Sunday, September 15, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Spying on the South

When I was a boy, one of my great aunts gave me a paperback copy of The Slave States before the Civil War, an abridged version of Frederick Law Olmsted's travels through the antebellum South in the 1850s. I kept that book and finally read it with great interest many years later while in graduate school. I still have that old book in my library and have referred to it on several occasions due to its excellent insights. Therefore, I was naturally happy to hear earlier this year that journalist/author/historian Tony Horwitz was publishing a book based on Olmsted's travels. The book's pre-release heralded the volume much in the spirit of one Horwitz's previous books, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. Having found Confederates in the Attic a fun yet thought-provoking read, I eagerly dove into Spying on the South: An Odyssey across the American Divide.

In this, Horwitz's latest and last book (he unfortunately passed away in May, just a couple of weeks after its release), he attempts to follow Olmstead's routes through the South. However, not only does he follow Olmsted's paths, he also attempts (when possible) to travel by means of transportation as his precursor did. Naturally, that was practically impossible for travel on conveyances such as stagecoach. But, when Olmsted traveled by a certain means, Horwitz tried to, too. For example, from Wheeling, West Virginia, Horwitz received permission to go by way of a coal barge.

Like Olmsted before, Horwitz used his travel to gather insight into a divided America. Along his routes Horwitz engages people from many different walks of life and occupations, and of course, from various socioeconomic, educational levels, and political bents. Through his travels Horwitz deftly weaves in Olmsted's experiences and writings. And whereas Olmsted commented on the primary issue dividing the country in his time (slavery), Horwitz converses with Americans from Maryland to western Texas on a host of divisive political issues including climate change, crime, gun rights, perceptions of so-called liberals and conservatives of each other, and a host of others.

At times hilarious, at others quite sad, but always provoking the reader to think, Horwitz shares his adventures of sharing quarters with the Ohio River coal barge workers, traveling on a high-line Mississippi River steamboat cruise, attending a mud bog race in Louisiana, chatting with locals in a number of local bars, sitting in on political meetings in East Texas, and crossing part of the West Texas plains by way of a challenging mule and with a crusty guide. Like Olmsted, Horwitz seems to gain a great deal of useful knowledge from his travels. Olmsted used his experiences to write pieces for what became the New York Times, which helped shape northern perceptions of the South at the time. He also incorporated many of the landscapes and plants he encountered into his later work in monumental landscape architecture projects like New York City's Central Park and Vanderbilt's Biltmore. Horwitz's experience gives us this book, Spying on the South, which challenges us to try to understand and remember that not everyone sees the world as you or I do.

Written in a way that encourages one to learn more, several in our book club at work mentioned that Spying on the South prompted them to read other books on subjects that both Olmsted and Horwitz mention. I fully concur! After concluding this book I read Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 by Andrew J. Torget.

I think that if Horwitz could learn that his book led people to read more, he would break out into his well known friendly grin. I highly recommend Spying on the South. It is fun to read, written as a true page turner, while at the same time being intellectually stimulating.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Just Finished Reading - War Stuff

It should almost go without saying that one needs stuff to wage a war. Not only is stuff needed to mobilize for warfare, but once in the field, stuff is needed to sustain a fighting force. And when one's nation state cannot supply stuff on a regular basis, or when needed stuff is more accessible locally, armies take and destroy stuff. That is War Stuff: The Struggles for Human and Environmental Resources in the American Civil War by Joan E. Cashin in a nutshell.

Part of the Cambridge Studies on the American South series, War Stuff includes chapters on some of the most important resources sought by Union and Confederate armies as they fought out the Civil War. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the antebellum South. The following three chapters focus on specific resources: people, sustenance, timber, and habitat, and examine them through incidents from 1861 to 1863 to observe how attitudes toward these resources changed with Union stances on property as expressed by orders from Maj. Gen. John Pope and General Orders 100 (the Lieber Code) written by Professor Francis Lieber. The last two chapters cover events of 1864 and 1865, as the war moved toward a more destructive level.

In discussing "People," in chapter two, Cashin explains that, "Noncombatants could either help the armies or hurt them, building on the knowledge they already possessed and the proficiencies they had developed before 1861. During the war, they could lift morale, smuggle goods, deliver letters, provide information, engage in espionage, and work for the armies. They could even serve as hostages, which turned civilians themselves into a kind of resource."

Chapter three covers probably the most significant resource (due to its necessity) of the war: sustenance. The competition for food resources during the Civil War were fierce. Southern civilians, including the enslaved, competed with both Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers for food. Early in the war the Union army's stance was to not make war on civilians, however, those rules and standards quickly changed with pinched stomachs and a lack of variety in what the army offered. Confederates were practical if nothing, too. When sustenance options appeared, common sentiments flew out the window in favor of gaining some nutrition. Southern civilians suffered from both belligerents.

Timber, the topic of chapter 4, was probably the most observable resource claimed by the opposing forces. Armies of tens of thousands of men needed wood for cooking, fuel for warmth, and sheltering winter quarter structures. Trees vanished from the Southern landscape in some locations as quickly as frost vanishing before the morning sun. In areas of sustained occupation, soldiers had to literally travel miles for timber resources. Split rail fences on plantations and farms were the most accessible wood resources and often disappeared first. Of course, losing timber resources, whether trees or rails, impacted Southern civilians deeply long beyond the fours years of the war.

Chapter five, "Habitat" looks into how houses, which before the war were viewed as an almost holy haven, no matter how crudely constructed or spartanly furnished, often became the victims to "military necessity," too. Pulled apart for their boards and beams, burned to prevent their cover for sharpshooters, or their walls graffitied by their temporary occupiers, Southern civilians notions of hearth and home were forever changed by the war experience. As mentioned above, chapters six, "Breakdown," and seven, "1865 and After," the threats to, and competition for, resources increased with a more extreme and relentless form of warfare in 1864 and 1865.

The only minor errors that I encountered were a photograph on page 34 that I highly doubt is Patrick Cleburne, and a reference on page 37, that "Kentucky allied with the United States in 1862," (they made their allegiance known in September 1861).

War Stuff provides many intriguing thinking points. Time and time gain, acknowledged articles of war were ignored by both sides commanders and enlisted men in favor of convenience and under the excuse of "military necessity" to the detriment of Southern civilians. War Stuff reminds us that the casualties of the Civil War went far beyond the battlefields of the conflict and its combatants. I recommend it.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Just Finished Reading - In the Cause of Liberty

I sincerely enjoy reading collections of essays. Getting a range of perspectives around a central theme is helpful in forming ones own interpretation about certain subjects in the Civil War era.

In the Cause of Liberty: How the Civil War Redefined American Ideals by co-editors William J. Cooper, Jr. and John M. McCardell, Jr., delivers nine essays by some of the field's top scholars, including: James McPherson, George Rable, Fitzhugh Bundage, and David Blight. These essays, all but one presented originally at a conference hosted by what is now the American Civil War Museum Richmond, Virginia, in 2007, examine how the Civil War served as the primary crucible of change for the United States. The essays mark that change and the people the war affected the most, white Northerners, white Southerners, and African Americans.

As the introduction explains, "the essays fall into five different categories:" The first, McPherson's article, looks broadly at the impact of the war. The nest two essays examine critical antebellum questions. The following three offer considerations on issues central to the Union, Confederacy, and African Americans during the war years. And the final three, which includes those by Bundage and Blight are memory studies. Co-editor John M. McCardell, Jr. provides some brief "concluding thoughts" to finish out the book.

While I found all of the essays beneficial, some stood out in my opinion. Sean Wilentz's essay, "Why Did Southerners Secede?" makes it clear that it was Lincoln's election and the Republican Party's emphasis on the non-extension of slavery that threatened Southerners stronghold on the federal government and resulted in the secession dominoes tumbling. George Rable's "Rebels and Patriots in the Confederate 'Revolution,'" provides and intriguing look into the attempt to create an independent Southern nation. Blight's "Traced by Blood" memory study looks at the legacy of the Civil War and emancipation on African Americans and how the Lost Cause and Reconciliationist interpretations of the Civil War overshadowed the emancipation story for over a century after the war's conclusion. However, as Blight suggests, researching and telling long lost stories of black contributions helps to correct some of the wrongs of the past and gives us hope for a truly more full understanding of our nation's defining moment.

In the Cause of Liberty is a book that every Civil War student should have in their library, and it should be pulled off the shelf and read every so often as a reminder of those central issues that caused the war, how the war was experienced, and why we remember the war the way we do. I highly recommend it!

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Recent Acquisitions to My Library


Since my "to be read shelf" has outgrown its available space, I have intentionally slowed purchasing so many new books while I try to whittle it back into shape. However, I did come across some good buys this past month that I just couldn't pass up.

The title for War Stuff: The Struggle for Human and Environmental Resources in the American Civil War by Joan E. Cashin was intriguing enough on its own to entice me to add it to my collection, but nabbing it a low price sealed the deal. I am presently reading it, and I am about 50 pages into it, so be on the lookout for my review in the near future. Examining things like people, food, timber, and shelter as resources that both Union and Confederate armies needed, and often took, makes for a thought-provoking study.


They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers is generating quite a bit of buzz on various social media outlets. Its examination of women as active participants in economic aspects of slavery and as a road to wealth building is sure to add significantly to our understanding of the "peculiar institution."


In my never-ending quest to learn more about the Civil War's fighting men I've come to enjoy reading unit focused studies. Make the Fur Fly: A History of a Union Volunteer Division in the American Civil War by Timothy B. Mudgett examines the Army of the Potomac's Second Division of the VI Corps. My knowledge of this unit is focused largely on their participation at Petersburg, so hopefully this book will fill me in on their earlier experiences.


I just happened to come across Four Days in 1865: The Fall of Richmond while I was searching for some different studies on Richmond's history. Like the others I've shared here, it was offered at a price that was difficult to pass up. I'm sure I'll learn something from it about Richmond's evacuation.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Executing Daniel Bright

Little by little, and book by book, I'm filling in the rather large gap in my Civil War knowledge bank about how the conflict was experienced in eastern North Carolina. And reading Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community, 1861-1865, was certainly a big help.

While the average Civil War student probably associates guerrilla actions more with border states like Missouri and Kentucky, this book shows that irregular fighting was not confined to one or two geographical locations during the war. Myers explains that the situation, culturally, socially, economically, and yes, geographically, combined to form a perfect environment in which guerrilla warfare could both flourish and reek tremendous damage.

The Confederacy's Partisan Ranger Act of 1862 had a positive military impact in some communities throughout the South, but Myers contends that it was an "unequivocal disaster" in the area of northeastern coastal North Carolina. Not only did guerrillas from this region take advantage of the war to raid and harass both Confederate sympathizing and Unionist (termed Buffaloes) neighbors, the state authorities had little means to control irregular depredations. On top of that, counter-guerrilla military incursions by occupying Union forces, intended to curb irregular acts of violence, also brought a significant load of destruction upon the heads of these citizens. Eventually overturned in early 1864 by the Confederate Congress, the Partisan Ranger Act did much more harm than good during its existence.

One attempt to counter guerrilla activity in this region, and which is the primary focus of this study, was led by Brig. Gen. Edward Wild, who commanded a brigade of African American troops. Wild's "African Brigade," composed of almost 2,000 both free men of color and those formerly enslaved (many from the area), made their way from a base in Norfolk, Virginia to northeastern North Carolina in December 1863. The intent of the raid was to free slaves in the area for service to the Union, limit the resources of the area from aiding the Confederacy, and to curb guerrilla activity. Often provided with vital information from Unionists and slaves, Wild's men took hostages (including two white women) for exchange of captured black soldiers, and caught some men suspected of being guerrillas. One of the men captured was Daniel Bright. Bright volunteered early in the war serving with the 17th North Carolina Infantry. He was captured at Hatteras Island and imprisoned. Bright was paroled, eventually exchanged, and then transferred to the 32nd North Carolina, and then he mustered out. Wild suspected Bright of being a guerrilla, and unable to prove otherwise, he was hanged as such. This attempted show of force and use of black troops to try to quell localist violence and bring the region under Union control is an excellent example of how many areas experienced the war and thus developed coping mechanisms.

Depending on who was in power that day or week, a sense of fluid allegiance was often necessary to survive. Myers puts it best in the book's Epilogue: "Together these indications of loyalty from northeastern North Carolina demonstrate the difficult time both governments had in deciphering the loyalties of Pasquotank [County]. This confusion over loyalty is evidence that most people became adept at shifting their opinions as the situation required and that for those people caught between armed belligerents in the North Carolina's no-man's-land, surviving the war, no matter what it took, became their most important daily duty."

Executing Daniel Bright is wonderfully written, and a model of what microhistory can be, and can do. Myers's depth of research and insightful interpretation give readers clarity to what could be an otherwise cloudy historical episode. I highly recommend it!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Broke by the War

One of the things that intrigues me so much about history is the important aspect of change over time. Trying to understand the perspective of others who held such different ideas from us today, and how we as a society have evolved since are simply fascinating for me to ponder. I guess that is what largely drives my reading. I've found that to gain a firmer grasp on the people of the past, reading their own thoughts are key. But in doing so one must take into consideration a number of factors. When the document was written, who wrote it, and to whom it was written are all significant questions to ask. Broke by the War: Letters of a Slave Trader, edited by Edmund L. Drago is an excellent example.

This collection of letters, written by middle-man slave trader A. J. McElveen to his employer, Ziba B. Oakes, one of Charleston's leading slave traders, is an eye-opening examination of the inner-workings of the the domestic slave trade. The story of how the letters came to be saved for posterity is almost as fascinating as their contents. When a group of journalists and abolitionists came to Charleston after its capture in the spring of 1865, some took advantage of the opportunity to visit the former offices of major slave traders like Oakes. They took documents and artifacts back north with them as evidence of one of the most the unsettling aspects of the "peculiar institution." The Oakes letters eventually ended up at the Boston Public Library.

In the book's introduction, editor Drago ably does the historian's duty of adding necessary context to the letters that follow. Here we learn important background information, not only about the letter's origins, but also helpful facts about McElveen, Oakes, and the region in which they operated. What struck me about the letters as a group was McElveen's matter-of-fact attitude toward slavery. I suppose one should not be surprised, as he was writing to his boss, but still, the almost total lack of recognition in the humanity of his commodities is startling. However, in one entry, on January 19, 1854, McElveen wrote to Oakes: I have bought the boy Isaac for $1100 I think him very prime his Equals cannot be found in capacity he is a General house servant a Splendid carrage driver. he is also a fine painter varnisher and the Boy says he can make a fine pannel door he is Genious [a genius], and its Strange to Say I think he is Smarter than I am. also he performs well on the violin and other musical instruments." Still, McElveen only sees Isaac as dollars, hoping Oakes can get $1500.00 for him. Separating families seemed to cause no concern in McElveen either. On February 7, 1854 he writes about Susanna and her daughter Tener, "the woman will complain but She is unwilling to leave I think she will need correcting. I could not buy her husband do try and Get $1300 for the woman & her daughter."

McElveen kept primarily to Sumter District and operated especially out of Sumterville. He would make his rounds to area plantations trying to buy slaves that he would then forward by railroad to Oakes in Charleston. McElveen constantly seeks market information from Oakes to ensure that they make a profit. The middle-man sometimes comments on news from the Richmond, Virginia markets and dealers, as well as information he gets from contacts in Alabama. McElveen even made a trip to Alabama in 1856 to try to sell a few slaves at greater profit.

On occasion McElveen comments on the escape attempts of slaves. For example, on August 30, 1856, he wrote Oakes about Joe; "I have bin busy Engaged hunting the Boy Joe for ten days. I cannot find him. I have the Blood hounds. we have lot one & Run them hours he had free pass. I am fearful I will have hard time to Get him or Considerable trouble to find him I think he is in Santee Swamp. I have good many looking out for him." The letters end in April 1857, after working out a credit crisis that he thought would ruin him. Although the letters do not go into the war years, McElveen served local militia duty during the conflict, partly as prison guard at Florence, South Carolina.

Never prosperous as a middle-man slave trader, McElveen struggled after emancipation in farming as well. He died in 1874, his condition just before his death described by R. G. Dun & Company as, "Broke by the war - old man." I highly recommend this book as part of a foundation study in understanding slavery, its place in antebellum Southern society, and it consequences on race relations since.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

"Eye Deep in Hell," Sgt. John M. Jackson, 32nd Maine Infantry


Here's another selection from the Petersburg Progress Index's "Behind the Scenes at Pamplin," series that I wrote. It covers a letter written by Sgt. John M. Jackson of the 32nd Maine Infantry, just two days after the Battle of the Crater (July 30, 1864).

Monday, August 12, 2019

Just Finished Reading - War Matters

Although I have no solid evidence to support it, I would guess that the majority of the serious Civil War enthusiasts out there own a relic of some kind from the war. Some folks even form their whole interest in the war around collecting. The Civil War produced so much "stuff" that almost any artifact has developed a group collecting interest in the years since it ended. Some folks collect letters, some collect photographs (or types of photographs), some collect patriotic envelopes, artillery projectiles, medical equipment, or uniforms; not to mention extremely popular items like weapons such as firearms or swords.

The point is, material culture matters to history fans. Hundreds of museums are vivid proof. Most of us humans have an innate need to collect things that help us remember a past time or make a connection to a gone-by era. Although I have a few old pieces of paper, lead, and iron, my favorite relic is a minie ball. My father bought it for me many, many, many, years ago at a roadside antique shop along the rural route to what was then the Perryville Battlefield State Shrine. I've held on to it for going on 40 years, not only because it is, for me, a way to connect with the past, but also because it is symbolic of the common interest in the Civil War that my dad and I shared.

Material culture mattered to those who directly experienced the Civil War, too. In War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era, editor Joan E. Cashin gives us ten chapters by many of the field's top scholars that highlight the power and place of things. Civil War-era material culture studies is a relatively new avenue of study, but as these essays clearly demonstrate, artifacts can provide significant insight into the more traditional historical categories like the war's political, social, economic, and cultural aspects.

A number of the primary topics of the essays cover items one would expect. For example, Earl J. Hess examines Civil War weapons. Soldiers expressed a wide array of emotions about their weapons. Some gave their guns names, others cherished the sense of protection their firearms provided, while others wanted nothing to do with their weapons once the shooting stopped. Jason Phillips looks at a specific weapon: John Brown pikes. Phillips shares an excellent history on the pikes that the militant abolitionist expected to hand out to slaves at his Harpers Ferry raid. But more than that he shows how others, like Edmund Ruffin, used the pikes to promote their own opposing agendas. Ronald and Mary Zboray explore the significance of books as soldier projectile shields. Often these paper protectors came in the form of Bibles, which both soldiers and those on the home front applied significant symbolism. Souvenirs from the Appomattox surrender provided some Confederates with a firm reminder of their time under arms as Peter Carmichael's article contends. Other essays incorporate non-traditional forms of material culture. Lisa Brady and Timothy Silver view "Nature as Material Culture" with Antietam as the focus. And Robert Hicks uses spurious small pox vaccinations as his topic of study. Jefferson Davis's papers and possessions captured with him in May 1865 formed an important episode in his life as he attempted to get them back after his incarceration as Yael Sternhell informs us.

All of the ten informative essays are well-researched and written. Public historians will particularly appreciate the obvious material culture angle, but this book is an important read for any student of the Civil War, no matter where one falls on the novice to professional spectrum. I highly recommend it!

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Keep the Days

One of the most effective ways to attempt to understand the past is to delve into the primary sources of the period under study. That sounds all well and good, but one quickly encounters hurdles. Many primary sources are held in repositories with limited accessibility. In the digital age, that obstacle is getting lower, but it still remains. And while many collections of letters, diaries, and journals are now in print, even the best of edited versions often leave out chucks of information that can unintentionally alter the meaning of the writer of the documents.

As it does in approaching any subject, it helps to have an expert explain how best to go about the task at hand. Steven M. Stowe does just that in Keep the Days: Reading the Civil War Diaries of Southern Women.

Stowe open this impressively written work with a intelligent preface that explains the thesis of the book and how it is structured. He then gives a "Cast of Characters;" which offers brief bios of the 20 women's writings he chose to include in this study. All of the diaries that Stowe chose for this work have been published in one form or another. Many of them come from diarists familiar to Civil War enthusiasts. For example, included in it are Mary Boykin Chestnut, Sarah Morgan, Kate Stone, Cornelia Peake McDonald, Catherine Deveraux Edmonston, and Lucy Buck. While a handful of the 20 women come from Virginia and North Carolina, the majority of them hail from Deep South states. They all come from slaveholding families.

To help us better comprehend this subject, that of female diarists and diary keeping, Stowe gives us six chapters. The first two, "Reading the Diary," and "Keeping the Diary," both provide essential approaches to the subject matter. The other four chapters tackle common themes in the diaries; "wartime," "men," "slaves," and "herself." All of these four topics weighed heavy on the minds of the writers. And each one affected the other and all drastically changed each other between 1861-1865.

Each diarist "kept the days" by recording their thoughts and feelings, and each seemed to try to make sense of their quickly altering worlds. Here in the 21st century we may disdain the sentiments of white supremacy that many of these women express, but reading diaries with empathy (although there are limits) is important. However, recognizing what was wrong is just as important and should also be a reason that we read diaries. Edited/printed diaries are much like standard histories. Who edits them and when they were edited often influences how the diary, and thus the diarist is presented. It is important to remember this.

Stowe provides a beneficial appendix with significant information on the diarists such as: their birth and death dates, their marital status, notable points, dates covered by their diaries, where the original manuscript resides (if it still survives), which edited version of the diary was used in this work, which percentage of the original diary was published, and if other forms of the diary exist.

As mentioned above, Stowe's writing is a pleasure to read. He bring up excellent points for us to consider and helps provide guidance for those navigating the sometimes confusing world of Civil War diarists. I recommend it.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Alfred Stratton, 147th New York Infantry, Double Amputee


Here's another link to a "Behind the Scenes at Pamplin" post I wrote back in April. Alfred Stratton served in the 147th New York Infantry, the same regiment as Charles Biddlecom, who's published collection of letters I reviewed last October.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Just Finished Reading - The First Republican Army

As Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia began ferociously attacking Gen. George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac, pushing the behemoth Union force away from the Confederate capital city of Richmond, a new Yankee army was created via General Orders 103. The Army of Virginia was birthed by combining four departments into three corps. Commanded by Gen. John Pope, who experienced a measure of early success in the western theater, the Army of Virginia's life would prove short. However, as John H. Matsui explains in The First Republican Army: The Army of Virginia and the Radicalization of the Civil War, its brief existence had a definite impact on the war's goals.

When studying Civil War military history it is important to remember that other factors, such as politics and economics, and social aspects, too, were all interwoven into how an army operated. And while Matsui focuses largely on the politics of the Army of Virginia, it ultimately manifested itself in enormous social change aims for the Union cause.

The Army of Virginia's story is told here over an engaging introduction, seven well-developed chapters, and an epilogue. To help chronicle this fighting force's brief life, and provide supporting evidence for his central argument, Matsui draws upon a deep research base into the primary sources of 25 brigadier and major generals and 250 commissioned officers and enlisted men. Doing so provides a thorough sample which allows us to get an overall sense of the army's sentiments.

It almost goes without saying that an army's leadership often determines its policies. And while the Army of the Potomac largely followed the lead of the conservative Democrat McClellan, the politics of many of the commanders (a number of whom were originally from foreign nations) in the Army of Virginia fell more in line with the Republican Party's thinking. In fact, many took the more radical stance in seeing the military necessity of making war on slavery and the Southern civilian population too (a hard war), in effort to end the conflict. Gen. Pope's bombastic statements and harsh policies earned him the label of miscreant from Gen. Lee (and also by a few of his own men), but to many soldiers in the Army of Virginia, who had heard much about McClellan's lack of success in waging a "rose water war," saw a turn toward a more aggressive war as the key to bringing the Union back together without the stain of slavery.

One of the Army of Virginia's main obstacles was its short existence. Unlike the Army of the Potomac, Pope's force had little time to develop a chemistry. The Army of Virginia contained some of the best fighting brigades in the eastern theater, but forming and coordinating them into effective divisions and corps in a short amount of time proved to be too high of a hurdle to overcome. However, the Army of Virginia's practice of waging war ultimately became the Union's overall policy.

This relatively slim volume (157 pages of text) packs a lot of scholarship between its covers. Those readers who enjoy getting the thoughts of the soldiers via their own words will be especially pleased with this book. The First Republican Army makes a significant contribution to our understanding of this critical period in the eastern theater of the conflict. I highly recommend it!

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Chaplain Jeremiah Marion Mickley, 43rd USCI


I thought I'd share a few of the brief articles that I often write for work and that are published in our local newspaper.

This one is titled "Ministering to Mind and Spirit" and shares an image and information on Chaplain Jeremiah Mickley of the 43rd United States Colored Infantry. I hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Corpus of Civil War Letters: Private Voices

I do not often make two posts in one day, but I'm enjoying the last of my vacation and thought, why not?  Besides, this is something that I've wanted to share for a while now.

At the Gettysburg College Civil War Institute this past June, Dr. Stephen Berry, from the University of Georgia, spoke about a digital project (an alternative archive) that he is involved with called The Corpus of Civil War Letters: Private Voices. Rather than having me try to explain what it is all about, I'd encourage you to read their press release that announced its launch in 2017.

However, I do feel a certain responsibility to provide a warning. This site is addictive! First of all there are a number of fascinating subject studies like those under "Camp Talk." But, there are also word maps that allows one to see where certain words used by Civil War soldiers were most common. Then there are the collection of letters. These written treasures, most of which were composed by men who were not fully literate, provide an insight into the common soldier's war that are found in few other places. Granted, some are quite difficult to read due to the phonetic spelling, lack of punctuation and capitalization, but they are transcribed true to form, just as the soldiers wrote or dictated them. In my opinion, this is where they serve the Civil War enthusiast community the most. Sure it might take some time and effort to get through some of the letters, but sometimes with history, like exercise, "no pain, no gain."

Here's the video of Dr. Berry's presentation. Do yourself a couple of favors and check out the website and watch the talk. I think you'll enjoy and benefit from both.

Just Finished Reading - Practical Liberators

Well, what with reading several slimmer volumes in attempt to pad my "Books Read in 2019" list, and taking a few days off for a wonderful vacation, it seems I've fallen a little behind in sharing some thoughts on a few recently read volumes. One of the finest books I've read so far this year is Kristopher A. Teters' Practical Liberators: Union Officers in the Western Theater during the Civil War.

Serious students of the Civil War will not find it surprising that early in the conflict the Union field armies offered various and inconsistent plans in attempt to deal with the large numbers of escaped enslaved people coming into their lines and camps. Their programs for handling refugees differed widely due to a number of factors including: where that particular force was located, who was in command (and thus what his particular feelings toward black people were), what level of command they had (i.e. army vs. regiment), and the number of refugees who arrived. Some officers, particularly those from strong abolitionist sections of the Old Northwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan), were more strident in their refusal to return refugees to their former masters. However, some of those Union officers from say parts of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and of course the slave states of Missouri and Kentucky, were more willing to allow owners to reclaimed what they saw as their legal property. When Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act in the summer of 1862, though, a shift occurred. Now, working from a solid government mandate, and after having a significant amount of time to observe the great force of labor that enslaved African Americans provided to their Confederate enemies, Union officers began to develop a more consistent plan of offering liberation to those who came seeking freedom.

Teters argues that the majority of western theater Union officers developed a pragmatic idea of emancipation. He contends that it was "military necessity" that formed western Union officers' thinking about this central issue of the Civil War. However, not all Union officers fell in line. Some believed that emancipation, whether by act of Congress or presidential edict, would only undermine their past western theater successes by strengthening the will of the southern people to fight with even more determination. In addition, some believed that Union soldiers from areas such as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri, would switch their allegiance if emancipation became an official Union war aim.

Teters covers these issues, and much more, in the first three chapters of this fascinating book. But perhaps the most intriguing chapter in this study to me was the fourth chapter, "Officers, Servants, and Race." For many Union soldier and officers moving into areas such as Kentucky, Tennessee, and northern parts of Alabama and Mississippi this was the first time that some of these men had the opportunity to be around large numbers of black people. Of course, many had previously conceived notions that they had obtained through jokes, ministerial shows, popular songs, and print media, and the many primary sources these men left behind too often reflect those sentiments. Teters found that "Officers found black people exotic, curious, childlike, ignorant, animalistic, dirty, funny, pitiful, and ultimately, inferior." Those officers who were thinking individuals, wisely understood that slavery imposed these factors on African Americans. But, unfortunately the majority of officers believed these were inherit traits for black people. It appears that their ideas changed to a certain degree for those officers who hired personal servants from the refugee populations and actually got to known them a little. But it seems that those positives were most often reserved for the individual level rather than the general population of refugees. It is here where Teters uncovers some amazing primary source information. Officers commented often on their servants, but it appears clear that their war experience and contact with blacks did not radically alter the racial attitudes of the majority.

For most Union officers, emancipation was yet another practical means of depriving the Confederates of a vital manpower source and at the same time adding to their own; a double-negative to their enemies, if you will. Emancipation was another fiber in the rope that would help pull the Union to victory, end the war, and thus the allow their return home.

In some respects Practical Liberators is much in the same line as Glenn David Brasher's The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom, but in others it is quite different. Practical Liberators provides not only a comparative study to Brasher's eastern theater focus, but it narrows the lens to Union officers, which allows for a deep study on this important and relevant subject, and it covers a wider chronological period.

Practical Liberators is excellently written with stacks of primary source evidence. This book adds significantly to our level of understanding on the emancipation process and how it played out on the ground. I highly recommend it!

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Just Finished Reading - A Great Sacrifice

One of the challenges of telling the African American story, before or during the Civil War, is the lack of direct sources that provide their perspective. The disparity of extant primary sources from this period is due largely to their limited opportunities to attain an education and thus benefit from learning with acquired literacy skills. Another hindrance was the fact that few blacks at that time had little leisure time to develop and exercise reading and writing skills. In addition, it was not until the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century that African American documents started to be actively collected in large numbers, and by that time many had been lost forever. To counter this obstacle historians search for primary sources in non-traditional forms that have resided in repositories for decades. For instance, government and state pension records inform us better about the black military experience, as do reports from black soldiers sent to northern African American newspapers.

A Great Sacrifice: Northern Black Soldiers, Their Families, and the Experience of Civil War by James G. Mendez makes great use of the letters sent mainly by northern black women to government and military officials like the president, secretary of war, and various generals to tell the black Civil War story. Today these documents are largely held in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

In this book Mendez offers an engaging and informative introduction, then provides 11 chapters that follow the chronology of the black military experience during the Civil War-era and covers issues that elicited correspondence from the families of black soldiers. In the introduction, Mendez makes a number of important points. A primary point is the stake that northern free blacks placed on the importance of contributing toward U.S. military service in proving the race's worthiness of citizenship, and the eradication of slavery. Mendez writes, "Therefore, northern blacks could not help but take a stand on the slavery issue. Struggling to survive at the bottom of the political, economic, and social ladder in northern society, blacks wanted to improve their lives and opportunities for advancement, but the existence of slavery made this task even more difficult."

The army service of young black men, many of whom were the primary providers for their families, often left those on the home front in economic distress. Families of the soldiers felt the need to write government and military officials to let them know that they were not only sacrificing their loved one for the good of the country, with him they were also giving up much of their economic earning power. So, when issues such as unequal pay between white and black soldiers arose, black families wanted Union officials to know they saw it as unfair and described how it affected them. One letter to Lincoln on this issue, this one from a black soldier in the 54th Massachusetts, argued the point with penetrating logic: "Now your Excellency, we have done a Solider's Duty. Why Can't we have a Soldier's pay? You caution the Rebel Chieftain [Davis], that the United States knows no distinction in her Soldiers. She insists on having all her Soldiers of whatever creed or Color, to be treated according to the usages of War? Now if the United States exacts uniformity of treatment of her Soldiers from the Insurgents, would it not be well and consistent to set the example herself by paying all her soldiers alike?" It's difficult to argue that point without being hypocritical, isn't it?

Other issues that families and soldiers wrote letters about were the unfortunate episodes of racial violence in northern cities, desires for up-to-date information on their soldier loved ones whereabouts and safety, requests for discharges for health or economic reasons, and the undesirable conditions encountered during occupation duty, among others. These amazing sources vividly show that northern African Americans during the Civil War attempted to exercise citizenship rights, although not officially recognized as such at that point. By actively participating in petitioning government and military officials in addressing their grievances, blacks, especially women, blazed a trail toward true freedom and equality that is still a goal today.

A Great Sacrifice is wonderfully written and well researched. It adds significantly to our knowledge of the African American Civil War experience and fills a previous scholarly void. I enthusiastically recommend it!

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain & the Petersburg Campaign

If there is a Civil War general (other than the biggies) that casual enthusiasts recognize by name, it's Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Thanks to his actual impressive war record, his ability to self-promote, the book Killer Angels, its movie version Gettysburg, and Ken Burns's PBS documentary, Chamberlain's story (especially his Gettysburg story) is quite well known. However, his experience as a brigade commander during the Petersburg Campaign has received significantly less coverage.

Years after his severe wounding of being shot though the hips on June 18, 1864, he left accounts about his brigade's actions and his combat injury. He noted that his attacks on the Confederate Dimmock Line protecting the city of Petersburg that day occurred in a charge from the part of the Union line that later became the site of Fort Sedgwick (aka Fort Hell) toward Rives' Salient on the Dimmock Line. Chamberlain even returned to the site years decades after the Civil War and proclaimed that specific location as the proper one. That account and where it happened had been accepted by historians for 150 + years. But, with his book Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Petersburg Campaign: His Supposed Charge from Fort Hell, his Near-Mortal Wound, and a Civil War Myth Reconsidered, author Dennis A. Rasbach provides a wealth of primary source evidence to refute Chamberlain's claim for the location of his wounding.

Rasbach does not attempt to deny Chamberlain the glory he deserves for his brave action in leading his men that June day, but Rasbach piles up a haystack of evidence that shows perhaps Chamberlain's critical wounding, the passage of time and thus the cloudiness of his memory, along with a changed geography prompted the gallant leader to unintentionally misremember the location of his wounding.

A medical doctor by trade, Rasbach incorporates the deft skills of a veteran historian by gathering battle reports, soldiers' accounts, period geographical descriptions, and even modern topographical technology to locate Chamberlain's wounding near Elliott's (aka Pegram's) Salient and later site of the Battle of the Crater as the true site where Chamberlain fell wounded. Originating the attack from the Union lines near the Taylor House and Deep Cut of the Petersburg and Norfolk Railroad, Rasbach details the assault and its results. Rasbach's location is about a mile north of where it was long situated by Chamberlain and previous historians at Rives' Salient.

This impressive piece of battlefield detective work draws rather high praise from some of the Petersburg Campaign's best historians for its meticulous review of source material and how the author presents his argument. Bonuses I found significant to this book are the wonderful maps provided by Hal Jesperson, and the appendices; one giving a thorough order of battle, another a medical explanation of Chamberlain's wounding and treatment, and a third about period maps concerning the discussed locations.

In my opinion, Rasbach provides a very convincing case. This book is an important read, not only for students of the Petersburg Campaign, but also for any historian. It serves as an excellent example for how one makes a sound argument using evidence to overturn previously accepted accounts based mainly on memory. I highly recommend it.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Raising the White Flag

From the Civil War's beginning, throughout its deadly course, and to its bitter end, surrenders occurred. Some surrenders were famous, like those at Fort Sumter, Vicksburg, and Appomattox. But, what about on the field of combat when one soldier got the best of another and demanded he give up? What about situations when surrenders are demanded, rejected, and then a massacre occurs? These issues, and many more, are covered in the trailblazing study Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War by David Silkenat.

Civil War officers had little precedence to go on when it came to surrenders. As Silkenat explains early in the book, there was no true textbook model for how to go about surrendering or demanding surrender. However, the Fort Sumter incident did provide an example for how future surrenders (on a large scale) should ideally play out. It was typical for Civil War surrenders to be initiated by the demand of the subjugating forces rather than it being offered up by the subjugated force. And, another point that seemed to bear importance was the issue of surrendering to someone of equal or higher military rank. There appears to have been no real loss of honor in surrender situations where there was a true attempt at resistance or when a military leader believed further resistance was futile and he accepted the same fate as his men. But, when commanders "gave up the fort" without a shot being fired, or they fled, leaving others to "do the deal" of surrendering, they could expect a healthy dose of criticism by their soldiers and citizens alike.

The most illuminating chapter, in my opinion, is Chapter 3, "Instinctively My Hands Went Up: Soldiers, Agency, and Surrender on the Battlefield." In it Silkenat explores surrender on the small scale. From the soldier's-eye-view in the heat of combat there was not often the time or opportunity to consider the pros and cons of demanding or offering one's surrender. When soldiers believed that they had a reasonable chance for a quick prisoner exchange they were more likely to surrender, however, as the exchange cartel broke down with Confederate refusal to treat black prisoners as legitimate soldiers, fighting men tended to battle more desperately and refuse the enemy's surrender demands. In addition, soldiers who were viewed as outside of conventional (white, regular, loyal) warfare bounds, such as African Americans, guerrillas, or Southern Unionists, sometimes were not afforded the ability to surrender.

Other chapters in the book focus on soldier surrenders at the Battle of Gettysburg, a comparison of Grant and Forrest and their understanding of "unconditional surrender," surrender and the "hard war," and looks at the final surrenders at Appomattox, Bennett Place, and others across the South.

Surrender still makes its way into our current events. Prisoner of war soldiers in our current war zones, and the president's comments on Sen. John McCain's Vietnam capture not being heroic in his eyes, keep the issue of military surrenders on our minds. But when it comes to the Civil War, Silkenat summarizes things well with the book's last paragraph: "Recognizing the central role of surrender in the Civil War requires some reconsideration of what being American means. If Americans define themselves as a people who never give up, never compromise, and never surrender, what does it mean that during one of the defining events in the nation's history, Americans surrendered in droves? For many modern Americans, 'take no prisoners' and 'never surrender' function as mantras, signifying their ideological purity and relentless work ethic. Yet if we are to learn anything from the Civil War generation, we might come to see surrender not as a sign of weakness but as a hallmark of humanity."

In a conflict in which about one in every four soldiers experienced surrender it is astounding that the topic has not been the focus of a book-length study until now. Raising the White Flag is an important work in the field. Hopefully it will provide a scholarly opening for future historians to explore other aspects of this topic (like how surrender played out differently in different campaigns or theaters, etc.). I highly recommend it.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Recent Acquisitions to My Library


As a way of both continuing to build my personal Petersburg Campaign library, and obtain secondary sources for my research project on prisoners captured in that campaign's fighting, I located and purchased a used copy of John Horn's The Siege of Petersburg: The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864. I can justify it by killing two birds with one stone, or something like that. I read this study a few years ago and remembered it being very helpful to understanding Grant's Fifth Petersburg Offensive, where numerous prisoners from both sides were captured.


Back at the end of May I learned that Tony Horwitz was going to be in Richmond for a talk on his new book, Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide. I quickly signed up for the talk as I had enjoyed reading his Confederates in the Attic (can it really be 20 years old now), as well as his book on John Brown's Harper's Ferry Raid, Midnight Rising. A couple of hours later I received an email stating the the talk was canceled due to Horwitz's passing. His death was a significant loss to the history community. Our book club chose Spying on the South for its next selection. I look forward to reading Horwitz's insights and touch of humor.


Rated as one of the best selling Civil War books a couple of years ago, Tom McMillan's Gettysburg Rebels: Five Native Sons Who Came Home to Fight as Confederate Soldiers also consistently receives good reviews from readers. However, the title pretty much sold me the book. It sounds like a fascinating read.


Yet another Petersburg Campaign book! Often when I do customized tours, folks want to go to the area where then Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was grievously wounded through the hips on June 18, 1864. With Dennis A. Rashach's Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Petersburg Campaign: His Supposed Charge from Fort Hell, his Near-Mortal Wounding, and a Civil War Myth Reconsidered, the title and subtitle pretty much speaks for itself. It argues the wounding incident didn't happen where it has long been believed. I'm currently reading this one and will have a review ready within the next week or so.


There are numerous incidents during the Civil War where prisoners of war were either not allowed to surrender or were abused or massacred after surrendering. I bought a copy of Lonnie R. Speer's War of Vengeance: Acts of Retaliation Against Civil War POWs as some background reading for my research. Published in 2002 War of Vendeance was a little ahead of it time in examining the war's "dark side." It appears that it will provide several examples where these tragic acts occurred.   

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Slave Trading in the Old South

A few months ago one of our book club members expressed interest in the group choosing a book on the internal slave trade for us to discuss. At the next meeting I brought in several books from library on that subject that I had previously read. However, there was also one I had not read; Slave Trading in the Old South by Frederic Bancroft. I suggested it for that very reason. We discussed it last Sunday, and it seems that everyone took something away from it and found it very informative.

I'm always skeptical about a book published such a long time ago (1931). So much in both sources and interpretation has changed since then. But I was truly amazed at the depth of research Bancroft put into this book and how well he cited his many sources. Incorporating largely newspaper articles and advertisements, oral history interviews with formerly enslaved people, and city directories, sources not significantly different than much more modern studies, Bancroft paints an unpleasant picture of what is known as by several names; the domestic, internal, or interstate slave trade.

To do so Bancroft writes about the trade and how traders practiced it in various regions of the slave states. The Washington D.C; Virginia and Richmond markets; the Border States of Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland; Charleston; Savannah; Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee; Alabama and Mississippi; and New Orleans all receive a significant amount of attention. In between the chapters on regional distinctions, other aspects of the interstate slave trade are also explored. Topics like slave-rearing, slave-hiring, family divisions, and slave price inflation are discussed with solid evidence used to show their parts in the practice.

The internal slave trade's brutal commodification of human beings is what clearly rings throughout the book. Following on the heels of earlier published scholarly works such as U.B. Phillips's American Negro Slavery, published in 1918, which provided a benign interpretation of slavery, Bancroft broke from that mold and shows how ingrained slavery was into Southern culture, society, politics, and economy.

One important point that Bancroft shares is that just going through the census records of 1850 and 1860 and looking for "slave traders" or "negro traders" is not a valid way of understanding how many people were involved in the internal slave trade. Many men, who served as auctioneers, brokers, and commission merchants used those positions not only to peddle things like dry goods, crops, and real estate, but also to sell human beings. These sales often came about due to either the deaths of owners or financial failings and often used one of these "middle men" to move their chattel property, which often resulted in the separation of husbands from wives and children from siblings and parents.

Reading Slave Trading in the Old South is important for students of the subject to get a better understanding of its historiography. Not everyone during the era of the nadir of race relations told the history of the "peculiar institution" with a Jim Crow interpretation. I highly recommend it . . . and if you do read it, read all the footnotes. You'll learn so much more by doing so.