Debacle at Petersburg: The Battle of the Crater: An Interview with A. Wilson Greene

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2018 CWI conference  about their talks. Today we are speaking with A. Wilson Greene.  Mr.

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A. Wilson Greene. Image courtesy of PetersburgArea.org

Greene recently retired from a 44-year career in public history.  He spent sixteen years in the National Park Service, served as the first director of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (now the Civil War Trust), and was the founding director of Pamplin Historical Park & the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, where he worked for 22 years.  Greene holds a Masters degree in History.  He is the author of numerous articles in scholarly and popular publications and six books, including his latest: A Campaign of Giants: The Battles for Petersburg, Volume 1, From the Crossing of the James to the Battle of the Crater (UNC Press, forthcoming).

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Inside The Civil War Defenses of Washington: An Interview with Steve T. Phan

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming

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Steve Phan.  Image courtesy of Steve Phan

2018 CWI conference  about their talks. Today we are speaking with Steve T. Phan, a Park Ranger and historian at the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Prior to his arrival at CWDW, Steve worked as an intern and park guide at Richmond National Battlefield Park, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, and Rock Creek Park. A military history scholar of the Civil War era, Steve’s research focuses on military occupation, operational command, fortifications, and the Western Theater during the Civil War.  He is the author of several articles about Asians and Pacific Islanders in the Civil War and is currently writing a guide book for the Civil War Defenses of Washington.  Steve is also continuing his work on an extended research project about the Union Army First Corps and the life of General John F. Reynolds.  He holds a Masters degree in American History, with a concentration in Public History. 

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The Real 54th Massachusetts: Dr. Douglas Egerton on the Lives of United States Colored Troops in Lincoln Lyceum Lecture

By Nick Tarchis ’18

Two weeks ago, the Gettysburg College community was treated to a lecture by special guest Douglas Egerton, one of the recipients of the 2017 Gilder-Lehrman Lincoln Prize. Dr. Egerton works at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, where he teaches courses on race in 19th century America. Egerton’s most recent book Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments that Redeemed America chronicles the lives of ten men from the 54th and 55th Massachusetts United States Colored Troops, documenting their experiences from the pre-war era to their deaths.

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Dr. Douglas Egerton. Photo courtesy of lemoyne.edu.

Audience members were most familiar with these regiments because of the 1989 movie “Glory,” which depicts the story of Robert Gould Shaw and the black troops of the 54th, culminating in their famous assault on Fort Wagner. Egerton’s lecture, however, examined the lives of Shaw’s soldiers—rather than Shaw himself—and the country’s attitudes toward United States Colored Troops. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Americans began to ask if black citizens and former slaves would be willing to fight for a country in which many of them felt unwanted. In the South, the Confederate Government was quick to declare that, if captured, black soldiers would be enslaved and officers would be executed. While this policy would change later on, there was still a fair share of worry in the North that black troops would run from the battlefield and abandon their posts because of this Confederate threat. This was the crux of Egerton’s lecture: looking at the how the soldiers were depicted versus how they acted and examining the impact that the 54th and 55th Massachusetts had on public perception.

The history students in the crowd might have recognized Egerton’s work as “history from the bottom up.” Instead of emulating the film “Glory,” which focuses more on Shaw than the black soldiers, Egerton discussed the rank-and-file and told their stories through their own experiences. This confronts a large issue in the history field, in which many choose to study presidents, generals, kings, and other important leaders rather than opt for the harder story to tell: that of the common man. While historians such as James McPherson and Earl Hess have examined why soldiers enlisted, Egerton studies the motivations of a more marginalized group who faced institutional oppression and still chose to fight.

Egerton worked to emphasize that, unlike in the movie “Glory,” not all USCTs were escaped slaves. Those who joined the ranks as freeman—including Frederick Douglass’ sons, Charles and Lewis—saw a palpable public outcry against black troops and sought a way to prove that they would not turn and run in a battle but would fight just as bravely as white troops. This was an opportunity to reunite the nation and make it a better place for themselves and their families. For those who had escaped from bondage, however, the motivation was simple: fight for the families back in the South. Many who escaped had left someone behind, be it a wife, son, or daughter, and they wanted to ensure that they could secure their loved ones’ freedom and build a nation they could call their own.

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Print depicting the 54th Massachusetts charging Fort Wagner. Photo via Library of Congress.

Edgerton’s lecture, like his book, had a melancholy ending, as many of the troops who survived the war and served with distinction were not able to achieve the goals they had hoped. Many of them lived long lives and were able to reunite with their families, but while the South was defeated, the nation restored, and the 14th amendment ratified, some troops still faced persecution after the war. Jim Crow soon took the place of slave drivers and catchers. As for their place in memory, the soldiers were quickly forgotten by history. When the United States returned to war in the 1890s, the 1910s, and 1940s, the same issues surfaced again. The public forgot about the heroism of the USCT regiments that fought during the Civil War and again believed that black soldiers would surely run at the first sight of combat and prove to be a liability on the battlefield. “Glory” does not necessarily help combat this image, as a majority of the film is told through Shaw’s perspective and portrays many of the soldiers as runaway slaves with little to no motivation. Thankfully, historians like Dr. Egerton are working to tell these men’s stories and ensure that they will have their rightful place in American memory.

“Rebellion in the Ranks”: Desertion and the United States Colored Troops: An Interview with Jonathan Lande

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming

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Jonathan Lande Image courtesy of the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery

2018 CWI conference  about their talks. Today we are speaking with Jonathan Lande, a doctoral candidate in History at Brown University, where he was the 2016 Peter Green Scholar.  Jonathan teaches courses in American and African American history at Tougaloo College as the 2017-2018 Brown-Tougaloo Exchange Faculty Fellow.  His current project, “Rebellion in the Ranks,” examines the desertion, mutiny, and courts-martial trials of former slaves serving in the Union army. Looking at African American soldiers who found military service offensive to their visions of freedom, “Rebellion in the Ranks” traces the resistance of African American soldiers and remaps the process of emancipation in the Union army. A portion of his research entitled “Trials of Freedom” appeared in the Journal of Social History.   The African American Intellectual History Society blog, Black Perspectives, also featured a guest posting from Jonathan on desertion and black military service.  He is the recipient of the William F. Holmes Award from the Southern Historical Association and the Du Bois-Wells Award from the African American Intellectual History Society.

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We All Bleed Red: African American Soldiers and the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery

By Savannah Labbe ’19

Years before the United States military was officially desegregated in 1948, African Americans fought alongside white men in the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery during the Civil War. Most African American men that fought for the Union in the Civil War did so in United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) units, separated from white men. Because of this segregation, many black men, such as Andrew J. Williams of Industry, Maine, left home to find and fight with a U.S.C.T. regiment. Williams would not be accepted into a Maine regiment, or at least so he thought. His brother, Aaron E. Williams, decided to try his luck with the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, a white regiment. He mustered in on December 26, 1863 and served in Company G. He was not the only African American to join the 1st Maine, either. Lemuel Carter and Franklin Freemont from Bath joined, as did George Freeman from Brunswick. Carter and Freeman enlisted on January 5, 1864, while Freemont enlisted the day prior. They were all members of Company M.

These African American soldiers fought alongside white men in the fierce battles that the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery took a part in. The 1st Maine started off as an infantry regiment, the 18th Maine. However, they had spent so much time drilling with artillery that they were re-designated as an artillery regiment on January 6, 1863. While the 1st Maine had been mustered into service on August 21, 1862, they had not left the state come May of 1864. They finally left later that month and saw their first action near Fredericksburg on May 19, 1864. The 1st Maine was involved in many of the well-known battles of the later war, but they are best known for their efforts at Petersburg, where they were responsible for breaking through the center of the Confederate lines on the first day of the siege. They did not have much battlefield experience and had little idea what it would mean to charge towards the center of a heavily fortified line. They soon found out. The 1st Maine lost over 50 percent of its men, killed and wounded, in this charge, the single greatest loss of any regiment in one action; 632 out of 900 men became casualties. The regiment also participated in the Battle of Sayler’s Creek, the last major battle of the war in Virginia, where they captured many prisoners three days before Robert E. Lee surrendered. They returned to Bangor and were mustered out on June 6, 1865, with only 1,761 men returning from the original 2,202.

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Soldiers surround a bombproof shelter during the siege of Petersburg, 1864. Photo via Library of Congress.

 

One of the men that did not return with the 1st Maine was Aaron Williams. He fought at Petersburg and took a gunshot wound to the arm on June 18, 1864. He survived these wounds only to die on January 21, 1865. Sources differ on how he died. According to the history of the 1st Maine, entitled The First Maine Heavy Artillery, 1861-1865, Williams died of “exhaustion from overwork.” Other sources report that he died of disease. Lemuel Carter survived the war, dying in Brunswick, Maine on January 31, 1891. Freeman also died in Brunswick, Maine on January 8, 1887. He had survived gunshot wounds to the hand and foot at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Freemont survived the war as well. While these men “were of African descent,” as the history of the 1st Maine puts it, they were still allowed to fight alongside white men, and one even sacrificed his life for the Union cause. The white men of the 1st Maine were aware that Williams and the others were African American but accepted them anyways, knowing that they would fight and die just like any other man in the regiment. The story of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery is a curious and rare one, but it is proof that men of all races fought alongside each other in the Civil War, and that race does not make a difference in a soldier’s ability to fight and die for his country.

The unusual circumstances surrounding the 1st Maine provides a lot to think about in terms of race relations during the Civil War. Although some African Americans could pass as white and join white regiments, this was not the case with the men of the 1st Maine, as their enlistment papers listed their complexions as dark or black. The recruiter knew they were African American, as did the men who fought alongside them. These African American men served in a combat role and were not simply laborers, as two of them were wounded. Regardless of whether or not they were strictly combat soldiers, however, they still shed blood or otherwise sacrificed for the Union cause.

It is hard to tell how the white men of the 1st Maine felt about having African American men in their regiment; just because they were allowed to fight does not mean they were liked or respected. In addition, Northerners could be just as prejudiced and racist as Southerners during this time period. For example, Walt Whitman, a prominent New York poet, believed that African Americans were less evolved and did not deserve the right to vote, even comparing them to baboons. The Maine men might have welcomed African Americans into their ranks if only in the hope that they would be the ones to take a bullet first. Thus, the fact that the 1st Maine was unique in allowing African American men to fight does not necessarily mean these soldiers were necessarily more tolerant and accepting than the rest of the country.

However, it may be the case that the Maine men were more progressive than the rest of the country. Perhaps because there were so few African Americans living in Maine at the time race was not as big of an issue. Either way, it is important to ask just how these men managed to be accepted into a white regiment at a time when this was strictly forbidden. What made these men so different and special that their recruiting officer was willing to risk going against policy and potentially threaten the cohesion of the regiment by allowing them into the ranks? One may never know how these four African Americans became part of a white regiment, but these questions are important ones to ask, and they complicate the traditional narrative of African American involvement in the Civil War.


Sources

Frank, Michael. “Whitman’s Multitudes, For Better and Worse.” Nytimes.Com. Last modified 2005. Accessed September 27, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/18/books/whitmans-multitudes-for-better-and-worse.html?mcubz=0.

Hudziak, Mark. “On June 18, 1864, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Suffered the Greatest Single Loss of Any Federal Unit.” America’s Civil War vol. 10, no. 2 (May 1997): 8. Accessed September 9, 2017. http://ezpro.cc.gettysburg.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9703301614&site=eds-live.

Shaw, Horace H, and Charles J House. The First Maine Heavy Artillery, 1861-1865. Salem, MA: Higginson, 1903. Accessed September 10, 2017. https://books.google.com/books?id=G50dAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA330&lpg=PA330&dq=aaron+williams+first+maine+heavy+artillery&source=bl&ots=_DqHEjMp75&sig=CuKJnxLMPjKofZKbteu6bfzTEvs&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiR2Ir-oYnWAhWJx4MKHQ8CDikQ6AEIRjAI#v=onepage&q=aaron%20williams%20first%20maine%20heavy%20artillery&f=false.

Swartz, Brian. “Some Mainers Broke Racial Barriers In ‘White’ State Regiments.” Bangor Daily News. Last modified 2014. Accessed September 10, 2017. http://bangordailynews.com/2013/12/11/news/some-mainers-broke-racial-barriers-in-white-state-regiments/?ref=comments.

A Medal of Distinction:  Remembering the Montford Point Marines 

By Matthew LaRoche ‘17

This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead:  Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.

Montford Point Marines. Bronze replica medal. 1.5 in. replica of the Congressional Gold Medal designed by U.S. Mint Sculptor-Engraver, Don Everhart and awarded collectively to the Montford Point Marines on June 27, 2012 in the U.S. Capitol. The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest award issued by Congress for distinguished achievement. Approximately 600 Montford Point Marines have received their medals. On loan courtesy of Dr. Deborah M. and Stephanie C. Smith, USMC Colonel (Ret.).

In the century that followed the Civil War, Jim Crow wormed its way into the heart of every American institution—including the military. Despite the illustrious tradition laid down by black servicemen in the Civil War, the racial norms of the post-war years worked to beat their successive generations back into the shadows. Many branches—including the Marine Corps—entirely banned African Americans from serving. Even traditionally inclusive institutions, such as the often short-handed Navy, relegated blacks to menial roles. Beginning in 1893, they could serve only as cooks and cleaners aboard U.S. ships.

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The Emblem of the XXV:  A USCT Corps from Petersburg to Appomattox

By Jonathan Tracey ‘19

This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead:  Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.

25th Corps. Corps badges. These pins were worn by members of an all-black unit formed late in the war which had the distinction of being the first to enter Richmond. Corps badges like these were used to easily identify units on the battlefield. Each corps had a unique design, and each division a different color—red for the first, white for the second, blue for the third, and sometimes green for the fourth.

Pictured here are three corps badges for the Union XXV Corps. Beginning in 1863, most corps in the Union Army adopted symbols so it would be easier to distinguish different commands from each other during the height of battle. In addition to the symbol distinguishing what corps a soldier belonged to, badges were also color-coded to denote divisions. Generally, red would mark the first division, white the second, and blue the third. The XXV Corps adopted this shape, sometimes worn as a square, although usually seen pinned on as a diamond.

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On the Periphery of War: Sutlers, Luxuries, and the USCT

By Jon Danchik ‘17

This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead:  Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.

Sutler’s Token. This coin would be used as credit with a sutler, or vendor, who followed the Union Army, selling a range of luxury items from toothbrushes and soap to tobacco, cheese, and custom identification tags. Courtesy of Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.

The Civil War caused an unmistakable strain on production and the allocation of resources in the North as well as the South. In order to keep armies in good order, a steady influx of supplies was needed, leading to shortages of food on the home front and in places like prisoner of war camps. The armies were typically well-fed, and many rations commonly consisted of small amounts of coffee, salt pork, and hardened bread called “hard-tack.” While enough to keep one from starvation, rations could hardly be described as appealing, and soldiers spent much of their time in camp devising new and innovative ways to make them more appetizing. Foraging for supplies yielded resources for combatant armies, but the practices of foraging depended on different commanders’ interpretations of official policies and unofficial social contracts. Soldiers were capable of living off of the land, and sometimes taking supplies from hapless farmers at the point of a bayonet was the only way to stay well-fed. Clearly the rationing system had its downsides.

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A Record of Service: The logbook of the 28th Indiana Infantry

By Danielle Jones ‘18

This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead:  Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.

28th USCT. Descriptive logbook. Every regiment kept a descriptive log of the “special orders” issued by its colonel to the regiment, and “general orders” from higher up the command chain that affected the regiment in some way. Courtesy of Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.

The 28th Indiana Infantry Regiment—officially the 28th Regiment United States Colored Troops—was Indiana’s first and only all-black regiment during the Civil War. Mustered into service on January 12, 1864, the 28th formed in response to fears sparked by Confederate General John Hunt Morgan’s raid into Indiana in the summer of 1863. Morgan hoped to rouse Copperheads in the North and inspire them to rise up against the Union. The raiders ransacked Corydon, Salem, Dupont, Versailles, and other small towns in southern Indiana, burned and looted property, and stole over 4,000 horses. All told, the raid caused over one million dollars in damage. Thousands of Hoosiers enlisted in response to the raid, including the men of the 28th. The raid ultimately failed; Morgan was chased out of southern Indiana by state troops and kept out by the United States Navy. Although the 28th was recruited to help prevent future rebel violence, state officials feared that raising more than one African American regiment would provoke another Confederate raid.

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The 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg: Healing the Divide? 

By Savannah Labbe ‘19

This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead:  Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.

Larkin Woodruff, 50th USCT. 75th Anniversary of Gettysburg medals. Veterans attending 75th Anniversary commemorations wore medals like these full of symbolism. The bundle of wooden rods surrounding an axe is a classical symbol called a “fasces.” In Roman times, it stood for martial strength through unity and brotherhood and brotherhood. Sadly, Larkin Woodruff died just weeks before the 75th Anniversary Commemoration in Gettysburg, PA. Courtesy of Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.

Between June 29 and July 6, 1938, approximately 1,870 Union and Confederate veterans gathered at that fateful battlefield where many of them had fought 75 years earlier. The veterans stayed in camps and took part in various ceremonies and parades, including a parade of veterans from all wars since 1863, as well as a military flyover. The highlight of the ceremonial events, however, was the dedication of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial on Oak Hill outside of town. President Franklin Roosevelt made the dedication speech on July 3, 1938, around the same time Pickett made his charge 75 years before. More than 200,000 people attended, watching the friendly reunion of men who had once been enemies. Together, two men—92-year-old Union veteran George N. Lockwood of Los Angeles, CA, and 91-year-old Confederate veteran A.G. Harris of McDonough, GA—undraped the flag covering the memorial.

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