Posts Tagged ‘Civil War’


Ford’s Theater is one of those few true “shrines” in our country. It marks a spot of such profound tragedy in our nation’s history, it stands in an august group with Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor, and Ground Zero.

When I think of Ford’s Theater, what comes to my mind isn’t the figurative or literal theatrics of Lincoln’s assassination, but of the premonitions Lincoln himself had of his own death. Now I don’t believe in supernatural precognition (folks like Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce, Jeanne Dixon, and that freakish Jamaican hag from late-night TV make me want to vomit with force and intent), but I do believe folks who are trying to make a significant impact on the world know full well that someone, somewhere, is out to kill them for it.

Lincoln by Saint-Gaudens“About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. I saw light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers, ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin.’ Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.” — A. Lincoln

Now this is, indeed, creepy, but it’s not evidence of the paranormal. Lincoln knew full well that he was waging a war against fellow Americans, a war that not everyone in what remained of the Union supported. He knew that he was violating folks’ rights, that Sherman was burning great swaths of farmland in Georgia and the Carolinas, that hundreds of thousands of draftees were laying dead on the fields from Monocacy to Vicksburg. And he knew that someone, or many someones, wanted him dead. Even though he was doing the right thing, he was stomping on somebody, and that somebody would kill him. How sadly accurate his premonition turned out to be.

Lincoln Funeral in Ohio

A while ago, I listened to an interview of comedian Chris Rock, of Saturday Night Live fame. He’s a brilliant comic. Rough-edged and provocative, to be sure, but brilliant nonetheless (or, perhaps, because of). He clearly rattles cages, but he also makes people think about race, and class, and stupidity, and of other topics equally truthful but irritating. He told the interviewer (and I’ll paraphrase): “when I became famous, I figured I’d be dead.” Not because of drug overdose like other SNL alums like John Belushi or Chris Farley, but because someone would shoot him.

Isn’t that terrible? And I’m sure he’s not the only famous entertainer or politican who thinks that. How many duly-elected Representatives or Senators actually wondered “will I get shot today” when they went to all those raucous “health care town hall” meetings? I would question the sanity of any of them who didn’t think that. And why would they be shot? For trying to give more people health insurance? For being the target of an astro-turf uprising orchestrated by talk radio and billionaire media moguls with their own, selfish, ratings-raising axe to grind?

assault weapon (2)

It’s a sad state of affairs in this country that folks of vision (whether philosophical or political or economic or medical or scientific) can be intimidated into submission or silence not by the power of persuasion or debate or fact-driven decision making, but through threats — real or imagined — of force from the very populace they’re trying to reach. Is this what we have become? Is this what the great democratic experiment has wrought? A society where thoughts and efforts to improve the lot of the nation is met with violence? Are the recent events simply a blip, a blemish on the soul of the country, or are we heading down a steep slope to Somalian anarchy?

Lincoln, of course, didn’t back down. He continued on a path he knew was right. He paid the ultimate price for it. But although the aftermath was rocky, the nation reunited, got on its feet, and became the most powerful nation the world has ever seen.

But now, I wonder. Was it really worth it?


[I don’t have many good pics of Ford’s Theater, so I didn’t post any. All of these are from public domain sources.]



Ford’s Theater National Historic Site


Best YouTube Video Ever!

Google map to Ford’s Theater

Read Full Post »

It’s All About Terrain

One of the great moments for historians (amateur and, I can only assume, professional alike) is when they visit the landscape of a famous event and say “oh my God, I understand it all now!” For me, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park is one such place.

Federal Camp by Tennessee RiverPeople tend to forget that old battles, battles before mechanized cavalry, helicopters, spy satellites, and unmanned drones, were all about terrain. Old strategies involved taking the high ground, controlling mountain passes, utilizing waterways for transportation and defense, and sneaking to the enemy’s position in the gloom of the morning fog. Entire wars from ancient Thermopylae to Pacific Ocean island hopping in World War II involved strategic uses of terrain to overwhelm and defeat an enemy.

In the American Civil War, Chattanooga was undoubtedly a terrain prize. It was the gateway to the Deep South manufacturing centers in Georgia. The Tennessee River was important to the transportation of goods and men, and acted as a natural defensive barrier against Union incursions. The lowlands around the river, and the natural passes through the Appalachians nearby, made it an easy place for railroad construction. Like the circulatory system of the human body, the Confederacy’s railroads were vital to its survival and its greatest vulnerability for defeat. Chattanooga developed into a great railway crossroad, and was the femoral artery of the Confederacy.

Chattanooga Battle Map

Surrounding this artery were the most famous ridgelines of the Civil War: Missionary Ridge to the east; and Lookout Mountain to the west, overlooking the Tennessee River. If anyone intended to take, and keep, the Chattanooga transportation hub, they needed to take, and keep these ridgelines. High ground is holy ground in armed conflict: gravity becomes your greatest asset. Your enemy needs to climb up to challenge you, an exhausting task by itself. In the days of the Civil War, with heavy rifles and, even worse, cannons and artillery, that task is nearly impossible. So a defender, perched high above, has an unbelievable advantage and an opportunity to rain hot death upon the enemy. Of course, having the high ground automatically makes you a target, and can button you in. Surrounding the base of the mountain traps the defenders, making them ripe for a slow death by siege. The holder of the high ground has increased chances for both life and death.

Train Depot and Lookout MountainI’m not going to recount the entirety of the battles surrounding Chickamauga and Chattanooga, there are resources out there that would do a far better job than I ever could. I will say these battles definitely revolved around the lay of the land, and actually being there brings that “eureka” moment. You can read in a book that Union soldiers raced up the slope of Lookout Mountain to chase out the Confederates, but actually going there, and seeing that side of Lookout Mountain is more of a cliff than a slope, really drives the point home that these soldiers were strong, and tough, and committed, and quite amazing. The feats these men (on both sides of the conflict) are truly mind boggling.

I enjoyed my visit to C&C. The area hasn’t been overdeveloped (although there are tony homes on top of Lookout Mountain – why do the rich, who would have bought their way out of service during the Civil War, now command America’s ridgelines? I sense a master’s thesis in there somewhere…). The ridges, of course, do have some terrific views of the countryside. The Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor’s Center has the best collection of American military rifles I have ever seen (definitely a must-see for gun enthusiasts). And it’s one of the few Civil War sites where an amateur historian can go and say “wow, now I really get it”, just by being there.

Span Over Tennessee River

[Sadly, I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited C&C. Public domain historic photos from the National Archives, map from the Library of Congress.]


Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park

Civil War photographs from the National Archives

Civil War maps from the Library of Congress

Description of the Battle of Chattanooga

Google map to C&C NMP (zoom in & switch to terrain view to get the point)

Read Full Post »

The Greatest Moment in American History

When one asks the question, “what was the greatest moment in American history?”, there are a lot of potential answers.

Some could say July 4th, 1776, the birth date of the United States. Well, yeah, declaring independence from Great Britain was a great moment, but it did miss the mark. It started the country down the right path, but the Founders still couldn’t resolve the slavery issue. The inability to do that would lead to decades of strife. So a good moment, but not great.

Flag on Distant Path — © 2008 America In ContextOthers look at the D-Day invasion of Nazi-held Europe to be America’s shining moment. Undoubtedly, it was an incredible feat of will and bravery on the parts of thousands of American soldiers and the men who led them, but I view D-Day as a great moment in world history, not American history. We were part of something much bigger than America itself, which is, of course, tremendous, but it’s not uniquely an American moment.

Some will also say America’s great moments revolve around technical or scientific achievements, like the moon landings or Jonas Salk’s discovery of the polio vaccine. I’m not at all belittling the great successes of those scientists and engineers. In the case of Salk, his work aided the entire world, not just our own egos. But there is something fundamentally true about science: eventually, someone will figure it all out, it’s inevitable (unless the Kansas Board of Education takes control of the planet or something…). I’m looking for moments of human greatness, not of scientific achievement.

No, I say that the meeting between Gens. Grant and Lee at Appomattox is America’s greatest moment.

Now I know what you’re thinking: being from Massachusetts, I’m clearly a Union sympathizer and take great pride on the Union ass-whupping of the Confederacy. All I can say is “nope”. The victory isn’t what’s important about Appomattox. Victory was guaranteed: the Blues not only outnumbered the Greys, but they also had a stronger industry and greater resources. Victory was certain. Besides, there have been many other American victories throughout the decades, and none of them come close to being the “greatest moment,” either. It’s not victory in battle that makes a great moment.

I can sum up the reason why I feel the events at Appomattox are America’s Greatest Moment in one sentence: the American Civil War ended.

Hay Bales — © 2008 America In ContextPeople don’t understand how rare it is for a civil war to actually end outright. History shows how these things usually end: in guerilla warfare, or terrorism, or oppression, or genocide, or economic collapse, or a plethora of other horrible ways. So very, very rarely do the two sides simply reconcile, reunite, and get on with their lives. Yet this is exactly what happened to the United States in 1865. It ended this way because of the dignity and grace of the two great opposing figures: Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and Union General Ulysses S. Grant.

The scene was the Virginia hamlet of Appomattox. Lee’s Confederate Army had been chased out of Richmond and found itself surrounded by Grant’s superior – and better fed – force. Lee had no choice: he surrendered his armies to Grant, in a dignified manner befitting the son of Southern aristocrats. Grant, in a manner seemingly not befitting his prior reputation, accepted in an equally dignified manner.

For months prior to this momentous day, the North’s newspapers and politicians had mapped out a horrid path. They demanded financial reparations, extracted from the very hides of the Southern elitists who marched their states to secession. They also advocated public executions for Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and others. “Treason must be made odious; traitors must be punished and impoverished!” Of the Confederate capitol, Richmond, Northern newspapers cried “Let Her Burn!”, regardless of who happened to be living there at the time. A graceful end was not what the North had in mind.

Last of the Fallen — © 2008 America In Context

The South had also been thinking of this day for months. Some in the command structure urged a continuation of war in the form of guerrilla warfare tactics, designed to disrupt and hamper the conquerors. Hit-and-run raids, sabotage, assassination, all run from the Appalachians and the dense swamps of the South. This is usually the parting shot by the conquered: a continuation of war from the shadows, perhaps (and often so) even devolving into direct acts of terrorism.

So there we were, after nearly four years of horrible, bloody conflict, at a point of immense decision. How would the Civil War end? Would the North seek revenge against the secessionists? Would the South crawl into the shadows and fight on?

Fortunately for us, these two men, Lee and Grant, were the finest two men we could possibly expect a war-torn nation to deliver. Grant was magnanimous: the beaten army must simply lay down their arms, and go home. Lee was reciprocally honorable: he had his men do exactly that.

Clover Hill Tavern & Guesthouse — © 2008 America In ContextSo there we were. On a fine April day in 1865, two armies met, shook hands, and went their own separate ways. Yes, the Union clearly won, and would clearly take charge. But there would be no guerrilla movement; no reciprocity; no retribution; no terrorism; no genocide. This is such an amazingly rare occurrence in world history, it’s absolutely remarkable.

Yes, I’m simplifying. There were a few more battles after that, but one by one, the remaining Confederate armies in North Carolina, Alabama, Oklahoma, and elsewhere would surrender, all amicably under the “Spirit of Appomattox”. Jefferson Davis was imprisoned for two years, but his bail was paid by wealthy friends north and south, and he became a free man (even writing a book about his experiences). There were a lot of controversies and entanglements around Reconstruction, and the freed slaves would still have decades of hardship ahead. To this day, we still have conflicts over the Confederate flag, so the wounds haven’t fully healed almost 150 years later. But it could have been a lot worse. Look at Algeria, or Cambodia, or Lebanon, or Bolshevik Russia, or the Congo. Long-lasting (or even never-ending) bloodbaths, all of them.

The U.S. Civil War was a terrible conflagration that killed over 600,000 men and laid waste to entire swaths of the countryside. But in the end, even with all that trauma, America emerged from the Civil War a far better country than it was when it entered. That’s largely thanks to the decency of two honorable men, meeting in a small Virginia hamlet. Therefore, I decree the Meeting at Appomattox to be the Greatest Event in American History.

The Surrender by Rocco — public domain photo courtesy of the National Park Service

My other original photos from Appomattox can be found here.


Appomattox Court House National Historical Park

Google map to Appomattox

Read Full Post »

Failure In Success

Antietam is one of the great battles of the American Civil War, involving 130,000 soldiers (infantry, cavalry, and artillery). There’s only one way to describe the Battle of Antietam: a bloody, awful mess. It is remembered in history as the single, deadliest one-day battle ever fought on American soil. The Union won the field that day, in spite of bad command decisions by General George McClellan and his field commanders. Lee was driven away, his weaker numbers unable to take victory, despite his own tactical brilliance. By the end of the day, over 3600 men were dead, and another 19,000 injured (and likely dead shortly thereafter, thanks to medical practices in the 19th century). A bloody, awful mess, indeed.

Confederate Dead — public domain photo courtesy of Antietam on the Web

A lot of men died in the Civil War. Over 600,000 men gave their lives on the field of battle through the course of the war, and (as always happens in war) an uncountable number of civilians lost theirs as well. But Antietam holds another special place in American history. The pre-Grant Union Army could do what only the pre-Grant Union Army could do: it snatched defeat from the claws of victory. If Gen. McClellan was any kind of able commander, instead of the pompous ass he was, he would have crushed the Confederate army right then and there, and ended the war within 18 months of its inception at Fort Sumter. But McClellan lacked something that defines winners from losers: energy and drive. He allowed his forces (thousands of whom didn’t even fire a shot) to rest on their laurels while Robert E. Lee’s men retreated southward. If only McClellan had acted then and there, and whupped Lee in the fields of Maryland, the war would have been over.

Lincoln and McClellan — public domain photo courtesy of Antietam on the WebI really want to let that soak in a bit. If McClellan had acted, the Battle of Fredericksburg would not have happened (2,000 dead). Spotsylvania would not have happened (4,000 dead). Chancellorsville would not have happened (est. 5,000 dead). Chickamauga would not have happened (est. 6,000 dead). The Battle of Gettysburg would not have happened (8,000 dead). Richmond would not have been sacked and looted. New York would not have had its draft riots. Atlanta would not have been burned to the ground. Virginia would not have had its entire countryside scoured by war. And maybe an assassin would not have claimed the life of the greatest President we ever had.

But McClellan sat on his lazy ass, Lee got away, and country had three more years of war. Good job, Georgie!

I suppose there is success in failure as well. One good thing came out of Antietam (beyond McClellan’s immediate firing): Lincoln’s most famous, yet most misunderstood, act — the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln had been working on it for some time, but needed the right moment to release it. As lame as McClellan’s actions were, he gave Lincoln that moment: a Union victory over the Confederate army. Lincoln released his document to the public, gave a wonderful speech, and America turned a vital corner away from slavery (read more commentary on Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation here).

Walk the Path of History

A Lone Grave — public domain photo courtesy of Antietam on the WebEven though I love the National Park Service and the sites they protect, I have to admit: many of the Civil War sites are nearly undecipherable. You have to really use your imagination to envision the order of battle or the strategic importance of the terrain. It’s hard to imagine a line of Union artillery in a Wendy’s parking lot. What were they firing at, the Avis Car Rental?

Antietam, on the other hand, is a great park to envision an old battle. The Dunker Church still stands, the Cornfield has been replanted. Bloody Lane is still discernable, and the sturdy Burnside Bridge remains. The latter represents the greatest blunder of the Civil War behind Pickett’s Charge. Union Major General Ambrose Burnside ordered thousands of men to storm across the stone bridge, where they were easily slaughtered by well-placed Confederate riflemen. Old Dumb Ass didn’t realize he could send his thousands of troops across the creek itself, where their numbers would simply swarm over the enemy positions. The ruddy thing was only a couple of feet deep! Nothing I could write could explain the idiocy of funneling all your men across a tiny bridge where they could be slaughtered like crawdads at a Cajun restaurant. The Antietam National Battlefield preserves this land so perfectly that a short visit and some clever observations will reveal what should have been so obvious in 1862.

Antietam is a wonderful park to visit. It’s not a long drive from Washington, DC. Next time you’re in the nation’s capital, stop by Antietam. Make sure you stop by for a pint at Brewer’s Alley in Fredericksburg, MD!

Burnside Bridge — public domain photo courtesy of Antietam on the Web

Sadly, I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited Antietam. Historical pictures courtesy of a terrific Civil War website: Antietam on the Web.



Antietam National Battlefield and Cemetery

Antietam on the Web

Brewer’s Alley Restaurant & Brewery

Google map to Antietam

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »