The Battle of Fredericksburg was fought from December 11th to December 15th, 1862. Among the 120,000 or so Union soldiers in the Army of the Potomac was a 36 year old French-Canadian immigrant named Moises Beaulieu. Moises had enlisted in June 1861 in Company A of the 11th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment (sometimes known as the Boston Volunteers) and thus had already been in the Union army for some 18 months when he found himself on the bank of the Rappahannock River across from the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Major General Ambrose Burnside, a Rhode Islander who had risen from Colonel of the 1st Rhode Island to commander of the army, was waiting for pontoons to arrive so bridges could be built across the river. At that time the 11th Massachusetts was in Brigadier General Joseph Carr’s brigade, of Brigadier General Dan Sickles’ Second Division of George Stoneman’s Third Corps, part of the Center Grand Division commanded by Major General Joseph Hooker.
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.
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.
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.
Today Geoff and I took a trip to South Weymouth, MA to visit Mount Hope Cemetery where his Civil War ancestor, Moses Beaulieu, is buried. Geoff has done a lot of research into Moses Beaulieu and recently discovered a photo of his headstone and rough location in the particular cemetery in South Weymouth.
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.
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.
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.