History Briefs: 2009-2010

By Mel Maurer, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2009-2010, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: From 2007 to 2011, Mel Maurer filled the position of Roundtable historian. During Mel’s tenure as historian, each Roundtable meeting opened with a ‘history brief’ presented by Mel, each ‘brief’ providing a small glimpse into a less-explored corner of the story of the Civil War. This page collects the history briefs from the 2009-2010 Roundtable season. Following Mel’s tenure as historian, his successors likewise presented history briefs at the beginning of each Roundtable meeting. The history briefs that were written by Mel’s successors are also on the Roundtable’s website, each of those history briefs on a separate web page.

September 2009

September 1862: Union forces under General George McClellan hold back the invading forces of General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland. Some words of those days:

General George McClellan, upon being handed the Battle plan of General Lee:

“Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home.”

John B. Gordon

Confederate General John B. Gordon fought there and had these memories:

“The first volley sent a ball…through the calf of my right leg. On the right and left my men were falling…like trees in a hurricane….Higher up in the same leg I was again shot; but still no bone was broken….I could not consent to leave them in such a crisis….I had a vigorous constitution and this was doing me good service…. A fourth ball ripped through my shoulder.

“I could still stand and walk, although the shocks and loss of blood had left but little of my normal strength. I remembered the pledge to the commander that we would stay there till the battle ended or night came. I looked to the sun – it seemed to stand still.

“I then attempted to go myself, although I was bloody and faint….I had gone but a short distance when I was shot down by a fifth ball which struck me squarely in the face….I fell forward and lay unconscious with my face in my cap; and it would seem that I might have been smothered by the blood running into my cap…but for the act of some Yankee who…shot a hole through the cap which let the blood out.

“I was borne on a stretcher to the rear.”

Author David H. Strother wrote of the battle in an article in Harper’s Magazine in 1868. It included these words:

“Many were found to be so covered with dust, torn, crushed and trampled that they resembled clods of earth and you were obliged to look twice before recognizing them as human beings.”

Union General Jacob Cox (and later Ohio governor) had these words on Antietam in 1882:

“McClellan estimated Lee’s troops at nearly double their actual number…for the rooted belief in Lee’s preponderance of numbers had been chronic during the whole year.

“The result was that Lee retreated unmolested on the night of the 18th and what might have been a real and decisive success was a drawn battle in which our chief claim to victory was the possession of the field.”

Eyewitness History of the Civil War by Joe H. Kirchberger

October 2009

It’s October 1862 when “victory” at Antietam is cause both for the release of President Abraham Lincoln’s great proclamation and further doubts about the leadership qualities of General George B. McClellan.

George B. McClellan

Here are some words of that time:

October 1st – The Whig, a newspaper in Richmond, commenting on the Emancipation Proclamation said:

“It is a dash of the pen to destroy four thousand millions of our property, and it is as much a bid for the slaves to rise in insurrection with the assurance of aid from the whole military and naval power of the United States.”

October 4th – Maria Daley’s diary entry:

“McClellan, Pierrepont says, is popular because he keeps his soldiers out of harm’s way as much as possible. I think too he said, there were 34,000 on furlough at the last battle. No wonder he says McClellan is popular with 18,000 stragglers – the rebels shoot their stragglers so they have none.”

October 13th – Lincoln in a note to McClellan:

“You may remember my speaking to you of what I called your over cautiousness? Are you not over cautious when you assume that you cannot do what the enemy is doing? Should you not claim to be at least his equal in prowess, and act upon the claim?”

Late October – General Henry Halleck in a letter:

“I am sick and disgusted with the conditions of military affairs here in the east and I wish myself back in the western army. With all of my efforts, I can get nothing done. There is an immobility here that exceeds all that any man can conceive of. It requires the lever of Archimedes to move this inert mass. I have tried my best, but without success.”

November 5th – McClellan later in his memoirs:

“Late at night I was sitting alone in my tent writing to my wife….Suddenly someone knocked on my tent pole and upon my invitation to enter there appeared Burnside and Buckingham both looking very solemn….After a few moments Buckingham said to Burnside: ‘Well General, we had better tell General McClellan the object of our visit.’ I said I would be glad to learn it where upon he handed me the orders of which he was the bearer. I read the papers with a smile, immediately turned to Burnside and said: ‘Well Burnside, I turn the command over to you.’”

Eyewitness History of the Civil War by Joe H. Kirchberger

November 2009

November 8, 1864 – Abraham Lincoln is re-elected president, defeating Democrat George B. McClellan. Lincoln carries all but three states with 55 percent of the popular vote and 212 of 233 electoral votes. He tells his supporters, “I earnestly believe that the consequences of this day’s work will be to the lasting advantage, if not the very salvation, of the country.”

During the early days of this month, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman set in motion his plan to devastate the South with his March to the Sea. He would leave Atlanta with 62,000 men and only 20 days’ supply of rations to begin an overland campaign, without further supply or communications, to live off the land as they moved toward Savannah and the Atlantic Ocean. His army would subsist from the farmland and plantations along the way as they destroyed rail lines and ruined industry used in the Southern war effort.

Sherman’s March to the Sea: “a monsoon of destruction”

Sherman wrote of the beginning of the march in his memoirs saying:

“We stood upon the very ground whereon was fought the bloody battle of July 22nd and could see the copse of trees where McPherson fell. Behind us lay Atlanta, smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in the air and hanging like a pall over the ruined city….Some band, by accident, struck up the anthem of ‘John Brown’s soul goes marching on;’ the men caught up the strain and never before or since have I heard the chorus of ‘Glory, glory halleluiah’ done with more spirit, or in better harmony of time and place.”

Georgians were horrified at the potential destruction and the seeming inability of Confederate armies to do anything about Sherman. The Southern press viciously attacked him in these words:

“It would seem as if in him all the attributes of man were merged in the enormities of the demon, as if Heaven intended in him the depths of depravity yet untouched by a fallen race….Unsated still in his demonic vengeance he sweeps over the country like a monsoon of destruction.”

As the soldiers marched, they sang a wide variety of songs, but not the one that would define the March to the Sea to later generations, which was written months later: “Marching through Georgia.” It’s said that Sherman hated that song. However, it would become such a universal anthem that the Japanese troops sang it as they entered Port Arthur, and British troops sang it in India – it was hugely popular during WWII.

With all due respect to Sherman:

Bring the good old bugle boys, we’ll sing another song
Sing it with spirit that will start the world along
Sing it as we used to sing it, 50,000 strong
While we were Marching through Georgia
Hurrah, hurrah we bring the jubilee
Hurrah, hurrah the flag that makes you free
So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea
While we were marching through Georgia.

The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War by David J. Eicher

December 2009

In closing out this bicentennial year of Abraham Lincoln we remember December 1862 – the last month that millions of Americans would legally be enslaved in our country. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would free them on the first day of the new year.

James C. Conkling

In August of that new year, Union supporters in Springfield, disgruntled with Lincoln and his proclamation, asked him to speak at a rally on September 3. Lincoln could not attend, but wrote a letter (really a speech) to be read at the gathering by his long-time friend, James C. Conkling.

The letter was sent with a brief note which read, “I cannot leave here now. Herewith is a letter instead. You are one of the best public readers. I have but one suggestion. Read it very slowly. And now God bless you, and all good Union-men.” (Though the complete text of Lincoln’s letter is not included here, all of Lincoln’s original spelling and grammar have been left intact.)

Here are some words from that letter-speech:

“There are those who are dissatisfied with me. To such I would say: You desire peace; and you blame me that we do not have it. But how can we attain it? There are but three conceivable ways. First, to suppress the rebellion by force of arms. This I am trying to do. Are you for it? If you are, so far we are agreed. If you are not for it, a second way is to give up the Union. I am against this. Are you for it? If you are, you should say so plainly. If you are not for force, nor yet for dissolution, there only remains some imaginable compromise. I do not believe any compromise, embracing the maintenance of the Union, is now possible.”

“Now allow me to assure you, that no word or intimation, from that rebel army, or from any of the men controlling it, in relation to any peace compromise, has ever come to my knowledge or belief.”

“But to be plain, you are dissatisfied with me about the negro. Quite likely there is a difference of opinion between you and myself upon that subject. I certainly wish that all men could be free, while I suppose you do not. Yet I have neither adopted, nor proposed any measure, which is not consistent with even your view, provided you are for the Union.”

“You dislike the emancipation proclamation; and, perhaps, would have it retracted. You say it is unconstitutional – I think differently. I think the constitution invests its Commander-in-chief, with the law of war, in time of war.”

“But the proclamation, as law, either is valid, or is not valid. If it is not valid, it needs no retraction. If it is valid, it can not be retracted, any more than the dead can be brought to life.”

“You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. Whenever you shall have conquered all resistence to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time, then, for you to declare you will not fight to free negroes.”

“I thought that whatever negroes can be got to do as soldiers, leaves just so much less for white soldiers to do. Does it appear otherwise to you? But negroes, like other people, act upon motives….If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive – even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.”

“The signs look better….Peace does not appear so distant as it did. I hope it will come soon, and come to stay; and so come as to be worth the keeping in all future time….And then, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonnet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they strove to hinder it.”

“Still, let us not be over-sanguine of a speedy final triumph. Let us be quite sober. Let us diligently apply the means, never doubting that a just God, in his own good time, will give us the rightful result.”

“Yours very truly
A. Lincoln”

January 2010

Until tonight, with this “Joust at the Judson,” as history gets rewritten, when Americans think of debates, they think of Lincoln-Douglas and maybe Kennedy-Nixon.

Abraham Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas seven times in 1858 during their campaign for the U.S. Senate from Illinois – winning the debates overall but losing the election.

Abraham Lincoln

It was on June 16,1858 in Springfield, Illinois that the state Republican party unanimously nominated Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for the United States Senate. The Republicans had garnered statewide support for Lincoln, with an unprecedented 95 individual county Republican conventions endorsing him.

On the evening of his nomination, Lincoln gave his acceptance speech. As his audience listened intently, he began this famous talk with these words:

“We are now into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly augmented.

“In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed. A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”

Words – no doubt like those of tonight’s debaters – that will live forever.

March 2010

Sure and begorrah, ‘tis a grand month to remember the glorious Irish Brigade in the Civil War.

The Irish Brigade of the Union army was an infantry brigade, authorized by the United States secretary of war in September 1861. All but one of its five regiments were of Irish origin. Its first regiment was the 69th New York Infantry, called the “Fighting 69th.” They were known in part for their famous war cry: “Clear the way!”

At the First Battle of Bull Run, the 69th served under the command of Colonel William Tecumseh O’Sherman, and was one of the few Union regiments to retain cohesion after the defeat. After Bull Run, Thomas Francis Meagher, the Captain of Company K, applied to have the 69th New York Volunteer Militia reorganized into Federal service as the core unit of a larger brigade composed predominantly of Irish immigrants. Meagher (an escapee from imprisonment as an Irish Rebel in England) was promoted to brigadier general and designated the brigade’s commander.

In addition to creating a strong fighting force, the formation of the Irish Brigade served three Union purposes:

  1. It warned Britain that there could be Union-supported consequences in Ireland if Britain intervened. (Most of the brigade’s members were known Irish revolutionaries.)

  2. It served to solidify Irish support for the Union. Many Irish were naturally predisposed to support the Confederacy due to their sympathy with struggles for independence.

  3. It solidified the support of the Catholic minority for the Union cause. Having their own paid Catholic chaplain implied a social acceptance for Irish Catholics, which had eluded them in the antebellum period.

Their chaplain was Fr. William Corby, CSC, a Holy Cross priest and future president of the University of Notre Dame. He became famous for his giving absolution to the troops of the Irish Brigade before the Battle of Gettysburg.

The brigade fought well, earning praise for hard campaigning during the Seven Days Battles. After Malvern Hill in the summer of 1862, while other units were transferred to northern Virginia to fight under Gen. John Pope, the Irish Brigade remained on the Peninsula with Gen. George B. McClellan.

On September 17, 1862, during the Battle of Antietam, command confusion led to the Irish Brigade facing the center of the Confederate line, entrenched in an old sunken farm road. The brigade again acted conspicuously, assaulting the road – referred to after the battle as “Bloody Lane.” The green became the red.

Although unsuccessful, the brigade’s attack gave supporting troops enough time to flank and break the Confederate position, at the cost of 60% casualties for the Irish Brigade. The brigade would then suffer its most severe casualties in December at the Battle of Fredericksburg, where its fighting force was reduced from over 1,600 to just 256 men.

It fought in the northern battleground at Fredericksburg, where they assaulted the sunken road in front of Marye’s Heights. Coincidentally, one of the regiments manning the sunken road defenses was also a predominantly Irish regiment. It was at Fredericksburg that Lee allegedly gave Meagher’s regiment the name “Fighting 69th.”

The Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg

In May 1863, the brigade sustained further casualties at the Battle of Chancellorsville and in July, at Gettysburg, the brigade of 600 men distinguished itself further in the Wheatfield. It has a monument on the Loop on the battlefield.

The “Fighting 69th” also fought in World War I as part of the Rainbow Division. The Medal of Honor for bravery was awarded to several regiment members. By the time World War II came, the Irish influence in the regiment had diminished somewhat, but the regiment served with distinction in the Pacific Theater as part of the 27th “New York” Infantry Division.

The Fighting 69th has been a unit of the New York National Guard since 1947. The 69th Infantry also served with distinction in Iraq from 2004-2005. It fought in and around Baghdad, most notably securing “Route Irish” and the surrounding area of Baghdad suburbs.

The Irish Route is an MSR – a Main Supply Route – between Baghdad and its airport. The designation “Route Irish” follows the common practice of naming MSRs after sports teams – in this case the “Fighting Irish” of the University of Notre Dame.

Father Corby would be proud.

Raise your glass to the Irish Brigade!

2008-2009 History Briefs >>
2010-2011 History Briefs >>

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