Good Blogs with Good Stuff

30 09 2007


Brian Downey at Behind Antietam on the Web has a great post on Antietam personality John Moulder Wilson.  The post features an 1862 Gardner Gibson (thanks Brian) photo that is part of my round table program.  At First Bull Run, Wilson was a lieutenant in Capt. Carlisle’s Battery E, 2nd US, which was attached to Schenck’s brigade of Tyler’s division.  At least, I think he was.  Brian’s post is a good illustration of why we must be careful to nail these IDs down and not take or make them at face value.  He does some great detective work, and I don’t say that just because he points out some shoddy scholarship by – and a resulting faulty conclusion of – a notorious chronicler of the Battle of Antietam.

Jennie Jenny Goellnitz of Draw the Sword weighed in on my post on History as Narrative.  She has some interesting thoughts on the subject which are worth a look.  However, I should clarify that my point was not so much that the narrative form is deficient in its ability to convey what it was like to be present at a historical event, but rather that the form itself creates an orderly story which may be, and is quite likely, very different from what really happened.  That can be, and is quite likely, true even when the narrative is of the highest quality.

History as Narrative

29 09 2007


kennoe.jpgHow accurate really is what we write?  Are historians’ minds too orderly?  Do we instinctively tidy up the chaos for the sake of a clear narrative that moves easily from point A to point B?  In so doing, do we not distort the reality of the battle, inserting a ‘sensible pattern’ that never existed?  Does the omniscient narrative voice actually obscure the reality of the battle experience?  If it does, how can we produce a readable account that catches the fear, the confusion, the chance, and the sick smell?  In short, can we ever grasp, much less communicate, the truth of what it was like to be there? – Ken Noe, Jigsaw Puzzles, Mosaics, and Civil War Battle Narratives, Civil War History Vol.53, #3

ellroy.jpgMass market nostalgia gets you hopped up for a past that never existed.  Hagiography sanctifies shuck-and-jive politicians and reinvents their expedient gestures as moments of great moral weight.  Our continuing narrative line is blurred past truth and hindsight.  Only a reckless verisimilitude can set that line straight – James Ellroy, American Tabloid

johnhuston.jpgMaybe this isn’t the way it was, but it’s the way it should have been – John Huston (Director), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

I’ve been struggling with this post ever since I read the essays on military history in the most recent issue of Civil War History (see here), but the trouble in my noggin has been brewing for a long time.  In a Carlos Castaneda magic mushroom kind of way, I’ve been having problems with my perception of reality, at least in my reading.  The three quotes above beg the question: is the ordering and analysis of events in a narrative form clarifying history, or simply creating another fiction, a past that never existed as Noe and Ellroy say, the telling of a story the way it should have been as suggested at the beginning of Huston’s movie?  While the problems with the narrative form may be particularly severe in the case of chaotic events like military conflict, they are certainly not exclusive to those events.  The same can be said of gender and race studies, biographies, political analysis – of history in general.

Every narrative needs a narrator.  And therein lies a problem.  The order of events, their significance, their codependencies, are all ultimately determined by the writers.  Those analyses and presentations are the result of some historical methodology, sometimes good, other times not so good.  But regardless of the method, the fact that the result is simply an individual’s intepretation of what happened and of its significance can’t be denied.  We need to put events in an order that connects them in an understandable way – that’s how our brains work.  The process consists of picking and choosing, by evaluating relevance, from piles of facts, events, and opinions.  But it also consists of arranging the chosen bits to produce a story.

I think the process is surely history.  And as history, the narative produced can surely be judged qualitatively.  But, is history what happened?  Do or would participants in historical events recognize these narratives as representative of their personal experiences?  Are these stories the best way, or the only way, to understand these events?  Can web projects, perhaps, be something more than alternatives to traditional print narratives: can they somehow be more illustrative of the fragmented, chaotic nature of events, military or otherwise, and so provide a better understanding of what happened than traditional narrative?

Anyway, these are some of the things that have been bouncing around in my head lately.  I can’t say everything is fully formed.  If you have any thoughts along similar lines, or if you think I’m off my rocker, leave a comment.

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Sherman’s Battery Had Some Kinda Juice!

27 09 2007


While at UNC’s Wilson library last week I copied Charles Frederick Fisher: A Contribution to the History of the First Battle of Manassas and How it Was Won, an address delivered at the Presbyterian College for Women in Charlotte, NC in 1901 by Hon. John Steele Henderson upon the presentation of a portrait of the 6th NC’s Bull Run martyr to Richmond’s Confederate Museum’s North Carolina Room.

twsherman2.jpgAs discussed here and here (be sure to read the comments), the renown of Battery E, 3rd US, commonly known as Sherman’s Battery for its service in Mexico under Thomas W. “Tim” Sherman (at left), was such that soldiers on both sides claimed to have supported, assaulted, or even captured it at various points at First Bull Run, despite the fact that it never crossed from the east side of Bull Run and in fact only lost some of its horses and a forge during the retreat on July 21st, 1861.  Letters quoted in Henderson’s address further illustrate the notoriety of the battery that day.

As described in what Henderson simply identified as “another” letter by Captain James A. Craige, Co. G, 6th NC (he would later become Lt. Col of the regiment), the men of the 6th charged upon and took the guns belonging to the celebrated Sherman Battery (i.e. Ricketts’) and considering the fearful odds against them, and the dangers of the exploit, the wonder is not that they suffered so much but so little.  Here, Battery I, 1st US has taken on the identity of Sherman’s Battery.  The irony of Ricketts’ Battery’s position on the field (at the point described by Craige, Henry House Hill) is that this battery is the one in which young Lieutenant Thomas Jackson served in Mexico, and in whose service he won his brevet.  Jackson and his line faced off against Ricketts’ guns.  Hat tip to friend Tom Clemens, who wonders if Jackson was aware of the battery’s identity during the fight (I think probably) and if he felt any twinge of guilt at its casualties or recognized any of the men (I think probably not).  Ol’ Blue Light was a black flagger.  Remember, he didn’t want the enemy brave – he wanted them dead.

Captain John M. Ramsay was quoted from a letter written within a week of the battle: onward, onward they [6th NC] went and arrived at the crisis of the afternoon, and poured a destructive volley into the batteries of Sherman and Ricketts, killing many of the men and most of the horses.  In this case, it is Griffin’s West Point Battery, D of the 5th, that is misidentified as Sherman’s Battery.

Eyewitness accounts.  You gotta love ‘em.

Kingsbury CDVs

26 09 2007


New e-quaintance Scott Hann, collector extraordinaire of Antietam officer images, graciously granted permission to publish the below carte-de-visites (CDVs) of McDowell aide Henry Walter Kingsbury.  On the left is Kingsbury as 1st LT with the 5th US Artillery.  Center is a previously unpublished photo of cadet Kingsbury, made in his home state of Connecticut as seen on the obverse on the right.  Click on the thumbs for the full size image.

Thanks, Scott!

 kingsbury-cdv-1.jpg kingsbury-cdv-2.jpg kingsbury-cdv-2b.jpg

Rufus Barringer Civil War Round Table

23 09 2007


I spent the last few days in the great state of North Carolina, and was treated to a wonderful time by my hosts.  On Thursday I flew into Raleigh-Durham airport where I was met by friend Teej Smith, Civil War author and researcher and the program director for the Rufus Barringer Civil War Round Table in Pinehurst.  Awhile back Teej invited me to speak to the group, and that invitation led to starting this blog, so for that alone I’m indebted to her.

Our first stop was Chapel Hill, home of Teej’s alma mater, the University of North Carolina.  On the mall I caught a glimpse of (James Johnston) Pettigrew Hall and the ubiquitous “Reb of Freedom”.  I got my souvenir shopping done in the student bookstore and we bought some coffee and sat in the infamous “Pit”, home to young, healthy, attractive, smart and/or well-to-do 18-22 year olds with a seemingly unlimited supply of things to be pissed-off about.  A great place to sit and watch.


Next up was the Wilson Library (below), where the special North Carolina collections are housed.  We were graciously led into the curator’s office to take a look at former valedictorian Pettigrew’s portrait (below – this photo is driving me to purchase a digital SLR), and with Teej’s help I was able to get a copy of an address given at the presentation of a portrait of Colonel Fisher of the 6th NC, killed at First Bull Run.  Lots of good stuff in it, but it will require separation of wheat from chaff.


After that we got a bite to eat at The Four Corners restaurant; then we drove to Pinehurst to get ready for the program, which kicked off at 7:00.  A nice group of about 30 were in attendance at the Southern Pines Civic Center, and I did my thing from 7:30 until about 8:45.  Everyone seemed interested, and I didn’t hear any crickets.  Only one question was asked at the end, though several folks came up afterwards to speak with me, one of them a cousin of the voice of my Pittsburgh Steelers, play-by-play man Bill Hillgrove.  Thanks to Teej and president Al Potts for a very nice time.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I was off my game.  I didn’t think my transitions between stories were particularly smooth, and I had to pause for a few seconds once or twice to find information in my notes (my presentaiton is not a prepared speech, but there are quite a few quotes I use).  Maybe I was tired from the flight and all, I don’t know.  But I did get further along than last time, and am considering eliminating the battle recap completely from the presentation.  Teej suggested I provide handouts such as the campaign maps: people love to have something they can hold in their hands and look at.  I think she’s right about that.

On Friday we paid a visit to the Malcolm Blue farm (below), where BG Judson Kilpatrick spent the night before the little fight at Monroe’s Crossroads.  We spent some time organizing Teej’s library, which is very impressive in quantity and quality.  We went to lunch in Pinehurst (in the village, near Pinehurst #2), then Teej drove me to Cary where I met up with my in-laws, with whom I stayed Friday night.  I got back home on Saturday in time to see my Nittany Lions fall to the hated maize and blue.  A bad end to an otherwise great trip.

I don’t have another speaking gig set up until March in Columbus, OH. I’ll continue to fine-tune the program, and as always if you’re interested in booking me you can do so via this site.  I have no qualms about speaking to round tables: I don’t anticipate making a living or even a profit from it, and do it only because I enjoy it and because someone asks.  I’ll stop whenever either of those things changes.

Rafuse: McClellan in the Maryland Campaign

19 09 2007

Just in case you’re wondering, this blog is ostensibly about the campaign and battle of First Bull Run.  I’m sure that may come as a surprise to some of the unusually large number of readers who have visited here over the past few days, what with all this Antietam talk.  But I promised fellow blogger Dmitri that I would post a recap of the talk given by Ethan Rafuse this past Saturday evening (Sept. 15) in the ANB visitor’s center on George McClellan in the Maryland Campaign.  While what follows are Rafuse’s views, I can’t say that they vary greatly from my own on this subject.

Rafuse recapped McClellan’s career up to his critical 35th year and the circumstances surrounding his taking command of the combined forces of the Army of the Potomac, Army of Virginia, and the Kanawah Division on Sept 2, 1862, pointing out that he did not have the support of the War Dept. in his appointment and that half of his new command consisted of soldiers with whom he had no previous experience.  His new army also included dozens of raw, untrained regiments.

McClellan was authorized to take field command of the army on Sept. 5.  He promptly recommended abandoning Harper’s Ferry and releasing the garrison to play a more threatening role as Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia made its way across Maryland.  Not only did Commanding General Henry Halleck deny this request, he admonished McClellan to move more slowly.

Rafuse recounted the movement of the AotP toward Frederick, and the finding of Lee’s Special Orders 191.  He summarized the steps taken by McClellan in the wake of the discovery, arguing that there was little unnecessary delay.  While SO 191 and the situation at Harper’s Ferry indicated that the enemy army was divided, this information needed to be confirmed.  [One of my few complaints with McClellan’s War is that it did not seem to consider recent scholarship that indicates the famous “will send trophies” telegram was not sent by McClellan until midnight on the evening of the 13th as opposed to noon the same day.  I was going to ask Ethan about this later, but decided against it.]  He also alluded to the poor performance of J.E.B. Stuart during the campaign, something I’ve argued elsewhere though I’m surely not the originator of the notion.

After the fighting at the gaps of South Mountain (Rafuse pointed out the great risks involved in negotiating mountain passes), Rafuse faulted Franklin and Burnside for failing to act with celerity on the 15th.  As a result, when Mac arrived at Keedysville on the 15th, he had only 2 divisions with him.  The day and evening of the 15th was spent consolidating his forces.

Fog obscured the battlefield on the Sharpsburg side of the Antietam on the morning of the 16th, therefore a recon could not be performed until later in the day.

Rafuse asserted [rightly, I think] that the best place for McClellan’s HQ given the wide front over which his army was to attack was indeed the Pry House.  He also dispelled the annoyingly persistent idea that McClellan never left his HQ, and described his foray to the East Woods in the afternoon of the 17th.  He argued that, while Mac’s decision not to launch an attack in the center may have been a bad one in retrospect, it was probably a good one based on what was known at the time.  I was glad to hear him say that there was little that happened on the 17th to indicate that Lee’s army was inferior in size and close to being beaten.

Consultation with his generals convinced McClellan not to renew the attack on the 17th.  He fell ill on the 18th, and while he issued orders to renew the conflict on the 19th, Lee’s army had already withdrawn.

In summary, McClellan had taken a beaten, disorganized, and partly inexperienced army, and used it to conduct a campaign that ended the best chance Lee’s veteran, victorious forces had to win a great victory.

Rafuse also pointed out the different circumstances under which the Union and Confederacy operated.  Lee and his army needed to win a victory north of the Potomac – time was the enemy.  Not so for McClellan, except where Lincoln was concerned.  And here was the problem: Mac wanted to ultimately grind the Confederacy down.  After Antietam, he wanted to return to the line of the James, the same line that would be revisited by Grant in 1864 and which would lead to ultimate Union victory.  But the James was the last place Lincoln wanted his army to go.  The James meant a siege, and “sieges were boring”.  After Antietam, either McClellan or Lincoln had to go.  They could not work together, and Lincoln was not going anywhere.

I think I have fairly represented Ethan Rafuse’s presentation here.  Hopefully those in attendance left with some food for thought.

Coming Up

18 09 2007


I’m posting these few things mostly as a reminder to myself.  Over the next few days, here’s what will be happening at Bull Runnings:

I’ll post a recap of Ethan Rafuse’s talk on McClellan at Antietam tomorrow;

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Ken Noe essay in Civil War History I discussed here.  I think I’ve kinda sorta figured out what I want to say.  This has caused much consternation, and I don’t want to post something just because I said I would.  I’ll get it done, but I want to do it right.  I’ll discuss the other two essays by Carol Reardon and George Rable after that;

I’m going to change the way the pages work for the ORs.  On this blog, I can write Posts or Pages.  Posts show up here chronologically.  Pages are listed over to the right.  As there are more than 100 ORs for Bull Run, not to mention the correspondence I intend to put up here, the sidebar is gonna get mighty crowded so I think it’s best to enter all of them as posts and link to the posts via a page.  Over to the right then you will only see summary pages for the ORs, which will then have links to all the ORs that appeared as posts.  So, I’ll have to post those ORs I’ve already written as pages.  I haven’t decided yet whether I should do this all at once or gradually.  But things should be cleaner this way;

I have a speaking engagement at the Rufus Barringer Civil War Roundtable in Pinehurst, NC this Thursday, Sept. 20.  On Friday, my friend Teej Smith will take me to the research libraries at Duke and UNC, and I’ll fly back home on Saturday.  I’ll have a summary of the trip up by next Monday.