An obscure anniversary and an obscure Union general

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Corinth (distinguished from the Siege of Corinth) that took place on October 3rd and 4th, 1862.  Union forces under the command of Major General William Starke Rosecrans defeated Confederate forces under the command of Major General Earl Van Dorn.

These days Rosecrans, if he is remembered at all, is known for being the Union commander at the gigantic Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863, one of the major Union defeats of the war and the second-bloodiest battle of the entire war after Gettysburg.  But up to that point he had actually been one of the most successful Union generals Lincoln had.  I learned a great deal about him during my time at Stones River National Battlefield, where Rosecrans was also the Union commander.

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Today in Civil War History – the burial of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his soldiers

Yesterday, July 18th, was the 156th anniversary of the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, where the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry (Colored) made its spectacular but tragic charge and cemented its place in history.  The story of the 54th is kinda-sorta told in the movie Glory, which came out thirty years ago and is still one of my favorite movies of all time.

Imagine, if you will, a little boy whose family was from Massachusetts, who read a book about the Civil War and learned about a brave unit, also from Massachusetts, that suffered some 44% casualties in its first major battle.  The accompanying artwork was something that has stayed in my memory ever since.

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Tom Lovell’s painting of Colonel Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts that appeared in Robert Paul Jordan’s book on the Civil War. Note that it also shows Sergeant William Carney holding the regiment’s national colors.  SGT Carney, of New Bedford, Massachusetts, would be the first African-American soldier to earn the Medal of Honor.

So you can imagine my excitement when they actually made a movie about the 54th.  The movie is far from perfect, both from a historian’s perspective and from a moviemaker’s perspective, but still, it is just a superb film and I love it.  And the fact that they show how Colonel Shaw and his men were buried just makes the ending so powerful.  The Confederates reported that they buried some 800 dead bodies in front of Fort Wagner that day, July 19th, 1863.  They had intended to disrespect Colonel Shaw by burying him with his soldiers.  But his parents, when asked if they wanted to try to recover his body, said that they could imagine no better place for him to be buried than with the men of his regiment.

The exact location of the grave site is not known, but so far some 118 acres of the battlefield have been preserved.  Colonel Shaw’s sword that he carried into the battle was recovered in 1865 and then rediscovered a couple of years ago in the attic of a descendant of one of his siblings.

~Geoff

 

 

Today in history: the Medal of Honor is authorized by Congress

It was on July 12th, 1862 that “A Resolution to provide for the Presentation of “Medals of Honor” to the Enlisted Men of the Army and Volunteer Forces who have distinguished, or may distinguish, themselves in Battle during the present Rebellion” was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln.

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Gettysburg: the Second Day, as my ancestor saw it

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.

Josephine MIller with stove
An older Josephine Miller, now married, was asked to come to Gettysburg to meet with some of the veterans when they put up their monuments. Here she poses with the original stove in which she baked bread, like the loaf she is holding. This photo was taken in the 1880s when the monument to the 1st Massachusetts (another regiment in the same brigade as the 11th) was dedicated.

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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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