Fredericksburg Memories

It’s the anniversary of Fredericksburg, that horrific and senseless battle in which Burnside sacrificed 10% of his army for nothing. I’ve read a little about the battle, but with the exception of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s recollections in the Ken Burns series, had never read a firsthand account of the fighting. Here’s one from a member of the Irish Brigade, who bore the brunt of the assault.

The Confederates were dug in on a ridge west of the city. They were behind a stone wall and sheltered by a sunken road from Union fire. They had weeks to fortify it and held it with tens of thousands of troops. While the Irish Brigade waited in the city to be called to battle, Private McCarter watched a Union division under General French move against the wall and come back “beaten crushed, demoralized.”  When some of McCarter’s comrades asked a lieutenant of the Irish Brigade what was happening on the battlefield he replied: “Well boys, French is licked to beat hell… We are soon to go over the same ground and try the same job that he failed to accomplish.”

Source: Fredericksburg Was The Worst Day In The Young Life of Private William McCarter Of The Irish Brigade – Long Island Wins

“My Hunt After ‘The Captain’”

A wonderfully evocative (if verbose) piece by Oliver Wendell Holmes, père, as he sought fils amongst the wounded of South Mountain.  One of the un(der)written facets of the war are how many parents, sibilings and loved ones descended upon battlefields in the days, weeks following a battle, searching for their boys.  Holmes eventually found his alive and well, and his descriptions flow perfectly from that tight knot of uncertainty and foreboding to sweet, effusive relief, with the sobering reminder that many others’ stories did not end as happily.

And now, as we emerged from Frederick, we struck at once upon the trail from the great battle-field. The road was filled with straggling and wounded soldiers. All who could travel on foot,–multitudes with slight wounds of the upper limbs, the head, or face,–were told to take up their beds,–alight burden or none at all,–and walk. Just as the battle-field sucks everything into its red vortex for the conflict, so does it drive everything off in long, diverging rays after the fierce centripetal forces have met and neutralized each other. For more than a week there had been sharp fighting all along this road. Through the streets of Frederick, through Crampton’s Gap, over South Mountain, sweeping at last the hills and the woods that skirt the windings of the Antietam, the long battle had travelled, like one of those tornadoes which tear their path through our fields and villages. The slain of higher condition, “embalmed” and iron-cased, were sliding off on the railways to their far homes; the dead of the rank and file were being gathered up and committed hastily to the earth; the gravely wounded were cared for hard by the scene of conflict, or pushed a little way along to the neighboring villages; while those who could walk were meeting us, as I have said, at every step in the road. It was a pitiable sight, truly pitiable, yet so vast, so far beyond the possibility of relief, that many single sorrows of small dimensions have wrought upon my feelings more than the sight of this great caravan of maimed pilgrims. The companionship of so many seemed to make a joint-stock of their suffering; it was next to impossible to individualize it, and so bring it home, as one can do with a single broken limb or aching wound. Then they were all of the male sex, and in the freshness or the prime of their strength. Though they tramped so wearily along, yet there was rest and kind nursing in store for them. These wounds they bore would be the medals they would show their children and grandchildren by and by. Who would not rather wear his decorations beneath his uniform than on it?

MY HUNT AFTER “THE CAPTAIN” (Essay in Pages From an Old Volume of Life).

Free Book: Atlanta, by Jacob Dolson Cox

I went looking for this book after another rewatching of the Ken Burns series. Cox’s writing is used throughout, and for good reason; he was a thoughtful, observant, and effective reporter of the events surrounding him.  Sadly, the four versions available for free have plenty of OCR mistakes (“Richmond” seems to be unreadable to every scanner in North America), but is worth checking out for descriptions like this.

[Sherman’s] nervous and restless temperament, with a tendency to irritability, might have raised a doubt whether he would be successful in guiding and directing men of the capacity of his principal subordinates ; but experience showed that he had the rare faculty of beconiing more equable imder great responsibilities and in scenes of great excitement. At such times his eccentricities disappeared, his grasp of the situation was firm and clear, his judgment was cool and based upon sound military theory as well as upon quick practical judgment, and no momentary complication or unexpected event could move him from the purposes he had based on full previous study of contingencies. His mind seemed never so clear, his confidence never so strong, his spirit never so inspiring, and his temper never so amiable as in the crisis of some fierce struggle like that of the day when McPherson fell in front of Atlanta.

If you want to read this without the digital errors, there is a version for sale that features actual scans of the original pages.

Atlanta : Jacob Dolson Cox : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive.

Co. Aytch

In recent years, I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading books; I now spend most of my time on Wikipedia.  Now that I’m working (or not working, as is currently the case) from home, I thought it time to rectify this error.  In honor of the sesquicentennial (and as research for the podcast by which I’m planning to observe it) I’ve been trying to tackle my personal library of Civil War books.

One that has been in my library – and woefully neglected – for decades is Sam Watkins’ famous Co. Aytch, whose original subtitle “A sideshow of the big show” seems to have been dropped.  This is a shame, as it’s a terrific précis of Watkins’ memoirs. He repeatedly warns us that he was but a lowly “high private”, and was but one of the millions of faceless men and boys who fought the war.  Like all old soldiers, he revels in his anecdotes and tall tales, and sombrely recounts some of the horrors he witnessed.

To do this is but a pastime and pleasure, as there is nothing that so much delights the old soldier as to revisit the scenes and battlefields with which he was once so familiar, and to recall the incidents, though trifling they may have been at the time.

His unmilitary descriptions of battle and tactics are humorously rendered in sound effects and grumbles, as befits a soldier of the line.

After marching four or five miles, we “about faced” and marched back again to within two hundred yards of the place from whence we started. It was a “flank movement,” you see, and had to be counted that way anyhow. Well, now as we had made the flank movement, we had to storm and take the Federal lines, because we had made a flank movement, you see. When one army makes a flank movement it is courtesy on the part of the other army to recognize the flank movement, and to change his base. Why, sir, if you don’t recognize a flank movement, you ain’t a graduate of West Point.

Watkins is good at relaying colorful asides about life in the Rebel ranks. This passage illustrates both the private soldiers’ contempt for staff officers (something you’d never hear about in the books by the “big bugs” under whom he served) and how Sam wasn’t above usurping their privileges when it suited him:

[The average staff officer and courier were always called “yaller dogs,” and were regarded as non-combatants and a nuisance, and the average private never let one pass without whistling and calling dogs. In fact, the general had to issue an army order threatening punishment for the ridicule hurled at staff officers and couriers. They were looked upon as simply “hangers on,” or in other words, as yellow sheep-killing dogs, that if you would say “booh” at, would yelp and get under their master’s heels… In fact, later in the war I was detailed as special courier and staff officer for General Hood, which office I held three days. But while I held the office in passing a guard I always told them I was on Hood’s staff, and ever afterwards I made those three days’ staff business last me the balance of the war. I could pass any guard in the army by using the magic words, “staff officer.” It beat all the countersigns ever invented. It was the “open sesame” of war and discipline.]

One of the best reasons to read the memoir is for the feel of living alongside Watkins and his comrades. Between the horrors of battle, the soldiers had some memorably enjoyable times, and Watkins – a cad and a cutup – would’ve made for a fun companion across four years of hard marching. He certainly was across 200 pages.

As long as I was in action, fighting for my country, there was no chance for promotion, but as soon as I fell out of ranks and picked up a forsaken and deserted flag, I was promoted for it… And had I only known that picking up flags entitled me to promotion and that every flag picked up would raise me one notch higher, I would have quit fighting and gone to picking up flags, and by that means I would have soon been President of the Confederate States of America.

There’s a reason Watkins’ story is so heavily quoted in narratives and documentaries about the war.  This is a tale told far less often, and far more endearingly, than the dry, dusty military memoirs.  Every Civil War bookshelf needs some Sam Watkins.

General Sherman is a Hog!

In yesterday’s post on Bunny Breckinridge, I mentioned his great-grandpa’s fury at Sherman’s whiskey-based neglect. It’s a great story, and I’ve copy-pasted a version here. It’s taken from the memoirs of John S. Wise, son of the Virginia governor Henry A. Wise. Through him Wise Jr. had apparently told him by Joe Johnston – the other General in the room during the negotiations.

” You know how fond of his liquor Breckinridge was?” added General Johnston, as he went on with his story.

“Well, nearly everything to drink had been absorbed. For several days, Breckinridge had found it difficult, if not impossible, to procure liquor. He showed the effect of his enforced abstinence. He was rather dull and heavy that morning. Somebody in Danville had given him a plug of very fine chewing tobacco, and he chewed vigorously while we were awaiting Sherman’s coming. After a while, the latter arrived. He bustled in with a pair of saddlebags over his arm, and apologized for being late. He placed the saddlebags carefully upon a chair. Introductions followed, and for a while General Sherman made himself exceedingly agreeable. Finally, some one suggested that we had better take up the matter in hand.

“Yes,” said Sherman, “but, gentlemen, it occurred to me that perhaps you were not overstocked with liquor, and I procured some medical stores on my way over. Will you join me before we begin work ?

General Johnston said he watched the expression of Breckinridge at this announcement, and it was beatific. Tossing his quid into the fire, he rinsed his mouth, and when the bottle and the glass were passed to him, he poured out a tremendous drink, which he swallowed with great satisfaction. With an air of content, he stroked his mustache and took a fresh chew of tobacco.

Then they settled down to business, and Breckinridge never shone more brilliantly than he did in the discussions which followed. He seemed to have at his tongue’s
end every rule and maxim of international and constitutional law, and of the laws of war, international wars, civil wars, and wars of rebellion. In fact, he was so resourceful, cogent, persuasive, learned, that, at one stage of the proceedings, General Sherman, when confronted by the authority, but not convinced by the eloquence or learning of Breckinridge, pushed back his chair and exclaimed: “See here, gentlemen, who is doing this surrendering anyhow? If this thing goes on, you ll have me sending a letter of apology to Jeff Davis.”

Afterward, when they were Hearing the close of the conference, Sherman sat for some time absorbed in deep thought. Then he arose, went to the saddlebags, and fumbled for the bottle. Breckinridge saw the movement. Again he took his quid from his mouth and tossed it into the fireplace. His eye brightened, and he gave every evidence of intense interest in what Sherman seemed about to do.

The latter, preoccupied, perhaps unconscious of his action, poured out some liquor, shoved the bottle back into the saddle-pocket, walked to the window, and stood there, looking out abstractedly, while he sipped his grog.

From pleasant hope and expectation the expression on Breckinridge s face changed successively to uncertainty, disgust, and deep depression. At last his hand sought the plug of tobacco, and, with an injured, sorrowful look, he cut off another chew. Upon this he ruminated during the remainder of the interview, taking little part in what was said.

After silent reflections at the window, General Sherman bustled back, gathered up his papers, and said: “These terms are too generous, but I must hurry away before you make me sign a capitulation. I will submit them to the authorities at Washington, and let you hear how they are received.” With that he bade the assembled officers adieu, took his saddlebags upon his arm, and went off as he had come.

General Johnston took occasion, as they left the house and were drawing on their gloves, to ask General Breckinridge how he had been impressed by Sherman.

“Sherman is a bright man, and a man of great force,” replied Breckinridge, speaking with deliberation, “but,” raising his voice and with a look of great intensity, ” General Johnston, General Sherman is a hog. Yes, sir, a hog. Did you see him take that drink by himself?”

General Johnston tried to assure General Breckinridge that General Sherman was a royal good fellow, but the most absent-minded man in the world. He told him that the failure to offer him a drink was the highest compliment that could have been paid to the masterly arguments with which he had pressed the Union commander to that state of abstraction.

“Ah!” protested the big Kentuckian, half sighing, half grieving, ” no Kentucky gentleman would ever have taken away that bottle. He knew we needed it, and needed it badly.”

The story was well told, and I did not make it public until after General Johnston s death. On one occasion, being intimate with General Sherman, I repeated it to him. Laughing heartily, he said: “I don t remember it. But if Joe Johnston told it, it s so. Those fellows hustled me so that day, I was sorry for the drink I did give them,” and with that sally he broke out into fresh laughter.

A True Story

I’m filing this under “memoirs”, regardless of the fact that it’s a Twain piece. Despite the huge coincidence at the crux of it, huge coincidences weren’t unusual in the war, and anyways it certainly feels real. You almost feel as though you’re sitting on the porch with Aunt Rachael as she tells it.

“Aunt Rachel, how is it that you’ve lived sixty years and never had any trouble?”

She stopped quaking. She paused, and there was a moment of silence. She turned her face over her shoulder toward me, and said, without even a smile in her voice: –

“Misto C –, is you in ‘arnest?”

It surprised me a good deal; and it sobered my manner and my speech, too. I said: –

“Why, I thought – that is, I meant – why, you can’t have had any trouble. I’ve never heard you sigh, and never seen your eye when there wasn’t a laugh in it.”

She faced fairly around, now, and was full of earnestness.

“Has I had any trouble? Misto C –, I’s gwyne to tell you, den I leave it to you…

One of Jackson’s Foot Cavalry

I tried a search for “best Civil War memoirs” (listing “Grant” and “Watkins” as qualifiers for quality), and one Amazon list suggested John H. Worsham’s narrative. Found it on DocSouth, and a quick flip through reveals some very entertaining anecdotes, and a sense of irreverence amidst the hard marching and the terrible battles.

We went to bed that night in regular military order, had a camp guard, lights out by taps, etc. Some of the boys, during the day, had purchased whistles, tin horns, and other noisy things, and as soon as lights were put out, the fun commenced: One blew a horn, another in a distant part of the building answered on a whistle. This went on for a few minutes. When the officers commanded silence, no attention was paid to them. When the officers said to the sergeant, “Arrest those men,” the sergeant would strike a light, and go where he thought the noise originated; but each man looked so innocent that he could not tell who it was. By this time, another would blow. Soon there were four sergeants, running here and there, trying to catch the delinquents. This was kept up until the perpetrators became tired, not one being detected.

Voices from the Days of Slavery

The most depressing thing about the current economic crisis is that governments are tackling the crisis through austerity measures and cutbacks. When you see websites like this one, you’re reminded of what was accomplished when the WPA assigned the country odd jobs (in a literal sense) and gifted its results upon later generations.

The ethnomusicology work performed by the Federal Music Project has fascinated me since my University days; I was a history student working at a late, lamented, legendary record store to pay my tuition. Unlike my much cooler coworkers I was more than happy to cover shifts in the Folk section, where I had access to all the Smithsonian Folkways CDs and very few customers to complain if I played them.

The CDs I listened to were preserved music, but I knew of the interviews’ existence. Thank goodness for the Internet; an easily-accessed repository for these chronicles out of time. I’ve listened to Fountain Hughes’ interview already – it was excerpted in the Ken Burns series – and I can’t wait to get at some of the others. I mean, how’s this for a teaser?

I got my name from President Jeff Davis. He was president of the Southern Confederacy. He owned my grandfather and my father. Brought them from Richmond, Virginia.

Voices from the Days of Slavery – Library of Congress

Frank Thompson

A two-for-one posting: An interesting article that mentioned a memoir which I’ve added to the Library. A Canadian girl disguised herself as “Frank Thompson”, and joined the Union Army. Given this description from the article, the memoirs will be quite the Victorian potboiler:

How did Emma and 400 other male impersonators that served in the Union Army pass inspection? Since neither a physical examination nor proof of identity were required, it was easy to fool recruiters whose sole concern was putting warm bodies in uniform…

The beardless private was a model soldier, whose courage and devotion to duty earned an appointment as regimental mail carrier in March 1862. Next to food nothing mattered more to the foot soldier than letters from home. Emma took her responsibility seriously and did such a first-rate job that she was promoted to brigade postmaster.

But Emma did not want to spend the war playing post office. Itching for more action, she jumped at the chance to join the Secret Service.

Unsexed: or, The Female soldier. The thrilling adventures, experiences and escapes of a woman, as nurse, spy and scout, in hospitals, camps and battle-fields

The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant

I first read Grant’s Memoirs as a teenager, and remember them as being both engaging and accessible. As one who was (and is, to this day) easily put off by the flowery, verbose prose common to novels from the Victorian era, it was refreshing to read Grant’s simple and conversational writing. You feel you’re getting the essence of the man; Plain and taciturn, yet exuding a deep strength of character and a warm humanism. Judging by the personality demonstrated here, Grant would have been a nice guy to share a beer with, or – knowing what we do of Grant’s foibles – perhaps a lemonade instead.

The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant are available as a free download from Project Gutenberg.