Some thoughts on Confederate Memorial Day

Today is the anniversary of the death of John Wilkes Booth, the man who murdered President Abraham Lincoln.  And it is also the anniversary of the surrender of the last large Confederate army in the field at Bennett Place, North Carolina.  I assume that for the latter reason (although I have known at least a few people who argued it was for the former), today is also Confederate Memorial Day in Alabama, the state where I was born.

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The “mutiny” in my ancestor’s Civil War regiment

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.

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Today in Civil War History: Remembering Fort Pillow

Today is the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Pillow, arguably the most controversial battle of the Civil War, when Confederate forces under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked the fort on the Mississippi River near Henning, Tennessee. Forrest had at least 1,500 men with him, and the defending Union troops had about 600 or so. The defenders were made up of both former slaves and white Southern Unionists that had enlisted in the Union Army. The fort was captured without too much effort, and then a massacre of the Union troops began.

There are still some who try to argue that there was no massacre, and that accounts of the brutal aftermath of the short siege were exaggerated. No. A thousand times NO. It was indeed a massacre, as some 14 or so Confederates died and some 86 or so were wounded, and the number of Union (and possibly Union civilian) deaths has been estimated to range from at least 220 or so up to 500, with another 130 wounded. We are supposed to believe that the troops defending a fort somehow managed to suffer many more deaths than the attackers? Not to mention that the number of Union deaths are grossly out of proportion with the rest of the casualties? No. And accounts from the Confederates themselves point to the murder of Union soldiers after they surrendered. One Confederate wrote the following in a letter to his family:

Our men were so exasperated by the Yankee’s threats of no quarter that they gave but little. The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded negros would run up to our men fall on their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. The whitte [sic] men fared but little better. The fort turned out to be a great slaughter pen. Blood, human blood stood about in pools and brains could have been gathered up in any quantity. I with several others tried to stop the butchery and at one time had partially succeeded but Gen. Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.

Forrest himself admitted that a “wholesale slaughter of the garrison at Fort Pillow” had taken place. He also wrote:

The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.

The story of Fort Pillow also reminds me of one of the great myths of the Civil War that is still being widely passed around as fact. The story goes that the breakdown in the prisoner exchange between North and South was because General Grant did not want to return Confederate prisoners to refill the Southern ranks, and thus his policy led to the overcrowding in prisons North and South that led to so many deaths. Grant, often seen by his critics as being callous in his attitudes toward the lives of his soldiers, is blamed for the policy. Again, that is garbage, an attempt to shift blame for the breakdown to Grant rather than lay it at the feet of those to whom it belongs, i.e. the Confederate authorities.

In the movie Glory, there is a scene that explains what the Confederate Congress did.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis had originally issued a proclamation in late 1862 that basically stated that captured Union black troops (as well as their white officers) would not be treated the same as captured white troops and that they would not be exchanged. The Confederate Congress made Davis’ announcement official policy in May 1863. This was carried out for the first time in July 1863, when Confederates first captured members of the 54th Massachusetts. By the end of that July, President Lincoln formally announced that the previously existing exchange system was no longer valid, and that the exchange system would be halted until the Confederate government agreed to treat captured black soldiers the same as captured white soldiers. They refused, and so the prisoner exchange ended. It would not be resumed until the winter of 1864-1865. By that time, thousands upon thousands of prisoners had died.

~Geoff

Today in history, the last great battle before Appomattox

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.

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This Day in History: the Battle of Mill Springs

Today, January 19th, is the 157th anniversary of the Battle of Mill Springs, fought between Union and Confederate forces in south-central Kentucky in 1862. It was the first important Federal victory of the war after the terrible defeat at the (First) Battle of Bull Run the previous July.

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Winter is coming, finally

I love New England.  One of the things I love most about it is that is has four distinct seasons (five, if you count Mud Season).  So when the winter weather here starts acting like the winter weather in the South, i.e. rainy and cool with no snow, it kind of annoys me a bit.  I expect to have snow.  And we have had no snow (or bitter cold) since November.  We had a wet fall, and that seems to have extended into winter.

Well, it now looks like we will get our first winter storm of the season, some six weeks into calendar winter.  And for some of New England, it looks like it may be a real doozy.

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My Time as a VIP and the National Park Service

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Stones River.  I could do a long post about what happened on this day in 1863 but instead I want to talk about my own personal experience with the National Park Service, which is currently suffering from the government shutdown, and how that shutdown affects the NPS.

For over a decade I was a member of the Volunteers-in-Parks program for the National Park Service and really enjoyed it.  I spent most of my time at the Stones River National Battlefield in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, although I also spent some time at other nearby parks, especially Fort Donelson National Battlefield and Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park.

When I first joined the National Park Service as a volunteer, it was so I could join the living history program at Stones River.  My first year I probably put in something like 150 to 200 hours of volunteer work, and afterward I was probably regularly doing at least 75 to 100 hours a year.  Even after I moved back to Huntsville and lived 2 hours away, I still managed to put in some hours for the NPS.  Why did I do this?  Because it was wonderful.  In fact, I view my time with the NPS as one of the most positive experiences I have ever had.  The people were just great, and I truly enjoyed interacting with visitors and the public in general.  Although I had done some public speaking before, I really developed that skill with the NPS.  It also gave me the chance to interact with some great historians, like Ed Bearss.

But right now, the NPS suffers from being massively understaffed.  The Trump administration apparently thought they could alleviate some of the effects of the shutdown on the National Parks by allowing them to be open during the shutdown, as opposed to closing them like the government did back in 2013.  It sounds great, at least on paper.  But allowing the public to continue to use the parks even though most park service employees are absent means that no one is cleaning the bathrooms, or handing out maps, or emptying the garbage cans.  It also means no one is collecting admission fees or enforcing rules.  And so the amount of wear and tear that is taking place is pretty bad.  And so many sites are being forced to close their doors.  A recent article from a Nashville TV station showed that many of the Civil War sites where I had volunteered are being affected by the shutdown.

So I hope that the shutdown does not last too long, as I hate to see so many of these parks get wrecked with no one to do any cleaning up.  And maybe one day I will be able to do some history volunteering again.  We’ll see.

~Geoff

Remembering my ancestor at Gettysburg, on the anniversary of the battle

I hadn’t been posting as much on the blog lately, and after writing about Aunt Donna I feel like I should distract myself a bit by writing about Civil War history.  So indulge me, if you will.

Among the Union troops at Gettysburg was a middle-aged French-Canadian soldier who had enlisted at the beginning of the war in the Boston Volunteers, a unit that later became the 11th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.  His name was Moses Beaulieu, and he was a widower who had left his 4 year old daughter in the care of the woman who ran the boarding house where they lived in South Weymouth, Massachusetts.  He was one of the first members of his family (my mother’s family) to move from Quebec to Massachusetts, where he had found work as a bootmaker in the booming shoe industry.

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The EL Faro disaster and lessons learned

In the April 2018 edition of Vanity Fair, there is an excellent article by William Langewiesche called “THE CLOCK IS TICKING”: INSIDE THE WORST U.S. MARITIME DISASTER IN DECADES.  It is the best article I have yet read about the loss of the SS El Faro on October 1, 2015, after the ship sailed into Hurricane Joaquin.  It was the worst American loss at sea since the 1983 sinking of the SS Marine Electric, which I wrote about here.  Thirty-three people died, including 8 crew members from New England and five Polish shipyard workers.

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An identifying video still from the US Navy showing the stern of the El Faro after the wreck was found some three miles underwater.

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