Friday, December 26, 2014

Largest mass execution in U.S. history — December 26

December 26, 1862 — Mankato, Minnesota (Library of Congress)
From This American Life. . .
Growing up in Mankato, Minnesota, John Biewen says, nobody ever talked about the most important historical event ever to happen there: in 1862, it was the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Thirty-eight Dakota Indians were hanged after a war with white settlers. John went back to Minnesota to figure out what really happened 150 [now 152] years ago, and why Minnesotans didn’t talk about it much after. Listen to the full episode here: #479: Little War on the Prairie

Monday, December 22, 2014

Real Housewives of Gettysburg

Hat tip to Dana Shoaf, and to The Gettysburg Compiler.
Meg Sutter ’16 and Megan McNish ’16 report from Gettysburg College’s Special Collections in Musselman Library. In this episode, they present a Civil War housewife used by Lewis W. Tway of the 147th New York.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hard times in the Cradle of Secession. . .

The Keeping Room debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival three months ago. It is "a film that tells the story of 3 Southern women (2 of them sisters, and the third, their long-silent family slave) who are forced to defend their home in the last days of the war, against a large group of soldiers who have broken off from the Union Army."

Read a review by Zeba Blay here

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Horwitz on Sand Creek: 150 years ago

The Horrific Sand Creek Massacre Will Be Forgotten No More
The opening of a national historic site in Colorado helps restore to public memory one of the worst atrocities ever perpetrated on Native Americans.
Read it at

Also on this date, 150 years ago:
The Madden Creek Massacre
The incident served as an example of Sherman’s maxim that “War is Hell” and typified the ugly and almost forgotten war-within-a-war that sprang up in the mountainous regions of the South.
Read the full essay on the Emerging Civil War blog

Monday, November 24, 2014

American Civil War. . . some recent news items

Children of Civil War Veterans Still Walk Among Us
150 Years After the War — To their living sons and daughters, the soldiers in blue and gray are flesh and blood, not distant figures in history books.

Medal Of Honor
For American
Civil War Hero

A distant cousin of Union Army Lt Alonzo H Cushing pushed Congress to see the military honour bestowed on her ancestor.

Virginia couple
find Civil War
graffiti in home

If walls could talk. . .

Historians and Preservation Groups Announce Landmark National Campaign to Save Revolutionary War Battlefields
Dubbed 'Campaign of 1776,' new initiative led by Civil War Trust will focus on preservation and interpretation of the hallowed battlefields where a young America was forged

Texas Tech Edition

After 50 years, Gettysburg's
Soldiers National Museum to Shut its Doors

After Five Decades of Showcasing Civil War History, the Famous Soldiers National Museum will Hold an Auction for its Wartime Relics

McAuliffe accepts Sailor’s Creek, High Bridge land from
Civil War Trust

Sunken treasure: Civil War-era perfume resurrected for
modern senses

Hawaii soldier who fought in the Civil War
finally honored

Recognition comes 137 years later

Civil War soldiers identified,
names added to memorial

350 soldiers previously unknown
have been identified

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

November 19: Lincoln at Gettysburg

In 1952, the chief of the Still Photo section at the National Archives, Josephine Cobb, discovered a glass plate negative taken by Mathew Brady of the speaker’s stand at Gettysburg on the day of its dedication as a National Cemetery. Edward Everett would speak from that stand later in the afternoon for two straight hours. Moments later, a tall, gaunt Abraham Lincoln would stand up and deliver a ten sentence speech in two minutes. It was the Gettysburg Address.See the uncropped image, and read the full Prologue article here.

Harvest the History: Brian Pohanka

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

150 Years Ago, November 11 — President Lincoln reveals mystery document

NOVEMBER 11, 1864
Cabinet meets.  President gives John Hay sealed document and asks him to open it.  Cabinet members learn contents for the first time, although they signed it on Aug. 23.  Contents pledged them to support President-elect after November election. Hay, Diary.  Atty. Gen. Bates presents several of his friends to President. E. Bates, Diary.  President discusses with J. W. Forney and F. Carroll Brewster, city solicitor of Philadelphia, case of Cozzens, charged with supplying tents to government in violation of army regulations. DLC—RTL, Forney to Lincoln, Nov. 5, 1864.  Confers with Sec. Seward on seizure of steamer “Florida” in Brazilian port. Washington Chronicle, Dec. 31.  Receives from Gen. Grant congratulations on victory at polls. Washington Star, Nov. 11.  

From Lincoln Day by Day, a Chronology, 1809-1865
(Morningside, 1991)

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Free State of Jones

With the recent news that Matthew McConaughey signed on to play the role of Newton Knight in a film version of The Free State of Jones, I thought this would be a good time to reprise an interview with Professor Bynum, who visited the Civil War Forum several years ago to discuss her book on that subject. It will be interesting to see what Hollywood does with the story, but however it turns out, the film is sure to steer a lot more people to Victoria's book.

Victoria Bynum

Distinguished Professor Emerita, History, Texas State University in San Marcos, and author of, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War. Bynum is also the author of, Unruly Women: the Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South, and The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and its Legacies.

We are very pleased tonight to have with us Dr. Victoria Bynum, professor of history at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, discussing the subject of her new book: The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001). Let's get started.

CWF: Welcome Dr. Bynum. Since this is probably a fairly obscure topic even among Civil War buffs, can you begin with an overview of Jones County, and what set it apart from the rest of Mississippi (e.g., the paucity of slaves there), and the events that gave rise to stories of the so-called "Free State," or Kingdom of Jones?

Victoria Bynum: Jones County was founded in 1826, and it's part of one of the earlier-settled sections of Mississippi (because of Native Americans already being pushed out of that part of the state, but not out of the more fertile portions of Mississippi). Many of the earliest settlers were veterans of the War of 1812, especially. I won't go too much into it, but because it was the Piney Woods region, you didn't have a great many slaveholders there. Slavery was important—there were slaveholders—but not many “big” slaveholders. It had the lowest number of slaveholders of any county in the state, and almost 80 percent of those slaveholders owned fewer than four slaves.

So, just to leap forward to the Civil War itself, this was a region that was pretty ripe—by around 1862—for seeing the war as a "rich man's war" and "poor man's fight," because they were the poorest men in the state. I don't want to imply that they were landless, because they were small landowners, but in terms of slaveholders, they were the poorest in the state. The county voted almost 2-1 against secession.

Moving ahead to the 20th century about how all these stories got started—what made this story so legendary and why it has persisted so long is that the leader of this band of deserters crossed the color line. Now, it's not that crossing the color line was so unusual, it's the way that Newton Knight did it. He not only crossed the line, but two of his children intermarried with the children of the slave woman who was his chief collaborator (it was after the war that they intermarried—she was his collaborator during the war). And that resulted in a mixed-race community that's still very vibrant today—a very large mixed-race community that claims descent from Rachel the slave, and Newton, the leader of the deserter band.

So, you've had this ongoing battle—this is why I make the second part of the title, "Mississippi's Longest Civil War," because factions of this family have been debating the meaning of this uprising since the Civil War. And with the racial aspect, it has made the debate particularly volatile. Those who wanted to defend the Unionism of the Knight band generally just erased the story of the race-mixing, and those who were pro-Confederate . . . used the racial mixing as just further examples that these were deviant men who committed treason against the country, against the Confederacy, and against their race. That's why the story has lasted, and because there have been several books written, and a novel, and even a movie made from the novel.

CWF: One of the fun things about reading your book is the spirit of investigation, or discovery, in unmasking the past. Can you recall any major breakthroughs during the course of your research, or any particular surprises you encountered upon digging deeper?

Victoria Bynum: I believe some of the most delightful surprises were the ongoing discoveries I made about the Collins family—I believe that their story is one that was buried because of the notoriety of Newt Knight. The discovery that their ancestors were both Regulators back in the 1760s and Populists in the 1890s kind of gave me a whole view of Southern descent as represented by this family, in a way that just stood right out—and made them the core of the Unionist group there, rather than Newt Knight.

And I want to add that probably the biggest surprise was that the Collins's had brothers in Texas who were leaders of their own deserter band, so there were actually two deserter bands which existed simultaneously. It just showed the uncompromising nature of their Unionism, but not nearly all the deserters were as Unionist as the Collins's. There was a core group of about five different families that I would call truly Unionist. Putting that together was very exciting, because I kept finding connections between the very distant past, and the Civil War era, and connections between the various families as well.

CWF: What was the reaction of the Confederate authorities? Was it as brutal as the suppression of the earlier East Tennessee Unionist uprising?

Victoria Bynum: I'm not sure just how brutal that was, in terms of making an exact comparison, but the Confederacy did send two expeditions into Jones County to put down the uprisings there, and in the Official Records there is quite a bit of discussion of Jones County. The most important example is Colonel Lowry's raid on Jones County. In the space of a few days, they executed ten members of the Knight Company --the Knight Band. That was the worst experience that the Jones County group experienced. I imagine that it was probably worse in East Tennessee due to the geographic location. Jones County was still pretty remote, and there weren't as many raids.

CWF: The next question is about Unionist sentiment in Jones County. How many precincts of the county voted to remain in the Union? Here in Loudoun County, Virginia, for example, three of 16 precincts voted to remain in the Union.  Overall, the county voted 2:1 to secede.

Victoria Bynum: All I know—that I've been able to find—is that 166 people voted against secession, and I believe it was about 89 who voted for it. Let's see, yes, 166 for the Cooperationist Candidate, and 89 for the Secessionist Candidate. In fact, neighboring Perry county (I don't have those numbers with me) was even more Unionist. So Jones County was not isolated in that respect. The Perry County delegate held out longer.

CWF: Did any of the Jones County Unionists articulate why they supported the Union? The pressure must have been intense in the Deep South for secession?

Victoria Bynum: Yes, of course in their county they didn't feel that so directly—more so when the war began—but (after the war) they cited the 20 Negro Law when citing reasons for their desertion from the Confederacy. The only articulated Unionist statements are by the Collins family, who did not believe that the election of Abraham Lincoln was grounds for secession. And there's a quote of a certain Collins brother counseling men to try to get duty in the hospitals as nurses if they did join the service—that they should not fight against the Union. And one more statement attributed to the Collins's is that while they didn't believe in slavery, they also did not believe that the federal government had the right to end it.

CWF: Early in the book, you describe rivers that were dammed to provide power for mills, but preventing fishing for those needing to do that. It seems such a conflict! I know the Jones County deserters were really against the 20 Negro Law, which was the objection to "government" in their era.

Victoria Bynum: One of the things that I found, as you no doubt noticed, were that these were people who were very touchy about the government's role in their lives. And again to use the Collins's as an example, since they were always in the thick of it—as they moved across the frontier they continued petitioning the government to respect their rights as citizens and to provide them protection, not only against Indians, but against corrupt local officials. So this is a theme that runs throughout their history, and I think that's the point that you're making with your comment.

CWF: It sounds like your research benefited nearly as much from elderly locals and descendants as it did from archival work. That is, they were able to show you things, like the grave sites of Newt and Rachel Knight. Could you have written this book 20 or 30 years from now, after many of these people are gone?

Victoria Bynum: I agree that my personal contacts with descendants was really crucial to the book, and no I couldn't have written the same book. I could have written a book—a study—but in fact when I started writing this book I had no idea that I would achieve the kind of contact with local people that I did. It brought perspectives that I just don't think I could have pieced together from archival documents. In particular, I don't think I could have described the mixed race community if I hadn't spent a lot of time among the descendants of Rachel and Newton Knight. . . And I don't believe I could have written nearly the kind of study of their community without that personal contact. That was crucial.

CWF: Tying into an earlier question, I've seen some opinions that many of the Unionists areas in North Carolina, etc., in the mountains had had no experience with the U.S. government, except for the postal system and the first experience they had with an intrusive government was Confederate authorities enforcing the conscription and impressment laws?  Is that what you saw?

Victoria Bynum: I would say that in general that was true, once they settled in Jones County, that they had a lot of local autonomy. Some writers suggest there was no real government in Jones County before the war, but that just isn't true. But it is fair to say that they had very limited contact with state government at the top, or federal government. However, I would still point out that their frontier petitions do show quite an interest in the Federal government and its power. They have a long history of protest of corrupt local government, and I suspect that during the Civil War they developed a similar relationship with the Federal government, because they saw the Confederacy as another example of corrupt local government. That tradition goes all the way back to the Regulators.

CWF: You include a photograph of the Leaf River in your book, "site of Deserter's Den—the Knight Company's Civil War hideout." Were you able to pinpoint the actual location, and what is there today (presumably private property)?

Victoria Bynum: It is private property today. I took the photo myself and I was taken there by one of those local old-timers. Not very far from that river—the section of river in the photograph—is the cemetery of Newton Knight's grandfather. That land is now in the hands of a private company, and we had to be escorted into the cemetery by someone who had a key, but all of those lands used to be owned by the core members of the deserter band.

CWF: On the subject of "intrusive" government, how much intrusion did Jones County see during the war from officials on either side? The territory between Hattiesburg and Meridian was pretty much no man's land, wasn't it?

Victoria Bynum: I think it was pretty much considered no-man's land between those areas. The Confederacy managed to have a Home Guard unit down in Jones County, headed by a local Confederate officer, and that was Amos McLemore, reputed to have been murdered by Newt Knight and his men. By April of 1864, when more and more reports were reaching Confederate officials elsewhere that Jones County was under the control of deserters, and they had murdered some of the tax agents, then they sent the two expeditions I mentioned earlier. . . Col. Maury, in March (1864), subdued the deserters a bit but they came back just as strong, so then they sent Col. Robert Lowry in April. Now that really did splinter the band. He executed ten of them, and that's when a number of them fled to New Orleans and joined the Union army. About 40—they weren't all members of the band—about 40 Jones County men joined the Union Army in New Orleans. . . And then about 15 men were captured and forced back into the Confederate army. That left about 20 more whom they never caught, including Newt Knight, still out in the swamps.

CWF: You describe the prominent role of women in the book. Using "polecat musk and red pepper" to throw off the scent of the men from the dogs was rather emphatic. How did that come to be known as the thing to use?

Victoria Bynum: Well, according to Ethel Knight, who wrote the best known book (The Echo of the Black Horn), the white women learned it from Rachel, the slave. I don't know where she got her information from.

CWF: In your opinion, at what point did the Civil War become "inevitable"? 

Victoria Bynum: I would suppose that once Lincoln called for troops from the South, and even many who opposed secession turned the other way—when the image of invasion became a vivid one, the firing on Fort Sumter and the call for troops, one could say that's when it began to appear inevitable. Or you could look at it more broadly, and simply say that when the Northern states put in their constitutions gradual emancipation while the South simultaneously began designs for expanding slavery into the Southwest, some would say that's when war became inevitable. But I'm not real big on "inevitability."

CWF: When did you first hear of the legend about Jones County in the Civil War? And what first drew you to this as a subject of scholarly research?

Victoria Bynum: I first learned about Jones County around 1976 when I was an undergraduate in college. I saw it in a footnote in the Randall and Donald—the old Civil War text [Randall, James G., and David H. Donald. The Civil War and Reconstruction]. I did not hear about it from within my own family, even though my father was born in Jones County. What drew me to it as a subject of scholarship was writing my first book, Unruly Women. I have two chapters on the Civil War there, and one of those chapters centers on a county very similar to Jones County in many ways, and that's Montgomery County, North Carolina. But I just became fascinated with the topic of Southern Unionism, and the way that entire families were involved in resisting the Confederacy.

It was both the class element in it, and the participation of women and free blacks in North Carolina that made me then want to look at Jones County. So, it was only as I developed as a historian myself that I decided I would like to do a study of Jones County.

CWF: Would you talk a little bit about the so-called "white Negro" community in Jones County after the war, the trial of Davis Knight in the 1940s, and why this is such an important part of the story of "The Free State of Jones."

Victoria Bynum: I think it's incredibly important because it reveals how 20th-century race relations and segregation buried the story of the Free State of Jones beneath all these stereotypes about race-mixing, and then combined with the myth of the Lost Cause, which presented Unionists as treasonous. The story had just become so distorted. And so I began and ended the book with the trial to basically look at why race was such a volatile part of the story, and then to move from there to look at the story of a class-based uprising of white men that is an important story in its own right, and would not have been buried so deeply if it had not been for the obsession with Newton Knight's interracial relationship with Rachel. And so I was determined to tell both stories, and particularly to try to bring back the stories of all these other members of Knight's band who had just sort of been lost from the picture.

Thanks everyone. The questions were good ones, I enjoyed them.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The California Brigade (Civil War Trust article)

In 1913, veterans of the California Regiment returned to the angle where they
fought off the approaching Confederates of Pickett's Charge.
 (Library of Congress)
The California Brigade



When the Civil War broke out, residents of the west coast wanted to have a presence in the eastern theater. However, with nearly 3,000 miles separating the state of California and the Army of the Potomac and no railroad connecting the west coast to the east, sending a brigade of infantrymen across the wild country would be an ambitious goal. Instead, a group of Californians asked Oregon Senator Edward Baker to head east and raise a brigade in the name of California.

Read the full article HERE.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Internet Research – Proceed with Caution

Did Iowa send more troops into Union armies, per capita, than any other state? I have no idea.

Internet research is becoming more and more viable as access to reliable information expands exponentially. Nowadays one can easily access a broad array of digitized primary source material and supplement it with indispensable reference works like the Official Records. And yet, the internet researcher must be more vigilant and discriminating than ever—because sadly, unreliable information may be expanding at an even greater clip.

Consider the astonishing example of a Virginia fourth-grade textbook which relied on ahistorical, neo-Confederate propaganda on the internet to perpetuate the fiction that thousands of black men fought in Confederate armies. 

If one of the major tenets of Lost Cause mythology—that the war was not about slavery, which is ultimately what the myth of Black Confederates aims to underscore—can fly so easily under the radar and even find its way into state-sanctioned texts, we can safely assume that more innocuous misinformation takes root on servers every day with nary an objection from the public. I was reminded of this recently when trying to find a quick and dirty confirmation of a claim I had read somewhere—the claim that the state of Iowa sent more soldiers per capita into Union armies than any other state of the Union. It seemed like a simple enough assertion to corroborate, but not so fast. A Google search on the subject instantly uncovered a virtual warren of interconnected rabbit holes. . . Click on the state names below to link to the online sources for each quote. 

IOWA:Nearly 80,000 Civil War military men were from Iowa, the largest number of soldiers per capita of any state participating during the war.”

Fair enough, but then I remembered that Dave, one of my friends in the Civil War Forum, made a similar claim about Vermont. 

VERMONT:Vermonters believed passionately in the war. The state contributed more soldiers per capita than any other Northern state but Michigan.”

Any other state but Michigan?  Maybe Vermont is Number Two. 

MICHIGAN:Michigan sent 90,000 men to fight in the Civil War including specialized regiments of sharpshooters and engineers, and more cavalry per capita than any other northern state.”

Just more cavalry? What about Ohio. Surely Ohio was a major contributor.  .  .

OHIO:Faber’s claim was that more than 300,000 Ohioans served in the Civil War and that the per capita enlistment was the highest in the nation. The Ohio Historical Society, the state’s official archive, backs his claim. On the Truth-O-Meter, it rates True.”

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "what about Maine?"

MAINE:Maine contributed more soldiers per capita than any other state to the Union Army during the Civil War.” 

I know a webmaster in Illinois who takes issue with that claim.

ILLINOIS:By war's end, Illinois sent more men per capita into the army than any other state.”

That's all well and good, but New York was the most populous state in the Union, right?

NEW YORK:New York sent more troops per capita than any other state in the Union to the Civil War.”

Kansas and Missouri each stake a claim, but they’re probably counting soldiers who went South as well.

KANSAS: Per capita, Kansas sent more soldiers to fight in the Civil War than any other state” — MISSOURI:Missouri sent more men to war, in proportion to her population, than any other state. The total number of Missouri Volunteers who served was 199,111.”

I'm tired of the history of the Civil War giving such short shrift to the Cornhusker state. 

NEBRASKA:I am informed that, in proportion to population, Nebraska sent more soldiers into the army than any state in the union. The aggregate was 49,614 according to a report at the provost marshal general, without counting the medical corps or Red Cross enlistments.”

I’m going to settle this once and for all, and you can take this one to the bank:

CALIFORNIA:In all, over 17,000 Californians would join as soldiers; this is the highest per-capita total for any state in the Union.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

$1.99 Kindle download: 37 historians discuss the Civil War

This first volume in the series contains transcripts of 37 Question and Answer sessions conducted over many years in the Civil War Forum on CompuServe. The guests are among the most prominent historians in their field, each with particular areas of expertise. Many of them signed on to discuss the research and writing of one of their (then) latest books, or to lend insights about the Park Service battlefields on which they have built their careers.

Download the Kindle edition HERE.

Here is a list of the included guests, in alphabetical order, and a general idea of what they discussed:

Stacy Allen (Shiloh); Edward Ayers (misc. Topics); Jean Baker (Mary Todd Lincoln); Ed Bearss (misc. topics); Mark Bradley (Battle of Bentonville); Kent Masterson Brown (Lee's Retreat from Gettysburg); Victoria Bynum (Free State of Jones); Chris Calkins (Siege of Petersburg; Retreat to Appomattox); John Coski (Museum of the Confederacy; the Battleflag); David Eicher (Civil War in Books); Michael Fellman (Robert E. Lee; William T. Sherman); Gary W. Gallagher (Robert E. Lee, etc.); D. Scott Hartwig (Gettysburg); John Hennessy (Second Manassas); Harold Holzer (Abraham Lincoln); Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr., (Battle of Bentonville); Terry Jones (Campbell Jones, LA Tigers); John A. Marszalek (William T. Sherman); William Marvel (Andersonville; CSS Alabama vs. USS Kearsarge); Richard McMurry (War in the West); James M. McPherson ("Drawn with the Sword"); Steve Meserve (Mosby's Confederacy); William C. Miller (Jed Hotchkiss); Jim Morgan (Battle of Ball's Bluff); Michael Musick (Researching at the National Archives); Alan T. Nolan (Robert E. Lee); James Ogden (Battles of Chickamauga & Chattanooga); Harry Pfanz (Battle of Gettysburg); Brian C. Pohanka (misc. topics); Gordon Rhea (Overland Campaign); Gene Salecker (Sultana Disaster); John Simon (Ulysses S. Grant); Craig L. Symonds (Joe Johnston; Pat Cleburne); Emory Thomas (Robert E. Lee); Jeffry Wert (George Custer; James Longstreet); Terry Winschel (Vicksburg Campaign); Steven E. Woodworth (Jeff Davis and his Generals).

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress has made three more Civil War-related collections available online (including Clara Barton and Charles Reed)

From Michelle Krowl at the Library of Congress: 

I wanted to let you know about three Civil War-related collections in the Manuscript Division that have recently been digitized and posted to the Library of Congress website. They are chock full of primary source material that may be helpful for classroom use, student papers, scholarly articles, dissertations, books, or just for general interest.

Each collection can be accessed in several ways. Each has its own online presentation site, but can also be accessed through online collection finding aids that are available in html and pdf format. (Sometimes it can be easier to find specific items or types of material through the finding aids.) Original materials can be found through the “Collection Items” tab in the online presentation, and the “Digital Content Available” links in the container lists of the finding aids. All of the collection material is the same regardless of how it is accessed, but two of the online presentations have additional essays, as well as updated related resources.

When you open up the web page with bibliographic information for that set of original materials, you’ll want to either click on the photo of the item (sometimes it is a photo of the file folder) or the “enlarge xx images” link under the photo (both are on the left side of the page). Both will launch the viewer through which the material can be seen.

The new online collections are:

Clara Barton achieved historical fame as a nurse during the Civil War, as an international relief worker following the war, and as the founder of the American Red Cross in 1881. All of these activities are reflected in Barton’s extensive collection of personal papers. Of particular interest to students of the Civil War is Barton’s correspondence with family members like Martha Elvira Stone, the pocket diaries in which she noted the names of soldiers she encountered in hospitals, records of the Office of Correspondence with the Friend of the Missing Men of the U. S. Army, documents relating to the identification of Union soldiers buried at the Confederate prison of Andersonville, and Barton’s war lectures.
Online presentation     Finding aid in html     Finding aid in pdf

The Gresham material in the Lewis H. Machen Family Papers includes family correspondence before, during and after the Civil War. The highlight of this section of the collection is the seven Civil War-era diaries kept by LeRoy Wiley Gresham from 1860 to his death in June 1865. LeRoy, a native of Macon, Georgia, kept a diary entry nearly every single day of the war, beginning when he was about 13 and ending at his death at the age of 17. He notes what news he is hearing, the prices of things purchased for him, and generally what life is like for a teenager on the home front during the war. The reason LeRoy does not enlist in the Confederate army is that he was a long-time invalid, and the diaries also reflect the symptoms of his health problems (the exact origin of which are not specified) and what remedies he uses for treatment and pain management.
Online presentation     Finding aid in html     Finding aid in pdf  (Containers 29-32)

The papers of Civil War soldier and artist Charles Wellington Reed, who served with the Ninth Independent Battery, Massachusetts Light Artillery, includes approximately seven hundred sketches and correspondence relating primarily to the Civil War. The letters are often prefaced by drawings which further illustrate not only the rigors of military life, but also the amusing and mundane aspects. The contents of the letters and corresponding sketches well document the ways in which soldiers adapted to seasonal changes in the weather, how they amused themselves, and the routines of camp life in the Army of the Potomac.
Online presentation     Finding aid in html     Finding aid in pdf

Other collections with manuscript materials are available at:, while the legacy collections still part of the American Memory portal are available at:

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Kansas City Southern

. . . heading east out of Vicksburg across the Big Black River (April 2014). I was singing that old Gene Clark tune in my head for the rest of the day.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Battle of Atlanta -- 150 years ago (yesterday)

One of a string of battles in Sherman's Campaign for Atlanta, this July 22, 1864 clash is the only one called the Battle of Atlanta. The Civil War Forum toured the field on 2008. Below are photos of the approximate sites where a general officer on each side was killed—the Union's James Birdseye McPherson, and on the Confederate side, William H. T. Walker. Four days after the battle, Sherman wrote home to his wife Ellen, "I lost my right bower in McPherson."

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"In an ongoing revisionist history effort, Southern schools and churches still pretend the war wasn't about slavery"

The Southern version of history also prevailed for decades at Civil War battle sites, thanks to the fact that Congress appropriated money for the National Park Service, and Southerners in Congress had their hands on the purse strings. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the Park Service—under pressure from the academic community and a few members of Congress—made it a priority to revamp its exhibits to “interpret [the Civil War] and the causes of the war based on current scholarship,” said Dwight Pitcaithley, a professor of history at New Mexico State University who was chief historian of the Park Service from 1995 to 2005. In December 2008, Pitcaithley gave a talk to public school educators in Mississippi, and used as part of his presentation this quote from the Mississippi Declaration of Secession: “Our cause is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery, the greatest material interest of the world.” That sentence is now prominently displayed on the wall of the National Park Service visitors’ center in Corinth, Mississippi, near the site of the battle of Shiloh. Pitcaithley took a picture of the display and used it in his presentation. After his talk, he was chatting with a thirty-four-year-old black school principal who had grown up in Mississippi, attended its public schools, and received his university education there. “I asked him if he’d ever seen that [quote] and he said no—he’d never even heard of that.”
Read the full article here

Monday, June 09, 2014

Dressing up like a rebel is not enough. You need to do your homework.

What’s with Confederate reenactors and the matter-of-fact denial of slavery’s central role in bringing about the American Civil War? Not a month goes by, it seems, without a news item quoting a reenactor expounding along those lines. Incredibly, they don’t settle for simply diminishing the role of slavery, as some apologists are wont to do. No, frequently they’ll proclaim that the war had nothing to do with slavery whatsoever.

It’s astonishing, and sad, that 150 years after the war, with all of the resources at our disposal, all of the painstakingly researched histories of that era, all of the primary source material that is increasingly being digitized and made accessible, we still have people putting forth this long-discredited, neo-Confederate fantasy.

Like the modern day holocaust denier, one must make a determined and willful effort to ignore or discount a great mountain of evidence to arrive at such a misguided conclusion. Even blinders allow a horse to see what’s in front of it, but the slavery-as-cause denier rejects even that.
It’s one thing to tell a reporter, as this reenactor did in Florida recently, "If people know their history, the Civil War has nothing to do with slavery." Discriminating readers can dismiss this nonsense as effortlessly as we dismiss “birthers.” But taking this alternate history into a classroom should not be so easily dismissed. It is an affront to education, and should be refuted.

Most recently I encountered an article about a Confederate reenactor who gave a brief “lecture” to a class of 8th graders in a Santa Clara, California middle school. I knew instinctively as soon as I saw the photo of the gray-clad rebel in a classroom that the article would put forth the great Lost Cause lie. And sure enough, it did.

Said the reenactor: “Most kids say the reason the Civil War happened was because of slavery, and I tell them it wasn’t. The war was about 11 states that wanted to leave the union, and it was about the attack on Fort Sumter.”

Never mind that the lawful governments of two of those states did not vote to leave the union. Never mind that the reason the other slave states wanted to leave the Union was that they saw it as the only way to preserve and perpetuate slavery.

How do we know this? We know this because the secessionists themselves told us that.

Confederates of the day made no bones about this. They were forthright and unabashed about their motivations. Strange then, that people who today dress up like pretend Confederates have come up with an interpretation contrary to that of the secessionists themselves.

I defy any one of them to sit down and read Charles Dew’s, Apostles of Disunion. The first states to secede sent ambassadors to the other slave states to try to convince them to secede. Here we have Southerners speaking to each other in their own words. Their unmistakable message is that the only “state right” under consideration was the right to maintain and perpetuate slavery.

Professor David W. Blight, in his essay, “One Rebel State Never Surrendered: Denial — Confederates’ Own Words Condemn Their Cause,” wrote:
“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?
South Carolina's "Declaration of Causes" justifying secession included the claim that the Republican Party would "take possession of the government the South shall be excluded from the common territory and a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States."
Texas secessionists proclaimed their greatest fear in the crisis as "the abolition of slavery" and "the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races."

In Mississippi, secessionist delegates unanimously announced that their "position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery." The Mississippians declared that they "must either submit to degradation and the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union."

Georgians agreed, accusing "abolitionists and their allies in the Northern states" of "efforts to subvert our institutions, and to incite insurrection and servile war among us."
Blight also quoted John Mosby, the legendary “Gray Ghost,” who said after the war, “"I always understood that we went to war on account of the thing we quarreled with the North about. I never heard of any other cause of quarrel than slavery."

That pretty well sums it up.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Five best books on the Steamboat Sultana, and America's greatest maritime disaster

Gene Salecker at Vicksburg's Sultana mural
My wife and I visited Vicksburg last month for the annual meeting of the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends. Next year we’ll meet in Marion, Arkansas for the 150th anniversary of the Sultana disaster. was a great pleasure to finally meet two authors who’ve written important works on the subject. Gene Salecker wrote what most consider the definitive study in, Disaster on the Mississippi, the Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865. Gene was our guide for the weekend, taking us to the site of Camp Fisk, where former Union POWs from Cahaba and Andersonville, Midwesterners, were processed for parole. Much of the area where Camp Fisk was situated remains undeveloped and bucolic. Once paroled, the soldiers were taken by train to the Vicksburg depot, from whence they hiked to the wharf and boarded steamboats for the trip home. The floodwall at Vicksburg boasts 32 murals depicting scenes from the town’s history, including the fateful boarding of over 2,000 Union soldiers onto the Sultana. was also a treat to meet author Alan Huffman (with Anne, at right), whose book, Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison,and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History, features Anne’s ancestor, Romulus Tolbert of the 8th Indiana Cavalry. In a bit of geographical schizophrenia, Alan splits time between his exceedingly quiet and lovingly restored old home in rural Mississippi, and an apartment in New York City. Alan has written some intriguing books on a broad array of subjects, which you can read about here other books round out the respectable Sultana bookshelf. First, Jerry Potter’s outstanding, The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster (Jerry also wrote the main article in "Blue and Gray" magazine’s Sultana issue –August 1990, vol. vii, issue 6). William O. Bryant’s contribution, from the University of Alabama Press, is Cahaba Prison and the Sultana Disaster, a fine, fast-moving, and well-documented narrative. And finally, an all-important collection of first-person accounts by survivors – recently reprinted in an attractive edition by the University of Tennessee Press in their “Voices of the Civil War” series – Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors, by Chester D. Berry. are a couple of lesser books on the subject, including the flawed Transport to Disaster, by James W. Elliott and, if I’m not mistaken, some historical fiction.

More urgently, there is still 7 days to go in the Kickstarter campaign to fund a Sultana documentary. Frodo’s friend Samwise (Sean Astin) has signed on as Executive Producer. Go here to see a little taste of what the documentarians are cooking up.