Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Postwar Border War

While the May 12-13 (1865) Battle of Palmito Ranch in Texas -- a Confederate victory -- is often called the last battle of the Civil War, homicidal violence plagued much of the South during Reconstruction and beyond, typically targeting freed slaves who sought to exercise their new civil rights.
Even the border states of Missouri and Kentucky proved hard to pacify. In Missouri, especially, as the famous career of Jesse James demonstrates, Confederate bushwhackers moved seamlessly into banditry, continuing to muddy the divides between war, peace and murder as they had been muddied by both sides since 1850s "Bleeding Kansas."
On today's date in 1865, not far south of St. Louis, US troops killed a man in a gang of store robbers led by bushwhacker Sam Hildebrand, who had a grim war record, and would continue his violent career until he was killed in 1872 in southern Illinois.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Col. William A. Phillips

Phillips was an abolitionist activist in Kansas before the war -- like another obscure Civil War colonel, James Montgomery, whose biography I now happen to be writing. Somebody should write a book about Phillips, too. His careers included work as a journalist and a postwar member of Congress. He also served as a lawyer for the Cherokees after the war, and during it they made up most of his Indian Brigade. Those soldiers under his command deserve most of the credit for capturing and holding the Indian Territory for the Union, in the face of great logistical and other difficulties.
On today's date in 1863, for example, Phillips was fending off a Confederate attack near Fort Gibson. And he wound up dying at Fort Gibson in 1893, while conducting business for the Cherokees.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Drewry's Bluff

On today's date in 1864 Major General Benjamin Butler's Army of the James completed its retreat from this battle site to Bermuda Hundred, Virginia, where it was effectively bottled up (as Grant put it) by the Confederate army of Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard, between the James and Appomattox rivers. 
Beauregard was a better general than Butler, and won an important strategic victory in the May 16 battle. But Butler's subordinate major generals, Baldy Smith and Quincy Gillmore, helped stave off the rebel counter-offensive that day -- notably by Smith's pioneering use of wire (repurposed from the telegraph) as a defensive tool.
Smith, Gillmore and Beauregard were all West Pointers, and Butler's Civil War career is a prime example of how an untrained volunteer general who failed to learn from his military experience was a liability as long as he was retained in field command. However, Smith's own account, in my view, does not show either himself or Gillmore in much better a light. The two of them had reason to take umbrage at a stupid and insulting response of Butler's just before the battle, but not to let their amour propre get in the way of effectively working with him.
At Smith's suggestion to Grant via Sheridan, his corps was shipped north to join the Army of the Potomac, which was a sensible move. Unfortunately, things were not to run smoothly there

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Bishop of Dubuque

On this date in 1863, Clement Smyth, bishop of Dubuque, Iowa, demanded that Roman Catholics cease belonging to secret societies, including the pro-Confederate Knights of the Golden Circle. He may have said it from the pulpit of St. Raphael Cathedral (above), the construction of which he had recently overseen. 
Dubuque, on the Mississippi River, was a Copperhead center in Iowa. At this point in the war opponents of the Union cause were active across the Midwest, taking strength from Confederate victories in the South.
 Smyth, an Irish immigrant, was a consistent supporter of the United States government, which apparently provoked an arsonist to destroy his carriage house in 1865. While many Irish immigrants, from Confederate General Patrick Cleburne to some of the New York City draft rioters, were anti-Union, more of them -- like Paddy O'Rorke and Thomas Sweeny -- lined up with Bishop Smyth.

Friday, April 26, 2019

An Anti-War Connection

Bill Buell retires today after many years at the Daily Gazette, and will become Schenectady County historian. Here's a recent story of his about Steve Trimm, pictured above, a longtime key volunteer at Grant Cottage. I'm quoted in it, and am on friendly terms with both Buell and Trimm, but this story is not really about the Civil War. It is about the war in Vietnam, to where Trimm decided he would not be drafted, and how that decision shaped his life.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Lincoln and Shakespeare

The 300th birthday of William Shakespeare fell on today's date in 1864, which may have brought it to the attention of Abraham Lincoln. Like Winston Churchill, Lincoln was both a lifelong reader of Shakespeare's works and a regular attender of his theatrical performances.  Having virtually no formal schooling, the president was a self-educated man, with the Bible and Shakespeare as the foundation of his learning.
 The King James Version of the Bible, the one Lincoln knew, was translated when Shakespeare was alive, and English literature flourished as never before or since. Those sources schooled Lincoln in wisdom and style, and without them he would not have become a great American writer.

Monday, April 22, 2019

In God We Trust

On this date in 1864 Congress adopted legislation providing for the words In God We Trust to be inscribed upon one-cent and two-cent coins. The bill was the handiwork of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, responding in part to public pressure. Chase was the leader of the abolitionist wing of the Lincoln administration, and the president would not long thereafter first accept his resignation, and then appoint him chief justice of the United States.
Lincoln also signed the bill, although he was a member of no church who for most of his career had the reputation of an irreligious man. He was, however, changing -- and had always been well read in the Bible. Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address came a year later, and is in my opinion the greatest speech ever made by an American precisely because of its profound religious analysis and sensibility.
More laws were passed over the years extending the practice, culminating in 1956 with the establishment of In God We Trust as the national motto of the United States. That bill was signed by President Eisenhower, two years after he had signed one adding the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. Such measures drew little opposition in the 19th and 20th centuries, but might prove more controversial today.

Postwar Border War

While the May 12-13 (1865) Battle of Palmito Ranch in Texas -- a Confederate victory -- is often called the last battle of the Civil War, ...