Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Second Manassas, 149 years later...

With today marking the last of the three days marking the 149th anniversary of the Battle of Second Manassas, I decided to utilize my weekend (I have Tuesdays and Wednesdays off) to take a day trip to Manassas National Battlefield Park. While a largely overlooked and misunderstood fight, Second Manassas had implications which were more wide ranging than the first. For me, perhaps, the most significant consequence of this battle was that it was the precursor to Lee's invasion of Maryland and the Antietam Campaign.

As I drove around the park and did some hiking today, I was struck by the tranquility of the place. When I was there for the 150th of First Manassas in July, I didn't have much time amid the craziness to see the park, and I certainly did not have any time to view the Second Manassas sites. Today, visiting Brawner Farm in particular, I was actually surprised by the sparse numbers of visitors on such an historic occasion. As with the sparse crowds at the 150th of First Manassas in July, seeing so few people at the park today reminded me of how important it is to teach younger generations, especially mine, of the importance of these places.

Certainly, it being a weekday when many are heading back to school limited the number of visitors. At Antietam, we have been seeing fewer folks as of late as well. However, while it may be that interest in the Civil War is as high as it has ever been since the veterans of it passed away, we must work to make sure it stays that way. My trip today got me thinking about the hurdles facing Civil War historians in the years of the sesquicentennial and beyond. Civil War historians cannot assume that the general public knows about the importance of these places, and they certainly cannot assume that the general public can tell good history from bad.

It is up to those who are tasked with interpreting and preserving those fields to generate interest and teach others of the importance of these places. That is where battlefield preservation and GOOD historians come into play. On both accounts, I am extremely glad to say I work at Antietam, where a dedication to preservation and good history is a shared trait among my outstanding colleagues. Our task is not only to get people interested in history, but also to lead them beyond the history books and out into the fields themselves.

Now, back to my visit today.

On August 30, 1862, James Longstreet's men swept through onto the Union flank along Chinn Ridge, nearly destroying John Pope's Army of Virginia and securing a stunning Confederate victory. This afternoon, I was out on Chinn Ridge almost to the hour that this massive attack was occuring. Much to my surprise, I was alone. Well, almost alone...

Of course, this southerner wasn't intent on driving this Yankee from the battlefield today. Despite being a Confederate deer, I decided to let this fella wander in peace. He does help to illustrate my point though. 149 years to the day after one of the greatest Confederate victories of the Civil War was won, it was only myself, a few deer, and a few other visitors happening to drive past out on that part of the field from time to time.

While I wish that there would have been a few more folks at the battlefield today, it was a nice day to visit. The park was quite peaceful 149 years after Second Manassas. Let's hope that the mass of fast food places, shopping centers, and highways goes no further so as to keep it that way. If you are interested in helping with battlefield preservation, check out the link for the Civil War Trust on the right side of the screen under favorite sites. They do some greatly needed work on that front.

Let's also hope that the future years see a greater interest in not just reading about the Civil War in books, but in actually getting out onto the fields where our nation's character was tested in a fiery ordeal 150 years ago.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Elwood Rodebaugh Enlists

On August 26, 1861, 150 years ago, Elwood Rodebaugh enlisted as a Private in the 33rd Keystone Regiment, what would eventually become the 5th California Regiment and the 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

While he had already left home for Philadelphia, it was on this date when Elwood officially entered active service in defense of his country. As a direct descendant of Elwood's, I am extremely proud to call him my ancestor, as he did what so many have done during this nation's long and illustrious history. On this date 150 years ago, Elwood Rodebaugh officially enlisted his services in a conflict which would eventually claim his life on the fields of Antietam.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Tidball Trail at Antietam National Battlefield

One of the greatest truths about studying military history is that to really understand how battles were fought, one has to understand the battlefield itself. Perhaps the most important part of understanding a battlefield is its terrain, and there is no better way to gain a sense of what the terrain of a place is like other than to walk or hike it. Antietam is a perfect place for this because of the many trails throughout the park which are not only wonderful for their natural beauty, but also offer tremendous value for the historian as well. It is impossible to understand Burnside's Final Attack against Lee's lines, and A.P. Hill's subsequent flanking movement, without spending time on the Final Attack trail. Likewise, without walking the Bloody Lane Trail, one cannot profess an intimate knowledge of how Union soldiers advanced against the Sunken Road.

This past week, another trail has been added to Antietam's list. The Tidball trail, a .3 mile walk out to a ridge line overlooking the central portions of the battlefield, offers visitors unique new perspectives and opportunities to learn about little understood aspects of Antietam. The trail ends at the position held by John C. Tidball's battery of artillery, and it offers some of the best views in the entire park. For most visitors and historians, the Union 5th Corps and Cavalry played no role whatsoever in the battle. Many are shocked to learn that more casualties occurred at the Middle Bridge than at the more famous Burnside Bridge. Hopefully, the Tidball Trail will help to fix some of the lapses in our historical understanding of the Middle Bridge at Antietam.

John C. Tidball commanded Battery A, 2nd US Artillery and was attached to Pleasanton's Cavalry Division, which advanced across the Middle Bridge with Sykes's U.S. Regulars of the 5th Corps, to press against Lee's center along the Boonsboro Turnpike. McClellan's battle plan had initially called for attacks with the Union right and left flanks on the northern and southern ends of Lee's lines, with a possible crushing blow to be launched across the Middle Bridge against Lee's center. As the battle raged and progressed, time after time, Confederate flanking attacks seemingly appeared out of nowhere, suggested to McClellan that Lee outnumbered the Union forces. 5th Corps commander Fitz-John Porter advised McClellan against launching an attack with his corps, as it was the only reserve left to guard the Boonsboro Turnpike, a road which was the first of many on a long path towards Washington D.C. and victory for the Confederates, should they have defeated the Union forces at Antietam.

While McClellan never launched a full scale attack at the Middle Bridge, a decision which is highly controversial, the fact of the matter is that the 5th Corps was indeed engaged in some capacity at Antietam, belying the false notions put forward by some that as many as 30,000 Union soldiers sat idly by while their comrades were slaughtered without support. Understanding the battle through such misconceptions not only clouds our historical judgments on McClellan's generalship, but it also diminishes the sacrifices made by those 600 soldiers who were casualties in the fighting near the Middle Bridge. Ignoring this action is just as historically irresponsible as is ignoring the 5th Corps' contributions in attacking Lee's rear guard at Shepherdstown on the 19th and 20th of September.

A few days ago I ventured out to this new trail before heading in to the Visitor Center. The views of the battlefield from this trail are incredible.

A few weeks ago, while at Manassas for the 150th, a visitor began discussing with me the scenarios in which McClellan could have "won" at Antietam. Among the possible actions this gentleman suggested was a strike by the 5th Corps at Antietam. Needless to say, he was shocked to learn that these troops were indeed engaged during the battle. Now, thanks to the hardworking staff at Antietam, a new trail can help to tell this overlooked story.

Friday, August 12, 2011

August 12, 1861: Proclamation of a National Prayer and Fasting Day by Abraham Lincoln

One of the defining characteristics of the Civil War generation was an abiding belief in Christianity and God. Though not universal, these beliefs sustained the majority of Civil War soldiers, civilians, as well as politicians and leaders of both sides. While some historians have claimed Lincoln to be an agnostic or one who openly scoffed at religion, anyone who has spent any serious time considering the life and writings of our 16th President knows that Lincoln took Christianity and God very seriously, especially during the war years. On August 12th, 1861, 150 years ago today, Lincoln issued a public proclamation calling for a day of prayer and fasting to deal with the crisis facing the nation. Current events beg the question of what would happen if a president were to issue such a call today, but that is not the point of this post. When faced with an ever growing crisis threatening the future of American nationhood, Lincoln turned to God, both privately and publicly.

By the President of the United States of America,

A Proclamation:

Whereas a joint Committee of both Houses of Congress has waited on the President of the United States, and requested him to "recommend a day of public humiliation, prayer and fasting, to be observed by the people of the United States with religious solemnities, and the offering of fervent supplications to Almighty God for the safety and welfare of these States, His blessings on their arms, and a speedy restoration of peace:"

And whereas it is fit and becoming in all people, at all times, to acknowledge and revere the Supreme Government of God; to bow in humble submission to his chastisements; to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and to pray, with all fervency and contrition, for the pardon of their past offences, and for a blessing upon their present and prospective action:

And whereas, when our own beloved Country, once, by the blessing of God, united, prosperous and happy, is now afflicted with faction and civil war, it is peculiarly fit for us to recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation, and in sorrowful remembrance of our own faults and crimes as a nation and as individuals, to humble ourselves before Him, and to pray for His mercy, -- to pray that we may be spared further punishment, though most justly deserved; that our arms may be blessed and made effectual for the re-establishment of law, order and peace, throughout the wide extent of our country; and that the inestimable boon of civil and religious liberty, earned under His guidance and blessing, by the labors and sufferings of our fathers, may be restored in all its original excellence:

Therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do appoint the last Thursday in September next, as a day of humiliation, prayer and fasting for all the people of the nation. And I do earnestly recommend to all the People, and especially to all ministers and teachers of religion of all denominations, and to all heads of families, to observe and keep that day according to their several creeds and modes of worship, in all humility and with all religious solemnity, to the end that the united prayer of the nation may ascend to the Throne of Grace and bring down plentiful blessings upon our Country.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed, this 12th, day of August A.D. 1861, and of the Independence of the United States of America the 86th.

By the President:

Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward, Secretary of State.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Captain Allen Zacharias of the 7th Michigan Infantry at the Battle of Antietam

During battle in the Civil War, some soldiers had fears which were greater than death. These fears had to do with loved ones at home. Should that soldier fall in battle, he would want to know that his family would be looked after and cared for. Quite often, soldiers worried that if they fell in battle no one would ever know what became of them and their remains would not be cared for. Many soldiers feared being killed with all traces of their existence fading away in the maelstrom of death and confusion that comprised the aftermath of battle during the Civil War. Civil War battles were violent affairs, and their aftermath saw medical and human support systems become completely overwhelmed and unable to care for each casualty as he deserved. This inability to properly care for everyone extended to both the living and the dead. As I have written previously, these were the days before dog tags, and identification of a soldier's remains often depended on whether that soldier had anything on his person which would identify him or who it was who was doing the grisly work of burial. The story of Captain Allen Zacharias gives a voice to these fears and concerns of soldiers during the Civil War.

Allen Zacharias, a resident of Erie Township in Monroe County, Michigan, enlisted as a corporal in Company K of the 7th Michigan, and he was promoted to the rank of 1st Lieutenant on June 25, 1861. At that time, Zacharias was 28 years old. On March 10, 1862, he was commissioned a Captain in the same regiment. He served with the 7th Michigan during many battles and engagements in the summer of 1862, including those during George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign. On June 28, near Fair Oaks, Virginia, Zacharias wrote the following in his pocket book, expressing a fear that he would soon be killed and he would become one of the many unknown dead.

Allan Howard Zacharias was born May 15th, 1833, in Clear Springs, Washington County, Maryland, and removed with his father to Monroe County, Michigan, in 1841. Graduated A.B. from University of Michigan, June 1860. Went to Mississippi in September, and became a professor, and in February, 1861, principal of the State Military Institute, at Brandon, in that State. Resigned his position in May and returned to Michigan, when, from a solemn sense of duty, he enlisted as a corporal, and promoted first lieutenant June 25th, and to a captaincy March 10, 1862 and was with the regiment at Yorktown, West Point, and Fair Oaks, May 31 and June 1st. 
Friend--if you find my body lifeless upon the field, bury it decently, mark its resting place, and inform my friends in the regiment and my father. Do this and you shall be liberally rewarded and have the gratitude of my friends.
A.H. Zacharias, Captain, Company K, 7th Michigan

While Captain Zacharias had gone to the trouble of writing out this note in his pocket book during the Peninsula Campaign, he would not need it then. Zacharias survived that campaign unharmed, but he was not so fortunate at the Battle of Antietam. As a part of John Sedgwick's Division of Edwin Sumner's 2nd Corps, the 7th Michigan saw significant action on September 17, 1862. The 7th Michigan shared the same fate as did the 106th Pennsylvania. They were in N.J.T. Dana's Brigade in the second line of Union troops from Sedgwick's Division in the West Woods, roughly 50 to 100 yards behind the lead line of Willis Gorman's Brigade. When a strong Confederate counterattack swept into the woodlot and on to their left flank, the 7th Michigan was routed along with the rest of Sedgwick's men.

Following the fierce fighting in the West Woods, a soldier from Maine came across a severely wounded man holding a letter in his hand. The letter was as follows:

To Peter K. Zacharias, Monroe, Michigan:
Dear Parents, Brothers, and Sisters--I am wounded mortally, I think. The fight rages around me. I have done my duty; this is my consolation. I hope to meet you all again. I left not the line until nearly all had fallen and colors gone. I am getting weak; my arms are free, but my chest all is numb. The enemy trotting over me, the numbness up to my heart. Goodbye, all.
Your son, Allen.

While Captain Zacharias had taken the time to write a letter home to tell his family of his impending death, he would last longer than he expected. The soldier from Maine who found the Captain mailed the letter home, telling the Zacharias family of their loved one's fate. Allen Zacharias would live several more months before he succumbed to his wounds. He died on December 31, 1862, in a hospital in Hagerstown, Maryland. His words show that in what he thought were his last hours on Earth, Zacharias was concerned with his family, so much so that he went to the effort of writing a goodbye letter. This story was repeated on numerous battlefields countless of times during the war, showing just a glimpse of the fears and concerns that Civil War soldiers had during combat.

Source: Townshend, David. G. The Seventh Michigan Volunteer Infantry: The Gallant Men and Flag in The Civil War, 1861-1865 (Fort Lauderdale, FL: Southeast Publications, Inc., 1993).

Monday, August 8, 2011

August 1861: The formation of Company D of the 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry

In August of 1861, following the Union defeat at the Battle of First Bull Run, new efforts to recruit men for the Union cause were underway. 150 years ago this month, Captain Samuel Newman set out to Bradford County, Pennsylvania to recruit volunteers to serve in the Union army during the Civil War, to be attached to the 33rd Pennsylvania, also known as the Keystone Regiment. While for a time these men would serve as the 5th California Regiment under Edward Baker's California Brigade, for the majority of their service, they would be known as Company D of the 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

The regimental history for the 106th Pennsylvania says that the regiment was formed between August 8 and September 30 of 1861, but the efforts to form it extend beyond those dates. For Company D specifically, many of the men were mustered into service on August 21, yet by that time they had already made the difficult decision to leave home, they had said goodbye to their loved ones, and they had made the difficult journey through the Pennsylvania mountains to Philadelphia. Thus, while it is nearly impossible to know when exactly Elwood Rodebaugh and his fellow soldiers from Canton left home for the war, one must assume it was with enough time before their August 21st enlistment date for all of this to take place.

The 106th Pennsylvania shed blood on many battlefields throughout the war. Company D from Canton originally numbered 3 officers and 85 men, receiving small influxes of troops in 1862 and 1863, rounding out their total numbers for the war at 3 officers and 101 men. The casualty rate for Company D during the three years of its service was 56%. Out of these numbers, 1 officer and 12 men were killed in action; 3 officers and 35 men were wounded; four men died from wounds; 13 died of disease; 7 were captured, with 2 of those dying in rebel prisons; 8 reenlisted as veterans in 1864; 18 were discharged for disability, five of whom suffered from severe wounds. On September 10, 1864, the company mustered out with the regiment with only one officer and twenty men.

While I plan on writing about many of the events for the sesquicentennial of the Civil War as they occur over the next few years, one theme I will focus on specifically will be the service and experiences of the 106th Pennsylvania. While Elwood Rodebaugh would only serve with this regiment for 1 year before he was killed in action, I still have a very close attachment to the actions and service of this brave group of soldiers, especially Company D from Canton, Pennsylvania. The 106th Pennsylvania was a member of the 2nd Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac, a Corps which participated in every major engagement in the Eastern Theater from its formation in March of 1862 through September of 1864 when the regiment mustered out of service. During that time, members of the 106th Pennsylvania shed blood on the fields of the Seven Day's Battles, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor.

Yet, 150 years ago, all these places and names were but peaceful farm fields and towns, and the thought of a four year revolutionary struggle which would cost the nation over 600,000 dead and forever change the fabric of American society was far from the minds of many. 150 years ago, the men of Canton were being stirred to arms by Captain Samuel H. Newman who compelled them to leave the warmth of their loved ones to pick up muskets to defend the Constitution and the Union. 150 years ago, Elwood Rodeabaugh was saying goodbye to his wife and children, preparing to leave home for the war.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Antietam at Arlington

During my recent trip to Washington, I had the chance to visit Arlington National Cemetery. While there, along with seeing the standard sites of the Kennedy family graves, the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, and Arlington House, I made sure to check out some famous Civil War grave sites, especially some of the generals and figures who were present at Antietam. Here are a few of those...

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Captain of the 20th Massachusetts at Antietam, where he was wounded in the neck. After he was wounded, Holmes shot off a quick telegram to his father, telling the renowned physician and writer that his son had been wounded but it was not mortal. The elder Holmes, deeply moved by the telegram, journeyed to Antietam to search for his son in the aftermath of America's bloodiest day. He eventually found Holmes resting in a hospital in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Major General George Crook, a Brigadier General in command of the 2nd Brigade of the 9th Corps' Kanawha Division at Antietam. Crook's brigade made an ill fated assault against Burnside Bridge, only to become disoriented and end up 200 yards upstream. Crook went on to have a distinguished record of service throughout the Civil War and in fighting Native Americans on the Great Plains in the latter years of the 1800s.

 Major General John Gibbon, who was a Brigadier General in command of the Iron Brigade at Antietam. Gibbon, while born in Philadelphia, moved to North Carolina at the age of 11. Despite the fact that his father owned slaves and Gibbon had lived in the South for many years, when North Carolina seceded, Gibbon stayed true to the Union. His three brothers fought for the Confederacy, along with his cousin, J. Johnson Pettigrew. While many make note of Lee's agonizing decision to stay with his native state and to fight against the nation he had pledged to defend, little is said of those such as Gibbon who stayed loyal to the Union, in some cases fighting against their own family members to do so. Gibbon went on to command a division in the 2nd Corps during the battles of Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. At Gettysburg, Gibbon's division defended The Angle at Cemetery Ridge, where, among others, troops commanded by his cousin Johnson Pettigrew attacked in the ill fated assault forever known as Pickett's Charge.

Brevet Brigadier General Ezra Carman, Colonel of the 13th New Jersey at Antietam, and one of Antietam's first historians. Carman also saw action with the 13th New Jersey at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chattanooga, and during the Atlanta Campaign and Sherman's March to the Sea. While Ezra Carman had quite a track record of service during the war, his contributions to the Civil War went beyond battlefield service. It was Carman who spent countless hours compiling recollections from veterans of Antietam to compose a detailed history of the Maryland Campaign, complete with maps used by Antietam Rangers to this day.

While not at Antietam, one cannot understate the contributions made by Major General Phil Sheridan to the Union cause. Sheridan's victories in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 were a major blow against Confederate hopes of retaining the fertile agricultural region. Sheridan's methods of destruction make him an infamous figure in Civil War history, yet his achievements in 1864, combined with Sherman's successes in Georgia of that year, helped to reelect Abraham Lincoln and to ensure a Union victory in the war.

With the events of First Manassas still fresh in my mind, I made sure to track down this monument to unknown dead from the battles of First and Second Bull Run. The remains of roughly 2,000 Union dead from those battles, as well as others in the region, are buried beneath this monument in the gardens near Arlington House.

Brigadier General Roy Stone, a Major in the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves at Antietam, the regiment that was engaged at dawn in the East Woods on September 17, 1862. Stone would go on to lead a brigade of Pennsylvanians in a fierce defense of McPherson's Ridge along with other units of the 1st Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac on July 1, 1863 at Gettysburg.

Certainly, there are countless others from Antietam buried at Arlington, but these are just a few of those who I had the time and opportunity to pay my respects to while there.