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, December 31, 2012

Best of 2012

Today, December 31, 2012 is a very historically important date.

First, 40 years ago today, on December 31, 1972, the great Roberto Clemente was killed in a plane crash, taking supplies to earthquake survivors in Nicaragua.

Second, and more relevant to the Civil War, 150 years ago today, the sanguinary struggle at Stones River began. Early in the morning, 150 years ago today, Confederate forces led by Braxton Bragg launched a strong and surprising assault against William Rosecrans Army of the Cumberland just north of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. By the time the fight had ended on January 2nd (after a lull on the 1st), over 20,000 men would be killed, wounded, or missing in one of the bloodiest, and most forgotten, battles of the war.

On a side note, on January 10th, I have been invited by the Bull Run Civil War Roundtable to lead a program on Stones River in Manassas, Virginia. Very much looking forward to the opportunity.

But, as this is the final day of 2012, I wanted to look back at a few of my most fond memories from the past year.

I must begin with the Dr. Joseph L. Harsh Memorial Scholar Award, which I was gratiously awarded by the folks at Save Historic Antietam Foundation. I presented my research at a seminar at Antietam back in September, and am currently attempting to publish the findings. I hope to have good news on that front soon, waiting to hear back from a few editors for now. Anyways, here are a few pics from the seminar. It was a great thrill.

It was also a great year of exciting opportunities at Antietam. I was fortunate enough to have a few stories written about me by reporters who went along on my programs. You can find those here (an article focusing on my ancestor who died at Antietam) and here (an article written by a reporter from the Pittsburg Post-Gazette about Antietam. The reporter tagged along on one of my tours).

I was also fortunate enough to be a part of this video about Antietam, along with my colleague Mannie Gentile.

Back in March, I was able to make a trip to Tennessee with my Dad to go to Stones River, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh. Visiting Shiloh was a lifelong dream come true, and I can't wait to go back. I did a series of posts about the trip, which you can find here: Stones River Post, Fort Donelson Post, and the series of posts I wrote about Shiloh.

I was also able to head down to Georgia for a few days in October to do some research, battlefield hiking, and spend some time with my amazing Uncle Jeff and Aunt Paula (Jeff loves it when I mention him on here, so its the least I can do!) I look forward to seeing them again in the New Year.

The best part of 2012 had to be participating in the 150th anniversary of Antietam. It was an amazing weekend that I will never forget. We had, likely, well over 50,000 people at the park, and my colleagues and I were doing non-stop interpretation from September 14th through the 17th. Here are a few posts about the event:




And, a wrap up post about the 150th event,


I am thankful that this year I was able to work with the finest interpretive group in the NPS. I have learned so much from my colleagues, and look forward to the exciting new opportunities that 2013 will bring. God has been very good to me in 2012, and whatever successes or opportunities I have had, I owe it all to Him. While I am back home in Ohio for now, and I don't know when I might return to Antietam, I know that God has more in store for me, and I look forward to following His path in the upcoming year.

Happy New Year Everyone!

Friday, December 21, 2012

John Ellen Journal, 23rd OVI, Part 3: "Thousands of true men have paid the debt of nature..."

Today is part three of a three part series of posts containing the journal entries of 2nd Lt. John Ellen, 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. On Wednesday, we looked at Ellen's posts for late August through September. Yesterday, we saw Ellen's posts for October, November, and early December. Today, we will look at just two entries: one for December 21, 1862, 150 years ago today, and the other for January 6, 1863.

In the entry written 150 years ago today, Ellen laments the recent Union defeat at Fredericksburg. He is quite gloomy when considering the prospects for the war and the country, almost on the point of declaring that the war will never end. Considering his comments on December 3rd (seen in yesterday's post) regarding the inefficiency of the Government and the army, Ellen seems to lack faith in the government to do what is necessary to win. In the second entry, dating to January 6, 1863, Ellen comments on the Emancipation Proclamation and the recent Union victory at Stones River (Murfreesboro).

Camp Maskell, VA

Dec. 21, 1862

Sunday night; received a letter from E.H.C. and have answered it; all well. Prospect gloomy, wet lowering weather; disagreeable. Burnside’s defeat casts a gloom over all. The General is whom the people looked for great achievements as the successor of McClellan, with a powerful army under his command, has committed a great blunder, and suffered a ruinous repulse. Thousands of true men have paid the debt of nature, and thousands of hearthstones are made desolate. Everything does seem to indicate the establishment of a Southern Confederacy. Inneficancy [sic] in the Government Departments clogs the movements of a million soldiery. The strife will never be ended by the sword. Madness must cease, and reason assume the sway, else all will be ruined.

No bread to issue in the morning, all out, none at Piatt. No clothing to be had in our Division (2nd, Kna). No pay to troops in six months; very cheery prospects for the foreboding class of the army.

No news later than the 17th.

Camp Reynolds, VA

January 6, 1863

The name of our camp is changed from “Maskell” to that of “Reynolds”, Col. Hayes [Rutherford B. Hayes, future 19th U.S. President] made the in honor of Eugene Reynolds, the Sergeant Major of the 23rd killed at the Battle of South Mountain. The tribute is a good one. Eugene was a splendid soldier—intelligent, brave, and prompt.

The new year 1863 ushers in one important (maybe) event; the President’s Proclamation of Emancipation of the slaves in the rebellious states. It is possible to work some good, and probably (very) some evil. So I think.

Gen. Ewing has left the “Valley” with four Reg’ts; the 47th, 30th, 37th OVI and the 4th VA VI. Destination Kentucky.

The news of the 3rd inst. Report a severe battle at Murfreesboro, Tenn. Rosecrans in command of the Union forces, and Bragg of the Confederates. Reported Union success.

No letters from E.H.C. in two weeks.

Have been to Piatt and Fayette, this month.

Source: John S. Ellen Journal, Western Reserve Historical Society, Mss. 3502.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

John Ellen Journal, 23rd OVI, Part 2: "The Rebellion is wicked and hateful..."

Today's post is the second of a three part series on the journal of John Ellen, a 2nd Lieutenant in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Yesterday, we looked at Ellen's journal entries for late August and the month of September, covering the balance of the Maryland Campaign. Today, the entries begin on October 1st and extend to December 3rd. They cover a variety of topics, mostly the regiments movements. However, Ellen also voiced his opinion on Antietam and the war. He clearly believed that Antietam was a glorious victory, as was the Battle of South Mountain. Ellen's hatred for the Confederate cause is readily apparent in his entries of November 21st and December 3rd. He seemed to be leaning toward favoring a "Hard War" approach when he lamented the ability of Confederates and Southerners to keep their food stores while Union soldiers went without enough food. Ellen also wrote harshly of selfishness in the Union ranks, applying his words specifically to those who simply sought an advancement in rank. As Ellen stated quite eloquently:

Self! Is the rule, and true patriotism the exception.

The rebellion flourishes, and if it is ever crushed it will not be by any other agency than the justness of our cause. The Rebellion is wicked and hateful; the blood it has shed must be atoned for if ruin come to all.

Camp at Mouth of Antietam Creek, Md

Wednesday Oct 1st 1862

The month of September as witnessed some of the most determined fighting of this most unnatural Civil War. The battle of South Mountain Sunday Sept 14th and the Battle of Antietam, Wednesday the 17th are battles to be recorded on the blood pages of our nation’s history. Those battles though terrible in slaughter, added new strength to Republican Government; they were terrible blows to Democratic anarchy, and ambitious demagogism. The rebel army with its whole strength has been driven from the fruitful state of Md. back into the desert of the Old Dominion, made desert by the actions of her degenerate people. The season thus far has been pleasant, if it should so continue through the month of October the rebel capital may be invested and captured, and the war virtually ended. Our Reg’t has been near here since the 22nd of September. Our troops are in good health and condition. Wrote to Uncle S. this p.m.

Friday October 2nd

Camp at Antietam Creek

Our brigade was reviewed today by President Lincoln, Major General McClellan, Major General Burnside, and their staff. The day was pleasant and everything pass off in good order.

Sunday October 5th

The Kanawhaw [sic] Division was visited this P.M. by General Cox and his staff. General Cox is ordered back to Western Va. And it is rumored that his old troops will follow him. No news.

Monday October 6th

Pleasant day, no news. Wrote to E.H.C. and C.A.S.

October 24th

Camp Near Clarksburg Va

Pleasant Fall weather, but little rains this autumn. Co. B., 23rd Regiment were paid by Major Johnson, up to June 30th date of payment to the Reg’t. Appointed treasure Reg’t fund Oct. 22nd.

Monday November 3, 1862

Summerville Va

Left Clarksburg Oct 25th .

Friday November 14th, 1862, Near Gauly Bridge

Crooks Division left Summerville on the 11th inst. Reached there the evening of the 12th.

Camp near Gauly VA

Friday Nov. 21, 1862

The 23rd Reg’t has been on the ground since the 15th inst. We have been transferred from Crook’s to Scammon’s division. We are building winter quarters, and the work drags. There is but few axes to cut the logs, and but few horses to haul them when cut.

The river is so low it is almost impossible to get a supply of forage. The horses are almost starved. Rebel citizens have corn, and then keep it under protection of Union generals. Rebel stock is fat, Government stock is poor—so goes the war. Subduing rebels with sugar plums. A wishy washy, no policy; making them, and us, napoleons. Great generals. What a farce. No news from home; no mail. Wrote to E.H.C. this P.M. I have been ARSM for the 23 O.V.I. since Nov the 10th.

Camp Maskell Va

December 3rd, 1862

We are favoured now days with genuine fall weather—rain and mud. We walk in mud, work in mud, eat in mud, and sleep in mud. The winter quarters are being built, as fast as is possible with the means at our disposal for building will permit. Our field officers are all here: Col. Hayes, Lt. Col. Comly, and Major McGrath [Colonel Hayes refers to Rutheford B. Hayes, the future 19th President of the United States].

I have been in the 2 MD [not sure what he means here, definitely not the 2nd Maryland] twenty three days, long enough, and in this as in every other department of the army it is all wrangle and confusion.

Divisions wrangle with the heads of departments, brigades with divisions, regiments with brigades, company commanders with regiments, and members of companies with their commanders, all trying to get without any apparent desire to do.

The whole military country is in a strife; the government strives to restore its footing and designing men are strong to trip in every move. Generals of Departments strive to make the people believe that they are doing all that can be done, and that they are “the right men in the right place.” Generals of Divisions know how the thing is to be done, and strive to do it and often fail. Commanders of Corps vie with each other in dashing exploits, and are often cut to pieces and routed . Then Brigade commanders strive to gain the position made vacant by the removal of their unfortunate superior (in rank) and know that now is their time. Colonels strive to Generals, Captains to be Colonels, Lieutenants to be Captains, Sergeants to be Lieutenants and Captains, and Corporals and Privates to be Sergeants. Patriotic and disinterested civilians are striving to raise companies and regiments of volunteers; they don’t want drafted men. Drafted men wont fight (all a delusion) All striving soldiers and citizen. The effort is tremendous and I fear the spine of the great body will be so seriously required by the effort that it will finally sicken and die. Self! Self! Self! Is the rule, and true patriotism the exception.

The rebellion flourishes, and if it is ever crushed it will not be by any other agency than the justness of our cause. The Rebellion is wicked and hateful; the blood it has shed must be atoned for if ruin come to all.

 Source: John S. Ellen Journal, Western Reserve Historical Society, Mss. 3502.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

John Ellen Journal, 23rd OVI, Part 1: "...like a moving rabble..."

I recently came across the journal of 2nd Lt. John S. Ellen at the Western Reserve Historical Society. Ellen was a native of Painesville, Ohio, and served in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. His writings are full of fascinating insights on the war and its political, military, and moral aspects. I only had the time to look at the pages from late August 1862 through January 1863, but I hope to go back to view more in the future, as it could serve as a great source for future writing and research projects.

I thought I would post portions of the journal on here, as the entries are fascinating. The entries below extend from August 30th through the Battle of Antietam. As you will see, once the regiment was on the road, the entries stopped until after the battle. His comments during the days following Second Manassas are quite interesting; they show the rumors floating amongst the soldiers of the ongoing battle, suggesting that some thought it could have been a Union victory while the fight was taking place. Also of note, on September 8th, Ellen writes that the army resembles "a moving rabble" rather than a "well disciplined soldiery." This is of particularly interest for me, as it is yet one more example of the confusion plaguing Federal forces at the start of the Maryland Campaign. The army was not a well organized force, but an amalgamation of units thrown together to meet the enemy during a time of crisis. This is a fact forgotten by many historians.

Tomorrow and Friday I will post two other sections of the journal, extending up to January 6th. In the weeks following Antietam, Ellen wrote about the problems in the army, obstacles facing the Union war effort, and he also expressed his ideas on how the war should be fought.

Saturday, August 30th

Left Alexandria at 5 A.M. arrived at H Qrs of the 23rd Regiment Camp at Upton’s farm at 12 M, Heavy firing heard all day in the direction of Manassas Gap. Severe fight, the wounded are coming in. Reported defeat of the Rebel forces under “Stonewall” Jackson, Major General.

Sunday, August 31st

Camp at Upton’s Farm, near Washington

Some rain today. Received two letters from E.H.C. and one from Henry. Rumors very prevalent. Some heavy firing heard this evening. Wrote to E.H.C.

Monday, Sept 1st

First day of Autumn. Cold and blustering. Commenced raining in the evening and continued all night. No news of importance. Heavy firing heard this evening. It is thought that the Gov’t held its own against the rebels in Saturdays fight.  

Tuesday, Sept 2nd

Ceased raining this morning; very cold. Rumours of all kinds; defeats, victories, etc. etc. Hundreds of stragglers.

Wednesday, Sept 3rd

No news; all quiet

Thursday Sept 4th

The enemy made a reconnaissance this evening near “Falls Church”. Reported victory of Union troops at Harpers Ferry. Office of the (illegible, possibly guard).

Monday, September 8th

Bivouac fifteen miles from Washington. Burnside's corps.

Cox’s Division crossed the Potomac Saturday the 5th passed through Washington and gained this camp yesterday. This whole army seems more like a moving rable than a well disciplined soldiery. Wrote to E.H.C.

Monday September 22nd
Camp near Sharpsburg

Arrived in camp at this place Sept 19th. Wrote to E.H.C. 20th. Weather pleasant. Thousands of troops here. Since I last wrote severe battles have been fought, and glorious Union victories won. The 23rd has made four desperate bayonet charges, in two great battles. Sunday Sept 14th at South Mountain, and Wednesday the 17th at Sharpsburg. The loss to our reg’t has been great, but we have enough left to do good execution yet. Wrote to E. yesterday the 21st to E.H.C. this p.m.

Friday Sept 26th

Camp at Antietam Creek Md.

Changed camp to day. Moved about two miles. No news of importance. The army seems to be closing in for another fight. Night very cold, morning very foggy, days hot.

 Source: John S. Ellen Journal, Western Reserve Historical Society, Mss. 3502.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Fredericksburg 150: The Cost of War

"Oh mother, how I do like to have you put in a word to year dear son in the war fighting to save his dear country. It looked sad to me to see so many dead bodys that I see the other day lying on the battlefield. I thought to myself if thear mothers could only see them they would be crasy."

150 years ago today, the Battle of Fredericksburg was fought. The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia, which had met in battle at Antietam just two months prior, yet again clashed and engaged in great and terrible bloodshed. Thousands more were added to the death toll of the war.

Sergeant Benjamin Franklin Chase, of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, was just one of those men at Fredericksburg. Posted below, you will find excerpts of letters which Chase wrote home to his parents throughout 1862. Throughout his writings, Chase repeatedly told his parents that he hated the war, and hoped it would end soon so the death and killing would stop. These letters do not show us a soldier eager for killing and war, but a rightfully scared young man, who did not want to die, but only to see his family once again. As Chase wrote to his mother a few weeks before Fredericksburg, “I hate this foolish war more and more every day I live.” Chase’s words remind us that these battles were not fought by lines on a map, but by real people, who left behind fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, wives, sons, and daughters. In many cases, these men would never again see their loved ones, as they laid down their lives that this nation might live. Many of these men were barely old enough to be called such; many were younger than twenty years old. The youth of the nation, dying upon once peaceful fields, gave our country a “new birth of freedom,” and that is what we should remember as we commemorate the 150th Anniversary of Fredericksburg, and of the American Civil War.

Benjamin Franklin Chase enlisted in the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry on September 16, 1861. He was 18 years old, five feet nine inches tall, had blue eyes and black hair. He mustered in at Concord, New Hampshire, on October 19, 1861, and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant on November 11, 1862.

In camp, harrison’s landing, VA, james river

Dear Father,

(Most of this letter consists of small talk about the family, asking if his parents had received the letters he had sent, including one where Chase mailed three dollars to his parents. Chase also asks about different members of the family. Not much is relevant or of interest, except for the following lines)

… I guess I shall get my picture taken and send home, so if I should get killed out hear you could have it to look at. It costs 150 to get it taken.

… tell mother not to worry about me, not a mite. I stand one chance in 7 hundred thousand to not get killed. But perhaps I may get killed. I think I shant, cant tell.

Write all the news when you get this.

I am full steadier that I used to be at home, as good soldier as they is in the Co. dave and sarah said they were going to send me something when Hadley come back. I wish you would send me som stamps. Its hard to get them hear.

Write soon

B.F. Chase

The next letter is from August 3, 1862
In camp at harrisons landing, james river, VA

Dear father and all

As I received your kind and welcome letter a few days ago, I will now try and answer it. The first thing is, I am well as ever, and as harty as an old bear. Thease few lines I hope will find you and all our folks well as I am. I received those stamps and was happy to get um….

I still like pretty well and I hope I shall continue to like until the war is over. Which I hope will be soon but I am afraid it will last quite a while longer. We cant tell when it will end….

I am glad they have called for more troops, so as to have the war ended sometime or nother. It looks to us though it never would end, but they has got to be a settlement to it soon, one way or the other. It looks dreadful hard to see the poor soldiers killed of as they are hear. On our retreat was the hardest thing I ever see. I wish I only could be at home one week and tell you about what I have seen hear. I could think of anough to talk a week, all the time. I don’t put in eny thing in my letters that I write about what i have seen because I have anough else to write. I leave that out so as to tell you it when we get home.

I am going and get my picture taken to morrow and send it home to you all so if I get killed hear you can have it to look at and remember me by, to. How fast the time does pass away, almost fall again. I have been enlisted most a year, shall be the 11th of September….

We are under marching orders now. I guess I will put in a word to mother. Good by. Write as quick as you can.

B.F. Chase

The next, and last, letter in the collection was written just after Antietam, on September 28, 1862.

Sabath day


Sept 28th, 1862

Camp at harpers ferry

My Dear Mother,

I will now sit down and let you all know that I am a live and well. I hope this will find you all the same

We are hear to harpers ferry now. Ben hear 6 days and we except to stay hear some time. All the boys is well.

I don’t hardly know what to say to you, dear mother. I hate this foolish war more and more every day I live.

Oh, mother, the mail has just come in and I got your letter dated Sept 15, and o good Lord how glad I was to hear from you and the rest at home. Oh I am so glad to hear that you all are alive once more.

I spose you have heard what a hard battle we have ben in, but I was so lucky to get out of it alive. But it killed and wounded 118 men in our regt. We had to run about one mile before we got on the battlefield. When we was running I throwed away my blanket and one of them good blue shirts father sent me was in my blanket so I lost it.

Mother, it’s a nough to discourage eny one to see how this war go on. Half of our officers are traters, they don’t care how long this war goes on. Its makes me so mad to see how they go on, I don’t no what to do.

Yes, mother, good many of us thinks the war will be over before winter, but I don’t beleave it will be over for 2 more years to come. How I do wish I was out of it. I would give all my bounty mighty quickly if I could only get my way if I could see you….

We shall go into winter quarters soon, we think, we shall get paid of in a few days.

I shall be glad when I see the boys from the village

When we get paid of I shall write oftener

It’s a very pretty place hear to this ferry. The cars run up hear

I always like to write you, dear mother. I will write a piece to father and the rest.

Oh, mother, how I should like to set down to a good meal of brown bread and beans at home. Oh Lord when will that happy day come. Lord when will that day come when I can speak with you all again. I cant tell that, perhaps never and perhaps twill soon

Oh mother, how I do like to have you put in a word to year dear son in the war fighting to save his dear country. It looked sad to me to see so many dead bodys that I see the other day lying on the battlefield. I thought to myself if thear mothers could only see them they would be crasy.

Cant think of eny more this time. Tell lily when I come I will bring home candy. Write very soon and often. Good by mother, hope to see you soon.

B.F. Chase

That was the last letter Chase wrote to his mother. He would never see her, nor his father, nor the rest of his family, again. At the age of nineteen years old, Chase was killed during the Battle of Fredericksburg, 150 years ago today. His prediction that the war would last at least another 2 years was true. He was also correct in stating that if the mothers of soldiers could see battlefields after the fighting had ended, they would be “crasy”, and perhaps, wars would be brought to a close much sooner. While Chase expressed numerous times that he hated the war, he also did note in his letter home after Antietam that he believed he was engaged in a fight “to save his dear country.” Benjamin Franklin Chase, killed 150 years ago today at Fredericksburg, reminds us that war has a heavy price, and freedom is never free.

Source: Benjamin Chase Letters, typescript copies, 5th New Hampshire File, Antietam National Battlefield Library