Civil War News Review

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Monday, October 5, 2015

Determining the Accuracy of Primary Sources

Very recently, I received some criticism over the reliability of several primary sources which I used in one of my battle books concerning occurrences where the Army of Northern Virginia flew U.S. flags and/or wore Federal blue uniforms in battle. The criticism hinged on using recollections from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, the only citation in the Official Records citing both happening at Antietam, and citing George H. Gordon’s statement regarding Confederates donning captured U.S. uniforms at Manassas Junction, all of which appeared in my previous blog. The 16th Connecticut’s reunion booklet said nothing about rebels in blue uniforms.

The arguments against those sources were as follows:

1.     Ezra Carmen knew more about Antietam than anyone else and therefore was the best authority on the subject and he cited Major Comly’s after action report about rebels in blue uniforms and carrying the U.S. flag.

2.      The 16th Connecticut account said nothing about the enemy wearing blue uniforms.

3.      The Confederate account from Battles and Leaders could not be trusted because soldiers’ memories got worse with time and the series itself was unreliable.

4.      Comly (23rd Ohio) was too far back to see the Confederates carrying Union flags and wearing blue uniforms.

5.      Brigadier General George H. Gordon was in the XII Corps and was not at 2nd Manassas.
The historian’s job is to collect as much primary evidence as possible and separate the wheat from the chaff – the honest recollection from the lie or the exaggeration.

1.      The argument that recollections written decades after the War cannot be trusted is nonsense. Having been raised around veterans most of my early life and having been involved in a life threatening experience when I was young, I learned that often it takes years, sometimes decades, to openly talk about the incidents and sometimes longer to commit them to paper. I know what it is like to remember horror and how painful it was to write about it. I can still vividly remember the incident in detail as if it had happened five minutes ago, and it still hurts and it always will. Veterans all through history have experienced the same thing.

2.      When the Civil War veterans wrote about what they saw, they, generally, were not lying. When they waxed eloquent and rambled on about things they could not have seen and their important role in the event, that is when they tended to embellish or fabricate the truth.

3.      The recent trend to discount everything a veteran wrote because a part of it is inaccurate is not the smart thing to do. For instance John B. Gordon did lie about his encounter with Francis Barlow at Gettysburg because Barlow specifically remembered the Confederate officer who assisted him on the battlefield and it was not Gordon. Gordon’s description of Barlow’s wound is inaccurate also, yet when Gordon wrote about a Private Vickers and a dying father who cradled his dead son in his arms in Antietam’s Bloody Lane, he did not lie. I was able to positively identify all three of those individuals.

4.      Why would the Army War College still be collecting recollections of World War II and Vietnam War veterans if they would be inaccurate due to the length of time between the events and the dates they were recorded? Skilled historians should be able to separate the nonsense from the truth. It is their job to identify the witnesses and not to rationalize the veterans’ motivations behind what made them preserve their memories and experiences for posterity. It is not difficult to visualize a Civil War veteran sitting down, fighting back the tears streaming down his face, blankly staring into the past, and vividly recollecting what he experienced. I have witnessed World War II veterans doing it and I have done it.

5.      The argument that what the rebels called wearing blue uniforms was only wearing parts of them does not make sense. When the men wrote about wearing parts of Union uniforms, they more often than not identified the specific items of clothing they used. When Union men talked about the Confederates wearing blue uniforms they did not specifically mention that they only wore parts of uniforms. Wearing a blue uniform meant wearing the entire uniform.

6.      The fact that a person was not there does not invalidate what hey said happened during an event. George Gordon was not at 2nd Manassas and he did not footnote his book but that does not mean he did not carefully research his project. Similarly, Ezra Carman, while he served at Antietam, did not footnote every incident in his manuscript, nor did he participate in every part of the battle. He relied heavily upon the writings of veterans which he collected decades after the war. The fact that he knew more than anybody about Antietam does not make him the sole authority upon the battle. Where would we Civil War historians be if our books were dismissed because we did not witness the events about which we wrote?

7.      The fact that only one officer officially reported the Confederates wearing blue uniforms and carrying U.S. flags at Antietam in an after action report does not mean it did not happen. A lot of incidents occurred throughout the war which did not get into the OR’s. We take the writings of Caesar, Herodotus, Josephus, and Thucydides as fact. They did not footnote. They did not see everything about which they wrote. Why should we not trust a sole account from a Civil War veteran even if it does not make any sense to us because it does not fit our perceptions of what occurred. Because no one else mentioned it, does not mean that it did not happen. It means that for reasons unknown to us, no one else reported it.

8.      When interpreting history the researcher has to lay aside preconceived ideas of what transpired upon the field and follow the evidence. In battle, men do horrific things, which defy reason and logic. In the West Woods at Antietam, Confederates bayoneted and shot wounded Union soldiers. Asa Fletcher (Andrews Sharpshooters, 15th Massachusetts) wrote about it in Four Brothers in Blue. I found it mentioned nowhere else. The 5th New Hampshire in overrunning the Bloody Lane shot down Confederates who attempted to surrender. That is not in the OR’s.

9.      To repeat an old cliché,, “Where there is smoke there is fire.” The role of the historian is to piece together a crime scene based upon the evidence and investigate every lead to recreate what happened as accurately as possible. Sometimes only one witness saw a particular aspect of an incident. The researcher has to have a solid knowledge of human behavior and has to have a thorough understanding of how individuals can and will react under stress. No two individuals involved in the same incident will necessarily see or remember it the same way.

10.   On May 14, 2002, when a student kicked me unconscious, I remembered certain specifics of the incident but I had to ask witnesses to describe what they saw to help me piece together what happened. They each saw something different but with their information I have a very good but not totally accurate idea about what actually transpired.

History is an art, not a science. It is not 100% accurate but it is all we have to preserve our memories, our heritage, our stories. To refuse to believe something because it does not fit into our belief of what occurred or because there was only one person who reported or witnessed an incident makes no sense to me. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Army of Northern Virginia: Wearing Federal Uniforms and Flying the U.S. Flag

A recent discussion arose locally about whether A. P. Hill’s men, in particular, Maxey Gregg’s South Carolina Brigade, flew a National Flag and wore blue uniforms at Antietam during the final attack along the Harpers Ferry Road. I had written this in my Antietam: The Soldiers’ Battle in 1989 and at a Civil War Round Table in Harpers Ferry, I was bluntly told that I was in error and that the Confederates were flying the First National Banner, the Red White and Red. I strongly disagree. The Army of Northern Virginia did not carry the first National in Battle after 1862 but flew the square Southern Cross. No accounts of fighting in the East after 1861 mention seeing the First National in battle.

I present the following for the readers to consider and draw 
their own conclusions. 

1.       On May 6, 1862 from the field near Williamsburg, Virginia, Corporal John Foster, Company A, 49th New York penned the following to his hometown paper, The Fredonia Censor , “At our left the rebels appeared in quite strong force, at their old trick , bearing the stars and stripes, and as our troops charged they called out, “you are firing on your own men. Don’t fire on your own men,” and some regiments did not execute it promptly, but were bewildered or confused, and badly cut to pieces and forced to fall back.”

2.       George H. Gordon, History of the campaigns of the Army of Virginia Under Pope, 1880, p. 150. In regard to the Confederates looting the Federal trains at Manassas Junction, August 27, 1862 wrote, “Nor was the outer man neglected. From piles of new clothing, the soldiers of Jackson’s corps arrayed themselves in the blue uniforms of the Federals.”

3.       Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 1887, Vol. 2, p. 533. Private Allen C. redwood, Company C, 55th Virginia, in “Jackson’s ‘Foot Cavalry’ at the Second Bull Run,” wrote the following about that same incident, “What a prize it was! Here were long warehouses full of stores; cars loaded with boxes of new clothing en route to General Pope, but destined to adorn the “backs of his enemies.”

4.       Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 1887, Vol. 2, p. 655. Jacob D. Cox in “The Battle of Antietam, “ noted the following in regard to the A. P. Hill’s counterattack in the late afternoon: “This hostile force proved to be A. P. Hill’s division of six brigades, the last of Jackson’s force to leave Harper’s Ferry, and which had reached Sharpsburg since noon. Those first seen by Scammon’s men were dressed in National Blue uniforms, which they had captured at Harper’s Ferry, and it was assumed they were part of our own forces till they began to fire.”

5.       Sixteenth Regiment Connecticut Volunteers Excursion and Reunion at Antietam Battlefield, September 17, 1889, p. 19 and 20.  On p. 19 lines 8-12 plagiarized Cox by repeating the statement issued above. However, on p. 19 -20 the writer noted: “…a terrible volley from Hill’s men was fired into the Sixteenth from behind a stonewall a few feet in front….Amidst the terrible uproar the rebels raised the Federal colors and called out not to fire on friends.”

6.       OR, Vol. 19, pt. 1, Report 159, by Major J. M Comly, 23rd Ohio, p.159 noted the following in regard to the same attack: “About the same time I discovered that the Thirtieth Regiment was still in the corn-field, and that they had opened fire upon what I supposed was our own troops, advancing from the left. It seems proper to state that this supposition did not rest entirely upon the fact that the enemy had uniforms similar to ours and which (I have since been informed by a prisoner) were taken at Harper’s Ferry, but upon the fact that they used the national colors on the occasion.”

7.       Thomas G. Day, Private, Company E, 3rd Indiana Cavalry, “Opening the Battle: A Cavalryman’s recollection of the First day’s Fight at Gettysburg,” National Tribune, July 30, 1903, p. 3. In describing the final Confederate attack against the dismounted cavalrymen near the Seminary, south of the Fairfield Road, he observed the following: The rebs marched by platoons at the double-quick down the other side. Most had blue clothes and were flying our flag….Major Lemon yelled, “Don’t shoot; they’re our own men.” ….The rebs threw down our flag and unfurled theirs.”

8.       Charles E. Chapin, Private, Company L, 1st Vermont Cavalry, Diary May 5, 1864, Civil War Miscellaneous Collection, C – E, Manuscripts Department, USAHEC, during the battle of the Wilderness was captured by a Virginia cavalryman in a blue uniform.

9.       Arthur A. Kent, (ed.), Three Years With Company K, 1976, p. 263.(The Recollections of Sergeant Austin C. Stearns, Company K, 13th Massachusetts). On May 8, 1864 at Laurel Hill, as the regiment charged James Breathed’s battery, Stearns saw a squad of cavalry dressed in blue swinging their swords to get the 13th to stop firing. The Massachusetts men complied and the cavalry, being Confederate, covered Breathed’s retreat.

Friday, September 11, 2015


To the memories of those individuals murdered on September 11, 2001 and 2012. As an historian, dates in history matter, particularly those that have had a personal impact on my life.  On December 7, 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, my father as an enlisted man in the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division, found himself drawn into a war from which he never fully recovered. Guadalcanal, August 7, 1942 destroyed him as surely as if he had been shot. He never left the Corps or the war because of what occurred on those two days. September 11, 2001 also affected me in a very personal way.

I was just beginning my 1st period history class when my neighboring teacher came into my room and told me to turn on the TV. My students and I could not believe what we say. We silently watched the burning building, and people falling from the windows of the World Trade Center buildings, unable to fully grasp what was transpiring before us. Several minutes into this horrific event our supervisor from the Board of  Education walked into the room and with a quaking voice told me not to spend too much time watching the news because we had to keep in step with the essential curriculum and could not lose too much time on what was happening in New York.

He left. Angry beyond  belief, I did not, as I recollect, turn off the TV. How could I? People were dying in front of us. I have never forgotten that moment. I could not fathom how some asinine “new” program should take precedent over the horror transpiring before us. I am still angry over this.

I had students who served and are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan . My former ROTC instructor died at the Pentagon. Flight 93 went down in a field close to the home of a good friend of mine. Surely, those who perished in the attacks and the first responders, both those who died and those who survived and are still dealing with the horrific tragedy of that day should remind us, whether we like it or not, that we are at war and we will be for a very long time.

September 11, 2001 and 2012, and December 7, 1941 are days that shall always “live in infamy.”  They vividly remind us of the sad reality that History is written in the blood of those who preceded us. They remind us that those who died had names, and families who will remember them forever. So should we.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Out of Sight Is Not Out of Mind

Removing the swastika from German buildings and public display after World War II did not stop the rise of the neo-Nazis. The refusal of the Japanese to teach about World War II did not eradicate their war record from history. Crushing the German state and economy after World War I merely led to the rise of the Nazis. Removing all things Confederate from the U.S. culture will merely drive the studies and discussions of everything Confederate underground where it will fester and spawn more extremist Neo-Confederates, and more misguided hate.

The danger of suppressing symbols and memorials of the past, which offends us is a threat to the very freedoms we hold so dear – freedom of speech, freedom of discussion, freedom to express ideas both good and bad. Ideas and ideologies are like mercury – the more a person tries to destroy them, the further they disperse, only to coalesce again.

Maybe, instead of removing everything Confederate from our society, we should use this controversy to foster further research and discussion. Has anyone really done a quantitative study of Civil War letters, diaries, recollections, and reminiscences to find out why men from both side joined the respective armies? Has anyone really bothered to explore in depth the rampant divisiveness in our society before and during the war?

More importantly, as a nation, we need to teach history the way it was and not the way we want it to be. What would happen if we stopped viewing history as a thesis statement, which has to be proven? As an extended term paper where the author has a conclusion to prove? What if we had schools, which taught history without any objective other than to explore the past through the eyes of the participants rather than through a cookie cutter curriculum? What if history really were an important subject in this country? What would happen then?

I do not know. All I know is that when we as Americans refuse to listen to an opposing view, when we cover our eyes, mouths, and ears to block out those things, which offend us; when we surrender our right to exercise free speech because it is not politically correct to do so, we will succumb to tyranny and dictatorship. We will throw away the most precious liberty we have for which so many men, women, and children have laid down their lives.

There is nothing done in secret which will not be revealed. Driving our history underground will create a “new” history with no roots in the past or in the truth. A light hidden under a basket still burns and the flame will eventually light a fire with potential harm to the person holding it down. Freedom of speech does not mean only allowing the conversations with which we agree. If we muzzle the mouths of those we oppose and offend us, eventually those whom we have opposed and offended too shall eventually silence us. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Through Their Eyes Only

Very often, on tours at Antietam, visitors ask these three questions:

1.      How could the Civil War soldiers march into battle in close formation to face certain death?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that individuals living in the 1800’s had to deal with dying on a regular basis at home. Child mortality rate was much higher than is today and, if I remember correctly, until 1900 the average white male had a 45 year life expectancy. They did not shy away from death. Many held wakes in their houses so everyone could gather to pay their last respects. With the invention of photography, family members had photographs taken of the dead, something, which we find rather repugnant today.

Religious belief in an afterlife, fatalism, fear of being called cowards, a strong sense of responsibility to the company, the regiment, and the country kept men within the ranks.

They knew that no one got out of this world alive and they knew, as soldiers do today, that they could not and would not let their comrades down. Sad as it is, many of the veterans grimly accepted the inevitability of their final “rendezvous.” Much like a French Poilu in 1916 who, when he noticed a photographer focusing on his company, turned and said, “That’s right. Take a picture of the dead.”

I also emphasize that formations did not always remain intact while advancing and that many times the regiments did not approach the field in straight lines but used other formations to facilitate rapid movement and present a smaller front to the enemy.

2.      Why did they stand up to fight shoulder to shoulder, particularly since rifles had become a standard weapon at the time?

Just like today, the army taught its soldiers to bring the maximum amount of fire onto a target to gain fire superiority and to force the enemy to disperse or go to ground.

Neither army, however, at that time, devoted extensive amounts of time to target practice and they sporadically conducted conduct “sham” battles (FTX’s – field training exercises) to get men combat ready, but nowhere near the extent that the military does today.

Many soldiers never learned how to use the incremental sights on their Springfield or Enfield rifles correctly, and muskets, having no rear sights, could miss a target at 15 yards. Therefore, officers often ordered their men to “aim” or “point” low.

The smoke from a firing line, particularly on a breezeless day, often hung low to the ground, drastically reducing visibility to yards and, in the case of high humidity, feet. All too often, such as at Antietam, new regiments learned how to use their weapons while under fire. Fighting should to shoulder allowed the regiments to throw as much lead down range as possible.

3.      Why did they not hide behind trees and fences to fight the enemy?

As Antietam, as in other battles, regiments very often went to ground, if the circumstances permitted it, to return fire. They did shelter behind trees, rocks, and fences and any available cover. Regimental lines often broke into squads and lost their cohesiveness. Many regiments did not, given the opportunity, remain upright and easy targets. They often took cover rather than slug it out as their forefathers had.

What I try to convey to the visitor is that soldiers, throughout history, have adapted their tactics to suit the situations on the field and that the drill manuals of the time reflected those. The main objective was to suppress incoming fire, maximize out going fire, and use the terrain to protect maneuvering troops and to achieve the objective with minimal casualties.

Frontal assaults across open fields, officially known as “forlorn hopes,” allegedly, guaranteed survivors extra rations, and promotion. With the introduction of the rifled musket during the Mexican War, massive charges gradually became the tactic of last resort. When used during the Civil War across cleared fields veterans on both sides often hit the dirt and let the new regiments pass over them and “see the elephant.”

Monday, May 18, 2015

Monocacy: A Hidden Treasure

Monocacy, outside of Frederick, Maryland, has been one of those neglected battlefields. Like those two battlefields, a lot of the land within the park boundaries remained in private hands until recently when the Civil War Preservation Trust stepped up to preserve the land and open it to the public for interpretation.

Monocacy, much like Manassas, is surrounded by urban sprawl. Two very busy major highways cut through the main field – Interstate 270 and Maryland 355 – complicating historical interpretation and making visiting parts of the field a bit hazardous. Interstate 270 cuts right through the Worthington and Thomas farms, obliterating historic fencerows and the original Worthington farm lane. Route 355, which the visitor has to cross to reach the Best Farm on one side and  then recross to go to Gambrill’s Mill. The 14th New jersey monument is well worth visiting but not with a bus nor a car that is not running well. The entrance is on the reverse slope of a hill on the south side of 355 with a very limited line of sight toward Frederick. Turing right onto Araby Church Road to get to the Worthington or left to go to the mill can also be intimidating because of drivers shooting over the ridge toward Frederick. Despite these challenges, the field is well worth visiting.

The Visitor Center on 355 is one of the best I have ever seen. Located on the second floor, it contains great walkthrough exhibits, an excellent electric map, and an overlook. The walking trails, while in need of more historical markers, will give the visitor a great view of the field as the soldiers saw it.

The ground is surprisingly rough and steep on both sides of the field. The trail up Brooks Hill on the right of the Confederate line is literally breathtaking and not for anyone with breathing or heart problems but well worth the view of Baker Valley on the other side. The trails, while designed for nature lovers and hikers, put the Civil War student on the ground over which the men fought. 

The bookstore has a nice selection of interpretive brochures and books about the battle, mine being Benjamin Franklin Cooling's, The Battle That Saved Washington. Tour this near pristine battlefield. The experience is simply remarkable.


Friday, March 6, 2015

Why Would Anyone Want to Do This?

    What are the negatives of writing history?

1.    The author will never die rich.

While it is highly unlikely I will die wealthy, I have become all the more enriched because I have explored a topic simply because it intrigues me and because it might sell well. Civil War history is one of those areas which has a devoted following. Generally, anything about generals, and Gettysburg will sell. But many of the Civil War authors I know, generally (pun intended) explore a particular niche which fascinates them because it FASCINATES them.

2.    It’s boring.

No problem. If you do not like history, do not read it unless you are forced to, like in a high school or college course.

3.    It’s about old dead people. Who cares?

You had better, because one day you will be a dead person who decades later will be a very old dead person. No one wants to die forgotten and alone, despite their protestations to the contrary. From a negative perspective why do criminals love to read newspaper articles or media coverage of their escapades?

From a more positive aspect, historians preserve the past to, hopefully, provide us with a better future. While I might be kicking against the goads and be rather pessimistic, the historian in me honestly believes that without a knowledge of the past we would not have those rare, magnetic individuals who spend their lives trying to improve the lives of the people around them.

4.    There’s nothing new to learn. It’s all been done before.

The egotist in me just cannot accept that premise. While human nature never changes, and wars, turmoil and troubles will always plague us, researching history gives me a chance to explore and expand my knowledge base. New primary material constantly resurfaces to provide a more honest picture of what has gone before.

John Toland, one of my favorite popular historians, allegedly,  once said – in paraphrase -that the topic he was writing about had not been written about until he wrote it. And, I believe that is true. I research topics because I want to learn about them. I do it to learn what I did not know and write to inform others who might not have known about the material, either. If it is “new” to me then it is “new.”

5.    Why do you care? Life is happening now.

I care because no one should ever be forgotten, good or bad. I care because I want to leave a legacy for my children and grandchildren in which they can take pride. I care because, as it is written “a people without a vision will perish.”

Deep inside, historians know that people matter, and that life has a purpose. They know that honest history – warts and all – helps us deal with the problems and challenges which we face today. It also allows us to preserve the memories of those few, noble and selfless individuals, who despite their personal flaws, positively touched someone’s life for the better.

P.S.: by way of shameless self promotion, my article in No. 52 of Gettysburg Magazine is downloadable at this site.