Civil War News Review

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Thursday, April 24, 2014

E Pluribus Unum (Part 2)


Recently – over the past 30 years or so – three minority groups have received recognition for the roles they have played in U.S. history – homosexuals, African Americans, and Native Americans. All three groups participated in the U.S. Civil War and in both armies.

Homosexuals

The term “homosexual” did not exist until about 30 years after the war’s end, which makes it difficult to specifically identify within the army’s ranks. In Bell I. Wiley’s landmark, The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank mentions stag dances in both armies where some of the men dressed in women’s clothing participated. There is also an incident at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863 where Rebels ransacked a house and one of them emerged wearing a dress. I also encountered two references in the regimental history to two men in the 49th New York who “seemed to be more than ordinarily affectionate to one another” and wrote up mutual wills to each other. During the fighting at the Devil’s Den, the color guard came under tremendous fire. A bullet in the head killed one of the guard, a fellow know as “The Lady.” His messmate kissed him on the forehead and kneeled beside his corpse, firing until he was killed. Another, so utterly distraught at the “Lady’s” death, that he foamed at the mouth. He also died defending his dead friend.

While the regimental historians did not elaborate upon the sexual inclinations of their comrades, they delicately implied their homosexuality. The fact that no one in the Federal Army was discharged for their sexual orientation implies that the men in the ranks either tolerated or accepted the homosexuals or that the Army generally preferred not to deal with the issue. Personally, I do not know.  Homosexuality existed in both armies as it has always existed in armies but it was implied, not openly stated during the American Civil War. It is a new area of study, which needs to be honestly and carefully researched.

African Americans

            One cannot exclude the role of African Americans in the Civil War in both armies. There is no question that they served with distinction in the Union Army if, like any troops, they received proper training, and had a good officer corps. Keep in mind that at Antietam the Federal Army had around 27 “green” white regiments in the field, many of whom had never fired their weapons. They learned how to use them the hard way. Black troops were subject to the same type of “training.” Prejudice existed throughout wartime society, so much so that many thought it normal. Catholics, Jews, Blacks, Irish, Germans, Italians, Poles, Russians, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asians all faced some kind of discrimination, which does not excuse the bias against people of color in any part of the country.

The newest controversy in Civil War history involves Black Confederates. They
existed whether one likes or understands the concept or not. It merely illustrates the war’s divisiveness. Based upon my personal research, I have found contemporary accounts from the 33rd New York and the 49th New York identifying African American Confederates in the infantry, cavalry, and artillery along the Warwick River in the spring of 1862. Surgeon Lewis Steiner, with the U.S. Sanitary Commission wrote in his diary about some 3,000 Blacks in Confederate uniforms, in all branches of service, and many of them armed as the army of Northern Virginia passed through Frederick, Maryland. Hundreds of African Americans petitioned the Daughters of the Confederacy for military pensions. Most were cooks, wagoners, laborers, and other support personnel. The argument arises that those men were not free men, that they were coerced to follow their masters into the war. Detractors often accuse anyone who supports the presence of Blacks in the Confederate armies as neo-Confederates.

            I am not a neo-Confederate. I am an historian who has found some evidence, which indicates that men of color wore gray uniforms and were part of the armies. I do not know whether they were slave or free. I am not quite sure why African Americans would voluntarily serve the Confederacy. I do know that they existed and like their counterparts who traveled with the Federal armies, many of them performed manual labor, cooked or served as “valets.”

            I often contend that African Americans lost the Civil War, despite their service. Both sides generally wrote them out of the histories of the war. Both sides ridiculed them and referred to them in derogatory terms. In 1877, when the government arbitrarily ended Reconstruction for political reasons, it sold them out. The best book I have ever read about Reconstruction is The Wars of Reconstruction by Douglas R. Egerton.   It completely destroyed my “mint julep and magnolias” perceptions of those 12 violent years and it will remain a permanent part of my library.


            To return to my opening statement in “Don’t Know Nothin’ About History,” I do not think that the various minorities should appear in sidebars. Far from it. They must be woven into the complex tapestry of U.S. History. The problem with many textbooks is that too many teachers rely on them to simplify the past and to produce neatly packaged, non-controversial curriculums. History by its very nature is controversial, confusing, and not politically correct.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

E Pluribus Unum (Part 1)


            As an historian, I do not understand how anyone can teach U.S. history at the exclusion of women, blacks, homosexuals, or any other subgroup. I do have a problem with arbitrarily inserting them into an historical narrative where they played no particular role. The U.S. Civil War affected every aspect of American society. No one escaped unscathed.

Women
            The role of women as nurses, spies, and enlisted “men” during the war has come to the forefront with the movement to emphasize the roles of women during the war, and rightfully so. I have often contended that great men had exceptionally strong mothers. The ones who come to mind are Franklin Roosevelt, Robert E. Lee, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln. Nameless hundreds of them worked in the hospitals tending to the wounded, and the sick throughout the conflict.
           
            Dorothea Dix organized the first female nurse corps to work in the Washington, D.C. hospitals. Following first Manassas, Sally L. Tompkins established and ran the privately fundedRobertson Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. When the Confederate military eventually took over all of the independent hospital and placed male officers in charge of them, she went to President Jefferson Davis to plead her case. He commissioned her as a captain, renamed the hospital Tompkins Hospital and returned her to the post as the only female officer in the Confederate army. Dr. Mary Walker received the Medal of Honor for serving as the only female surgeon in the Union Army during the war. 

            Women also served in the military. Kady Brownell joined the 1st Rhode Island with her husband and became the color bearer. She saw action at First Manassas, on the Peninsula and at New Bern, where her husband fell with a fractured thigh.  She spent eighteen months in the hospital helping him recuperate and received a discharge to return home with him. British born Albert D. J. Cashier (Jenny Hodgers), served with the 95th Illinois throughout the Western Theater, allegedly without being discovered until the turn of the century when she broke her thigh while working on an automobile.

Hispanics

            Born in Spain to a Spanish father and a mother from Pennsylania, Admiral David Farragut served with distinction throughout the war and is best remembered for “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead.”  Federico and Aldofo Cavada, both Cubans, were raised in Philadelphia by their American mother after their father died. Federico became the lieutenant colonel of the 114th Pennsylvania (Collis’ Zouaves) and Aldolfo served as a captain and aide-de-camp to General Andrew A. Humphreys of the II Corps.  He left behind a superb diary of the events at Gettysburg.  Both died during the Cuban insurrection in 1871 – Federico by firing squad and Aldofo in battle against Spanish troops.  About 10,000 Cubans, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans served in both armies during the war, particularly in the southwest. The colonel of the 1st New Mexico Volunteer Infantry,  Diego Archuleta, rose to the rank of brigadier general. Colonel Miguel E. Pino and Lieutenant Colonel Jose Maria Valdez commanded the 2nd New Mexico Volunteer Infantry.  Jose G. Gallegos commanded the 3rd New Mexico Volunteers. The infamous Garibaldi Guard (39th New York) had a large Spanish contingent and was, perhaps, the most multinational regiment the war.

Other Nationalities

            What would a Civil War movie or a John Wayne cavalry movie be without the proverbial Irish non-commissioned officer swaggering about and calling his superior officer “darling”?  The Irish and German participation in the war has been thoroughly documented. The Army of the Potomac at Antietam boasted about 40% of its ranks either being first generation Americans or foreign born – predominantly Irish or German.  The army was the melting pot – always has been and always will be.

            Swedish nobleman and Medal of Honor recipient, Colonel Ernst Von Vegesack  commanded the predominantly German 20th New York (United Turner’s) at Antietam. When admonished to lower the regimental colors because they attracted fire, he replied, he would not, “They are our glory.” 

Hungarian Jew Leopold Karpelas, who emigrated to this country in in 1838 (age 11) with his older brother to Galveston, Texas, became a successful merchant.  When the war broke out, he moved to Massachusetts and on August 15, 1862 enlisted in Company A, 47th Massachusetts Volunteers.  Before mustering out on July 9, 1863, he had attained the rank of Color Corporal and had served in North Carolina. He enlisted in Company E, 57th Massachusetts on March 10, 1864 and was promoted to Color Sergeant on April 14, 1864. He received the Medal of Honor for his bravery on May 6, 1864 during the Battle of the Wilderness, where at the risk of his own life, he rallied 34 men around the colors with yards of the Confederate lines.  Severely wounded on 24, 1864 at North Anna, Virginia, he received a medical discharge on October 10, 1864.


Joseph L. Pierce enlisted in Company F, 14th Connecticut and served with the regiment throughout the war.  Born in China and sold to a an American sea captain, he was raised in Connecticut. Records show that he participated in the attack on the Bliss barn on July 2, 1863 at Gettysburg. He also was allowed to wear the traditional long queue.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Don’t Know Nothin’ About History


A nun in high school admonished me to write about what I knew and not about what I thought I knew. Depending upon the critic of the moment, I might have achieved that goal. What do I know? U.S. Social Studies courses tend to emphasize the agenda of the moment – civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, black rights, and at one time considered throwing in the Irish Potato Famine – to make sure that not a single ethnic group or social issue escaped notice. To accomplish this, sidebars popped up in the textbooks along with selected readings to emphasize – or overemphasize – the roles that women, blacks, Hispanics, and other ethnic groups played in the creation of this country. The authors and the politicians apparently assumed that they had to coerce the average history teachers to make their courses all-inclusive. Unfortunately, they were probably right. The average history teacher is just that – average.

The idea that anyone can become a good teacher by using the right lessons and the right techniques is ludicrous. Teaching is an art, not a job. Just like a master mechanic is an artist and not someone with a set of tools. Not everyone should end up in front of a class and not everyone should attend a liberal arts college. When it comes to teaching history, as with any subject, not just anyone can fill that role. 

I hated history classes in school because the teachers taught by the text book – that gigantic paperweight which was and is too thick to burn and is filled with “thought provoking” questions written by “professionals.” History is the story of who we are and where we originated. It is recorded in art, song, legend, memoirs, maps, and diaries. It tells us the “why” and the “how” of the individuals whose lives created it. It is a gigantic soap opera filled with drama, pathos, joy, and sorrow. It should be taught as such.

            Since their inception, U.S. history courses in grades 1 through 12 have been designed to produce “good citizens” as opposed to good historians. History classes, most classes, emphasized rote memorization, which the “professional” educators of today, have literally discarded from the curriculum as useless and a waste of time. The early focus was to produce workers who could read, write, and do math. In many ways, that has not changed.

Do you want to know why U.S. students are so historically illiterate? They have not been trained to remember anything unless it is on a state or county mandated test. They cannot remember, because they have not been forced to remember. As one principal told us at a faculty meeting, “You can teach history without teaching facts. Teach the conclusions.” How absurd. How stupid.

The other problem is that teachers are expected to cover a specific amount of material during a specific amount of time, which educators call “scope and sequence” – being on the same page at the same time as everybody else, covering the same objectives. The No Child Left Behind legislation has destroyed the learning process. We called it the Every Child Left Behind Act, because if everyone failed then no one was left behind – they all successfully achieved educational equality by becoming equally ignorant.

Despite all of its rhetoric about “raising the bar” and making courses more rigorous the U.S. educational system has guaranteed its own demise by not building its curriculum on a sound foundation. History has become the problem child of education. Government, forcing students to become good citizens, has become more important. As a result, many high school “history” courses have become current events classes. Only what happens in the present matters. In general is seems people tolerate, but do not respect or deem history as important.

Military history does not conveniently fit into the utopian philosophy, which dominates the imaginary world of “professional” education. It is messy, brutal, primitive, and violent. It does not fit in well in the worldview narrative of goodwill, unification, and tolerance.

Whether we like it or not, wars happen because of our flawed human natures. Greed, avarice, murder, lust, envy, hatred unfortunately, are very basic to human beings. It does not make war right but “crap happens.” History is written in blood. And it keeps repeating itself because human nature has never changed throughout the centuries. Despite its evils – and there are plenty of them- warfare has defined national boundaries, produced heroes (real and imaginary), liberated the oppressed, changed the cultural fabric of societies, generated road systems, and secured the peace.  They have integrated societies, often forcefully and at the expense of the losers. Warfare, whether it is military, political, or social, brings out the best and the worst in individuals. Amidst all of the chaos and bloodshed there arise individuals, who despite their human frailties and weaknesses, rise above the filth and muck like spring flowers in No Man’s Land, and they remind us of who we might become should we desire to do so.    

The following blog will discuss the role of the military in integrating American society, particularly during the American Civil War. I will try to identify some of the flowers, which blossomed in the mire.     

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Hell Where Youth And Laughter Go


John Keegan, co-author of one of my favorite books, Soldiers: A History of Men in Battle, introduced me to the life of the average soldier throughout history. Ernie Pyle, in Brave Men, and John Hersey, in Into the Valley, along with Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow, recorded the lives of the everyday Marine or Dogface who fought through the Pacific and Europe. Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe from Up Front introduced me to the enlisted man’s poignant, black humor. Erich Mariah Remarque's powerful All Quiet on the Western Front brought home the horrors of combat on the western front. The list could go on ad infinitum.

Coupled with my father’s flashbacks, my neighbor’s uncontrollable outbursts from his head injury, and a friend’s reactions to the memories of jumping with the 82nd Airborne at Sicily, Normandy, and Arnhem, they gave me an insight into the shared experiences of soldiers, which have transcended the ages.
They all experienced gut wrenching fear, sleep deprivation, unimaginable horror, deep emotional isolation, hopelessness and life altering brushes with Death. Having been raised among veterans, having vicariously relived the nightmares, which haunted them until the day they died, I developed a genuine empathy for them and what they endured.

I understood why so many during Vietnam treated the veterans so disrespectfully, but I did not agree with them. Despite being “baby boomers,” they had no concept of what the average “grunt” had to do to survive; they had believed the old lie that wars were fought for noble and just causes. They had never seen live combat on TV; had no understanding that, in battle, men sometimes commit atrocities; men sometimes cower; sometimes resort to brutality; sometimes disobey orders; sometimes demonstrate unbelievable courage and compassion in a world gone insane.

Living among veterans and studying military history through their words, their pictures, their eyes has given me an appreciation of what they have and will endure. While I think we overcompensate for the sins of Nam by declaring everyone who serves a “hero,” I can understand why we do so. We ignored or denigrated the veterans of the Indian Wars, the Philippine Insurrection, and, in many cases, the men who served during the Great Depression and the Korean “Conflict.” What was the expression during the ‘30’s? A serviceman was a “bum who couldn’t get a job” anywhere else.

If anyone were to ask a decorated combat veteran about being a hero, he might get an unexpected response – a smack in the mouth; an expletive; a silent, cold stare- or a combination of the three.   Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier from World War II, typifies many of the award recipients. He gave his many of his medals away to the families of the men with whom he served. In his eyes, the heroes were those who did not come home. He, like so many combat veterans, like my father and my neighbors, lived with a nagging emptiness, a deep regret, which so many civilians cannot comprehend, that they had not died in the place of their friends. The closest thing to it that I have experienced it was hearing the doleful, banshee wail of a mother at her young daughter’s funeral. It is an experience I wish on no one.

My apologies for being so grim. I just had to talk about why I study military history, and why I concentrate so much on the front-line soldiers’ accounts. I cannot resurrect my father and reconcile with him. I cannot change how the War in the Pacific traumatized him. I cannot forget how his behavior affected me as an individual. I have forgiven but I cannot forget.


I can sympathetically and honestly preserve for posterity the memories and the recollections of those who, at the bidding of others of higher authority, struggled to survive in the Dantean world of combat. I need to understand, while not necessarily condoning, what they did. If anything, history has made me a bit cynical and it has made me realize that, while people will never really learn from it, they should.