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, November 24, 2012

Christmas Shopping: Civil War Books

Yesterday, I went to see "Lincoln" with my Dad (it was the third time I have seen it, and it is still incredible), and afterwards, I braved the "Black Friday" crowds to check out Barnes and Noble (I am a member so I get discounts there, only reason to go). While there, I picked up a few Christmas gifts (when you are related to a Civil War historian, odds are you will get books or book themed gifts for Christmas, ok, enough with the parentheses). I also picked up Jon Meacham's new biography of Thomas Jefferson, titled, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. After reading a few chapters, I can say that I am really enjoying it, and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the political history of the early Republic, or anyone who simply is interested in great American leaders. Anyways, picking up that new book gave me an idea for pointing out a few other Civil War themed books that have just been released that are on my radar for the Holiday shopping season. Keep in mind, I haven't read these yet, but they look pretty intriguing. If you have read them, feel free to post your thoughts on them as a comment below.

Confrontation at Gettysburg, by John David Hoptak

John Hoptak, my colleague from Antietam, and a very good friend, has just released his latest work for the History Press's Sesquicentennial Series on the Civil War. Last time, John did a splendid job taking on the Battle of South Mountain. This time, he went for a topic a little bit more obscure: Gettysburg. I had the pleasure of reading some of John's manuscript earlier this year, and I must say, it is very good. This book is meant to be an introduction to the battle. Following each chapter, John has a paragraph on sources and other works to investigate for learning about the campaign and each day of the battle in more depth. I would highly, highly, highly recommend this to anyone who has a dad or brother who loves history and wants to learn more about Gettysburg. With the 150th anniversary of that battle coming up next year, there is no better time to pick up a copy of John's book than now. I will post a full review of it on here when I get a chance. But for now: buy it. It is very good.

The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace, by H.W. Brands

I have read some mixed reviews on H.W. Brands's new biography of Grant. From what I know, Brands is an accomplished historian, and this work is well written and does a splendid job of discussing Grant as a general. However, where it falls short (again, this is just based off of reviews I have read, not my own thoughts) is in fitting Grant's story into current trends of scholarship, mainly in terms of Grant's feelings toward slavery and emancipation. I will have to read it for myself to either verify or reject these claims, but I think this book is still worth a look. Here is a review from acclaimed historian Eric Foner that explains these notes in more depth: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-man-who-saved-the-union-ulysses-grant-in-war-and-peace-by-h-w-brands/2012/11/02/154ae6e0-fe79-11e1-8adc-499661afe377_story.html

A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico, by Amy Greenberg

In many ways, the War with Mexico was a warmup for the nation's plunge into Civil War. Many Civil War officers from both sides got their start during the 1840s conflict in Mexico, and the end result of the war led to some of the arguments and problems which directly contributed to the start of the Civil War just over one decade later (namely land acquisition and the spread of slavery). Now, again, I haven't read this work yet, but from what I have read about it, Amy Greenberg has done a nice job in taking on the War with Mexico. Here is a review of the work: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/amy-s-greenberg/wicked-war/#review.

Battle of Stones River: The Forgotten Conflict between the Union Army of the Cumberland and the Confederate Army of Tennessee, by Larry Daniel

Those who are students of the War in the West are no doubt familiar with Larry Daniel, who has authored one of the best books out there on Shiloh and a definitive account of the Army of the Cumberland. I have already ordered his latest on Stones River, and hope to post some thoughts on it when it arrives, but if this is as good as his other works, I won't be disappointed.

To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign of 1862, by D. Scott Hartwig

This is one work which I have been reading for awhile. It is almost 800 pages, and covers the Maryland Campaign up to the night before the Battle of Antietam. After reading most of it, I can firmly say that I fully recommend this book. It is fantastic. It will soon become one of the must read, go to accounts of the Maryland Campaign. I posted some early thoughts on it awhile back, and I have to say that I still agree with much of what I posted about this work upon first getting it. If you are interested in Antietam and don't yet have this book, you are doing yourself a great disservice.

Here are a few other new titles which might merit investigating...

We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860 to April 1861, by William J. Cooper

Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man, by Walter Stahr

Terrible Swift Sword: The Life of General Phillip H. Sheridan, by Joseph Wheelan

And, although it is not Civil War related, the third and final volume of the late William Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill has just been released. Churchill ranks high upon my list of admired figures in history, and I will certainly be looking to pick this one up soon.

The Last Lion: William Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, by William Manchester and Paul Reid

These are just a few titles that have caught my eye. If you are a history buff, or are shopping for one, look into them. Keep in mind, the only ones which I am fully recommending are John Hoptak's book on Gettysburg and Scott Hartwig's To Antietam Creek (although I would recommend Jon Meacham's aforementioned Jefferson bio as well). As I said, if you have read any of these books, feel free to post your thoughts as a comment below. If you are like me and you haven't yet read them but are interested, check out these books!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Thoughts on Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln"

I had the chance to see "Lincoln" this afternoon, and I wanted to post some thoughts with my initial reactions.

1. As a movie, "Lincoln" has superb acting and directing, a beautiful score, and wonderful sets that take the viewer to 1865. It is a wonderful film.

2. Like any historical movie, "Lincoln" is not frame for frame, word for word historically accurate. Some scenes have been created, along with dialogue, to explain complex occurences and principles for the viewer. "Lincoln" pulls this off with great tact.

3. This is an extremely powerful movie. I have been fascinated with Lincoln for years, but despite all the books I have read, seeing him portrayed on the big screen with such grace, humor, humanity, and strength was like seeing Lincoln for the first time.

4. From now on, whenever I think of Lincoln, I will hear Daniel Day Lewis's voice.

5. Daniel Day Lewis should win the Oscar for his performance. If he doesn't, they should no longer give out the ward.

6. The same could be said for Tommy Lee Jones, who, while not the title role, was pivotal to the powerful themes of the movie. Portraying abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, Jones does a remarkable job of displaying the power and passion that Stevens and others had in their fight to end slavery.

7. I was very pleased to see that Spielberg and others did not portray Lincoln as a white marble figure. He had fits of anger. He used backroom politics. He fought with his wife in one particulary memorable scene when Mary Lincoln (portrayed beautifully by Sally Field) argued with old Abe about Robert joining the army. He even cursed on occasion. But the Lincoln portrayed here was so great because he was human and he still rose to a greatness that few men in history ever achieved.

8. The dynamics of the Lincoln family, especially his interactions with Tad and Robert, were very well done and nice reminders that Lincoln was, after all, a husband and a father as well as a president.

9. "Lincoln" does show that Lincoln was reluctant to embrace full racial equality. But, it also explains why. Spielberg shows the very strong opposition that Lincoln and others faced in simply abolishing slavery. Those opposing the 13th Amendment frequently warned that it would be a slippery slope toward black suffrage and racial equality as a means of threatening the passage of the amendment, and that was a central feature of the film's story line. Lincoln's efforts in combatting this, with the help of Thaddeus Stevens, are textbook examples of how statesmen work within political frameworks to accomplish things for the good of society. Throughout it all, Lincoln never wavered in pursuit of his goals of saving the Union and doing it in a way so as to forever rid the nation of slavery.

10. Because of some problems in the theater (such as the screen going dark and sound cutting in and out), I actually didn't get to see the entire movie. So, I fully intend on seeing it again (and probably again after that too) while it is still in theaters. I strongly recommend that you go to see the movie. And when you go, take a young adult with you. People of my generation spend so much time playing video games, watching trashy television, and following vacuous stars on twitter that they have all but forgotten what a hero is. Lincoln is a powerful, graceful, and bold movie about one of our nation's greatest heroes, and it is a story which all Americans, young and old, but especially young, need to go see.

I will have more on Lincoln to come. If you are interested, I strongly recommend seeing it. It is well worth your time.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Stones River Presentation

For all those in the Cleveland area, or those who are simply interested, I will be leading a program on the Battle of Stones River tomorrow at the Mentor Public Library. The talk begins at noon, and is in the James R. Garfield room on the lower level of the library. It is part of a series on the Major Battles of the Civil War, and is a cooperative effort between the Mentor Public Library and the James A. Garfield National Historic Site. The program is free, and will last about 45 minutes.

If you are in the area and want to learn about Stones River, arguably the most forgotten of the major battles of the war, come on out. We look forward to seeing you.

Stones River National Cemetery

Hazen's Brigade Monument at Stones River

Friday, November 9, 2012

Was McClellan Fired for Being a Bad General?

150 years this week, George B. McClellan was dismissed as the commander of the Army of the Potomac. He had built the army from when he came to Washington in the summer of 1861; it was in many ways a reflection of him and his ideas on how to fight a war. It is no secret that McClellan was much loved by his men; many of the officers were loyal to him as well.

All of this leads to a very important question, one that might seem very simple. Was McClellan simply a bad general who deserved to be dismissed? Certainly, that is a refrain often heard when discussing "Little Mac." When I wrap up my talks or tours at the battlefield, I can usually expect to have a visitor or two who want to debate the merits of McClellan as a commander. I can't tell you how many times myself and my colleagues at Antietam have heard, "McClellan was just a bad general, and Ole' Lincoln got rid of him just as he should have."

Here is my short and simple take on McClellan's dismissal. As a military commander in the Maryland Campaign, McClellan delivered one of the finest leadership performances of the war for any commander on either side. He built an army out of a mess, moved his men through Maryland, fought two difficult offensive battles against difficult terrain, and significantly damaged Lee's army, forcing an end to the Confederate invasion of Maryland. However, because of his political views and strong disagreement with Lincoln on matters of policy, he had to go.

McClellan favored a conciliatory war, one that was seeking to restore the old Union with no major changes. After Antietam, Lincoln was ready to boldly lead the country toward a new and better future, one where freedom applied to millions more than it previously had. To do this, Lincoln needed generals willing and able to faithfully execute his policies. McClellan was not one of those men. This is not to suggest (although many have) that McClellan was disloyal or a traitor; in fact, he was faithfully devoted to the Union and to preserving the Constitution. However, after Antietam, and after the Emancipation Proclamation, McClellan was no longer the man Lincoln needed to carry through on his policies of moving the nation toward "a new birth of freedom."

McClellan's dismissal served as a watershed moment for Lincoln and the nation. From that point onward, Lincoln would come into his own as a military leader. The "Hard War" that Northern forces waged against the Confederacy was driven not by political generals, but by Lincoln himself. The Emancipation Proclamation signaled that the war would be anything but conciliatory; it would remake the country. Because of his disagreements with Lincoln, McClellan was not the right general to lead Union forces in this task.

McClellan was not a bad general, in fact, on the battlefield at Antietam, he was a good one. However, McClellan was too much of an overtly political general, and for that, he had to go.

These are my rather quick two cents on the matter. What do you think? Was McClellan fired for being a bad general or because he was no longer the right man to enact the policies of the Lincoln administration in the Civil War?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

"Perfect clarity of understanding..."

Because I am now in the process of getting my research from this summer published, I wanted to post a few of the letters, dispatches, and telegrams that I found during my research for the project.

The dispatch below is from the George B. McClellan Papers at the Library of Congress. It is one of the strongest examples of the chaos inflicting Union forces in and around Washington D.C. following the Federal defeat at Second Manassas. Fitz John Porter, the commander of the Fifth Corps, had a tougher task than most. The Fifth Corps had the distinction of being involved in both the Peninsula and Second Manassas battles, meaning that it had suffered more than its fair share of casualties, sickness, and stragglers in the weeks preceding the Maryland Campaign. Thus, when George McClellan and his staff were attempting to assess Federal strength in early September, the Fifth Corps was a problem. September 1st and 2nd saw McClellan and his staff writing to different commanders inquiring about the strength and composition of their commands. On September 5th, Porter wrote to Seth Williams, Assistant Adjutant General of the Army of the Potomac, informing him that, because of the heavy losses in the officer corps and the disorganized state of the ranks, it would be very difficult to provide any reliable strength numbers for his corps. On the same day that Porter was informing Williams that he couldn't get an estimate of his strength, Stonewall Jackson and thousands of Confederates were crossing over the Potomac River and into Maryland. Thus, McClellan was starting the campaign with a serious disadvantage.

Halls Hill, VA, Sept 5, 1862
Gen. S. Williams
I find it almost impossible to get a report of the strength of the command. Colonels and Adjt Generals and Assistant Adjutant Generals either killed, wounded, sick, or absent. Have destroyed everything. New (books) are employed and records are with the Commands. I have done my best and I must beg you to be patient.
Will send report at the earliest moment.
F.J. Porter,
Major General Comdg.

Many historians use certainty and hindsight to excoriate officers in the past; yet, as Joe Harsh wrote in Taken at the Flood,Perfect clarity of understanding was impossible, and even reasonable clarity usually came long after decisions had to be rendered.” McClellan would leave Washington with uncertainty in his mind over the strength and condition of his forces. That uncertainty was a result of dispatches like this one.

(Fitz John Porter to Seth Williams, September 5, 1862, George B. McClellan Papers, Box A78, Reel 31, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division)