A milestone and new scholarship on the war

I thought I would take the opportunity of the blog’s 300th post to share with you the interesting contents in the latest issue of the journal Civil War History (not related to this site). The field of environmental history has been an emerging one over the forty years and the Civil War is not outside this field. The fine staff at the journal have put together a review essay and two articles dealing with environmental history of the war, specifically considering an overview of the literature on the field and the war, the nature of the war in the Trans-Mississippi, and preservation at Gettysburg.

I received the issue of the journal in the mail today and I look forward to reading it in detail in the coming weeks, but my brief examination of the article “The Nature of Preservation: The Rise of Authenticity at Gettysburg” by Brian Black shows it to be good both from an environmental history perspective, but also public history, as it touches on the changing landscape of the battlefield in the years after the battle, including the controversy over the battlefield tower that was demolished several years ago. Now with the new interpretive center and further reconstruction of the natural landscape in recent years, this article is quite timely.

I encourage interested readers to consider subscribing to this journal as well as the Journal of the Civil War Era. Civil War History has a long history and track record, being in its fifty-eighth volume, while The Journal of the Civil War Era is the new flagship publication of the Society of Civil War Historians, and has proven to be good in its first few years. Journals are worthwhile, as they contain articles on a variety of topics, which can be more accessible to some than large monographs. Plus, they are great resources for learning about new books in the field through their book reviews.

This Week in the Civil War: Sep 24-30, 1862

Wednesday, September 24.  President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus and provided for the military trial of “all Rebels and Insurgents, their siders and abettors within the United States, and all persons discouraging volunteer enlistments, resisting militia drafts, or guilty of any disloyal practice, affording comfort to Rebels against the authority of the United States.” The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was released to the public through various newspapers. In Pennsylvania, 14 northern governors met at Altoona and approved emancipation, even though the conference had originally been called to criticize the Lincoln administration’s policies on slavery and the war. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard replaced General John C. Pemberton as commander of the Department of South Carolina and Georgia. Federal General Samuel R. Curtis assumed command of the Department of the Missouri. The Confederate Senate approved a seal for the Confederacy.

Thursday, September 25.  In Kentucky, Federals under General Don Carlos Buell reached the vital city of Louisville ahead of the Confederate advance. Various skirmishes occurred in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Friday, September 26.  Federals conducted an expedition from Helena, Arkansas to Marianna, Tennessee. In the Dakota Territory, skirmishing continued between Federals and Sioux Indians. In Washington, President Lincoln discussed black colonization with his cabinet.

Saturday, September 27.  The Confederate Congress passed the Second Conscription Act, which authorized President Jefferson Davis to draft men between 35 and 45 years old for military service. President Lincoln interrogated Major John J. Key and dismissed him from military service for allegedly saying that the object of the Battle of Antietam was “that neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery.” This reflected the view of many Federal troops, and it highlighted Lincoln’s irritation with Federal General George McClellan’s lack of activity since the battle.

Sunday, September 28.  Skirmishing occurred in Kentucky, Missouri, and western Virginia. President Davis wrote to Confederate General Robert E. Lee of his concern over enrolling conscripts “to fill up the thinned ranks of your regiments.”

Monday, September 29.  Federal General Jefferson C. Davis shot and mortally wounded Federal General William “Bull” Nelson during an argument at a hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. Skirmishing occurred in Kentucky and Virginia. In Mississippi, General Earl Van Dorn’s 22,000-man Confederate Army of West Tennessee began advancing on Corinth.

Tuesday, September 30.  Skirmishes occurred in Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and western Virginia. Federal expeditions began from the Savannah River in Georgia and from Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Source: The Civil War Day-by-Day by E.B. Long and Barbara Long (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1971)

Welcome to our newest writer

It is my pleasure to welcome Zack Biro, a Masters student at Lehigh University, as a writer for this blog. As we close in on our 300th post, it will be interesting to see who will write it, but I look forward to Zack’s postings and hope you will welcome his contributions as well.

This Week in the Civil War: Sep 17-23, 1862

Wednesday, September 17.  The bloodiest single day of the war occurred at the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland. General Robert E. Lee’s outnumbered Confederate Army of Northern Virginia assembled along Antietam Creek to meet the attack by General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac. The first wave of assaults took place on the Confederate left against General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps in the woods, the cornfield, the Bloody Lane, and the Dunkard Church. Federal gains were small and costly. The battle then shifted to the center of the Confederate line, with uncoordinated Federal attacks again achieving little. Finally, the battle moved to the Confederate right, where Federals crossing a bridge finally broke through and headed for Sharpsburg. However, they were halted by General A.P. Hill’s “Light Division” arriving from Harpers Ferry to save Lee’s army. McClellan’s piecemeal attacks and failure to use all his reserves also helped save the Confederate army from destruction. The battle ended when McClellan disengaged, making it a draw. Total casualties for this single day were estimated at over 26,000 killed, wounded, or missing. In Kentucky, a Federal garrison of over 4,000 men surrendered to General Braxton Bragg’s Confederates. Federal General Ormsby M. Mitchel assumed command of the Department of the South, stationed along the southeastern coast.

Thursday, September 18.  In the evening, Robert E. Lee began withdrawing the remnants of his army from Maryland. George McClellan did not attack, despite having up to 24,000 fresh reserves. Lee’s withdrawal made the Battle of Antietam a tactical Federal victory, even though McClellan ignored pleas from President Abraham Lincoln to pursue and destroy Lee’s army. On the Atlantic Ocean, the Confederate commerce raider C.S.S. Alabama destroyed the whaler Elisha Dunbar off New Bedford, Massachusetts. Braxton Bragg announced that his Confederate troops had come to Kentucky to free the people from tyranny, not as conquerors or despoilers. Federal General James H. Carleton replaced General E.R.S. Canby as commander of the Department of New Mexico.

Friday, September 19.  In Mississippi, Federals under General William Rosecrans defeated General Sterling Price’s Confederates at the Battle of Iuka. Rosecrans had arrived at Iuka as part of General Ulysses S. Grant’s advance guard, and the Confederates sought to prevent Grant from reinforcing General Don Carlos Buell in Kentucky. Price was awaiting the arrival of General Earl Van Dorn’s Confederates when the battle occurred. Rosecrans, knowing that Federal reinforcements were forthcoming, withdrew southward during the night. The Federal Department of the Missouri was reestablished, and the Department of Kansas was discontinued. In Maryland, George McClellan’s halfhearted pursuit of Robert E. Lee was halted by Confederate artillery.

Saturday, September 20.  In Maryland, George McClellan’s Federals made one last effort at catching Robert E. Lee’s Confederates, but the Federals were repulsed at various points. In Washington, President Lincoln prepared the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which he had first introduced to his cabinet in July.

Sunday, September 21.  In Kentucky, Braxton Bragg’s Confederates advanced to Bardstown in preparation for linking with General Edmund Kirby Smith’s forces. However, this enabled Don Carlos Buell’s Federals to reach Louisville. In California, San Francisco residents raised $100,000 for aid to wounded and sick Federal troops.

Monday, September 22.  In Washington, President Lincoln presented the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. Lincoln had been waiting for a military victory to issue the order, and Antietam provided the opportunity. The proclamation technically freed no one since it only applied to slaves in states that rebelled against the U.S.; it exempted rebellious states from freeing their slaves if those states rejoined the U.S. before January 1, and it exempted regions under Federal military occupation. Lincoln also called for congressional approval of compensated emancipation. Thus, the path was partially opened toward a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery.

Tuesday, September 23.  In the Dakota Territory, Federals clashed with Indians at Fort Abercrombie. In Minnesota, Federals under H.H. Sibley defeated the Sioux Indians at the Battle of Wood Lake as part of the Dakota War. On the Ohio River, Confederate guerrillas plundered the steamer Emma at Foster’s Landing. In Tennessee, Federals retaliated against an attack on a ship by burning the town of Randolph. Word of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was beginning to spread throughout the North.

Source:  The Civil War Day-by-Day by E.B. Long and Barbara Long (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1971)

A Soldier’s Letter: Frederick Pettit

Letter from Corporal Pettit (Company C, 100th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry) to his family after his involvement in the Battle of South Mountain on September 20, 1862

Dear Parents, Brothers and Sisters:

Having a little spare time this morning, I will commence to give you a short account of what our regiment has done since I came to it.

I overtook it about twenty miles from Washington at Brookeville, Md. It was dark when I found them. They had been resting a day to get provisions. The next morning, we started out a little before dark. Our rations are crackers, coffee, sugar, and beef when the cooks have time to boil it.

The next day, we started on our march again and passed through New Market, where the rebel pickets had been the night before. This town is eight miles from Frederick. After passing about two miles from the town, we halted and the cavalry and artillery were sent forward to reconnoiter. After waiting about four hours, we again moved forward. About three miles from Frederick, we again halted.

The front skirmishers loaded their guns and advanced cautiously. The artillerymen ran two guns to the top of a hill on the right. But the rebels had gone. A shot or two at their rear sent them flying. We marched about a mile further and encamped two miles from the city. The next day we could plainly see the cannonading. We could not see any effects of it except a dead horse or two and houses turned into hospitals. After going some distance further, we encamped and lay down and slept during the remainder of the night.

The next morning we started early toward Middletown. It was not long before we heard cannonading in front. About a mile from Middletown, we found a large barn and bridge burned. But the stream was shallow, and we had no difficulty in crossing. After going a short distance further, we could see the batteries at work and hear the whizzing of the shells. The rebels occupied a wooded pass in the mountains. The turnpike runs through the middle of the pass. On the right of it, the rebels had a battery in a ploughed field and others on the left in the woods.

When we came in sight of the enemy, our division halted and our regiment was sent forward as skirmishers. We advanced along the turnpike in plain view of their batteries on the right until we came within a half mile of it. We halted and protected ourselves as well as we could under the bank at the side of the road. The enemy sent their shell amongst us thick and fast. They exploded above and all around us. Shortly an orderly came and told us to fall back. When we commenced to move, the shot and shell flew faster than ever. Our loss this time was only one man wounded, but if we had stayed fifteen minutes longer we would have been cut to pieces…

We advanced up the hill steadily under a shower of shot until we came near the top of the hill, where the road ran between two high banks. Just had we halted when a number of cavalrymen and artilleries came rushing down upon us crying, “Clear the road for the cannon, we are beaten.” Then the artillery came galloping down with the guns and caissons. And to make things worse, the rebels were sending grape shot and shell amongst us in a perfect shower.

We clambered out of the road as fast as we could, and our officers soon formed us in line of battle on the right of the road. We were ordered to fix bayonets and expected to make a charge, but after we started down the hill again and marched on up the valley about a mile, we halted, about faced, and started back across the hill. While coming up the valley, a number of men gave out; amongst them Lieutenant Morton. We saw him no more that day. We soon met General Wilcox and, as we were almost exhausted, he ordered us to lie down and rest.

After resting about three hours, we formed in line of battle. The rebels had advanced upon our cannon and we must drive them back. The 45th Reg. Pa. and 17th Michigan went in before us and drove them behind a stone wall. We then advanced to the top of the hill through a shower of musket balls. When we came to the edge of the woods, we halted and commenced firing. We were about as far from them as from our corn crib to the barn. They were in a lane behind a stone fence and we were in the edge of a woods with a clear lot between us. I fired eleven shots. Most of the boys fired fifteen before the rebels ran. The lane was piled full of killed and wounded rebels…

I have a chance to send this now. We are all well and near the Potomac River. We move soon. I send you a rebel envelope I picked up on the battlefield.

F. Pettit

Source: The Brothers’ War by Annette Tapert (Vintage Books: New York, NY, 1988)

Antietam: 150 years ago today

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg, if you prefer) in 1862. It represents the bloodiest one-day battle in American history with over 23,000 casualties on both sides. Ethan Rafuse provides a wonderful post on this subject, complete with the opening to the film Glory (1989), which began with this battle.

He also noted the letter from Lt Col. Wilder Dwight, who died from wounds at the battle and the letter he wrote was featured in the documentary Death and the Civil War, which I reviewed earlier.

This battle was significant for several reasons. One was that it allowed Lincoln to justify the Emancipation Proclamation, as the tactical draw served as a psychological and strategic victory for the Union, aiding in a small way in keeping the European powers out of the conflict, though this was largely accomplished by this point in 1862.

Also, it was a major setback for Robert E. Lee, as his invasion of the North failed. It represented a series of missed opportunities and blunders that could have ended the war sooner, had McClellan acted more decisively upon finding Lee’s Special Order 191, which was his battle plan, or had McClellan pursued and destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia after the battle.

Though, 150 years old, this battle is still an important event in our history, worthy of continuing staff rides by military educational programs around the country. One of the better books on the battle that is both scholarly and great for a general audience is James McPherson’s Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War (2002), as it discusses the larger significance of the battle as well as how it relates to the concept of freedom at the time. As we approach the anniversaries of some of the most important battles of the war, it will be notable to see how we reflect and what historians write and do to understand the importance of these events against our modern society.

This Week in the Civil War: Sep 10-16, 1862

Wednesday, September 10:  In Maryland, Federal cavalry informed General George McClellan that General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was falling back toward the Monocacy River, away from Frederick. McClellan responded by accelerating his previously sluggish pursuit. As Confederates advanced north in Kentucky, 1,000 “squirrel hunters” volunteered in Cincinnati to defend against a possible Confederate invasion.

Thursday, September 11:  In Maryland, Lee’s Confederates entered Hagerstown, and skirmishing with Federal forces increased. Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin called for 50,000 volunteers to defend the state. In Kentucky, Confederates under General Edmund Kirby Smith occupied Maysville. Skirmishing intensified as the Confederates came within seven miles of Cincinnati.

Friday, September 12:  In Maryland, McClellan’s Federals reached Frederick as Lee’s Confederates began dispersing in accordance with Special Orders No. 191. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederate corps approached Harpers Ferry, and skirmishing took place over the next five days. In Kentucky, Confederates occupied Glasgow as skirmishing continued. The Federal Army of Virginia was officially absorbed into McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. In Pennsylvania, assets and archives were transfered from Harrisburg and Philadelphia to New York. The Confederate Congress debated the wisdom of the northern invasion. President Jefferson Davis wrote to the governors of Texas, Missouri, Louisiana, and Arkansas attempting to assure them that the Trans-Mississippi theater of war was not being ignored.

Saturday, September 13:  In Maryland, two Federal soldiers found a copy of Robert E. Lee’s Special Orders No. 191. They were forwarded to George McClellan, who now knew that Lee’s forces were divided. McClellan pushed his Federals west, while Lee learned that McClellan had found his order. Skirmishing intensified. In western Virginia, Federals evacuated Charleston as Confederates under General W.W. Loring advanced from the Kanawha Valley. In New Orleans, General Benjamin Butler, commander of Federal occupation forces, ordered all foreigners to register with Federal authorities.

Sunday, September 14:  In Maryland, the left wing of George McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac advanced toward Crampton’s Gap to cut off the Confederates at Harpers Ferry and divide Lee’s army. Meanwhile, another Federal force attacked Confederates at South Mountain. After hard fighting, the Confederates withdrew; Federal General Jesse Reno was killed. This became known as the Battle of South Mountain. Meanwhile, “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates lay siege to the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry. In Kentucky, General Braxton Bragg’s Confederates reached Munfordville. Federals under General Don Carlos Buell hurried ahead of Bragg and reached Bowling Green. In Mississippi, a third phase of the overall Confederate offensive began taking shape when Confederates under General Sterling Price occupied Iuka near Corinth.

Monday, September 15:  In Virginia (now West Virginia), “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates captured Harpers Ferry, taking about 12,000 prisoners. In Maryland, Robert E. Lee’s Confederates at South Mountain fell back to Sharpsburg. Lee was hurriedly concentrating his scattered forces before George McClellan’s Federals could launch a full-scale attack. Lee originally planned to withdraw, but when he learned that Jackson had captured Harpers Ferry, he began forming a line along Antietam Creek. In Kentucky, Edmund Kirby Smith’s Confederates reached Covington across the Ohio River from Cincinnati but quickly withdrew. Braxton Bragg’s Confederates lay siege to Munfordville. 

Tuesday, September 16:  In Maryland, Robert E. Lee gathered his Army of Northern Virginia and established battle lines along Antietam Creek. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates arrived on the scene after a hard march from Harpers Ferry, while one of Jackson’s divisions under General A.P. Hill remained behind to accept the garrison’s surrender. George McClellan faced criticism for not attacking today. In Kentucky, Bragg continued his siege of 4,000 Federals at Munfordville. Smith’s Confederates withdrew from the Ohio River toward Lexington. President Abraham Lincoln, unable to contact McClellan, wired Governor Curtin of Pennsylvania: “What do you hear from Gen. McClellan’s army?”