Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Clio and Rice Bull

The Glens Falls Post-Star reports that the only statue depicting a female on the Gettysburg battlefield got a "nose job" repair last month. Clio, on Culp's Hill, represents the muse of history and the 123rd New York Volunteer Infantry, whose recruits came from Washington County. 
Among them was Rice Bull, whose book I keep meaning to read. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, north Troy, along with other Civil War soldiers including his sometime commander, the Rock of Chickamauga.


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Fiction, History and Shelby Foote

Shelby Foote was a novelist before he was a historian, and at least one of those novels, Shiloh, was about the Civil War. Then he wrote the classic three-volume Narrative history of the war, and was the key talking head in Ken Burns' excellent PBS documentary.
A Facebook group I belong to, The Civil War Buff (as opposed to Da Buffs, an Albany, NY, dinner group to which I will make a presentation and try to sell books on Nov. 14), has been discussing Foote. While I think Foote's lack of footnotes is a legitimate issue for critics to raise, as well as, to a lesser extent, his inclination toward the Confederate side of the conflict, I still defend him as one of the war's great historians. He wrote well, with a vivid and accurate sense of the great drama of those events, while rigorously pursuing the truth as he saw it.
While most people on the Facebook thread were admirers of Foote, others said fiction "overlapped" into the history, or compared him unfavorably to another historian who "has a PhD and taught history at the University of Virginia. Shelby Foote wrote books."
I said this: "Shelby Foote's imagination made him a better historian. Not because he made it up, but because, as David McCullough pointed out, a historian needs to imagine what life was like for the people he writes about. He needs to get inside their heads."
And there are limits to biography.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Hold the Fort

The Presbyterian hymn by Philip Bliss inspired the labor union song, which in my Newspaper Guild days I heard Joe Glazer sing at the former AFL-CIO campus in Silver Spring, Maryland, and myself sang to my children at home.
Bliss was inspired by a garbled version of a message dispatched from the not notably religious or labor-friendly William Tecumseh Sherman to Brigadier General John Corse in Allatoona, Georgia. 
On today's date 154 years ago, Sherman dispatched Corse to defend Allatoona and Confederate Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood sent Major General Samuel French to attack and capture the same place. The fighting commenced the next morning, Oct. 5, after Corse declined to surrender.
Allatoona was a supply depot on the rail line from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Sherman's army in Atlanta.
Corse's outnumbered Union men won a defensive battle, which may have encouraged Grant to let Sherman march to the sea. And Hood eventually continued on his way to Tennessee, where his army was crushed by Union victories south of Nashville in November and December.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Guns, Cotton and Grant

The NRA's August 29 American Rifleman magazine (sent to me by a friend) has an interesting article by S.P. Fjestad titled General Grant's Magnificent Set of Lost Remingtons.
It is a tale of the murky Civil War world of cotton trading along the Mississippi river, which the US government couldn't decide whether to ban or encourage. Grant certainly had difficulties in this political minefield, and when it also touched on his occasionally volatile relations with his father, the result was the genuine scandal of the Dec. 17, 1862, anti-Semitic order -- much regretted by Grant. That blunder, however, is not what the Rifleman story is about. Rather, it's about how a pair of personalized pistols given to Grant by a wartime cotton trader have turned up on the open market. While the guns were a nice gift, and the cotton trader (O.N. Cutler) was no doubt glad to get the cooperation of US military authorities (Grant's subordinate Gen. James McPherson also got a pair), there is one major flaw in the story, reflecting an outdated tendency to ascribe bad motives and actions (in this case corruption) to Grant (and here McPherson) without any evidence.
Fjestad writes: "After Confederate control of the Mississippi ended during mid-1863, cotton shipments to the East Coast became both more frequent and reliable thanks to the Union’s 'delivery protection service,' but only if the right people were involved. A 50/50 profit-sharing arrangement between the Union and cotton suppliers was the norm for these contracts. This lucrative arrangement generated massive amounts of revenue for both the Union and Cutler/Wagley, and no doubt, Generals McPherson and Grant."
That phrase "no doubt" in the last sentence is doing a lot of work, attempting to distract from the fact that the story offers absolutely no evidence that Grant or McPherson profited in any way, apart from getting the pistols. And while Grant can be criticized, in his later career, for accepting gifts such as houses from admirers, I have seen no evidence that he ever accepted bribes to do anything, and the fact that he died heavily in debt may be adduced to the contrary.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Forrest and Thomas

On today's date in 1864, Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry won the Battle of Sulphur Trestle, the day after their victory at Athens, Alabama. The next month Forrest launched a long northward raid into Tennessee, winding up in early November with a highly successful attack on Johnsonville, west of the Union base at Nashville. This latter coup prompted Sherman's famous rant about how "that devil Forrest must be hunted down and killed if it costs ten thousand lives and bankrupts the federal treasury."
Major General George Thomas, in command at Nashville, sent John Schofield with a couple of brigades to Johnsonville in response. A month later, John Bell Hood's army was encamped south of Nashville, and he detached Forrest to Murfreesboro (as Bragg and Davis in 1863 had detached Longstreet to Knoxville). At the Third Battle of Murfreesboro on Dec. 5, the Confederates were bested by Union forces including a brigade under the ubiquitous Vladimir Krzyzanowski (a recurring character in The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant).
 Later in December, after Thomas' crushingly effective offensive at Nashville, Forrest ran an effective rearguard campaign for Hood's retreating army as it left Tennessee forever. He was appointed lieutenant general the next year, a higher rank than Thomas ever achieved, burnishing his legend (or, from another perspective, his notoriety). But Forrest had much less influence on the war than the Union-loyal Virginian who was in command of US forces in that Tennessee campaign. 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

In Partial Defense of McClellan

By the time that photo was taken, in early October, a couple of weeks after the Battle of Antietam with George McClellan still in Maryland, both men knew they were antagonists. McClellan's dismissal by Lincoln a month later can hardly have come as a surprise. He had declined to renew the battle on Sept. 18, despite his superior numbers, or to mount a very vigorous pursuit when Lee finally did withdraw the Army of Northern Virginia. But the US Army did take casualties on that pursuit -- about 150 when they ran up against A.P. Hill's division across the Potomac. That was a tiny number compared to the dead and wounded at Antietam, but McClellan hated to take unnecessary losses. His men appreciated that, and fought well for him and their country.
Lincoln had ample reason to fire him. McClellan had gotten way over his head in politics, personally insulted the president, relied on bad Pinkerton intelligence to consistently overestimate Confederate numbers, and was no match for Lee as a battlefield tactician. McClellan probably recognized that last point, which reinforced his caution. When Lincoln did replace him with Ambrose Burnside, the result was fruitless and costly defeat at Fredericksburg. Burnside's replacement, Joe Hooker, did little better the next spring at Chancellorsville. And when George Meade's Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, like McClellan's at South Mountain and Antietam, defeated the invading Army of Northern Virginia, he too was criticized by Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton for failing to pursue and destroy it.
It would take Grant a year of high-casualty campaigning to capture the Army of Northern Virginia, when the Confederacy was much weaker (partly due to Grant's western campaigns) than it was in 1862. Neutralizing Lee's army was easier demanded -- by civilians -- than done.
Still, Lincoln was a great war president, especially compared to his Confederate counterpart.


Sunday, September 16, 2018

Hunt Steps Up

Henry Jackson Hunt turned 43 years old on Sept. 14, 1862, and was promoted brigadier general of volunteers the next day. On today's date in 1862, the recently appointed artillery chief of the Army of the Potomac was preparing for the Battle of Antietam. His report pays tribute to another underappreciated Union general, Alfred Pleasonton.
Hunt had already played a key role in the defensive victory of Malvern Hill, and would do the same the next year at Gettysburg, where his horse was shot under him. That was the peak of his career, although Grant, unlike Hooker in 1863, appreciated Hunt's worth and kept him in place as artillery chief in the Overland campaign, and then in charge of siege operations at Petersburg.
Hunt's unbroken Army service continued after the war, winding up in charge of the Soldiers' Home in Washington, where he is buried

Clio and Rice Bull

The Glens Falls Post-Star reports that the only statue depicting a female on the Gettysburg battlefield got a "nose job" repai...