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, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve 1863: An Illinois Colonel's Letter 150 Years Ago

41 year old Colonel Luther Bradley of the 51st Illinois wrote a letter home to his sister on December 24, 1863, 150 years ago today. His regiment was a part of the Army of the Cumberland, and had taken part in the grand fight at Missionary Ridge just one month prior. Colonel Bradley had missed out on the Battle of Missionary Ridge, because of wounds received at Chickamauga two months before. Bradley's letter home tells of a soldier's desire to see an end to the bloodshed, and hope of peace on earth and good will toward men. The upcoming year, however, would be far from peaceful, and by next Christmas, Bradley's regiment had suffered many losses in the Atlanta Campaign. A part of Charles Harker's brigade, the 51st Illinois took part in the charge on Confederate lines at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Bradley himself assumed command of his brigade that day, as Brigadier General Charles Harker was mortally wounded during the fight. By Christmas 1864, Bradley was a Brigadier General, and the war was not yet done...
Col. Luther Bradley

My dear Buel,

This is the most beautiful Christmas Eve I ever saw. Clear bright moonlight and warm enough to sing carols without taking cold. One year ago today we started on the march which ended with the battle of Stones River. I hope we shall have a quieter New Years than the last. I had begn to think there was a leak in the mail bag for until I got your letter of the 13th I had not heard from home but once since leaving Nashville—Just now a band in an adjoining camp is playing “When this cruel war is over”, and I feel like (echoing) it with all my heart. I hope that next Christmas will see us all at home again.

Yesterday General Thomas offered e the command of a column of 3,000 men and a long train of Wagons going to Knoxville. But as it was to be a long trip of 10 or 12 days, which the prospect of fording streams every day and being pretty constantly wet I declined it. The first time I have ever asked to be relieved from any duty in the field. So you see, I am getting prudent.

As my regiment is at Knoxville and little prospect of its returning I shall join it by steam boat in a few days. I quite like the idea of mutering there as there is nothing of interest doing her and we can return in time for the spring campaign.

Chattanooga is simply a huge entrenched camp and for some time will be poorly supplied with rations. My Christmas dinner will be a piece of smoked bacon and hard crackers, with perhaps a potatoe.

Many a man here will not have so liberal a spread as this.

Col. Davis is getting along but slowly. He is suffering terribly from the injury to the bone and nerves of the leg and this keeps him down. He lacks the muscular power to withstand the drain on the system occasioned by wounds. He will get well but I doubt if he has a sound leg in a long time. I shall try and get him off to Nashville before I go as he has friends there who will take excellent care of him and he will be altogether more comfortable there than he can be here. He often speaks of you all and wishes to be kindly remembered. He may call on his way home in a few weeks.

Enclosed I send a letter which I found here on my return and which I think you will like to read. I need not tell you that I have answered the request contained in it. You may keep the letter for me.

So you are glad I was not at “Mission Ridge” that’s mean of you. It was the finest thing that has been done during the war and I’d not have missed it for a hole in my jacket. I have been to see all my wounded boys in the hospital and when they say, “Oh! Col. You ought to have been at Mission Ridge” I feel envious of their pride. You should see their eyes glisten when they tell of it.

A Merry Christmas to you all.
With love and remembrance,
Yours ever,



Friday, December 13, 2013

Book Reviews- Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection

This review is much different from others that I have done. While most books that I review on here are typical monographs, where an author is either presenting a history or an argument of some kind, the latest book from the Smithsonian on the Civil War is more of a picture/coffee table book.

That being said, don’t miss it. It is incredible.

The book highlights the best from the Smithsonian’s Civil War collection, as well as short pieces describing the artifacts and what their meaning or significance is to the larger war. I spent some time going through it with my wife the other night, and we were both hooked. It is a very well done book, with a fantastic hard cover exterior and clean, bright pages with great design and amazing photographs. These are high quality pictures of Smithsonian items. It is almost as if you have the item in front of you.

Among the high resolution pictures of Smithsonian items are an image of a shattered tree trunk from Spotsylvania, cut down by musket fire; the masks worn by the Lincoln assassination conspirators during their imprisonment; the famed painting Grant and his Generals by Ole Peter Hansen Balling; the sword of Union Colonel Strong Vincent, mortally wounded at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863; a uniform coat, pistol, and chess set belonging to George McClellan; and the sword which Sherman wore at Shiloh. 

I found these after just a few minutes of flipping through the pages.

The accompanying text is a nice addition, but for me, the artifacts pictured in the book, as well as its nice layout, are enough to make this an awesome addition to my library. Having recently moved in with Alison in our apartment in State College, I set up a few small book shelves in the living room with some nicer books that I like having out. This book is certainly one of them.

The book is a timely reminder of the most compelling artifacts from our nation’s most important war. During the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we need to look back and remember the war in its reality. Seeing dramatic photographs and artifacts such as these bring the war to us in a very real way. If you can’t visit the Smithsonian to see these items, buying the book is a great way to have them with you at home. Jon Meacham’s Forword for the book lays out a case for the importance of the Smithsonian’s Civil War collection, and this book, quite adeptly:

Americans of the twenty-first century need books like this and institutions like the Smithsonian, for without photographic images of the brutally scarred back of a slave or of the dead on battlefields and in trenches that we tend to associate more with the Somme than with our own land, the Civil War risks receding into fable rather than urgent fact.

If you need a Christmas present for the Civil War buff in your life, Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection, is a perfect choice.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Book Review: John Bell Hood-The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General, by Stephen Hood

I had originally wanted to publish this review much sooner, but alas sometimes life gets in the way. Look for more reviews on here in the coming weeks, as my season at Antietam has drawn to a close in time for me to finish some of the other projects that are ongoing.

And now, for the review...

There has been much discussion over Stephen Hood’s new book “John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General.” The volume, published by Savas Beatie, is a fresh examination of Hood, not as much the man or the general, but rather how he has been perceived through the generations. The book is organized by chapters which each tackle a separate Hood “myth” or misunderstanding. Much of the text is spent discussing historiography and what others have said about Hood. Among the specific topics taken on the author discusses how certain “myths” about the general came about, such as his alleged use of Laudanum and misstatements about the bravery of his men. 

During the course of these arguments, the reader picks up quite a bit of information about Hood. I have seen other historians and writers criticize the book as being shallow on historiography. I cannot understand why, as every chapter devotes significant attention to various authors and historians who have perpetuated myths regarding Hood. Of all the things that can be said of this book, saying the author doesn’t take historiography into account is certainly not one of them.

Overall, the book is a worthwhile addition to the literature on Confederate generals, especially on Hood. I can’t imagine anyone writing on Hood in the near future and not having to either read, cite, consult, or address Stephen Hood’s new book. At the end of the day, that is perhaps one of the most important things that can be said of any work. 

That being said, I didn’t find every argument the author made to be compelling, and there were some points that were made with which I just flat out disagreed. The author addressed some of the myths or charges against Hood by deflecting attention and blame onto other commanders. For example, when discussing claims that Hood was ruthless or that he spoke poorly of his men, the author cites Sherman’s writings and conduct following Kennesaw Mountain as an example that other generals occasionally spoke in cold, calculating terms about bloodshed on the battlefield. This example doesn’t really address the stated issue of the chapter, nor does it specifically refute the idea of Hood as a cold general when it came to loss. 

There certainly were other arguments which I found unconvincing. I agree in part with Carole Emberton's review of the work, published on the Civil War Monitor here. Emberton raises some issues with the book that are legitimate (I'll leave it to you to read her arguments and take part in the debate), but her judgment that the book misses the mark because it fails to provide a new view of Hood is incorrect. The author is quite clear in stating that this book is not a biography, but rather a defense of Hood in light of the negative aura that historians have built around the general for decades. Knowing that going in to the book is a key part to understanding its arguments.

Don’t let this distract you or dissuade you from taking the book seriously, however. The point isn’t whether I was entirely convinced by every chapter and every argument. In some instances, my opinion was changed. In others, it wasn’t. An author shouldn't have to make his reader agree with every point in the book for him to accomplish his job. The point is that each chapter and each argument caused me to stop, think, and reevaluate my own understanding of Hood. I can think of few higher compliments that can be given to any new book. That fact alone means that the author and the book are doing something right. 

One of my complaints with the work is that throughout, many mentions are made of the author having a set of new, never before published personal papers from Hood. The papers are quotes or referenced selectively, and the reader is left desiring to learn more about this collection. I have recently learned, however, that there is a forthcoming volume of these new Hood papers, edited by Stephen Hood, and being published by Savas Beatie. I am in part reserving some judgment on the book until these papers are published. Because the papers mentioned in the book were brought up sparingly and selectively, I am curious to learn more and see how they may or may not further support the author's arguments.

When I finished the book, I had a renewed respect for John Bell Hood. Many of the “myths” surrounding him were soundly, efficiently, and entirely dismantled, such as the idea that Hood was addicted to laudanum.

Despite this being one of the most talked about part of the book in various reviews and online blog posts, I found it to be a rather small piece of the larger story. Viewing this book as an argument that Hood never used laudanum is to miss the forest for the trees. The point isn’t the alleged drug use; the point is to clarify, and where necessary debunk, the wild rumors which have impeded our view and understanding of Hood for so many years. The author's efficient and systematic dismantling of this myth was a small, yet important part of the book in that regard.

I have read biographies on the general before, and expected this to be more biographical in nature. However, despite the book taking a different approach than I expected, I still finished it glad that I had read it. The field of Civil War scholarship needs more books like this one, with more authors like Stephen Hood, being willing to challenge long held and deeply entrenched myths about the American Civil War. I have long believed that the average history buff knows more fiction than fact about the Civil War. Books like this have a place, and are needed in scholarship to correct such myths, start conversations, fuel debates, and give us pause to reflect upon whether or not our opinions are formed by fact or by years of misstatements and mythology. If you have an interest in John Bell Hood, or if you have an interest in fresh new approaches to writing about the Civil War, I would recommend John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General by Stephen Hood.