Archive | October, 2016

Touring Antietam National Battlefield

25 Oct

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I got a chance to tour several Civil War battlefields I had long wanted to see this summer. Over the coming weeks I will share thoughts about my experiences at each in this space. Today I wanted to talk a little bit about my visit to Antietam National Battlefield.

Fought on September 17, 1862, the Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, with over 22,717 men left dead, wounded, or missing in its aftermath. It ended in the repulse of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s first attempt at invading the North, and while not a clear Union victory, provided President Abraham Lincoln with the long-awaited opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.


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Antietam Visitor Center



Having toured nearby Gettsyburg National Military Park just days earlier, I was struck by the noticeably subdued nature of the picturesque Maryland battlefield. Though it lies less than fifty miles away the epicenter of Civil War tourism in America, it felt like a world apart. At Gettysburg I saw nearly as many tour buses as private cars, and throngs of people crowding the cavernous new visitor’s center and the numerous stops along the tour route. Antietam seemed positively modest in comparison. Instead of multiple parking lots there was one small lot; instead of a massive zoned Visitor Center there was an older, understated space; in place of a shopping-mall sized gift shop there was a single small room whose contents graphically demonstrated just how overshadowed Antietam is to Gettysburg in terms of not only merchandise but scholarship.


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Burnside’s Bridge–undergoing some renovation at the time of my visit




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Bloody Lane, scene of some of the fiercest fighting during the battle


None of these stark realities are knocks on the battlefield. Antietam is a beautiful park with excellent interpretation, and clearly has a knowledgeable and thoroughly professional staff. In some ways I enjoyed the tour there even more than some parts of Gettysburg, as its relative quiet offered more opportunities to imagine the battlefield as it appeared in September of 1862 than I had thought might be possible. The contrast between it and Gettysburg, though, served as a startling reminder of the imbalance with which we remember our history in America, and the degree to which marketing of historic sites figures into our historical awareness. Heritage tourists crave iconic spots, and I think that this is usually a good thing. All of us who tour historic sites want to visit what we envision to be the most important locations. Sometimes, though, our quest for the iconic leads to the overlooking of other locations with a comparable claim on historical significance. Gettysburg is a world-class heritage tourism destination, but we are blessed to have a host of others in this country. I encourage you to take advantage of any opportunity you have to visit them.


Review of Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, by Michael Korda

18 Oct

Michael Korda’s Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee attempts to provide a comprehensive new study of a man who is among the most analyzed leaders in all of American history. This task would on the surface to seem difficult at best for many obvious reasons, both for the sheer volume of available works on the subject and the fact that Lee just happens to also be one of the few historical figures about whom there has been remarkable consistent consensus among historians for nearly a century. Scholars ranging from Douglas Southall Freeman to Thomas Connelly and from Emory Thomas to Elizabeth Brown Pryor, writing in different era and from different points of view and with varying emphases, have consistently found Lee to have been exceptionally talented as a military leader with a unique ability to inspire the best performance in those he commanded; remarkably devoted to duty; and a master of self-control even in the most difficult of circumstances. They have also found him to be thoroughly a man of his age in thought and outlook despite his basic decency, unwilling or unable to countenance the actual equality of all men even if he could perhaps respect their basic humanity a bit more than many of his peers. Sure, a few marginal studies have attempted to paint him as a typical racist slaveowner and simple rebel traitor on the wrong end of a war and history, but serious historians seem to have always known the story is more complicated than that.


So what could yet another biography of such a thoroughly understood man possibly contribute that will be new? Not much as it turns out, even if it weighs in at a door-stopping 785 pages. I will be the first to admit, however, that whether or not a book offers a “new” understanding of a subject is usually a pretty shaky criterion upon which to judge the merits of a historical narrative. Some stories are so central to our national historical drama that they merit retelling every once in a while with fresh eyes or a different emphasis. This is precisely what makes Clouds of Glory worth the read. In it Korda attempts to explain why Lee’s name still looms so large in American history while he attempts to disentangle the real Lee from the Lee of legend. In its pages he details Lee’s life from his somewhat aristocratic upbringing in tidewater Virginia to his death while serving as the president of a college that today bears his name, in the end demonstrating that the man and the myth are actually hopelessly entangled.

In all honesty, Korda’s book is an unabashedly admiring biography despite its pretenses at objectivity. The author lauds Lee’s abilities in a variety of endeavors throughout his military and civilian careers, going to great pains to demonstrate that he would be a man worth remembering in American history had the Civil War never even happened. There is some truth in this, as his sterling record of service as a United States soldier and engineer were indeed exceptional. He helped construct important fortifications from the coast of New York to Georgia; diverted the course of the mighty Mississippi and thus helped ensure the economic stability of St. Louis in the process; won the accolades of his superiors for his exemplary service and accomplishments during the Mexican War; rendered stoically admirable if uneventful service on the plains of Texas; and of course served as the superintendent of West Point Military Academy. But to his credit Korda is also candid about Lee’s shortcomings and failings. He discusses with clear-eyed candor his disastrous military decisions that led to the deaths of thousands of men at Malvern Hill and Gettysburg, his perhaps irrational belief in the near-invincibility of the men he commanded, and the troubles arising from his passive leadership style which eschewed direct confrontation in place of encouragement to follow his example in devotion to duty.

Korda goes into perhaps excessive detail in explaining the most delicate aspect of Lee’s legacy, and the sole reason his continued veneration is sometimes greeted with surprise in contemporary times—Lee accepted and in the end worked to advance the institution of slavery, whether he relished it or not. How did Lee really regard African Americans? What did he really think of slavery? What role did his thoughts on these subjects play in his decision to take up arms against his fellow Americans (“those people” in the Lee lexicon)? Of all the heroes of the Confederacy, Lee seems among the least enthusiastic about slavery, after all, even if he admittedly thought whites and blacks would be better off if they did not have to live together. This, by the way, from a man who purportedly regarded slavery as an unfortunate evil and who famously endorsed a last-ditch effort to sustain the Confederate war effort by arming slaves and rewarding the potential warriors with freedom. Some Lee hagiographers would have us believe these thoughts and actions alone make him a man who transcended his time. Korda does not go this far, but he does venture close. As Korda confirms in his examination of what has apparently become a myopic sort of litmus test of figures from American history, Lee was neither a virulent racist nor an egalitarian; he was no more and no less than a man of his age.

The most salient points in Korda’s study of Lee lie in his conclusions on his place in history and why he continues to be relevant despite his defeat and association with the barbaric institution of slavery. Through his successes and failures, his demeanor, and even his outlook, Lee became the very embodiment of the Confederate cause Southerners wanted to show the world and through which many of their descendants have for generations wanted the antebellum South and the Southern cause to be remembered. Lee is the thus the quintessential Southern martyr, the defeated but unconquered hero the South always wanted and many continue to cherish as a truly tragic figure. The essence of that historical transformation from accomplished Southern man to complicated American legend, Korda demonstrates, lies in our understanding of the oft-told but endlessly fascinating saga of the Army of Northern Virginia in whose footsteps the fate of a nation can be traced. Everything in Lee’s life and legend leads to and away from those iconic moments, much, as it might be said, do a great number of other events in American history as a whole. Clouds of Glory is a grand tour over well-trod historical ground that, despite its familiarity, manages to be engrossing, insightful and lively as it reaffirms why one of the Civil War era’s most iconic leaders is still deserving of our attention.


Review of A Just and Holy Cause? The Civil War Letters of Marcus Bethune Ely and Martha Frances Ely, edited by Linda S. McCardle

11 Oct

Linda S. McCardle’s recent edited collection of the Civil War letters of her ancestors, A Just and Holy Cause, is a welcome addition to the historiography of the Columbus area. In it the author offers the combined Civil War correspondence of Lt. Marcus Bethune Ely and his wife, Martha Frances Ely. While the book contains few searing descriptions of raging battles, it does provide candid insight into how the war really impacted families in the Columbus area and will surely be of interest to students of regional history.


Marcus Ely joined Company H of the 54th Georgia Infantry Regiment, the “Russell Guards,” at its organization in Columbus in May of 1862. Serving alongside men hailing for the most part from Muscogee and Harris counties, Ely would eventually see action in the climactic struggle for Atlanta and the disastrous anticlimax of Confederate military power that was the spectacular failure of a campaign for Nashville. Ely’s wartime experience can only be described as humdrum from 1862 to 1864, however, as he spent that time in various camps on the Georgia and South Carolina coasts, near Savannah and Charleston respectively, contemplating large Union advances which never came. When he finally got thrown into an actual combat situation in the spring of 1864, though, it would be in one of the most pitched and prolonged firefights of the war. Ely served in multiple battles throughout the fighting before Atlanta, from Dalton to Peachtree Creek, as General Joseph Johnston’s Confederate army grudgingly gave ground to General William T. Sherman’s attackers.

Ely survived the battles only to be caught up in General John Bell Hood’s Quixotic effort to retake the city of Nashville that yielded the Confederacy one of its most humbling defeats. At some point in the latter stages of that effort Ely became severely ill with what appears to have been tuberculosis, and spent the remainder of the war in various hospitals in Alabama and Georgia, among them one in Columbus. Readers will be disappointed but certainly not surprised to see that the pace of Ely’s otherwise prolific correspondence is slowed during the times of the most military action. This is no doubt owing to both his personal situation on the front lines and the deteriorating Confederate postal system during its greatest stress.

That the correspondence contained within the book is still enlightening is a testament to its value. Among Ely’s letters home quite a number of Mattie’s letters to him survive and are included; a rare thing in published Civil War letter collections. This offers readers the opportunity to gain a more well-rounded understanding of the routines, cares, and fears of this area’s families during a defining time of crisis from the standpoint of a soldier in the field and his loved ones at home. As with any collection of Civil War letters, there is the usual monotony of the soldier’s pleading for more letters from home, complaints of his lack of good food and clothing, mundane details of camp life, and seemingly all too abrupt descriptions of the fighting and personal assessments of military strategy. And, like most collections of Civil War letters, it is not necessarily an engrossing narrative. But because the book contains scattered but revealing accounts of family matters, soldier morale and activities, and details of civilian life it will be a useful addition to public and private libraries in the Chattahoochee Valley region and beyond. McCardle’s inclusion of a brief but information-packed summary of the Elys’ pre-war lives and appendices including descriptions of towns and other geographic locations mentioned in the text, short biographies of Ely and Dumas family members mentioned in the letters, as well as biographies of the members of the Russell Guards whom Marcus Ely served with all contribute to making the book a valuable reference resource.


Walking in the Footsteps of Pickett’s Charge

4 Oct

This summer I had the privilege to visit Gettysburg National Military Park, site of some of the most hallowed ground in all of American history. Although I had been previously as a teenager, I had long wanted to return. Having researched and written about the Civil War for years since that last visit, I knew I would appreciate the battlefield in a different and more meaningful way than I did over two decades ago. My tour was all that I hoped for, and more.

I knew more about the ebb and flow of the battle; I recognized more of the names on the historical markers; I could better appreciate the enduring and profound importance of what transpired on those peaceful rolling central Pennsylvania fields July 1-3, 1863. I also had my five-year old daughter in tow, and that fact alone changing my perspective. Though far too young to understand exactly what she was viewing, I hoped the visit would make some sort of positive impression on her or at least a memory that historical parks can be places of discovery and part of a family vacation as much as any theme park.

The highlight event of our tour was walking the entirety of the route traversed by the nearly 13,000 Confederates who famously attacked the heart of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge some 153 years ago; the failed grand assault known as “Pickett’s Charge” which arguably helped change the course of American history. It was a solid mile each way. Though I was wearing shorts and considerably better rested and fed than the men who made or repulsed that charge, it was a taxing hike in the summer sun. I tried to imagine, and far from successfully attempted to communicate on a level my daughter could comprehend, some notion of what the men who made that march saw and heard. She won’t remember the history lesson, but maybe she’ll remember the adventure, and I suppose that is good enough.


But as I struggled to communicate something of what the men on that field would have experienced, I gained a newfound appreciation for it myself. To think men could willingly march exposed across that open killing field, told to take a defensive line bristling with artillery and rifle fire which could be brought to bear on them during the virtual entirety of their advance, required a type of bravery and determination most of us cannot fathom. To see them coming and stand your ground likewise required a special type of resolve, especially considering their march was preceded by an hour-long barrage by dozens of pieces of massed artillery. They all must have believed very strongly in the causes for which they fought.


Walking Pickett’s Charge made me wish that sometimes we could move beyond our contemporary fixation on political correctness in our understanding of history and its associated tendencies to seek to exalt or denigrate the multitude of motivations, both praiseworthy and less noble, which animated the men on either side of the field that day. I wish we could temporarily cease inanely weighing the merits of having the historical symbols of the conflict or the monuments commemorating the events of that terrible war on display. We should occasionally stop and simply contemplate the incredible fortitude of the men who fought the Civil War, both North and South, and the lives they willingly laid down. In events like Pickett’s Charge, they charted the course of American history. They deserve to be remembered and honored. In my opinion there are few better ways to do this than literally walking in their footsteps, and I encourage anyone who wants to truly understand history to seize opportunities to do so whenever possible.