Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Civil War Sesquicentennial: What Will We Learn as a Nation?

civilwarsesquicentenniallogoJanuary 1, 2011 will mark the official start of the U.S. Civil War Sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. I am old enough to remember the Civil War Centennial and the publicity surrounding it. In fact, it probably played a key role in my early interest in Civil War history. We lived in South Carolina at the time, and I recall reading the April 1961 issue of National Geographic Magazine, which featured an article about the war. I practically wore that issue ragged over the next few years, reading and rereading it. But, I look back now, wondering what that Centennial accomplished and ponder what this Sesquicentennial will leave as its legacy, if anything.

From a scholarship and historiography point of view, the Centennial did bring forth a renewed interest in the war, with the publication of numerous new works about the war's history, among them Bruce Catton's monumental three-part Centennial History of the Civil War (The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat) published in 1961, 1963, and 1965. In my mind's eye, as a young reader who was making his first foray into Civil War history, Bruce Catton would become a sort of spokesman for the Centennial. His rich narrative style captured my imagination and his own personal ties to the war, which came through the old veterans he had known growing up in Michigan, provided a very real link to that terrible time so long ago.

S-Civil-War-CentennialHowever, one must also look at how the war was presented to the general public at the time of the Centennial. The history of the war was that created by the Lost Cause movement, one in which slavery was not the genesis for the war and Lincoln really did not oppose slavery, the South's just cause was lost merely because it was overwhelmed by greater resources, and Robert E. Lee was the tragic saint of that war, an anti-slavery soldier leading the Army of Northern Virginia out of love for his home state. Plus, the Centennial took place as a backdrop to the very real drama of the Civil Rights movement. Ignoring slavery as the cause of the Civil War, therefore, seems now to have been an even greater obscenity than it was to some of us at the time.

tyco_civil_war_set_boxSo, while I cannot defend this view with anything other than anecdotal evidence and my own gut feeling, it seems as though the Centennial served to somehow trivialize the war in the eyes of the American public at large. It devolved into a largely commercial undertaking with a surge in sales of toy Civil War soldiers, t-shirts, and hats, and a resolve to maintain the 100 year old, “politically correct” version of the war so carefully crafted by Jubal Early and his fellow travelers in the late 19th century. And, as such, it would give new life to that perverse version of history that endures in the minds of most Americans until this day and causes every attempt at correcting the course of popular history to be labeled by modern day Lost Cause devotees as a new and dangerous form of “politically correct” revisionism

To me, the war, its causes, its tremendous impact on this nation's course, and the sheer magnitude of the calamity have been steadily minimized with the passage of the last 50 years. On the one hand, historiography, study, and publication of new works continue unabated, and that is a very good thing. I believe that, in recent years, the quality of the scholarship coming from Civil War historians has been nothing less than remarkable and, in many cases, groundbreaking. But the war in the eyes of the general public is another matter. To them, the war is a distant chapter of our history that is either largely ignored in junior high and high school history classes or is still presented as an unpleasant clash over state's rights. It is also seen as a rather silly thing, a subject studied by a brand of geek known as a 'buff” or one in which grown men walmartdress up in old uniforms, reenacting battles as though they were just playing soldier. And, perhaps worst of all, the war has become just a product of a distant, irrelevant past, and, so much so, that commercial interests can now safely seek to plow under its battlefields and defile our collective history in order to build yet another strip mall or superstore. After all, these merchants will say, it was all so very long ago.

At the beginning of this piece, I wondered aloud what the products of this Sesquicentennial might be. Well, I do not have a crystal ball and, therefore, I cannot say. However, I can say what I hope they would be.

Ringell's Battery todayFirst, a reintroduction of the history of the war and its essential role in defining us as a nation into education at all levels. And that history must be based on the solid ground of fact, and not on the diatribes of a 140-year old political movement, no matter the fact that a more accurate view of the war and its causes makes some people feel uncomfortable. In some ways, I would not care if a single American student could list one major battle of the war. Rather, I would like American students to know that the war's root cause was slavery, the perceived right to own property in the form of a human being, and in the unfettered right to transport that property and expand that institution throughout nation's territories. That cause resulted in secession of the Southern states when an anti-slavery candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was elected to the office of President of the United States; the firing on Fort Sumter; and the formal call by President Lincoln for volunteer soldiers from the states to suppress the rebellion and preserve the Union. Moreover, they should understand that, while the government's initial aim of the war was to preserve the Union, Lincoln portraitLincoln carefully guided it to emancipation and, finally, the concept of a “new birth of freedom.” The latter idea is an essential one and very central to an understanding of the war's outcome, of our history since that time, and to the unfinished task for all of us–every American child should understand it and see that they have a role in its continuing evolution.

For Lincoln, the new birth of freedom was the true goal–the creation of a nation free from the tyranny of human slavery, where all were free to reap the fruits of their labor, where all had the opportunity to make a better life for themselves, no matter their race, their religion, or their ethnicity. I believe that, while Lincoln saw that freedom in the sense of the more near term, he knew in his heart that a long road was ahead to truly achieve that kind of freedom in any complete sense. Therefore, every American, whether their family has been here for generations or just landed on our shores, has this goal as a legacy that is firmly attached to their citizenship. And let me state unequivocally that I believe Lincoln's vision is more important, more relevant now than ever before. That vision, while it was crucial in achieving victory for the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century, is endangered by new forces, by those who see freedom and opportunity not as rights, but as entitlements meant only for white, Christian, native born, middle and upper class Americans.

Dead at AntietamNext, I think that it is terribly important for modern day Americans to know the people of this time and to understand the calamity, the absolute catastrophe this war was to them. Perhaps that context will undo the trivial nature some would assign to this chapter of our history. The people of that time were not so different than us. They worked and raised their families as best they could, and all they asked was to have peace and live their lives. But, as happens, fate would not give them that wish and their world was ripped apart. Even cold statistics tell how deeply the war ravaged this nation. In total, around 1 in every 10 Americans would serve, meaning that no town, no neighborhood, no street, and virtually no home was safe from feeling war's terrible burden. Worse, with over 618,000 men dead as a result of the war, almost 2 percent of the nation's population was lost and a staggering 20 percent of those who served. In contrast, the American deaths in World War II, at just over 320,000, were only 0.2 percent of the overall population and a mere 2 percent of those serving. If you were to inflict similar losses from a war today, the death toll would reach over 6 million Americans. And this does not measure the losses in terms of destroyed homes, towns, and farms. Perhaps worst of all, one must remember that all this horror, all this death and destruction did not come at the hands of a foreign power–we did this to ourselves.

But, this generation of Americans survived, they rebuilt, they moved the nation west, and laid the foundation for the nation we see today. The soldiers who fought the war knew what it was about and, no matter what side they fought for, they are deserving of our respect. In my mind, they were as great a generation as that which lived through the Second World War, and that is another lesson I would like to see taught by the Civil War Sesquicentennial. But, they did not achieve Lincoln's vision. Perhaps they were not ready to do so, and the politics of post-war reconstruction certainly did not help matters. A century of Jim Crow laws and institutionalized segregation would follow, denying real opportunity, citizenship, and freedom to black Americans. The impact of those 100 years is still with us, and is only slowly fading. Therefore, their legacy is also ours.

The writer Shelby Foote once described the Civil War as the “crossroads of our being” and that is a pretty good statement. The war defined us, and what we might become. It provided another key milestone in our progression because it opened the door to a pathway that might allow us to achieve all the promise that the Founding Fathers envisioned. In closing, I will reiterate some passages from Bruce Catton that I wrote about in another essay. In 1958, just three years before the Civil War Centennial, Catton said that, in examining the war and trying to understand it, many had failed to see its true meaning.

We have all failed to grasp it. It was not a closed chapter in a bloody book of history: it was a commitment, a challenge to everything that we believe in and live by, a point from which we must measure our progress within our own hearts. Let us begin by understanding just what was bought by that tragic expenditure of life and hope, ninety-odd years ago. Let us try to see just what sort of door into the future was flung open by that fearful war between brothers. Then let us try to make the most of what was gained.

For the enduring legacy of the Civil War is an unending challenge; a challenge to the world's greatest democracy to establish itself on a foundation so broad and solid that it will endure through the great world upheaval of the twentieth century. Democracy will survive only if it lives up to the promise that was inherent in its genesis. The fulfillment of that promise is in our keeping.

And, as I said in that same essay, for all those who do not believe that the Civil War has meaning and relevance in the 21st century, I would ask you to ponder Bruce Catton's words. I believe their essential truth cannot be denied and I would hope the Civil War Sesquicentennial allows more Americans to study the war and see that truth. Like those who were fighting the war at the time when Lincoln spoke of “the great task remaining before us” at Gettysburg, we still have much unfinished work ahead of us. And, as Catton would also write:

Like Lincoln, we are moving toward a destiny bigger than we can understand. The dark, indefinite shore is still ahead of us. Maybe we will get there someday if we live up to what the great men of our past won for us. And when we get there, it is fair to suppose that instead of being dark and indefinite, that unknown continent will be lit with sunlight.

Perhaps this coming anniversary of our nation's greatest tragedy will bring us closer as a nation, as a people, and allow us to move towards that sunlit shore. I know the odds are against me in this hope, as most Americans won't even be aware of the Sesquicentennial. Still, one can dream and one can hope. Without dreams and without hope, what else do we have?

Monday, December 6, 2010

PBS' "The American Experience: Robert E. Lee"

On January 3, 2011, the PBS series “The American Experience” will air an episode on Robert E. Lee and the folks at PBS kindly offered me the opportunity to view the show in advance. Going in, I knew they had quite a challenge. First, they faced the daunting prospect of telling the story of one of America’s most iconic but most misunderstood and enigmatic historical figures in a documentary only 83 minutes long. Further, there would be the matter of what approach to take. Would they simply reiterate the version of Lee and his life dictated by the 19th century leaders of the Lost Cause and Lee’s great 20th century biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman? After all, that is the one most familiar to the American public at large. Or, would they take a deeper look at the Confederate general based upon more recent scholarship and historiography? In other words, would Lee be presented in the saintly perfection from the former or as the flawed and very human, but still admirable man from the latter?

Let me say that, as to the first challenge, the producers of this documentary did a truly remarkable job of telling Lee’s complex story to a popular audience in a very short period of time. Robert E. Lee was a man with many facets, many layers, and, for this film's producers, trying to communicate the most important of those within a fixed set of minutes, and do so in an entertaining fashion, had to be difficult—but this documentary succeeds in its task. Using an impressive group of historians to provide commentary, among them Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Gary Gallagher, Emory Thomas, and Joseph Glatthaar, the documentary weaves an accurate depiction of Lee, both as a general and as a human being, and it is one that I believe most Americans will probably find fascinating. Moreover, it will be fascinating precisely because it does not portray him as the man of marble, as the cold, perfect equestrian figure that populates so many monuments across the American South.

To be sure, serious students of the Civil War and historians, like me, will note the absence of details, of key pieces to the Lee puzzle. For example, I found the lack of discussion about Lee’s childhood as an important omission. The documentary does discuss his father, “Light Horse Harry” Lee, and how the one time Revolutionary War hero lost the family fortune, including their ancestral home, Stratford Hall. In doing so, he essentially destroyed the Lee family name, removing it from among the first families of Virginia. However, at the same time, the film does not make the clear link between those tragic events and how they impacted Robert E. Lee’s childhood and, furthermore, how they created the younger Lee’s driving ambition to succeed and restore his family’s name. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the producers of the film can be forgiven such minor sins of omission because the picture of Lee they do provide is so much closer to reality than that to which most Americans have previously been exposed.

The film clearly portrays Robert E. Lee as a man of tremendous energy, ability, courage, intellect, discipline and, above all, ambition. The latter is also clearly shown to be the primary reason for his resignation from the U.S. Army and his subsequent entry into the service of Virginia and the Confederacy, as opposed to the Lost Cause legend that has him doing so purely out of “love” for his home state. The documentary also dispenses with the myth of Lee as an opponent of slavery, who ironically and tragically led the greatest army of a nation dedicated to the preservation and expansion of that institution. Instead, it relates how he had his runway slaves whipped and, in one case, told his overseer to “lay on” whipping one runaway female slave with more gusto. As such, he is accurately described as a classic Southern “slavery apologist,” who, while somewhat uncomfortable with the morality of owning human beings, believed slavery provided a better life for blacks than they would have lived in Africa and, as Lee would himself state, one that was “necessary for their instruction as a race.” Even more so, he is shown as the true Southern aristocrat that he was, as a man who believed in the Southern social system and the superiority not of the white race, but of only those whites wealthy enough to own plantations and wield power.

The film also depicts Lee as a man truly driven by his demons, almost to the point where he felt he must deny himself any personal pleasure in life. In doing so, it also demonstrates that Lee would inflict that philosophy of denial and that capacity for suffering upon those he would command in the Army of Northern Virginia. When watching the film, we see that Lee not only created the Army of Northern Virginia by force of his own personality but also led it as an extension of that same personality. This meant that he would lead it to victory via audacity and sometimes brilliant risk taking. However, it also meant that he would believe his army was capable of being driven far beyond what normal men could endure—and, as the documentary accurately states, that was a great part of that army’s eventual downfall.

Finally, this episode of “The American Experience” does the American public the great service of telling them what happened after Lee’s death in 1870, of how Jubal Early and his supporters deliberately canonized Lee as the patron saint of the Lost Cause. In doing so, they masked the true Lee from history for more than a century after his death. But this film lifts that mask and will help people understand that there was a far more interesting man, and, perhaps, even a far more admirable one, beneath all the marble on those statues.

I realize that there will be some people who will not like this film, especially those who have Freeman’s biography of Lee sitting on a special bookshelf in their home or office, right below a portrait of Robert E. Lee. Believe me when I tell you that such people do exist. They are more comfortable with Lee as a saint, as a deity, than they are with him as a mere mortal. However, as for the rest of us, let’s enjoy this wonderful documentary and the light it casts on a fascinating man and his role in a defining chapter of our history.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

Photo-1 No American president ever employed the power of words as well as Abraham Lincoln. In his skillful hands, they were as mighty as any weapon in the Union Army’s arsenal and he used them to consistently and clearly state the nation’s goals, its purposes and war aims, and his own vision for the country’s future path. Moreover, he was able to demonstrate this ability, this precious gift, in both the written and spoken word, and historians have long paid especially close attention to the latter. From his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas to his speech at Cooper Union, the first inaugural address, the Gettysburg Address, and his second inaugural address, they have studied his texts with great care, seeking all they reveal about his mind and his positions on the issues of the time, as well as their often powerful beauty.

Some historians consider the speech he delivered on the occasion of his second inauguration as President to not only be his finest, but to be one of the greatest speeches in America’s history. When it was made on March 4, 1865 on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, the war was in its final bloody weeks. Lee’s army was trapped in the trenches around Petersburg, Virginia and his nemesis, Ulysses Grant was devising his plan for the push that would drive Lee back into the final retreat to Appomattox. At the same time, William T. Sherman was driving northward through South Carolina, as the only other major Confederate army in the field, led by Joseph Johnston, retreated before him. Almost anyone could see that the war’s outcome was inevitable—it was simply a matter of time before this shared national nightmare was ended at last.

Therefore, it seems apparent that Lincoln sought to set the stage for that end, to clearly speak his mind and, just as much, his heart. He had carried the nation’s pain on his shoulders for four long years and that is evident in this address. More than anything, however, he may have wanted all to hear his vision for the spirit in which he wanted the war to end, one of true peace and magnanimity. The result is a speech that, once again and just as at Gettysburg, is a tribute to the power of a skillful economy of words—there is much said here in only 702 words. Further, it is a speech that seems to move from darkness into light, just as the nation itself was doing at the time Lincoln spoke.

Photo-2 Surprisingly, the speech does not open with a powerful introduction. The opening paragraph is brief, almost cursory:


At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

Here, one might have expected Lincoln to offer a detailed review of war’s course and offer some perspective on its near-term path to conclusion. However, he only does so in the broadest of terms, offering no detail. It is as though he is acknowledging the nation’s grief, its numbness over the scale and scope of the tragedy that befell them by simply stating, in essence, all that could be said has already been said, that so dear a cost has been paid, and we have all lived this calamity together. Therefore, he seems to be saying there is no need to review the history of the last four years. Rather, he says, all that remains is only the hope for a swift conclusion.

Then, Lincoln remembers the time of his first inaugural address, reminding everyone that his focus then was on the potential for compromise, on the need to remain a whole nation, and to avoid war, if possible:

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war--seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

As can be seen, however, he reminds the audience that, at that time, some parties on both sides sought to destroy the Union via negotiation, seeking to avoid war, even if the death of the Union was the price. But, in the end, it came down to the simple fact that one side would choose to divide the nation, to end the Union so preciously created by the Founders, and do so even if it meant bloodshed, while the other would refuse to submit to the threat of violence and end humanity’s last, best hope for liberty and freedom without a fight. Therefore, the war came, no matter how hard some would try to avoid it. Here, it is as though Lincoln now saw the war as inevitable and, as we will see later, perhaps ordained by God.

Next, Lincoln reviews what the respective positions of both sides as the conflict ignited in 1861. Here, he states simply and unambiguously for posterity that the cause of the war was human slavery, in the perceived right to own property in the form of a human being:

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.

Reading this passage, it is amazing to me that, even now, some continue to claim that no one in the leadership of either side at the time of the Civil War saw slavery as the cause of the war, alleging that to do so now is nothing more than “politically correct” revisionism. Yet, look at what Lincoln says: “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” Furthermore, he goes on to make an equally clear statement of each position’s side of the issue: One wished to continue and even extend the practice, while the other merely sought to limit its extension to new territories. Here, Lincoln reminds everyone that, during the process of secession and the intractable march to war, he continually made it clear that he had no intension to unilaterally abolish slavery, that he sought compromise, and only wished to limit slavery from moving west.

Then Lincoln moves on to the most intriguing and even dark passages of the speech. Here, he also reveals much of his own tortured soul, of the pain he had been carrying, and what may have well been his own feelings regarding a divine role in the bloodshed the nation had suffered. Many had thought the war would be quick and the bloodshed minimal—they were so wrong:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

The quote from Matthew, chapter 18, verse 7 is especially telling, "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." Some Lincoln scholars believe that Lincoln had come to believe the length and cost of the war was God’s punishment on the American people, and this section of the speech seems to clearly convey that. Like many, the president seems to have been groping for a reason behind the sheer magnitude of suffering the nation had endured, and he found it in divine punishment for the sin of slavery. Now, he seems to say, that price has been paid and all we can hope for is that, with the sin excised, God will allow the bloodshed to end.

However, as I alluded to earlier, Lincoln then moves beautifully from darkness into light, into a hope for a better tomorrow and a bright future for his nation. The final paragraph is remarkable and it is both the most remembered and powerful part of the address:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Photo-3 Here Lincoln expresses his hope and his vision for post-war America: forgiveness, recovery, and a peaceful land embracing the new birth of freedom he spoke of at Gettysburg. This passage also expresses the same sentiment he clearly communicated a few weeks later when he met Sherman and Grant at City Point, Virginia. Lincoln wanted the war ended as magnanimously as possible, without revenge and punishment for the conquered Southern foe.

His final words in the speech are truly beautiful and, in some ways, tragic, because both radical reconstruction and the Jim Crow laws would undo much of the spirit of his vision and delay true national reconciliation for more than a century. Still, after his assassination, Grant and Sherman would follow Lincoln’s wishes, ending the war on benevolent and generous terms. In doing so, both they and their Southern military counterparts would defy politicians on both sides, including those Radical Republicans who sought to punish the South, as well as those in the South like Jefferson Davis who sought to continue the war via a bloody, protracted guerilla conflict. Luckily for all of us, Abraham Lincoln had already laid the groundwork that would save the nation via the words of his Second Inaugural Address.


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Phebe Cunningham: A Courageous Frontier Woman

I am going to take the liberty of wandering off topic today and make an entry unrelated to the Civil War. The story I am going to tell today comes from America’s colonial period, and it is the true story of a brave, courageous young woman, my 5th Great Grandmother, Phebe Tucker Cunningham. Phebe was born in England in 1761 and her family moved into the western counties of Virginia when she was a teenager. In 1780, Phebe, who is described as having been 5 feet 2 inches tall, with long auburn hair, beautiful green eyes, and a lovely fair complexion, met a young man named Thomas Cunningham. Within weeks, she fell in love with the frontier farmer and they were married that spring at Prickett’s Fort, near what is now Fairmont, West Photo-1Virginia. At that time of their wedding, the area was still a rough, untamed land, subject to sudden Indian raids, primarily by the Wyandot and Shawnee, and the stockade was built as a refuge for local homesteaders. William Haymond, leader of the Pricketts Fort Militia, performed the ceremony. Stories passed down form the time say that the wedding was “well attended” and a good time was had by all.

The newlyweds initially settled on Thomas’ farm near Ten Mile Creek, where their first child, Henry, was born in 1781. Soon, however, they moved further southwest to land owned by Thomas’ brother, Edward, near Bingamon Creek, somewhere between the current towns of Peora and Shinnston, West Virginia. There, Thomas and Edward built cabins for their respective families and began to farm the land together. Over the next four years, Thomas and Phebe would have three more children, Lydia, born in 1782; Walter, born in 1784; and Thomas, Jr., born in 1785.

During the summer of 1785, some six months after little Tommy’s birth, Thomas left Phebe, now a young woman of 24, and their four children to travel to Pittsburgh to purchase supplies for the farm. One soft, warm evening, Phebe finished washing a red and white coverlet, placing it on the fence to dry, and made a dinner of bear meat, new potatoes, fresh peas, applesauce, a fresh baked vinegar pie, and sweet milk for her children. Her husband was expected home at any time, so she set his place at the table. Twenty yards away, Phebe’s sister-in-law, Sarah, also cooked dinner for her family and, soon, both families were seated for dinner in their respective cabins, not knowing that danger was hovering nearby.

That danger came from a raiding party of Wyandot Indians, who were at that moment crouched in the woods, watching and waiting for the right moment to move from their hiding place and attack the farm. As the Cunningham families ate dinner, the Indians crept out from the woods and hid behind the coverlet drying on the fence. Then, one of the Wyandot, a tall, heavy man painted for war in red, yellow, and black, crossed the yard and crept toward Phebe’s cabin. As she was eating her dinner, Phebe turned her head and saw the shadow of a tomahawk crossing the threshold of the cabin door. The Wyandot warrior, who was carrying a musket in addition to his tomahawk, quickly entered the room and closed the door behind him. Apparently, he knew Edward was in the other cabin and likely was armed. Knowing that this cabin was occupied by a woman and her young children, it seems he decided to seek a safe place from which to observe and fire upon the other cabin.

Photo-2As Phebe and her children sat frozen in their chairs, the Wyandot helped himself to their food, eating a potato, all the pie, and drinking down much of the milk. He then turned to the small window and firing port in the cabin wall that faced Edward and Sarah’s cabin, and peered across the yard. Edward, who had seen the Indian enter Phebe’s cabin, had quickly grabbed his loaded musket and watched as the warrior came to the window. Seeing that Edward was watching him and was even now taking aim with his rifle, the Wyandot quickly raised his musket and fired at Edward. Phebe’s brother-in-law saw the Indian’s rifle being raised just in time to avoid the shot, as the bark from the log close to his head was knocked off by the ball and flew into his face. He quickly returned fire and the warrior ducked below the window.

As Edward rushed to reload, another of the raiding party jumped from hiding and ran across the yard toward Edward and Sarah’s cabin. Hearing his war cry, Edward turned the now reloaded musket and took aim on his new target. As soon as the warrior saw the weapon pointed in his direction, he turned and tried to get out of range. However, just as he was about to spring over the fence, Edward fired and the Wyandot fell forward. The ball hit him in the leg, fracturing his thigh bone, and he hobble over the fence, taking shelter behind the coverlet before Edward could reload.

Meanwhile, the Wyandot who had fired from Phebe’s cabin saw his comrade’s misfortune and apparently decided to make an escape. He turned from the window and moved to the back wall of the cabin, where he began to cut a hole large enough to crawl through. While he hacked at the wall with his tomahawk, Phebe made no attempt to get out. She feared any escape attempt would be easily seen and draw the warrior’s anger. Plus, even if she managed to escape, she would likely be killed by others from the raiding party before she could make it to Edward and Sarah’s cabin. Worst of all, however, she knew that it was impossible for her to take the children with her, and she could not simply leave them alone with the Wyandot warrior. As she watched him chop a hole in the cabin wall, Phebe held the forlorn hope that he would simply withdraw as soon as he could, without molesting any of them. Tragically, that would not be the case.

Once the hole was complete, the Wyandot grabbed another potato and shoved it in his mouth, then proceeded to set fire to blankets from the nearby beds. Thick smoke began to fill the room and pour out the doors and windows, masking the view from Edward and Sarah’s cabin. Once he was sure he would not be seen escaping, the Wyandot grabbed Phebe’s two-year old son, Walter and smashed his skull with the tomahawk before his mother’s horrified eyes. He jerked Phebe up from her chair, put the infant, Tommy, in her arms and ordered her and the other two children to climb out through the hole in the wall. The Wyandot, who continued to drag Walter’s lifeless body with him, then led her away from the house with the baby in her arms and Henry and Lydia hanging onto her skirts. She and the children were hidden from Edward's view because of all of the smoke as they were taken into the woods where the remainder of the raiding party waited. The warrior promptly took Walter’s scalp, tossed his body aside, and the raiding party watched as the flames from Phebe’s cabin jumped to the roof of her in-law’s home.

Their hope was that the flames would drive the family from the house, but, soon, they could see that Edward and his oldest son had ascended to the loft, threw off the loose boards which covered it, and were attempting to extinguish the fire. The raiding party opened fire on them in an attempt to stop them from putting out the blaze, but this effort failed. The two men soon had the fire out and began to return the warriors’ shots. Seeing this was target was going to be too hard to take, they elected to withdraw, taking their wounded comrade and captives with them. But, before they traveled more than a few yards, the raiding party decided to lighten their load. Whether out of anger for their lack of success or merely because they saw little value in Phebe’s two oldest children, the Wyandot murdered Henry, age four, with a tomahawk blow and then did the same to little Lydia, age three. Phebe watched motionless in horror, and expected to receive the same fate, along with Tommy. But, for some reason, the raiding party decided to spare them for now. We can only guess what their reasons may have been for allowing Phebe to live, but one theory is that they were fascinated by her auburn hair and believed she would make a good trade with another tribe. With their wounded comrade carried on a rough litter, the Wyandots and their two surviving captives crossed the nearby ridge to Bingamon Creek, where they took shelter for the night in a cave. After nightfall, the raiding party returned to the farm, and seeing that the rest of the Cunningham family had fled, they plundered the cabin before setting it ablaze.

Edward Cunningham and his family had actually been hiding in the woods nearby and watched helpless as their home burned to the ground. In the morning, they made their way to the nearest house and gave the alarm. A company of men was soon raised to go in pursuit of the raiding party. When they came to Cunningham's farm, they found both houses now in ashes, and soon discovered the bodies of Phebe’s three children. After a quick burial, they set off in an attempt to find the Wyandot's trail. Unfortunately, the raiders had covered their tracks well and, initially, no traces of them could be discovered.

However, within a few days, evidence of their trail was eventually found. The search party was able to follow their path to within a short distance of the cave in which the Wyandot were hiding, but could track them no further. Inside the cave, a warrior stood over Phebe with an upraised tomahawk to prevent her from crying for help. Phebe held her infant son close to her breast fearing he might cry and the warriors would kill them both. At times, she could hear the search party walking on the rocks over their heads, but there was no way she could call to them. Hearing the whites so come close, the raiding party elected to leave that night. The wounded Wyandot had died during their stay in the cave, and they hid his body in a deep pool of water near the cave.

The Wyandotwarriors traveled west for over 10 days, and, during the long journey on foot, the only food Phebe was given consisted of the head of a wild turkey and three papaws. Oppressed by fatigue and hunger, she walked with the raiding party, carrying her infant in her arms. Little Tommy nursed at her breast for milk in vain for, without nourishment or water, Phebe’s breasts soon could not provide it and only blood came instead. Seeing this, the Wyandots must have decided the infant was no longer worth keeping and, as Phebe held Tommy, they killed him with the tomahawk, ripped him from her arms, and cast his body into the brush.

The group then continued the journey, dragging Phebe with them. The pain, grief, and utter despair she must have felt can only be imagined. In addition, she also suffered physically, as one might guess. Her feet soon became so badly torn that she could barely walk and the Wyandots refused her requests to remove her stockings so she could attend to her wounds. Soon, however, they arrived at a Delaware village, where they permitted her to rest. While she rested, one of the Delaware women took pity on her, applying an herb mixture to her swollen, bleeding feet, which finally relieved the pain.

Photo-3At last, the raiding party arrived at their home village, located in an area that is now Madison County, Ohio, having journeyed over 200 miles on foot. The Wyandot who had captured Phebe turned her over to the family of the warrior who had died. Her clothes were not changed, and she was compelled to wear them, dirty as they were. Phebe feared this was a bad omen but the chief of the village, a kindly man named "Darby,” ordered that she not be molested or treated unkindly in any way. In addition, the women of the village, having heard what the warriors had done to her children, could not help but sympathize with her plight and also became her allies. Phebe would spend the next three years living among the Wyandot, acting as a servant to the dead warrior’s family. She became well acquainted with all the inhabitants of the village during this time, as well as other white captives, some of whom became lifelong friends. But, while she was not mistreated, she longed to go home and to see her husband again.

In January 1786, while Phebe was a captive of the Wyandot, a treaty was concluded at the mouth of the Great Miami River between the United States government and both the Shawnee and Wyandot tribes. Article 1 of that treaty provided that three Indian hostages would be taken by the Americans until “all the prisoners, white and black, taken in the late war from among the citizens of the United States, by the Shawanoe nation, or by any other Indian or Indians residing in their towns, shall be restored.” As a result, a series of conferences began between the Wyandots and American treaty commissioners. One evening in what was probably late 1787 or early 1788, she noticed an uncommon excitement in the village and learned that the notorious American traitor and renegade, Simon Girty, had arrived in the village in preparation for acting as a translator at a conference to be held in a few days at the foot of the Maumee Rapids near Lake Erie.

Photo-4 Girty was born in Pennsylvania, but was captured and adopted by the Senecas as a child. After seven years in captivity, he returned to his family, but soon decided that he preferred the Native American way of life. During the American Revolution, he initially sided with the colonial revolutionaries, but later elected to change sides, serving with the Loyalists and the British army. During the war, he became infamous among Americans for commanding a group of Delawares that ambushed and massacred American forces near Dayton, Kentucky, opposite Cincinnati. Girty was also present during the torture and execution of Continental Army Colonel William Crawford by the Delawares. Two witnesses of this torture and execution survived and were later interviewed regarding these events. While one suggested that Girty was a pitiless instigator and complacent in Crawford;s death, the other claimed that Girty pleaded with the Delawares on Crawford's behalf until threatened with death himself. Of course, the former account was popularized and later served to vilify Girty during and after his lifetime. Further, Girty is also credited with saving the lives of many American prisoners of the Native Americans, often by buying their freedom at his own expense, and Phebe would be one of this fortunate group.

She determined to ask Girty to intercede for her liberation, and, the next day, as he passed nearby on horseback, she ran to him and grabbed his stirrup, begging for his help. For a while he seemed to make light of her request, telling her that she seemed to be well treated, and that, if “he were disposed to do her a kindness he could not as his saddle bags were too small to conceal her.” But soon he was overwhelmed by her pleas and decided to act on her behalf. He paid her ransom to the Wyandot, and had her conveyed to the commissioners for negotiating with the Indians. There, another ransom was paid and she was taken by the commissioners to Kentucky.

Once south of the Ohio River, she met two men named Long and Denton who had been at the treaty conference in an attempt to obtain information about their children taken captive years before. They had been unsuccessful and, as they were about to journey home into the interior of Kentucky, they offered Phebe use of a horse. She soon found a group headed for Virginia and joined them. Within a few weeks, she proceeded by the way of Shenandoah to Harrison County and, finally, to her home. When she arrived, she learned that Thomas, having heard she was free and in Kentucky, had set out to find her. Luckily, while he was enroute, he received word that Phebe was headed home, and he galloped back to Virginia. In May 1788, after over three years of separation, Thomas and Phebe were reunited. During that time, many would tell Thomas that Phebe was likely dead, but he never gave up hope and never stopped searching for her.

Thomas and Phebe Cunningham would have seven more children in the years that followed and, in 1807, they would move to a new homestead in what is today Ritchie County, West Virginia. Thomas would become a Methodist minister and, in 1810, he established one of the first Methodist churches in westerPhoto-5n Virginia. He died in 1826 and Phebe moved to live with her daughter, Rachel (my 3rd Great Grandmother), and her husband, Isaac Collins, in the village of Freed in Calhoun County. There, she would live to the age of 84 and become the respected and beloved family matriarch. After her death, she was buried in the Snider-Gainer cemetery in Freed. Years later, the courage and fortitude of this frontier woman would be formally recognized with a monument erected at her grave by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Lessons Learned

When I was pursuing my graduate degree on the Civil War and was nearing its completion, one professor posed a most interesting question to my class. He asked us if our studies had changed our views on warfare and, if so, to describe those changes. What lessons, he asked, had we learned that were still applicable today. At the time, I found this a very intriguing exercise and I still do. I was looking over my notes on the subject today and discovered that, despite all I have gone on to learn since those academic studies, my conclusion are the same and, if possible, I feel even stronger about them. My course of study changed the way in which I viewed warfare both by reinforcing some long held opinions while opening my eyes to other possibilities. Among those, there were, however, a few particular areas in which my study of the Civil War was especially influential.

First, there is the influential role that a few key individuals can play in the outcome of a war. While it is generally accepted that wars are the undertakings of entire societies, entire cultures, and entire nations, it is still remarkable how much influence certain individuals can have in shaping its course and outcome. In doing so, it is not just a matter of their position; it is a matter of individual personalities and character. In looking at the Civil War, we can readily see the role played by Lincoln, Davis, Grant, and Lee simply by the positions they held. But, it is only by studying these men and their experiences that we see how they, as individuals, made a difference, for good or bad, in the war’s eventual outcome.

Photo-1 Abraham Lincoln is the most unlikely of men to have been an effective Commander-in-Chief. While he had no military training or background, he had everything else one could want in a wartime political leader. He had a single-minded sense of determination and a dedication to the nation’s cause that was unequaled. More than that, he possessed a marvelously multidimensional mind that gave him vision and the ability to learn. By painful trial and error, he would come to see not only how to achieve his goal of restoring the Union, but also how to operate with his senior military commander as an effective Commander-in-Chief. He also would articulate his nation’s war aims clearly and, thereby, enable his military leadership to eventually fight the war to achieve those aims. Finally, he would see war as a hard and terrible thing, but one necessary to save the world’s best, last hope for freedom.

Photo-2 Jefferson Davis, on the other hand, had all the training and experience one could possibly want in a Commander-in-Chief. A graduate of West Point, a veteran of the Mexican War, and a former Secretary of War, Davis seems the ideal candidate to be a highly effective wartime Commander-in-Chief. Further, he was a man of intense dedication to his cause and it can be truthfully stated that no man worked harder to see that cause through. But, at the same time, Davis was stiff and unbending in his opinions. He had little vision, either political or strategic. Where Lincoln ably developed and articulated his nation’s war aims, Davis is virtually mute on that point. Worse, Davis was man who seemed unable or unwilling to learn from his mistakes. As a result, Southern strategy was stagnant and untenable, and Davis was a most ineffective Commander-in-Chief.

Photo-3 Ulysses Grant, meanwhile, was a man whose life seemed marked by failure. But, in war, he would prove himself. Not an intellectual or a learned strategist, Grant was a simple man who possessed remarkable common sense and an extraordinary ability to both recognize and execute a calculated risk. Like Lincoln, he had a profound ability to learn from both success and error, and, more importantly, to apply what he learned in an effective manner. He also had a strong sense of professionalism that allowed him to overlook matters of personal ego and, instead, dedicate himself to the task of his nation. He understood the role of a military commander, its responsibilities, and, most importantly, his place in relationship to his Commander-in-Chief. As such, he was a partner with Lincoln in winning the war and creating the military command structure which serves as the basis for the one employed to this day.

Photo-4 Finally, there is Robert E. Lee, the soldierly gentleman from Virginia. He too was man of great character, determination, and dedication. At times, it was his strength of will alone that seems to have held the Army of Northern Virginia together. He was a masterful tactician at times and, like Grant, he could seize the initiative with a gifted sense of the calculated risk. But, at the same time, he hated personal conflict and, as a result, could not bring himself to discipline his key commanders when it was necessary to do so. He also had less ability to analyze and learn from his mistakes, especially in the strategic sense. While he seems to have understood the South’s tenuous overall strategic and political position, he apparently did not possess the strategic vision to see beyond his own theater and his army. As a result, when Lee’s Commander-in-Chief needed strategic advice, he received the narrow views of a man who could see no farther than the Eastern Theater and the Army of Northern Virginia.

These four men are pronounced studies in how personality can influence events. Had any one of them been different, the future of an entire nation might have changed. But, my studies also showed me how important events in a war can also turn on individuals of lesser position, men on the line in tactical situations. Typically, they are facing what, in terms of the entire war, is only a single, isolated moment. The situation is often fluid, crisis is imminent, and only their action will make a difference. In this category of individual, there are numerous examples. Photo-5 There is Thomas “Stone wall” Jackson at First Manassas, standing for all to see, holding the line when others were running. Then, there is John Buford, deciding to hold and fight a defense in depth on the ridges west of Gettysburg, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, stubbornly refusing to abandon his position on Little Round Top. There are hundreds more examples and this war, as well as any war, is full of these kinds of moments and the men who find themselves facing fate head-on. Some of them are up to the task, possessing that special brand of moral courage that comes to the forefront in a crisis, while many more are found wanting. In either case, entire battles turn upon them and, with them, can go the fates of nations.

Photo-6 The other thing I learned in studying the Civil War is to never doubt the determination of the average soldier. No matter how good or bad a general’s plan might be, they have the ability make a difference. So many engagements in the Civil War were part of an elegant tactical plan, but, once the shooting started, they rapidly turned into a “solder’s fight” where men simply fought tenaciously because they were there, with no rhyme or reason nor an understanding of why they were there. How well they fought would often determine the outcome, not the plan that they were a part of that day. This war also teaches us that men do, indeed, fight for the comrades around them, but they also will fight for a cause. A study of Civil War’s soldiers shows them to have been men with well-developed personal views on the war and the particular cause they were fighting for. Armed with a dual motivation of comrade and cause, a soldier will overcome great odds, and prevail over the harshness of their daily existence, separation from home and family, and the despair of ever-present death and disease. In the end, they will sacrifice everything if needed. But, these men still have their limits. To overcome such odds, they must believe in the men who lead them as much as the men around them and the cause they are defending. They must believe that the man who leads them, who holds ultimate command, will not sacrifice them needlessly and, above all, can bring them victory. In essence, they require and demand nothing less than what they are offering themselves.

These few lessons are excellent examples of why, even after 145 years, the Civil War continues to function as an excellent classroom for those who study the art and science of warfare. It is worthy of our study and our understanding for so many reasons. So, whenever you pick up a book on the subject, open your mind, look beyond just the words on the page in front of you, and you will see all that there is to learn.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Walk at Antietam, Part 2: From the Sunken Road to Burnside Bridge

Photo-9 After completing my stroll around The Cornfield, I went back to the Visitor’s Center and started on the Bloody Lane Trail. Here, fighting began about the time it ceased in The Cornfield. The Union II Corps was moving towards the main line of battle in The Cornfield, but its divisions became separated as Sedgwick’s headed across the field towards the West Woods, while French and Richardson turned towards what was the Confederate center. The Southerners had made use of an old country lane called the Sunken Road because the roadbed was several feet below the level of the fields on either side. As a result, the roadbed made a natural trench line, running roughly west to east. When General French saw a line of Confederate troops there, he turned his division and began a series of assaults.

Photo-10 Given the strength of the Confederate position, these attacks were blunted time and again. The Confederate fire was described by one Union officer as “murderous.” Most of French’s attacks focused on the left of the Confederates in the road but, when Richardson’s Division arrived, they extended the Federal attack to the right. Richardson’s attack was led by the famous Irish Brigade, commanded by the legendary Irish patriot, Francis Meagher. The Irishmen pressed their attacks, but took heavy losses and still the Confederates held the road. After three hours of fighting, Union casualties were mounting and there was no sign of a breakthrough. Then, one Union brigade under General John Caldwell became disoriented as they approached the road and accidentally found themselves on the Confederate right flank. Caldwell immediately took advantage of this lucky mistake and ordered his men to attack down the road, pouring an enfilading fire into the Southern ranks, and rolling up their flank. Now, the Sunken Road’s natural advantage turned it into a death trap. Confederate soldiers fell by the dozens, many as they tried to climb out of the road bed to retreat.

The entire line collapsed and Union troops poured over the embankment, slaughtering the Confederates, both those who were desperately trying to hang on as well as those attempting to flee to safety. When the fighting was over, the road was choked with dead and dying men. So many Confederates had been cut down in the roadbed that one Federal noted it was impossible to walk down the road without stepping on a corpse. As a result, this once peaceful country road, which up to that day had seen nothing but the occasional farm wagon headed to market, became forever known as The Bloody Lane.

 Photo-11 From there, I drove to the Burnside Bridge. This old bridge, which was called the Rohrbach Bridge before the battle, is perhaps the most popularly recognizable feature from the Antietam battlefield. Before the battle, this area was a favorite with local children, who wiled away summer afternoons splashing and swimming in Antietam Creek. But, on this September afternoon, the quiet stillness of the creek was torn away by the sounds of battle as Burnside’s IX Corps attempted to force a crossing of the bridge in order to gain a position on the Confederate right flank.

Photo-12 The creek and the bridge sit at the foot of a high, steep bluff, from which 500 Georgians under Robert Toombs held back most of IX Corps. This natural advantage allowed Toombs men to pour a murderous volley into any column trying to force the narrow path over the bridge. For hours, one regiment after another tried and failed to gain the far side of the creek. Finally, General Edward Ferrero went to the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania Infantry Regiments and ordered them to make one more try. He shouted to the Pennsylvanians, “Will you take the bridge, boys!” Photo-13 However, he heard no “huzzahs” in response and his call was met with only a stony silence. The 51st Pennsylvania had recently been disciplined with the loss of their alcohol rations and they were not a happy group of soldiers. Finally, one of the Pennsylvanians shouted back, “If we do, will you give us back our whiskey?” Ferrero replied that, if they took the bridge, he would get them their whisky even if he had to order it from New York and pay for it himself. With that, the 51st Pennsylvania formed up, charged the bridge, and took it. The general was true to his word and a shipment of whiskey found its way to the 51st a few weeks later.

Photo-14One of the other interesting sights at Burnside Bridge is its Witness Tree. This tall Sycamore tree located at the northeast end of the bridge was here at the time of the battle, as can be seen in the photo below. It was only about 15 feet high in 1862 and its trunk was ripped by rifle fire. One can well imagine that, if you cut through it, you find more than a few lead slugs still buried there. Now, with over 140 years of peace and fed by the waters of Antietam Creek, the tree towers over the bridge. Whenever I visit this place, I always reach out and touch the tree, wanting to somehow connect with a still living thing that was here that day. Gazing up at it, you cannot help but wish it could tell its story and describe what it saw that September afternoon.

I finished up my trip to Antietam by visiting the national cemetery. There, a tall, massive granite monument towers over the soldiers’ graves. The monument is topped with a statue of a soldier, known to the locals as “Old Simon,” standing in the “at rest” position, gazing north towards home. Around him, lie more than 4,000 Union soldiers plus the graves of a few more recent veterans. As I walked among the headstones, I was reminded of a recent conversation with an acquaintance of mine who told me about Photo-15 a friend of theirs who thought any interest in history was silly.  Her friend said that history was nothing but meaningless dates, numbers, and names, and that it had no relevance in the modern world. What an utterly shortsighted, self-involved, and almost criminally stupid point of view. I thought to myself, I would like that person to come here, to look at each grave, and tell the man lying there that they are just a meaningless date, number, and name, and that they had no value, that they did nothing, that their sacrifice meant nothing.

I always walk away from Antietam, and from any battlefield, feeling humble and more grounded. This place reminded me once again that the stress of work, of troubled relationships, and just living in the 21st century really does not amount to much, not when compared to what happened here. Here, ordinary people did the extraordinary and were willing to sacrifice, to give that last full measure of devotion, for something far greater than themselves. And, in doing so, they gave us and all the generations that have followed a wonderful gift in the freedom we enjoy and an even greater challenge to continue their work.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Walk at Antietam, Part 1: From the Dunker Church to The Cornfield

Yesterday, on a warm, humid June Saturday, I made my third visit to Antietam and I wanted to record my thoughts along with some photographs I took. A business trip had caused me to be in the Washington DC metro area over a weekend and, as I had not been to Antietam in over five years, I decided to make the journey across the Potomac to the Maryland countryside. I think that, in many ways, Antietam is my favorite battlefield. Unlike Gettysburg, it has not been commercialized and, even on a Saturday in the middle of the summer tourist season, it is quiet and serene. As a result, it is a place where it is easy to transport yourself back in time, to imagine, and to feel the tragic events of that September day in 1862.

Plus, all that is heightened by the fact that this battlefield is so immensely significant to history. Its gently rolling hills and meandering streams are the sight of the bloodiest single day in American history. Over 23,000 Americans would fall here, dead and wounded—three times the number of casualties on D-Day. But, more importantly, the outcome of the battle would forever change America and alter the course of the war. While the battle was really a bloody, costly draw, Lee’s retreat into Virginia made it a Federal victory and allowed President Lincoln to announce his Emancipation Proclamation. Therefore, Antietam became what James McPherson has called the “Crossroads of Freedom.”

On my previous two visits to Antietam, I used the National Park Service’s excellent auto tour system to see the battlefield, only dismounting my car to walk in the immediate vicinity of the various tour stops. This time, however, I decided to do what I had done at Gettysburg and some other battlefields: walk. I find that the perspective you get and the “feel” of a place like Antietam really changes when you actually walk the ground, and that was certainly true yesterday. It was, at times, inspiring, chilling, and also terribly sad.

Luckily, the National Park Service has put in a new series of extended trails with a guidebook available for each one. I picked up the guidebooks for The Cornfield and The Bloody Lane Trail at the Visitor’s Center and, between those trails and my own self-initiated walks; I ended up hiking over six miles--it was an amazing experience. I began, however, on the high ground between the Visitor’s Center and the Dunker Church, a small white building across the old Hagerstown Pike. The ground I stood upon had been held by a 19-gun Confederate battery commanded by Colonel Stephen D. Lee. Lee and his gunners fired furiously from this position for over three hours until Federal artillery finally swept them away. Lee would lose over a fourth of his men, many of whom still lay where they had fallen when photographer Alexander Gardner took the photo below.

Photo-1 Across from Lee’s battery was the Dunker Church. This humble place of worship, founded by a small German sect in 1852, was at the epicenter of much of the fighting that began on this portion of the battlefield at around 6:00 a.m., September 17, 1862. As the maelstrom of violence engulfed it from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., its white washed brick was scarred with rifle and artillery fire and its roof severely damaged. Worse, as can be seen in the photo below, the grounds around this quiet respite of peace and prayer would be covered with the dead and dying from both sides.

Photo-2 While still near the Visitor’s Center, I came upon the memorial to the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, and I would see many more memorials like it during the day. I have a special place in my heart for these unit memorials and it is sad that they seem so unappreciated by many visitors. What these visitors do not realize is that, unlike the often large and even gaudy state memorials on the battlefield which were funded by the state legislatures, these memorials were often paid for by the surviving veterans themselves, with some supplements from private donations. It took decades in many cases to gather the money, design and complete the memorial, and then place it where the regiment fought. When the memorial was finally in place, a dedication ceremony would be held and attended by those veterans still living. These ceremonies and the memorials themselves meant a very great deal to these former soldiers, many of whom were now farmers, merchants, husbands, fathers, and even grandfathers. They would bring their wives, their children, and their grandchildren to see where they had fought, and listen to their stories. But, most of all, they would remember their friends, their dear comrades, who died on this ground and who never came home to live their lives in peace. I wish everyone who gazes up at these monuments would understand the depth of feeling they represent and take a minute to remember that the statue or the bronze plaque they are looking at symbolizes so very much.


I moved on from there to my first walking tour at The Cornfield. The path around this area is nearly 1.6 miles long, circles a 30-acre area, and took me over an hour to walk. It encompasses an area that saw some of the most desperate and bloody fighting in this nation’s history. It was from The North Woods on the northern edge of the area that the Union I Corps emerged in the dim light of dawn to begin its assault south, through Mr. David Miller’s cornfield, toward Stonewall Jackson’s corps, who aligned themselves behind a fence at the southern end of the field. As the Union troops advanced, they marched through corn that towered over them. As a result, they could not see what lay ahead. At first, artillery shells burst among them and rounds of solid shot would come rumbling through the rows Photo-4of corn, cutting men down. Then, suddenly, the deep rattle of musketry could be heard and waves of bullets ripped through the corn. Men went down by the dozens, but they kept advancing. When at last they cleared the corn, they could see Jackson’s men crouched behind the fence ahead. They let loose with volleys of their own and then charged at the double quick, only to be met with even a more intense fire from the Confederates. Over the course of three hours, I Corps would make two attacks and, with the second, Jackson’s line began to break.  The Confederate general called up his reserves, Hood’s Texas Brigade, and ordered them to counterattack. By now, the artillery and rifle fire was so intense that the tall, ripe corn was cut down to the ground, looking as if a giant scythe had swept through it.

Photo-5My path took me from The North Woods around the eastern side of the Union approach to The East Woods. From there, I turned to walk west across the field from a point known as The Corner of Death. It was given that name because, later in the morning, as Union troops from the XII Corps emerged from the woods to begin their own attack, they found the ground littered with dead and wounded men. One soldier from Ohio wrote, “The sight at the fence where the enemy was standing when we gave our first fire was awful beyond description, dead men were literally piled upon and across each other.”

I crossed The Cornfield, finally arriving at the southern end, where men from Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina stood, defending the fence until they no longer could hold back the Federal tide. As Hood and his Texans went forward from their reserve position, they drove the I Corps back. However, once the Texans had gained the far side of the field, it was their turn to be cut down by the score. They would break and retreat back beyond The Cornfield to The West Woods.


As I made the turn back north towards my car and walked along the old Hagerstown Pike, I noticed a lone artillery piece sitting amongst the corn across the road. Alone and barely noticeable, this gun marks a most unique event from the battle. Here, Battery B of the 4th U.S. Artillery was positioned to attempt to stop Hood and his men as they advanced. Under intense fire, Federal cannoneers began to fall, including the battery commander, Captain Campbell. Photo-7 As Campbell went down, the battery’s bugler, Johnny Cook, a 15-year old boy from Cincinnati, came forward and helped the wounded officer to safety. Once he had gotten the captain to the rear, however, he ran back to the battery and began to load the guns himself under fire from an enemy that was now coming perilously close. Suddenly, he looked up to find that the guns were being sighted and aimed by an unlikely assistant, Photo-8General John Gibbon, commander of the Union’s Iron Brigade. A most unusual pairing, the general from West Point aimed and the former paper boy turned bugler reloaded, blasting holes in Hood’s line until the Confederates fell back. For his actions, Johnny Cook would be awarded the Medal of Honor, the youngest American to be so honored for bravery.

At last, I reached my car and looked back at the ground I had just walked. Inside those 30 acres of Mr. Miller’s cornfield, over 8,000 men fell in 3 horrific hours of fighting. Now, it is as quiet and as peaceful as it might have been before the battle. But, it is still forever changed, forever transformed into something else. Now, it is The Cornfield, as though there is no other in the world.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Gettysburg Address

Without question, The Gettysburg Address is one of the most famous speeches in American history. Children recite in school, or at least they used to, and many of its passages are instantly recognized by many Americans. But, I would venture to say that most people do not truly understand its importance or, more importantly, even begin to sense the magnificence and power of Abraham Lincoln’s 269 word oration. It has inspired much historiography, most notably the recent work of Garry Wills and Gabor Boritt.

Photo-1Every word, every nuance, has been examined and the speech has even inspired many myths. One myth holds that the speech was allegedly written on the back of an envelope, while another states that the address was considered a failure by the audience, the press, and Lincoln himself. The envelope myth has most certainly been debunked by historians and, in fact, no one is precisely sure what copy was the actual text as spoken on November 19, 1863, given that there are five different written versions. However, only one copy was actually signed by Lincoln and, while it was written down several months after the address, that is the version most of us are familiar with. As for its popularity at the time, most recollections simply state that the audience was surprised by the brevity of the speech and the press primarily divided their opinions along political lines. As for Lincoln himself, most recent scholarship seems to indicate that he felt his point had been delivered.

Photo-2So, what was Lincoln’s point? While I cannot write a book here and provide the detailed analysis that men like Wills and Boritt already have, I will try to give you my views and do so as simply as possible. To do so, however, it is important to place the speech in context, both in terms of the war and the place it was delivered.

As for the war, in November 1863, the conflict was in the midst of its third full year. The previous summer, Union armies had been victorious both at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. But the fall had brought defeat at Chickamauga, which placed the defeated Union Army of the Cumberland under siege in Chattanooga. However, as Lincoln delivered his address at Gettysburg, the newly assigned Union commander in the West, Ulysses S. Grant, was preparing to break that siege, opening the door to the Deep South.

Photo-3 Still, the coming spring and summer would bring new campaigns, new battles, and ever more casualties. The war had already resulted in death and suffering on a scale the nation had never imagined possible, and Lincoln carried that great burden on his shoulders. His photographs from this time show deep lines on his face and one can sense his own intense suffering. He visited the hospitals in Washington D.C. constantly and saw firsthand the damage the war levied in broken bodies and souls. The nation was becoming war weary and the months ahead would not bring a swift end to the country’s pain. But, while Lincoln felt every bit of that pain, he also was keenly aware of what he called the “awful arithmetic of war.” He had not and would not lose his resolve to see the war through.

Photo-4 As for the place of the address, Gettysburg, of course, had been the site of the monumental three-day battle between the Union Army of the Potomac and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Following the battle, it was decided to place a military cemetery on the battlefield where the remains of Unions soldiers killed in the fighting would be interred. The President, along with former Massachusetts senator and noted orator, Edward Everett, were invited to the dedication ceremonies. Everett, however, was to deliver the main dedication oration, while Lincoln was only to provide a “few appropriate remarks.” Everett’s two-hour oration, a length typical for mid-19th century speechmaking, clearly focused on what was likely his and the audience’s vision of the battle as a monumental turning point, a great signal victory. And, while Lincoln certainly said nothing to indicate he felt otherwise, we know that he did not share that view. He was, of course, grateful that General Meade and his army had turned Lee back, but he saw the battle as a lost opportunity to destroy Lee’s army and thus hasten the war’s conclusion. In his mind, Lee and his formidable army were still safe, lying in wait in northern Virginia. Bringing them to bay would require even more bloodshed and sacrifice. I raise this issue solely for one reason: While Gettysburg was the place for this address, on that November day he could have and, likely, would have given the same speech at any battlefield of the war.

That brings us to the purpose and the meaning of his words. Lincoln begins with a simple summation of what he saw as the basis of the war. First, he reminds us that the nation was created as one where all men were to be equal. This is important to note because, here, he is really citing the Declaration of Independence, which he viewed as our “moral manifesto,” as the rock upon which the nation rested. The war, in turn, was testing whether a nation “so conceived and dedicated” could survive against those who challenged its very moral basis. Interestingly, however, Lincoln moves quickly past the idea that the ceremony of which he was part could do anything to commemorate, consecrate, or hallow the ground on which they stood—that had already been done by those who had fought there and sacrificed their lives. Rather, he said, they were there to rededicate themselves and the nation to the “great task remaining.” And what was that great task? Was it victory? Yes, it was certainly that. Was it restoration of the Union? Of course, it was that as well. But, it was also something far more, and it was something that would be, in Lincoln’s mind, the product of both—It was a “new birth of freedom.”

For Lincoln, that was the true goal—the creation of a nation free from the tyranny of human slavery, where all were free to reap the fruits of their labor, where all had value simply for who they were as human beings, where all had the opportunity to make a better life for themselves, no matter their race, their religion, or their ethnicity. And, I believe that, while Lincoln spoke in the sense of the more near term, he knew in his heart that a long road was ahead to truly achieve that kind of freedom in any complete sense. But first, to bring about the birth, victory must come and that would hopefully ensure the preservation of government by, of, and for the people.

So, in that sense, I believe that the true majesty of Lincoln’s words come from seeing them as a challenge to us all, to the generations that would follow, to continue the struggle, to not let those who died at Gettysburg, or hundreds of other places in the all other wars that followed, to have died in vain. In that sense, Lincoln, perhaps, said far more than he realized, and I believe the challenge he laid down that November day is as viable today as it was 147 years ago. As the great narrative historian, Bruce Catton, would write, our republic, our nation, “will survive only if it lives up to the promise that was inherent in its genesis. The fulfillment of that promise is in our keeping.” And that is why I cherish The Gettysburg Address so dearly.