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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I just finished Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and would have to say that it was worth the $12 I paid for it at Sam’s Club.


If you are looking for a fast, somewhat interesting take on President Lincoln, this could be your book. My main issue with it was that it seemed to drag at times as it explained what was going on, using diary entries, intermixed with the narration of the author.

Also while the author gave a plausible explanation of how and why, he spent so much time in the beginning of the story, I felt let down at the limited amount of time spent in the Civil War. That being said, Grahame-Smith opens the door to obvious sequels with a twist or two at the end. The twist and outcome I disagree with, based on what the author spent so much effort on earlier in the book – but it was interesting no less.

On the plus side, take out the Vampire part and you have a decent enough look at the President and his life. It even has the rocker that Donald mentions in yesterday’s post.

Keeping the Vampire part in, it gives a good story of Vampires in America – much better than the Twilight garbage that is out there.

All in all, buy it and enjoy it as the work of fiction it is. Let’s just hope people don’t pull a DaVinci Code on it and start believing that this truly happened.

If you haven’t seen the trailer yet, check it out.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Donald does self-assigned homework for the Surratt Society's upcoming conference on the Lincoln Assassination.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

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

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"

Friday, June 27, 2008

I have yet to start reading this but it is another Sam’s Club find. This one was a bit more expensive at $14.12 but still in that wonderful range of “if I just bought a stinker, at least I didn’t waste $75 on it.”


This is also from W. Chris Phelps, author of the previously mentioned, The Bombardment of Charleston .

In this book, takes a look at one of the many groups formed during the war with men from Charleston. This one would be named The Charleston Battalion and would fight in Virginia, North Carolina and the Charleston Area.

Where one of my big issues was the length of the previous book, this one is twice as big. It is important to note that the last 100 pages are various appendixes. Even so, they seem to be “meaty” ones, with pictures and detailed information, along with the ever needed regimental roster.
I am slightly concerned at where the tone of the book is leading. From the inside flap, “They served with distinction in several campaigns in Virginia and North Carolina and defended their hometown against Union invaders.” It may be just me but the comment seems to scream of The Lost Cause.

One other interesting thing (probably only to me) is the cover. On Amazon (where I got the picture above) it shows in blue, a good Union color. The book I bought, the color is acutally gray. I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

Charlestonians in War: The Charleston Battalion
W. Chris Phelps
Purchased Copy

Thursday, June 26, 2008

I seem to remember Donald telling me about this book sometime ago and I put it in my mind as something I would need to get later. It has been so long, now I don’t know if this is the book or if it was something similar.

At a mere $9.62 at Sam’s Club, I figured I could take the plunge, even if it was the wrong book.

The book is not massive, just 152 pages without notes but so far it has been interesting. Flipping through the book I came to a picture of a house I immediately recognized, so perhaps my initial “glee” is like that of a fan of a rock star at a concert when his town is mentioned, “Good Evening Savannah, I mean Charleston.” But the pictures are important, they underline what the city went through and also shows how even as historic as Charleston prides itself in being, it has changed over the years.

Although the pictures are good, the same cannot be said of the maps, which seem very mundane.

With ten years since its first publication, I also have to wonder, what more could be out there for future editions. Although I have not read the full book, there just seems that there has to be more to the story. Perhaps I am looking for something more personal though? I’ll let you know when I am done with the book.

The Bombardment of Charleston1863- 1865
W. Chris Phelps
Purchased Copy

Monday, June 16, 2008

The ideas for the books began with “Little Women,” a publisher’s request, and previous research on women in the slaveholding South. Those ideas, like seeds, germinated and blossomed in the minds of Geraldine Brooks, Walter McDougall, and Drew Gilpin Faust culminating in the publication of “March,” “In the Throes of Democracy,” and “This Republic of Suffering,” respectively. Those authors and those books are what brought over 400 people together for an evening at the Washington Post Book Club on June 10th.

Brooks, who cherishes Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” was intrigued by the idea that the book, which was set during the Civil War, made so little mention of the conflict. Aside from the first page, which mentions the father, Mr. March is at war as a chaplain, a later reference to the mother traveling to a Philadelphia Hospital to visit her ailing husband, and the father’s subsequent return home, there’s no exploration of his wartime experience. Brooks sought to delve into that possible experience, using Alcott’s own father Bronson as the model for her character. Bronson Alcott, according to the Brooks, was “the dark matter from which Emerson and Thoreau drew their energy.”

Like so many Northern idealists, Alcott became disillusioned by his war experience, much as Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. In fact she opened her book by setting it at the battle of Balls Bluff, where Holmes was seriously wounded and because, as Brooks stated, it was the battle in which Massachusetts troops first “saw the elephant.” Idealism crumbling in the grind and reality of war and “the huge gulf of experience” that separates husbands and wives are voiced in the narratives of both Mr. and Mrs. March, particularly when hostilities cease and Mr. March returns home.

Brooks said that her favorite question about the book came from a Cambridge, Mass. reader, who quipped “I don’t get it. Are we supposed to like this guy?” Brooks answered, “It depends on where you stand on impracticable idealists.” “Idealists,” in Brooks opinion, “move our moral quest forward” even though they are not the easiest people to get along with. According to Brooks, who has been a war correspondent in Bosnia, Iraq, and Somalia, we’re “all subject to idealize military adventures, but horrified when our troops commit atrocities. " That is the question facing idealists like Mr. March, “How do you deal with your moral code when horrified?”

Brooks acknowledged that two Harrietts were influential in the writing of her book, Beecher-Stowe and Jacobs. Commenting on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” she said “You think you know what’s in it until you read it.” Like Beecher-Stowe she tried to find a convincing voice for her 2006 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and realized she needed to have two, husband and wife, to tell her story. Jacobs was a historical influence who helped her find an authentic voice for slaves.

McDougall’s "Throes of Democracy," a sequel to 2005's "Freedom Just Around the Corner," is an exploration of the American character between 1829 and 1877 and “the power of pretense to bond a sprawling people together.” What dawned on him from reading early European accounts of the American experience, such as de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," was “how pretentious Americans were.” He came to this opinion after approaching “an era of history he had never written about or previously studied.” The entire fifty year history examined in the book can be viewed as a romantic era, as evidenced by the arts, the writing, and the idealism of its young people. The era was “excessive,” everything taken to an extreme. Too, the politics of the Jacksonian era “were theatrical in many respects,” when slogans such as “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” ruled. Politics were, in the absence of organized sports, the national past time. Campaigning was built solely on posturing rather than given to debate on serious issues of the day. There was more focus on which party was most corrupt, or which presidential candidate was bravest in battle. Politics never involved the truth and voters cared less about truth. Truth was reserved for the circus and satire, where “inconvenient truths,” that politicians didn’t admit could stand the light of day.

According to McDougall American’s love history, but they are future oriented, not interested in the past, and have a tendency to throw away the past. Prior to the 1960’s the standard history in schools was an “exercise in flag waving.” Since then our history has become somewhat “hypercritical and might strike many as negative.” McDougall implied that in a sense its revisionist based on our modern concepts, in which we, as a people, wring our hands over every perceived indiscretion.

The idea for “This Republic of Suffering” drew inspiration from an earlier Gilpin Faust book “Mother's of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the Civil War.” That book was based on diaries and letters written to the Confederate government. What preoccupied the women was not war strategy, or the threat of emancipation. What they wrote about was death, the fear of death, the reality of death, and the cost of death to their society. Death was central in so many lives that Gilpin Faust concluded it transcended both the North and South.

With a death rate that claimed two per cent of the American population, equivalent to six million killed based on our current census, Gilpin Faust was quick to point out that collateral deaths, i.e. civilians and those killed in guerilla operations did not get figured into the estimates of those killed during four years of warfare. But the magnitude of the killing and deaths from disease raised numerous questions that she sought to answer in her book. Questions like how did the nation cope, how did people adapt to and understand the level of destruction, and as importantly, how does it impact and transform a nation? That, in turn, led to other questions such as the duty of the soldier, the meaning of loss, how to remember those who were lost, or how civilians dealt with their own bereavement.

Most historical change, according to Gilpin Faust, occurs over the course of decades or even centuries. The Civil War quickened the pace of those changes, including the assumption the national government bore responsibility and had an obligation to the dead. Following the war, the Federal government began a massive re-burial project of over 300,000 Union soldiers. But what was different about the new national cemeteries, that set them apart from Victorian prescriptions for park like settings in which to contemplate death, were the rigidly ordered placement of the headstones. Death in “a fundamental sense created the American nation by preserving it.”

Gilpin Faust related that her book responded to historical literature that we are all familiar with from an early age; the meaning of citizenship and liberty. We have “never really understood the price of war,” something we must do in order to understand when its "worth paying that price." Too often we are caught up in the immediacy and excitement without thinking about the consequences. Combatants on the other hand have always had to “grope with the realities of loss and commitment to a cause and hold that in balance that with their belief system. Society needs to contemplate what a war means and the price we pay when we make that decision. “Those who experienced war don’t let go of that experience.”

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Guess what? This post is not going to contain a single picture. So, I suppose I’m going to have to write a thousand words to make up for it. Or, using that formula, and taking into consideration the last post contained ten pictures, that’s, what….ten thousand words. At an average of 250 words a page that’s, what…forty pages. That may be a bit too much, so I’ll cut everybody, including myself, a break and keep this piece at a reasonable length.

Guess what? There’s no mention of a certain river in this post. I feel like I’ve been trailing a certain ribbon of water virtually every weekend for the past two months, from West Virginia and down both the Maryland and Virginia sides. There is going to be more in the future, simply because of the role a certain river played in places I visited, but not today. I need to somehow get Roger McGuinn out of my head, because the “Ballad of Easy Rider” keeps floating through my head. “The river flows, it flows to the sea, wherever that river goes, that’s where I want to be; flow, river flow, let your waters wash down, take me from this road, to some other town.” Or maybe it’s Eric Anderson’s “Blue River,” that keeps haunting me.

Guess what? I’m just about halfway through my latest commuting book, i.e. the one I read going to and from Washington on the Metro train. I picked up Walter McDougall’s “Throes of Democracy, The American Civil War Era 1829-1877,” because he’s going to be appearing with Drew Gilpin Faust (“Republic of Suffering”) and Geraldine Brooks, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for “March,” next Tuesday evening at a book seminar sponsored by the Washington Post. Out of curiosity I checked Amazon. Faust’s book ranked 1,771st, McDougall’s placed at number 8,061, while Brooks checked in at 193,158. I couldn’t resist the comparison. “The Civil War Research Guide” was nicely situated at number 239,234. Hmmm. I wonder what would happen if I purchased say,… a hundred copies….

Guess what? McDougall can write. I know that sounds like a stupid remark, but most historians can’t, write, that is. I mean really write. As a whole, the best of them write well, but, they’re not writers. I’ve mentioned this before, but the best histories I’ve ever read were from non-historians. Of course some people would then argue if it wasn’t written by a historian then it’s not history. With all due reverence to certain reknowned historians, and without mentioning names, they're not in the same league with historical writers like, say, Nathaniel Philbrick. I suppose, too, it depends on the preference of the reader; straight fact telling versus some creative writing style interjected into the story being conveyed. But, as someone recently reminded me, without creating scenarios that didn't exist, or imagining conversations that never occurred.

Guess what, though? If you want to take a rollicking ride through history then pick up McDougall’s book. It’s entertaining, fascinating, irreverent, and great fun as he skewers virtually every American politician, personality, and institution in the era he writes about. This on Henry David Thoreau, for example:

[Emerson’s] most representative disciple was the bathetic David Henry Thoreau (he transposed his given name). When Emerson settled in Concord, he invited Thoreau – a timid, tubercular, Harvard-trained teacher – to join his household and pursue a literary career. Thoreau made a minor splash in the magazine trade, thanks to assistance from Horace Greely, but won lasting fame by camping out at Walden Pond in 1845-1847. Thoreau’s self-reliance was less than heroic. He went into town almost every day, sponged off friends, and hosted regular picnics at his cabin. Mountain men such as Jim Bridger would have guffawed at the pretense…Thoreau in fact experienced very little of life. He never married, and never traveled beyond the Northeast. His greatest adventure was spending one night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax. Even his signature essay “Civil Disobedience” was ignored until after his death.

Thoreau was standoffish and timid…Caroline Sturgis Tappan likened him to a porcupine. Emerson thought him fit only to lead a huckleberry party…”

Obviously if you’re a Thoreau fan you’re going to clench your teeth and wait for McDougall to walk underneath a window so you can drop his book on his head. But it’s an example whereby no cow is sacred. However, if a buck could be made off a cow, then P.T. Barnum was the guy. Barnum’s never been labeled a visionary, but he laid the groundwork for all the hucksters who now appear regularly on early morning infomercials when he wrote his book “Rules for Money-Making,” which according to McDougall “became a model for all who get rich by professing to teach others how to get rich.” The words, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” by the way, were not Barnum’s, but rather belonged to a Chicago gambler named Mike McDonald.

Coincidentally I had an email yesterday from someone I hadn’t heard from in a while. They’re in the middle of “Republic of Suffering,” and labeled it one of the most thought provoking and depressing books they’ve read in a long time.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

“We shall never any of us be the same as we have been.”
Lucy Beck

If you’ve paid attention to Touch the Elbow for any length of time then you know I've spent a lot of time writing about dead people and visits to graves. I suppose that anyone who deals with any facet of the Civil War, from the historian, to the author, to the blogger, to the reenactor, to those who have Regimental Web sites, to those who work in National Battlefield parks, are all, in part, in league with the dead. I was trying to do a count in my head as to the number of National Cemeteries I’ve visited where Civil War dead are buried and came up with 16. I probably missed one or two along the way. So, I’ll give you one guess as to what I thought of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering. Suffice it to say, this is my type of book. Judging from some other reviews I’ve read it’s clearly not everyone’s proverbial cup of tea.

This book became very personalized for me. There was something in every chapter that I could relate to from the research we’ve completed on the 18th Massachusetts Infantry, from the concept of the “good death” Gilpin writes about in the first chapter, to “shared national loss” and the “dimension of the war’s sacrifice” discussed in the final chapter, to the laboring entailed in identifying the seemingly unidentifiable which comprises the bulk of the fourth chapter.

Like no other war before or since, the number of dead in the Civil War was then, as now, simply staggering. The accepted number of Union deaths is 360,222, while the Confederate dead is estimated at 258,000. Translate that to an equivalent percentage of the current population of the United States and it equals six million. Try visualizing that number and it becomes almost impossible, until you think about the entire state of Massachusetts being depopulated.

Americans didn’t purposely set out to slaughter Americans in volume. A little bloodletting perhaps, in another dandy little war with one side or the other crying “Uncle” within ninety days or less, fought by generals who embraced Winfield Scott’s philosophy that your army only took as many casualties as was absolutely necessary to gain your objective. George B. McClellan and Joseph Johnston understood that and also understood you didn’t involve civilians. By war’s end the gloves were off and anything and everything went, with men killing men with the same regard they held for a pig, perhaps less because they could at least eat a pig.

In the beginning, when there was less carnage, there was time for comrades or nurses to write letters to surviving family members describing the deceased’s final moments among the living. Invariably the writer would follow a Protestant tradition of ars moriendi that dated from the 1600’s by attesting to the decedent’s preparedness for death. In the absence of family gathered around a death bed, those writing sought to provide consolation to the reader, whether it was to reassure the family that peace had been made with God or that their father, son, or brother had died as a man, nobly, and for a cause they believed in.

In 1860 four times as many Americans attended Sunday church services as voted in the Presidential election. Of those forty per cent leaned toward evangelical worship. Clerics had to convey to those seated in pews and camps that killing in a “just war,” was acceptable to God. In the aftermath of battle those camps were filled with men who wrestled with lifelong religious teachings and the realization they had violated the Fifth Commandment. As the scale of the battles grew, dwarfing earlier actions at First Bull Run and Big Bethel, conscience took a back seat. Men became inured to the slaughter, became more and more like automatons, while more and more took pleasure in the killing. For African-Americans the war helped them to establish their manhood and find their “humanity through killing.”

When the numbers were small greater care was extended to the dead through burials in marked graves or by embalming and shipping the bodies home. All had a fear of burial far from hearth and home. When the numbers grew corpses were left exposed for days on the battlefield. Long trenches replaced individual graves. More and more the responsibility for burial fell to those who held the ground. Kindness and respect did not rule. Coffinless bodies laid head to heel covered by a foot of earth, not even a blanket for a shroud, bodies that would rise to the surface when the first good rainstorm swept through. One example Gilpin Faust cites regarding callous disregard for the enemy's dead is that of 50 Confederates who were simply thrown down a well.

When the numbers grew there were still instances of comrades locating another’s body and providing it with a decent burial, as well as efforts to return soldiers home. Companies and regiments literally passed the hat seeking to raise funds for that purpose. Pennsylvania was the first government entity to step forward and assume responsibility for its fallen when it offered to pay transportation costs home for its Gettysburg dead. Where governments took a hands off approach embalmers stepped in the meet the desire of grieving families to have their loved ones buried in familiar soil. Offering services such as battlefield recovery and refrigerated coffins their work was often shoddy and fees were suggestive of extortion.

More than forty per cent of the Union and an even greater percentage of the Confederate dead are classified as unknown. Record keeping by the opposing armies was shoddy at best. Chaplains had been assigned the duty of compiling lists of the dead, however fewer than half of the Confederate regiments had one assigned, while forty per cent of Union regiments lacked one. Newspapers filled the void and for many civilians their first notification was from those sources. Both the Christian and Sanitary Commissions later took on the role of notification, identification of burial sites, and requests for information from relatives. By 1864 the U.S. Congress began to recognize it’s obligation to its citizen soldiers and, even though the Act was later abandoned, a new organization was formed for the handling of battle casualties including grave registration. The seeds were planted then that the government had an obligation to record the names and burial sites of those killed. In the Post-Civil War era the government would embark on an enormous project involving reinternment and identification, the forerunner to the current military edict “leave no comrade behind” and its continuing efforts to identify and recover bodies in both Korea and Southeast Asia.

Ninety days turned to a year, a year to two, two to three, and on into a fourth. The icy hand of the God of War north and south of the Mason-Dixon line had touched virtually every family. People sought to make sense of the numbing and the senseless, to find purpose in this wide sweep of death. Who’s side was God on? Both sides claimed God’s beneficence and providence. Carnage and suffering could only be explained by God’s offer of something more beatific in a world after a world. Old interpretations of heaven gave way to new visions of an afterlife, where limbless men became whole again, where an ultimate reunion of family awaited those who believed. Eternal sunshine and pastures of plenty were the promise. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps would author a novel in 1868, The Gates Ajar, that would in its 55 reprints offer this ideal of heaven, a heaven populated by trees, mountains, books, pianos, and fully preserved individuals.

Civil War death needed to be “purposeful.” Those surviving demanded it, or at the least needed it to hold meaning. Lincoln himself dwelt on it, looked to whatever God he embraced and came to the realization that the Almighty was avenging the wrongs of slavery, seeking sacrifice and atonement through the treadmill of slaughter. The people of the South believed they were being subjected to a “profound test of faith,” that redemption could only be achieved through “suffering and sacrifice.”

When surrender came Southerners came to a sad realization that their sacrifices were purposeless. While they flocked to and churches underwent enormous growth in the post-war era it was the theory of the Lost Cause that gave them purpose and provided answers while God remained silent.

The American cemeteries in Normandy and the vast majority of those laid to rest at Arlington and other national cemeteries trace this recognition of a nation grateful for sacrifice to a Federal government that made a monumental and concerted effort after peace was restored in 1865 to identify and rebury its dead. By 1871 303,356 Union soldiers were buried in 74 national cemeteries with, and this in an era preceding dog tags, an astounding 54 per cent identified by name.

Counting the dead gave grasp to the magnitude of the nation’s sorrow. Naming “individualized the dead…The two impulses served opposite yet co-existing needs, marking the paradox inherent in coming to terms with Civil War death.”

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Having not one, but two previously undiscovered historical manuscripts drop into your lap is the kind of stuff most historians can only dream of. That according to David Blight of Yale University.
Blight was in Richmond on February 9th to talk about his latest book, an event that was co-sponsored by the American Civil War Center and Richmond National Battlefield Park. How those two manuscripts, both undated but estimated to have been written in the 1870’s and 1890’s, came to Blight’s attention is an interesting story unto itself and the subsequent journey could probably serve as a textbook for conducting historical and genealogical research.

Blight, by his own admission, is not a genealogist, but he couldn’t have written the book without learning the basic skills essential to that profession, or without the assistance of genealogists. His skills as a historian, honed through years of academic study, however, are not necessarily transferable to the genealogist, although the latter has to have a grasp of the subject to put their research findings into perspective. When you fuse the two sciences you have a powerful and compelling story in the offering.

A Slave No More is the combined story of two ordinary men, John Washington and Wallace Turnage, who each set out to document their lives for their children. A simple telling of simple lives. But when viewed by eyes more than a century later that which was ordinary and simple becomes extraordinary, for theirs is a saga of men born into slavery, men who succeeded in breaking those chains by escaping to freedom.

You can’t tell the story of the book without providing some background. Blight’s own background is revealed. Son of an autoworker, who suckered his father into devoting one of his two weeks of annual vacation to visiting Civil War battlefields. You become a teenager and you don’t let the fascination get drowned out by the thumping rhythm of Rock n’ Roll. You pursue the passion on a college campus and then wind your way through a series of whistle stop teaching assignments, including a high school, before making Yale your home. The passion lives in the lecture hall, the fox and hound chase of research, and in the writing of books. Somewhere along the line W.E.B. Dubois’ message resonates in your brain and you hold up this new found truth like a cube, turning it over and over, examining it at every angle, and the story of the American Civil War, emancipation, and reconstruction opens itself to you in a whole new light.

“How do we remember? How do we want to remember?” Those are the questions raised by emancipation and reconstruction that Blight observes the collective American memory has struggled with or blithely ignored since 1865.

Most Americans are familiar with Martin Luther King, Junior’s I Have A Dream speech, or least the last few sentences, when King seemingly rises above the Lincoln Memorial and stretching forth his arms says “when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Less familiar are the opening paragraphs when King argues African-Americans have been handed a check marked “insufficent funds,” in response to their struggle to fully engage and participate in American society, a figurartive promisary note that was to have been cashed when the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were ratified.

Blight points to a passage from George H.W. Bush’s first inaugural speech as an example of how America does remember. “We must remember we are the nation that sent 600,000 of its sons to end slavery.” A sigh escapes Blight’s lips and he remarks “We like the post-emancipation story. The real story is much more complicated…It was a great and transformative event…that has been argued by historians over and over.”

From the 1740’s to 1865 there were 65 autobiographies written by escaped slaves published in the U.S. and England, the most famous being those by Frederick Douglass, William Grimes, and Harriett Jacobs. Douglass’ "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," published in 1845, was out of print for more than a century and could only be found inside the segregated schools attended by blacks. When a reprint was issued in 1960 ninety-nine per cent of the American public didn’t know who Douglass was. Typically viewed as “abolitionist tracts,” all shared a common theme by declaring the “destructive horrors of slavery.”

From 1865 to 1920, when 55 tomes appeared, there was a shift in how the story of slavery, emancipation, and reconstruction was narrated and who the narrator was. Overwhelming the story was told by former slaves turned clergy, or veterans who later wore the cloth. Theirs was a message of uplift and hope, of success and prosperity, bearing titles such as "From Slavery to Affluence" or Booker T. Washington’s 1901 bestseller "Up From Slavery."

The Works Progress Administration tried to capture the stories of former slaves during the 1930’s, but that effort is usually criticized today because those conducting the interviews were white and those being interviewed were by that time in their 80’s and 90’s, a time when memories become naturally suspect. Sharp edges become rounded and rawhide whips are instead fashioned from skeins of yarn.

What sets the autobiographies of Wallace Turnage and John Washington apart in Blight’s view is the fact that neither was ever published or marked up by an editor’s pencil. It’s a story of “two men telling the story largely of how they escaped” from slavery, a story that was handed down from one generation to the next. In Washington’s case the biography eventually landed in the hands of the son of the best friend of his granddaughter. That son of the best friend of the granddaughter of John Washington, a retired Judge and author from Boston gave the book to his literary agent, who, in turn, asked Blight to take a look. That manuscript got packed away when Blight relocated and was neglected until Wallace Turnage’s narrative was mentioned in the course of a dinner conversation between Blight and the Director of the Greenwich, Connecticut Historical Society. The dream becomes reality for one historian.

Both Washington and Turnage shared a common history. Born of free white fathers and enslaved black mothers, Washington would escape in 1862 when Fredericksburg, Virginia came under threat of Yankee attack, while Turnage walked out of an Alabama slave jail, through Confederate encampments, climbed into a boat and rowed out into Mobile Bay where he was rescued from his leaky craft by a U.S. Navy vessel.

It would have been simple enough to have written an introduction, added some endnotes, and published the autobiographies as is. Instead the research involved crisscrossing the country, from New Haven to Chicago, down to Mobile, up to Brooklyn, over to Jersey City, into libraries and historical societies, which finally culminated in a face-to-face meeting with Washington descendants in Florida, descendants who never knew John Washington’s autobiography existed until a phone call from Blight.


Historian David Blight

Monday, June 11, 2007

Last week I hinted that I would talk about one of the really nice books I got, Historic Photos of Gettysburg.

Then I failed all of you by not doing a dang thing. I can be bad like that.

So today I thought I would make up for it by having TWO posts! I know what you are thinking, “Wow, first he actually posts and now he throws up two in a day?”

Not to get you too excited but I’ve got a post already written for tomorrow. Yup, I can be good like that.

The cover of the book shows a photograph that I wish citizens of today’s America would take to heart, elderly soldiers from both sides, united together, not still fighting the war. You don’t see them cheering for the old days or reliving the glorious armies they served in – you see the sadness in their eyes and can only ask yourself, “What would they tell us if they were around today?”

Although I have seen many of the pictures in the past, I have never seen so many presented in one book. The pictures are grouped together with 54 pages dealing with the battle, 75 pages on dedication and remembrance (1863 – 1900), 39 pages on the Fiftieth Reunion and 29 pages on the Seventy Fifth Reunion, followed with notes and bibliography sections.

The pictures in each group are enlightening in so many different ways. The battle photographs, although not actually taken during the battle, help give a sense of the battlefield as a whole. As you go through later groups, you see how the battlefield changes with age. The other sections also show how Gettysburg became a place of pilgrimage for veterans, family members and Americans in general. The last section holds sadness to it, as you see the elderly veterans return and you realize that for most, this is there last venture to the battlefield. It is much like what we hear in the news about our WWII veterans and their ever decreasing population.

While one can easily flip through the pages and finish the book in less than 30 minutes, the impact that the pictures will have is reduced to nothingness. John S. Salmon, whose previous works include The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide, has done a thorough job of writing entertaining and educational text and captions to accompany the photographs. He has succeeded in producing a work that both the ACW buff and recreational reader will enjoy and hopefully learn a bit from.

It is fitting that the last photograph is that of The External Light Peace Memorial, shortly after its dedication by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The External Light Peace Memorial was intended as both a tribute to the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg and as a symbol of eternal peace in the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his speech at the unveiling ceremony, declared, “On behalf of the people of the United States, I accept this monument in the spirit of brotherhood and peace.” Roosevelt also said, “Immortal deeds and immortal wounds have created here at Gettysburg, a shrine to American patriotism.” Indeed, no other hallowed ground stirs such emotions, even today, as Gettysburg National Battlefield Park.

If only 144~ years since the battle, we still weren’t finding ourselves still fighting over it.

Historic Photos of Gettysburg
Text and Captions – John S. Salmon
PublisherTurner Publishing
216 pages
ISBN - 978-1-59652-323-4
Price - $39.95

Book Signing appearences
John will be signing his book at two upcoming events
June 20th, 6:30 PM
Fountain Books - Richmond, Va

July 7, 1:00 pm
17th on the Square - Gettysburg, Pa

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Since 1950 there have been four landmark decisions rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court, three of which would readily come to the mind of most people, with little or no prompting required. The 1954 decision involving Brown versus the Topeka, Kansas Board of Education struck down provisions of a law that ordained separate but equal educational facilities for whites and minorities. In 1966 the Court ruled in Miranda versus Arizona people had the right to remain silent and the right to have an attorney present when questioned by police. Roe versus Wade, decided on in 1973, confirmed reproductive rights for women and the legality of abortion. The fourth case, the NAACP versus Button, heard before the Court in 1963, is less well known, but once against visited the right of free speech as protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. With the exception of Roe v. Wade, which some are still trying to have reversed, most Americans would probably react with shock if the Brown, Miranda, or Button decisions were deemed null and void. With the separation of time, I think we could all agree the decisions in those cases were fair and just. Without trying to start a firestorm on Roe v. Wade, I’ll simply state that I support the Court’s decision. To head off a potential flood of Emails from abortion foes, let me say there is absolutely nothing you can say that will change my mind. At the same time I don’t believe anything I could say would change your mind. So, lets simply agree to disagree.

Call me an idealist, or naïve, but I have a certain concept about the laws of this land, including Federal and State. Above all, laws should be instituted and maintained if they are just and ensure equal protection and focus on serving the greater good of all who fall under their sway. Laws, and this is probably my naiveté coming to the fore, should not be self serving or derived to benefit certain small interest groups. Quite simply they should, for example, secure our persons against unreasonable search and seizure, ensure our right to stand in a public place and say what’s on our mind, and to allow for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” There are of course limits to certain rights, such free speech, which does not allow you to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, unless of course it were true and then you might want to warn people in a less panicked way, and you can’t advocate the violent overthrown of the government.

Call me an idealist, or naïve, but I have a certain concept about the justices who sit on the Supreme Court and that concept argues that the justices should not let their personal biases or political affiliations influence their votes on cases. We all realize that Presidents try to fill vacancies on the Court with people of similar conviction. Liberal Presidents nominate liberals, moderates nominate moderates, conservatives, what else but, fellow conservatives. We hope that the nominees who take their place on the bench are wise, above reproach, and above politics. Sad to say, one of the worst examples of Court conduct we’re had to witness was their ruling on the 2000 Presidential election, when their votes broke down along party lines. So much for the idea of the integrity of the Court.

That a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court can be influenced by his own personal biases, prejudices, social mores, and political ideology is no more apparent, however than with Roger B. Taney, who presided over the Nation’s highest court from 1836 to 1864 and will forever be linked to the 1857 Dred Scott decision. Taney’s reputation as an otherwise brilliant jurist was tarnished by this one decision, a decision that perplexes legal scholars even today, because Taney threw all legal precedent to the wind and, far from issuing a reasoned opinion in the case, allowed seemingly irrational thought processes to take hold. Philosophically in tune with Southerners, which he effectively was, having been born in Southern, Maryland to a slave holding family, he was, at the same time, a man of contradictions; taking steps to free his own slaves and was personally repulsed by the institution, while at the same believing blacks were effectively sub-human and supported the South’s right to secede from the Union.

That such a man would clash with Abraham Lincoln is the premise of James F. Simon’s book "Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney." Simon stresses the similarities of the two men as evidenced, for example, by their intellect, their strong belief in the sanctity of the Constitution, and support for a National Bank. Where they differed was their interpretation of Founding Father’s intent on the issue of slavery as a protected institution, and Presidential powers. Lincoln himself questioned the Constitutional legality of his Emancipation Proclamation, while his suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus and open defiance of Taney on this issue, left the latter outraged. When Lincoln called for troops to respond to the Nation’s defense, Taney clearly saw this as a violation of the Constitution. Lincoln argued that with Congress out of session he was compelled to act. No other President before or since, save James Polk during the Mexican-American War, dared commit troops to a declared hostile action without the consent of Congress. Had Lincoln not acted decisively in that instance, the consequences would have been catastrophic for the North, Constitutional arguments from Taney aside.


Lincoln publicly accused Taney of being in league with Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, and Senator Stephen Douglas, to legalize slavery throughout the United States, while a Senatorial candidate in 1858. While he had no proof such a conspiracy existed, Lincoln surmised there was no other explanation for the confluence of events that led to the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, release of the Dred Scott decision, and Buchanan’s residence in the White House. Pierce fit into Lincoln’s conspiracy theory, because he preceded Buchanan and was an apologist for the South, even though born in New Hampshire. Such accusations were fighting words in Taney’s mind, sullying the reputation of the Chief Justice, and only fanned the flames of conflict higher. I can imagine Taney saying to himself “That little punk,” and Lincoln viewing Taney as a senile old geezer who needed to be retired from the bench. Any Republican who sought the White House would have been in immediate disfavor with Taney. When Seward had the early lead in the Republican race, Taney vowed he would refuse to swear him in. He made the same pledge when Lincoln emerged victorious and won national election. Whether he was pressured, or able to put his personal issues aside, Taney relented and did administer the oath of office to Lincoln.

Two thirds of the book is taken up by Simon tracing Taney’s and Lincoln’s paths before they finally cross. We get much more biographical information on Lincoln than Taney, and in this respect Simon doesn’t break any new ground. Simon repeatedly declares Taney’s legal genius, but I found myself saying, Ok, if you say so, because there’s little substance in the book beyond that statement to support this contention. I found a 1971 survey of lawyers, law school deans, judges, and legal scholars who ranked Taney the 11th greatest Supreme Court justice, and number five among Chief Justices. The top five justices, in order, were John Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis, Earl Warren, and Hugo Black. Taney was sandwiched between John Harlan and Joseph Story, who interestingly resigned from Taney’s Court, reportedly due to poor health, but, in part, due to his own clashes with Taney over the issue of slavery and, in particular, the Dred Scott decision.

What Lincoln and Taney have further in common is that both met miserable ends. Lincoln by assignation, Taney bereft of family, teetering on the brink of poverty, and in extremely poor health at the time of his death. Where they differ, too, is that one rose above death to become one of our most revered and loved public figures, while the other’s loss was barely noticed by the nation. Lincoln paid brief respect at Taney’s wake, but did not attend the funeral. Neither did the Nation weep as a whole.

One of the final sagas to be attached to Taney’s legacy is one filled with irony. In the early 1990’s a Middle School in Ft. Washington, a part of Prince George’s County, Maryland, where Taney was born, changed its name from Roger B. Taney to that of Thurgood Marshall, the same Thurgood Marshall who served on the Supreme Court as an Associate Justice and, who successfully argued the Brown case before the United States Supreme Court 97 years after Taney ruled in the Dred Scott decision. In predominately African-American Prince George’s County, Taney remains a discredited and reviled figure. The State of Maryland, however, continues to honor Taney with a statue that adorns the State House lawn.

Still Simon’s book is a fascinating look at the struggle that ensued between the Judicial and Executive branches of government during Lincoln’s first term. Where the book is strongest is Simon’s ability to define the arguments between the two and for the reader to draw their own conclusions as to who, ultimately, was right. In some cases the reader may agree with Taney, in others with Lincoln. I suppose that would depend on the reader’s own personal biases, prejudices, social mores, and political ideology.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Today we are proud to present James W. Durney's review of Battle of Monroe's Crossroads as our second Third Place winner of Our First Annual win your own Civil War Christmas present contest..

Don't forget to check out yesterday's winning post and to come back throughout the week to read the other winners.

Also, if you have not visited Eric's blog, Rantings of a Civil War Historian, do yourself a favor and check it out, by far one of the best Civil War blogs out there.

Battle of Monroe's Crossroads and the Civil War's Last Campaign by Eric J. Wittenberg
Hardcover: 366 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 1.18 x 9.06 x 6.36
Publisher: Savas Beatie; (April 15, 2006)
ISBN: 1932714170
Eric Wittenberg solidifies his standing as our best Civil War Cavalry author by continuing to produce high quality, well-researched, readable histories that are both informative and fun. Using Savas Beatie as his publisher is a “Dream Team” for enthusiasts. Maps, maps and more maps ensure that you will never be lost and will instantly understand what retaking the guns means. The list of illustrations is one and a half pages; the list of maps is two and a half pages. Clearly stating that both the author and publisher understand what is nice, illustrations and what is necessary, maps. Since most of us will never get into Fort Bragg to walk the battle field, the maps substitute nicely keeping us orientated and in position.

The book is well researched, footnoted and complete within the time we are considering. The confrontation between Hampton and Kilpatrick outside the Bennett home, capture the men, their feelings and the time. It provides a logical beginning to the story, even if it occurs at the end. While presenting the reader with clear concise portraits of the major figures, the supporting cast is not ignored. The strengths and weakness of each Cavalry force is clearly described. This introduction gives us the needed background to understand the depth of feeling and desperation that contributes to the battle.

Weather and terrain conspire to hinder both sides building a waterlogged hell for man and beast. This produces a major impact on the campaign and the battle, becoming a story within the story. J.E. Johnston’s army must cross over the Cape Fear River, Hampton’s cavalry is trying to screen this movement and delay Sherman’s army. Judson Kilpatrick, commanding Sherman’s cavalry almost by default, is trying to get around Hampton while protecting Sherman’s foraging parties and supply trains.

Kilpatrick allows his cavalry to spread out, become badly separated and fails to protect the approaches to the camps. Wade Hampton and Joe Wheeler size an opportunity and attack a portion of Kilpatrick’s command. The resulting battle is at close quarters, fought by veterans is a stand up fight with neither side stepping back. Eric Wittenberg details what the commanders do right; wrong and where they lose control. This results in an understandable sew-saw battle narrative as first one side and than the other attacks. Here the detailed maps are as valuable as the writing. Working together, the reader never gets lost always using one to support the other.

This is more than a battle book as the battle is placed within the context of the campaign and the war. This placement, allows us the answer the very complex question; “Who won?” The last chapters cover the aftermath of the battle, what it did to and for Johnston & Sherman and give us a glimpse of the participant’s later life. An Order of battle and detailed list of causalities complete the history of the battle.
Appendix C & D, answer a couple of questions that are not technically part of the battle but relate to it. Both provide us with Human Interests items and make the story personal and complete. One deals with who was the woman in Kilpatrick’s HQ and the other with “Fighting” Joe Wheeler’s rank.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

I received an email from the publisher this morning and of course now feel like a total heel. The author had also sent an email to them about the review and my original email was sent to a "general email box" which so close to the holidays could have very easily caused it to have gone "missing". They also suggested I pick up another book - so I must not be banned. :)

I’ve decided to edit the original post to take out the book name and publisher but will keep the post up. I feel the original adds to the discussion of how the blogging community should be reviewing books and also seems to have given one or two people an idea.
Whenever I get a book from a publisher – whether they send it to me or I buy it myself – I always email the publisher and let them know when I post about it.

This, I feel is the polite thing to do and always get at least a response of “thanks” if not something longer.

That was until I posted a not so positive review and let the publisher know about it. Now, this was a book that I did not pay for and did not particular get. Even though I said so in my review, I did mention that I thought the writing was good and that I was probably not the target audience, which probably caused my lack of enthusiasm with it.

After posting the review I sent a nice email, thanking them again for the book and that I posted a review on the site. That was on November 20th, 4 weeks ago and I have yet to hear anything. The funny thing, I know they visited the site to read the review. There is a neat little tool on the blog that captures where people are from. About 10 minutes or so after I sent the email, someone from publisher visited the site and viewed the different articles about the book and then left.

Guess I only get responses if I say nice things.

I am tempted to request another book to see what happens – might make a good post