More thoughts on The Civil War rebroadcast

As I continue to watch the rebroadcast of The Civil War on PBS, I find that the remastering has proven to make some of the imagery used by Burns quite crisp and clear, which was his goal. Though the content is not different, so far as I can tell, viewers that have never seen it before will be treated to looking at documents and photos as how Burns likely viewed them 25 years ago. That said, there is a bit of jumpiness with the image, but that likely relates to my cable signal, as it may be affected by solar activity (the aurora was visible near here the other night). Tuesday night’s broadcast featured episodes 2 and 3, which featured the Battles of Shiloh and Antietam respectively.

Shiloh has always had a special place in my historical heart, as men from my home county (Jersey County, Illinois) fought bravely there. A great accounting comes from Leander Stillwell’s memoir Story of a Common Soldier, which can be found online. Stillwell, who grew up near Otterville (about 10 miles from my parent’s house), enlisted in the 61st Illinois Infantry, serving in Company D at the time. Further, this battle, coupled with his earlier victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, elevated Ulysses S. Grant to a position of prominence, as he, unlike his Eastern counterparts at the time, was able to beat Confederate troops. Having visited the battlefield twice, it is a beautiful and poignant place, where you can almost still feel the fighting in the air.

The third episode featured Antietam, but also discussed the Seven Days battles and the elevation of Robert E. Lee to command of the Confederate forces that were renamed the Army of Northern Virginia. The debate over emancipation factored prominently as well. The political situation surrounding this issue was a dicey one for Lincoln, as he faced pressure from abolitionists seeking freedom for the slaves, while simultaneously fearing how the issue would affect the position of the border states, as well as the opinion of many in the Union, who were little concerned with the plight of the slaves.

Antietam represented an important moment in the war, as renowned historian James McPherson expounded upon in his book Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (2002). It was critical to Lincoln being able to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, while also influencing the course of the war on the international stage, as the European powers were observing the war from afar to make decisions regarding diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy, or even potential mediation of peace. The horror of the bloodiest day in the war was revealed to the viewer through the powerful images of “Bloody Lane” and the cornfield. Though strategically a draw, the battle was just what Lincoln needed.

The continuing theme between the two episodes was the general course of the war going against the Union, as while Grant was largely successful in the West, the Eastern Theater found Confederates usually carrying the day. However, Antietam proved to be pivotal, as while the Confederates were victorious in battle after it, the viewer comes away with a feeling that the war is beginning to turn away from the South, but that the outcome is still in doubt. Further, these episodes demonstrate the carnage of the war that shocked the nation, but was only a taste of things to come.

As the week progresses, viewers will see the adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation, victories in Pennsylvania and Mississippi, Grant taking command, and the fight being taken to Southern society in a way that placed the war at the crossroads between older Napoleonic warfare and our modern understanding of war, based upon the carnage of two World Wars, as elements of both conflicts were present. They will reflect upon what a Union victory and the abolition of slavery meant then and today. What the public takes away from this rebroadcast will be interesting to see in the next few weeks.

Reflecting on The Civil War after 25 years

The last few weeks have seen a flurry of activity in the Civil War blogging community about the rebroadcast, which is starting tonight, of Ken Burns’ monumental documentary The Civil War to commemorate the 25th anniversary of its debut on PBS. Many bloggers note the significant changes in our nation and the debate over how we remember the war that have occurred in the last 25 years. Consider that the direction of the historical study on the war has blossomed in many different ways since 1990. Further, no one in 1990 likely fathomed that we would have an African American president (regardless of your feelings on him and his administration). Needless to say, I hope many in the country will watch this and reflect.

I remember vaguely viewing segments of it when a little boy at Fort Hood, Texas, which was only a couple years after the piece debuted on television. It was still routinely broadcast on PBS then. I had an emerging interest in history at that time, the Civil War in particular. As I got older, watched Gettysburg at 10 and Glory at age 12, I eventually sought out this program and checked it out from my local library on VHS and watched it, enjoying it immensely. A few years ago, I finally purchased it on DVD and watch it occasionally to draw inspiration from different sections when needed.

Tonight’s broadcast features episode one, which focuses on the historical context and causes of the war. To hear of the violent acts and division in the nation at that time (Bleeding Kansas, the attack on Sen. Sumner, and John Brown’s Raid), causes me to reflect on recent violence and riots across the country. I will say that I doubt we’re heading towards conflict as in 1860, but that we must remember the lessons of the war and the horrors that it wrought, so that the “better angels of our nature” can prevail between those on opposite sides of the political fence.

While it is still about an hour and a half away, I always find a semblance of comfort and power in the words Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run. He wrote:

Headquarters, Camp Clark
Washington, D.C., July 14, 1861

My Very Dear Wife:

Indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps to-morrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines, that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine, O God be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battle-field for any country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American civilization now leans upon the triumph of government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution, and I am willing, perfectly willing to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know, that with my own joys, I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with care and sorrows, when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it, as their only sustenance, to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country.

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death, and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country and thee.

I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in this hazarding the happiness of those I loved, and I could not find one. A pure love of my country, and of the principles I have often advocated before the people, and “the name of honor, that I love more than I fear death,” have called upon me, and I have obeyed.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables, that nothing but Omnipotence can break; and yet, my love of country comes over me like a strong wind, and bears me irresistibly on with all those chains, to the battlefield. The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you, that I have enjoyed them so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up, and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our boys grow up to honorable manhood around us.

I know I have but few claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me, perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have oftentimes been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears, every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot, I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth, and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you in the garish day, and the darkest night amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours always, always, and, if the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air cools your throbbing temples, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dear; think I am gone, and wait for me, for we shall meet again.

As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care, and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers, I call God’s blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.

– Sullivan

(Text courtesy of National Park Service website)

I hope that sincerely hope that many will take time to watch this documentary, especially with children, and educate them on the significance of the conflict and what it means today in our current society.

Duffel Blog provides Civil War satire

If you follow the US military and the blogging world that surrounds it, you may have visited Duffel Blog. This site presents all the hilarity and wit of the legendary satire publication The Onion, but with emphasis on the armed forces and veterans, to provide members and supporters of the armed forces a bit of levity in trying times. I have enjoyed several pieces from this blog in the past and a recent one was no different.

With all the controversy surrounding the status of the “Confederate flag” (predominantly dealing with the battle flag design) in the wake of the tragic murders in Charleston at the hand of a deranged white supremacist, there have been hundreds of stories relating to symbols of the Confederacy and its military and political leaders. Duffel Blog decided to jump into the fray by writing about West Point revoking the diplomas of graduates who went on to serve the Confederacy. This “story” follows an earlier posting regarding efforts to rename Army installations named for Confederate generals.

Both of these pieces are amusing, but also thought-provoking, as they force us to consider the broader role of the war on our society. Clearly, Duffel Blog is responding to the controversies surrounding Confederate symbols with tongue-in-cheek humor designed to make us reflect on the absurdity of the reactionary nature of our times. They are also aware that a sizable portion of their audience is likely Southern and is in the cross hairs of this debate. That said, they also make one reflect upon the careers of the Confederate military leadership when viewed against the backdrop of American military history. Further, they speak to attempts to reconcile the two regions after the war by naming the installations for these men.

That said, I doubt that West Point will be revoking diplomas of former Confederates anytime soon, as the Academy knows that, despite their switched allegiance during the war, many of these men had distinguished antebellum careers in the Army, with Robert E. Lee being among the most prominent. Whatever your stance on the symbols of the Confederacy and how they are used and displayed, I invite you to read the two Duffel Blog posts, chuckle a bit, and allow yourself a moment to breathe and reflect, as more of that would certainly benefit this ongoing debate.

Reenactress: Examining female reeanctors as soldiers

As some of you may know, I have been involved with Civil War reenacting for five years now, serving in units portraying both sides of the conflict over that time. While I am no expert by any means, I do appreciate anything that raises awareness of the hobby. From articles on clothing to a best-selling book that devoted space to the subject, there are literally hundreds of resources available to learn about this exciting activity.

One area within it that causes quite a debate involves female reenactors and the roles they should portray. There are those who believe that women should only be allowed to portray traditional female roles of the time, while others, myself included, believe that women, if able to look the part of the soldier and handle the requirements of taking the field (no, I am not trying to equate this with real combat, but the strains on the body are there) should be allowed to join the ranks with the boys if she is interested and wants to learn. I’ve been fortunate enough to be with units that have taught women to stack arms and had ladies kit up and fill the ranks for infantry drill at a public event when numbers were needed. With the training, they performed admirably and were as capable as the guys.

I say all this to bring to your attention an interesting project over at Kickstarter. J.R. Hardman, a reenactor, is attempting to produce a documentary about her journey into living history portraying a soldier to examine the politics behind exclusion of women portraying soldiers among some units, despite women actually serving disguised as men during the war, as well as examining the real history behind women’s contributions on the battlefield. The film Reenactress is being Kickstarted to raise sufficient funds to complete the film. It is also getting some early press via places like the Smithsonian.

I encourage you all to go and check out the film’s official site and its Kickstarter page and consider supporting this project, as it will surely raise awareness of the hobby and maybe get more folks interested in it and Civil War history.

On an unrelated note, this represents my 300th post to the blog.

Sons of Confederate Veterans loses license plate legal battle

I posted about this almost four years ago, then updated on the story after readers and fellow bloggers alerted me to some pertinent details. Now, the controversy over the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) seeking to have a license plate made for their organization in Texas has finally been adjudicated and they are on the losing end.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 (you can read the briefing here)that Texas may reject the SCV license plate on the grounds that license plate designs constitute government speech and does not violate the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Justice Clarence Thomas joined Stephen Breyer, who authored the decision, as well as Justices Kagan, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor. Chief Justice Roberts, as well as Justices Alito, Kennedy, and Scalia dissented, with Alito providing some biting criticism of the decision, writing, according to CNN, “the Court’s decision categorizes private speech as government speech and thus strips it of all First Amendment protection.”  He added that the ruling, “”establishes a precedent that threatens private speech that the government finds displeasing.”

What is interesting about this decision is how it goes against the general trend when cases involving the SCV and other states have gone to courts, with the SCV usually ending up as the victor. Personally, I will say that I am a bit concerned about the precedent that this may set regarding other organizations seeking to have license plates for their causes, but as I stated back when this story first flared in 2011, I believe that had the SCV compromised and sought to create a neutral plate with a soldier silhouette and commemorate the 150th anniversary, or Civil War veterans in general, the issue would have been moot.

The Confederate battle flag is a powerful symbol with a complex and divisive past, as evidenced by the tragic shootings in Charleston the other day. I will never deny someone from being proud of their Confederate soldier ancestor, as they fought a hard war for a cause they believed in, or other reasons they believed in as much as their Union counterparts. However, we live in a different era, where segments of our society have different feelings towards that flag and what it means to them.

Unfortunately, one cannot escape the reality that the flag symbolized an army fighting for a government established, in part, for the perpetuation of slavery. Further, it became a symbol of hate and oppression used by a minority of people to intimidate blacks, thus coloring the collective population of the South by the actions of a few. Not all Southerners are racists, just as not all Southerners owned slaves. However, the perceptions cast by the use of the flag and its history since the end of the war stand in contrast to its use by soldiers in the Confederate Army.

Now that the SCV has lost the battle in Texas, only time will tell as to how other states will respond regarding their already-issued SCV plates and the display of the Confederate battle flag in public. Confederate symbols will continue to elicit controversy, but this does not mean that they should be eliminated from our awareness, as they can be tools for educational purposes, whether presenting on Confederate soldiers, or the post-war history of the South, the good, bad, and ugly.

With that I will leave you with a poll and welcome any thoughts you would like to share, provided they are civil, regarding this case and the Confederate flag.

Momentous anniversaries and visiting Civil War history

To my loyal blog readers, my apologies for not actually posting something worthy on the actual anniversaries recently, but I do want to share with you that the last several days have commemorated some momentous events related to the history of the Civil War. One of the reasons was that I was out of town visiting my parents for Easter, followed by a trip to Branson, Missouri to celebrate my mother’s birthday, which is actually April 15 (yes, I do appreciate the irony as a historian of her birthday).

On April 7, my Dad and I traveled to Illinois College, my alma mater to hear Dr. Robert Welch, who also writes a blog The Eagle and The Journal, which deals with Macomb, Illinois during the war via articles from its two main papers during the war The Eagle and The Journal. Check it out, as it’s quite good. Welch brought a lot of gear to his talk and drew a crowd of around 75, who were quite interested in his topic on Civil War Living History and Reenacting, including its uses as a teaching tool, which resonates with me quite well.

April 9 marked the 150th anniversary of the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. I unfortunately missed the NPS program on it, but my good reenacting buddy Den Bolda had two questioned answered during the live-stream, which was quite cool. I did make a Civil War trip out of it though, as my Dad and I visited Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield that day. I had been there before in 2011 to reenact for the 150th, but did not get to see much, so it was fun to take time with him and survey the park, despite limited time.

April 14 marked the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in DC. Finally, April 15 marked the 150th anniversary of his death. Springfield is abuzz with activities leading up to ceremonies commemorating the anniversary of his funeral, so, if you are in Springfield, be sure to take in the festivities.

With that I will leave you with some photos of Welch’s talk and my visit to Wilson’s Creek.

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Review of Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection

Product DetailsSmithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2013. 308 pp. $40.00.

This book reflects the efforts of the Smithsonian Institute to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the war by showcasing the many unique and special items housed in their collections related to the war.

While it is not a scholarly monograph, this book is a wonderful piece that belongs on the shelf of those interested in the Civil War for both scholarly and general interest pursuits.

It provides hundreds of beautifully detailed photographs of objects housed in the collections, including uniforms, equipment, photographs, and documents. In addition, informative captions describe and discuss the objects. This is coupled with thematic and chronologically-focused stories to provide context to the substantial amount of images.

The book covers many themes related to the war, including the home front, slavery, freedom, music, government, soldiers, material culture, and photography. Readers will find something for almost every possible topic related to the conflict within this book.

What stood out for me on this book was the beauty of it and its construction, as a fairly sturdy hardback book. The paper quality is excellent, with glossy paper that allows the images to pop off the page. Related to the great construction and printing, is the price, which is quite reasonable for a large hardback book, making it affordable for many interested in the war.

Through rich photography of items, coupled with informative and gripping stories and captions, this book will hopefully build interest in learning more about the Civil War well beyond the recent 150th anniversary commemorations. Younger readers will be able to access the book via the rich imagery, while adults can discuss with them the stories behind the photos, fostering learning.

The Smithsonian did an outstanding job with this book and I recommend it for all folks interested in the Civil War as one that should be on your wish list and eventually your shelf. Smithsonian Civil War is a glowing testimony to the expertise and quality of the Smithsonian’s commitment to preserving our nation’s history, including the Civil War. If you don’t have a chance to visit the physical museums in Washington, consider getting this book to allow you to take a virtual tour.