Thursday, August 28, 2008

Writing Civil War Lives. . .

R.W. Emerson once famously quipped that "All History is Biography."
For those who visit this blog regularly, you know that I have a particular fondness for biography. I've always been more interested in the lives of the Civil War's military and political figures (especially those largely ignored, overlooked, or forgotten), than in the war's grand campaigns and great battles. And over the past two years, I have posted numerous short bio-pieces on various commanders, usually the somewhat obscure. (Take most recently, Hector Tyndale and N.J.T. Dana).
But it seems to me that writing biographies is somewhat tricky. All too often, and I am guilty of this as well, it appears as though the old adage is true: that biographies are just "one d----d thing after another," i.e. birth, childhood, career, death. Perhaps there is no other way around it. So, before embarking on my long-planned biography of a certain Civil War general (and my regular readers know who I am referring to), I thought I would seek some input. . . .
What makes for a good biography? What is it you like to see covered in someone's life story? What was the best Civil War biography you have ever read? The worst? What makes these works memorable, good or bad? What approaches to writing biographies work, and which do not?
Any and all feedback will be most appreciated.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Major General Napoleon J.T. Dana

Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana
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With his father an officer in the regular army who fought in the War of 1812, his grandfather a veteran of the Revolution, and being as he was named after three of the greatest military leaders of the Nineteenth Century, it seemed only logical that Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana would himself make a career out of the military. A graduate of West Point, Dana was severely wounded during the Mexican-American War, and during the Civil War was struck down with a serious wound at the battle of Antietam, keeping him out of service for the next ten months. Upon his return, Dana was assigned to backwater command posts along the Gulf Coast. Fearless and highly competent as an officer on the field of battle, Dana nonetheless remains as somewhat of an overlooked figure in Civil War history.
Napoleon J.T. Dana was born on April 15, 1822, in Fort Sullivan, Eastport, Maine, where his father, Nathaniel Dana, a West Point graduate and officer in the 1st U.S. Artillery, was then stationed. Sadly, Nathaniel Dana died when his son Napoleon was just eleven years old. While Dana’a paternal grandfather, Captain Luther Dana, served as a naval officer during the Revolution, his maternal grandfather, Woodbury Langdon, served as a member of the Continental Congress alongside his brother John Langdon, who would later become first President pro-tempore of the U.S. Senate as well as governor of New Hampshire.
Five years after his father’s death, at the age of sixteen, Napoleon Dana entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, and four years later, in 1842, graduated twenty-ninth in a class of fifty-six. West Point’s Class of 1842 remains as one of its most illustrious, for in addition to Dana, a number of other soldiers who later gained distinction during the Civil War graduated that year including James Longstreet, Daniel Harvey Hill, William Rosecrans, John Pope, John Newton, George Sykes, Richard H. Anderson, and Abner Doubleday. Upon graduation, Dana was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 7th U.S. Infantry and assigned to garrison duty at Fort Pike, Louisiana, where he spent most of the next three years.
In 1845, with war clouds looming, Dana was sent with his regiment to Texas where they formed part of Zachary Taylor’s Army of Occupation. When hostilities finally erupted, Dana turned in commendable performances during the battles of Fort Brown, Texas, in May 1846, and at Monterrey in September. Promoted to first lieutenant the following February, Dana then traveled south and under General Winfield Scott took part in the siege of Vera Cruz. During the battle of Cerro Gordo on April 18, 1847, while charging the entrenched Mexican position on Telegraph Hill, Lieutenant Dana was struck in the hip and fell gravely wounded. So severe was Dana’s wound that he was left for dead on the field of battle, and lay there for some thirty-six hours until rescued by a burial detail. Brevetted captain for his actions at Cerro Gordo, Dana next served two years on recruiting duty and as Assistant Quartermaster at the rank of captain in Boston. Transferred to Minnesota late in 1848, Dana served for six years at Fort Snelling at Fort Ridgely before resigning from the army on March 1, 1855. Following his resignation, Dana settled in St. Paul and became a banker. Unable to keep away from the military life, Dana also served as brigadier general in the Minnesota State Militia from 1857 until civil war erupted in 1861.
Offering his service to the United States, Dana was commissioned colonel of the 1st Minnesota Volunteers following the promotion of Willis Gorman to brigade command on October 2, 1861. Leading his regiment at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Dana assumed command of the Second Brigade of Charles Stone’s Division following the Union fiasco there. On February 3, 1862, Dana was promoted to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers and one month later was given command of the Third Brigade, Second Division, in the Army of the Potomac’s Second Corps. During the Peninsula Campaign and Seven Days’ Battles in the late spring and early summer of 1862, Dana saw action at the battles of Yorktown, Seven Pines, Savage Station, White Oak Swamp, and Malvern Hill, all the while earning a reputation as a solid and dependable officer. Shortly after the latter battle in early July 1862, however, Dana fell ill and sought medical treatment. His doctors determined that he was suffering from a serious case of remittent fever and sent him to Philadelphia, where he spent the next six weeks recovering from his illness. He returned to his command at the outset of the Maryland Campaign.
At the battle of Antietam, Dana’s Brigade suffered heavy loss in the fierce fighting in the West Woods. Sometime around 7:30 on the morning of September 17, Dana’s men crossed the Antietam at Pry’s Ford and marched to the support of the First and Twelfth Corps on the right of the Union line. Second Corps Commander Edwin Sumner arranged his Second Division, under the command of John Sedgwick, into three parallel lines of battle, with Dana’s Brigade constituting the second line. Planning to push this division due west and drive what remained of the Confederate forces to his front through the village of Sharpsburg and toward the Potomac River, Sumner led his men through the East Woods, across the Hagerstown Turnpike, and into the West Woods. Dana’s Brigade, marching some fifty yards in rear of Willis Gorman’s lead brigade, came under artillery fire as they neared the Turnpike but continued to push forward. Dana’s New York, Massachusetts, and Michigan volunteers entered the West Woods at about the same time as Gorman’s Brigade became engaged on the western edge of the woodlot. Just moments after the last of Dana’s troops entered the woods, however, his left flank was struck by the advancing Confederate troops of McLaws’s and J.G. Walker’s Divisions. Struck hard on the flank and in danger of being surrounded, Dana scrambled to meet the oncoming threat and get his men to safety. Being the middle of Sedgwick’s three brigades, however, it was tough for Dana to maneuver his troops. Sometime during the fight, he was struck in the left leg by a musket ball but he remained with his command until they reached the relative safety of the Miller Farm. By this time the pain in his leg had become unbearable. Dana turned command of his brigade over to Colonel Norman Hall of the 7th Michigan before being carried from the field and to a Union field hospital.
Sedgwick’s Division had lost nearly half its number in just thirty minutes of combat in the West Woods. Casualties in Dana’s Third Brigade equaled 900 men killed, wounded, and missing, with the highest loss occurring in the 59th New York and 7th Michigan. Dana was himself cared for in a field hospital for two days in nearby Keedysville before being sent first to Washington and then to Philadelphia to recuperate.
Although promoted to major general of volunteers on November 29, 1862, Dana did not return to duty until July 1863, when, during the Gettysburg Campaign, he commanded the Defenses of Philadelphia and a short time later the Second Division of General Darius Couch’s Department of the Susquehanna. After General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was turned back at Gettysburg and retreated across the Potomac, General Dana was sent to the Gulf of Mexico where he saw limited action at Fordoche Bayou and in the expedition that landed at Brazos Santiago and marched to Laredo, Texas. Given divisional command in the 13th Army Corps, Department of the Gulf, in September 1863, Dana subsequently commanded the District of Vicksburg from August 19 to December 8, 1864, when he was named head of the Department of Mississippi. Serving in this capacity until May 14, 1865, Major General Napoleon Dana tendered his resignation from the army two weeks later and returned to civilian life.
In the years following the Civil War, Dana engaged himself in a variety of occupations and endeavors. In 1866, he was named as a general agent for the American-Russian Commercial Company of San Francisco and for the next five years worked for this company in California, Alaska, and Washington, D.C. Dana next entered the railroad business and became superintendent of a number of lines, mainly in Illinois, including the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad. In 1885, he was named president of the Montana and Union Railway Company. Retiring from his work on the railroads in the 1890s, General Dana next served as Deputy Commissioner for the United States Department of Pensions. In 1894, in a Special Act of Congress, Dana was commissioned back into the army at the rank of captain and then placed on the retired list so as to enable him to receive a pension.
Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana lived out the final years of his life in peaceful retirement in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. His death, attributed to apoplexy, came on July 15, 1905. The old soldier was laid to rest in Portsmouth’s Harmony Grove Cemetery.

General Dana's Final Resting Place. . .


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Thank You, Bruce Catton. . .

Back in younger days--let's say in elementary and middle school--teachers and other adults would often ask of us: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
While most of my friends and classmates would respond with something extraordinary and typical, like an athlete or a movie star, I would always say, "I want to be the next Bruce Catton." Of course, I usually had to explain who Catton was, which only provided my classmates with further ammunition in labeling me as something of a nerd, or "Civil War dork." Yet I adamantly held my ground. When I was a kid, Bruce Catton was to me what Mike Schmidt or Harrison Ford were to my buddies.
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Next Thursday will mark the thirtieth anniversary of Catton's death, who died at the age of seventy-eight on August 28, 1978 (just two and half weeks, by the way, before I first entered the world).
So what better time to offer some of my reflections on one of the greatest.
My interest in the Civil War began at a very early age, and has only grown stronger since. One of my very first books--and one I still count as among the best--was The Golden Book of the Civil War, Adapted for Young Readers from the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, published in 1961. This was the first time I read Bruce Catton, who penned the book's introduction. As a kid, I paged through the book thousands of times and always took it along during my family's many trips to Gettysburg and other Civil War sites. I remember also trying my hand as an artist, attempting to draw the colorful pictures and the super-cool maps that dominated the book. To me, it was the coolest thing in the world and I am sure many of my fellow Civil War enthusiasts, remembering their younger days, would agree.

As I grew older, I gathered more and more of Catton's other works: A Stillness at Appomattox, Glory Road, Mr. Lincoln's Army, and so on--usually given to me as birthday or Christmas gifts--and I loved every single one. Still do. Back then, Bruce Catton was to me the Civil War expert. No one else even came close. His writings inspired me and fostered in me a passion not only for the Civil War in particular, but for all of history in general.
Since then I have heard Catton derided as a hack, especially by those in the academic world. I remember cringing in my seat at college and at graduate school as a number of my professors criticized Catton. How dare they, I thought. I had loved the man and his writings so much that I think I came to see any attack on him as an attack on me!
I have to admit, however, that they sometimes made good points about his research and methodologies. As I became more of a historian, I am almost pained to say that I, too, found myself disagreeing with some of Catton's interpretations and many of his conclusions. (He was far too tough on Burnside, for example). But with that being said, I still have a tremendous amount of respect for Catton and his work. The man was a brilliant writer; his style incredible and thoroughly evocative. Even to this day, I get so wrapped up in Catton's narrative that I feel I am present on the campaigns and in the battles he so eloquently describes. I can only dream of emulating his writing techniques, and I have come to grips with the fact that I will never be "the next Bruce Catton." And that is just fine with me because, in the end, no one will ever fill his shoes. . .at least as far as I am concerned.
Bruce Catton has been dead for three decades, but still I have to thank him. I probably wouldn't be who I am today had it not been for him and his books.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Charles Francis Adams and the "patriots of former days."

Every now and then I need a little break from the study of Civil War history.
Recently, I have shelved works dealing with America's fratricidal conflict and have picked up some that focus on the Colonial, Revolutionary, and Federalist Eras. Several weeks ago I ordered a number of books from the History Book Club, including 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, by Charles Mann, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution, by Simon Schama, and American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, by Joseph Ellis.
These books arrived yesterday morning and I got that "kid-in-the-candy-store" feeling as I tore right in. I began with American Creation, a book I've been meaning to read for months now. In the Prologue of this book, I came across a quote by Charles Francis Adams, grandson of one president and the son of another, that struck me as particularly interesting. As Ellis explained, Adams had edited his grandfather's papers in the 1850s and in commenting upon how his ancestor and fellow "Founding Fathers" were remembered in popular memory recorded:
"We are beginning to forget that the patriots of former days were men like ourselves. . .and we are almost irresistibly led to ascribe to them in our imaginations certain gigantic proportions and superhuman qualities, without reflecting that this at once robs their character of consistency and their virtues of all merits."
Although Adams wrote this in reference to the leaders of the Revolutionary Era, this observation is as relevant today as it was 150 years ago and particularly when describing how it is we best remember some of America's Civil War heroes. In the past, I have commented on some of the negative feedback I have received for criticizing certain generals of the Civil War and for providing a so-called "warts and all" interpretation of their lives and their decisions both on and off the battlefield. There is a tendency among a large percentage of the population not to criticize but to accept a certain narrative that portrays these men as almost flawless figures. And because of this we have today a number of transcendant, well-constructed caricatures, or glossy portraits, and not a "flesh and bones" image that view these historical figures for what they, in fact, were, real life human beings. They made mistakes, experienced failure along with their success, and were, in the end, entirely human. As Adams so eloquently explained, to view them otherwise is to rob "their character of consistency and their virtues of all merits."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Knowing When To Say When. . .

Back in grad school--during one of those countless, three-hour-long night courses where we M.A. & beginning Ph.D. students mingled with the ABD's and sat roundtable fashion discussing the intricacies of methodologies and historiography--a subject came up which haunts me, if you will, to this day. Namely, it was at what point does a historian decide to call off his/her research and begin writing. It may seem simple enough, but as anyone who has written history can tell you, it is anything but. At one point during the discussion, I am not sure if it was a fellow student or a professor, but someone said, "No historian is ever truly satisfied with his sources." And with that, the discussion moved on. . .
I remember distinctly that quote. I agree with it, wholeheartedly, and when I sit down to try to finally put words on paper, I repeat it over and over in my head.
Yet I find it very difficult to accept it and move on with my writing.
For more than a decade, I have traveled to scores of archives and libraries, gathered data, scoured shelves, filled notebook after notebook, and did just about everything a researcher does collecting information on both the 48th Pennsylvania and Brigadier General James Nagle. My wife and those who know me well labels this as some kind of obsessive compulsion, and I am sure psychologists would agree. My intention is to ultimately turn all of this research into two books: one, building off my master's thesis, being a social portrait of the 48th, not a retelling of the regiment's campaigns and battles, but a detailed look at the soldiers themselves; the other, a biography of Nagle, an obscure and entirely forgotten Civil War general. I have a ton of information, literally thousands--and thousands--of pages, seriously, yet whenever I decide to organize my notes, prepare outlines, and begin the task of writing, well, there comes that nagging, persistent voice in the back of my head telling me, "Not yet. . .You're not ready yet. There is more out there."
And this voice has always won out, at least as far as these projects are concerned, especially the Nagle one. I must have begun this "book" at least half a dozen times throughout the past five or so years, writing several chapters and then shelving the project as I returned to the seemingly unending task of research.
I cannot help but think that there is yet more to discover; more letters and diaries, more sources, both primary and secondary, and this thought simply paralyzes my efforts. I keep imagining the discovery of a "smoking gun," so to speak. . .a trove of source materials that will provide more insight and answer those unanswered questions. As FBI Agent Fox Mulder would say, "The Truth Is Out There." Sometimes it does seem that my projects are, indeed, "X Files."
But while I keep waiting, my work is simply not getting done.
So, I suppose the question is this: when does one know when to say when when it comes to concluding the research and beginning the writing? I imagine that once one reaches this point, a determined, and I mean determined, effort must be made not to start up again on that very slippery slope of research and to just push forward with what one has already got. To state forthrightly, "No historian is ever truly satisfied with his sources," to accept this fact and labor onward. Yet as I sit here composing this post, I know also that this, too, must be very difficult.
I imagine also that I am certainly not the only one who has lost sleep over this concern. So if anyone out there has any advice, suggestions, or sage wisdom, I am hoping you would be so kind as to share.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Firebrand of Liberty, by Stephen V. Ash

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I have just finished reading Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments that Changed the Course of the Civil War (Norton, July 2008),by Dr. Stephen Ash, a book which easily ranks among the best Civil War histories I have read in a long, long time.
Before Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, there was Thomas Wentworth Higginson and the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, a black regiment the origins of which predated the more famed Massachusetts regiment by many months. In Firebrand of Liberty, Ash recounts an overlooked--indeed, almost entirely forgotten--but vastly important March 1863 expedition led by Higginson and the soldiers of the 1st & 2nd South Carolina Infantry, which, the author convincingly argued, had profound consequences in the outcome of the war. The three-week long St. James River Expedition, launched on the heels of the Emancipation Proclamation, was unique and unparalleled in the annals of the war, for its purpose was to essentially free slaves in the Florida interior and thereby destroy the very social and economic foundation of the Confederacy. Think of a John Brown-type raid, only a much larger scale, and with the full endorsement of the U.S. government. The expedition was launched also to prove the fighting ability of black troops. All eyes, especially those of Abraham Lincoln and the authorities in Washington, were on Higginson, an abolitionist from Massachusetts, and his soldiers, and they succeeded admirably in their mission. Supported by the 6th Connecticut and 8th Maine, the 1st & 2nd South Carolina seized Jacksonville and spent three weeks raiding the Florida interior, freeing slaves and securing provisions for the Union. As Ash demonstrated, had this expedition failed, the future recruitment of black troops and their use in combat operations would have been severely challenged, if not suspended entirely. Their success, which was reported widely in the press, helped pave the way for the tens of thousands of black men who ultimately served in uniform, although their exploits would be overshadowed by the bravery of African-American regiments at such later battles as Port Hudson and Fort Wagner.
With Firebrand of Liberty, Ash has penned an outstanding and entirely original work that will contribute greatly to our understanding of the war, and especially to our understanding of the role played by black regiments. Ash's narrative, which is weaved masterfully with analysis, is lively, and it is one of those books I had a difficult time putting down. Indeed, I picked it up just yesterday morning. Firebrand of Liberty is a welcome and most valuable addition to Civil War historiography, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The 1st South Carolina (later designated the 33rd U.S.C.T.) in line in South Carolina.

Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Gettysburg Scrapbook: The First Day

I woke this morning a little after six o'clock, and after opening a window in my living room I noticed it rained quite a bit over night. By the time I was up, however, the rain had ended and the weather showed all the promise of a beautiful summer morning. Temps were low, a light breeze was blowing, so I figured I'd do something I don't often do. . .tramp around the Gettysburg battlefield. I've been living here for four years already, but it seems I spent more time on the fields before I moved. During the springs and summers at least, I spend five days a week at the Antietam battlefield, and by the time I get home, well, there just isn't that much time. I thought this morning, then, that I would go out and maybe recapture that almost indescribable feeling I got when I didn't live in Gettysburg, but years back when I traveled here on weekends or while on vacation with my family.
It was a glorious morning, and I had my camera along. So here are just a few images I captured early today while tramping north and west of Gettysburg, on the fields where the three-day battle began. . .

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General John Buford's Statue, and, just yards behind. . .
the equestrian statue of General John F. Reynolds.
I used to fashion myself as something of an expert on the battle of Gettysburg. But during the past three years, my study of the battle has taken a back seat as I immersed myself in ALL things Antietam. Now I am often at a loss when trying to recall Gettysburg's timeline, chronology, the organization of the armies, and even some of the brigade and division commanders. Of the Army of the Potomac's leaders, I believe only 20% of its brigade, division, and even corps commanders who had served at Antietam were present at Gettysburg.
The McPherson Farm, with the McPherson Woods behind. Reynolds was slain early that Wednesday morning, July 1, 1863, leading his 1st Corps into action.

Another view of the McPherson barn, this time looking north-east from the woodline.

It's soon going to be time for harvest, I suppose. Here is the statue of General Abner Doubleday (you know, the guy who didn't invent baseball) rising above and behind the rows of corn.
And, of course, the famed Lutheran Seminary.
Cannon atop Oak Hill (McPherson barn in far distance, to the right of the barrel).

Oak Hill is one of those places on the battlefield where, I am almost embarrased to say, I have never really visited often. This is a shame, for on these heights one has an incredible view of the First Days' fight. Pictured above is a cannon representing Carter's Battalion of Robert Rodes's Second Corps divison, Army of Northern Virginia. It is evident how Carter's guns and Rodes's infantry had the best ground of all on July 1.
Below are several more images taken from Oak Hill. . .
This picture is looking south-westerly over Gettysburg. . .the heights south of town, where the Army of the Potomac would rally after their reverse on the First Day can be seen beyond.

A rare Whitworth Gun with the Peace Light beyond. . .
Looking north toward Oak Hill from modern-day Howard Avenue, where the 11th Corps would go into position. By the time Howard's men arrived, Rodes's Confederates had already reached Oak Hill and were hammering away on the right flank of the Federal 1st Corps, held by General John Robinson's men. . .two brigades, which, by the way, had seen terrible combat in the Cornfield at Antietam nine and half months earlier.

Another view of Oak Hill (far distance, right. . .you might see the Peace Light). Oak Ridge, where Robinson's men tenaciously held on despite terrible loss before being driven back is to the left. . .This picture was also taken from the perspective of the 11th Corps. Soon after settling into line, Howard's men came under attack from General George Doles's Confederate brigade, which advanced north-to-south, or right-to-left on this picture.
The Monument of the 74th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Schimmelfennig's brigade, 11th Corps.

Young but incredibly brave, Francis Barlow (who commanded a New York regiment in the 2nd Corps at Antietam) fell seriously wounded at Gettysburg while in command of a division in the 11th Corps. Despite the story and its appearance on the NPS wayside at Barlow's Knoll, Barlow most likely did not converse with Confederate General John B. Gordon after falling wounded and falling into Confederate hands.

A close-up on Barlow's statue has him clutching his kepi as he surveys the ground. . .and Jubal Early's advancing Rebs.

An eagle, with clipped wing, precariously situated atop the small monument to the 27th Pennsylvania along Coster Avenue in town. . .

The 153rd Pennsylvania, recruited from the Lehigh Valley

I could not have asked for a better morning. . .spending two hours on the Gettysburg battlefield on my off-day from work at Antietam.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Another Gettysburg Casualty?

A Civil War reenactor was shot this past weekend in Gettysburg. . .seriously.
Click here to see for yourself.

The victim was a 17 year old portraying a solider in a Mississippi regiment. Let's be thankful that it was not more serious.