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]

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Upcoming Appearances

Well, even though there hasn't been much cooking on this blog in the past few weeks, things have been percolating behind the scenes and I have gotten enough public speaking requests to warrant a post! As always, if you’d like me to come speak at your event, just shoot me an e-mail and I will see if I can swing it. In the meantime, I’ll count on running into some of you at the following events:

November  12McLean Historical Society. Topic: Freedman’s Village at Arlington


May 24Clara Barton National Historic Site. Topic: USCTs during the Siege of Petersburg

June 20 – “Campaign Before Richmond” Sesquicentennial Symposium (featuring Bob Krick, Dick Sommers, and Louis Manarin) at Deep Bottom Park. Topic: The First Battle of Deep Bottom

September 9 Richmond Civil War Round Table. Topic: New Market Heights

September  26-28New Market Heights Re-enactment Weekend, Henrico County

November  9 – “Real to Reel” Movie and Lecture at Henrico Theater. Movie: Glory

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Recapping Bristoe 150th

 Well, a big “thank you” goes out to all of you who took the time out of your busy schedules to attend the commemorative events surrounding the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Bristoe Station. All told, over 1,000 students and visitors participated in this event, which began on the morning of Thursday October 10th and ended at 6 PM on October 14th with the playing of “Taps.”

Fellow bloggers Ron Baumgarten and Craig Swain came out to see some of the events and the park was fortunate to have Dr. James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr. give the keynote address. For those who may have missed it, here is the full address. Enjoy!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Turning a Page

Well, you may have noticed a precipitous drop in the number of posts over the past few days, but I assure you I have a good reason.

At the beginning of the month I accepted a position with Prince William County’s Historic Preservation Division. I am the Historic Site Manager for both Ben Lomond Historic Site (an 1830’s house that served as a field hospital after First Manassas) and Bristoe Station Battlefield HeritagePark.

As you know, we only have around 50 days until the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Bristoe Station, so I will be doing everything from helping to install an exhibit at the Manassas Museum that opens next weekend to installing interpretive signs at the battlefield park and getting the site ready for the large crowds we are expecting.

One piece of “insider information” I can offer you now is that Brad Gottfried’s new The Maps of the Bristoe Station and Mine Run Campaigns will be available at the commemorative weekend and Brad will be there to sign copies!

Listed below are all of the events, tours, and activities that the great staff at Prince William has put together.

And for those of you who might be on the fence, I have two words for you: Bud Robertson.

“There Was a Want of Vigilance” – Battle of Bristoe Station Exhibit at the Manassas Museum August-October, Manassas Museum ($5 admission)

Exhibit will feature rare artifacts from the Battle of Bristoe Station.  Featured items will include personal effects of A.P. Hill and other leading participants of the battle.  Exhibit cosponsored by the Prince William County Historic Preservation Division and the Manassas Museum. Contact Manassas Museum for more information at 703-368-1873

Bristoe Station Campaign Bus Tour Saturday, October 5, 2013

$85 per person, includes lunch.  Reservations required, space is limited

Enjoy a full day with an in-depth tour of the sites and battlefields that made up the Bristoe Campaign.  Stops will include:  Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park, Auburn, Remington and Buckland.  Historians will explain how this important campaign impacted soldiers, civilians and its overall impact on the outcome of the Civil War.  Participants will have a chance to see little known or visited sites.  Contact Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park at 703-366-3049 for more information and reservations.

Battle of Bristoe Station 150th Commemorative Weekend

Saturday – Sunday, October 12-13, 2013

Free, donations encouraged

To commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Bristoe Station, tours, musical performances, lectures, tours and living history demonstrations and encampments to represent the soldiers and units present at the battle in 1863. Weekend kicks off on Saturday at 10am with a dedication ceremony featuring keynote speaker Dr. James I. Robertson Jr. The Virginia History Mobile will be available on Saturday and a Youth Activity Tent will also be available all weekend. 


Saturday, October 12, 2013

10 a.m. – Opening Program and Trail Dedication

Introductions, The Honorable W.S. Wally Covington III Brentsville District Supervisor, Prince William County

Keynote Speech, Dr. James “Bud” Robertson

11 a.m. – Music, Gillmore’s Light Ensemble

noon – Talk, “Road to Bristoe Station”, Brad Gottfried

12:45 p.m.– Music, Carolina Fife and Drum

1:30 p.m. – Battle of Bristoe Station Demonstration

3 p.m. – Talk, “Preservation of Bristoe Station Battlefield, a history”y, Jim Burgess

4 p.m. – Music, Gillmore’s Light Ensemble

5 p.m. – Program Closes

7 p.m. – Special Evening Civil War Musical Performance by Evergreen Shade at Historic Brentsville Union Church, 12229 Bristow Rd., Bristow, VA 20136

Battlefield Tours ongoing on the hour from the program tent (11am-4pm).  Living history demonstrations on going in camp areas (see map).  Virginia History Mobile 11am-4pm.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

11a.m. – Music, Carolina Fife and Drum

noon – Talk, “Colonel Mallon & the Tammany Regiment of New York,” Fred Wexler

1 p.m. – Battle of Bristoe Station Demonstration

2 p.m. – Music, Evergreen Shade

3 p.m. – Program Ends

Battlefield Tours ongoing on the hour from the program tent (11am-3pm).  Living history demonstrations on going in camp areas.

150th Anniversary of the Battle of Bristoe Station

Monday, October 14, 2013

Walking Tours Free, Car Caravan and Bus Tours have separate fee

Join Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park staff on the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Bristoe Station for exclusive tours of the battlefield.  Tours will take place “in time” of the events in 1863, including Prelude to Battle Walking Tour, In the Footsteps of North Carolina walk tour and a Musical Tribute to the fallen at Bristoe Station.  Events are as scheduled:

 9 - 11 a.m. – Car Caravan Tour of Bristoe Station Campaign Sites ($25 fee per vehicle)

11:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m. – Bus Tour of exclusive Bristoe Station Battlefield sites off of the Park ($35 per person, reservations recommended, light refreshments provided)

3:30 p.m. – “Their Moment, Our Time” Tours – Tours of the Battle of Bristoe Station at the time of the        battle, 150 years later. Tour Will Begin at Program Tent, moderate walking, water available

6 – 6:15 p.m. – Tours End, Musical Tribute and Taps

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Self Fulfilling Prophecy of Black Participation in the Sesquicentennial

Today I came across an essay that deals with a question that has plagued Civil War battlefields and museums for decades – how do you attract African Americans to your sites and events?

Having been in the field of public history since 1998, I have heard frustration over a lack of African American participation and enthusiasm voiced over and over again…and no matter how hard sites try to bend over backwards to attract and accommodate a black audience, results never seem to match expectation.

Well, today on a blog operated by the Atlanta Journal Constitution,Natasha McPherson of Spelman College chimed in on this dilemma.

Here’s how she framed her explanation:

First, this wasn’t our war. Many African-Americans fought and died on both sides of the conflict, but they were excluded from the decision-making process.

She went on to pose an astonishing question with an even more problematic answer: “But the Civil War led to the abolition of slavery, right? Maybe.”

I would posit that these two quotes from her larger explanation of why African Americans are unconcerned with the Civil War actually raise more questions than they answer.

For instance:

- Is she giving credence to the Black Confederate myth when she declares that blacks “fought and died on both sides of the conflict”?

- What body of evidence is there that would imply that the Civil War didn't really abolish slavery?

McPherson begins her essay by stating “most African-Americans regard the Civil War with relative indifference.”

This leads to the issue I allude to in the title of this post – is there any wonder that blacks would be indifferent when the war is framed within this negative and pessimistic context?  

The implication is that there is nothing that blacks can take away from the Civil War experience that they can be proud of – it was all too horrible, so why go back and retread such awful and painful ground?

McPherson obviously brings an entirely different set of experiences to her observations and that is fine – I just can’t help but feel different based on my experiences speaking to African American groups and attending living history events with the 23rd United States Colored Troops.

In my experience, the question I hear repeated over and over again within these communities is – why didn’t anybody tell me about this?

At a recent event with the 23rd, I had the pleasure of talking to an African American couple who had driven many miles just to see and talk to the members of the 23rd because they had no idea what USCTs were or how large their participation in the war actually was. They were completely intrigued.

When I was done talking to them, they were literally giddy with what they had just learned and couldn’t wait to go home, buy some books, and learn even more. And this was not an isolated incident. Many African Americans I have spoken to feel a sense of loss that they have gone their whole lives without hearing about black participation in the Civil War.

Sadly, McPherson’s perspective would seem to leave little room for such edification.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Forgotten Cavalryman & Medal of Honor Recipient Timothy O’Connor

In my last post on the First Battle of Deep Bottom, I mentioned the lone Medal of Honor recipient to emerge from the battle – Pvt. Timothy O’Connor, Co. E, 1st U.S. Cavalry.

For more on the story of Pvt. O’Connor, I highly recommend reading fellow blogger and historian Don Caughey’s blog post devoted to the topic

During my ongoing research for my forthcoming book on the battle, I sent out a request for help to several colleagues trying to find out more information about Pvt. O’Connor.

O’Connor won the Medal of Honor “for extraordinary heroism on 28 July 1864, while serving with Company E, 1st U.S. Cavalry, in action at Malvern, Virginia, for capture of flag of the 18th North Carolina Infantry (Confederate States of America).”

Below is a picture of the actual flag captured by O’Connor which was returned to the state of North Carolina in 1905.

 NC Dept. of Cultural Resources 

The task of finding out basic information on this individual was quite an ordeal.

Think of it:

- The most basic details of his life were sketchy and sometimes contradictory (some sources have him listed as being buried in Arlington, others say he's buried in Kansas)

- He was an Irish immigrant

- He had no middle name and a last name that is extremely common

- Some sources refer to him as “Timothy Connors” or “Timothy Conners”

- He fought in a unit that is difficult to get detailed information on

After weeks of fruitless searching, Craig Swain kindly put me in touch with Don, who is the leading expert on all things pertaining to the regular U.S. cavalry during the Civil War.

As you can see, Don applied his expertise to the problem and came up with a much clearer picture of who Timothy O’Connor was. 

In so doing, he has rescued a courageous young recipient of our nation’s highest honor from obscurity, for which we owe him a debt of gratitude.

O'Connor's Memorial Headstone in Arlington National Cemetery with incorrect death date.

Monday, July 29, 2013

First Deep Bottom: July 27-29, 1864

Today marks the 149th anniversary of the conclusion of the inglorious sortie that has come down to history as the campaign and battle of First Deep Bottom.

The First Battle of Deep Bottom – also on occasion referred to as the Battle of Darbytown, Strawberry Plains, Tilghman’s Gate, New Market Road ,Gravel Hill, and even Malvern  Hill (the latter causing a great deal of confusion) – has been relegated to the status of a historical footnote. One would think that an expedition to threaten the Confederate capital led by such Union luminaries as Winfield Scott Hancock and Philip H. Sheridan would have garnered a substantial amount of attention by Civil War scholars, but this has not been the case.

First Deep Bottom was part of Grant’s Third Offensive of the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, which culminated in the horrific Battle of the Crater. In addition to the more famous mine assault, Grant also planned to send an expedition to the north side of the James River. Hancock’s II Corps, along with two divisions of Sheridan’s cavalry and one division of Kautz’s Army of the James cavalry would cross the James River at Deep Bottom and threaten Richmond.

Union Pontoon Bridge at Deep Bottom
The cavalry was to ride hard and fast to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad as far as the North Anna River. The blue cavaliers were then to ride down to Richmond and attempt to carry the city in a joint effort with the II Corps. If the raid was successful in destroying the railroad and taking Richmond, Grant intended to call off the mine attack.

Over the night of July 26-27, the II Corps crossed the James on a pontoon bridge at Deep Bottom and advanced east of the bridgehead there into an area called Strawberry Plains. The expedition started well on the 27th, with Union forces capturing four 20 pounder Parrott rifles of Graham’s Virginia Battery and forcing the Confederates to pull back to the New Market Line. 

The Capture of Graham's Battery
Unfortunately, this brief success is what caused the rest of the campaign to unravel. The new line occupied by the Confederates was too strong to attack head on and, in Hancock’s mind at least, there were not enough men to flank the position. Hancock decided to pull the plug on Sheridan’s raid and kept his horsemen with the main infantry column. In a revealing note to Grant, Hancock said he wanted to be as “cautious as possible to avoid any bad luck” – a clear indication that the devastating casualties inflicted upon the II Corps since the start of the Overland Campaign were preeminent in Hancock’s decision-making.

While Hancock gave up the initiative (and thus any real chance of obtaining any of Grant’s offensive goals) his mere presence was enough to worry Lee into sending Richard H. Anderson with four divisions (2 infantry, 2 cavalry) north of the James.

The next day, these Confederate reinforcements plowed into Sheridan’s horsemen at 10:00 a.m. After a fierce clash near the Enroughty Farm (recently preserved by the Richmond Battlefields Association and the Civil War Trust), the rebels were driven back. In this fight, Pvt. Timothy O’Connor of Co. E, 1st U.S. Cavalry was awarded the Medal of Honor for capturing the regimental colors of the 18th North Carolina Infantry. Although the Yankee soldiers had prevailed, Hancock was undeterred from maintaining his defensive posture. 

By the morning of July 29th Hancock had already sent one division back to Petersburg and decided to hunker down and use the rest of his force as bait in the hopes that Lee would shuffle even more troops north of the James. In this, he was successful. Edward Porter Alexander noted that “nearly six Confederate divisions” had been shifted to the north side of the James by the time the mine exploded, affording the IX Corps a real chance to achieve a decisive breakthrough. Hancock’s men had abandoned their positions near Deep Bottom and were already in front of Petersburg by the morning of July 30th, when the explosion was triggered.

The ensuing Battle of the Crater ensured that First Deep Bottom would languish in relative obscurity for many years. However, in recent decades, renowned historian and researcher Bryce A. Suderow has been compiling a massive amount of data on the battle, some of which was published in his 1997 article “Glory Denied: The First Battle of Deep Bottom July 27th - 29th 1864” which remains the standard account of the battle after 16 years.

In addition to the great work already done by Suderow, I am in the process of writing The First Battle of Deep Bottom: Grant vs. Lee North of the James, 1864 which will be released by The History Press just in time for the 150th anniversary of the battle.  

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Skewering the Copperhead

Well, it’s a day ending in “y” and that must mean that someone somewhere is lambasting Ron Maxwell’s new film “Copperhead.”

If you’ve been following the reviews at all, you will know that they have been almost universally negative.

Megan Kate Nelson decried the film for not entertaining her. 

Some person named Justin Chang, who apparently suffers from an over fondness for prepositions, called it, “A stodgy, drearily long-winded attempt to to shed light on a little-known chapter of the Civil War.” 

The New York Times said, “Though the tale, based on a novel by Harold Frederic, remains relevant to our time, the film is too self-conscious and tedious for the message it delivers.” 

While the Times lauds the message of "Copperhead",  the last few days have seen an argument over just what that message truly is.

On July 22nd, journalist and Clinton confidante Sidney Blumenthal wrote a piece for The Atlantic called “Romanticizing the Villains of the Civil War.” Blumenthal claims that “The newly released film… is in the same tradition as Gone with the Wind and Gods and Generals. Its history is highly revisionist.” He sees the film as a Neo-Confederate extravaganza, meant to pay homage to the lost cause.

The piece concludes:
In the year of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Copperhead presents us with a false depiction of the Copperheads as principled men of peace instead of what they were -- often violent and always racist defenders of slavery, secession, and the Confederacy. Copperhead is propaganda for an old variation of the neo-Confederate Lost Cause myth, that the root of the Civil War was not slavery and the slave power, but an aggressive, power-mad North seeking to tyrannize, by unconstitutional means, a benign and chivalrous South. The Lost Cause myth was at its heart not a matter of a differing interpretation, but of the falsification and suppression of history in order to vindicate the Confederacy and later to justify Jim Crow. Frankly, my dear, we should give a damn.
 Two days later Bill Kauffman, who wrote the screenplay, responded in The American Conservative, claiming “Sidney Blumenthal misunderstands a film about peace, community, and the limits of dissent—not the Union or Confederate causes.”

Far from being a paean to the Southern cause, Kauffman claims “The movie is about the effect of war on a community. It is about the way that wars tear families apart. It is about the challenge of loving one’s neighbor. And it is about dissent, which is never exactly in robust condition in the land of the free.”

Kauffman denies allegiance to the ideology of either the North or the South, asserting that “’Copperhead’ does not end with an affirmation of the Union, as convention would dictate. Nor does it end with an affirmation of disunion, as would a pro-Confederate film.”

While I have not seen the film and therefore cannot comment on the validity of any of the abovementioned viewpoints, I do find it interesting that the latest tussle over the film has a political bent to it. With the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan still looming over the American psyche, who would have predicted that an “anti-war” film would be criticized on the left and applauded on the right?

For those who have seen the film, feel free to weigh in.

Monday, July 22, 2013

State Marker to be Placed at Site of 23rd USCTs First Combat

As many of you know, something that has filled me with immense pride over the last two years has been my small role in the formation of and participation with the recreated 23rd Regiment United States Colored Troops.

While family tragedy and health issues have kept me from attending as many events as I would have liked over the last 14 months, I was very glad to hear from the units president, Steward Henderson, that a state highway marker has been approved to mark the site of the actual 23rd’s baptism of fire at the Alrich Farm in Spotsylvania County.

Map courtesy of FSNMP

As you can see from the map, this was the very first time during the Civil War that black troops had fired on Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia north of the James River.

This marker is important not only for the event that it memorializes, but also the momentous symbolism of that event.

As I told Fredericksburg’s Free Lance-Star in a recent interview:
The 23rd U.S. Colored Troops had many men in the ranks who had been held as chattel in Spotsylvania, Stafford, and the surrounding counties – their entrance into combat here saw them return to the site of their former degradation not as property, but as free men willingly taking up arms to liberate their enslaved brethren.
 Photo by John C. Cummings III

Those who worked hard to have this marker placed – people like John Hennessy of the National Park Service and John Cummings and Steward Henderson of the 23rd USCT – have done an incalculable service to future generations who will come to Spotsylvania seeking to better understand America’s Civil War.

The marker will be unveiled during the 150th anniversary commemoration that will take place at the actual site of the fighting on May 17, 2014. The 23rd USCT, along with other living history units, will recreate the march of the 23rd from the Chancellorsville ruins to the intersection of Catharpin and Orange Plank Road. This is shaping up to be a very special event, and I will post updates as the event planning continues. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Commemorating the Sesquicentennial of the Mine Run Campaign…Or Not

“For the Army of the Potomac and its commander George G. Meade, the canceled assault at Mine Run was probably the most important nonevent in the army’s history as well as something of a turning point.” – John Hennessy, 1997

This past Monday, Craig Swain listed some of the exciting events that will be taking place this fall in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the Bristoe Campaign (see here).

While it is great to see such attention being paid to an often overlooked episode in the eastern theater, I was surprised to see that there are no events in the offing for the anniversary of the Mine Run Campaign, which lasted from November 26 – December 2, 1863.

I find this surprising, because Mine Run has much to offer in terms not only of counterfactuals and tactical interest, but also its hyper-political context (both for the US and the Confederacy).

In mid-November of 1863, Gen. Meade, under pressure from Washington, crossed the Rapidan in an attempt to outflank the Army of Northern Virginia. The opportunities were great – several crucial fords across the Rapidan were unguarded and Longstreet’s Corps was off in Tennessee. Speed was crucial to Meade’s plan, and when the army got off to a slow start, problems began to compound for the Army of the Potomac. French’s III Corps took far too long crossing the river, and Lee soon caught wind of the offensive and started shuffling troops from Orange Court House to stymie Meade.

It worked.

Following the Battle of Payne’s Farm (680 acres of which has been preserved by the Civil War Trust), which included what one Confederate described as “as warm a musketry fire as I have experienced for a good while – certainly worse than I have been in since Sharpsburg,” Lee pulled his men back to a carefully selected position on the west side of Mine Run where they immediately began digging in.

Meade followed Lee to Mine Run but would advance no further. After issuing orders for an attack that some Confederates were eagerly hoping would develop into a “Second Chancellorsville,” Meade examined the strong Confederate position and called off the attack. As he told his wife, “I would rather be ignominiously dismissed, and suffer anything, than knowingly and willfully have thousands of brave men slaughtered for nothing.” He pulled his men back across the Rapidan on December 2nd and reaped a whirlwind of political discontent in Washington. To his men, however, he won admiration and respect for not wantonly throwing away their lives.

Lt. Michael S. Austin of the 5th New Jersey wrote:
Much censure is cast upon Gen Mead [sic] for the apparent failure of the late campaign. Those who were more closely connected & interested in that affair, are satisfied that it terminated as it should have done, after they saw what they had first to overcome…Today there are 15,000 men living, & of service, if properly used. In the case contemplated, that number of men would have been lost to the enemy & country, with a great chance of defeat.
For Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, the Army of the Potomac had been allowed to slip away with no further damage yet again. Lee grumpily said after the campaign, “I am too old to command this army.  We should never have permitted those people to get away.”

Thus, the 150th anniversary of the Mine Run Campaign offers a chance to take a fresh look at this forgotten affair…it just looks as if no one has taken an interest in conducting that look.

While it may not grab the attention of the masses since we know that a large scale battle did not develop, the men who lived through the campaign did not enjoy this hindsight.

If anyone is aware of any upcoming events that deal with this fascinating period, please post them in the comments section.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Re-enacting the Crater, Wilson’s Wharf, & New Market Heights: Are We Ready?

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin has been struggling with the thought of re-enacting past events (or, in this case, lynchings) that have an overt theme of racial atrocity. This has sprung up, in part, due to the recent uproar over Peter Carmichael’s comments about re-enactors and re-enacting (for more on that, see here).

Levin wonders whether it would be appropriate to re-enact the Battle of the Crater next July for the 150th anniversary of the battle, since one of the salient features of that fight was the wanton slaughter of United States Colored Troops who were killed in the act of surrender.

While I can’t speak to the appropriateness of such an event, I can say that there will definitely be re-enactors at the 150th anniversary commemoration of the battle, no matter what form it takes. I portray a white officer with the newly reconstituted 23rd United States Colored Troops – the unit that sustained the highest losses of any USCT regiment at the Crater – and we will be there to educate the public about this important battle along with several other re-enactment units.

While I see the obvious value in having this dialogue, what I find confusing about it is that it assumes that there are currently no re-enactments of battles in which racial atrocities occurred.

There are.

Fort Pocahontas, near Charles City, VA, has hosted an annual re-enactment since the late 1990’s. This was the site of the Battle of Wilson’s Wharf, where Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederate cavalrymen were humiliated and defeated by two brigades of USCTs under Gen. Edward Wild. We know that several USCTs who were captured before the attack were executed and a trooper in the 2nd VA Cavalry noted "We had orders to kill every man in the fort if we had taken them." The Confederates failed, and a larger massacre on par with Fort Pillow was thankfully averted.
Courtesy of fortpocahontas.org

This is obviously not the same scale as what transpired at the Crater, but the element of atrocity is still very much there.

Nevertheless, every May, re-enactors from all over the country descend upon the site of the fort. I have many friends who attend this event and I have heard nothing but the highest praise. The people who host the event are currently in the planning stages of the 150th anniversary re-enactment that will take place next May.

Also taking place next year will be a re-enactment of the Battle of New Market Heights.

Anyone who has read my book knows that there were many USCTs killed after they had either been wounded or had laid down their arms. The slaughter was so great that one member of the Texas brigade bragged in his diary, “we killed in our front about a million dollars worth of niggers, at current prices.”

How Henrico County plans on handling this visceral racial element will be interesting to see play out.

I guess the crucial difference is the fact that both Wilson’s Wharf and New Market Heights were victories for the U.S. Colored Troops.

Would the public stomach a depiction of these racially charged battles only if the end result was victory for the African American soldiers?

What do you think?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Re-enactors vs. Academics: A Controversy That Won’t Go Away

On June 29, the Wall Street Journal ran a story that said, "Peter Carmichael, a professor of history at Gettysburg College, calls re-enactments an 'unfortunate distraction' from a deeper understanding of the Civil War, including the motivations of those who fought and its legacy."
Yesterday, The Patriot-News newspaper out of Harrisburg, PA ran a story on one of its blogs entitled “Should Civil War re-enactments be abandoned?” which contained the above-mentioned quote from Peter Carmichael.

The author of the piece, Donald Gilliland, surveys the rift that exists between academic historians and Civil War re-enactors. Gilliland says, “Like any good American feud, it includes perceived differences in class, propriety, work ethic and honor. The professional historians are clearly the establishment, and the re-enactors the literally unwashed masses.”

In order to prepare for his story, Gilliland apparently spent an entire year participating in Civil War re-enactments so that he could “embed” himself in the camps during the recent battle re-enactment in Gettysburg.

When he told Dr. Carmichael of this studious preparation, Gilliland alleges that “his question to me - didn't I find most of the re-enactors to be blue collar? - suggested other factors were at play.”

The reader is left with the feeling that Carmichael is another ivory tower schmuck, sneering down his nose at all of the stupid little people who could never hope to be as knowledgeable about the Civil War as he is.

The rest of the article attempts to paint a contrast with Carmichael by telling the story of a man who has been a re-enactor for over 30 years. After summarizing the re-enactor experience, Gilliland ends his article with the observation that “that kind of participatory history simply can't be found with a licensed guide on the battlefield.”

And there you have it: the cold and abstract observations of an aloof academic versus the folksy wisdom of a simple man who wants to honor Civil War soldiers. It’s a dead horse that gets dragged out and pummeled from time to time, and like most of these “controversies” there certainly is a germ of truth to it.

I’m sure that this is not the last we will see of it.

However, the tragic thing about this story is that it stokes discord and division and, according to Peter Carmichael himself, isn’t even an accurate reflection of what he said in the first place.

Here is his full comment regarding the article:
How Mr. Gillland framed this piece was intended to stir controversy and to set up battle lines between academic historians and those who do living history. I was naive and downright foolish to expect a fair and balanced assessment of this issue. First, we discussed the socio-economic background of Civil War re-enactors in attempt to understand the many reasons why people are drawn to this hobby. The idea that I am an elitist on this front is curious to me since my father was a ditch digger for Citizens Gas his entire life. I deeply resent how Mr. Gilland depicted that part of our discussion. Second, I made clear that I have great respect for living history demonstrations and find tremendous value in how they engage the public. This critical point destroys any allegation that I believe that only the educated elite own the past. Third, my issue is with mock battles and I believe it leads to the mystification of war for all involved. I don't think war should become a spectator sport. This is a reasonable objection that deserves consideration and civil conversation. It is far from an elitist perspective. Mr. Gilland with his crude generalizations and sloppy writing made sure that no such discussion would take place. Fourth, I stopped doing reenactments for many reasons that are deeply personal and involve my father who struggled with his combat experiences in Korea, but I still maintain close relationships with my reenactor friends from my youth. I just took the 4th Virginia Infantry from Indianapolis around the battlefield last week. As much as Mr. Gilland want to create a divide to sell papers and to stir artificial outrage, the hard fact is that I have and continue to believe in the value of living history. My objections to mock battles in no way creates a cultural war that Mr. Gilland has imagined.
As you can see, this is a very different perspective from what Gilliland offered his readers.

In my opinion, Gilliland had a simmering resentment about a perceived prejudice that academic historians harbored towards Civil War re-enactors.

He picked his target – in this case, Carmichael – looked for a quote to misconstrue, and cranked out his article.

If he was hoping to stir the pot and gather a few thousand hits for his blog, he has succeeded.

One just wishes he would be more careful when someone’s reputation is on the line…

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Shaping Memory & Landscape: John Bachelder’s Gettysburg

What if I were to tell you that much of the way that we have come to remember Gettysburg was shaped not by the men who fought there, but by an artist who never even saw the battle?

John Bachelder & Wife, 1890.
It may sound strange, but it’s true.

John Badger Bachelder – a portrait and landscape painter from New Hampshire – not only had a significant impact on the way we understand the battle proper, he also had a profound impact on the way that the battlefield itself was preserved and interpreted. And for those who express annoyance at Gettysburg being “the world’s largest collection of outdoor sculpture,” John Bachelder shoulders a large portion of the blame, since he served as Superintendent of Tablets and Legends for the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association from 1883-1887.

Bachelder’s Civil War journey began when he made a covenant with himself to, as he put it, “wait for the great battle which would naturally decide the contest; study it’s topography on the field and learn its details from the actors themselves, and eventually prepare its written and illustrated history.” His opportunity came when he learned of the contest at Gettysburg, and he arrived on the field just days after it had concluded.

After speaking with wounded soldiers, jotting down some notes, and making sketches of the terrain, Bachelder caught up with the Army of the Potomac in Virginia and received permission form Gen. Meade to interview the survivors of the battle over the winter of 1863-1864.

Bachelder would describe his activities over two decades later:
I spent the entire winter…visiting every Regiment, holding conversations with its officers and with privates in many cases, submitted to them the drawings I had made of the Field and had them corroborate and complete the position of the troops upon it.
In 1865 he published his “Gettysburg Battle-field: Battle fought at Gettysburg, Pa., July 1st, 2d & 3d, 1863 by the Federal and Confederate armies, commanded respectively by Genl. G. G. Meade and Genl. Robert E. Lee,” which became a great success.

Bachelder's 1865 Map.
Crowning himself the “official historian” of the Battle of Gettysburg, Bachelder’s obsession with the battle grew after the war when he collected as many firsthand accounts from the participants of the battle as possible. He even used his influence to bring the surviving veterans back to Gettysburg to walk the battlefield with him and give their explanations of the ebb and flow of the battle.

While the veterans may not have realized it, their understanding of the battle was actually molded by these tours: Bachelder would lead the groups around, explain what happened on that particular part of the field, and then have the veterans tell him how their individual stories fit into his overarching narrative. Thus, many old soldiers were hoodwinked into believing that Bachelder’s knowledge of the battle was greater than their own.

Bachelder commissioned artist James Walker to paint “The Repulse of Longstreet’s Assault at the Battle of Gettysburg,” in 1870 and wrote the text that accompanied the print. Ten years later, Congress authorized the gargantuan sum of $50,000 to be paid to Bachelder to produce the official government history of the battle. Thomas Desjardin, who devoted a chapter to Bachelder in his 2003 book These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory, wrote of the downside of having Bachelder as the official historian:
Without any formal training or experience, the painter sought to sort through the problems inherent in dealing with imperfect human memory and then tried to combine an enormous collection of often conflicting accounts into a single history.
By this time, however, Bachelder was so convinced of his own expertise that he began to flex his intellectual muscle to the point where people became irritated at his impudence. In 1885, Winfield Scott Hancock had to write Bachelder and tell him that he got the location of Hancock’s wounding during Pickett’s Charge wrong – even though Bachelder and Hancock had visited the spot together three years after the battle. Bachelder thought his knowledge of the affair trumped Hancock’s, which drew the ire of a man who was not to be trifled with.

Another dejected veteran who was displeased with Bachelder’s work griped that he was a “loud-mouthed, blatant photographer, artist at Sickles’s headquarters and henchman of Sickles, [who] made people buy an avalanche of propaganda that Sickles held back Longstreet, and all writers began to believe it and praised Sickles’s act.”

When Bachelder completed his 8-volume history of the battle there was an outcry not only from the veterans, but also from some of the government officials who felt they didn't get their money’s worth. Southerners especially felt jilted, since the coverage of battle was skewed disproportionately with Union accounts (one reason for this being that Bachelder was not given access to the Army of Northern Virginia during the winter of 1863 – 1864.) The War Department paid Bachelder the full $50,000, but his manuscript went unpublished. Bachelder would continue to play an important role in the expansion of the Gettysburg battlefield until his death in 1894.

Nonetheless, Gettysburg is still quite literally marked with Bachelder’s influence. He viewed Pickett’s Charge as the seminal point of the entire war, and introduced the term “High Water Mark of the Confederacy” into the Gettysburg lexicon. He even designed the High Water Mark monument on Cemetery Ridge.  Similarly,  anyone who has seen the motion picture Gettysburg will most likely remember Tom Berenger pointing to the “copse of trees” that was to be the focal point of Pickett’s attack. “Copse” is an artistic term used by landscape artists such as Bachelder (which explains why other Civil War battlefields are “copse” free.)

Thus, it really is difficult to play down the influence that John B. Bachelder has had upon the way we understand and compartmentalize the Battle of Gettysburg. Something tells me that, at this very moment, his soul is marching on as the commemoration surrounding the battle’s most important day – July 2, 1863 – continues.

Monday, July 1, 2013

If It Walks Like a Duck, or: Why Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Gettysburg Speech Shouldn’t Surprise Anyone

Well, we can’t even get to the anniversary of the first shot that opened the Battle of Gettysburg before a controversy has already swept through the blogosphere and Civil War history community. 

Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln) gave a keynote address last evening to kick off the commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg and, according to most accounts, regaled the crowd with touching tales of how she met her husband and all the fun she used to have working for LBJ.

Conspicuously absent? The Battle of Gettysburg and the men who fought it.

What listeners did get was a long-winded excursion into everything from women’s rights to the modern gay rights movement, interspersed with more wistful and self-promoting stories driving home the point that she’s pretty much one of the coolest people ever.

The hullabaloo began before her speech had even ended and here is a sampling of what folks are saying:

Tony Lee:  “As a historian chosen for the honor of keynoting the opening ceremonies for the solemn--and special--anniversary of the most important and famous battle fought in the Western Hemisphere, Kearns Goodwin had a duty to take up the task of Oliver Wendell Holmes and "bear the report  to those who come after." Instead, she slapped the faces of those in attendance by mistaking the occasion for an alumni weekend speech or a Georgetown cocktail party.” 

Kevin Levin: “At what point are we simply using the past to buttress our own personal political/ethical convictions rather than trying to frame it for the benefit of the nation as a whole or just the community that attended last night’s ceremony?”

Dmitri Rotov: “In terms of fee structure, DKG is now classed with "motivational speakers." At Gettysburg, you wonder whom she was motivating.”

One recurring theme in some of the angst-ridden comments was Goodwin's well-known plagiarism scandal (for the fullest treatment of this epic scandal and others like it, see Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud - American History from Bancroft and Parkmanto Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin by Peter Charles Hoffer.) I'd say that this is fair game, and why people still turn to her as a reliable source for understanding the American past is beyond me.

Mrs. Goodwin committed acts that would get any graduate student kicked out of their program and would get any run-of-the mill historian blacklisted for life. But, instead of being drummed out of camp, Goodwin has gone virtually consequence free and can still charge “$40,001 & up” for her speaking engagements...perhaps in an effort to recoup the money she lost when she paid off the people she plagiarized from. 

Compare this to the case of Dr. Thomas P. Lowry and the pursuant rush to judgment with the Lincoln document that he allegedly altered, and you will see the chasm that differentiates the “cool kids” like Goodwin from the unwashed masses. (NOTE: I am not commenting on the guilt or innocence of Dr. Lowry, just using his case as an example – nothing less, nothing more.)

All of this is to say that, with Goodwin, you know what you’re getting. She is what she is, and I’m OK with that (I thought Team of Rivals was a great book and, so far at least, it looks like it’s actually her work.) If the good folks up in Gettysburg truly thought that she was going to launch into an eloquent tribute to the men who fought and died at Gettysburg without taking some hard-to-follow detours, then the fault lies with them.

If you’re looking for someone to blame, how about the folks who chose her to speak in the first place?