Thursday, November 28, 2013

Civil War Thanksgiving

"Thanksgiving in Camp," sketched on Thursday, November 28, 1861 by Alfred R. Waud, an illustrator for the New York Illustrated News who was with the Army of the Potomac for the length of the war.
What is called Lincoln's proclamation establishing Thanksgiving Day as an annual national holiday was written by his Secretary of State William Seward and merely signed by Lincoln, does not call for annual celebrations but only designates the last Thursday of November 1863 as a day of Thanksgiving, and was not legally binding.  Nonetheless, Thanksgiving Day has been celebrated in the United States on a shared date every year since 1863, whereas it was only intermittently officially recognized, and the dates of local celebrations had varied from one another, in the years prior to then.   What the proclamation did was serve as an acknowledgment that the country itself had institutionalized the holiday already.

Few Americans had spent extended periods of time away from their homes prior to the armies North and South mobilizing 3 million men (and a few hundred women in disguise), so Thanksgiving was an important holiday in army camps.  The folks at collect letters from Civil War soldiers and make them available online; one from Charles Morse provides a striking glimpse into Civil War Thanksgiving.

Charles Fessenden Morse was a lieutenant colonel in the Army of the Potomac's 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, stationed on Thanksgiving Day 1863 outside Tullahoma, Tennessee. The Bob Shaw he mentions in his letter is Robert Gould Shaw, the heroic commander of the equally heroic all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.  The two of them had been classmates at Harvard and had fought together in the early days of the war; their steady correspondence since then would go on to provide source material for the film Glory, about Shaw and the 54th.

The three men to whom Shaw asked Morse to give his regards were all killed at Gettysburg the very day Shaw wrote his letter.  Lt. Col. Charles Mudge, the commander of the 2nd Massachusetts, was shot just below the throat while leading his troops into combat; Morse inherited the command when Mudge fell dead. Thomas Robeson and Thomas Fox Jr. were both captains under Mudge; Robeson died of his wounds on July 7, while Fox lingered until July 25.  All told, the 2nd Massachusetts had a casualty rate at Gettysburg of 43%.  Shaw himself was killed at Fort Wagner on July 11 of that year, eight days after writing the letter Morse discusses in this letter, written one hundred fifty years ago today:
We are in the midst of exciting news from the front, yet we have had no particulars.  It is evident, however, that we have taken several thousand prisoners and a large quantity of artillery.
Since the fight at Wauhatchie, there has been no slurring of the Army of the Potomac men.  That little affair was a great thing for us.  By our own and rebel accounts, there is no doubt that our men fought most gallantly there against superior numbers of their old antagonists.
Every train that comes from the South brings a load of prisoners or wounded men, and rumors that fighting is still going on at the front.  It seems to me now, for the first time since the war began, that the rebellion is nearly crushed.  They have not met with any very decisive success for nearly six months, and are now contracted into the smallest territory they have ever occupied.
Atlanta is our important point now; get that, and we have again cut the Confederacy in two, and in a vital place.  What a glorious thing it would be if we could wind up this rebellion before our original three years are out!  It would exceed all my expectations to do this. 
Thanksgiving Day was a very pleasant one, warm and bright as May.  I took an escort of half a dozen cavalry and rode down to the regiment, which is about ten miles from here.  I found them camped very comfortably just outside strong earthworks built to command the railroad bridge over the Elk river.  Colonel Coggswell is in command of the post and has a battery in addition to his regiment.  He has made himself very strong, and could defend the place against a large force.
I took a very quiet dinner with the field and staff.  Of course we could not help thinking of our other Thanksgiving Days in the regiment, and it brought up many sad memories.  At our first dinner at Seneca, Maryland, all our old officers were present; last year there had been many changes, but there were still left a goodly number of the old stock, and we were knit closer together by our losses.  This year I couldn't help a feeling of desolation as I remembered that, of all my friends in the regiment, very few were left.  How little I thought, when we left Camp Andrews, that we should have such a sad experience!
In looking over his trunks for a photograph, Colonel Coggsworth found a letter that had come for me while I was in Massachusetts; he gave it to me, and I found the address was in Bob Shaw's handwriting.  You can imagine how glad I was to get it.  I always thought it a little strange that he had not answered my last letter.  I opened it the first chance I got.  It was mostly a description of his movements to Darien and other places; but at the end he spoke in a very feeling way of our friendship and intimacy, and of his happiness since his marriage.  It was written on the 3rd of July; in it he asked to be remembered to Robeson, Mudge, and Tom Fox; little did he think that, at the moment he wrote, one of them was lying dead on the field of battle, and the other two suffering with mortal wounds.
The men of the regiment had a very pleasant day; they had plenty of geese and turkeys for dinner, and in the evening the brigade band came down from Tullahoma, and gave them some music.  I am glad that our men have each been able to keep this day somewhat as if they had been at home.
I stayed next morning and saw guard mounting done as it is done nowhere else, and then rode back here again. 
Morse went on to serve as provost marshal of Atlanta following the city's Union occupation.  He made it through the war alive, and relocated to Kansas, where he built the Kansas City Stockyards into the nation's second (behind Chicago's) busiest.  Periodically, until his death in 1926 at age 87, he wrote and spoke publicly about his experiences in the war.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Eisenhower's other Gettysburg Address

President Obama has been slightly criticized for not showing up at today's ceremonies in Gettysburg, but Scott Bomboy at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia reports that no sitting president has ever attended any of the Gettysburg Address anniversaries over the years.  Lincoln himself remains the only sitting president ever to give a speech in Gettysburg on a November 19.

The absence most to be regretted is President Kennedy's from the centennial observance in 1963, as he opted instead to make a fence-mending political tour of Texas cities.  As Bomboy points out, former President Eisenhower spoke in his place.  Ike lived in Gettysburg in his retirement, right next to the cemetery, so he may well have walked to his speaking engagement that day.  (Old joke:  What was Eisenhower's Gettysburg Address?  1195 Baltimore Pike.)  Due to the awful news from Dallas three days later, the world little noted nor long remembered what Ike said, but it's quite a nice speech.  Four hundred eighty-two words in tribute to two hundred seventy-two.  Here it is, via the Eisenhower Presidential Library :
We mark today the centennial of an immortal address. We stand where Abraham Lincoln stood as, a century ago, he gave to the world words as moving in their solemn cadence as they are timeless in their meaning. Little wonder it is that, as here we sense his deep dedication to freedom, our own dedication takes added strength. 
Lincoln had faith that the ancient drums of Gettysburg, throbbing mutual defiance from the battle lines of the blue and the gray, would one day beat in unison, to summon a people, happily united in peace, to fulfill, generation by generation, a noble destiny. His faith has been justified - but the unfinished work of which he spoke in 1863 is still unfinished; because of human frailty, it always will be. 
Where we see the serenity with which time has invested this hallowed ground, Lincoln saw the scarred earth and felt the press of personal grief. Yet he lifted his eyes to the future, the future that is our present. He foresaw a new birth of freedom, a freedom and equality for all which, under God, would restore the purpose and meaning of America, defining a goal that challenges each of us to attain his full stature of citizenship. 
We read Lincoln’s sentiments, we ponder his words - the beauty of the sentiments he expressed enthralls us; the majesty of his words holds us spellbound - but we have not paid to his message its just tribute until we - ourselves - live it. For well he knew that to live for country is a duty, as demanding as is the readiness to die for it. So long as this truth remains our guiding light, self-government in this nation will never die. 
True to democracy’s basic principle that all are created equal and endowed by the Creator with priceless human rights, the good citizen now, as always before, is called upon to defend the rights of others as he does his own; to subordinate self to the country’s good; to refuse to take the easy way today that may invite national disaster tomorrow; to accept the truth that the work still to be done awaits his doing. 
On this day of commemoration, Lincoln still asks of each of us, as clearly as he did of those who heard his words a century ago, to give that increased devotion to the cause for which soldiers in all our wars have given the last full measure of devotion. Our answer, the only worthy one we can render to the memory of the great emancipator, is ever to defend, protect and pass on unblemished, to coming generations the heritage - the trust - that Abraham Lincoln, and all the ghostly legions of patriots of the past, with unflinching faith in their God, have bequeathed to us - a nation free, with liberty, dignity, and justice for all. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Altogether fitting and proper that we should do this

This is the video made by Jim Gifford of Maryland for the Learn the Address website.  I like it a lot.  To see how to submit one of your own, go to

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Who knew Jerry Seinfeld was this smart about the Gettysburg Address?

Most of the videos posted on the Ken Burns Learn the Address website are straightforward shots of somebody either reading or reciting the Gettysburg Address.  But this one is of the comedian Louis C. K. preparing to make his finished video and being coached through it by Jerry Seinfeld.  It's terrific.  Louis is clearly not deeply familiar with the Address, and we see Jerry give a perceptive overview of what's important about it and then help Louis break down where in the speech a new idea begins and so on.  At the end of the video, after an almost-perfect take, Louis allows that he's affected by the speech each time he goes through it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Learn the Address.

Gettysburg Address sesquicentennial activities are thick on the ground currently, with the anniversary next Tuesday.  None will be more meaningful than Ken Burns's.  He's set up a website called Learn The Address where he has posted videos of various well-known people reading or reciting it.  Above is the extremely moving mashup version he made from editing together phrases from 25 different videos, including those of all five living U.S. presidents.

Best of all, though, is that the website is set up to collect and showcase Gettysburg Address videos from anyone who wants to send one in: "a national effort to encourage everyone in America to video record themselves reading or reciting the speech," as the site puts it.  The instructions on how to submit your video are here.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The notion of "black Confederates" continues to be a tasteless falsehood.

"A man who doesn't know the truth is just an idiot, but a man
who knows the truth and calls it a lie is a crook." - Bertolt Brecht
The widespread internet debunking of the faked photo at right is of course an excellent development, but there's no reason to expect it to do much to slow down the morally bankrupt campaign to convince people who aren't paying close attention that there were large numbers of black Confederate soldiers fighting for the South.  Up until one encounters this particular case, it is just barely possible to think that these attempts have been based merely in ignorance. But the painstaking analysis of this photo by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, upon which the general debunking is based, proves that blatant dishonesty is also involved.

Their paper, "Retouching History: the Modern Falsification of a Civil War Photograph," should be read in full, but here's a brief summary of what they found.  The historical photo upon which the forgery was built is of members of the 25th Regiment of United States Colored Troops, photographed in Philadelphia during the winter of 1862 and wearing U.S. Army regulation issue light blue wool overcoats.  As you see, the coats show up as gray in a black-and-white photograph.  Here's the original picture:

The close observer will detect the presence of their commanding officer, wearing what is indisputably a Union uniform, and will further notice that this officer has been cropped out of the "black Confederates" version.  This is enough to settle the matter of dishonesty, but Handler and Tuite have more:
  • The original photo was used as the basis for an 1864 poster recruiting black enlistments in the Union Army, further establishing its Northern provenance. 
  • The belt buckle of the soldier seventh from the left in the original photo (fifth from the left in the faked version) has "US" clearly marked on it.  It has been obscured to the point of illegibility in the forgery.  (I can't post the photos large enough to make this point clear, so that's another reason to see Handler and Tuite's article, where they can.)
  • The caption superimposed on the cropped photo, "1st Louisiana Native Guard 1861," seems intended to be the clincher: hey, it must be the Louisiana Native Guard, it's printed right on the photo itself! But the technology to superimpose printing on photographs seems not to have existed in the 1860s.  Also, their name is Guards, plural.
  • Although the font of the caption seems vaguely old-fashioned enough to maybe be from the 19th Century, it is in fact a modern font called Algerian, designed in 1968 and standard equipment in some versions of Microsoft Word--therefore usable in Photoshop and other image-manipulation programs.  
1864 Union recruiting poster based on the original photo
I wrote some time ago about the case of Silas Chandler, a Mississippi slave taken along to war when his master went into the Confederate army.  The master's descendants had apparently grown up with family history that said the master had freed Silas the year before the war and the two of them had enlisted together and served in the same regiment.  None of this turned out to be true: researchers on the PBS show History Detectives dug up enough primary documentary evidence to make clear that Silas was never freed by his master and was in camp not as a soldier but as the property of a soldier.  But I'm not aware of any reason to assume the master's descendants were consciously lying:  most of us are willing to believe the family history we grew up with.  There's no doubt with this case, though: this forgery was put up by people intent on doing a bad thing.

Among all the other things wrong with this, it's disrespectful to the actual Louisiana Native Guards, who were a Creole unit of the Louisiana state militia and nominally part of the Confederate army.

So, you might wonder, if the real Native Guards were even only technically part of the rebel army, why do neo-Confederates have to invent lies about them in order to make their case?  Why not just point at the facts and say, "See?  Black Confederates!"  Well, the full facts don't do much to further the impression that neo-Confederates wish to convey, that blacks across the South actively supported the Confederate cause and were willing to fight for it in an army in which they were welcome.

Antebellum Louisiana was unique in that, as results of laws enacted under previous Spanish rule as well as immigration by French-speaking Caribbean blacks, it had a sizable population of free, property-owning people of color.  As a U.S. territory and then in the early days of statehood, Louisiana gradually eliminated or eroded various rights of this group, but even so, many members of pre-war Louisiana's free black community had accumulated enough wealth that they owned good-sized plantations--and the slaves that were needed to run them.  From the Encyclopedia of Louisiana:
from the
Durnford family website
In Placquemines, Orleans, St. John the Baptist, Iberville, St. Landry, Pointe Coupee, Natchitoches, as well as other parishes free people of color entered the planter class, owning sugar and cotton plantations and more than twenty slaves.  In some ways sugar planter Andrew Durnford, who owned St. Rosalie Plantation, in Placquemines Parish, was representative of this group. . . . By 1850 Andrew Durnford was listed as owning seventy slaves.  He and other free black slave owners treated their own slave labor force in much the same manner as his white neighbors, buying, selling, and disciplining their human chattel.
To say the least, this is a group of pre-Civil War blacks with an atypical set of concerns.  From a different entry in the Encyclopedia, here's the career of the militia regiment they helped raise:
In April 1861, a group of influential free men of color met in New Orleans and formed a regiment called the Native Guards. . . . Historians disagree about the motivations of the men who raised this regiment.  Some suggest that the Afro-Creole leaders acted out of fear, that they created the Native Guards to assuage the anxieties of those who saw free blacks as a dangerously disloyal population in the Confederacy.  Other historians argue that the Native Guards reflected the economic and cultural ties black elites shared with their white counterparts.  They contend that Afro-Creoles hoped that military volunteerism might earn them full citizenship in the Confederacy, something that was denied to them under the flag of the United States.  A third assertion, far more dubious, made by neo-Confederate historians suggests that the Confederate Native Guards represent a kind of proof that the Civil War was not about slavery, or at the very least, that the Confederacy did not hew to the ideology of white supremacy.
Whatever the motivations of the Native Guard's leaders, neither the State of Louisiana nor the Confederate government in Richmond, Virginia, knew what to do with these black soldiers. Not until the loss of New Orleans was imminent were weapons issued to the Native Guards. With the Union Navy steaming up the Mississippi River toward New Orleans, Gen. Mansfield Lovell ordered the free black regiment to keep peace in the city while his rebel army plundered it of anything portable enough to take with them in their retreat.  Left behind by their comrades, the Native Guards quietly dissolved as the Union Adm. David Farragut's squadron arrived at the levee on April 26, 1862.
 Ultimately, the greatest contribution of these so-called "black Confederates" was that they served as the basis for a new, Union version of the Native Guards.  In the summer of 1862, a delegation of its officers . . . met with Gen. Benjamin Butler in New Orleans to swear their loyalty to the Union and tender their services to the Army.
Their dissolution as a Confederate unit in April was actually their second.  They had been forced to disband in February 1862 by the Louisiana State Legislature, which passed a comprehensive militia reorganization statute, the first sentence of which limited militia enlistment to whites.  But desperation is the mother of Confederate interest in black troops, so the governor ignored the law and called them back into service when Farragut's ships entered the Mississippi in March.

Funeral procession of Andre Calloux,
Native Guards captain killed at Ft. Hudson
As Union soldiers, the Guards had a distinguished career, fighting alongside white troops at Fort Hudson, where their skill and courage contributed to the country's change of mind about the suitability of blacks as soldiers.

Oh, and another reason neo-Confederates can't come up with a legit photo of the Native Guards proudly serving in gray:  neither the Confederate Army nor the State of Louisiana ever provided the Guards with uniforms.  That's how seriously "black Confederates" were taken by real Confederates. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Civil War Plays 2013

Now that we're more than halfway through the sesquicentennial period, how's it look out there for Civil War plays being produced around the country?

I wrote recently about the Tri-State-and-Federal-District Civil War Project that promises a bunch of new work about the war and its legacy, much of which looks as if it might turn out to be interesting.  None of it exists yet, though.  Also upcoming at some point:  Charles Fuller, Pulitzer Prizewinner for A Soldier's Play, says in his bio for his new play that "he is currently working on a quartet of plays called We about the Civil War and Reconstruction."  Glad to hear it.

Don Bender is terrific as Lee
in The Killer Angels.

At the moment, here in Chicago, there's a strong production by the always swell Lifeline Theatre, an adaptation by Karen Tarjan of the Michael Shaara novel The Killer Angels, about the battle of Gettysburg.  The source material is a little too Confederate-apologist for me--more about that in a minute--but the adaptation is quite good. The show is extended through November 24.

Shaara tells the reader at the outset of his book, “This is the story of the Battle of Gettysburg, told from the viewpoints of Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet and some of the other men who fought there,” so it is no surprise that its perspective is more Southern than not.  Well and good, except that it retails the tired falsehood that Lee opposed slavery.  This is an important falsehood to retail if you wish to convey (a) the sainthood of Robert E. Lee; (b) the idea that secession was not about slavery; and by extension, (c) the moral legitimacy of the Confederacy.  But some of the slave quarters at Lee's home at Arlington are still there to be visited today, the letter to his wife still exists in which he describes slavery as a burden to whites but a divinely ordained boon to the black race, and the 1866 testimony of Lee's former slave Wesley Norris of being whipped under Lee's personal supervision is still harrowing to read.  What Lee actually opposed was secession, but of course there's no smooth way to get that fact to support the idea that the Confederacy was a noble thing.

The book also puts forth as the Southern view on slavery--unfortunately, it's the only Southern view on slavery that makes it into the Lifeline adaptation, as far as I recall--the poppycock that a victorious Confederacy would soon end slavery, or let it die out, or something.  
Slavocracy's operating manual
In fact, Article I (Section 9, Clause 4) of the Confederate Constitution prohibited the Confederate Congress or any individual Confederate State from ever passing a law against slavery.  Again, to make the Confederacy into a thing worth honoring, its apologists must divorce it from slavery in the modern popular mind.  So it's incumbent upon sensible people to remember that secession was not merely about preserving slavery, it was explicitly about extending slavery.  The whole ten-year crisis of the 1850s was about Southern attempts to extend slavery into federal territories.  And not just westward toward the Pacific; there were influential voices urging military annexation of Mexico, Central America and parts of South America, along with all the major Caribbean islands, so that these places could become slave states.  Of course, a victorious Confederacy would have been too exhausted in the mid-1860s to launch the new war that might make any of that happen.  Still, some Lost Cause types in 1904 published this map of what their dream country would have looked like.

Fun fact to know and tell:  the Sun-Times review of Lifeline's show gets the battle's dates wrong; also, the critic's summary of why the battle matters ("not only resulted in the largest number of casualties of the war, but also is widely seen as its turning point") is suspiciously close to Wikipedia's  summary of the same thing ("involved the largest number of casualties of the entire war and is often described as the war's turning point").  As the economist Brad DeLong often asks, "Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?"

Back on topic now:  There are two different musicals called The Civil War making the rounds.  One I've written briefly about before, as has celebrity commentor Tom Shea, who corrected me when I thought it was a new show.  Composed by Frank Wildhorn with lyrics by Gregory Boyd, Jack Murphy, and Wildhorn, it was a major Broadway flop in the '90s but seems to have found new life during the sesquicentennial.  In the last twelve months it's had productions at the Lubbock, Texas Civic Center Theatre (which for some unfathomable reason is not yet named after Buddy Holly), the Gettysburg Community Theatre, Hale Center Theater in Utah, and the Artisan Center Theater in Texas, among others, with upcoming productions scheduled later this year or in 2014 at Poteet Theatre in Oklahoma City, Eagle Theatre in Hammonton, New Jersey, and a return to Lubbock, this time at Sidecar Theatre.
Theatreworks USA's The Civil War

The other one is a new show produced this summer at Theatreworks USA at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village.  Put together by Arthur Perlman and Jeff Lunden, best known respectively for the book/lyrics and score of their musical adaptation of Arthur Kopit's play Wings, it features mostly period songs like "Lincoln and Liberty" and "Dixie" as it presents an hour-long dramatization of the war aimed at grades three through nine.  The show focuses on a collection of archetypal characters whose stories interweave through the songs.  It ran all summer as Theatreworks's free summer show, and the Theatreworks website says they're putting together a national tour. 

Assuming the website's study guide material accurately reflects the show, I have a complaint.  Here's the description of two of the characters: Zak, a runaway slave who demands the right to fight his own fight; Will, his former best friend and "master."  Sigh.  No way Will was ever really Zak's best friend.  His self-interest as Zak's "master" would always preclude genuinely caring about Zak's diametrically opposed self-interest.  And why is master in quotation marks?  If we're denying that the master-slave relationship was a real thing, we're not teaching the core fact in this whole saga. Let us hope that the show itself is truer than the show's study guide.  The chief value of teaching the American Iliad to schoolchildren is to convey an understanding of the great struggle that continues to shape our identity as a nation.  If our understanding of that struggle is that it was a big misunderstanding among perfectly nice people who actually all liked each other--if we deny or smooth over the moral aspects of the war, of slavery and of secession--we're just feeding kids pablum.

Cornerstone Arts Alliance in Goshen, New York, produced this April a pair of obscure one-acts from the war's centennial period, Edward Finnegan's 1964 drama My Hands Is Full o' Gifts and Charles George's 1960 The Curtain Falls.  In the first, the spirit of a Civil War soldier observes a modern-day debate over whether to move the cemetery he's buried in to make room for a building development.  In the second, Edwin Booth in 1873 sifts through his brother's trunk and remembers.  So, both about legacy.  Nice.

Winding Road's cast for Row after Row
Also in April, Winding Road Theatre Ensemble in Tucson produced the world premiere of Row after Row by Jessica Dickey, about a trio of Civil War re-enactors, one of them female, who in a time shift to 1863 also portray the Civil War characters being re-enacted.  The play is already scheduled for its New York premiere in January in a production by The Women's Project at Center Stage II.

Finally for now, Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man, the Incredible Hulk of new Civil War plays, continues to rampage around the country.  Lopez's website, which appears to need updating, lists an even dozen productions in just the first four months of 2013.  A quick look around the internet locates other productions during that period or since then in Rochester NY, Austin TX, Dorset VT, Columbus OH, Seattle WA, and Jacksonville Beach FL.  There are undoubtedly more.