Thursday, April 30, 2020

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

With the uncertainty that comes with our nation's present situation, I've been trying to limit my purchases to the necessities. However, I've come across a few intriguing titles at good prices, so I decided to also try to do my little part to help buoy the consumer confidence figures.

I'm a big fan of social history studies. Over the past 40 years or so historians have tackled a diversity of topics; everything from sensory history to how clocks and time keeping have changed how people of the past lived. With American Lucifers: The Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750-1865, author Jeremy Zallen looks into a subject we all too often take for granted in the 21st century . . . until we lose power. It looks to be an enlightening read! Pun intended.  

I first became acquainted with Sam Wineburg's writing while working with history educators in Kentucky. His books like Reading Like a Historian, and Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, along with his work with the Stanford History Education Group were effective in getting teachers to think about how to make their instruction more effective. His latest book, Why Learn History (When it's Already on Your Phone) shows that historical thinking skills are still important despite having information available virtually at the swipe of a screen. Historical thinking goes far beyond just reciting facts. It is about weighing evidence and judging the soundness of arguments, among other things. I can't think of much anything more needed in our society right now.

I think I've mentioned several times before that I'm not a big reader of historical fiction, but every now and then it's nice to take a break from the historical arguments and theoretical approaches of academic books and just dive into a good story. I became aware of Two Brothers: One North, One South by David H. Jones about 12 years ago when it first came out. Based partly on events that occurred during the April 2, 1865 Petersburg Breakthrough, and involving a Maryland family's brother versus brother situation, it has the potential to be quite an interesting tale. We shall see.

Happy reading! Stay well! 

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Two Soldiers from North Carolina - One Union, One Confederate

I find it interesting to think about what makes people who come from the same geographical area experience such different paths in life. While theoretically "all men are created equal," in practice that has never been quite so. Differences in socioeconomic status, education, family connections and opportunities all often help determine what choices we make and what we ultimately end up doing. Those differences were enhanced with people of the past, especially those of the Civil War-era, where our democratic form of government did not recognize some people as formal citizens.

Recently in my reading, I came across mention of William Davis, who served in the 36th United States Colored Infantry (USCI). Originally known as the 2nd North Carolina Colored Infantry, the men from the 36th USCI came largely from northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. When those areas were occupied by Union forces early in the Civil War, enslaved families made their way to Union lines seeking freedom and opportunity. When African Americans were finally allowed to enlist in the U.S. army, many of the refugee men signed up. William Davis enlisted in Company E on August 15, 1863, in Norfolk, Virginia. His service records state that he was 26 or 27 years old and born in Halifax County, North Carolina. Enlisting officers wrote his occupation as "farmer," but in fact, before joining the U.S. army, Davis was enslaved.

William Davis must have shown leadership ability very early on during his military service, as he was made sergeant only three days after enlisting. In early 1864, he received promotion to 1st sergeant. Davis's leadership was tested at the Battle of New Market Heights on September 29, 1864. While many of the white officers in that fight went down with wounds, non-commissioned officers like Davis stepped in and carried the enemy's works. Davis remained with the 36th USCI through their post war experience on the Texas-Mexico border, and finally mustered out with the expiration of his enlistment on August 15, 1866.

The 1870 census shows Davis back in North Carolina. At that time he lived in New Bern with his wife Sarah, who he apparently married while enslaved. Henry Davis (15) and Lovenia Davis (19) are also in his household and may or may not have been William's children. At that time Davis's job was "farmer." It seems Davis moved back to his native Halifax County by 1880, as he is there in that census although with a different wife (Violet), and three young children. I was not able to definitively find other records for Davis or determine his death date.

Another man from Halifax County, and one who I located during my research on Petersburg Campaign prisoners, was Octavius Augustus Wiggins. Born just a few years later than William Davis, Wiggins experienced a much different life that of Davis. Wiggins's race, social status, family, and education helped determine such.

Wiggins appears as 6 years old in the 1850 census. His father, 52 year old Mason, a "farmer," is shown owning $4000.00 in Halifax County real estate. Octavius was one of ten Wiggins children in his father's household. His oldest brother, 22 year old Blake was listed as  a physician. Mason L. Wiggins owned 60 slaves in 1850. A decade later, 16 year old Octavius was still in his father's household and shown as having attended school that year. However, his father Mason had increased his real estate to $5935.00, and since personal property is also listed in the 1860 census we know that he owned $108,625.00. Of course, much of that personal property came in the form of the 68 people he owned.

When the Civil War broke out and North Carolina seceded, Wiggins was a student at the University of North Carolina. Wiggins originally enlisted as an 18 year old private in the 3rd North Carolina Cavalry on June 26, 1862. However, in January 1863, he transferred to Company E of the 37th North Carolina Infantry as a 2nd lieutenant. He fought in the Army of Northern Virginia's campaigns and  received a wound during the 1864 Overland Campaign fighting. He was allowed a furlough home to recover. Wiggins returned to his unit during the Petersburg Campaign. While defending the earthwork line southwest of Petersburg on April 2, 1865, Wiggins was again wounded by a shot so close to his face that it grazed his scalp and the black powder from the rifle blast blinded him. He was quickly captured and held at City Point before being shipped off to Johnson's Island, Ohio, an officer's prison. While enroute by train, Wiggins jumped out of the box car and eventually made his way back home to Halifax County. Killed near him on April 2 was his captain, William T. Nicholson. Nicholson was a near neighbor of Wiggins before the war, a fellow UNC student, and came from a wealthy large slaveholding family, too.

After the war Wiggins moved to Wilmington, North Carolina. The 1870 census shows him and his wife Anna living with his in-laws, the Parsley family, and working as a supervisor at a saw mill. In 1900, Wiggins was still in Wilmington. The now 56 year old Wiggins was still in the lumber business. Wiggins died on November 27, 1908 in Madison County, Mississippi. He was 64 years old.

One wonders what Davis's and Wiggins's lives would turned out like if their early life situations some how could have been reversed.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Just Finished Reading - Lee's Body Guards

One of the oldest formats for Civil War histories are individual unit studies. Often authored by its soldier members, the first unit histories—those covering battalions, regiments, and brigades—surfaced in the immediate post-war years. Many of these early works delivered a celebratory narrative of the unit, remembering the good while too often ignoring the difficult and forgetting the bad. With few exceptions, this model for unit studies set a standard that continued on through the end of the nineteenth century and far into the twentieth.

However, over the last three decades or so historians have been exploring Civil War units with a more critical eye. By digging deeper with their primary source research, focusing on more than just a unit’s battlefield and camp experiences, and even choosing to examine some distinctive units, historians, now more often than not, provide readers with a much truer picture of Civil War units. Books like Susannah J. Ural’s Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit; Lesley J. Gordon’s A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War; and Earl J. Hess’ Lee’s Tar Heels: The Pettigrew-Kirkland-McRae Brigade, among a number of others, offer excellent examples of alternatives to the conventional unit history. With Lee’s Body Guards: The 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, historian Michael C. Hardy adds to this growing list by shedding light on a significant yet overlooked and previously underexamined aspect of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Created and recruited largely out of the necessity for increased efficiency, the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry filled an important role at a time when the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV) was quickly becoming the Confederacy’s premier command under Gen. Robert E. Lee’s leadership. Before the formation of the 39th, various cavalrymen in regular regiments received assignments to ANV headquarters. These men served in a number of different roles. However, being on detached detail, of course, reduced the number of men available to cavalry units and thus limited their effectiveness as one of the three operating branches of service. The four (possibly five) companies of the 39th took over many of the duties formerly assigned to detached regular cavalry. Their responsibilities included copying and delivering orders, carrying headquarters telegraphic correspondence to and from stations, escorting prisoners, wrangling stragglers, and scouting enemy positions.

Using an array of primary sources including letters, official records, and newspapers, Hardy chronicles the exploits of the 39th throughout the various campaigns of the ANV. In chapters designated for each year from 1862 through 1865, readers get a good look at the diverse, yet important, work completed by the 39th. And although they became known as “Lee’s Body Guards,” and often identified themselves as such, the 39th served other officers in the ANV, too. At times they worked with other corps and divisional commanders like James Longstreet, Richard S. Ewell, Thomas Jonathan Jackson, Jubal Early, George E. Pickett, and A.P. Hill, among others. In completing their duties, men of the 39th witnessed some of the ANV’s most famous victories, delivering timely orders that helped achieve the successes that buoyed the infant Confederacy. They also were on hand for some of the army’s most tragic episodes like A.P. Hill’s death, the evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, and surrender at Appomattox.  

In addition to the book’s four chapters, and an “In Retrospect” epilogue, the book contains an alphabetical roster of the 39th, which gives company designations, brief service information, and, when known, the birth and death dates and burial place for its men.

Lee’s Body Guards makes a fine contribution to the evolving body of Civil War unit histories. Its primary strength rests in helping inform us students and enthusiasts about the significant role that men assigned to headquarters roles such as couriers, scouts, and guides played within the army structure, and thus gives us a greater appreciation of their duties.   

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Taking Prisoners, Taking Their Gear

I've been finding some pretty good prisoner accounts while looking through regimental histories of some units that served during the Petersburg Campaign. About a month ago I shared the story of Capt. Theodore Gregg of the 45th Pennsylvania Infantry (IX Corps), who refused to be captured at the Battle of the Crater. One of Gregg's future men, Pvt. Alexander Duncan, also Company C, was not as fortunate as Gregg. However, Pvt. Duncan did not end up a POW at the Crater, he actually enlisted in the 45th back in Norristown, Pennsylvania, that very day (July 30, 1864). Instead, Duncan got "gobbled up" at the Battle of Peebles Farm, on September 30, 1864.

In his account, printed among others in the History of the Forty-fifth Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1865 (1912), Duncan informs readers that he caught up with his regiment just south of Petersburg near the Weldon Railroad at the end of August. On September 29, Duncan and the 45th broke camp. After maneuvering on that day and the next, the 45th made toward the Confederate defenses along Squirrel Level Road.

During the combined V Corps and IX Corps fighting, Duncan relates that the 45th halted and received permission to rest. While taking this break Duncan's rear rank file partner, Pvt. Jacob Gear, rested leaning forward and by doing so barely missed having his head taken off by a Confederate solid shot.

Following this pause the 45th moved forward toward the Confederates who had retreated. After a 20-minute fire fight, Duncan stated that the 51st New York Infantry, who was on the right of the 45th, "fled along our rear and the panic spread along the whole line to the extreme left and there was a stampede to the rear." Apparently, left without support and with about only 70 men under Capt. Gregg's command, they became enveloped. Gregg advised "let every man look out for himself!" Duncan explained that is exactly what they all tried to do, but, "In less than an hour we were all prisoners."

Pvt. Duncan was captured just about dark by some of Gen. Wade Hampton's cavalry and "marched to the place where the prisoners were being collected and placed under guard." One of the things that I am trying to gain a better understanding about is how recent captives were removed from the battlefield and held. This account gives some insight to that.

Although Capt. Gregg escaped capture at the Crater, he was gobbled up with Duncan at Pebbles Farm. He tried to comfort the men by telling them: "Boys! . . . Keep a stiff upper lip, all will be with us yet." In what appears to be a common practice with the Confederates during the Petersburg Campaign, they took advantage of this gathering of Federals to exchange their worn out gear with that of their enemy. Pvt. Duncan stated, "The Rebels now came among us and helped themselves to our to our hats, overcoats, blankets, and everything they fancied . . . ." Also, another common practice was to remove the prisoners to Petersburg for eventual railroad transport. Such was the case for Duncan and his comrades, too. He claims they were placed on an island in the Appomattox River.

After Duncan took a brief rest under a tree it began to rain, and rained through the morning and afternoon. Soon, Duncan and his comrades received another round of robbery from their captors. "The Rebels then helped themselves to anything we had left over from the plunder the night before, so that we had nothing but the clothes we wore," he related. He continued, "When I saw what they were doing, I looked around and seeing a Rebel soldier, who was looking on, I showed him my blanket and asked him to give me some bread for it. He went away and soon came back again with a pound loaf, for which I gave my blanket." It was probably not a bad trade to get at least something before all was taken anyway.

The prisoners were moved to a large brick building in Petersburg where they were kept until the next day. They were then placed on railroad cars and transported to Richmond. After being processed at Richmond, Duncan moved on to the prisoner of war camp in Salisbury, North Carolina. He remained at Salisbury until he was exchanged in March 1865. He mustered out with the regiment in July 1865.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Zooming in on Federal Soldiers Removing Artillery from Confederate Fortifications

It has been a while since I shared a "Zooming In" post, but I located a neat image on the Library of Congress website that produced some amazing details from the downloaded TIFF file, so here goes. The title of this particular image is "Petersburg, Va., Federal Soldiers Removing Artillery from Confederate Fortifications." If I were to speculate on where this image was photographed I would say probably somewhere around the Fort Mahone environs where the IX Corps attacked on April 2, 1865. That's just a guess though.

In the center left of the photograph a British-made Enfield rifle musket rests against a section of a revetment. Various pieces of camp equipment are also scattered about. A frying pan, two tarred haversacks, and a large tin cup with a bale are clearly visible. What looks to be a mitten and waist belt with a rectangular buckle also appear in this clipped view.

In the right foreground a white rag with a stick lays on the ground. One wonders if this served as method for surrender for some of the former Confederate occupant defenders. Or, maybe it was used by some of the Union attackers, as some of them were captured in the initial assaults.

Two artillerymen sit on a limber staring at the camera. The one on the left wears a military forage cap and has his scarf tied in an unusual manner under his arm. He holds a book in his right hand. A sword hilt is visible between the men on the limber cover under what looks to be a greatcoat. The man on the right wears a slouch hat and a shell jacket. The soldier standing before them wears a kepi with a waterproof cover over top of it.

Another artilleryman sits on the stock of the 3-inch ordnance rifle that the limber is pulling. He also sports a kepi with a cover and a shell jacket with piping on the sleeve cuff. His trousers are tucked into his boots and he carries both a canteen and a haversack. Attached to his haversack is a shiny tin cup.

Scattered around on the ground in front of the artillery piece's wheel are what looks to be numerous cartridge papers, likely left by the Confederate defenders.

In the background of the image are the remnants of winter quarters. Some look to be bombproofs, some having wood and earthen chimneys and barrel extensions.

The clarity of this photograph is particularly impressive. That fact comes through on things like the wheel hub lock and spokes of the artillery piece. The cannon's water bucket (below the hub) and hand spike used to help aim the piece laterally (above the hub) both also appear.

You can find this image here.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Winter Quarters

When temperatures turned cooler during the Civil War, armies often looked to establish winter quarters to better shelter the men. Due largely to the terrible conditions of the roads during the winter months, the fighting forces more often than not remained static until the spring campaign season.

On New Year’s Day, 1865, Charles Hunter wrote a letter to his sister, Jane, in Philadelphia. Hunter had just recently returned to duty in the 88th Pennsylvania Infantry (V Corps) at Petersburg after receiving a grisly wound in the fighting on May 8 near Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, and after a lengthy recuperation at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia.

Hunter, who probably got used to his warm and dry hospital environment while away from his regiment, devoted several lines in his letter describing the temporary winter accommodations: “We are near the Weldon Rail Road and have got very comfortable quarters. We have got log huts built about 5 feet high. Each hut has got 2 bunks in it. I sleep in the top bunk with Murray that man that lost his voice, and Richards & Wisham lay in the bottom bunk. Our bunk is about 4 feet from the ground so you see there is no chance of our behinds getting wet as long as we stay here. We have got a good fire place, and we keep the oak logs piled on thick. The only difficulty is that the chimney smokes a little once in a while.”

However, with the arrival of warmer weather, came movement and campaigning. Soldiers often expressed their frustration with leaving behind their winter quarters and returning to open-air sleeping, or in the best case canvas tents. Exposure to the elements only increased the chances of becoming ill, and prevented one's natural immunity to fight it off. 

Thursday, April 9, 2020


When most people are asked to think about the various motivations that prompted men (and some women) to enlist in the Union and Confederate armies, the common answers are, for adventure and due to a sense of duty to one’s country and its cause. Both answers are correct. However, many soldiers had practical reasons for enlisting, too. And while some soldiers were indeed conscripted (i.e. drafted) into service, many more saw certain economic advantages to signing up.

After the initial rush of volunteers in 1861, the war’s continuation and its level of destruction curbed the number of enthusiastic enlistees in 1862. However, to avoid the stigma conscription, another flood of men entered the Confederate army in the wake of it instituting the draft in April 1862, and the same for the Union the following year. As an additional measure of encouragement, and in effort to increase and thus fulfill enlistment quotas, some locales offered monetary bounties to help persuade men to muster into the service.

Bounty amounts and their accompanying payment stipulations varied depending on what state, county, or town in which one chose to enlist. When one considers that the private Union soldier received $13.00 per month in pay, and his Confederate counterpart received $11.00, a national bounty (if offered), plus state and local bounties usually added up to a significant economic incentive to enlist.

Of course, as with any program involving money, fraud sometimes entered the picture. Some soldiers soon began practicing “bounty jumping.” To do so a soldier enlisted under an alias, collected the bounty payment offered up front and promptly deserted. He then completed the process over under a new name and likely in a distant location. Some men became adept at bounty jumping, doing so multiple times. However, more often than not, severe consequences resulted from bounty jumping. Unlike more benign desertion offences, such as being absent without leave, which often resulted in a courts martial and some form of corporal punishment and or imprisonment, flagrant bounty jumpers frequently received capital punishment convictions.   

Due largely to abuses during the Civil War, the bounty system eventually fell out of favor and was outlawed by the Selective Service Act of 1917.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Empty Sleeve

Estimates for the number of amputations during the Civil War vary somewhat, but most hover around 50-60,000. Losing hands, arms, feet, or legs often left men wondering how to manipulate a prosthesis and worrying about how they would navigate in civilian society for the rest of their lives. And, while sacrificing an appendage for one’s cause and country was certainly an admirable and honorable act, the practical fact was that it left the victim—and often the victim’s family—with fewer options for financial support.

In the summer of 1862, poet and lawyer David Barker, who hailed from Exeter, Maine, heard Gen. Oliver Otis Howard speak at a recruitment rally in Bangor, Maine. Howard had lost his right arm in the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia on May 31, 1862, and was back in his home state recuperating from his amputation. Inspired by Howard’s steadfastness despite losing a limb, Barker wrote the poem, “The Empty Sleeve.”

The Empty Sleeve

By the moon’s pale light to a grazing throng,
Let me tell one tale, let me sing one song;
‘Tis a tale devoid of an aim or plan,
‘Tis a simple song of a one arm man.
Till this very hour I could ne’er believe
What a tell-tale thing is an empty sleeve-
What a weird, queer thing is an empty sleeve.

It tells in a silent tone to all,
Of a country’s need and a country’s call,
Of a kiss and a tear for a child and wife,
And a harried march for a nation’s life;
Till this very hour who could e’er believe
What a tell-tale thing is an empty sleeve-
What a weird, queer thing is an empty sleeve.

It tells of a battle-field of gore-
Of the sabre’s clash—of the cannon’s roar-
Of the deadly charge—of the bugle’s note-
Of a gurgling sound in a foeman’s throat-
Of a whizzing grape—of the fiery shell-
Of a scene which mimics the scenes of hell-
Till this very hour would you e’er believe
What a tell-tale thing is an empty sleeve-
What a weird, queer thing is an empty sleeve.

Though it points to a myriad wounds and scars,
Yet it tells that a flag with the stripes and stars,
In God’s own chosen time will take
Each place of the rag with the rattle-snake,
And it points to a time when that flag shall wave
O’er land where there breathes no cowering slave.
To the top of the skies let us all then heave
One proud huzza for the empty sleeve-
For the one armed man with the empty sleeve.

Howard, not one to let the loss of an arm stop him, returned to the Army of the Potomac, leading the XI Corps at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. He then transferred to the Western Theater where he fought at Chattanooga, the Atlanta Campaign, and the “March to the Sea.” Howard served as the head of the Freedman’s Bureau after the Civil War and helped found Howard University in Washington D.C. He died in 1909 in Burlington, Vermont, where he was buried.

Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, and "The Empty Sleeve," both provide us in the present with examples of how to deal with adversity when it surfaces. Let us hope that we can make as good as Howard did when faced with our challenges. Seek out someone or something that inspires you to do good and do it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Wartime Innovation

Armed conflicts often produce prime opportunities for new inventions to emerge and technology to evolve. Many new developments come as the result of previous advances. While some innovations—like those medical in nature—ultimately improve lives, an unfortunate result, too, is that many wartime ideas lead to more effective ways to kill or maim. The American Civil War provides numerous examples of both. During the war, inventors claimed patents on everything from filter canteens to ironclad ships. However, weaponry, both large and small, was one of the most fertile fields for innovative thinking when the United States and Confederate State came to blows.

In the collections of Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier is a leather case, which upon first glace looks like something that would carry important papers for safekeeping. However, upon further inspection, it proves to have a much more martial purpose.

On August 18, 1863, near the White House, President Abraham Lincoln test fired a new repeating rifle invented three years earlier by Christopher Spencer. Lincoln, amazed with the weapon’s accuracy and rate of fire, heartily endorsed the rifle. Soon, Spencer’s Boston, Massachusetts factory was flooded with orders. Spencer offered his repeaters in a longer rifle model, often used by infantry units, and a shorter carbine version, which cavalrymen preferred.

The Spencer rifle worked by loading seven rimfire brass cartridges into a spring-fed hollow tube that ran through the weapon’s shoulder stock. The spring forced the cartridges forward to the breech, where once fired, a lever action then ejected each brass casing after it shot. The Spencer rifle could manage approximately 20 rounds per minute, whereas the standard muzzleloading rifle musket fired only about three times per minute in the most experienced of hands.

To help increase the Spencer’s rate of fire even more, as well as ease the ability to transport its special brass cartridge ammunition, Col. Erastus Blakeslee of the 1st Connecticut Cavalry invented and patented the Blakeslee cartridge box. The original design held six or ten preloaded tubes within the leather case to speed load the Spencer. Later designs of the Blakeslee cartridge box held up to 13 preloaded tubes. More than 10,000 of Blakeslee’s cartridge boxes were issued to U.S. cavalrymen alone, during the war.

It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention, and Blakeslee’s innovative cartridge box—built upon Spencer’s previous invention—is an excellent example. In the spring of 1865, numerous cavalry units in Gen. Philip Sheridan’s U.S. mounted force used their Spencers and Blakeslee cartridge boxes to great effect during the pursuit and ultimate surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox.