The Road to Gettysburg, as my Civil War ancestor saw it

Today is the 156th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

For the 11th Massachusetts Infantry, the pursuit of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during its invasion of the North began on June 11th, 1863.  The regiment had been making plans to celebrate the anniversary of its muster into Federal service on June 13th.  Early in the afternoon a large group of the 11th’s officers were playing a baseball game against the officers of the 26th Pennsylvania, one of the other regiments in the brigade, when marching orders were received.  By 1:30 the regiment was assembled with knapsacks and began marching.  The weather was already brutally hot.

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Today in History – the Battle of Little Bighorn

June 25th is one of those days that is permanently in my memory because of a historical event.  Today, it is the 143rd anniversary of the Battle of Little Bighorn, the battle during the Great Sioux War of 1876 in which Civil War hero George Armstrong Custer and five companies of the 7th Cavalry Regiment under his command were wiped out by a much larger force of Native Americans.  Since my teenage years, my view of the battle has been largely shaped by a (somewhat) obscure book called Son of the Morning Star, by Evan S. Connell.

That book would eventually inspire a made-for-television movie of the same name, a movie that I really liked, despite its flaws and its general commercial failure.  Connell’s book was adapted into a screenplay by Melissa Mathison, who took Connell’s book and adapted it into a tale told by two women with very different perspectives: Libbie Custer (played by Rosanna Arquette) and Kate Bighead (voiced by Buffy Sainte-Marie and played by Demina Becker as a girl and Kimberly Guerrero as an adult).

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Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon Custer, probably circa 1865

It is largely because of Libbie Custer that her husband’s reputation and his memory in general did not suffer as much, at least for the first century or so after his death.  And frankly, it probably should have suffered.  Custer was brash, egotistical, vain, stubborn, and reckless with the lives of those who he led.  There is a reason he graduated dead last in his West Point class of 1861.  He was a controversial figure while he was alive, much less afterward.  It is largely because of Libby Custer that the view of Custer as a tragic hero perpetuated for so long (see the movie They Died With Their Boots On, with Custer portrayed by Errol Flynn).

But what actually happened at Little Bighorn is much more complex than what was portrayed in popular culture for so long.  And Son of the Morning Star (the book AND the movie) does a much better job than anything before or since in portraying the battle and what happened.  That’s my opinion, for whatever it’s worth.  Here’s a clip of the opening titles and scene, where the column under General Alfred Terry (played by Terry O’Quinn!) arrives on the battlefield to see they have missed the fight.  Note also Captain Frederick Benteen played by David Strathairn.  Also note that the story is largely narrated by the two women.

I don’t know if this film will ever find its way to DVD, much less Blu-Ray, but it should.

~Geoff

Happy Juneteenth, everyone!

Today is the 154th anniversary of the day that slavery ended in the state of Texas, the last part of the Confederacy where slavery had survived.  On June 19th, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger, the commander of the District of Texas for the Union Army, stood on the balcony of Ashton Villa on Galveston Island and read aloud “General Order No. 3” to the crowd that had gathered.  The order began:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

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Ashton Villa, now a restored building on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Today is the birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe

On this day in 1811, Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born to prominent minister Lyman Beecher and his wife Roxana Foote Beecher in Litchfield, Connecticut.  She was the seventh of an eventual thirteen children.

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Harriet Beecher was fortunate in that she received a thorough classical education at a time when most women did not.  She would meet widower Calvin Ellis Stowe in the mid-1830’s after she moved to Cincinnati.  They would marry in 1836.

By 1850 the Stowes were living in Brunswick, Maine, where Calvin taught at nearby Bowdoin College.  Harriet was inspired to write something after the new Fugitive Slave Law was passed in early 1850.  She wrote to Gamaliel Bailey, publisher of the antislavery newspaper The National Era, and told him she wanted to write something in serial form to be published in his paper.  Stowe was paid $400 (a not-inconsiderable sum for its time) for the story, which was published from June 1851 until April 1852.  The story, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly, was published in book form soon afterward.  The book became a bestseller, selling over 300,000 copies in the U.S. and over 1,000,000 copies in Great Britain in less than a year, thus becoming the second most-popular book in English in the 19th century (its sales were exceeded only by the Bible).

By current standards the book portrays a lot of offensive racial stereotypes of African-Americans.  But it is hard to overstate the influence of the book on attitudes of the 19th century public towards slavery.  In the South, negative reaction to the novel was widespread, and the book was banned and burned in many places.  People caught with copies of the book in the South were at best ostracized by their peers, and at worst they became victims of mob violence and vigilante justice, like a bookseller in Mobile, Alabama who was driven from the city.  But many Southerners instinctively recognized the power of Stowe’s story, and so the novel inspired an entire genre of Southern literature that became known as anti-Tom literature or plantation literature.  But even the bestsellers of this genre never came remotely close to the popularity of the original Stowe novel.

In the North and in other countries, the book was hailed as an agent for social change.  Within five years the book had been published in twenty languages.  In addition to its political themes, the book was a popular culture phenomenon.  One of its characters inspired many parents across the Northern United States to name their daughters Eva.  The book inspired numerous plays and dramatic readings.  It would eventually inspire a number of film adaptations as well.

~Geoff

The Caning of Charles Sumner and the response by Anson Burlingame

I am a bit late to make this a “This Day in History” post, since the actual date in question was May 22nd, 1856.  Still, I wanted to talk about this subject since I have been reading about it and have also recently listened to a rather good podcast about it.  I have only recently begun listening to this Civil War podcast, but I find it quite good so far.  And blogging about history always cheers me up.  Besides, today (May 30th) IS the anniversary of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

Anyway, I have always found the story of the attack on Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina to be one of the most shocking incidents leading up to the Civil War.  Only in recent years did I learn the role Massachusetts Congressman Anson Burlingame played in the events that followed.  In my mind, Burlingame is sort of the hero of the story, much more so than Sumner, anyway.

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Today in Civil War history – “Remember Ellsworth!”

Today is the 158th anniversary of the death of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer to die in the Civil War.  His death is also notable because he was a national celebrity and a personal friend of President Abraham Lincoln.

Ellsworth had become famous before the Civil War when he toured the country in the summer of 1860 with his drill team, the National Guard Cadets of Chicago, more famously known as the United States Zouave Cadets.  The unit was famous for its spectacular drill sequences and helped inspire many Zouave units that would appear during the Civil War.

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Brimfield, May 2019 – The Odd, Disturbing, and Weird in Photos

Geoff and I haven’t been able to get to Brimfield for the last 3 years. We’ve both missed it a lot.  But we were able to come this year. Some things have changed (new vendors, more food options, less parking, more 45 supporters) others have stayed the same (bargains if you know where to look, unpredictable weather, good and bad crazy, nice people).

Per usual I documented some of the odder things we encountered. Enjoy.

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