Re-Thinking James Buchanan

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

On Saturday, September 19th, local citizens, historians, Civil War enthusiasts, and the rare college student alike converged at the LancasterHistory.org Campus of History for the second day of the President James Buchanan National Symposium. The theme for the symposium was “The Worlds of Thaddeus Stevens and James Buchanan: Race, Gender, and Politics in the Civil War Era,” thus it featured the lives of two of Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s most prominent historical residents and two of the most colorful characters of the Civil War era.

A photo of Wheatland, taken from the back yard. The house served as James Buchanan’s Lancaster home, located just next to the LancasterHistory.org Campus of History. Photograph by author.

The tone for the day’s discussions was perhaps set out from the beginning by Gettysburg College’s own Professor Michael Birkner as he introduced the first panel, alleging that the traditional historical narratives of the era, such as the unshakable legend of Buchanan dithering away his presidency as the Union collapsed, are old and tired. Instead, he went on to say, we should make way for a body of new, fresher, and more contentious scholarship – one that shall continue to grow thanks in large part to the scholars on hand at the event.

To summarize the full proceedings of the day’s event would be a task far unsuited for a blog post. As such, rather than going through the details of each historian’s paper point-by-point, here are what I believe to be the most pertinent themes and topics of the symposium: Continue reading “Re-Thinking James Buchanan”

James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War: Complicating the Image of the ‘Do-Nothing’ President

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

While ranking presidents is often a controversial exercise open to great amounts of interpretation, all rankers—and I say this with a certainty I’m usually loath to use when making historical remarks—rank James Buchanan low. Very low. If not dead last, second to last. If not that, third to last. Certainly and absolutely no higher than the bottom five. This is altogether a direct reflection of his perceived status as a president who, when confronted with the brewing Civil War that would kick off as he left office, sat on his hands and did absolutely nothing.

“Portrait of James Buchanan,” Wikimedia Commons.
“Portrait of James Buchanan,” Wikimedia Commons.

Taken out of the context surrounding the coming of the Civil War, this may come as a surprise. Buchanan’s political resume was, and remains, altogether wonderful, having served in numerous diplomatic posts, the House of Representatives, Senate, and as Secretary of State before his election. As unfortunate employers occasionally find, however, experience does not strictly make a successful employee. Unfortunately, Buchanan’s employer was the citizenry of the United States. Continue reading “James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War: Complicating the Image of the ‘Do-Nothing’ President”

“The Misfortunes of Another Republic”: Ferdinand Lecomte and the Swiss Sonderbund War

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

“Sonderbund War, Switzerland, 1847: Scene from the Battle of Airolo,” Wikimedia Commons.
“Sonderbund War, Switzerland, 1847: Scene from the Battle of Airolo,” Wikimedia Commons.

Switzerland is, and was, not a state comparable to many others in Europe—especially most of the other states who observed the Civil War. Unlike states such as France, Prussia, and Great Britain, Switzerland was not a major world power in 1861, nor even a monarchy as most of Europe was. A small landlocked mountain nation about half the size of the state of South Carolina, Switzerland had not recognized the rule of any monarch since the late Middle Ages. It maintained a loosely bound, oligarchic government until the French Revolution, when it was toppled by revolutionary troops in 1798. By 1813, a state in the older model had been restored, though one that maintained many centralized and nationalized aspects of the revolutionary regime. Liberal fervor, like that which was spreading through all through Europe in the nineteenth century, took root among the Swiss in the following decades, resulting in numerous democratic government reforms in the 1830s. By 1847, the forces of centralizing liberalization and the old conservative order came to a head, resulting in Switzerland’s very own civil war: the Sonderbund War. While it only lasted for about a month, the war was waged by several Catholic cantons eager to roll back reforms and return power to a cantonal level.

Sound familiar, Civil Warriors? One can perhaps hear the short-lived army of Swiss rebels clamoring on about “Cantons’ Rights!” Continue reading ““The Misfortunes of Another Republic”: Ferdinand Lecomte and the Swiss Sonderbund War”

Not Exactly Neutral: Ferdinand Lecomte Observes the Federal Army

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

Quick—think of the name of a European country. I’ll give you a second to decide.

Batterie_rust

Picked one? How many of you named France, Germany, Britain, Russia, or perhaps Spain or Italy? The vast majority, I would bet, given their historical and cultural significance. Perhaps there was a sprinkling of smaller, though certainly notably nations such as the Netherlands or Poland. Perhaps a select amount of clever individuals went with Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, or Monaco. How many people, I wonder, would think of Switzerland—unaided, that is, by the very title of this article, which I expect has served to skew the results of my hypothetical experiment.

When I’ve spoken of Switzerland with my peers and friends, a fair number often confuse the small, alpine nation with Sweden—perhaps understandable, despite the vast gulf in geography, given the generalization of a neutral, prosperous European nation with a cross on their flag and whose name begins with “Sw.” Those who could identify Switzerland correctly could generally only list off a few stereotypes regarding what typically comes from there: cheese, chocolate, clocks, banks, army knives, neutrality, the Red Cross—and so forth. While, all things considered, that’s a reasonably assortment of things from a nation so often seemingly overlooked, these exports are more traits than concrete, historical facts, and truly, aside from a few vague notions of the Protestant Reformation in Zurich and an invasion by the French in the revolutionary era, I could not come up with many historical details on Switzerland myself. Continue reading “Not Exactly Neutral: Ferdinand Lecomte Observes the Federal Army”

A French Biologist Observes the Civil War

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

[This piece is the third in a series on international observation of the American Civil War. Follow these links to read Part 1 and Part 2.]

Charles Girard, towards the end of his life (1891). “Girard Charles Frédéric (1822-1895),” Wikimedia Commons.
Charles Girard, toward the end of his life (1891).
“Girard Charles Frédéric (1822-1895),” Wikimedia Commons.

When considering international observation of the Civil War, common sense suggests that the vast majority of observers would be individuals with distinct military interests in mind. Given the distance between the United States and Europe, as well as the time that observation of the war demanded, Europeans did not simply pack their bags for a day trip to the battlefield to observe the Americans fighting each other for nothing but curiosity and laughs. Military interests and observations were not fully the draw of those who did go, however—on occasion politics were involved.

Continue reading “A French Biologist Observes the Civil War”

A Prussian Observes the American Civil War

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

This post is the second part in a series on Captain Justus Scheibert and international observation of the American Civil War. Read Part 1 of the series here.

“Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke.” Wikimedia Commons.

Helmuth von Moltke, the elder of the two notable Generals von Moltke and who made his fame in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, is noted for allegedly describing the American Civil War as nothing but “two armed-mobs” running around the countryside and beating each other up, from which very little of military utility could be learned. While a proper source for this quotation cannot be pinned down, and it may never have even been uttered at all, it serves as a rather succinct description of how Prussians would ultimately view the military legacy of the Civil War. In his official observations for the Prussian military commander, Captain Justus Scheibert makes an effort to impart what he viewed as the importance of the conflict to military thought and tactics, though he often focuses his writings on the ways in which American warfare was inferior to Prussian methods.

On a grand tactical scale, Scheibert divides the progression of the war into three phases. He characterizes the first phase of the opening days of the war as being disorderly and confused, defined by haphazard skirmishes lead by men who had not yet truly come to grips with warfare (a rather von Moltke-esque description). The second stage, from roughly 1862 to Gettysburg in 1863, represented a maturation of tactics, with special emphasis now being placed on learned battle formations such as the offensive column, giving a sort of linear character to the fighting. The third phase, from Gettysburg to the end of the war, was one focused upon defensive, at least from the Confederate point of view that Scheibert takes. Grand retreats and movements were a thing of the past as advances were, as Scheibert observes, now made inch by inch as each army fortified and refortified across the landscape. Continue reading “A Prussian Observes the American Civil War”

Justus Scheibert and International Observation of the Civil War

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

History likes to look for heroes—individuals with exceptional stories who can serve as the embodiment of others of their kind. In the (very specific) world of international observers to the Civil War, Colonel Arthur Fremantle is that hero. He is familiar even to many casual students of Civil War history as “that British guy who hung around with the Confederates,” in large part thanks to the widespread consumption of Michael Shaara’s popular book The Killer Angels and the aptly-named movie version Gettysburg. His fame is not without merit; Fremantle’s diary detailing his travels through the Confederate States is filled with interesting observations and commentary on the Civil War and the American South through the fascinating lens of a complete outsider.

“Captain J. Scheibert.” Seven Months in the Rebel States by Justus Scheibert. Tuscaloosa, AL: The Confederate Publishing Company, Inc., 1958.
“Captain J. Scheibert.” Seven Months in the Rebel States by Justus Scheibert. Tuscaloosa, AL: The Confederate Publishing Company, Inc., 1958.

Arthur Fremantle was not, however, the only international observer to the Civil War (or even the only British observer), a fact that is often overlooked. Representatives were also sent from Napoleon III’s France, the Austrian Empire, and the Kingdom of Prussia, as well as from a handful of other European states. The international implications of any kind of outcome made the war relevant to the interests of European power politics, to say nothing of the military knowledge that could be gained through observation of the war. Continue reading “Justus Scheibert and International Observation of the Civil War”

The Mystery of Penn Hall

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

In academic terms, I do not consider myself a “Civil Warrior.” I find the Civil War to be very interesting, but unlike many of my fellows here, do not pursue its study as my main focus. In a way, this proves to be a minor difficulty writing for an institute dedicated to Civil War research. Experts – in this case, true Civil Warriors – often seem to have a way of drawing leads and context for events and sources out of thin air, much like a Sherlock or Poirot solving a seemingly unsolvable mystery by the power of sheer deduction and individual mastery. For me, however, I must take the route of a gumshoe, working step by step to solve the puzzle.

Tyson Brothers. "Pennsylvania College (1862)." 1862. Special Collections/Musselman Library, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Tyson Brothers. “Pennsylvania College (1862).” 1862. Special Collections/Musselman Library, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

For writing history is indeed a lot like solving a mystery. Oftentimes, much like the work undertaken for many of the articles on this blog, you begin with a single source of information or a single subject to study—your first clue on the case, existing outside of all contextualization when first viewed. “What can I possibly do with this?” one might ask when reading an old letter that seems largely irrelevant to most studies. “What kind of case am I dealing with?” Continue reading “The Mystery of Penn Hall”

Featured Article: O.O. Howard’s Honorary Degree

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

“Oliver Otis Howard, 1830-1909, bust portrait, facing left; in uniform.” Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. Digital ID: cph.3b00473. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-52494.
“Oliver Otis Howard, 1830-1909, bust portrait, facing left; in uniform.”
Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. Digital ID: cph.3b00473. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-52494.

On 11 August 1866, Major General Oliver Otis Howard, Director of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands and former commander of the Union Army’s XI Corps, wrote to D. A. Buehler, Chairman of the Pennsylvania College Board of Trustees, to thank him for the award of an honorary degree. Only two days before, on 9 August 1866, the board had voted to confer unto Howard the honorary LL.D, or Doctorate of Laws.

Continue reading “Featured Article: O.O. Howard’s Honorary Degree”