Thursday, June 27, 2013

Picture of the Day

Not much commentary needed here...
The Beast

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Sesquicentennial and (Very) Current Perceptions of the Civil War

Is it me, or has the sesquicentennial been hit with some negative waves lately?
At the end of the day, is this all we're left with?

Last week I had a discussion with a co-worker who expressed great surprise after listening to Town Talk with Ted Schubel interview John Hennessy. What amazed this person was that Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park has not noticed an uptick in visitation to their battlefields due to the sesquicentennial. As anyone who was at Chancellorsville last month can attest, special events draw large crowds and generally do well, but the amount of foot traffic through the door on any given Monday has not noticeably increased.

A few days after this discussion, Tony Horwitz’s Atlantic piece “150 Years of Misunderstanding the Civil War” lit up the blogosphere with different folks parsing the notion of the Civil War as a “good war.” 

Horwitz observes:
Looking backwards, and hitting the pause button at the Gettysburg Address or the passage of the 13th amendment, we see a "good" and successful war for freedom. If we focus instead on the run-up to war, when Lincoln pledged to not interfere with slavery in the South, or pan out to include the 1870s, when the nation abandoned Reconstruction, the story of the Civil War isn't quite so uplifting.
It is interesting to note that this discussion is taking place alongside the new release of a popular history of what caused the war and a major motion picture – both of which portray the Civil War as a tragic and unjust affair.

Northern hatred for Southerners long predated their objections to slavery. They were convinced that New England, whose spokesmen had begun the American Revolution, should have been the leader of the new nation. Instead, they had been displaced by Southern “slavocrats” like Thomas Jefferson. This malevolent envy exacerbated the South’s greatest fear: a race war. Jefferson’s cry, “We are truly to be pitied,” summed up their dread. For decades, extremists in both regions flung insults and threats, creating intractable enmities. By 1861, only a civil war that would kill a million men could save the Union.
Civil War buffs looking for “warm and fuzzies” should studiously avoid this one.

Also, this Friday Ron Maxwell’s Copperhead hits theaters. The plot description given on the film’s website says in part:
It is a film of the war at home – of a family ripped apart by war, of fathers set against sons and daughters, of a community driven to an appalling act of vengeance against a man who insists on exercising his right to free speech during wartime. A story of the violent passions and burning feuds that set ablaze the home front during the Civil War, Copperhead the Movie is also a timeless and deeply moving examination of the price of dissent, the place of the individual amidst the hysteria of wartime, and the terrible price of war – a cost measured not in dollars but in fractured families, broken loves, and men dead before their time.
Again, not much to feel good about there.

Please don’t hear me saying that new books and movies should give us something to feel good about (Stonewall Jackson got it right when he told Jed Hotchkiss that “War is the greatest of evils.”)

But I wonder if this might be effecting the commemoration.

Could it be that people will not join in commemorating something if they think it is was unpleasant in the first place? 

Time will tell.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

What do Elizabeth Keckley, William Whedbee Kirkland, and Gypsy Rose Lee Have in Common?

William Alexander Kirkland
At the tail end of last year I wrote a series of posts that chronicled the enigmatic life of Elizabeth Keckley’s son George W. D. Kirkland (see here and here). As you’ll recall, when Ms. Keckley was a young woman she was relocated from Virginia to Hillsborough, NC where her owner “married” her to his neighbor Alexander McKenzie Kirkland.

Kirkland, a first generation American, belonged to a prominent Hillsborough family and was a graduate of Norwich University, class of 1828. He had made his money in the merchant trade, and used Keckley as a concubine. In her words, Kirkland “persecuted” her for four years, and the entire experience was “fraught with pain.” This abusive relationship resulted in a son being born, whom the father named George. This is the same George W. D. Kirkland whose life and service I wrote of earlier.

Alexander Kirkland died of cancer on May 4, 1843 when George W. D. Kirkland was only 18 months old, but as I learned in the course of my research, George was not the only son of Alexander Kirkland who would serve in the Civil War. Kirkland had a wife named Anna McKenzie Cameron, and this union also produced children.
Ayr Mount

Enter William “Red Bill” Kirkland, Rear Admiral, USN.

William Alexander Kirkland was born at Ayr Mount, the ancestral home of the Kirkland family, on July 3, 1836. He was the oldest of two boys who were the legitimate sons of Alexander Kirkland. His cousin, William Whedbee Kirkland, would rise to fame as the commander of one of the best brigades in the Army of Northern Virginia (the Pettigrew – Kirkland - MacRae Brigade).

It is likely that he never laid eyes on George Kirkland and, if he did, he probably would not have known the child to be his half-brother. When he was 14, Kirkland was appointed from North Carolina to attend the United States Naval Academy. After becoming a passed midshipman, he served on five different ships attached to the Brazil Squadron from 1856 -1863.

Life at sea, far away from the troubles that were brewing in his home state, must have squelched any desire to resign his commission and join the Confederate Navy. Kirkland did not even return to the US until 1864, when he received the command of the U.S.S. Owasco, part of David G. Farragut's Western Gulf Blockading Squadron. Kirkland later commanded the U.S.S. Winnebago, which was involved in the fighting around Mobile Bay during the last days of the war.

USS Winnebago

The Sixth Edition of The Records of Living Officers of the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps (1898) chronicles the rest of his illustrious career:
Commanding steamer “Wasp," South Atlantic Squadron, 1866-70. Commissioned as Commander, 1869 ; commanding store-ship "Guard," special service, 1873; ordinance duty, 1874; commanding "Wasp," and South Atlantic Station, 1875-6; commanding "Frolic" (fourth-rate). South Atlantic Station, 1876-7; commanding "Supply" (fourth rate), special service, 1878; leave of absence, 1879-80; commanding "Shenandoah," South Atlantic Station, 1881-2. Promoted to Captain, April, 1880; Navy Yard, Norfolk, 1883 ; commanding receiving-ship "Colorado," 1883-4; Navy Yard, New York, 1885-6 (from October, ]884, to January, 1885, in command) ; commanding receiving-ship "Vermont," 1887-9; Supervisor of Harbor, New York, from October, 1889, to July, 1891 ; commandant Navy Yard, League Island, July, 1891. Commissioned Commodore, June 27, 1893. Commissioned Rear-Admiral, March 1, 1895.
In 1894, Kirkland was removed from the command of the South Atlantic Squadron after making controversial remarks related to American missionaries in Syria. From 1896 until his death on August 12, 1898, Kirkland commanded the Mare Island Navy Yard. He is buried in the Naval Academy Cemetery at Annapolis.

While William Kirkland’s connection to George W. D. Kirkland will no doubt fascinate Civil War buffs, fans of classic cinema will no doubt be interested to learn that Kirkland’s grandson was Hollywood actor Alexander Kirkland, who starred in such films as Black Beauty (1933) and Strange Interlude with Clark Gable.  Alexander Kirkland also had the distinction of being briefly married to Hollywood heart throb Gypsy Rose Lee.
Gypsy Rose Lee

As I have found to be the case over and over again with the Kirkland family, truth is stranger than fiction.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

“Three Medals of Honor” by Don Troiani

Well, the Philadelphia Inquirer has finally given the world a glimpse of Don Troiani’s painting “Three Medals of Honor” which depicts the 6th USCT at New Market Heights. 

Rather than go on at length about the painting itself, have a look for yourself.

Courtesy of The Philadelphia Inquirer
Here is a portion of the fact sheet that I wrote that will accompany the print once it’s for sale:
At first, the advance went well – the morning mist enshrouded the attacking column and enveloped them “like a mantle of death” as their brigade commander recalled. Soon enough, however, the Confederate pickets were alerted and the concentrated rifle and artillery fire of veteran southern troops devastated the soldiers who had become entangled in the obstacles that the defenders had left in their path. As was the case in innumerable fights throughout the entire Civil War, the color guard was especially hard hit. The 6th USCT carried into battle that day the national colors and a blue regimental flag that was given to them in Pennsylvania bearing the motto, “Freedom for All.” Both flags, and the men who proudly carried them into the fight, went down within minutes.  Seeing the desperate situation from different vantage points, three men saw the plight of the color guard and pushed forward to help. Risking life and limb for the honor of their unit, Lt. Nathan Edgerton, Sgt. Maj. Thomas R. Hawkins, and Sergeant Alexander Kelly slogged their way to the colors as best they could 
The painting shows the moment when Edgerton and Hawkins arrived to bear away the regimental flag. Edgerton had recovered the flag from the dead body of another white officer and picked it up only to notice that he could not move freely. As he recalled after the battle, he looked down to see that “my hand was covered in blood, and perfectly powerless, and the flag staff [was] lying in two pieces.” Sgt. Maj. Hawkins, who had already distinguished himself as a natural leader of men, came to Edgerton’s assistance and helped carry the colors off, receiving serious wounds in the arm, hip, and foot. Coming to the rescue of the national colors was First Sergeant Alexander Kelly.  He recalled that “after the color guard was all either killed or wounded …we got orders to retire.” Kelly weighed the risk and “seeing the flag was being left I seized them and carried them to rear where I rallied the few remaining men.”

I’m hopelessly biased on this matter, but I think it’s safe to say that this is now the standard by which all other artwork depicting USCTs in combat will be judged.

It was a huge honor to be a small part of the process of creating this masterwork. It is a fitting tribute to the brave souls who fought in the USCT.