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!

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Chaplain Jeremiah Marion Mickley, 43rd USCI

I thought I'd share a few of the brief articles that I often write for work and that are published in our local newspaper.

This one is titled "Ministering to Mind and Spirit" and shares an image and information on Chaplain Jeremiah Mickley of the 43rd United States Colored Infantry. I hope you enjoy it.