Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Larry And THC's New Excellent Adventure

Union front line, mid-morning April 9, 1865 blocking Lee's retreat along the Lynchburg Road.  Downslope is the village of Appomattox Court House.  The main position of the Army of Northern Virginia lay about one mile beyond the village.  Soon bearer of flags of truce from the Confederate side would start up the slope and several hours later Lee and Grant would meet in the McLean House in the village at which time Lee would surrender.  It was the first rebel army to surrender.  The last on June 23, in what is now Oklahoma, was the Cherokee cavalry unit commanded by Stand Watie, the only native American to achieve the rank of Brigadier General on either side during the Civil War.

THC and his friend Larry (not The Other Larry) just completed their fourth annual Civil War tour. The first three were to Antietam, Chancellorsville and The Wilderness & Spotsylvania.  This tour was of the sprawling (in time and geography) siege of Petersburg and Richmond and the retreat to Appomattox which took place from mid-June of 1864 through early April of the following year (the events of the opening of the Petersburg siege can be found here and the last phase of the campaign is described in the Appomattox Campaign Series).

On Saturday we visited the Petersburg battlefields and the following day followed Lee and Grant's armies on the final week of the campaign, from Five Forks to Sailor's Creek and finally Appomattox Court House.  Friday we had a series of fascinating lectures and panel discussions on topics as varied as Grant's strategy, the reburial of Confederate war dead after the war, the role of U.S. Colored Troops, the history of the Confederate flags both during and since the war as well as a Saturday night presentation that was both funny and moving about Abraham Lincoln's impromptu visit with his 11-year old son to Richmond the day after its capture on April 3, 1865.

Some of the locations don't look like much today.  This is Five Forks the road junction captured by General Sheridan on April 1, the loss of which forced Lee to evacuate Petersburg and Richmond.

Our primary guides on Saturday were Dick Sommers, retired professor of military history at the Army War College in Carlisle, PA and noted author of several works of civil war history and Ed Bearss.  Ed Bearss is a National Treasure (here's his Wikipedia entry).  Now 92 years old, former Chief Historian of the National Parks Service (NPS), severely wounded and still disabled from his time as a Marine in the Solomon Islands during WWII and responsible for much of what we see today regarding NPS battlefield preservation, having Ed as your guide is a memorable experience.  As he led us in the 90 degree heat barking "no stragglers!" and giving us his vivid, pithy, detailed and occasionally profane descriptions the scenes around us sprang to life.  We particularly liked his warning as we neared The Crater at Petersburg where there was a button on a display that could be pushed to start an audio description that "anyone who pushes that button will be shot at sunrise!" (and we think he meant it).

We witnessed the deference and respect paid by every speaker and every Park Service employee to Ed Bearss.  Often during lectures or field tours someone would hesitate about a name or date and turn and ask "Ed, is that right?" or "Ed, do you remember the name/place?" and invariably Ed did.
                        (L, Dick Sommers; R, Ed Bearss (note his left arm frozen in place from war wound)
(Ed's shirt reads "I don't need an internet search engine, I know Ed Bearss")  Beyond Ed is Jimmy Blankenship who's spent more than 30 years with NPS at Petersburg; location is City Point, the Union supply hub during the siege of Petersburg and for nine months the busiest harbor in North America with more than 200 steamers, barges and sailing ships there at any one time.  The land on which the Union base was constructed in the summer of 1864 had been the property of the Epps family since 1635.  After the war the land was returned to the Epps who owned it until 1979 when they deeded it to the National Park Service.

The brief video below will give you a sense of Ed's distinctive (and loud) voice.  We are at The Crater and he's talking about the tunnel that was dug under the Confederate position, loaded with powder and then blown up.

THC feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to be on these tours with Ed.  For that matter we all owe great thanks to the National Park Service rangers who work at these battlefields.  It's a labor of love for them and it shows in the quality of the parks and the skill with which they tell the stories of the events that took place there.  THC was telling Jimmy Blankenship how much he appreciated what he'd done and he responded that it was what he had wanted to do since he was a kid and that if Kmart were running the parks he'd be happy to work for Kmart.

As mentioned previously, the presentations at the hotel were excellent.  Lt Colonel Ralph Peters, a retired army officer and current author and media commentator spoke about the campaign as the birth of modern warfare but THC was most struck by his emphasis on how poorly most of the commanders felt most of the time and how that may have impaired decision making.  He reminded us that even aspirin did not exist back then.

The panel on US Colored Troops was also fascinating and THC will be doing some additional research on that topic as well as the Reconstruction.  THC had some misconceptions about that history.  He knew that by WWII, the U.S. Navy was the most segregated of all our military services and assumed it had always been that way.  It turns out that from its start in the American Revolution into the early 20th century it had been the least segregated service with blacks serving as seamen and mates (though not as officers), while blacks were barred from service in the U.S. Army under the Militia Act of 1792 until that was rescinded in 1863.  It was President Woodrow Wilson who segregated the navy during the 1910s after which blacks could only serve as cooks or stewards, an action not overturned until President Truman's 1947 order desegregating the military.

Perhaps most interesting were two presentations from the Museum of the Confederacy.  Not having visited the Museum, THC was a bit wary about how things might be presented but both speakers were excellent.  Waite Rawls III, executive director of the museum, spoke of the Confederate war dead reburials.  After the end of the war, Congress appropriated funds to rebury the often hastily buried federal war dead in new national cemeteries but no provision was made for Confederate dead.  This prompted a number of Richmond women to form what ultimately became the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) who ultimately raised funds and arranged for the reburial of 72,000 rebel soldiers.  Rawls spoke of the struggle to control the memory of the Confederacy between the active women's groups and the military veterans.

The role of the UDC came up again in a talk by John Coski from the museum based upon his book The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem published in 2005 (and if you want to see how embattled just read the one star reviews at Amazon from those who both hate and love the flag).   Coski walked us through the difference between the battle flag (that's the one that the controversy in South Carolina was about) and the three different national flags of the Confederacy (1861, 1863 and 1865).  Until around the time of WWII, the flag was only used in memorial ceremonies (Coski finds the first record of KKK use in the late 1930s).  Things changed in the immediate aftermath of WWII.  Oddly one of the changes was that Southern universities increasingly played Northern schools in football and some Southern fraternities started the display of the flag during games and halftimes as a statement of regional pride.  In addition, commercial use in ads and other public venues increases and finally, in 1948 the flag was flown at the Dixiecrat Convention (the breakaway segment which walked out of the Democratic convention because of the civil rights platform it had adopted and then was later used by the Citizens Council formed after the Supreme Court decision desegregating schools in 1954 (Coski described the CC as the upscale version of the KKK).  The UDC objected to all uses of the flag in political and consumer contexts but lost that battle and in the 50s and 60s the battle flag became closely associated with resistance to integration.  At the end of his talk, Coski gave his view that the use of the flag should be restricted to historical purposes.  THC's views on the flag controversy can be found here.

The three national flags of the Confederacy (from teaching american history):

Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia:

Because of the recent controversy, THC kept an eye out for the flag in the National Parks we visited on the tour.  At Petersburg, there was a small display of flags for sale which included the American flag as well as the national flags of the Confederacy but not the battle flags.  While touring the park there was an artillery display at The Crater and the battle flag was flying.

At Five Forks we saw Confederate national and battle flags hanging from the ceiling along with American flags.  The first picture shows the Confederate flag of 1865 which includes the battle flag insignia in the corner.  The second is the battle flag of a Virginia regiment while on the right is the battle flag of one of Custer's Michigan regiments.

At Appomattox, the UDC has a small in-holding within the National Park, a cemetery where 18 unidentified Confederate and one Union soldier are buried.  An American flag flies over the cemetery, while the battle flag is place on each Confederate grave (which is no longer permitted in Park Service cemeteries) and an American flag on the Union grave.
Earlier in the 20th century the UDC had also placed a marker on Park Service property very near the cemetery.  We noticed that some of the engraved inscription had been chiseled away and when we asked the Park ranger about it he said it was because of historical accuracy.  Here's the marker which is an excellent example of The Lost Cause mythology dominant in much of late 19th and early 20th century America.
The part that was chiseled off referred to the Union having 180,000 soldiers at Appomattox.  The ranger told us Grant had about 65,000 men present.  He added that the reference to 9,000 men surrendering was incorrect; the actual total was somewhere between 28,000 and 33,000.

It was appropriate we started our tour at City Point, the headquarters of U.S Grant during the siege.  The unassuming Grant and his son (along with his wife for much of the time) lived in a log cabin which you can see below.
The Union Army's Quartermaster lived in the large house on the City Point property (photo below is from the area of the Grant cabin).  Quartermasters always get the best accommodations.
And it was appropriate we ended in the village of Appomattox Court House where Grant and Lee met at the McLean House.  Pictures below are of the McLean house and of the table at which Grant wrote the surrender terms.

In his remarkable Personal Memoirs (a classic of American literature), written on his deathbed twenty years later, U.S. Grant reflected upon the day:
I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. 
Years later Confederate General Edward Porter Alexander wrote:
For all time it will be a good thing for the whole United States, that of all the Federal generals it fell to Grant to receive the surrender of Lee.

1 comment:

  1. What a great experience. Well done. dm