Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Curious Case of Pvt. Isaac Smith, 6th USCI. Son of Lydia H. Smith, Housekeeper of Thaddeus Stevens

If you've seen the movie Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and featuring Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, you might remember a scene at the end of the film. In that scene Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, comes home with the just ratified 13th Amendment and shows it to his African American housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith as they are in bed together. Lydia Smith was a real life person and was indeed Stevens's housekeeper in his residences in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and in Washington D.C. while Stevens was in session as a congressman.

Lydia Smith was born in 1815 in Adams County (Gettysburg), Pennsylvania. She was one quarter African American, as her mother was free woman of color and her father was white.

Although, as the above photograph shows, she could potentially pass for white, she married a free man of color named Jacob Smith and the couple had two children, William and Isaac Smith. Apparently with Jacob Smith somehow unable to support the family properly, Lydia and Jacob separated, Lydia left Adams County and became the housekeeper and eventually business manager for attorney, businesswoman, and congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who had previously moved from Adams County to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Jacob Smith apparently died in 1852.

Lydia's son William died in 1861 from a pistol accident, but Isaac became a barber and banjo player and eventually ended up drafted during the Civil War into Company D of the 6th United States Colored Infantry, a regiment raised primarily of free men of color from Pennsylvania.

Pvt. Isaac Smith's service records indicate that he enlisted on July 13, 1863, just at the same time that draft riots were starting to rage in New York City. Smith was 26 years old, born in Adams County, Pennsylvania, 5 feet 3 inches tall, and was described as having a dark complexion. Smith was officially mustered into service on August 14, 1863. 

Smith's muster roll returns show him present for duty, until the April 1864 return. On that document he is listed as "absent without leave since April 29, 1864." However for the May and June return he is listed back as present. Smith apparently participated in the 6th's fighting at Baylor's Farm and the initial attacks on Petersburg on June 15, 1864, as well as the 6th's desperate combat at New Market Heights on September 29, 1864. He seems to have missed the Fort Fisher fighting in mid-January 1865, as on the January and February 1865 return he is marked as "absent without leave since Dec. 24, '64." Interestingly, Smith had been listed on his previous cards as a private, but with the January and February card his is noted as "mus.," for, I assume, musician.

On the April and May 1865 return card it states, "Deserted. Due ref. 1 N.C.O. & mus. sword, 1 sword belt & [belt] plate, 1 mus. waist belt and plate. Reported absent without leave till April 30, '65."

The 6th mustered out of service at Wilmington, NC in September 1865, apparently without Isaac Smith. So what happened?

On into Smith's service records is a deposition taken in 1866 in Washington D.C. In it the justice of the peace, remembered that on April 12, 1864, a resident of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Hugh Kennedy, stated that he knows Isaac Smith from living in Lancaster and that "said Smith is subject to paralysis." Kennedy related a story that once in 1860 while he was being shaved by Smith the barber, Smith was "seized with a fit of palsy." Smith was so temporarily paralyzed that he was unable to finish shaving Kennedy. Kennedy went on to say that he had witnessed Smith have similar fits at other times that "forced him to suspend business for a time."

 Also in Smith's service record file is a handwritten and a printed copy of Special Order 37, dated January 24, 1865. It states: "By direction of the President, Private Isaac Smith, Company D, 6th U.S. Colored Troops, having been illegally drafted will be discharged the services of the United States. on the receipt of this Order at the place where he may be serving. By order of the Secretary of War, E.D. Townsend, Assistant Adjutant General."

What to make of this document find? Did Smith go absent without leave on December 24, 1864, as his service records indicate? Had Smith perhaps seen enough combat horror, did he grow tired of the hardships of field service, or did his illness flare up causing him to go home to Lancaster, or to Washington D.C. and use his mother's connections through Congressman Stevens to get President Lincoln to release him from his service? Was the reason of being illegally drafted connected to his history of "fits of palsy, or was there another issue that made his being drafted illegal?"  If he had received a release from service in January 1865, why was a deposition taken in 1866 that remembered back to 1864? If he was suffering palsy, why wasn't he able to get a medical release earlier?  So many questions.

With all of these questions and too few answers it makes inquiring minds like mine want to know.  Does anyone out there have more information on this situation?

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Just Finished Reading - The Quartermaster, Montgomery C. Meigs

The following is the brief review of The Quartermaster that I wrote on my Facebook page:

One of the most important yet overlooked figures of the Civil War was Montgomery C. Meigs, quartermaster general for the Union army. This worthy biography of Meigs thoroughly covers his pre-war life, Civil War accomplishments, and post-war life. 

After graduating from West Point in 1836 as 5th in his class, Meigs served as an army engineer. Missing the Mexican-American War, Meigs went on to share his influence on a range of projects through Sect. of War Jefferson Davis, like the Washington D.C aqueduct and enhancements to the Capitol building including its massive new dome. Meigs ran into a number of issues with John Floyd, who followed Davis as Sect. of War. Floyd basically had Meigs exiled to Fort Jefferson in Florida, but with Floyd's resignation, and then Lincoln's election, things turned for the better for Meigs. 

Made quartermaster general, Meigs's organizational and management were instrumental in helping him get the Union army armed, equipped, and remain fed, all while mitigating much of the corruption that arose with government contracts. Known for his high integrity and honesty, Meigs worked well with Sect. of War Stanton, Lincoln, and Sect. of State William Seward, all of whom prized Meigs's higher order thinking and ability to multitask at will. 

O'Harrow's biography is written for general audience, yet he provides the Civil War enthusiast with enough food for thought to keep readers from both camps engaged. The author makes extensive use of Meigs's shorthand writing journal from the pre-war years to tell that part of his life's story. The 245 pages of text makes for a quick read, and the photographs that the author includes helps the reader understand the people, places, and events of Meigs's life. Of Meigs William Seward wrote after the war: "Without the services of this eminent soldier, the National cause must either have been lost or deeply imperiled." Those sentiments come through loud and clear in The Quartermaster. I recommend it to learn more about this game-changer for the Union and to better understand the importance of logistics toward winning the war.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

I've been in a fairly heavy reading mode lately, and since I took a few days of annual leave I've enjoyed turning pages at my own pace and not having work-related thoughts invade my reading comprehension.

It seems that when my reading ramps up, so does my book buying. That is probably because I come across sources that authors use and become curious to read the book the reference is taken from. Anyway, here are some book's that I've added to my ever-expanding library over the last month or so.

I remembered seeing The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America in the UNC Press book catalog when it came out in 2012, and I must say the title intrigued me. Recently, while speaking with my minister at church, he referenced the book and that it might be helpful to me at work. I located a used copy on the internet market and it is in the reading queue.

As I've mentioned plenty of times on this forum, the Petersburg Campaign is thankfully gaining more and more attention in scholarship. A Campaign of Giants: The Battle for Petersburg, Vol. 1, From the Crossing of the James to the Crater is a work that was much anticipated. I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago and I can confirm that it did not disappoint. I spoke with author Will Greene this weekend at the Gettysburg College Civil War Institute and asked him when we could expect Vol. 2. When one considers the depth of research and length of Vol. 1, it might not come as a surprise that he said it may be a while. Regardless, I'll be on the lookout until it is released.

Secession fire-eater James D. B. De Bow is a fascinating figure in Southern history. Born in Charleston but moving to New Orleans, where he started a magazine to publicize his views, De Bow and his Review helped persuade many Southerners about the necessity of secession in the face of perceived Northern attacks on slavery. I'm looking forward to reading De Bow's Review: The Antebellum Vision of the New South to learn more about De Bow and his effort to build solidarity in the slave states before and during the Civil War.

The scholarship that UNC Press publishes on the Civil War era is impressive. I consider it the top academic publisher in the field, with UGA Press a rather close second. Almost everything I read from UNC Press is well written and edited. I was happy to receive the opportunity to review The Loyal Republic: Traitors, Slaves, and the Remaking of Citizenship in Civil War America from the Civil War News and look forward to reading it. 

In an effort to learn more about how Civil War armies handled their logistical challenges I picked up a gently used copy of The Quartermaster: Montgomery Meigs, Lincoln's General, Master Builder of the Union Army at the used book sale at the Gettysburg College Civil War Institute this past weekend. I am currently reading this book and I'll post a brief review on this forum when I complete it.

I became aware of the courageous exploits of the 6th USCI while preparing for leading a tour of the Battle of New Market Heights last fall. Somehow Strike a Blow for Freedom: The 6th United States Colored Infantry in the Civil War escaped my search for resources on the battle, but I came across it recently, and again, found a nice used copy. I posted a brief review of it yesterday, so check it out.

I also recently posted a brief review of Fighting Means Killing: Civil War Soldiers and the Nature of Combat. This book's several chapters cover a fascinating set of topics related to the fighting, and thus killing, that Civil War soldiers experienced. It is a much needed well-researched reexamination of combat during the conflict. I highly recommend it. 

Cultural history, like social history often covers difficult subjects. Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery examines how white Americans used African Americans' tradition of song and dance to reinforce their concepts of racial prejudice and enslavement, often through minstrelsy. Blacks on the other hand used music and dance for other reasons such as community solidarity and retaining some African traditions. This promises to be yet another eye-opening cultural scholarly study.  

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Strike the Blow for Freedom: The 6th United States Colored Infantry in the Civil War

Here's my brief Facebook review of Strike the Blow for Freedom: The 6th United States Colored Infantry in the Civil War by James M. Paradis, White Mane Books, 1998:

This book, although only 100 pages of text, provides the reader with a solid understanding of the experiences of the 6th United States Colored Infantry from its recruitment to its muster out in September 1865, a span of just over two years. 

Drawn primarily from men in and around Philadelphia, and trained at Camp William Penn, the 6th was the second black regiment from the area, the first being the 3rd USCI. Sent almost immediately to Virginia after the regiment was full and trained, and attached to the XVIII Corps under General Benjamin Butler, the 6th spent much of the fall and winter of 1863 serving on the Peninsula. The 6th participated in Butler's failed attempt to take Petersburg on June 9, and then saw significant combat in fighting at Baylor's Farm and along the Dimmock Line on June 15 as part of Gen. Hinck's Division. 

Detailed to help dig the Dutch Gap Canal, the 6th suffered severely under a brutal summer sun and Confederate artillery fire as they helped excavate tons of dirt. The 6th's most desperate fighting occurred at New Market Heights on September 29, 1864. Company D went into the fight with 30 men and came out with only 3. Three of the 6th's men (two black NCOs and one white Lt.), earned the Medal of Honor that bloody day for their heroism in protecting their flags and rallying the men. The 6th also fought at Fort Fisher, North Carolina. The regiment was spared the duty along the Texas/Mexico border that many other USCTs experienced, but rather spent the remainder of their service in North Carolina before mustering out. 

I found this particular study a better read than those published on the 4th and 5th USCIs. Particularly helpful were the appendices. Appendix A looks at Company D's Capt. John McMurray's description of an anxiety attack which occurred to him after the New Market Heights fight. Appendix B provides a wealth of statistical information in table and graph form on the men that comprised the 6th. Everything from the ages and heights of the men, to their pre-war occupations (barbers were the 3rd most common) and birthplaces are graphed for each company. Appendix D gives a muster roll for each company providing service record information for all of the 6th's soldiers. It goes without saying that all of this appendix information is extremely valuable for the researcher and took a significant amount of time and effort to compile it. 

This work is one that students of USCTs don't want to overlook, and one that I wish everyone in the United States would read to better appreciate the sacrifices of these men who fought for freedom, justice, citizenship, and equality. I highly recommend it.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Fighting Means Killing: Civil War Soldiers and the Nature of Combat

As I've previously mentioned here, when I start a book I usually post it in on my Facebook page so that my friends can see what I am currently reading. Often they ask what I think of it when I am just getting started, so when I finally finish it I like to write a few lines in brief review. Since there is no problem with sharing that information in multiple locations, I believe I will start doing so here with this post.

I came across Fighting Means Killing: Civil War Soldiers and the Nature of Combat about five or six months before it was released by the University of Kansas Press. I thought that the title looked intriguing and that its information would help me in my work role, so I placed it on my Amazon,com Wishlist and patiently waited for its release. Since the book's price was relatively low for a new publication, about two weeks before it was set to be released I placed my advance order. When it arrived I was reading another book, but as soon as I finished I started into it. As usual I posted on Facebook that I was reading it and received a message from a former colleague at the Kentucky Historical Society, who now works for the Journal of Arizona History asking if I would be interested in writing a formal review for that publication, which I responded that I would be happy to so. Therefore, if you are seeking a more lengthy review than what I provide with the following, you might seek that out in the coming months. But, here are my initial thoughts:

Although Civil War combat is ground that has been plowed before; with works by Earl Hess, Gerald Linderman, Brent Nosworthy, among others, Steplyk makes a significant contribution to the scholarship of combat with this recently published work. He contends that although many men had some reservations about shooting at, and thus intending to kill another human being, most soldiers accepted the fact that, as his title indicates, and as Nathan Bedford Forrest famously said, "War means fighting, and fighting means killing." 

Soldiers' political ideology influenced their acceptance of the justness of their respective causes, and antebellum notions of manhood and masculinity prompted the vast majority of these citizen-soldiers to come fairly well "primed" to kill in combat situations. As one might imagine, soldiers described their emotions in combat in diverse ways. Some soldiers claimed "seeing the elephant" produced different levels of excitement, anger, and a sense of revenge, all of which increased their willingness to part from civilian notions of killing and accept the military mindset of the necessity of killing. 

In the book's chapters Steplyk covers a set of individual combat situation topics, such as: language soldiers used to describe combat and killing, killing in hand-to-hand combat, sharpshooters and killing, the extremes of killing, racial atrocity killing; all of which draw on both contemporary as well as post-war accounts and sources for evidence for his conclusions. 

As one would expect from the University Press of Kansas, this book is top-notch military history and is an important read for students of the Civil War. I think you will find this book well-written, researched, and highly informative. I eagerly recommend it.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

You Will Be Missed - A Short Tribute to Hari Jones

As I sit here and type a few brief lines this morning, I have a bit of a heavy heart. Yesterday afternoon I saw on my Facebook feed that a friend, and historian had passed away. I first met Hari Jones at breakfast during a Civil War Trust Teacher's Institute. He spoke the previous evening in a general session and I was struck by the intellectual points he made. During our conversation over eggs and toast the following morning, I found that he was born in Oklahoma and had served our country in the Marine Corps. But, more than anything else I was impressed with his humility despite his powerful intellect.

When I made a job change in 2009, I had the opportunity to often travel to Washington D.C., for conferences, meetings, research, and personal reasons. When I could, I would take the yellow/green line Metro to U street and the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum (AACWMM), where Hari served as curator. During my early visits the museum was housed in a cramped space with seemingly limited reach. That did not seem to matter to Hari, as he shared his vast knowledge of the Civil War era and the United States Colored Troops with everyone that came in the door and who wanted to learn.

But, not only that! Hari was a source of encouragement in my career. While I was searching for work in early 2009, he had told me to keep up the faith and not get discouraged with the lack of opportunity in the field and to seek inspiration in those of the past that struggled but kept trying.

I wish I could have gotten to know Hari even better before he passed. He had left the AACWMM to do personal museum consulting work, which made it difficult to just drop in as I had before, but we sometimes communicated via email and Facebook. Last fall I had attempted to have him speak during our "Reflect and Respect" African American history weekend at work, but a scheduling conflict prevented it. Now more than ever I wish it would have worked out.

I can definitely say that the world is a better place for Hari's existence and that he will be dearly missed. His level of thinking, communicating, and research, along with his warm smile and kind voice cannot be replaced.

Here is a link to a podcast that Hari recently did for North Carolina Public Radio. Give it a listen and you, too, will realize what Hari means to the public history community.

Rest in Peace, Hari.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

My Passion Project - Little Round Top

This weekend I am in Gettysburg for the annual Gettysburg College Civil War Institute. This is the first time I've attended their conference and I must say that I'm impressed with their list of speakers, accommodations and board, and how organized everything seems to be.

Before registering yesterday I made a drive through part of the Gettysburg battlefield. Although I don't see Gettysburg as the "great turning point" in the war that I once did, it still resonates strongly with me and brings me back to my late childhood years and early adolescence, when I became so interested in the Civil War.

One of the stops I always try to make when I am in the area is Little Round Top. Way before the movie "Gettysburg," Little Round Top stood out in my early reading about the battle. When I was in 7th grade my social studies teacher offered us the opportunity to do National History Day. This was like 1982. That year's theme was turning points in history. I started the project with a classmate, but he soon bowed out, or perhaps I nudged him out due to his lack of commitment on the project. Anyway, as mentioned above, at the time I thought of Gettysburg as the main turning point in the war, as did many historians. So, I figured, what better than doing my History Day project on the turning point of the battle of that was the turning point of the the Civil War that was the turning point of American history.

I set about constructing a diorama of Little Round Top made of paper mache based on the birds-eye-view battle maps in the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, a book that had a profound impact on me. I painted pewter soldiers blue and gray and arranged them to highlight the 20th Maine's defense and the 15th Alabama's assault of the famous hill and provided some contextual information and primary source accounts.

Our district contest was at local Hanover College. I was chosen as first place in my age group in the exhibit category, which offered me the opportunity to compete in the state contest at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. Although I didn't fare too well against the top projects in the state, the research and construction process stayed with me as a very enjoyable and beneficial experience.

It would be only two years later, when as a freshman in high school that we took a class bus trip that included Gettysburg, and I got to see Little Round Top in person for the first time. It all came back to me standing there on the hill. While my buddies were scrambling over rocks and taking pictures with the monuments, I envisioned those Confederate soldiers pouring up the hill and the determined defenders blazing away.

History is powerful and powerfully important. If you have the opportunity to share history with a young person, please do, it may change their lives forever.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Bully Civil War Era Photograph

I know I'm long overdue for a post. This will have to serve as a place-filler for now. While reading a newly published book on Civil War combat, I came across this image from the Library of Congress's Liljenquist Family Collection and thought it was just too good not to share.

Unfortunately, the subject of this photograph is unknown. However, I was stuck by the number of weapons he displays; several of which may be this particular photographer's studio props.

He holds what looks to me from the rear sight to be an Enfield rifle musket (although the photo description calls it a Springfield), two Remington revolvers in this belt, and another in his hand. I'm not sure how he has the two knives balanced to show on his chest, but there they are.

Displaying so many weapons, even if they are not actually this soldier's, has to say something about this earnest intent to deal out death to the enemy in his role as a soldier. What say you?