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.
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.
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.
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.