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

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?

New Look, New Direction, Same Blogger (and URL)

Welcome to Freedom by the Sword: A Historian’s Journey through the American Civil War Era!

I have been contemplating this change for a few months now, and the time has come for me to venture forth into the new course I've charted. I mean, what better time could there be than during the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Campaign, right? That being said, let me anticipate some of the questions that will inevitably arise from this shift and try to answer them.

So why the sudden change?

Well, while blogging about the service of U. S. Colored Troops has been a rewarding experience, my interest in the American Civil War goes far beyond this one subject. A blog solely dedicated to USCTs has its limits, and whenever I would intrude upon that subject matter with posts similar to the one I wrote on Chancellorsville a few weeks back, I would feel a nagging sense of impropriety about writing something that wasn't technically within the purview of the blog.

So I've decided to expand the horizons of the blog, not to neglect or turn away from the history of USCTs, but to provide a more spacious playing field in which to interact with Civil War history.

What’s with the name?

The name derives from the Butler Medal, which was issued to the United States Colored Troops who participated in the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, September 29-30, 1864. On one side of the medal was the Latin inscription Ferro iis libertas perveniet, which means “Freedom will be theirs by the Sword” (also the subtitle of my 2011 book on the Battle of New Market Heights.)

While paying homage to the original meaning behind the phrase, I also recognize that the word “freedom” had very different meanings, depending on which side you were fighting for.

What can we expect from here on out?

While I still plan to devote much of my attention to US Colored Troops, I now plan on offering posts on topics that I am currently working on or other things which have piqued my interest, such as:

Some general reflections on Robert E. Lee (having recently finished a one year tour at Arlington House: The Robert E. Lee Memorial, I've already got some posts in mind)

Issues surrounding the First Battle of Deep Bottom (which I am currently writing a book about)

Pretty much anything regarding the Confederacy or the Confederate army (pretty hard to blog about when your focus is USCTs!)

Various and sundry battles and battlefields that are close by (at least for me) but I've never really explored in  writing before, such as (in no particular order): Bristoe Station, the Wilderness, Mine Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Courthouse, North Anna, Antietam, and even…dare I say it?...Gettysburg!

While some of you are undoubtedly doing a facepalm right about now (especially at the mention of the G- word) I am certain that this new path will lead to more frequent posts and a chance to engage with a larger audience.

So sit back, relax, and get ready for a whole new blogging experience!