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.

Grant earns his third star

Today marks the 151st anniversary of Abraham Lincoln nominating Ulysses S. Grant for promotion to lieutenant general, which he would earn on March 3, 1864, and appointing him to command of all Union armies, replacing Henry Halleck, who caused Grant problems earlier in the war, while his (Grant’s) commander in the West.

This promotion was significant in two key ways. First, Grant’s promotion made him the first person to be commissioned lieutenant general in the Army since George Washington, though Winfield Scott held the rank under a brevet commission. Up to this point, no one had equaled Washington in seniority in the Army in terms of rank.

Second, this represented the pinnacle for Grant’s military career. While he later went on to earn a fourth star, serving as General of the Army under Andrew Johnson from 1866-68, Grant, at the end of the war, commanded an army of around 600,000 soldiers, equivalent to Napoleon’s Grande Armee. The army he led was arguably the best equipped and trained fighting force in the world at that point. The meteoric rise of Grant’s career from colonel of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry to General-in-Chief is a testament to his perseverance, having been regarded by superiors and critics early in the war as a drunk (Grant had a drinking problem due to loneliness in the pre-war frontier army and had resigned in 1854) and later war critics as an uncaring butcher.

Though his presidency is not regarded too highly, Grant remains one of our nation’s greatest generals. While Washington is first in my heart among our nation’s military leaders as the first commanding general of the U.S. Army, Grant is one of my favorites because of his tenacity and his connections to Illinois. Lincoln trusted Grant and that trust was earned through several key victories, while other generals of Union armies were losing. Grant understood the harsh realities of the war and prosecuted it to the best of his abilities and to a successful conclusion for the Union.

All in all, well done, General Grant, well done.

Brady portrait of Grant at Cold Harbor.

Brady portrait of Grant at Cold Harbor.

150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

Given it’s still July 1 here in the Central Time Zone, today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The battle has been the subject of much discussion and several movies, including my favorite Gettysburg (1993). It remains one of the largest battles in North America, with over 50,000 casualties. With this anniversary and the benefit of new technology the folks at ESRI produced an amazing interactive map of the battle, including three-dimensional animation related to the troop positions. I encourage you all to check it out at

I have been following some of the internet coverage of the 150th anniversary reenactment held this past weekend and it looks like, for the most part, the event went well, though some unfortunate reenactors suffered heat injuries. My good friend Stuart Lawrence is returning home from taking part in the event and hopefully will share an after action report and pictures. Now, I am going to take a bit of time to watch the portions of Gettysburg related to the first day. More to come in the next two days on this momentous anniversary.

Material culture and Civil War soldiers

In light of Den Bolda’s great inaugural post on Union uniform coats, I thought I would share a paper I wrote for a class I took on material culture a couple years ago that dealt with Civil War soldiers. Being involved in reenacting since then, I have a greater appreciation for the objects and materials that constituted a soldier’s life and person during the war. On Friday, I head to Fort Sisseton for their history festival, so I will be absent from the blog for the weekend, but will post soon after I return on the fun of the weekend.

Yankee Uniforms


Civil War soldiers are commonly thought to wear blue or gray, for North and South; however that was not always the case, especially in the beginning of the war.  Although many Northern militia units wore gray uniforms early in the war, a variety of uniforms were issued by federal and state governments.  Generally, the federal government issued three standard types of uniform jackets.  Those would be the frock coat, shell jacket, and the sack coat.  There are too many exceptions to include in this brief introduction, so please know that the information provided here is very basic.  This thread will cover a fraction of the uniforms worn by Union soldiers.

The federal frock coat was primarily issued to soldiers in the infantry and heavy artillery.  The frock coat has nine buttons down the front, two on the back and two on each sleeve. They had piping on the collar and cuffs which identified the soldier’s job.  Red piping meant that the soldier was in the artillery, while light blue piping (shown below)  meant that the soldier was in the infantry.  The frock coat was the fanciest coat that a Union soldier might be issued.  It was considered to be a dress or parade jacket.  The frock coat was quilted on the front inside lining.  The quilting added weight and bulk to add to the soldier’s prestige.  Unfortunately, it also added heat on hot Southern days.  It had one inside pocket and two pockets in the tail.


The shell jacket was usually issued to mounted troops, or troops who rode horses.  This meant that cavalry and artillery soldiers wore this.  Just like the frock coat, it had nine buttons and had trim that identified the soldier’s occupation.  The soldier was an artilleryman if the shell jacket had red piping, but the trim would be yellow if he was a cavalry trooper .  These jackets were shorter than the frock coat because they were more comfortable to wear when riding a horse.  The jacket was quilted on the inside front lining.  Also, the shell jacket had two small “pillows” on the back which are very useful for keeping the army service belt in place!  It had one inside pocket.


The final jacket mentioned above is the sack coat.  This jacket was made to be a fatigue blouse, or a work jacket.  It was not glamorous in any way.  It was shapeless and made of thin material.  Although almost all Union jackets were made of heavy wool, the sack coat was made of much lighter wool.  This jacket was supposed to be used by the troops when they were on fatigue duty.  By the end of the war the sack coat was used by Union infantry, cavalry, and artillery on all occasions.  It became the standard Union army coat.  The sack coat did not have any kind of color trim and only used four buttons.  It was usually lined with wool flannel or cotton.  It had one inside pocket.


One addition that I would like to mention is the state jacket.  Many Northern states produced uniforms at their own expense.  The state jackets varied in design from state to state but they were all very similar.  Many people identify the state jacket with New York, but Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and other states also distributed these jackets.  Although they were very common earlier in the war, photographic evidence has shown several examples in service later on.  State jackets did not have piping but were usually of high quality.  They were made short like a shell jacket, so that they could be issued to mounted and foot soldiers indiscriminately.  They were almost always quilted and lined with one inside pocket.  State jackets sometimes had shoulder straps.  Image

Shiloh 150 years later

Yesterday, April 6, and today mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh in southwestern Tennessee. This battle is significant in several ways, some which are explored in a New York Times article published yesterday. One of my buddies and fellow reenactor attended one of the 150th events last weekend and there is a buzz about them on one of the major reenacting forums. However, this battle is still one that is popular for people to read about and study, though not to the level of Gettysburg, but one of the most studied in the Western Theater.

The battle that began near Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River, near a small church called Shiloh, which meant place of peace, came to symbolize the carnage that characterized the Civil War. The Union forces were pushing down the Tennessee River towards the rail junction of Corinth, Mississippi. Having achieved two important victories in February against Forts Henry and Donelson, the Union was beginning to take the war to the South, under the leadership of Ulysses S. Grant. It was part of the larger strategy to gain control of the major inland waterways to cut the Confederacy in two. Confederate forces were hopeful of thwarting the Union strategy by delivering a major blow in the West, which reflected the state of the war in the East that was going in the South’s favor.

On April 6, General Ulysses S. Grant had established his camp on the bank of the Tennessee River, at Pittsburg Landing, the night before and was not prepared for General Albert Sydney Johnston’s Confederate army, which was encamped nearby. The Confederates launched a surprise attack on the Union camp that morning, which sought to drive the Union away and back up the river. Though initially caught off guard, Union troops rallied and fought a bitter fight against the Confederates along a line extending from the river for over a mile to Owl Creek. Part of the Union line engaged in heavy fighting, which became known as the Hornet’s Nest, where Union forces held firm. Fighting raged all along the line, with hundreds falling, including General Johnston, who was wounded in the back of the knee and bled to death. Johnston was the highest ranking officer killed on either side during the war.

After the first hard day of battle, a storm raged, with lightning flashing, showing hogs among the dead. Wounded soldiers came to a small pond to drink and bathe their wounds, dying the water pink, earning the small body the name “Bloody Pond”. William Tecumseh Sherman approached Grant under a tree, sheltering during the storm after the first day, and said, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant replied, “Yes, lick ’em tomorrow, though.”

The second day, April 7 brought bad luck for the Confederates. The Union army was reinforced by General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, which arrived the previous night. Further, the Confederates were disorganized by the loss of Johnston, which placed P.G.T. Beauregard in command, who did not realize he was outnumbered. In addition, Confederate command was rife with problems revolving around personality conflicts and subordinates not following Beauregard well. Facing a Union counterattack, Confederates were forced back from their gains the previous day and withdrew from the field, eventually back to Corinth.

The battle was the bloodiest in American history up to that time, and some claimed more casualties were suffered than all American wars combined to that time. Union casualties were 13,047 (1,754 killed, 8,408 wounded, and 2,885 missing), while Confederate losses were 10,699 (1,728 killed, 8,012 wounded, and 959 missing or captured). In addition to Johnston, Union general W.H.L. Wallace was also killed. Though initially vilified for his handling of the battle and the cost, Grant’s career was cemented by this victory. Though rumors circulated that he was drunk and calls for his job were made, Lincoln retained him, saying “I can’t spare this man; he fights.” Sherman also emerged a hero, and was a trusted subordinate and friend of Grant. This battle is quite important for the course of the war in the West and there are several great books on it, including:

Grimsley, Mark, and Steven E. Woodworth. Shiloh: A Battlefield Guide. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Sword, Wiley. Shiloh: Bloody April. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.

Woodworth, Steven E., Ed. The Shiloh Campaign. Carbondale, IL:  Southern Illinois University Press, 2009.

Up Wilson’s Creek without a paddle: the good, bad, and ugly of the 150th annivesary event

Well, I am back from my trip to Missouri (Mizz-ur-ah, or Misery, if you prefer) to participate in the 150th anniversary battle reenactment, which was my first ever national event (check out Stuart Lawrence’s take on Bull Run/Manassas for another national event) and wanted to share my thoughts.

First, let me say that there is some buzz going around in one reenacting forum regarding the event with opinions coming down both ways on the weekend, with most being negative. Second, I am only in my second season of reenacting and will admit to not being as partial to primitive camping and using portable toilets as others, but am learning to like the camping. Third, this will be the first in a possible series of postings regarding the event from others in the unit I fell in with, as well as others interested, so you will get several different impressions of the same event. Finally, constructive comments on these postings are welcome and appreciated, as we could get a good discussion on this topic going, but please remember to be civil.

The trip began with Stuart Lawrence and I leaving Grand Forks Wednesday morning to drive as far as we could and stop for the night. With continued high water on the Missouri River, parts of I-29 have been closed for weeks and remain closed, which warranted a detour, but we arrived late that night in St. Joseph, Missouri, staying in a Motel 6, which was nice. We awoke the next morning, had a good breakfast and headed on, arriving in the Springfield area around 1:00 PM and set up our tent and gear. We introduced ourselves to Christian Shuster, who invited our unit to fall in with his 3rd Missouri for the weekend and waited for others to arrive. Once the rest of the unit arrived and our camp was erected, we prepared ourselves for the coming days of battle. That evening we were treated to the first of several fine meals prepared by our camp cooks (hats off to you ladies for your hard work).

Friday morning came early (before 6:00 AM), as we enjoyed breakfast and prepared for battalion drill at 7:30. We formed up for the morning battle around 10:00AM and had the first fight, which was a good one, as we charged the Federals and drove them back across a wooden bridge crossing Wilson’s Creek. The crowd enjoyed it, but it was a smaller gathering (most people being at work on a Friday). We went about our day, anticipating the afternoon battle and looking forward to an exciting national event. Boy, were we surprised.

Let me preface this by saying that I have only a slightly negative view of the event, mainly from a logistical point of view and issues with some of our higher level command that I believe contributed to a more negative atmosphere among some of the participants and the feedback on the forum (more on this later).

Friday afternoon’s battle found us on the hill in the trees waiting for the Union to move into position and give us battle. Well, we wound up shooting into the trees, which made us a bit upset. Saturday and Sunday’s battles went much better, as we expended more powder and put on a good show for the crowd. Several of us went down from a cannon shot (including myself) and were then covered by crickets, which made for a few chuckles. This was one of the better parts of the event.

Now then, no event is perfect, and there were a couple things that were bad and one that was ugly that upset several reenactors around our camp. The bad was how our senior command staff (brigade and battalion commanders) had us formed up over a half hour before the scheduled start of the battle. This “hurry up and wait” was only problematic from the standpoint of being in the sun and heat, and while it was much more pleasant temperature wise from earlier in the week, it was still a potential hazard if not accustomed to it. Another bad issue was running out of water for a period on Saturday, which was not good. There were a couple safety issues, including a cavalry ride through our camp during the night, and, one person riding their horse through the tent areas.

The ugly part of the event were the portable toilets. Simply put, there were not enough of them, they were not cleaned often enough, and ran out of paper. They were also not set up well and leaned at times. Now, if it were possible for a human to not use the bathroom for three days, I may have attempted, but as it was, there were times that the conditions were just bad. Having only nine portables for almost the entire Confederate camp was insufficient. Future organizers take note, please have reliable facilities for us and make sure they are cleaned more often.

On the whole, while there were several things that diminished the quality of the event for several reenactors and myself, I did manage to enjoy myself. I met new people and experienced battles with hundreds, instead of dozens, of participants. Sutler row was fun, as there were several there, including a soda dealer from near my hometown of Jerseyville, Illinois.

Special thanks to Capt. Christian Shuster of the 3rd Missouri for inviting us down and being and all around good guy. Thanks to the rest of the 3rd for being welcoming and having a good time. Thank you to all in the 1st South Carolina for coming down and making the best of it, and to our civilians in camp for the cooking (especially the Lenz family and Amundsons) and socializing. It’s the end of another reenacting season for me, but it was a fun one. I hope to post some pictures and video from the event in the near future. Until next time, keep researching and reading.