Capt. Hugh R. Miller, Co. G, 2nd Mississippi Infantry, On the Battle

8 07 2015

THE GREAT BATTLE OF MANASSAS.

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Report of Capt. Hugh R. Miller

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Hon. W. S. Bates:

It was due to the friends of the “Pontotoc minute men” that I should give them some account of the part performed by us on the 21st of July in the battle of Manassas; but this duty is now rendered doubly incumbent, by certain grossly erroneous statements recently published in the Examiner, purporting to give an account of our conduct on that memorable day. Justice to the men, as well as to the officers, demands that those statements shall be corrected.

We were led into battle by General Bee early in the morning. We went upon the field with 68 men, rank and file, with all the commissioned and non-commissioned officers at their posts – a larger number than any other company in the regiment turned out that day.

As we approached the enemy’s front, and neared the point where we were formed into line-of-battle Col. Falkner was detached with three companies, (not seven) to-wit; the Tishomingo Rifles, I-u-ka Rifles and Town Creek Rifles, about two hundred yards from the other seven companies of the regiment. The object was to endeavor to silence, or force back a battery of the enemy with these three companies, and succeeding or failing in this, that they should unite with the body of the regiment.

The other seven companies, including our own, were led up by Gen. Bee and formed on the side of a fence inclosing a corn field in our front, through which the enemy were advancing. – We were ordered by Gen. Bee, who posted us, to lie down behind the fence and to await the approach of the enemy – throwing down the fence so as not to obstruct our fire or advance, if it became advisable. The seven companies were thus posted – the 4th Alabama regiment being on our right, and about 300 yards in advance of our position, on the hill-side, and in the open cornfield. After we had formed thus behind the fence, the O’Conner Rifles, Captain Buchanan, who were on our left, were ordered forward by General Bee as skirmishers. They deployed in the open field in our front, abreast with the line of the 4th Alabama regiment, and became immediately engaged in a brisk fire with the enemy, which they [kept?] up, until compelled by overwhelming numbers, to rally upon the companies remaining at the fence, bringing one of their men badly wounded. They came down and formed on our right.

In the meantime an incessant fire had been kept up between the 4th Alabama and the enemy. From the time we had been posted at the fence, the enemy had been throwing shot and shell about 30 feet over our heads, cutting trees and limbs that fell amongst us. Having discovered the error in their aim, they gradually lowered the range of their guns until their shot and shell passed immediately over our heads and about us. At last a shell fell about 20 paces in front of the left of our company, scattering fragments and dust in every direction. At this moment all the companies of our regiment, posted at the fence, except the Pontotoc Minute Men and the Cherry Creek Rifles, (the O’Conner Rifles being still engaged in skirmishing in our front) sprang to their feet and retreated across the woods in our rear. Three men on the left of my company rose to their feet, supposing from the movement of the other companies that there was an order to retreat. None of them “fled” or moved a pace. Seeing the movement of the others I instantly sprang to my feet and said, “down men, stand to your posts, there is no order to retreat”. I was instantly obeyed and those who had risen to their feet, every men remaining at his post; although, by this time, the minie balls, as well as shot and shell, from the artillery, rained thick around us. No other officer of my company gave any command whatever – none was necessary. What Lieut. Fontaine may have done by “calls” and “signals” to those of other companies who “fled”, I know not – I heard nothing of it then, or since, until I saw the publication in the Examiner. It is due to the Cherry Creek Rifles to say that they did not partake of the panic, and did not leave their post, but the few of them who had arisen to their feet promptly assumed their original position, Capt Herring expressing his concurrence with me that there had been given no order to retreat.

It is proper to remark that this was the first occasion on which my men had been subjected to the fire of the enemy, and nothing occurred during that terrible day, that inspired me with such a high degree of confidence in their firmness and bravery, and in their readiness to obey my commands in the midst of peril, as the promptness with which they obeyed my orders and remained at their posts. They did not fly, or need to be rallied; but remained at their post with unblanched cheeks, until they were ordered to change position by the officer in command of them.

The 4th Alabama regiment, after withstanding a heavy fire for about half an hour, was compelled to file to the right to avoid being outflanked by vastly superior numbers, and retreated in good order far to our right, leaving only our three companies to face an advancing column of from three to five thousand men supported by artillery. As they advanced over the hill we fired a few rounds and retired though the wood in our rear. Here, as at all times during the day it was the constant aim and effort to Lieut. Palmer and myself, as previously agreed upon in conference, to keep our company together – compact. And in retiring across the wood, they did preserve good order – the O’Conner and Cherry Creek Rifles leaving us far in their rear. As we approached an open field in the rear of the wood, and after we were without the range of the enemy’s shot, I commanded “halt – about face – right dress,” all of which was promptly done; and to compose and reassure the men, as much as to secure good order when we advanced into the open field, I caused the company to tell off by twos. All this was done by my command, and not by the command of Lieut. Fontaine or any one else. It was not necessary for me to “come up;” I was all the time up, and immediately with the company, and so was my second in command, Lieut. Palmer.

We then filed by the right flank into the open field, passing down a hillside to a small creek, or “run” as they are called here, until we came up with the O’Conner and Cherry Creek Rifles. – We now discovered a large body of the enemy coming over the ridge in our rear and to the right of the line over which we had just passed. Our three companies immediately crossed the run and formed fronting the enemy. We could not retreat up the opposite hill-side without being under the fire of the enemy for several hundred yards. The enemy had fired a few shots at us, and had wounded one of Capt. Herring’s men. After a moments conference with Capts. Buchanan and Herring, we determined to form our men in the channel of the creek, and if forced to do so to retreat down the channel. The command was immediately given, and the men sprang into the water – the banks affording a fine breastwork and protection.

We opened fire upon the enemy within good musket range, and the dead bodies found upon the hillside afterwards, attest the effect of our shots. – The enemy were advancing in column of division, and immediately in the rear of the regiment nearest to us, another loomed up over the ridge with a flaunting flag of stars and stripes. – They were in full United States uniform, and there was no reason whatever, from their appearance and position, to doubt that they were the enemy; yet a silly clamor was raised by some as to whether they were friends or enemies. This was silenced by the command to form in this creek and to fire upon them.

To our surprise and gratification the regiment in advance, fell back under our fire up the hill out of the range of our guns, uniting with the regiment in their rear. This afforded us an opportunity to avoid being swallowed up by overwhelming numbers, and we retired across the ridge in our rear. Here we became separated from the O’Conner and the Cherry Creek Rifles, and did not see the latter company again during the day.

We retired across the ridge and through a skirt of woods to the [south?] side of the Warrenton road, where we met with Gen. Bee, who inquired of me for Col. Falkner; I replied that I had not seen, or been able to find him, or the regiment, since we were posted in the morning, and that I desired orders. Gen. Bee immediately led us forward near a house, known as Robinson’s – a free negro – and posted us on the hill-side on the right of a Virginia regiment, and passed on to the house on the top of the hill. In a few moments he returned and appealed to us and the regiment on our left, to move up to the house and aid in holding an important position that a few men had held for some time. We immediately sprang up, and so did the men of the regiment on our left, but their colonel springing to their front ordered them to remain where they were, that he (Gen. Bee) was not their commander. Gen Bee expressed his indignation at this, and turning to us said “come on Mississippians,” and led us up to the right of the house and formed us in the lane directly in front of the line of the enemy who were not yet within musket range. – The Cherry Creek Rifles were not with us at this time at all, as stated in the publication in the Examiner. Archibald Clark, II. McPherson and Mr. Gaillard of the Coonawah Rifles had come and joined us when the [company?] left the fence where we were posted in the morning, and were the only persons with us, not of our own company.

The infantry of the Hampton’s Legion were formed in the yard and about the house on our left. Gen. Bee succeeded in bringing up a few companies of a Virginia regiment who formed on our left in the lane. We had been posted here but a few minutes when we discovered a regiment of the enemy emerging from the woods upon an open ridge directly upon our right and within three hundred yards of us – my company being on our right flank and nearest to them. Their appearance and position at once demonstrated that they were of the enemy. Capt. Herring was not there to make any suggestion, nor did I think for a minute they were friends. The entire statement in the publication by Lieut. Fontaine on this part of the subject is a mass of error and confusion. If any signals were exchanged with the enemy here, I heard nothing and saw nothing of it. It was evident that they had come up to take us on the flank by a quick and unexpected attack. Col. Harper of the Va. regiment passed along the lane in our rear a short distance, and returning quickly, remarked to me as he passed, “they are certainly the enemy and will be upon us immediately.” His companies I discovered immediately withdrew along the lane to the left of the house and I saw no more of them.

I pause here for a moment to correct a few immaterial errors. I did not order the men here or elsewhere during the day, to “cease firing.” I was at no time bothered with doubts, which seemed to afflict others, as to the character of the troops around us. I did not fire my rifle here as stated. I did not have it with me at this time. I first fired at the fence where we were first posted in the morning, and when the enemy were at least five hundred yards from us. Before doing so, I cautioned the men not to fire because I did, as the enemy were entirely beyond the range of their guns. I then elevated the sight and took aim at a man on horseback whose head and body I could just see over the ridge – the enemy’s line being entirely out of view. I reloaded it, and again, when we formed in the channel of the creek, as before stated, I then fired at the enemy again, when on the reloading and attempting to cock it I found it out of the order so that I could not do so, and as we were led up to our position by Gen. Bee, in passing through the woods, I met a Georgia soldier, leading off another whom I took to be wounded, and asking him merely what troops and regiment he belonged to, I requested him to take my gun to his camp as it was an useless incumbrance to me, which he readily agreed to do. – I delivered it to him and that is the last of it.

To return to the narrative of events. We were left alone in the lane, our men had fired a few ineffectual shots at the column of the enemy in our front, just before we discovered the regiment flanking us on our right. In a very few moments after this regiment first made its appearance, it advance upon us at the double-quick, firing. I immediately ordered a retreat, without hearing any suggestion from any one – it was a necessity obvious to everyone. The greater portion of the company jumped over the fence in our rear, and forming the enclosure on that side of the lane, retiring diagonally from the front of the approaching regiment. Some few passed directly from the enemy down the lane into the yard. Of this last number was John M. Ward, who was last seen standing in a broken panel of the yard paling loading and firing. – Here he received his mortal wound. – My men continued to halt and fire as they retreated through the orchard down the hill. William E. Wiley received his mortal wound about thirty paces from the fence we had just crossed, and where he must have halted and have been firing at the enemy, as the shot entered his face and came out at the back part of his head. Both he and Ward were killed instantly. As we retreated down the hill, in the orchard, and about fifty yards from where Ward stood, Spotswood Dandridge had his thigh broken, and appealing to me as I passed him with the rear of the company, not the leave him, I turned and called to two or three men to assist John F. Wray who had already got to him, and they carried him from the field. In the mean time Archibald Clark of Capt. Taylor’s company, and Berry M. Ellzy of my company, were wounded – Clark mortally. The advance of the enemy was retarded and our escape secured by the firing of a portion of my men, which was kept up longer perhaps then was prudent or consistent with their safety. When my attention was called by Dandridge to himself, I saw Ward and hallooed to him to come on, but the distance and noise were so great that he could not have heard me. He was then alone, and no one of our company was near him when he fell. – Nearly the entire company passed through the orchard, and down the hill, having left the lane at the start, and did not form again until we had retreated about three hundred yards and without the range of the enemy’s guns. Here I halted the company and reformed it – the wounded being carried to the rear, except Ellzy who was wounded when none of his comrades were near him, and who was taken prisoner by the enemy, but afterwards abandoned by them from alarm, thereby affording him the means to escape.

We were again without orders and without a field officer to lead us, and moved across the field toward the left of our line of battle until we came upon a South Carolina regiment, with which, at the suggestion of Lieut. Palmer, I had determined to remain during the day. We had formed on their right but a short time when we discovered the O’Conner Rifles on another part of the same field, Lieut. Palmer and myself, after consultation, concluded that it was our duty to unite with them, and if possible find our own regiment. We accordingly drew off and joined the O’Conner’s, and with them moved up to a point near our left wing, and above and to the left of a portion of the 4th Alabama regiment which we found there without a field officer and in great confusion. Our men had just sat down for the first time during the day to rest, and some had started to a ravine nearby to get water, when Gen. Bee came dashing down the hill, exhibiting intense anxiety and addressing himself to us and the Alabamians on our right and below us, he said “men, there is a position here important to be held, move up quickly and support it.” Instantly our men were on their feet, and my company being on the left, and our route being to the left, I faced the company to the left and marched off by the left flank, the O’Conner’s who were on our right did the same and followed us, Gen. Bee leading us at a canter, whilst we moved at “double-quick.” It is proper to state here that Lieut. Leland had remained with us during the day until his strength was completely exhausted. He was so feeble from protracted illness that he scarcely ought to have gone upon the field at all. When we had halted to rest, as above stated, others said to me that they were broken down and unable to go further. Of this number was Wm. Barr who was quite feeble from a recent illness. As we moved up the hill, having near a half a mile to pass over, Mr. Barr gave out, not knowing where or how far we were called on to march, and turned to the left down a road leading towards Manassas, whilst our course was nearly in the opposite direction. Here, as he informs me, he was soon joined by Lieut. Fontaine and another, a private, of my company.

There was no other regiment, or considerable body of troops on our side anywhere to be seen on or near the field over which we passed. I had occasion to look back after we had advanced several hundred yards up the hill, and discovered that the Alabamians, although they appeared to be moving, were yet in confusion, and several hundred yards in our rear. The O’Conner’s were close up with us, and continued so until we approached the brow of the hill and formed into line – they forming on our right.

There was no regiment then on the field upon which we were formed, nor were we formed upon the flank of any regiment, as stated by Lieut. Fontaine. He did not reach that part of the field, and therefore knew nothing about it.

As we advanced toward the hillside and before we were nearer than four hundred yards of the enemy’s line, which was not yet visible from where we were, I discovered the last stragglers of a Virginia regiment, which had just been repulsed from this position, retreating across our front toward Manassas. It was the repulse of this regiment that caused Gen. Bee’s anxiety when he came for us.

Hitherto we had been led up to positions to await the approach of the enemy, now we had to advance upon the enemy, with the balls whistling around us like a hail storm. The Minute Men and the O’Conner’s moved steadily forward, loading and firing rapidly as they advanced, until we were within seventy-five yards of the enemy’s line. No other troops came up on the field, the Alabamians having fallen back, or turned towards Manassas. Just after we had formed into line and came within range of the enemy’s guns, Gen. Bee wheeled around our left flank, and to our rear, and in a few seconds received his death wound from a point of woods to our left, where some of the enemy had concealed themselves. A few minutes afterwards Lieut. Palmer received his death wound by a shot from the same quarter, and from the nature of the wounds of many of my men, they must have been shot from the same direction. – Our attention was directed exclusively to the front, and we apprehended no danger from this quarter. This party had pursued our retreating forces across the ridge, and had ensconsed themselves there after Gen. Bee had come down the ridge for us. The artillery on both sides had ceased to fire sometime before we were led up, and it was now a contest solely of the infantry in and about the silenced guns of Sherman’s and Rickett’s battery. We were led up immediately in front of the left gun of this battery. The enemy’s shot did not reach within three hundred yards of the road taken by Mr. Barr and others towards Manassas. Men never exhibited greater firmness and fearlessness, than did the Minute Men whilst under fire of the enemy. I had, I suppose, about fifty men at this time some had been wounded, some had gone to carry the wounded to places of safety and to attend to them, and a very few had become faint by the wayside. As it was, we had Lieut. Palmer killed here, and fourteen men wounded, including Mr. Gaillard, of Capt. Taylor’s company, who had fought with us all day. Andrew J. Clements here received a wound that has since proved mortal. In a little while the enemy began to retreat and the firing ceased, We had no numbers to justify pursuit –  the O’Conner’s had suffered severely –  and I called back my men who were most advanced, and as I turned back myself, I heard the voice of Charlie Earle calling me to the aid of Lieut. Palmer. I turned to him and discovered that he was badly wounded. Calling upon Manahan, Barksdale, E.L. Earle, Cooper and some others to assist me, we bore him slowly from the field. Our other wounded men were borne from the field by their comrades. The enemy had fled; – not another gun was fired, and we were last upon the field.

I have no space for eulogy; but a better man, a more skillful and faithful officer, or a braver soldier then Lieut. Palmer never drew a blade. Andrew J. Clements, William E Wiley, and Jno. M. Ward, had, by their uniform good conduct, in camp and upon the battlefield, commanded my highest approbation.

Josephus J. Pickens was temporarily separated from the company as formed into line in front of the enemy, by a gun of our artillery in retreat, running immediately across our rear. He diverged a little to our right, and took a position near an old apple or cherry tree where he had a fine chance at, and did good service upon the enemy, but unfortunately was too much exposed to another body of the enemy, and received a severe wound through both thighs. He fell where he was shot, and was unable to move – one thigh being badly broken. –  There I found him, and had him carried on a door-shutter to the place of rendezvous for the wounded. He is reported to be doing well, as all our wounded are – tho’ several of them, Pickens, Ellzy, Alexander, and McMicken, are badly wounded

Archibald Clark, who received his mortal wound whilst fighting with my company, was a brave and gallant soldier.

This much I have felt that justice of the company demanded of me. It is not intended as a full report of all that we did on that day. We were near the enemy’s front all day, and were repeatedly complimented by Gen. Bee for our firmness and bravery. He was the only field officer who witnessed our conduct, and unfortunately for us, and for the truth of the history, this gallant officer did not live to make a report. We achieved a great victory, and are content. If the part preformed by the Minute Men is not misrepresented, they are willing to wait and let their good deeds herald themselves.

HUGH R. MILLER

Capt. Pontotoc Minute Men.

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The facts as stated above are true as fat as they are within the recollection of the undersigned, and we were in the battle of the 21st July, the entire day.

Thomas J. Crawford, Jno. W. Dillard, Allen Moore, Wm. H. Toipp, W. E. Manahan, G. B. Mears, T. J. Rye, W. C. Nowlin, J. W. Combs, J. M. Barksdale, E. L. Earle, John McCurley, J. J. Donaldson, Dichard Drake.

The (Pontotoc, MS) Examiner, 9/13/1861

Clipping Image

Contributed by Cameron Stinnett

Hugh Reid Miller bio sketch

Hugh Reid Miller at Ancestry.com





No More, No Less

6 07 2015

1434533581_the-civil-war-monitor-vol.5-no.2If you’ve received your new copy of Civil War Monitor (Summer edition, I think it is), you may notice that I have a little sidebar in it, listing my three recommended First Bull Run books. Now, I’ve already received this question a couple of times, and expect there are more of the same to come, or at least a few folks wondering the same thing, even if you have no intention of asking me.

“Why wasn’t fillintheblank on your list?”

The answer to that is pretty simple: I was asked for three. In the counting of the books, “Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three” were, I think, publisher Terry Johnston’s instructions.

Here they are:

Hennessy, John, The First Battle of Manassas: An End To Innocence July 18-21, 1861

Gaff, Alan, If This Is War: A History of the Campaign of Bull Run by the Wisconsin Regiment Thereafter Known as the Ragged Ass Second

Longacre, Edward, The Early Morning of War: Bull Run, 1861

You can read the whys and wherefores when you buy the magazine.





Preview – Mackowski, “Strike Them a Blow”

30 06 2015

51wGX8oFV3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Recently received: Chris Mackowski has written Strike Them a Blow: Battle along the North Ann River, May 21-25, 1864, part of the Emerging Civil War series from Savas Beatie. This covers that (at one time) mysterious few days in the history of the Overland Campaign between Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor.  Generously illustrated and including eleven maps, the narrative is a concise 123 pages. There are also six appendices, describing the battles of Wilson’s Wharf and Milford Station, a sketch of R. E. Lee’s engineer M. L. Smith, and also a look at preservation efforts. A full Order of Battle is also included.





The Confederate Battle Flag

27 06 2015
Safe - For Now

THIS is the “Stars and Bars,” and It’s Safe – For Now

Amidst all the controversy surrounding the Confederate battle flag and its “banning” at expected and intended, and unexpected but maybe intended, and even unexpected and unintended places, I thought I’d weigh in, if just to rustle up some page views (it’s a proven formula.)

Here’s the deal: the Confederate battle flag (not to be confused with the Stars and Bars or First National flag of the Confederacy, pictured above) did not exist at the time of the First Battle of Bull Run.

There you go. That’s it.

So, re-enactors at First Bull Run events should not expect admonishment by authorities to keep their colors cased. Authors of First Bull Run books should not expect their removal from online trade sites because of offensive if historically accurate dust jacket illustrations. Vendors of First Bull Run battlefield applications and war games should not expect suspension of the ability of customers to purchase or download their product.

Yet.

Bull Runnings

Bull Runnings





Preview: Ryan, “Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign”

25 06 2015

51BWOF0G-OL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve corresponded with Thomas J. Ryan a few times over the years, enough to know he’s been working on Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign: How the Critical Role of Intelligence Impacted the Outcome of Lee’s Invasion of the North, June-July 1863 (Savas Beatie) for a long, long time. Tom is well suited to the topic, having worked for the Department of Defense in intelligence related areas for many years.

In this new study, Ryan looks at how the opponents in the campaign used various sources (cavalry, newspapers, civilians, and spies for Lee, and cavalry, signal corps, and Bureau of Military Intelligence for Hooker/Meade) to guide them in the theater of operations. After laying out the assets and structures of the armies, the narrative follows a chronological path, from mid-May 1863 through Lee’s “escape” July 14, and concludes with the author’s assessment.

Spies, Scouts, and Secrets… consists of 448 pages of text, a 15 page bibliography, full index, and footnotes on the text pages. There are plenty of illustrations, including 23 (!) Phil Laino maps. I’m looking forward to digging in. Check out Tom Ryan’s website here.





The Boundaries of Your American Civil War

21 06 2015

380593

As what appears to the general public to be the end of the American Civil War Sesquicentennial has drawn, or draws, to a close, discussion (chiding? lecturing?) abounds on just what areas of history fall under that heading, American Civil War. Most prominent among those areas is Reconstruction. Arguments are made that the Civil War did not end with the cessation of armed and organized military rebellion, and that Reconstruction was the continuation of War in a number of senses. Even within that framework, disagreements have arisen regarding military and non-military activities in the period. I’m not going to advocate for any position, because I have a problem with the word should when it comes to studying history. But I’m rather curious to hear what you think.

Is history a river which feeds streams of micro-histories, or is it a river that is fed and created by those sub-histories? Is it OK for a student to focus on a time frame or events, and not give equal attention to events that may have affected or been affected by those times and events? If a student is not as interested in what he or she may consider ancillary events as they are in what they consider the “main events”, should they feel guilty or inferior, or made to feel so? I recall one blog post – sorry, where and who escapes me – in which the author reacted to a lack of response to a Reconstruction focused post by declaring “I guess it’s just too hard to think about Reconstruction.”

I mean, think about it. A recent blog post claims that one cannot understand the Battle of Gettysburg without a good understanding of the Battle of Chancellorsville. The argument is not without merit. But what is meant by the word “understand?” Can one understand command decisions of professional soldiers in almost any battle of the Civil War without having a firm understanding of the education and experience of those making the decision? Wouldn’t one need a firm understanding of, say, the development of the U. S. Military Academy and the content and goals of its curricula, or of the duties of antebellum officers, or of the U. S. war with Mexico, or of the Crimea, or of Napoleonic wars, or of the development of military theory through the years, Machiavelli, Vauban, yadda yadda yadda? Might a lack of understanding of these things lead one to less than sound conclusions regarding those decisions?

To understand Reconstruction, do we need an understanding of the history of slavery and emancipation from ancient times? Or of the events following other civil wars, revolutions, insurrections in other countries throughout history, and of the re-absorption of affected areas into the body politic? And why stop at 1876? As you expand it, the focus on any limited period can be made to sound a trivial exercise.

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Or maybe, realizing we only have so much time on this rock, do we just study what interests us most – what floats our boats, or blows our hair back? Do we even want to think of it as “study” at all? There have been times I’ve wondered about folks who beat the bejeezus out of Gettysburg. Some showed little interest in the rest of the war. I’d ask myself, “Don’t you care? Aren’t you curious?” But I think I always asked those questions rhetorically, and assumed that they should care, that they should be curious. But guess what? Many don’t and aren’t.  I’ve learned to appreciate that, and also that should is my limitation, not theirs.

Just tossin’ stuff out, seein’ what sticks. What do you think? What are the boundaries of your American Civil War?





Being For the Benefit of Mr. Stipe!

10 06 2015

Back in the 1980’s I listened to a good deal of R. E. M., the alt band from Georgia (see their official site here.) One of their songs, Swan Swan H from the 1986 album Life’s Rich Pageant, always nagged at me, because I just knew that some of the lyrics had Civil War roots, and I associated them with a piece of artwork I felt I’d seen in a book – it had to be a book; that’s all we had back in the day. First, here’s the band’s performance:

20130104-rem-306x306-1357326544Searches through my steadily growing Civil War library proved fruitless, and to this day I’ve been unable to find the book in which I saw a piece of folk art by a Confederate POW that included words at least similar to those of songwriter Michael Stipe (that’s him at left, on the cover of the Rolling Stone.)

Then, one day back in January of 2013 I was reading my newsfeed on Facebook. Friend Russell Bonds, author of Stealing the General and War Like the Thunderbolt, (in essence, co-author of this post) had made a brief status update:

A pistol hot cup of rhyme
The whiskey is water, the water is wine
Marching feet, Johnny Reb, what’s the price of heroes?

I immediately recognized these lines from Swan Swan H, and replied with the verse that has afflicted me for a quarter century:

Johnny Reb, what’s the price of fans?
Forty a piece or three for one dollar.
Hey Captain, don’t you want to buy
Some bone chains or toothpicks?

Russ’s post prompted me to dig a little more using Google. Many different search word combinations finally turned up this site, which tells the tale of the conservation of a collection of watercolors made by one John Jacob Omenhauser, titled True Sketches and Sayings of Rebel Characters in the Point Lookout Prison Maryland. At the bottom of that page you’ll see a black and white image of a watercolor sketch. Here’s another, clearer image of that same drawing at this site (thanks Russ), which includes all the illustrations from one of Omenhauser’s sketchbooks:

Flash

Apparently there are at least four versions of Omenhauser’s sketchbook. Further search took me to this site, which offered for sale, at one time, a different version of the sketch. Here it is (image courtesy of liveauctioneers.com and Green Valley Auctions) :

Sketch

In the second version our trio is at center. In both versions you can clearly see the three fans, as well as small chains in the hand of the figure at right. The first two captions/bubbles match the Johnny Reb… stanza above, but the Reb is offering “pretty rings and watch chains” in the first version and “bone rings and hair chains” in the second. It could be that there is another version with “bone chains and toothpicks.”

Mystery solved – in part.

Russ later sent me more information:

OK here you go, Friday detective work diversion from actual work.

Stipe says in an online Q&A interview:

Q: Swan Swan H pretty miraculously spins lyrics in swirls and whirlpools, and any central meaning seems nicely elusive. Could you  discuss your views/ intentions/ interpretations of the track? Sometimes I think of redemption/ Christianity; other days its the US  South/ slavery/ repression; other days its loneliness.  “What’s the price of heroes?” is a line I’ve always enjoyed getting lost in. How does the Swan fit in? Many many thanks – Gary

A (Stipe):  civil war song.  That’s all I know of writing it, I remember the inspiration but it just flowed.  What noisy cats are we I lifted from an actual civil war written piece  and Mike and I agreed finally; the title is now Swan Swan Hummingbird.  My pretentious 20’s are long gone and we can now all breath a sigh of relief.  kind of…

So, I looked in Google Books for “an actual Civil War written piece” that says “what noisy cats are we” and pulled up an issue of Antiques magazine (Vol. 114, p. 559) from 1978 (Lifes Rich Pageant wasn’t released until ’86)—with this listing (partial – the whole book isn’t available on Google):

Clipping

Note the three Swan Swan H (pronounced “Huh”, according to Stipe) lyrics:  noisy cats, hurrah/we are all free, and girl and dog. Hmmm… Originally I thought maybe this was a description of a Howard Finster folk art piece–because of his link to R.E.M. But some further searching led me to a more complete listing of the above that seemed to refer to a sampler by one Elizabeth Jane Hawkes of Salem, NC. I finally found the piece in A Gallery of American Samplers–The Theodore H. Kapnek Collection (E.P. Dutton, 1978), p. 86. The description of the piece is: 123. Elizabeth Jane Hawkes, Salem, North Carolina, c. 1865. Inscription: “Elizabeth Jane Hawkes aged 13, Salem, North Carolina.” Originally noted on former frame. Stitches: cross, tent. Silk on wool, 12 3/4″ h. x 12 3/4″ w. The fascinating thing is the entire first lines of the song are taken directly from the Sampler (see below): “Swan, Swan, Hummingbird, Hurrah, We are all free now. What noisy cats are we, Girl and Dog, He bore His cross.”

Russ found a nice image of the sampler. All of the words and phrases Russ mentioned can be seen in it:

Sampler

So, here we have what appear to be at least two sources for lyrics to Swan Swan H. And this is where it pays to have an attorney as a friend. Yes, Russ Bonds is an attorney. In Georgia. Where R. E. M. was born. And Russ also happened to know the name of the band’s long-time attorney. He wrote to Mr. Bertis Downs, described our research results up to that point, and then submitted the question:

[We] wanted to be sure to reach out to Michael Stipe and R.E.M. to ask for any comment they might have on this link to the Civil War and Reconstruction era. I know that, in past interviews, the band has often (though not always) declined to discuss song lyrics, stating instead their understandable preference that the songs speak for themselves. But I hope they might make an exception here. After all, these phrases from Swan Swan Hummingbird don’t merely invoke the Civil War era–they were actually spoken/written/sung in that era. I am wondering if Michael Stipe recalls the “actual Civil War written piece” the lyrics were taken from? Was there a book or treatise he referred to? Were the remaining lyrics (e.g. the whiskey is water, the water is wine) from similar sources? Was there someone who first pointed him to these phrases, or to these specific CW-era works of art? Was R.E.M. even aware of these pieces, or are they new to them as well?

Please be assured that we pose these questions out of genuine historic interest, as well as longstanding admiration and respect for R.E.M. Harry and I merely hope to illuminate this connection between R.E.M.’s great music and these beautiful pieces of Civil War art.

Please let me know your thoughts on this issue, and please pass my e-mail along to the members of R.E.M. if you feel that is appropriate. I would welcome hearing from you and/or them on this. Thank you very much for your time and attention.

And, believe it or not, he received a response:

Russell,

Thanks for being in touch– fascinating work.

I checked in with Michael Stipe, who responded with the following:

“These look like the things that I saw and copied down phrases from, forming the basis of the lyric for swan swan h. I remember it was at the american folk art museum in nyc, when it was across the street from either moma[*] or our record company’s hq[**] at the time.

I didn’t remember that there were two pieces that I copied down words from; I remember one piece. But these are almost word for word the lyric of the song; anything else I filled in and wrote myself. These guided me to find the voice for the narrator and go from there.”

Many thanks and good luck with the article and your part-time scholarship.

Kind regards,

Bertis Downs

[*Museum of Modern Art]

[**IRS Records]

How about that?

——————–

John Jacob Omenhauser and Elizabeth Jane Hawkes likely never met. During the American Civil War, John was a Confederate infantryman, while Elizabeth was a North Carolina youth maturing under the difficult circumstances attendant to a country at war. Independently, however, the two produced pieces of folk art that serendipitously made their ways into the lexicon of angst-ridden alt-rock fans in the 1980s.

Some time around 1865, thirteen-year-old Elizabeth, like countless young girls before and after her, painstakingly completed a sampler – needlework embroidery consisting of letters, numbers, words, phrases, and figures. Samplers are examples or tests of one’s skill with needle and thread, and many today are highly valued works of art. Elizabeth’s sampler, a collection of fowl, dancing freedmen (Hurrah We Are All Free Now), cats, dogs, and what would prove to be catchy phrases, made its way over the years into the hands of a collector, and in 1978 it appeared in the pages of A Gallery of American Samplers – the Theodore H. Kapnek Collection.

John was a 30-year-old resident of Richmond, Va. in 1861 when he enlisted in the 46th Virginia Infantry in August, 1861 (the site chronicling the conservation of notebooks says he was an Austrian immigrant, while Mike Musick, his biographer, tells me he was born in Philadelphia.) His service was highlighted by his capture outside Petersburg, Va., in 1864, and his subsequent confinement as a prisoner of war in Camp Lookout, Maryland. While there, or shortly after, John produced at least four hand-made booklets, including water color drawings with captions and “word bubbles,” that are known as True Sketches and Sayings of Rebel Characters in the Point Lookout Prison, Maryland (available as I Am Busy Drawing Pictures: The Civil War Art and Letters of Private John Jacob Omenhausser, CSAby Ross Kimmel and Michael Musick.) These sketchbooks, like Elizabeth’s sampler, have come to be considered historical and artistic treasures.

Being_for_the_Benefit_of_Mr._Kite_-_2012_reproductionNone of this is a criticism of Michael Stipe in any way, shape, or form. Artists take their inspiration where they find it, and while the words and phrases are those of long dead folks, the arrangement of those phrases is Stipe’s alone. And this borrowing from other media isn’t unprecedented by any means. In 1967, the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, which includes the little ditty Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite! It’s a rich, psychedelic carnival tune penned mostly by John Lennon with a lot of input from producer George Martin. The source material for the lyrics was provided for the most part by a 19th century poster promoting a carnival act which Lennon had come across in an antique store (see it at left, and read more about it here. Go here to learn about a project reproducing the poster, including information on how to buy one for yourself.) Take a listen, and see if you can find the lyrics in the poster:

Mr. Kite has long been a favorite of mine, and sometimes I can’t get the line Messrs. K and H assure the public their production will be second to none out of my head. Just like Johnny Reb, what’s the price of fans?

Can any lyricist ask for more than that?

Below are the full lyrics to what is now titled Swan Swan Hummingbird:

Swan, swan, hummingbird
Hurrah, we are all free now
What noisy cats are we
Girl and dog he bore his cross
Swan, swan, hummingbird
Hurrah, we are all free now
A long, low time ago, people talk to me

Johnny Reb, what’s the price of fans
Forty a piece or three for one dollar?
Hey captain, don’t you want to buy
Some bone chains and toothpicks?

Night wings, her hair chains,
Here’s your wooden greenback, sing
Wooden beams and dovetail sweep
I struck that picture ninety times,
I walked that path a hundred ninety,
Long, low time ago, people talk to me

A pistol hot cup of rhyme
The whiskey is water, the water is wine
Marching feet, Johnny Reb, what’s the price of heroes?

Six in one, half dozen the other,
Tell that to the captain’s mother,
Hey captain, don’t you want to buy,
Some bone chains and toothpicks?

Night wings, her hair chains
Swan, swan, hummingbird
Hurrah, we are all free now
What noisy cats are we
Long, low time ago, people talk to me
A pistol hot cup of rhyme,
The whiskey is water, the water is wine








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