Sunday, July 29, 2018

Richmond Dispatch Reports on the Battle of the Crater

Tomorrow marks the 154th anniversary of the famous Battle of the Crater. What must ultimately be determined a fiasco of an operation by the Union IX Corps could have had a greater chance of success had the attack's leadership not been almost totally absent and greater support provided.

Here black Union troops from Ferrero's Division mixed in deadly hand-to-hand combat with the Army of Northern Virginia's Confederate veterans for the first time. As most students of the battle know, the level of blood-lust was at a high at the Crater. Emotions overtook reason and self-control in this heated combat. Calls of "NO QUARTER!" and "REMEMBER FORT PILLOW!" by the attackers were answered with atrocities by the defenders.

The vitriol displayed by the Confederate soldiers, and the Southern press, is one that is difficult for the modern reader to fathom. When reading page 504 of Will Greene's recently published Volume 1 study of the Petersburg Campaign, A Campaign of Giants: From the Crossing of the James to the Crater, one is struck with the blatant tone of the editor of the Richmond Enquirer in the August 1-2, 1864 issue. "Let every salient we are called upon to defend be a Fort Pillow, and butcher every negro that Grant hurls against our brave troops, and permit them not to soil their hands with the capture of the negro." The paper then called for Gen. William Mahone, to not be so merciful in the future and to let the Southern soldiers carry out what he saw as a providential task. "We beg [Mahone] hereafter, when negroes are sent forward to murder the wounded and come shouting 'no quarter,' shut your eyes, General, strengthen your stomach with a little brandy and water, and let the work which God has entrusted to you and your brave men, go forward to its full completion; that is until every negro has been slaughtered."

Curious to see if these sentiments were similarly expressed in other papers, I looked up the Richmond Daily Dispatch of August 2, 1864. Although less explicit than the Enquirer, under the headline, THE WAR NEWS, it claimed unabashedly that the black troops were "slaughtered like sheep" and that "hundreds were slain."

The paper then mentioned that it was simply impossible for the Confederates to render aid to those wounded caught between the lines due to the Union sharpshooters. The writer also speculated on the length of the mine tunnel, guessing that it was 600 feet long, which was about 90 feet longer than the actual distance. It, too, gave the killed and wounded figures of Mahone's counterattacking force. The article continued with a deprecating tone about the black and white Union prisoners:

Two columns to the right of this story, a long list of runaway slaves were posted in advertisements.

Fighting black Union troops on the battlefield and attempting to contain the enslaved on the shrinking home front was certainly disconcerting to white Southerners. Many of them must have wondered about the future and what would ultimately become of their new nation. Would it slip away along with each mile of lost ground or would a miracle occur to turn the tide? It would take hundreds of more lives and more than eight months to finally decide the outcome, and turn their worlds upside down.

Image of "Mahone's Counterattack" courtesy of Don Troiani artworks.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Zooming in on Cedar Level Commissary

As my last "Zooming In" post seems to have drawn some interest, I thought I'd share another. This one is also from the Petersburg Campaign. However, this image does not come from the City Point wharves as the last one did, rather it is from Cedar Level, Virginia, which was about three miles southwest of City Point, along the United States Military Railroad (USMRR). This supply line proved vital to the Union army and their thousands of men fighting around the Cockade City. 

Students of the Petersburg Campaign are likely familiar with the several photographs showing the vast stockpiles of hardtack boxes and salt pork barrels. Most of those images were taken at Cedar Level, as was the one above, according to the Library of Congress. 

The standard daily meat ration for soldiers consisted of either salt pork or fresh or pickled beef. The enlisted men preferred salted pork or fresh beef over the pickled beef. Salt did not seem to affect pork the way it did beef. The men complained that beef absorbed the salt making it virtually inedible, even when cooked thoroughly. Pork, however, did not hold in the strong salty flavor like beef did, allowing for a much better taste. Therefore, the men preferred their beef fresh. Herds of cattle were shipped from various points north by boat to City Point for the Union army's consumption.  

 Naturally, the animals (beef on the hoof) required processing in order to eat them. Commissary workers slaughtered, skinned, and butchered the cattle for soldier consumption. Contrabands, refugee slaves who fled to Union lines and who had significant experience with these duties from their time on plantations, often handled this less than pleasant work. 

In the image above it appears that a pile of cow hides is growing to the left of photograph. It looks like the two figures on the left side are in the process of skinning one of the animals. The man on the left is African American, but the man to the right of him looks as if he is white and holding a knife of some type in his left hand. On further to the right is a barrel with a set of horns sitting on it. To the right of that a black man stands with his hands on his hips with the arms akimbo. He may have a long butcher's apron tied around his waist and over his vest. It looks like the other two men to the right of him are also African American. Behind them is what at first glace looked to be an artillery piece, but upon further inspection, looks more like a cart or wagon as the wheels appear to be too far apart for a cannon. Plus, a wagon would make much more sense in this particular setting.

In the foreground is one of the byproducts of the slaughtering process, thousands and thousands of cattle horns. While each one of the beeves provided about 500 rations for the hungry soldiers, there was not much need for the horns. I've not been able to determine what, if anything ultimately became of these objects, whether they were buried, destroyed, or used in some other fashion, If anyone happens to know, I'd be happy to hear about it.

It appears that the army re-purposed a local barn here for their use in the above close up. All of the siding has been removed, leaving a skeleton of frame beams. Perhaps the commissary wanted the cover the roof provided without the clapboards to hold in the offensive smells. Or maybe they used the clapboards for fuel or their living quarters. A canvas awning is stretched out as a type of porch covering.

A man wearing a frock coat with shoulder boards, so likely an officer, stands at the center of the image. He may be overseeing the operation or just visiting the scene on behalf of a brigade, division, or corps. He leans slightly on a cane, which is in his right hand. Under his frock coat he wears a civilian-style vest.

To the right of the officer is an enlisted man or non-commissioned officer standing at shoulder arms with fixed bayonet, apparently guarding the operation. It looks as if he is wearing a modified enlisted man's hat and has on the basic accouterments of cartridge box and waist belt with cap pouch. The eagle medallion on his cartridge box sling shines in the sun. No canteen or haversack is shown on him.

Do you see anything else that catches your attention?

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Dear Ones at Home: Letters from Contraband Camps

Dear Ones at Home: Letters from Contraband Camps, edited by Henry L. Swint is yet another book that has lingered on my book shelves for way too long. I suppose it happens to many book lovers who continue to buy books and see recent acquisitions get pushed out of the way in favor of even more recent books. And then, before you know it, there sits a book that you've had for 10 years or longer. Often when I pull an old ignored friend off the shelf and get into it I find that I wished I had jumped on it sooner. 

Anyway, this book was quite the read. There are not a whole lot of accounts from people who spent time in Civil War era contraband camps, either as an aid worker, which was the case here, or as one who sought aid. 

Dear Ones at home are the letters of sisters Sarah and Lucy Chase sent to their family and friends back in Worcester, Massachusetts and other locations. The Quaker sisters were indefatigable workers with freedmen aid societies who sought to clothe, feed, and educate former slaves who came into Union army lines as their forces made incursions into the South. The editor's selection of letters track the sisters' work from Craney Island and Norfolk in southeast Virginia in 1863 to Roanoke Island, North Carolina to Savannah and Columbus, Georgia, and finally to Gordonsville, Virginia in 1870. 

The letters give great insight into how these two women perceived those they worked with, as well as how they perceived white Southerners. The sisters appear to have had a tremendous amount of patience with the challenges they faced in their work. Demands on their time and resources were seemingly endured with kindness and extra exertion. The letters also are helpful in learning the stories of the freedmen and freedwomen, who the sisters worked with closely in diverse situations. What clearly comes through in these missives is the Chase sisters' compassion and their belief that their efforts would bear beneficial fruit. Also of great significance is the freed people's desire to improve their individual situations. 

The editor's footnotes help familiarize the reader to mentioned personalities who may not be well-known. This collection of selected letter is one not to be overlooked. The perspective of the freedmen society aid workers is one that is both informative and inspiring to the modern reader. I highly recommend it in order to better understand the difficult situation that both the freed people and their helpers endured while seeking liberty, citizenship, and equality.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Just Finished Reading - My Brother's Keeper: African Canadians and the American Civil War

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 ensured a significant migration of African Americans who had earned their freedom by absconding from their former owners in slave states by fleeing to British North America. Remaining in the free states no longer proved safe for them with a strengthened fugitive slave law. However, long before 1850, fleeing slaves had sought refuge in Canada, beyond the reach of United States laws. 

Those individuals and their children often felt a strong calling to aid those of their race, both still enslaved toiling unrequited, as well as those freemen seeking an opportunity to prove their worthiness for U.S. citizenship and equal rights. Despite it being illegal for Canadian citizens to join in fighting for a foreign power, thousands still went to fight in the Civil War. Many African Canadians realized from the beginning that even though President Lincoln claimed it would be a war for the preservation of the Union, they saw it as an opportunity to at last strike a blow for freedom. 

Like large numbers of African Americans, African Canadians, too, eagerly anticipated the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation, and thus the opportunity to provide military service to the United States. Prince makes fascinating examinations of several aspects of his broad title. 

Chapters of the book look at different roles that African Canadians played in the Civil War. He discovers plenty of soldiers and sailors, many of whom fought in some of the most famous black regiments, like the 54th and 55th Massachusetts, and 6th USCI. He also examines the important role that both black men and women, many too aged for active service, played in recruiting efforts for the Union army. In addition, a chapter is devoted to the doctors, nurses, and chaplains with Canadian connections who served and supported the men in the fight. A chapter on the Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, who sought to ask both black and white Canadians about race related issues is particularly interesting. While some of those polled answered questions with prototypical mid-19th century racist responses, reading the diversity of responses reminds us that, like today, not everyone thought the same way 150 years ago either. 

One of the main strengths of the book in my opinion are the individual stories that the author tells throughout the work, particularly the one in the initial chapter. Similarly, the author incorporates a number of photographs and images that help the reader better visualize the people and issues he covers. As far as weaknesses: while the author does provide fairly consistent citations for the quotes he incorporates in the work, there were some that I was unable to locate in the book's end notes. 

Bryan Prince's My Brother's Keeper: African Canadians and the American Civil War fills a scholarship gap. Black Canadians influenced the Civil War in many ways previously underappreciated. Prince's book recognizes a number of these people and shed's needed light on their sacrifices and contributions to ultimate Union victory.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Zooming in on a City Point Scene

In one my recent readings I came across the above photograph, which is located in the collections of the Library of Congress. I found the scene intriguing having just read so much about Civil War logistics. And, wondering what I might find by manipulating the image by zooming in, I downloaded the TIFF file. As I suspected there are some fascinating things to see in this particular photograph, so I thought I'd share several things that caught my eye.

The soldier figure standing on the hillside at the left of the photograph appears to be holding quite an awkward pose. Perhaps he is aware that a moving figure blurred with period photography. He appears to be a young man, although it is difficult to be sure with his hat pulled so low. His ill-fitting army trousers look to be catching a strong breeze from behind.

Just to the right of the awkward soldier are stacked boxes covered with canvas tarps. Most likely these are hardtack or army bread boxes, covered up to protect them from the elements and awaiting disbursement. City Point (present day Hopewell, Virginia) at the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers served as the Army of the Potomac's supply base during the Petersburg Campaign. Millions of rations were stockpiled at City Point over the 292-day campaign for the nourishment of the soldiers.

Dominating the photo's scene is a large group of "contraband" workers. It appears the men are in the process of grading a railroad bed. In the mid-ground portion of the image shown above, halved logs are laying on the ground as railroad ties awaiting rails. A large pile logs to be used for similar purposes are in the background. Former area slaves provided a deep pool of labor for the Union army. Most of these men were well acquainted with a hard day's work, but many now received wages for their labors.

Also in this portion of the shot is a white Union soldier holding a rifle with fixed bayonet on his right shoulder. Another white man, perhaps an army engineer overseeing the work, holds his hat in his right hand over his head.

A close-up of of one of the groups of men shows a diversity of hats and braces (suspenders). Shovels appear to be the predominate tool for the task at hand. It is difficult to tell what time of year this photograph was taken, but almost all of the workers are not wearing jackets, which leads one to believe this is likely during the warmer months of the year.

The three men in the most foreground look to be leveling out the ground with shovels. The man closest to the camera wears what appear to be army boots. His right shirtsleeve looks torn and the crown of his hat is caved in. The man opposite him seems to be taking a short breather by resting one hand on his right thigh and shovel and the other hand on his left knee.

The resting man has some sort of improvised protection on both hands. These make-shift gloves or mittens look to have thumb holes for grasping implements but are open on the backs of the hands, protecting only the palms.

A couple of picks are in the most foreground of the image. They rest beside some stones and rip-rap, which implies they were used for breaking the rock to make gravel that might have served as a road bed material for the wooden railroad ties.

On the far right of the photograph are two six-mule team army supply wagons. Thousands of wagons like these two helped move, supply, equip, and feed the army. Unfortunately, the teamsters are not shown with the teams in this photograph. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Confederate Supply by Richard D. Goff

Sometimes we overlook books published almost 50 years ago in favor of more recent scholarship. It is only natural to have a favor for current studies as those scholars of the present potentially have access to more evidence that those of the past. However, depending on the subject matter, works from a number of years ago can be quite valuable, too. And not just for historiography! 

This book, Confederate Supply, by Richard D. Goff is a good example. Published in 1969, by Duke University Press, it provides a fairly broad survey of the Confederate government's ability (or inability) to arm, equip, and feed its fighting men. 

Focusing primarily on the quartermaster and subsistence departments, Goff provides a look inside the making of Confederate supply policy and those government officials who executed those policies. Goff utilizes primarily a year-by-year approach on how the South's two main armies, the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Tennessee, were effected by governmental supply policy. The author finds that much of the Confederacy's issues resulted from initially failing to bring the border slave states in the CSA fold. Not doing so left a critical population of manpower to either serve the Union or sit out the war. It also left significant established manufacturing areas and transportation links outside of Confederate bounds. 

Another early strike against them was the Confederacy's inability to defend vital areas of manufacturing and important logistical routes upon Union invasion. Losing key cities in 1862 such as Nashville, New Orleans, Memphis, and others, hurt their chances in the long run. In addition, Goff makes it clear that the Confederate government's unwillingness to commandeer and centralize the railroads in effort to increase the efficiency of their supply transport was a critical factor in their ultimate defeat. Reactionary policy making instead of proactive planning was too often the rule of thumb. The inability to efficiently get the stockpiles of clothing, equipment, and food to the men in the field had dire repercussions on morale, both on the front lines and on the home front. 

Basing his research heavily on sources in the Official Records, Goff's analysis is solid and his interpretation is keen. Although this title is now out of print, and thus somewhat difficult to find, if you are as curious about Civil War logistics as I am, it is certainly one you want to read.

Monday, July 16, 2018

USCTs Showed Valor at Baylor's Farm Fight

If one stands on the ground today where the Battle of Baylor's Farm occurred early on the morning of June 15, 1864, one sees virtually no evidence of that combat. Yes, there is a Civil War Trails wayside marker near the site, which provides good information to those willing to find it and read it, but sadly, development has removed all vestiges of the valor that was displayed by the United States Colored Troops of Gen. Edward Hinks's Division of the XVIII Corps. 

Marching down the City Point Road toward Petersburg in Grant's First Offensive on the Cockade City, the two brigades belonging to Hinks's Division (Samuel Duncan's and John Holman's) ran into the city's far outer defensive position. Manning this position was Capt. Edward Graham's Petersburg Artillery and about 400 dismounted troopers of the 4th North Carolina Cavalry. Located on a slight rise of ground just to the south of a small swampy stream, the Southerners waited behind hastily build yet sturdy defenses. 

Approaching the fortification, Duncan's brigade formed into battle line. On the left of the line was the 6th USCI, to their right in order was the 4th, 22nd, and 5th USCIs. Behind Duncan was Holman's tiny brigade, which consisted of the 1st USCI and the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, who fought dismounted. Battery K of the 3rd New York Light Artillery provided the black brigades with support.

Soon the Confederate artillery started up. Several companies of the 4th USCI moved out of a tree line and toward the belching guns. These brave yet inexperienced soldiers paid for their rashness with severe casualties, not only from their foes, but also from some of their nervous friends in the 5th Mass, Cavalry. The 4th suffered over 120 causalities in the first quarter of an hour of fighting. The 6th, on the 4th's left also caught the Confederate's wrath as shells and canister was thrown at these brave attackers. 

The 5th and 22nd, on the north side of the City Point Road advanced, too. These two regiments, although on more open ground than their comrade units to their left, seemed to receive less Confederate attention.

The 22nd USCI, led by Col. Joseph Kiddoo, charged the Confederate left portion of the fortification, with his men yelling "Remember Fort Pillow!" As the 22nd neared the position, the North Carolinians, feeling their position untenable, fled in retreat and the black soldiers planted their flags on the works. Retreating, too, were Graham's gunners, leaving at least one artillery piece and perhaps two guns, which could not be withdrawn by the Southerners quickly enough.

Sgt. Milton Holland of the 5th USCI, who would later earn the Medal of Honor for courageous fighting at New Market Heights, commented about the Baylor's Farm fight " . . . when the command was given to us, 'Charge bayonets!' Forward double quick," the black column rushed forward, raising the battle yell, and in a few moments we mounted the rebel parapets. And to our great surprise, we found that the boasted Southern chivalry had fled . . . ."

Overjoyed with their success, the victorious black soldiers celebrated by cheering and pulling the guns out of their previous positions. These United States Colored Troops regiments paid for their gains with about 300 casualties (killed and wounded) in almost two hours of fighting.

However, it did earn the black men some begrudging respect from both their Confederate enemies and their white comrades. One officer in a New Hampshire regiment stated "I dislike the negroe as much as any live man, but still I could not help pitying them when I saw them go limping past me all covered with blood." Another white soldier wrote, "Negroes will keep on their feet, and move on, with wounds that would utterly lay out white men, and they stick like death to their guns." The XVIII Corps commander, William "Baldy" Smith, also praised the colored troops claiming that their performance "affords conclusive evidence that colored men, when properly officered and drilled,  will not only make soldiers, but the best of soldiers of the line."

Hinks's Division would go on to even more success in the fighting along Petersburg's Dimmock Line defenses later in the day of June 15.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Inglorious Passages: Noncombat Deaths in the American Civil War

Most students of the Civil War learn early on that the vast majority of soldier deaths were due to illness and disease, rather than the combat actions on its many battlefields. However, Inglorious Passages reminds us that along with illnesses and diseases, a great number of men lost their lives in about as many different ways as one could imagine during the fours years of the conflict. 

Wartime has the unique and horrible ability to cast a long shadow of death far beyond intended belligerents on open fields and in earthworks. From even before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, but also throughout the four years of war, accidents occurred that took lives, such as drownings on troop transport ships, firearms mishaps in training camps, broken necks and backs from horse falls, railroad tragedies, and a plethora of other death dealing means. 

Wills located hundreds of examples of each of these tragic tales and more by combing through period newspapers, examining soldiers' letters and diaries, and searching through Union and Confederate army records. 

The Civil War created the atmosphere for many of these tragic deaths to occur. For example, had there been no war, one could argue that the hundreds of soldiers killed by falling trees, either by natural means of wind and storm or by human axes for shelter and fortifications, would have been greatly mitigated. Similarly, if there had been no war, the situations of accidental mishandling of firearms in camp that caused the deaths of more hundreds of men would also not have occurred. But the war did happen and these men did lose their lives in these ways. What was left was to do was for those fiends and families who lost loved ones in these diverse, sometimes "freak" manners to make sense of these tragedies. Most often those folks sought comfort by telling or believing that their soldier loved one died in the service of their country, and whether that was due to a railroad accident rather than in a military battlefield charge mattered little; their life was a sacrifice on the alter of liberty (whichever interpretation of that term, Union or Confederate, they chose). 

One quote Wills incorporates in the book sums up many Civil War soldiers' interpretation of the both intentional and accidental death and destruction of life the war brought when he wrote home "Father, I am sick of reading in the papers of 'the glory' of war. The truth is, there is no glory in it; Everything about it is simply horrible." 

We would do well to remind ourselves about the long shadow of war before entering into any conflict lightly. Wills helps us do that. This is an important book about the past, but it also is a warning to us in the present and the future. I highly recommend it.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

As I've previously mentioned, I was fortunate enough to attend Gettysburg College's Civil War Institute back in June. Among the many amenities that the Institute offered, they had several tables of gently used history books for sale. The books were in excellent condition and most were marked at a fraction of their average prices at online used book sources.  Needless to say, I couldn't help myself and grabbed up several titles.

Abolitionizing Missouri: German Immigrants and Racial Ideology in Nineteenth Century America by Kristen Layne Anderson piqued my interest from reading the title alone. My knowledge of this mid-western border state's Civil War era experience is fairly lacking, so I'm hoping this book will help fill in some gaps.

 I've thoroughly enjoyed Ronald Coddington's previous three books in his series of "Faces of" books (Confederate, Union, and African American). So, I jumped at the chance to add his Faces of the Civil War Navies: An Album of Union and Confederate Sailors to my library when I saw it among the used books at the Civil War Institute. I'm looking forward to reading the fascinating stories that Coddington always seems to discover about the men in the photographs he examines.

I recently read about William Tillman's escape in an issue of one of the popular Civil War magazines. His story is a fascinating look into how this seaman fought against his Confederate captors in order to remain free. The Rest I Will Kill: William Tillman and the Unforgettable Story of How a Free Black Man Refused to Become a Slave by Brian McGinty promises to add to our understanding of the importance of the idea of liberty to free blacks. I enjoyed reading McGinty's book John Brown's Trial several years ago, and I'm sure I'll learn new things from this one, too.

Another title that caught my eye was Sweet Freedom's Plains: African Americans and the Overland Trails, 1841-1869 by Shirley Ann Wilson Moore. The famous Santa Fe Trail and Oregon Trail have spawned many novels and films, however, few if any examine the experiences of African American men and women who traveled these routes west. I'm very interested to see what sources the author found to craft this history and tell what looks to be an intriguing story.

Susannah J. Ural was one of the Civil War Institute's featured speakers. The arguments she presented in her talk about her most recent book, Hood's Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy's Most Celebrated Unit, on this brigade's commitment to the Confederate cause were quite thought provoking. So much so, that I decided to pull the trigger and go ahead and buy it. I'm interested in reading the sections that cover the Texas Brigade's defense at New Market Heights and their combat experience there versus two United States Colored Troops brigades. The part of the subtitle, "and Families" also seems to show that Ural has written a blend of military and social history with this work. 

Southern Unionism was part of some of my ancestors' experience along the Tennessee and Kentucky border, so I've been trying to find as much quality scholarship on this topic that I can. I was happy to locate an inexpensive copy of Lincoln's Loyalists: Union Soldiers from the Confederacy by Richard Nelson Current recently and snatched it up. Thousands of  White Southerners, as well as black men, joined the ranks of the United States army to put down the rebellion and abolish slavery. This book promises to provide even more evidence that the Confederate South was far far from "solid."

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Photograph of Men of the 55th Massachusetts

Today I came across a photograph (shown below) I had never viewed before. Located in the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), it shows what looks to be a company of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry.

The 55th was the state's sister infantry regiment to the more famous 54th Massachusetts. The 55th regiment, like the 54th, was made up largely of free men of color from all across the Free States, and like the 54th they served primarily in the Department of the South, campaigning in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida.

If you go to this link, and click on the photograph, you will be able to enlarge it and see amazing details not observable in the above view.

On the far left a drummer stands holding his sticks. Scattered about, some men lounge; one man rests his head on another soldier's leg. One pair of friends kneel with one man's arm across the shoulders of his pal. Another pair strikes a similar pose farther to the right. On the far right two comrades look to be pointing to each other's U.S. belt buckles. All of the men are wearing their issued enlisted men's frock coats and forage caps. Interestingly, only a few of the sergeants wear the eagle medallion on their cartridge box slings. The men's muskets have fixed bayonets and are in stacks behind the soldiers. What look to be their white officers, probably a captain and a first lieutenant, stand with their swords.

Thanks to the NMAAHC for making this image available to us Civil War enthusiasts.

Image of the 55th entering Charleston courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Humble, but Essential, Supply Wagon

At the time of the Civil War relatively new steam-powered innovations such as railroads and steamboats grabbed the vast majority of the attention when it came to army logistics. Things have not changed much since. However, it was the humble and underappreciated supply wagon which proved to be the backbone of Union and Confederate supply efforts. The wood and iron supply wagon was to the Civil War what the Deuce and a Half truck was to World War II and the Korean War.

Civil War supply wagons most often consisted of either four or six mule or horse teams. These animals provided the power needed to pull heavy loads. A four mule team could haul a wagon loaded with about a ton of freight. Add two more mules and they could move another 1000 pounds or so.  

Northern and Southern armies included hundreds of wagons. One can imagine how much road space wagon trains occupied when one realizes that a six mule team and wagon compares equally to the length of a modern motor coach bus. It has been estimated that as the Army of the Potomac headed into what would become the Overland Campaign their supply wagon train would have measured 64 miles if placed end to end.

Almost everyone has heard that an army marches on its stomach. Yes, a large part of the supply wagon's freight consisted of food for the fighting men. Consider that each soldier was supposed to receive roughly three pounds of food per day. For a 14,000 man army corps, that was 42,000 pounds of food per day. That much freight would require about 14 wagons alone; and that's just one day, and one corps.

Often wagons also had to carry food for the horses and mules, too. Army regulations set rations as 14 pounds of fodder (hay) and 12 pounds of grain (corn and oats) per day per animal. Basically about 30 pounds of food per day was needed to keep horses and mules energized. Therefore a wagon team of 4 horses and mules required about 120 pounds of food per day. If that team was to travel 120 miles over 12 days, each wagon would need to carry 1,440 pounds of fodder and grain just for the teams pulling those wagons.

As hard experience proved teams that did not receive enough food could not pull the freight they were asked to move. Hundreds of thousands of horse and mules expired from sheer exhaustion and being malnourished.

Wagon trains also transported an army's necessary baggage, which might consist of tents, stoves, kettles, pans, chairs, desks, trunks, and other similar items, especially those of officers.

Armies, of course, were created to fight and they needed supplies of ammunition. A single box of 1000 cartridges weighed about 100 pounds. And while each soldier carried between 40 and 60 rounds of ammunition on his person, it was soon expended in fierce fire fights and resupply needed. Consider this: If a 500 man regiment shoots 50 shots each, that is 25,000 rounds of ammunition, which would weigh 2,500,000 pounds, or 1,250 tons of ammunition. That is just one regiment of 500 men! Think of the requirements for a 75,000 man army!

Teamsters drove the basic Civil War supply wagon. They were often African American men, both in the Union and Confederate armies. The teamsters did not have a seat on the wagon, rather they rode on the left mule or horse closest to the wagon. As much space as possible was reserved for the freight. The two animals closest to the wagon were known as the "wheel pair." The two in the middle, if a six team, were called the "swing pair." The front two, were the "lead pair." Men who had experience in driving and caring for horses and mules proved invaluable to the army as teamsters. Canvas covers protected the valuable contents of the wagon from the elements. Wagons also came equipped with a tool box for basic repairs on the front, and a feed box on the rear. An iron bucket which, contained grease, swung from the rear axle.

Although the army supply wagon has been underappreciated, hopefully with greater exposure and examples of their value to the armies they will gain a place as recognized as their more innovative and steam-powered logistic companions.

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia

Wow! What an incredible story this was! 

I first saw Eva Sheppard Wolf's Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia at the Society of Civil War Historians meeting in Lexington, KY back in 2012, at the UGA Press table. Their rep. was not at the table at the time for me to purchase it, so I made a mental note and added it to my wish list. It resided there for several years before finally I purchased a paperback copy for our library at work last fall. Last week I decided to pull it off the shelf and check it out while helping do an inventory of the Park's books. 

Using several primary source documents, the author was able to craft the story of Samuel Johnson and his family in Fauquier County (Warrenton), VA, and their struggle to attain freedom. As an enslaved man in Warrenton, Johnson was able to save up enough money earned through tips and overwork as a waiter at a town tavern to purchase his own freedom and gain an exemption from the state legislature to remain in Virginia. He was eventually able to also purchase his wife and daughter, but Johnson had to keep them as slaves since he did not want to leave all the fruits of his work in Virginia, as he was unsuccessful in gaining deportation exemptions for his family members. 

Johnson made eleven different petitions to the legislature over a number of years, all without success, despite the signatures and backing of influential member of the white community of Warrenton. Thus, due to race, the Johnsons were forced to live "almost free." 

Wolf puts it best when she writes: "That was the limit that Samuel Johnson's experience demarcated: black men in antebellum Virginia could become legally free, but they could not live freely. They could build friendships with white people and they could become important to their communities, but they were barred from claiming a place for themselves as men. They could not vote or participate in public life (except for working on the roads), and most important they could not protect and provide for their families as white men could. Samuel Johnson pushed against the limits set by law and society, but in the end he could only nudge them a bit. He could not break them down. His life on the margin, and pushing against the margin, undercut some of white Virginia's assumptions about race and social place, and his story challenges some of our own assumptions about how race worked in antebellum Virginia. But the greater point is that race worked. It took repeated effort, but in ways that mattered deeply race did effectively divide white from black - from birth to death." 

Another summary statement that Wolf makes and that I found quite insightful was: "The story of Samuel Johnson and his family also underscores how much we are all part of history, no matter how obscure or unknown we might be. We all work together in our daily lives to create the worlds in which we live, whether we think about it that way or not. We, like Samuel Johnson, like Spencer Malvin, like Lucy Elkins, make decisions about our lives, our identities, and our relationships in ways that help create our own moment in time. But of course our decisions are constrained, as Johnson's were, by the historical circumstances in which we find ourselves. There was nothing Johnson could do to change the 1806 law, nothing he could do to stop Turner's Rebellion and its aftermath, no way to single-handedly alter Virginia's racial order. History makes us as much as we make history. And it is in that intersection, that dynamic interplay between an individual and his or her historical moment, that the mystery of the human experience unfolds. That Samuel Johnson left behind enough material to allow us to peer into his own reckoning with history is a circumstance for which to be grateful." Well, put indeed!

Wolf carries the Johnson family's story on to his daughter Lucy and her children's efforts to find true freedom, but I won't spoil the story for you. I'll leave it up to you read the book and gain a deeper appreciation for the struggles of free people of color and their perseverance in the 19th century. Don't make the mistake I did and delay reading this important book. I most highly recommend it.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Civil War Logistics: A Study of Military Transport

Earl Hess has helped fill yet another scholarly void with Civil War Logistics: A Study of Military Transportation. This work focuses, as Hess explains in the subtitle and Preface, more on transportation than supply logistics. 

Hess examines the main arteries for military transport in the mid-19th century; "River-based," "Rail-based," Coastal Shipping," "Wagon Trains," and even "Pack Trains, Cattle Herds, and Foot Power." 

Using these categories he gives us a much better idea of the extraordinary organizing and planning required of the Union and Confederate quartermasters. The time and trouble it took to move armies from place to place, keep the soldiers and their animals fed, sheltered, and equipped is simply astounding. 

The significance of the role of the quartermasters in the Civil War has too long been ignored in favor of more traditional tactical military history, but it is easy to see through particular this lens that those armies would not have moved or fought at all if they were not transported and supplied. 

This book, like we've come to expect from Hess is well researched and written. Civil War Logistics is a work that every student of the conflict should read. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The War for the Common Soldier - Dr. Peter Carmichael

As I mentioned in a few recent posts, I attended the Gettysburg College Civil War Institute last weekend. This was my first time attending the CWI, but if at all possible it will not be my last. I was truly impressed by every part of the weekend. The sessions were great, the tour I attended was great, the food was great, and seeing and catching up with old friends and colleagues was great.

One of the top three session in my opinion was that given by Dr. Peter Carmichael on Saturday afternoon. In it he mentioned that he set out to find the average common soldier and was unsuccessful, as so many soldiers had a wide range of experiences, beliefs, emotions, and fates. I am excited that his scholarship on this topic will be published later this year in the form of The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies, by the University of North Carolina Press. Until then, you can get a sneak peek into his thought provoking research by watching his CWI talk via CSPAN-3.