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This is the archive for May 2007

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Stephen had a wonderful presentation last week and I was one proud dad!

No pictures though, I was too busy trying to get everything to his school to remember the camera. Besides his Great-Great-Great Grandfathers artifacts and the five notebooks full of thousands of pages of transcribed documents dealing with the 18th, Stephen also wanted to bring along about 30 books on the Civil War. I had to pull out a huge gym bag from my days of Karate, along with two other large bags to fit it all in. They were quite heavy and I am surprised I didn’t hurt my back with it all. I also must have looked quite strange carrying them in, although no one mentioned it.

When I got to his class, his teacher had a table that he could lay it all out on to show off as he talked. When it was his turn, we loaded up the PowerPoint presentation and he started to speak on the unit.

As he finished up his speaking role, he then answered questions – with the images of the soldiers and gravestones rolling in the background. This was the hardest part for me, as I wanted to help answer them. His teacher prodded me too at one point and I was amazed at how interested these fourth graders were in this little unit.

Question after question came and it was nice to hear them and see the children ask them. Too be honest, living in South Carolina, I was afraid of getting into the Politics of the war or worse, the whole “Lost Cause” but I ended up not having to worry about it. They wanted to know what the soldiers’ life was like, what they did when not in battle and what they did after the war. Of course there was the mandatory few questions about the battles and weapons used but they did not overwhelm the presentation.

Although I am a bit sad to say it, it was probably more refreshing, reinvigorating and more intelligent than 90% of the Civil War related conversations I have with adults.

Stephen ended up receiving a 95 for his presentation, which we were both happy with. As I left, his teacher asked if I would be willing to come in next year even though she wouldn’t be Stephen’s teacher. I, of course agreed. That was when I knew the presentation was a success – his teacher didn’t think I was a complete Civil War fruit cake – just someone who could be considered slightly off.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

It’s not unusual for co-workers to stop by my cubicle and give me a Civil War related token. Jill and Dale gave me books. Ben dropped off a National Geographic map of Civil War battlefields. Jill, again, gave me a ruler embossed with Civil War generals, which I use all the time. Last Friday Jean must have sensed I was under the weather battling a severe cold, which, in truth, probably is and was the result of allergic reaction to pollen sweeping across the D.C. area, and gave me a really cool book published in 1963 titled “The Golden Book History of the United States; The Civil War from 1850 to 1865.” What really makes this book, which probably sold for about $2 at the time, are the illustrations by Alton Torrey. His original artwork for the twelve volume series on American History marketed by Golden Book has become collector’s items.

Opening the book your eyes fall on words inside the front cover “Great Americans Speak on the Meaning of History.” There are quotations from Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and perhaps most surprisingly, this from Herbert Hoover: “The unparalleled rise of America has not been the result of riches in lands, forests, or mines; it sprang from the ideas and ideals which liberated minds and stimulated the spirits of men. In those ideas and ideals are the soul of the people.” I can’t help but wonder if Hoover, who died in 1964, was in some way paying homage to his successor, Franklin Roosevelt and former residents of Hoovervilles.

With Torrey’s panoramic painting of the Union assault on Marye’s Heights taking up the bottom half of two pages, the action on December 13, 1862 is described.

The terrible contest reached its conclusion on December 13 at Marye’s Heights. From atop this hill Confederate batteries, protected by a stone wall, pointed down the slope up which the Union troops must charge.
Six times Burnside ordered his men up that hill. Six times, in the words of Confederate General James Longstreet, “they were swept from the field like chaff before the wind.
“Give me plenty of ammunition [and] I will kill them all before they reach my line,” Longstreet told Lee….”

While the vignettes that form the book reduce the story to the very basics, it's obvious the Golden Book series was written so as to appeal to a wide audience, both children and adults. I have my doubts that forty-four years after its publication, Longstreet’s quote would be considered appropriate reading material for today’s elementary school aged children.

This past Tuesday, Sherrill Taylor, who runs a program for Teen Mother’s in the District, met with me in my cubicle. I’ve known Sherrill and her husband Fred for years, but it was the first time Sherrill had seen my cubicle. We were able to complete our business, but Sherrill also took an interest in the pictures of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry I have posted throughout the space. She mentioned a family Bible in her possession and that Fred’s great-grandfather had served with a Confederate regiment. That of course led to speculation about whether he and my ancestors had ever exchanged unpleasantries on the battlefield. As his great-grandfather had served with a Tennessee regiment it was in all probability unlikely.

I can’t invoke Fred Taylor’s name without relating that he is one of those truly extraordinary people you occasionally have the rare privilege of meeting in your lifetime. At one time every State or large city ran public institutions for orphaned, neglected, or abused children. Whereas they had been founded with good intentions, over time, with the passing of decades, they had literally become hellholes for the children residing there. Mickey Fleming, who I met a number of times, and who wrote of his experiences of growing up in the D.C. foster care system, used to talk about the initiation ritual a new resident was subjected to when they arrived at Junior Village. It didn’t matter how old you were, everyone had to walk the “Tiger Line,” a gauntlet of other kids throwing punches that was supervised by adult staff.

Fred wasn't solely responsible for closing the place down, but he was a driving force behind Child Welfare reform in our Nation’s Capitol that culminated in most of the Junior Village residents transitioning to foster homes or small group home environments.

Yesterday Sherrill emailed me information on Fred’s great-grandfather, William Rumsey Chapman. Chapman enlisted at Russellville, Kentucky and was a member of the famed Orphan Brigade of the Army of the Tennessee, seeing action at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Murfeesboro, Missionary Ridge, and Chickamauga, where he was wounded on September 20, 1863. I don’t know if Fred had ever seen a picture, but I found one on the American Civil War Research database which I attached in a reply.


I’d be remiss in writing about the Child Welfare system in D.C. and the Civil War if I didn’t mention St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home in Hyattsville, MD. The home, chartered by Abraham Lincoln on March 3, 1863, is still providing shelter from the storm for the most vulnerable and defenseless segment of our population.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The three Civil War sites most engrained in the collective American consciousness are arguably, in order, Gettysburg, Appomattox Court House, and Fort Sumter. From the time I moved to the Washington, D.C. area fourteen years ago, Appomattox had always been on my agenda, but I had never quite gotten there. There had been numerous trips north and south of D.C., but for some reason I couldn’t bridge that two hundred mile gap. For all the battlefields I’ve visited, for all the research I’ve done on the 18th Massachusetts Infantry, for all the cemeteries I’ve walked, for all the books I’ve read, there was a real sense of a void, based on the fact I hadn’t visited Appomattox. There was more to it than simply wanting to see where Grant and Lee signed the terms of surrender. There was the knowledge that 58 men who served with the 18th Massachusetts from the time of the Regiment’s muster on August 24, 1861 were present at the surrender, as members of the 32nd Massachusetts. Having chased the then living, the then dying, and the then mourned dead of the 18th Mass. from Augusta, Maine to Andersonville, Georgia, I wanted to stand where those 58 stood on Wednesday, April 12, 1865, when the Army of Northern Virginia laid down their battle flags and arms.

The 32nd Massachusetts, along the 1st Massachusetts Sharpshooters, the 20th Maine, the 1st Michigan, 118th Pennsylvania, 83rd Pennsylvania, 91st Pennsylvania, 155th Pennsylvania, and 16th Michigan, all members of the Third Brigade of the First Division of the Fifth Corps of the Army of Potomac, and under the command of Joshua Chamberlain for the occasion, were given the honor of receiving the surrender. Present too were the 198th Pennsylvania and 185th New York from the First Brigade, while the Second Brigade was represented by the 187th, 188th, and 189th New York regiments.

With Chamberlain positioned to their right, the 32nd Massachusetts formed the vanguard along the Lynchburg Stage Road and would have been the first Union regiment the surrendering Confederate column encountered. The other regiments were interspersed further behind the 32nd, to the right and left of the road, with the 118th Pennsylvania being posted at the far end, near the fence marking the boundary of the McLean House. The National Park Service has documented on markers, near Chamberlain’s position, the exchange which took place between victor and vanquished, the text being largely based on Chamberlain’s recollections.

In an article published in the Boston Journal in May 1901, Chamberlain described the scene.

At such a time and under such conditions I thought it eminently fitting to show some token of our feeling, and I therefore instructed my subordinate officers to come to the position of 'salute' in the manual of arms as each body of the Confederates passed before us.

It was not a 'present arms,' however, not a 'present,' which then as now was the highest possible honor to be paid even to a president. It was the 'carry arms,' as it was then known, with musket held by the right hand and perpendicular to the shoulder. I may best describe it as a marching salute in review.

When General Gordon came opposite me I had the bugle blown and the entire line came to 'attention,' preparatory to executing this movement of the manual successively and by regiments as Gordon's columns should pass before our front, each in turn.

The General was riding in advance of his troops, his chin drooped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance almost beyond description. At the sound of that machine like snap of arms, however, General Gordon started, caught in a moment its significance, and instantly assumed the finest attitude of a soldier. He wheeled his horse facing me, touching him gently with the spur, so that the animal slightly reared, and as he wheeled, horse and rider made one motion, the horse's head swung down with a graceful bow, and General Gordon dropped his swordpoint to his toe in salutation...

Did Union troops, in fact, salute their former enemies, or was Chamberlain simply waxing poetic in his old age? Colonel Ellis Spear of the 20th Maine insisted no such gesture was made by Union soldiers. “Our men stood at ‘attention,’ with arms at the shoulder while the Confederates were stacking theirs. The whole business was without ceremony and the mere matter of detail consequent upon the surrender of two days before. There was no such gush.”

The Park Service rangers I spoke to insisted Chamberlain’s version was an accepted fact and there were other eyewitness accounts to back this. With this in mind, what better source to consult than the memoirs of General John B. Gordon. His account struck me as very strange though, because rather than offering up a first hand account, Gordon simply deferred to Chamberlain.

As my command, in worn-out shoes and ragged uniforms, but with proud mien, moved to the designated point to stack their arms and surrender their cherished battle-flags, they challenged the admiration of the brave victors. One of the knightliest soldiers of the Federal army, General Joshua L. Chamberlain of Maine, who afterward served with distinction as governor of his State, called his troops into line, and as my men marched in front of them, the veterans in blue gave a soldierly salute to those vanquished heroes -- a token of respect from Americans to Americans, a final and fitting tribute from Northern to Southern chivalry.

General Chamberlain describes this incident in the following words: "At the sound of that machine-like snap of arms, General Gordon started, caught in a moment its significance, and instantly assumed the finest attitude of a soldier. He wheeled his horse, facing me…”

Major Holman S. Melcher of the 20th Maine was there too. Recording the event in his diary, he wrote simply, “Today is the most interesting of all. The Rebel Infantry marched out and stacked their arms in front of the 1st Division which was drawn up to receive the surrender. They realize today, I hope, that they are really surrendering to us. Genl. Gordon objected very strongly to this but was brought to it.”

The history of the 32nd Massachusetts is even more succinct. “General Chamberlain, commanding the division…received the formal surrender on the 11th [sic], and detailed Bartlett’s Brigade to receive and care for the arms deposited by the Confederates. Guard duty of the trophies thus secured occupied the regiment till the 13th…” Brevity also marks the history of the 22nd Massachusetts, whose remaining veterans were absorbed into the 32nd Massachusetts when the former was mustered out of service. “Lee’s army filed in and stacked their arms. When a line of stacks had been left, we moved forward through the stacks, and men in our rear piled them up. About half of Lee’s men had no arms.” As with Gordon’s memoirs, the history of the 16th Michigan also relies on Chamberlain for details. “Chamberlain [related] it was a “thrilling sight” as the Confederates came to Appomattox Court House, and that the Union regiments dramatically saluted their old foes by presenting arms.”

The one history that suggests support of Chamberlain’s version is from the 118th Pennsylvania.

Our bugle sounded and our solemn and eager lines were brought to the manual of the “shoulder”…as a mark of respect. Acknowledging the courtesy by similar movement, the column wheeled to front us. Then each regiment stacked arms, unslung cartridge boxes and hung them on the stacks, and finally laid down their colors. And then, disarmed and colorless, they again broke into column and marched off again and disappeared forever as soldiers of the discomfited Confederacy.

The rebs showed discipline and marched well. Their arms were of all patterns and designs, many of them of English make. Their colors were all faded by the weather, some torn to shreds and many of them mounted on richly ornamented standards, while others were fastened to rude poles…. No conversation was allowed between the two armies while the surrender was being made, but occasionally a pleasant word would be exchanged….

After the rebels had stacked their arms they marched to head-quarters and signed their paroles and rapidly departed for their homes, so that on the following day scarcely a rebel could be found on that historic field.

What to make of this? I guess everyone will form their own opinion and draw their own conclusion as to whether Chamberlain’s telling was factual. Knowing that Chamberlain had a real sense of self and sometimes exaggerated his own importance following the war, I’m inclined to trust Ellis Spear on this one.


Position of the 32nd Massachusetts Infantry on the Lynchburg Stagecoach Road