Watch “Rebel” tonight at 10PM ET/9PM CT

I just viewed this production that is part of the PBS series Voces, which deals with Latino figures. Rebel tells the story of Loreta Velazquez, a Cuban-American, who served as a soldier in the Confederate Army, later to serve as a spy for the Union. Her story, largely forgotten for much of the post-war years is one of the more unique in the long list of women who served in the military on both sides in the Civil War.

Velazquez’s story begins with her childhood in Cuba, where she attempted to defy traditional gender stereotypes, much to the chagrin of her parents, including her doting father. Concerned for her future and seeking to mold her into a “proper” young woman, Loreta was sent to New Orleans in 1849, where she blended into the unique society of the city, being viewed as white instead of Hispanic, which was important in post-Mexican War America.

Further defying conventions, Velazquez eloped with an American Army officer, known as William, much to the disappointment of her family. She followed William to various military postings, until William left the Army upon secession, joining the Confederate Army. William later died in the war, while Loreta also joined, taking the name Henry T. Buford. After supposedly fighting at Bull Run, she took to spying for the Confederacy, then rejoined the Army, fighting at Fort Donelson and Shiloh. Later in the war, she served the Union cause as a spy.

After the war, she wrote her memoir The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velázquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry T Buford, Confederate States Army, which is the source of controversy in the historiography on the war. Her account shattered the “Lost Cause” mythology surrounding Confederate soldiers, as she described them as boorish and ungentlemanly. Her writing raised the ire of Jubal Early, who was influential in the early historiography from the southern perspective on the war. Due to this controversy, her story was largely erased from the history and memory on the war.

Through Rebel, director Maria Agui Carter attempts to draw out the true story of Velazquez and her contribution to the larger understanding of the Civil War. Complete with a cast of academics crossing several fields and disciplines, gripping cinematography, and a unique story, Rebel is worth viewing on your local PBS station and will enlighten and entertain those interested in the Civil War, spies, women’s history, or Latino history.

Check out the site for the documentary here, and buy Velazquez’s book here.

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.

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.

Photos from Wilson’s Creek

I have been meaning to post pictures of my trip last month to Wilson’s Creek, which was covered here and here. Most of these pictures are from my camera, but a few are from Stuart’s and other folks, who posted them to Facebook. Overall, I will say I had a decent time, despite some issues at the event surrounding logistics and battle planning. So, for your viewing pleasure, here are some photos.

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After Action Report on the 150th Reenactment of Wilson’s Creek

Dan and I left about 1000 from Grand Forks, ND, on Wednesday, 10 August and headed south to Wilson’s Creek near Republic, Missouri.  The route down I-29 was blocked by flooding in Iowa, which meant we were re-routed on state roads.  We got back on I-29 after a scenic tour of farms in Iowa.  Saw many Cabela’s along the way so don’t screw with the Iowans, since they are heavily armed. Stopped driving at 2200 and stayed the night in St. Joseph, MO. Left about 0900 the next morning.

Arrived in Republic, MO, about 1400. We registered and drove into the Confederate Camp area.  What I saw looked like a Boy Scout Camp Jamboree instead of neatly lined tents of the Confederate Army.  It got really interesting when we were asking around where the 3rd Missouri Infantry was located.  No one seemed to know where any units were positioned. No company streets had been laid out.  (Company streets are simply the running of a string from the first tent straight down to the last tent so the unit can have tents to the left and right of a path or “street” leading to the commander of the unit; like an inverted “U”).  Also noticed there were no SLOW DOWN or ONE WAY signs for vehicles using the dirt road running between the rows of tents.  No common sense was jumping out to greet me…

We found the major of the 3rd Missouri and he placed us on the top of a new street.  We just had unloaded our gear when three other groups showed up and recognized my truck. We set up four tents in about 30 minutes and had a fire pit dug to cook the evening meal. By 1700, we had eight tents set up and were ready to eat by 1800.  The ladies had chicken and dumplings for dinner, which went really well with a couple of Coors Lites!

On Friday morning, the damn bugler blew Reveille at 0530 and we got up to light the fire for breakfast. (There was a shortage of cut wood for the camps. Any other event I’ve been to always had wood cut and piled up for use. We ended up dragging dead wood from the tree line, which cleaned up the park.  Maybe that was planned, huh?)  The ladies fixed cinnamon buns for breakfast with sliced oranges and plums.  I cheated on the coffee by using instant with boiling water!

The first battalion formation (about 300 Confederates) was at 0730.  The commander looked like Teddy Roosevelt and had a soft voice which did not carry down to the left side of the formation where we were standing.  Our sergeant major looked like ZZ Top and was concentrating on proper foot alignment of the front row.  When you stand at PARADE REST in 1861, you keep your left foot in place and move the right foot to the back of the left one, at a 45 degree angle.  He was so anal about the feet, we thought he had a foot fetish!

After the formation, we went back to camp.  Suddenly, the bugles were blowing and the officers were yelling that the Yankees had taken the field and were moving toward our camp.  Of course, the field was only on the other side of Wilson’s Creek, and we could see the enemy not too far away.  We formed up quickly and marched off to meet the Yankee invader.

The lines of Confederates were impressive since we outnumbered the Yankees about 4 to 1.  The real battle was about 3 Confederates to 2 Yankees.  The Yankees held the center of the field and within an hour, the ranks of the multi-uniformed Southerners had pushed them off the field. We actually pushed them to the bridge over Wilson’s Creek, where since they didn’t turn their muskets down as a sign of surrender, the Confederates continued to march across the bridge.  This upset the blue clad invaders and they looked like whipped school boys.  The crowds, which were mostly pro-Confederate, enjoyed the action.  We marched back to camp and had the rest of the day off for doing such a good job in routing the Yankee square-heads from the field. (Several of the Union militia units were German immigrants from St. Louis, so “Square Heads” was a descriptive means of identifying them).

We spent the rest of the day visiting the sutler tents and buying items we wanted but didn’t need.  There was a root beer stand and several food vendors.  The prices were not bad but they didn’t take Confederate money.

We had a large pot of stew for dinner and spent the evening listening to several songs.  We even had a history class for two on the young soldiers in the unit on the US presidents, the states, and the Bill of Rights and Ten Commandments.

We also had a Union Cavalry “raid” through the area about 2100 in the dark.  Now, if the event planners had this on the schedule, it wouldn’t have been a problem.  But when several of the Yankees rode through the poorly lighted area, the possibility of someone walking to the porta-johns getting run over was very possible.  We didn’t know whether this was planned or not and some of the boys close to the horses began firing at them.  We sat in our tents since we didn’t know what the hell was going on.  This showed very poor judgment on the part of both the planners and re-enactors. If someone was hit by a horse, the lawyers would be circling like the sharks for a settlement, not to mention the possibility of a rider being pulled off their mount and having the crap kicked out of them by some angry Rebel having to hit the head!

Saturday morning the damn bugler woke us up again. We ate pancakes for breakfast and then drilled as a company, and then as a battalion with Teddy and ZZ Top.  His voice got a little louder since he must have been informed of his lack of a “command voice”. (Military term for using your voice, and other parts of your anatomy to reach all the formation, to put it nicely).

(One item I must report on here.  I noticed one of the officers was riding his horse right through our row of tents.  I walked over to him and asked that he not ride through our living area.  He stated that he was the battalion commander and that I should talk to my captain.  I wanted to jerk the SOB off the horse but didn’t know what the horse would do in a confined area of tents.  So I walked off and told my captain what a pompous ass this clown was.  He turned out to be a corrections guard from Okiehoma who counsels prisoners being paroled.  That’s the problem with these want-to-be Kentucky Colonels, using his re-enactment position to be important, due to his lack of esteem in the real world!  I saw him three times after this incident and hoped he would open his mouth but he always turned away.  I also told the brigade staff about it and they agreed horses in camps were not welcomed).

The morning battle was okay, but confused.  Too many of the officers didn’t know how to move troops around, which was the actual problem in 1861 and also in 2011.  So nothing has changed in 150 years.  The evening battle was a complete cluster when the entire Confederate army was marched into the tree line.  The Union marched out a unit of about 200 to fire into the trees.  Mind you, the crowd was about five hundred yards away and couldn’t imagine what was going on.  Hell, we were there, and still didn’t know what was going on!  We were bunched together in the little shade available, while an idiot portraying a Confederate officer was riding his horse through the tightly packed formations.  Common sense was left back at camp since the horse wasn’t too happy to be crowded by the lines of soldiers.

We ended up firing at the top of the trees and scaring half the birds in southern Missouri.  It was such a waste of powder (about $20 a pound), I just used the caps and saved the powder.  We had no clue what was going on with these knucklehead officers.  (Felt the same way in several staff meetings in Afghanistan, too!)

On Saturday evening, I got a ride with Craig Lenz to the hotel room that his family had booked to take a shower so I could go to the evening dance.  We got to the dance, and again, this event must have been planned the weekend before. The sound system and the lighting was poor, and the ground to dance on had holes and small clumps of brush sticking up.  Not very conducive to slide your partner across the dance floor.  There was no water or sodas since the vendors had run out.  Really poor planning on the event staff.  The band was good, but the dance was a flop.

On Sunday morning, the bugler let loose about 0600, and we had breakfast of eggs and bacon.  We fought the last battle which was actually done correctly, with lots of casualties on both sides and the crowds were happy to see the field littered with dead and wounded.  Sick people, huh?

We broke camp about 1400 and finally left the field about 1500.  We ate lunch at Culver’s (kind of a Friendly’s ice cream restaurant) and hit the road about 1630.  Dan and I drove to his parent’s house in Jerseyville, Illinois, and arrived about 2200.  We left the next morning about 0930 and arrived back in Grand Forks at 0100 Tuesday morning.

The 150th Wilson’s Creek had many problems.  It seemed the planners had a motive to make money, and not spend any on basic items like water, porta-johns and firewood.  That they accomplished.  The crowds were large, and the money they made was probably impressive.  Yet, the atmosphere of commercialization off-set the main reason most of us drove hundreds of miles and dozens of hours to get there – to honor those who fought there.  Future event planners, after pulling their heads out of their collective rear ends, will see that the event must be planned to honor those men that fought and died at the site, and not to squeeze dollars out of the re-enactors and the public as if the event was like an annual county fair.

The Bull Run of the West 150 years ago

Just a quick posting to let you all know about the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, near Springfield, Missouri that occurred August 10, 1861. The battle is considered the Bull Run of the West, as it was the first major engagement of the war in the West and, like its Eastern counterpart, was a Confederate victory. In addition, Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon was killed in the battle and it paved the way for German immigrants to participate in large numbers for the Union cause, as they made up a portion of Lyon’s army. This is a short posting, as I am heading down to take part in the weekend events to commemorate the battle, including the reenactment. I will post on this early next week, but will be away from the blog for a few days. Until then, happy reading and researching.

Joining the Fort Abercrombie Garrison

Last weekend, I had a blast interacting with another unit closer to Grand Forks. It had the added bonus of being Union, which allows me to portray both sides in a given season, as I also fall in with Co. H. 1st South Carolina Infantry. Called the Fort Abercrombie Garrison, after the fort in southeastern North Dakota, but also known as Co. D, 5th Minnesota Infantry, it consists of several men from the Fargo-Moorhead area, as well as two (yours truly included) from Grand Forks.

Last Sunday, I drove to Detroit Lakes, MN to the Becker County Museum to join elements of the Garrison providing an interpretive display on the war to visitors for International Museum Day. It was great and, according to an article on DL-Online, over two hundred showed up. We set up a tent, two cannon, and displayed our equipment. We were dressed in a variety of Union uniforms and discussed the equipment and life of soldiers in the war. We also took the opportunity to tour the wonderful museum, which has many great displays and had several artisans on hand to demonstrate various skills. It was great fun and I even had the chance to recruit for the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, which is always a plus. I will also share a couple great pictures of us from the event. If the weather holds, I may be heading to Abercrombie on Sunday for their opening weekend. I look forward to being involved with this unit in the future.

in he museum

Den and Megan Bolda and I talk inside the museum. I am on the right.

I am in the middle hidden by the arms.