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This is the archive for October 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Touch the Elbow continues its tough line of questioning in Part Two of an interview with Jim Schmidt, author of "Lincoln's Labels."

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The October 15th interview with Tom McGrath, author of "Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign," went over so well, Touch the Elbow decided to it again. No, not with Tom, who's threatening never to speak with us again (only kidding), but this time with Jim Schmidt, whose "Lincoln's Labels" is definitely worth reading.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Today's post takes a look at Jim Schmidt's book "Lincoln Labels," which has just been released in paperback.




Monday, October 26, 2009

The World Series gets under way Wednesday night from Yankee Stadium.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


What's in a school song, nickname, and symbol that would get people all fired up?



Friday, October 23, 2009


The Post Office brings news of two upcoming events.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Donald heads to Harpers Ferry and listens as two historians reflect on John Brown the man and his rightful place in American history.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Did you know that the average person only reads the first four paragraphs of a newspaper or magazine story?

I get it. At least I think get it. Beginning tomorrow Touch the Elbow is going to a new format. It has nothing to do with redesigning the page, or template, or moving the site. Rather, each new post is going to be summarized in twenty million words or less for a quick overview of the topic or subject matter. Readers will be able to make up their minds very quickly about whether they want to read the entire post, or not. The option to read on will be available by clicking “Read More.”

Of course I have to warn you beforehand that there’ll be a subliminal message embedded in each summary saying “Read me! Read me!”

Friday, October 16, 2009

Note: You may have seen today's post before, as it first ran in May 2008, although some revisions have been made . However, it's entirely in keeping with events that were put into motion 150 years ago today.


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Are these the eyes of a kind man? Of a cruel man? The eyes of a compassionate man? Of a misanthrope? The eyes of a merciful man? Of a dispassionate killer? The eyes of an avenging angel, or the eyes of the devil incarnate? The eyes of a devoutly religious man? Of a zealot? The eyes of a just man? Of a man for whom others do not deserve justice? The eyes of a rational man? Of a psychopath? The eyes of a crusader seeking freedom and equality, or the eyes of one who would shred the fabric of the existing social order?

When you look into his eyes you'll see what you want to see and believe what you want to believe in. Revered. Reviled. Revolutionary. Anarchist. Christ-like. Satanic. Striking a blow for freedom. Defiler of the Constitution. Liberater. Leader of men sent out to slaughter for sport.

His vision failed. His plan failed; like everything else he ever sought to achieve in his life. While his life of failure ended on the gallows at Charles Town, Virginia, it was a moment of triumph, a vindication not only for himself, but for those who hung him. His voice did not trail off on the scaffold, but thundered long after he was gone, in song and in verse. The truth he carried in his heart was a drumbeat that sounded louder and louder, reverberating throughout the North, where he was a martyr, and South, where he was the subject of fear and loathing; down through decades and generations. Prophet? Charlatan?

If not John Brown, another would have risen in his place. If not the Civil War, at some point in time there would have been open rebellion against a slave holding nation from within. Denmark Vessey, Nat Turner, and Gabriel Prosser had all left calling cards long before Brown. One doesn't need to consult tarot cards to know that the oppressed peoples of this earth always try to rise in an effort to throw off the tyranical and suffocating boot of an oppressor. That is a basic lesson of history; one that has been repeated over and over, including Russia in 1917, Ireland in 1916, Cuba in 1956, Vietnam beginning in 1945, Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Sepoy Revolt in 1857, France in 1789, the Domincan Republic in 1965, the Berlin Wall in 1989, Spain in 1936, Tibet in 1959, the Seminoles in 1818, Hungary in 1956, Mexico in 1910, Haiti in 1791, the Boxer Rebellion in 1898, and a forty year struggle against apartheid in South Africa, all in a world without end that cannot hold good men and women down forever. Amen.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Today we're talking to historian Tom McGrath, author of "Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign." Morning Tom.

TM: Nice to be here.

Let’s start with a really tough question. What in the heck happened to the Red Sox during the playoffs?

TM: I can't believe the Red Sox tanked so quickly. I am still in denial.

I won't press you any more on that one, so we'll move on to a question I think everybody likes hearing the answer to. Where did your interest in the Civil War come from?

TM: Well I have always had a deep interest in History. I think growing up near Boston during the Bicentennial had a lot to do with it, and my earliest interest was the American Revolution. Then when I was eight I visited Gettysburg for the first time, and that visit really stuck with me. And of course the late eighties and early nineties saw a new wave of Civil War popularity, which rekindled my fascination with that period. But beneath it all there is something intangible that draws me to that period, something I can’t really explain. But it’s an irresistible force, kind of strange in a way.

You grew up in Massachusetts and I lived in New England for a number of years. Is my perception that New Englanders have basically forgotten the Civil War a fair one?

TM: I wouldn’t say that they have forgotten the war, but I think New Englanders, and much of the North for that matter, view that war in a very different way. It’s much easier for New Englanders to compartmentalize the war, both today and even back then. The war was a service performed to preserve the Union. Men went off, did their time, and the majority returned home and resumed life as it was. People on the home front supported the war in a number of ways, but the war did not consume society. For Southerners, however, the war came to them, there was no way to avoid it. The war left deeper scars that I think the South is still struggling with in many ways.

Does the average Bay Stater know, for example, who Senator Charles Sumner, or Generals Benjamin Butler and Nathaniel Banks, or Gov. John Andrew were? These were, after all, pretty influential people for the time.

TM: That’s a difficult question to answer, but I can tell you this; I used to live around the corner from Nathaniel Banks’s home. It has been converted into an insurance office. But there are a number of Civil War sites that have been preserved and are highly popular; Fort Warren in Boston Harbor and the St.-Gaudens Memorial to the 54th Massachusetts immediately come to mind. And almost every town square is adorned with a Civil War monument or cannon, along with the names of men who served or died. The Civil War is definitely an integral part of New England’s rich history.

Let’s talk about the book, "Shepherdstown, Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign." There are lots of topics you could have chosen to research and write about. What drew you to Shepherdstown?

TM: It began out of simple curiosity, really. I came across the site while hiking and read the War Department tablets at the intersection of Trough Rd. The whole area has an almost haunting allure about it with the towering cliffs, the abandoned mill ruins, and the old canal bed. I wanted to learn more about what happened there and was surprised at how little had been written about it.

My initial idea for a writing project was actually far less ambitious. I was planning on writing a magazine article about Joshua Chamberlain, the 20th Maine, and their “baptism of fire” at Shepherdstown. As I began researching though I came to realize that they were just a small part of a much bigger picture.

How much time did you spend first researching and then writing the book?

TM: I actually began researching the battle around 1998 or so. Much of the initial research entailed trying to track down first hand accounts from the participants. I would comb through catalog descriptions of some of the major repositories around the country and then request copies from selected diaries and letters. It was really hit and miss. Sometimes I would come up empty, for example the soldier was ill during the campaign or there were missing entries. But other times it was like hitting the lottery. Some left rich descriptions of their experiences, often times while they were still on the battlefield. I also traveled quite a bit, to places like the US Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, PA, The Civil War Library and Museum in Philadelphia, The Massachusetts Historical Society, and Antietam National Battlefield to name a few.

It was a lot of fun trying to put these pieces together, and once the bigger picture began to come into focus it was really exciting. I guess you could say there was a point where I became a bit “obsessed” with the battle, not quite Richard Dreyfus Close Encounters of the Third Kind obsessed, but definitely preoccupied. And it was during this time, between research and writing the manuscript, that I saw the “For Sale” signs go up on the battlefield. But that’s a whole other story.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when you planned out the book? I mean, was it written specifically for the Civil War crowd, or did you have the general public in mind also?

TM: I can’t say that I had a specific audience in mind, but I did have two criteria I tried to adhere to. First I wanted to try to tell a good story, one that would keep the reader’s interest. Second, I wanted to ground everything with factual evidence. Dr. Tom Clemens, a history professor at Hagerstown Community College and President of Save Historic Antietam Foundation, was generous enough to read the entire manuscript, and he made some valuable suggestions. I am extremely grateful for his efforts with the book. I was also very fortunate to find a publisher who saw the value of this story. Patrick Schroeder, the owner and publisher of Schroeder Publications attended Shepherd University, so he was very familiar with the battle and the battlefield. He and his wife Maria did a fantastic job on the publishing end. I couldn’t be happier.

Most people are under the assumption that McClellan simply let Lee slip across the Potomac unmolested following the battle of Antietam, that there was no battle at Shepherdstown. You’ve tried to rectify that with your book, which can rightfully be called the definitive book on the battle. Why was Shepherdstown virtually ignored by historians?

TM: This is THE question isn’t it? My simple answer is, “I have no idea.” Possibly the fact that the events at Sharpsburg on the seventeenth were so horrific might have something to do with it. What also surprised me was how harrowing the story of the people of Shepherdstown was. They were caught squarely in the wake of this campaign. This little town was literally overwhelmed with the wounded of Sharpsburg, and for days it was a Hell on earth. I think this story needs to be explored in more depth, and hopefully some historian will do so. These people were nothing short of heroic.

What was the best available source of information on the battle prior to your book?

TM: By far the best published sources were the History of the 118th Pennsylvania and Inside the Army of the Potomac. The latter is comprised of the wartime letters of Capt. Francis Donaldson of the 118th Pennsylvania. Donaldson was not afraid to speak his mind, and he wrote with such great detail. The book was edited by J. Gregory Acken who did an outstanding job.

A good account of the controversies surrounding the evening of September 19th can be found in Hal Bridges’s book "Lee’s Maverick General: Daniel Harvey Hill."

There were two phases to the battle, one action that occurred on September 19th and the main battle on the 20th. Essentially what happened on the 19th?

TM: The morning of September 19th began with the discovery by Union pickets that Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had withdrawn from its line of battle around Sharpsburg. Union cavalry were pushed out in several directions and eventually found the last of the Confederate troops crossing at Blackford’s (Boteler’s) Ford. Union troops of the Fifth Corps were rushed to the front along with the batteries of the Artillery Reserve.

Positioned along the bluffs of the Virginia (now West Virginia) shore were 33 guns and two infantry brigades under the command of William Nelson Pendleton, who was assigned the task of guarding the ford against a crossing by the enemy.

Throughout the day Union pressure built up, and at dusk two regiments, the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters and the 4th Michigan, charged through the river and captured 4 cannon and a number of prisoners. That evening the Federal troops returned to the Maryland side.

What’s your impression of how well William Nelson Pendleton, as chief of Confederate artillery, performed on the 19th and did his performance dictate the events of the following day?

TM: That’s funny you asked that because when I went back and read my first draft I couldn’t believe how hard I was on him. So I revised that entire section of the manuscript and tried to render a more objective depiction. And when I let the evidence speak for itself he does not come off very well. There were several complaints from other Confederate officers, but the most damning evidence in my view came from his own pen. On two occasions in the immediate aftermath of the battle he reported that Yankee cavalry had crossed the river and captured his guns. Now the nearest Yankee cavalry that evening was probably 5 or 6 miles to the rear, and they certainly did not cross the river. This tells me that Pendleton had clearly lost touch with what was happening under his command. I believe he left the scene of battle far too early for a commander.

As to the second part of your question, yes his actions almost entirely dictated the events of the 20th. But it wasn’t so much his performance at the river; it was what he did next. As he began his frantic search for Lee that evening he told several officers that the entire Artilllery Reserve, all 44 guns, had been taken by the enemy. In those dark woods news like that had a chilling effect. As a result three Confederate divisions would be put on the march back to Shepherdstown. It was these men that would run into a lone Union brigade of Regulars and initiate the battle and bloodshed of the 20th.

Can you set up the battle on the 20th for us, contrasting and comparing both the Union and Confederate perspective?

TM: On the morning of the 20th two brigades of the Fifth Corps under Fitz John Porter, were directed by McClellan to cross in to Virginia on a reconnaissance-in-force. A brigade of Regulars crossed first and proceeded up the Charlestown (now Trough) Road. A second brigade of volunteers under Col. James Barnes crossed about an hour later. Barnes’s assignment was to march up River Road into the town of Shepherdstown. The whole purpose of the mission was to scout the area and report back any information regarding the location of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Did Union soldiers cross the Potomac expecting a fight?

TM: No, in fact many of the soldiers remarked on the carefree mood of the men as they waded through the river. Those feelings would quickly dissipate once shots rang out. Contact with the enemy was a complete surprise that morning.

Why do you think James Barnes’ First Brigade from the First Division of the Fifth Corps was selected as the infantry’s main reconnaissance force?

TM: I think they were chosen because they were close at and they were fresh. They had been held in reserve during the Battle of Antietam. It was a simple assignment really. And they were only one half of the reconnaissance force. The first to cross was the Second Brigade of Sykes’s Second Division, made up entirely of Regulars under Maj. Charles Lovell, who had a far more precarious task of marching out into the countryside. Their job was made even more difficult by the absence of cavalry. It was the Regulars that bumped into A.P. Hill’s entire division about a mile from the river and safety. It’s interesting to think what would have happened had these two brigades been reversed. Lovell’s skillful leadership avoided what could have been a complete disaster for his men.

The seven regiments in the First Brigade under Barnes’ command had one completely untested Regiment, the 118th Pennsylvania, and another, the 18th Massachusetts, that had fired their weapons only once in combat, twenty days earlier at Second Bull Run. Didn’t this place the Union forces at a distinct disadvantage in the event they were attacked?

TM: At this point in the war the Army of the Potomac had a number of new regiments, a result of that summer’s massive recruitment campaign. The advantage of brigading these new regiments with seasoned ones was that it allowed them to gain experience surrounded by veterans. But, yes, the flip side of this scenario was that they often proved to be the weak link in the chain.

In the case of Barnes’s brigade at Shepherdstown, however, I think the 18th Massachusetts performed remarkably well under difficult conditions. I high think it highly probable, based on the evidence, that during the hasty retreat the 18th Massachusetts took up a second position in the ravine to cover the withdrawal of the rest of the brigade. They suffered 14 casualties, including 5 dead in the process.

The inexperience of the 118th Pennsylvania’s high command did prove to be costly, but the bulk of the regiment did not just break and run. I think this fact in many ways is testament to the general character of the Union volunteer as a whole. But again, no one was expecting a battle that morning at Shepherdstown. It was a chance meeting. This brigade just happened to get caught in a bad place.

Did this really make any difference in the outcome of the battle, particularly when they ultimately came up against battle-hardened Confederate brigades and regiments?

TM: I don’t think it made that much difference due to the way the battle unfolded. Yes, Dorsey Pender’s men were hardened veterans, but when they made initial contact Barnes’s brigade outnumbered them more than 2 to 1. The 18th Massachusetts put pressure on their right while the 13th & 25th New York suddenly appeared on their far left. Pender was so concerned he sent back for support. It was only after the majority of Barnes’s brigade withdrew and Archer’s three brigades advanced that the odds shifted in the Confederates’ favor.

What sort of Union presence did A.P. Hill expect to find opposing him? After all he had a whole division at his disposal.

TM: I’m not sure any of the Confederate high command knew what to expect. There was no clear information coming back from the front, only that “something” had happened at Shepherdstown. I know Jackson perceived that a real threat to the army’s rear existed. And he was prepared to resolve the matter with blunt force.

Would someone be wrong in thinking the battle lasted about five minutes and was little more than a skirmish?

TM: Yes, in fact Captain Joseph Collingwood of the 18th Massachusetts reported that his men stood their ground for a half hour and expended 50 rounds of ammunition. Also, once the Federal troops withdrew to the Maryland shore the shelling of the Confederate line lasted the entire day.

If there remains any doubt, just take a look at the regimental battle flags and monuments of some of the regiments that fought there. You will see the name “Shepherdstown.” They didn’t do that without reason. In short, it was the largest and bloodiest battle fought in West Virginia.

When it was apparent the odds were against them, James Barnes gave the order for his entire command to withdraw? Every regiment complied, save the 118th Pennsylvania who stood their ground. This incident is steeped in controversy. What’s your best take on why the 118th didn’t withdraw?

TM: I think it was a combination of factors including terrain, confusion, and inexperience. And of course there is the “fog of war,” an expression that aptly describes the difference between reacting to the moment and analyzing events with the luxury of hindsight. The 118th PA’s colonel, Charles Prevost, received the order to withdraw from a lieutenant of his own regiment who had heard it from one of Barnes’s aides. I think Prevost was concerned with the reputation of his regiment had they prematurely retreated their first time under fire. To me this explanation makes sense when considering the situation at the time.

Everything that could have gone wrong for the 118th Pennsylvania seemingly did, starting with defective Enfield muskets. How in the heck did they get their hands on them and why didn’t their officers know beforehand they were defective?

TM: In the early part of the war the Federal government had trouble supplying the huge numbers of recruits with weapons. U.S. manufacturers simply could not produce enough rifles for the entire army and so the War Department looked to Europe. The Confederacy, however, had beaten them to the punch and already contracted for large numbers of rifles. As a result European manufacturers were hard-pressed to keep up with the demand, and a number of rifles were sub par. The problem was compounded for the men of the 118th by the fact that they did not realize their British-made Enfields were defective until they were under fire. They had been in the army for less than a month and not yet shot their rifles.

What shape were the 118th in when they finally did begin withdrawing? Could they have effected a safer retreat or were they overmatched and outmaneuvered?

TM: The main problem that befell the 118th was that once the rest of the brigade withdrew, their flanks were unprotected, “in the air” as they say. Pender’s North Carolinians simply drove in on them in three directions and there was nowhere to go but back.

Did the 118th retreat in good order or did panic set in?

TM: Once Pender’s Brigade charged it was every man for himself. I think panic and self-preservation went hand in hand. What made the retreat so difficult were not only the cliffs to the rear, but the fact that both ravines were subject to crossfire from above. Archer’s, Lane’s, and Brockenbrough’s men had lined the top of the ravine where the 13th and 25th New York had been. Also, during the artillery bombardment a tree had been knocked down, further hampering the retreat. It was really a nightmare scenario.

Is it true that large numbers of the 118th were killed by friendly fire?

TM: There were at least three men killed instantly and one mortally wounded when a shell exploded in one of the lime kilns. It is pretty powerful to visit that site today and know that three men left this world in that exact spot and in such a gruesome and tragic manner.

Confederate eyewitness accounts said the Potomac ran red and the bodies of blue coated men filled the river. Are those accounts accurate regarding the Union retreat?

TM: A.P. Hill wrote a highly exaggerated account of the “slaughter” that took place in the river. That being said, a number of men were killed during the crossing. I think what made the sight all the more striking was that these deaths were highly visible, almost as if in a sports arena. Thousands of men witnessed the frantic retreat, and many left accounts of what they saw. It is obvious that the pure spectacle of that day left vivid impressions in the minds of those that were there.

Why, when they could see what was happening to the 118th Pennsylvania weren’t Union troops ordered forward to assist? I know this may be second guessing, and I’m certainly not a military tactician, but why couldn’t artillery have been used to effectively cover an advance?

TM: Events were unfolding so quickly, and by the time the 118th Pennsylvania were retreating it was too late to send infantry support across. Confederates lined the opposite bluffs and completely commanded the ford.

Despite some incidents of “friendly fire” the Federal artillery did an excellent job of covering the Union retreat. Their efforts undoubtedly saved hundreds of men from becoming casualties that day.

Speaking of Union artillery fire, A.P. Hill wrote in his battle report that Union cannon fire at Shepherdstown was the heaviest and most effective he had experienced to that point in the war? Was that a valid assessment on his part, or pure puffery?

TM: In this case A.P. Hill did not exaggerate. One of the things that really struck me during my research was the number of accounts that made reference to the Federal artillery fire of September 20th, so much so that I included them in an appendix to the book. The shelling of the Confederates that day was relentless. Stonewall Jackson, one not easily impressed, even made reference to it in his report.

Describing and making sense of a battle has to be a daunting task, particularly because descriptions from individual combatants are so myopic, i.e. their own sense of what happened was based on what they saw directly in front of them. How were you able to pull the battle of Shepherdstown together so that it made sense not only to yourself, but to your reader as well?

TM: One of the advantages I had when trying to piece this battle together 140 years later is that it was, and is, such a rigidly defined battlefield. There were several distinct landmarks such as the mill, the dam, and the Charlestown Rd, that provided specific reference points in the action reports and accounts. Within these parameters the fact that the men’s accounts were so narrowly focused actually worked to my advantage, illuminating certain parts of the battle during certain phases of the action. Once the pieces start to click with one another, the bigger picture began to come into focus.

Did any of the Union or Confederate regiments wrap themselves in glory at Shepherdstown?

TM: Honestly, I can’t think of one regiment that didn’t do their duty. Of course there are always individuals who shirk or cower under fire, but on the whole the majority of these men were veterans and acted as such. Even the 118th Pennsylvania performed remarkably well until it was too late.

I believe one of the great “forgotten charges” was executed by A.P. Hill’s men across those open fields, under the constant barrage of incoming artillery fire. I think it is safe to say that most, if not almost all of the Confederate casualties of the 20th were inflicted by artillery. And the eyewitness accounts speak to the sheer bravery of these men.

In conducting your research was there any story about Shepherdstown that you found especially poignant?

TM: Yes. Colonel James Lane related a story that occurred on the afternoon of the 20th. After the Union soldiers had withdrawn Lane came across a North Carolinian who had taken a bullet in the back. The young man pleaded with Lane to tell his family he had not been a coward. He shortly thereafter died from the wound. I think this story speaks to the grisly aspect of battle, stripped of all delusions of glory and romance. What struck me was that Lane recalled this story years after the fact, yet another example of how Shepherdstown resonated with the men who fought there.

There seem to be amazing similarities between Shepherdstown, Balls Bluff, and Drewery’s Bluff. Your thoughts on this.

TM: Well Donald, as you and I know from the personal experience of wading through the Potomac, water obstacles can raise hell when trying to conduct military operations, which is why they provided such a great barrier for Civil War armies.

You’ve developed close ties to the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association. What’s that fight all about anyway?

TM: A few years ago a real estate developer purchased 122 acres of part of the core of the Battle of Shepherdstown. The ground is the site of the Osborn Farm whose Civil War buildings still stand today. He hopes to build 152 houses on the property, which would just obliterate a large key chunk of this pristine battlefield. The SBPA has been challenging the developer in the hopes of making the site a historic battlefield park, possibly even part of the Antietam National Battlefield. They have managed to save 84 acres of battlefield land so far, which is a tremendous accomplishment. But the loss of this ground would be heartbreaking.

So, what would you personally say to the developer to get him to change his mind about building houses on the battlefield?

TM: Honestly I don’t know. Unfortunately there are some people that don’t appreciate our nation’s past. Just look at the recent decision to build a Wal-Mart on the Wilderness battlefield. I just hope that this story has a happy ending. Hopefully some higher powers are at work here to see that this all works out.

A lawyer for the developer reacted to efforts to preserve the Shepherdstown battlefield by saying, and I’ll paraphrase, just because some soldiers marched across a piece of land doesn’t mean we should save it. I’m curious as to your reaction.

TM: Well, since this is a family-friendly blog I won’t tell you my initial reaction. But, I think this statement is the absolute epitome of ignorance. I would like to show this individual the handwritten letter that Mrs. Ziba Martin received in October 1862 describing her husband’s death; “I saw him shot alongside of myself, that is a few feet from me. He was dead almost immediately. Musket ball through his head entering the forehead and passing out the back of the ear. Second day after the battle we recrossed the river and buried him just where he fell.” I would like to ask him if he would feel the same way if that had been his family member, not to mention the 160-plus other men that lost their lives on that ground.

Do you have a particular favorite among Civil War battlefields and what makes it so?

TM: My family has a camper at Gettysburg, so we visit there quite often (We call it our second home.) Every time I go there it feels like the first time, and I never fail to see or learn something new. And over the past few years the Park Service has done an incredible job of restoring the battlefield to its 1863 appearance with tree cuttings, fence building, and other changes. It’s just a beautiful place. I also love Antietam, which is probably one of the best -preserved Civil War battlefields in the country. I would love to see some of the battlefields out west someday. I have heard that Shiloh is amazing.

What are you currently reading?

TM: Well right now I am actually studying for my comprehensive exams, so I am reading so many books I’m embarrassed to say.

Excluding your book, is there a single Civil War title that you’d make mandatory reading for Civil War buffs?

TM: That’s a really difficult question to answer because the historiography is so diverse. For the political side Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men is excellent, as well as Herbert Donald’s Lincoln and Paul Escott’s After Secession. For campaign studies I would recommend Edwin Coddington’s The Gettysburg Campaign and Joseph Harsh’s Taken at the Flood. And for soldier life nothing beats John Billings’s Hardtack & Coffee. But again this is a tough one because there is just so much great stuff out there dealing with this era. Ask me tomorrow and I’d probably have a whole other set of responses!

What can we expect from Tom McGrath next?

TM: I have been considering doing a study of the town of Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War.

What makes Concord special?

TM: Well, much like Gettysburg, there is a palpable historical presence there. Not only was it where the American Revolution began, but it was a really significant spot during the nineteenth century too, a place of radical thinkers, writers, abolitionists, as well as ordinary Americans. I am curious to see what this historic town was like during the Civil War.

Any closing thoughts, beside people should buy and read your book?

TM: I encourage everyone reading this to get involved with the efforts of the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association. Visit their website battleofshepherdstown.org, write your congressman, make your voice heard before it’s too late. We owe it to those that gave everything on those beautiful and, for now, pristine fields.

Thanks for your time Tom, I really appreciate it. One more thing before we close that I want to say to our audience. Buy Tom's book. It's that good.

TM: And thank you!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Note: The following book review is long overdue and something I should have posted more than a year ago.


There is perhaps no more surrealistic or psychologically affecting scene men can experience than when darkness cloaks a battlefield following the close of major fighting. While opposing armies squint through the blue-black ink which is night, the pitiful, tortured cries and groans of the wounded trapped in no man’s land, begging for their mothers, for God’s help, or for water can’t simply be blocked out. Those cries interrupt the sleep of those unharmed, fray the nerves of those who keep watch through the early morning hours, and demand even the most steeled of hearts to helplessly implore themselves and others around them to “do something” to provide quieting relief for the suffering.

That is the picture of Antietam’s aftermath Tom McGrath paints in the opening chapter of “Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign.” With additional brushstrokes, a steadily falling rain only increases the misery felt by all. When the following day dawns elements of the Fifth Corps, which had been held in reserve on a distant hill, from where they witnessed magnificent charge after magnificent charge, are shifted to the immediate vicinity of wracked and ruined bodies, where the smell of rotting, bloated cadavers wafts through their nostrils. It is as unsettling a picture to these Union troops as to the one thousand civilians four miles away in Shepherdstown, Virginia, who have opened their houses and churches to the mangled and dying from Lee’s legions who have fallen at South Mountain four days before and their brethren felled as if with a gigantic scythe across the river less than twenty-four hours earlier. McGrath sits silently, brush in hand, ready to dab shades of white, red, brown, and grey, observing as children tear petticoats into bandages, while women bathe wounds with water and lift spoons filled with peas to the lips of the dying as if in final sacrament for those slipping closer to never more. Daylight, too, reveals armies wary of pouncing, wary of leaping forward to continue the attack. They stare across a wasteland of toppled ragdolls until day turns to night again, While McClellan lacks the stomach for gore, Lee slips away to fight on other ground of his choosing, withdrawing across the Potomac a mile or less from the makeshift hospitals of Shepherdstown, leaving a force of forty-four cannons and 600 troops to fight a rearguard.action, if necessary, to ensure the main body of those in retreat reaches the safety of Winchester.

Fast forward to the 19th and peer through McGrath's binoculars as Fifth Corps volunteers, 25 from each regiment, ford the river in late afternoon. Peering back is William Nelson Pendleton, Lee's chief of artillery, who commands the high ground and also fuels rumors of cowardice and incompetence for his behavior at First Bull Run. Lee, if possessing a fault, remains loyal to those most loyal to him. It's a character flaw that seems to run rampant throughout the Confederacy and extends even to the chief occupant of the White House in Richmond. As McGrath points out, Pendleton's orders are clear, but their very simplity confuses him and that unintended confusion will ultimately prove a turning point that leads to disastrous consequences for one Union regiment and scores of more deaths within A.P. Hill's proud brigades.

Quite simply Pendleton's own orders weaken the center of his defenses, the very place where he should be strongest, allowing the wading blue coats to rise out of the water close to sunset and nearly overwhelm his men. Union batteries on the opposite shore let fly and as the sun sinks lower and darkness begins to envelope the heights, confusion sets in, and Pendleton finally orders a disordered retreat. He himself abandons his men and guns, riding alone in pitch darkness, fearful of Lee's reaction to his report that all has been lost, all forty-four guns entrusted to him lost to the enemy.

Lee rises before the sun the following morning, having slept on Pendleton's report and sets wheels in motion. Fitz-John Porter, commanding the Union's Fifth Corps and under a cloud of suspicion himself for disobeying Pope at Second Bull Run, sets his own wheels in motion. He is following McClellan's idea of a pursuit to the letter. His commands are less urgent than those issued from Lee. Neither McClellan or Porter, in their wildest imaginations, can envision that A.P. Hill's divisions have done an about face and are moving in mass formation back toward the Potomac. Porter's is a simple and non-pressing mission. Hill's, in contrast, is measured in expediency; the need to determine Union strength, and, even more importantly, to recover lost artillery pieces. Porter orders a mounted and infantry reconnaissance across the river, to sniff for Lee and, if unscented, provide confirmation that the Confederate dust has fully settled back to earth.

McGrath now replaces the artist's brush with a video camera, alternately panning the Maryland shore as troops gather and leisurely remove shoes and then socks. He frames a wide angle shot, capturing the more frantic pace of the artillerymen as they unlimber and line up their pieces on the rise above. All is absent of sound, all becomes slow motion as regular units of the U.S. Army now begin to cross. Splashing drops of water are captured in freeze frame, the sunlight making them glisten like diamonds. An overhead shot captures a rising cloud of dust that obscures unfurled battle flags and the thirteen stars that adorn their crimson cross. The music begins to swell, tympanis pounding louder, warning of an impending collision as Hill quickens his pace.

Fast forward, as fast and as frantically as McGrath's words leap off the page. U.S. regulars from the 1st, 2nd, 10th, 11th, and 17th infantry, positioned to the left and right of the Charlestown road exchange shots with an enemy emerging from woods and cornfields. Those Confederate numbers are quickly determined to be overwhelming.

The laughter and merriment that had accompanied the First Brigade of the First Division of the Fifth Corps during their own crossing of the river was quickly replaced by seriousness at 9:15 a.m. Colonel James Barnes' original order to proceed by road to Shepherdstown is superceded by one emanating from Gen. George Sykes, commanding the Regulars. Barnes complies and plays traffic cop, directing the 18th and 22nd Massachusetts, 13th and 25th New York, 1st Michigan, 2nd Maine, and the combat virgins of the 118th Pennsylvania to follow trails to the top of the bluffs to protect the right flank of the Sykes' men. Edward Thomas', Maxcy Gregg's, and Dorsey Pender's Southern brigades press closer, braving Union artillery fire that will, over the next two hours, literally shred their ranks.

McGrath's words capture the onward and heroic rush of Confederate forces, bending, but never yielding to the missiles shrieking toward them, closing the gaps in their ranks, firing a volley only when ordered to do so. It is the Regulars that begin to yield first, effectively crippling the defensive left flank when they begin to withdraw. All of the First Brigade stands its ground for most of the next hour, the 18th Massachusetts using up fifty of the sixty rounds carried by each man. With twelve of their number down, the 18th, according to McGrath, then fixes bayonets and is in the midst of launching a charge when the order to withdraw circulates down the line. All the regiments of the First Brigade hear the order, save the 118th Pennsylvania. Their Colonel, Charles Prevost, did, in fact, hear the order, but demanded it be delivered in person by James Barnes rather than a subordinate. His stubbornness in adhering to a strict military protocol would not only result in his being wounded shortly afterwards, but cost his regiment of Philadelphia gentlemen dearly. For the 118th, heretofore untested during their three weeks of military service, the boogey man was about to come calling.

McGrath is fully able to create order from what occurred next. Where chaos and self-preservation were shortly to grip the 118th Pennsylvania like a vice, they stood like men, attempting to fire off shots from defective Enfield muskets. They stuck true, even as some scrambled on hands and knees for working replacements, steadily fixed bayonets when ordered, and continued to hold to their duty even as right, left, and center began to crumble when man after man fell after the audible ssst and thump of a minie ball struck mark.

The video camera comes into play again, with all sequences recorded in slow motion, the audio portion of the text purposely distorted, purposely disorienting. Panic. Fear. The urge to run overwhelming duty, honor, country; the wounded and dying left to make their own way down to the road and river below. Maryland. Where safety is afforded if one can cross a river now seemingly ten miles wide. There is no mercy for those who flee. Their backs are wide targets for the barrel of a Confederate gun. Round after round spins through the air as men take their time, sight up, and squeeze slowly. The 118th falls wherever they're in view. On the road below, on the millrace leading to the opposite shore. The saving grace for more than a few is the unrelenting cannonading by Union gunners stationed on far heights. It is unrelenting, punishing, and accurate, except when errant shells fall short and drop in the midst of the 118th. Three are killed when an iron ball manufactured in a Northern munitions plant finds their hiding place in an archway at the base of an abandoned cement mill.

The story of a small battle fought on Virginia farmland bordering a river that flows past our Nation's Capitol and empties out into the Chesapeake Bay was virtually ignored by veterans who witnessed the carnage and much later by historians. Coming on the heels of the single bloodiest day in American history one can understand how that day, September 20, 1862, could slip away from memory and text. Solomon Beals of the 18th Massachusetts in a letter home, written days after the fight, summed it up best for his immediate time. His words also proved prophetic until 145 years after the fact, when historian and college professor Tom McGrath tried and succeeded mightily in setting the record straight for all.

"You may have heard before about this, but I have not yet seen a correct account of it. The facts as I know them are these."


Note: Tomorrow's post will feature an interview with Tom McGrath, the author of "Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign"

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Note: the wading of the Potomac River from Maryland to Shepherdstown, West Virginia is an annual event sponsored by the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association.


A single calendar page shy of the 20th, and though 147 years had intervened, this day in September 2009 bore similarities to that one in 1862. The day of the week was the same, the blue of the skies matched, the clouds spaced in the same intermittent patterns, and the numbers on the thermometers were almost unchanged.

A day shy of September 20th, I stood with a group of twenty-two people eying the Maryland shoreline, the greenish tint of the Potomac, and the not so distant West Virginia side of the river, with its 60 foot cliffs looming in the background, listening to the instructions of our tour leader Tom McGrath, much in the same way that my third great-grandfather, then a Corporal in Co. I of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry, would have listened to instructions from his commanding officer 1st Lt. Horatio Dallas, the same Dallas who would be promoted to lead Co. H when Joseph Collingwood fell at Fredericksburg eleven weeks later.

I wondered how close my feet were to the actual footprints left in the Maryland mud by George Washington Thompson, a native of Oxford County, Maine who had also left his straw working tools on a Massachusetts factory bench, his wife and his five children, to fight for the preservation of the Union, his brother Leander and nephew James B. Snow beside him in the ranks. There was a familial precedent in leaving a wife, children, and work to engage in war. George's grandfather had toted a musket against the British and his great-grandfather before him against Philip's revengful Wampanoags.

The time of day was different though. The 18th Massachusetts and the rest of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of the Fifth Corps had begun removing their shoes and socks sometime between seven and nine a.m. When the socks came off and when their feet first stepped into the river depends on whose account you read. I wasn't looking at a watch either, but estimated it was close to four in the afternoon when I exchanged Timberland boots for a pair of hip high dark green waders.

Accounts of the river crossing say the water was mid-shin to waist deep in spots and there was a sporting and light-hearted attitude among the men as they slogged their way across. Stepping into the water and moving only a few feet from shore, I was surprised by its clarity, as rocks of varying sizes and gently waving grass were clearly visible on the bottom. The slipperiness of those rocks was equally surprising. It was little wonder then that men from the 1st Brigade lost their footing and took a sudden bath, their ears subjected to their comrades' laughter when they righted themselves again. Most surprising was the current, which grew in strength, pushing hard like invisible hands against the legs as I neared the middle of the river.

Over 1700 men from the 1st Brigade made the crossing that morning. It's unknown how long it took them. Our little group completed it's own hundred and fifty yard crossing, with me trailing in the rear in order to keep an eye on one straggler, in about twenty minutes. Like that of the 1st Brigade, ours was not uneventful either, as one of our group took an unexpected bath. None in the group laughed, particularly not me. It was a warning to hold onto my camera that much tighter and to hope like hell it was waterproof if worse came to worse. I wondered, too, if Corporal Thompson would have barked at me for taking so long to arrive in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. I wondered, too, if not for bare feet how many 1st Brigade brogans would have been sucked up by the mud that greeted our group as we emerged from the water. That mud nearly wrestled the right wader from my leg when I planted my first step on seemingly dry land.

The wading of the Potomac River was in many respects singularly the most personal experience I've ever had in regard in visiting a Civil War site. The rush of the current, water lapping over the top of the waders, the very real possibility of stepping on a rock or rocks that George Washington Thompson himself might have stepped on, in combination, made it very real and very personal. What waited for us next was the same exact steep and winding path the 18th Mass. followed to the top of the bluffs overlooking the Potomac. On this, my third trip onto privately held land which comprises the Shepherdstown battlefield I stood, for the very first time where the Regiment stood in battle line, listening to Tom McGrath quote from letters written by Captain Joseph Collingwood, Corporal Thomas Mann, and Sergeant Solomon Beals, with a lump in my throat and a sense of real pride, not only in George Washington Thompson, but in those shoemakers, farmers, seamen, clerks, carpenters, iron moulders, straw workers, organ makers, and mechanics who comprised the 18th Massachusetts and stood their ground for an hour against the best A.P. Hill had to throw against them.

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Note: the next post will take a look at the only treatment devoted exclusively to the September 20th, 1862 battle of Shepherdstown, Tom McGrath's aptly titled "Shepherdstown: The Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign."


Friday, October 09, 2009


Here’s a thought for a Friday, though it's one that others contemplated long before I ever did.

If you were to think of one individual who, through their words or actions, was most responsible for setting North and South on a collision course, who would get your vote? Certainly John Brown comes to mind, as do various Southern and Northern radicals. Lincoln would emerge as a central figure for some, but secessionists had urged splitting the Union a decade prior to his nomination at the Chicago Republican Convention in May 1860. That song had certainly played on the radio in 1856 when the possibility of John Fremont taking the oath of office loomed over the nation.

My own choice would be Eli Whitney. The issue is much more complex than outlined here, however, it can be reasonably argued that his cotton gin led to a dramatic increase in the amount of land given over to the cultivation of cotton, which, in turn, increased the need for slave labor, which, in turn, increased worldwide demand from textile manufacturers, which, in turn, increased profitability from growing the snowy white stuff, which, in turn, led to the push to expand slavery into the territories, all of which, in turn, ultimately led the South to conclude that, as a separate nation, they could base an economy on a single cash crop.

When you think about all the peaceful labor saving devices that have ever come onto market, you’d be left with a very short list of well intentioned inventions that have, in the long run, so dramatically and negatively impacted a nation. Whitney’s seemingly benign creation, which triggered a 500 fold increase in the number of cotton bales transported to market within twenty years of its introduction, certainly, without doubt, qualifies for its own unique line of dominoes.


Tuesday, October 06, 2009



Off the top of my head I can’t think of any town north of the Mason-Dixon line that was subjected to more torment from Confederates than Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. For three years running there was a seemingly annual pilgrimage, beginning in 1862 when J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry destroyed railroad property and made off with hundreds of horses and guns, not to mention a number of free black males. The fourth and last visit occurred on July 30, 1864, when Brig. Gen. John McCausland demanded a half-million dollar ransom and burnt large portions of the town when the money wasn’t forthcoming.

1863 in and of itself was neither a good year for French winemakers nor the good citizens of Chambersburg. On June 15th, Brig. Gen. Albert Jenkins' cavalry paid a less than social call by occuping the town and, in turn, burnt warehouses and bridges. Nine days later and for the next four days after that Confederates paraded through the town on their way to another town with the suffix "burg" affixed to its name. The road the Confederate troops followed upon leaving, the Chambersburg Pike, would lead them past a business establishment situated exactly halfway between Chambersburg and Gettysburg. Here, at Mr. Ed's, a local and now historic landmark, many raw and heretofore untested recruits and conscripts from the South would "see the elephant" for the very first time.

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Undernourished and underfed, it was here at Mr. Ed's that Confederate troops stripped the shelves bare, an action that not only allowed them to replenish their meager rations, but proved of utmost importance throughout the rest of the long and grueling Gettysburg campaign.

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Friday, October 02, 2009


I just finished responding to an email query from Suanna, who needed the citation for a letter quoted in a blog post that appeared about a year and a half ago. She's writing a book on Civil War holidays and the letter referenced worship services conducted on Easter Sunday near Yorktown, Virginia in April 1862. In response I surmised there would have been a stark contrast between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday celebrations of 1861 and 1864.

Thanksgiving 1861 saw the delivery of box after box of turkeys, pies, and other assorted goodies by the Adams Express company to the camp of the 18th Massachusetts at Hall's Hill, Virginia, compliments of the folks back home. In contrast, it'd be a herculean task to find mention of roasted birds in letters or diaries penned by a Union soldier in November 1864. The small circles of women who early on devoted themselves to knitting socks for a local regiment had, by 1864, long since been usurped by the more organized and efficient efforts of the Sanitary and Christian commissions. Still, while soldiers deeply appreciated those efforts by both commissions, nothing would ever supplant the arrival of a home cooked meal in their hearts. Too, by 1864, the kick ass and take names attitude so prevalent in 1861 had been replaced by this lament: "Many are the hearts that are weary tonight, tenting on the old campground..."

Thursday, October 01, 2009


Your eyes are gazing at a rare document; so rare, in fact, if I could be so bold to predict, it might even fetch a penny bid on eBay. Check the date. It’s October 1st. If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, or even if you haven’t, this represents the first post that’s gone up in the month of October in the last three calendar years. And if you study the situation even more closely, everything that’s appeared since July 5th of this year also qualifies as auction material. Translated very simply, nothing appeared on this site from July 5th to December 31st in either 2007 or 2008. We simply went into hibernation with nary a word of explanation as to why. Someone once asked me what happened. I told them I was on ‘my own personal Burnside Mud March.’ In other words I got pelted by rain and stuck in the muck that was my life.

So now here we are and what do we do with this moment that says we’ve survived for 29 of the past 39 months. I guess on a personal level I say to myself: reflect back on where you started, where you’ve been, and where you’re going.

Touch the Elbow’s objectives have always been pretty simple. Tom Churchill and I are just a couple of average slobs with an above average interest in the Civil War. Sorry for calling you a slob Tom, because you’re actually a very neat dresser and always put your dishes and glasses in the dishwasher when you’re through eating, but you catch my drift. We don’t qualify as experts on anything, except the 18th Massachusetts Infantry. We’re not historians. We’re not military strategists. We’re not teachers. We’re not Park Rangers. We don't stand behind the podium, we sit in the audience. We don't lead tours, we travel with the pack that follows. Hell, I’m not even sure we qualify as Civil War bloggers. But this much I do know: in the world of the average slob with an above average interest in the Civil War we try to relate what others can relate to. I know that we succeed sometimes. I know, too, that we fail sometimes. I hope it’s been more of the former than the latter, though I really can’t say with any certainty due to the lack of feedback from readers. Lack of feedback can either be perilous or self-confirming; meaning either people don’t care one iota about what they’ve read, or they’re in full agreement; or they don’t want to waste their time typing a comment. I’m not trying to get weepy here, nor am I lamenting our standing among the Civil War Top 100 roster. To paraphrase Popeye, we yar who we yar and that’s all that we yar an poppin’ the top off a can of spinach ain’t goin’ ta change things.

I do have to say this though. The one post I wrote, of the more than 500 that have appeared in this space, the one I was certain people would comment on, if anyone were to comment, was a two-parter titled “Sutherland.” It ran in February of this year and was reposted in August. I now point you back to the last three sentences in the preceding paragraph and summarize them by saying: it is what it is.

So what do we hope you’ll read about between now and next October? I can’t guarantee it, but hopefully about trips to Tennessee and other points south of Virginia and North Elba, New York, that the Shepherdstown battlefield has been preserved, and lastly, the primary objective that''s been fueling this rocket ship through the universe for more than ten years, a post that announces we've finally completed a manuscript on the history of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry.