When the men of the 11th Massachusetts awoke on July 2nd, they saw that the Confederates had occupied parts of the Emmitsburg Road, which the regiment and the rest of their division had used to march to the battlefield. That morning was cloudy and threatened rain, but by noon the clouds had all disappeared. At 3 PM that afternoon the entire Third Corps moved forward from its position on Cemetery Ridge to occupy the slightly higher ground in front of them. The Second Division, under General Andrew A. Humphreys, was on the right, lined up along the Emmitsburg Road. This included the 11th Massachusetts, which found itself on the farm belonging to an older couple named Peter and Susan Rogers. The single-story log house and the barn provided some concealment, at least from the sun, for some of the men of the 11th Massachusetts. The Rogers’ granddaughter, a young woman named Josephine Miller, insisted on staying so she could bake bread for the Union troops, as well as serve them cold water and occasionally sell them a chicken.
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).
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.
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.
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.
This week is the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, one of the bloodiest and most terrible battles of the Civil War. This particular phase of Grant’s Overland Campaign began on May 7th and lasted until May 19th. The battle is most famous for the Union assaults on a stretch of Confederate fortifications called the Mule Shoe because of its shape, and particularly for the violence that took place in an area known as the Bloody Angle.
I recently reread a book that I have not read in several years: The Mutiny at Brandy Station: The Last Battle of the Hooker Brigade : a Controversial Army Reorganization, Courts Martial, and the Bloody Days that Followed by Frederick B. Arner. The book follows through events of early 1864 that led to the dissolution of my ancestor’s former unit, the 3rd Corps, and the assignment of his regiment to the 2nd Corps. The author makes a compelling argument that one of the major reasons the former 3rd Corps units suffered so severely in the battles of Grant’s Overland Campaign is because the units’ morale had been shattered by the breaking up of the once-proud and distinguished 3rd Corps.
It’s funny that I have been a pretty serious student of the Civil War for almost 30 years, and yet I am still learning and discovering so many things that I really did not know much about. Lately a lot of that has been due at least partially to Private Moses Beaulieu. I have been trying to follow his (my Civil War ancestor’s) journey through the war. Most recently, I have been studying the last great campaigns of the war for his unit, the 11th Massachusetts Infantry, in the Army of the Potomac.
Well, here we are – rapidly approaching the final season of my favorite TV show. HBO has released some teasers and such.
So I thought I might make some predictions for what we might see in the final season of the show, and specifically, who I think will live and who will die.