Monday, June 18, 2018

The Galvanized Yankee Behind Father's Day

Sonora Smart Dodd, the woman behind Father's Day, was inspired by her own widowed father, William Jackson Smart, a farmer.
Smart was originally from Arkansas. Before getting married he served in the Civil War, first for the Confederacy, then, after being captured in 1862, for the Union. As a Confederate, Smart was captured at the Battle of Pea Ridge. Oddly, Union Lt. Col. Frank Herron was wounded and captured in the same battle, though he was soon exchanged and promoted.
While many so-called Galvanized Yankees were sent West to fight Indians instead of their former Confederate comrades, Smart was not. He served with the US First Arkansas Light Artillery Battery.

Father's Day was not yet established in the United States in 1885, when the Grant family moved on June 16 from Manhattan to Mount McGregor in upstate New York. All of Grant's four children were with him, as they would be when he died there on July 23. In-between, the move was good for him, and he did significant work on concluding and revising his Memoirs on the mountain top. The Grants were a loving family, which did not make them blind to their own flaws and difficulties -- as I show in The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Juneteenth in America

On today's date (June 16) in 1865, the Marshall Republican, a prominent newspaper in east Texas, editorialized about the "ruinous effects" of abolishing slavery, which, it said, meant abolition probably would not happen. The 13th Amendment, the newspaper pointed out, "has not been ratified by three-quarters of the States, nor is it likely to be in the ensuing ten years. When the State governments, therefore, are reorganized it is more than probable that slavery will be perpetuated."
On that June 16, Texas was in anarchy. The state had successfully resisted federal occupation over four years of warfare, and while the Confederate government had collapsed, the sentiments of the white population were largely unreconstructed and hostile to abolition or any assertion of black rights.
The next day, US Army Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston harbor with 1,800 troops. Two days later, he issued three public orders, the third of which made that date, June 19, famous through its rendition in African-American dialect: Juneteenth.
Granger had of course discussed in advance what he would do with his military superior (and former subordinate) Philip Sheridan, who was based in New Orleans. His instructions were to announce the abolition of slavery on the legal basis of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. But Granger, in Galveston, saw the need to go further, to send an unambiguous message. His short order strengthened Sheridan's suggested language in a couple of key aspects, notably by adding a crucial explanatory sentence: "This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor."
Such notions would remain controversial in Texas and much of the South for the next 100 years.
On today's date, however, in 2018, not far from where I write this, there are Juneteenth celebrations scheduled in Albany and Schenectady, and all over America.
In writing a biography of Granger, I took the opportunity to correct the historical record, most significantly at the Battle of Chattanooga (where Granger was not responsible for delaying the attack on Missionary Ridge). Nor, after that, did he tarry in obeying orders to march to the relief of Knoxville for as long as Grant contends in his Memoirs. Grant appears to have erred by a day in the date he cites for Granger's departure. That doesn't mean I am a better historian or writer than Grant, whose book is a masterpiece and as honest as he could make it. But no work of history is beyond challenge.
While Granger is barely mentioned, I do try to get inside Grant's head as he worked on the Memoirs in my new novel, The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Treason, Mercy and George H. Thomas

On this date in 1861, newly promoted US Army Colonel George Thomas,serving under Major General Robert Patterson, was stationed in southern Pennsylvania and preparing to invade Virginia, his home state. It was exactly that prospect, of potentially being required to fight against Virginia, which had recently prompted Thomas' good friend, Col. Robert E. Lee, to resign his US Army commission and join the Confederacy.
Thomas' former pupil at West Point, J.E.B. Stuart, now a Confederate lieutenant colonel, wrote on June 18 to his wife: "Old George H. Thomas is in command of the cavalry of the enemy. I would like to hang, hang him as a traitor to his native state." Later in the war another senior Confederate, Braxton Bragg, formerly a Mexican War comrade of Thomas and now commanding the army opposed to his, refused to accept a communication from him because he, Bragg, regarded Thomas as a traitor.
On July 2, 1861, Patterson's army including Thomas would skirmish with Confederates including Stuart, and commanded by newly promoted Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson (not yet "Stonewall") at Falling Waters.
Four years later, Stuart and Jackson were famous generals who had been slain in battle, and Falling Waters was in the new state of West Virginia. A federal grand jury in Norfolk, Va., indicted Lee and other Confederate generals for treason, and President Andrew Johnson wanted the prosecutions to proceed. But Grant said that would violate the surrender terms at Appomattox, which had been warmly approved by Abraham Lincoln. He carried the day. Lee and the others remained free.
Despite Thomas' loyal and successful service in the Civil War and Reconstruction, he had a prickly relationship with Grant. Nor did he ever manage to restore good relations after the war with his southern family, especially his beloved sisters, who had turned their pictures of him to the wall. In 1831, when Thomas had just turned 15, he and those sisters and their widowed mother had fled and hid from the Nat Turner slave rebellion.
Thomas is buried in his wife's home town of Troy, NY, at her Kellogg family grave site. President Grant and his Cabinet were among the 10,000 mourners there.
In writing about Thomas after the war, including in his Memoirs in 1885, Grant struggled to be fair. I try to get inside that writing and thinking process in The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant.
There is an 1879 statue of Thomas closer to his home, in Washington, DC. The US Treasury Note from the top of this page dates from 1890.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Baldy Smith's Way Back

On this date in 1863, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin called out the state militia to defend against a possible Confederate invasion. For whatever reason, response was lukewarm to this and subsequent appeals, and it turned out to be New York militia troops who made up the bulk of the local forces, i.e. not part of the Army of the Potomac, who put themselves in the way of the rebel advance.

 The painting by Ron Lesser shows the bombardment of Carlisle, Pa., by Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee's brigade of Major General J.E.B. Stuart's Cavalry Division on July 1, 1863.
Carlisle is west of Harrisburg, which had been the Confederate Second Corps' objective until June 29. More significantly, it is north of Gettysburg, where, unknown to Stuart, most of the Army of Northern Virginia (including the Second Corps, under Richard Ewell) was engaged on July 1 in the first of three days of battle with the Army of the Potomac. While Stuart's bombardment continued past midnight, General Robert E. Lee, Fitzhugh's uncle, did not know the whereabouts of his cavalry.

The outnumbered, inexperienced militiamen in Carlisle were commanded by Brigadier General William F. "Baldy" Smith, a regular who had seen a lot of hard fighting in 1862 with the Army of the Potomac. But he was a friend of its ousted commander George McClellan, and a critic of McClellan's incompetent successor Ambrose Burnside, with the result that Smith found himself in 1863 demoted and out of a job. That left him free to take the militia gig and successfully defend Carlisle, refusing a demand to surrender. Later that year, under Grant, he played the key role in lifting the siege of Chattanooga, Tennessee, preparing the way for the federal victory there. But the next June, now a major general confirmed by the Senate, he was running into trouble at Cold Harbor and Petersburg, then falling out with Grant.

After the war, out of the Army, Smith's jobs included oversight of the New York City Police Department, where he found work for his friend Ely Parker. So he frames one chapter of The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Whirligig of Time

It is well known that Ulysses S. Grant was in 1861 a clerk in a leather goods store owned by his father, approaching 39 years old,  and among the more obscure residents of the United States. Also well known is his rapid promotion upon rejoining the Army, and the quick promotion of others from similar obscurity because of the urgent need for officers.
One of the latter was Francis Herron, a former bank clerk, who on this date in 1861 was a 24-year-old captain in the First Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which was training and organizing in the southeastern corner of that state on the Mississippi River. On June 13 the regiment embarked by steamship, railroad and march to central Missouri.
Less than two years later, after the battles of Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove, a haunted-looking Herron had become the youngest major general on either side of the Civil War, a role later to be taken by George Armstrong Custer. Unlike Custer in both regards, Herron seems to have lost some of his appetite for warfare, while retaining an idealistic commitment to the rights of African-Americans.
A carpetbagger in Louisiana after the war, he was a US marshal and state secretary of state. Marrying a widow there and raising her children, they all left with the end of the Grant administration and collapse of Reconstruction in 1877.
 Herron hacked out a modest career in law and business in New York City. Having adopted his wife's Catholic faith, he is buried with her in Calvary Cemetery, Queens. Grant's grand tomb in uptown Manhattan overlooks the Hudson River, not far from Herron's humble apartment. Herron, as you can see above, was listed on one side of the McCarthy grave marker, which was the family his stepdaughter Augusta married into.
Frank Herron served at the siege of Vicksburg in 1863 and was living in Manhattan in 1885, so it made sense to put him in The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Battle of Milliken's Bend

The Battle of Milliken's Bend took place on June 7, 1863, as part of the Vicksburg campaign. It was an attack launched from the west by Confederate Major General Richard Taylor (the son of a US president) against a Union post on the Mississippi River commanded by Col. Hermann Lieb, an immigrant from Switzerland. The US soldiers were largely African-American, recently recruited and minimally trained. Lieb was white, like the vast majority of officers who commanded black troops during the Civil War.
The attack was repelled, with assistance from two Union gunboats in the river. Grant writes in his Memoirs: "This was the first important engagement of the war in which colored troops were under fire. These men were very raw, having all been enlisted since the beginning of the siege, but they behaved well."
The Civil War practice of appointing white officers to command black troops contributes to blacks being under-represented in books and blogs such as this one, which tend to focus on military leaders. Yet the black combat experience was particularly intense. The men and their white officers were  often subjected to brutality, including murder, if they surrendered. Much of the fighting at Milliken's Bend was hand-to-hand. 
One way of capturing the black Civil War experience is through fiction, such as in the distinguished and highly readable novel Where I'm Bound by Allen Ballard, professor emeritus of history at UAlbany in upstate New York.
Ballard was also gracious enough to praise The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant for "bringing to life for the modern reader the whole era of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Conner, moreover, in poignant and clearly written prose, introduces us to the loving family and former comrades-in-arms who surrounded and comforted Grant during his last days. Civil War buffs and lovers of historical fiction alike will definitely enjoy this fine addition to the literature on a true American hero."
(The photo shows me giving a talk Friday at the Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs, NY.)

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Northshire talk this Friday

Robert C. Conner - The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant

When: Friday, Jun 1, 2018 - 6:00 PM
Where: Northshire Bookstore, 422 Broadway
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866

Robert C. Conner, a former Grant Cottage
Interpreter, will read from and discuss his
spellbinding novel of Grant’s last days.

So says the notice, and I will read a bit from
the author's note, explaining why I wrote
a novel and not another biography (my
previous book was a nonfiction life of
General Gordon Granger).
But mostly I'll be talking about Grant, and the
people he knew, with photos projected
on a screen (yes, yes it's PowerPoint).
Come on up, keep civilization alive, throw out
questions and arguments. It'll be fun.

The Galvanized Yankee Behind Father's Day

Sonora Smart Dodd, the woman behind Father's Day, was inspired by her own widowed father, William Jackson Smart, a farmer. Smart wa...