Hood’s “Miserbels”

Here’s a new take on “Lee’s Miserables.”

Recall that Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables appeared in print in 1862 and became a favorite in Lee’s army. After its translation and publication by a Richmond firm, a “soldier edition” was distributed throughout the army in the winter of 1863-64, printed on “Confederate ‘sheep’s wool paper,’” according to Maj. Robert Stiles.

“Everywhere, you might see the gaunt figures in their tattered jackets bending over the dingy pamphlets—‘Fantine,’ ‘Cosette,’ or ‘Marius,’ or ‘St. Denis,’” remembered John Esten Cooke. “The soldiers, little familiar with the Gallic pronunciation, called the book ‘Lee’s Miserables!’” Continue reading

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Black Confederates: Laborers or Soldiers? (part three)

Chandler Slave with masterpart three in a series

At the beginning of the Civil War, blacks tried to enlist in both armies as soldiers but were denied by both. Enslaved men were taken to the Confederate army by their slaveowners. Free blacks were paid to work in the army and the military industry in various positions, especially blacksmiths, wheelwrights, carpenters, and iron workers. The Union army also employed black tradesmen, cooks, servants, and scouts. In fact, Sergeant Nimrod Burke of the 23rd USCT, started the war in 1861 as a teamster and scout for the 36th Ohio Infantry, before joining the 23rd in 1864.

In 1862, the Confederate army started to impress blacks to serve as laborers, especially, to dig fortifications for the defenses of the cities and for the troops on battlefields. They did not want to arm blacks because of the following reasons: Negroes were inferior to white men; they were made genteel by the many decades of slavery (especially since Nat Turner’s rebellion); they would run to the Yankee lines if they were near the front; and many Southerners were afraid of massive slave insurrections. Continue reading

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Building Bristoe and Kettle Run: Public Meeting

We told you last week about an opportunity to have a voice in shaping the future of the Kettle Run and Bristoe Station battlefields. Just a reminder, for anyone interesting in having their voices heard, that tonight is the public meeting:

Bristoe Flier

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Like Sheep

Sheep Over FenceThe use of cliché is prevalent in Civil War combat narratives. Every attacking force, by their description, always had to charge through “a hail of grape and canister.” This was repeated ad nauseam regardless of whether or not there was even artillery present at the assaulted point. Historians often borrow such descriptions, and who can blame them. Civil War soldiers would scoff at the notion that we have any subject matter authority. “No man can form any idea of what it is like to go into a battle or charge without having been in one,” wrote Private William L. Phillips, 5th Wisconsin Infanty, on April 1, 1865, one day before his mortal wounding at the Petersburg Breakthrough.[1]

Continue reading

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Victual Particulars

MagruderOne of my favorite stories comes from Miller’s Photographic History, but I never knew its source.

…until recently. In The Grayjackets: and How They Lived, Fought and Died for Dixie (Richmond, 1867), by “a Confederate” [James Dabney McCabe] I have found the yarn.

I’ll tell it the way you see it in Miller’s. Continue reading

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The North Anna River, Today

NAR-River Is Up

At the boat landing adjacent to the Route 1 bridge, the river ran high enough to flood the parking lot.

The day was quiet and the water high along the North Anna River today. One hundred and fifty two years ago, Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps was coming to grief as it tried to advance down the Telegraph Road and the IX Corps was coming to grief dashing itself impotently against Ox Ford. A thunderstorm would rip through across the battlefield late in the afternoon, drenching a foolhardy assault led by the inebriated James Ledlie. Robert E. Lee, delirious with fever, impotently muttered, “We must strike them a blow. We must strike them a blow.” Continue reading

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“Their Balaklava”

There are some stories, no matter how heroic, that just do not fit into the standard interpretation of a battle.  Take, for instance, the story of the 7th Maine at Antietam.  They arrived on the northern end of the battlefield well after the major fighting ended in David Miller’s Cornfield and in the West Woods, while the sparring at the Sunken Road had less than one hour until it was played out.

The Mainers, under the command of twenty-one year old Thomas Hyde, reached the area around today’s Visitor Center at 1:00 p.m. on September 17 as part of William Franklin’s 6th Corps.  There, for several hours, they “hugged the ground” to avoid the iron flying over their heads between opposing cannoneers.  Nearing 5:00 p.m., Thomas Hyde later recalled that he and his men were expecting to see men in blue arriving to relive them soon, “little knowing that in a few minutes more the 7th Maine were to find their Balaklava [sic].” Continue reading

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Thomas Nast from the North Anna River: “On to Richmond”

Battle-detailOne of my favorite images of the Civil War comes from the June 18, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The image, by Thomas Nast, is titled “The Campaign in Virginia—“On to Richmond!” and it accompanied the paper’s coverage of the North Anna phase of the Overland Campaign.

By that point, the armies had already moved away from North Anna through Cold Harbor, and the Army of the Potomac had jumped the James River for a strike at Petersburg. Were the coverage appearing in a daily, the caption might well have read “On to Petersburg!” instead of Richmond. Continue reading

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Had He Lived

Captain William T. Nicholson, 37th North Carolina

Captain William T. Nicholson, 37th North Carolina

Every Memorial Day I give a program reflecting on the soldiers killed during the Breakthrough. There are dozens of compelling stories from which to choose for the Federals, but I have only been able to identify photographs or backstories for a handful of Confederates. It happens when one side is charging with fixed bayonets under fire across half a mile of open ground and the far-outnumbered defenders surrender in mass just minutes after their works are breached. Thus I’m constantly working with the same couple of southern casualties every year. One such soldier has a quote attached to him that I always struggle to unpack.

Continue reading

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Question of the Week: 5/23-5/29/16


152 years ago today, the Eastern armies clashed along the banks of the North Anna River—a phase of the Overland Campaign that tends to get overlooked in light of the more sensational and dramatic actions before and after. Yet the NAR phase of the campaign offers insights into the army not as readily seen in other phases of the campaign, too.

What is the most interesting phase of the Overland Campaign to you and why?

Posted in Emerging Civil War | 7 Comments