Monday, August 30, 2010

What do these three Civil War generals have in common?

Monday Morning Trivia. . . Obviously we could make all kinds of tenuous connections between various Civil War generals, but I'm looking for something fairly significant shared by these three Union officers. What's significant, you ask? I'll be the judge of that.

George Wright (left) is the other General Wright, the one who spent the entire war on the West Coast. He was an 1822 graduate of West Point, and decorated veteran of the Seminole and Mexican wars. By 1855 he was colonel of the 9th Infantry in the Far West, where he saw combat in various battles with Native Americans (e.g., the Yakima War). When the Civil War came, Wright commanded districts and departments before settling in as commander of the Department of the Pacific, freeing up E. V. Sumner for a return east. Tragically, Wright and his wife drowned at sea on July 30, 1865, in the wreck of the Brother Jonathan, the steamer transporting him to his new command, the freshly-minted Department of the Columbia. He was 63-years-old.

Albion Parris Howe (left) was an 1841 graduate of West Point, served with distinction in Mexico, and was under Robert E. Lee's command during the John Brown episode in Harpers Ferry. After the Civil War began, he commanded a brigade in the Seven Days Battles. For actions at Malvern Hill he was brevetted major, and in time was promoted to brigadier general. He commanded a division at Frederickburg and Chancellorsville, but saw little or no action at Gettysburg. Soon after the Mine Run Campaign, Howe was removed from command of his division, likely due to poor relations with Sedgwick, his corps commander (Howe testified in an unflattering way about Sedgwick to the Committee on the Conduct of the War). After the war he served with the commission that tried the Lincoln conspirators. He died in 1897 at age 78.

Lorenzo Thomas graduated from West Point in 1823, and served in the 4th artillery during the war with Mexico. For the eight years prior to the Civil War, he was chief of staff to General Winfield Scott. He was promoted to brigadier general during the Civil War, and served as adjutant general of the army throughout the war and beyond, until he retired in 1869. He was brevetted a major general in the regular army in early 1865, and after the war may be best remembered as the person President Johnson tried to replace Stanton with as Secretary of War. Thomas died in 1876 at age 70.

Friday, August 20, 2010

State of Denial

I just became aware of this essay by Professor David Blight in the online version of the Fredericksburg, Virginia Free Lance-Star.

One Rebel state never surrendered: Denial
Confederates' own words condemn their cause
Date published: 6/27/2010

It appears to be from a series entitled, "The Myths of Gray: What Gives the Confederacy its Staying Power?" Blight's installment is in response to Virginia Governor McDonnell's ill-considered decision to resurrect Confederate History Month.

Blight is as good as it gets when it comes to the systematic and thorough shredding of Lost Cause mythology. I like that he gets right to the core of the matter by pointing out that we don't have to take some modern-day liberal academic's word for what the war was about, we need only listen to the words of the secessionists themselves:
"The best way to understand why secession and war came in 1860-61 is to look at what white Southerners themselves said they were doing. How did the leaders of secession explain the origins of the war?"
This is a point I always try to make to people who have settled upon a notion of secession involving mysterious state rights that are somehow unrelated to slavery. The architects of secession, the Confederate leadership itself, made no bones about it. They were unabashed in stating the reasons for secession. It was only after the war that it became uncomfortable to blame unspeakable carnage and suffering on such an ignoble cause. How could any vanquished people heal or reconcile staggering losses in the wake of a rash war to perpetuate slavery? No, it had to be prettied up. Thus, a war for the independence to keep men enslaved was transformed into a war for "liberty" from tyranny.

The essay series title asks how such misguided notions about the war endure for so long. It's no mystery, really. Even in today's Age of Information we hear of sizable percentages of the population who believeagainst all evidencethat President Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya. Lost Cause mythology endures because the purveyors of ithere is one blogger's reply to Blightwill not read the widely available primary source material that destroys their fantasy. Nor do they read the best scholarship available on the topic, things like The Apostles of Disunion, which unequivocally spells out the motivations behind secession. They "pass down" family history, sanitized for your protection.

Instead of wasting time trying to rewrite history, and feeding misinformation to their children, the Moonlight & Magnolias crowd should consider constructing an honest rationale for honoring their ancestors. You can honor the man without honoring the cause, and without trying them in the court of modern opinion. Those brave men don't need your feeble excuses for their behavior. They fought for what they believed, or they fought because they were compelled to for other reasons. They don't need you to cover for them. Like Mosby said, "a soldier fights for his country, the South was my country."

Do the descendants of Henry the VIII try to rationalize his bloody record at the wedding altar? Do Andrew Jackson's descendants create elaborate alternate histories about tears of joy on the Trail of Tears? "They weren't crying, son, they were happy to get out of Georgia." A great many Americans, myself included, have ancestors who killed Indians. Probably indiscriminately. Probably with relish. We don't honor them because of the prevailing attitude toward Native Americans in centuries past. We honor them because they are our ancestors, and because they were brave pioneers in a new worldeven the scoundrels among them.

It's just history.

[P.S. my wife has just mentioned that Henry VIII may not have any living descendants]

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Northward to Capt. Jack's Stronghold

I'm off once more to the Lava Beds for some R&R, this time determined to hike the trail to the Thomas-Wright battlefield. Full report to follow. 

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Shipwrecked Twice in One Day

Ansel Adams's view of the Golden Gate. Ft. Point is at the tip of the peninsula in the center-right of the image.
On April 9, 1853, an army captain and future Civil War general officer, found himself shipwrecked twice in one day trying to enter San Francisco Bay. The first vessel, a steamer coming up the coast from its last stop in Acapulco, overshot the entrance to the bay and ran aground near what is now Bolinas (a town most famous today for the habit of its residents to tear down any roadsigns that point the way), at about 4:00 a.m. 
Fort Point before the bridge.

Fort Point today
Our unflappable captain made his way inland, and soon secured a ride on a ship hauling lumber into the city. In the midst of the Golden Gate, however, disaster struck again, this time hurling the young officer into the water. Ultimately, a little boat delivered him safe and sound to the rocky point where Fort Point would eventually stand (construction began in that same year, first by blasting away the bluff to put the lower tier batteries closer to sea level). One wonders how many Confederate veterans read the following account from his memoirs and cursed Poseidon for showing mercy that day!
. . .the ship was working over a reef-for a time I feared she would break in two; but, as the water gradually rose inside to a level with the sea outside, the ship swung broadside to the swell, and all her keel seemed to rest on the rock or sand. At no time did the sea break over the deck—but the water below drove all the people up to the main-deck and to the promenade-deck, and thus we remained for about three hours, when daylight came; but there was a fog so thick that nothing but water could be seen. The captain caused a boat to be carefully lowered, put in her a trustworthy officer with a boat-compass, and we saw her depart into the fog. During her absence the ship's bell was kept tolling. Then the fires were all out, the ship full of water, and gradually breaking up, wriggling with every swell like a willow basket—the sea all round us full of the floating fragments of her sheeting, twisted and torn into a spongy condition. In less than an hour the boat returned, saying that the beach was quite near, not more than a mile away, and had a good place for landing. . . .

I thought I recognized the outline of the hills below the mission of Dolores, and so stated to him; but [the captain] called my attention to the fact that the general line of hills bore northwest, whereas the coast south of San Francisco bears due north and south. He therefore concluded that the ship had overrun her reckoning, and was then to the north of San Francisco. . .This proved to be the actual case, for, in fact, the steamship Lewis was wrecked April 9, 1853, on "Duckworth Reef," Baulinas Bay, about eighteen miles above the entrance to San Francisco. . . .

The passengers were all on the beach, under a steep bluff; had built fires to dry their clothes, but had seen no human being, and had no idea where they were. Taking along with me a fellow-passenger, a young chap about eighteen years old, I scrambled up the bluff, and walked back toward the hills, in hopes to get a good view of some known object. It was then the month of April, and the hills were covered with the beautiful grasses and flowers of that season of the year. We soon found horse paths and tracks, and following them we came upon a drove of horses grazing at large, some of which had saddle-marks. At about two miles from the beach we found a corral; and thence, following one of the strongest-marked paths, in about a mile more we descended into a valley, and, on turning a sharp point, reached a board shanty, with a horse picketed near by. Four men were inside eating a meal. I inquired if any of the Lewis's people had been there; they did not seem to understand what I meant when I explained to them that about three miles from them, and beyond the old corral, the steamer Lewis was wrecked, and her passengers were on the beach. I inquired where we were, and they answered, "At Baulinas Creek;" that they were employed at a saw-mill just above, and were engaged in shipping lumber to San Francisco; that a schooner loaded with lumber was then about two miles down the creek, waiting for the tide to get out, and doubtless if we would walk down they would take us on board. . . .

The fog had lifted, so we could see the shores plainly, and the entrance to the bay. In a couple of hours we were entering the bay, and running "wing-and-wing." Outside the wind was simply the usual strong breeze; but, as it passes through the head of the Golden Gate, it increases, and there, too, we met a strong ebb-tide.

The schooner was loaded with lumber, much of which was on deck, lashed down to ring bolts with raw-hide thongs. The captain was steering, and I was reclining on the lumber, looking at the familiar shore, as we approached Fort Point, when I heard a sort of cry, and felt the schooner going over. As we got into the throat of the "Heads," the force of the wind, meeting a strong ebb-tide, drove the nose of the schooner under water; she dove like a duck, went over on her side, and began, to drift out with the tide. I found myself in the water, mixed up with pieces of plank and ropes; struck out, swam round to the stern, got on the keel, and clambered up on the side. Satisfied that she could not sink, by reason of her cargo, I was not in the least alarmed, but thought two shipwrecks in one day not a good beginning for a new, peaceful career. Nobody was drowned, however; . . .

We were drifting steadily out to sea, while I was signaling to a boat about three miles off, toward Saucelito, and saw her tack and stand toward us. I was busy watching this sail-boat, when I heard a Yankee's voice, close behind, saying, "This is a nice mess you've got yourselves into," and looking about I saw a man in a small boat, who had seen us upset, and had rowed out to us from a schooner anchored close under the fort. Some explanations were made, and when the sail-boat coming from Saucelito was near enough to be spoken to, and the captain had engaged her to help his schooner, we bade him good by, and got the man in the small boat-to carry us ashore, and land us at the foot of the bluff, just below the fort. Once there, I was at home, and we footed it up to the Presidio. Of the sentinel I inquired who was in command of the post, and was answered, "Major Merchant." He was not then in, but his adjutant, Lieutenant Gardner, was. I sent my card to him; he came out, and was much surprised to find me covered with sand, and dripping with water, a good specimen of a shipwrecked mariner.