Robert E. Lee: Honorable Man, or Treasonous Scoundrel

I routinely enjoy listening to the personalities on the local talk radio station, KNOX AM 1310, as they cover a variety of topics and have moments of amusement on occasion. Ryan Cunningham, who hosts the Ryan Cunningham Show from 12-3pm on the station noted in late March of his upcoming trip in early April to Tampa, Florida, to cover the Frozen Four for the station. He mentioned that part of his route down to Florida was going to take him near Shiloh National Battlefield.

Ryan noted his interest in that battle and the larger war, which necessitated me calling into the show and sharing my experiences visiting the site two times. I friended him on Facebook and found out he had a good time, but, like visiting most Civil War battlefields, one day can’t do it justice. I do hope he will get the chance to visit again soon, as it is a bit of a drive from eastern North Dakota.

Anyway, he shared with me an interesting thing that happened on Monday’s show, which I missed hearing, where a caller argued that Robert E. Lee was not an honorable man because he fought for the Confederacy. I wish I could have heard the exchange, as Ryan hinted in his message to me that it was an amusing thing. Reading this got me to thinking about that question, as it is a potentially divisive one.

Certainly, one cannot deny that Lee’s pre-war military career and his personality reflected an honorable man. He was one of the most respected officers in the army at the time and such was his reputation that Lincoln offered him command of all Union armies. Had Lee stayed with the Union, like fellow Virginian George Thomas did, one can only wonder how the war would have turned out.

Lee was conflicted in April 1861, go with the Union that he had served for his entire adult life, or resign and side with his home state, which was clearly heading towards secession. History knows which way he chose and he eventually became a beloved general in the Confederate army, as well as begrudgingly respected by his Union counterparts, several of whom had known him before the war and had served under him, or alongside him. Lee achieved some great feats as a Confederate general, but does this service strip him of his honor?

While he did commit treason by levying war against the United States, as noted in Article III of the Constitution, consider his April 20, 1861 letter to Winfield Scott, where he resigned from the Army:


Since my interview with you on the 18th instant I have felt that I ought not longer to retain my commission in the Army.   I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance.

It would have been presented at once, but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life & all the ability I possessed.

During the whole of that time, more than 30 years, I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors, & the most cordial friendship from my companions.   To no one Genl have I been as much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness & consideration, & it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation.

I shall carry with me to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, & your name & fame will always be dear to me.   Save in the defence of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.

Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness & prosperity & believe me most truly yours

R. E. Lee

-Courtesy of Civil War Trust

I read in this letter a man conflicted by his competing devotions to his duty as an American soldier and his loyalty to his home state. Keep in mind that many Americans’ identities, both north and south, related to their home state first and the nation second. While the states’ rights movement has clouded some of this in our post-Civil War history, the oath of enlistment for the United States Army is important to consider at that time, where the United States was referred to in the plural. As noted on the Army’s Center of Military History website, the oath used at the beginning of the Civil War read as follows:

I, A.B., do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) to bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully, against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and to observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States of America, and the orders of the officers appointed over me.

Yes, Lee served a cause that was committed to the maintenance of chattel slavery as part of its existence as a nation, but he conducted such service with honor. Consider his actions at Appomattox Courthouse, where he agreed to surrender to Grant, under quite generous terms. He very easily could have disbanded the Army of Northern Virginia into the hills and led a protracted guerilla war, which Davis seemed to desire. He chose not to do this and acquiesced to Grant’s generous terms. In fact, the respect and honor that Grant and other Union commanders seemed to hold for Lee is evidenced by Grant reminiscing on their pre-war army days.

Yes, Lee took up arms against the United States, which is treasonous, but I must argue that he retained much of his honor as a man, considering how he could have conducted himself and the war. Lee was an old soldier, who was suited to aid in the reconciliation of the nation.

Love him or loathe him, Robert E. Lee remains an important figure in our history and, with that, I will ask you to consider the following question and share your thoughts in the comment section.

Fort Sumter fired upon 155 years ago

Today marks the 155th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter that inaugurated the Civil War. It is interesting to note that I received the April issue of The Journal of Military History yesterday, which features a wonderful essay on the recent historiography on the war and the direction of the field in light of the recent conclusion of the sesquicentennial.

I also must note the irony of the action at Fort Sumter, as P. G. T. Beauregard, Confederate commander, fired upon his former artillery instructor from West Point, Major Robert Anderson, which is referenced in Ken Burns’ The Civil War. With that, I will leave you with the clip from that landmark documentary that details the firing upon the fort.

Skype-ing the Civil War with students

I had an awesome time this afternoon getting to talk the Civil War with a group of middle school students in California. I reached out to Gary Kaplan, who has provided several insightful comments to this blog in the past, and offered to give a talk to his students via Skype. We arranged for me to present to the History Club at Nueva School in Hillsborough, California on the topic of camps of instruction in the Civil War. Having used Skype for other business and a couple job interviews in the past, I was very interested in branching out to use the technology to give talks to folks that are geographically removed from where I am in North Dakota. I would call this first foray into that a rousing success.

The students were very attentive and asked some great questions related to the topic and on the war in general. I gave a truncated version of the normal talk I give on this topic, as I was limited on time and did not have the ability to provide a demonstration of drill and the manual of arms (University campuses tend to frown on sharp, pointy objects, and things that go boom when triggers are pulled). The kids learned about joining the army, including the rudimentary physical examination, the uniforms, as well as life in camp. I also touched briefly on women in the war and how some impersonated men to join up.

The question and answer time was quite fun, as they asked a wide variety of questions, including economics and what motivated the men to join up. I was able to share with them an excerpt from Leander Stillwell’s memoir The Story of a Common Soldier of Army Life in the Civil War 1861-1865 (1920), as well as tell them of some good books on the war.

Overall, the experience was well worth it and I hope it’s the start of more such opportunities to use Skype to talk to folks about the war. It was fun to interact with an excited group of youngsters two time zones and almost two thousand miles from me. I would like to thank Gary for allowing this presentation to occur and to the kids in the History Club for being an attentive and fun audience.

If you are interested in taking advantage of this and having me talk to your group via Skype, please use the Contact CWH page to get in touch with me and I’ll see if I can arrange to Skype on a topic related to the Civil War.

Some thoughts on Mercy Street

First, I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season and are entering 2016 with optimism and happiness.

The last two Sundays have witnessed a new Civil War drama premiering on PBS dealing with an often overlooked part of the war. Mercy Street deals with the happenings in the Mansion House Hospital, a Union hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. It offers a lot for those interested in the war and its effects on civilians and medicine, especially in a community along the border.

Having watched the first two episodes, I can say that it is definitely a departure from what I’m used to in terms of Civil War television programming. That said, I am drawn to this show, as it offers a compelling story line, a great cast of characters, and a portrayal of Civil War medicine that will illustrate the horrors of the conflict, from grizzly wounds to PTSD. Three of the main characters are based upon historical figures, while legendary nurse Dorothea Dix was also portrayed in the series’ first episode.

Going forward, the series intends to provide a lot of great drama and intrigue. Some observations I have seen thus far include the conflict over slavery and racial attitudes, as Mary Phinney von Olnhausen, the show’s main character, is a strong-willed woman, with a commitment to the abolitionist cause. This is in contrast to other characters who treat African Americans with little regard, or open hostility. In addition, slave catchers have already attempted to apprehend a suspected runaway. African American characters usually appear behind the scenes, but they are portrayed quite well and provide their own dynamic to the story, as they seek to make sense of the events around them, while seeking their freedom, if enslaved, or striving to survive and maybe achieve a better station in life under Union occupation.

The Green family, whose hotel was confiscated and turned into the hospital are indicative of the conflict in Confederate society, as while the patriarch seeks to make the best of the situation of Union occupation, and seems ambiguous to slavery, his daughter appears to have much stronger leanings for the southern cause. While the Greens deal with their situation, there is conflict in the hospital between the physicians over methodology, as well as the nurses, who bristle and Mary’s appointment by Dix as the head nurse in the hospital, despite other nurses in the facility having more experience. Her abolitionism and previous marriage, which ended in her husband’s death, are sources of criticism from both groups.

With an interesting story, grizzly scenes depicting the horrors of America’s bloodiest conflict, and a great cast of characters, set against the backdrop of Alexandria, Virginia, Mercy Street is a show worth watching by anyone interested in the war and the medical side of the conflict. Be sure to either watch it on your local PBS station on Sunday evenings at 9PM Central, or record it for later.

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.

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.