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)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

This Memorial Day, I will be remembering three men in particular...

American flag flying above Utah Beach, in Normandy, France

Richard F. Gustafson, Sr., United States Navy, World War II

Elmo Vermilya, United States Navy, World War II

Elwood Rodebaugh, Co. D., 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, KIA at Antietam, September 17, 1862.

American Cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy

American Cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy

Antietam National Cemetery

Let us thank and honor those who have served along with those who continue to serve.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

"Not for themselves, but for their country"

Welcome to Memorial Day weekend at Antietam. Today, the town celebrated with a parade, visitors treked throughout the battlefield, and the Visitor Center was filled with Rangers who were busy giving talks, leading tours, and teaching others about Antietam and the Civil War. I like to think that by teaching others to respect and understand those who fought 150 years ago, we are helping to foster a greater respect and understanding for those who still bravely serve today.

Out of everything happening this weekend, if there is one aspect of Antietam I wish I could share with you, it would be a walk through the National Cemetery. So, this morning, I left for work early and did just that...

It was a beautiful morning in Sharpsburg. Coming over South Mountain from Frederick, the clouds were low enough to touch the trees. It was cloudy to the east of the mountain, but once I had crossed to the western side, the sun was shining and all of God's creation was beautifully illuminated.

One of my favorite views at Antietam. In the back of the National Cemetery, there is an area where one can look out and view a good portion of the southern part of the battlefield. What you see here are the rolling hills and fields where Union General Ambrose Burnside's 9th Corps attacked in the late afternoon of September 17, 1862. In the distance, the 9th New York Monument is visible.

The spot where most of the activity happens on Memorial Day weekend.

The cemetery gate, with part of the old lodge house visible on the right.

 Rows of state flags line the gravestones, with "Old Simon", the soldier's monument, keeping silent watch over those who call Antietam their final resting place.

 It is an amazing sight to see so many American flags adorning the graves of so many American heroes.

 The small square stones you see here mark the graves of unkown soldiers, one of whom is likely my great-great-great grandfather Elwood Rodebaugh.

 A close up of "Old Simon"

One of the most moving parts of the cemetery is the grave pictured above. For years, Antietam Cemetery was closed for new burials. However, in 2000, an exception to the rule was made. Patrick Howard Roy was a native of Keedysville, Maryland, a town just a few miles down the road from Antietam. He was member of the United States Navy. On October 12, 2000, he was killed in the Al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole. Due to his local roots, Patrick was buried at Antietam. As you can see, the flags honor the dead from both the Civil War and the wars in which America is now engaged.

While many, such as Patrick Howard Roy, have their graves well marked with their names, thousands of others are simply "unkown." However, being in an unkown grave does not mean that a soldier has been forgotten. This memorial day, remember this picture, and remember those who gave their lives so that this nation might live.

Hopefully these pictures have given you some understanding not only of how special a place Antietam truly is, but of the sacrifices that we are honoring this weekend. To close, there is only one phrase to fittingly summarize the sacrifices of so many...


Happy Memorial Day, from Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Friday, May 27, 2011

WCRF Radio Interview--Part 3

Here is the link for part 3 of my radio interview for Memorial Day which aired this week on WCRF, Moody Radio Cleveland: http://www.moodyradiocleveland.fm/rdo_programToday.aspx?id=45883

If you have been listening the past few mornings, thank you, and I hope you found some of what I had to say interesting and/or useful. I have posted links to each day's audio clips, so if you missed a day, you can still check out what I had to say.

As for Mark Zimmerman, a big thank you for having me on your program. You are a great friend, and I hope I am able to show you around Antietam sometime soon!

Today was a busy day at the park, and tomorrow promises to be even busier. More updates to come on Memorial Day in Sharpsburg. For now, a few more pictures...

Antietam National Cemetery

A few graves for unkown soldiers.

A view of the back of the 8th Ohio monument at Bloody Lane. The 8th Ohio was recruited from the Northeastern part of the state.

The 8th Ohio Monument, with Bloody Lane and the fields over which they attacked in the background

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Thursday before Memorial Day in Sharpsburg

Every year, on the Thursday before Memorial Day in Sharpsburg, Maryland, school children from the Sharpsburg Elementary school come to the Antietam National Cemetery to place a small American flag in front of every grave. This morning, I had the pleasure of visiting the cemetery with my good friend and fellow Ranger Mannie Gentile to see these kids in action. It was one of the proudest moments of my short Park Service career. There are no words to describe what it is like seeing young kids placing flags next to the graves of American soldiers who gave their lives so that these very children can grow up in a country with freedoms for all. And to think, today one of these youngsters put a flag next to a grave simply marked unknown, a grave which contains the remains of Elwood Rodebaugh, my great-great-great grandfather.

I plan on writing quite a bit about the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, as Antietam is THE place to be. Sharpsburg has the oldest continually running Memorial Day parade, stretching all the way back to the years immediately preceding the Civil War. However, as I am quite excited about the upcoming weekend, and because I spent most of today out on the battlefield taking pictures, I wanted to share some of my experience today with you.

The Philadelphia Brigade Monument in the West Woods. Elwood Rodebaugh was a Private in Company D of the 106th Pennsylvania, one of the four regiments which comprised the Philadelphia Brigade

A small flag left by a visitor at the base of the Philly Brigade monument.

The Maryland monument with the Dunker Church in the background.

The 14th Connecticut Monument, with the Mumma farmstead in the background.

Antietam National Cemetery

One flag for each gravestone.

As I said, there is much more to come on this blog regarding Memorial Day in Sharpsburg. I have plenty more pictures of the cemetery and American flags, and hope to have some video footage to capture how powerful the scene is. This evening, I simply wanted to share with you just a small taste of what it is like to have the great honor to work at one of our nation's finest and most important national parks. I spent today working at the Visitor Center, driving through the field, and walking on hallowed ground. No other job in the world is as cool as this one. There is no better place to work than at Antietam, and there is no better time to work here than Memorial Day and Anniversary Weekend in September. Hope you enjoy the pictures, and check back here soon for more to come!

WCRF Radio Interview--Part 2

Here is the link for part 2 of the radio interview I did that is airing this week on WCRF 103.3, Moody Radio's Cleveland affiliate. As I have said previously, the interview is with my good friend and fellow tribe fan Mark Zimmerman on WCRF's morning program to commemorate Memorial Day and the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. You can find the audio for segment 2 of the interview here.

As I posted yesterday, you can listen to the interview live online even if you don't get WCRF in your neck of the woods. The station's website is http://www.moodyradiocleveland.fm/. You can listen live by clicking on the "Listen Live' link under the "What's Playing Now" on the left side of the screen. There is also a "Listen Live" header at the top of the screen with options for listening.

Tomorrow, the final segment of the interview will air on WCRF at 6 and again at 8. I will post a link to the audio for that segment as well.

Lincoln's Letter to the Parents of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth

I had hoped to post something regarding this yesterday, but in the course of my busy day it simply slipped my mind. As I posted two days ago, this May 24 was the 150th anniversary of the death of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth. While the death of one soldier in a war which claimed the lives of over 600,000 may seem trivial to some, Ellsworth's death was a major rallying cry in the North during the early months of the conflict.

On May 25, 150 years ago yesterday, President Abraham Lincoln, a close personal friend of Ellsworth's, wrote the following letter to the grieving parents of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth. Not only is this one of the most heartfelt letters that Lincoln ever wrote, but it should also be noted that it would not be long before Lincoln himself would occupy the seat of the grieving parent for the second time. In 1850, Lincoln's son Edward Baker Lincoln, or "Eddie" for short, passed away at the tender age of four. In February of 1862, Lincoln's 11 year old son Willie passed away in the White House, most likely from Typhoid Fever. Clearly, Lincoln understood the pains of losing a child, and this letter below is one of the more remarkable messages that he wrote during his presidency.

To the Father and Mother of Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth:
My dear Sir and Madam,

In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one's country, and of bright hopes for one's self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall. In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men, was surpassingly great. This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as seemed to me, the best natural talent, in that department, I ever knew.

And yet he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse. My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period, it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements, would permit. To me, he appeared to have no indulgences or pastimes; and I never heard him utter a profane, or intemperate word. What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents. The honors he labored for so laudably, and, in the sad end, so gallantly gave his life, he meant for them, no less than for himself.

In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child.

May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power.

Sincerely your friend in a common affliction--
A. Lincoln

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Radio Interview on WCRF-- Part 1

This morning, segments of an interview I did with WCRF morning host Mark Zimmerman aired on WCRF, 103.3 FM, the Moody Radio affiliate in Cleveland. While part 1 aired this morning at 6 and again at 8, parts 2 and 3 will air tomorrow and Friday mornings, again first at 6 and again at 8.

Mark, or Mr. Z as I have known him for quite awhile now, is a good friend of mine, and we have been neighbors for many years. He and I recorded the interview the week before I left for Antietam after taking in an afternoon Indians game (they lost unfortunately). We covered several topics in the interview, including my family story and interest in Antietam and the Civil War, Ohio soldiers who served during the war, and most importantly, the religious history of the Civil War. The interviews are a part of a week long series of segments where Mark has been talking about the American Civil War in commemoration of Memorial Day and the conflict's 150th anniversary.

Here is a link to the Moody Radio Cleveland webpage, where today's program and interview have been archived: Moody Radio Cleveland--Morning Program for May 25 You can find the audio of my interview, as well as a link to this blog, by simply looking for my name.

I will post links to the audio for the segments which will air tomorrow and Friday as well. If you interested in listening live for either day, you can go to the Moody Radio homepage http://www.moodyradiocleveland.fm/. On the homepage, simply click "Listen Live" underneath the header "What's Playing Now" on the left side of the page. If you have trouble, there is a heading at the top of the page titled "Listen Online" which gives you more listening options.

Hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Death of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth

150 years ago today, on May 24, 1861, in Alexandria, Virginia, New York native Colonel Elmer Ellsworth was gunned down in the Marshall House hotel by owner James Jackson after personally having taken down a Confederate flag flying above the hotel, which was visible from the White House.

Colonel Elmer Ellsworth was at the lead of an expiditionary force sent across the Potomac in response to Virginia's ratification of the ordinance of secession the day before on May 23. Ellsworth was a figure of national recognition. He was at the helm of one of the nation's first Zouave regiments. In 1860, as the fervor of nationalism and sectionalism was reaching a boiling point in both the North and the South, and it was readily apparent to all that armed conflict was just around the corner, local militia groups began to multiply and prepare for war. As an homage to the famed French African Corps, who wore distintive red and blue uniforms, some men took the name of Zouave. Ellsworth was at the lead of one of these units, the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry, also known as the "Fire Zouaves," as the men were primarly volunteer fire fighters from New York City.

Ellsworth was the first Northern officer killed in the war, and his death became a rallying cry for the North as millions mobilized for war. Scores of Zouave regiments popped up as a tribute to Ellsworth and the 11th New York. President Lincoln, a close personal friend of Ellsworth's (Ellsworth had lived in Illinois for a period of time, and had actually worked as a law clerk in Lincoln's Springfield office), openly wept upon hearing of the Colonel's death. Several days later, Ellsworth laid in state in the East Room of the White House. When passing by the coffin, Lincoln was heard to say, "My boy! My boy! Was it necessary this sacrifice should be made?" In the four years ahead, Lincoln no doubt repeated that question thousands upon thousands of times as he paced the corridors of the White House, pondering the casualty figures for that day. Ellsworth's death 150 years ago today was but one of the first of hundreds of thousands of deaths which would tear the nation asunder, only to create a new birth of freedom.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Visit to Chickamauga

In keeping with my previous set of posts regarding my January trip to Georgia, I wanted to share some pictures from my visit to Chickamauga. Originally, my trip was supposed to stretch from January 5th through January 10th. However, due to an impending snow storm (I use the term lightly: the 6 inches that qualify as a blizzard worthy of crippling air travel and cities in the South barely count as a dusting in Ohio) I was forced to leave a day early, on the 9th. Thus, on the 8th, my last day in Georgia, my awesome Uncle Jeff and I made the drive north from Kennesaw towards the remote northwestern corner of the state. It was a cold January day, but we didn't mind (well, I think Jeff minded, but this grizzled Ohioan not as much...). I am one who rarely passes on Civil War excursions and quality family time, and this outing offered both, making it one of the more memorable trips I have made.

The Battle of Chickamauga was fought on September 19 and 20, 1863, and it holds the distinction of being the bloodiest two day battle of the war. It ranks second behind Gettysburg on the list of bloodiest battles overall. Antietam was the costliest single day battle, Chickamauga the bloodiest two day fight, and Gettysburg takes first prize as being far and away the bloodiest fight of the entire war. Chickamauga's casualty count came in at around 34,000 killed, wounded and missing. Chickamauga was a decisive Confederate victory, the last major Southern battlefield victory of the Civil War. Braxton Bragg's Confederate forces routed Union forces commaded by William Rosencrans, sending them back towards Tennessee where two months later, in the city of Chattanooga, General Ulysses S. Grant would arrive to help salvage Union hopes and lead Union forces to victory at the Battle of Chattanooga.

My Uncle Jeff and I arrived at Chickamauga around mid-afternoon, and had just a few hours to take the standard driving tour of the field. We began at the Visitor Center, and soon made our way out onto the battlefield on a blustery and cold January day...

The Brotherton Cabin at Chickamauga. This was the site of the Confederate breakthrough of the Union lines on the second day of the battle. Due to a confusion in orders, the division which held this area was sent to reinforce another section of the line, leaving it vulnerable to the massive frontal assault launched by the troops of Longstreet's command.

This is one of the rather stylish war department tablets on the Chickamauga Battlefield. In the 1890s, the War Department created 5 national battlefields: Antietam, Gettysburg, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga-Chickamauga. These parks were set aside and protected to serve as open air classrooms for military groups to study and learn from. As a result, they are very well preserved and are dotted with war department tablets, such as the one you see above. While I have been to three of these battlefields, Shiloh and Vicksburg are still on my must see list, and I hope to cross them off sometime in the not too distant future.
Another view of the Brotherton Cabin. For being a well known spot on the battlefield, it is a small structure. My Uncle Jeff, being the crazy man that he is, was constantly trying to get past the bars on the doors to get inside. Apparently, just seeing the inside wasn't enough...

The 105th Ohio Monument at Chickamauga. I must admit, I am not very knowledgeable about this battle and this battlefield, as I only had a couple hours to spend driving through. However, the 105th Ohio is one of the regiments that stood out for me during my research on the Atlanta Campaign, which occured several months later in 1864. They were recruited from Northeastern Ohio, especially from Lake and Geauga Counties (my neck of the woods). I found several published collections of letters, and the Western Reserve Historical Society had a good deal of information on the unit as well. As I learned more and more about the regiment, I became more and more interested in the Western Theater of the war. Thus, finding their monument at Chickamauga was especially fascinating for me.
The rear view of the monument, listing names and numbers of casualties from the battle.

The Wilder Brigade Monument, towering 85 feet into the air. Also known as the Lightning Brigade, the brigade was commanded by Colonel John T. Wilder and it helped to slow the Confederate advance that broke through at the Brotherton Cabin on September 20, 1863. Wilder's men were largely armed with 7 shot Spencer carbines. After they slowed part of the Confederate advance, Wilder led a counterattack in the direction of Snodgrass Hill (see below) where they helped to further slow the attack and to allow Major General George Thomas and his 4th Corps to save the day and prevent a complete Union rout.

It should be noted that here as well my Uncle Jeff was angry that he could not get past the iron gate. For some reason, the gate was locked that cold day, and we couldn't ascend the spiral staircase to the top of the monument. Of course, it should also be noted that I managed to talk my Uncle Jeff out of his desire to climb the monument, preventing a situation which undoubteldy would have resulted in the 2nd Battle of Chickamauga...

The Snodgrass House, sitting on Snodgrass Hill. It was here, late in the day on September 20th, 1863, where Major General George Thomas managed to slow the rapidly advancing Confederate forces and hold his ground long enough to allow for an orderly Union retreat from the field. As a result of his actions on this spot, Thomas was thenceforward known as the "Rock of Chickamauga."

The monuments to the men who fought and died on Snodgrass Hill.

Finally, we came across a few Civil War deer while traversing the Chickamauga Battlefield. One can certainly debate which side these deer would have been fighting for, as they seem to be lacking any clear unit identity. However, I must say that I always enjoy seeing deer and other wildlife out on battlefields, as it reminds the visitor that these places are not only preserved lanscapes from history, but they are also National Parks that offer great natural beauty as well. Thus, the next time you visit a Civil War battlefield, try to make sure you leave it a little cleaner, a little nicer, and a little bit better preserved than it was when you found it. Preserving these places for future generations to learn from is important, but preserving their natural beauty is crucial as well. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

My Return to Antietam

Greetings from Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland!!

Your humble blogger has returned to the mountains of Western Maryland where he will resume working at one of the most remarkable places in America. This season at Antietam, thousands upon thousands of visitors will make the journey to hallowed ground to walk in the footsteps of the men of the Blue and the Gray. It is a great honor and a privilege to be one of the few charged with the task of helping others to understand what occured at places such as this. For me, as I have said previously, Antietam has a very special meaning. It was on this field on September 17, 1862 where my great-great-great grandfather Ellwood Rodebaugh, a Private in Company D of the 106th Pennsylvania, breathed his last and sacrificed his life for his country. Never does a day go by where I do not think of Ellwood and his sacrifice, and more importantly, what that sacrifice in 1862 means for me today. Ellwood gave his life and surrendered future years of happiness with his family so that I might have the opportunity to enjoy a free country. I feel an obligation and a responsibility to make sure that I am fulfilling his legacy by doing my best to teach others about the sacrifices made by our ancestors during our great nation's formative years, especially during the American Civil War. There is no better place for me to go about doing that than at Antietam National Battlefield.

This morning I made sure to arrive extra early before my shift began. I always enjoy arriving early to help out at the desk, but this morning, I wanted to take a few moments on the battlefield before I began my day. There really is nothing like seeing Antietam on a sun drenched morning. The mountains in the distance are breath taking, the quiet cannons peacefully adorn the landscape, and the beautiful scenery almost make one forget that at one time this was a place of death and carnage. While Antietam was the site of America's bloodiest day, it is also a place where we can remember all that is good in our country. Just as Antietam was transformed from a horrible landscape turned red to a peaceful and beautiful National Park, the sacrifices made by our ancestors have helped to better our nation and preserve the freedoms that we hold dear. I suppose I could go on and on about how beautiful the scene was this morning, but I suppose I could just show you in pictures...

The bright sun over a distant South Mountain

Peaceful cannon rest with the Observation Tower and Bloody Lane in the background

The Dunker Church with the 20th New York Monument and several cannon in the foreground

The flag draped obelisk is the 20th New York Monument, and the large column in the background is the New York State Monument.

With the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War upon us, it is as good a time as any to make the pilgrimage out to a Civil War Battlefield, and as you can tell, Antietam is one of our nation's finest. So, if you have the time, make the trek out to Antietam this season, and stop by the Visitor Center to say hello!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Book Review: The Battle of South Mountain, by John Hoptak

Having just finished up grading finals, completing my last official duties as a Graduate Assistant at John Carroll University, I have now begun to turn my attention back to my primary area of interest, the Battle of Antietam. One book which was a must read for me before my upcoming return to Maryland is The Battle of South Mountain, by my fellow Antietam Ranger, and good friend, John Hoptak. John is a fine historian and a fine guy (don't let the fact that he is a Yankees fan distract you, he isn't that bad). He was one of the many wonderful people at Antietam who made me feel at home last summer, and I look forward to working with him again upon my return to Antietam in just a few days. John was very encouraging and helpful in my decision to start this blog. He runs his own blog dedicated to the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and other Civil War topics, which you can find here.

The Battle of South Mountain is a fast paced narrative of the crucial events that took place on South Mountain on September 14, 1862, just a few days prior to the climactic Battle of Antietam on the 17th. For years, scholars, historians, and Civil War travelers have overlooked South Mountain in favor of Antietam. Certainly, Antietam stands as not only one of the pivotol moments in the war, but one of the most important days in American history. However, without South Mountain, Antietam would not have occured as it did. Most likely, without a Union victory on South Mountain on September 14, there would have been no battle at all at Antietam, as Lee would not have turned and gathered his forces to fight there. Conversely, because Confederate forces slowed the Union advance on the 14th, Stonewall Jackson was given the crucial extra time he needed to capture Harper's Ferry, arriving in Sharpsburg just in time to supplement Lee's forces and to make a stand against McClellan on the 17th. While relatively small in scale when one considers the casualties, the strategic importance of the fight at South Mountain was immense in its effects on the Maryland Campaign of 1862.

It is this strategic importance which John brings to light in his recent work. While his battle narratives are excellent in their depth, detail, and lively writing, the common student of the war will benefit the most from John's insightful analysis of the strategy of the campaign. Whereas berating George McClellan as a cowardly slowpoke is the prevailing method in writing about this campaign, The Battle of South Mountain gives the Union commander his due. John convincingly suggests that McClellan's actions at South Mountain displayed a level of tactical aggression which sharply contrasts popular images of the commander. On this point alone, John's work immediately stands out and provides a refreshing new voice to the conversation. For far too long, historians have lambasted McClellan as an inept battlefield commander who was more concerned with his image than he was with defeating Lee. However, as The Battle of South Mountain persuasively notes, McClellan's plans for sending Major General William Franklin's force south through Crampton's Gap had the goal of relieving pressure on Harper's Ferry, adding Dixon Miles's 12,000 men to Franklin's force, then moving north through Pleasant Valley to cut off Lee, all in one day's time. Clearly, this was an audacious plan that if anything should be faulted for being overly ambitious. John's description of these movements around Crampton's Gap is but one example of his excellent grasp and refreshing take on the strategy of this important campaign. Any good battle history both narrates the events on the field and provides a sharp and incisive bird's eye view of the strategy, tactics, and meaning of the troop movements. In this regard, The Battle of South Mountain is an excellent narrative of one of the most overlooked days in the history of the Civil War.

As an added benefit, another one of my Antietam colleagues and good friends, Mannie Gentile, also helped out with this effort. Mannie, being an excellent artist, created detailed maps for various phases of the battle and the campaign. The maps are wonderfully drawn, and are pieces of art. Mannie also runs a blog about the experience of working as a Park Ranger at Antietam. You can find it here.

For those with an interest in Civil War history, I would highly recommend The Battle of South Mountain. It is a fine example of historical writing on one of the Civil War's most overlooked battles. John makes the complex story of a battle which stretched across several miles with many intricacies very accessible, and as a result, his work is one for both the novice and the expert alike. Last summer, I had the privilege of going on a tour of Crampton's Gap with John and a few good friends, and I can certainly say, John is as good as anyone at making a battlefield come to life and helping to teach others about the events of the past and their importance for us today.

Below is a promotional video for The Battle of South Mountain, produced by Mannie Gentile.

Friday, May 6, 2011

American Wars: 1861 and 2011

The piece which I have posted below was published 150 years ago today in the New York Times. It is an evaluation of the status of Union movements and efforts to quell the rebellion, and it heaps praise upon the early efforts of the Lincoln administration. I found this piece fascinating for several reasons, but the main one is that, through its exceptional discussion of the Union's cause, it speaks to what our nation is enduring today in our War on Terror. Now, I am always very hesitant to draw direct correlations between events in history and events in the present, as differing circumstances can make such discussions quite suspect. In this case, I find the way in which this article defines the cause of the Union to be highly relevant to the events in which America is now engaged. The death of Osama bin Laden this week has evoked strong feelings of patriotism and pride for many Americans, and rightfully so. Bin Laden's death was an immense victory for this nation, but just as it was when these words in the New York Times were written 150 years ago today, we are far from the end of the war. No one knows if it will last for another four years, but we can say for certain that there is still work to be done. Just as Americans did in 1861, Americans in 2011 must maintain a firm grasp on why we are engaged in a global struggle against terrorism. The words which I have underlined towards the end of this piece are especially pertinent in their meaning for Americans in 1861, 2011, and in the future. I hope you enjoy this selection.

However it may have been in the past, whether the people were right or wrong in imputing to the Administration a want of activity, too strong a disposition to act only on the defensive, -- the fact seems now to be that the President and his Cabinet are awake to the necessities of their position and the requirements of the country. They have caught the inspiration of the hour, and have roused to an earnest and vigorous exercise of the powers vested in them for the defence of the Government. Talk about the defence of the Capital alone is no longer heard. The concentration of troops there has rendered its safety no longer doubtful. Columns of troops are said to be moving upon Baltimore in aid of the loyal citizens of Maryland, and to open a straight path to Washington. The frontier is being lined with a cordon of loyal soldiers, not alone to defend the approaches of the enemy, but ready to march forward at the tap of the drum. The blockade is extending Southward, and in a few weeks every port of the Secession States will be sealed from the commerce of the seas. The Mississippi, too, will be guarded, so that supplies for the enemy will find no ingress through that channel. The President has called for 42,000 additional volunteers, and 22,000 regulars, and the call will be answered in a week. The State of New-York alone would furnish the regiments in a fortnight. In addition to these, 18,000 seamen are demanded, and these will be enlisted by the time the vessels are ready for sea. With these forces the Government will be provided with the means, as it will have the disposition to enforce its sanctions, and crush out rebellion wherever it may exist. It can render effectual aid to the loyal people of the Border States, and overawe treason and rebellion there. It can quell the mad spirit that is making the South a desolation, and scattering anarchy, confusion and suffering, where, a few months ago, all was order, prosperity and peace. It is a sad thing to contemplate the ruin of States already wrought, and the greater ruin impending over them in consequence of the wicked and restless ambition of bad men. It is a melancholy necessity which impels this aggregation of armies; -- but a government like ours, and a country like these United States, must be upheld and supported at every hazard and at any cost. The hard alternatives of disintegration, or war for their preservation, has been presented and the choice made. It has been determined, in view of duty, of all the obligations of patriotism with reference to the security of the present, the hope of the future and the stern requirements of everlasting justice and right. The war initiated is not one of conquest, not one of aggression. It is not of our own choosing. It has been forced upon us in defence of free institutions, and in the perpetuation of popular rights. It involves not alone the destiny of this country, but it is to solve the great problem whether self government, popular freedom, are among the possibilities of an enlightened civilization. Such are the momentous issues to be settled by the results of this war, to the exigencies of which the Administration are now thoroughly awake. Let them sleep no more. Let it be prosecuted earnestly, vigorously, firmly, but humanely to the end. The country will sustain them. The popular sentiment of the world will sustain them. To hesitate or halt hereafter will be at once a cruelty and a crime.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Pickett's Mill State Battlefield

On January 8, the last full day of my visit to Georgia, I took time in the morning to go visit the Pickett's Mill State Battlefield. Pickett's Mill was fought on May 27, 1864, exactly one month to the day before Kennesaw Mountain. It occured when Sherman's forces were bogged down in an area known as the "hell hole" due to dense terrain, heavy rains, and fierce opposition from entrenched Confederate defenders. The battle was a result of a flanking movement made by Oliver Howard's 4th Corps. Brig. Gen. Thomas Wood's Division led the flanking movement, with two divisions from the 23rd Corps in support. During their movement northward, Howard's men were spotted by Confederate scouts. Thus, when they made their turn to attack the Confederate flank, they encountered a heavy Confederate presence in the thick forests surrounding Pickett's Mill on Little Pumpkinvine Creek. What occured that day was the most lopsided defeat Sherman's forces suffered during the campaign.


The visitor center for Pickett's Mill is small, yet it has a relatively nice museum, complete with battle maps, artifacts, examples of uniforms, etc. The above picture is one of the many battle maps that chronicle the several phases of the battle. The fight at Pickett's Mill occured from late afternoon through the night on May 27. This map shows the opening phases of the battle. For the most part, as can be seen on the map above, Union troops were attacking south and southeast, while Confederate counterattacks later in the day would push into the Federal left flank. In the middle of the map, the small words labeling "the ravine" can be made out. This ravine played a major role in the battle. It was dense with trees, brush, and undergrowth, and it made any offensive action extremely difficult. Also identified on the map are several clearings; these were used primarily for Confederate and Union troops to organize for attacks and counter attacks. Very little of the actual fighting occured in these areas.

Pickett's Mill is unique because it is one of the only battlefields I have ever been to where the only option to see the field is to hike. No driving maps, no auto tour, just hiking. At first, due to cold temperatures and time constraints, I was hesitant to go on one of their long hiking trails. However, in hindsight I am quite glad that I made the hike, as the experience of hiking the field was quite instrumental in aiding my understanding of the battle and of the men who fought and died there. I took the 1.5 mile blue trail, which traced the routes of attacking Union soldiers, many of whom were from Ohio. The above picture was taken at the start of the hike, and it shows one of the several clearings identified on the map above. As Union troops moved into the dense ravines near Pickett's Mill, Confederates layed waiting in open clearings such as this one. The advancing Union soldiers were in for quite a surprise.

Once at the bottom of the ravine, the trail I took meandered along Little Pumpkinvine Creek for quite awhile. It was a beautiful, clear, and cold Saturday morning, and I was literally the only visitor on the battlefield that day. It was surreal to be alone in the forests along the creek, as it was both picturesque and solemn. Seeing the terrain made an indelible impression on me, as I firmly maintian that no one can understand how or why Civil War battles were fought without walking in the footsteps of those who endured the terrible ordeal of battle 150 years ago.

Another shot of Pumpkinvine Creek, at roughly the same spot where Pickett's Mill sat at the time of the battle.

At the top of the ravine, on the northern side, one can view what remains of Union rifle pits from the battle. Following the initial Union attack into the ravine and along the creek, Howard's 4th Corps men fell back to the top of the ridge and dug in. These rifle pits are not nearly as apparent now as they were then, and they are in significantly worse shape than the Confederate trenches at Kennesaw Mountain that I described in my last posting, but they are still there and still visible. Once dug in, Union soldiers lay in waiting for a Confederate counterattack. Many lay there in shock after the terrible firefight they had just survived. Some sat grieving the loss of comrades, men with whom they had grown up and who were now left to die and be buried by enemy soldiers. Such was the nature of Civil War combat.

A black and white view of Union rifle pits. 

These last two photographs are perhaps the most interesting of any that I took. They show in full view the ravine through which Union forces were ordered to attack that day. I was fortunate to be there in January, as it afforded me the opportunity to see just how daunting a task attacking over such terrain must have been. Set aside the trees, brush, and undergrowth that slowed any advance: the terrain alone made attacking over these positions nearly impossible. This picture was taken on the side from which the Union forces were attacking. Confederate forces were dug in on the far ridge, pouring fire into the advancing Union ranks. Imagine, if you will, a mass of soldiers clad in blue, moving swiftly down into the ravine only to struggle up the opposing side amid terrifying musket fire. The sight was surely surreal, and as hard as we try, we have no means of truly replicating it. On that day, there were 1,600 Union casualties, 1,400 from Wood's division alone. Of those 1,600 casualties, an estimated 800, or 50%, were killed, many due to head wounds. Because they were advancing uphill against entrenched forces, these men faced a daunting challenge that was simply too great to overcome. Sergeant Andrew Gleason described the experience of moving uphill against entrenched musket fire in his diary in a manner which portrays the desperation of that day:

Moving forward to the crest of a ridge, a severe cross fire was encountered and the line advanced into a ravine close to the rebel works, where it met with a decided check, and having little protection was in a literal slaughter-pen…The only protection available was to lie close to the ground or seek cover behind trees and rocks—by no means plenty—until the fire had slackened. No supports had come up and our bugle had sounded the recall as soon as it was apparent the works could not be carried. A galling fire scorched the ravine and ridge alike, rendering it almost useless to seek shelter of tree or rock.

This final photograph, taken near the end of my hike, is another view of the ravine at Pickett's Mill. Just over the far ride sits the modern visitor center. This final leg of the hike was the most impressive, as it allowed a broad view over the battlefield.

Late on the night of the 27th, Confederate forces swept forward upon unsuspecting Union troops, driving them from their positions and ending the threat they posed to the Confederate flank. Several more days of fierce fighting would occur in this area, but Sherman would soon break free of the stranglehold by back tracking and moving north to reconnect with the railroad his men relied on for supplies. Soon, he would make another push towards Atlanta, this one resulting in the bloody struggle at Kennesaw Mountain in late June.While Pickett's Mill was a relatively small battle in the course of the war, for those who fought there on May 27, 1864, it was no small feat. Sergeat Gleason fittingly described it by noting, “This is surely not war, it is butchery." [1] Pickett's Mill is a reminder that even at the smaller battlefields of the war, the sacrifice paid by those who fought was still enormous and worth commemorating and studying.  

[1]Andrew Gleason Diary, May 27, 1864, in Echoes of Battle, The Atlanta Campaign: An Illustrated Collection of Union and Confederate Narratives, edited by Larry M. Strayer and Richard A. Baumgartner (Huntington, WV: Blue Acorn Press, 2004), 113.