed that the sesquicentennial anniversary of this event has passed off with very little notice from the traditional Civil War media channels that I follow. Some blogs devoted multiple posts to commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Franklin, but offered no notice of Sand Creek.

Even the New York Times Disunion Blog has not offered anything (yet) related to the Sand Creek Massacre. However, on November 28th the New York Times did post an Op-Ed piece about the massacre written by Dr. Ned Blackhawk, a professor of history and American studies at Yale University. In it, he highlights why this overlooked part of Civil War history is important:
Sand Creek, Bear River, and the Long Walk remain important parts of the Civil War and of American history. But in our popular narrative, the Civil War obscures such campaigns against American Indians. In fact, the war made such violence possible: The paltry Union Army of 1858, before its wartime expansion, could not have attacked, let alone removed, the fortified Navajo communities in the Four Corners, while Southern secession gave a powerful impetus to expand American territory westward. Territorial leaders like Evans were given more resources and power to negotiate with, and fight against, powerful Western tribes like the Shoshone, Cheyenne, Lakota, and Comanche. The violence of this time was fueled partly by the lust for power by civilian and military leaders desperate to obtain glory and wartime recognition.

Expansion continued after the war, powered by a revived American economy but also by a new spirit of national purpose, a sense that America, having suffered in the war, now had the right to conquer more peoples and territory.
There were commemorations of the massacre, planned by the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and the Cheyenne and Arapaho communities. The 16th Annual Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run began yesterday morning. This annual run starts at the site of the massacre, and ends on several days later at the State Capitol in Denver. Here's a brief video about the run:




Sometimes our history can be difficult. Yet, it is just as important, if not more so, for us to remember aspects of our history that are difficult to stomach and hard to explain.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Visualizing Artillery on the Battlefield

I've always found this photograph fascinating.

Original LOC Caption: "Antietam, Maryland. Captain J.M. Knap's Penn. Independent Battery 'E' Light Artillery."
Photographed by Alexander Gardner. To view and zoom in on a high res version, go here.

Taken by Alexander Gardner on September 19th, 1862--just two days after the battle of Antietam--it depicts Captain Joseph M. Knap's Independent Battery E, Pennsylvania Light Artillery on the battlefield.

This is an important Civil War photograph. The exact location of this scene was first identified by William Frassanito in his book Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America's Bloodiest Day, published in 1978. With Frassanito's discovery, this photograph became a tremendous resource for historians. It presents a panoramic view of a broad expanse of the terrain over which the battle raged on the morning of September 17th, 1862. The photograph provides documentation of what the terrain looked like at the time of the battle. Behind the battery stretches the fields of David R. Miller's farm, including the bloody cornfield. In the distant background of the photograph, the North Woods loom on the horizon.

I enjoy this photograph for another reason though: it provides a visual reference for what a battery looked like on the field of battle.

When touring battlefields, I find that visualizing the action can sometimes present a challenge, especially when I am leading others with limited knowledge of the Civil War. This applies especially to to the role and appearance of artillery. At most NPS sites today, cannon dot the landscape to mark where batteries deployed. Occasionally, you will find a full compliment of caissons, guns, and limbers to mark out a battery's location. Cushing's battery at Gettysburg and the guns at Hazel Grove come to mind in particular. Yet while the guns provide helpful information in locating a battery position on the field, they don't give us an adequate idea of what a battery in action would look like.

Each gun in a battery was hooked to a limber and pulled by six horses. Each gun then had a caisson, also hooked to a limber, and also pulled by a six-horse team. Therefore, each gun in a battery had typically 12 horses. For a six-gun battery, that's 72 horses, not counting replacements and officer mounts. Each battery also had a traveling forge, a battery wagon to carry tents, supplies, and tools, and usually six more caissons carrying reserve ammunition. That all adds up to a lot of horses.

When deployed for action, regulations suggested that the nose of the lead horse of each limber would be six yards behind the trail of its gun, and the lead horse pulling the caisson should be about 11 yards behind the limber. According to Jack Coggins' wonderful book, Arms and Equipment of the Civil War, a gun, its limber, and its caisson would take up a depth of almost 50 yards. Meanwhile, artillery manuals called for 14 yards in between each gun, meaning that a six-gun battery would occupy a front of more than 80 yards.

Another great image of an artillery battery, this one attributed to army photographer Andrew Russell. This photograph was likely taken during the Chancellorsville campaign. Here's a great blog entry exploring the photograph in detail. To view and zoom in on a high res version, go here.
I find all of that difficult to imagine when I stand on a battlefield looking at a couple of guns flanking a monument. Luckily, Gardner's photographic documentation of Knap's battery at Antietam, and many other similar photographs taken during the war, can help to create an image in your mind of what a battery would look like on the field of battle.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Museum Monday - Interpreting Slavery and African American History and Culture

Last week I took particular note of two blog posts in my daily reading list. Both related to the challenges and opportunities of interpreting slavery at museums and historic sites. First, at the Engaging Places Blog, Max van Balgooy previewed his upcoming book, Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites. The book is a collection of essays published as part of the American Association for State and Local History's new "Interpreting" series. It's one that I've added to my wish list. I've also added the Engaging Places blog to my roll at the right, it's a great read if you are interested in interpretation at museums and historic sites.

Next, I noticed another great post from public historian Nick Sacco of the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis. In it, he discusses the challenge of interpreting Northern views toward slavery, and highlights the importance of encouraging guests to recognize that the historical legacies of slavery and racism are not unique to the South. I think this is an important point, and that it underscores a larger issue within historical interpretation. History is complex. We tend to want to make historical narratives fit within a nice, neat framework with good guys and bad guys, and we want our guests to leave with all their questions answered. Unfortunately, historical reality is not always that simple.

When it comes to the Civil War, we can recognize that slavery was at the heart of the conflict; that the war began over a conflict over slavery's expansion. Southerners wanted slavery to expand, Northerners wanted to contain the institution. Eventually, the war became a struggle for the very existence of slavery in the United States. Underneath this fairly straight forward surface, however, the actual beliefs and opinions of Northerners and Southerners toward slavery and toward African Americans, are complex, and cannot be effectively understood through two generalized camps of pro and anti-slavery. 

Good food for thought to start the week.