As I embark upon this adventure in blogging, it seems appropriate to talk about how I arrived here. Why a blog and why this particular subject, the American Civil War? The answer is not a short one, so bear with me.
Like many men my age, I had a boyhood interest in the Civil War and history, in general. My father was in the Air Force and, as a result, we moved all around the country during my youth, and did so fairly often. I was in the first grade when the Civil War Centennial began in 1961, and, as it happened, we lived in South Carolina at that time. As the first state to leave the Union, South Carolina made much of the Centennial and, as a result, you could not escape the numerous Centennial observations. While we lived there, we had the chance to visit Fort Sumter, the first of many Civil War sites I would visit. While all of this brought the war to my attention, it was an issue of National Geographic magazine that really captured my imagination. In fact, the one truly clear memory I have from that period is reading the April 1961 issue of National Geographic. I must have worn that magazine out, reading it again and again. Plus, every issue that came after that always had a one-page article on a particular battle and I would grab every copy that came in the mail and go straight to that page.
We would soon leave South Carolina and, as I grew up, while my love of history never diminished, my focus on the Civil War would fade. In college, I did major in history, but I emphasized Russian and Eastern European history in preparation for my eventual career in the military. However, one day in 1987, I bought a paperback copy of “The Killer Angels,” the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Michael Shaara. I was hooked by the time I finished his introduction, and I finished the book in a single sitting. Shaara’s powerful portrait of Gettysburg and, more so, of the men who fought there, stirred my imagination as nothing else I had ever read.
From there, I began to read Civil War nonfiction on a casual basis and, one day, I happened to purchase a copy of Jeffrey Wert’s book, “From Winchester to Cedar Creek,” which told the story of Sheridan’s 1864 campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. What caught my attention was Wert’s description of an attack made by Union troops from West Virginia under General Crook. I had recently been reading some genealogical monograms written by a relative, and I remembered one of them referring to my great-great grandfathers, both of whom served in the 11th West Virginia Infantry Regiment and fought in Sheridan’s campaign. This inspired me to learn about them, to discover what other ancestors may have served, to research the places they fought, and to understand what I came to see as the great and terrible national catastrophe that engulfed them.
I would learn that I had a total of nine ancestors who served during the Civil War, and all fought to preserve the Union. Their experiences were varied, with one spending the war primarily in garrison duty, while the others fought in small battles on the margins of the war, as well as the great campaigns that would determine its outcome. One would lose his eye to smallpox, but, nonetheless, return to duty, fight under Sheridan, and come home when his enlistment was up. Another would fight through the Wilderness, survive the disastrous assault at Cold Harbor, be severely wounded in the Shenandoah Valley, but rejoin his regiment in time to break the Confederate line at Petersburg and pursue Lee to Appomattox.
Another, and the youngest of my ancestors to fight in the war, would enlist in 1861 at the tender age of 17. It was he who would truly capture my attention and forever fix my sights on the history of the conflict. His name was Samuel Snider, my great-great-great uncle. In November of 1861, he left the family farm near the tiny community of Nobe, West Virginia to joint the 3rd West Virginia Infantry Regiment. His older brother, John, my great-great grandfather, had already left home with his best friend, George Shimer, my other great-great grandfather, to enlist with the 11th West Virginia. I always have wondered why Samuel did not go with them and, instead, left home weeks later to join a different unit. Perhaps his friends were planning to join the 3rd and, like so many other young men on both sides, he simply wanted to serve with them. Young Samuel would see his first combat in the Shenandoah Valley at McDowell in May 1862, and, eventually, he and his comrades would move on to see action at Second Manassas, in August of that same year.
Not long after learning this, I had a chance to visit Manassas during a business trip to the Washington DC area. When I stopped at the Visitor Center, I bought the set of 1:50,000 charts that documented the two days of the battle in increments of two-three hours. As I unfolded the charts and studied them, I discovered that, by pure fate, I was at Manassas on the very same day the battle had begun 130 years before, August 29. So, with these maps in hand, I began to follow the path Samuel had taken during those two days. When I walked up the steep incline where he had attacked Stonewall Jackson’s troops at the railroad cut, I found myself sweating profusely in the humid August heat and thought of Samuel. He had climbed this slope in a blue wool uniform, carrying a heavy Springfield rifle, with volleys of bullets whirling past him, watching men and boys he had grown up with being cut down all around him. It then struck me how terrified he must have been. At that moment, Samuel became very real to me, and no longer was a mere genealogical abstraction.
Spurred on to new research by this experience, I would learn that, following the Union disaster at Second Manassas, Samuel’s regiment would return to West Virginia, and, in the summer of 1863, they would be converted to cavalry, serving under General William Averell as the 3rd West Virginia Mounted Infantry. Under Averell, they would participate in several raids and in the Battle of Droop Mountain in November 1863. Then, in December, they would undertake an arduous raid against the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad depot at Salem, Virginia. Here, they would not only face their human enemy, but also the ravages of nature, itself. While attempting to escape the rapidly closing Confederate army, they would face torrential freezing rain, snow, and swollen rivers and creeks, filled with surging water, floating debris, and even large pieces of ice. The soldiers and their mounts would be forced to wade into these waters, struggling against the current to emerge on the far side with both horse and rider coated with ice. Over and over again, they made these crossings, riding into the night as their foe closed in on them. Finally, they would reach the last river crossing at Covington, Virginia. Here, there was at least a bridge to aid their crossing. However, the bridge was defended and, while they would quickly push the Southern defenders aside, the pause in their march allowed the lead elements of the pursuing Confederate force to catch up to them. A night time battle would ensue, with Averell’s men getting the upper hand, and escaping across the river, setting the bridge ablaze as they went. Unfortunately, nearly 100 men from Averell’s rear guard would not be so lucky. Stranded on the far side, they were forced to surrender. Samuel Snider was among those captured.
He and his comrades would be shipped to the Confederate prison at Belle Isle in Richmond, where they would spend the next two months. However, in February 1864, Samuel would be moved, going far south by train to a new prison facility in Georgia—Andersonville. As most people know, Andersonville would become a literal hell on Earth, a place of absolute horror that almost defies description. By the following summer, an open air encampment intended for 3,000 men would be holding 30,000. Malnourished, without even a ready supply of fresh water, the heat of the Georgia summer would soon take its toll. With disease and starvation joining together, men died at a rate of over 100 a day. Samuel Snider, now a young man of 20, would be one of them. On August 5, 1864, he died of Scurvy and was buried namelessly in a mass grave. Following the war, Clara Barton would come to Andersonville and, aided by a secret log maintained by a courageous Union soldier working in the camp hospital, she would ensure every soldier had a marker placed where he was was buried. Samuel Snider’s is number 4812.
Like many Americans in many wars, Samuel died alone, far from home, denied a future, denied a life spent among loved ones, and denied a more peaceful end, perhaps one that might have included the nearness of those he loved and the comfort they might provide. But what struck hardest me was that, in his case, Samuel died cruelly in his own country, at the hands of his own his countrymen. For me, that knowledge magnified the tragedy and served as a very personal reminder of just what a catastrophe this war was, with Samuel’s fate being repeated over 600,000 times. Virtually no town, no home was left untouched. I have never forgotten Samuel’s story and I make an effort to pause and think of him every August 5th. I also had a plaque with his name on it placed on the Wall of Remembrance at the Pamplin National Museum of the Civil War Soldier near Petersburg, Virginia. He earned the right to at least be remembered.
In 2000, I decided to research and write an article about Averell’s raid on Salem. Remarkably, America’s Civil War magazine selected it for publication, and it appeared in their November 2000 issue. That spurred me to pursue my knowledge of the war even further. I had been reading books about the war for years at this point, but I craved the knowledge that only comes from a more disciplined study of the subject, the kind that can only occur in the rigor of an academic environment. Therefore, I enrolled in a distance learning graduate degree program through American Military University, completing my Master’s Degree in 2003. Since then, I have had another article published, and regularly write book reviews for Michigan State University's H-Net web site. I have started a book of my own, but my work on it is irregular and I may never see it finished. I would love to teach about the war, but opportunities to do so are few to be found. As a result, I find that I crave an outlet for my thoughts on the history of the war, which now answers the question, “Why a blog?”
My plan is to simply write whatever comes to mind. Some entries may be short, some may be interminably long. Those who know me will tell you that I can be a little long-winded at times, so consider yourself warned. I will also tell you that this is a subject I can become very passionate about, and some readers (if any actually find this site!) will undoubtedly disagree with my views. Some, in fact, may even be offended. If so, I offer an apology in advance, and it comes with the assurance that I do not intend to offend. Rather, I hope to stimulate some thought and maybe a little more study on the reader’s part—there is so much to learn on this subject. If you approach your study of the war with an open mind, you may find many myths will be shattered. But, I assure you that they will be replaced by even more fascinating realities.
I should also add that I have come to believe there are lessons to be learned from the Civil War, and some of those lessons can be applied to our current cultural and political environment. For me, the most important lesson is that when anger and greed make us forget that we are all Americans, and that we share a collective past and future, we lose sight of what is truly important. When shouting and accusations replace intelligent political discourse, we lose our ability to compromise, which can and will lead to tragedy. So, when I hear politicians talk about waging and winning “culture wars,” when I see media pundits pursue personal riches by feeding the fires of these so-called culture wars, I cringe in horror. At those moments, I want to take them to Shiloh, to the National Military Cemetery. There, near the path that leads from the gateway into the cemetery, I will point to the first stone, the one that marks the burial place of Henry Burke, a 12-year old Union drummer boy. Next, I will have them look up to see a field full of stones beyond that one, each marking a personal tragedy that even the passing of decades cannot diminish. Every one marks the final resting place of a brother, a husband, a friend. And all record the loss of someone who, at one time, was simply, and joyfully, a mother’s little boy, a child she had dreams for, never imagining the awful fate he would meet at Shiloh or a hundred other places just like it. I would tell the politician and the pundit that this is the silent, cold product of our first and only culture war. God forbid we ever suffer another one.
So, let’s start this little journey and see where it takes us.