Archive | November, 2018

Review of Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg, by James M. McPherson

27 Nov

Readers of this blog do not need to be told about the significance of the Battle of Gettysburg in American history. One of the most important events in our long saga as a nation, it is easily one of the most compelling and somber events in our past. The battle featured a grisly 40,000 casualties and was one of, and many would argue the, pivotal event in deciding the outcome of the Civil War. At first glance it is hard to imagine such carnage playing out on such a bucolic stretch of land in the southern Pennsylvania countryside, however. When one visits those serene fields where the armies clashed in the heat of summer in 1863, it takes more than the numerous monuments, plaques, and statues dotting the landscape to truly envision what it all must have looked and sounded like or to grasp some of the individual actions on which the fate of the battle hinged.


James M. McPherson’s acclaimed battlefield guide, Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg, is therefore extraordinarily helpful if you are planning a visit to this iconic spot. A brief, fast-moving narrative of just over 100 pages, the book is an engaging guide to understanding the battlefield with a view towards explaining both how the battle unfolded and interpreting the scene as it appears today. McPherson makes complex military maneuvering understandable, and relates some of the more storied events from the fighting. Along the way, he debunks a few longstanding myths, provides some poignant biographical sketches, and helps visitors better understand where and why certain monuments and markers are placed where they are and look the way they do. It is a masterful volume, and one serious students of the Civil War should consult if they are planning on touring the battlefield.


America’s First Thanksgiving Day Proclamation

20 Nov

I’ve posted several blogs in this space discussing the history of Thanksgiving Day, a distinctly American holiday with deep roots in our colorful past. As we get ready to celebrate another day of feasting and football in a few days, I wanted to draw attention to early Thanksgiving Proclamations which are often referenced when discussing the timeline of the holiday in American culture. There of course are many such proclamations, and every year since 1862, our presidents have issued Thanksgiving Day Proclamations as a matter of tradition. There were others prior to Abraham Lincoln’s famous and oft-cited mid-Civil War issuance, including proclamations by George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison.

The very first proclamation of a Day of Thanksgiving by our federal government, however, was issued by the Continental Congress in 1777 during the Revolutionary War. The year had been a remarkable one for the American cause, with the momentum of the war turning in the patriot’s favor on several fronts after a series of setbacks which included battlefield losses and the ignominious flight of the American government from Philadelphia in the face of a British threat. A stunning, complete victory over British forces at Saratoga, ending a major British offensive and auguring long-awaited French intervention in the war, had rejuvenated the Colonials. Victory now seemed not only possible but probable.

While meeting at its temporary location in York, Pennsylvania and working assiduously to hammer out America’s first government structure under the Articles of Confederation, Continental Congress president Henry Laurens on November 1, 1777 issued a proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving on December 18th. I believe that when one contemplates the context of that act and has an awareness of the long history of the Thanksgiving holiday in early America, it can be understood as an important document indeed.


The text of the proclamation is below:

Thanksgiving Proclamation 1777 By the Continental Congress The First National Thanksgiving Proclamation

IN CONGRESS November 1, 1777 FORASMUCH as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defense and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased, in so great a Measure, to prosper the Means used for the Support of our Troops, and to crown our Arms with most signal success: It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these UNITED STATES to set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth Day of December next, for SOLEMN THANKSGIVING and PRAISE: That at one Time and with one Voice, the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor; and that, together with their sincere Acknowledgments and Offerings, they may join the penitent Confession of their manifold Sins, whereby they had forfeited every Favor; and their humble and earnest Supplication that it may please GOD through the Merits of JESUS CHRIST, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance; That it may please him graciously to afford his Blessing on the Governments of these States respectively, and prosper the public Council of the whole: To inspire our Commanders, both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty GOD, to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE: That it may please him, to prosper the Trade and Manufactures of the People, and the Labor of the Husbandman, that our Land may yield its Increase: To take Schools and Seminaries of Education, so necessary for cultivating the Principles of true Liberty, Virtue and Piety, under his nurturing Hand; and to prosper the Means of Religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom, which consisteth “in Righteousness, Peace and Joy in the Holy Ghost.” And it is further recommended, That servile Labor, and such Recreation, as, though at other Times innocent, may be unbecoming the Purpose of this Appointment, be omitted on so solemn an Occasion.


Tar Heel State Tour

13 Nov

North Carolina had been a state that I had never visited before, but had always found fascinating. Being situated along the Atlantic Coast meant the state would contain its share of colonial and revolutionary war history as well as that of the Civil War and so forth. It also provides its residents and visitors with opportunities to enjoy the beach as well as the mountains. So, with my daughter having the University of North Carolina as her dream college, my family loaded up for a whirlwind tour of the Tar Heel State. In nine days, we left Mississippi to see as much of the state as possible. We were not disappointed!

Wilmington (1739) was our first destination. Nestled along the Cape Fear River, it reminded me of Savannah, Georgia in being an Atlantic Coastal town along a river with only a drive of a few miles necessary to see the ocean. Fort Fisher was the first historic site to visit. This Confederate bastion built to defend the city fell in 1865. The area was one of the most beautiful and scenic places along our journey and well worth the time with amazing oak trees swaying along the beachfront.


Wilmington is also home to the USS North Carolina, one of the most decorated ships of World War II. A nice wooden pathway allows visitors to walk completely around the ship without ever going inside.


Twenty miles from Wilmington, Moores Creek National Battlefield is another picturesque site which witnessed an early revolutionary war battle between loyalists and patriots in 1776. The patriot victory led North Carolina to vote for independence. We visited on a Monday when the visitor center was closed, but was able to walk the one mile trail that took us along key places of the battlefield including a reconstruction of the famous bridge and the defensive positions of the patriots. Although I regret that the visitor center is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, this small battlefield is worth a visit.


Our journey next took us to the Bentonville Battlefield Historic Site. Administered by the state of North Carolina, this site commemorates one of the last major battles of the war when Confederate forces attempted to halt William T. Sherman’s march through the Carolinas. A visitor center contains exhibits and a movie and staff passes out a driving tour map. Unlike many other Civil War battlefields, Bentonville does not contain an abundance of monuments and statues, but mainly plaques and interpretive panels that describe the battle. Two highlights of the tour are the Harper House, which was used as a hospital, and a statue of Confederate General Joseph Johnston, a recent addition in 2010.


We stayed only briefly in Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital, but were impressed with the North Carolina Museum of History which covers all of North Carolina’s diverse history in a objective manner. I admit the highlight of Raleigh was the North Carolina State Capitol. This Greek Revival masterpiece was completed in 1840 and looks to have been kept in splendid condition.


Another spot of interest was the Bennett Place in Durham which was the site where Confederate General Johnston surrendered to Sherman in April 1865. Not only did Johnston surrender the troops under his immediate command but soldiers from the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, making it the largest surrender of the war.
Our last stop on the whirlwind tour was the town of Greensboro.


In an earlier blog, Mike highlighted his visit to Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, another excellent park with a great film and driving tour of the battlefield.


The town of Greensboro itself is famous for another turning point in history. Civil Rights activists took part in a number of sit-ins in 1960, especially at Woolworth’s to protest racial segregation. The site is now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.

We ended our journey in the mountains before heading home. We only saw a glimpse of what North Carolina has to offer, but came away suitably impressed and wanting to go back. It contains a great deal of historical sites to visit, especially those concerning military history that I highly recommend to those so interested.


Review of Wilson’s Raid: The Final Blow to the Confederacy, by Russell W. Blount, Jr.

6 Nov

In large part because the major Civil War campaigns occurring within Alabama’s borders took place near the end of the war, there has long been a tendency to overlook them by historians. We have remained ignorant of some of the most compelling actions of the war as a result. Had the largest cavalry force mounted during the war swept through one of the Confederacy’s most important industrial states and wreaked a swath of havoc and destruction for some 200 miles in 1862, for example, I would think we might remember as something more than a footnote in the story of the conflict. Yet that is exactly what happened in the spring of 1865 in Alabama in the form of a devastating raid by Gen. James H. Wilson, and that is exactly how we have unfortunately often remembered the affair.


Wilson’s Raid deserves better, for it involves an incredible story and rendered a final, crippling blow to the Confederacy’s ability to make war with unprecedented speed and precision. In the course of just over two weeks, Wilson cut through the heart of northern and central Alabama, beginning at the banks of the Tennessee River and exiting the state at the Chattahoochee at the border city of Columbus, Georgia. Along the way he and his men defeated two armies, rendered useless numerous iron-making facilities (and burned no few private homes in the process), captured and destroyed two of the South’s largest military-industrial complexes, secured the surrender of the first capital of the Confederacy, dismantled a state university, and handed Nathan Bedford Forrest one of his very few whippings. In the days after the fighting concluded, Wilson’s men would go on to become involved in the capture of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. To say the raid was eventful and is worthy of remembrance is an understatement.

There have been attempts to chronicle the raid, most of them a chapter or two in length and presented as part of a series of studies of several end-of-war campaigns, such as Noah Trudeau’s Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War, April-June, 1865. The most notable study of the raid in its own right is James Pickett Jones’ Yankee Blitzkrieg: Wilson’s Raid Through Alabama and Georgia, a book that by its very title communicates the fact that Wilson’s tactics presaged the advent of what we recognize as modern mechanized cavalry tactics but appeared many years ago. Here now, is retired businessman Russell Blount’s effort at tracing Wilson’s footprints, in the form of Wilson’s Raid: Final Blow to the Confederacy. As we have detailed previously in this blog, Blount is already an accomplished author (Besieged: Mobile 1865) and has a demonstrated interest in the often-overlooked last days of the war.

Blount tells a rollicking tale in the fast-moving book, providing an overview of military operations but at the same time allowing space to incorporate civilian perspectives in what promises to be an essential introduction to the topic for the next generation. He follows Wilson’s path and lays out his strategy, providing us with some of the best summaries of the fighting that occurred at places such as Selma and Columbus that one is likely to read and bringing the communities touched by the campaign to life. These accounts along with his use of accounts of the raid from a variety of civilians shows a command of the available resources on the topic. His prose is smooth, his pace just right, and the key players in the story he tells emerge as real people. Wilson’s Raid is a quick read but one that thoroughly treats it subject. If you have an interest in Alabama or Civil War history, this book is definitely worth your time.