Sunday, August 29, 2010

Faces of War

Be sure to head over to Ron Coddington’s blog Faces of War for a great post that has to do with Ben Butler and New Market Heights.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Ron, he has published two highly-acclaimed volumes of carte de visite’s of Civil War soldiers entitled Faces of the Civil War and Faces of the Confederacy.

His new volume will feature images of USCTs and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Monday, August 23, 2010

Profile in Courage: Sgt. James Gardner, Co. I 36th USCT

Judging from the positive response that I got back in June when I wrote about the life of Sgt. Maj. Thomas Hawkins of the 6th USCT, I think it’s about time to profile another of the New Market Heights Medal of Honor recipients.

James Daniel Gardner enlisted at the ripe young age of 19 for three years service on September 15, 1863 at Yorktown, Va. Not much is known about his early life, but we do know that he was born a free man in Gloucester, Va. and that his pre-war occupation was gathering and selling oysters.

Gardner was mustered in during the month of October 1863 into what was then part of Edward A. Wild’s African Brigade. The unit he was assigned to was the 2nd North Carolina Colored Volunteers, which was commanded by Alonzo Granville Draper. The 2nd NCCV was organized at New Bern, NC and Portsmouth, Va. and was redesignated the 36th United States Colored Troops on February 8, 1864.

The 36th did not see much action until the latter portion of 1864. The men of the 36th were responsible for guarding Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout in Maryland and did not leave that post until June of 1864. While at Point Lookout they were involved in the alleged rape that some theorize resulted in the massacre at the Battle of the Crater. By early June of 1864 they were sent to join Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred. Their first large battle would be at New Market Heights on September 29, 1864.

Gardner’s unit was part of the Second Brigade – commanded by his old regimental commander Col. Alonzo Draper – of Brig. Gen. Charles J. Paine’s Third Division, XVIII Army Corps. They were initially held in reserve as Col. Samuel A. Duncan’s Third Brigade attacked the New Market Line with horrific casualties. As the remnants of Duncan’s Brigade fell back Paine called for Draper’s Brigade to traverse the same ground and break through the Confederate defenses.

As the sun began to rise and the fog began to lift, the men of the 36th had the advantage of being able to see their objective – a luxury that Duncan’s men did not have. As Draper’s Brigade moved forward they were forced to step over ground that was littered with the dead and wounded from the first assault. As they neared the Rebel works, they became entangled in the slashing and abatis that had slowed down the first assault.

Draper described what happened next:

After passing about 300 yards through young pines, always under fire, we emerged upon the open plain about 800 yards from the enemy's works. Across this the brigade charged with shouts, losing heavily. Within twenty or thirty yards of the rebel line we found a swamp which broke the charge, as the men had to wade the run or stream and reform on the bank. At this juncture, too, the men generally commenced firing, which made so much confusion that it was impossible to make the orders understood. Our men were falling by scores. All the officers were striving constantly to get the men forward. I passed frequently from the right to the left, urging every regimental commander to rally his men around the colors and charge. After half an hour of terrible suspense, by starting the yell among a few, we succeeded in getting them in motion. The entire brigade took up the shout and went over the rebel works. When we reached the palisades the rebels fell back to the woods on the side of Signal Hill.
During this furious onslaught, Gardner ran ahead of his unit and shot a Confederate officer who was standing on top of the works. After shooting the officer, Gardner ran him through with his bayonet for good measure. This act alone would earn him a promotion to sergeant and two prestigious honors – the Butler Medal and the Medal of Honor.

The company Muster Roll for Company I, 36th USCT recorded:

“Promotion to Sgt for heroic conduct to date Sept 30 1864”

Apparently, however, youth got the best of Sergeant Gardner and less than a year later the Company Muster Roll recorded an altogether different state of affairs:

“Reduced from Sgt. July 13/65.”

After the war, Gardner moved with his regiment westward to the Texas frontier, where his service was marred by disciplinary problems. He was reduced in rank to private “for incompetence and for being slovenly and dirty in his habits” and was placed in confinement in Brazos Santiago on March 29, 1866.

What started as a promising career ended in disappointing obscurity. However, that was not the last the world would hear of James Gardner. After being discharged from the army on September 20, 1866 Gardner became a missionary for the Catholic Church. The photograph above shows Gardner around the time of the 1900 Paris Exposition – just five years before he passed away. When Gardner died in 1905, he was living in Clark’s Summit, Pa., although he was buried in Calvary Crest Cemetery in Ottumwa, Iowa.

On May 6, 2006 my friend Wes Wilson, who portrays Gardner, helped to get a monument dedicated in Gardner’s honor.

It can be seen at Gloucester's court circle and – hopefully – will be visited frequently during the Sesquicentennial commemoration.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

“Take Our Stand” Heads to the Coast Guard Academy

I can still vividly recall where I was around this time three years ago – sitting inside the cramped confines of the parking booth at the entrance to the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, frantically typing away at the first draft of an exhibit script that I thought would never get finished. At the time I was in the midst of getting my MA in Military History and working at Tredegar doing all sorts of odd jobs (education, interpretation, artifact installation, collections cataloging, changing light bulbs – you name it). The parking booth was the one place where an employee could go to concentrate and get some work done, so that’s where I spent the majority of my time. (If you were at the front desk you had to deal with those pesky visitor things, and they just got in the way.)

If you’ve never written an exhibit script before, it’s very similar to writing a term paper or long essay. In other words, it’s pretty stressful. You have to find the perfect balance of giving a concise overview and knowing when it’s appropriate to delve into more specific details. You’re always questioning what to include and what to exclude. The constant fear looming over your head is that you’re going to find a firsthand account or photograph that perfectly illustrates the point you’re trying to make after the exhibit has already opened. With all of this circulating through my brain, I worked right up to the deadline and submitted the first draft, reasonably satisfied that what I had written was a good starting point. At that time no funding had been found for the exhibit, so once the first draft was submitted I went back to my normal work routine and waited for the next phase of work to start up.

As it turned out, I had moved on to another museum job by the time that Tredegar had gotten enough grant money to start producing the final exhibit. With my portion of the work finished and with new job responsibilities at hand, the exhibit (which had a working title of “To Show That We Are True Americans”: The African-American Military Experience in the Age of Jim Crow – I like long titles) slowly faded from my mind...

Fast forward to February 19, 2010 and I am standing at the opening reception for Take Our Stand: The African-American Military Experience in the Age of Jim Crow, amazed at the finished exhibit produced by the staff at the ACWC. To be recognized in public for work on this exhibit was an amazingly gratifying experience, and I am proud to say that the exhibit has been displayed at the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia, the Richmond Public Library, and has recently opened at the United States Coast Guard Academy where it will be on display through December of 2010.

While I certainly can’t claim credit for much of what makes this exhibit that RVANews called “just across-the-board fascinating” great, I am immensely proud of the part that I played in its production. If the exhibit comes to a city near you, do yourself a favor and go check it out.

And stay tuned for an update on my new exhibit Ready To Do My Part: Henrico County & World War I, opening September 16th. I pretty much did all the work on this one (and have the gray hair to prove it).

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Enough with the vampire crap already!

Please pardon this intrusion upon the normal and (hopefully) more thoughtful tone of this blog while I vent my frustrations over a recent trend that has now crept into the realm of Civil War literature.

A few years ago I noticed that Barnes & Noble was featuring a string of new books that took some of the greatest works of literature on the planet and reduced them to thoughtless drivel about vampires and zombies (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies being one of the most allegedly winsome titles from this insipid assemblage of authors who apparently couldn’t get traction for writing anything that actually mattered). Being the bitter Calvinist that I am, I was hardly surprised at this glaring example of total depravity on display.

Then, a few months ago, the world was introduced to the festering pile of retardation known as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith (perpetrator of the aforementioned Pride and Prejudice rip off). African Americans will be happy to know that Grahame-Smith trivializes the institution of slavery by purporting that the vile system was empowered by Southern vampires who wanted to use the slaves as a source of food.


So Abraham Lincoln, terror of all vampires (with the exception, perhaps, of Blacula?) issues the Emancipation Proclamation and enlists black troops to ward off the otherworldly threat.

Yes boys and girls, United States Colored Troops fought for freedom – against vampires. (Any suggestions as to how I could work this into my New Market Heights book? Perhaps I should change the title to Christian Fleetwood: Vampire Hunter?)

Anyway, as if this book (a top ten New York Times bestseller, by the way) wasn’t bad enough now I learn that the man who looks like every state’s number one registered sex offender – Tim Burton – is converting this vacuous stack of fecal matter into a movie. I mean, can’t we get one good – I mean really good – Abraham Lincoln movie onto the big screen before I die? The Lincoln Bicentennial came and went without anything from Hollywood except rumors of Spielberg’s epic, but still we have no new interpretation of Lincoln on the big screen

Except Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

If this is how low we have to stoop to get our current culture interested in our greatest President – or the Civil War, for that matter – I’ll be in my bunker happily awaiting the Apocalypse.

Rant concluded.

Monday, August 9, 2010

USCT Pennsylvania Grand Review

From the website of the Pennsylvania Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission:
November 14, 1865 was a great day for the United States Colored Troops (USCT) who served with the Union during the Civil War. After having been excluded from the "Grand Review of the Armies" in Washington D.C., held for the Union troops on May 23-24, 1865, they were invited to attend a Grand Review held in their honor on November 14, 1865 in Harrisburg, PA.
The "Pennsylvania Grand Review" in Harrisburg, was organized by the women living in Harrisburg at the time. When the day of the review arrived, the USCT were led through town by Grand Marshal Thomas Morris Chester, who briefly served as a Captain in a Harrisburg company raised by the African American community in 1863. Grand Marshal Chester led the troops to Senator Simon Cameron's house to be recognized.
On November 3-7, 2010, the city of Harrisburg will again host a Grand Review to honor and remember the brave men from the USCT who served during the Civil War. The event will consist of a reenactment of the Grand Review as well as exhibitions, presentations and conservation projects.
100 Voices is one such project. 100 Voices honors the memory and lives of 100 USCT soldiers from across Pennsylvania. Find more information about the Grand Review and 100 Voices at the House Divided webpage or the visitPA webpage.
Pennsylvania Grand Review 2010
Tentative Schedule of Events
November 1 - Camp Curtin Church, Harrisburg
Hallowed Ground Project; help to clean up the cemeteries that are now home to the brave USCT soldiers. Participating cemeteries roundtable: TBD
November 2 - Harrisburg University
Genealogy Project seminar: a short, but intensive course of study on researching genealogy.
November 3 - Pennsylvania National Fire Museum, Harrisburg
Act 48 In-Service workshop: a course emphasizing free discussion, exchange of ideas, demonstration of methods and practical application of skills
November 4 - National Civil War Museum, Harrisburg
Network to Freedom Annual Meeting colloquium: dialogue with partners
November 5 - State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg
USCT Conference symposium: a meeting at which several speakers deliver short addresses on related topics.
November 5 - Harrisburg Transportation Center
White Carnation Society - Martin Delany Luncheon gathering: an assembly of people for social, educational or political purposes.
November 5 - Midtown Scholar Book Store, Harrisburg
Live & Learn Event salon: a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation and readings
November 6 - Soldiers' & Sailors' Grove / Simon Cameron House, Harrisburg
USCT Parade reenactment: participants attempt to recreate some aspects of the original parade.
November 6 - Commonwealth Keystone Building Atrium, Harrisburg
Heritage Fair Chautauqua: entertainment and culture for the whole community; come listen to speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, humanists and specialists of the day
November 6 - Strawberry Square, Harrisburg (7 - 8:30 p.m.)
Promenade: The opening dance to any period ball, the promenade allows guests to see who is in attendance and admire their clothing and accessories.
November 6 - Strawberry Square, Harrisburg (8:30 - 11 p.m.)
Ball: a formal social gathering concentrated around dancing
November 7 - Whitaker Center, Harrisburg
Women's luncheon forum: a medium of open discussion aimed at enlightenment of its members
November 14 - Cemetery Wreath Laying Events: TBD
November 19 -Soldiers' National Cemetery, Gettysburg
Wreath Laying Event: TBD
*Events as listed on the Facebook page for the USCT Pennsylvania Grand Review.*

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Just what AM I talking about?

Well, I’m breaking my half-hearted vow not to blog whilst on vacation – so sue me.

While I was surfing through my friend Robert Moore’s blog I came across a post that I had somehow missed. It addresses a question that is constantly lurking in the back of my mind, considering that I write and post about a group of men that I have very little in common with.

Moore asks the fundamental question of how much those of us who blog about the Civil War and the African American experience can truly know about this topic – especially if we’re white (like yours truly).

Here’s the post:

Are we limited in our perspectives in the Civil War blogosphere?
Posted on January 26, 2009 by Robert Moore
After reading a comment made in one of my posts from few days ago, I realized something; something that I had really not thought of before. I think it is revealing in terms of how the Web can erase racial barriers. Nonetheless, of all of those who blog in the Civil War blogosphere, who among us is other than caucasian? I don’t ask this to discriminate, but it leaves me wondering if, while we speculate on any number of subjects tied to slavery and Civil War-related topics concerning African-Americans, we are sorely lacking something critical to a better, more well-rounded understanding of that which we discuss. To me, it seems, at present, that our perspectives are rather limited.
We offer thoughts/opinions on the pains of slavery in historical memory; we offer thoughts/opinions on the role of African-Americans who served the Confederacy; we offer thoughts/opinions on the complications experienced by African-Americans (former slaves especially) in their experiences in transitioning as soldiers to the Union army; we offer thoughts/opinions of the exodus of former slaves to the North, before and during the Civil War… we offer thoughts/opinions and ideas on a number of things in relation to Civil War memory and the impact it continues to have on the historical memory of African-Americans, but are any of us who offer these thoughts/opinions actually at the very center of the very discussions in which we engage? While many of us offer thoughts/opinions that are reflective of our work and studies in history, can any of us offer opinions of historical memory from the perspective of the African-American and are any of us actually African-American? In many cases, aren’t we simply offering perspectives of perspectives? Don’t we lose something in the value of our discussions because of this? Perhaps we don’t want to know in order to keep racial identity blurred in this setting. Still, isn’t it important to know the perspective of “historical memory” from those who are at the center of the discussion, especially considering some of the discussions in which we engage?
Just some thoughts…
As usual, Moore hits the nail right on the head. From my perspective, I started blogging about USCTs in order to gain a better understanding of the Battle of New Market Heights. The deeper I descended down the rabbit hole, however, the more I had to ask myself – just what the hell am I talking about? If I could speak with a USCT for five minutes would he agree with my opinions or just shake his head at the staggering ignorance of what I’m purporting? The fact that black Union soldiers did not leave behind a plethora of letters and diaries just adds fuel to the fire.

After six months of blogging, I’m happy to say that I still have absolutely no idea. This tension is a good thing, in my opinion. It helps me to wrestle with a vastly complicated topic and not be hasty to jump to conclusions (I hope).

Whenever I give a talk on New Market Heights and there’s an African American in the crowd, I’m always eager to gain their perspective on what I’m saying. I was very happy to have several re-enactors who belong to the 6th USCI on my first battlefield tour out at New Market Heights. A few months later I was able to spend a day with the descendants of one of the 14 Medal of Honor recipients from that same battle. Their insights and opinions are invaluable to me.

However, with the exception of Hari Jones, who recently established a blog for the African American Civil War Memorial & Museum, the blogosphere remains without the voice of an African American.