Stones River: December 31, 1862-January 2, 1863

… or is it really Stone’s River? Maybe I should have gone with Murfressboro.


Here it is Stone River. Someday, after all this talk about fiscal cliffs and debt ceilings is gone (which will be never), we need to convene a panel that decides on these names once and for all, which will be a lasting contribution of the sesquicentennial.

Normally, I’d have something really, really important and interesting to say about this battle. However, as it involved both William S. Rosecrans and George H. Thomas, both of whom have active fan clubs where some of the members are convinced that people who write about Grant or Sherman have something against Old Rosey and Slow Trot, I feel it is important to reaffirm their prejudices and say that this battle was much ado about very little. Certainly critics of Grant and Sherman at Shiloh will have to explain why Rosecrans allowed himself to be pushed back as far as he was on December 31, and the action of January 2, much like the battle on April 7, has received far less attention that the first day of both of these battles. At best this is another one of those battles that could have been more important (as in dealing Rosecrans a major defeat), but was not. That’s why it reminds me of Shiloh: a bloody engagement where the couldas and shouldas make it more important, and where a Union general held his ground under fire, even as people died around him.

Yes, I know: after the failures at Fredericksburg and Vicksburg, anything other than a bloody setback was good news to some people. After all, I can remember how as a fan of the 1972-73 Islanders I welcomed a tie as an improvement on some sixty losses.  But is that the best case that can be made for this battle? You tell me.


The Sinking of the USS Monitor

On the night of December 30-31, 1862, the USS Monitor, caught in rough seas as it made its way past Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, sank. Sixteen crew members perished.

Monitor sunk

Many years later efforts were made to raise the Monitor, with recovered pieces being sent to the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. You can listen to a presentation about the conservation of the wreck here:

… and, if you click here today, December 31, 2012, you’ll be able to see a live webcam of the turret.

Chickasaw Bayou: December 29, 1862

It always intrigues me as to which battles have drawn popular attention during the sesquicentennial. We’ve heard virtually nothing, for example,of Grant’s failed effort to take Vicksburg in December 1862. The Union commander had proposed a two-pronged offensive, with Grant directing a drive down central Mississippi while William T. Sherman led a riverborne thrust at Vicksburg itself from the north. Whatever the merits of the plan, its hurried implementation owed something to the concern both generals had about the imminent appearance of John A. McClernand, who carried orders that he believed gave him independent command of an expedition against Vicksburg.  That this was not quite the case is a story left for another time.

The offensive met with dismal results. Confederate raids against Grant’s supply line, notably the capture of a supply depot at Holly Springs, forced Grant to turn back, although he later said that during the retreat he learned much about living off the land, an experience that would prove useful later. This setback allowed the Confederates at Vicksburg to concentrate on stopping Sherman, a task that proved none too difficult. Part of this was due to the terrain along which the Confederates deployed, a series of bluffs and hills that made Marye’s Heights and the sunken road west of Fredericksburg seem like a mere wrinkle in the ground. But the failure of the Union assault at significant cost also owed much to Sherman’s unimaginative handling of the attack, a trait that he repeatedly displayed throughout the war when it came to assaults upon defensive positions. “We will lose 5,000 men before we take Vicksburg, and may as well lose them here as anywhere else,” he observed, a comment that reflects his readiness to accept losses and his uninspired approach to offensive operations.  In fact, Sherman lost 1,176 men, while the Confederates lost a mere 187 men. As Sherman later summed it up in a dispatch to Halleck, “I reached Vicksburg at the time appointed, landed, assaulted, and failed.” Given both the strength of the Confederate position and Sherman’s approach to launching assaults, it is hard to imagine any other outcome.

The failure of Grant’s first attempt to take Vicksburg reflected the confused nature of Union command relationships at this point in the war. Lincoln had approved three major command changes that fall: Burnside had replaced McClellan, Rosecrans had replaced Buell, and McClernand had wrangled a command independent of Grant, or so he thought. Politics were part of all three command changes: the command structure erected in July 1862 with the appointment of Henry W. Halleck was a wreck. Grant struggled to find out about McClernand’s mission, and moved when he did in part because he had no faith in McClernand’s ability to succeed … and yet it is reasonable to add that if McClernand triumphed, it would come at Grant’s expense, and Grant knew this, too. During the months to come commanders would find themselves having to deal with disloyal subordinates who were all too free with sharing their opinions with the powers that be back at state capitals and Washington, with Lincoln himself avidly listening to such reports. Given his own masterful handling of his cabinet crisis, one wonders why he would promote instability in several army commands. Of the three major commanders in place in December 1862, only one would survive such internal intrigue and be in place a year later. That Ulysses S. Grant prevailed given the obstacles in front of him … and the fire in his rear … remains one of the most interesting and revealing tales in American history.

The Thirteenth Amendment and the Hampton Roads Conference

The movie Lincoln has focused renewed interest in the process whereby the Thirteenth Amendment made its way through Congress at the very same time that three Confederate commissioners were at Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters at City Point, Virginia, seeking passage to Washington.

Well, what really happened?

In early January 1865 Francis P. Blair, Sr., an old hand at Washington politics, had visited Richmond to present a proposal before Jefferson Davis looking towards an armistice between the United Sates and the Confederacy. Lincoln was well aware of this mission, but he did not invest much hope in it. He informed Blair on January 18, 1865 that he was “ready to receive any agent whom he, or any other influential person now resisting the national authority, may informally send to me, with the view of securing peace to the people of our one common country.” Seven days later, on January 28, he noted that the rub in the proposed negotiations rested in Davis’s decision to make reference to “the two countries,” a wording Lincoln simply would not accept.

On January 29, three Confederate commissioners–Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, Robert M. T. Hunter, and John Campbell–arrived at Union lines. Two days earlier Davis had selected them for this mission, although he had little interest in any conference that did not recognize Confederate independence. They sought to meet Grant, who was away at the moment (as was George G. Meade). It was left to John G. Parke (temporarily in command of the Army of the Potomac) and Edward O. C. Ord (commander of the Army of the James, and ranking Parke) to decide what to do, with Ord forwarding the correspondence to Washington that day. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton sent over the dispatches to the White House that evening, while informing Ord that he should await instructions before acting.

On the morning of January 30 Lincoln directed Major Thomas T. Eckert of the War Department to meet with the Confederate commissioners  but at Fortress Monroe, not Washington.

Eckert was still in Washington on January 31, preparing to depart: before he did Lincoln received a telegram from Grant (sent that morning) asking for instructions from Lincoln concerning the peace commissioners. Lincoln alerted Grant as to Eckert’s mission, without revealing the content of the dispatch he had entrusted to Eckert; he also directed Secretary of State William H. Seward to proceed to Fortress Monroe to meet with the commissioners.  Lincoln laid out three non-negotiable positions: the restoration of the Union, no back-tracking on emancipation (although no mention was made of the proposed amendment), and an end to the war and the disbanding of Confederate forces. Those principles accepted, he was willing to entertain other idea “in a spirit of sincere liberality.”

Even as he did this, however, Lincoln was quick to allay rumors about a possible peace conference. Responding to Representative James M. Ashley’s concern that reports circulating around Washington that peace commissioners from the Confederacy were either in Washington or on their way to the city, the president replied, simply and shrewdly: “So far as I know, there are no peace commissioners in the city, or likely to be in it.” This was as true as far as it went.

That afternoon, the House of Representatives passed the Thirteenth Amendment (you can read the proceedings here). Lincoln signed the resolution transmitting the proposed amendment to the states the next day, February 1, although the ceremonial flourish was unnecessary and superfluous.

That same day it appeared that the proposed conference would not come off. In the afternoon Lincoln had ordered Eckert to leave City Point and make his way to Fortress Monroe, where he was to give way to Seward; by that time, however, Eckert had already met with the Confederate trio and found their response to Lincoln’s request unsatisfactory. Stephens and company then turned to Grant, who forwarded to Eckert a second request to go to Washington. Again Eckert turned it down.

Then Grant interjected himself in the negotiations (much to Eckert’s dismay). The general wired Stanton on the evening of February 1, expressing his opinion that the motives of the commissioners seemed sincere, that not to hear them out might have negative repercussions, and that he regretted that Lincoln could not meet with them. That changed everything, and on the morning of February 2 Lincoln notified Grant that he was on his way to Fortress Monroe; in going he passed up another chance to talk to Blair, who had been pressing for a meeting.

On February 3, 1865, the Hampton Roads Peace Conference took place aboard Lincoln’s steamer. Only Lincoln, Seward, Stephens, Hunter, and Campbell were present. No notes were kept; recollections differ as to the details of what was discussed. As expected, the talks broke down over the key question of one country or two, with the Confederate commissioners being unable and perhaps unwilling to accede to Lincoln’s insistence on reunion.

Meeting with the cabinet on February 5, Lincoln shared with them a proposed joint resolution offering to pay the slave states (including states not part of the Confederacy) four hundred million dollars to compensate for the abolition of slavery, provided the war end by April 1, 1865, and the Thirteenth Amendment being ratified by July 1, 1865. Should he submit that document to Congress? Cabinet members advised against the measure, and it was dropped.

You can find out more about the conference here. Lincoln’s message to the House of Representatives, containing many of the documents in question, is here (scroll backwards to the beginning of the document).

So, what do we make of this?

Well, for all the talk of a possible conference about peace, it was not until January 29 that the Confederate commissioners appeared seeking passage through Grant’s lines. Word of their appearance made its way to Washington that night. Lincoln framed his response on January 30, then sent first Eckert and then Seward forward on January 31 … the same day as the House vote on the Thirteenth Amendment. Yes, Lincoln furnished Ashley with a skillfully-worded denial of rumors that Confederate envoys were on the way to Washington, but he doubted that it made much difference. As historian William C. Harris has said, given the collapse of the mission, even a failed vote on January 31 would have not been the last word on the amendment during that lame-duck session; besides, it appears that without Grant’s intervention, the meeting would never have taken place.

How does Lincoln treat this event? Well, here’s the script.  There’s been some playing with chronology, to be sure, and I’m not sure why. Besides, the movie’s treatment of this event isn’t quite as bad as what I’ve seen elsewhere.

NHL Lockout Fridays: 12-28-12

Sometimes hockey isn’t all about skating and scoring. Sometimes it looks like … a controversy/confrontation blog.  🙂

I recall seeing this particular incident live during my first year in graduate school.

This was nothing new for the Rangers and Bruins, as you’ll see here:

Every Islanders fan has wanted to do this with Mike Milbury:

And then there’s Billy Smith against the Oilers in 1983. Watch how Wayne Gretzky goes down …

… and Billy can go down, too …

Smith would have the last laugh that year.



Mass Hanging at Mankato … Remembered

Earlier this month I noted the execution by hanging of 38 Dakota at the culmination of the US-Dakota War. Another 1,600 Dakota were deported from the region after having been imprisoned at Fort Snelling, just outside present-day Minneapolis, and a place where Dred Scott once lived. Much is made of the fact that Abraham Lincoln signed off on the execution of thirty-nine people (the largest mass government execution in US history), while others emphasize the fact that Lincoln reduced the number of people to be executed from 303 to 39 (one individual secured a last-minute reprieve).

Some 150 years later people still dispute the meaning of this event, coming just days before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Ceremonies held at Mankato commemorated the event (you will find a photo gallery here). Other people discussed how to teach the event.

A good case can be made that the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 led to a renewed pledge for white Americans to advance westward (see the Transcontinental Railroad and the Homestead Act, for example), and that while the Republicans wanted such expansion to be devoid of slavery, they well knew that it would also involve battling native Americans resisting such expansion and deporting them elsewhere. However, one must also recall that white southerners were not against such expansion, and neither were northern Democrats such as Stephen A. Douglas. While the Civil War dampened expansionist efforts, it also laid the groundwork for postwar expansion, with the clashes on the frontier intensifying once the federal government could refocus its military efforts.

Sometimes the legacy of the Civil War is a bit more complicated than we might want to believe.

West vs. East: Winning and Losing

Here are a few questions for folks to mull over as we come to the end of another year.

Which theater (East or West) was more important to the outcome of the Civil War?

Did the Union win in the West or was it more a case of the Confederates losing it?

Did the Union win in the East or was it more a case of the Confederates losing it?

What factor best explains the outcome of events in the West and the East?

Note that I’m setting aside the case of the trans-Mississippi West.

Not Skeered … Just Bored

It’s been an interesting week in Confederate heritage fantasy land (hereafter CHFL), with the return of several of our favorite characters. It’s as if these folks ought to get together in a really bad reality TV show that could be picked up by the History Channel.

We’ve had the usual declarations by the usual suspects in CHFL that folks are “skeered” of them; multiple posts seeking to analyze what motivates those evil anti-Confederate heritage bloggers (according to one particularly shrill ranter, it all comes down to “a post-civil rights obsession with “racism” and an overwhelming desire to portray white Southerners, past and present [with a few exceptions] as humanity’s greatest manifestation of evil — violent, inbred, moronic, scum-sucking racists”); and that old (if tired) standby, the “demonizing” of white southerners.  We have the usual commentary on “motives, agenda and character” by someone whose own motives are open to question (but who really cares?), whose agenda appears to be distracting a small readership from her own history of obsessive ranting at many, many people on many, many issues, and whose supposed concentration on character is ironic (although I admit that many of these folks are characters). We’ve had protests that comments are screened as well as the occasional fabricated comment designed to be rejected and in more than a few cases one that has never been actually submitted. How bizarre.

You’ll have to find out for yourself where such comments appear. We know these people are capable of outrage … just not when it comes to their fellow travelers making comments about violence against children. Then they are remarkably confused … and very silent.

I understand that what they claim I believe and what they think motivates me is essential to nourishing their outbursts and sense of victimhood. At some point, however, it’s cruel to enable their self-delusions. I find what I’ve read recently to be sad, even pitiful. Apparently they must believe what they need to believe, because it seems so important to their sense of self. Perhaps it makes them feel better about themselves. Perhaps it is an effort to compensate for something that’s missing in their lives. Whatever it is and what function it serves is best left unexamined.  All I know is that they believe I’m “skeered.” That seems essential to their sense of self.

I’m not “skeered.” I’m bored. Just bored.

At first I found these people amusing as individuals and useful as examples of the mishandling of history by some so-called Confederate heritage advocates (I will now be accused of tainting everyone interested in Confederate heritage, and not just these select individuals, but then we’ve already seen that these particular critics have problems with basic reading comprehension). At some point, however, the jokes, the rants, and the whining become old and stale. These folks have nothing new or interesting to say: they’ve been reduced to complaining when I quote them, as if to repeat their words is unfair in itself. At that point I see their remarks as desperate cries for attention, especially when I’ve ignored them for some time.  However, I don’t see anything new or valuable (or even worthwhile) in what they have been saying, and I’ve decided not to feed the monster when the only possible reason for approving certain comments is to fan a flame war that has no redeeming merit whatsoever … aside from the entertainment value some find in such pathetic attempts at retorts. Such comments have no value as either examples of lines of thought worth exploring or as providing  unintended humor. Thus it is time (some would say long past time) to reassess the value of engagement with such folks.

No doubt these folks will find this frustrating, even upsetting: in one case it looks as if someone’s been itching for a fight for months. Too bad. It’s time for these folks to stew in their own juices. Oh, here and there something they may submit may prove rather useful and revealing (although rarely as they may intend), but I’m not interested in turning over the comments section to them. They can comment on their own blogs. For me, the whole business reminds me of a situation comedy that has gone on a little too long, become all too predictable, and has lost its entertainment value. It’s boring.