Why research is important, part II

A while back (June 16), I wrote a post entitled “Why research is important” highlighting the annual Grierson Days held in Jacksonville, IL, in which I was critical of aspects of the event and described it as “probably one of the worst I have attended.” Not long ago (Aug. 27), I received a comment (I always appreciate comments on this site) from Ron Gray, coordinator of the event, which went as follows:

I am the coordinator for the Grierson Event. One of our reenactors sent me your web site.
As someone that is interested in making our event better, I would like you to e-mail me and let me know exactly what information was wrong, or, historically not correct, so that we can correct that.
The historical information concerning Grierson is by myself, and researched thru the many books that have been written concerning his service during the Civil War and when he was Commander of the l0th Cavalry, Buffalo Soldiers. Did you have any problem with reference to the Historical facts concerning Grierson?
The Battle and tactic remarks were made by the wife of one of our reenactors, and, by a Minister who has been involved with reenacting for a long period of time. Since I am not a reenactor, just the coordinator of the event, I leave those remarks to the people involved.
In an effort to make our event even better I would ask that you please help us by becoming involved, and, let us know exactly where we are wrong.
Since our event is free to the public, we rely on donations from our local businesses. As a result we like to let those in attendance know who the sponsors of the event are, the people that make the weekend events possible. To that end it is necessary to announce those names.
We would appreciate hearing from you.
Ron Gray
Coordinator
Benjamin H. Grierson Days

Now, normally I would jump at the challenge to answer this comment and defend my post, but two problems developed. The first was the simple passage of time, which prevents me from remembering the specifics of the event. The second was the tone of my post itself. While I defend the call that I made regarding the announcing at the event, I wrote the post in the heat of the moment on the day of and did not write down either in the post or at the event specifics to address. Therefore, my tone came off as more confrontational than I wanted and I regret that. The end result was that I called in the cavalry on this one (pun intended) and asked my father to saddle this one, as he picked up on more of the problems than I did. His reply to Mr. Gray is both in the comment section of the original post and follows as well:

Mr. Gray,
Since the event occurred about two months ago I forgot most of the exact words spoken at the re-enactment. For that I apologize for not making notes for future reference, but I do remember the overriding perception that I received. Perception is everything when engaged in public events, and your narrator seemed very unprepared and uncomfortable. Since the same person narrated the event last year, I know that is not the case. However, that perception came across, and many of the explanations seemed vague, and inadequate.
I am not a re-enactor, but I hold a B.S. in historical studies and know much about military history. This comes from my 24-year career in the U.S. Army, and my access to military history documents in the libraries where I served. One of the units in which I served, the 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry, held the sobriquet, “The First at Vicksburg.” The Vicksburg Campaign represented a significant part of that unit’s history, and a source of “lessons learned” instruction. When I visited the Vicksburg battlefield on vacation in 1995 I found the memorial commemorating that unit.
However, my interest in the western theater of the Civil War goes much deeper than my military service. Like most other Illinois soldiers, the men from my county, Jersey County, served in this theater. One of my ancestors died from wounds he received at the Battle of Parker’s Crossroads. Leander Stillwell, of the 61st Illinois, lived in Jersey County and his name is on the plaque inside the monument dedicated to Illinois soldiers.
I too possess a significant number of books regarding the Civil War, including many works by Bruce Catton and the Time-Life Book series copyrighted in 1983. The Time-Life series has one volume, titled “War on the Mississippi,” which dedicates pages 86 through 96 to Grierson’s Raid. Had your narrator read from this text verbatim it would have sounded better than what was spoken. For example, your narrator said, “Grierson led three groups of soldiers,” or words to that effect. What is a group? Grierson led a cavalry brigade of 1,700 men, consisting of the 2nd Iowa, 6th and 7th Illinois Regiments and a battery of horse artillery. A more detailed description provides a clearer picture of exactly what Grierson commanded.
The narrator further gave the impression of Grierson as a “military genius,” that deeply affected overall American history. Grierson did prove himself a superb cavalry commander, as noted on page 88 of the Time-Life book I previously cited. The direct quote from Sherman to Grant in December of 1862, “The best cavalry officer I have yet had.”
Regarding Grierson’s career following the Civil War, I consulted Robert M. Utley’s, Frontier Regulars, about the Indian wars of this period. Unfortunately, the Army of that time suffered from the same neglect and mismanagement that all “peacetime” armies endure. On page 362 Utley states that Grierson received his commission as a colonel largely because of his raid. While not confirmed, I believe that Grierson received command of the 10th Cavalry because it was the last one formed. This made him the junior regimental commander of the Army’s cavalry units, and placed him in a black unit as well.
Unfortunately, military personnel possess the same weaknesses as the society from which they come: petty jealousies, bigotry, and nepotism. The Army became very “class conscious,” reflecting the dissension between West Point graduates and Volunteer officers. Much like civilians regard university credentials and “college rivalries,” or a college education over practical experience.
White officers serving in black regiments suffered the same discrimination as their black soldiers, including deliberate ostracism. Furthermore, Grierson received the enmity of General Philip Sheridan, who deliberately made Grierson’s career “frustrating and undistinguished.” Grierson did distinguish himself during the 1880 campaign against the Apaches along the Rio Grande. However, both the War Department and the media deliberately underrated the performance of black units, and the officers that commanded them. This does not detract from Grierson’s many accomplishments; it merely places them in the historical context.
With the nation’s steadily declining number of veterans, the general public knows little about battle tactics. Furthermore, with the deplorable history education in our schools, most know little about the Civil War. It seems that the current interest in re-enactment is the most visible source of education concerning the Civil War battles. Therefore, it is imperative that those engaged in this endeavor provide accuracy and enthusiasm in maintaining our heritage. From what I noticed those actually engaged in the battle met, and exceeded, those standards, and for that I commend them.
While I do not endorse using Hollywood for history lessons, the John Wayne movie, “The Horse Soldiers,” is based on Grierson’s Raid. It does reasonably well at following the events, and must be taken in context as a Hollywood movie. However, since most Americans get much of their “education” from Hollywood, at least they get an idea.
Again, this event occurred about two months ago, and the events of work and other human events have erased much of my memory. Therefore I am unsure of whether the following subjects were included in the narration, or not. I will include them now for the purpose of ensuring that they are not overlooked. For example, by 1863 the Union cavalry became a serious challenge for the previously dominant Confederate cavalry. Partially this occurred because the Union began using Western farm boys, such as those in Grierson’s brigade.
Grierson’s Raid occurred as part of Grant’s overall Vicksburg strategy, partially for keeping the Confederates off balance. Most of our historical reference, and most Civil War studies, focus on the eastern theater. The Army of the Potomac enjoyed many advantages over the Army of Northern Virginia, such as personnel strength and equipment. However, Grant’s Army of the Tennessee did not, particularly given the long line of communication that he defended. Grant must keep his Confederate counterpart guessing, and keep Confederate forces stretched thin and unable to concentrate against him.
I noticed “General Grant” at this past year’s event; why not erect a tent for the purpose of “Grant” explaining his strategy? One of the area colleges may possess maps and other documents for enhancing this discussion. Maybe this is impractical for you, given your reliance on donations, etc., but it provides a context for Grierson’s Raid. Regarding context, explain the importance of Vicksburg for both sides, and how the Union victory hastened an overall Confederate defeat.
Part of my duties as a non-commissioned officer in the Army included giving classroom instructions. No matter how much I believed myself a “subject matter expert,” I rehearsed until this instruction became “second nature.” I do not know whether your narrator is a public speaker, but some prior rehearsal would definitely benefit the event.
Regarding my participation in the event, I wish I could become involved in such things. However, Jersey County is a significant distance from Jacksonville, and involves a one hundred mile round trip. Furthermore, I work for the U.S. Postal Service, and my work schedule normally includes Saturdays. I just happened to make the past two years’ events as a matter of luck. My son graduated from Illinois College and knew the exact days of the event, which helped greatly. Over the past two years the event also occurred when I happened to be off on those particular Saturdays.
I hope my comments have proven helpful without sounding condescending, for that was not my intent. However, I do not believe in “sugar-coating” things and normally speak my mind. Some better preparation by your narrator would make your great event even better.

William F. Sauerwein
1SG, U.S. Army (Retired)

Let me restate this again with regard to the event, I applaud the reenactors, they did a wonderful job. My problem was with the announcers and their apparent lack of preparation and professionalism. To offer my own answer to Mr. Gray’s request for ideas for improvements, I submit the following suggestions:

1. If you want to explain aspects of the battle and recognize your sponsors, create pamphlets that will do this where the sponsors can have advertising space, and, it will allow you to write down what you want to say, which will make the presentation of ideas better.

2. Have a speaking presentation prior to the battle. If printed materials are out of the budget, then have a presentation explaining Civil War battles and armies, as well as the significance of Grierson prior to the battle.

3. Tell the announcers to shut the microphone off when not announcing, as it both amplifies the weapons, which do not need the help, and allows the crowd to hear the announcers laughter and private conversations.

If even one of these suggestions is followed, it will go a long way to making the Grierson Days event more successful.

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One thought on “Why research is important, part II

  1. Pingback: Update on Grierson Days « Civil War History

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