Thursday, December 13, 2018


Some battles, like Fredericksburg, fought on this date in 1862, seem too depressing to contemplate. Major General Ambrose Burnside's Union army far outnumbered Robert E. Lee's Confederates, but lost 1,180 killed, 9,028 wounded and 2,145 captured or missing, compared to 608, 4,116 and 653 on the southern side, according to the Encyclopedia Virginia.
Lee himself would make similar failed frontal attacks at Malvern Hill, and on the third day at Gettysburg. So would Grant at Vicksburg and Cold Harbor.
Burnside did have better days, at Roanoke Island and Knoxville. But he was, as everyone, including at some level himself, recognized, not up to the task of command, to the awful responsibility which he was permitted to carry for far too long. Few would be up to it -- none of us armchair generals. Yet Lee and Grant, whatever their blunders, were.
The gospel hymn says we're gonna lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside, and ain't gonna study war no more. World War I makes me feel like doing that. The British general Douglas Haig, like Burnside on the winning side, repeatedly sent thousands of his men to die in useless assaults. I am not interested in his defense.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

December 11 in Charleston

Most of the wartime damage to the city of Charleston, SC, came not from federal shells but an accidental fire on today's date in 1861. "The fire burned over 540 acres, 575 homes, numerous businesses, and five churches," and rousted General Robert E. Lee from his hotel.
A Union shell probably did blow up the powder magazine on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor exactly two years later, killing 11 Confederate soldiers and wounding 41.
The city and fort were abandoned by the Confederacy in February 1865.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Ten Broeck

Abe and liz
Abraham and Elizabeth Van Rensselaer Ten Broeck were presiding today, in these 1763 portraits by Thomas Mcllworth, over Albany's Ten Broeck Mansion, which they didn't get around to building until 1797.
Also in evidence were Christmas decorations and a Daniel Huntington portrait of Harriet Langdon Roberts Parker (1814-1889), who among other things was great-grandmother of Mayor Erastus Corning.
The late 19th-century addition on right fits in well with the Federal style original. Architects then, unlike their modernist successors (who would probably have stuck on a brutalist carbuncle), did not find it is dishonest to fit in with a superior original.(Previous photos mine. This one CC-BY-SA-3.0/Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia )
That's a rear view. The entrance is a less successful addition.
Upcoming events at the mansion next weekend include the Helderberg Madrigal Singers and the Musicians of Ma'alwyck.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Colorful History of the Second Mrs. Pillow

Readers of Grant's memoirs will probably recall that he held a low opinion of his Confederate counterpart and opponent in late 1861 and early 1862, Gideon Pillow. This blowhard was a model of downward mobility, serving as a politically connected (to President Polk) major general in the Mexican War, but not rising above brigadier in the Civil War. A very rich speculator and lawyer, he managed to lose all his money, leaving his much younger second wife to raise their children in straitened circumstances at his death in 1878.
Pillow was buried in Tennessee, as was his first wife, although not in the same cemetery. His second wife, however, as can be seen above, managed to find a place in Arlington National Cemetery, on the strength of her late husband's Mexican War service. Her career as a widow included an adulterous and litigious relationship which led to the homicide of her lawyer by her onetime lover

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Cane Hill

On this date in 1862, US Brigadier General James Blunt won a minor victory against the Confederate cavalry commanded by Brig.-Gen. John Marmaduke. Blunt had moved south from Benton County, Arkansas, three days earlier, brushing aside Quantrill's guerrillas. He stayed put at Cane Hill, luring the Confederates into potentially attacking him, meanwhile telegraphing urgently for reinforcements from Springfield, Mo., under Brig.-Gen. Frank Herron. This brought on the much more substantial Battle of Prairie Grove, a strategic victory for US forces. 
Although the war west of the Mississippi was significant in large part for controlling the river, it is curious how far from its course were most of the major battles. The Mississippi River marks the eastern borders of Arkansas and Missouri, but most of the major battles -- Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge (at both of which Herron fought), Prairie Grove, Westport -- were in the far west of those states, or even farther west in Kansas (Mine Creek) and Indian Territory.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Upcoming Events

I'll be at the Chronicle Book Fair this Sunday, Nov. 4, from 11 to 3 at the Queensbury Hotel in downtown Glens Falls. I'll be doing a five-minute reading between 1 and 1:30 (if no kids are around, I'm thinking a WT Sherman-Mary Audenried sex scene from the novel), then will be on a panel discussion from 2 to 3. I will also have discounted books for sale, both the 2018 novel The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant, and the 2013 biography of Civil War General Gordon Granger.
Then on Wednesday, November 14, I'll be in the great city of Albany, at Swifty's Pub on Everett Road, to talk to Da Buffs. That's a Civil War  dinner and discussion club (Barb and I are members). But you too can turn up at 6:30 and order off the menu (try the reuben spring rolls), then check out my new and improved talk and PowerPoint on the Grant book like the one I did in Saratoga Springs (see picture above) earlier this year. Books for sale at the Swifty's event, too, at the same price as at the book fair.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Uncomfortable Indian War Connections to Price's Raid

On this date in 1864, Sterling Price's Confederate army was camped five miles south of Pineville, Missouri, near the Arkansas line, over which it would retreat the next day before heading to Indian Territory. The soldiers and guerrillas in his force would not return to Missouri until the war was over.
Price had risen to fame in the Mexican War, during which he ruthlessly suppressed the Taos Revolt against Indian and Hispanic forces.
His Union opponents in the Civil War had later connections to the Indian wars. US Major General Samuel Curtis was victor of the Battle of Westport (today a pleasant part of Kansas City) against Price on Oct. 23, 1864. Curtis also has some responsibility for the Sand Creek Massacre of Indians in Colorado the next month (even though he wasn't there), due to his harsh orders to a subordinate, Col. John Chivington, who bears primary blame. 
In early 1862, Curtis had defeated a Confederate army including Price and an Indian cavalry force at the Battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas, and Chivington played a key role in defeating the Confederate invasion of New Mexico at the Battle of Glorieta Pass. 
Curtis' chief subordinate in the 1864 campaign against Price, James Blunt, was accused of corruption in his dealings with Indians after the war. In 1863, Curtis' son Zarah was killed when serving under Blunt, by Quantrill's Confederate guerrilla raiders. In 1862, Blunt was fighting alongside Frank Herron, a major character in The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant.
US Major General Alfred Pleasonton's cavalry (dispatched by Rosecrans) was harrying Price from the rear at Westport, and he was then in independent command at the Battle of Mine Creek as the Confederates retreated south. In both of these Union victories, Pleasonton's subordinate Lt. Col. Frederick Benteen played a key role. 
Pleasonton had served earlier in the Army of the Potomac. It seems to me his record there is unduly criticized, but one move he made which undoubtedly worked out well was the June 29, 1863, promotion of George Armstrong Custer from captain to brigadier general. This was just before the Battle of Gettysburg, in which, as in subsequent Army of the Potomac battles, the new young general would play a major and positive role.
 After the Civil War, though, as colonel of the 7th Cavalry, Custer's record was much less stellar. Some blamed (and still blame) Benteen for failing to rescue him in 1876 at the Battle of Little Bighorn, but I don't think the criticism justified.  


Some battles, like Fredericksburg, fought on this date in 1862, seem too depressing to contemplate. Major General Ambrose Burnside's Uni...