Thursday, February 04, 2016

Two points of view - 7th NCT vs. 66th NYV in the Wilderness

So many times, in writing about battles, the sources with which I have to work are very vague. We attacked here, or charged, or were fired upon, etc. We get the skeleton version or outline of what happened. While working on the role of Lane's brigade during the battle of the Wilderness, I came upon two accounts that give us a little more.

To lay our scene:

Wilderness battlefield
May 5, 1864 - It's dark and smoke hangs in the air. Lane's brigade has been ordered forward to try and stabilize the Confederate line near the Orange Plank Road. The 7th North Carolina, on Lane's left, has been cautioned that there are Confederate troops in their front. Capt. James G. Harris, writing on September 8, 1864, fills us in on the details of what happens next: "At this time owing to the darkness, smoke and density of the swamp, it was impossible to distinguish friend from foe. After remaining here for some time, it was discovered that a column was moving towards the plank road on our left, but supposing it to be McGowan's brigade little attention was paid it until our left wing having arrived within a few paces of it was ordered to surrender, and almost at the same instant, a destructive volley was poured into the regiment, which created some confusion." Harris goes on, in his 1893 account, to tell us that it was the 66th New York Volunteers that fired into the 7th North Carolina.

Lt. Simon Pincus wrote the official report of the 66th New York on September 10, 1864, two days after Harris drafted his. Pincus tells us that his regiment was "deployed in line of battle in the woods on the right of the Third brigade. The line was scarcely formed when the rebels came marching by the flank in front of my regiment, distant about 10 paces. It being dark, they were at first mistaken for friends, but the illusion was soon dispelled, and Lieutenant-Colonel Hammell gave the order to fire, which was promptly executed with fatal effect. It proved to be the Seventh North Carolina, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Davidson, who was captured..."

Two points of view, one Confederate and the other Federal, of the same dark moments in the Wilderness.


Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Three flags

For many years, the people of North Carolina have been responsible for raising the funds to see to it that Confederate flags, entrusted to the state so many decades ago, are being preserved for future generations. Over the past decade, I've had the chance to stand beside many of these flags and to speak about their regiments. It is a huge honor.

To my knowledge, there are two flag preservation projects underway right now within the state.


For the past few months, the North Carolina Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans has been raising funds to preserve the battle flag of the 54th North Carolina Troops. It is possible that the flag was captured on November 7, 1863. The curators at the North Carolina Museum of History believe that the damaged section was caused by Federal soldiers snipping pieces as war trophies. The pictured flag was first sent to the War Department, then to Maine, and finally, through the work of Fredericks Olds, was returned to North Carolina in 1927. For more information, please visit the NC SCV website.



The second flag, recently announced by the 26th North Carolina Troops, Reactivated, is the headquarters flag of the Brig. Gen. Lawrence O. Branch. No greater group of men and women has done more to make sure items in the North Carolina Museum's collection are preserved than the fine folks in the 26th NCT. This flag was the headquarters flag of General Branch, a pre-war congressional leader who also led the defense of New Bern in March 1862. The battle was a Confederate loss. Branch went on to command a brigade in the Light Division, Army of Northern Virginia. He was killed at the end of the battle of Shaprsburg. The flag started home with his body, but was left in Winchester and discovered years later. In 1920, it was placed in the North Carolina Hall of History/North Carolina Museum of History. If you are interested in helping to see that it is conserved, please visit this link.

The third flag is a company-level flag belonging to the 6th North Carolina State Troops. Early in the war, companies were often presented flags before they left their communities and headed to a camp of instruction. This flag was presented to the North Carolina Grays, in Morrisville, on June 1, 1862. The North Carolina Grays later became Company I, of the 6th NCST, and consisted of men from Wake and Chatham Counties. According to information at the North Carolina Museum of History, this flag was captured by Federal soldiers from Ohio in a baggage wagon, in the fall of 1863. It was returned to North Carolina after the close of the war. Friends in the Cedar Fork Rifles Preservation Society are raising funds to preserve this flag. The flag of the North Carolina Grays is made of silk, and silk flags take considerably more funds to conserve than wool bunting banners. You can find more information about this project by visiting the Cedar Fork Rifles Preservation Society here

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

War-Time Weddings

While reading Chaplain Francis Kennedy's diary today, I came across this, written on July 22, 1863: "We marched about 19 miles and camped near Front Royal. Corp'l. Biles of Co. K, 28th Regiment, married in the place as we passed through going north. Poor girl; [t]he battle of Gettysburg made her a widow. He was killed in the unsuccessful charge on the enemy's work."

Wait? What? Married as the regiment passed through town? Who? What? Where? Time to use the internet to see what we can find.

The where is easy - Front Royal. Got that. The who: William A. C. Biles, born in Stanley County, North Carolina. The other who was Mary Catherine Strother. They were indeed wed on June 20, 1863.

But Biles did not die at Gettysburg. He was seriously wounded and captured. Later paroled, Biles was transferred to the invalid corps. Biles survived the war and later went to Lincoln County, Oklahoma, where he applied for a Confederate pension. He died in 1915, and is buried in Oklahoma.



That's all really cool, but I want to know more - did they know each other prior to the war? Was this a whirlwind romance? I was able to find so much about this story in such a short time, but, I still have questions. Surely this story was passed down through the family. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Was Colonel Barber Present at Gettysburg?

Pick up any order of battle for Confederate forces commanding at Gettysburg, and Col. William Barber, of the 37th North Carolina Troops, is not listed as being in command of the regiment during the battle. He was wounded at Chancellorsville, and, according to the North Carolina Troop  books, he did not return until "prior to September 1, 1863." Instead, many believe that the regiment was commanded by Lt. Col. William G. Morris, who was captured on July 3, 1863.

But I'm still not convinced. And here is why.

General Lane drafted his official report on August 13, 1863. Concerning the attack of Lane's brigade on the afternoon of July 1, the General writes, "We then moved forward about a mile, and as the Seventh Regiment had been detained a short time, Colonel Barbour threw out 40 men, under Captain [D. L.] Hudson, to keep back some of the enemy's cavalry....." Lane mentions Baber one other time, toward the close of the report, writing that "Colonel Barbour, of the Thirty-seventh, refers to his heavy loss as sufficient evidence of the gallantry of his command." Lane  never mentions Lieutenant Colonel Morris. These sources all come from the Official Records, Volume 27, pat. 2, page 664-668.

My second piece of evidence comes from the letter of Capt. Thomas L. Norwood of Company A, 37th North Carolina. Norwood was wounded and captured on July 3, and a couple of days later, escaped. Norwood arrived back within Confederate lines on July 12, and even had breakfast with Robert E. Lee. The general quizzed him about what he had seen on his sojourn through Federal lines. Norwood was in a hospital in Richmond when he wrote his father a letter about his adventures. In this letter, dated July 16, 1863, Norwood writes that after his breakfast with Lee, he "reported to Col. Barber who sent me to the hospital here at Richmond."

One final piece of evidence to consider: Lieutenant Morris was held as a prisoner of war until March 22, 1865, and never rejoined the regiment. On October 1, 1877, he wrote a letter to the Raleigh Observer about his Gettysburg experiences. At no point in the letter does Morris mention Barber, but at the same time, Morris never mentions being in command of the regiment. He does write: "I was Lieut. Colonel of my regiment." I would think that had he been in command, he would have noted it.
So there you have it, why I feel that Barber was in command of the 37th North Carolina at Gettysburg. Do you agree or disagree?

PS: Is it Barber or Barbour? The family spells it Barber. About half way through the war, it is clear that Barber started signing his correspondence Barbour. However, when it came time to erect a tombstone, the family went with Barber.

PSS - I found another piece. Barber endorsed the resignation letter of Lt. Thomas Kerns on May 17, 1863. Yet another piece, in my opinion, that points that Barber was present in this time frame. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Died by reason of.....

I don't like math. Math was the reason it took me so long to finish my undergraduate degree. However, I find myself doing a lot of number crunching as I work on books - how many soldiers came from a township, how many died, ages, etc. I guess this makes my books better. But remember, the next time you glance over a couple of sentences with numbers and the material interests you, it took several days for me to string those two or three sentences together.

For the past week, I've been working on when and how men from the Branch-Lane brigade died while being prisoners of war. Those captured in 1862 at New Bern or Hanover Court House were most likely to die of typhoid. Those captured in 1863 at Gettysburg or later, after the prisoner cartel exchange came to a crashing close, were most likely to died of chronic diarrhea at first, and then as we get into the winter months, of pneumonia. Added to this were a few cases of smallpox, heart disease, pleurisy, and even scurvy. Of those incarcerated, 5% died of typhoid, 39% of chronic diarrhea, and 15% of pneumonia.


What really bothers me are those who died as prisoners of war after the war "ended." If I look at the date that Lee surrendered - April 9 (Yes, I know, not really the end of the war), I find forty men who died of some type of illness of disease. Sad. 
Confederate POWs at Fairfax, Virginia. (Library of Congress)

Monday, January 04, 2016

North Carolina's Bust of Calhoun

   Last week, I was in Raleigh, visiting the North Carolina Museum of History to see Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Leicester. After we finished ogling the centuries-old text, we wandered over to the other building to see various pieces of old and new art. On display was a bust of John C. Calhoun, a U. S. Senator from South Carolina and seventh vice president of the United States. The tag on the display said it was presented to the state of North Carolina in 1861.

   So, I went searching for some further notes on the bust and Calhoun.  It seems the bust was carved by Hiram Powers. He was born in Vermont in 1805, and moved to Ohio at the age of 14. After learning clock and organ repair, Powers studied in the studio of Frederick Eckstein. In 1834, Powers moved to Washington, D.C., and a few years later, to Florence, Italy, becoming known as a leading European neoclassical sculptor.

   In 1859, Wharton J. Green commissioned Powers to produce a bust of Calhoun. Two years later, Wharton presented the bust to the state of North Carolina. The letter read:

   "By her late decisive action in severing all political connexion [sic] with a despotic and inimical Government, our State has proven her devotion to the theory of the Confederate system as expounded by this illustrious apostle of States' Rights, and given a practical endorsation[sic]  to his views respecting the ultimate mode and measures of redress of State grievances. Hence, Sir, it seems to me meet and proper that inasmuch as he may be assumed to have contributed most of all of our great political teachers to the now almost universally received opinions in this respect, that he has thereby made good his claim to the honor of a niche in the Capitol of a sister state. I therefore beg the acceptance by the Convention, over the deliberations of which you so worthily preside, of the aforesaid slight memorial, for and in behalf of the State."

   "Trusting that the daily contemplation of the mute semblance of the exalted and incorruptible Senator, may inspire our legislators through all time to come with the noble ambition to emulate his unswerving self sacrificing patriotism, and to imitate his many other virtues, public and private..." (THe Raleigh Register June 15, 1861)

      The bust was located in the capitol building, standing on a mantle, for many years, before being transferred to the Hall of History, ca.1914. Later, in 1956, it was moved to the North Carolina Museum of Art.


   This bust was not the only honor to Calhoun related to North Carolina. A few months earlier, Mitchell County was created from portions of Yancey and Watauga Counties. Their first county seat was known as Calhoun, in honor of the statesman. Maybe state lawmakers, gazing upon Calhoun there in Raleigh, might have found their inspiration from Power's creation. But, that is entirely speculation on my part. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Landscape of War and brigade history.

   Lately, I've been doing some reading in the Landscape of War, and thinking about how I can incorporate this idea into a brigade history. How did the men in the Branch-Lane brigade "perceive their natural environment and their place in it"? (quoting Lisa M. Brady, author of War Upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes during the American Civil War). I am not at this time, however, so much interested in how a brigade transformed the landscape (which they did), but instead, how they perceived the changing landscape around them.

   In an essay on the subject, Megan Kate Nelson (The Journal of the Civil War Era, Vol. 3, No. 3, September 2013) writes that soldiers, in writing home, "sought to exert control over their lives by explaining the world around them to themselves and their loved ones."

  A great place to see a soldier explaining the landscape around him can be found in the letters of Bennett Smith, a member of the 37th North Carolina Troops. Smith was 25 years old and living in Watauga County when he enlisted on September 8, 1861. He wrote his wife Jane several times throughout his service in the Confederate army. It is unlikely that Smith had ever ventured far from his mountain home prior to the start of the war.

   Smith's February 24, 1862, letter is full of landscapes. "I hav sean a hep of curyous things," he writes. "this is a pore contry down hear it is a white sandy lan and jast as full of grean briars as it can bee[.] Smith added that "The water is bad hear I had rather drink out of them mud holes thare on Brushy fork[.]" Smith also mentioned the forts in the area and the Neuse River.

   Writing on March 6, 1862, Smith gives us a glimpse of another aspect of his changing landscape. "There is so mutch nois here Some eavnings here That I cant here them fire the canons at the forts[.]"

   Following the loss at the battle of New Bern, Confederate forces retreated to Kinston. "We hav a house to stay in now wher we are it is rite smrt toun" he wrote of Kinston on March 15, 1862.

   Water seemed to be a recurring theme for Smith - more so than in most letters that I have read. On April 13, 1862, at Camp Holmes, he wrote that "The water runs sloe down here & looks of a redish color[.]"  Smith goes on to add "As to this being A helthey place I dont think it will it i to low and swampy[.]"

   In early May 1862, the 37th NCT was transferred to Virginia, and Smith found himself passing
through Virginia. "The part of Virginia that I come threw is a butiful contry Some of the pretiest farms I evry saw I think it will be helthy here their is mountains here the timber is gitting green[.]"  Undoubtedly the Confederate capital was the biggest city Smith had even been in. "[Richmond] is a big place & Just any thing you want to sea you can sea nearly  I saw the Statute of Washington  he was siting on a horse Jest looked like man drest in milatery close... the nigurs was drest finer than the white people in Watauga...”   Once again, Smith also mentioned water in this May 8, 1862 letter: "The water dont taist good it is cold a nuf it is Slait Stone water[.]"

   Smith was captured during the battle of Hanover Court House on May 27, 1862. He was taken to Fort Monroe and paroled at Aiken's Landing, on August 5, 1862. Smith was absent without leave from October 20, 1862, through mid-January, 1863. He probably made his way back home, and was able to tell Jane about seeing the Atlantic Ocean, Fort Monroe, and other sites.

    By January 27, Smith was back with the army, writing home and describing the breastworks at Fredericksburg. The plain in front of the breastworks was "2 miles" wide and "Just as level as a house flore..."

   Smith wrote that he was ill starting in February 1863. His descriptions of his surroundings became fewer. For a while, he did nothing but "lay a bout my hut[.]" Of course, since Smith's part of the Army of Northern Virginia was stationary from mid-December until early May, Smith would not have had much news in regards to a change of scenery to commit to his letters. On April 7, Smith commented on the wind and mud, "the stickeyes mud I ever saw[.]" He goes on to comment about the health of the regiment not being good, partially due to the filthiness of the area and that "the water is not very good[.]"

   Smith set out with the 37th NCT when they headed to Chancellorsville, but was sent to the rear because of the problems with his feet.

   Bennett Smith's last letter home was written on June 18, 1863. Smith, suffering from "hydroxthrus" and/or "dropsy" was sent to a hospital in Lynchburg, Virginia. He thought Lynchburg "a very good place hear[.]" He had a clean bed and plenty of food. Smith died in Lynchburg on June 30, 1863.


   Smith left a dozen or letters, kept by his family, and thankfully, shared with me while I was working on the book on the 37th North Carolina Troops. He has provided us with some insight on how a mountain soldier viewed the new world opened up to him by the war. Nelson finishes her article by reminding us that "By seeing landscapes clearly, we gain new insights into the Civil War's many and varied histories." In my opinion, Smith's is one of the best. I just wish he had survived the war.