The Boundaries of Your American Civil War

21 06 2015


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.


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:


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 and Green Valley Auctions) :


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):


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:


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:


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

Preview: Hessler, Motts, Stanley – “Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg”

1 06 2015

51mkgt+rutL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Two weeks ago I received a couple of new releases from Savas Beatie. Both are Gettysburg books, and both are visually stunning. I took the books along with me to a seminar I attended, tested them out on a couple of folks whose opinions I respect, and elicited enthusiastic “thumbs up reactions.” Both books will be getting the Interview treatment from Bull Runnings, and as they both have multiple authors it will take a little time to put those together. To tide you over I’ll give you the lowdown preview-wise.

Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg: A Guide to the Most Famous Attack in American History, by Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guides James A. Hessler and Wayne E. Motts, with cartography by Steven A. Stanley, is another attractive, hard cover book on heavy, glossy paper. It’s beautifully laid out and includes nice, sharp modern photographs and colorful graphics. It also has the appearance of a home run, and a real, National League home run at that, not one of those watered down, 43-year-old-fat-guy-who-can’t-field American League dingers.

Jim Hessler has proven himself a more than capable narrator with Sickles at Gettysburg, and Wayne Motts, C. E. O. of the National Civil War Museum, perhaps knows as much about Pickett’s Charge as anyone who wasn’t there for the event (to call his command of the organizations and men involved encyclopedic is too generous to encyclopedias.) This volume has Stanley maps and illustrations and sidebars aplenty. The “distressed” format of some of the pages can be a little distracting, but overall the layout is quite handsome. The work is end noted, with orders of battle, bibliography, and index. It’s broken up into four separate tours: Confederate Battle Line; Pettigrew-Trimble Charge; Pickett’s Charge; and Union Battle Line. A total of 268 pages, and a must have for planning your next foray onto the Day 3 field. Hopefully a soft-cover or e-reader version will become available, as durability in the field is questionable.

Preview: Brenneman, Boardman, Dowling – “The Gettysburg Cyclorama”

27 05 2015

613FOyqKbBL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Two weeks ago I received a couple of new releases from Savas Beatie. Both are Gettysburg books, and both are visually stunning. I took the books along with me to a seminar I attended, tested them out on a couple of folks whose opinions I respect, and elicited enthusiastic “thumbs up reactions.” Both books will be getting the Interview treatment from Bull Runnings, and as they both have multiple authors it will take a little time to put those together. To tide you over I’ll give you the lowdown preview-wise.

The Gettysburg Cyclorama: The Turning Point of the Civil War on Canvas, by Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guides Chris Brenneman and Sue Boardman, with photography by Bill Dowling, is one gorgeous book with a cool concept. The first 73 of these oversize, glossy pages draw on Sue Boardman’s extensive research to describe cycloramas in general, their history in this country, and the tale of Paul Philippoteaux’s work depicting the three day Battle of Gettysburg in 3-D. No stone is left unturned.

Then the really interesting part: a tour of the battlefield and cyclorama, in which the painting is broken down into nine “views,” with multiple tour stops in each view, color details of the painting for those stops, and period and modern color photos of corresponding battlefield scenes and individuals. It sounds wacky, but it works! My only complaint is that the oversize hardback format may not hold up out on the field. But then, you may want to leave this on the coffee table for friends to ponder. OK, maybe you’ll need two – or maybe the publisher will put out a paperback edition at some point.

A similar preview on that other book is coming soon…

Victory at Bull Run – What Was McDowell’s Game Plan?

24 05 2015

51PK6Qew8sL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_John Hennessy is working on a new edition of his seminal tactical study, The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence, July 18-21, 1861. I’ve corresponded with the author enough to learn that this will be one of the rare updated editions that owners of the original will consider a “must have.” Mr. Hennessy discussed the new book somewhat in a recent interview with Civil War Talk Radio, which you can listen to here.

During this interview, you’ll hear the author discuss one of the great mysteries of the campaign – what exactly was Irvin McDowell’s vision of victory for his army (which ex post facto became known as The Army of Northeastern Virginia)? Many authors/historians have made the assumption – and it can only be an assumption – that McDowell envisioned a swift flank attack which would overwhelm his opponent and result in a set-piece victory, rolling up and decisively defeating Beauregard in a classic clash of arms.

The definition of victory here is not just semantics. It is critical in assessing McDowell’s plans and actions, and in determining why they failed.

I believe victory in McDowell’s mind was something other than what almost all chroniclers and critics of the campaign have assumed. I won’t tell you what to think, but will make a suggestion that may help you think for yourself: the answer can perhaps be found in what McDowell wrote before the battle and in what he did during it. In order to discern that, I think you must cast aside assumptions of what he must have intended and take him at his word – and actions. If you do that, then the inexplicables of the campaign may become more explicable. What appears to be a complex plan (given the traditional assumption of intent) may become less so.

Read McDowell’s plans. Look at what he did. Does that jive with your assumptions regarding his intent? To use a sports analogy, would you as a reporter rely on a head football coach’s post-defeat comments about his game plan when you have the actual game plan and video to look at? Especially when the game plan and video don’t support those comments?

Post-defeat comments: “We really wanted to establish the running game, but that didn’t work out.” Game plan: we must exploit the opponent’s secondary. Game film: first three possessions each consisted of three incomplete down-field passes and a punt.

Get it?

Preview: Mackowski, White, & Davis – “Fight Like the Devil”

21 05 2015

51aBL53hU8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_New in Savas Beatie’s Emerging Civil War Series is Fight Like the Devil: The First Day at Gettysburg, July 1, 1863, by Chris Mackowski, Kristopher D. White, and Daniel T. Davis. Gettysburg nuts fall into one of three categories, typically: Day 1 guys; Day 2 guys; and Day 3 guys. If I fall into one of those categories (though I don’t consider myself a Gettysburg nut, or a more seriously afflicted Frassanidiot), it would have to be Day 1. And to prove it, I joined along with a couple hundred other folks a few weeks ago for an all day walking tour of the Day 1 battlefield. It would have been nice to have this little book along for the ride. It weighs in at 116 pages of text through the epilogue, with another eight (8!) appendices by such luminaries as Matt Atkinson, Dan Welch, and Eric Wittenberg. Nine maps and dozens of modern photos are sprinkled in. And this one’s not without some controversy. I have long wondered at the basis for John Reynolds’s now sterling reputation, given his performance up to July 1, 1863, and it appears Kris White thinks along the same lines for the same reasons in his appendix on the general. And John Cummings weighs in on the location of the famous Gardner “Harvest of Death” photos (I do believe that one has to be either all right or all wrong in these cases.) Other appendices look at Dick Ewell’s decision, J. E. B. Stuart’s ride, shoes, and Pipe Creek. Check it out.

Chambersburg Civil War Seminars & Tours: Iron Brigade

19 05 2015

This past weekend I attended the Chambersburg Civil War Seminars & Tours event, On the Trail of Those Damn Black Hats: Weekend with Lance Herdegen & The Iron Brigade. I did so as the guest of friend and facilitator Ted Alexander, in return for coverage of the event on my Twitter and Facebook accounts. Hopefully you are all followers and were kept up to date of all the happenings – if not, just subscribe using the links over to the right. But I’ll give a recap here.

Friday featured presentations at seminar HQ the Hampton Inn by Lance Herdegen (see an interview with him here) on The Iron Brigade at Gainesville; Tom Clemens (see an interview with him here) on the Black Hats’ Memories of Antietam; and Dan Welch (with the Gettysburg Foundation) on Beyond the Sobriquet: The Men of the Iron Brigade. After a break for dinner, the evening concluded with Lance and “Forward! Forward! Charge! Align on the Colors!”: The Unfinished Railroad Cut at Gettysburg.

Bright and early Saturday the 40 or so attendees boarded a bus bound for South Mountain (where we stopped on the National Road at Mt. Tabor and Bolivar Roads where Lance described the brigade’s move on Turner’s Gap.) Then it was on to Antietam, and discussions at the Visitor’s Center and the Miller Farm. Finally we arrived at Gettysburg, and after lunch at the Dobbin House Lance held court near the Reynolds Wounding marker and covered the brigade’s actions in Herbst Woods and the Railroad Cut. Of course, time in the bus was spent talking about the brigade’s actions on other parts of the field, and Lance unleashed a small portion of his vast knowledge of the men and events of the Iron Brigade as well.

I decided to stay over Saturday night for a slate of talks on Sunday morning, and I’m glad I did. Lance kicked off with a more complete history of the Iron Brigade (by the way, Lance is one of the most upbeat, happy guys I’ve ever seen on tour, and it wasn’t just this time – a hail fellow well met); fellow Save Historic Antietam Foundation board member and founder of the National Civil War Medical Museum Dr. Gordon Dammann gave a delightful presentation on Civil War Medicine Hollywood Style: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly; and Gettysburg Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides President Joseph Mieczkowski concluded the formal talks with a really interesting talk on Rufus Dawes & the 6th Wisconsin at Gettysburg and Beyond. Joe is apparently a “thread puller” like me and shared some fascinating tidbits.

The seminar and tour were well-organized. Raffles and auctions held Friday and Sunday raised about $500 for battlefield preservation, which will go toward purchasing available land at Antietam (see Civil War Trust info here.) And to top it off, I got to spend some time with a couple of fellows whom I had not seen in ten years, friends from prior battlefield stomps.

Next up for Civil War Seminars & Tours is The End of the War: Richmond, Petersburg, & Appomattox, July 22-26 (see brochure here.) Speakers feature Ed Bearss (see interview here) and friend and blogger Jimmy Price (see interview here), among others (like Bud Robertson, Richard Sommers, R. E. L. Krick, John Coski, Chris Calkins, the list goes on.) Sounds like a great event – register soon if you agree!


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