February 28, 1864: Beginning of the Kirkpatrick-Dahlgren Raid

Portrait of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren

One of the more hare-brained schemes of the Civil War, a cavalry raid towards Richmond with 4,000 Union troopers under Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, a reckless blustering officer fully deserving of his nickname “Kill-Cavalry”, began on February 28, 1864.  Colonel Ulric Dahlgren’s brigade was detailed to penetrate the Richmond defenses, ostensibly to free Union prisoners.  The raid ended in a complete fiasco on March 2, with 324 of the raiders killed or wounded, and 1000 taken prisoner.

Among the dead was Dahlgren.  The Confederates found two interesting documents on his body, including one that contained this sentence:

“The men must keep together and well in hand, and once in the city it must be destroyed and Jeff. Davis and Cabinet killed.”

The sentence was part of two pages written by Dahlgren, which appear to be instructions for his men.  The other document was a speech to his men which contained this sentence:

‘We hope to release the prisoners from Belle Island first & having seen them fairly started we will cross the James River into Richmond, destroying the bridges after us & exhorting the released prisoners to destroy & burn the hateful City & do not allow the Rebel Leader Davis and his traitorous crew to escape.’

The Confederates made huge propaganda hay out of this and were justifiably outraged.  Calls went out to hang the raiders, a call successfully resisted by General Robert E. Lee.  The Union denounced the alleged documents as  forgeries, but after the fall of Richmond, Secretary of War Stanton made certain that the documents were brought to him, and they were never seen again, although the Confederates had made photographs of them, so we know their contents. (more…)

Advertisements

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: , ,

February 27, 1864: First Union Prisoners Arrive at Andersonville

An Andersonville Survivor

One hundred and fifty years ago Union prisoners began arriving at the Andersonville prison camp.  A blot on American honor is the callous way in which many prisoners of war were treated during our Civil War, north and south.    (For a Union prison camp that had a death rate of 25%, google Elmira prison camp, or as the Confederates imprisoned there referred to it, Helmira.)   45,000 Union soldiers would be held at Andersonville and 13,000 of them would die through starvation, bad water, no sanitation and disease.   Accounts of what went on inside Andersonville beggar description.  Jesus wept, sums up the reaction of any decent soul to this abomination.  See the accompanying post for today for the grim details, and for a shining example of humanity by a man motivated by God’s love to love his enemies.

Published in: on February 27, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments (1)  
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: , , ,

February 22, 1864: Battle of Okolona

Okolona Campaign

It is quite easy to assume that of the many victories won by General Nathan Bedford Forrest during the Civil War, the saddest for him was that of Okolona where his brother Colonel Jeffrey Forrest was killed leading a charge of his brigade.  As Forrest himself observed:  War means fighting and fighting means killing.

As part of Sherman’s drive to take Meridian, Mississippi,  read about that campaign here,  Major General William Sooy Smith led 7,000 cavalry out of Memphis to rendezvous with Sherman at Meridian.  But Smith got off to a late start, and Sherman, waiting for Smith for five days at Meridian, marched out of Meridian on February 20, 1864.  Smith, learning of this, headed bakc north towards Okolona, Mississippi, pursued by Forrest.  The pursuit was classic Forrest.  Outnumbered three to one, and short of ammunition, it was of course Forrest who was pursuing Smith!    Late on February 20, Forrest skirmished with Smith’s force at Prairie Station and Aberdeen, which hastened Smith’s retreat.

At dawn on February 22, on the prairie south of Okolona, Forrest opened the attack on Smith’s force, which had dismounted and prepared field fortifications.  Forrest’s frontal attack and flank probes quickly caused the Union troopers to retreat, abandoning five cannon.  The Federals reformed on a ridge, where Colonel Forrest received his mortal wound.  Forrest rushed to his brother, and cradling him in his arms cried “Jeffrey! Jeffrey!”.   He then told his adjutant to look after his brother’s body, and led the charge which swept the Union cavalry into headlong retreat, Forrest personally killing three Union soldiers in close combat.  Forrest pursued the retreating Federals for eleven miles.

The defeat was considered a vast humiliation for the Union Army and General Smith resigned from the Army before the year was out.   Here is the report of Forrest on the battle: (more…)

Published in: on February 22, 2014 at 11:49 pm  Comments Off on February 22, 1864: Battle of Okolona  
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: , , ,

Justice Clarence Thomas on Abraham Lincoln

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on Abraham Lincoln.  One of the more interesting figures in contemporary American public life Thomas brings a strong sense of history, both his history and the nation’s history, in regard to the application of the Constitution to the cases that come before the Court.

Thomas spent his childhood in a place and time in which businesses and government services were legally segregated. In his 2007 memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son,” he described his experience growing up as an African-American Catholic in Georgia during the Jim Crow era. “I was a two-fer for the Klan,” he said.

Thomas moved north from Georgia and graduated from Yale Law School in 1974. He went on to a successful judicial career that took him all the way to the Supreme Court. Thomas’ views on constitutional issues usually put him on the conservative side of the court, where he has penned opinions intended to rein in affirmative-action laws and overhaul a section of the Civil Rights Act that requires states with histories of discrimination to seek approval from the federal government before altering voting policies.

Throughout his career, Thomas said, he has experienced more instances of discrimination and poor treatment in the North than the South.

“The worst I have been treated was by northern liberal elites. The absolute worst I have ever been treated,” Thomas said. “The worst things that have been done to me, the worst things that have been said about me, by northern liberal elites, not by the people of Savannah, Georgia.”

As one of six Catholics on the court, Thomas also addressed the role his faith plays in his work as a justice.

“I quite frankly don’t know how you do these hard jobs without some faith. I don’t know. Other people can come to you and explain it to you. I have no idea,” he said. “I don’t know how an oath becomes meaningful unless you have faith. Because at the end you say, ‘So help me God.’ And a promise to God is different from a promise to anyone else.”

Go here to read the rest.  Thomas was raised by his cantankerous maternal grandfather Myers Anderson, a man with little education but who through hard work built a thriving business selling fuel oil and ice.  He worked Clarence and his brother liked rented mules, and imprinted on them the value of hard work, promising them that if they worked hard enough, and got an education, they could be anything they wanted to be, having nothing but scorn for the idea that white racism could stop them.  Thomas has said simply that his grandfather is the greatest man he has ever known.

In the case of Grutter v. Bollinger the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold the use of race as a factor in law school admissions.  Justice Thomas wrote a ringing dissent in which he explained why the Court was wrong: (more…)

Published in: on February 21, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Justice Clarence Thomas on Abraham Lincoln  
Tags: , ,