Monday, November 29, 2010

PBS To Premiere "American Experience: Robert E. Lee"

On Monday, January 3, 2011, PBS will be premiering the latest installment in its American Experience series, which will focus on the life of Robert E. Lee, and I was given the opportunity--pleasure, really--to get an advanced screening of this program.


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Robert E. Lee holds a central place in the history of the American Civil War; indeed, there are few other individuals so closely associated with this four-year conflict and few so well known. There are also few today who would deny that Lee ranked among the best officers of the war, despite his ultimate defeat and surrender.
I have long been interested in Robert E. Lee, and everyday at the battlefield I try to make sense of his motivations during the Maryland Campaign of September 1862 and his actions while on campaign and on the field of battle. And despite all my best efforts at maintaining objectivity, I have had complaints, especially from those who revere Lee, but also from those who do not. For example, once when I stated simply that "on the night of September 18, Lee led his defeated army in retreat across the Potomac," a gentleman interrupted, stating that Lee did not retreat from Maryland but rather "strategically withdrew" and thus emerged the victor since he escaped to fight another day. On the other hand, a young visitor--she must have been but nine or ten years old--asked me after one of my programs, "Why do people like Lee so much? Wasn't he like the biggest traitor in American history?"




The Robert E. Lee I am most interested in is the real Robert E. Lee and not this mythical construct that has come to dominate most traditional interpretations, a Lee constructed by the Lost Cause school of Civil War historiography, which depicts him as something of a caricature, a "marble man" who could do no wrong. We are made to believe that, although Lee cast his lot with the Confederacy after the secession of Virginia, that he opposed secession; we are made to believe that Lee was not a supporter of slavery (simply incorrect), even though he led an army fighting for the establishment of a slaveholding nation; we are made to believe that the odds stacked against him were too insurmountable, yet Lee himself would never have viewed the war as a lost cause for the Confederacy.





Lee was a soldier, and a good one, a very good one. He was a brilliant engineer and a gifted military man, who, on some occasions did seemingly defy the odds. But, most of all, Lee was a human being who did make mistakes and who did meet with battlefield defeat through his own doings and actions. He did not receive a single demerit at West Point, true, but he shared that distinction with no less than five of his classmates in the graduating class of 1829. He took an oath to protect and defend the United States of America and turned in a number of creditable performances during the Mexican-American War, causing Winfield Scott to declare him the "best soldier" in the American army. Yet he betrayed that oath when he chose to raise his sword against his nation, though not against his state. We are made to believe that this was a difficult choice for Lee, which it no doubt was. Yet that same choice was presented to such figures as George Thomas, David Farragut, and even Winfield Scott who, like Lee, were Southern-born, and they opted to honor that oath. But as opposed to Lee, I have seen no romanticized paintings of these officers pacing their front parlors, wringing their hands, considering what path to follow; I have heard no such fables of this dilemma as it pertained to these men, only to Lee, who seems to have been the only one faced with this choice. Lee was a devoted husband and very affectionate father; yet he sometimes had trouble adjusting to life outside of the army, as when he tried to manage the Arlington estate following the death of his father-in-law. And he had a bad temper; at times a terrible temper. He was a strict slaveowner, at times paying for the services of slave-catchers to return his runaways; one of his slaves called him the "worst man" he ever knew. While beloved by most of his troops, Lee was also a strict disciplinarian who at many points throughout the war simply expected too much of his men, having, perhaps, unrealistic expectations of their endurance and abilities.

Produced by the award-winning Mark Zwonitzer, American Experience: Robert E. Lee does a superb job at deconstructing the myths and presenting Lee as he really was. . .a human being. In this excellent program we learn of Lee's triumphs and his defeats; we learn of his adherence to duty and devotion to family; we learn of those traits that made Lee great, and those that did not. Laden with expert commentary from the likes of Gary Gallagher, Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Peter Carmichael, Leslie Gordon, Emory Thomas and many others, Robert E. Lee provides us with a balanced and in my mind accurate assessment of the Lee the man and Lee the soldier. After viewing this program, you will walk away with a better understanding of a complex individual, one who continues to hold such a central place in American Civil War history. It is a fine work, one highly recommended.

So, set your calendars for January 3, and at 9:00 p.m., turn on PBS.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Mexican War Volunteers--Civil War Generals

The Battle of Buena Vista (Library of Congress)
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Next year, I begin teaching Mexican-American War courses at AMU. My readings of late have thus been centered on this conflict, one some would call the true War of Northern Aggression. I have long been fascinated with this somewhat overlooked war and several years back, I began compiling a list of all those Mexican American War volunteers who went on to become generals in the American Civil War, fourteen or so years later. These men were not the West Point-trained U.S. Regulars (such as Lee, McClellan, Bragg, and so on); rather, the following are those who fought as volunteers in Mexico and then later earned their stars in the nation's fratricidal conflict.

Preceding the list of these officers, are some introductory words. I once thought of turning this into an article but that never went anywhere. . .

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U.S. Forces Under Winfield Scott Land at Vera Cruz

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The Mexican-American War has often been referred to as a training ground for a host of young army officers who would go on to rank among the Civil War’s highest-ranking commanders. From the battles of Monterrey and Palo Alto to the capture of Mexico City, these young men received first-hand experience in the school of soldiering and learned key lessons in the art of war by the likes of Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. Tales of daring exploits and of remarkable bravery exhibited by these young officers who would later gain much fame during America’s fratricidal conflict are legion and known well to most serious students of the Civil War. Familiar is the story of twenty-four-year-old Captain Ulysses S. Grant who, although serving as the regimental quartermaster of the 4th U.S. Infantry, repeatedly rode to the front, seeing action at Resaca de la Palma, Palo Alto, and Monterrey, where he put his renowned horsemanship to good use by riding unscathed through a hail of bullets. Famous, too, is the story of Captain Robert E. Lee who, along with fellow engineer Lt. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, conducted a bold reconnaissance of Santa Anna’s left flank at Cerro Gordo and narrowly avoided detection and probable capture. We hear also of twenty-year-old Lieutenant George Brinton McClellan, another of Winfield Scott’s engineers, who had two horses shot from beneath him while scouting Mexican positions near Contreras and who was twice brevetted for gallantry. At the battle of La Hoya, we discover a young artillerist by the name of Thomas Jonathan Jackson who deployed his guns with great effect and stood steadfast, like a stonewall, amid a storm of shot and shell. Lieutenant Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana was severely wounded and left for dead on the heights of Cerro Gordo, while, not too far from where he fell, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Eggleston Johnston of the Voltigeurs, was also dangerously wounded. It was also at this same battle where Major Edwin Vose Sumner of the 2nd Dragoons was struck squarely in the forehead by a bullet, which, allegedly, simply bounced off earning him the sobriquet, “Old Bullhead.” While these officers survived their Cerro Gordo wounds, Lieutenant Thomas Ewell did not. He died hours after the fight with his brother Richard by his side. And finally, there is the oft-told tale of Lieutenant James Longstreet of the 8th U.S. Infantry who fell with a thigh wound while carrying the American flag in an attack against the walls of Chapultepac. Grabbing the flag from the wounded Longstreet, of course, was another young lieutenant who had graduated last in his West Point Class the previous year, George Edward Pickett. These and other such stories are seemingly endless and can truly fill volumes.


In addition to going on to earning great laurels or garnering much notoriety in the American Civil War, all of these men had another thing in common: they were all graduates of the United States Military Academy and were, thus, all regular army officers. Yet, of the nearly 100,000 men who served in Mexico, only about twenty-five to thirty percent—some 25,000-30,000 soldiers—were Regulars. The rest were volunteers.


Volunteer units hailed from twenty-four of the nation’s twenty-eight states as well as from the District of Columbia; Iowa and California, which at the outbreak of hostilities had yet to achieve statehood, also furnished troops. In all, between 70,000 and 75,000 volunteers, comprising the ranks of 76 regiments and several additional companies, enlisted during the war. Thousands of these men would later serve in both the blue and the gray during the Civil War. And because of their former military experiences in Mexico, most would enter America’s sectional conflict as commissioned officers primarily at the regimental level, being mustered in as lieutenants, majors, or colonels, and subsequently rising through the ranks. Take, for example, C. Roberdeau Wheat. Before organizing the famed Louisiana Tigers in 1861 and falling dead while leading his regiment at the battle of Gaines’s Mill in June 1862, the 6’4” Wheat served as captain of the Tennessee Company of Mounted Volunteers in Mexico. His is just one of countless examples of volunteer officers who served in both the Mexican and Civil Wars.


Of the thousands of Mexican-American War volunteers who would later serve in the Civil War, more than sixty would become general officers during the latter conflict. This number does not include West Point graduates who served in volunteer organizations in Mexico and as generals in the Civil War, men such as Jubal Early, Henry Naglee, Samuel R. Curtis, Lloyd Tilghman, Goode Bryan, and Humphrey Marshall. Instead, the Mexican War volunteers who later became Civil War generals, for the most part, lacked a formal military education, but exhibited an avid interest in martial endeavors and were typically members of a local militia company. And they were those who willingly left their civilian lives behind twice to serve in uniform.



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Mexican-American War Volunteers--Civil War Generals

[Note: Those names in blue became generals for the United States Army during the Civil War; those in red, for the Confederacy]

Arkansas
John Selden Roane, Colonel, Mounted Arkansas Volunteers
Albert Pike, Captain, Mounted Arkansas Volunteers
James Fleming Fagan, Arkansas Mounted Gunmen

Georgia
Alfred Iverson, 2nd Lieutenant, Battalion of Georgia Volunteers
George Thomas Anderson, 2nd Lieutenant, Independent Co. of Georgia Volunteers
Edward Lloyd Thomas, 2nd Lieutenant, Independent Co. of Georgia Volunteers

Alfred Iverson

Indiana
Robert H. Milroy, Captain, 1st Indiana Volunteers
Lewis Wallace, 2nd Lieutenant, 1st Indiana Volunteers
Nathan Kimball, Captain, 2nd Indiana Volunteers
Lovell Rousseau, Captain, 2nd Indiana Volunteers
James Lane, Colonel, 3rd Indiana Volunteers
Willis A. Gorman, Colonel, 4th Indiana Volunteers
Ebenezer Dumont, Lieutenant Colonel, 4th Indiana Volunteers
Thomas J. Lucas, 2nd Lieutenant, 4th Indiana Volunteers
Mahlon Manson, Captain, 5th Indiana Volunteers

Nathan Kimball

Kentucky
Thomas Leonidas Crittenden, Lieutenant Colonel, 3rd Kentucky Volunteers
Walter C. Whitaker, Lieutenant, 3rd Kentucky Volunteers
John Cabell Breckinridge, Major, 3rd Kentucky Volunteers
John Stuart Williams, Colonel, 4th Kentucky Volunteers
William Preston, Lieutenant Colonel, 4th Kentucky Volunteers
William Thomas Ward, Major, 4th Kentucky Volunteers
James Shackleford, 1st Lieutenant, 4th Kentucky Volunteers
Edward Hobson, 1st Lieutentnat, 4th Kentucky Volunteers
Cassius M. Clay
Green Clay Smith
Speen Smith Fry
Roger Weightman Hanson, 1st Lieutenant, Independent Kentucky Volunteers
Thomas James Churchill, 1st Kentucky Mounted Riflemen

William Thomas Ward

Illinois
John "Black Jack" Logan, 2nd Lt. Illinois Volunteers
James D. Morgan
Michael Lawler
Richard Oglesby
Leonard Fulton Ross
Isham M. Haynie
Edward Baker, Colonel, 4th Illinois Volunteers
William H.C. Wallace, Private, 1st Illinois Volunteers
Benjamin Prentiss, Captain/Adjutant, 1st Illinois Volunteers

John Logan

Maryland/D.C.
John Kenley, Major, Maryland/D.C. Volunteers
Joseph R. West

Michigan
Alpheus Starkey Williams, Lieutenant Colonel, Michigan Volunteers

Mississippi
Carnot Posey, 1st Lieutenant, 1st Mississippi Rifles
Thomas C. Hindman, 2nd Mississippi Infantry

Carnot Posey

Missouri
Sterling Price, Colonel, 2nd Missouri Infantry
William Yarnell Slack, Captain, 2nd Missouri Infantry
Mosby Monroe Parsons, Captain, 1st Missouri Regiment of Mounted Volunteers
John Dunlap Stevenson, Captain, 1st Missouri Regiment of Mounted Volunteers
James Craig
Thomas T. Crittenden

William Yarnell Slack

Ohio
Samuel Beatty, 1st Lieutenant, 3rd Ohio Volunteers
George F. McGinnis, Captain, 5th Ohio Volunteers
Robert B. Mitchell, 1st Lieutenant, 5th Ohio Volunteers
William H. Lytle, Captain, Independent Company, Ohio Volunteers
William H. Lytle

Pennsylvania
James Scott Negley, 1st Sergeant, 1st Pennsylvania Volunteers
Thomas Algeo Rowley, 2nd Lieutenant, 1st Pennsylvania Volunteers
James Nagle, Captain, 1st Pennsylvania Volunteers
Thomas Welsh, Private, native of Pennsylvania, served with 2nd Kentucky Volunteers
John White Geary, Colonel, 2nd Pennsylvania Volunteers

John White Geary

James Negley

South Carolina
Samuel McGowan, Quartermaster, Palmetto Regiment

Tennessee
William Brimmage Bate, 1st Lieutenant, 3rd Tennessee Volunteers
Benjamin Franklin Cheatham, Colonel, 3rd Tennessee Volunteers
William B. Campbell, Colonel, 3rd Tennessee Volunteers
Samuel Read Anderson, Lieutenant Colonel, 3rd Tennessse Volunteers

William Brimmage Bate

Texas
Benjamin McCullough, Colonel, Mounted Company, Independent Texas Volunteers
Thomas Green, Captain, 1st Texas Mounted Rifles

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It is evident, then, that the Mexican-American War was training ground not just for the West Pont-trained, career army men who would later reach highest echelon of command in the Civil War. It was also a training ground for the thousands of citizens-turned-soldiers who twice volunteered their services, first in 1846-47 and again in 1861, either as commissioned officers at the regimental level or as general officers.

Monday, November 15, 2010

In Time For Remembrance Day. . . ?

I learned this morning that a decision concerning the proposed casino in Gettysburg could come as early as this Thursday, November 18. If so, and if the casino is denied, as I am hoping it will, then it would be a fitting way to usher in Remembrance Day, when, this Friday, we reflect upon the meaning of those eloquent words spoken by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg 147 years ago.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

PROFILES: Major Jacob Wagner, 48th Pennsylvania

It has been quite some time since I last posted a Profiles piece on a 48th Pennsylvania soldier, so today I thought I'd focus in on Jacob Wagner, who served creditably throughout the entirety of the war, rising through the regimental ranks.

Jacob F. Wagner was twenty-one years of age when, in September 1861, he was mustered into service as a private in Company H, 48th Pennsylvania. He stood 5'6 1/2" in height, had a dark complexion, dark eyes, and black hair. His occupation was listed as painter and his residence was Pottsville, home to most of the men in Company H. Only two and a half weeks later, however, Wagner was named as the regiment's Quartermaster Sergeant, a position he held until December 1862, when he was promoted once more, this time to lieutenant and given then position of full Quartermaster.

The regimental history of the 48th penned by Oliver Bosbyshell refers many times to Wagner and his great efforts in keeping the soldiers well fed and comforted. One such example was on the night of September 17, 1862, when near the Burnside Bridge, the famished soldiers of the 48th were greatly relieved to see Wagner "with a fine lot of boiled beef and fresh coffee, which he had prepared by the cooks. . . .What a relish that midnight repast had!" Other references to Wagner in Bosbyshell's work hint that the quartermaster was much respected by the soldiers and throughout the war always performed his important duties with credit.

Jacob Wagner served as the 48th's Quartermaster throughout most of the conflict, but on June 21, 1865, was promoted one final time, to major. He held this rank for less than one month, being mustered out of volunteer service with the regiment on July 17, 1865 and holding the distinguished title of "Veteran." Yet Wagner's time in uniform was not finished. Apparently taking a liking to military life, Wagner returned not to Pottsville and his pre-war vocation as painter, but instead entered the U.S. Army as a First Lieutenant in the 29th Infantry. In July 1867, he was serving at Norfolk where he held the triple duties of Post Adjutant, Acting Assistant Quartermaster, and Assistant Comissary of Subsistence.