Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Don't Spin the Civil War

. . .and another timely essay, for good measure. This one from Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr., well worth a read. Full article here
My neighborhood friend Jon Udis got a subscription to Civil War Times Illustrated, and our regular discussions of sports heroes Bill Russell, Johnny Unitas and Carl Yastrzemski were briefly interrupted by talk about Grant and Lee, Sherman and "Stonewall" Jackson.
But our conversations, like so many about the war, focused on people and battles, not on why the confrontation happened in the first place. There remains enormous denial over the fact that the central cause of the war was our national disagreement about race and slavery, not states' rights or anything else.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Civil War message opened, decoded: No help coming

This Jan. 14, 2009 image shows a Civil War bottle with a message that was tucked inside at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va. The message to Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton says reinforcements will not be arriving. The encrypted dispatch was dated July 4, 1863—the date of Pemberton's surrender to Union forces led by Ulysses S. Grant in what historians say was a turning point in the war. (AP Photo/Museum of the Confederacy) (AP)
The bottle, less than 2 inches in length, had sat undisturbed at the museum since 1896. It was a gift from Capt. William A. Smith, of King George County, who served during the Vicksburg siege.

It was Wright who decided to investigate the contents of the strange little bottle containing a tightly wrapped note, a .38-caliber bullet and a white thread.

But the coded message, which appears to be a random collection of letters, did not reveal itself immediately.  . . .The code is called the "Vigenere cipher," a centuries-old encryption in which letters of the alphabet are shifted a set number of places so an "a" would become a "d"—essentially, creating words with different letter combinations.  

Read full article here.

By STEVE SZKOTAK, Associated Press, Saturday, December 25, 2010

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Timely essays on secession and the War of Southern Aggression

...for South Carolina, slavery and states’ rights were not mutually exclusive; in fact, they were the same thing. Today too few people understand the intricate legal history that connects slavery to states’ rightsand as a result a needless debate continues, 150 years after secession began.

The next five years will include an all-you-can-eat special of national remembrance. Yet even after 150 years full of grief and pride and anger, we greet the sesquicentennial wondering, why did the South secede? I can testify about the South under oath. I was born and raised there, and 12 men in my family fought for the Confederacy; two of them were killed.

In April 2009, Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas, suggested that his state might ponder secession if "Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people." In response, the audience began to chant, "Secede, secede," hoping, one assumes, that everyone there would soon begin to party like it was 1860.

It’s clearly a tough time for those people who are enamored of the Confederacy and who work hard to downplay slavery, one way or another.  One of those groups embraces the slogan, “Heritage not Hate,” but frankly I don’t see it that way.

A new phrase was coined to describe Rhett and his political cohorts: “the fire-eaters.” Their constant theme was that white Southerners, rather than black slaves, were America’s true oppressed class. “I am a Traitor,” he said in 1850, “in the great cause of liberty, fighting against tyranny and oppression.”

On Dec. 2, 1859, the day John Brown was hanged, Longfellow wrote in his diary, “This will be a great day in our history, the date of a new Revolution quite as much needed as the old one.”

On a foggy day near Christmas 1860, a delegation of South’s Carolina wealthiest, most powerful citizensplanters, judges, legislators and clergy, all white menassembled at Columbia’s stately red brick-columned First Baptist Church to contemplate smashing the Palmetto State’s bond with the United States of America.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Civil War blogging at its best

I was thinking of doing a year-end roundup of Civil War blogs, mainly as a vehicle for highlighting the five or ten favorites to which I am regularly drawn. I suppose I’ve avoided that in the past, because the Civil War blogosphere is a pretty small place, and I don’t want to have to explain why some blogs pique my personal interests and others do not. It’s all about the content.

For now, however, I want to take a moment to draw your attention to Mysteries and Conundrums, an unofficial blog maintained by NPS staffers at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National MilitaryPark, born of discussions about the string of battlefields in their jurisdiction, to include Chancellorsville and the Wilderness. The blog began just this past March, but the authors have made it chock full of meaty content. It is intended that readers accept the open invitation to join in those discussions, to better understand what happened in those historic venues, and to participate in the ongoing challenges of preservation. 

This post by historian John Hennessy is a masterpiece -- The legacy of misplaced assumptions -- and really highlights the value of blogs as a living resource for students of American history. Preservation strategies have necessarily evolved over the years, and this brief history explains a lot about the present state of four major battlefields, including how their close proximity to each other ultimately short-shrifted each of them in terms of total park acreage.

The bulk of the entries come from resource managers Eric Mink and Noel G. Harrison, and chief historian John Hennessy, whose published works are well regarded in the Civil War community. In entry after entry, the contributors to Mysteries and Conundrums draw the reader into an intriguing discussion, and enrich their offerings with period photographs and useful maps. Look at Mr. Harrison's labor-intensive offering in another recent post, Finally Found: the Location of Waud's Fredericksburg Pontoon-Laying Sketch? 

Take a gander at their sister blog as well,
Fredericksburg Remembered.

Nicely done.

Shouldn't the Culbertson Guidon from the Little Bighorn be in the Smithsonian?

It's said to be worth $2 to $5 million, but an upcoming Sotheby's auction will tell the tale.  Would that this ragged flag could reveal the story that occurred beneath it in June of 1876.

I have been deeply fascinated with the Battle of the Little Bighorn since at least the time I first heard Johnny Horton singing "Commanche" on our old hi-fi in Schuyler, Nebraska, Sometime later, I read the Mari Sandoz books on the battle, and on Crazy Horse, and was hooked (in another nod to Johnny Horton, that same LP had "Sink the Bismarck," and I managed to find a copy of a book on that subject in our school library. I was in fifth grade when Horton turned me on to the Bismark, circa 1969 . The other night I saved the movie of the same name in my Netflix queue – I don’t remember ever seeing it). 

The fight at the Little Bighorn has taken on an iconic stature in American memory far out of proportion to the size and scope of the battle itself, and its cultural legacy transcends the initial shockwaves that sped west and east from the remote interior, en route to the population centers of the then 100-year-old nation (Happy Birthday, America!). I have not read everything I could find on the battle, but quite a lot, and have been lucky to come of age at a time when great historians began to systematically clear away the murky cloud of mythology and popular history. Today, it may be the most written about battle in North America after the Battle of Gettysburg.

For over 100 years, the narrative description of the Battle of the Little Bighorn relied principally on the recollections and testimony of surviving members of Reno's command, a hodgepodge of incomplete and often confusing recollections translated in some fashion from Indians long after the fact, and the suppositions offered by burial parties and other early visitors to the battlefield.

Then, in 1983, a massive wildfire cleared the battlefield and presented irresistible opportunities for an exhaustive archaeological investigation of the field. What a stroke of luck, as it turned out. The resulting studies in the intervening years have produced the most compelling, and most complete story to date. It wasn’t exactly a case of "everything you know is wrong," but some traditional interpretations took a beating.

How did they figure all this stuff out? This NPS page sums it up:
The project archeologists chose to view the battlefield as a crime scene and by using a combination of forensic techniques such as studies of firing pin marks on cartridge cases and rifling marks on bullets, and standard archeological field, laboratory, and analytical techniques they have been able to determine the variety of weapons used by the various participants.
By combining crime lab methods with the archeological constructs of spatial patterning and individual artifact analysis, they have been able to discover evidence for the movement of individual firearms over the field of battle, verify cavalry positions, and define previously unknown Indian fighting areas. 
Not everybody is happy with the changing story, of course. The traditional stories of a glorious "last stand" do not hold up very well under the new evidence. That is not to say that the soldiers under Custer's command were not brave, or that they did not die in heroic fashion, but the evidence on the ground suggests they were quickly overwhelmed in a rout, and were running for their lives before getting cut down. Whatever you conclude, much mystery remains, and for that reason the Little Bighorn will always excite the imagination. For Native Americans, of course, their greatest victory was also the death knell, making the fight along the Greasy Grass the proverbial beginning of the end.

Archaeology, History, and Custer's Last Battle: The Little Big Horn Re-examined, by Richard Allan Fox, is an essential read about what insights we've gained from the post-fire digs. Fox is of the opinion that it wasn't so much a "last stand" as a last chase, or a series of abortive running stands (as in pausing long enough to get a shot off at the people chasing you). Fox's marriage of archaeology, "combat modeling," and the documentary record sets a new standard for examination of the battle. Future authors may disagree with his analysis, but they cannot ignore it. 

Likewise, Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of Little Bighorn, by Douglas D. Scott, Richard A. Fox, Melissa A. Connor, and Dick Harmon.  

Where Custer Fell, Photographs of the Little Bighorn Battlefield Then and Now, by James S. Brust, Brian C. Pohanka, and Sandy Barnard, is a beautiful work. Yes, that's the same (late) Brian Pohanka so highly regarded for his work as a Civil War historian. He loved studying this battle, and I believe this was one of the last major projects he saw to completion before his untimely death.

Check out this article by Thomas Powers, "How the Battle of Little Bighorn was Won," adapted from his book, The Killing of Crazy Horse, for a perspective built upon Indian recollections of the battle.

My most recent purchase is The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, by Nathaniel Philbrick. I have high hopes for it, given the reception some of his other books have received (it’s shelved next to another Philbrick book, The Mayflower, also unread as yet. Can't wait to get to these two.

A great resource: Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield.

If you have a hankering to own a piece of this history, you need only place your bid with Sotheby's. This video explains the significance of the Culbertson Guidon. Answering my own question at top, I say "yes." Were I independently wealthy, I'm sure I would enjoy owning such amazing pieces of American history, but shouldn't things this delicate be entrusted to the care of museum professionals? Hopefully some rich guy will buy it and donate it to the nation.

As for the Bismarck, I couldn't have been more thrilled when Robert Ballard turned his attention to the German  battleship, and actually discovered the wreck in 1989. Too bad Johnny Horton wasn't around to see it. 

Bismarck's bow. Photo taken in 2002 (courtesy of the Discovery Channel).

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Now that's authentic!

Arkansas celebrates the Civil War sesquicentenary
by electing an actual Confederate. 

League of the South member, Loy Mauchwho said that the Confederate battle flag is "a symbol of Jesus Christ above all else. It's a symbol of Biblical government"has been elected to the Arkansas statehouse from district 26. My little brother, longtime resident of Arkansas, says Mauch is famous for his letters to the editor bemoaning the war crimes of Abraham Lincoln (I'll bet there was nary a squawk about water-boarding, though).
The Arkansas Times reports that Mauch's local Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp "hosted a conference in Hot Springs called 'Seminar on Abraham LincolnTruth vs. Myth,' with a keynote address called 'Homage to John Wilkes Booth.'" 

Mauch apparently has a sharp eye for important municipal improvements. In a letter to the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, Mr. Mauch promoted a project to enlarge the Confederate monument in Hot Springs, a flag and statute at the fork of Central and 
Ouachita Avenues (from the same Arkansas Times article). 

Biblical government indeed! Slaves and all.

Oh Alabama Arkansas
Can I see you
and shake your hand.
Make friends down in Alabama Arkansas
I'm from a new land
I come to you
and see all this ruin
What are you doing Alabama Arkansas?
You got the rest of the union
to help you along
What's going wrong?
(with apologies to Neil Young)

When DuPont became Grant

How many times has a street named for one prominent military figure been renamed in favor of another who fought for the same cause? Probably not too many.

Grant Street in San Francisco, the main street through Chinatown, started off in the Spanish period as Calle de la Fundacion ("street of the founding"), back when San Francisco was still called Yerba Buena, or "good herb" (a remarkably apt name for the town even today). 
Samuel F. DuPont

Grant Street, circa 1920
In 1846 the street was renamed DuPont, in honor of naval officer Samuel F. DuPont, who commanded Commodore Stockton's flagship, the USS Congress, at the outbreak of the Mexican War. DuPont's exploits in that conflict included the capture of San Diego, and operations to seize or destroy all enemy ships in the Gulf of California.

DuPont's Civil War service started off with great success against Confederate forts on the Eastern Seaboard, gaining him promotion to Rear Admiral, but after a failed attempt to capture Charleston, SC in April of 1863, his fortunes began to wain.

DuPont Street, meanwhile, became the center of the largest community of Chinese in America, many of whom refer to the street as Du Pon Gai even today. San Francisco's Chinatown was largely destroyed in the fire following the 1906 earthquake, but soon rebuilt. Rising from the ashes, the thoroughfare was christened anew as Grant Street in honor of the 18th president. Neither Grant or DuPont lived long enough to enjoy, or rue the changeover. 

Grant Street starts at Market and one block later crosses Geary Boulevard, the only time the street intersects with another named for a Civil War general. John Geary was an alcalde before statehood, and San Francisco's first mayor afterwards (at 31, he remains the city's youngest mayor, beating out Gavin Newsom by about five years or so).

From Geary, a block below the high-end shopping at Union Square, Grant Street moves through the Financial District and passes into Chinatown at the Bush Street archway. It traverses Chinatown before crossing into North Beach, finally ending at The Embarcadero at Pier 39. Every block of Grant is steeped in history, from the early Spanish settlement, through the American conquest, the Gold Rush, and beyond.

I've encountered a number of Grant streets throughout the Bay Area (and cross the great triumvirate of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan nearly every day in Palo Alto), but none of the Grants are so grand as the old Du Pon Gai in San Francisco—a worthy tribute to the great general.

DuPont, robbed of his street in the Wild West, is memorialized today by DuPont Circle in the neighborhood or district of the same name, in Washington DC (formerly Pacific Circle). A statue of the Admiral first graced the traffic circle, but was moved to Wilmington, Delaware by relatives who subsequently hired Daniel French and Henry Baconwhose portfolio included the Lincoln Memorialto build a fountain in the statue's place (see a photo of the statue here and more photos at the bottom of this page).

The Dupont Circle fountain is a stunning work, and incorporates three figures representing Sea, Wind, and Sky. See some beautiful close-ups here and here.

Grant street, incidentally, is not the only tribute to Grant in San Francisco. There's this handsome memorial in Golden Gate Park.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Interesting article: The Civil War at 150

Certainly, Lincoln's election in 1860 precipitated secession, which resulted in war, and the sesquicentennial of that event, on November 6, truly marks the beginning of the forthcoming cycle of commemoration. Douglas R. Egerton's Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War (Bloomsbury Press, out this month) offers a thorough analysis. The contest featured four candidates: John C. Breckinridge, of Kentucky, nominee of the Southern Democrats; Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois, candidate of the Northern Democrats; John Bell, of Tennessee, representing the Constitutional Union Party; and, of course, Abraham Lincoln, of the Republican Party, whose very nomination entices us into playing the counterfactual game: What if the Republican convention had not been held in Lincoln's home state, in Chicago, a site chosen over St. Louis by one vote? Egerton does not speculate about what might have occurred had the convention been held in Missouri, but it certainly would have boosted the chances of Edward Bates, who had lived there since before the territory became a state.
 From The Civil War at 150
Louis P. Masur is chair of American studies at Trinity College in Connecticut and author of The Civil War: A Concise History, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

World's worst sculptor dies at age 96

Controversial jack-of-all-trades, slavery apologist and lousy sculptor, Jack Kershaw, passed away on September 7. He was best known as a defense attorney for James Earl Ray, and author of a conspiracy theory regarding the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. According to Jack Kershaw, Ray was working for a shadowy figure name Raul, the mastermind behind the murder. Kershaw's theory pretty much dissipated after he arranged for Ray to do an interview for Playboy magazine, in preparation for which Ray agreed to a lie detector test [Kershaw's unpublished manuscript on the matter reportedly remains in a "secure location"].

The test indicated Ray was lying when he claimed not to have murdered King. It also indicated he was telling the truth when he denied taking part in a conspiracy. Ray dismissed Kershaw as his attorney after he discovered Kershaw was paid for facilitating the interview. 

Investigator Gary Revel (from left), James Earl Ray, Jack Kershaw, and Ray’s brother Jerry met in 1977. (Associated Press)
Kershaw, a member of the so-called Fugitive Poets of Vanderbilt in the 1920s, later in life became a co-founder of the ridiculous, neo-Confederate "League of the South," a thinly-veiled white-supremacist group dedicated to achieving that which the original Confederate states failed to do in four years of bloody warfare: create an independent nation from states that made up the old southern slavocracy.

Between James Earl Ray and the League of the South, Mr. Kershaw seems to have had a difficult time choosing a good cause to get behind. 

Curiously, everything I could find on-line about Kershaw refers to him as the heir of an Admiral Kershaw, CSA, of South Carolina, but I know of no other high-ranking Kershaw than the famous major general in the Army of Northern Virginia (James). Maybe "Admiral" was a first name, like Senator K. Torvaldson of Lake Wobegon.

Endearing himself to fellow citizens, Kershaw was once quoted by the Times Picayune as saying "Somebody needs to say a good word for slavery. Where in the world are the Negroes better off today than in America?” 

Endearing himself to commuters on I-65 south of Nashville, Kershaw is best known for erecting a nightmarish statue of former Confederate general and KKK Grand Wizard, Nathan Bedford Forrest on a private swath of land along the interstate. I made passing reference to the Forrest statue in an early blog entry about Civil War-related roadside attractions. The always entertaining website Roadside America calls the statue "ugly," and "like a cartoon statue." But the best critique I've come across was by one Patrick R. in this Yelp.com entry, May 5, 2008:
"The Nathan Bedford Forrest Memorial, which is beside I-65 South in Brentwood, is probably Nashville's most appalling landmark.  And I'm not only saying that because of the historical and racial implications—it's also aesthetically atrocious. . ." Forrest "is depicted in this statue as a ghastly, screaming dwarf. The horse on which Forrest rides makes the general look like a nine-year-old with a radically contorted face wearing a false beard and a skirt."

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

There's an App for that. . .

This looks pretty cool. Certainly the price is right (.99 cents). Civil War Preservation Trust has released its first virtual battlefield guide, with ready access to "orders of battle, battle facts, historical photos, troop positions, chronologies," battle maps, and video clips of historians holding forth. Not to mention GPS to tell you exactly where you are on the battlefield.

The potential for this kind of App is really exciting. Imagine pulling up one of CWPT's beautiful maps, locating yourself on that map, and then reading some after-action reports referring to the spot where you're standing. At present, only part of the Gettysburg battlefield is covered, and the App only works on the iPhone and iPad, but it will soon expand to more fields and other platforms.

Nicely done! Read all about it here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. . ."


The Civil War Preservation Trust is proud to announce a new campaign to save 49 acres at the center of the Wilderness Battlefield. Historian Gordon Rhea says that this new tract at the famed Saunders Field is a property that "witnessed some of the Wilderness' most brutal combat."

Read all about it, see maps, and get info on The Wilderness then & now by visiting here

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The insidiousness of misinformation

At least they didn't put black Confederates on the cover. What an embarrassment. A public school textbook for 4th graders in Virginia published black Confederate mythology as if it were fact, because the author did her research on the internet (Sons of Confederate Veteran websites), and because the review process for Virginia textbooks is apparently fatally flawed.

The passage on black Confederates goes so far as to claim two battalions of southern blacks fought under Stonewall Jackson. In defense, the author of the textbook, Joy Masoffwho describes herself as "a fairly respected writer"said, "It's just one sentence. I don't want to ruffle any feathers. If the historians had contacted me and asked me to take it out, I would have."

It's bad enough that neo-Confederates and other alternative history types teach their own children that the Civil War wasn't about slaverythey have a right to misinform their own offspring. But for their revisionist nonsense to make it into a public school textbook is a travesty.

Masoff says it's only "one sentence," but it's more than that. One or two sentences like that call the whole book into question. It should be scrutinized cover to cover by competent historians. Up till now, wild-eyed claims about black Confederates were restricted to a relatively small segment of society that is desperate to believe that slavery was not central to the secession crisis, and the war. If blacks fought on behalf of the Confederacy, the thinking goes, then the war must not have been about slavery, and The Cause was glorious after all! Whew, glad we cleared that up.

Debunking fairy tales about black Confederates has become something of a hobby for blogger Kevin Levin, and the rest of us are grateful for the public service he performs (now we can just link to some of his essays on the subject and save a lot of typing). But no one thought that stuff would make it into actual textbooks. This is akin to a new drug-resistant staff infection escaping the hospital and taking root in the community. 

Of course this is the state in which the governor, in explaining why his Confederate History Month proclamation made no mention of slavery, explained that "obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia." Meaning, slavery was not among the most significant issues. Ironically, that guy on the cover of the 4th grade textbook, Thomas Jefferson, suggested that slaverywhich in this country dates to Jamestownwas the rock upon which the country would be split.

We let down our guard, and now the problem is spreading. The dumbing down has become institutionalized with outright falsehoods. Maybe I'm overreacting, but minutes before I read the Post article about black Confederates, I listened to audio of Delaware senate candidate Christine O'Donnell scornfully challenging her opponent because he claimed the First Amendment spoke of the separation of church and state. I think she was angling to point out that the phrase "separation of church and state" is not literally written there. All of this to support her contention that people have a "constitutional right" to have Intelligent Design taught in their local public schools.

The wheels are coming off.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

700 ambrotypes and tintypes donated to the Library of Congress

Thanks to a Virginia collector, Tom Liljenquist of McLean, we'll all soon have access to a painstakingly gathered collection of 700 Civil War ambrotypes (glass) and tintypes (metal). Nothing I've read about these images so far indicates whether copies of them might already exist in the LoC or in other major collections, such as the one at Carlisle Barracks, but there's a good chance the majority of them are previously unknown outside of private hands. Mr. Liljenquist generously donated them to the Library for the benefit of us all.

Most of the images are of unnamed Union soldiers, including some rare African American portraits. The Library of Congress has already digitized most of them, and made them available online.  The news release from the Library of Congress can be read here.

I'm editing this to mention that I just finished reading a much more detailed and interesting blog post by Rea Andrew Redd over at Civil War Librarian. Have a look-see.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar. . .

I love reading dispatches from the road from people eager to learn something new and fresh about our nation's history. Thanks to Ethan Refuse over at Civil Warriors for highlighting this series. I read Slate pretty regularly, but somehow skipped over these travel entries.

The author, John Swansburg, is a non-Civil War buff who offers the disclaimer, "The last time I studied the war was over a bowl of Wheat Chex the day I was to be tested on the material in 11th grade." He and three friends embarked on a 10-day road trip from New Orleans to New York, taking in as many Civil War points of interest as they can fit in. The narrative is breezy, and chock full of hyperlinks for your surfing pleasure.

Entries so far:

A round of golf, followed by simulated horror & carnage, topped off by a catered dinner. See you in Paradise!

Long-time readers of this blogboth of youknow of my somewhat mixed feelings about the kind of "living history" that endeavors to re-enact terrible scenes of combat, as if dressing up and taking fake "hits" in a field somehow presents the actor or onlookers with a special insight into the unspeakable horror and shock of bodies being torn asunder in a nightmarish hail of shrapnel and lead, destroying lives and wrecking families in the moment and for generations to come.

There is definitely something to be said for seeing authentic uniforms and weaponry, and being able to visualize army-sized masses of men arrayed against each other, but Hollywood, in movies like Glory and Cold Mountain, does a better jobboth in scale, and in special effects. I'm not going to (directly) question a re-enactor's stated motivations about honoring the fighting man of the Civil War, but another time-worn rationalizationdoing it to teach the childrenfrequently falls flat when you read a re-enactor's comments in a newspaper article, explaining to rapt second graders that slavery was incidental to the Civil War.

There's the rub. Many re-enactorsincluding many I have known—are arguably experts on the Civil War era, but there's no quality control. Any nitwit with a wool uniform and a kepi can get invited to address a group of school children. He must know a lot about the Civil War, right? He's got a damn uniform. See my earlier diatribe on this subject, "Claude of the Turbervilles."

In part, I feel like there's something fundamentally disrespectful to all the soldiers who couldn't get up and walk away, or who were maimed and traumatized for life. Ultimately, of course, it's none of my business why people re-enact as a hobby. For me, it's enough to visit the battlefields, and read books. Certainly I have my own peculiar interests and hobbies which others would deem a waste of time and money.

My teenage son often goes "Airsofting" with a bunch of like-minded enthusiasts in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It's a more sophisticated version of paint-balling (at least in terms of the authenticity of the weapons), in which groups of weekend warriors in camouflage square off over a large field in games of Capture the Flag, and whatnot. But they don't try to dress up the experience with talk of living history, or claim to be trying to understand what a soldier endures. They're playing army, getting exercise, testing their stealthiness, and having fun.

My friends and I played our own version of it in the bottoms of the Boyer River in Western Iowa, but we used BB guns, shop goggles, and trench coats to cover as much skin as possible (I can say this publicly now that my mother is no longer alive). We didn't have any grandiose notions about why were were doing it.

Still, as I said, I'm inclined to give many Civil War re-enactors the benefit of the doubt (in a way that I don't extend to Nazi re-enactors in Ohio). And I do admire their dedication, and willingness to go whole hog. I think the folks up in Paradise, California have the right idea. They're funding living history education with the proceeds of some golf tournaments, and staging reenactments on the driving range. Pancakes in the morning, and catered dinner at night. That's my kind of war.

One little quibble, though. Take a closer look at those Zouves in the promotional photo above. I've zoomed in on them here.

They didn't have any 400-pound Zouves in the Union army. I'm sure the hobby, of necessity, is open to all comers, but I have trouble suspending my disbelief when I see soldiers who look like NFL offensive linemen. At what point does the painfully exacting authenticity of uniform buttons and weaponry take a backseat to overall appearance? "You see my button is an exact replica, soaked in urine to get the proper sheen, but please disregard the fact that you could make a weather balloon from the expanse of my pants."

This brings to mind the Turner movie, "Gettysburg" when, in the opening minutes, a spy encounters Confederate pickets and is challenged by one ragged Confederate private who just happens to be morbidly obese. I'm not saying the guy shouldn't be able to enjoy his hobby, it's all make-believe anyway. I myself am dangerously overweight. But what happened to the process of "casting" for a major motion picture?  

This last digression brings to mind a compelling bit of commentary on how Civil War reenactments are still not handicap accessible for differently abled soldiers. If not now, when?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

My way or the Hihgway. . .

The informational sign posted last week on U.S. 27 near the Chickamauga Battlefield says: "Army of Tennesse Hihgway." 

Both "Tennessee" and "Highway" are misspelled.

Chickamauga City Manager John Culpepper told the Chattanooga Times Free Press "they can't spell down at the Georgia Department of Transportation."

GDOT spokesman Mohamed Arafa said there are sometimes mistakes with names "but Tennessee, there's no excuse for that." He also said the department "used to be the Department of Highway."

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Tribute to Professor Joseph L. Harsh


Today's 148th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam comes just days after the passing of Joseph Harsh, whose work on the Maryland Campaign of 1862 will remain required reading for a long time to come. 

Tom Clemens, co-founder of
Save Historic Antietam Foundation, was a protégé of Dr. Harsh and is an important Antietam historian in his own right. He has written a moving tribute to his mentor, the former chair of the history department at George Mason University. 

2010 West Coast Civil War Conference

If you'll be in the vicinity of America's most beautiful city in November, put some time aside for the 26th West Coast Civil War Conference (Nov. 12, 13, 14). This meeting is hosted by a different Civil War Round Table or other Civil War-related group each year, and this marks only the second time it's been held in San Francisco. The first time was about 20 years ago, hosted by the South Bay CWRT.

This year, the Friends of Civil War Alcatraz have put together what looks to be a spectacular program on the theme of Civil War Coastal Defenses, and have enlisted James McPherson and Craig Symonds as headliners. NPS ranger Rick Hatcher, who's written on Sumter and Moultrie, and the CSS Hunley, will also be on hand. I'm probably most excited about hearing historian John Martini, and not because that's my favorite cocktail. Martini's work on local installations is indispensable—at present I am reading his book on Fortress Alcatraz. He is the guy who discovered the lost Alcatraz photos mentioned in some earlier blog posts. 

This is going to be a fun one. The conference is based at the War Memorial building near City Hall, and outings are planned for Fort Point, Alcatraz, Fort Mason, and other sites in the city.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Where Our Nation Reunited

Slavery was ended. The nation would not again see such a divisive trial until the Ground Zero Mosque War of 2010, when law-abiding American Muslims proposed building a cultural center in an old Burlington Coat Factory building.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

"We don't want to kill you all in one day!"

The partial quote at top is attributed to the Modoc Chief Scarfaced Charley.

Last Monday I asked my faithful reader(s) what three particular Civil War generals had in common. I posted a link on Facebook, where one well-versed individual came up with the answer after I narrowed it down with a comment about Indian Wars.

The answer is that Generals Wright, Howe, and Thomas all had a son or nephew killed on April 26, 1873, during the Modoc War (though General Wright preceded his son in death, having drowned in 1865 while en route to his new command).

Man-for-man, the Modoc War was among the costliest ever engaged in by the United States. As many as 600 troops (at highest count) did battle with roughly 50 Modoc warriors for six months. Official tallies put U.S. casualties at 53 soldiers and 17 civilians, while the Modoc lost 15 (five KIA). The resources, human and otherwise, expended on subduing this one band of Modoc was considerable.

Several essential Modoc War sites, including Captain Jack's Stronghold and the Thomas-Wright battlefield, are preserved today at Lava Beds National Historic Site, an off-the-beaten-track gem in Northeastern California, just below the Oregon border.

There are a couple of good books on the subject, including Hell with the Fire Out, A History of the Modoc War, by Arthur Quinn.  And, as pointed out earlier, I enthusiastically recommend The Modoc War, Its Military History and Topographyby Erwin M. Thompson.

Hell with the fire out is an apt description of the weather and the topographyit is high desert, and largely covered with ancient lava flows. Though the First and Second Battle of the Stronghold failed to dislodge the Modoc from Captain Jack's lava fortress, the Indians were eventually compelled to withdraw, which they did unseen. Uncertain of the Modoc positions, and hoping to be able to move howitzers and mortars to a strategic butte four miles from the main army encampment, Colonel Alvan Gillem called upon Captain Evan Thomas of the 4th Artillery to lead a patrol toward Sand Butte (now Hardin Butte).

Like his father, Thomas was a veteran of the Civil War, brevetted for gallantry for actions at both Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, but fighting Indians was not something for which he had must experience. The other generals' kin, likewise veterans of the Civil War, were First Lieutenants Thomas F. Wright (son of George Wright), and Albion Howe [nephew of Albion Parris Howe). Three more commissioned officers joined the patrol, 2nd Lieutenant George M. Harris, 1st Lieutenant Arthur Cranston, and Dr. Barnard A. Semig. In addition to a guide and civilian packer, Thomas's patrol comprised 59 enlisted men (Company E, 12th Infantry, and Batteries A and Kthe latter serving as infantrymenof the 4th Artillery).
Capt. Evan Thomas

The patrol was handled carelessly from the start, and little attention was given to guarding the flanks during a march through areas of jumbled rocks, deep cuts, and low ridges that  limited lines of sight. This allowed Modoc warriors to trail the soldiers and effectively surround them when they stopped for a midday meal. The Modoc warriorswell-armed, and by all accounts skilled riflemenattacked seemingly from all directions, and military order among the soldiers quickly dissipated as some men scattered and others sought protection in small groups. The gunfire could be heard back at Gillem's Camp, and in the now-occupied Stronghold, but relief parties started too late and were compelled to wait for dawn before they could locate survivors.

Thomas, Wright, and Howe were dead, Thomas shot four times, and Wright three. The position of many soldiers' bodies signaled the shock of their last tragic hours. A member of a relief party described them as lying in "different forms of anguish and distortion, some in the position of desperate defense, others prostrate. . .in utter helplessness." Most had multiple bullet wounds, and many were stripped of their uniforms.  Second Lieutenant Harris was mortally wounded, and Cranston was missing. Twenty enlisted men were killed in action, and sixteen were wounded. Out of sixty-seven men in the patrol, at least 43 were casualties.

The army later claimed to find the bodies of five warriors on the Thomas-Wright battlefield, but the Modocs themselves, after the war, claimed to lose only one man in the fight.

The battlefield today, with Hardin Butte (Sand Butte) in the distance.

Thomas-Wright battlefield, Lava Beds National Monument

Looking from the Thomas-Wright battlefield back toward Gillem's Camp,which was at the base of the highest point of the ridge on the left, on the shore of Tule Lake. This was Thomas's line of march.

It has been proposed that the reason the Modoc had murdered General Canby during peace negotiations, two weeks earlier, was the belief that by striking a devastating blow against the top leadership of the soldiers, the rank and file would abandon the effort to subdue the Indians in the Stronghold (a plan that might have borne fruit against other tribes). If so, it was a grave miscalculation. Indeed, we know that Canby's assassination, and the stunning defeat of Thomas's command, simply meant that far more troops would come, and would continue to come. Captain Jack and the Modoc leaders who pressured him against his judgment to kill the sympathetic Canby, could never have anticipated the resolve of the white warrior then en route to take Canby's place, Jefferson C. Davis. 

Map from Erwin N. Thompson's, The Modoc War, Its Military History and Topography. This book was available for online viewing at the Lava Beds NHS website, but does not appear to be at present].