Volume 27, No. 4 – April 2014
Volume 27, No. 4
What a wonderful turn out we had for Dr. James "Bud" Robertson’s presentation. There were 105 people in attendance for the nationally acclaimed Civil War scholar. Thank you so much for the superior attendance. We look forward to seeing everyone again. If you have a friend interested in history, please invite them to a meeting.
April 9, 2014 Program
Round Table member, Dr. Robert Altman, will discuss veterinary and human medicine during the Civil War.
March 12, 2014 Program
Prof. James I. Robertson, Jr., Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech, is an acclaimed teacher, author, and lecturer who has written or edited two dozen books on the Civil War era. President Kennedy appointed him as executive director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission. His biography of Stonewall Jackson was hailed as "a book every student of the war should read and every chronicler should emulate." He gave us insights into his most recent book, The Untold Civil War–Exploring the Human Side of War.
Robertson began his talk by noting that he was the grandson of a Confederate war veteran and has been interested in the Civil War since he was in the 5th grade. We all know how the war came to pass, but we won’t understand it unless we understand the emotions. In 1860 there were 27.5 million whites living in America, over one-half under the age of 21. Teens are inherently emotional: they don’t like, they love; they don’t dislike, they hate. Learning to like each other as they grow up can be difficult. When South Carolina seceded, Judge Pettigrew said, "It’s too small to be a nation and too big to be an insane asylum!" From the beginning, it was not a "limited" conflict because the war goals were incompatible: the North (in the beginning) fought to preserve the union while the South fought for independence. The war went on for so long because there was no middle ground for compromise: one side had to lose.
National Public Radio asked Robinson for five 4-minute vignettes. He said he was not a "military" historian but a social historian interested in individual feelings. Too many historians have forgotten history is about individuals. [Editor’s note: the 5 vignettes turned into 114 4-6 minute podcasts which you will enjoy listening to by going to the website of West Virginia Public Radio station WVTF: wvtf.org]. This led to the 351-page The Untold Civil War, published by the National Geographic Society in 2011 and consisting of 130 vignettes and over 300 illustrations, one half of which were never before published before. The dust cover is a picture of six unknown soldiers with no identification as Union or Confederate. It had been broken plate in the Library of Congress miraculously restored by the magicians at the Society. About a month after publication, Robertson received two emails: one said one man in the picture was her uncle in the 53rd Tennessee Regiment CSA; the other said another man was his great grandfather in the 86th Pennsylvania Regiment USA. Both can’t be right!
Feelings may not be "important" but they can be significant. Two brothers in Baltimore, Maryland became estranged over slavery. Clifton Prentiss joined the 6th Maryland Regiment USA while his younger brother, William, joined the 2nd Maryland Regiment CSA. As Clifton led his men into the Confederate line when he was struck by a bullet in his chest. Some of his men carried him to the field hospital, while others scoured the battlefield for wounded men. When they tried to make a terribly wounded Confederate officer comfortable, he asked if the 6th Maryland was nearby. When he was told they were from that regiment, he asked after his brother, Clifton and asked to see him. At first, Clifton refused, saying "I want to see no man who fired at my country’s flag." Nevertheless, William was laid down next to Clifton and smiled at him. Clifton grasped William’s hand. Both men died shortly thereafter. "For a brief moment . . . this cruel brothers’ war gave way mercifully to brotherly love." (page 22).
"Unimportant" people can have significant effect: In 1860, after resisting pleas to "cultivate whiskers" from a New York delegation, a clean-shaven Lincoln (left) received a note from an 11-year old girl telling him that she would get her brother to vote for him if he grew a beard. En route to Washington, a bearded President-elect (center) called for the child to come up to the platform, told her, "You see, I have let these whiskers grow for you" and kissed her cheek (page 24).
Lincoln survived his depression with self-deprecating humor. He sometimes used humor to deny some of the countless requests that reached his desk. In 1863, in refusing a pass through the lines to Richmond, he said, "I would gladly give you the pass if it would do any good, but in the last two years I have given passes to 250,000 soldiers and not one of hem has managed to get there yet." Once when chastised for his habitually joking, Lincoln turned serious and responded wistfully, "I laugh because I must not weep . . ." The last photograph of Lincoln (right, previous page), taken just before Ford’s Theater, shows how the four years aged him.
The soldiers then as now doted on pets, some very odd indeed: a camel (who was shot and killed), chickens (not all were eaten), a pig (he could stand on his hind legs), a tame bear, dogs (Custer slept with his dogs and the 34th Massachusetts had 40 dogs and was, naturally, called the "Barking Dogs Regiment"), but the most famous mascot was "Old Abe" the Battle Eagle, who served with the 8th Wisconsin Regiment through many battles and many attempts on his life by Confederate snipers. Abe lived until 1881. He was stuffed and put in a glass case in Madison. Abe lives on: first atop the Vicksburg monument and second above the entrance to Camp Randall, Wisconsin, and finally on the shoulder patch of the 101st Airborne Division, the "Screaming Eagles." (pages 122-125)
Shells and bullets killed and wounded many soldiers and civilians, but other scourges came with war: rain, mud, cold and heat, swarms of mosquitoes and flies, the stench of garbage and overflowing latrines, and, the worst, "the meanest water not fit for a horse." In such conditions, diseases thrived – dysentery, measles, pneumonia, typhoid fever, malaria and yellow fever. Improved sanitation reduced the toll of typhoid fever and the use of quinine reduced the toll of malaria. Lice, fleas, ticks and mites (scabies) also thrived.
Espionage came next, with Robertson saying that most would-be spies were less James Bond than Maxwell Smart. Certainly, the first private detective, Allan Pinkerton, did nab some Confederate spies, but his failure to accurately gauge the strength of Lee’s army fed into McClellan’s natural caution led him to ask for more troops, even when he outnumbered Lee 2-to-1. Pinkerton was fired along with McClellan. There were, however, effective spies on both sides. Rose O’Neal Greenhow’s tip of Union plans before First Manassas aided the Confederate victory. But the most effective secret agent of all clearly was "Crazy Betsy," née Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union sympathizer living in Richmond. She persuaded Confederate officers to allow her to bring food to Union prisoners in Libby Prison. Secreted in loaves of bread were directions to her house should they escape. She left with secrets the prisoners had gleaned from careless guards. She had a network of black slaves who worked in the homes of Confederate officials. Such intelligence was sent with blacks carrying parcels through Confederate lines to Union officers. Her most incredible feat was to convert her mansion into a "fortress" with secret passages and hiding places. She covered her tracks by pretending to be a lunatic. At war’s end, Gen. Grant praised her for providing "the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war." Grant further infuriated Richmond’s citizens by appointing Van Lew as the city’s postmaster. After Reconstruction ended, Richmond’s officials seized her home and converted it into an insane asylum. She died in 1900, never seeing her old home again.
Robertson chose Maj. Gen. George Pickett, as exemplifying that war can bring out the best and the worst in people. Pickett is today known almost exclusively for "leading" a doomed charge at Gettysburg, but the worst came seven months later when in command of a botched raid on New Bern, North Carolina. He captured 200 Federals, including 22 locals most of whom had deserted from state home guard units, which was not considered a crime in North Carolina. One was a 14-year old drummer boy. Pickett was angry over the failure of his raid and executed all 22 as deserters. The corpses were stripped and thrown into a mass grave. The best that could be said about George Pickett was that the incident revealed him at his worst.
To punish Robert E. Lee for siding with Virginia, a former friend, Union Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs seized the Custis-Lee Mansion for use a settlement for former slaves and as a cemetery. Meigs took "grim satisfaction" in placing the graves as close as possible to the mansion so it could never be used as a residence. In 1882, the U. S. Supreme Court returned the property to Lee’s oldest son, who had little choice but to sell it to the government for $150,000. Not until 1900 were Confederate soldiers allowed to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery and in 1955 Arlington House was dedicated as a memorial to Robert E. Lee. Over 240,000 dead lie in the 600-acre tract and an average of 18 funerals occur there daily.
Now we were reintroduced to your editor’s favorite Civil War scoundrel, Benjamin Franklin Butler. With no prior military experience (or ability), Lincoln appointed this prominent and influential Northern War Democrat as the Union’s first Major General. Wherever he went, Butler snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. However, he was also innovative: rather than return escaped slaves to their masters, he called them "contraband" and put them to work on his side (we call this a "twofer:" enhancing the Union’s forces and reducing the Confederacy’s forces). And as Military Governor of New Orleans, he improved the sanitation and reduced typhoid fever, etc. He was called "Spoons" (for confiscating Southerners’ silver services), but as "Beast" (for issuing an order to treat New Orleans women who spat on or dumped chamber pots on the heads of Union troops as prostitutes), Butler reached the heights when Jefferson Davis issued a "fatwah" that Butler was to be shot on sight. New Orleans’ prostitutes got the last laugh: you can purchase your own for $52.50 from the Confederate Memorial Hall Museum in New Orleans.
The Civil War was a war of firsts: it changed everything in American life. Where before uniforms and shoes were "one size fits all" Union Quartermaster Meigs ordered them made in small, medium, large and extra large. Women both North and South could now hold title to real estate, worked in factories (where they influenced the introduction of safety measures), became school teachers and school mistresses and nurses. Phoebe Pember in Richmond and Clara Baron in the North both had to overcome the rudeness and contempt of surgeons and patients to become superb administrators. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments raised women, along with blacks, at least to legal equality.
One man, Thomas Nast, brought the art of cartoons to the fore. He hated corrupt politicians and skewered them (see Boss Tweed). He also introduced the donkey and the elephant as political party emblems and Uncle Sam and John Bull. But he is most famous for "inventing" Santa Claus. Christmas 1862 was a sad and gloomy season and Nast mused, what can I do? He drew Santa as a round-bellied, white-bearded, fur-clad and, most important, jolly and bight eyed, with a sprig of holly in his hat. The effect on his public was electric; his image lasts to this day.
Horses and mules were the main mode of transportation in the Civil War on both sides, although the North had an advantage in both trains and water vessels. Contrary to Hollywood, the soldiers on both sides were told when facing a cavalry charge, "Shoot the horse first!" That put the rider on foot and equalized the sides. Despite General Sherman’s orders to take "extraordinary care . . . of the horses upon which everything depends" horses and mules more often than not were abused out of necessity or indifference. The National Sporting Library in Middleburg, Virginia commissioned a monument to the Civil War cavalry horse. Rather than portray a hearty horse, the monument shows an exhausted, malnourished horse, still faithful and serving, even though it was clearly near the end of its rope. We don't know what happened to its master. The monument accurately depicts the condition of Civil War cavalry horses, and shows the frightful toll that endless hours of marching and picketing took on those proud beasts. There is an identical statute at the U. S. Cavalry Museum in Fort Riley, Kansas,
William Oland Bourne, editor of the periodical The Soldier's Friend, sponsored two contests in which Union soldiers and sailors who lost their right arms by disability or amputation during the Civil War were invited to submit samples of their penmanship using their left hands. Cash prizes totaled $1000 for the first contest and $500 for the second. An exhibition of all first contest entrants was held in Washington, D.C., on May 1, 1866. Private J. S. Prendergast, Co. F. 24th Massachusetts Infantry, won $20 for this submission. The contest brochure revealed that Prendergast not only lost his right arm but "two fingers and part of the thumb of the left hand."
There was a second Civil War: Reconstruction (1867-76), marked by the only military occupation of Americans by Americans. Don’t blame some then and now for being resentful. But as time went on a strange and wonderful thing happened to the veterans. The survivors began to appreciate what the other sides had done and suffered. Johnny Reb never apologized and Billy Yank never asked for one. Pictures taken at the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg tell the story. The rebel "charge" at the right was met by Union vets cheering and waving their hats! The favorite song at this reunion was "Auld Lang Syne" not the rousing songs used to stir youths to battle. The last chorus is à propos:
And there’s a hand my trusty friend! And give me a
hand o’ thine!
Prof. Robertson wrapped up his presentation by saying, "With all that we gained, we also lost the contributions of the dead in science, the arts, medicine and, saddest of all, their children and grandchildren, who might have been.
He added this personal postscript: "Our Constitution, as amended, is a wonderful tool for practicing democracy. However, creating it required the various factions to compromise. The Civil War came on because the various factions longer valued compromise. I worry that we are entering a phase in our history where the factions again no longer value compromise."
Vigorous questions and answers followed, and the evening ended with a very spirited round of applause.
Last changed: 04/04/14