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)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas letter 150 years ago

In the early hours of Christmas morning in 1861, 150 years ago this Christmas day, a 23 year old Second Lieutenant in the 2nd Massachusetts sat down to write a letter to his mother…

Guard-Tent Second Massachusetts
Camp Hicks, near Frederick, MD, 3 ½ o’clock, A.M.
December 25, 1861
Dearest Mother,
It is Christmas morning, and I hope it will be a happy and merry one for you all, though, it looks so stormy for our poor country, one can hardly be in a merry humour.
I should be very sorry to have a war with England, even if we had a fine army, instead of a pack of politicians for officers, with their constituents for rank and file; and all the more so, of course, thinking that we shall have to take many “whoppings” before we are worth much. War isn’t declared yet, but doesn’t it look very much like it to every one at home? Here, we have made up our minds that we shall have much more soldiering to do than we expected when we started. I think we may as well consider ourselves settled for life, if we are to have a war with England! [1]

My Christmas Eve has been very much like many other eves during the last six months. On the whole, I have passed quite a pleasant night, though what our men call the “fore-part” of it was principally occupied in taking care of two drunken men (one of them with a broken pate), and in tying a sober one to a tree. After this was over, I did a good deal of reading, and, towards 1 o’clock, A.M., had some toast and hot coffee, —having previously invited my Sergeant to take a nap, so that I might not be troubled by hungry eyes, and made to feel mean, for these wasn’t enough to give any away. The drummer (who, with the Sergeant of the Guard, for some reason which I never discovered, sits and sleeps in the officers’ tent) kept groaning in his sleep; and I couldn’t help imagining that his groan always came in just as I took a bite of toast, of a large gulp of coffee. This diminished my enjoyment; and when he suddenly said, “Martha! There isn’t any breakfast”, I was certain that my proceedings were influencing his dreams!

It began to snow about midnight, and I suppose no one ever had a better chance of seeing “Santa Claus”; but, as I had my stockings on, he probably thought it not worth his while to come down to the guard-tent. I didn’t see any of the guard’s stockings pinned up outside their tent, and indeed it is contrary to army regulations for them to divest themselves fo any part of their clothing during the twenty-four hours.

Please ask Father to bring me a pocket-revolver, if he can get it, when he comes,—one small enough to carry in the breast-pocket. Also, tell the girls that Harry would be very much obliged if they would send him seventy or eighty pairs of mittens. I heard him say he would like to have some. The men were all glad to get them, though, as usual, they didn’t express their thanks. They get so many things that they are spoilt, and think they have a right to all these extras. Thirteen dollars per month, with board, lodging, and clothes, is more than nine men out of ten could make at home. Poor soldiers! Poor drumsticks! But this is not the sort of language for me to use, who am supposed to stand in the light of half mother to the men of my company. I should like about fifteen more pairs mittens; and some warm flannel shirts and drawers would be very useful, if there are any spare ones. “Uncle Sam’s” are miserable things. “Merry Christmas” and love to all, dear Mother. I suppose Sue is at Mrs. Schuyler’s [a family who lived on Staten Island]. I am so glad she is coming with you next month! Alex. And Annie will be here next week.
Your loving son, 

Robert Gould Shaw [2]  

Robert Gould Shaw, the young man who wrote a letter to his mother on Christmas 150 years ago, became the Colonel of the 54th Massachusetts in 1863, the first African American regiment in the Union armed forces during the Civil War. Shaw was killed on July 18, 1863, at the age of 25, leading the famed 54th Massachusetts in its heroic assault against Fort Wagner outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Over 600 men in the 54th Massachusetts made the valiant charge against Fort Wagner: 272, or 45 %, were either killed, wounded, or captured. After the battle, Confederate soldiers buried Shaw in a mass grave with his African American soldiers, seeing it as a sign of disrespect to bury a Union colonel with former slaves. Upon learning of his son’s burial, Shaw’s father replied that his son could have had “no holier place” for a gravesite. His father was quite proud of his son’s conduct and sacrifice, writing to William Lloyd Garrison, “We do thank God that our darling… was chosen, among so many equals, to be the martyred hero of the downtrodden of our land.” [3]

[1] The reference to a war with England concerns the famed Trent Affair, when the U.S.S. San Jacinto captured Confederate diplomats James Mason and John Slidell aboard the RMS Trent en route to England to pursue foreign intervention in the Civil War. The crisis led to great popular outcry against Britain among the Northern people, as well as pressures and fears over a war between Great Britain and the North. The tension was defused when President Lincoln released the two captured Confederate convoys in late December, 1861.
[2] Robert Gould Shaw, Blue Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, ed. Russell Duncan (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 168-9.
[3] Ibid., 54.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sunrise at Gettysburg

Yesterday I arrived back home in Ohio for the holidays and for the winter. While I won't be gone from Antietam for too long, being back home has reminded me just how fortunate I have been this past year to be able to work at such an amazing place. Before I went home, I made one last sojourn up to Gettysburg to take some sunrise photographs of the battlefield on a frigid, frosty morning. Because of the angle of the sun, I drove along Confederate Avenue on Seminary Ridge for the best views. No matter when or how often I visit, Gettysburg never fails to remind me of the magnitude of the events which took place there. While it is imperative to study, read, write, and tell the stories of our past, sometimes the best way to understand and appreciate our nation's history is to simply sit back and be a spectator on a cold December morning at Gettysburg.

Sunrise from Seminary Ridge

North Carolina Memorial

North Carolina Memorial

North Carolina Memorial

Statue of Robert E. Lee atop the Virginia Memorial

Virginia Memorial

Virginia Memorial

Virginia Memorial

Louisiana Memorial

Louisiana Memorial

Louisiana Memorial  

 Mississippi Memorial

Mississippi Memorial

 Mississippi Memorial

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Book Review: Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, by Tony Horwitz

A View of Harpers Ferry from Maryland Heights.

On December 2, 1859, John Brown, a 59 year old abolitionist, was hung at the gallows in Charlestown, Virginia. Just a few weeks prior, Brown and a band of abolitionists had led a daring and ill fated raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, attempting to seize the Federal arsenal there and secure weapons to arms slaves in a massive insurrection which would spread throughout the South. Such a daring plan, infused with Christian theology and a radical hatred of slavery, has made John Brown one of the most famous crusaders in American history. Brown lives on in American memory through songs, poems, portraits, sculptures, memorials, and books.

The engine house which became John Brown's fort during his Harpers Ferry Raid

The latest of these books is Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Horwitz’s Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War. Most will be familiar with Horwitz from his outstanding work on the presence of the Civil War in the modern South, Confederates in the Attack. In Midnight Rising, Horwitz has seemingly taken a new direction, moving from a journalistic view of the past to more traditional historical writing. While the focus of Horwitz’s book is different from his previous works, his writing remains quite similar. Just as Confederates in the Attack was a fascinating read, Midnight Rising keeps the reader consistently engaged from the first page to the last. While some historians view journalists writing history with skepticism, often times it takes one with the writing ability of a non-academic historian to write history in an interesting and deliverable format. Horwitz’s narration of Brown’s dramatic raid at Harpers Ferry places one in the midst of the action at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers in October 1859.

An obelisk marking the original site of John Brown's fort, looking toward its current location, less than 100 yards away.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Midnight Rising, I found Horwitz’s discussion of the differences between John Brown and Abraham Lincoln to be an unfortunate flaw to his otherwise fine work. In 1859, like many Republicans, Lincoln distanced himself from Brown, denouncing the Harpers Ferry Raid as poorly guided violence that did little to help the political, moral, and social problems facing the country. When discussing the two, Horwitz notes that Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and Lincoln’s assassination served as “bookends to the great national bloodletting over slavery” (280). Horwitz’s characterization of the two men draws a stark contrast between their views: “in death, the reluctant emancipator was joined to the abolitionist he had distanced himself from six years before” (280).

This comparison is a small part of the book’s conclusion, yet it speaks to much larger questions about the two men and their achievements. While John Brown’s cause was no doubt admirable, his story serves as a lesson on how to affect political change. Taking up arms and starting an insurrection to achieve a political goal leads to bloodshed in the streets and further entrenching one’s opposition. Horwitz and many others are right; Brown’s actions sparked outrage in the South, contributing to the already smoldering fire that would soon erupt into Civil War. However, once that war began, the question of slavery was far from being answered. The many twists and turns along the way made abolition anything but a guaranteed result of the conflict. It took the statesmanship of Lincoln to turn emancipation from a possibility to a reality. Lincoln tried combating slavery through rhetoric, politics, and the law. He did not choose the path of violence and war. However, once the war had begun, Lincoln's statesmanship accomplished what the sword of John Brown could not. While Horwitz and many others may paint Lincoln as the “reluctant emancipator,” it was the prairie lawyer from Illinois, not the militant crusader of Kansas, who effectively brought about the end of slavery in America. Chipping away at Lincoln’s achievements to praise John Brown does little to help the reputation of either. Rather, it is best for us to let each stand on his own, understanding each man for what he accomplished. While Brown was an admirable crusader who failed to properly and prudently pursue his goals, Lincoln was a true statesman, using politics and rhetoric to deftly navigate the treacherous slavery issue during the nation’s “fiery trial.”

One aspect of Midnight Rising that I did like was Horwitz’s emphasis on Brown’s Christian beliefs. While the laws of the nation permitted slavery, John Brown firmly believed that such an egregious moral sin could not be tolerated under God’s law, and he was thus required to fight against it. Thus, Brown killed slave owners out of a sense of Divine retribution. Christianity’s crucial place in John Brown’s fight against slavery is representative of most 19th century social reformers. From abolitionists to the temperance movement, the 19th century was filled with individuals seeking to remake American society in God’s image, curing it of all its evils. Certainly, not all went to the lengths of John Brown to accomplish their goals. One should also note that while many Northern abolitionists used the Bible in their fight against slavery, just as many Southern slave owners claimed that God was on their side of the matter. These differing views regarding God’s judgment on slavery lay at the heart of the burgeoning conflict between the North and the South.

Overall, Midnight Rising is quite good, and certainly worth reading. It is a well written narrative of a thrilling event in our nation’s history. Horwitz brings John Brown to life, taking the reader on a journey through Brown’s long crusade against slavery, finally and firmly placing him in the middle of Harpers Ferry during the raid of October 16, 1859. What occurred on that fateful October night was far more than a band of crusaders trying to capture weapons; it represented the nation beginning to tear itself apart. The violence that occurred in the streets of Harpers Ferry soon spilled out across the nation. Without understanding John Brown’s story in all of its tragedy, meaning, and detail, it is difficult to truly understand the road to Civil War.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

New Website for Antietam Battlefield Guides

The Antietam Battlefield Guide Association has a new website (here is the link) to advertise the guide program and its many activities in advance of Antietam's 150th next year. The new site is designed as a blog to make it more interactive. It will be updated with information and posts about different tours and programs that will be offered. The site also features profiles of each Antietam guide, as well as links to guide blogs and other history links. If you are interested in learning more about the Antietam Battlefield Guides, please check out the new site.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Antietam National Battlefield's 2011 Memorial Illumination

Every year, on the first Saturday of December, Antietam hosts a very special event to honor the memory of all those from both sides who fell as casualties in battle that awful September day many years ago. The park uses scores of volunteers to set out 23,110 candles, one for each man killed, wounded, and missing at the Battle of Antietam. As the sun sets on the battlefield, the glow of the candles breaks through the darkness, reminding visitors, volunteers, and rangers alike of the true cost of Antietam.

This year's illumination was my first, and I split my time between helping to park volunteer's cars and aiding visitors who had acquired special use permits to photograph the battlefield from the visitor center. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that this was one of the coolest, most awe inspiring experiences I have had in my young park service career. Visitors lined up in their cars for miles and miles to see the event. Last night, the line of cars at one point stretched over five miles long, causing waiting times of two to three hours. The drive through the event could take up to an hour itself. That being said, every visitor who I spoke to today said it was completely worth it. There really isn't any way to describe the event other than seeing it for yourself.

I wanted to share with you just a few photographs that I took to try to capture the spirit of last night's event. For a few of these, I want to thank park volunteer and good friend Dave Maher, who maintains a great Civil War blog titled Pennsylvania's Emergency Men.

For many of us, Antietam is just a statistic. It is known as America's bloodiest day. 23,110 men were killed, wounded, or missing during a single day of combat. Yet, Antietam is much more than just a number. When we view it as 23,110 candles set before us in the night, the human cost of September 17, 1862 becomes painfully clear. Each candle represents a life that was either snuffed out or dramatically altered by what occurred at Antietam. Each candle represents a person. When we speak of Antietam, we aren't speaking of maps, war games, or hypothetical situations. We are speaking of people. Real people. People with families. People like Elwood Rodebaugh, who died upon the fields of Antietam, leaving his wife a widow and his two young children without a father. Each candle that was lit for Antietam's Memorial Illumination reminds us of just how high the cost of freedom truly is.

 (Courtesy of Dave Maher)

 (Courtesy of Dave Maher)

(Courtesy of Dave Maher)

Private Elwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Killed in Action at the Battle of Antietam

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Lincoln's December 3, 1861 Message to Congress: "The struggle of today is not altogether for today..."

On this date in 1861, 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln delivered his first annual message to Congress. Lincoln's message was fulfilling the constitutional requirement that the President update Congress on the state of the nation annually. We know this today as the State of the Union address. For many years, from Thomas Jefferson to Woodrow Wilson, presidents simply submitted their address in written form. There were no cameras, no exaggerated applause lines, and no pontificating for the polls.

Lincoln's December 3, 1861 message lacks the fame of his other presidential papers, yet there were still significant themes which he discussed, including foreign affairs with Britain, preventing further secession, prospects of compensated emancipation and colonization, as well as the retirement of Winfield Scott and the appointment of George McClellan to the post of General-in-Chief. While you can read the entire address here, I have excerpted the last few paragraphs below, as I feel they speak to some of the essential truths of Lincoln's political philosophy. Here, Lincoln is speaking of the relationship between labor and capital, as well as the opportunities offered for Americans by a united government protecting their constitutional liberties. Lincoln believed strongly in the possibility of advancement and social mobility in America. After all, Lincoln was a man born in a log cabin, who taught himself how to read and write, who worked his way through numerous jobs and hardships, became a self taught lawyer, politician, political leader, and President of the United States. Lincoln's life is the embodiment of that for which he fought; the rights and freedom of all men to become a part of the great American experiment in self-government.

It continues to develop that the insurrection is largely, if not exclusively, a war upon the first principle of popular government——the rights of the people. Conclusive evidence of this is found in the most grave and maturely considered public documents, as well as in the general tone of the insurgents. In those documents we find the abridgment of the existing right of suffrage and the denial to the people of all right to participate in the selection of public officers except the legislative boldly advocated, with labored arguments to prove that large control of the people in government is the source of all political evil. Monarchy itself is sometimes hinted at as a possible refuge from the power of the people.

In my present position I could scarcely be justified were I to omit raising a warning voice against this approach of returning despotism.

It is not needed nor fitting here that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions, but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.

Now there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them. A large majority belong to neither class——neither work for others nor have others working for them. In most of the Southern States a majority of the whole people of all colors are neither slaves nor masters, while in the Northern a large majority are neither hirers nor hired. Men, with their families——wives, sons, and daughters——work for themselves on their farms, in their houses, and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand nor of hired laborers or slaves on the other. It is not forgotten that a considerable number of persons mingle their own labor with capital; that is, they labor with their own hands and also buy or hire others to labor for them; but this is only a mixed and not a distinct class. No principle stated is disturbed by the existence of this mixed class.

Again, as has already been said, there is not of necessity any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. Many independent men everywhere in these States a few years back in their lives were hired laborers. The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all. No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.

From the first taking of our national census to the last are seventy years, and we find our population at the end of the period eight times as great as it was at the beginning. The increase of those other things which men deem desirable has been even greater. We thus have at one view what the popular principle, applied to Government through the machinery, of the States and the Union, has produced in a given time, and also what if firmly maintained it promises for the future. There are already among us those who if the Union be preserved will live to see it contain 250,000,000.

The struggle of today is not altogether for today; it is for a vast future also. With a reliance on Providence all the more firm and earnest, let us proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us.

Abraham Lincoln
 December 3, 1861