Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The World Turned Upside Down: The Bureau of Colored Troops Established 150 Years Ago Today

A lot can happen in two years.

In 2011, we saw the tragedy in Tucson, a royal wedding, the death of Usama bin Laden, and the official end of the Iraq War. In the ensuing two years we have seen more tragic shootings, another terrorist attack on American soil, and we are watching several scandals unfold that are rocking the administration that was on top of the world after the impressive feat of taking out the world’s most infamous terrorist and ending a controversial war that had cost much blood and treasure.

Yes, a lot can happen in two years.

As we look back at the tumult of the American Civil War, we can see a far more revolutionary transformation that took place over a two-year span.

For the nation that went to war for union in 1861, turning down all offers of African American enlistment and vowing that slavery was not the main bone of contention, underwent a dramatic upheaval that led to emancipation and the event that we commemorate today – the creation of the Bureau of Colored Troops.

Established by General Orders No. 143, the bureau gave former slaves the opportunity to strike a blow for their own freedom. It gave free blacks the opportunity to display their manhood and prove that they were worthy of receiving the full benefits of citizenship. And it allowed white enlisted men the occasion to advance themselves by attending military schools that would make them officers if they could pass the rigorous examination.

Looking back on this chain of events, students of the Civil War can see the inevitability of such a transformation. But for those who lived through it, the world had been turned upside down.

After May 22, 1863, African American soldiers and the officers that led them formed the tip of the spear in the Northern effort to bring about the new birth of freedom by force.

They had moved from the periphery of the war to the very core of it – let us hope the same is true for the remaining months of the sesquicentennial commemoration.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Don Troiani’s New Market Heights Painting to be Unveiled June 24th

Greetings, everyone!

I apologize for the dearth of substantive posts lately, but I have been hard at work on an essay regarding that other conflict that I tend to write about (see here) for a publication edited by Edward G. Lengel that is set to come out in the next 6 months or so.

That being said, I received a very exciting e-mail last evening from Jim Paradis that had the invitation pictured below attached to it, and I wanted to help spread the word.

It seems that Don Troiani’s painting depicting the 6th USCT at New Market Heights is finally going to be unveiled at the Union League of Philadelphia on Monday June 24th! As some of you know, I helped Don with some of the painting’s details and wrote the historical fact sheet that will accompany the print.

The work is entitled “Three Medals of Honor” and it illustrates the moment when Lt. Nathan Edgerton, and Sgts. Thomas Hawkins and Alexander Kelly all risked life and limb to rescue the national and regimental colors of the 6th during the last gasps of Duncan’s assault in the early morning hours of September 29, 1864.

Don was kind enough to e-mail me a picture of the painting, and it is truly stunning, capturing all of the chaos, horror, sorrow, determination, and bravery that was all too common at New Market Heights.

It was an honor to be a part of this process and I know that all of you will agree with my assessment of the painting when it is unveiled next month!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

PRESS RELEASE: Richmond National Battlefield Commemorates Memorial Day at Ft. Harrison National Cemetery

Fort Harrison National Cemetery
RICHMOND, Va. - Richmond National Battlefield Park, in cooperation with the Department of Veterans Affairs, is sponsoring a Memorial Day program and wreath-laying to honor and remember those who have died in our nation’s service—especially those soldiers and sailors from the Civil War. This annual event is scheduled for Monday, May 27, at 12:00 p.m., at the Fort Harrison National Cemetery, on the Fort Harrison battlefield. The cemetery is located at 8620 Varina Road, two miles south of Route 5 and eight miles south of Richmond. More than 800 Civil War soldiers are buried at the Fort Harrison National Cemetery.

Jimmy Price, presently an adjunct professor of Civil War History at Germanna Community College, will speak at the cemetery. His talk is a part of the national park’s continuing commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War in the Richmond area. Mr. Price is well known for his recent book The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs by the Sword, which is the only full-length book on that Henrico County battle. He also maintains a weblog entitled: “The Sable Arm: A Blog Dedicated to the United States Colored Troops of the Civil War Era.”

The public is invited to attend this free event.

Richmond National Battlefield Park protects 13 Civil War sites around the city of Richmond, Virginia. Experiencing the park’s battlefield sites and visitor centers usually takes a full day. A driving tour of the battlefields is available at any of the park’s sites. The main park visitor center is located at Historic Tredegar (470 Tredegar Street in Richmond) and provides museum exhibits, audio-visual programs and orientation services to help plan a visit to the battlefields.

For additional information, contact Richmond National Battlefield Park at 804-226-1981, or via the internet at or

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

“What Will the Country Say?”

 Do those who argue that perhaps the war was unnecessary deserve the usual accusation that they are insufficiently alert to the moral evil of slavery? Could the wicked institution of slavery have been destroyed without the carnage of war? Did the differences in…social institutions make necessary the deaths of more than 600,000 Americans and the suffering of millions of others?Elbert B. Smith, 1967

A nameless Confederate, killed May 3, 1863.

It has become a cliché in the study of the American Civil War to use well-worn phrases like William Tecumseh Sherman’s adage that “war is all hell” to convey the sheer magnitude of the slaughter that took place from 1861-1865. But if one looks at today’s popular historical art, the pre-eminent focus on battles in Civil War literature, and the bloodless re-enactments that have marked the commemoration of the sesquicentennial thus far, it would not be unreasonable to wonder – have we come to terms with the unspeakable horror that tainted the hallowed fields of Antietam or Gettysburg? Can we wrap our brains around the deaths of approximately 700,000 Americans and still attend anniversary events with the same sense of excitement?

Can we remember the Civil War as it really was, and not as we wish it could have been?

To put it differently, are we haunted or angered by Elbert Smith’s piercing question? Do we feel its weight, or roll our eyes and skip ahead to the morass of tactical details surrounding our “favorite” battle?

To bring this question down to reality, let us consider the Battle of Chancellorsville, which began in earnest 150 years ago today.

The clash around Chancellorsville is a tale often painted in bold and dashing colors – the rascally braggart Hooker, with his impeccable battle plan that seemed near perfect until he lost faith in himself; the mad genius Stonewall Jackson, in a role he was predestined for, leading the way in an attack that would have been condemned as sheer folly had it failed; and the gambling knight of old, Robert E. Lee, who laughed at the odds stacked against him and pulled off what many claim was his signature victory.

Civil War buffs are very familiar with this well-trodden ground, and the film Gods & Generals helped to popularize this version of events.

What many people don’t realize is that the worst fighting of the battle took place the day after Jackson was knocked out of the fight, at a place called Fairview where a man fell killed or wounded every three seconds. Indeed, May 3, 1863 ranks as the second bloodiest day of the entire Civil War.

Chancellorsville was a battle that contained high drama, reckless courage, amazing feats of heroism – and it was almost completely devoid of any real consequences, other than the horrific number of losses.

In all, there were 30,764 combined casualties.

Robert E. Lee himself wrote after the battle that, “Our people were wild with delight – I, on the contrary, was more depressed than after Fredericksburg; our loss was severe, and again we had gained not an inch of ground and the enemy could not be pursued.”

Lincoln could only hold his face in his hands and moan, "My God! My God! What will the country say?”

It is not my intent to belittle the commemoration taking place this weekend, or go off on a lark about the futility of the American Civil War, or warfare in general. Far from it.

But I definitely think that we need to wrestle more with these issues.

Preserving the Union and Emancipation were both unquestionably worthy causes to fight for.

All I ask is that we count the cost