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)

Thursday, January 31, 2013

January 30, 1863: "I am about to raise a colored regiment in Massachusetts"

150 years ago, in January 1863, the United States government began fulfilling the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation by starting to raise African American regiments for the Union army. On January 20, the War Department sent word authorizing Massachusetts Governor John Andrews to raise an all black regiment. On January 30, Andrews wrote to Francis Shaw, a noted Boston abolitionist, to request his assistance in the matter:

As you may have seen by the newspapers, I am about to raise a colored regiment in Massachusetts. This I cannot but regard as perhaps the most important corps to be organized during the whole war.
I am desirous to have for its officers—particularly for its field officers—young men of military experience, of firm anti slavery principles, ambitious, superior to a vulgar contempt for color, and having faith in the capacity of colored men for military service. Such officers must necessarily be gentlemen of the highest tone and honor; and I shall look for them in those circles of educated anti slavery society which, next to the colored race itself, have the greatest interest in the experiment
With my deep conviction of the importance of this undertaking, in view of the fact that it will be the first colored regiment to be raised in the free states, and that its success or its failure will go far to elevate or depress the estimation in which the character of the colored Americans will be held throughout the world, the command of such a regiment seems to me to be a high object of ambition for any officer.

Andrew asked Francis Shaw to pass along the following to his son Robert, a Captain in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry:


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
 Thus, 150 years ago, Captain Robert Gould Shaw was offered the colonelcy of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. While he initially turned down the offer, Shaw ultimately accepted. The story of Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts is one of the great events of 1863, and it reminds us that the Civil War was indeed a fight for the future of freedom in the United States.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Letter to Henry Hunt, September 22, 1862

Here is another interesting letter concerning Antietam. I found this in the Henry Hunt Papers at the Library of Congress during my research last summer, and now that I have more time for transcribing in the dead of winter, I am finally getting around to it. It is a letter from a family friend to Colonel Henry Jackson Hunt, the artillery commander for the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Antietam. Hunt took his post just a week or so before the battle, and he had a monumental task of taking count of all of the army's artillery pieces. In the Hunt papers, there is a report dated September 10, 1862, listing every battery and how many guns it had, as well as their type. It is quite impressive, and a must see for anyone interested in artillery at Antietam. Much of Hunt's work was used in the book Artillery Hell, the go to guide for artillery at the Battle of Antietam.

I don't know much about the individual who sent this letter, other than the author's family was friends with Hunt and his family. The writer seems to be a McClellan sympathizer, and to have something against the New York Tribune. I find his comments on Burnside's role at Antietam particularly interesting, although it appears that the letter writer was working with an incomplete or inaccurate understanding of what happened at the battle.  Burnside was not outnumbered, and his attack was more than simply a feint against the Confederate right. If anyone knows more about this individual, who goes only by the initials and name B.F. Craig, please post in the comments section below. I would love to learn more about this letter and its writer.

Anyways, this is a neat letter and an interesting read. Hope you enjoy.

Sept 22nd 1862
Dear Colonel
I received yours of the 17th with the accompanying document. If copies of it are plenty I would like two or three to send to friends who took an interest in those matters and in your career. If you have any objection to its find its way to the newspaper press you can tell me so.
I see that the NY Tribune has got up an account of the battle, which, I think, is designed for mischievous purposes, and which is getting a good deal of circulation. In case that you should not have seen it, I send you a copy with a certain part marked, in which insinuation against McClellan and Burnside are craftily made.
As far as I can gather from the newspaper account, the course of the battle was as follows. Our troops were massed against the Rebel left and centre, while Burnside with a small force occupied the attention of their right wing by a vigorous demonstration or feint, which was carried out as a false attack should be, and attained its object. The attacks in other parts of the field were successful, after severe fighting, and the enemy was dislodged from his position.
Gen. Burnside’s part would seem to have been the most difficult of any having to fight an inferior against a superior force, and credit is due to him, rather than to those who were successful by point of superior numbers.
If these facts are so, both McClellan and Burnside need righting before the public, who should be put on their guard against giving ear to the crafty malice of the Tribune.
I see that the Rebels have made a stand on the south side of the Potomac. I hope that before you cross you will have received reinforcements, which will make victory certain.
We are all well. Father has gone to St. Louis to serve on a Court Martial.
I have heard nothing from Boston since my last letter to you.
Yours Truly,
B.F. Craig

To Col. H.J. Hunt, Ch’f of Artillery of Army of Pot & Vir

Henry Jackson Hunt Papers, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division

Monday, January 21, 2013

Dr. King on Emancipaton

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It is also a day of even greater historical importance because of the Second Inauguration of President Barack Obama. Whether one is a republican or democrat, Inauguration days are historic events for our nation. I think this post is very appropriate for today.

I posted a link to this speech in my post on the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, but I wanted to post the text of it as well. What follows is the text from remarks given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Dr. King's words ring true as they speak of the powerful impact of the proclamation on the course of freedom in the United States.

Dr. King presented the following speech at the New York Civil War Centennial Commission’s Emancipation Proclamation Observance, New York City, September 12, 1962

Emancipation Proclamation Centennial Address

If our nation had done nothing more in its whole history than to create just two documents, its contribution to civilization would be imperishable. The first of these documents is the Declaration of Independence and the other is that which we are here to honor tonight, the Emancipation Proclamation. All tyrants, past, present and future, are powerless to bury the truths in these declarations, no matter how extensive their legions, how vast their power and how malignant their evil.
The Declaration of Independence proclaimed to a world, organized politically and spiritually around the concept of the inequality of man, that the dignity of human personality was inherent in man as a living being. The Emancipation Proclamation was the offspring of the Declaration of Independence. It was a constructive use of the force of law to uproot a social order which sought to separate liberty from a segment of humanity.
Our pride and progress could be unqualified if the story might end here. But history reveals that America has been a schizophrenic personality where these two documents are concerned. On the one hand she has proudly professed the basic principles inherent in both documents. On the other hand she has sadly practiced the antithesis of these principles.

If we look at our history with honesty and clarity we will be forced to admit that our Federal form of government has been, from the day of its birth, weakened in its integrity, confused and confounded in its direction, by the unresolved race question. We seldom take note or give adequate significance to the fact that Thomas Jefferson’s text of the Declaration of Independence was revised by the Continental Congress to eliminate a justifiable attack on King George for encouraging slave trade…Jefferson knew that such compromises with principle struck at the heart of the nation’s security and integrity. In 1820, six years before his death, he wrote these melancholy words:

"But this momentous question (slavery), like a fire bell in the night awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776 to acquire self-government and happiness to their country is to be thrown away, and my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it."
The somber picture (of the condition of the American Negro today) may induce the sober thought that there is nothing to commemorate about the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. But tragic disappointments and undeserved defeats do not put an end to life, nor do they wipe out the positive, however submerged it may have become beneath floods of negative experience.
The Emancipation Proclamation had four enduring results. First, it gave force to the executive power to change conditions in the national interest on a broad and far-reaching scale. Second, it dealt a devastating blow to the system of slaveholding and an economy built upon it, which had been muscular enough to engage in warfare on the Federal government. Third, it enabled the Negro to play a significant role in his own liberation with the ability to organize and to struggle, with less of the bestial retaliation his slave status had permitted to his masters. Fourth, it resurrected and restated the principle of equality upon which the founding of the nation rested.
When Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation it was not the act of an opportunistic politician issuing a hollow pronouncement to placate a pressure group.
Our truly great presidents were tortured deep in their hearts by the race question. Jefferson with keen perception saw that the festering sore of slavery debilitated white masters as well as the Negro. He feared for the future of white children who were taught a false supremacy. His concern can be summed up in one quotation, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”
Lincoln’s torments are well known, his vacillations were facts. In the seething cauldron of ‘62 and ‘63 Lincoln was called the "Baboon President" in the North, and "coward", "assassin" and "savage" in the South. Yet he searched his way to the conclusions embodied in these words, "In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free, honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve." On this moral foundation he personally prepared the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, and to emphasize the decisiveness of his course he called his cabinet together and declared he was not seeking their advice as to its wisdom but only suggestions on subject matter. Lincoln achieved immortality because he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. His hesitation had not stayed his hand when historic necessity charted but one course. No President can be great, or even fit for office, if he attempts to accommodate to injustice to maintain his political balance.

The Emancipation Proclamation shattered in one blow the slave system, undermining the foundations of the economy of the rebellious South; and guaranteed that no slave-holding class, if permitted to exist in defeat, could prepare a new and deadlier war after resuscitation.

The Proclamation opened the door to self-liberation by the Negro upon which he immediately acted by deserting the plantations in the South and joining the Union armies in the North. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, seeing a regiment of Negroes march through Beacon Street in Boston, wrote in his diary, “An imposing sight, with something wild and strange about it, like a dream. At last the North consents to let the Negro fight for freedom.” Beyond the war years the grim and tortured struggle of Negroes to win their own freedom is an epic of battle against frightful odds. If we have failed to do enough, it was not the will for freedom that was weak, but the forces against us which were too strong.

We have spelled out a balance sheet of the Emancipation Proclamation, its contributions and its deficiencies which our lack of zeal permitted to find expression. There is but one way to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation. That is to make its declarations of freedom real; to reach back to the origins of our nation when our message of equality electrified an unfree world, and reaffirm democracy by deeds as bold and daring as the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Federal Straggling in the Maryland Campaign: Scammon's Brigade

This is an interesting find from my most recent visit to the National Archives. It is a letter from Colonel Eliakim P. Scammon, commander of the 1st Brigade of the Kanawha Division in the Maryland Campaign. After the Battle of South Mountain, when division commander Jacob Cox rose to temporary command of the Ninth Corps, Colonel Scammon rose to command the Kanawha Division, a command he retained at the Battle of Antietam several days later (making him one of many untested division commanders in the Union army at Antietam).

A major theme of my Antietam research is that the Union army saw significant straggling in Maryland, although not on the same scale as what occurred in Confederate ranks. However, actually quantifying that straggling is next to impossible because very few reports exist listing day to day strengths for regiments, brigades, divisions, or corps, outside of tri-monthly consolidated morning reports (returns for units submitted on the 10th, 20th, and 30th of each month) and monthly returns (returns for strengths of army commands submitted at the end of each month). 

This letter helps to fill in this gap in a very small way. Here, Scammon lists numbers of men who fell out of the ranks for the three regiments in his brigade on the day of September 8. He also includes those who came back to their regiments after the day's march was done, and who were present for roll call the next morning.

I find this fascinating. First, in the three regiments, 149 men straggled from the ranks on September 8, weakening the force considerably, especially because it was just one day, and based on accounts from soldiers and officers alike, straggling occurred consistently throughout the Maryland Campaign. Furthermore, a sizable number of those stragglers came back into their regiments that night. Thus, the number for each regiment was fluctuating from one evening to the next morning. One can only assume that such straggling and fluctuating numbers, such as is seen here, had some effect on the inability of regimental, brigade, division, and corps commanders to understand exactly how many effective fighting men they had under their command on any given day. 

The obvious disclaimer for this is that it only applies to one day and to one brigade. However, based on what I have found elsewhere in company books being left behind or leaving blank spaces for recording strength during the month of September, Scammon's September 9th letter seems to fit a larger trend of straggling and uncertainty in understanding Federal strength in September 1862.

Headquarters, 1st Brigade, Kanawha Division
September 9, 1862
I have the honor to report the number of absentees from “Roll Call” immediately upon entering the camp last night and the number absent from “Roll Call” this morning, in the different regiments and camps of the 1st Brigade, as follows,

                               “Evening Roll Call”                “Morning Roll Call”
30th Regiment               36 men                                     23 Men
12th                                53 Men                                    10 Men
23rd                                60 Men                                    24 Men
1st OH Artillery
1st Va Cavalry
                                    Total—149                             Total—57

Very Respectfully,
E.P. Scammon
Col. Commanding Brigade
Capt. G.M. Bascom

Source: Eliakim P. Scammon dispatch of September 9, 1862, Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands, Letters Received, Entry 961, Record Group 393, Part 2, National Archives. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Travels and Talks

I just got back home yesterday from what was a whirlwind week. Last Wednesday, I spoke on the Emancipation Proclamation for the James A. Garfield NHS at the Mentor Public Library (thanks to all those who came out, it was a good turnout). After that, I hopped in the car, drove to Pennsylvania to stay with family Wednesday night, and then on through West Virginia, Maryland, and finally into Virginia on Thursday to speak on the Battle of Stones River for the Bull Run Civil War Roundtable Thursday night (a packed house, with some very nice folks).

As if that wasn't enough, I then went to Alexandria, stayed with a fraternity brother from Hillsdale, and went into D.C. for two days of research at the National Archives. I managed to find a few new things for my Antietam research, and looked over corps and division returns for my new project (which I really hope I can announce on here sometime soon). After that, I made a stop in State College to see my scientist girlfriend (Alison is a grad student in Chemistry at Penn State; she calls me Park Ranger boyfriend, so I guess she gets a career themed moniker as well), and then, at the end of hours of driving over hundreds of miles, I am back in Ohio... for now. More trips are fast approaching! I will be heading back to Georgia at the end of the month for research, battlefield hiking, and visiting family.

A big thank you to my Uncle Chris and Aunt Kathy for hosting me on Wednesday and my Hillsdale College buddy Craig Kreinbihl for hosting me on Thursday and Friday.

Also, a big thank you to the Bull Run Civil War Roundtable group as well for the invitiation to speak. What a tremendous turnout! I greatly enjoyed my evening speaking to the group, and couldn't have been happier with how things went.

Of course, before leaving D.C., I had to make a side trip to see my favorite person in Washington...

Anyways, it is good to be busy. Even if I'm not working every day for the Park Service, I am still very blessed.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Stones River

150 years ago today, the terrible Battle of Stones River came to a close. The fighting began on December 31, just outside of Murfreesboro, Tennessee with a surprise early morning Confederate assault upon unsuspecting Federals. Men of Alexander McCook's Right Wing of the Army of the Cumberland were driven back by the first waves of Confederate attackers. After a few hours, the bravery of Phil Sheridan's division, along with the help of William B. Hazen's brigade, first slowed and then stopped the Confederate advance. By nightfall, Confederate General Braxton Bragg's men had driven Union forces backwards, but the Federals still held defensive lines on the field resembling a large U shape. On January 1, convinced the Federals would soon retreat, Bragg decided against continuing the assault. It was not until January 2, when Confederates discovered that Federals had crossed to the eastern bank of Stones River and occupied heights capable of providing an enfilading artillery fire on their position that the battle resumed. Confederate General John Breckenridge's division was sent against the Federal troops along the heights east of the river at 4 pm; the assault barely lasted one hour, after over fifty Federal guns amassed together blasted apart Breckenridge's infantry. By nightfall, the battlefield once again fell silent. Over 22,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing during the fighting from December 31, 1862, to January 2, 1863, making Stones River one of the bloodiest battles of the war.

Soon after the fighting ended, Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee retreated into Southern Tennessee, making the battle a Union victory. Because of the battle's timing, it was a sorely needed win for the North. It helped to offset the aftermath of the Confederate victory at Fredericksburg, as well as the Union setback outside of Vicksburg at Chickasaw Bayou. More importantly, Stones River ensured that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, was coupled with Union victory, not Union defeat.

I am pleased to say that, on January 10, I will be in Manassas, Virginia, speaking about Stones River for the Bull Run Civil War Roundtable. It will be my second presentation on this topic, and I look forward to the opportunity.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

January 1, 1863: A New Birth of Freedom

On January 1, 1863, 150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, signed and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves in those states then in rebellion against the Federal government to be "then, thenceforward, and forever free."

Lincoln had barely slept the night before, if even at all. He spent much of the evening as he often did, pacing the lonely halls of the Executive Mansion, a solitary figure with the weight of the nation, the freedom of four million souls, and the eyes of history on his shoulders. He knew that the approaching dawn would bring with it the promise of a new birth of freedom, a freedom forged out of the blood and destruction of battles such as Shiloh, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Those were the battles of the past year. They had signaled the nation's descent into a sanguinary, revolutionary struggle that would destroy the old Union and open the door for the hope of a new, more perfect Union. Lincoln's actions on January 1, 1863 would be a key event in making sure that the sacrifices of so many soldiers in 1861 and 1862 would lead to a new birth of freedom in 1863 and beyond.

On the morning of January 1, Lincoln wrote out the final text for the Emancipation Proclamation. Upon finishing, the text was sent to the State Department for an official copy to be made. By mid-morning, the text had returned, but Lincoln found a small error and, wanting the final copy to be perfect, sent the document back once again.

At noon, Lincoln was downstairs to greet the throngs of well wishers, dignitaries, and diplomats for the customary New Year's Day festivities at the Executive Mansion. He stood and patiently and pleasantly greeted visitors for two full hours, knowing that he still had important work to do that day. Once the line of visitors had ended and the doors of the Mansion were closed, Lincoln adjourned to his office upstairs where Secretary of State William Seward soon met him. Seward brought with him the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation.

As Lincoln prepared to sign the document, the effects of his hand shaking were soon felt. His arm began to shake, almost uncontrollably so, as he later said. Lincoln paused, took a moment, said aloud, "I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper." Lincoln affixed his signature in a steady manner, so as to make sure there was no doubt in his mind and that his resolve was firm. Lincoln later stated that the Emancipation Proclamation was "the central act of my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century."

The Emancipation Proclamation, signed 150 years ago today, was the greatest presidential act in American History. Surely, more still needed to be done. The war needed to be won. Millions of slaves still needed to learn of the act, and for many, freedom still meant the necessity of fleeing to Federal lines. The Confederacy was not yet dead, and its resolve was in no way diminished. It would take the Thirteenth Amendment to put the final nail in slavery's coffin, killing the monstrous institution once and for all. And yet, in one proclamation, Lincoln had signaled a turning point in American history. The Emancipation Proclamation was the first major step on the road toward freedom for over four million Americans, but it was a first step without which the others would not have been possible. In many ways, the Proclamation was a sheet of paper; and yet, so was the Declaration of Independence. Each document required sacrifice and victory on the battlefield for its promise of freedom to become a reality. Each document signaled a "new birth of freedom".

Below is the text of the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation signed 150 years ago today.

By the President of the United States of America:

A Proclamation.

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

"That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

"That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States."

Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. Johns, St. Charles, St. James, Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New-Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South-Carolina, North-Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth-City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk & Portsmouth); and which excepted parts are, for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.


By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN 
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.

For more on this historic measure, here are a few links:

American Experience Video on Emancipation

President Barack Obama's proclamation to mark the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

National Archives webpage on the Proclamation

Martin Luther King Jr. on the Proclamation

Bruce Catton on the Proclamation