Saturday, August 16, 2014

One of the Oldest Civil War Monuments

Woodlawn Cemetery in Independence, Missouri, has one of the nation’s oldest Civil War monuments. Admittedly, I knew nothing about this monument until I read a short article about it in the August 2014 issue of Civil War News. The monument memorializes the men of the 2nd Colorado Cavalry that were killed on July 6, 1864, at Grinter’s Farm near Independence. That day, Captain Seymour D. Wagoner led twenty-three men of Company C on a patrol, and they rode right into a trap set by George Todd, a guerrilla leader. Captain Wagoner and seven of his men were killed and three of the guerrillas were wounded. A stagecoach that had been captured earlier in the day by Todd’s men was used to carry away the wounded guerrillas.

Remarkably, the monument was erected only ten days after the skirmish! It is believed to be the “oldest Civil War monument west of the Mississippi and third oldest in the country” (Civil War News, August 2014, p. 19). I’m going to visit this monument the next time I’m in Independence!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Franc B. Wilkie: An Embedded Journalist

Today is the anniversary of the battle of Wilson’s Creek, and an appropriate time to recognize Franc B. Wilkie. A native of New York, Wilkie entered the newspaper business when he was in his twenties and was associated with that profession for most of his life. In the 1850s, he ventured to Iowa, and became a correspondent for the Dubuque Herald when the war started. He traveled with the 1st Iowa Infantry during the campaign that culminated in the battle of Wilson’s Creek, and later in the year, the Dubuque Herald published in book form the thirty-two letters that he sent to the newspaper.

In 2001, the Camp Pope Bookshop published a new edition of this rare book along with Wilkie’s letters about the fall 1861 campaign. These latter include his accounts of the siege
of Lexington (Missouri), a skirmish at Blackwater River, and Second Boonville. Michael E. Banasik ably edited the book, and it is part of the publisher’s important Unwritten Chapters of the Civil War West of the Mississippi series. Later in the war, according to the book’s introduction, Wilkie became a correspondent for the New York Times and then worked for a Chicago newspaper.

Here is a part of Wilkie’s thirty-second letter that was written in Springfield on the day that the battle of Wilson’s Creek was fought:

“…Everybody who was in Springfield was up long before daylight and awaiting with feverish anxiety the event of the day…. About ten minutes past five the heavy boom of the artillery rolled through the town like the muttering of a thunder storm upon the horizon, and sent a thrill through every heart like a shock of electricity. I instantly mounted my horse and set out for the scene of the action, which was fully twelve miles distant, and as I neared it the explosions of the artillery became one continuous roar that only now and then was broken enough to distinguish the sound of individual guns….
As I approached the battlefield, squads of men could be seen galloping madly hither and thither, while out on the prairie were scores of saddled horses grazing peacefully, whose riders had left them in many cases forever. I met also two men getting away from the fatal timber, over which hung a thick smoke, as if hell itself were flaming within. Some of them limped painfully along, others were supported upon the arms of comrades, some were hatless, and with locks clotted and countenances ghastly with blood, while a few had helped themselves to horses, and all were making their way as fast as they could towards town. Going still further, one came to a spring, situated a few hundred yards from the line of fight, in a ravine, and here the wounded were conveyed, and here the doctors were busy in their humane but unwelcome duty.”

Source of quotation: Banasik, Michael E. Missouri in 1861: The Civil War Letters of Franc B. Wilkie, Newspaper Correspondent. Iowa City: Camp Pope Bookshop, 2001, pages 143-144.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

An Overlooked Gem: Diary of an Enlisted Man

Bell Irvin Wiley’s classics, The Life of Johnny Reb (1943) and The Life of Billy Yank (1952) were based on a solid foundation of unpublished manuscript sources, printed correspondence, printed diaries, unit histories, and printed memoirs. His “Bibliographical Notes” at the end of each book highlighted the best in each category, and that is how I learned of Lawrence Van Alstyne’s Diary of an Enlisted Man (1910). Wiley wrote that the book “gets off to a slow start but the author’s style, like that of some other diarists, improves with practice and the end product of his efforts is an absorbing book. The account is a memoir rather than a diary for the period after June 15, 1864” (page 440). Another plus is that Van Alstyne served in regiments that were stationed mostly in the trans-Mississippi. 

Before writing about some of the topics covered in his diary, I think it’s worthwhile to quote a part of Van Alstyne’s poignant preface. He enlisted in August 1862 in the 128th New York Infantry; only 23 years old, he promised his parents to keep notes of his experiences. For most of his service, he wrote his diary entries in “small notebooks” and sent them home after he filled them up. When he returned home, he bundled them all up “and put them away in an unused drawer of my desk, where they lay, unread and undisturbed for the next forty-five years.” As the years passed and more and more veterans passed away, “It was with a feeling of ever-increasing loneliness that I untied the bundle and began to read the long-forgotten diary. In a little while I was a boy again, one of that great company that helped to make history read as it does. Almost half a century had suddenly rolled back and I was with Company B—‘Bostwick’s Tigers’ we were called, not altogether on account of our fighting qualities, but became of the noise we sometimes made….
I was never so absorbedly interested. I even forgot my meals. For weeks I thought of little else and did little else than read and copy those dim old pages. I read from them to any who would listen, and wondered why it did not stir their blood as it did my own.
But the reason is plain. To the listener it was hearsay. To me it was real. So it may be with the diary now it is printed. In the nature of things it cannot be to others what it is to me. It is a part of my life. My blood would not tingle as it does at the reading of another man’s life. It is what historians had neither time nor space to write, the everyday life of an enlisted man in time of war” (pages v-vii).

Friday, July 25, 2014

Contrasting Opinions

Two distinguished historians and two contrasting opinions of a book. Just for fun, I’ve included each of their opinions below, and then I’ll give my evaluation of John Scott’s, Story Of The Thirty-Second Iowa Infantry Volunteers published in 1896.

Dr. James I. Robertson, Jr., from Civil War Books: A Critical Bibliography, Vol. 1:

“A poor effort toward a history; the author borrowed heavily from official sources and some letters published in newspapers; there is no evidence that Scott relied on any manuscript sources” (page 156).

Dr. Ludwell H. Johnson from Red River Campaign: Politics & Cotton in the Civil War:

“This was by far the most valuable regimental history used. Scott was more compiler than author, and he gathered some very informative eyewitness accounts of the campaign. The map of the field at Pleasant Hill was extremely helpful in reconstructing the battle. The book also contains much information on the battle itself, and on A. J. Smith’s proposal to arrest Banks” (page 298).

So which opinion do I agree with? The winner is Dr. Ludwell H. Johnson in this instance. Most of Dr. Robertson’s evaluations in Civil War Books are reasonable to me, but his evaluation of the Scott book is puzzling. Yes, Scott’s book does include excerpts from the Official Records as did many regimental histories written by veterans. However, Scott’s inclusion of eyewitnessaccounts of the regiment’s campaigns makes his book particularly valuable to historians. Altogether Scott devoted 158 pages of his 526-page book to coverage of the Red River campaign. This is appropriate since the 32nd Iowa Infantry served actively in the campaign, and lost 86 men killed or mortally wounded at the battle of Pleasant Hill. Scott’s book is anything but “a poor effort toward a history.” 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Disappointing Source

Research is a mixed bag. Sometimes, books turn out to yield unexpected jewels, and sometimes books turn out to be disappointing. It’s probably not fair to label a book as disappointing because its contents may be invaluable to a historian working on a different project. Also, historians shouldn't judge a book based on what they wished the author had covered. In spite of all that, though, I am disappointed by a source, namely Wiley Britton’s, The Union Indian Brigade In The Civil War (1922). Britton, a veteran of the 6th Kansas Cavalry, penned two other works: The Civil War on the Border in two volumes and his own Memoirs of the Rebellion on the Border: 1863. Authors regularly cite Britton’s books, although his influence seems to be declining somewhat as more modern books are published about the Border War.

Britton often observed the Union Indian brigade that consisted of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Indian Home Guard regiments, and his personal comments about these soldiers are sprinkled throughout the unit history. The frustrating part to me, though, is that his history could have been much more valuable. A top-notch unit history draws on letters, diaries, recollections, official documents, and other sources that relate directly to the soldiers in that unit. What is lacking in Britton’s history is the perspective of men who actually served in the brigade. To be fair, many of the veterans had died by the time Britton's book was published in 1922. If only Britton had worked earlier on securing letters, recollections, and other documentation from the Indians, African-Americans, and white soldiers that served in the brigade! That would have resulted in an amazing resource about one of the most unique brigades in the Union army. We are fortunate to have the resources that we do about the War, but sometimes you just can’t help but think about what could have been.