Tuesday, April 19, 2016


   If you have spent much time on battlefields, then you are aware of witness trees, trees that were around during the battle and somehow survived not only the storm of shot and shell of battle, but also the blows of the lumberman's ax decades later. My personal favorite would be the Sycamore next to Burnside's Bridge on the Antietam battlefield.

   Recently, I was standing in the heart of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, right next
Gerrard Hall

to Gerrard Hall, and the idea came to me: these are survivors, just like the Witness Trees. Surprisingly, there are not a lot of surviving homes from the area. Yes, we could probably put together a long list of several hundred, or maybe a thousand structures here in North Carolina, but really, that is a small number considering that the 1860 population of the state was just over 992,000. Say an average of six people lived in each house (a number I pulled out of thin air), that should give us around 165,000 homes.

Burke County Courthouse
   Some of these sites are public buildings, like Gerrard Hall, the South Building, Old West Residence Hall,  Old East Residence Hall, and Person Hall. (There are also the New East and New West buildings, but were they finished before the war?)

   Some of these buildings are state historic sites, like Stagville in Durham County, the Harper House on the Bentonville Battlefield, and the State Capital in Raleigh.

   Others are local history museums, like the McElroy house in Burnsville, the Carson House in Old Fort, Fort Defiance near Lenoir, and Latta Plantation, near Charlotte.

   And some are still private residences, places that are still making memories for the families who call them home and who take considerable time and expense to keep them up.

Slave houses, Historic Stagville
   Over the years, I've had a chance to visit many of these places, sometimes as a simple guest, touring the house and grounds, and at other times, as a interpreter, trying to keep the history alive and passed on to future generations. 

Friday, April 01, 2016

On the Road 2016

Winter break is over, folks, and it is time to hit the road. Please feel free to come out and join me at one of these events. I'll be talking about North Carolina as the last Confederate Capital.

April 5, 2016 - Burlington, NC - Fisher Camp, SCV. They meet at F&W Cafeteria at exit 143, 6:00 pm.

April 6, 2016 - Fayetteville, NC - NC Civil War History Center. Meeting will take place at the Cumberland County Public Library, 7:00 pm.

April 10, 2016 - Whiteville, NC - Columbus County Volunteers Camp, SCV. They meet at Peace Baptist Church, at 2:00 pm.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The sad, cruel fate of war, or, the war-time life of Tod R. Caldwell.

   On May 11, 1865, Tod R. Caldwell wrote this letter to J. P. H Russ, W. R. Richardson "and others":

   Gentlemen: Your polite and kind invitation to attend and address a public meeting of the citizens of Wake County, proposed to be held this day in the City of Raleigh for the purpose of giving expression to our feelings on the occasion of our restoration to the Union and to the protection of the flag of our common county, has been received, and I must cordially thank you for the compliment. I deeply regret, however, my inability to be present, as I am compelled to hasten to my home in the west on important business which cannot be postponed. I shall nevertheless be present with you in sentiment and in sympathy and no one of the many spectators who will attend the meeting will hail with more delight that I do, the advent of peace and the deliverance of our people from the iron rule of tyranny and oppression. Let us all, then, with one accord, as good and loyal citizens, respect, and reverence, the glorious stars and stripes which are emblazoned upon our country's banner.
   Let us cherish it as our benefactor and deliverer from a worse than Egyptian bondage, and as a protector from insult and injury, both at home and abroad; let us return to our peaceful avocations determined to cultivate feelings of amity and brother's love toward the people of all sections of our country-to stand to and faithfully abide by the Union, the Constitution and the laws; and to stamp forever with the seal of our disapprobation, the miserable hearsay of secession, which has been the prolific source of so much distress and suffering to a once happy and prosperous people. 

While Caldwell might have kept a low profile in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains during the war years, the war came to his home as well. Caldwell had a son, John, who pleaded with his father for permission to join the army. Tod Caldwell finally consented, and John Caldwell enlisted in Company E, 33rd North Carolina Troops, on May 3, 1863. The younger Caldwell was just eighteen years old. He would serve a little less than two months in the Confederate army.
North Carolina Monument, Gettysburg. 

There are two stories regarding his death at Gettysburg. One takes place on the afternoon of July 2 on a picket line near Long Lane, or out in front of it. The other account has Caldwell dying on July 3 as Lane's brigade neared the Emmittsburg Road. There were several newspaper accounts of the death of John Caldwell published after the war. In one of those accounts, when the Governor was told of the events of the death of his son, "the Governor locked himself in his room and was all day in tears. He never told his wife" of the details "and told it only to his private secretary."

So as Caldwell sat in Raleigh, getting ready to head back to Burke County for "important business," he too well understood the "distress and suffering" of the war. His own family had been split, and his son, just 18 years old, was killed in the heat of battle in distant Pennsylvania.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Reconstructing the War-time Life of Tod R. Caldwell

Flip open John G. Barrett's The Civil War in North Carolina and you will find just one reference, per the index, to Tod R. Caldwell. Barrett quotes Caldwell in a March 1864 letter to Gov. Zebulon B. Vance, complaining about "men professing to be impressing agents from Longstreet's army and elsewhere are getting to be as thick in this community [Burke] as leaves in Vallambrosa." Caldwell adds that scarcely a week goes by without a new and hungrier group. (240-41)
Who was Tod R. Caldwell? The short answer would be that Caldwell was the 1st lieutenant governor of the state of North Carolina, and upon the impeachment W. W. Holden in July 1871, became the 41st Governor of North Carolina.

Caldwell was born in Morganton in February 1918. In 1840, he graduated from the University of North Carolina, and studied law under David L. Swain. He was admitted to practice law before the Superior Court in 1841.  Caldwell served in the House 1842-1846, and in 1850, represented Burke County in the state senate.

In pre-war politics, Caldwell was a Whig and opposed the movement to take the state out of the Union, lobbying hard for the Conservative Union party. In June 1860, the Weekly Raleigh Register reported that Caldwell spoke at a meeting in Morganton advocating the nomination of Bell and Everatt, Constitutional Unionist, for president and vice-president of the United States. In September 1860, he wrote: "Trusting that every friend of our beloved country, and every foe of Black Republicanism, Disunionism and Secession, will rally as one man around the National standard of Bell and Everett, with the war cry of "Death to Sectionalism" on their lips, I take my stand ready to do duty among the honest rank and file of the country, who alone are its real defenders in times of danger...."

Once North Carolina left the Union, Caldwell had a choice to make. It appears that he was nominated as the Presidential Elector for the 9th district in October 1861. After this nomination, Caldwell largely disappears from the public record during the war years. There is one account in the Raleigh Weekly Progress, May 10, 1864, in which W. W. Avery and Caldwell got into a debate about who would win the Confederate Congressional district: Leach or Foster.

 It was probably at the same time that Caldwell attended a rally in Morganton in which W. W. Avery nominated Zebulon Vance for re-election as governor of North Carolina. After several speakers, Caldwell asked to address the crowd, "and so thoroughly exposed these Vance leaders and Confederate officer-holders, that Mr. Avery himself was forced to come to the rescue." After Avery spoke for half an hour, Caldwell "then took him in hand and trimmed him in good style, especially in relation to his activity in bringing on the war and then in being so successful in keeping himself out of it. He also told him that two years ago he and his party were denouncing Gov. Vance in the most unmeasured terms, but now--all at once--he had a marvelously proper man, and was their first choice for Governor."

For the most part, it seems that Caldwell lay low during the war years. In his application for presidential pardon, penned in Burke County on July 25, 1865, he wrote that he was "opposed to the late Rebellion from its inception to its termination, but that, to avoid levies in the armies of the so-called "Confederate States," he accepted the officer of Solicitor for the county of Rutherford.... Your Petitioner would add that he canvassed his section of the state and opposed, upon the hirelings, the doctrine of secession and disunion to the best of his ability, and exacted every effort to prevent the call of the State  Convention which passed the ordinance of Secession; -that, during the existence of the said Rebellion, he actively opposed the David Usurpation -- indeed, so much so, that he was threatened by the Rebel leaders with the destruction of private property and personal violence." Caldwell was pardoned on August 14, 1865.

Caldwell's pronounced Unionism soon propelled his political prospects. Not only did he become president of the Western North Carolina Railroad, Caldwell became an aid to Governor Holden in July 1865.  He  represented Burke County in the Constitutional Convention In October 1865. He was recommended as a candidate for the US House in November 1865.

Caldwell went on to become the first lieutenant governor of the state of North Carolina. When Holden was impeached in 1871, Caldwell ran for governor in 1872 and barely won by a margin of 2,000 votes. While in office, he fell ill of a gall bladder attack, and died on July 10, 1874. 

So why my interest in Caldwell? At the Avery Museum, we have a desk that belonged to the governor. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Charge of General Lee (or did he?).

It is a familiar scene for those of us who study the War. General Lee, concerned about repairing the breach, twice appeared at the head of Confederate troops, prepared to lead them into the heat of the battle. At the Wilderness, it was at the head of the Texas brigade. During the morning fight at Spotsyvlvania Court House, almost a week later, it was Gordon's brigade of Georgians.

Yet, is there a third account that has gone unreported in the annuals of history.

Spotsylvania Court House marker
On the afternoon of May 12, Lee appeared along the line near Heth's Salient. He sent some of the Sharpshooters from Lane's North Carolina brigade forward to ascertain if a Federal battery was supported by infantry. Based upon the intelligence gathered, Lee chose to attack and capture the battery, and roll up Burnside's flank, if possible, relieving the pressure on the Mule Shoe. Lane's brigade, supported by Weisiger's brigade, moved out into the woods , capturing the battery and striking the flank of a new division of Burnside's men being launched towards the Confederate lines. Lane's attack was successful to a degree: the Federal guns were captured, although there was no way to bring them off the field, and Burnside's attack crumbled. Lane might have accomplished more if Weisiger had not become lost in the woods, firing into the rear of the North Carolinians.

Did Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, lead Lane's attack?

Two post-war accounts lean in that direction.

Brig. Gen. James H. Lane wrote about his near capture on June 30, 1983: "That afternoon [May 12, 1864], in obedience to orders from General Lee and under his eye, we crossed the works and entered the oak woods, from which we drove the enemy's skirmishers, and attacked Burnside's corps in flank as it advanced to assault the salient. The General and staff and all of the regimental foot officers were on foot."

Two points about this account. One: Lane writes that they were under the "eye" of General Lee. That simply could mean that Lee watched the brigade advance over the works and into the woods, or that Lee had accompanied them further. Two: All throughout the article, Lane refers to himself in first person. "I was with that part of the line which swept over the Federal battery," he writes. Yet Lane tells us that "The General and staff and all of the regimental officers were on foot." He does not write "[I] and [my] staff and all of the regimental officers."

The second account comes from Octavious Wiggins, a lieutenant in the 37th North Carolina, and was written in 1903. Wiggins chronicles that the men were under artillery fire as they move over the works and into the woods. He then writes: "General Lee was riding very close to us at the time" that the attack started. (Clark, North Carolina Regiments, Vol. 2, 666.)

A third account, written by William W. Chamberlaine, a staff office under Lee, seems to dissuade me of the idea. He writes that as the attack was going forward (totally leaving out Lane, who did the lion's share of the work), Confederate artillery opened fire on Burnside's men, and Lane's brigade got caught up in it. Chamberlaine writes that "soon we saw General Lee galloping on the road towards us. Shells were dropping in the road, but he reached us in safety. He directed General Early to have the Batteries cease firing." Chamberlaine's account was published in 1912.

Three accounts: two that lend support to the idea that Lee was close by Lane's brigade during the attack, and third stating he was not. Sure wish I could find something from 1864 to confirm either account. 

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