Tag Archives: Civil War

Book Review: Grant by Ron Chernow

Grant

Grant

by Ron Chernow

Ron Chernow has a knack for biography. In his writing, he takes what you know about a person and introduces you to them in a different way. When we think of Grant we think of a few main things. Won the Civil War. Check (he had help.) Drunk. Check(but not really?) Terrible President. Check( but again not really,) and that is what you will take with you into this book.

Coming out of it though you will learn about the man that was Hiram Ulysses Grant. The man who trusted people, even when he shouldn’t which lead him to trouble his entire life. Especially when he became president. You learn about the down on his luck failed businessman and farmer that found a second life in the time of his country’s greatest need. You see a man go from the depths of despair and failure to a revered world figure. And you see a man that struggled with alcohol, sometimes winning the battle and sometimes losing. But most importantly you see Grant the man, not the myth.

That is the gift that Chernow has. He takes men of myth and shows you the person. He is able to get into their heads and almost show you the world as they see it. Like his Washington biography, you come out of it with the feeling that while a bit of the shine may be off the legend, it does not take away from the man. And Grant, for better or worse, was an amazing man and this book captures that well.

As always you can purchase a copy of the book by clicking on the cover image above.

Book Review: The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War

Book Review

The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War

by Don H. Doyle

There was a lot riding on the American Civil War. When the nation was formed in the American Revolution a new country was created, a democracy unlike any that had been seen before. Much of the world didn’t think it would last. Much of the world did not want it to last. So when the Southern states seceded and the United States became divided, the world held its breath.

The Cause of All Nations tells the story of the American Civil War from the perspective of the rest of the world. How did countries like Britain and France view the war? The fledgling democracy movements in each saw things quite different from the aristocratic and royalist leaders. How did the creation of Italy play into the American war? Was this going to be a war to set people free or a fight between two different ideas of government?

These questions and many others are answered in this fascinating and well-written book. The biggest takeaway for me and something that I had never really realized before was how close Europe came to intervention. I mean the fleets were in the harbors close to turning this into a world war. I knew it was close, but not that close. The other fascinating bit is the role the Vatican played in the American Civil War. Tiny, but interesting. I would love to see if some of those letters survived.

Doyle has told and informative and compelling narrative. If you are picking this up you most likely already know the basics of the story. What the author does is allow you to see the conflict from the perspective of the rest of the world. It also provides insight into exactly what the United States meant to the world in the 1860’s and provides insight into what we mean to the world today.

It is well worth the read and as always you can click the cover above to find it at Amazon.

 

 

The Union Flag over Vicksburg

Union Flag Over Vicksburg

The Union Flag over Vicksburg

By the Summer of 1863, the tide had turned in the Civil War. Early on the Confederate States of America proved themselves able on the battlefields of the east. Out west though was another story. Slowly but surely Union forces moved up and down the Mississippi trying to gain control of the Father of Waters. The final battle in that fight would be fought in Vicksburg.

Gibraltar of the Confederacy

The city was vital to the Confederacy. Holding it literally kept the eastern and western parts of the Confederacy united. Supplies and men could move back and forth from Texas and Northern merchants could not get their goods to the Gulf of Mexico. It had to stand, but that summer it stood alone.

Union General Ulysses S. Grant was the man tasked with bringing the city down. He knew that if taken, the war would be that much closer to being finished.  During the campaign Grant and his men had to deal not only with the Confederate army but mother nature herself. Swamps and bayous stood in his way.  A maze that made the city one of the best-defended sites on the continent. All that was even before the ring of forts and the 170 cannons that defended what was called the Gibraltar of the Confederacy.

Grant would eventually maneuver his way past the obstructions and within sight of the city. For 47 days the city was under siege. Artillery pounded it every day and no supplies could get through. Civilians burrowed into hillsides to escape the shelling. Rats and other vermin became a source of sustenance. Confederate General John Pemberton held out as long as he could. The reinforcements he was expecting never came and his army and the people starved. On July 3rd, 1863 he asked Grant for terms.

In all the Union casualties were fairly light, almost 5,000 out of the almost 77,000 involved. For the Confederacy, the loss was about 3,000 dead wounded or missing. But it was the 30,000 men that surrender that was the major blow. The war would drag on for almost two more years, but the final act had begun.

The Flag

Above in the photo, on display at the Galena & U.S. Grant Museum in Galena, Illinois, is the first Union flag to fly over the city after the surrender. When terms were finalized on July 4th, General Grant sent the 45th Illinois regiment to raise that very flag over the devastated city. The war would drag on for almost two more years, but the final act had begun. That flag was one of many that would fly over the smoldering remains of a failed rebellion.

Book Review: The Quartermaster: Montgomery C. Meigs, Lincoln’s General, Master Builder of the Union Army

Meigs

The Quartermaster: Montgomery C. Meigs, Lincoln’s General, Master Builder of the Union Army

By Robert O’Harrow Jr.

In studying the Union war effort during the Civil War you read a lot about the main players.  Lincoln, Sherman, Grant, McClellan, are all names that pop out usually on the first page of any summary of the war. As you dig deeper another name comes up, almost as a background player to each of them, Montgomery Meigs. When I started reading this book that was the thought I had in my mind, here is the background player to the war, as the Quartermaster General I knew he played a role and looked forward to some behind the scenes look at the war effort.

What I found was the story of an amazing man who truly deserves a spotlight all his own. Even before the war, he was responsible for some of the most incredible engineering projects not just in the country but in the world. He navigated the choppy waters of Washington politics as an honest man and stayed that way during his entire tenure. He not only drew his architect inspiration from Roman and Renaissance models, bringing them to the New World, but he innovated and created styles and methods used today.

Then came the Civil War.

An army had to be built and provisioned on a scale that the United States, and most anywhere else, had never known. The man put in charge was Meigs, and no one ever doubted that decision.  He became an adviser and ally to Lincoln and Stanton. He built a military machine unrivaled for the age and brought it to bear against the enemies of his country. Very few biographies actually leave me in awe, but this was one.

Knowles brings Meigs’s story to the page in a bright and loving way. It would be easy to get bogged down in the minutia that was so important to everything Meigs had a hand in. Whether it was negotiating contracts for bricks for the Capitol, or gathering horses to pull the machinery of war. Every detail was necessary and well described.  What helps was short chapters and breaking it up into nice bite-sized chunks. Many authors would have tried piling on and that would have ill-served this story.

I highly recommend this book.

Rodman Guns

The Rodman Guns of Ft. McHenry

Rodman Guns

 

Those heavy iron beauties in the picture above are examples of a Rodman Gun. They were designed during the Civil War by Union artilleryman Thomas Rodman. The ones above are located at Ft. McHenry in Baltimore.

The main innovation with these pieces was in the way they were cast. Traditionally artillery pieces were cast as one solid piece with the bore drilled out after cooling. This solid piece method meant that as the piece cooled, it did so from the outside in. This allowed small cracks and imperfections to form. While many of these imperfections would be taken care of during the drilling of the bore, there was always the possibility that others existed.

The Rodman method consisted of casting the piece as a hollow tube with a cooling tube in the center. This allowed the metal to cool from the inside out, which allowed for it to be stronger with fewer imperfections. Here is an article that gets into some of the small details. Basically, it made the gun stronger and allowed for heavier projectiles to be fired.

This casting method became the standard during and after the war and Rodman Guns were produced in many different sizes. Attempts were made to cast the unit as rifled pieces, with the spiral grooves in place, but it was not very successful. Later on, most of the guns were rifled.

The cannons above could fire a projectile weighing up to 444 pounds close to a mile. With that kind of power and distance, they became the go-to for coastal defense. Though several thousand of this style of artillery were made during the Civil War, very few if any actually were fired in combat. The two in the picture above in Baltimore harbor have only been fired for holidays and special occasions.

 

Wednesday Words & Phrases: Copperhead

Image result for copperhead civil war
Cartoon about the Copperheads, published in Harper’s Weekly, February 1863. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-USZ62-132749)

On Wednesdays we are going to branch out a bit from word origins and talk about some of the unique words that have entered our language. Still with a history and military bent mind you.

Copperhead (American Civil War)

Politics in America has always been divisive, it is the nature of our beast. Never though was it more divisive then leading up to the Civil War. in 1860 Abraham Lincoln won the presidency as a Republican. The Republican Party was fairly young at this point ans was made up of the remnants of several other parties that had come and gone. Free Soilers, Whigs, Know Nothings, etc. The Democratic Party was older and more established at the time of the Civil War, but it was going through some issues. Slavery being one of them.

Southern Democrats, of course believed that slavery was a right and it fought for it. Northern Democrats were a little shaky on the subject and in the lead up to the 1860 election a rift formed in the party. This lead to two conventions and two Democrat nominees for the presidency. (And then some.) The Democrats lost the election and had the party stayed together, that may not have happened.

As the Southern States seceded the great majority of the Democrat Party went with them, but not all of them. Many Northern Democrats supported the cause of the South and became very vocal against the war. These anti-war democrats became known as Copperheads which are known as sneaks and having the ability to strike without warning.

For most of the war they proved a thorn in the side of President Lincoln. One of the leaders of the movement Clement Vallandigham, a member of the House from Ohio, became so outspoken that Lincoln deported him to the Confederacy.

The Copperhead movement lost steam after the 1864 fall of Atlanta. This event pretty much signaled that the war was moving into its final stages.  Though their overall effectiveness was marginal. However they did take a stand against the regimes crack down on civil liberties.  Other than that their main focus was the same as all political parties, winning elections and beating their rivals.

Movie Review: Free State of Jones

Free State of Jones [Blu-ray]

We live in a day and age when the causes of the Civil War are still being debated, where is can be said that Reconstruction never truly ended and anything that has to do with the Confederacy is being called out as a sin that should be wiped from the collective memory.

Along comes a movie like Free State of Jones that shows a man rebelling against the rebels, deserting from their army and rallying his relatives and neighbors to stop fighting the wars of the rich planters as he goes on to build a society around the idea that all men, regardless of color are the same. It’s a story that a cynical person could believe was custom-made to get people talking in light of where our society is.

The thing is, it is a true story. Newt Knight was a real person and Jones County Mississippi did indeed break away from the Confederate States of America and actively fought against the Confederate Army on behalf of the Union. Of course being a movie things are not 100% accurate, but the general gist is there.

Matthew McConaughey plays Newt Knight and he does it well.  McConaughey is one of those actors that to me, always feels like he is playing himself instead fo a character, but in this movie he takes on the roles and does a fine job with the material he is given. The rest of the cast is good, but no one really stands out. For the most part that is because the script is a little messy, and paper-thin in places. Which with an over two-hour run time means a lot of water being tread.

As a Civil War movie it is effective in invoking the conflict, while also showing an aspect of it that is no often dealt with. Not everyone who lived in the South and fought for the South did so to defend slavery. The vast majority of the Confederate soldiers were not slave owners and when push came to shove chose to defend their homes and family when the fighting started.

It’s a good movie and well worth seeing once.  As always you can click on the picture above to get the movie at Amazon. Unlike most times though I am also including a link below to the book. If the movie is interesting to you, pick up the book. or just get the book and then check out the movie.

 

Product Details

Lincoln The General

President Abraham Lincoln had a daunting task in front of him in April 1861.  Several states had seceded from the Union and war seemed pretty much inevitable.  When the first shots came and the rest of the Southern states left the task seemed nearly impossible. Lincoln himself had a very limited experience with war and at the start he leaned heavily on those around him. As defeat after defeat piled up and the idea that the war would be short started to fade, Lincoln started to come into his own as Commander In Chief.

As a grand strategist Lincoln had several priorities that he set the army to. First was the protection of Washington DC. He knew that if for some reason the capital were to fall to the rebels the war would pretty much be over.  He also believed strongly in gaining control of strategic points on the map. Control of the Mississippi River was top of this list as well as the blockade of the coast. He was also a strong proponent of the idea that the Confederate Army should be the target of operations with the goal of destroying the Confederate ability to carry on the war.

In the end that would be the strategy that would win him the war, but getting it carried out became a herculean task that made the actual activity on the battlefield pale in comparison. Opposed to him were his generals that wanted to follow their own path. Opposed were politicians, in his party and in the other, that all looked to further their own needs.

The longer the war went on the more the army began to look like what Lincoln wanted. He would visit the War Department several times a day to read the telegraph dispatches that up dated him on the status of the army and current actions. When battles were engaged he would stay in the telegraph office and monitor events happening hundreds of miles away. Once he even intervened in a battle sending orders to the commanders based on what he was seeing develop.

It’s easy to remember Lincoln the politician, or even the emancipator, but it was his ability to become a warrior on the fly, and to be a leader that truly set him apart.

 

Bull Run VS Manassas

The hand drawn map of the Battle of Bull Run is on display at the Manassas National Battlefield Park. As far as artifacts go it is pretty standard, a participant of the battle recreated the battlefield on paper, maybe as part of an after action report, or maybe just so they would not forget. We don’t know about the author, but we know one thing for sure.  The person who mad the map from the Union.

How do we know? The title on the map is Battle fo Bull Run, had it been a Confederate that drew the map most likely it would have been labeled Battle of Manassas. It was most common during the war for the Union Army to name battles after the closet body of water, while the Confederates used the nearest town.

Some other examples are:

The battle fought between April 6 and 7, 1862 is known in the North as Pittsburg Landing, but in the South it was called Shiloh.

September 17, 1862 found the north fighting the Battle of Antietam, but the South fought the Battle of Sharpsburg.

April 8th, 1864 was the Battle fo Mansfield to the Confederates, but to the Union it named Sabine Cross Roads.

Of course in the end the name of a particular battle was usually determined by the winner. Today, especially if you visit the national parks that have sprung up around the former battlefields you may recognize most of the ones in the South will use the Southern names.

As for why they were named as such, one historian theorizes that since many Northerners were from cities they considered bodies of water as the more noteworthy geographic feature; Southerners however tended to be more rural so they regarded towns as most noteworthy.

So if you are discussing the Civil War with someone pay attention to how the refer to battles, it may give you some insight as to where they are from!

 

Movie Review: Lincoln

Lincoln (Blu-ray+DVD)

 

Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and more make for high expectations from this movie. We have come to expect that Spielberg can tell a story that deals with a certain historical setting and bring the times and people to life. Lewis is known for not just his acting, but his becoming the person he is representing. Those two aspects mash together to make this movie very nearly acceptable.

Focusing not so much on the war that Lincoln was fighting against the southern United States, this movie deals with the struggles of getting the 13th amendment passed. For those who do not know this amendment finally outlawed slavery in the United States. So if you are tuning in here to see another war movie, or even to see Lincoln the Commander-In-Chief you are in the wrong place.

I went into the movie with an open mind, but that quickly closed by the time the credits rolled. In reading articles and even reviews about this movie one thing kept popping up. When asked if it is historical the main response was always, “Well, it is a historical DRAMA, not a documentary.” or some turn of that phrase.

One of the mist glaring inaccuracies, among many, was that during the final act of the film when congress was voting on the 13th amendment, the screen writer changed Connecticut’s vote placing two of the three members in a position of supporting slavery. This frankly was not the way the vote went down. When confronted the screenwriter basically said that more tension was needed in the scene so he took some liberties.

Yeah, OK.

As a drama it is a good movie, but it is not history. Watch with your eyes open and afterwards be ready to Google up a storm looking for the truth. Recommended? If you like the drama, sure. If you want the history, nope.

Here is a google search that will get you a list of everything wrong with the movie, Lincoln. List