Post 4/15 Minus “Martyr Goggles”

19 04 2015

LincolnApotheosisYes, I realize the standard line is that Lincoln’s death doomed the prospects for peaceful reconstruction. However, the transformation of AL’s memory clouds the issue. His universal popularity was post-assassination. Had he lived, real challenges – a less than friendly and vengeful Congress and his conflicting (mutually exclusive?) goals of a soft policy towards former Confederates and enfranchisement of freedmen – lay ahead. And with the profound goal of military victory gone, likely to be replaced with similarly unifying feelings of mourning and blame-laying, a living AL may have had a tough row to hoe.

In other words, I have my doubts.

While a spotty viewing of the talking heads crowding the C-Span airwaves over the past few days indicate some slight revision to the long accepted story of Lincoln’s death robbing the south of its “best friend”, I think some confuse the reality of what happened under the watch of Andrew Johnson (who at the start was viewed by the Radicals as more of an ally than Lincoln) with the likelihood of what may have happened under that of Lincoln.

Larry Tagg, in The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln (see interview here), does a fine job of viewing Lincoln in real-time, and shows that he was far from the most popular man in America as described by Sally Field’s Mary Todd in the film Lincoln, even after Lee’s surrender. To save my weary fingers, Mr. Tagg graciously provided me with a transcript of his Epilogue, The Sudden Saint. Here’s a sample (pp 462-463):

Even men who loathed Lincoln knew they must yield to his sudden sainthood. “This murder, this oozing blood, almost sanctify Lincoln,” wrote Count Gurowski on the day he died. “His end atones for all the short-comings for which he was blamed and condemned by earnest and unyielding patriots. . . . [W]hatever sacrifices his vacillations may have cost the people, those vacillations will now be forgiven. . . The murderer’s bullet opens to him immortality.” Radical Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa, who had regarded Lincoln as “a disgrace,” glumly predicted on the day after the assassination, “Mr. Lincoln is to be hereafter regarded as a saint. All his foibles, and faults, and shortcomings, will be forgotten, and he will be looked upon as the Moses who led the nation through a four years’ bloody war, and died in sight of peace.” A journalist lamented, “It has made it impossible to speak the truth of Abraham Lincoln hereafter.”

Radical Lincoln-haters wasted no time in convening. On the afternoon of April 15, as shock mixed with grief in the North, they gathered in Washington only hours after Lincoln’s death. There, they rejoiced. “While everybody was shocked at his murder, the feeling was universal that [it] would prove a godsend to the country,” wrote George Julian, who was there. “I . . . have not in a long time heard so much profanity,” he wrote. “It became intolerably disgusting. Their hostility towards Lincoln’s policy of conciliation and contempt for his weakness were undisguised.”

Zachary Chandler, who was also there, wrote his wife, “I believe that the Almighty continued Mr. Lincoln in office as long as he was useful and then substituted a better man [Andrew Johnson] to finish the work.” Ben Wade, Henry Winter Davis, and the others present agreed, of course, as did Radicals everywhere. Oliver Wendell Holmes, when he heard the news in Boston, judged that “more than likely Lincoln was not the best man for the work of reconstruction.” Wendell Phillips assured his listeners in a memorial speech at Tremont Temple the next week, “God has graciously withheld from him any fatal misstep in the great advance, and withdrawn him at the moment when his star touched its zenith, and the nation needed a sterner hand for the work God gives it to do.”

The rightness or wrongness of these opinions is irrelevant. Keep in mind that these are not the opinions of defeated and vengeful Confederates. These are the powerful Union men, relatively more powerful in peace than in war, with whom Lincoln would have to deal for the next four years.

A tough row to hoe.





Homeboys at Ford’s Theater, 4/14/65

15 04 2015

Check out this interesting post about four soldiers from the vicinity of my hometown, McKeesport, PA, who were pressed into duty on the fateful evening of April 14, 1865. Note that they were artillerymen, not infantrymen, however (Independent Battery C, Pennsylvania Light Artillery.)

And yes, the men were represented by reenactor proxy at the memorial events yesterday in Washington. Friend and blogger Ron Baumgarten of All Not So Quiet on the Potomac took this picture of three of them:

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Preview: Wittenberg – The Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads

8 04 2015

MONROEJacket_lgI received a few new Savas-Beatie releases, three in the Emerging Civil War series and a paperback reprint of Eric Wittenberg’s The Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads and the Civil War’s Final Campaign. Unlike Savas-Beatie sesquicentennial editions of previously published works, this is a straight reprint to paperback. So if you weren’t fortunate enough to purchase a hardcover edition (now sold out), here’s your chance to get the full contents in a format that can be tossed in your backpack if you’re lucky enough to find yourself on the battlefield (it lies within the confines of Ft. Bragg and is very tough to be granted access. I was lucky enough to tour the field with the author a few years ago.)

Touring Monroe's Crossroads, 2005

Touring Monroe’s Crossroads, 2005





150 Years Ago Today

2 04 2015

1506594_10202031686936001_8118502619450450512_nOn this day 150 years ago, my great-grandfather Pvt. John B. Smeltzer stepped off with his comrades of Co. C, 205th PA Volunteer Infantry, in their assault on Battery 30, part of the defenses of Petersburg near Ft. Mahone. John, of Hopewell Township, Bedford County, had enlisted on August 24th, 1864 at the age of 18 years 8 months, and served until mustered out with his regiment at Alexandria, VA, on June 2nd, 1865. He was wounded in the leg during the assault. After the war he was employed as a coal miner and steelworker, married Hannah Virginia Gates, and fathered 8 children including my grandfather, Harry Gates Smeltzer. He lived variously in Bedford County, McKeesport in Allegheny County, PA, and for 6 months at the Soldiers’ Home in Dayton, OH, before returning to Hopewell where he died on Sept. 22, 1923, at the age of 77. He is buried in St. Paul’s Cemetery in Yellow Creek, Bedford County, PA, next to his granddaughter Pauline.

Update: Friend and Sesquicentennial tourist extraordinaire Craig Swain took this photo of the site of Battery 30 today:

Site of Battery 30, Petersburg, VA, 04/02/2015.

Site of Battery 30, Petersburg, VA, 04/02/2015.

Apparently, (and according to Craig who also took these snaps) great-grandpa had to charge past the dumpster by the Pizza Hut,

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and through the playground,

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to take that flower bed.

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Interview With Dr. Joseph L. Harsh

28 03 2015

Joe2Click here for the transcript of an interview with Dr. Harsh that appeared in a 1995 issue of Civil War magazine. Hat tip to Drew Wagenhoffer. Good stuff and, if you’re amenable, thought-provoking. If you know all there is to know, and are just looking for confirmation of same, don’t click.

When you’re done, click here for an  old old post regarding the influence of Dr. Harsh’s scholarship on interpretation at Antietam National Battlefield. Be sure to read the comments.





Review: Rafuse (Ed.) “Corps Commanders in Blue”

26 03 2015

My review of Corps Commanders in Blue, written for Civil War Times, is running in the digital version of the June 2015 issue. For whatever reason, the review was reduced in length. As I believe this book was one of the best of 2014, I’m posting the full version below.

517bM0P30PL._SL500_AA300_Corps Commanders in Blue: Union Major Generals in the Civil War, Ethan S. Rafuse, Editor

Sometimes, too much familiarity with how “modern” armies operate can be a hindrance when studying those that operated under more primitive circumstances. Such is the case with the armies of the American Civil War. At some levels, strict obedience of orders was required. At others, limitations of distance and communications required subordinates to exercise much broader discretion than that with which we have become accustomed. Outside of army chief, at no level was an officer’s initiative and ability to exercise prudent discretion more desired and expected than at that of corps command. As such, the men who held these positions present a unique study opportunity, one seldom specifically explored. In Corps Commanders in Blue, editor Ethan Rafuse has called in eight prominent Civil War historians, including himself, and put together an equal number of case studies of Union Corps commanders, most familiar, and some less so.

John Hennessy starts things off with a very strong, and balanced, look at the Army of the Potomac’s controversial Fitz-John Porter, one ultimately critical of the “too superficial” conclusion that Porter was “ruined by his devotion to [George B.] McClellan.” Instead, it was his commitment to a conservative war policy – one that the Lincoln administration officially, at least, endorsed – that put Porter out of favor with the powers-that-were. Thomas Clemens gives a flesh-out of a relatively shadowy Joseph K. F. Mansfield, whose long antebellum army career could not overcome the “leadership and combat-experience problems” that pre-existed his late arrival to the Army of the Potomac’s 12th Corps prior to the Battle of Antietam. If Mansfield is shadowy, the subject of Kenneth Noe’s essay, Charles C. Gilbert, is a virtual unknown to many. His assignment to the command of the Third Corps of Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio was the result of a process of elimination of other candidates based on Buell’s personal and political considerations, and Gilbert’s experience in that role through the Battle of Perrysville was “a textbook case of how not to direct a corps.” In what may be the collection’s centerpiece essay, Christopher Stowe profiles George G. Meade in his role as commander of the Army of the Potomac’s 5th Corps. Stowe sets Meade’s record as corps commander straight, as an aggressive leader, as one who was held in high regard by peers and superiors, and as one who was clearly considered a leading alternative to Joseph Hooker as chief of the Army of the Potomac prior to Meade’s promotion to that post. Recent publications notwithstanding, Stowe notes that “[t]hroughout his career, Meade viewed himself not as a policymaker but as a public servant beholden to obey orders regardless of his personal feelings or impulses.”

While the first four essays cover their subjects’ entire careers in corps command, the last four examine specific periods of longer lengths of service in that role. Stephen Woodworth’s coverage of James B. McPherson in the Vicksburg Campaign, and Mark Snell’s of William B. Franklin in the Trans-Mississippi perhaps got a little side-tracked in the weeds of the details of the respective campaigns. Ultimately, McPherson’s “remarkably limited amount of experience” in the campaign “did not subject him to the most severe of tests.” Franklin appears to have performed as well as could be expected despite the highly dysfunctional command structure with which he had to deal. Ethan Rafuse’s sketch of Joseph Hooker’s stint in command of the 20th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland in 1864 reveals a competent, effective commander doomed by his inability to play well with others including Grant and Sherman, and by conniving anglers like John Schofield. Brooks Simpson’s essay on Winfield Scott Hancock’s command of the Army of the Potomac’s 2nd Corps in the Overland Campaign is a focused look at how “The Superb” performed those tasks peculiar to running and fighting a corps. While Hancock’s multi-layered command role at Gettysburg may be more well known, the author with good reason argues that the 1864 campaign is a better barometer of his performance strictly as a corps chief. In the course of a year, the nature of the fighting in Virginia had changed significantly. Those changes, along with failing health, limited Hancock in the use of the tactical skills and inspirational leadership for which he was best known.

Corps Commanders in Blue is an important contribution to the study of command in the American Civil War. Hopefully readers will be seeing more along this line coming soon.





Lil’ Help – Lincoln

25 03 2015

lincoln-sailorsI’ve determined to start a Resources category on soldier references to Abraham Lincoln. That is, references in the letters and diaries of officers and men of McDowell’s army written before and after First Bull Run, in an effort to examine how their views of POTUS evolved during this time. So, if you have or are aware of any soldier letters or diaries that reference the President from, say, June of 1861 through to the end of August 1861, please send me a note. The best way to do that is through the comments feature of this post. Thanks in advance for your help!








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