Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Did the Match Help Cause the Civil War?

When I was in graduate school at the University of North Texas, one of my professors told us about the 1860 Texas “slave insurrections.” The event was one that I had never heard of before, and I have been curious about it ever since. Recently I read a book by Dr. Donald E. Reynolds titled Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic Of 1860 And The Secession Of The Lower South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007). It is a fascinating read that highlights the great fears that white southerners held in regard to the Republican Party in the months leading up to the 1860 presidential election.

On July 8, 1860, as the temperature soared above 100 degrees, a series of fires caused extensive business property damage in Dallas, Denton, Pilot Point, Milford and several other north Texas communities. Initially blamed on the combination of unstable phosphorous matches that were in many of the businesses and high temperatures, Texans soon developed another theory; slaves had intentionally set the fires as part of a revolt. Newspapers were soon full of stories chronicling the alleged plot as slaves were suspected of arson and attempted poisonings. Vigilante committees formed in a number of Texas communities as suspected abolitionists were questioned about their alleged role in the “conspiracy.” All of this led to many unfortunate consequences: at least thirty slaves and “abolitionists” were hanged, some northerners were run out of the state, and every slave in Dallas County was ordered to be whipped.

Against this backdrop, the 1860 presidential campaign, perhaps the most pivotal in American history, was unfolding. The Texas “slave insurrections” served to intensify fears of the Republican Party and provided important momentum for the secessionist movement following the election of Abraham Lincoln.

Was there really a slave insurrection in the summer of 1860? According to Reynolds, “the total absence of any convincing evidence that there was a plot, together with much circumstantial evidence and testimony indicating that none existed, strongly suggests that there was no conspiracy” (p. 214). Therefore, it is entirely possible that the incident was indeed started by the lowly “prairie match.”

Reynolds’ book is one of the most interesting that I have read in recent years and is full of many intriguing episodes. There is much food for thought about the role of journalism, the causes of mass hysteria, and many other topics in his extremely well researched book.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Is It Hot Enough For You?

Northeastern Oklahoma is experiencing a heat wave, and I decided to look up some quotes from Civil War soldiers in the trans-Mississippi to see what they had to say about summer weather. My unscientific and admittedly rather brief survey of primary accounts led to a surprising conclusion; Union soldiers seemed more apt to comment in detail about the weather than their Confederate opponents. All of the following quotations are from the Union perspective, but hopefully I’ll locate some lively quotations about summertime weather from the Confederate point of view. Another conclusion… summer weather was just as dreadful in the 1860s as it is now, however, we have a great advantage…air conditioning.

Franc B. Wilkie, Springfield, Missouri:

From a dispatch dated August 2, 1861:
“The weather was hot—slightly. I rather enjoy respectable hot weather, such for instance as will cook an egg hard in two minutes, or roast a joint equal to a Dutch oven; but the weather of that day was a little too much for even my ardent constitution. There were men with us who had toasted their chins beneath the vertical rays of a tropical sun; there were others who went through the fiery rays of Mexico’s sun during the war, but all confessed that they never had known anything comparable to that. I won’t undertake to say how many degrees hot it was, as we had no thermometer, but will venture the guess that it was anywhere between 1,100 and 2,000 ‘in the shade.’ Men dropped in the ranks as if smitten by lightning; under every tree and beneath every bush they staggered and fell in groups of twos and dozens.”

Banasik, Michael E., ed., Missouri In 1861: The Civil War Letters of Franc B. Wilkie, Newspaper Correspondent, Unwritten Chapters of the Civil War West of the River, Volume IV, (Iowa City: Camp Pope Bookshop, 2001), 131-132.

William P. Black, Springfield, Missouri:

Springfield, Mo. July 10th 1862….What exceedingly hot weather we have been having in these weeks past. No rain this month till to-night, when the windows of heaven seemed open to us to pour out a bounteous blessing. Already we feel the cooled & refreshed vigor of the air, & we all rejoice. The ground had become parched, vegetation of all kinds was withering up, gardens were blighting, & roads were a bed of dust. But now is a day of better things. As is nearly always the case at the breaking up of such a hot spell of weather, however, we had quite a gust of wind & a thunder-shower—The clapps were at times very sharp & close but now they have retired to the distance & seem as if some one had retired to heaven’s growlery & were doing his best to maintain the expectation of the place. And still the rain comes down steadily & joyously, giving life & health.”

Banasik, Michael E., ed., Duty, Honor and Country: The Civil War Experiences of Captain William P. Black, Thirty-Seventh Illinois Infantry, Unwritten Chapters of the Civil War West of the River, Volume VI, (Iowa City: Camp Pope Bookshop, 2006), 111-112.

August Scherneckau, Fort Davidson, Missouri:

“Tuesday, June 16 [1863]—Very warm. We had drill as usual in the morning and afternoon, today under our new commander, who seems to be more concerned about us than any one of our own officers. Even though the exercise is not very strenuous, it is sufficient to bring out the sweat. Our campground is without shade, and the sun burns on our tents without mercy; therefore, it is unbearably hot inside. To remedy this misfortune, we have built various huts of leafy branches in which we pass the hot daytime hours. They are somewhat more airy and shady.”

Potter, James E. and Edith Robbins, eds., Marching With The First Nebraska: A Civil War Diary, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), 173.

Charles O. Musser, Helena, Arkansas:

Helena, Arkansas July the 9th, 63….The weather is almost too hot for a white man to live here. i never felt Such hot Sun before. we lay in our tents almost panting for breath. it [is] awful Sultry. I will never complain of the hot sun in Iowa again if i get there.”

Popchock, Barry, ed., Soldier Boy: The Civil War Letters Of Charles O. Musser, 29th Iowa, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995), 67-68.

“An officer with the Native Battalion, stationed at Fort Yuma [California] in August 1865, wrote home: ‘For heaven’s sake, never come out this way if you can help it. You will surely melt. The thermometer is 112 in the shade every day, with no wind. Scorpions thick as molasses and flies still more. When we want to drink cool water we have to boil it and drink it immediately or else it gets hotter.’”

Masich, Andrew E., The Civil War in Arizona: The Story Of The California Volunteers, 1861-1865, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006), 105-106.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Trans-Mississippians at Gettysburg

Hopefully readers will bear with me as I cross the mighty Mississippi in this posting. I recently had the pleasure of visiting Gettysburg, my first visit to that battlefield since I was a teenager. In advance of the trip, I arranged for a tour with a licensed battlefield guide and asked to see the following sites:

--the area where the Texas brigade fought on July 2nd

--the area where the 9th Massachusetts Artillery (Bigelow’s battery) made their stand on July 2nd

--the place where the 1st North Carolina Cavalry fought on July 3rd

My interest in the 1st North Carolina Cavalry stems from the wartime correspondence of Theophilus and Harriet Perry that I edited a number of years ago. Harriet’s brother, Jesse Person, served in the 1st North Carolina Cavalry and was one of two soldiers killed in that unit on July 3rd in the fighting east of town. He was buried in the Great Conewago Presbyterian Cemetery in Hunterstown on July 4th , and I also requested that the guide take me there if there was time. Accompanying me on this jaunt was my friend, Kyla, who has a limited interest in the Civil War but was game to go on the tour.

Jim Clouse, our licensed battlefield guide, met us on the morning of June 7th and took us away on a super tour that lasted four and a half hours. After driving through the areas fought over on July 1st and orienting Kyla to the battle, Jim drove us to the area where the Texas brigade launched its attack on July 2nd. There have been many fine historians who have documented the actions of the 1st Texas, the 4th Texas, the 5th Texas, and the 3rd Arkansas on that bloody afternoon so I will not “reinvent the wheel” by describing their actions yet again.

This monument, with its wreath of yellow roses, commemorates the actions of the Texas brigade.

Here is a view of the triangular field from the position of the 124th New York; the 1st Texas crossed this field in a charge on the position of the 124th New York (the Orange Blossoms).

And a view of the triangular field from the perspective of the 1st Texas; the monument to the 124th New York is in the middle of the photograph.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

John G. Walker Obtains a Pardon

Andy Hall, a descendant of Major General John George Walker, has written an interesting post on his Maritime Texas blog about Walker’s request for a pardon following the war. Walker served during the Antietam campaign as a divisional commander in the Army of Northern Virginia and then he transferred to the trans-Mississippi and took command of the all Texas division that eventually bore his name. Andy discusses Walker's background and his pardon application, and includes his complete pardon file.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Joseph P. Blessington: Irish Immigrant and Texan

Among the immigrants arriving in New York City in 1857 was Joseph P. Blessington, age 16 and a native of Ireland. Three years later, he embarked on another remarkable journey this time to Texas. One year later he started on another adventure when he enlisted in the 16th Texas Infantry, a regiment that served for much of the war in Walker’s Texas Division. Blessington served as a private soldier for most of the conflict, but spent some time as well on Brigadier General William R. Scurry’s staff. A combat veteran, Blessington fought in the battles of Mansfield, Pleasant Hill (where he was wounded), and Jenkins’ Ferry. Blessington remained in Texas after the war ended and was living in Austin when his book The Campaigns of Walker’s Texas Division was published in 1875. Why did he write the book? In the preface, Blessington stated that he wanted “to rescue from probable oblivion the deeds and prowess of ‘Walker’s Division’ of Texas troops of the Confederate States Army” (p. 9). To Blessington, “the task has been a labor of love” (p. 9), and his pride in the accomplishments of this Texas division shows in every chapter of the book. You may have noticed an unusual feature of his book already; it is about an entire division. Although much has been written about the loyalty that Civil War soldiers exhibited toward their regiments, John G. Walker’s Texans were one group of soldiers whose primary loyalty was to their division.

Clearly based on a diary, Blessington’s chronicle is a day-by-day one in several sections. He is at his best in describing camp life and the many marches that Walker’s Texans were involved in, but he is weakest in the chapters about battles. As a “modern” historian, his occasional use of purple prose and generalities in battle descriptions can be annoying and yet there is much emotion, drama, and an eye for detail in his descriptions of battle events. Here are some quotes from the section on the battle of Mansfield:

“On the right of the division and about fifty yards in advance, was our favorite leader, General Walker, surrounded by his staff officers, eating their lunch before they enter the conflict” (p. 186).

“When the gallant Louisianians learned the certainty of their idolized chieftain’s [Mouton] death, many of these lion-hearted men threw themselves in wild grief on the ground, weeping scalding tears in their bitter sorrow” (p. 187).

“As we approached a narrow skirt of timber, and about six hundred yards from the enemy’s position, we beheld General Walker, mounted on his iron-gray horse, with his field-glass to his eye, taking observations of the enemy’s position. His actions and features were a study for the closest scrutinizer of physiognomy. Not a quiver on his face—not a movement of a muscle, to betray anxiety or emotion, notwithstanding the shower of balls whizzing around him” (p. 187-188).

There are many similar nuggets scattered throughout the book showing that Blessington had a keen eye for the dramatic. When I researched my history of the 28th Texas Cavalry (dismounted) I relied heavily on The Campaigns of Walker’s Texas Division and came away with a great appreciation for this fine work.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

National Cemeteries: Los Angeles and San Francisco

I enjoy reading other Civil War blogs and recently noticed a posting by Kevin Levin on his Civil War Memory blog about the Los Angeles National Cemetery. The main feature of the posting was a short You Tube video about the cemetery by historian Joan Waugh. She notes that many Civil War veterans were buried in this cemetery that was established in 1889. Her comments led me to the web page for the cemetery, and it included some interesting facts. Fourteen Medal of Honor recipients are buried there and six of them received their citations as a result of the Civil War. The San Francisco National Cemetery, established in 1884, also has a number of Civil War veterans buried there. Thirty-six Medal of Honor recipients are buried in the San Francisco National Cemetery and four of those received their medals as a result of a Civil War action. I also learned, much to my surprise, that Union spy Pauline Cushman is buried in the San Francisco National Cemetery. If I ever make it out to Los Angeles or San Francisco, I’ll certainly pay a visit to these cemeteries.