Priest of Andersonville

I normally take great pride in being an American, but there are passages in our history which all Americans should be ashamed of.  During our Civil War in many prison camps, both North and South, POWs were treated wretchedly with inadequate shelter, clothing and food.  The worst by far was Andersonville.
The vast tragedy at Andersonville came about for a number of reasons.

First and foremost was the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system.  From the summer of 1862 to the summer of 1863, captured Union and Confederate troops would be released within 10 days after giving their parole.  This was a promise not to fight until after they had properly been exchanged for a prisoner on the other side.  The system operated by exchanging paroles from prisoners of equivalent ranks or of different ranks as follows: 1 general = 46 privates, 1 major general = 40 privates, 1 brigadier general = 20 privates, 1 colonel = 15 privates, 1 lieutenant colonel = 10 privates, 1 major = 8 privates, 1 captain = 6 privates, 1 lieutenant = 4 privates, 1 noncommissioned officer = 2 privates.   The system worked reasonably well until the issue of the treatment of black troops came up.  The Confederates refused to recognize black soldiers as Union troops under the system and reduced many of them to slavery.  The Union as a result refused to abide by the system.  General Grant also had suspicions that the system wasn’t being  completely honored in any case.  After Vicksburg he had paroled the entire Confederate army that had been captured after the fall of that city.  In the fighting around Chattanooga later that year he was dismayed to find among the captured Confederate troops men who had surrendered at Vicksburg and who had not been exchanged.  Realizing that the Confederates needed their prisoners back in their ranks , and that the Union had an endless supply of manpower, he thought that it was a benefit for the Union that the system had broken down and adamantly refused Confederate attempts in 1864 to revive prisoner exchanges. A good article on the exchange of prisoners is here.

Second was the series of small POW camps in the vicinity of Richmond, which, with the break down in the prisoner exchange system, were soon overflowing with Union prisoners.  In November 1863 Captain Richard Widner came to the hamlet (population 20) of Andersonville, Georgia  to investigate the prospects of building a large POW camp there.  He liked what he saw:  plenty of water near at hand, located near a railhead and situated in the Deep South, far away from the Union armies.  In December of 1863 he began construction of Andersonville  Prison.   (The official name of the prison was Camp Sumter.)   Local slaves were brought in to clear the land in January 1864 and to build the stockade.  The Prison encompassed 16.5 acres  with a small creek flowing through the site to provide water.   No barracks were built to shelter the prisoners.  The capacity of prisoners that could be held there was estimated to be 10,000.  The first Union prisoners were shipped to  in February 1864.  With heavy fighting that began in May as Grant battled his way towards Richmond, the number of prisoners swelled to well beyond the capacity of the prison.  By June the prison population had ballooned to 20,000.  The boundary of the prison was extended using prison labor labor 610 feet to the north during June.  By August 33,000 Union prisoners were held within the stockade of Andersonville.

Third, for security reasons, the prisoners were not given the materials to build barracks.  Andersonville’s prison guards consisted of overaged men and underaged boys, and permanent barracks where the prisoners could live, and plot escape attempts unobserved, were thought by the authorities to be too much of risk with prison guards of this calibre.  The Union prisoners, except for what makeshift shelters they could improvise, were exposed to the elements at all times.

Fourth, the creek flowing through Andersonville served both as a source of water and as a latrine.  The Union troops, with appropriate black humor, labeled the creek “Sweet Water Branch’.

Fifth, medical care at Andersonville was basically non-existent, with the small medical staff completely overwhelmed.

Sixth, the Union soldiers were in theory to get the same daily ration as a Confederate soldier.  What they received, if they were lucky, was rancid grain and a spoonful or two of peas or beans.   To be fair, the Confederates during this stage of the war had a great deal of difficulty providing rations to their own troops.

Seventh, incompetence on the part of the camp’s commander Captain Heinrich “Henry” Wirz.  Ironically trained as a medical doctor in Europe prior to the Civil War, the Swiss born Wirz took command of Andersonville in March 1864.  Tried and executed after the war,  the only Confederate to be executed following the war, Wirz has been called both an innocent scapegoat and a demon of cruelty incarnate.  I will not venture into that battleground.  I will note that in the face of the humanitarian disaster that developed at Andersonville Wirz did little and seemed to spend most of his time trying to get promoted, eventually getting his wish and attaining the rank of Major shortly before the end of the War.

All of these factors led to the deaths of almost 13,000 of the approximately 45,000 Union soldiers who passed through Andersonville.  Surgeon Joseph Jones of the Confederate Army on an inspection tour wrote a report to the Surgeon General of the Confederacy on October19, 1864 regarding conditions at Andersonville: (more…)

Published in: on February 27, 2014 at 5:35 am  Comments (2)  
Tags: , ,

John Trumbull and Bunker Hill

“These fellows say we won’t fight! By Heaven, I hope I shall die up to my knees in blood!”

Major General Joseph Warren to his men prior to the battle of Bunker’s Hill

A lecture by John Walsh, emeritus director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, on John Trumbull’s painting on the battle of Bunker Hill and its historical accuracy, or lack thereof.  The painting has always been a favorite in my household as it depicts my ancestor Major Andrew McClary of the New Hampshire militia.

Bunker Hill

Trumbull had witnessed the battle through field glasses, he was serving with the American army, although not with the portion fighting on Breed’s hill.  The painting shows the death of General Warren, and is entitled The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775,  the painting having been commissioned by Warren’s family.  Trumbull squeezes into the painting almost everyone famous who fought in the battle, both Americans and British.  Major Andrew McClary is shown raising his musket to brain a British soldier attempting to bayonet the dying Warren, a warlike action quite in character for him, and one which warms the cockles of my heart.  My wife has noted over the years how much I resemble Major Andrew and it is intriguing how his facial features have been passed down through the generations of my family.

The scene depicted is not historical, but rather a tribute to General Warren by having his death the center of the action.  To us it seems a very romantic version of the grim reality, but Abigail Adams, who heard the battle from her farm and saw the aftermath of the wounded and dead American soldiers, found it so realistic when she saw it that she shivered with the memories of the fight it aroused in her.  To most of us moderns war is simple butchery and unless it is shown as such, we are almost offended.  To the men and women of Abigail Adams’ generation, at least the Patriots, they would have been offended by a painting that only remembered the death and carnage, they needed few reminders of that, but that ignored the heroism and sacrifice that ultimately prevailed against the odds and established a new nation. (more…)

Published in: on February 26, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , ,

SPI Infomercial

A true blast from the past.  An SPI, Simulations Publications Inc., infomercial filmed in the seventies to introduce people to wargames.

Among my hobbies, besides writing blog posts and annoying people for fun and profit, is the playing of rather elaborate historical strategy games.  I began playing these games circa 1971 when I wheedled a copy of Luftwaffe from my parents for Christmas that year.  The next year for Christmas I received a copy of Panzerblitz, and I have been playing and collecting strategy games since that time.

My wife and I acquired our first computer in 1987, a Commodore 64.  Since that time almost all of my playing of strategy games has been on the computer.  Christmas Eve 1991 was a memorable one in the McClarey household.  It was the first Christmas Eve we spent with our newborn twin sons, and our copy of the computer strategy game Civilization arrived in the mail.

In between playing with our infants and introducing them to the joys of Christmas, we took turns charting the courses of societies through 6,000 years of history.  For a young married couple fascinated by history, it was the ideal Christmas present.

Computers do spoil us.  My playing of board wargames has diminished to almost nil.  When I do attempt to play a board wargame, keeping track of the rules without the aid of a computer and doing the math calculations in my head seems too bothersome for the game to be enjoyable.  Perhaps I am simply lazy, but I do believe exposure to computers does foster a “Can’t a computer do it?” attitude. (more…)

Published in: on February 25, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on SPI Infomercial  
Tags: ,

The Answer

The Answer

We are in God’s hand, brother, not in theirs.

Henry V to his brother prior to Agincourt, Henry V, Act III, Scene 6

The thirtieth in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , here, here , here, here, here, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here , here , here, here, here, here and here.

Kipling, as I have often observed in this series, was not conventionally religious. Any man who could refer to himself as a good Christian atheist obviously would never qualify as being conventional in any sense in regard to faith.  However, many of Kipling’s poems do deal with religion, and few more powerfully than The Answer. At first glance a brief and simple poem, it deals with immensely complicated theological questions involving death, innocence, predestination and trust in God, a poetic rendition of the same issues raised in the Book of Job.

This poem, like Job, I suspect can only be understood completely by those afflicted with grief. The temptation when disaster overtakes us in this Vale of Tears, particularly disaster not brought on by any evil on our part, is to rail against our fate and against God.  This is natural, and it is always a mistake.  We are the children of a loving God and ultimately our response to what befalls us in this life can only be that of Job when he stands before God:

[1] Then Job answered the Lord, and said:

[2] I know that thou canst do all things, and no thought is hid from thee.

[3] Who is this that hideth counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have spoken unwisely, and things that above measure exceeded my knowledge.

[4] Hear, and I will speak: I will ask thee, and do thou tell me.

[5] With the hearing of the ear, I have heard thee, but now my eye seeth thee.

[6] Therefore I reprehend myself, and do penance in dust and ashes.   (more…)

Published in: on February 24, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Answer  
Tags: , , ,

Washington: The Greatest American Part II

Nor, perchance did the fact which We now recall take place without some design of divine Providence. Precisely at the epoch when the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic the ecclesiastical hierarchy was happily established amongst you; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishop was set by apostolic authority over the American Church. The well-known friendship and familiar intercourse which subsisted between these two men seems to be an evidence that the United States ought to be conjoined in concord and amity with the Catholic Church. And not without cause; for without morality the State cannot endure-a truth which that illustrious citizen of yours, whom We have just mentioned, with a keenness of insight worthy of his genius and statesmanship perceived and proclaimed. But the best and strongest support of morality is religion.

Pope Leo XIII

With the end of the Revolutionary War Washington was looking forward to a well earned retirement from public life at his beloved Mount Vernon.

On June 8, 1783 he sent a circular letter out to the states discussing his thoughts on the importance of the states remaining united, paying war debts, taking care of the soldiers who were wounded in the war and the establishment of a peace time military and the regulation of the militia.  It is an interesting document and may be read here.   No doubt Washington viewed this as in some respects his final thoughts addressed to the American people in his role as Commander in Chief.

Washington ends the letter with this striking passage:

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.

The War having been won Washington resigned his commission to Congress in Annapolis, Maryland on December 23, 1783.  The next day he had reached his heart’s desire:  home, Mount Vernon.  Christmas the next day was probably the happiest in his life. (more…)

Published in: on February 22, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Washington: The Greatest American Part II  
Tags: , ,

George Washington Variations

Something for the weekend.  George Washington Variations by Ernst Krenek.  A refugee from Austria in 1938 after the Anschluss, composer Ernst Krenek became a naturalized American citizen and an ardent American patriot.  His George Washington Variations (1950) are a fitting tribute to the greatest American.

Published in: on February 22, 2014 at 5:25 am  Comments Off on George Washington Variations  
Tags: , , ,

February 20, 1864: Battle of Olustee

Although the Union had made substantial progress in the War in 1863, few northerners doubted that the Confederacy was still full of fight.  This belief received support in the Union defeat in the battle of Olustee, Florida.

Florida was the most lightly populated state of the Confederacy, only 140,000 people.  Throughout the War Florida was a side show, with the Union forces content to occupy the major ports of Jacksonville, Key West, Pensacola and Cedar Key, while the Confederates controlled the interior and smuggled needed supplies for the Confederacy through the minor ports that dotted the Florida peninsula.

In February 1864 Union Brigadier General Truman Seymour landed a force of about 5,000 troops at Jacksonville to stage raids in north east and north central Florida to collect supplies, recruit black troops and cut off Confederate supply lines from Florida to Georgia.  He was under orders not to proceed into the interior of the state.  Lieutenant General P.G.T. Beauregard, in command of the Confederate coastal forces in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida decided to counter this move by reinforcing Confederate Brigadier General Joseph Finnegan in Florida to bring his troop strength up to 5,000 men.

Ignoring his instructions Seymour led out his 5500 men for a drive across northern Florida with the seizure of the state capital of Tallahassee as a possible objective.  Finnegan, massing his forces blocked the Union move by entrenching at Olustee station, 48 miles west of Jacksonville.

At 2:30 PM on February 20, Finnegan sent out a brigade to attempt to lure the Federals into an attack on his entrenchments.  The Federals did not oblige and Finnegan marched his entire force out from the entrenchments to fight.  The battle went on for the remainder of the afternoon with the Union line giving way.  Finnegan did not order a pursuit, with the 54th Massachusetts of Fort Wagner fame and the 35th United States Colored Troops repulsing the last attack on the retreating Federals.  Union casualties were 1861 to 946 Confederate.  The heavy Union losses caused a number of Northern lawmakers to wonder whether it was worthwhile to put any further military effort into a state that had little significance for the War as a whole.  Florida remained a relatively quiet sector of the Civil War for the remainder of the conflict with only minor raids and skirmishes.

Here is an excerpt of the report from Brigadier General Joseph Finnegan on the battle: (more…)

Published in: on February 20, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
Tags: , ,

November 16, 1934: Winston Churchill Warns of Nazi Germany

(I originally posted this at The American Catholic and I thought the Churchill mavens of Almost Chosen People might find it interesting.)

The things that you find on Youtube!  Churchill warning in a radio broadcast during the second year of Nazi rule of the threat posed by them to the peace of Europe.  Churchill tells a very old truth:  one side of a dispute embracing functional pacifism, short of abject surrender, will not make war less likely, but rather ensure the coming of war.

Bonus:  The actor Robert Hardy in 1986 gave a ninety minute presentation on Churchill.  In the below excerpt he talks about socialism and the impossibility of isolationism as a foreign policy for the United States:

Here is the text of Churchill’s radio broadcast of November 16, 1934: (more…)

Published in: on February 19, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments (3)  
Tags: , ,

His Rotundity

His Rotundity

To many Americans it often seems that Congress wastes an inordinate amount of time debating on trivialities.  It is at least an old tradition.  The Senate spent a month in 1789 debating what the title of the President should be.  Washington during the Revolution had often been known informally as His Excellency, but at that time that was the common title for governors of states.  Vice-President John Adams thought that the President needed a royal, or at least a  princely, title  to sustain the dignity of the office.  He suggested such titles as “His Highness” and “His Benign Highness” demonstrating once again how tone deaf to public opinion he tended to be, the American people post Revolution being decidedly anti-monarchical.  Eventually a Senate committee approved the title “His Highness, the President of the United States, and the Protector of Their Liberties”.

Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was aghast at the whole business and recalled Benjamin Franklin’s description of Adams as a man who means well for his country, is always an honest man, sometimes a wise one, and who,  some times, and in some things, is absolutely out of his senses.

Washington initially favored the unwieldy formulation of “His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties,” but was aghast at the criticism that all of this smacked of monarchy, and eagerly agreed to the simple title of Mr. President that James Madison succeeded in having the House of Representatives approve. (more…)

Published in: on February 18, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on His Rotundity  
Tags: , , ,

Washington: The Greatest American-Part I

George Washington

by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benét

Sing hey! For bold George Washington,

That jolly British tar,

King George’s famous admiral

From Hull to Zanzibar!

No–wait a minute–something’s wrong–

George wished to sail the foam.

But, when his mother thought aghast,

Of Georgie shinning up a mast,

Her tears and protests flowed so fast

That George remained at home.

Sing ho! For grave Washington,

The staid Virginia squire,

Who farms his fields and hunts his hounds

And aims at nothing higher!

Stop, stop it’s going wrong again!

George liked to live on farms,

But when the Colonies agreed

They could and should and would be freed,

They called on George to do the deed

And George cried “Shoulder arms!”

Sing ha! For Emperor Washington,

That hero of renown,

Who freed his land from Britain’s rule

To win a golden crown!

No, no, that’s what George might have won

But didn’t for he said,

“There’s not much point about a king,

They’re pretty but they’re apt to sting

And, as for crowns–the heavy thing

Would only hurt my head.”

Sing ho! For our George Washington!

(At last I’ve got it straight.)

The first in war, the first in peace,

The goodly and the great.

But, when you think about him now,

From here to Valley Forge,

Remember this–he might have been

A highly different specimen,

And, where on earth would we be, then?

I’m glad that George was George.

I have never liked President’s Day.  Why celebrate loser presidents like Jimmy Carter and James Buchanan, non-entities like Millard Fillmore, bad presidents, like Grant, with great presidents like Washington and Lincoln?   Officially the date is still the commemoration of George Washington’s birthday and in this post we will recall the life of the greatest American who ever lived.  Ironically in the length of a blog post we will be unable to cover all of Washington’s event filled life, including his Presidency.  We will break off at the close of the Revolution and finish off on February 22, the actual birthday of the man who will always be first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of all of us who, as Americans, in many ways are his children.

Only Abraham Lincoln comes close to Washington in our American secular pantheon.  Our first president, he was also the man who led our armies to victory in the Revolutionary War, a conflict I am certain that we would have lost but for his leadership, faith and example.  In his own time, and from his days as a very young man, most people who encountered Washington assumed he was destined for greatness.  Six foot three at a time when most men were around five foot six, Washington was a literal giant for his day, weighing 220 pounds of muscle, and noted for his feats of strength.  A quiet aura of dignity and command seemed to envelop him from the first time that he put on the uniform of a Virginia militia officer.  He had a hot temper that he usually successfully controlled beneath a mask of quiet dignity, leavened by a lively sense of humor.  However, none of these explain why men and women instinctively looked to him for leadership, but they always did.  Perhaps it was simply a matter of trust.  Although the cherry tree is a myth, Washington was always known to be an honest man, and a man who could be entrusted with great tasks that he would attempt to do out of a sense of duty and not for personal aggrandizement.  Such men are very rare in history, and almost all Washington’s contemporaries realized that he was  such a rarity.

Washington of course did not appear full grown on the stage of history.  When he was born none would have expected him to have any historical significance in his life. (more…)

Published in: on February 17, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments (4)  
Tags: , ,