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).