Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Virtue of Cain

You say you don't know much about Reconstruction? Not to worry! There is an ever-growing list of books and documentaries focusing on this vital era of United States history. However, once people dive into Reconstruction, they sometimes get bogged down in concepts and terms like Presidential Reconstruction vs. Congressional Reconstruction plans, Black Codes, constitutional amendments, carpetbaggers, scalawags, and backroom compromises, too often forgetting about the people most impacted by all of these measures.

In my humble opinion, the true story of Reconstruction is that of those individuals who desperately tried to hold on to the changes wrought by the Civil War. And although in many ways they were initially unsuccessful against the violent backlash of white supremacy, their legacy provided roots for the long Civil Rights Movement. One of those individuals who found himself in the heat of Reconstruction was Lawrence Cain. If you have not heard of Lawrence Cain before, you are likely among the majority. But his story is a fascinating and inspiring one of long odds, many disappointments, yet persistence and internal fortitude. Fortunately, his story is now available for all to read about. Virtue of Cain: From Slave to Senator - Biography of Lawrence Cain by Kevin M. Cherry, Sr. examines an extraordinary life lived under extremely difficult circumstances.

Cherry, a descendant of Cain, happened upon his ancestor's story largely by accident. In the generations between Cain and Cherry, family members were able to relocate geographically and pass as white, virtually erasing their African American heritage and sometimes adopting a Native American interpretation of their family lineage. Extensive research and DNA testing told the truth, though.

Lawrence Cain was born about 1844 in Edgefield District (later county), South Carolina to a white father and enslaved mother. Edgefield is as Old South as Old South gets. It produced Preston Brooks, the antebellum congressman who beat Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner on the senate floor in 1856. Edgefield was also home to later-day segregationists like "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman and Strom Thurman. Lawrence Cain's biological father was likely Dr. S. V. Cain. Dr. Cain died at a young 49 years old in 1858 and Lawrence Cain was sold along with the rest of Dr. Cain's estate. Lawrence was purchased by Z. W. Carwile.

One of the things that I especially enjoyed about Virtue of Cain was Cherry's inclusion of historical events as supporting evidence of white southern sentiments. For example, during this chapter on Lawrence Cain's early life, Cherry shares a couple of fascinating quotes from speeches made by S. V. Cain in 1856 (after the Brooks-Sumner incident) and Samuel McGowan (future Confederate general). McGowan said in part: "The great question out of which rise the convulsions that disturb and shake the country as with an earthquake, is the question of African Slavery, in which our destinies are bound up forever. In comparison with this there is no other question worth attention."

When Z. W. Carwile's son, Thomas, went of to fight in the Civil War, Lawrence Cain went with him as a camp servant in the 14th South Carolina Infantry, which first served in Maxy Gregg's brigade, but after Gregg's death at Fredericksburg, Virginia, ended up commanded by Samuel McGowan. Incidentally, McGowan's Brigade was camped for about 6 months (October 1864-March 1865) where I work, Pamplin Historical Park, so Lawrence Cain was likely walking the same ground I see almost everyday. In the last days of the Petersburg Campaign, McGowan's men were pulled out and sent to a threatened sector a few miles away. Sometime in the last days of fighting, Lawrence Cain was wounded in the leg. Admitted to a City Point, Virginia, Union hospital, Cain recovered and returned to South Carolina.

Almost immediately Cain dedicated himself to the improvement of African Americans. He started a school and taught there. Again, as before, Cherry sprinkles in period newspaper accounts that reference Cain and which add significantly to his story's telling. Cain also founded a church for blacks, and soon entered Reconstruction state politics as a Republican. With a black majority population, and after ratification of the 15th amendment, political offices were claimed by black men in Edgefield, and other similar South Carolina counties. However, the black political rise was relatively short lived as white supremacists such as former Confederate cavalry officers Martin W. Gary and Matthew C. Butler led counter terrorist activities that severely curtailed black voting, but not before Lawrence Cain had served in the South Carolina state senate, served as Deputy Collector of Internal Revenue, and accomplished a tremendous amount for his constituents.

Lawrence Cain died of tuberculosis in 1884, being only about 40 years old. However, what he was able to accomplish, although forgotten by many over the years, lived on and inspired future generations of both black and white South Carolinians who continued Cain's quests for freedom and equality.

Well researched, and written in an engaging style, which includes a number of primary sources, Virtue of Cain is an important book, about an important man, who lived in a difficult and dangerous but important period. I believe that everyone would benefit from reading Virtue of Cain. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Fort Dushane: An Unprotected Civil War Fort that Once Protected the Union Army

Today's share comes as a guest post, courtesy of Michael Spencer of the Petersburg Battlefields Foundation (PBF). The folks at PBF are doing great things to help preserve the hallowed ground associated with the Petersburg Campaign. I encourage you to look into supporting their cause with a kind financial contribution or by purchasing a membership. Additional information about their efforts can be found by using underlined link above. 

Fort Dushane: An Unprotected Civil War Fort that Once Protected the Union Army 
by Michael Spencer

Just a few miles south of the City of Petersburg, within a recently developed neighborhood, stands a mostly forgotten Union fort that sits on land once hotly contested by two opposing armies. In the early Fall of 1864, this site represented the furthest point on the left flank of the Union armies operating around Petersburg. During the Petersburg Campaign of 1864 to 1865, this bastion witnessed thousands of troops march off to take part in large maneuvers against the opposing Confederate defenses. It also was visited by famous people such as Generals Grant, Meade and Warren, along with Secretary of State William H. Seward. (Campbell, A Grand Terrible Dramma) What is the story of Fort Dushane?

During the brutal four day Second Battle of the Weldon Railroad (also known as the Battle of Globe Tavern), which took place from August 18-21, 1864, forces led by the V Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac managed to take possession of and hold this Confederate supply line that ran into Petersburg. General Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, wanted to ensure that their hard fought gains would not be lost to future Confederate attacks. He ordered Federal fortifications to be extended from the Jerusalem Plank Road (modern day Crater Road) west to Fort Wadsworth along the Weldon Railroad. South of this fort and to the west of the railroad, Company B, U.S. Engineers Battalion and members of the 50th New York Engineers began work August 30th on what would become Fort Dushane. Within a month, this fortification was nearly complete and included a bombproof that could hold 600 men, with eight traverses. Iron rails from the nearby Weldon Railroad were used to help protect the magazines and traverses. (Hess, In the Trenches)
Sketch of the fort, by Charles W. Reed
All throughout these operations, attacks were expected from Confederate forces. Some skirmishing did take place during the month of September. Charles Wellington Reed, member of the 9th Massachusetts Light Artillery (and eventual Medal of Honor recipient) maintained an ongoing journal and drew many sketches during his time near Petersburg, including Fort Dushane. On September 17th, Reed wrote: “called up and prepared for action with some show of having one. [B]risk and lively skirmishing along our front and right from daylight till towards noon. [T]he rebs yelling and trying to force our skirmish line which was held”. (Campbell, A Grand Terrible Dramma)
On September 23rd, Reed noted in his diary: “our fort was named to day[.] [T]he fort is very near completion.”. This was the day that Reed learned Fort Dushane was officially given its name. Earlier in September, Generals Warren and Hancock recommended assigning names to the Union forts being established around Petersburg. Meade had his Corps commanders offer names of officers who had fallen since May 5th, 1864, which was the start of the Overland Campaign. (Hess, In the Trenches) This resulted in the naming of forts after officers such as Sedgwick and Wadsworth. Fort Dushane received its name from a fallen hero of Maryland.

Before the war, Colonel Nathan Thomas Dushane was a master builder and member of the Maryland House of Delegates. He entered the war with the 1st Maryland Regiment in June of 1861. He saw action throughout the war, including being captured at Front Royal in May of 1862. He fought with his all-Maryland brigade throughout the Overland Campaign and during the summer around Petersburg. (Hunt, Colonels in Blue) During the Second Battle of the Weldon Railroad, his brigade, part of Ayres division, took part in the initial attacks that the V Corps made to capture that rail line. Dushane and his men fought throughout all the subsequent Confederate counterattacks that took place during the operations of August 18th -21st. Unfortunately for Colonel Dushane, he would fall during the last day of this contest. As Noah Trudeau wrote, during a Confederate artillery bombardment, one “shell neatly decapitated the officer in charge of the all-Maryland brigade, Colonel Nathan Dushane.” (Trudeau, Last Citadel)

The location of Fort Dushane is just a mile or two from the spot where Colonel Dushane was killed. It was an appropriate place to be given his name, being on the extreme left of the Union line at the time and near the area where he spent his final days fighting with his men.

Fort Dushane was the staging area for troop movements against the Confederate lines to the north and west. During late September, Union infantry and cavalry moved out from this area in what eventually resulted in the actions around the Peebles Farm and the capture of Confederate Fort Archer (later renamed Fort Wheaton). Later in October, General Hancock’s II Corps, which had been encamped around Fort Dushane, launched its maneuvers that ended up in the first attacks against the Boydton Plank Road and Hatcher’s Run. (Trudeau, Last Citadel)

An interesting visit took place on September 25th. According to Reed’s account, “Gen’s Grant, Meade, Warren, Humphrey, Senator [Secretary of State] Seward, and other dignitaries visited the fort to day”. This was apparently a tour of fortifications given to Secretary Seward by General Grant and high level staff. (Campbell, A Grand Terrible Dramma)

Today, Fort Dushane still stands despite over 150 years of potential destruction. Its rich but largely forgotten history needs to be preserved for generations to come. Fort Dushane holds an important role in the Petersburg Campaign that should be remembered and highlighted.

Images of Fort Dushane today.

Campbell, Eric A. 2000. A Grand Terrible Dramma: From Gettysburg to Petersburg: The Civil War Letters of Charles Wellington Reed
Hess, Earl J. 2009. In The Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications & Confederate Defeat
Trudeau, Noah Andre, 1991. The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864-April 1865
Hunt, Roger D. 2007. Colonels in Blue: The Mid-Atlantic States

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

I've been following the progress of Kevin Levin's latest work, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth, for a few years now on his Civil War Memory blog. I'm particularly interested in learning more about the actual roles that the enslaved played in Confederate armies and how over the years those responsibilities became conflated with being arms bearing combatants. This highly anticipated study will hopefully spur additional scholarship on this topic, as it is area of Civil War studies that has been waiting for thorough historical examinations.   

The Reconstruction era seems to be receiving more general public interest than ever before. Perhaps the recent and highly regarded Henry Louis Gates's PBS documentary, "Reconstruction: America after the Civil War," and its accompanying book, Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow has something to do with it. Or perhaps the recent establishment of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park in Beaufort, South Carolina is helping create a buzz. Or maybe it has something to do with it being the sesquicentennial anniversary of the period. More likely its a combination of these things. People are finally realizing that Reconstruction is so relevant to where find ourselves today in terms of race relations. Regardless, learning about this time in our country's history is fundamental to understanding where and what we are today as a nation. Books like Virtue of Cain: From Slave to Senator, Biography of Lawrence Cain are giving us more insight than ever into the promising advances, troublesome events, and heartbreaking setbacks of Reconstruction.

Antebellum southern society seemingly offers scholars an endless supply of topics to research and write about. One that has always interested me is the happenings at popular mineral and hots springs and spas. Some of the most visited were in the hills and mountains of Virginia. Viewed as refuges from the diseases and maladies of the tidewater and low country regions, spas and springs hosted a veritable who's who among the southern elite. Ladies and Gentlemen on Display: Planter Society at the Virginia Springs, 1790-1860, promises to be an educational and enjoyable read. 

Monday, September 16, 2019


In the summer of 1864, the Confederacy was searching for manpower. With military defensive efforts in progress at Petersburg, and around Atlanta, along with other points across the South, help was in great demand. The above advertisement, which ran in the July 28, 1864, edition of the Richmond Daily Dispatch sought six African American blacksmiths. These men were desired for their skills in producing horse shoes and horse shoe nails.

Without the equine beasts of burdens, mid-19th century armies were virtually powerless. Horses and mules provided the brawn to haul army supply wagons that brought equipment, food, and ammunition to the soldiers in the field. These brutes pulled the artillery pieces, limbers, and cassions that helped defend the critical locations the Southerners were backed into. But, to keep the animals functioning properly they needed food to fuel their muscles and iron shoes to protect their hooves.

It is assumed that the six "negro" blacksmiths sought by Capt. J. S. Tucker at the Richmond Arsenal were enslaved men. It was common practice in the antebellum years for owners with slaves who had skills to rent or lease them out, particularly in urban locations where industrial skills like carpentry, brick masonry, and iron working were most often happening, and thus in highest demand. Those owners reaped the reward of their enslaved's labor. It was an unjust but pragmatic system. In wartime, slave labor became even more valuable because it ideally freed up white men to be arms-bearing soldiers.

One wonders if Capt. Tucker had any trouble filling his need for six blacksmiths. I highly doubt it. The war brought thousands of white refugees into Richmond, many of whom also brought their slaves along. With all of the manufacturing and transportation requirements of the Confederate government in Richmond, opportunities were plenty, particularly for those will marketable skills.

However, the nation built on slavery was like the house on sand. The war offered the disturbances and opportunities for thousands of enslaved people to abandon their previous lives and seek new ones that offered monetary rewards for their work. The manpower drain helped create a downward spiral that eventually helped cost the Confederacy its bid for independence.   

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Spying on the South

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Just Finished Reading - War Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Just Finished Reading - In the Cause of Liberty

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Executing Daniel Bright

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Broke by the War

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

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

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

Monday, August 12, 2019

Just Finished Reading - War Matters

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Keep the Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Alfred Stratton, 147th New York Infantry, Double Amputee

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

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Just Finished Reading - The First Republican Army

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

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

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

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

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

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