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.

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.

New blog on a new book

Thanks to fellow blogger Kevin Levin for noting this new blog by Dr. Tom Clemens, called The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, which focuses on the book of the same name written by Ezra Carman, a veteran of the Civil War, and edited by Dr. Clemens. I am going to look into getting a review copy of it, as it looks interesting, but wanted to make you aware of this recent blogging development.

The joys of visiting battlefields

A recent episode of TLC’s Little People, Big World inspired this post. The episode noted how Matt Roloff, the dad, brought two of his children to Paducah, Kentucky with him, as he was there for a speaking engagement. The kids visited Civil War related sites and met reenactors, who allowed them to handle their equipment. The episode mentioned the kids’ interest in the Civil War and history and it got me thinking about the many wonderful memories I have visiting battlefields and other Civil War sites both with my parents and while in college.

Over the years, I have visited the following battlefields (some more than once): Parker’s Crossroads, Shiloh, Corinth, Vicksburg, Stone’s River, Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Appomattox Courthouse. I visited the sites in the Western Theater on two occasions. The first time was about ten years ago, when my parents and I took a trip down south from Illinois to Nashville. While on the way to Nashville, we stopped at (actually, we stumbled across it) Parker’s Crossroads, which has a personal connection, as one of my ancestors (my relation to him is uncertain) died as a result of wounds suffered in the battle. We then went to Nashville and visited Opryland USA and the massive Opryland Hotel (Nashville is a great city by the way). We then headed towards Vicksburg, but stopped at Shiloh along the way.

While at Shiloh, my dad and I enjoyed ourselves, as this battle is one of our favorites because it cemented the career of that great, formerly drunken, general who took the fight to the South, as opposed to some of his Eastern counterparts, Ulysses S. Grant. My mom merely tolerates my dad and I’s fascination with history, but even my dad did something on this trip that surprised me. We stopped by the Sunken Road and my dad decided to walk down it, while mom and I ate (nowadays, I would probably join him on the walk, but I was much younger at the time). We ended up waiting around, wondering where he was only to find out that he walked to the Hornets’ Nest to “commune with the ghosts of the past”, as he put it.

After Shiloh, we spent a couple of days touring beautiful Vicksburg, Mississippi (if you ever have the chance, please visit this city, as it is quite beautiful in the spring and summer). Mom spent time either in the hotel or shopping, while dad and I visited the battlefield and the museum to the USS Cairo (pronounced kay-ro), a Union gunboat sunk by a Confederate mine (they used the term torpedo then), which was salvaged and now serves as a floating museum.

USS Cairo
This is the USS Cairo, which I photographed during my second visit to Vicksburg in 2004.

My second battlefield trip was during Spring Break 2004. While most college students go to the beach and party hard, several fellow history enthusiasts, Dr. Jim Davis (I will get you to write for this site sir), and I toured the South, visiting Vicksburg, Corinth, and Shiloh (we attempted to convince Dr. Davis to visit the Jack Daniel’s distillery, but that was not to be). We had a blast, as we enjoyed good conversations with Dr. Davis as well as interesting sites, including the gentleman in northern Mississippi who filled his gas tank next to our van with a lit cigarette in his mouth. A couple of the sites we visited were the courthouse in Vicksburg, as well as the monument to Illinois soldiers.

The courthouse at Vicksburg, with some of my friends sitting on the steps.

Illinois monument
The monument to the Illinois soldiers that served at Vicksburg.

What next General? Discussing the artillery piece with Dr. Davis.

After visiting Vicksburg, we headed northeast towards Corinth. Along the way, we stopped in beautiful Oxford, MS, home of Ole Miss. Oxford had a really cool square and was geared towards the university. We enjoyed visiting a local bookshop and dinner at one of the local restaurants. The next morning, we toured Corinth and visited the national cemetery located there and saw the construction of an interpretive center for the battle. We then headed to Shiloh and had a wonderful time visiting the site. Here are a couple of pictures of from Shiloh.

Overlooking Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River at Shiloh.

Bloody pond
We are posing in front of “Bloody Pond”, where wounded soldiers drank and bathed their wounds after the first day of battle.

My last battlefield trip was while I was on a 15-day research trip to Washington, DC with Dr. Davis and several other history students in summer of 2004. We visited Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, The Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Appomattox Courthouse both on the way to and returning from DC. Time and weather limited our visits to The Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Appomattox Courthouse, but we made the best of it.

We spent more time at Antietam and Gettysburg, which was great. I could have spent days in Gettysburg, as there are all sorts of unique stores, including reenacting stores. We toured the battlefields extensively. At Gettysburg, we visited the town as well, taking in the shopping and other sites. Of course, what trip to Gettysburg would be complete without walking Pickett’s Charge. Though it was a hot day, I had a great time at Gettysburg and hope to go back someday. Here are a couple of pictures, one from Antietam and the other at Gettysburg.

Stone Bridge
The stone bridge across Antietam Creek.

group at Gettysburg
Our group at the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy” where rebel forces briefly broke through the Union line during Pickett’s Charge.

Overall, I have wonderful memories of visiting all these sites with friends and family and it is something I hope to pass on to my children someday. I encourage everyone to take a lesson from the Roloffs and I and take your kids on trips to historical places, as they are wonderful opportunities to bond and teach your kids about where we come from. I would also encourage families to check out or buy books on the subjects and places of family trips. For serious history buffs and scholars, I encourage you to purchase Staff Ride guides or battlefield guides published by historians, as they provide a more in-depth look at the sites. So get out there and travel, and most importantly, have fun.