Monday, April 30, 2012

Confederate Memorial Day in Los Angeles

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Last Saturday was Confederate Memorial Day. Now when talking about Rebel graves, most people associate Hollywood with the cemetery in Richmond. But here in Hollywood California we have our very own Confederate monument - at Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Blvd. - a mere few blocks from Cosmic America HQ.

As I have mentioned, a good many Civil War veterans moved west after the war to seek their fortunes or otherwise benefit from the perfect...yes perfect climate we enjoy here in Southern California. They did a lot of the same things their comrades did in the East - they formed organizations and participated in Civil War commemorative activities. When they died, many were buried in plots throughout the area maintained by their organizations. In the case of the Confederate plot and monument in Hollywood Forever, we can thank the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Saturday's turnout was pretty light. In the Daughters' defense, there was a big reenactment going on at Pierce College, which more than likely lured the main Confederate contingent to the Valley. And there was little else alerting the general pubic to the event. As you may remember, the Daughters' have had some trouble in the past with issues concerning placement of Confederate flags at the cemetery - they fought and won a case to allow for such activities.

But from what I understand, the Daughters want the event to fly under the radar anyway. On the Thursday prior to the event, I briefly discussed Saturday's ceremony with UDC representative Margaret Alley. She was hesitant to publicize the event for fear of vandalism. In her words..."The neighborhood has gotten...well...shall we say..."dark" over the years - if you know what I mean." She feared that these "dark" (again...her word, not mine) people would take offense to Confederate activity and damage their monument. I'll let you make what you will of Ms. Alley's comments. But I think you can get the drift.

Below are a number of pictures from Saturday's memorial festivities. I'll place some video on my Youtube channel in short order - so you can get the full experience.

Deo Vindice (maybe)


Friday, April 27, 2012

Rivers in the Confederacy

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Last time I spoke of an established United States Navy as an advantage for the Union in the Civil War. Keeping with the water theme, I thought I would turn analysis south and talk about rivers.

Rivers during the Civil War era worked effectively in two significant ways. One, as formidable barriers to attacking armies and two, as avenues of advance for attacking armies and navies. Whether or not rivers helped or hindered the Confederate cause depended on which way the attacks were being launched and which way the rivers flowed.

Not generally one for counterfactuals, it is interesting to speculate nevertheless what might have happened had Kentucky voted to secede from the Union. For one thing, the Ohio River would have been the Confederacy's northern frontier and a really neat way to keep United States forces busy figuring out how to move armies across it. But since this didn't happen, we can move on to how rivers, especially in the western theater  worked against the Rebels.

United States forces had three perfectly suited avenues of advance right in to the heart of the Confederacy. The Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers more than once provided the means by which Union forces made their way south. And of course the Mississippi River (despite the Confederate defense network that lasted until 1863) worked both to bisect the Confederate states and serve as a grand highway for Union vessels. So ultimately, we will have to count the primary western river system as a disadvantage to the Confederates.

The rivers in the eastern theater had the potential to serve the Rebels well, unless of course Union forces moved inland from the coast. And this is precisely what George McClellan did in 1862. While the Potomac served as a barrier at the northern Virginia border, McClellan bypassed this and steamed inland using Virginia's eastward flowing river system. But we know what happened to him....opportunities lost, as they say. But in the event of an overland attack, eastern rivers would prove helpful for the Confederates. The Rappahannock, York, and James rivers in Virginia worked as a series of defensive lines and a real challenge for any army moving south from the Virginia northern frontier. Just ask Union generals Burnside or Grant, for example.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Decisive Union Advantage?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

A troubling, but common way to look at Union victory in the Civil War is to reflect from the vantage point of 1865. From there you can easily trace Union advantages and illustrate how victory seemed inevitable from the start. One of these great advantages: the United States had a navy ready to attack when the war broke out.

Or did they? In the film Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler forecasts doom early on stating, "The Yankees are better equipped than we...they have a navy to bottle up our harbors and starve us to death." Well...eventually, the navy played an important part in Winfield Scott's "Anaconda Plan." It blockaded seacoast harbors and menaced cities and installations on Confederate rivers. But in the spring of 1861, the Unites States Navy was only a shadow of what it would become. Their upwards of 70 ships were either not serviceable or scattered around the world. In fact, when shots were finally fired in April 1861, only a handful of U.S. ships could be brought to bear on Confederate forces. What's more? in 1861, the U.S. Navy was a deep water fleet - and could not navigate along the rivers that were vital to the Confederacy.

So yes, having a navy was an advantage from the start. The Confederacy had none, and had to build one from scratch. But simply having a few ships ready for duty could hardly be called a decisive advantage. And so without the benefit of reflection, one might think of the U.S. Navy as enlisting only a slight advantage. Northern manufacturing capacity was the real clincher - the ability to build rapidly and commission a vast navy ultimately meant that the United States could put to sea a formidable fighting force in relatively short order...far more destructive than anything the Confederates could muster.



Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Smart Phones and the Civil War - The Possibilities are Endless

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I am so very pleased to be able to stand at the intersection of technology and the humanities. It truly is a great time to be a scholar - so much technology at my disposal, which makes my job as a historian infinitely more interesting and easy. And, I am thrilled to be able to use technology to make my work readily available to you - in real time, whether it be a curiosity discovered here or there or the serious business of scholarly analysis.

As you all know by now, I have a number of grand endeavors in the pipeline - members of the Cosmic America Inner Circle will have a few more details, but for now I will just say I have many multi-media projects coming up - all geared toward teaching history in a virtual format - with many innovations.

You all probably also know that I am an iPhone historian, which means much of my web-based work is done from remote locations - all on my phone using any number of applications. As a compliment some of my bigger projects, I am always trying to figure out ways to use little innovations such as virtual how-to guide applications and QR code readers to help extend the Cosmic America Civil War network. What do you think? What would be a good thing to which I could affix a QR code? I mean, it seems like everybody has a smart phone - why not use this to my advantage and make Cosmic America a simple scan away?

A Civil War related how-to guide might be interesting as well. But the question to do what? An application called Snapguide currently allows experts (or anybody, really) to put together a how-to guide for anything - building birdhouses or cooking shrimp. It is up to the creator. If I were to put together a Civil War how-to, what would you want to know how to do?

I listen to Cosmic America readers - tell me what you would like to know, and I will see what I can come up with.



Monday, April 23, 2012

Sam Houston and Secession

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

We all know the story - the election of Abraham Lincoln precipitated the secession of seven lower South states. By December 1860, lower South secessionists were set to move pretty quickly. South Carolina was out of the Union on December 20. Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama left on January 9, 10, and 11 respectively. Georgia seceded on January 19 and Louisiana on the 26th. On the 1st of February, the last of the seven lower South states, Texas, left the Union.

But even in the lower South, where the movement for secession was most vocal, the voice of caution sounded from some of the higher echelons of state government (except maybe in South Carolina, but we can talk about that another day). I am speaking today of Sam Houston - hero in the movement for Texas independence, advocate of annexation, and governor of Texas during the secession winter of 1860-61.

Houston fought the secessionists as hard as he could. He claimed that if Texas left the Union that the move would weaken their society and threaten the very things that secessionists were claiming to safeguard. He refused to recognize the secession convention that met in Austin in January, 1861. But Houston's days as governor were numbered. Once the state voted to leave the Union he was simply replaced by lieutenant governor Edward Clark. The eviction, as it were, happened on March 16, when Houston refused to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy. He wrote:

"Fellow-Citizens, in the name of your rights and liberties, which I believe have been trampled upon, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of the nationality of Texas, which has been betrayed by the Convention, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of the Constitution of Texas, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of my own conscience and manhood, which this Convention would degrade by dragging me before it, to pander to the malice of my enemies, I refuse to take this oath. I deny the power of this Convention to speak for Texas....I protest....against all the acts and doings of this convention and I declare them null and void."

Houston might have been in the minority in the lower South, but his actions during the secession crisis show that not everyone was on board with the movement to establish a new slave-holding republic. Houston exemplifies not the voice of moderation - not the wait and see attitude of some of those less vehement on the secession movement - but the voice of opposition. To no avail. Once he was ousted, he retired to his home in Galveston. But he had this to say to his fellow Texans before he bid farewell to public life.

"Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South."

Don't mess with Texas? Forget about it...don't mess with Sam Houston.



Saturday, April 21, 2012

Reading, Writing, and (Confederate) Arithmetic

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I had a little time on my hands yesterday so I wandered over to the Gettysburg Museum of History's Facebook page to have a look at a few historical artifacts.The museum has a little game where they ask followers to name whatever artifact is being displayed by "Vanessa the Intern" (this woman's name and position are always set off by quotation marks so I thought I would follow the tradition).

Yesterday I saw this image - "Vanessa the Intern" holding an 1864 math book printed in the Confederacy. There are few words to describe what is printed inside - maybe "damn" or "really?" would suffice. I'll let you add your own. And, if you want to brush up on your Confederate math skills, here are a few word problems from the book to get you started

1. If one Confederate soldier can kill 90 Yankees, how many Yankees can 10 Confederate soldiers kill?

2. If one Confederate soldier can whip 7 Yankees, how many soldiers can whip 49 Yankees?

3. 7 Confederate soldiers captured 21 Yankees and divided them equally between them. How many did each one have?

There will be a test later.



Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Gruesome Relic

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

In an effort to keep up to date with all the Civil War related news, I keep an "American Civil War" Google News search bookmarked - and check it frequently. Events from reenactments to anniversaries to hot-topic debates come up. From time to time, the strange, and yes, gruesome story makes its appearance. This recent article, reporting on a severed arm found in the Sharpsburg area, dominated the other images in a rather macabre fashion.

People come across relics all the time - both by legal means and otherwise - shell fragments, bullets, buttons, buckles, even trash. From time to time, one might stumble upon a bone fragment (as I did once in Shiloh). But according to the article, it is extremely rare to find human remains with the skin intact. This limb in particular had been buried in a field...then stored in a barrel of brine. Specialists are now working to see if this limb is indeed a Civil War relic - perhaps once attached to a soldier who suffered his horrible dismemberment at the Battle of Antietam - one of the over 22,000 killed and wounded on September 17, 1862. Should any more news surface, I will keep you posted.



Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Yes, It Was Ford's Theater

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Last weekend was the anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. To see if people were paying attention, I posted this image on all of my usual media outlets: Facebook 1, Facebook 2, and Twitter, etc.

I promised that the first person to identify the building would get a shout out on Cosmic America - so congratulations Raina Gabrielle Kellerman. There were a lot of correct identifications, but yours was the first. is Ford's theater. The building stands still. If you are ever in the D.C. area, it would be worth the price of admission to check it out.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Best Second Choice - Abraham Lincoln for President

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Was Abraham Lincoln Republicans' shoe-in for their party's nomination in 1860. Not exactly. But he certainly made a great second choice. A favorite among Republican party hopefuls was New Yorker William H. Seward. A former Whig and dominant figure in the Republican party from its outset, Seward seemed like the obvious choice. But his abolitionist leanings cast him as a dangerous character were he to head the ticket in a general election. Even many who admired the career politician thought him too radical. and perceived radicalism would count Salmon P. Chase out as well. Like Seward, Chase was also a former Whig and prominent Republican, and like Seward, he was closely aligned with abolitionist sentiment (he also had issues with the Republicans' protective tariff plank). Edward Bates had the opposite problem - many thought this conservative former Whig was far too conservative to lead the Republican Party to victory in the fall.

Enter Abraham Lincoln. Not too radical...not too conservative. And he had great management. Lincoln had won national acclaim after a series of lectures in 1859 and 1860 - most notably the Cooper Union address. He was no longer the little known lawyer from Illinois, but a national figure....and it seems, a great second choice. He opposed the extension of slavery, but vowed not to touch it where it existed. Lincoln personally despised slavery, but was not an abolitionist. When it came time for the Republican nominating convention in May 1860, those who handled his campaign promoted him thus: if your candidate does not get the nod...cast your vote for Lincoln. And that is exactly what happened.

Lincoln himself did not seem particularly bothered by the second choice strategy. In March 1860, Lincoln wrote from Chicago, "If I have any chance, it consists mainly in the face that the whole opposition would vote for me if nominated (I don't mean to include the pro-slavery opposition of the South, of course). My name is new in the field, and I suppose I am not the first choice of a very great many. Our policy, then, is to give no offense to others - leave them in a mood to come to us, if they shall be compelled to give up their first love."



Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Contemplative Sort

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

A while back, I got a question from Robby, one of my former University of Virginia students - of my very best former University of Virginia students. He wanted to know when the war became "real" for me - when I got it...when it clicked. I have been reading about the war since I was a kid - but that did not necessarily mean that I "got it," for lack of a better phrase. In fact, I am not sure that I do now. But I feel as though I am closer.

Civil War memory - a topic close to my heart - is a lived experience. It was so for the generation who lived through the war and its aftermath, and it is for us today. At least this much I understand - while I may not entirely get the war from the perspective of a participant (none of us ever really will) - I have made my personal connections beyond the books. Keep in mind, I don't generally write about myself (much) - my work has a purpose beyond hipsteresque narcissism and hyper-inflated self importance so typical of the blogosphere broadly defined. But I will from time to time divulge a few autobiographical lines, especially when asked. I believe my personal experiences will sound familiar to many of you - and that in this instance they are worthy of note.

Strangely, while I have been reading about the war most of my life, I did not live the memory of it until recently - 1999 to be exact. I was born in Birmingham Alabama, a steel town that was not founded until 1871 - so not much in the way of Civil War action there. I grew up in Southern California - even fewer Civil War attractions there. But in the summer of 1999 I got it together to take my first Civil War vacation, so to speak, in the deep South. Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina - and I even made a trek to Western Tennessee and Kentucky...all the way to Perryville. The war became real, I suppose, on the Shiloh battlefield. There I walked in the footsteps of my ancestor, Andrew Jackson Holbert, who fought alongside the men of his Alabama regiment. I stood at or near the spot where he was shot - a chest wound that he miraculously survived.

I was fortunate that it was August, the middle of the week, extremely humid and around 98 degrees. Suffice to say, I had the battlefield to myself. So I got a chance to think about what it must have looked like in 1862 sans twentieth-century distractions (I didn't even have a cell phone yet). Perhaps I have a particularly vivid imagination - it is very difficult to describe with words....but I felt the war all around me. Not an isolated incident, I had the same experience two years later (by then I had a cell phone...but rarely used it)  - while on a trip with my UCLA undergraduate comrades to Gettysburg. I woke up before sunrise on a June morning and headed out to explore the Union positions of July 1, 1863. I was quickly reminded that thinking while all alone in such an evocative place clarifies a great deal about the war. As you might guess, this scene has repeated itself over and over during the last several years - my time in Virginia...and the subsequent trips east since I left.

If anything, my experiences....surely like those of many, validate the cause for battlefield preservation - not only as places of study, but of contemplation. One can understand so much about the war at the places where the issues of the day were decided by arms. Do battlefields resonate with the voices of those long past? I dare not answer definitively...for fear of treading the ground of the theologian - hardly my area of expertise. I will say, however, that for the contemplative among us, the war lives and breathes at these sites of memory. On an experiential level, one can indeed sense - maybe even obliquely grasp - the war in all its realness.



Saturday, April 14, 2012

Mystery Veteran F. A. Whitehead - Not Quite as Mysterious

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Remember last week when I by happenstance discovered a Civil War veteran's tombstone at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery? I wanted to find out who he was and how he found himself in Hollywood in the early twentieth century. I poked around on the Internet for a bit but quickly grew impatient -  so I turned to my fellow Civil War bloggers for assistance. They got back to me in short order. So thanks Robert Moore and Andy Hall!

Here is what they found: According to the 1920 census, New Yorkers Frederick A. Whitehead and his wife, Agnes were residing in Los Angeles - most likely on Carlton Way, what is now an affluent neighborhood north of Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood. I am not yet certain what he was doing in L. A., but I now have a pretty interesting wartime story.

It seems that Whitehead enlisted in Co. B of the 1st New York Mounted Rifles in October 1861, which means he would have seen plenty of action in the Virginia theater of war. By January 1863, Whitehead was listed as a deserter...but turned up as a masters mate in the Navy the following year, serving aboard the U.S.S. Narragansett. He resigned in March, 1865.

Was Whitehead a deserter? It may just be a matter of interpretation. In 1891, he successfully had his name cleared of any wrongdoing through an act of congress. He claimed he had been a minor at the time of enlistment and thus discharged. This was actually not true - he was 18 years old. But one thing suggests that at least he thought he was in the clear to "leave" the Army and transfer to the Navy - he enlisted in the Navy with his real name. Could allegations of desertion simply have been a paperwork mix-up?

After the war he spent some time in Fort Meade, Florida and is noted in a book on Polk County:

Capt. F. A. Whitehead, one of Fort Meade’s leading and most active and influential citizens, has a delightful residence amid towering oaks and a fruitful orange grove, in the heart of the village. He also has a variety of pleasing growths, such as Japanese plums and persimmons, Peen-To-peaches, lemons, limes, pine-apples, strawberries, bananas, mangos, sapadillos, grapes of numerous kinds, flowers in great variety, and other things too numerous to mention. He also has large number of acres of the choicest citrus fruits in grove. A native of New York City, he has made good use of his thirteen years in Florida. Resigning his position in the navy at the close of the war, he made a thorough acquaintance of California, and has been in the fruit and stock business ever since, yet having a farm in Delaware. He prefers Florida to any State, has large tracts here and is doing a very extensive real-estate business.

The whole "captain" thing appears to be a post-war self appointment, as was practiced by many veterans (think of all the ex-Confederate "colonels" running around!). And it was more than likely the citrus business that brought him to California. In the early-twentieth century, the motion picture industry was still in its infancy - Hollywood was covered with lemon and orange groves!

So my next step is to begin searching locally, to see what I can find out about the Whiteheads and their work here in Southern California. His tombstone clearly indicates that he was proud of his service in the Army and Navy - if he was involved in veterans' affairs in L.A., he may very well have had some interesting things to say about being a Yankee westerner. Time...and a lot of digging...will certainly tell. So stay tuned as the story unfolds.



Thursday, April 12, 2012

Titus Andronicus - A More Perfect Union

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Today I am featuring a little more fun with Civil War imagery in 21st century popular culture. The video is by New Jersey's own Titus Andronicus. Their album, The Monitor, develops a number of Civil War themes. Have a listen to the whole thing, you will recognize plenty. For now, I would love your thoughts on the video for this song: "A More Perfect Union." I found it most agreeable.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

April 10, 1865

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

In recognition of Lee's Farewell Address to his army, the day after his formal surrender to General Grant, I offer his remarks. Yes, this post may seem a tad repetitive - seeing that I spoke of the surrender at length a week or so ago. But too bad. I have a thing for anniversaries.

I do have a question though, for readers. Do Lee's words mark the origin of the Lost Cause? He does indeed touch on one very important Lost Cause point. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, 10th April 1865.

After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.

I need not tell the survivors of so many hard fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to the result from no distrust of them.

But feeling that valour and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.

By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you his blessing and protection.

With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your Country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

R. E. Lee, General

And I say....

Peace to you,


Monday, April 9, 2012

Join the Cosmic America Inner Circle

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

There are a lot of things coming up for the Cosmic America Civil War multi-media network. So many things, in fact, that I thought it would be useful to set up a hotline notification system to alert Cosmic Americans everywhere of soon-to-be-released projects and various other media endeavors.

What sort of things are these, you may ask...? Well, I do not want to spoil any surprises, but I will tell you that I have some projects in development that should prove beneficial to Civil War students, teachers, buffs, researchers, and enthusiasts around the world. My next projects will include interactive components, video components, a writing collective, and a number of other things that are continually churning forth from the insomniac idea factory.

And I want you to be the very first to know. So to be part of the Cosmic America Inner Circle, just fill in your name and email address into the form to the right (below the chat box) - or, you can just click HERE. The second I have any announcement worth squawking about, you will get an email notification. Think of it as a semi-regular newsletter.

And don't worry - I won't sell your email address to spammers or send you a bunch of irritating junk mail. Check out my picture...I look like a reputable guy, right?



Sunday, April 8, 2012

Civil War Mystery Veteran

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I was taking a walk yesterday in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, as I am wont to do, and I stumbled across this grave - one that I had never seen before. The person buried here, F. A. Whitehead, is clearly a veteran of Civil War United States Navy. The usual Internet searches yielded very little information...but now I have to know. Seeing that this is a veteran that somehow found his way to Los Angeles after the war, it might be worthwhile to find out who he was and exactly what he was up to.

If you know anything about this sailor fellow...please fill me in.



Dogs of Honor

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

The other day, I pinned an image of the Irish Brigade Monument at Gettysburg featuring an Irish Wolfhound in repose. The picture was met with an enthusiastically positive response. So I thought for a while about other Civil War monuments featuring canine mascots and recalled this one.

The pup pictured here is Sallie - a pug-nosed brindle bull terrier presented as a gift in 1861 to the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment. Sallie saw plenty of action. Well drilled, she marched in formation with the men, and took her place in line of battle. Her first combat was a Cedar Mountain, where she stood resolutely by the regimental colors for the duration.

Rumor has it, that during an 1863 review, none other than President Lincoln offered an approving tip-o-the hat salutation to the 11th's mascot. And there are claims too, that Sallie was twice captured by Confederates -  and made her escape back to Union lines and her unit.

Sallie survived a neck wound received at Spotsylvania - but her luck would run out in February, 1865. On the 6th, the Pennsylvanians attacked the Rebel lines at Hatcher's Run. Sallie, always dutifully at her post, took at bullet in the head. She was killed instantly. The men of the 11th, still under fire, buried her where she fell.

In 1890, the veterans of the 11th dedicated a monument on Oak Ridge at Gettysburg - facing the direction of the attacking Rebels. There at the base you will find Sallie's bronze likeness. The next time you are in the neighborhood, stop by and leave a little treat.I think a biscuit would be a nice offering for a dog who helped save the Union. And I am sure Sallie would appreciate it.



PS - I'll keep posting about Civil War mascots memorialized in this fashion - if you know of one you would like to see discussed here, please fill me in!

Thought for the Day

It [was] not a war to save the Union alone, it [was] a war to make the Union worth saving.
- William P. Hogarty

Friday, April 6, 2012

Jesse Rosten and Death in the Civil War

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

This is Building Houses, by Wesley Jensen. Director and Editor Jesse Rosten said of his video, "The thought of dying scares me to death. So I made this video hoping to convince myself it won’t be that bad. Turn it up, watch it full screen."

I wonder how that worked out for him. Comments welcome.


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Counting, Recounting, and Counting the Civil War Dead Again

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

A couple of days ago, the New York Times ran an article on demographic historian J. David Hacker's Civil War dead recount. I talked about this research in a post back in September, 2011. I am not saying that I got the drop on the Times, I did not - the original article ran in the Times Disunion series.

Rather than once again discussing Hacker's original article, I thought it might be useful to think about numbers specifically, the dead, and what that all means to modern observers. If you recall Hacker's estimation - 750,000 deaths -  inflated the generally agreed upon number of 600,000 by over 20%. I am perfectly willing to accept that Hacker's research was sound and that his new number is correct. Now what?

What does this mean in terms of remembering the war? Columbia University historian Eric Foner commented, saying what I suppose we all should say: “It even further elevates the significance of the Civil War and makes a dramatic statement about how the war is a central moment in American history. It helps you understand, particularly in the South with a much smaller population, what a devastating experience this was.”

And so with an extra 150,000 or so heaped upon the pile of mouldering Civil War corpses we can all collectively shake our head, understanding that the war was even more horrible than we thought it was before. Admittedly, this was my initial reaction. But after questioning my thoughts (a healthy exercise, by the way) I wondered if more deaths really makes a horrible war more horrible.

Well, it was certainly more horrible for the previously uncounted 150,000 and their families. But I find it difficult to believe that modern observers can qualify these abstractly large numbers - growing greater and greater with each series of revision - in any manner of degree. Indeed - I am not convinced that people are capable of conceptualizing this sort of numerical cost.

What if yet another recount reveals that 1 million died? What if we throw on a few more that died from complications of their wounds in say...1877? Or that later committed suicide as a result of psychological trauma? When will the war become so devastating - as Foner describes - that we stop thinking about it altogether?

I pose new questions to replace the counting, recounting, and counting again. Is it our macabre sensibilities that make us so inclined to seek out greater numbers of Civil War dead? Do we feel a need to make the war more horrible - as a sort of perverse lesson? And finally - how much more devastating can devastating be?



Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Bixby Letter

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

You have probably heard of the Bixby letter - Abraham Lincoln's letter to a bereaved mother of five sons killed fighting for the Union cause. Many have pointed to this letter to illustrate an example of Lincoln's finest prose...some suggesting that it stands with the Gettysburg address as a masterpiece in the English language. And of course, it was used in the film Saving Private Ryan as - shall we say - motivational literature.

Like with many stories concerning Lincoln, the Bixby letter story has been questioned, critiqued, and even surrounded by a little controversy. Yes, Lydia Bixby had five sons in the Union army, but may have indeed supported the Confederacy - seems odd, but I read it somewhere on the Internet - so it must be true (snicker). Further, it turns out that three of Bixby's sons died after the war. What's more...some have argued that the letter was actually written not by Lincoln, but by his secretary, John Hay.

Who knows? But however you slice it - it is quite a remarkable note. The original has gone lost to the ages, but the letter was reprinted and widely distributed. A Cosmic America Facebook friend sent me an image of this engraving. If you find it difficult to read - below is the transcription:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

Heavy stuff, wouldn't you say?



Monday, April 2, 2012

Reconciliation in Grant's Memoirs

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

There are a number of ways to define the reconciliationist sentiment of general/president/citizen Ulysses S. Grant. His magnanimity at Appomattox would be a good place to start. Speaking of his Confederate prisoners, he noted: "we did not want to exult over their downfall." And there is evidence suggesting that his generous terms of surrender won him, if not admiration, at least at modicum of respect among defeated Confederates.

His 1868 presidential campaign rested on the cornerstone of reconciliation. the campaign slogan, "Let Us Have Peace," undeniably furthered the desires among many members of the Republican party to extend a hand of friendship across the Potomac. The slogan became so associated with the Grant's campaign, presidency, and life that it found a prominent place on Grant's tomb in New York.

One can find Grant's most clearly articulated vision of reconciliation in his two-volume memoirs. This enormously popular work - that restored his family's fortune after a financial disaster destroyed it - does more to promote friendship between sections than any other work in the reconciliationist literature broadly defined. “I feel that we are on the verge of a new era,” he wrote shortly before his death, “where there is to be great harmony between the Federal and Confederate. I cannot stay to be a living witness to the correctness of this prophecy; but I feel within me that it is to be so.”

But we must be careful not to accept Grant as a reconciliationst and leave it at that. It would be foolish to assume that reconciliation necessarily meant that what men had fought for was simply forgotten. Coupled with Grant’s reconciliationist bent was a steadfast devotion to the Union cause of freedom. Soon after the war, Grant acknowledged in a rousing speech honoring general Daniel Butterfield that Confederates had sowed the “germ of treason, in the vain attempt to overthrow this Government, that slavery, despotism, and sin might thrive upon its ruin.” He later affirmed in his memoirs, “the cause of the Great War of the Rebellion against the United States will have to be attributed to slavery” and reminded Americans that the Confederate cause was “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

So was Grant a reconciliationist? Without question. But one who made sure to promote reconciliation on northern terms - acknowledging that former Confederates were countrymen once again, but that they had fought with brutal determination for disunion and the preservation of slavery.



PS - if you haven't already, be sure to check out the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.