Maine at War: A Conversation with Writer Brian Swartz (part four)

Brian Swartz and 96th Penn Inf monument at Gettysburg

Brian Swartz, who writes the Maine at War blog, stands beside the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry monument at Gettysburg in early May 1863. Describing Gettysburg as his “Lourdes Shrine,” Swartz visits the battlefield every year. (Photo and shadow courtesy of Susan Swartz)

conclusion to a four-part series

In wrapping up yesterday’s segment, Brian Swartz, author of the Maine at War blog, mentioned Tom Huntington’s new book, Maine Roads to Gettysburg. “He has done Maine history quite a service in articulating the stories of those particular units,” Brian said. But of course, when people think of “Maine” and “Gettysburg,” there’s generally one figure who comes to mind.

Chris Mackowski: Since you mention Gettysburg, I have to pop the Chamberlain question. Do you have any thoughts about Chamberlain? 

Brian Swartz: He was heroic and a natural-born leader. I think he had the heart of a warrior. Obviously he was at least somewhat of a tactician, and an effective governor, but his ability to write—he was a prodigious writer after the war—is what let him overshadow the tales of other Mainers. Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine saved the left flank of the Union army at Little Roundtop, but there were other Maine units that suffered as bad, if not worse, and other Maine officers who were just as brave, some of them in somewhat more difficult situations.

I’m thinking of Colonel Elijah Walker and his 4th Maine, down on and around Devil’s Den. The 17th Maine was down on the wheat field. I was just there a little bit over a week ago, and if you walk it back and forth, you still can’t really get a sense of the violence of the combat there. There was the 19th Maine over on Cemetery Ridge, plugging the hole with their charge on July 2nd.

And then of course Charles Tilden and the 16th Maine’s sacrifice on Oak Ridge on the afternoon of July 1st. Tilden, to me, of all the Maine officers at Gettysburg, is the one that to this day is the most overlooked. Part of his problem was that he wasn’t a prodigious writer. He was a very enigmatic individual. It’s difficult to find information on him or letters he’s written and other material he’s cited in post-war. Maine at Gettysburg probably contains the most original Tilden-based material there is that I’ve found.

Chris: You mentioned you were just at Gettysburg and went out to Brandy Station. How often are you able to visit the battlefields?

Brian: I try to go to Gettysburg every year. It would be the equivalent of my Lourdes shrine, and to me is an annual pilgrimage.

Chris: Do you have other battlefields that you like particularly?

Brian: Antietam. I love Washington County, Maryland. If you’re heading westbound on I-40, there’s a spot where, just as it crests South Mountain, you can look to the west and see the valley before you with all the farm land with the different colors and such.

Antietam, to me, is a very haunted place, and it’s a very small, compact battlefield. During my research for volume one of my “Maine at War” book series, I spent a considerable time there tracing the movements of the 10th Maine and also the 7th Maine and their advance to the Piper Farm.

I like Brandy Station. Manassas. Shiloh is one that I particularly enjoy of all the battlefields east of the Mississippi. There are only a few minor battlefields that I still need to visit on this side of the river. Shiloh to me is a battlefield where, if you remove the monuments and are there on a fine April morning, it could be the opening moment, the opening volley. It’s so well preserved.

Chris: I feel that way about Spotsylvania. If you take away those few monuments, it feels like a step back in time.

Brian: I just had the pleasure three or four years ago to walk Laurel Hill. I’ve been out to the Mule Shoe over a half-dozen times over the years. This time we stayed in Fredericksburg for a few days, so I parked and followed the trail up to the top of Laurel Hill, which we would not even call a hill here in Maine—it was just a little rise actually.

Fredericksburg, the Slaughter Pen farm, I walk out there and follow the route of the 16th Maine. You’ve got what can be a really noisy airport right next door to you, but it really helps you appreciate what Tilden and all his boys and the other Union troops went through as they were charging out across that farm towards the Confederate-held hills.

Chris: Let me back up to something you said just a second ago just to shine a little light on your “Maine at War” book series. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

Brian: Maine at War, volume one—the book is titled, From Bladensburg to Sharpsburg. It opens with the duel in which Congressman Jonathan Cilley of Thomaston was shot and killed. The reason I open with that is that his young son became Jonathan Prince of the 1st Maine Cavalry. He’s one of my favorite Maine characters out of all of them who served in the Civil War. After the opening chapter, which covers the duel and the aftermath of what that does to the Cilley family, the book covers Maine’s involvement in the war from early April 1861 to November 1862. I take different characters, and I weave their stories in.

It tells the story of particularly the army, because I had great difficulty in finding letters and reports and such of Navy personnel. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places, but I am focused primarily on the Army soldiers and such and their families back home. I cover from basically the first regiments in Maine to the 16th Maine Infantry and their march from Antietam to Fredericksburg, and how they became known as the Blanket Brigade. That’s what ends the book.

That book is due out sometime this fall, I’d say maybe later in the fall. It’s being published by Maine Origins Publishing out of Brewer. Volume II is going to cover Fredericksburg, possibly through Gettysburg. There’s quite a bit of material for me to read through there. That is probably half-written.

I mentioned earlier, I just finished up the battle of Brandy Station. That took quite a bit of research, quite a bit of coordinating and, even though I knew quite a bit about the Civil War campaigns and such, I find that when I try to write up a particular battle chronologically, I have to do additional research to get everything in the correct order. It’s very easy to make a mistake.

Chris: Good luck with that. I look forward to picking up a copy, for sure. Before we wrap up, is there anything I’ve not asked you that I should have?

Brian: I guess I’d just like to say I really enjoyed telling the story of Mainers involved in the Civil War, and in using their stories, educating readers about specific moments or battles in the war.

Gettysburg: it wasn’t just Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine. We have hundreds, if not thousands of acres out there on which Maine soldiers fought: in Spotsylvania, the Wilderness, Appomattox Courthouse. I wrote a series on that, which was very eye-opening for me.

I just like telling the stories, and I always like hearing from readers if they like something, or disagree with it, or whatever, I really like hearing from the readers.

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You can reach out to Brian directly at visionsofmaine@tds.net. And don’t forget to check out his blog, Maine at War.

Symposium Spotlight: Matt Atkinson

Civil War historians and enthusiasts alike have always regarded the battle of Gettysburg and the Union victory there as a turning point of the war. Other campaigns and battles were happening at the same time, however. So what was the more important turning point of July 1863? This week’s symposium spotlight looks at very question with our first afternoon speaker on Saturday, August 4, 2018, Matt Atkinson.

The Gettysburg and Vicksburg Campaigns are seminal moments during the Civil War.  The two campaigns result in Union victories and set the Confederacy’s nationalistic hopes on a downward spiral.  Today, Gettysburg looms larger in the American psyche.  But which campaign had the greater impact in 1863?  Matt will explore this question and more as he looks at the importance of both campaigns.  

Matt Atkinson

Matt, who formerly worked at Vicksburg National Military Park, is a native of Mississippi—or as pronounced down south, “Missippi.” The Civil War has been his passion since he was five years old, and Matt says he considers himself lucky to make this a “living hobby.” In Matt’s private life, he enjoys living out ol’ country tunes.

 

Tickets for this year’s Symposium, Aug. 3-5, 2018, are available to order here. They include Friday night’s reception, speakers, keynote address, and historians’ roundtable; Saturday’s line-up of talks; coffee service and lunch on Saturday; and Sunday’s tour of Stonewall Jackson’s final days.

Gettysburg’s Famed Pickett’s Charge is Reimagined by Civil War Trust and Hirshhorn Museum

Check out this neat announcement from the Civil War Trust. In a different kind of preservation, preserving the memory of Pickett’s Charge, the Trust looks at a contemporary interpretation of the famed nineteenth-century  Gettysburg cyclorama. Keep reading to find out more about this project.

“Now on display in Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum is internationally acclaimed artist Mark Bradford’s “Pickett’s Charge.” Bradford’s painting is a contemporary interpretation of French artist Paul Philippoteaux’s 1883 cyclorama at Gettysburg National Military Park, which the Civil War Trust recently brought to life in the painting’s first-ever, annotated, 360-degree video.”

Want more information on the 360-degree video? Click here.

Year In Review 2017: #6

Analysis of Civil War photographs and the era’s changing attitudes toward death are addressed in this informative and reflective blog post. Using some well-known photographs from Gettysburg battlefield, the author discusses the history surrounding the images.

It was the most-read blog post #6 in 2017: Alexander Gardner and the Good Death, by James Broomall, published on May 19, 2017.


Finding Evander McIvor Law

My short odyssey to find a Confederate general’s grave in central Florida led me to learn something about my current state of residence and military history. This is part biography of Evandor McIvor Law and part travel-post.

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Evander Law

Born in Darlington, South Carolina on August 7, 1836 Evander McIver Law is best known for being a Confederate general. Hailing from a distinguished military family; his grandfather and two great-grandfathers had fought in the American Revolution with the famous Francis Marion, aka the “Swamp Fox.” Law was a graduate of the South Carolina Military Academy, known as the Citadel today, and had taught or helped found military schools after graduation

He was a history teacher before he played an active part in American military history. 

Law, who was residing in Alabama in 1861, joined the state’s militia but quickly embraced the Confederate cause, transferring into the Confederate States Army as a captain in the 4th Alabama Infantry. By May 1861 he was a lieutenant colonel. He first saw combat at First Manassas in Brigadier General Barnard Bee’s Brigade where he suffered a debilitating wound to his left arm. Upon his return to active duty, he rose to the rank of colonel in October 1861 and the following year, October 1862, he attained the rank of brigadier general.

Throughout 1862 he was present for every major campaign of the Confederate army in Virginia, having served in the corps commanded by General James Longstreet. Although initially praised by Longstreet, the relationship turned sour in late 1863, when the command of the wounded General John Bell Hood’s Division came to pass. Longstreet wanted to install Brigadier General Micah Jenkins, a favorite, although he had never served in the division. Law, who had held a command in the unit since its inception and had commanded it successfully when Hood was wounded both at Gettysburg in July 1863 and Chickamauga in September 1863, was the ranking brigadier.

This would simmer throughout the end of 1863 and into the new year. Law would be one of the general officers arrested and court-martialed by Longstreet in March 1864. Those charges were not sustained by the Confederate War Department upon their receipt though.

With his command still encamped in winter quarters in East Tennessee, Law tried to resign from the Confederate army and even journeyed to Richmond in person to request his resignation be accepted. This prompted Longstreet to issue his arrest, this time for insubordination. This was the final straw for Law’s Brigade, with the majority of the regimental leaders requesting a transfer of the command closer to home, which was Alabama. Although Longstreet, more out of spite, wanted to keep the command in Tennessee, which would have in a roundabout way given in to the officers wanting to stay closer to home, General Robert E. Lee recalled the command to Virginia to participate in what would become known as the Overland Campaign.

As his brigade fought through the horrific battles in the spring of 1864, Law was still under arrest and traveled in the rear of the army. When Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia sparred with General Ulysses S. Grant’s forces at the Battle of Cold Harbor in June 1864, Law had been placed back in command. During that engagement he received what looked like a serious wound when a bullet fractured his skull and damaged his left eye.

Upon his return to active duty, Law was transferred south and out of the infantry. He was given an assignment in the cavalry, in charge of a brigade attached to Major General Matthew Butler’s command. He would finish the war in that capacity, receiving a promotion to major general on March 20, 1865 that was never confirmed, however, by the Confederate Congress.

After the end of hostilities, Law would serve in various business ventures in both South Carolina and Alabama before heading to the Sunshine State; Florida in 1881.

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That is where in September 2017, yours truly, went on a quest to find Evander McIvor Law.

Venturing out from Tampa, Florida, which had its own unique ties to the American Civil War, I took Interstate Four, which most people use to travel to Orlando, Disney World, and/or Daytona Beach. My destination was in Polk County, Exit 10 off the interstate. Eight miles to the southeast resides the town of Bartow, Florida.

Initially founded in 1851 as Fort Blount, the town was renamed Bartow in honor of Francis S. Bartow, who like Law, had fought at First Manassas but was killed in action there. He was the first brigade commander to die in battle during the Civil War.

When Law arrived in 1881, the town of Bartow was on the rise. The population swelled from 386 residents in 1880 to 1,983 twenty years later. Shortly after his arrival, on July 1, 1882 the town was incorporated as a city. Three years later a railroad connected the town on a north-south route and the following year, 1886, a spur connected it to the west to Tampa. This would prove to be an economic boom to the town when the Spanish-American War erupted in 1898. By the turn of the 20th century, Bartow was the most populated city south of Tampa on the Florida peninsula, boasting a bigger population than cities such as Miami and West Palm Beach!

South Florida Military College Building

South Florida Military College Building

Into this spiraling city, Law founded the South Florida Military College in 1895 and would be in charge of the institution until 1903. Two years later the college was shuttered due to the Buckman Act, which decreed that the Florida Board of Control had rights to govern the system of higher education. One of the tenets of the law was to consolidate places of higher learning from six to three. The South Florida Military Academy was merged into the University of the State of Florida; the precursor to the University of Florida. Yet, in its short existence, the school was known for its great scientific and technological courses and when the doors closed, part of its civil engineering material and equipment was requested by the University of the State of Florida.

Law continued in education, becoming a trustee of the Summerlin Institute in 1905. Named for Jacob Summerlin who had also served the Confederacy as a smuggler of goods through the Union blockade. The institute is now the only high school in Bartow, Florida. Law continued as a trustee until he became a member of the Polk County Board of Education in 1912, where he promoted public education in the state of Florida. Continuing to stay busy, he also edited the Bartow Courier Informant.

On October 31, 1920, Evander McIvor Law died in Bartow, Florida, due to paralysis for seven days with a contributing factor of senility. He was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery. A pension record, dated three years prior to his death, showed the continuing effects of his two Civil War wounds; his left arm was shrunken, still “practically useless”, the elbow was stiff, and the rotary motion of the forearm was gone. Furthermore, the head wound had severed the supraorbital nerves of the left eye and paralyzed the left frontal quarter of his scalp.

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As I slowly drove Parker Street in Bartow, there was no sign for “Oak Hill Cemetery.” As I crept along at barely 5 miles-per-hour, I glanced to my left and saw a small stone and wooden fence situated across an open field. I turned into a broken-pavement turnout, parked the car, grabbed my camera, and traversed the field.

Oak Hill Cemetery, Bartow, Florida

I was the only one in the cemetery, where a few trees sprouted up around gravestones, some in complete disarray, others more cared for. No informational panel depicting where Law’s grave may reside was present. The graveyard seemed to be more a final resting place for Bartow and its residents to remember lost loved ones instead of a spot for travelers to stroll through to see Bartow’s past.

Approximately 100 yards into the cemetery, near a chain-link fence separating the cemetery from a row of houses, sits the iron cross depicting a Confederate veteran. Behind it, a stone marker, of decent size, reads the epitaph of Evander Law. His whole name not even spelled out on the gravestone, which he shares with his late wife, Jane. The tombstone does show is provisional rank of major general though.

Simple, yet appropriate. A man who did so much for Bartow, laid to rest among his adopted town and state, where he spent approximately forty years of his eighty-four year life. A man who dedicated a majority of his life to public education, interrupted by war, who did not even write an official report for his command on Gettysburg, laid to rest in a central Florida, in a small non-descript graveyard, with barely any notice to where his remains lay.

 

Yet, I had found him. And the journey to this city of central Florida helped educate me in a sense as well. There is a lot of American history in Florida, one just has to look for it. Most of it is off the beaten path. Thanks for the educational lesson Mr. Law.

 


Turning Point: Assault on Battery Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts

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Around a small hamlet in southern Pennsylvania, Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia was stymied and driven back after three days, July 1st through the 3rd, of bloodletting at the Battle of Gettysburg.

A turning point in the Civil War in retrospect.

On July 4, 1863, the Confederate bastion of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the “Gibraltar of the Mississippi River” capitulated to Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant.

A turning point in the Civil War in hindsight.

The evacuation of Tullahoma on the first day of July and the surrender of the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River at Port Hudson, Louisiana on July 9, 1863, are two other significant actions in July.

Both can be considered turning points when studied through the lens of history.

Yet, there was a much more significant engagement, this time a Union defeat, that also turned the tide of the American Civil War. This assault took place on July 18, 1863 on Battery Wagner, part of the defenses of Charleston, South Carolina. In the waning moments of daylight, the 54th Massachusetts charged determinedly toward the sandy approaches and abates that was Battery Wagner. Their assault failed with the loss of their commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. In this example though, the heroism of the charge, the courage that these soldiers portrayed, and what their actions meant advanced the Union war effort.  

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Battery Wagner, photo taken in 1865 (courtesy of 28thga.org)

The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was an African-American or in 19th century parlance, “colored regiment.” The brainchild of Massachusetts Governor John Andrews, the African-American soldiers that comprised this unit was fighting for their race, to thwart the misconceptions that blacks could only serve in labor and non-fighting positions, and to overthrow the Southern slave oligarchy and institute universal freedom.

Battery Wagner would be the pivot in which African-American soldiers showed their fighting prowess and their ability, like their fellow white soldiers, to uphold the standards of the American military. After the failed assault on July 18, 1963, the repercussions reverberated around the country. Including in the Confederacy.

“The negroes fought gallantly, and were headed by as brave a Colonel as ever lived,” wrote Lieutenant Iredell Jones of the 1st South Carolina about the 54th Massachusetts attack. Even the Charleston Courier’s editor grudgingly admitted that the African-American soldiers showed “bravery” although he wished it was “worthy of a better cause.”

In the North, descriptions such as “heroic conduct” from the Boston Transcript or “fought with the desperation of tigers” as the Cincinnati Daily Gazette wrote to their readership depicted the accounting of the 54th Massachusetts’ assault.

“The experiment has begun” wrote a newspaper reporter for the Washington Reporter a Pennsylvania-based publication. With the news of Battery Wagner, the 54th Massachusetts were “magnificent for their steadiness, impetuosity, and dauntless courage.” As a fitting epitaph, the reporter wrote that if all Union troops, irrespective of color of skin showed “as single hearted as these soldiers, our difficulties would disappear.

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Currier & Ives Lithograph of the 54th Massachusetts charge on Battery Wagner (Courtesy of the Library of Congress

There were skeptics from the beginning of the “experiment” to arm and equip colored regiments and the fighting on July 18, 1863 did not completely dispel them. “Not myself a believer in the arming of negroes, free or contraband, as soldiers, I must do this regiment the credit of fighting bravely and well.” Other newspapers of the more Democratic Party persuasion, while still hesitant to embrace African-American soldier policy, admitted that the 54th Massachusetts and their bravery and courage under fire, made them “entitled to assert their rights to manhood,” and showed their “undaunted courage” and that they were “evidently made of good stuff.”To conclude the importance of the assault in July, an editor of the Chicago Tribune summed up the cause of African-American soldiers serving the Union war cause by writing;

                    “[The] government and the people have woke up to the importance of negro                              soldiers in the conduct of the war…[the] thing is now settled–the negroes will                          fight.”

The impact and fallout of the assault was noticed in the highest circles of the Federal government. The judge advocate general, Joseph Holt, in a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in August 1863, attested to;

                     “The tenacious and brilliant valor displayed by troops of this race has
sufficiently demonstrated to the President and to the country the character of
the service for which they are capable.”

Horace Greeley echoed the sentiment of how important that first test of combat was for the role and advancement of African-American soldiers in the war effort. Writing in 1865, he looked back on that summer two years prior, “It is not too much to say that if this Massachusetts Fifty-fourth had faltered when its trial came, two hundred thousand colored troops for whom it was a pioneer would have been put into the field.”

The eyes of the nation, from the president to the common citizen were on the black soldiers that courageously advanced in the surf and turf along the South Carolina barrier islands. If these men would have faltered, balked on the advance, let fear of death and destruction deter them, the cause of African-Americans would have been severely hampered.  Not only did they go in with gusto, but one of their number was awarded the Medal of Honor, for bringing the national flag back out of the conflict, never letting it touch the ground.

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Medal of Honor winner William Harvey Carney of the 54th Massachusetts. He won the medal for his actions at Battery Wagner on July 18, 186

Before the end of the war over 179,000 African-American soldiers would don Union blue uniforms and help defeat the Confederacy and permanently end the “peculiar institution” of slavery and bondage. This number would constitute approximately 10% of the entire United States Army. Furthermore, another 19,000 African-Americans would serve in the United States Navy during the conflict. Over 40,000 would succumb to wounds or disease in defense of the Union and for the cause of freedom and liberty. In addition to aiding the Union war effort, the removal of African-American manpower affected the Confederate war effort, depriving them of manual labor; both in the military arena and on the home-front.

When one discusses the momentous month of July 1863 and the turning points of the American Civil War, the legacy of the 54th Massachusetts’s assault on Battery Wagner and what that created, must be part of the discussion. This batch of occurrences in the summer of 1863 turned the tide of the conflict and put the North on the footing to win the American Civil War.

 

*For an excellent study which was consulted as part of the research for this post, please consult, “Thunder at the Gates, The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America” by Douglas R. Egerton*