Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Quick Hits: 3/11/2014

Hello again!

While I realize things have been a bit slow here over the past few weeks, I wanted to make you aware of some random bits of news that need to be brought to your attention.

At the top of the list is a new blog from my friend Hampton Newsome, author of the excellent Richmond Must Fall and co-editor of Civil War Talks, both of which you should immediately add to your bookshelf if you haven’t already done so. His blog can be found here, and from the looks of things it will be one that you will want to check in with regularly.

Also, for those of you who live in Northern Virginia, Dr.Donald A. Hopkins will be appearing at the Old Manassas Courthouse on Friday March 21st to discuss his new book Robert E. Lee in War and Peace. Hopkins compiled every known image of Lee in one volume and offers exhaustive commentary about the background of each image. The talk begins at 7:00 PM and will conclude with a book signing. The event is free, so don’t miss out on what should prove to be an excellent event.

And while I’m on the topic of work, there will be two bus tours that I will be leading or helping to lead with Prince William County that are shaping up to be very special. On Saturday May 3rd I will be leading an all-day bus tour of Arlington Cemetery in honor of the 150th anniversary of its founding. The tour will include a tour of Robert E. Lee’s Arlington House and a driving tour that will highlight some of the notable burials within the cemetery. Along the way you will learn about lesser-known aspects of Arlington’s history such as Freedman’s Village, where former slaves experienced their first taste of freedom. Also, on June 14th I will be helping to lead a bus tour that will focus on the contributions of U.S. Colored Troops during the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. The tour will focus on the initial clashes around Petersburg, the Crater, and will culminate in a tour of New Market Heights. Both tours are $80 per person (lunch included) and require reservations. For reservations, call Ben Lomond Historic Site at 703-367-7872.

Finally, on a more humorous note, a co-worker sent me this video of Stonewall Jackson planning a famous flank attack that must have been influenced by someone reading about the Seven Days Battles. Dick Ewell and A.P. Hill would undoubtedly have approved. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Olustee Diary: William Woodlin, 8th USCT

Anyone who has done research on United States Colored Troops will tell you that finding an original letter or diary from an African American Union soldier is akin to the discovery of Noah’s Ark. Primary documents from USCTs are scarce, which makes the diary of William P. Woodlin, held in the collection of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute, a truly remarkable document. Woodlin belonged to the band of the 8th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry and accompanied the rest of the regiment on its expedition to Florida. He was present at Olustee, the 150th anniversary of which was commemorated yesterday. 
Woodlin's Diary. GLIAH

To recap, the Battle of Olustee was fought near Lake City, Florida, on February 20, 1864. It was the largest battle fought in Florida during the Civil War. In February 1864, the commander of the Department of the South, Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, launched an expedition into Florida to secure Union enclaves, sever Confederate supply routes, and recruit black soldiers. Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour moved deep into the state and on February 20, his men met Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan's Confederates entrenched near Olustee. The federal forces attacked but were repulsed and fled to Jacksonville. Union forces of more than 5,000 men included the 8th USCT, the 35th USCT and the 54th Mass. Federal forces suffered 40 percent killed, wounded, or missing.

When the day was over, Woodlin took up his pencil and scrawled the following in his diary:
20th    We rec'd our rations last evening and got underway about ½ past 6 A.M. at a quick step on the left of the division, passed Sanders Station about 11 A.M., about 12 m: {as near as could be learned} from B's Plantation; we had a very rapid as well as fatiguing march; passed through a dead turpentine forest.  after this halt we were ordered forward, & soon could hear the roar of  Canon & the rattle of Musketry ahead of us, we were hurried up to the line of battle at the double quick and our Reg was place in the center and rec'd the hottest fire that was given ; The Col. fell the Major  wounded a Capt,  & several lieutenants.  the band and Drum Core went up to the front ahead of the Cavalry and were exposed to a very hot fire:  for a while when we fell back to the R. R. until we were in danger of being taken by a flank movement of the Rebs:  we got away however and had another station for a while:  when we were again move a mile farther from the Battle field, which was in the front of Lake City.  we built some fires there, & were halted by the Division Dr. for a while after which we moved on untill we reached the station.  we left in the morning & PM  blew the scene of action nearly worn out with fatigue & cold.  we reached there about 1 A.M. that night and stayed untill daylight.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Checking Back In

Well hello there! I apologize for the prolonged absence, but life and work have eaten up the majority of my time as of late. Still, even though there hasn’t been much activity on the blog, I have been hard at work on some projects and events that I thought I’d bring you up to speed on.

If you live in the Manassas area, I will be giving a lecture  and book signing next Thursday (February 27th) about New Market Heights at the Old Manassas Courthouse at 7 PM. The Old Manassas Courthouse was the site of the 1911 Peace Jubilee, so it is a great setting for a talk on the Civil War.
I was also supremely honored to be invited to speak to the Union League of Philadelphia’s Civil War Round Table about New Market Heights on September 24th. As you may recall, the Union League houses the original Don Troiani painting Three Medals of Honor as well as many other priceless works, so I am eagerly anticipating being able to soak in the atmosphere of this legendary site!


From Philly, I will turn my gaze south to Henrico County where I will participate in a whole host of commemorative activities put on by the County and Richmond National Battlefield in honor of the 150th anniversary of the fighting around Chaffin’s Farm. As you may have heard, from September 26 – 28 Henrico County will be hosting a re-enactment of New Market Heights and Second Deep Bottom called Campaign Before Richmond 1864. I’ll be bouncing back and forth between the re-enactment and the events taking place at Fort Harrison and then I’ll be giving real-time walking tours of the New Market Heights Battlefield on the actual anniversary. Needless to say, I will be in serious need of a vacation by October 1st!

And speaking of Henrico County, I also wanted to let you all know that I will be helping the county’s Historic Preservation & Museum Services Division give what looks to be the only commemorative tour related to the Battle of Yellow Tavern, where legendary Confederate cavalier J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded. This will be an all-day bus tour on the actual anniversary (Sunday May 11, 2014) and will cover sites such as Beaverdam Station, Ground Squirrel Bridge, Walkerton Tavern, and the site of Stuart’s wounding among others. Check the county’s even website for updates on how you can be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime event!

While this is certainly enough to keep any mortal busy, I am also putting the finishing touches on my second book, which will cover the First Battle of Deep Bottom. Fingers crossed, it should be out in time for the anniversary.

I have tried to keep up with other Civil War news and chatter from around the blogosphere (as long as it doesn't relate to the Virginia Flaggers – I’m OVER it) but the above-mentioned concerns have kept me from devoting as much time as I’d like. I did notice that there was some hub-bub over Dr. Allen C. Guelzo being the co-winner of the Lincoln Prize, but since I don’t subscribe to the fallacious notion that Gettysburg was the most important end-all-be-all crucial high water mark in all of Western civilization…I don’t really care. Congrats to Dr. Guelzo!

I’ll check back in tomorrow with a post on the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Olustee...

Saturday, February 15, 2014

“Recklessness galore, gallantry mere more, disgrace in store, Seymour; Union General Commanding”

NOTE:  This post originally appeared on The Sable Arm on February 20, 2011. It has been reposted in honor of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Olustee.


Thus was described the Battle of Olustee, fought on February 20, 1864, by a quick-witted officer in Co. K, 7th Connecticut Infantry. While the battle itself was not one of the finer military exploits produced by the Union war effort during the American Civil War, it did display the fighting prowess of the African American soldiers who fought there.

In early 1864, Federal forces launched their largest military operation in Florida that was a result of both political and military considerations. With the presidential election coming up in November the Republicans hoped to organize a loyal Florida government in time to send delegates to the Republican nominating convention. In addition to the political objectives Major General Quincy Gillmore, stated that the expedition was necessary to “procure an outlet for cotton, lumber, Timber, Turpentine, and the other products of the State… cut off one of the enemy's sources of commissary supplies.”

In February, 1864 Gillmore received approval for his plans to occupy Jacksonville with a large force and to extend Federal operations over much of northeast Florida. About 6,000 troops from Gillmore's Department of the South were selected for the operation and on February 7th these troops took Jacksonville. One week later Gillmore met with his subordinate, Truman Seymour who was not held in the highest of esteem by his men. One soldier later described the situation: “The Florida expedition was intrusted to the command of General Truman Seymour, considered by more than the rank and file, as an eccentric West Point crank who aped only Napoleon in prowling around camps at night to watch the men on duty, but he lacked the genius of his prototype in the performance of his own duty.”

Gillmore ordered that defensive works be constructed and appointed Seymour commander of the newly-created District of Florida. On February 19 he assembled his troops in preparation for a movement against the Confederates the next day.

The next day saw confused fighting and when some of Seymour’s white units broke, he sent in the untried men of the 8th United States Colored Troops. The 8th had trained at Camp William Penn in Pennsylvania but had “little practice in loading and firing” their weapons, according to the regimental surgeon. Lt. Oliver Norton of the 8th recalled that after standing up to the murderous fire, his men had to withdraw:

As the men fell back they gathered in groups like frightened sheep, and it was almost impossible to keep them from doing so. Into these groups the rebels poured the deadliest fire, almost every bullet hitting some one. Color bearer after color bearer was shot down and the colors seized by another. Behind us was a battery that was wretchedly managed. They had but little ammunition, but after firing that, they made no effort to get away with their pieces, but busied themselves in trying to keep us in front of them. Lieutenant Lewis seized the colors and planted them by a gun and tried to rally his men round them, but forgetting them for the moment, they were left there, and the battery was captured and our colors with it.

Around this time the two units that were bringing up the rear – the 54th Massachusetts and the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers (35th USCT) – arrived on the scene. The 54th raised its sarcastic battle cry “Three cheers for Massachusetts and seven dollars a month!” and went on line. One eyewitness said that they “fought like tigers” while the 1st NCCV “went up into the field, halting and firing fiercely, with its right well forward, so as to form an angle of…120 degrees with the line of the Fifty-Fourth.” With the two black units holding the field, Seymour decided to form a new line farther to the rear and withdraw his other units, which left the 54th and 1st NCCV terribly exposed to the Confederate fire. With their comrades pulling back, there was nothing left for them to do but to withdraw in good order.

The casualties reported by the three black units at Olustee tell the tale better than any eyewitness account ever could. The 54th lost 13 men killed, 65 wounded, and 8 missing. The 1st NCCV (which had officially been redesignated the 35th USCT, yet still clung to its old name) lost 22 killed, 131 wounded, and 77 missing. And, finally, the poor 8th USCT lost 49 killed, 188 wounded, and 73 missing. The Federals as whole would lose 26.5% of their men, making Olustee proportionally the third bloodiest battle of the entire war.

To make matter worse, Olustee was one of the many sanguinary fights in which the Confederates committed atrocities after the fighting had ended.

William Frederick Penniman of the 4th Georgia Cavalry leaves the following account:
In passing over the field, and the road ran centering through it, my attention was first attracted to the bodies of the yankees, invariably stripped, shoes first and clothing next. Their white bodies looked ghastly enough, but I particularly notice that firing seemed to be going on in every direction, until the reports sounded almost frequent enough to resemble the work of skirmishers. A young officer was standing in the road in front of me and I asked him, "What is the meaning of all this firing I hear going on". His reply to me was, "Shooting niggers Sir. "I have tried to make the boys desist but I can't control them". I made some answer in effect that it seemed horrible to kill the wounded devils, and he again answered, "That's so Sir, but one young fellow over yonder told me the niggers killed his brother after being wounded, at Fort Billow, and he was twenty three years old, that he had already killed nineteen and needed only four more to make the matter even, so I told him to go ahead and finis the job". I rode on but the firing continued. The next morning I had occasion to go over the battle field again quite early, before the burial squads began their work, when the results of the shooting of the previous night became quite apparent. Negroes, and plenty of them, whom I had seen lying all over the field wounded, and as far as I could see, many of them moving around from palace to place, now without a motion, all were dead. If a negro had a shot in the shin another was sure to be in the head.

The defeat at Olustee ended the Union’s effort to organize a loyal Florida government in time for the 1864 election. Jacksonville would remain in Union hands until the end of the war, although the cost for such a gain was incredibly steep. Still, the positive long-term gains achieved after Olustee can be attributed in large part to the African American soldiers who fought and bled there 150 years ago this week.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Living Legacy of “Councillor” Carter’s Deed of Gift: Nimrod Burke, 23rd USCT

On September 5, 1791 Robert “Councillor” Carter III – scion of one of the wealthiest slave-owning families in all of American history – filed his famous “Deed of Gift” with Virginia’s Northumberland District Court, announcing his intention to free over 450 of the slaves that toiled at 16 plantations under his care.
Robert Carter III

It was the single largest act of liberation in American history prior to the Emancipation Proclamation and has been covered in Andrew Levy’s moving book The First Emancipator: Slavery, Religion, the Quiet Revolution of Robert Carter (2005).

Of the many slave families whose freedom was set in motion with the Deed of Gift (which would go into effect in stages over many years) was the Burke family of Leo Plantation (later renamed Oatlands) in Loudoun County.  “Baptist Billy” Burke was the “most trusted emissary” of Robert Carter III and around 1795 his family was emancipated. Burke's family was living at the Bull Run Quarter of Leo Plantation, which was located in Prince William County near the present day Manassas battlefield.

Burke’s great-grandson was named Nimrod Burke, who was born in Prince William County in 1836. While you may not be familiar with the name of Nimrod Burke, if you have studied African American participation in the American Civil War you have probably seen his picture before (as a member of the re-created 23rd USCT, Nimrod Burke has become the “poster child” for our living history group).  Burke was one of 54 known African Americans to fight for the Union cause from Prince William County, but unlike most of his comrades-in-arms from Prince William, Burke was born a free man – thanks to the Deed of Gift.

Nimrod Burke, Co. F, 23rd USCT
Burke resided in Prince William until 1854, when he moved to Ohio with his parents. The 1860 census lists Nimrod as a “mulatto” whose occupation was simply recorded as “farmer.”

He was 25 years old when the Civil War began and, like many African American men his age, he tried to enlist and fight for the Union cause. However, in 1861 the policy of the Lincoln administration was that this was to be a white man’s war only. With a direct route to military service blocked, Burke found a roundabout way to join the war effort.

The man that Burke was working for in Ohio prior to the outbreak of war became an officer in the 36th Ohio. This man knew that Nimrod had been raised in Virginia and would be familiar with the country that they would soon be fighting in, so he hired Burke as a teamster and scout for the regiment before they embarked for Virginia.

Burke continued to serve as an army scout until March of 1864. When the 36th Ohio was garrisoned close to Washington D.C., he enlisted in the 23rd United States Colored Troops and was appointed 1st Sergeant of Company F. The 23rd was organized at Camp Casey, which sat near the present day location of the Pentagon near Robert E. Lee’s beloved Arlington House.

The 23rd was the regiment that sustained the heaviest losses of any USCT unit at the Battle of the Crater, but fortunately for Burke, he was in the hospital at the time with what his service record calls “general debility.”

Burke returned to health and rejoined his until in October of 1864 and was at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 when Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia. This was particularly significant for Burke since John Carter (a Lee ancestor) had once owned members of the Burke family.

He was mustered out of the service in Brazos, Texas on November 30, 1865. Burke lived for nearly 50 years after the war and died on July 15, 1914. He is buried at Greenlawn Cemetery in Chillicothe, Ohio. 

In a sense, Nimrod Burke continued to carry the torch of the man who once owned his forebears – and for that reason, among many others, they are both worthy of our attention.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Robert E. Lee's Daughter Laments the Great War

NOTE: This post originally appeared on my WWI blog Over There and has received enough attention to warrant re-posting here for my Civil War readers. It was originally posted on November 25, 2012.

When the maelstrom of war swept through Europe during the summer of 1914, many vacationing Americans were caught up the in tide of events and found themselves unwitting witnesses to the opening rounds of the First World War. One such Americans was none other than Mary Custis Lee – the oldest daughter of the famous Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Ms. Lee had been travelling abroad for nearly a decade by the time that war broke out and had resided in France, Germany, Italy, and even Egypt. She happened to find herself in Germany when that country violated Belgian neutrality and the dominoes began to fall, ensuring that what many thought would be a short European war would develop into a global conflict. Wisely deciding that she had better return to the United States, Ms. Lee managed to work her way through Holland to London, where she gave a fascinating interview to the New York Times as she awaited transport to the U.S.

Mary Custis Lee, 1914
The interview took place at Hyde Park Hotel on October 21, 1914. By this point in the early days of the war, the “Miracle of the Marne” had taken place and the race to the race to the sea had just finished. The horrors of large-scale trench warfare that would define the conflict had not begun, yet Ms. Lee speaks of the soldiers suffering in the trenches.
From the 22 October 1914 issue of The New York Times:

LONDON, Oct. 21.—Miss Mary Lee, the only surviving daughter of Gen. Robert E. Lee, has just reached London from Hamburg via Rotterdam, and to-day she gave the correspondent of THE NEW YORK TIMES a striking interview at Hyde Park Hotel, where she will stop until she sails for America.
I am a soldier's daughter," she said, "and descended from a long line of soldiers, but what I have seen of this war, and what I can foresee of the misery which must follow, have made me very nearly a peace-at-any-price woman."

A battalion of Lord Kitchener's new army was marching by directly beneath the room in which Miss Lee was speaking. They started to sing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," and Miss Lee, who had never heard this now imperishable music hall ballad, went to the window and stood for some time silently looking at the column of khaki-clad men below her. When she turned to speak again there were tears in her eyes, and her voice broke.
"My father often used to say," she said, looking straight at a table on which was a picture of Lord Kitchener, autographed by "K. of K." himself no longer ago than last Christmas, "that war was a terrible alternative, and should be the very last. I have remembered those words in the last three months, and I often wonder and wonder with many misgivings if in this case war was the last alternative. As I say, I am a soldier's daughter, and got my first full view of life in the dark days of one of the world's great civil wars, but it has been an altering experience for me to watch, one week in Germany and the next week in England, the handsome, the strong, the brave of both countries marching away to kill or to get killed, perhaps to return no more, perhaps to return maimed and useless men. My father used to say it was not those who were killed in battle—often a quick and always a glorious death for a soldier—but those who, crippled and mangled and enfeebled, faced after the war a world that they could not understand and that had no place for them.

"I think of all of this and ask myself why must it be? What can be worth it? I feel close to the English people, and particularly close to the English Army. I have known many English officers and their wives and daughters. Last Winter, in Egypt, I had the privilege of seeing something of Lord Kitchener, and I have a high admiration for him. But much of what I see in the English press seems hysterical and without reason. The spy mania, for instance, and the senseless calling the Germans Huns and Vandals. I have known many German military men, and I cannot believe that these men are what the English imagination has painted them.
"From the beginning of the war I have been neutral. I have tried to follow President Wilson's advice in word and deed. My sympathy is with suffering wherever it exists—with the brave men who are fighting and suffering in the trenches and the brave women who, in practically all the homes of Europe, are waiting and suffering."

Mary Custis Lee, the last surviving child of Gen. Lee, would live to see the full realization of trench warfare and even lived to see the Armistice. She passed away on November 22, 1918.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Journal of Southern History Review



In case you missed it, I had the huge honor of having my book reviewed in the prestigious Journal of Southern History by Dr. Paul E. Coker of the University of Tennessee.  Dr. Coker has written extensively on the experiences of US Colored Troops from Tennessee during and after the Civil War and I couldn't be more pleased with the review.

Here is the full review:
The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs by the Sword. By James S. Price. (Charleston, S.C., and London: The History Press, 2011. Pp. 125. Paper, $19.99, ISBN 978-1-60949-038-6.) The focus of James S. Price's study is a sometimes overlooked episode of the Civil War's Richmond-Petersburg campaign: the courageous but near-suicidal charge of black Union soldiers against entrenched Confederates at New Market Heights, Virginia, on September 29, 1864. The black units involved suffered heavy casualties, but Union forces ultimately won the position, and fourteen black soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor--a number that "equaled the total number of Medals of Honor issued to black soldiers in the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II combined" (p. 87).
This slim volume offers considerable insight regarding the black military experience. Some of Price's bolder claims, such as his suggestion that this was "arguably one of the most important days in American history," may not convince all readers (p. 9). Instead, perhaps the book's greatest strength is its exploration of the ambiguity and pliability of the battle's legacy. While the courage of the U.S. Colored Troops awed many observers, at least one Confederate soldier who surveyed the battlefield dead saw only a waste of "about a million dollars worth of niggers, at current prices" (p. 79). Elsewhere, Price counters arguments, perpetuated in recent studies, that Confederate defenders voluntarily withdrew and thus were not driven from their positions or that the Medals of Honor were merely a product of General Benjamin F. Butler's cynical self-promotion. Finally, an epilogue analyzing recent battlefield preservation efforts reveals the resistance of local landowners, one of whom angrily characterized plans for park expansion as yet another example of Yankee aggression. While some readers may dread wading into a detailed battle history, this book's clear writing style, inclusion of dozens of photographs and maps, and relevance to broader historical themes make it accessible for a general audience and worth consideration for undergraduate courses. [PAUL E. COKER, University of Tennessee]