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

Maine at War blogger Brian Swartz stands at Lookout Point on Lookout Mountain. With either his wife, Susan, or their son, Christopher, in tow, Swartz has visited many Civil War battlefields east of the Mississippi River. (Photo courtesy of Chris Swartz)

Part two of a four-part series

I’m talking this week with Brian Swartz, a former writer and editor for Maine’s Bangor Daily News. While with the paper, he started a regular column and blog called Maine at War. He belongs to Richardson’s Civil War Round Table in Searsport, Maine and for the past two years has chaired the Bangor Historical Society committee that organized Drums on the Penobscot: A Civil War Experience.

Yesterday, Brian explained the origins of his work, and we began to get into the particulars of how he pulls his material together.

Chris Mackowski: You talk about old newspapers. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at old editions and I just find them to be fascinating sources of soldier letters, particularly—and as sources they’re often overlooked. I’ve gone through old editions of the Bangor Whig & Courier and found gold nugget after gold nugget.

Brian Swartz: I will agree with you there. Obviously, you and I have researched some familiar pages. I find that I ignore the reports from the battlefield and the general press accounts. They’re inflated and inaccurate. But when you read the soldier accounts. . . . The soldier either sent the letter directly to the paper or a proud mother or father asked the paper to publish a letter. The nuggets that are dropped in, a paragraph at a time in these pages, take you so incredibly close to the war.

I am wrapping up research I’m doing for book two of my “Maine at War” book series. I just wrapped up Brandy Station, and that included a visit about a week and a half ago to Fleetwood Hill for the first time since the Civil War Trust [now American Battlefield Trust] had acquired it and knocked down that house that was on top of it. In my research, I found a letter published in a paper written from a trooper in the 1st Maine Cavalry. He participated in that charge up and over Fleetwood Hill, and his observations about what the regiment did afterwards—it was almost like riding alongside him on a horse. It was incredible, and it was in a newspaper.

Chris: Do you have particular papers that you prefer over others?

Brian: Yes. The Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, the Portland Daily Press, the Maine Farmer, which was out of Augusta, dedicated to agriculture in Maine and had a four-page issue every week that often had excellent material like letters and reports and such from people that were involved in the war, as well as some astute political observations. There was the Eastport Sentinel Downeast. And when I have time, I go to research the Lewiston newspapers from the period.

I should mention one more paper: the Republican Journal in Belfast was a pro-Democrat, anti-Lincoln administration newspaper, and it gives delightful insight into the other side of the coin.

Chris: You also mentioned that you spend a fair amount of time in the state archives. I know they’ve got a really neat collection of stuff. Are there any particular treasures there you appreciate?

Brian: In researching the 5th Maine Infantry, I came across the commanding officer’s report of the regiment’s participation in the Chancellorsville campaign, particularly in their effort to get past the Confederate defenses on Marye’s Heights at the battle of Second Fredericksburg. And then they went out and fought the battle of Salem Church. It was very well written and very detailed. I cannot remember that officer’s name, but it comes across that it really bothered him that his regiment was so shot to pieces.

There are so many treasures. The one that I found recently that I just finished writing up: Freeman McGilvery was promoted to major in late 1862 or early 1863, and that opened up the captaincy of the 6th Maine Battery, which he had raised. The lobbying that went back and forth in the letters to the state house in Augusta is very interesting, almost to the point of being hilarious in the commentary between the men and some of the officers.

Then of course there are Sarah Sampson’s and Isabella Fog’s letters, who were both women from Maine that became volunteer nurses. Whenever volunteer nurses arrived, they usually dedicated themselves for the rest of the war serving as nurses. Both them wrote letters that are on file in the state archives.

Chris: One of the things I think is really neat about your blog is that you do have a lot of that civilian aspect—the home front, the contributions of Mainers in Maine during the war—which I think is an aspect of the war that tends to get overlooked in favor of the mud and blood and battlefield stuff. What do you think it was like to be in Maine, so far away from the front lines during that time?

Brian: If you had a direct connection with the military, like a son, husband, cousin, uncle, father, etc., who was going to war, it was difficult, especially depending on where you lived.

In the larger cities, there seemed to be more of a support network for women who saw their household income threatened because the man who was providing the money went to war. Thirteen dollars a month [a private’s pay] isn’t going to cover much. If you go out into the outlying towns, it became more serious, in the sense that now if a family has lost a father and son that went off to war, now mom is home, usually with younger children. How is she going to till the fields, chop the firewood, cook, and raise the kids? It was tough.

The lack of communications really made that loneliness more acute. The military was good at getting the mail to and from the soldiers and, in many families, the women wrote frequently. Say there was an elderly father left behind, or a middle-aged father: he would write to his boy that went off to war. Friends would write to soldiers.

But the press accounts about battles would come back before any news about casualty lists, and that would lead to a lot of fear. I sensed that particularly in the pages of the newspapers. People just worried.

There were many others who didn’t care that the war was going on. Some merchants did well, especially manufacturers of wartime goods and people who owned steamers and sailing ships that the war department would lease or rent—however they paid for that.

There was an aspect where it was almost like Vietnam, which was also concurrent to my growing up. For those who had a connection to the war, the war was going on. For the rest of us who had no family over there, it was just a story on the evening news, and I sensed that the Civil War could have been that way in Maine, again particularly in the larger towns and cities. If you had a physical connection to the war, it was happening. If you did not, it was just a press account in the newspaper, or maybe a story told at the general store or something.

————

Brian’s blog successfully captures the soldier’s-eye view of Maine at war, on the home front and on the front lines. “I really appreciate what the man at the regimental level did,” he says in tomorrow’s segment. We’ll explore that further, and we’ll talk about the things Brian has learned from those men by spending so much time reading their accounts.

“What Shall Be Done with the Slave?” The 9th Illinois Cavalry and Practical Emancipation

Hiram Franklin Sickles (Dennis C. Schurr Collection)

I am frequently sidetracked when scanning through historic newspapers on a quest for specific information. What can I say, the headlines are still doing their job. Such was the case while digitally flipping through August 1862 issues of the Chicago Tribune. “What shall be done with the slave?” asked the commander of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, stationed at the time near Helena, Arkansas. As I guessed, the officer had already reached an opinion of his own. His letter to the editor is a perfect summary of how many northern soldiers saw emancipation as a means to end the war, regardless of their stance on abolition before 1861.

Hiram Franklin Sickles was born in Otsego, New York in 1818. He attended the Philadelphia Naval Asylum and served in the navy for a decade, working in the Topographical Department and twice circumnavigating the world. Afterward he settled in Moline, Illinois where he operated a flour mill, occasionally practiced law, and dabbled in local politics.

Moline Workman, November 4, 1856

It appears that Sickles did already have anti-slavery sentiments before the war. A Chicago Tribune article from December 15, 1860 stated that he met a St. Louis slave owner while travelling for business during the summer. Their discussion eventually turned to politics, and, after disagreeing, the two placed a bet on the results of the upcoming election–Sickles wagered flour from his mill against one of Eldad N. Whitford’s slaves. Sickles won the bet but promptly freed the slave but upon being summoned to St. Louis to take possession.

Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1860

Sickles’s flour business along the Mississippi River caused him to spend considerable time in New Orleans. A possibly apocryphal story from his 1892 obituary stated that when Louisiana seceded the local authorities confiscated all of Sickles’s property, forcing him to return north “impoverished but full of patriotism.”

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Sickles helped drill new volunteer soldiers. He received a commission as major in the 9th Illinois Cavalry in September 1861 and was promoted lieutenant colonel in February 1862, frequently commanding the regiment. Of personal interest, the 9th Illinois Cavalry contained several companies of soldiers from my hometown of Geneseo. The regiment operated in Arkansas during 1862 as part of Major General Samuel R. Curtis’s Army of the Southwest.

Brigadier General Frederick Steele commanded one of Curtis’s division. He opposed confiscating slaves as “contraband of war” and reminded those around him of the orders of Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding the department, “prohibiting fugitive slaves and unauthorized persons from coming within the lines.” The regimental historians of the 9th Illinois afterward noted that this directive showed “very clearly the delicate and kid-glove fashion in which at that time the war for the suppression of treason and rebellion was then being conducted.”

That approach began to change in late June when Curtis led an expedition through eastern Arkansas to reach the Mississippi River for resupply. The 9th Illinois participated in the march and suppressed an attack on the wagon train near Village Creek on June 27th. After suffering significant casualties, including the wounding of Colonel Albert G. Brackett, command passed to Sickles. The Army of the Southwest defeated another threat along their route at Cotton Plant on July 7th and safely reached the city of Helena one week later.

Army of the Southwest Expedition through Arkansas, June-July 1862 (map by author)

Their exposure to southern plantations along the way convinced them of the futility of waging a “soft war.” One member of the regiment, who called the march “one of the most arduous and fatiguing of any made during the civil war,” afterward recalled:

The weather was intensely hot, and the road lay through the malaria-breeding swamps and fenlands, where the trailing masses of Spanish moss on the great cypress trees wave like mourning bands over the reeking lands. Everything grows there in the rankest profusion, and the cotton and corn fields are most beautiful, the ground being rich and easily cultivated.

Most of the people residing in this region were strong in their secession feelings, and, being considerable slave-owners, were willing to shed their blood for what they considered right. There were many large plantations where great gangs of slaves were worked successfully, the cultivation being something marvelous.

A lawyer before the war, Curtis did not initially advocate for abolition. He continued to maintain that slaves of loyal citizens were not considered “contraband.” Such privilege did not extend to secessionists, however, and Confederate use of slaves to erect barricades along his route provided rationale to justify confiscation. The issue of emancipation was actively debated at the time in newspapers and in Congress but was not yet settled. Nevertheless, Curtis actively employed the contraband slaves his army encountered in foraging, scouting, guiding, and clearing the barricades along the route.

“Our Western boys were very thankful for their aid, and to it they attribute no inconsiderable share of the success which attended their march,” claimed the Chicago Tribune after an interview with Major William J. Wallis of the 9th Illinois Cavalry. “The Major further states that the prejudices which might have existed in the army against the employment of men of color in any way that they can be made useful, have entirely disappeared; and that soldiers who were the most rantankerous of Democrats when they started from home have become practical Abolitionists, to whom the work of liberation is now a positive delight.”

Of course there was no such unanimity in opinion. Captain Charles S. Cameron believed “a majority of the soldiers cared nothing about the question of slavery, but wished to fight the battles of the Country and let slavery take care of itself.” If Cameron’s statement was true, however, such sentiments were not publicly expressed to the same degree. Any such soldier opposition to emancipation put little damper on the desire of the slave population to seek freedom among the Union column.

Curtis commented to a correspondent with the New York Tribune about the intelligence and initiative of those who tagged along with his command, a testament to the grapevine communication network that undermined plantation owner efforts to keep their slaves ignorant. On July 31st the newspaperman wrote that the general remarked to him “that he was surprised at the intelligence they manifest and their perfect understanding of the causes of Rebellion and of their rights.” Curtis allowed those who came into Union lines at Helena to earn their own money through the sale of cotton seized from their former plantations.

Most estimates suggest that approximately 2,000 slaves reached Curtis’s army through the first week of August. That number steadily grew. For reference sake, the 1860 census listed a black population of 17,660 for the five counties through which Curtis’ expedition marched.

“The presence of the Army of the Southwest sounded the death knell of slavery in Arkansas’s premier agricultural region,” historians William Shea and Earl Hess recently concluded. “Curtis emancipated slaves on a mass scale, ignoring the fact that in mid-1862 he lacked the authority to do any such thing. In towns along the way soldiers commandeered printing presses and produced stacks of emancipation forms. News of what the Federals were doing spread like wildfire, and by the end of the campaign, more than three thousand refugee slaves, ‘freedom papers’ in hand, trailed the dusty blue column en route to an uncertain future.”

Chicago Tribune, August 15, 1862

Lieutenant Colonel Sickles saw complete emancipation throughout the Confederacy as the best possible future. On July 30th he wrote a letter to the Chicago Tribune that appeared in print on August 15th.

It has become a subject of much interest to nearly all army officers in the field, what is to be done with the slaves of rebel owners? I think a large majority of both officers and men were, on entering the field, decidedly opposed to any policy, either civil or military, that would effect the “status” of the slave, in any of the States where the “institution” is legalized by proper local enactments. But a wonderful change has come over the entire surface of affairs, teaching us, through bitter experience that such doctrines are entirely incompatible with the successful prosecution of this war, on the part of the federal government or others in authority.

My own experience, as well as that of hundreds of other officers of the army of the Southwest, furnish to us the most unmistakable evidence that this rebellion cannot be conquered while this element of power is left to the disloyal slaveholder–and nearly all slave owners are disloyal. The sacredness which seems to surround this class of property in the South, gives to the enemy a tower of strength. We find that while the slave owners are in thousands of instances actually connected with the rebel army–guerrilla bands, or otherwise aiding and encouraging the common enemy of the United State government, the slave population is actively employed (under protection of our own troops) in carrying forward the different branches of material industry throughout the slaveholding States. Indeed, nearly all of the labor which gives to the south its important strength, is derived from this class of property, which seems to have had the benediction of all our prayers.

I have been taught, like many others, that where the slave has been unmolested in his labors, under direction of his owner or overseer, there we find nearly every white male inhabitant of suitable age absent from home, either in the rebel army or “bushwhacking.” Not only this, but the poor whites who are not able to own slaves, are furnished with labor to till their little patches of ground from the slave population, while they themselves are in the service of the enemies of our country.

In this way, our government is rending the most essential service to the South, in protecting and reserving a power to her, which she cannot find in any other direction. The negro is also employed in building fortifications for the enemy–constructing barricades and entrenchments, and in some instances have had arms put into their hands to use against our troops.

With these facts coming within the range of the knowledge and experience of nearly every officer in active service in the seceded States, I have no hesitation in saying, and of holding myself responsible for the truthfulness of the declaration, that, with all the energies at command of this government, this rebellion will likely to continue until either terms of peace are arranged between the contending parties, or that this important element of power, now reserved to the South by the military and civic authorities of the United States government, shall be weakened to such an extent that the slave shall no longer remain the bone and sinew, the entrenchment and stronghold of his rebellious master.

The changing attitude of the 9th Illinois Cavalry was but one of many similar experiences among Union forces throughout the south. President Abraham Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was only a month away.

Unfortunately, as is often the case in history, the story of the contrabands at Helena cannot be neatly wrapped up with that happy ending. Curtis left the Army of the Southwest in late August to take command of the Department of Missouri. General Steele therefore replaced him as army commander at Helena and soon reversed many of Curtis’s policies, particularly in regard to the slaves who thought they had found liberation within the Union army. Steele went so far as to actively encourage regional plantation owners to journey to Helena for the recovery of their slaves. By the formal signing of the Proclamation on January 1, 1862, however, Steele had moved on as well.

Rock Island Argus and Daily Union, August 14, 1862

While researching Sickles, I found as a bonus another of his published letters. This one was addressed to the editor of a local paper, the Rock Island Argus and Daily Union.

Camp, near Helena, Ark., Aug. 5th, 1862.

J.B. Danforth, Jr.: I regret to learn that there yet remains in the loyal states some people, who assume to believe that intervention on the part of the federal government with reference to private property in the seceded states is unwise and impolitic, especially where the question relates to negro slaves. They seek to fortify their logic upon the unconstitutionality of such a measure. If it were not true that treason and rebellion are equally unconstitutional, then the correctness of this reasoning would be readily conceded.

It must admitted that as a mere technical proposition such conclusions are correct. But when the destiny of a great nation hangs upon the variation of a fundamental law, and its very existence is depending upon its reasonable infraction, then I think there are none who have the love of country in their hearts who will doubt the wisdom of such a measure. These nice distinctions, which gave to the politician the ground-work of his faith at a time when peace and prosperity were enjoyed by every citizen of this great commonwealth, can hardly hold their empire when the most crushing accumulation of disaster and ruin balancing in the scale, and ready to fall upon our unhappy country.

I know, from my own experience as a federal army officer, in active service in some of the seceded states, that the policy hitherto pursued and yet insisted upon by the tender footed demagogues, has placed in the hands of the enemy of our country a goodly portion of their material resources to prosecute this unholy war against us. As startling as this declaration may seem, it is nevertheless true, as I think I shall be able to prove.

Those who are familiar with the institutions of the south, and the organization of its society, will admit that the principal element of its material industry, consists in its slave population. This tower of strength still left to the undisturbed control of this refractory and rebellious people, and protected by the fostering care of our beneficial government, with all the omnipotent energies of its military and civic powers, how thankful ought these traitors to be that while they trample upon constitutions, and hurl defiance in our teeth, they still deal with a government that has such yearning solicitude and consideration for their wellfare.

The owners of negroes, in a majority of cases, so far as my observation extends, and I think it generally true, are directly or indirectly connected with the Confederate army in some way, either as officers, furnishers of supplies, or otherwise aiding and abetting this rebellion. The slave population is left at home, with the benediction of “political hacks” pronounced upon it, that this servile labor may continue to build fortifications and entrenchments for our enemies, construct barricades, and above all, to fill their grainaries from the abundant harvest,–the result of slave labor protected by us. There is but little cotton permitted to be raised in any of the slave states. This prohibition is by order of the rebel government. But all tillable land is to be employed in raising corn, wheat, oats, potatoes, and anything that will subsist its armies; and, again, the poorer class of white people who are not able to own slaves, are furnished by their more opulent neighbors with slaves to till their little patches of ground for the support of their families, while all the men of suitable age are fighting against us. These are facts, and I hold myself responsible for the truthfulness of the declaration.

You may as well undertake to reverse the current of the Mississippi with a clam shell as to bring this rebellion to a speedy and successful close, without humiliating compromises, unless we first cripple and weaken this great element of rebel power. At present I have no politics, and recite these facts for the benefit of my northern friends, who take a south-side view, only, of these questions.

Respectfully yours,

H.F. Sickles. Lt. Col. 9th Ill. Cavalry.

 

Sources:

“Moline Mills.” Moline Workman, November 4, 1856.

“A Wager.” Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1860.

“From Curtis’ Column.” Chicago Tribune, July 22, 1862.

Sickles, H.F. to “Messrs. Editors,” July 30, 1862. “What Shall Be Done With the Slave? A Letter from Lieut. Col. Sickles, 9th Illinois Cavalry.” Chicago Tribune, August 15, 1862.

Guilbert to editor, July 31, 1862. “Interesting from Curtis’s Army.” New York Tribune, August 6, 1862.

Sickles, H.F. to J.B. Danforth, Jr., August 5, 1862. “Letter from Lt. Col. Sickles.” Rock Island Argus and Daily Union, August 14, 1862.

Browning, Orville H. Diary, October 14, 1862. Theodore C. Pease and James G. Randall, eds. The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume 1, 1850-1864. Springfield: Illinois State Historical Librabry, 1925.

“A Famous March: Fighting Our Way Through Arkansas.” Chicago Times, August 7, 1886.

Davenport, Edward A., ed. History of the Ninth Regiment Illinois Cavalry Volunteers. Chicago, IL: Donohue & Henneberry, 1888.

“Mustered Out.” National Tribune, July 21, 1892.

Hess, Earl J. “Confiscation and the Northern War Effort: The Army of the Southwest at Helena.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Volume 44, Number 1 (Spring, 1985).

Shea, William L. and Earl J. Hess. Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Teters, Kristopher A. Practical Liberators: Union Officers in the Western Theater during the Civil War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

http://www.us9cavalry.com/history.html

Lincoln, Shakespeare, and the Wilderness

“My God! My God! twenty thousand poor souls sent to their final account in one day,” President Lincoln lamented after the battle of the Wilderness. “I cannot bear it! I cannot bear it!” 

Newspaperman John Weiss Forney—who enjoyed special access to Lincoln—recounted Lincoln’s “outburst of uncontrollable emotion” years later in his memoir Anecdotes of Public Men (vol. 2, pp 180-1). Forney said the battle put Lincoln into one of his periods of depression, and it was in that condition that the journalist found the president one evening. “He was ghastly pale, the dark rings were round his caverned eyes, his hair was brushed back from his temples, and he was reading Shakespeare when I came in,” Forney later wrote.

“Let me read you this from ‘Macbeth,’” Lincoln said, adding that the verse came to him “like a consolation”:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Congressman Wheeler Speaks in the House on Causes of the War

Wheeler

Major General Joseph Wheeler

Jack Melton, publisher of Civil War News, often talks with me about little-known sources and items in Civil War history. Recently he pointed me to one such: a speech by Joseph Wheeler, later Confederate major general, then U. S. Representative from the 8th Congressional District of Alabama. Wheeler spoke on the House floor, July 13, 1894.

The House was considering a bill concerning a Union veteran. Wheeler, a member of the Committee on Military Affairs, addressed the body in a speech that touched on a number of matters, including the causes of the late civil war. 

Wheeler recalled that at a “Peace Conference” held in February 1861, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase had told the assembled delegates (not including representatives of the seven seceded states, which boycotted the convention) that the recent presidential election “must be regarded as a triumph of principles cherished in the hearts of the people of the free States.” Wheeler took this to mean that “the Northern States would not, and ought not, to comply with the obligations of the Federal Constitution,” which since 1789 had sanctioned slavery in the Southern states.

Thus Wheeler and other Southerners were justified in believing that Abraham Lincoln and the Black Republicans were out to get them, and would trample the Constitution in order to do so.

In the course of his remarks, the congressman from Alabama reviewed causes of the war. Besides slavery, “the doctrine of State rights, protective tariff [and] internal improvements” all figured as sources of sectional disagreement between North and South. As for slavery, “the New England ship owners amassed fortunes by plying the business of buying negroes in Africa, transporting them to the United States, and selling them for the most part to southern people.” In the Constitutional convention of 1787, it was the South that called for an end of the slave trade in twenty years; Northerners only turned against slavery when they found it unprofitable in their region. Then, in defiance of the Constitution, Northern states enacted laws protecting fugitive slaves. The famed Daniel Webster, speaking in Buffalo in May 1851, had predicted that if the North persisted in violating the Constitution, “the South would no longer be bound to observe the compact” (hinting at secession).

Yet, Wheeler continued, early instances of resistance to federal authority had occurred in the North: Shays’ Rebellion in New York, the whiskey rebellion in Pennsylvania. “The Southern people loved the Union,” he contended, and only with the rise of the Republican Party “they reluctantly succumbed to the conviction that the party about to take control would have no respect for their rights.”

Then, when Lincoln’s election in November 1860 spurred talk of secession, Wheeler pointed to sensible conservative Northerners who understood why. “If the cotton States shall become satisfied that they can do better out of the Union than in it, we insist on letting them go in peace” (Horace Greeley, New York Tribune, November 9–the day after Lincoln’s election). Two weeks later the New York Herald agreed that the South should not be coerced: “A union held together by the bayonet would be nothing better than a military despotism.” In late December, while South Carolinians were in convention, Greeley held forth that “if it (the Declaration of Independence) justifies the secession from the British Empire of three million colonists in 1776, we do not see why it would not justify the secession of five millions of southrons from the Federal Union in 1861.” As late as March 1861, following Lincoln’s inauguration and after seven Southern states had indeed left the Union, the Cincinnati Commercial declared, “We are not in favor of blockading the southern coast. We are not in favor of retaking by force the property of the United States now in possession of the seceders. We would recognize the existence of a government formed of all the slave-holding States, and attempt to cultivate amicable relations with it.” Gen. Gen. Winfield Scott was often quoted as saying, “Wayward sisters, part in peace.”

Obviously, Wheeler concluded, the “wayward sisters” were not allowed to go in peace. As a consequence, “the most stupendous war recorded in modern history” ensued. To illustrate its frightful casualties, Wheeler posited that Grant’s casualties from May 5 to May 12, 1864 in Virginia totaled 9,774 killed, 41,150 wounded and 13,254 missing—a number “greater than the loss in killed and wounded in all the battles of all the wars in this country prior to 1861.”

Thus Wheeler ended his address. He spoke unabashedly “from the standpoint of one whose feelings were and are in entire sympathy with the southern people.” From his remarks we can distinctly see that Southerners viewed the coming of the war from a perspective we don’t often think of today. To understand why three million Americans went to war against each other—and why a fifth of them died—we would do well to turn from time to time to such documentary sources as the Southern Historical Society Papers.

 ———-

Reference: Joseph Wheeler, “Causes of the War. Great Speech of Hon. Joseph Wheeler, of Alabama,” Southern Historical Society Papers, vol. 22, (1894), 24-41.

 

A Peek into the “Critic’s Corner” in Civil War News

SHAG-A-DOO-LA.

Those of us who write about the Civil War for fun (rarely for profit) get our ideas from any number of sources. One never knows when or how some inspiration will occur. Driving to the store recently, I heard Leslie Gore’s great song from 1963, “She’s a Fool,” with that male background chorus chanting, “shag-a-doo-la.”

Hmmmm…wonder how the lyricist or studio producer thought of that? I mused, pulling into my driveway. See how one’s curiosity can be so easily piqued?

This random, most unscientific “process” is how I come up with the monthly bibliographic column I write for Jack and Peggy Melton’s national newspaper, Civil War News

I had been a regular book reviewer for Civil War News since 2010, when Kay Jorgenson owned the paper and Ed Bonekemper served as Book Review Editor. Every now and then I had written a book-related article, such as my piece on recent studies in the western theater (CWN, November 2013). Jack Melton bought the paper from Kay in January 2016. The next month I saw the new proprietor at the Dalton Civil War Show and boldly asked him if he would consider letting me write a monthly column for Civil War News on my favorite Civil War books. He agreed.

So, why bibliography? When I was a student of his at Emory, the late great Bell Wiley taught me an appreciation for Civil War books. Dr. Wiley would give us his typewritten list of favored titles on various subjects, and for years I used it as a guide for what to look for in bookstores as I built my library.

Years later, I still remember the Sunday night when the publisher of Blue & Gray Magazine, Dave Roth, called me to say that his Book Review Editor, Rowena Reed, had left, and would I consider replacing her? Of course I said yes.

Then began two decades of bibliophilia as Dave’s BRE. My stint began with the July 1985 issue of Blue & Gray; over the years I had more than three score reviews published in the magazine.

Back in the ‘80s the local newspaper, the Journal-Constitution, actually had a good Sunday book section; sometimes I got assignments for it. My review of Tidwell, Hall and Gaddy’s Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, printed in January 1989, led me to revisit it in my “Critic’s” page in September 2017.

In 1996, my good friend Bob Maher invited me to speak at his Civil War Education Association seminar in St. Louis. I told him that I’d like to speak about books, and he agreed. I tossed around various titles for my talk: “The Civil War’s Best Books: God Knows What They Are”; “The Kodachrome Bookshelf: Snapshots of Civil War Classics”; and “100 Best Books on the Civil War: Yeah, Sez Who?” I finally settled on “From Cooke’s Books to Krick’s Licks: A Century of Reading on the Army of Northern Virginia.” My choices ranged from John Esten Cooke to Robert K. Krick (Bob was in the audience, and loved it).

Some of the works I mentioned in St. Louis have become “Critic’s Choices,” such as Cooke’s Wearing of the Gray (1867), to which I devoted my very first column in April 2016. I was thrilled when Jack told me that a reader in Alaska so liked my article that she was trying to find a copy of Cooke’s Wearing.

Another of my faves is J. William Jones’ Personal Reminiscences of General Robert E. Lee (1875). At St. Louis, my text (this was before everyone used PowerPoint) included the story Jones tells from Lee’s years as president of Washington College. Lee frequently called students into his office for misbehaving, and talked to them so tenderly, in a fatherly way, that the boys almost always ended up crying. One brash young lad, however, bragged to his friends that when he was called in, old man Lee would never get him to show such weakness, saying, “I will talk back at him, and get him to laughing the first thing he knows.” Not long afterward, this young student was indeed summoned to the president’s office, and some of his friends gathered outside to hear what happened. When he came out, sure enough there were traces of tears on his cheeks. They all asked why: “How did you come out?” “Did he scold you severely?” The lad replied, “No, I wish he had. I wish he had whipped me. I could have stood it better. But he talked to me so kindly, and so tenderly, about my mother, and the sacrifices which she, a widow, is making to send me to college, and of how I ought to appreciate her love, and do credit to her, by diligence in my studies, and correct deportment—that the first thing I knew I was blubbering like a baby. I promised him that I would do better hereafter, and I tell you, boys, I mean to do it.” (I wrote on Jones’ Reminiscences in April 2017.)

I like bringing back into currency these old chestnuts. It’s gratifying to learn that our readers like it too. Michael Harrington of Houston sent me an e-mail awhile back. “I’ve thought for years we should review occasionally some select older books as well as new publications,” he wrote; “it is a real service to our readers, not all of whom are deep readers of CW historiography.” More recently, John Sinclair of Baltimore wrote Jack, “Steve Davis’ fascinating essay on Richard Harwell’s In Tall Cotton [about which I wrote last March] breathed life into an overlooked classic that might cause some to give it a second look rather than write it off as ‘outdated.’”

It’s even finer when the author of one of these “overlooked classics” learns of my selection of his work for my page. After I wrote about John Hennessy’s Return to Bull Run (1993) in May 2016, John e-mailed me a word of thanks. “It’s been 23 years since I wrote the thing,” he added, “and yours is probably the first review of it in15 years.”

Breathing youthfulness into old books kind of reminds me of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages”: “Ah, but I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.”

Draft Dilemma in Poweshiek County: The Murder of the Marshals

The newspaper clipping, “United States Marshals Murdered in Iowa” quotes the Chicago Tribune, but the printed source is the Pittsburgh Daily Post, 10/13/1864, located online at www.newspapers.com

Emerging Civil War welcomes guest author David Connon

Amid mounting Union Army death counts in summer 1864, Iowa had its first draft. Three men didn’t report for duty on October 1, so the provost marshal in Grinnell sent two deputy marshals to southern Poweshiek County to round up the draft deserters. Bushwhackers murdered the marshals. As the second marshal lay dying, he named the murderers. The killings occurred in an atmosphere thick with fear, that could be traced back to the firing upon Fort Sumter.

Many Iowa Republicans and Democrats had enlisted after Fort Sumter, but many peace-minded Democrats feared a draft. Some conscription-eligible men considered moving to Canada. As the war continued, outraged Republicans blasted Democrats who dissented against the war, President Lincoln, and (as the war progressed) emancipation.  Congressional candidate J.B. Grinnell (who the town of Grinnell was named after) worried  about Iowa’s southern border with slave-holding Missouri. He wrote Gov. Samuel J. Kirkwood in August 1862: “Secret Societies are being organized to defy the draft and collection of taxes. The traitors are armed. Our soldiers are defenseless. We want arms. Can we not have them?”

The next year, in July 1863, thousands fell in hails of bullets at Gettysburg. The Lincoln administration quickly enacted a draft, but it didn’t yet affect Iowa (which had high numbers of volunteers). Conscription sparked several days of deadly race riots in New York City.

Abraham Lincoln

Outspoken editors of dissenting Democratic newspapers denounced the federal government’s tactics. The Muscatine Courier wrote, “Let Mr. Lincoln withdraw his emancipation proclamation and there will be no more riots in New York or elsewhere, occasioned by resistance to the draft.” John Gharkey of the Fayette County Pioneer told Iowan men in September 1863: “You should resist the conscription with your rifles, your shotguns, or whatever weapons you get hold of. If you, young men, do not resist conscription, you are unworthy to be called American citizens.”

Words turned violent outside South English, Keokuk County, Iowa, on August 1, 1863. Gun-toting Peace Democrats, led by Reverend Cyphert Tally, passed through the heavily Republican town. Fiery words flew, gunfire erupted, and Talley dropped dead. His supporters rallied at the Skunk River, some 16 miles away, drawing friends from Poweshiek and other counties. Governor Kirkwood sent in six militia companies, and the mob disappeared.

The next governor, William M. Stone, responded to Tally’s death (and the New York City draft riots) by calling in January 1864 for “loyal men” to “preserve the peace of the state.” Volunteer militia companies in every county were “promptly organized … of loyal and substantial citizens.” This action later bore deadly fruit in Poweshiek County.

J.B. Grinnell (Library of Congress)

As the war continued, Democrat fears of a growing war machine – and opportunities for negroes — became a reality. On Feb. 1, Congressman J.B. Grinnell introduced a resolution to encourage Negroes to enlist in the Union army.

President Lincoln told Grinnell, “I am glad that Congress has endorsed the policy of actively enlisting black men … It is a great day for the black man when you tell him he shall carry a gun … it foretells that he is to have the full enjoyment of his liberty and manhood.”

Lincoln concluded: “Now, tell your people in Iowa … the time has come when I am for everybody fighting the rebels. Let Indians fight them; let the negroes fight them; and if you have got any strong-legged jackasses in Iowa that can kick rebels to death, they have my hearty consent.”

Southern-sympathizing congressmen described Grinnell as being ‘drunk with blood.’  Grinnell retorted that Democrats were “in league with slavery and the Devil.”

In early May, Union troops entered the Wilderness Campaign. Turning his face like flint toward Richmond, Grant said he would “fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” Over the next six weeks, more than 60,000 Union soldiers died, were wounded, or missing. Meanwhile, Sherman’s troops moved toward Atlanta.

The war came home to Grinnell when Provost Marshal James Mathews quietly announced a draft. Grinnell Republican men formed a militia and began to drill. Mathews, located in Grinnell, “spoke of the necessity of dealing with severity with the rebel sympathizers at the north.”

Fourteen miles south of Grinnell, men formed a militia in Sugar Creek Township. That part of the county had most of its southern-born population. Elizabeth D. Williams, wife of a Union Army soldier, said the neighborhood “contained numerous sympathizers with the South,” and she said they harassed her, killed their cows, and destroyed other property.

The Sugar Creek militiamen called themselves the “Democratic Rangers.” Said to be Democrats, its members took an oath to support the United States Constitution and the State of Iowa — but with a twist. They reportedly “would resist the draft … shoot any Marshal or officer who would come for them … and assist the rebels if they should come into Iowa.”

The fifty or so Democratic Rangers drilled twice in September 1864. Many of them carried arms. In mid-September, Provost-Marshal Mathews issued draft notices to three of them, requiring them to appear in Grinnell by September 30. One draftee, Joseph Robertson, said that if he were forced into the army, he would “shoot the officers.”

Democratic Ranger Michael Gleason, a native of Ireland, said he was “not in favor of forcing men to fight in a nigger war.” He bragged that “if the Marshals came to Sugar Creek Township to take men, he was ready to help kill them.” He added, “If the Marshals came into Sugar Creek township to take men out, he … had plenty of backing.”

10/1/1864 letter from Provost Marshal James Mathews to Gov. William M. Stone. The letter is contained in the State Historical Society of Iowa’s Archives.

The draft deadline passed, and on October 1, Provost Marshal.Mathews sent Deputy Marshal John L Bashore and Special Agent Josiah M. Woodruff to locate and arrest three draft deserters. Bashore and Woodruff rode a buggy into Sugar Creek, unaware that the Democratic Rangers planned to drill that afternoon.

The marshals began looking for draft-deserter (and South Carolina native) Samuel A. Bryant. Two brothers, John and Joe Fleener, rode up to the marshals, opened fire, and killed one instantly. A third bushwhacker, Irish native Michael Gleason, ran up and started hitting the surviving marshal in the head with a rifle. Someone shot Gleason in the leg during the melee. The Fleeners rode away, never to be seen again. A local man found Gleason and Marshal Bashore.  The dying marshal identified his killers (and Gleason as an assailant), and he said bushwhackers (who “had sworn resistance to the draft”) had come directly from the drilling site.

Provost Marshal Mathews suspected the murders were planned and that all Democratic Rangers were accessories to the crime. He called up militias from Grinnell and Montezuma and asked Governor Stone for help. Mathews set up roadblocks into Grinnell, and he sent militiamen to capture the Fleeners, Gleason, and the draft-deserters.

Three days later, Governor Stone arrived, passing out new Springfield rifles to the militiamen, who rode off to arrest the remaining Democratic Rangers. Grinnell militiamen bagged six Colt revolvers, a pistol, a horse pistol, 15 rifles, eight shotguns, and ammunition. They also arrested 16 men.

Second view of 10/1/1864 letter from Provost Marshal James Mathews to Gov. William M. Stone. The letter is contained in the State Historical Society of Iowa’s Archives.

The editor of the Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, a Republican paper, assumed the worst. He wrote, “The Unionists of Poweshiek are naturally a good deal stirred up, and if the long-threatened Copperhead war is now to begin, they are ready.” He also demonized leading Democrats as being “armed and ready, with murder in their hearts … but waiting the opportunity to deluge the country in blood. Our safety is in their cowardice and want of opportunity.”

The Montezuma Republican editor made political hay, calling Poweshiek County Democratic leaders “more guilty in the sight of God, and more deserving of punishment, than the three men who committed the murder[s].”

The evidence suggests that the Fleeners murdered the marshals to keep their uncle Joseph Robertson from being impressed into the U.S. Army. Gleason, on the other hand, was a Democratic Ranger who expressed drunken bravado (about the marshals) to the Fleeners. He unwittingly stepped into a nightmare that spun out of control. The Democratic Rangers as a group just happened to be drilling the day of the murders.

Authorities in 1867 released every Democratic Ranger except Michael Gleason, who was tried and sentenced to death by hanging. President Andrew Johnson commuted his sentence to life in prison, where Gleason died in 1875. The Fleeners escaped justice.

Tempers and emotions had dissipated by 1911, and Sugar Creek Township’s odious Copperhead reputation faded. Poweshiek County historian Leonard F. Parker wrote that the former Democratic Rangers “were evidently misled. We are glad to accord them an honorable place among good citizens since that unfortunate hour in 1864 … The war is over. Neighborly relations have been restored.”

 

David Connon has studied pre-war and war-time Iowa for the past 15 years.  A bleary-eyed veteran researcher, he has found that primary sources sometimes lead to rich stories. He has documented 76 Iowa residents who left that state and served the Confederacy. He shares some of their stories on a blog, Confederates from Iowa:  Not to Defend, but to Understand. The blog also delves into the Iowa Underground Railroad, the Iowa home-front, war-time violations of civil liberties, and book reviews. He speaks to audiences across the state through the Humanities Iowa Speakers Bureau, and he works as a historical interpreter at Living History Farms. He has a master’s degree in Education from Northern Illinois University.