Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Yes, Virginia there was a war west of the Mississippi."

Last week, I returned from a vacation with my mom to Antietam, Harpers Ferry, and Manassas. It had been about twenty years since I had visited these places, and I met up with a friend who had never seen them. While on the trip, though, my mom reported that a National Park Service volunteer informed her that not much had happened west of the Mississippi. Grrr. If I had heard the volunteer say that, I would have had a few things to say in response! It’s sad that myths still abound about the trans-Mississippi, but as Dr. Norman D. Brown wrote in his introduction in the 1994 reprint of The Campaigns of Walker’s Texas Division, “Yes, Virginia there was a war west of the Mississippi" (p. xxiv).

In his introduction, Brown also wrote that Confederate “Trans-Mississippi veterans actually begged for recognition” (p. vii). No doubt that was the case for Union veterans as well. Brown quotes Texas veteran W. L. Morrison who wrote the following to the Confederate Veteran magazine in 1895:

“’From reading the Veteran, one would almost conclude we had no war west of the Mississippi, while, in proportion to our numbers, we held as many Federals in check, when protecting Texas and western Louisiana, as any portion of the Confederate forces had to contend with. We also had as brave men, as noble women as ever lived on earth’” (p. viii).

Although historians have increasingly turned their attention to the trans-Mississippi, there is still much work to do. Sadly, I think if veteran Morrison were here today, he would write about the same sentiment concerning most of our contemporary Civil War magazines. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A New Book About The First Kansas Colored Infantry

I’ve been anticipating the publication of this book for several months, and today Ian Michael Spurgeon’s, Soldiers In The Army of Freedom: The 1st Kansas Colored, The Civil War’s First African American Combat Unit, arrived in my mailbox. The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry was indeed the first African American regiment to see combat during the war in spite of what Hollywood has told you. The regiment compiled a fine combat record stretching from Island Mounds (Missouri), First Cabin Creek (Indian Territory), Honey Springs(Indian Territory), and Flat Rock (Indian Territory), to Poison Spring (Arkansas). It is the only regiment that served solely in the trans-Mississippi to be selected as one of Fox’s “300 Fighting Regiments.”

The book, part of the “Campaigns and Commanders” series produced by the University of Oklahoma Press, looks like a high quality production. Writing about African American units is challenging due to the paucity of letters and diaries written by enlisted personnel, but Spurgeon has made good use of newspapers and pension records. An added bonus in the book is a comprehensive roster. Spurgeon is currently working as a historian in the World War II Division of the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Urban Battlefield Preservation

Efforts to preserve the Franklin, Tennessee, battlefield have been much publicized, but there has been an even more extensive preservation project in Kansas City, Missouri. A column by Daniel L. Smith in the latest issue of Civil War News details attempts to preserve the site of the Battle of Westport. The battle took place from October 21-23, 1864 and was one of the largest battles in the trans-Mississippi. Smith discusses preservation challenges there: “Today, the Westport battlefield is located entirely within the urban confines of Kansas City. It is as if the City of Philadelphia had been placed on top of the Gettysburg battlefield.” The Monnett Battle of Westport Fund is a nonprofit organization that has played a key role in preserving and developing the battlefield for visitation. Today, there is a visitor center that overlooks Byram’s Ford, and there is a “mile-long corridor along the Byram’s Ford Road across the battlefield, containing more than 200 acres.” The Fund is named for the late Dr. Howard N. Monnett, a native of Kansas City and an expert on the battle.

Many events, including a reenactment, are scheduled for October 23-26 to mark the 150th anniversary of the battle. The Battle of Westport website has a lot of helpful information such as brochures for a self-guided auto tour and a walking tour.

(All quotes were from the October 2014 issue of Civil War News.)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Fired At The Battle Of Pilot Knob 150 Years Ago

There are few Civil War artifacts in my collection—mostly I have books, books, books. Possibly there are too many books in my house, but I do enjoy them. About ten years ago, I decided to acquire a solid shot, but these are not readily available here in Oklahoma. On a visit to see relatives in Tennessee, I acquired a solid shot at an antique store in Franklin. When I purchased it, the storeowner told me that he had documentation concerning where the cannon ball was found, and it turned out to be from Pilot Knob, Missouri, the site of a significant battle on this date 150 years ago. (The massacre at Centralia also occurred on this date 150 years ago.) So, the cannon ball was brought back to the trans-Mississippi where it has sat on display in my den. It has also made some forays to my classes where my students have enjoyed looking at it and picking it up. Here is my 12-pound solid shot:

Is it Union or Confederate? At one time I did a bit of research and determined that it was more likely to be a Confederate solid shot.

Over the years, I have taken many artifacts to my classes and have noticed how they always lead to questions. In the case of this solid shot, a couple of immediate questions are where was the solid shot manufactured? Which unit fired it? And artifacts are great spurs for the imagination. Yes, this solid shot would certainly have a story for us.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

"This oddly assorted unit...": Polignac's Texas Brigade

In 1964, the Texas Gulf Coast Historical Association published a slender volume by Dr. Alwyn Barr titled Polignac’s Texas Brigade. While paging through it earlier today, I was reminded of the high quality of Barr’s research and how he was able to pack so much information into only seventy-two pages. The brigade had a colorful career neatly summarized by Barr in the following:

“Much of the brigade was recruited from the partially Unionist inhabitants of North Texas, who held many different views on the war and generally lacked the war spirit found in most other portions of the state. Three regiments were raised as cavalry and later dismounted to serve as infantry; another was a consolidated command composed of Texans who had escaped from the capture of Arkansas Post in 1863.Finally, in 1863, the brigade received as its commander the only foreign citizen to become a Confederate general, Prince Camille de Polignac. This oddly assorted unit served under ten commanders, in ten major engagements, and through long periods of skirmishing and hardship in Missouri, Arkansas, the Indian Territory, Louisiana, and Texas. Yet the members of this command, which at various times included approximately five thousand men, left virtually no printed records of their service” (p. xv). Texas A&M University Press reprinted the book in 1998 and included an extra preface that described additional resources that had surfaced about the brigade.

Those Texas soldiers were astonished when the dapper Polignac became their commander in the fall of 1863, and they promptly called him “Polecat.” The blurb on the back of the book calls Barr’s book a “little masterpiece of Civil War history,” an accurate assessment in my opinion.