Friday, May 27, 2011

Over 4,000 Civil War graves identified in a Brooklyn cemetery

Using the cemetery's own burial records, plus government, military and privately owned documents available online, Green-Wood's project has identified the graves of about 4,600 Civil War veterans. Green-Wood historian Jeffrey Richman estimates 3,000 to 4,000 more are scattered among the cemetery's more than 560,000 total interments.

The Civil War dead buried at Green-Wood include unknown privates and famous officers, buglers and Medal of Honor recipients, Yankees from Maine to Iowa, fathers, sons and brothers, and even 75 Confederates, including two generals. None of the original gravestones for the Confederates gave any indication they had fought for the South, an intentional omission being rectified by the installation of new granite markers provided by Veterans Affairs.

Read the full article here

Monday, May 23, 2011

Solarium: A novella

I just finished reading a pretty amazing short work of fiction called, "Solarium: A novella," by Josh Weil. It was published in the journal, "American Short Fiction," vol. 13, issue 50 (Winter 2010/11). I had subscribed to the journal because the previous issue featured a short story by a friend of mine (great job, Rob!), and because I was curious what this resurrected literary journal was doing these days.

I was surprised to find a story set during the Civil War"Solarium" takes place on a Virginia plantation in 1865, beginning some time before Richmond falls and continuing beyond. But I was really surprised that the author boldly told the tale in the first-person vernacular of mid-19th century master and slave. Generally speaking, I'm of the opinion that if your name is not William Faulkner, the practice should be avoided, but author Josh Weil did an admirable job. So I will modify my recommendation to say don't do it unless you're good enough to pull it off. Seriously, who are you trying to kid?

The story is told in six overlapping narrativeseach headlined simply by the narrator's  name (As I Lay Dying)mainly giving alternating perspectives from a cotton farmer and certain of his slaves. I so want Civil War historical fiction to be as engaging and powerful as the material itself, and I am so regularly disappointed, that I started reading this novella with trepidation.

But I was soon caught up in the strange story centered on the discovery one day of an errant hot air balloon that lands on the farm. Weil skillfully gives us characters to care about (which is to say believable and compelling), and builds an ever-rising tension about the coming of the end for some, and the promise of a new beginning for others.

It's hard to review a 90-page story without giving away elements that would otherwise contribute to the reader's pleasure of discovery, but suffice it to say I found it impressive in its construction, unpredictable, and exciting. What more do you want from historical fiction, other than a reasonable faithfulness to accuracy? It has that, too.

One of the best things you can say about a work of art is that it causes you to reflect on it long after you've moved on. I've been thinking a lot about "Solarium," puzzling out some things I moved over too quickly, suddenly recognizing a larger image that I was too close to discern while reading, or replaying in my head a powerful scene, as if I had seen it acted out. Damn it, I'm going to have to read it again, and life is already too short to read all the books I own once.

I had never heard of Josh Weil, but his biography in the journal indicates he's off to a good start—many prizes and many prestigious fellowships. His 2010 triptych of novellas, The New Valley, is described in some detail on Amazon.

You can read "Solarium" by buying the current issue of "American Short Fiction" at the publisher's website—"Solarium" and three other short stories—for five bucks. Unless I'm mistaken.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

the Wire, to Treme, to Lincoln Assassination?

Steve Earle, May 20, 2001 at Kepler's in Menlo Park, CA
Friday night I went to see Steve Earle promote his brand new first novel at a local bookstore, I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive. I enjoyed his earlier book of short stories, and very much like his literary "voice." Of course Earle has made his name with his music -- I'll be seeing him again at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass this fall. He's written a few Civil War-themed songs that, for me, arrive at a happy intersection of great music and a favorite historical subject. I posted a blog entry on Earle's Ben McCulloch earlier this year. Great song.

Earle has also had some roles in David Simon's highly acclaimed HBO series, The Wire, and more recently in Simon's newer series, Treme. During the Q&A Friday night, I got the opportunity to ask Earle if he reads a lot of Civil War history. He said he has in the past, but not lately. The question, however, caused him to relate the story that David Simon told him not to cut his beard, because he had him in mind for a particular cavalry officer who participated in the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth. Earle said Simon, who is a crime reporter at heart (was, in fact, a crime reporter for the
Baltimore Sun) had no interest in Lincoln or Booth so much as the other characters involved. It occurred to me that Robert Redford recently addressed this very subject, but undoubtedly Simon would take it in another direction.

I hope it comes to fruition. Might be a nice counterbalance to all of the other assassination-related dramas we're going to see in the next few years.

Friday, May 20, 2011

"I was wearing the name of Lewis Smith"

Portrait of Dick Barnett and his wife, date unknown.
(Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, RG 15)
A fascinating article. . .

Winter 2005, Vol. 37, No. 4
Voices of Emancipation:
Union Pension Files Giving Voice to Former Slaves

By Donald R. Shaffer and Elizabeth Regosin
© 2005 by Donald R. Shaffer and Elizabeth Regosin
Civil War pension files have the potential to rival the more famous WPA narratives of ex-slaves in offering evidence on the experiences of 19th-century African Americans from a black point of view. In fact, based on when the information was collected—mainly between the 1880s and 1910s—they are arguably superior. Civil War pension files are much more contemporaneous to the experiences of slavery, the Civil War, and their aftermath than the WPA narratives, which were not gathered until the mid-to-late 1930s. Many pension files include in-depth interviews of former slaves by special examiners for the purpose of clarifying information on such issues as military service, identity, health and disability, marital and family relationships, employment, economic circumstances, and previous ownership. The depositions are often quite effective in giving a voice to former slaves, allowing them the opportunity to talk about their lives and provide important clues about how they saw the world.
 Read the full article here

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Five Myths About Why the South Seceded

ALEXANDER GARDNER/ AP - A photograph of Abraham Lincoln taken
by Alexander Gardner in Washington in August of 1863.
Lies Across America author, James W. Loewen, dispenses with some enduring misconceptions about secession in this piece for the Washington Post. 
As the nation begins to commemorate the anniversaries of the war’s various battles — from Fort Sumter to Appomattox — let’s first dispense with some of the more prevalent myths about why it all began.
(1) The South seceded over states’ rights.  (2) Secession was about tariffs and taxes.  (3) Most white Southerners didn’t own slaves, so they wouldn’t secede for slavery.  (4) Abraham Lincoln went to war to end slavery.  (5) The South couldn’t have made it long as a slave society.
Loewen's offers up his reasons for each point.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"The Foolishness of Civil War Reenactors," by Glenn W. LaFantasie

Though I'm a regular reader at, I just learned of this article by visiting Andy Hall's excellent Dead Confederates blog. 

Monday, May 09, 2011

The Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina

The people have spoken. Every year a dedicated contingent of long-time members of the Civil War Forumalong with a handful of welcome newcomers to the groupmeet at a different battlefield for three days of battlefield tramping, good food, and good company. Next year, the group has voted to visit North Carolina. Mark your calendars.

16th Civil War Forum Battlefield Conference
The Battle of Bentonville
Wilmington & Fort Fisher
March 29 to April 1, 2012
Headquarters: Dunn, NC

Mark Bradley, author of the definitive campaign study, The Battle of Bentonville: Last Stand in the Carolinas, will guide us through Averasboro and Bentonville, and Chris Fonvielle, author of The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope, will handle the Forts Fisher and Anderson tours. Additionally, we'll visit the Monroe's Crossroads battlefield on the grounds of Fort Bragg.

Check out the Civil War Trust's Bentonville and Fort Fisher pages for maps, articles, and other resources.
We'll do things a little bit differently next year, in that I'll most likely book the bus for three full days, reserving the last day for the long ride to Wilmington and back (Sunday, April 1st). For that trip, we'll put on a Civil War movie and pull out the refreshments, to include copious amounts of adult beverages.

We'll be headquartered at a hotel in Dunn, North Carolina, which is about an hour from the biggest airport in the region (Raleigh), and close to the battlefields. Stay tuned for hotel info and final itinerary. Let me know if you'd like to receive registration information by email.

Friday, May 06, 2011

End of the line for Lincoln

Dockworkers prepare to receive the Lincoln
as it arrives at the Mare Island shipyard in Vallejo.
A gray old ship, the Lincoln, that is part of San Francisco's maritime past was towed up the bay Thursday on a final voyage to be scrapped at Mare Island in Vallejo. . . .

The trip was part of an unusual nautical swap in which the government traded the Lincoln for its identical sister ship, the President. Both vessels will be scrapped: one of them in Texas, the other in Vallejo. 

The two ships - originally named President Lincoln and President Tyler- were built in San Francisco in 1961 and sailed out of the city on voyages all over the world for years. They were general cargo ships, operated by American President Lines, a company that traces its roots to the Gold Rush of 1849.
Read the full article here.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

How the "Lost Cause" poisoned our history books

Ulysses S. Grant, the commanding general of the Union Army and the 18th president of the United States, would have been 189 years old last week--not long after the "official" opening of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, which will run through 2015.
Grant -- like George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower -- was both a professional warrior of a defining war and a twice-elected president. And like Washington and Eisenhower he dominated his era, which in his case encompassed both the Civil War and its aftermath, called Reconstruction, from 1862 (when he rocketed to fame with his defeat of Confederate forces at Fort Donelson) to 1876.
 Read full article here