Pope, Burnside, Hooker … The Ranking Game

Most histories of the Civil War pass over the names of John Pope, Ambrose Burnside, and Joseph Hooker rather quickly, and primarily as failed army commanders in Virginia. Yet each man must have achieved something in order to be considered for army command, and in all three cases the general enjoyed a rather good relationship with Abraham Lincoln.

Which one do you think was the most competent? The most successful? The most underrated? Why?

If Not Jefferson Davis …. Then Who?

A good number of scholars and other folks have been critical of the performance of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederate States of America. David M. Potter went so far as to suggest that the outcome of the war would have been different had the United States and the Confederacy swapped presidents.

But talk is cheap. Who would have done a better job, and why?

The Assault on Fort Wagner, July 18, 1863

Fort Wagner 02I expect we’ll see a great deal of commentary this week on the events of 150 years ago today, highlighting the efforts of the 54th Massachusetts and its colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, to take Battery/Fort Wagner (we see both) to take this Confederate position. I’m sure many people will make reference to the movie Glory, which awakened many people, it seems, to the notion that African Americans fought for their freedom during the American Civil War: by 1864 one out of every seven Union soldiers was African American, according to some accounts.

There were real pioneers in telling this story, including Luis F. Emilio (who served in the 54th), George Washington Williams, and Dudley Taylor Cornish. They reminded us of the service of the 54th, and both Williams and Cornish reminded us that the 54th was simply one regiment: the black military experience was so much more than that. Sometimes the story of what happened on July 18 is also detached from the larger tale of repeated Union efforts to get at the Confederate defenses around Charleston (contrary to the claims of Glory, the Confederates eventually abandoned Wagner). And there are those folks who like to point out the shortcomings of Glory for various reasons.

To me one of the most interesting dynamics in how this moment in the history of the 54th Massachusetts is portrayed (and we forget that it would fight again) is in the relationship between Shaw and his men and how we in turn view Shaw. I recall that when the movie came out that one reviewer criticized Matthew Broderick’s portrayal of Shaw as too weak: the reviewer preferred a Chamberlain-like rendering. In fact, however, Broderick came close to nailing Shaw, and a slightly different (and more faithful to the historical record) movie would have shown us a Shaw who I find more sympathetic precisely because he wavered and hesitated.

However, the killing of Shaw soon became a centerpiece of images of combat at Fort Wagner. For example, the chaos of battle often looks like this:

Fort Wagner 4

Shaw is nowhere to be found here. Elsewhere, however, he was the center of the piece:

Fort Wagner 3

That evolved after the war into this:

Fort Wagner 6

And by the time it came to the movie, there was this, which I thought was just too much.

No wonder the Shaw Memorial looks like this … because it is the Shaw Memorial:

Shaw memorial

Maybe Shaw’s family had it right after all when they suggested that the best resting place for Shaw was in a burial trench alongside his men, because they were all part of the same enterprise, and there was no reason to elevate Shaw.

Now, there are some recent images that have moved away from focusing on Shaw. One is at the top of the post. Another is here:

Fort Wagner 5

Much more has been written about Shaw and Civil War memory (especially when it comes to the Shaw Memorial); we’ve also often focused on Battery Wagner (as opposed to Port Hudson and Milliken’s Bend) in terms of the impact of the battle on impressions on whether blacks would fight and how would they fight (here the contrast with the New York draft riots becomes obvious), and people have wrestled with the representativeness of the 54th’s experience.

What I’d like to suggest is that those of us who study Civil War memory (and goodness knows how popular that approach has become in the last two decades) recall that memories continue to be made, and someday our memory of past memory is going to come under scrutiny as well. So, while it’s all well and good to remember the events of today and highlight the 54th and Shaw, let’s also remember that the story of the black military experience continued in ways that we need to examine more closely.

Breaking News: Newest Gettysburg “What If …”

What if Robert E. Lee unleashed a sharknado at Gettysburg?

Yes, I went there. No one’s ever suggested this before. I’m waiting for a book that tells us that it was left to Jeb Stuart to launch the sharknado at the right moment on July 3, and that’s why he fired a cannon in four directions … to call the sharknado over. Nothing happened, and we all know the rest of the story (maybe Tom Carhart will tell us more).

Just when you thought there was nothing new to learn about Gettysburg.

The New York City Draft Riots of 1863

riots map


Over the past several days we’ve seen some fine blog posts on the New York City draft riots of 1863. You can find brief treatments here, here, here, and here. More detailed narratives are here (the link goes to events on July 16 and 17, but contains links for previous days); this article looks at some of the participants and victims; here’s a discussion of how black leaders reacted; this essay connects the riots to other riots; for those who didn’t know, the riots nearly took down a pianomaker’s factory and did great damage to Brooks Brothers; you can follow one’ s observer’s comments here; and this blog entry offers a slide show of images of the riots. Nor were the riots limited to New York City, as we learn here.

riots 01These links sample how people sought to treat the event in blogs. I saw no need to cover ground they were covering so well. But it is worthwhile to reflect on the meaning of the riots, then and now.

We all too often look at the Civil War as North vs. South, when in fact there was widespread dissent and opposition to the policies of the United States and the Confederacy. Emancipation and conscription had political consequences. Indeed, as both sides geared up to mobilize resources, resistance escalated as well. Issues of race and slavery were woven throughout those discussions; so were issues of class and gender. As I’ve argued before, you can’t understand the story of the American people at war without heeding those factors. So for people who claim that it’s unfair to portray the Confederate nation as a nation of slaveholders, it’s equally unfair to point to these riots and say that they tell us what white northerners thought and did, although there are those with simple or empty minds who will try to make that argument. One should not forget northern Democrats or white southern unionists when speaking of the Civil War as dividing the nation, and blacks, free and enslaved, North and South, were more than passive pawns on the chessboard of war.

riots 5

As a New Yorker, I was aware of the riots from a fairly early age, in part because my father’s office was located at the southern tip of Manhattan, just south of a group of flames on the map (the Battery). While I understood why many of the rioters rioted, I knew they were wrong, contrary to a rather terrible movie about the event that starred Daniel Day Lewis, among others (like that kid from Growing Pains). It seemed a sad chapter in the city’s history. I think of that whenever I hear certain folks with their fingers pointing try to divert attention from matters closer to home by pointing to the riots as evidence of how white northerners treated blacks. Racism and violence are American traits, but it does not seem to me that pointing that out in any way allows certain people to get off the hook concerning the South, slavery, and secession. After all, if you are saying that white northerners are guilty, too, then you have to admit that the “too” means that white southerners are guilty as well. Nor does it hurt me to remind me as a New Yorker that these bloody days took place in New York. I know that, but I don’t take it personally, because I’m able to separate past from present. I note that many white southerners who are fond of what some call Confederate heritage think that to point out the dark side of the already grey Confederacy is somehow to insult them personally (this, I think, is a major marker of southern distinctiveness: it’s not just about history, it’s about them). The rioters were wrong in what they did, period. They took innocent lives.

riots 6

The draft riots, in short, show how painful change could be in nineteenth century America. When folks travel to Gettysburg, for example, they often stop at the monument erected to the Irish Brigade on the eastern slope of the Stony Hill, drive by Father Corby, or rub Patrick O’Rorke’s nose on Little Round Top. These monuments remind us of what happened on July 2, 1863. Eleven days later other Irish Americans, many of them recent immigrants, and termed “my friends” by New York governor Horatio Seymour, made a different statement, one that reminds us that “the unfinished work” and the “great task remaining before us” involved something more than defeating a rebellion … and, as we know today, that work remains unfinished, and we must again face the challenge posed by “the great task remaining before us,” because it still remains before us.

DiLorenzo on Fleming’s A Disease in the Public Mind

I know some of you will enjoy this.

I’ve read Fleming’s book, which seems a rather curious exercise in the needless war genre of Civil War scholarship. Even then DiLorenzo’s raving review rests upon a rather selective reading of the book, for he’s silent on what Fleming says about slaveholding in the South. But why would anyone expect anything else?

Then again, there’s this. Run, Forrest, run.

What’s in a Name?

Apparently, quite a lot.

Y’all remember all those petitions asking the president to allow this or that state to secede (a request that involved a fundamental misconception of how secession was supposed to work, but never mind)? Well, now we have a petition requesting the president to rename United Sates military installations named after Confederate officers. Click here if you want to learn more or if you want to add your name.

July 14, 1863: Lincoln Chides Meade

Executive Mansion,
Washington, July 14, 1863.
Major General Meade

I have just seen your despatch to Gen. Halleck, asking to be relieved of your command, because of a supposed censure of mine. I am very—very—grateful to you for the magnificient success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg; and I am sorry now to be the author of the slightest pain to you. But I was in such deep distress myself that I could not restrain some expression of it. I had been oppressed nearly ever since the battles at Gettysburg, by what appeared to be evidences that yourself, and Gen. Couch, and Gen. Smith, were not seeking a collision with the enemy, but were trying to get him across the river without another battle. What these evidences were, if you please, I hope to tell you at some time, when we shall both feel better. The case, summarily stated is this. You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg; and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours. He retreated; and you did not, as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him. You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him. And Couch and Smith! The latter left Carlisle in time, upon all ordinary calculation, to have aided you in the last battle at Gettysburg; but he did not arrive. At the end of more than ten days, I believe twelve, under constant urging, he reached Hagerstown from Carlisle, which is not an inch over fiftyfive miles, if so much. And Couch’s movement was very little different.

Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you can take with you very few more than two thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasureably because of it.

I beg you will not consider this a prossecution, or persecution of yourself. As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I have thought it best to kindly tell you why.

(taken from here; for the original, look here)

Although Lincoln never sent this letter, it reflects his state of mind when he learned that Meade had failed to attack Lee at Williamsport.

George G. Meade will always be second-guessed for his performance between July 3 and July 13, 1863. He has his defenders and detractors. But what most people overlook is how Lincoln’s impression of Meade (and Meade’s impression of Lincoln) developed over that period. It never became a bond of respect or trust.

Some of that is due to Lincoln. It appears that Lincoln took the assessments of Herman Haupt and Dan Sickles (who was even then spinning a tall tale) at face value. That meant he saw Meade as cautious and cut from McClellan cloth. In turn that meant that he was primed to read Meade’s congratulatory order, with his phrase about “driving the enemy from our soil,” as he did (although one will recall that one of the reasons Lincoln supposedly named Meade to command the Army of the Potomac was because Pennsylvania was Meade’s soil).

A little of this is due to Meade, whose wording on the order was injudicious. Meade was well aware of Lincoln’s tendency to insert himself in command matters, and he had seen it firsthand that spring during the president’s visits to the Army of the Potomac. A little more caution in one’s choice of words might have been wise.

A great deal of this is due to intermediaries. Sickles’s purpose was obvious: he played the role first performed by Hooker after Antietam. Haupt’s skills were impressive, but it seems he was becoming expert at being an armchair general. aaaaand then there’s Henry W. Halleck. On July 7, as Gideon Welles tells us, Lincoln met with Halleck in an effort to spur Meade into action; Halleck snapped back to the effect that he did not agree … but then prodded Meade, anyway, in two telegrams, the second of which conveyed the news that Lincoln was “urgent and anxious.” In response Meade tried to moderate expectations and informed Halleck that the general in chief was operating on bad intelligence. Halleck took the hint and on July 10 advised Meade to await reinforcements before he attacked.

On July 14 Halleck informed Meade of Lincoln’s “great dissatisfaction” at the news that Lee had recrossed the Potomac. Meade responded by asking to be relieved.  Halleck backed away and said that Meade should take his message as encouragement and not a reprimand.

In short, Halleck defended Meade to Lincoln, then fed Meade news about Lincoln’s dissatisfaction … which left Meade wondering what Lincoln wanted him to do. Lincoln seems to have believed that anyone (including himself) could have launched an attack that would have succeeded in destroying Lee and bringing the war to an end, and that the reason this had not happen lay somewhere in the collective mind of the officer corps of the Army of the Potomac not to fight as hard as one might to preserve the chances for an easy peace (a sentiment reinforced by Welles).

Much is made of the fact that Lincoln chose not to send this letter to Meade, but it would not have surprised Meade had he read it, given Halleck’s messages.

Someday folks are going to have to understand that, whatever one makes of the commanders of the Army of the Potomac, it wasn’t all about them.


The President Writes a Letter: “You were Right, and I was Wrong.”

Executive Mansion,
Washington, July 13, 1863.
Major General Grant
        My dear General

        I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did—march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you got below, and took Port-Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.

        Yours very truly

                  A. Lincoln

(text from here; see the original here)

This may be one of the most interesting letters Abraham Lincoln ever wrote. His assertion that he did not have much faith in Grant’s initial attempts to take Vicksburg in 1863 is telling, because Grant undertook many of those efforts in an attempt to appease the president, who, he had been informed, was interested in canal-digging enterprises and the like. Indeed, it was the president and administration officials who dispatched “observers” Charles A. Dana and Lorenzo Thomas out west to see what was going on in Grant’s command and to see firsthand what the general might be up to. Surely if Lincoln fancied himself familiar with the area under discussion he knew that Grant would have to await the coming of spring and dry land to move as he did.

The letter also reveals the risk Grant was taking in deciding not to send forces to Nathaniel Banks in May 1863. Grant’s decision to invade the Mississippi interior was a choice with career consequences, and one that he undertook without awaiting orders.

Left unmentioned, of course, is Lincoln’s willingness to entertain the complaints of John A. McClernand as Grant’s corps commander intrigued to displace his superior … or Lincoln’s role in creating that friction in the first place. We might keep all of that in mind when we consider another product of the president’s pen tomorrow.