Friday, February 27, 2015

Miss Civil War 2015

This year's winner of Random Thought's Miss Civil War was not actually a miss. Well, she might have been when these wonderful photographs were taken, as I am not exactly sure when they were made. Regardless, 
Emilie Todd was a true Kentucky beauty. Emilie was born in 1836 in Lexington and was the half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln (18 years difference in age).

In 1856, Emilie married Benjamin Hardin Helm, who went on to lead Kentucky's famed Confederate Orphan Brigade and was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga. If you have seen pictures of Gen. Helm, you can see that he clearly married up.

After Gen. Helm's death, Emilie went to live with Mary and Abraham Lincoln in the White House for a time. One can only image the gossip and rumors that spread by having the wife of a Confederate general in the White House. Emilie remained true to her departed husband, never remarrying and wearing mourning clothes for much of the remainder of her life. In addition, Emilie remained loyal to the memory of the Confederacy. She became active in memorial organizations and was known as the "Mother of the Orphan Brigade," as she was a faithful attendee to their reunions.

Despite Emilie's loss of her husband and her nation, she lived a long full life, dying at age 93 in 1930. She was buried in the Todd family plot of the Lexington Cemetery.

For a great longform essay on Emilie, you can download my friend and colleague Stuart Sanders' Kindle read "Lincoln's Confederate 'Little Sister:' Emilie Todd Helm" for only $2.99.

Images courtesy of the University of Kentucky.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

All Facial Hair Team - Army of Tennessee Squad

Following up on my Army of the Potomac all facial hair team post, and wanting to give equal time to the major Confederate army in the Western Theater, I thought I would share my picks for its squad. All of these officers spent at least some time in the Army of Tennessee.

Lt. General Braxton Bragg; a monobrow technically counts as facial hair doesn't it?

Major General John C. Breckinridge; best rope-like mustache

Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood; best beard on the saddest-looking face

Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws, best imitation of Harry Potter's Hagrid

Brig. Gen. Otho F. Strahl; fullest goatee

Monday, February 23, 2015

Just Finished Reading - The Smell of Battle, The Taste of Siege

While it has been some time now since I last posted a "Just Finished Reading" selection, I hope I am getting back into the swing of things and can share more in the near future.

Ten years after the end of the Civil War Walt Whitman told us that "the real war will never get in the books." Whitman went on to explain what the war was not. "It was not a quadrille in a ballroom. Its interior history will not only never be written=its practicality, minutiae of deeds and passions will never be even suggested. The actual soldier of 1862-'65, North and South, with all of his ways, his incredible dauntlessness, habits, practices, tastes, language, his fierce friendships, his appetite, rankness, his superb strength and animality, lawless gait, and a hundred unnamed lights and shades of camp, I say, will never be written=perhaps must not and should not be."

With the thousands of books written on the war since he wrote those words, I might argue with Whitman's assessment. Each and every year gives us more and more studies on various aspects of the men and women that lived those tragic four years.

Mark M. Smith's The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War (Oxford Univ. Press, 2014) makes a great addition to the war's scholarship and gives us a better understanding by looking a how the war was sensed. In doing so Smith gets us closer to those things that Whitman thought would never make it into the history books.

I suppose one of the reasons I first tried my hand at reenacting so many years ago was to get a better idea of of how the war smelled, looked, tasted, felt, and sounded to those that fought it. My experiences were never as accurate as the original events=it never could be=but at times it surely must have been close=if just for a few minutes or hours. Reading The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege made that fact all the more evident. Smith's method for covering this particular topic is quite interesting. To give us a better idea of the Civil War's sensory history he looks at specific events and uses them to illustrate each sense.

To examine the sense of hearing he talks about the "Sounds of Secession." All of the hub-bub in Charleston during South Carolina's withdrawal from the Union must have been something to hear. When it came time for pushing and shoving, the cacophony of Fort Sumter was deafening for those unaccustomed to such sounds, especially at night.

For the ocular sense, Smith uses the sights at First Manassas. "Eyeing First Bull Run," lets us see the grand panorama of the war's first big fight. Washington dignitaries came out to view the battle and the panic of the Union retreat back to the capital provided many with a view of the havoc that was to come in so many battles that followed.

What I think would be one of war's worst sensory experiences gets covered with Smith's chapter "Cornelia Hancock's Sense of Smell." Smith uses the accounts of this New Jersey woman turned nurse's time helping the wounded after the Battle of Gettysburg. Her descriptions of the smells of death and dying in the July heat really get to the heart of sensory experience.

The terrible siege at Vicksburg provides Smith the opportunity to discuss taste. In the Mississippi River town of refined palates before the war, citizens and soldiers had to adjust to eating rats and mule meat to survive. Grant's grip on Vicksburg had the people living in caves carved from the hillsides and scrounging for the littlest bits of scraps they could find to eat.

For the sense of touch, Smith describes the cramped conditions that the Confederate sailors of the submarine Hunley endured. In a world and time that prized personal space, the close confines of the prototype underwater vessel tried men's mental patience as well as their physical endurance.

Along with the main sense examined with each event, Smith also weaves into the narrative other senses that came into play with each event, which provided a fuller picture. And while I enjoyed reading and thinking about the sensory experience of the Civil War and found the events that Smith chose as examples insightful, I could not help wanting more. The 150-page book was just not enough once my curiosity on this topic was stirred. Hopefully this is just the beginning of scholars' looks at the Civil War's sensory history. There is so much more we can learn by examining this largely overlooked perspective.

One a scale of one to five, I give The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege a 4.25.  

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Proud Widow

I came across this image in the Library of Congress collection tonight and thought I'd share it. It really seemed to grab my attention at first glance, but upon closer inspection more details became apparent.

This unidentified woman, obviously a widow in mourning attire, holds what appears to be her son, who wears a soldier's cap. The woman proudly wears a photograph necklace of what I assume is her deceased husband and the child's father.

This single image summarizes so much of what the Civil War meant to those that experienced it. Despite not knowing which side this woman sympathized with, and her husband fought for, it vividly reminds us of the loss that the war meant for so many families. She first lost her husband to the army, and then she lost him to death. The first separation hoped to be temporary, the second was realized to be permanent. However, this photograph also shows us that people, both North and South, were proud of their families' service and sacrifice and wished to immortalize it for posterity.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Humor in Combat?

I don't know about you, but when thinking of the most humorless of environments, combat quickly comes to my mind. Now, fortunately, I have never been in combat, but I have read enough about it, often written by those who have experienced it first-hand, to know that for most it is nothing but sheer terror. Not knowing whether the next fired bullet will be the one that strikes you, or if the next shell fragment has your name on it scared the wits out of many an otherwise brave man. Maybe even more terrifying than being hit was having a close call; like your hat being ventilated or your rifle stock being shattered, or being hit by a spent ball. However, when some soldiers looked back on a battle they are able to somehow find something that struck them as funny, while amid all the horror.

Published about twenty-three years after the war, Millett S. Thompson's diary of life in the Thirteenth New Hampshire Infantry, told of what he saw as a humorous event in the heat of a fight. Thompson's regiment was connected to the XVIII Corps when they attacked the Petersburg defenses on June 15, 1864 (pictured above).

During the attack some of the Thirteenth New Hampshire came upon some Confederates that were serving as forward pickets. The small band of southerners were firing in earnest at Thompson and his fellow attackers. Thompson wrote:

"We were quickly safe behind trees, and they hit no one, excepting a little, wiry Irishman in the Thirteenth; a rebel bullet just glanced across the top of his thumb, a little back of the first joint. The affair is a mere bruise. For a moment the thumb is numb, and Paddy stands still, contemplating it most studiously; and then he suddenly belches out a most distinguished mixture of groan, scream and yell combined and loud enough to raise the dead, throws his gun as far as he can, shoots about six feet into the air, throws his roll of blankets a couple of rods away; and for fully a minute turns himself into a perfect little spinning gyration of sprawling, flying legs and arms, flopping haversack, banging canteen, and rattling tin-cup and cartridge box, all the time yelling as a man never yelled before--in our hearing. He jumped, whirled, laid down, rolled, kicked, struck out, screamed, swore and bawled all at once. Meanwhile the little squad of rebel pickets--either thinking that we have invented a new yell, and are going to charge, or else we have with us the veritable 'Yankee Devil' himself, horns and all--cease firing instantly upon the Irishman's first compound scream, seize their loose clothing and blankets in the hands, and make off towards Petersburg, running as for dear life. A most amusing scene to all of the Union troops--excepting Paddy."

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

All Facial Hair Team - The Army of the Potomac Squad

Even those that don't know much about the Civil War know that that period was an era of facial hair high fashion. Like all fashion, the interest in having and maintaining beards, mustaches, and goatees change often. The television show Duck Dynasty, along with the hipster trend, have brought back a certain level of facial hair popularity. However, even the Robertson family would be envious of some of the facial hair from the Civil War era.

Below are five of the top facial hair talents of the Union's Army of the Potomac.

Brigadier General Romeyn Ayres; best beard with receding hairline

Major General Ambrose Burnside; most creative facial hair, best sideburns.

Brigadier General David Gregg; bushiest beard; extra credit for length

Major General Charles Griffin; best mustache, trendsetter for future Western icons such as Wyatt Earp

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock; best goatee design

Brigadier General Francis Barlow; (disqualified for lack of talent)

Monday, February 16, 2015

How a Black Correspondent Exercised His Rights in the Confederate Capitol Building

I'm staying off the roads on a snowy Kentucky Monday, so I thought I would share an interesting eye-witness account of how quickly images of race could be turned upside down for some as the Civil War wrapped up.

I remember coming across this story while reading Thomas Morris Chester: Black Civil War Correspondent, His Dispatches from the Virginia Front, which was edited by R.J.M. Blackett. Chester was born a freeman in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1834. During the Civil War he was employed as a correspondent for the Philadelphia Press and worked as an embedded reporter with several United States Colored Troops regiments. Chester saw some amazing things during his time as a correspondent and occasionally risked his life to let the Union homefront better understand the sacrifices and bravery of its African American troops.

One of the most fascinating things that Chester witnessed was the capture of Richmond and subsequent entrance of the capital city of the Confederacy by the Army of the Potomac's black XXV Corps. Soon after joining the troops in Richmond, Chester made the Virginia state capitol building (which also served as the Confederacy's capitol) his temporary office and utilized the Speaker of the Senate's desk for writing his reports.

As one might imagine, Chester's commandeering of the Speaker's desk was viewed as a great affront to some of Richmond's whites. Charles Carelton Coffin, a correspondent for the Boston Journal, told of one man's attempt to unseat Chester in his book Four Years of Fighting.

"Among the correspondents accompanying the army was a gentleman connected with the Philadelphia Press, a Mr. Chester, tall, stout, and muscular. God had given him a colored skin, but beneath it lay a courageous heart. Visiting the Capitol, he entered the Senate chamber and sat down in the Speaker's chair to write a letter. A paroled Rebel officer entered the room.

'Come out of there you black cuss!' shouted the officer with a clinching his fist.

Mr. Chester raised his eyes, calmly surveyed the intruder, and went on with his writing.

'Get out of there, or I'll knock your brains out!' the officer bellowed, pouring out a torrent of oaths; and rushing up the steps to execute his threat, found himself tumbling over chairs and benches, knocked down by one well-planted blow between his eyes.

Mr. Chester sat down as if nothing had happened. The Rebel sprang to his feet and called upon Captain Hutchins of General Devens's staff for a sword.

'I'll cut the fellow's heart out,' said he.

'O no, I guess not. I can't let you have my sword for any such purpose. If you want to fight, I will clear a space here and see that you have fair play, but let me tell you that you will get a tremendous thrashing,' said Captain Hutchins.

The [Rebel] officer left the hall in disgust. 'I thought I'd exercise my rights as a belligerent,' said Mr. Chester."

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Same Man

 In honor of the ongoing Sesquicentennial commemoration of the Petersburg Campaign I have been looking through tons of images on the Library of Congress website. Doing so, along with some surface research, I found that the man who designed Union Fort Sedgwick-also know by the soldiers as "Fort Hell" -which was located south of Petersburg, was none other than Washington Roebling, the man who also engineered the Brooklyn Bridge.

Roebling was born in 1837 in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania. He received an engineering education in the 1850s and enlisted at the outbreak of the Civil War. Wishing for more action, Roebling resigned from his initial unit and enlisted in a New York regiment. He became an invaluable engineer, eventually serving on the staff of V Corps commander, Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren.

Roebling served in many of the major battles in which the Army of the Potomac fought. When Grant and Lee maneuvered to Petersburg in the summer of 1864, the construction of earthworks rose to a new level and Roebling's engineering expertise came into good use in laying out massive and ever-lengthening lines of trenches, artillery redoubts, and forts. These formidable earthworks brought about a new style of warfare that would be replicated on the European battlefields of World War I.

Originally named Roebling's Redoubt, it was soon changed to honor fallen Gen. John Sedgwick, who had been killed at Spotsylvania. Fort Sedgwick was located south of Petersburg along the Jerusalem Plank Road. The fort was well armed. Along with the infantry soldiers stationed there, it also was equipped with eighteen artillery emplacements and an additional four-gun redan. Fort Sedgwick was constructed by soldiers in both the II and V Corps. It remained an active fortification until the Confederate lines were broken on April 2, 1865.

Opposite of Fort Sedgwick stood Confederate Fort Mahone, which was known as Fort Damnation by the soldiers stationed in it. Fort Hell and Fort Damnation were appropriate monikers for such terrible places. Mud holes when it rained, and ovens in the Petersburg summer, the earthworks were dangerous due to snipers on both sides and infestations of lice, flies, and fleas that pestered the soldiers to no end.  

After the war, Roebling assisted his father John in the construction of the suspension bridge that traversed the Ohio River connecting Covington, Kentucky, with Cincinnati, Ohio and which was completed in 1866. The father-son team began work on the famed Brooklyn Bridge about two years later. During the construction,which took 14 years, John Roebling died and Washington took over the business and saw the New York landmark though to completion. And  although Fort Sedgwick was long ago leveled and paved over in Petersburg, the Brooklyn Bridge still stands as a nineteenth century engineering marvel and a testament to Roebling's skills.  

Fort Sedgwick and Brooklyn Bridge images courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Washington Roebling image in the public domain.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

John and Hetty - A Tragic Civil War Romance

With all the death and destruction caused by the Civil War we sometimes tend to forget that love still found a way to blossom for some. John Pegram and Hetty Cary were two who did find love. Unfortunately their story was short and sad.

John Pegram was back in his old stomping grounds when a fight broke out on February 5, 1865, just southwest of Petersburg. Pegram was born in the "Cockade City" in 1832. He had attended West Point and then served in the US Army out West before resigning and joining the Confederate cause in 1861. After being captured early in the war, Pegram fought in the Western Theater, becoming brigadier general in November 1862, but was transferred to Virginia in 1864. He arrived in time to fight at the Battle of the Wilderness where he was wounded. After recuperating, Pegram fought under Jubal Early's command in the Shenandoah Valley and then came home to Petersburg to help bolster the Confederate forces defending his home town.

Hetty Cary came from a well-connected Baltimore family. She was born in 1836 and grew up to be considered one of the most beautiful women in the South. Her dedication to the Confederate cause was part of the reason she and her sister moved to Richmond after the war broke out. The Cary women lived with their Richmond relatives, including their cousin, Constance Cary. The three Cary cousins have the distinction of being the sewers of the first three Confederate battle flags.

John and Hetty met at a party during the war and became engaged in 1862. They found the opportunity to get married when Hetty's mother obtained permission to visit Richmond from Baltimore in the winter of 1865. The wedding occurred at the famous St. Paul's Episcopal Church on January 19, 1865, and was attended by President Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina. The couple honeymooned at Pegram's headquarters on the Petersburg front.

On February 5, General Grant sought to extend his strangling lines around Petersburg. To do so he launched an offensive aimed at getting control the the Boydton Plank Road near Hatcher's Run, and also, if possible, the Southside Railroad. During a counter attack, on February 6, Pegram was shot in the chest and died almost instantly, only 18 short days after the couple's blissful wedding day.

Hetty returned to Richmond with John's body on the railroad. General Pegram's funeral was held just three weeks from their wedding day, in the same church, and was intoned by the same minister that had helped exchange their marital vows.

Shortly after hearing of Gen. Pegram's death, Gen. Robert E. Lee wrote to Hetty:
"I cannot find words to express my deep sympathy in your affliction, my sorry at your loss. God alone can give you strength to bear the blow he has inflicted, and since it has been death by his hand I know it can was sen in mercy. As dear as your husband was to you, as necessary apparently to his Country as as important to his friends, I feel assured it was best for him to go at the moment he did. His purity of character, his services to the Country and his devotion to his God, prepared him for the peace and rest he now enjoys. We are left to grieve at his departure, cherish his memory and prepare to follow. May God give us his Grace, that through the mediation of his blessed Son, we may be ready to obey his gracious Summons."

Friday, February 6, 2015

Black Conductors on the Underground Railroad

More and more I am seeing history being shared on social networks. One I came across a couple of weeks ago on Facebook gave some information to debunk seven myths about the Underground Railroad. It was written by Harvard University history professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and was located on a PBS website.

One of the myths, in fact the first that was listed was, "Well-intentioned white abolitionists, many of whom were Quakers, ran it." That the general public would believe this does not surprise me at all. I well remember my 4th grade Indiana history class where we learned about Hoosier Quaker Levi Coffin and his many contributions to shelter and move slaves through his east-central Indiana area. However, I do not remember any mention made of blacks like George DeBaptiste, Elijah Anderson, John Lott or Chapman Harris, all of whom lived in our own county and were conductors. Granted, much of the research was yet to be done and much of the history was yet to written about African American contributions when was I in grade school. But primary source evidence indicates that the stories were there all along just waiting to be uncovered and shared.  

The following are three period newspaper articles that mentioned free blacks who helped slaves escape. They are posted here for your reading pleasure.

From the May 29, 1855, Daily Louisville Democrat

From the August 20, 1858, Louisville Daily Courier

From the September 16, 1858, Louisville Daily Courier

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Out with some Old and in with some New

Shortly after starting my break from blogging back in late July I trimmed some fat from my personal library. There were a number of books, both on my shelves and still in storage boxes, that I had not looked at for ages and did not see needing in the future. I probably should have weeded them out sooner due to the space they took up and the money I made selling them. Thank goodness for Half-Price Books.

Of course, getting rid of many made room for some new ones. I felt quite fortunate to receive several of these as gifts for my birthday and Christmas. I've read the first three and was very pleased with all of them.

Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom were Made at the Racetrack, as you might imagine, has a lot of Kentucky connections, but ultimately the book shows the evolution of the role of black jockeys, trainers, and grooms from colonial times into the early twentieth century. It is a very interesting look at how a certain degree of power was able to be realized by black men due to their knowledge, skills and abilities in the equine industry.

Cooking in Other Women's Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960 provides a look into the lives of African American cooks and cleaning women. These women's real accounts add much Hollywood's attempt from a couple of years ago, The Help. The hours, blood, sweat, tears, and worry these women put into preparing meals, taking care of other people's families, and all for often poor pay and sometimes in horrible working conditions, is a real eye-opener. 

I initially thought that Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery was going to a genealogist approach to finding long-lost ancestors. However, it was more about the great lengths that former slaves went to try to reconnect with family members who had been sold or moved away. Into the late nineteenth century freedmen and freedwomen placed newspaper advertisements seeking loved ones. Many asked that these ads be read in church or at other civic events in hopes that a reunion might be made. Most separated families were never brought back together, but the author highlights some success stories that are truly inspirational.

I'm really looking forward to reading the next three shown here. Hopefully, I can get a review of each posted in the near future. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Samuel Oldham House

Last fall, while I was on R&R from the blogosphere, I attended a tour of the Lexington Cemetery with two of my colleagues from work. I arrived a little early for the tour, so I decided I would spend some time trying to find and take a few shots of a home that was once owned by Lexington's most popular antebellum black barber, Samuel A. Oldham.

The house, located on South Limestone (Mulberry in antebellum days), has recently been restored. It had fallen into terrible disrepair, was slated for demolition, and even was the location for some squatters who nearly burned the place down. But with some serious TLC it has been repaired and brought back to its former handsome appearance. The home is even for sale at present if one has the approximately $750,000 for purchase.

Oldham earned enough money as an enslaved barber to purchase his freedom in the late 1820s. He advertised widely in the Lexington's newspapers, catered to the town's most prominent citizens, and built up a long list of loyal clients. The barber was able to invest some of his earnings in the construction of this home in the 1830s. He also was frugal enough, business-minded enough, and or both to purchase the freedom of his wife, Daphne, and children. Two of Oldham's sons, Samuel C. and Nathaniel,  likely saw the opportunities that barbering provided their father and later became barbers themselves.

Oldham only owned the home a few short years. He sold the place in 1839. Being the wise business man he was, he likely saw the opportunity for profit in a growing Lexington. Regardless of the reason for sale, fortunately, the grand old home still stands as a testament to the accomplishments that could be attained through hard work and entrepreneurship.