Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

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

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

My dear Buel,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Friday, December 13, 2013

Book Reviews- Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 2, 2013

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

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

And now, for the review...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Seven Score and Ten Years Ago

150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, defining the American Civil War in one of the most important speeches in history. He was there to deliver “a few appropriate remarks” at the dedication of a cemetery for the Union dead from the Battle of Gettysburg, the biggest and bloodiest battle ever fought in North America.

Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg on November 18, just after dusk had settled upon the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Thousands had flocked to the city, crowding the streets of the small southern Pennsylvania town with outsiders for the second time in 1863. Lincoln spent that evening in the David Wills home on the town square, where 36 people stayed that evening. Lincoln spent that night finishing his remarks for the following day. He was asked to speak to a group of well wishers outside the Wills home, but declined, stating only that he preferred not to speak extemporaneously that evening.

The next morning, Lincoln rose early to tour the Gettysburg battlefield. He wanted to visit where Major General John Reynolds had been killed on July 1, 1863, and thus rode to the Herbst Woods on McPherson Ridge, part of the July 1 battlefield.

Upon returning to the town, Lincoln took part in a procession to the new cemetery. After entering the cemetery from Baltimore Street, Lincoln and other dignitaries made their way to the speaker’s rostrum. Speaking first was Edward Everett, who famously delivered an oration stretching over two hours. Then, it was Lincoln’s turn.

As Lincoln stepped forward, he was speaking amidst a climate of death and destruction. All around the still unfinished cemetery, there were fresh graves, holding the remains of soldiers who had recently given their lives that this nation may live. When Lincoln arrived at the train station the day before, there were coffins stacked nearby, waiting to be used for the remains of brave soldiers who paid the last full measure of devotion. During his tour of the battlefield, he saw graves of soldiers who had not yet been reinterred to the new cemetery, as well as the landscape which still bore the scars of battle. And, when Lincoln stepped forward at the cemetery dedication, around his famed top hat was a black band, signifying that he was still mourning the loss of his son Willie, who died in February 1862. Lincoln was, in many ways, still a grieving father who, although he had not lost a son due to war, was speaking to a nation of grieving parents whose children had perished on farmers fields across the United States in a struggle for the future of the nation. He stepped forward that day to answer a question: was all of the death and suffering that was tearing apart the country ultimately worth it. Lincoln’s answer was yes.


Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The war would go on. Thousands more would die, including Lincoln himself. And yet, despite these deaths, despite the pain and destruction of the war, the nation and its ideals would continue to live. It continues to live today, a testament to the sacrifices that were made so many years ago. And yet, there is still "the great task remaining before us," a task that has remained and will remain for each generation of Americans, to ensure that the democratic government that Lincoln spoke of 150 years ago today "shall not perish from the earth."

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Life Interrupts Blogging

It has been quite awhile since my last post on here, but I wanted to assure everyone that I am still here. I have just been a bit preoccupied lately by life.
I don't post too much about my non history life and adventures on here, but five years ago I began dating a wonderful girl named Alison when I was a senior at Hillsdale College. On October 12, she became my wife.
We just got back from our honeymoon in Charleston, SC. I will post some pictures on here soon. Saw lots of amazing sights and of course, couldn't help but see some Civil War sites too!!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Book Review: Connecticut Yankees at Antietam

Hello all,

I wanted to post about a new book out on Antietam by John Banks, who runs a great blog on Connecticut soldiers at Antietam and Gettysburg (his is one of the featured blogs in my links section on the side of the page).

I have had the chance to meet John a few times, and I am very glad he has published a book on Connecticut soldiers at Antietam through the History Press, which is churning out a large number of high quality works as of late.

John's book doesn't look at the battle in any sort of regiment by regiment fashion, following various Connecticut units movements on the field. Rather, he approaches the topic by telling stories. With a background in journalism (he actually works for ESPN!), Banks writes with the narrative ability of a natural story teller. The book is an incredibly good read, and the material used in the stories provides some incredibly moving examples of humanity and suffering at Antietam. Certainly, Banks spent many hours doing thorough research for this volume. Each chapter is relatively short (as is the book, a typical size for History Press works), which makes it very accessible for novices and experts alike.

One story that stood out the most for me among the moving stories featured in Connecticut Yankees at Antietam is that of Captain Newton Manross of the 16th Connecticut, who wrote to his wife explaining his decision to serve his country, "You can better afford to have a country without a husband than a husband without a country." Manross was killed at Antietam.

What a powerful quote. Nearly every story featured in this book has material that will be sure to captivate a wide audience from park rangers to those picking up their first book on Antietam.

I have really enjoyed reading through this new volume, and I highly recommend it. With battle anniversary just around the corner, I will likely be including some of Banks's Connecticut stories in my programming for the upcoming Antietam 151st, especially on my Burnside Bridge hike on Sept 14th. I highly recommend this new work, which you can find on amazon.com here.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

For What They Died, I Fight a Little Longer

As the summer season has drawn to a close, thus my time at Gettysburg has ended. If you have followed this blog regularly, you will have noticed that I posted very little this summer. I have been incredibly busy over the past few months. I did 12 new interpretive program at Gettysburg this season, including the programing for the Gettysburg 150th this summer. On top of my other projects, there wasn't much time for blogging.

This past Sunday, I returned to work at Antietam (Saturday was my last at Gettysburg). Now, on my first day off in a week, I am sitting in the Smith House at Antietam at my desk (hooked up to the internet, which I don't have in my park housing), looking out over Bloody Lane on a rainy day, reflecting on the past few months.

My time at Gettysburg, and my return to Antietam, has reminded me that what we do in the National Park Service is incredibly important. Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" Speech in Washington on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In some of the pictures, you can see NPS rangers working the event, as the Lincoln Memorial was and is an NPS site. In the Park Service, we are the caretakers of our nation's heritage and greatest treasures. If we continue to do our jobs, our nation's history and dreams will continue to live on for future generations. I am very proud to be a part of this organization.

I thought the following letter from Rufus Dawes to his wife in 1881 appropriately summarized the meaning that sites such as Antietam, Gettysburg, and others provide for us today. Dawes, a veteran of the 6th Wisconsin, was a member of Congress at the time, and he took part of a day to visit the graves of 24 soldiers who were killed under his command during the Civil War. These graves were just a few of the many buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The letter is very moving and reminds us of the strength and lessons we can draw from our past.

December 18, 1881
My Dear Wife: I have to-day worshiped at the shrine of the dead. I went over to the Arlington Cemetery. It was a beautiful morning and the familiar scenes so strongly impressed upon me during my young manhood, were pleasant. Many times I went over that road, admiring the beautiful city and great white capitol, with its unfinished dome, going to hear the great men of that day in Congress. An ambitious imagination then builded castles of the time when I might take my place there. Now at middle age, with enthusiasm sobered by hard fights and hard facts, I ride, not run with elastic step over the same road, with this ambition at least realized, and warmth enough left in my heart to enjoy it. My friends and comrades, poor fellows, who followed my enthusiastic leadership in those days, and followed it to the death which I by a merciful Providence escaped, lie here, twenty-four of them, on the very spot where our winter camp of 1861-1862 was located. I found every grave and stood beside it with uncovered head. I looked over nearly the full 16,000 headboards to find the twenty-four, but they all died alike and I was determined to find all. Poor little Fenton who put his head above the works at Cold Harbor and got a bullet through his temples, and lived three days with his brains out, came to me in memory as fresh as one of my own boys of to-day, and Levi Pearson, one of the three brothers of company ‘A,’ who died for their country in the sixth regiment, and Richard Gray, Paul Mulleter, Dennis Kelly, Christ Bundy, all young men, who fell at my side and under my command. For what they died, I fight a little longer. Over their graves I get inspiration to stand for all they won in establishing our government upon freedom, equality, justice, liberty and protection to the humblest.

The letter continues on after this section, but the last sentence here is the key. 

Perhaps, people will leave sites such as Gettysburg and Antietam knowing the cost that was paid here, and will resolve to fight a little longer for all that was won and secured for us by our fore fathers seven score and ten years ago.

I loved every day of my experience at Gettysburg, and I return to Antietam with mixed emotions. I will miss Gettysburg and my colleagues there, but I am certainly very grateful to be returning to such an important and hallowed place. There is no time for rest. The Antietam 151st is just around the corner!!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner, July 18, 1863

150 years ago today, Union soldiers launched a desperate assault against Fort Wagner on Morris Island outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Leading the way was the 54th Massachusetts, a regiment of free African Americans charging under the American flag, storming a fortress commanded by white southerners, a scenario which was unimaginable just two years earlier at the war’s outset.

July 1863 was in many ways the pivotal month of the American Civil War. September 1862 could lay claim to this as well, with the Union victory at Antietam and the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. However, a trifecta of events in July 1863 forever changed the future of the Civil War and the future of American history.
On July 3, 1863, the Union Army of the Potomac defeated the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia on the fields surrounding the farming town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The three day battle there on July 1, 2, and 3 culminated in a Union victory. It also exacted a heavy toll of 50,000 plus casualties, forever staining the fields of Gettysburg with the memory of those lives lost and those that were forever changed, along with the history of the nation. Such heavy bloodshed was the necessary price for "a new birth of freedom" to begin.

On July 4, 1863, Major General Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of Confederate forces in Vicksburg, Mississippi. A 6 month long campaign to seize the crucial river town ended in Union victory. Thousands of lives had been spent to achieve the result. As Lincoln noted, “The Father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea….” The Mississippi was entirely in Federal hands, cutting the Confederacy in two, severely restricting the Confederate ability to wage war. This was, perhaps, the most important strategic victory of the war.

On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry led the Union assault on Fort Wagner, just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, writing the most famous chapter not only in the history of that regiment, but for all African American soldiers in the American Civil War. The bravery of the 54th Massachusetts was but the first of many stories of African Americans fighting for their country and their freedom in the Civil War. The story of the 54th Massachusetts helped to inspire nearly 200,000 other African Americans to join the Union ranks during the war.

The story of the 54th itself, however, began several months before Fort Wagner, when in January 1863, the War Department and Massachusetts Governor John Andrew requested Captain Robert Gould Shaw to leave his position in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry to accept the colonelcy for the new 54th Massachusetts, a regiment composed of free blacks. The officers in the regiment would be white, but the soldiers would be African Americans fighting for their freedom. Writing to Shaw’s father Francis, Andrew passed the following message to the young officer:


I am about to organize in Massachusetts a Colored Regiment as part of the volunteer quota of this State—the commissioned officers to be white men. I have today written your father expressing to him my sense of the importance of this undertaking, and requesting him to forward to you this letter, in which I offer to you the Commission of Colonel over it. The Lieutenant Colonelcy I have offered to Captain Hallowell of the Twentieth Massachusetts Regiment. It is important to the organization of this regiment that I should receive your reply to this offer at the earliest day consistent with your ability to arrive at a deliberate conclusion on the subject.

Respectfully and very truly yours,

John A. Andrew
Despite initially declining, Shaw did accept the post, and in February 1863, went to work of creating the regiment. In February and March of 1863, the regiment was recruited from across the North. Despite being a Massachusetts regiment, there were companies in the 54th from New York, Philadelphia, Providence, Elmira, and Nantucket. By April 30, when the regiment was training, it numbered 950 men armed with Enfield rifles. On May 18, the regiment was presented with its colors. One flag featured a blue field beset with a white cross and the words, “In Hoc Signo Vinces,” latin for “By this sign you shall conquer”, alluding back to the victorious of Constantine during the Roman Empire. That day, Governor Andrew spoke to the men, framing the importance of their work in the context of history:

“These men, sir, have now, in the Providence of God, given to them an opportunity which, while it is personal to themselves, is still an opportunity for a whole race of men. With arms possessed of might to strike a blow, they have found breathed into their hearts an inspiration of devoted patriotism and regard for their bretheren of their own color, which has inspired them with a purpose to nerve that arm, that it may strike a blow which, while it shall help to raise aloft their country’s flag—their country’s flag, now, as well as ours—by striking down the foes which oppose it, strikes also the last shackle which binds the limbs of the bondmen in the Rebel States.
“I know not… when, in all human history, to any given thousand men in arms there has been committed a work at once so proud, so precious, so full of hope and glory as the work committed to you….
“Whatever fortune may betide you, we know from the past that all will be done for the honor of the cause, for the protection of the flag, for the defence of the right, for the glory of your country…”
Two weeks later, the 54th departed for the South and for war.

For several weeks, the 54th was used for manual labor projects. After that, they participated in a few foraging expeditions, including one which infamously led to the burning of Darien, Georgia, under the orders of Colonel James Montgomery. After Colonel Shaw wrote to Brigadier General George Strong on July 6 to ask permission to fight, the regiment was brought to Morris Island. On July 16, during an expedition on nearby James Island, the 54th had its first taste of combat. On July 18, the 54th, along with the rest of Brigadier General George Strong’s brigade, was to be used as an assault force against Fort Wagner.

For several hours that day, the U.S. navy bombarded the fort with a heavy cannonade. Contrary to the depiction in the popular 1989 movie Glory, the 54th was selected to lead the column that day. According to General Truman Seymour, commanding the assault, “It was believed that the Fifty-fourth was in every respect as efficient as anybody of men… It was one of the strongest and best officered, there seemed to be no good reason why it should not be selected for this advance. This point was decided by General Strong and myself.”

Once the bombardment ended at 7 pm that evening, Shaw stepped forward and told the men, “I shall go in advance with the National flag. You will keep the State flag with you; it will give the men something to rally around. We shall take the fort or die there! Good Bye!” A few hours earlier, when the regiment was in transport from James Island to Morris Island to take part in the assault, Shaw remarked to one of his lieutenants that he had a premonition concerning his death: “If I could only live a few weeks longer with my wife, and be at home a little while, I might die happy, but it cannot be. I do not believe I will live through our next fight.”

When the men stepped off that day, the 54th Massachusetts was leading the way across a narrow stretch of beach leading up to the fort. After 200 yards, the batteries from Wagner began pelting the 54th with shot and shell; at this point Shaw ordered the regiment into a “double quick” advance. As Sergeant Lewis Douglass, son of Frederick Douglass, later recalled: “…not a man flinched although it was a trying time. Men fell all around me. A shell would explode and clear a space of twenty feet, our men would close up again.” Lt. Richard Jewett remembered the Confederate fire pouring into the Federal ranks as well, noting, “such a murderous fire I hope never to see again. It mowed down the ranks like grass before a scythe.”

Once the regiment approached the fort, they plunged through pools of water and embankments around the fort and began clambering up the walls. Once through the moat around the fort, Shaw surged forward, leading his men onward. The 25 year old colonel, who was married just 2 months earlier on May 2, with the eyes of the nation upon him, leading free African Americans into the heart of slavery and secession, proclaimed, “Come on, men! Follow me!” Shaw was shot directly in the chest, and fell dead in front of his regiment.

Corporal Gooding of the 54th Massachusetts later remembered the moment: “When the men saw their gallant leader fall, they made a desperate effort to get him out, but they were either shot down, or reeled in the ditch below.”

The soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts struggled to seize the fort and follow upon the example of their gallant leader, but the task proved to be too much. The white regiments which followed them along failed in the task as well, taking heavy losses in the assault. When the 54th fell from the fort, men regathered near the regimental flag, which had been saved by Sergeant William Carney. Despite being wounded in the hip, Carney grabbed the American flag to prevent it from falling into Confederate hands. Carney exhorted his superiors for permission to make the charge again, but was ordered to stay put along with the other survivors from the regiment. One of the surviving regimental officers told Carney, “Sergeant, you have done enough; you are badly wounded, you had better keep quiet.” Carney responded as any true American soldier would: “I have only done my duty, the old flag never touched the ground.” Sergeant Carney became the first African American soldier to win the Medal of Honor for his actions.

The assault of the 54th Massachusetts had failed. When the tide began coming in the following morning, many of those lying wounded on the beach were drowned in the Ocean water. Of 600 men present, the 54th Massachusetts had lost 272, nearly 50% casualties. Overall Union losses numbered 1,515 total casualties for the assault of the 18th. The Confederates defending Wagner lost only 174 men.

Soon, newspapers throughout the North carried the story of the 54th Massachusetts. All across the northern states, people read of the bravery of free black men fighting for their freedom where the war that would eventually deliver freedom for over 4 million slaves had begun just two years before. As the Atlantic Monthly wrote, “Through the cannon smoke of that dark night the manhood of the colored race shines before many eyes that would not see.”

In October 1865, the New York Times published another fitting tribute to the men of the 54th Massachusetts who made the daring assault on Fort Wagner 150 years ago:

“It is not too much to say that if this Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth had faltered when its trial came, two hundred thousand colored troops for whom it was a pioneer would never have been put into the field, or would not have been put in for another year, which would have been equivalent to protracting the war to 1866. But it did not falter. It made Fort Wagner such a name to the colored race as Bunker Hill has been for ninety years to white Yankees.”

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Gettysburg 150 Reflections: July 4 National Cemetery Photos

Here are a few more photos from the Gettysburg 150th. These are from July 4 when I was stationed in the National Cemetery to talk about the dead of Gettysburg and their meaning for the nation. This was the best July 4th of my life. The crowds of visitors were phenomenal. There is nothing like wrapping up a ranger program in the Gettysburg Cemetery on July 4 by stopping at the grave of Sumner Paine, grandson of the signer of the Declaration of Independence who was killed on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg. His death is a fitting example of the message Lincoln tried to convey when he came to Gettysburg in November 1863. The dead of Gettysburg, and indeed, the dead from all American wars, have given their lives so that the nation founded on the idea of equality and conceived in liberty will not perish. God Bless the United States.
Note: These pictures were all taken with my smartphone.
Ohio flags and buckeyes placed at every Ohio grave, something which I will never forget for the rest of my life.
A native Ohioan kneels at Ohio graves on a very special July 4. Remembering all those who died 150 years ago...

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Gettysburg 150 Reflections: Pickett's Charge Photos

Here is part 2 of my photos from the Gettysburg 150th. Again, some are from my cell phone and personal camera, some are from friends, and some are from the park facebook page. Hope you enjoy.
 On the evening of July 2, there was an amazing double rainbow over the battlefield. I didn't capture the whole thing, but I did capture it hitting Cemetery Ridge at the point where Ambrose Wright's brigade of Georgians was hitting the Union line 150 years earlier to the moment. This is from my backyard at Codori. Simply breathtaking.
 Sunset at Codori on the 2nd
 Myself at the 106th Pennsylvania monument on July 2

July 3 started out very rainy and cloudy. It did not bode well for the Pickett's Charge commemorative walk that day.

Visitors were gathering at the Virginia Memorial in the rain 3 hours before we even began organizing the separate brigades and 5 hours before the walk began.


Starting at 1 o'clock, rangers began organizing visitors into brigade groups. As you can see, the sun had started to come out. This was still two hours before the walk began, and Garnett's brigade, to which I was assigned along with my friend and colleague Ranger Chris Gwinn, was already getting crowded.

Ranger Dan manning Richard Garnett's brigade. Each brigade for the walk had a separate flag with the brigade commander's name on it. Brigades in Pickett's Division had light blue flags, Pettigrew's division had red flags, and Trimble's division had green flags. Because visitors were allowed to choose their brigades, Pickett's was the most crowded. We either had the same number or more visitors gather with us on July 3 than Pickett had soldier's in his division 150 years earlier. Again, simply amazing.


 This is a panorama photo I took with my cell phone just before we stepped off. It shows Garnett's brigade in line of battle, with Ranger Gwinn walking in front. The photo is really amazing because it shows how far the brigade stretched, which was likely the length of Garnett's actual brigade. Chris and I likely had over 2,000 visitors with us, meaning we had more people walking with us on July 3 than Garnett had to make the original Pickett's Charge 150 years earlier. If you click on the image you can enlarge it. At certain points the visitors are standing six or seven ranks deep.

The view of Garnett's brigade from a distance just as we began to advance.
 This picture does not do the sight justice. When we crested the final ridges and saw Cemetery Ridge for the first time, I heard gasps and exclamations from the visitors behind me. Chris and I tried to do informal interpretation as we advanced. I turned to the visitors, told them that those were all Union soldiers and asked them to put themselves in the shoes of those soldiers whose footsteps they were following 150 years to the moment. This moment was a far more powerful teaching tool than any ranger talk I could have designed on my own. It showed rangers and visitors alike what the march was like and what the sights were like. Knowing how many Union soldiers lay ahead and continuing on anyways brought a new perspective on these Confederate soldiers who made this assault for everyone involved, rangers included. Words really can't describe the thoughts going through our minds at this point.

 Garnett pushes forward to the wall. After reforming on the Union side of the Emmittsburg Pike, Chris and I told our group that this was the last stretch, the point where most of the Confederate soldiers fell. This was the stretch where Garnett himself was killed. The soldiers advancing from this point on leaned forward as if walking into a heavy rain storm. The atmosphere in the group was electric, and then we yelled, "Garnett's Brigade, Forward to the Wall!!!"
 Once at the wall, the rangers stopped the advancing brigades.
 Gettysburg Foundation President Joanne Hanley caught up with me at the stonewall and snapped this pic. Thanks, Joanne!

Chris and I gather for a brief ranger conference after stopping our group.

 Thanks to Antietam colleague, friend, and social media team member Ranger Mannie Gentile for this shot at the wall. Yes, the Confederate battle flags do make this appear to be an SCV advertisement, but I assure you it is not.

The Pickett's Charge commemorative walk was a tremendous success thanks to the hard work of everyone involved. I work with some very dedicated and talented park rangers. Pictured right to left:
Rangers Phillip Brown, myself, Chris Gwinn, Jared Frederick, and GNMP Supervisory Historian Scott Hartwig. An interesting crew indeed.
 Thanks again to Mannie for this shot. Chris and I after the walk, with the Garnett and American flags behind us. Chris is a good friend and I was very fortunate to work with him on this event. We can say that we led more people across the fields of Gettysburg than Garnett himself did!

Stay tuned for a few more pictures from Gettysburg 150 to come.