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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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

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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My Ancestor at the Battle of Spotsylvania

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.

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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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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