The Medal of Honor in the Civil War

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Army Medal of Honor, 1862. From US Army Institute of Heraldry.

File:Army Medal of Honor.jpg

Current Army Medal of Honor

Last week, President Bush awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously to Woodrow W. “Woody” Keeble 26 years after his death. Keeble becomes the first full-blooded Sioux Indian to earn the award. Keeble’s case is interesting and illustrates how several veterans have been denied awards for year or forever because of paperwork, or other issues. It is even more interesting when one considers the number of Civil War recipients of the Medal of Honor, who probably did not deserve them.

The Medal of Honor was created in 1862 for the Army to recognize soldiers who distinguished themselves in action. One of the more famous Civil War recipients of the MOH was Joshua L. Chamberlain, who earned it because of his famous bayonet charge down Little Round Top (“BAYONETS!”). Another was William H. Carney, who rescued the American flag when the color sergeant was struck down, while a soldier with the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Carney was the first African American to earn the medal.

Unfortunately, there were some cases where the medal was awarded to persons who did not necessarily deserve the medal. For instance, Medals of Honor were awarded to the entire 27th Maine Infantry Regiment just for re-enlisting (all 864 men). In addition, medals were awarded to the men who served as Lincoln’s funeral guard, as well as civilians. Eventually, this wrong was corrected when an Army review board, led by Nelson Miles, met in 1916 to review all Army Medal of Honor cases. The board ultimately rescinded the medals awarded to the 27th Maine and the Lincoln funeral guards, as well as Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to receive it (her award was reinstated by Jimmy Carter). One important thing regarding the Civil War Medal of Honor, do not confuse it with the member badge of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) seen below.

Grand Army of the Republic Membership badge. Note the differences between this badge and the Civil War Medal of Honor.

Grand Army of the Republic Membership badge. Note the differences between this badge and the Civil War Medal of Honor.

The Medal of Honor has always been a significant award, but the importance of the award was somewhat reduced by the situation created by the Civil War. It was the only medal authorized by the Army at the time and the government seemed intent on awarding more than it should have been. There were over 1,500 Medals of Honor awarded relating to actions in the Civil War. Since then, the importance of the medal has risen, as the criteria for earning it are much more stringent, as less than 25 percent of the total medals awarded were given to servicemen since the beginning of World War II. I have met one gentleman who earned the Medal of Honor in World War II and he passed the medal around my class (I was in 8th grade) and we all had a chance to hold it, and it is something that I will never forget. Medal of Honor recipients are to be honored, as there are fewer than 120 persons alive that earned the award, and many have died as a result of the actions that earned them the medal.

Here are a couple more images on the Medal of Honor in the Civil War:

From the Burn Pit, an American Legion site:
Civil War Medal of Honor

From the National Park Service:
Civil War MOH

Some noteworthy Civil War events this week

As I continue work on my thesis, I thought I would take a break to mention some of the important anniversaries relating to the Civil War this week. Today, March 4 is the anniversary of Lincoln’s first inauguration. This anniversary of the inauguration is even more important given the upcoming celebrations honoring Lincoln’s 200th birthday.

March 1862 also involved two important events in Civil War history, in addition to the preparations for the coming Battle of Shiloh. On March 8, Lincoln would relieve McClellan from overall command of Union forces. McClellan would be placed in command of the Army of the Potomac and was ordered to attack Richmond, which marked the beginning of the Peninsular Campaign. In addition, the first major naval engagement of the war occurred on March 9. This battle rendered all other fleets in the world obsolete. The battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimac) was one of the only major naval engagements between ironclad vessels. History tells us that the two ships fought to a draw and that the Virginia was destroyed. March is also significant for the passage of the Conscription Act in 1863, which made men from 20-45 eligible for military service and led to the infamous New York Draft Riots in New York City.

As shown, early March contains many important anniversaries of important Civil War events. From the beginning of a new administration to the beginning of a major campaign, to a major engagement between state of the art vessels, this week and month is one to remember these events and to honor the memory of the men and women associated with them.

Robert E. Lee: the Civil War’s Hannibal

Go ahead, laugh, but think about it for a moment and you may see some similarities. I watched a documentary on the story of Hannibal, the famed Carthaginian general who handed Rome a few humiliating defeats during the Second Punic War and it caused me to think about parallels between the famed ancient general and one of the most beloved generals in American history, Robert E. Lee.

First, both men were raised in a martial tradition. Hannibal’s father was a leading Carthaginian general and raised Hannibal and his two brothers to be future warriors. Lee’s father was Revolutionary War hero “Light Horse” Harry Lee, and Lee’s attendance at West Point is likened to Hannibal’s accompanying his father in Spain, as Hannibal gained important knowledge of military strategy and experience, just as Lee gained the knowledge he would need at West Point to be a successful general.

Second, both men achieved early and significant victories against larger forces. The Battle of the Trebia (218 BC) can be likened to the Battle of Fredericksburg, as the Union army, much like its Roman counterparts centuries earlier, crossed the Rappahannock River into Fredericksburg, just as the Roman army had crossed the Trebia to attack Hannibal. Like Trebia, where the Romans then proceeded to attack the Carthaginian forces, the Union army under Burnside then attacked the heights, where Lee’s men waited behind the stone wall. Just as Hannibal inflicted massive casualties on the Roman army at Trebia, so did Lee inflict high casualties at Fredericksburg.

Similarly, Hannibal’s victory against the Roman army at Lake Trasimene (217 BC) is likened to the Battle of Chancellorsville. At Lake Trasimene, Hannibal hid in the hills above the lake and ambushed the much larger Roman force and handily defeated them. At Chancellorsville, Lee divided his smaller army and sent “Stonewall” Jackson on a daring march that resulted in the ambush of the 11th Corps.

Unfortunately for both men, their luck would run out, as both men were eventually defeated. While Lee did not spend the later war years roaming the Union countryside, he did end up roaming through Virginia trying to keep his army alive, just as Hannibal did in Italy so long ago. Hannibal would ultimately face defeat at the Battle of Zama (202BC), near his home at Carthage, just as Lee would face defeat during the siege at Petersburg and the Appomattox Campaign near his home in Virginia.

While the comparisons are not identical, it is interesting to consider some of the similarities between Hannibal and Lee. Both men came from a martial tradition, both men won early victories against larger enemies, and both men were eventually defeated near their homes. This illustrates the importance of understanding ancient warfare, as their may always be parallels to more moder times. Just with the small comparison between Lee and Hannibal, one could claim our Civil War to be an American Punic War.

Poster presentation fun

Tuesday was a fun day, as I presented my poster on Military Geography in the Civil War at the 2008 Graduate School Scholarly Forum at the University of North Dakota. Long-time readers of this blog may remember that I posted the image of the poster, which can be found here. The forum was a great event and many persons stopped by to ask questions and learn more about my poster and the research behind it. Some pictures were taken and when I receive them, I will post them.

Super Tuesday and the 1860 Election

I hope that all of you residing in states holding Super Tuesday events or that have already had your primary/caucus have participated and to those who live in areas yet to hold such events, please get out and participate. I participated in the North Dakota caucus this evening and watched some of the results on television. I was particularly interested in Mike Huckabee’s victories in some Southern states this evening and it made me reflect on the sectional nature of the 1860 election.

While the Democratic side of the house is not as sectional, the GOP appears more sectional, with Romney doing well in low population, upper Midwest and Western states, like North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Colorado, Utah. McCain scored well in states with larger populations and many of the Northeastern states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York). When just looking at the GOP results of Super Tuesday, an interesting comparison to 1860 becomes apparent, given the relative sectional breakdown of where each GOP candidate did well.

Leaving out political views and just looking at the results, consider, that Huckabee’s victories in some of the Southern states is likened to John Bell’s electoral victories in the upper South in 1860, as like Bell ending up in third, Huckabee is in third place in the delegate total. Romney’s showing in several states, particularly upper Midwest and West is like John Breckenridge’s finish in the 1860 election. McCain, just by his victories in many more states likens him to the Lincoln electoral victory. When you consider the way that all three GOP candidates split conservative voters, the image of John Breckenridge and Stephen Douglas splitting the Democratic vote, and John Bell likely siphoning Democrats away from Douglas and Breckenridge, comes to mind.

While there will eventually be a Republican nominee and a very contested general election, it is interesting to see how Super Tuesday, at least on the Republican side has some similarities to the 1860 presidential election. John McCain won major victories, similar to Lincoln’s electoral victory, while the Huckabee and Romney victories are like Bell and Breckenridge breaking up the Democratic vote. It seems likely that just as Breckenridge and Bell paved the way for President Lincoln, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney will pave the way for John McCain to be the Republican nominee.

On teaching the Civil War

I have started my new assignment as a Teaching Assistant in a survey class on U.S. History up to 1877, which will cover the Civil War of course. One of the books used in the class is Lies My Teacher Told Me by sociologist James Loewen. Now, this is not my class, as I work under one of the professors, and I probably would not use this book if it were my class, but I am willing to give it a chance. The book has made me think about how we teach the war and what we may need to work on.

The book notes in the introduction about how history texts and courses are too often focused on whites, which serves to alienate minority students. It seems that if publishers are trying to get out their books to the most schools that they are going to write books focused more on white people since whites are still in the majority, which can lead to minorities feeling left out. I disagree with Loewen’s assertion, as I have encountered textbooks that focused too much on minorities, with the majority of chapters on World Wars I and II being devoted to minority issues. This is not to say that the history of minorities is not important, but rather that the amount of space devoted should be proportional to the impact of minorities on a given time period.

Lies examines the Civil War, but mainly focuses on how textbooks ignore a rise in anti-racist attitudes as a result of the war and treats Confederate and Union sympathizers equally. Loewen notes how all but one text omit a majority of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, including a section where he decries slavery. This section also invokes religious beliefs, specifically Judeo-Christian, which may be a reason why it is omitted from most books (can you say ACLU lawsuit?). Most of Loewen’s dealings with the Civil War revolve around race, while ignoring other striking problems facing historical education, especially on the war.

As far as Civil War teaching is concerned, there is room for improvement. Students seem to enjoy the exciting aspects of the war, i. e. the battles, but this should not lead into teaching the war from a wholly idealistic standpoint. Students must be made aware that the war was a horrible event, the bloodiest war in our history. One thing that would be wonderful is for history teachers to contact historians and staff at historical sites and archives to request educational kits, as most sites have something set up for teachers to use in the classroom, which will certainly beat the boring textbook. Loewen mentions the wealth of sources available today that make textbooks obsolete. There are a myriad of sources for teachers on the war that are well worth incorporating into the classroom. The Library of Congress makes several Civil War related documents available online. In addition, what would be wrong with having students read a book on the war, as there are certainly many great books out there on the war. Documentaries and living history presentations offer a more visual approach to studying the war. Finally, the internet (this site included) offers a wealth of information for teachers and students, but beware because the internet is not a democracy. Overall, if teachers are willing to use other sources outside the textbook, then it will go a long way to improving Civil War and larger historical education.

Seeking writers

I would like to once again place a call for interested persons to write for this site. You may inquire by using the contact page linked above. Please include (if applicable) your institutional affiliation and title. I am seeking historians, students, and history buffs to write on almost any topic dealing with the Civil War period. You are not expected to write every week, as I do, but when you can. Again, if writing on the Civil War is something you enjoy, please consider writing for this site.

Review of Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy by Gary D. Joiner

Joiner, Gary D. Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007. 224 pp. Photographs, maps. ISBN 10: 0-7425-5098-2 $24.95

History professor Gary Joiner has written a wonderful work discussing the role played by the navy in securing the Mississippi River for the Union during the Civil War. Joiner has added to the historiography on both the Civil War and naval history in general through this detailed account that leaves the reader with knowledge on a relatively unknown subject of Civil War history.

Joiner notes in his preface that the Union navy on the Mississippi River is one of the least studied aspects of the war. He argues for the importance of studying this topic by claiming that the Union may have lost the war in the West and possibly the East if not for the actions of the navy in supporting the land campaign in the West.(p. xi) Throughout the book, Joiner does an excellent job of providing a vast amount of information on this overlooked area, as well as proving the validity of his thesis.

He begins his examination by presenting a background history on the initial Union strategy, the Anaconda Plan, and the major players involved (Gideon Welles, Gustavas Fox, and Winfield Scott), including brief biographies, as well as a brief history of the American navy. He then describes, with incredible detail, the creation of the first vessels that made up the gunboat fleet and the men behind them. Joiner not only discusses the specifications of the vessels, but also delves into the personal squabbles among various persons involved in the creation of these first crafts.

Joiner then tackles the navy’s role in the rivers as the war heats up in the West. He devotes chapters to the major events of the Western Theater of the war. He first focuses on the early stage of the war in the West, with Forts Henry and Donelson, and Shiloh, the capture of New Orleans and the lower valley, as well as failed early attempts at seizing Vicksburg. He then discusses in great detail the role of the brown water navy during the Vicksburg Campaign and later Red River Valley Campaign, finally culminating in the end of the war. Along the journey, Joiner introduces several important figures (including Admirals Andrew Foote and David Dixon Porter) and vessels mostly forgotten by history. Readers will enjoy the vivid detail provided for naval battles, as heroic officers lead their vessels into many battles on the rivers, sometimes with disastrous results.

Joiner’s scholarship is very solid, with notes appearing at the end of each chapter. His bibliography is solid, with many primary sources used in his research, including The War of the Rebellion: the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies and the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. His secondary sources are a good collection, with many being recent works, which provide his book with a solid historiography to draw upon on Civil War naval history. His use of photographs is quite helpful, as they illustrate the many ships that he mentions in his work. The only area that he seems to lack in is newspapers, citing only four newspapers in his bibliography. While this is not a major problem and may result from most newspapers not covering the story, it would be interesting to read what Northern papers and more Southern papers wrote about the brown water navy.

Overall, Gary Joiner has greatly added to the historiography of Civil War naval history and has hopefully shed enough light on the subject to motivate other scholars to research the subject further. This book is worth reading by many audiences, including professional historians, Civil War buffs, naval history enthusiasts, and those interested in early examples of joint force operations. This books is also recommended for use by educators for classes dealing with the Civil War, as it provides a new angle for students studying the war and is an easy read. Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy is one book that readers will find hard to put down.

Researching your Civil War ancestor

As a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW), I thought I would take time to talk about genealogy, specifically relating to the Civil War. There are many great resources available to those seeking to find their Civil War ancestor, but you must know the easy way to start. I will share with you the example of my research on my Civil War ancestor, my great-great-great grandfather, Robert Alexander Montgomery.

My search began out of innocent curiosity. I had been interested in joining SUVCW for some time and figured that I would end up being an Associate member (member with no descendant serving the Union cause in the Civil War). I had an possible ancestor on my dad’s side, Private Philip Eglehoff (spelling sometimes varies between records), who was killed at the Battle of Parker’s Crossroads in Tennessee (the battle occurred on Dec. 31, 1862 and he died of wounds on Jan. 01, 1863). The problem with trying to use Philip as my ancestor for membership was that I can prove his service to the Union, but can not prove his relation to myself. I am still searching out how I am related to Philip Eglehoff and will someday explore Sauerwein connections to the war.

I was looking at records on my mother’s maternal side of the family one day and noticed the date of birth (1845) for Robert Montgomery and that he was born in Pennsylvania and when I saw that he was sixteen in 1861, I knew that there may be a possibility of him serving in the Union army during the war. I decided to go online and check available sources on Pennsylvania Civil War veterans and hit the jackpot. I found via the online Pennsylvania State Archives that Robert Montgomery enlisted in Company G, 103rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment at age 16.

With this online knowledge, I took the next step and sent in a request form to the National Archives for his service record and, once I paid the $18 (this fee has increased to my knowledge), I had his service record, which I promptly sent a copy of along with my application for membership in SUVCW. Unlike Philip Eglehoff, I had records proving my lineage, but needed to prove service. I found my ancestor and now want to help you find yours.

There are two ways to start: one for those with family tree records and another for those with neither record, but a name. For those with family records proving lineage, all you need to do is prove that a relative served in the war. First, go online and search for Civil War veteran databases for the state that your ancestor likely served from, in terms of units, or look the name up on the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System website. Many states have great online tools for searching for a veteran who served in that state. Pennsylvania State Archives has digitized their veterans’ index cards, which allow for printing, Illinois provides listings through the Secretary of State’s office, and independent sites provide digital copies of various state adjutant general reports, which are very helpful resources that provide demographic data on Civil War soldiers in a particular state.

Once you have information on your ancestor(s) via the online records (you can also search local historical archives if you desire, but distance may necessitate online searching, as it did for my case), you may want to obtain two sets of records from the National Archives (you may have to request through a state archive depending). The two sets of records provide different information and cost different amounts. The cheaper set of records is the service record, which will usually provide a discharge certificate, mustering records, and any other pertinent service information. The service record is the easier of the two to acquire as well, as some veterans do not have a pension record if they were killed during the war and left no survivors. A service record will run you $25.00.

The National Archives website states the following about pension records:

Pension Records

Most Union army soldiers or their widows or minor children later applied for a pension. In some cases, a dependent father or mother applied for a pension. The pension files are indexed by NARA microfilm publication T288, General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934 (544 rolls) which is also available online at Ancestry.com (for a fee).

The pension file will often contain more information about what the soldier did during the war than the CMSR, and it may contain much medical information if he lived for a number of years afterwards. For example, in his pension file, Seth Combs of Company C, 2d Ohio Cavalry, reported: “…my left eye was injured while tearing down a building…and in pulling off a board a splinter or piece struck my eye and injured it badly…it was hurt while in the Shenandoah Valley near Winchester, Va. about Christmas 1864–a comrade who stood by me name Jim Beach is dead.” In another affidavit, Seth said he “also got the Rheumatism while on duty as a dispatch bearer on detached duty.”

To obtain a widow’s pension, the widow had to provide proof of marriage, such as a copy of the record kept by county officials, or by affidavit from the minister or some other person. Applications on behalf of the soldier’s minor children had to supply both proof of the soldier’s marriage and proof of the children’s birth.

A pension record will cost $75.00, but it may be worth the money if you are looking for more family record detail. Once you have either of these records, you are finished and can either keep searching further back, or for other Civil War ancestors, or, you can relax and take pride in your research.

For those of you that do not have a name or family records, your search will be a bit more difficult, as before you can begin the steps described above, you will need to find a name, unit information, and other relevant information to provide the Archive staff member that will research your request something to work with. That information will be placed on the request form available from the Archives (or you can order records online). To find this information, particularly name, birth year, and birthplace, you will either need to speak with older relatives (this is the best bet to find names and start your journey, as they may remember the ancestor in question from childhood), or visit your local archives, or archive of where your family resided for most of its history.

There, you will find, depending on the facility, a potential wealth of documents from ship’s records, to marriage and birth records. The marriage and birth records are key, as they are going to be the base for your family tree. You may need to go online and request census records from the National Archives, as the census records will provide household information every ten years, including surname, spouse, and children (including name and ages). Once you have traced your lineage back to between 1800-1850 (you will need to go this far back to establish the possibility of Civil War service based on age, with a minimum age being 15 with an 1865 enlistment), start searching the online and other Civil War veteran databases with all possible names and then once you have found some, send in the requests to the appropriate archival sites to obtain records.

Now, you have the tools needed to research your Civil War ancestors. Go out and search, and include your kids or parents, as they will likely (especially the kids) have as much fun with this as you. Once you have the records proving lineage and service, you may then apply for membership in one of the hereditary organizations for descendants of Civil War veterans. The two more well-known groups are Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, which is for descendants of Union veterans, and Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), for those with Confederate ancestry. If you are descended from an officer, you are also entitled to membership in the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS) for Union officers, or Military Order of the Stars and Bars for Confederate officers. Good luck to everyone searching their lineage and I hope that you find a Civil War veteran in your family, and if they were Union, then please consider joining the SUVCW.

More interesting Civil War related videos

I stumbled across these interesting videos. The first is a really nice slide show by a high school teacher. The second is another nice slide show, set to “Ashokan Farewell”. The third is the strangest of the three, which is why I included it. The third video is a myriad of Civil War images set to the song “Civil War” by Guns ‘n’ Roses. The song is an anti-Vietnam War song and is not as good as the “Gettysburg” video I posted several months ago. In any event, I hope you enjoy these videos.

Happy Belated New Year

Thank you to all who expressed their sympathies to me and for putting up with the lack of activity while I was dealing with my family emergency. I am back to posting every week and hope that you had a wonderful holiday. I was able to get some work done on my thesis while home, but not as much as I would have liked. In addition, I decided to embark on a new project that I would love your help with. I created a new history forum Historia that I would love for everyone to join and post on, and, before you ask, yes, there is a Civil War forum on it. I am going to see if I can get some of my colleagues to help me with it as well.

On another note, the winners of the 2007 Cliopatria Awards were announced and though I did not win Best New Blog, I am not deterred, as I figure I had nothing to lose. I do extend hearty congratulations to all the winners of the various award categories. I hope that your holiday season was enjoyable and I look forward to your continued support.