Tuesday, February 19, 2019

General Orders No. 143 - Bureau of Colored Troops Established


GENERAL ORDERS, No. 143

WAR DEPARTMENT,
ADJUTANT GENERAL'S OFFICE
Washington, May 22, 1863

I . . A Bureau is established in the Adjutant General's Office for the record of all matters relating to the organization of Colored Troops. An officer will be assigned to the charge of the Bureau, with such number of clerks as may be designated by the Adjutant General.

II . . Three or more field officers will be detailed as Inspectors to supervise the organization of colored troops at such points as may be indicated by the War Department in the Northern and Western States.

III . . Boards will be convened at such posts as may be decided upon by the War Department to examine applicants for commissions to command colored troops, who, on application, to the Adjutant General may receive authority to present themselves to the board for examination.

IV . . No persons shall be allowed to recruit for colored troops except specially authorized by the War Department; and no such authority will be given to persons who have not been examined and passed by a board; nor will such authority be given any one person to raise more than one regiment.

V . . The reports of Boards will specify the grade of commission for which each candidate is fit, and authority to recruit will be given in accordance. Commissions will be issued from the Adjutant General's Office when the prescribed number of men is ready for muster into service.

VI . . Colored troops may be accepted by companies, to be afterwards consolidated in battalions and regiments by the Adjutant General. The regiments will be numbered seriatim, in order in which they are raised, the number to be determined by the Adjutant General. They will be designated: "-- Regiment of U. S. Colored Troops."

VII . . Recruiting stations and depots will be established by the Adjutant General as circumstances shall require, and officers will be detailed and inspect the troops.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Sgt. Alexander Heritage Newton


At Pamplin Historical Park and National Museum of the Civil War Soldier’s permanent exhibit, “Duty Called Me Here: The Experience of the Common Soldier in the American Civil War,” guests can chose a soldier comrade to help them explore the museum galleries. One of the thirteen choices available is African American soldier, Alexander Heritage Newton.

Born free on November 1, 1837, in New Bern, North Carolina, Newton grew up fully aware that although not enslaved, he lived as a second-class member of his town’s population. But also, having an enslaved father, he knew full well the additional burdens placed upon those who labored in bondage.

In his autobiography, Out of the Briars, originally published in 1910, Newton explains that he left his native slave state in 1857. Working as a cook aboard a schooner, he soon landed in New York City. There Newton reunited with his mother, who had preceded his arrival. In New York, Newton worked a variety of odd jobs, married, and became committed to his church, where he developed a keen sense of helping others. “I was convinced even then that it does not follow that because our skins are dark and that we are identified with the Negro race that there is no chance for us to become potent factors in the uplifting of humanity and especially my own people . . .” Newton wrote.

In 1861, although not allowed to formally enlist at that point in the war, Newton accompanied the 13th Brooklyn Infantry Regiment “to the front.” In what capacity Newton served the 13th is unknown, but perhaps he helped the unit with cooking as it was skill he had previously acquired. However, when the 13th received a transfer to New York to help quell the draft riots in 1863, Newton got caught up in the racial violence, but fortunately made his escape to New Haven, Connecticut.

On December 18, 1863, Newton enlisted in Company E of the 29th Connecticut Infantry Regiment, one of the few African American units allowed to keep its state designation rather than receive a United States Colored Infantry regimental number. Newton’s enlistment papers show he was just over 5’ 8” tall, with black hair, black eyes, and black complexion. His stated occupation was that of mason. The 26 year old Newton immediately received the rank of sergeant, and later received appointment to commissary sergeant.

The 29th Connecticut’s first assignment was in South Carolina, but in the summer of 1864 they transferred to the fighting raging around Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia. On September 29, 1864, Newton participated in Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. “I, myself, feared, shook, and thought that my time had come. I was full of thoughts of my loved ones at home.  I knew that they were praying that I should be delivered from the jaws of death. This thought cheered and comforted me; and yet I saw friends falling around me, whose loved ones and friends, were also praying for them,” he explained.

Fortunately, Alexander Heritage Newton survived the war. After a transfer to Texas, he mustered out with the 29th Connecticut in November 1865. He returned to New Haven, became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, serving in numerous congregations. Newton died in 1921 in Camden, New Jersey from heart ailments and rests there in Mount Peace Cemetery.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

John Pegram House


A couple of months ago I shared a brief post about the burning of the Albert W. Boisseau house in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, during Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Fifth Offensive at Petersburg. A near neighbor to the southeast of Boisseau was the plantation of John Pegram. Like the Boisseau home, its final fate was burned ruins. 


Shown above in a period sketch, this close up view indicates the house apparently stood as late as October 2, 1864. Perhaps it fell victim on October 7, as did the Boisseau home. Being between the belligerents' lines, its chances of survival were slim.

The uncertainty of where the armies decided to move to and entrench around Petersburg ensured the destruction of many citizens residences and their associated resources. Crops in all states of cultivation were ruined, farm animals that were not removed before the armies arrived were impressed or consumed, woodlots were denuded, and uncountable yards of earth relocated. All of these activities by the military forces left an indelible mark on the landscape.


After securing the ground that was the Pegram farm, the Federals dug in and created earthen fortified lines and positions. In the above woodcut image from November 5, 1864 edition of Harper's Weekly, the burned ruins of the Pegram house stands to the right and the newly constructed Fort Welch occupies the right.


Comparing the Harper's Weekly close up image to the top sketch close up one notices the same locations of the chimneys. It seems the artists used the same angle to produce their images. Or, maybe, the ruins woodcut was based on the earlier house sketch.

The title of the Harper's Weekly woodcut states that it is "The late residence of the rebel colonel Pegram." However, the owner of the burned home was John Pegram. Perhaps Harper's Weekly confused John Pegram with either Confederate brigadier general John Pegram, or his younger brother, colonel Willie Pegram, who were relatives of this John Pegram.

Pegram is listed in the 1860 census as a "farmer," although planter would probably be a more appropriate occupation description, as he owned $10,000 in real estate and $51,000 in personal property. He was 75 years old at the time of the census and lived with his wife Martha (66), and apparently their children, Oscar (29), Octavia (17), and perhaps his sister Mary Jolly (75). John Pegram owned 44 enslaved individuals who ranged in age from 1 to 55. These people lived in 6 slave dwellings. 

Today, nothing visible survives of the Pegram homestead other than a small family cemetery. However, Fort Welch's earthen walls still stand, reminding us of the high costs of war on civilians as well as on those who served in the military.

Pegram House sketch courtesy of the New York Historical Society.
Harper's Weekly image in the public domain.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County

The 1831 Nat Turner rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, is an episode in U.S. history that has received its fair share of scholarship since it happened. Still many misconceptions remain.

In what in my opinion is the most thoroughly researched work yet on this subject, David F. Allmendinger, Jr.'s Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County draws upon both public and private documentation previously unexamined. By looking closely at the family histories and their county tax records, Allmendinger convincingly contends that Turner's enslaved experience created a sense of hopelessness of ever getting out from under its control. Thus, he conceived a plan and acted to end it.

Chapter Two's second paragraph is so well written, and clearly put I can't help but share it in full: "Their exceptional slave [Turner] could not have forgotten them [owners]. From his seventh or eighth year onward, they had passed him down a line of willing heirs and beneficiaries, assigning him as personal property in almost every conceivable way: the Turners had lent him, given him as patrimony, and conveyed him by will; the others had sold or transferred him, hired him out, and held him in trust. Whenever a vital event had taken place--a marriage, a death, or remarriage--his masters had been given an opportunity to consider anew his future, and at every such opportunity they had kept him in their holdings. Their decisions about dowries and patrimonies, gifts, and loans, transfers and exchanges had determined the course of his life." This inability to control one's destiny when combined in the mind of an exceptional human being made for a volatile mixture. Turner's own experience showed him that white people were unwilling to consider black people as anything other than valuable property. Too valuable to emancipate.

One popular misunderstanding is that in the wake of Turner's rebellion owners retaliated by killing hundreds of their slaves. Allmendinger does an exceptional job of explaining how this myth seemed to originate and then compared the Southampton tax records before the event and after the event to show that about 54 slaves in the county perished from all causes during and after the uprising.

In addition, the author's look into attorney Thomas R. Gray's personal history and his writing and publishing of "Nat Turner's Confessions" provides significant insight into this important but probably flawed primary source.

Lastly, the appendices are a true bonus to an excellent book. They offer readers ready references to a roster of the insurgents, a list of the 55 white victims and where they were killed, and yet more information on the use of tax rolls and the perceived atrocities in the wake of the rebellion.

While the depth of the author's research and detailed analysis may be a bit off-putting to casual readers who might get lost in family history details, to a student serious in understanding the Nat Turner affair, this book is second to none. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Finding Your Roots - Freedom Tales



I usually don't make it a point to promote history-related television shows or movies on " Random Thoughts," but when I do see something that I find beneficial and well produced, I feel a certain obligation to share it with as many people as possible.


Last night's episode of the PBS show, Finding Your Roots, hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. featured NFL hall of famer Michael Strahan and popular actress S. Epatha Merkerson. In this episode, titled "Freedom Tales," Gates helped dig up the East Texas roots of Strahan and the fascinating story of  Merkerson's family ties to Georgetown College's sale of 272 slaves in 1838.

In one short segment of the show Gates shared with Merkerson what appeared to be a period account describing the living conditions of Maryland's enslaved people. It told of the slaves' bedding and how it looked terribly uncomfortable. The part that really caught my attention was the phrase that went something like this: "A custom softens things." I couldn't help but extend that thought about the bedding of the enslaved to the peculiar institution and other oppressive social practices at large. 

To those that practiced slavery, it likely stuck them at a young age that something seemed wrong about holding another person as property. But over time, and with through the acceptance of society at large, its harshness became "softened." The same goes with prejudice, discrimination, and bullying. 

Why do we celebrate the achievements of people like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks, not only during February's Black History Month, but also year round? Why? Because they selflessly challenged and acted against institutionalized customs that had softened our country's promised freedoms over time. The next time you have the opportunity to fight against "softening," don't miss the chance to act.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Recent Acquisitions to My Library


Reading the actual experiences of soldiers, from their own pens, was once quite challenging. Access to collections of letters, journals, and diaries used to be limited due to their being held in private collections and protected in archives. But over the last twenty five years or so numerous collections have made it into print. Dear Friends at Home: The Civil War Letters and Diaries of Sergeant Charles T. Bowen is widely regarded as offering excellent insight into the life of a common Union soldier in the the eastern theater.  The only problem with Dear Friends at Home is its own limited availability. It was published by Butternut and Blue Press, which is no longer in active business. However, they do still take orders on the books that they happen to have in stock. I was fortunate to grab a copy of Dear Friends at Home a couple of weeks ago. I'm looking forward to getting into this 600+ page collection.


Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front by J. Matthew Gallman provides a cultural history of the North during the tragic conflict. The author examines forms of popular culture to see how and who Unionists viewed as patriot citizens and how they saw those who were perhaps less committed to the cause. I've read several of Gallman's books and essays about the Northern home front and have found them well researched and thought provoking. I'm sure Defining Duty in the Civil War will follow the path of his other fine studies.


The series of Lincoln books published by Southern Illinois University Press offer readers concise studies on various aspects of the 16th president. One of the most recent, Lincoln and the Abolitionists, by noted abolitionist historian Stanley Harrold, covers the push and pull relationship between the often politically cautious Lincoln and those black, white, men and women individuals who were viewed as some of the most socially radical people of their age. It was the abolitionists who largely helped the conservative Lincoln evolve in his thinking on race, emancipation, and the possibility of black suffrage. I'm interested in getting Harrold's interpretation on these issues.


The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition by Manisha Sinha is a book that I've had on my "wish list" since its publication a few years ago. This almost 800 page history looks to be the most thorough treatment on the subject yet.


Practical Liberators: Union Officers in the Western Theater during the Civil War by Kristopher A. Teters appears to challenge some of the interpretations of a few rather recent studies such as Chandra Manning's What this Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery and the Civil War. Teters argues that emancipation in the western theater was carried out due to military necessity and for much more pragmatic reasons rather than the evolving moral and idealistic ones that some other scholars have purported. Civil War Talk Radio recently had Teters on the show to discuss this important historical episode and his book. Check out both the show and the book. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Braxton Bragg

In the balanced treatment that is Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated man of the Confederacy, author Earl J. Hess, humanizes this normally vilified Confederate general while at the same time points out his many shortcomings. Too often in past scholarship, Bragg's lack of ultimate success, often irascible personality, yet long-term career as the leader of the Army of Tennessee (AOT) has clouded the complete character of the man.

Hess rightly goes heavy on evidence versus hearsay in this book pointing out that long-told stories of Bragg such as the time he countermanded his own order while serving in the Mexican-American War often do not hold up to the scrutiny of solid documentation. Many of Bragg's personality conflict dust-ups with subordinates such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, Benjamin Franklin Cheatham, John C. Breckinridge, and Leonidas Polk get similar coverage from Hess with various results depending on the incident examined. Most of these disagreements came from perhaps Bragg holding others to his high personal standards, particularly when it came to self-discipline.

While reading this book I couldn't help but compare Bragg's (AOT) career with that of a coach who maybe had too much early success, received a job on a team that he was not quite ready for, failed to take into consideration others' personalities and perspectives, continued in the job longer than they should have, and ultimately endured a hard fail-fall. Bragg did himself few favors with his unyielding pursuit of disciple and perception as a hard-cord disciplinarian, both of which developed into a unfavorable reputation with folks on the home front and in the press. However, to a few select friends and close family members he was anything but the image that has devolved to us in history.

Hess also rightly claims that many of Bragg's battlefield actions were initially tactical successes. Good early showings at Perryville, the first day at Stones River, and Chickamauga demonstrate his offensive ability and desire to initiate action. However, often due to particular subordinates' unwillingness to cooperate (cough-Polk, cough Breckinridge), or Jefferson Davis not choosing a superior to demand coordination (Kirby Smith at Perryville), Bragg's best intentions, efforts, and talents never much succeeded in shining though. Even with the successful field results at Chickamauga, Bragg was disgusted that that victory ultimately proved hollow for the Confederate cause.

With this fair look into the life and military career of Braxton Bragg, Hess has provided us with a thought-provoking books about a man that was more complicated than we often give him credit for being. The last sentence of the work is quite fitting: "Bragg was a fascinating mixture of good and bad qualities; his impact on Confederate history was enormous, and we are still grappling with it." I would not be surprised if this study seeds future books reexamining many of those generals who have often received less than favorable historical reputations. I highly recommend it!

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Rohoic Creek Military Dam


Earlier this week I shared some information on the Pamplin Historical Park Facebook page about the two military dams located on the property now owned by the Park. Due to the steam they were built on running in the opposite direction needed, and thus ponding the water between the Confederate earthworks and their picket line, they were largely ineffective.

In that post I mentioned Rohoic Creek dam built by Confederates just southwest of Battery 45 on the Dimmock Line. Rohoic Creek dam was probably the largest of the several dams constructed by the Confederates as defensive measures for the Cockade City and its vital supply lines. This stream, sometimes referred to as Town Creek or Old Town Creek, runs from its headwaters on what is now Pamplin Historical Park and flows to the Appomattox River, west of the city.

Yesterday, having the day off, I took the short drive over to the dam to get some photographs of the Rohoic Creek dam so I could share them here. While the monument stone in the above image states that the dam was built in August 1864, historian Earl J. Hess in his book, In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Defeat, contends that the dam was built after Gen. Grant's Fifth Offensive, "with most work taking place between November and December."


Hess also states that Gen. Alfred Scales's North Carolina Brigade, who was stationed near that point of the line, completed the dam around the end of the month. Apparently it filled with water quickly and built up significant pressure because it gave way in January and flooded the creek valley sending a flood wall toward the Appomattox River that uprooted trees along the banks and washed away any structures in its path.

Shown in the photograph above is the present-day northeast side of the dam wall looking toward Rohoic Creek.


The Library of Congress website has a sketch image by artist Alfred R. Waud showing the Rohoic Creek dam undergoing repairs during the winter of 1865, after it had broke. In the image's background is Boydton Plank Road. Battery 45 is in the top left corner of the sketch. When dammed up, the creek's floodplain on the Boydton Plank Road side was inundated with water. Apparently, from the looks of the image, when Boydton Plank Road was flooded it was re-routed across the dam's top.


Taken from the top of the northeast section of the dam wall, the above photograph shows the Rohoic Creek bed and period floodplain looking south toward Boydton Plank Road, which can barely be seen running horizontally through the middle of the image.



The southwest section of the dam wall and Rohoic Creek are shown above. The creek flows from left to right. Building the dam required the movement of an enormous amount of earth. It is a pretty impressive feat considering the men who built it were only using hand tools. 

Friday, January 25, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Denmark Vesey's Garden

Much along the lines of David Blight's trailblazing study Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, but taking a much more narrow focus, Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts's Denmark Vesey's Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy is a timely and relevant examination of how slavery has been remembered in "America's Most Historic City," Charleston, South Carolina.

Although we might think the contentious issue of history's memorialization is a current events phenomena, it is not. As the authors clearly show with telling evidence, the contested arena of commemoration is a long fought over battle ground. Following a timeline that runs from the end of the Civil War to the present, the authors show that the predominate white Confederate narrative of slavery, secession, civil war, and emancipation has met with resistance from Charleston's African American community from early on.

Of particular importance is the history of the John C. Calhoun monument. Originally much different than the now towering tribute, blacks both mocked and vandalized the statue of the man who proclaimed that slavery was a positive good. It is not so difficult to see that the city's black community did not see John C. Calhoun as an individual to revere because his expressed beliefs and actions ran directly in opposition to who they were. On through the Jim Crow era and into the modern Civil Rights Movement period, Charleston's black community fought to keep alive their understanding and memory of slavery and the Civil War. Often they had to do so with subtle methods due to their social marginalization and lack of political power. However, in their segregated schools and churches they shunned the white "Lost Cause" interpretations and focused on stories of overcoming long odds, individual tales of achievement like Robert Smalls, and keeping alive an unvarnished memory of the difficult Civil War-era.

Another section of the book examines the slow evolution of history focused tours in the city proper and on surrounding plantations. Once known for stories of "moonlight and magnolias," of "cavaliers and belles," told to tickle the ears of visiting outsiders, by the 1990s and 2000s a slow movement toward more primary sourced, evidence-based tours emerged which peeled back the layers of romanticized sentimental fluff in favor of a more honest and sometimes emotionally painful look at the past. Both black and white tourists have demanded a fuller telling of slavery and its role in secession, and both black and white tour operators have largely moved in that direction.

In the book's "Afterword," the authors put a number of thoughts together very well: "We should not be expected to reject our ancestors for their moral failings. And we certainly should not be held responsible for their actions. This does not give us license, however, to turn a blind eye to our forebears' flaws or the complexity of the world in which they lived. We can pay respect to our ancestors without slipping into outright reverence for them, especially when that reverence leads to . . . historical malfeasance. More important, while it is unfair to ask white Americans today to accept blame of the sin of slavery, it is entirely reasonable to ask that they understand how its memory and legacies continue to shape the daily experiences of whites and African Americans in very different ways."

Denmark Vesey's Garden is an important book. It reminds us of the importance to tell history through multiple perspectives, based in solid primary source research, and informed by scholarship. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Zooming in on 50th NY Engineers Camp at Poplar Grove


If you've ever been to Poplar Grove National Cemetery, located just outside of Petersburg, you probably learned that during the campaign that location served for a time as the camp of the 50th New York Volunteer Engineers. One of the most recognizable structures the engineers constructed is the impressive pine log church building shown on the left side of the photograph above.

There are a number of similar images of the camp and church on the Library of Congress website. However, this one included some intriguing details when one zooms in on the high-resolution TIFF image. 


The engineers appear to have had an eye for detail in their construction. The impressive workmanship on the church building even included the engineer service emblem.


Not so visible in the non-zoomed image are the many individuals captured in the photograph. A group of ten African American men, who were probably enslaved before arriving in the Union camp, are shown standing in different poses wearing a variety of hats and garments. The four men on the left all wear slouch hats. One man wears what looks to be a long worker's apron. The man on the right in this cropped shot appears to have something wrong with the lower part of his right leg. It bends at an awkward and painful looking angle. Was he hurt while enslaved, or was he injured on an Union army-related construction project?


The group of six men to the last group's left also presents a diverse array of workmen. A couple of the men wear military caps, while others wear slouch hats, and three of these men have worker's aprons. But unlike the other group, at least three of these men are shown holding the tools of their trades. The man on the far right holds a handsaw. On his right is man holding a hammer. And, to his right, a man holds a masonry hawk and trowel. Were these men told by the photographer to hold their tools, or were they expressing the pride they had in their skills by illustrating it with their work implements?


To the group of African American workers' left is another cluster of individuals. On the left edge of the above shot are what looks to be two white soldiers. One is crouching and another is sitting, perhaps on a box or bench behind the other. A saddle rests on a rail in their background. To their left is a group of seven African American women and girls and a young boy. A wash tub rests on the ground in front of one tall woman. All of the teenage or order women wear head wraps. The second woman from the right sits on the ground with her hands covering her face with her elbows resting on her knees. Standing against a brick chimney is a crooked handled broom and what looks to be a metal tub of some type.


The buildings that the women sit in front of are crudely constructed. The logs of the buildings are laid horizontally and the roofs of the cabins are made from ill-fitting layered slab wood. The only element in the cabins that appear as neat and uniform as the other buildings are the log parts of the chimneys. Apparently these cabins were the residences of the African American workers and their families.


Contrasted with what are likely the workers homes are what probably were the enlisted men and officer's winter quarters. These structures have mainly vertical logs walls and nice shake shingle roofs.

Was the labor required to build the church building and the neat quarters provided by the African American workers at the direction of the engineers? Were the black laborers not allowed similar materials and the time to construct similar neat residences? I'm not sure. However, I am sure that photographs like these, that show amazing close up details, also bring up many questions.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Virginia Army Agency



Wandering through some old newspapers over at the Library of Congress's "Chronicling America" website while half-watching the NFL games today, I happened across a couple of advertisements for the Virginia Army Agency. I had never heard of this particular soldier aid organization before.

The ads appeared in the October 1, 1864 issue of the Richmond Daily Dispatch. The top notice describes the location of the organization and its primary purpose. It appears as if they served Virginia soldiers exclusively. 


Apparently this particular soldier aid service was busy enough to need extra help and posted an additional notice to hire two slaves to assist them.

I searched on the internet to see if I could find more information about the Virginia Army Agency, but struck out. If anyone knows where I can learn more about this organization, I would be happy to find out.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Corporal Si Klegg and His Pard

I've had Corporal Si Klegg and His Pard by Willbur F. Hinman sitting on my "to be read" bookshelf for almost 20 years. It was referred to me way back when by a Civil War reenacting friend as a good look into the world of common soldiers. For whatever reason, over the years I kept passing it up for other books. I suppose part of it is that it is quite a hefty read, coming in right at 700 pages. Another reason for shying away for so long may be that it is a fictionalized account.

However, if I had taken the time to at least scratch its surface I would have learned that it was written by a veteran who was fully aware of the various soldiers' situations he works into the book. Wilbur Fisk Hinman served in the 65th Ohio Infantry in the Western Theater from 1861 to 1865, working his way through the ranks from private to major.

Personalities from Hinman's actual army career closely mirror those of the main protagonists in his fictional book. Josiah Klegg's made up Company Q of the 200th Indiana observes and experiences many of the same things that Hinman's 65th Ohio saw and did. To provide helpful context to the story that Hinman weaves, and to better understand Hinman's own service, an excellent introductory essay, written by the late historian Brian Pohanka shows the similarity of the fictional and the factual. Hinman published Corporal Si Klegg and His Pard in book form in 1887, but it first appeared in the pages of The National Tribune in serial form.

Throughout the book's 700 pages one gets an accurate account of so many facets of soldier life. Here we learn about the urge to enlist, how soldiers learned to whittle down their loads to the bare minimum, how they cooked their food, how they survived the rain and cold, how they experienced combat, and so much more. One of the few distractions of the book for me is that much of the character dialogue is written in dialect. In what I suppose is meant to be a mid-western Hoosier dialect, it reads as southern or Appalachian to my ear. Perhaps, at that time, the two regions' form of speech was not all that different. One of several outstanding positives that the book points out is the sharp learning curve that many men experienced with the transition from civilian to soldier. Hinman often uses these situations to show the value soldiers placed on humor and its ability to help the men cope.

Despite being published over 140 years ago, Corporal Si Klegg and His Pard stands the test of time as an excellent and informative source for insight into the common soldiers' experience. I highly recommend it.

Here are a few passages I found particularly striking:

"Just before dark several wagon loads of green oak logs had been dumped at various points through the camp. After long effort, that exhausted the patience of several successive 'reliefs,' a few feeble fires were started. Around these, wet and shivering and blinded by smoke, the disconsolate men . . .crowded and elbowed one another. Patriotism was at zero."

On first experience eating hardtack: "Wall - I'll - be - durned! I didn't spose I'd got ter live on sich low-down fodder as that. The guvyment must think I'm a grist-mill. I'd jest as soon be a billy-goat n eat circus-posters n tomater cans n old hoopskirts."

"The soldiers always yelled on the slighted provocation. Day or night, in camp or on the march, they exercised their lungs whenever anything gave them an excuse for doing so. If a favorite general came in sight he received a boisterous greeting; if a frightened 'cotton-tail' rabbit started up it was enough to set a whole division yelling. One of those mighty choruses would sweep in a tumultuous wave for miles through a great camp or along a marching column, when not one man in ten had any idea what he was yelling at or about."

"And so, hour after hour, the ghastly work goes on, amidst screams and groans and sights that are wrenched from unwilling lips. There are men with mutilated faces - an eye gone, and ear torn off, a jaw crushed to fragments. Charging through that leaden hail, necks and shoulders were torn by hissing balls. Here are men with pierced lungs - men through whose bodies in every part, bullets have passed. Many of those thus stricken down lie where they fell, on the rugged side of yonder ridge or beside the cannon that belched from its summit. These yet survive their awful wounds."

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Road to Now


Although at time I found it quite challenging, my graduate school experience was a couple of the best years of my life. The seeds of my historical thinking skills were planted in my undergraduate experience at East Tennessee State University, but it was while working on my M.A. at Appalachian State University that they began to grow and blossom. I think a large part of that development was the amazing friends I made during those two years. Those of us in the program shared a lot of time together outside of our classroom experience discussing historical topics, challenging each others' interpretations, defending our own claims, and all the while expanding our knowledge and sharing a load of laughs.

One of the many dear friends I met at Appalachian State is Ben Sawyer. Ben and I come from about as different of backgrounds as possible, but our passion for history forms our our common ground. After graduating together, I went into public history and Ben went on earn his Ph.D. at Michigan State, and is currently teaching at Middle Tennessee State. Ben is a man of many talents. He is one of the quickest and wittiest thinkers I know. Both gifts have helped him in a couple of his "side hustles." In his spare time, he works as a stand-up comedian in Nashville, and he co-hosts a popular history podcast, The Road to Now.

The latest episode of the Road to Now, "American Slavery with Edward Baptist," is now available for your listening and learning pleasure. I posted about Baptist's book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, a couple of years ago due to the strong impression the book made on me.

So, if you enjoy listening to history podcasts, please consider adding the Road to Now to your list. Happy listening!

Friday, January 11, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Intensely Human


Over the last decade or so, scholarly studies have provided us with a wealth of information on black Civil War soldiers. Rather recent regimental histories, battle accounts, post-war studies, and even healthcare-focused works give students a richer idea than ever before about how United States Colored Troops experienced their military service.

Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War by Margaret Humphreys, examines the quality of healthcare provided to USCT men. Black Union soldiers died of disease at a significantly higher rate than their white comrades. Humphreys attempts to explain why this was true. She puts forward several causes for higher black mortality.

First, black troops were often sent to some of the most unhealthy regions of the conflict. Once there, USCTs were far more likely than their white comrades to be relegated to exhaustive labor details, like building roads, fortifications, repairing railroads, and clearing timber. Such labor intensive responsibilities combined with poor nutrition dropped soldiers' immune levels and subjected the men to a wide range of diseases. Cases of typhoid, dysentery, pulmonary issues, and small pox ravaged black troops, especially those in coastal South Carolina, southern Georgia/northern Florida, and Louisiana.

A second factor that Humphreys discusses at length is that many army physicians of the era, much like the larger white population, held racist views. Many whites of the period not only thought that blacks were intellectually and socially inferior to whites, they also believed that blacks were innately not as healthy as whites. This belief too often led to physicians' neglecting to properly treat black troops, thinking that their efforts were often in vain due to blacks' natural inability to fight off disease. Other contributing factors to high rates of USCT disease and mortality included inadequate shelter and clothing issues.

Using a number of primary sources, including archival collections from the United States Sanitary Commission, white officers' personal letters, and black soldiers' letters to black newspapers back in their home communities, Humphreys offers readers sad insights into cases of neglect and needless suffering. Perhaps Intensely Human's saddest chapter is chapter seven, which describes the transfer of numerous USCT regiments to the Texas/Mexico border after the war's end to serve out their enlistment periods. There black soldiers suffered from a lack of drinkable water and a severe shortage of fruits and vegetables, which led to a dramatic spike in cases of scurvy, and ultimately soldier deaths.

While Humphreys focuses largely on the failures and neglect of black soldier healthcare within the Union army, it would made for a more thorough study to have filled out this rather slim volume with additional information on the African American physicians, nurses, and orderlies, who toiled without recognition, as well as coverage of the more successful USCT healthcare facilitates that treated black soldiers.

Intensely Human is a fine addition to the ever-growing body of USCT scholarship and an important read for any student of the Civil War. I recommend it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Just Finished Reading - The War for the Common Soldier

It's always pleasing when a much anticipated book actually delivers. Peter S. Carmichael's The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies brings the scholarly spotlight back to focus on the men who served out on the firing line, the picket line, in camp, in the hospitals, in prisons, and sometimes on the lam.

In this book Carmichael contends that soldiers attempted to meet the demands of their military commitments by exercising a healthy does of pragmatism. Often found being stretched between the ideals and principles of mid-nineteenth century manhood (duty, honor, commitment, and sentimentalism) and the realities of soldiering (exhausting marches, inclement weather, bad food, and the sheer hell of battle) men attempted to find practical ways to cope.

To illustrate how men exercised pragmatism Carmichael incorporates a number of case studies taken from several soldiers' primary sources. While a few of these case studies come from published accounts known to well-read Civil War students, such as those of Alabamian Joshua Callaway and New Yorker Charles Biddlecom, most are probably more unfamiliar examples that the author expertly examines and deftly interprets to show the human side of soldiering. Included are a couple that offer African American soldiers' perspectives.

Upon enlistment, soldiers learned rather quickly that their old worlds, where perhaps they had an individual say and experienced a high level of liberty, had suddenly vanished. Now, in place of their previous civilian worlds, where consistency gave way to uncertainly and comforts gave way to torment, they had to learn how to balance life-ling principles and ideals with survival in order to maintain their mental and physical well being.

Of course, soldiers who came from diverse pre-war life experiences found different ways to pragmatically cope with soldier life. Just like us today, some people then were optimists and some people were pessimists. Some people were able to withstand tremendous amounts of stress and others broke with the first test. However, as Carmichael summarizes nicely in the book's epilogue: "Within this turbulent and often oppressive environment, soldiers came to see the necessity of being adaptive in thought and action. Quite simply, they became pragmatic. Pragmatism was not a word that soldiers used, let alone defined, but its presence was felt. Pragmatism assumed innumerable forms and permeated all aspects of military life, but it did not lead men on either side to disavow Christianity, reject ideological beliefs, abandon sentimentalism, or scrap their conceptions of history as a divinely ordained march toward progress." A good example is many Union soldiers' evolving views on slavery. Often after northern men who had little experience with slavery saw it in practice as Union armies penetrated the South, and saw that slavery provided a valuable labor supply to the Confederate army, they came to the understanding and conclusion that slavery had to be destroyed in order to defeat the rebellion.

Perhaps the most fascinating chapter in the book is chapter seven, which looks at soldiers' use of war-time material culture relics and souvenirs as ways of identifying with their time in military service.

The War for the Common Soldier is the perfect blending of military and social history. It is also a timely book in that it not only helps us better understand how Civil War soldiers met the demands of what they were asked to do, but it also prompts us to think about the ways that our nation's current soldiers sacrifice their comforts for our greater good. I most highly recommend it.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Recent Acquisitions to My Library


I was able to catch Barbara Gannon's talk at Pamplin Historical Park's annual Symposium in person this past October. I was both impressed with her talk, and intrigued by her research topic. The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic is the result of that research. The G.A.R. rose to increasingly political importance at roughly the same time that Jim Crow segregation was gaining ground. What effect would this have on the veteran's organization and its black and white members? With the fall lecture whetting my intellectual appetite, I'm looking forward to getting a fuller meal with this book. 


I've mentioned on here several times that I don't read much historical fiction, but I happened to hear about a novel titled The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. It is apparently about an African American boy who seems to be mistaken as a girl by John Brown during an 1857 raid on the Kansas-Missouri borderlands and is taken along on a grand adventure ending up at Harper's Ferry. Being that the story involves John Brown, I couldn't help myself from wanting to see how this particular story plays out and how the author depicts Brown.   


Too often I get drawn into purchasing a book by its title. That is, after all, partly the intention of the author and publisher. While this is not necessarily the reason I obtained Jason Phillips's Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Imagined the Future, you have to admit it is a title that piques the interest. We often look at history with hindsight, not as the people at the time experienced the present and hoped for the future. If Looming Civil War is of the same high quality as Phillip's previous work, Die Hard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility, I will certainly be pleased with adding it to my library. 


Just as I sometimes buy books based on their titles, I often seek out new works to read by authors whose previous publications I enjoyed. The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War by Aaron Sheehan-Dean is receiving a number of positive reviews. Like Jason Phillips's previously mentioned book, I too enjoyed reading Sheehan-Dean's earlier work, Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia, which was published a little over a decade ago. I'm obviously looking forward to getting the author's interpretive take on the whether the Civil War was a limited conflict or a total war; something historians have seemingly been arguing since the guns went silent.


I've been trying to sprinkle my scholarly-focused readings with occasional drops of soldiers' letters. And, after enjoying part of my recent honeymoon in Vermont, I've been interested in learning more about that state's soldiers' experiences. It seems that Voices from the Attic: The Wiliamstown Boys in the Civil War by Carleton Young lets me kills two birds with one stone. Young builds his book around a discovered cache of two brothers' letters. These war-time missives help him tell the story of the Vermont Brigade's Civil War experience, and promises to provide an educating read.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Just Finished Reading - The Blood of Emmett Till

The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson is a fine follow up to his two previous Civil Rights era-focused books. I first read Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power over a decade ago. And his second book, Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story, offers a 1970 North Carolina lynching which makes for some difficult reading, too.

The Blood of Emmett Till explores the infamous lynching of this 14 year old Chicago boy while visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta in 1955.

Tyson attempts to reconstruct not only the grocery store incident in Money, Mississippi, that resulted in Till's death, he also poignantly provides significant contextual information about why Till's killers felt bold enough to commit the terrible murder with so little fear of legal prosecution. Tyson's examinations of the murders of George Lee and Lamar Smith, and also that attempted murder of Gus Courts, all who were advocates for black voting rights in Mississippi, provided Till's killers with a high level of confidence that they would not be convicted by an all white male jury of their peers.

Tyson also spends considerable effort debunking the belief that Till, a Chicagoan, did not know about Southern racial mores. Till's mother was born in Mississippi, and although it was not as blatantly racist as the Magnolia State in 1955, the Windy City knew its own fair share of racial violence. Till was widely aware of what it meant to be African American in 1950s America. Till's mother, too, had warned the young man before he left about what to do and not to do while visiting relatives down South. Why Till chose to ignore her advice is unknown, perhaps he was just a 14 year old being a 14 year old, but as his mother stated, "Nothing that boy did could every justify what happened to him."

The brutality of the murder is on full display in the book's pages. However, it also tells of the bravery that Till's mother displayed in having a open-coffin funeral to show the world what white supremacy did to her son, and her courage to attend and testify at the killers' trial. These actions show how strong of a woman she truly was. Similarly, Till's uncle, Moses Wright's testimony against the two white men literally jeopardized his life. Regardless, he stood up bravely and pointed at the men who had taken Till from his home that August 1955 night.

Till's tragic story helped galvanize the evolving Civil Rights Movement. It was after all in the weeks following the acquittal of Till's murderers that Rosa Parks explained that she drew upon an inner strength pulled partly from Till's brutal killing that she refused to give up her seat on her Montgomery, Alabama bus.

Over 60 years removed from Till's murder, our society is still not free of racism. However, as James Baldwin once told us, only by facing our past, especially the ugly past, can we hope to change for the better. The Blood of Emmett Till helps us face that ugly past. I highly recommend it.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Just Finished Reading - The Colors of Courage

I had remembered seeing The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg's Forgotten History - Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War's Defining Battle by Margaret S. Creighton in our bookstore at work when it first came out back around 2005-2006. But already having a number of books on Gettysburg, I decided to pass on it at that time. Then, in a recent issue of the Civil War Monitor magazine, a panel of historians were asked to offer their favorite books on Gettysburg, and a number of them included it among their choices. With those endorsements, I searched and found an inexpensive copy online and added it to my library. When I suggested it to our book club at work for our next group read, it was selected. And having sometime over the holidays I dove in and finished it. Wow! I'm glad all of those above related circumstances worked out the way they did, because it all led me to an excellent book.

The Colors of Courage, as the subtitle suggests, takes a non-traditional approach to the Gettysburg experience. While there are obvious connections to the military history of the battle, especially where it concerns German soldiers of the XI Corps of the Army of the Potomac and with references to the immigrants among the Louisiana Tigers, the focus is much more on social and cultural history. What Creighton attempts to do, and I believe she fully succeeds, is to tell those other stories of how the campaign and battle also effected people who were not traditional combatants.

Her look into the world of women in the town of Gettysburg is fascinating! With many of the town's men already in the Union army or fleeing the chance of capture in the advance of Gen. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, it was the women of the community to were largely left to deal with the Confederate invasion. It was they who tried to hide the cows, hogs, and preserves; it was they who had to feed the hungry soldiers of both armies; it was they who braved the battle as it spread through the town; and it was they who were often left to nurse the wounded of both sides, and even bury the dead.

The important third leg of Creighton's study is the African American community of Gettysburg. Due to the location of Gettysburg, it was an often traveled route for fugitive slaves in the decades before the Civil War, and for many of those who had attained their freedom, it became their new home. Often forced to work in service occupations and largely segregated to their own corner of the community, they nevertheless provided invaluable labor for the town and developed a rather close-knit community built around church and racial solidarity. When Confederates started rounding up both free people as well as fugitive slaves in the region, many of Gettysburg's blacks were forced to flee to areas further north. Some who had few options of mobility or the time required to get away stayed and braved the storm.

This all makes for an amazing story of struggle and perseverance. Creighton's well-written book incorporates many different sources of information: military reports, newspaper accounts, letters, journals, and oral histories, all help provide the accounts she chooses to tell. This book is significant because it gives us those missing pieces of the puzzle that the traditional military histories too often leave out.

The actions of armies do not only have repercussions for the belligerent opposing forces, they also have long-term effects on the communities where they happen to fight. This is the story of how immigrants, women, and African Americans handled (and also remembered) their part of the Gettysburg storm. I highly recommend it!