Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Confirming the Relation to my Civil War Ancestor

A few weeks ago I wrote about some recent developments in the ongoing search to determine my exact relationship to Private William Baumgarten of Co. K, 102nd Pennsylvania. Most of my research has established that my Great Great Grandfather John is likely related to William. I discovered an additional clue in John's obituary, which indicates that John had extended family in Alabama at the time of his death. William had moved to Alabama at some point after the war, and died there in 1921. I was getting closer.

Looking for more answers, I wrote to the Archives and Records Center of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. I figured that church sacramental records might contain some additional information as to the relationship between John and William. I recently received a response, and my request paid huge dividends.

John's marriage record from St. Joseph in Mt. Oliver, dated January 12, 1873, indicates that John (called "Johannum" in the record) was the son of "Joseph Baumgarten." William's father was also Joseph! (Unfortunately, John's mother is not named.) Piecing together all of the evidence that I have uncovered and detailed in previous posts, I am pretty sure that this record confirms that William is John's brother (or at the very least, half-brother). This would make Private Baumgarten my Great Great Great Uncle.

St. Joseph's in Mt. Oliver, built in 1870. The church no longer stands (courtesy of Diocese of Pittsburgh).

The Diocese also forwarded some additional information of interest. The researcher, Suzanne Johnston, could not locate baptismal records for John after searching church documents from 1847 through 1852. Perhaps John was not baptized, or perhaps the records are missing. In any event, she found William's baptismal records from St. Philomena, the first German ethnic parish in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. William received the sacrament on April 20, 1845. His older brother, Reinhard, was baptized there on February 20, 1841. I also learned that the boys had a sister, Maria, who was baptized in the parish on April 21, 1844. All three baptismal records indicate a father named Joseph and a mother named Martha (Marta) Stiz (possibly Stitz or Statz). A previous record had led me to believe that William and Reinhard were paternal half-brothers, but the baptismal documentation proves that both men had the same mother as well.

Five years ago, I had no idea that a Baumgarten had set foot in the United States prior to the end of the 19th century. Now I know that the family reached America's shores long before then. Even more of a revelation is that I have a close family relation through my Great Great Grandfather to a young man who volunteered to fight for the Union. My life-long interest in the Civil War has certainly assumed a more personal and intimate meaning.

In Memoriam

This post, and my research on family history, are dedicated to my recently deceased Aunt Mary Ann and Uncle Richard, two of John's Great Grandchildren. They were thrilled to hear of my discoveries, and I'd like to think they are continuing to read from above.


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

What I've Been Up To....

I recently finished Ethan Rafuse's impressive tome, McClellan's War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union. I've always found Gen. George McClellan a fascinating and complex person. Rafuse's biography challenges much of the conventional wisdom about Little Mac. He emerges as a more sympathetic character, whose devotion to Whig principles and the policy of conciliation became increasingly irrelevant as the war hardened and emancipation entered the picture. But I digress for the purposes of this post.

Rafuse dedicated an entire chapter to McClellan's last campaign, which took place in Loudoun Valley, Virginia in late October and early November 1862. Very little has been written about this period, including the cavalry battles at Philomont and Unison. Given that the 1862 Loudoun Valley Campaign largely occurred a places within 25 to 45 minutes drive from my home, I figured it might be interesting to read more about it, and to explore the ground where the marching and fighting actually occurred. As an added bonus, it is a postscript to the Antietam Campaign, which has been a focus of my studies on the war in the East.

The North Fork ford along Jeb Stuart Rd. in Philomont. On November 1, 1862, the Confederate cavalry crossed at this point and clashed with Union forces. Maj. John Pelham's Horse Artillery fired from high ground on the far side of the creek. (Be warned! Do not try to cross here in your vehicle unless you are sure of its off-road capabilities!)

Fighting occurred near the Unison United Methodist Church (1832) on November 2, 1862. Union casualties were treated in the church following the fight.

Aside from Rafuse's chapter, two resources have quickly become invaluable. In winter 1999, Blue & Gray published an issue featuring "Little Mac's Last Stand: Autumn 1862 in Loudoun Valley, Virginia" by Patrick J. Brennan. The article is accompanied by a driving tour on the campaign. More recently, the National Park Service, in conjunction with the Unison Preservation Society, published Civil War in Loudoun Valley: The Battle of Unison, November 1-3, 1862. This little book contains invaluable maps of all the fighting that took place between forces under Jeb Stuart and Alfred Pleasonton, as well as photographs of landmarks related to the battle. As far as I know, this book can only be obtained by sending a check directly to the Unison Preservation Society. It is well worth the price -- it contains detailed information that likely exists nowhere else in a secondary source.

I've already done some preliminary exploring at Unison and Philomont, and you may have seen pictures of my site visits on Facebook or Twitter. I may do a few blog posts as I dig deeper, but for now I am undecided about what direction my research will take. Sometimes it is just fun to get back to the basics and do a deep dive into a local topic that is a bit more obscure. As an added bonus, I get to tour some of the most historic and scenic countryside in the United States!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Civil War News and Views: The Advanced Confederate Line, September 1861

Now that the Sesquicentennial is over, I look forward to revisiting the earlier war period in Northern Virginia. As readers may recall, I spent a lot of time a few years ago examining the Confederate advance closer to Washington at the end of August 1861, when forces under Gen. James Longstreet occupied the high ground on Munson's Hill and Mason's Hill. Not long ago I came across the following report from the September 6, 1861 edition of the Richmond Daily Dispatch concerning the new position within sight of Washington:
Confederate States Army, Fairfax Station, Va., Sept. 1 
Last evening I returned from Mason's Hill, seven miles south of Washington, D. C. Mason's Hill derives its name from the gentleman's name (Capt. Mason, now in the Confederate service at Norfolk, Va.,) who is the proprietor. Mason's Hill is a very high and commanding position, and about two miles from Munson's Hill, both of which are now fortified and in possession of the ‘"rebels."’ 
In a straight line from Mason's Hill stands the Capitol at Washington, and which can readily be seen with the naked eye. Whilst beholding the dome of the Capitol, I feel like one looking upon the ‘"promised land,"’ where shortly, I hope, ‘"may our possessions be."’ I had the pleasure of seeing Prof. Lowe's balloon, and am sure his observations were of little account to him. The Yankee experiment of ballooning came near receiving a great ‘"pull back,"’ by the firing upon the balloon spy by the Washington Artillery. Several shots were fired at it, when it immediately ‘"went down."’ Don't suppose, however, ‘"anybody was hurt."’ But, nevertheless. somebody was scared, for the balloon suddenly disappeared and did not come up again.
Camping at Mason's Hill is interesting and exciting — not a day passing away but a few Yankee pickets ‘"bite the dust."’ Whilst I was there, in one day eight were gathered by our boys, who keep a sharp lookout for the chaps, and give them a dead shot on sight — Several prisoners have been sent to General Davis' institution at Richmond for safe keeping. By the way, we will soon have a Yankee army on hand. 
On the morning of the 30th a large Federal camp, about two miles from Alexandria, broke up and retired, thinking, probably, the ‘"rebels"’ were getting too close for comfort.--They built a large fire, the smoke of which served to cover them as they broke up their camp.
Fine views are obtained from both Munson's and Mason's Hills, of the surrounding country, and also of the Potomac. Upon the Potomac, large vessels.
There has been considerable sickness in our camp; but, with the cool weather, the health of all the men is improving, and all will be on their feet soon, with musket in hand. No news at present that I dare tell you. Pen.
N. B.--Envelopes are very scarce. The man who goes into the manufactory of envelopes in the South, will make a fortune P. (courtesy of Perseus Digital Library)
An engraving of the Confederate fortification on Munson's Hill, Illustrated London News, Oct. 5, 1861 (courtesy of Emory University).
Foreign correspondents also took an interest in the advanced Confederate line. A piece in the October 5, 1861 edition of the Illustrated London News, accompanying the above illustration, contained the following account of the Rebel position at Munson's Hill:
 This is the point in Virginia at which the Unionists and the Confederates are nearest each other, and whilst our Artist was making his sketch, crouched beneath the shelter of the foliage, within hailing distance of the enemy's pickets, a continual spattering of bullets fell round the spot. More than halfway up the road towards the hill is a barricade, from behind which a Secessionist sharpshooter is having some pot shots, and, screened by the hedges in the cornfields, others are doing the same. In the foreground are the Union advanced pickets, furnished by the Michigan Regiment, one of whom is in the act of firing at two or three men beyond the barricade. A Michigan soldier just shot lies in the road. The Confederates have some rifled cannon on the earthwork, and whenever they see a number of Federalists together they send in a dose of shells.
A New York paper thus describes the Confederate position on Munson's-hill:—"Munson's-hill is probably the highest eminence within ten miles of the Potomac, immediately opposite Washington. It is about six miles from the Capitol, the intervening space being covered with a succession of gently rolling hills, crowned principally with forest trees, although here and there dotted with churches, farmhouses, and country villages. The streams are unimportant and the roads dusty. The hill presents its most abrupt side towards the national capital, and, unlike those around, has but few trees on its summit. Many of those which originally existed have no doubt been felled while the intrenchments were in progress. At present an immense Confederate flag—the red, white, and blue stripes in which are at least five feet wide each—is the most prominent object upon the top of the eminence Two of the trees which have been allowed to remain were used as an observatory. The Confederate defences are constructed entirely of earth, fifteen feet being the highest elevation. The sloping hillside in front of the fort is clear of underbrush or trees, and is sufficiently extended to allow 3000 men to parade. The distance from the cover of the woods to the summit of the hill is not so great but that a quick movement would drive the enemy from their guns with very little loss of life. The flank defences of the fort consist of three batteries. It is believed that earthworks have been thrown up on another portion of the hill commanding the road to Fairfax Courthouse. The fort is intended more particularly to command the road leading from Alexandria to Falls Church, the road from Washington to Fairfax, just mentioned, the railroad from Alexandria to Vienna, and the position of Bailey's Cross-roads."
With little to report in the way of large-scale battles, newspapers turned their attention to the Confederate lines within view of the nation's capital. Munson's and Mason's Hills were popular topics. Add in the thrilling ascent of Lowe's balloons or the tension of the picket war, and correspondents had plenty of material to keep their readers interested and entertained. The Confederates abandoned the advanced position by the end of September 1861, and not long afterwards, both sides settled in for a long fall and winter in camp.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Searching Family History for the Right Connection

How about a little break from the current Confederate controversy? I've written often about my "Civil War ancestor," Pvt. William Baumgarten of the 102nd Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, I still don't know William's exact connection to my branch of the Baumgarten family. Based on the research I have done, I think that William may be a brother or a cousin to my Great Great Grandfather John. Whenever I get the chance, I try to uncover the family link. After all, my membership in the Sons of Union Veterans depends on it!

The other day I learned about the on-line archives of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. After a couple of searches (and paying for a month subscription), I found John's obituary from the January 23 and 24, 1936 editions of the paper. (January 23 is pictured below.) I learned some interesting facts about John, including his wife's maiden name and his exact street address, but was particularly drawn to the instructions at the bottom of the listing. The paper directed that the obituary also be circulated in the Ashland, Kentucky and Alabama papers.



Those two states immediately rang a bell. John was related to a Reinhard Baumgarten, who had relocated to Ashland and died there in 1911. Moreover,William eventually found his way to Cullman, Alabama, where he passed away in 1921. It seems that someone in the Pittsburgh part of the family was seeking to spread the word of John's death to the Kentucky and Alabama branches. The obituary confirms a connection to those states, and further reinforces the possibility of a very close relationship among John, Reinhard, and William.


I also located John's death certificate on Ancestry.com. (It wasn't there a few months ago.) From this document I discovered that John was born in Snowden Township (now South Park Township), Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, his parents' names are not recorded, so I could not match them against the names of Reinhard and William's parents. That said, this additional information enabled me to be even more precise in my request to the Diocese of Pittsburgh for John's baptismal, communion, and marriage records. I am hoping that from these additional documents I will learn the parents' names and at long last confirm my relationship to William.

I am also excited to follow the path opened by the death certificate as to Snowden Township and how my family ended up there. The township was created in 1845, the year of William's birth and only five years before John arrived on the scene. I would like to dig deeper into this linkage to discover what John and his family's life was like in antebellum Pittsburgh. I'll be sure to report back when more information is available, but I am increasingly hopeful that I will learn whether John and William were brothers, and whether William is a distant uncle. Stay tuned.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Confederate Symbols, a Call to Moderation, and a Respect for History

I guess it was folly for me to think I could avoid writing a post on the recent controversy over Confederate symbols. I usually try to steer clear of these fights. However, as an amateur historian (or whatever you want to call me!), the recent turn of events is very troubling. We now find ourselves in a battle of extremes. On the one end, there are those who would just as soon tear down and erase every trace of the Confederacy on American soil; on the other, those who deny that slavery had anything at all to do with the Civil War or the Confederacy and assert that the Confederate flag is just "heritage."

The flag of the 28th Virginia Infantry, captured by the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg, was on display at the Minnesota Historical Society for the 150th of the battle. (courtesy of MPR)

If you follow me on social media, you generally know where I come out on these issues. But I thought I'd use this post to break it down into a few key points:

1) As a boy, I grew up admiring the South, and the Confederate generals. (See this post.) I even had a few Confederate flags in my bedroom. I didn't really make the slavery connection back then. So the flag to me meant the Civil War and Lee and Jackson. Only later, as an adult, did I come to understand and appreciate the multiple meanings behind it, including the fact that it represents a political entity whose main purpose was the preservation and perpetuation of human bondage. That said, when I see the flag I still think first of battles and generals and my boyhood interest in the war -- despite my better instincts.

2) I think the Confederate flag, in any iteration, should not fly from state houses, town halls, and other government buildings. It wasn't flying there right after the war, and in many instances, it only went up again to protest the civil rights laws and desegragationist court decisions of the 1950s and 60s. Although it may represent the sacrifices and bravery of Confederate ancestors, it also represents slavery and treason to many others. And let's not forget to mention those who actually want the flag to fly there in the name of white supremacy. Gotta go.

3) Some people are now calling for the removal or elimination of Confederate monuments and memorials that dot town squares and other public places across the South. I can see little good in such actions. In most cases, these statues and other monuments were erected by the Confederate veterans themselves, or their immediate offspring. These memorials tell us a lot about how Southerners in the 19th and early 20th century chose to commemorate and remember the war. Sure, they may be associated with a cause we find distasteful (and should), but that doesn't give us a license to destroy our past. If we were to erase these memorials, we'd be no better than Soviet propagandists or ISIS radicals. Instead, as I have noted before on this blog, we should maintain these memorials, and place them in the proper context if necessary. This could include adding markers to explain the meaning of the monuments and what they represent. (The Atlantic published a thoughtful piece on this idea here. I also wrote previously about this issue with respect to Alexandria's Confederate monument here.) Some bloggers and professional historians, like Kevin Levin in this post, are unfortunately opening the door to a slippery slope. Whatever our personal views on the Confederacy, we shouldn't be providing people with a rationale for dismantling the past in our public spaces.

4) The placement of the Confederate flags at museums and historic sites seems like a no-brainer. Where better to interpret the flag and display it than in its historical context? If visitors can't view original regimental Confederate Battle Flags at battlefield museums, for example, then they are missing the chance to connect with tangible and meaningful artifacts. However, the recent move by the National Park Service (NPS) at Ft. Sumter is troubling. (Check out Craig's excellent post here on the subject.) Hopefully others won't go the same way, and Ft. Sumter will reverse its decision.

5) Reenactments and living history demonstrations are another appropriate place to show the flag. Again, however, we see a step backwards when the Gettysburg Seminary bans the display of the flag in a way that adversely impacts living history events held on campus. Far from being a "courageous stand," the action represents nothing more than caving in to public pressure. "Courageous" would have been a position that allowed display of the colors by reenactment groups.

6) Another part of the debate involves what I dub "the bottom of the barrel." Some folks are now just overreaching and looking for excuses to do a complete purge. The debate has focused on removing all vestiges of the Confederacy from gift shops, on-line stores, military bases, street names, and even TV programming. Some of this is downright silly. I mean, is the Duke boys' car really hurting anyone? One of the most ridiculous and foolish proposals I have seen calls for the re-naming of a U.S. Navy vessel because it carries the name of a Confederate victory, Chancellorsville! As for sales of the flag, private enterprises have the right to sell what they want, but they may just be hurting their bottom line, and their capitulation speaks more to their inability to stand up to the current witch hunt than anything. Street, school, and base names have at times been controversial, but I am sure that most people haven't thought twice about them as they go about their daily lives. How many are actually offended by a street or school named after a Confederate icon? That said, if a community wishes to rename public places and streets through the democratic process, then be my guest. Again, however, that just seems like overkill.

7) So how do we get out of this mess? A solution calls for mutual understanding and moderation, as well as a healthy dose of respect for preserving our history. America needs to stop the wholesale rush to dismantle or reshape the past,  and instead engage in a thoughtful discussion about the Confederacy. (For example,see Robert's post here.) We also can't ignore the hard truths about the causes of the Civil War.

I am a bit saddened that we did not use the Sesquicentennial to address our history in this way. Instead, extreme passions in the wake of the tragedy in Charleston have driven the agenda just as we are wrapping up the commemoration of our bloodiest war. One possible step in the right direction involves building, rather than tearing down. We should take action to remember slavery and the role of African-Americans in the war. I'd love to work on historical signage to commemorate Northern Virginia's contraband camps. I am sure there are many such opportunities across our country. As we celebrate the Fourth of July, let's strive to heal the divisions that have developed and come together as a country to shape a commemorative landscape that works for all.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Trip to Gettysburg with the Kids

As the followers of this blog's feeds on Facebook and Twitter know, I often take my twin sons to Civil War sites in and around Northern Virginia. I am a big believer in exposing them to history at an early age. They may not really "get it," but I am sure that deep down, an understanding, or better yet, an interest, is taking root.

Truth be told, I started reconnecting with the war just as the boys were born. In those early days, I spent what little down time I had writing posts and researching, much to my wife's chagrin! As the boys grew, I grew too, as a writer, blogger, and amateur historian. I suppose it was fitting that for their fifth birthday I would take them to the granddaddy of all Civil War battlefields -- Gettysburg. I also planned to make the vacation their first camping trip. My own parents could hardly believe that their son, a fan of the luxury hotel, was voluntarily returning to a campground after all these years. We opted on a Kamp Kabin at the Gettysburg/Battlefield KOA -- not exactly roughing it, but try spending a few days with little boys and no access to a private restroom.

The twins are no strangers to battlefields. After all, they first visited Manassas National Battlefield Park when they were two and a half. Since then, they've returned to Henry Hill on numerous occasions. (We are only twenty-five minutes away. How wonderful it is to have a major Civil War battlefield at your doorstep.) They've also crossed Burnside Bridge at Antietam and walked through the historic streets of Harpers Ferry. But I would be lying if I didn't admit a bit of trepidation about spending a few days at Gettysburg with them. Manassas is one thing, but Gettysburg is quite another.

Even before driving up US-15, I started by kindling some enthusiasm for the story of the battle. I showed the boys some edited scenes from the film, Gettysburg. Jack would continually ask me, "Who won, the blue guys or the gray guys?" every time he saw a scene from the battle. I had nightmares that he'd do the same once out on the field. Drawing from their recognition of a few key Civil War personalities, I also told them about Lee leading the Confederates, and how President Lincoln gave a speech there.


Excited to be camping....

Gettysburg is a family-friendly place, which makes visiting with little ones easier than at some destination like California wine country. However, I was determined to keep the kids away from the tourist traps and show them the proper way to visit a Civil War site. It is never too early to teach kids how to engage in respectable and respectful tourism.

We started at the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center. Unfortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, our first run-in with a Ranger was a little disappointing. He brushed us off when I asked for those Civil War NPS collectors cards and advised that we should come back tomorrow to get them instead. He never explained why. The Park Service redeemed itself the next day when a new Ranger handed each of my very happy boys a complete set of Gettysburg cards.

The film at the VC may have been a bit much for the boys' little brains -- try teaching concepts of slavery and emancipation to rising kindergartners -- but the Cyclorama had them in awe. They marveled at what they were seeing and couldn't believe that it was only a painting. We also walked through the museum. The boys each spent time looking at various artifacts from the battle and watching the informational videos. Jack was a bit more engaged; Cam moved at breakneck pace so that we would leave to check-in at the campground sooner.

Of course, battlefield stomping took top billing for us. We visited some key sites on Thursday evening. The first time Jack looked out over the field where Pickett's men advanced, he exclaimed to me, "That was a long way to march!" Pretty insightful for a new preschool graduate. We also made our way to the Father William Corby Monument, where I produced a copy of the statue in green plastic from their toy soldier set and told them what the good padre was doing there. We eventually reached the Angle and the Copse of Trees. Jack stood mesmerized by the stone wall. He remembered seeing scenes of all those "blue guys" waiting there to receive the Confederate charge.


Jack looks at the Union position around the Angle.

We rose early on Friday and headed back to the battlefield to beat the crowds and the heat. Best idea ever. The boys and I had most of the stops to ourselves, including Little Round Top. Jack could only shout "Wow!" when he looked out over the field from up there. The boys particularly loved climbing to the top of the 44th New York Monument, or "the castle" as they called it. I also walked with the twins to the scene of the 20th Maine's fight, and reminded them of the scene in the film where the men in blue fixed bayonets and rushed the Confederate attackers. After Little Round Top, we stopped at Devil's Den, but the boys surprisingly took a pass on checking out the huge boulders. Seeing the Pennsylvania Monument, Jack and Cam were eager to meet the challenge of going all the way to the top. Only later did I realize that Cam was confronting his own fear of heights. No wonder he rushed to get back down!


Native sons checking out the Virginia Monument.
Jack gestures towards the staging area for Pickett's division. As friend Harry Smeltzer of Bull Runnings put it, Jack already has a good point and a certain future with the NPS!

Before heading back to the campground, we stopped at the Seminary Ridge Museum. Although I knew that the boys were a bit too young, I really wanted to check out this relatively recent addition to the Gettysburg scene. Just like everything else, the admissions fee is waived for little ones under six, so I didn't lose too much money in doing so! The boys were moved by the lifelike wax tableaux of hospital scenes at the Seminary. They had a lot of questions about the care of the wounded, and I used the visit as a way of teaching them that war is a "bad thing that hurts people."


From the top of the Pennsylvania Monument.
Studying a hospital scene at the Seminary Ridge Museum.

We spent Friday afternoon shopping for souvenirs on Steinwehr Avenue. Jack and Cam both bought a few Civil War-themed items, including the requisite bag of plastic soldiers. After eating an ice cream and waiting out a torrential downpour while visiting Oak Hill, we headed back to our cabin. As I watched the boys play outside with toy sword and miniature flags, I knew that something had sunk in when I saw them charge, shouting "Irish Brigade forward!"


"Dad, can I get this?"

On Saturday I took the twins to Steam Into History in New Freedom, Pennsylvania, about an hour east of Gettysburg. If your kids like trains as much as mine do, and like their father does, this is a must-see attraction. We did the hour long excursion to Glen Echo. The train is pulled by a replica of the 4-4-0 locomotive that took Lincoln to Gettysburg. Passengers sit in recreated 19th century passenger cars. Jack and Cam were thrilled to hear the steam whistle as the train chugged along past small towns and farms. As an added bonus, the day we rode an entertainer dressed in Union blue told local stories about the Civil War and sang songs from the era. Overall, a family won't go wrong paying a visit to Steam Into History.


What a fine example of Industrial Age beauty!

Returning to Ashburn, I considered the trip a success. The boys seemed impressed with the battlefield, and I am sure they learned a thing or two. Meltdowns were kept to a minimum. I suppose flexibility on my part was key -- the schedule can't be too fixed or rigid with little ones in tow. And you got to make room for a swim in that campground pool. Jack and Cam may not remember every little detail about what they did, but I am pretty sure they will always remember their first trip to Gettysburg. We all do!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Talk with Eugene Schmiel, Author of "Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era"

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Gene Schmiel during a Savas Beatie Author Enclave at South Mountain and Antietam. At the time, Gene was putting the finishing touches on his biography of Union Gen. Jacob Cox. The book, Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era was published by Ohio University in 2014. Gene's biography received many favorable reviews and has been featured as a History Book Club Reading Selection. Gene was nice enough to take the time to answer some questions about his book and Cox. I think you'll find his responses interesting, to say the least. And if you'd like to meet Gene and hear him speak about "Jacob Cox and the West Point-'Political General' Divide in the Union Army," be sure to head to the Loudoun County Civil War Rountable next Tuesday, June 9, at 7:30 p.m.


Q. First off, tell readers a little about yourself.

A. I am a retired U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Officer who served overseas in Sweden, South Africa, Djibouti, Kenya, and Iceland. I was Charge’ d’Affaires at three embassies and Consul General in Mombasa, Kenya. I now work part-time at the State Department on international political-military and terrorism-related issues.

Before joining State, I was an Assistant Professor of History at St. Francis University (Pennsylvania). I earned my Ph.D. from The Ohio State University, where I met my wife, Bonnie Kathryn. We have two children, David and Jennifer, and five grandsons. My wife and I wrote a book in 1998 about our life in the Foreign Service entitled, Welcome Home: Who are You?  Tales of a Foreign Service Family. We live in Gainesville, Virginia

Q. Why did you choose Jacob Cox as the subject for a biography? 

A. My focus in grad school was 19th century U.S. history, and Jacob Cox’s life (1828-1900) was in many ways a microcosm of the most important developments during that era. His military career, his role in Ohio and national politics, his tenure as both a railroad and a university president, and his authorship of highly-respected histories of the Civil War all made him one of the most important figures from the era about whom no one had written a biography. He even became one of the world’s most renowned amateur microscope scientists and wrote thirty-two articles about that topic for scholarly journals. In sum, he was a “Renaissance Man in the Gilded Age.” My dissertation was the “first draft” of that biography, and my book Citizen General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era was the conclusion of that process.

Q. What sources helped you the most? 

A. The Cox papers at the Oberlin College archives were by far the most important. Cox was not only an avid correspondent, but also someone with a sense of history, who saved his letters and most of those he received from other prominent individuals. Thankfully, he also had good handwriting! Among other important sources were the Official Records, the papers of Cox’s contemporaries and friends such as James A. Garfield and Rutherford B. Hayes, and Cox’s writings, especially his histories and extensive number of reviews of Civil War books.

Q. How would you describe the thesis of your book?

A. In my preface I noted that in his book, The Civil War Dictionary, Mark Boatner wrote that it “might well be titled, ‘What ever happened to J.D. Cox?’” His thesis was that Cox, like many others in the war, had served well, but had been forgotten. So, in effect, my goal was to answer Boatner’s question, as follows: Jacob Cox was one of the best Northern “citizen generals” in the Civil War, an influential postwar political leader, and the ablest participant-historian of the war, one whose writings have been both recognized as authoritative and objective and quoted by serious Civil War historians ever since.

Q. How do you rate Cox among Civil War Union generals?

A. I think it would be fair to say that a consensus of Civil War historians would place Cox in the top five of the “political” generals, along with men such as “Black Jack” Logan, Joshua Chamberlain, and Alpheus Williams. [William T.] Sherman clearly agreed – he thought so much of Cox’s ability that not only offered him a chance to command the 23rd Corps on the March to the Sea, but he also offered Cox a brigadier generalship in the Regular Army at the end of the war. The fact that Sherman and Grant both suggested to President Andrew Johnson that he choose Cox as Secretary of War to resolve the dispute with Congress over the “Tenure of Office” Act is additional evidence of Cox’s abilities and reputation.

Q. What sets Cox apart from other political generals in the Civil War? 

A. One key difference was that Cox was not politically prominent before the war, having served just one term as a back bencher in the Ohio Senate. Most historians, when using the term “political generals,” point to men like Logan, Butler, and Banks, all of whom were prominent already in national or state politics, and who could “demand” senior positions and commands. By contrast, Cox worked his way up and was given increasingly important positions by the senior generals whom he impressed with his ability, e.g. Rosecrans, McClellan, Burnside, Sherman, and Schofield.

Secondly, Cox was not a self-promoter – often to his detriment.  In his letters to his wife he often expressed dismay that incompetents (both political and West Pointers) were getting good press and that others were more successful in lobbying Congress for promotions.

Third, he always sublimated his political views to military necessity.  For example, when he served under John Schofield, a Democrat, during the Atlanta, Franklin-Nashville, and North Carolina Campaigns, Cox wrote to his wife that Schofield’s views were irrelevant on the battlefield and that he would carry out his orders without question.

Fourth, whereas McClellan and Sherman, among others, looked down on volunteer officers, they seemed to make an exception for Cox, whose abilities they respected as they offered him substantive responsibilities. They knew that Cox was, as I put it in the book, the “quintessential subordinate” officer, and that they could rely on him totally.

Q. Tell us about Cox’s relationship with Gen. George McClellan. 

A. In the beginning the two were very close, but after the war, Cox adjudged both that McClellan had critical weaknesses as a commander and that he was two-faced when dealing with his subordinates and superiors.

McClellan began the war as commander of Ohio’s troops and Cox was the military chief of staff of Ohio Governor William Dennison. They clearly got along well, and McClellan was impressed by Cox’s study of military tactics and history, as well as his intellectual command of military matters. McClellan, despite his prejudice against “volunteers,” chose Cox to command troop training at Camp Dennison and gave him an autonomous command in the West Virginia Campaign.

During the Maryland Campaign, Cox’s “Kanawha Division” was the advance element of the Army of the Potomac in taking Frederick and helping win the Battle of South Mountain. At the Battle of Antietam, Cox was tactical commander of the Union left wing, and he came within minutes of sweeping Lee’s forces from the field. McClellan praised him for his efforts and supported his promotion to Major General, even as he regretted Cox’s orders that October to go back to West Virginia to push back a Confederate offensive.

Cox noted in his letters and writings that he always respected McClellan during the war and believed he was the general best qualified to command Union troops. However, when he began doing research for his book reviews and his books, he came to a very different set of conclusions. He was especially taken aback when reading McClellan’s Own Story, from which he discovered that McClellan was two-faced and inclined to blame others for his failings. While preparing his review of that book, Cox made multiple notes in the margins of his copy of the text. Among his outraged comments were, “I don’t believe a word of it”; “Quintessence of nonsense!”; “What Stuff;” and “Always a lion in the way!” In his review, his wrote that that the book was “full of blinding self-esteem,” in which “everyone is a rogue and incapable except McClellan.”

In many ways Cox’s review and his articles about McClellan in West Virginia and the Battle of Antietam in the Battle and Leaders of the Civil War, and his section on the latter battle in his Military Reminiscences set the historiographical foundation for the judgment about McClellan’s shortcomings as a commander. As he wrote in the Antietam article, noting acerbically McClellan’s claim in his memoirs that because he led the Maryland Campaign without written orders, the administration could have charged him with usurpation of command, “The suggestion of McClellan twenty years afterward that it had all been a pitfall prepared for him, would be revolting if…the absurdity of it did not prove that its origin was in a morbid imagination.” Finally, underscoring that throughout his campaigns McClellan’s army greatly outnumbered the enemy and his equipment and supplies were far better, Cox commented that “McClellan’s persistent outcry that he was sacrificed by his government destroys even that character for dignity and that reputation for military intelligence which we fondly attributed to him.”

Q. Why do you think Cox hasn’t attracted the attention of other Union generals like Winfield Scott Hancock? 

A. Not being a West Pointer, he had no major command positions, and partly as a result he suffered from what he called the problem of being a second in command and being forgotten in the writing of history. In fact, that was a key impetus to his career as an historian.

Also, Cox was what might be called “colorless.” That is, he was a staid, stoic, and unemotional intellectual who lacked the common touch.  He had been a divinity student at Oberlin, and for some time a career as a minister and professor of theology seemed likely in his future. While his men respected him, they never “loved” him in the way McClellan’s did. These characteristics made him an effective commander since he never lost control of himself and was always a voice of calm reason, even during the most tempestuous moments of the conflict – except once (see the next item).

Finally, as noted above, he was not a self-promoter, so while others sought and got the limelight, the reticent Cox always said he would rely on history to recognize his contributions.

Q. In your view, what was Cox’s most important military accomplishment during the Civil War?

A. If I had to pick one, it would be his command of the defensive line at the Battle of Franklin, November 30, 1864. His commander, John Schofield, made Cox acting commander of the 23rd Corps and most of the 4th Corps and ordered him to set up a defensive line to protect the withdrawal of troops and the wagon train on its way to Nashville. Schofield did not even visit Cox during the day, so confident was he that Cox would, as always, perform his responsibilities effectively.

When John Bell Hood decided to attack frontally at Franklin, most generals on both sides were surprised. Cox too thought Hood would try to outflank the Union forces, but having seen Hood attack frequently on the Atlanta Campaign, he decided to set up a strong bulwark against a frontal attack. The only problem was that he had to leave a gap in the line for the wagon train and withdrawing troops.  He set up a second line behind the first in case Hood did in fact attack. When that happened and fleeing Union troops, with rebels just behind them, poured through the opening, Cox faced a major challenge. At that moment, everything he had fought for and all of the contributions he had made to the Union war effort were at risk.

In the book I wrote that it was at that moment that, for one of the few times in his life, Cox dropped his stoic veneer and became an emotional “warrior” – though even then in a controlled manner. He rode to the front, waving his sword and screaming at his men to meet the challenge. But he still was calm enough to, at one point, calm his nervous horse, which was bucking wildly because of the noise. The Union forces met the challenge, and Cox’s leadership was the critical element of their success.   He was the “unsung hero” of the Battle of Franklin.

Q. What were Cox’s most enduring contributions outside of the war? 

A. Cox was the ablest participant-historian of the Civil War, and his books and articles about the war are his enduring legacy. His two-volume Military Reminiscences, in particular, is frequently cited by modern Civil War historians not only because it is a primary source, but also because Cox has been shown to be a superb historian. His books on the Atlanta Campaign, on the Battle of Franklin, and on Sherman’s March to the Sea, the Franklin-Nashville Campaign, and the North Carolina Campaign all have stood the test of time. His five articles in the Battles and Leaders of the Civil War volumes, as well as his 161 reviews of books for the Nation magazine from 1874-1900, are further evidence of the quality of his research and historical writing.

Q. Why didn’t Cox ultimately succeed in politics like some other well-known Ohioans?

A. When the war ended, most political observers would have said that Cox was someone whose rise to national political prominence was inevitable. He had a sterling war record, was one of the founders of the Ohio Republican Party, and had close friends in the national political and military leadership. Also, his home base of Ohio was important because that state was the home of five of the next six presidents, all of whom had war records (Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison, and McKinley). When Cox was elected Governor of Ohio in 1865, he could have used that position as a springboard to be as Grant’s ultimate successor. (In fact Grant’s successor was Cox’s successor as governor, Rutherford B. Hayes).

Instead Cox’s established reputation as an uncompromising intellectual intent on speaking his own mind at all times proved to be his political downfall. He also lacked charisma and tended to give political speeches which were academic-oriented.  His first political problems came when he suggested in the Ohio campaign (in his famous “Oberlin Letter”) that a possible solution to the racial problems of the postwar South was the creation of a special area where blacks would be given special privileges and protected from white reaction. The practical politicians all told him to say nothing about the issue, but he insisted that he wanted to contribute to the national debate. The plan was considered too radical – even if the blacks would not be forced to go there – and political leaders now knew that Cox had a strong independent streak.

Then, as the division between Andrew Johnson and the Radical Republicans widened, Cox supported Johnson for some months, and then tried to play a peacemaking role between the two. He was soon seen as insufficiently “loyal” by both sides, and decided not to run for re-election. Finally, in 1870 Cox resigned from Grant’s Cabinet on another matter of principle, civil service reform, and became a leader of the Liberal Republican party. Its loss meant that whereas in 1865 his political future seemed wide open, by 1873, he was in permanent national political exile. He did serve one term in the House of Representatives, where he hoped to help implement the policies of his wartime subordinate, Rutherford B. Hayes, but again his stubborn commitment to principle and refusal to become a “practical politician” convinced him to leave politics.

In an introspective letter written to a friend in 1885, Cox said that he well knew that he had a golden political future in 1865, but that:
My experience of public life had probably been about as great as may come unsought to one who has stubbornness of opinion.  Enough, at best, to warrant me in thinking that I too could have cut a more prominent figure had I thought the game worth the candle…and so without disappointment or envy, regret or longing, I have been able to go my way thinking my own thoughts, advocating my own opinions, calling no mob master.
Q. How did Cox’s early Whig views influence his stance on issues like racial equality?

A. Cox’s first political affiliation was with the Whigs, which he joined just as it was undergoing its death throes in the early 1850s.  He joined the Whigs rather than the Free-Soilers, in great part because the former’s membership was representative of Anglo-Saxon elites with moderate views on slavery and its expansion. Despite Cox’s education at Oberlin College, he was not a radical on racial issues, though he was, of course, intensely anti-slavery.

Like other Whigs who joined the Republicans, he believed that blacks should be free, but that they would inevitably be second-class citizens. Unlike many Whigs, he didn’t support overseas colonization, but during the war he suggested in a letter that black soldiers who performed well might be given land in Texas which would be off-limits to whites. That idea was the germ of his proposal in the “Oberlin Letter.” Cox, who as a former divinity student and potential professor always wanted to stimulate intellectual thought, saw this as an attempt to stimulate a dialogue about possible solutions. His political friends, including Garfield, warned him not to do it, but his instinct was always to be “tutelary.” It was exactly the wrong approach at that point in his political career – he paid the price, but as noted above, he was always his own man.

Q. Are there any other Civil War books on the horizon?

A. Not for a while, if at all. I do have an article coming out in October in an Ohio history magazine, Timelines, about Cox’s near-miss at Antietam, when his forces, on the verge of taking Sharpsburg and breaking the Confederate right wing, were hit in the flank by A.P. Hill’s men and forced to halt their advance.

I also might do some articles about related topics from Cox’s life. One would be about his close friendship with Jack Casement, who was his subordinate during the war. Casement, who was the main builder of the Union Pacific Railroad, was Cox’s complete opposite in personality: brusque, abrasive, coarse, etc., but also, like Cox, a quintessential subordinate.   It was a friendship of complete opposites.
---------------------------
Thanks so much to Gene for taking the time to answer my questions. Cox is truly a fascinating subject for a biography, all the more so given his relative obscurity among Civil War generals!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Five Years of Blogging!

Today All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac turns five. When I began blogging in 2010, I wasn't sure what the future of this endeavor would bring. Looking back, I can truly say it's been an interesting, rewarding, and sometimes enthralling experience. I find it hard to believe that I've reached the five-year milestone in what has been one of the busiest times of my adult life.

That said, life's stresses and responsibilities finally took their toll on my blogging this year. For a number of reasons, including a new home, new commute, new daughter, and greater work responsibility, I just couldn't find the time to do a post or two every week, and so I adapted accordingly. I tend to post every other week now. Not that I won't go back to what I was doing a few years ago, but for now, the frequency is likely to remain a bit less than in years past.

At the same time, I've maintained a very active presence on Facebook and Twitter. Truth be told, I communicate more with readers through these social media platforms than through blogging. I also like the immediacy of posting live to Facebook and Twitter whenever visiting battlefields and other Civil War sites.

One of the best things about blogging is the ability to set your own agenda. In prior years, I wrote a heck of a lot about the Civil War encampments of present-day McLean, Virginia. But this year has brought an intense focus on the contraband camps of Northern Virginia. I've enjoyed sharing my discoveries on this little-known topic with my readers. My interest led to a speech before the Arlington Historical Society as well as a related interview with WETA-TV.

I also began to write more about my Civil War ancestor, Pvt. William Baumgarten of the 102nd Pennsylvania. In January, I had the pleasure of talking with William's living grandson, Richard, who happens to be one of my parents' neighbors back in Western Pennsylvania. Richard even gave me a framed photograph of his grandfather. I also took the opportunity to follow William's wartime experiences in 1864, culminating in my participation in a descendants' reception for the 150th anniversary of the Third Battle of Winchester.

And speaking of the Sesquicentennial, this year as in years past I wrote about numerous 150th anniversaries, both large and small. I also reported on my attendance at various Sesquicentennial events at places like Cold Harbor and Ford's Theatre. As the 150th commemorations wind down, I will miss this aspect of blogging, but I would be lying if I didn't admit that I have a bit of burnout on all things Sesquicentennial!

At the start of 2015 I also launched a "Civil War Views" series, which has become a relatively popular feature. I have liked sharing and analyzing various photographs and sketches of the war in Northern Virginia and Washington. And believe me when I say that there is no shortage of rare and lesser-known images to discuss.


As an artilleryman with Cooper's Battery B, 1st PA Light Artillery at an event at the Langley Ordinary, McLean, Virginia in June 2014.
This year I continued to have enriching conversations with my readers and fellow bloggers, who have written to share research, ask advice, or discuss aspects of Northern Virginia Civil War history with me. I thank all of them for their continued interest and enthusiasm, which makes blogging so worthwhile. I also had a chance to participate in a living history event with my friend and reader, Keith Foote, of Cooper's Battery B. Helping to fire that Parrott gun was a true highlight of the year. And publishers continued to send review copies my way. (Look for a review or two in coming weeks....)

I am not sure what the future will hold, although I have a long and backlogged list of topics to cover. Some of these date to my time in McLean; others relate to my new home in Loudoun or random research ideas I've been meaning to explore. In addition, I have my eyes on a few non-blogging Civil War projects. If the last five years are any indication, I am sure that this year will be no exception.

Last but not least, thanks again to all of my readers. I appreciate the interest and am looking forward to the year ahead!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Civil War Views: Another Photograph of the 43rd New York at Camp Griffin?

In October 1861, Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith's division established Camp Griffin near Langley and Lewinsville, Virginia (today's McLean). The regiments in Smith's force included the 43rd New York of Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock's brigade. Five years ago I discovered a stereoview of the 43rd New York at Camp Griffin. This scene was captured by Edward Bierstadt, a photographer who was also the brother of famed artist Albert Bierstadt. After some additional research, I recently learned that Edward ran a temporary studio in Langley near the 43rd New York's quarters at Camp Griffin. There he joined other photographers, including George Houghton, who took some iconic photographs of the Vermont Brigade in Northern Virginia. Surrounded by thousands of soldiers hungry for images to send to the folks back home, these photographers found a ready-made market for cartes-de-visite and camp pictures.

Among the Bierstadt photographs in the collection at the New York Public Library is the following, entitled "Culinary art in Camp, 43rd Reg. N.Y. Volunteers":

(courtesy of Wikimedia; also at NYPL Digital Collections)

This stereoscopic photograph does not mention a location. However, given that Bierstadt was with the 43rd New York at Camp Griffin, it seems highly probable that this photograph was taken there around the same general time as the regimental camp scene that I have featured before on the blog:

(courtesy of Wikimedia; also at NYPL Digital Collection)

This conclusion is further reinforced by the numbering convention at the bottom of both photographs. The photo of the regiment in formation bears the number 1319, while the culinary scene appears as number 1323. They are close enough in the sequence to be related to one another, and also bear the same photographer's inscription on the reverse of "Bierstadt Brothers, New Bedford, Mass." I haven't yet been able to reconstruct where else Bierstadt may have photographed the 43rd New York after Camp Griffin, if at all.

The photograph itself is rather curious. Bierstadt has captured an ordinary scene of camp life, in all its primitive glory, and his title for the photograph is certainly ironic! A crude shelter covers the "kitchen." Poultry and meat carcasses, along with a butcher's ax, appear to rest on a wooden plank. Boxes and pots clutter the background. A couple of the cooks wear what look like fezes. One man is busy cutting food. The picture reminds us that the Civil War was often more than just marches and battles. Thanks to Bierstadt, we are fortunate to get yet another opportunity to see life in the camps around Washington at the start of the war.

Source

Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Civil War and American Art (2012).

For more on the location of the camp of the 43rd N.Y. see my previous posts here and here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

My Last Sesquicentennial Event

Last week marked the Sesquicentennial of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination and death. On April 14 I commemorated the anniversary by attending a lecture at Ford's Theatre, visiting the Petersen House where Lincoln died, and touring a special assassination exhibit at the Center for Education and Leadership. Given the immediacy of other forms of social media, I mainly covered the day's events on Twitter and Facebook. I won't repost all of my photographs and comments here, but I'd advise readers to check out my Facebook and Twitter feeds to see what I published in real time.

Life changes a lot in four years, and I had hoped to make it to Appomattox for the 150th. Intervening events, including the recent birth of my daughter, made the trip to Appomattox a near impossibility. However, because I work in downtown DC, I knew that I could at least mark the 150th anniversary of another important milestone of the end of the Civil War years, and I ultimately decided to take a half day of leave on the 14th and spend some time at Ford's Theatre. The 150th of Lincoln's assassination is the last of the Sesquicentennial events that I will personally attend, and it was a fitting, albeit sad, end to four years of commemoration.

The incessant rain on April 14 did not deter visitors, and the line for each timed entry to Ford's Theatre stretched down the block. The number of people in the street only continued to grow as the hour of the assassination approached. Living historians entertained the crowds with their first-person accounts from the day of the assassination. I chatted with a few reenactors from Pennsylvania who represented Independent Battery C, First Pennsylvania Artillery. On the night of the 14th, four artillerymen from the battery helped to carry Lincoln to the Petersen House. Check out this post on Harry's blog for more info.

Waiting outside Ford's Theatre in the rain.

Once we were seated inside the theatre, a costumed interpreter told the story of Lincoln's assassination and death. The speaker really helped to take us back in time and imagine the horror, sadness, and confusion of that night. Her passion for the subject made for a captivating presentation. I've been to Ford's on numerous occasions, but I was moved beyond words to sit below the presidential box on the very day that Lincoln was shot 150 years ago and hear about his life, assassination, and death.

Looking up at the presidential box -- this felt like truly hallowed ground.

Following the tour, we made our way across 10th Street to the Petersen House. I felt a sense of extreme loss while reflecting on all that happened there. Just shy of 150 years before my visit, Lincoln slipped from life lying on a bed in a back room, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton pronounced, "Now he belongs to the ages."

Upon leaving the Petersen House, I entered the Center for Education and Leadership, where I toured various permanent exhibits on Lincoln's death and the hunt for the assassins. Much to my surprise, I learned that my ticket included admission to the temporary exhibition of Silent Witness: Artifacts of the Lincoln Assassination. This exhibit, running through May 29, 2015, brings together an incredible collection of objects, including John Wilkes Booth's derringer; Lincoln's top hat, coat, and the contents of his pocket from the night of the assassination; and the blood-stained bunting from the presidential box. Given Lincoln's god-like status in U.S. history, many of these artifacts seemed like holy relics.

What I witnessed on Tuesday afternoon was nothing compared to what came later, as hundreds gathered outside the theatre to mark the exact time of Lincoln's assassination. Some people remained throughout the night to keep a mournful vigil, and by early the next morning, hundreds of onlookers once again crowded 10th Street, this time to mark the exact moment of Lincoln's death on April 15, 1865. (See here for a Washington Post report.) Although I couldn't attend, I kept watch myself by tuning to C-SPAN and reading Facebook and Twitter feeds by a host of organizations and individuals, including friend Craig Swain.

Overall, I was extremely encouraged by the public interest in Lincoln, his assassination, and death, even in jaded and cynical "Washington City"! And I was also happy to see so many friends and family who were interested in observing this 150th anniversary. I suppose that every once in a while, a historic event speaks to so many, including those who normally take only a passing interest in history. I and others like me are sometimes in our own Civil War bubble and tend to forget the wider appeal that America's history can hold. Last week's commemoration proved that some events mean so much to so many that they cannot easily be forgotten or overlooked, no matter how many years have passed.