Politics. Warfare. Social disruption. All of these plagues, in some form or fashion, have ensnared an unhappy humanity for thousands of years. Written accounts, both primary and secondary, exist of these disparate events, and how they tended to affect various civilizations throughout recorded time. Such is certainly the case with the American Civil War, where it is believed that nearly a hundred thousand books on the topic have to date been published.
Alas, all of them won’t be found in a single bibliographical listing. The largest single such compilation was published in 1970 in a 2-volume set. Civil War Books: A Critical Bibliography contained just over 6,000 volumes at the time. Later diversification of studies (e.g.,Civil War medicine, Abraham Lincoln, African-Americans, women, etc.,) has subsequently led to the creation of focused bibliographies supporting research in those areas. It is estimated that this sort of specialization adds somewhere around one thousand, five hundred more titles monthly. For those determined to keep up with “the latest Civil War book,” the race is on!
This brings me to my point. Even with the internet, the flame on your Kindle has already blown out.
Do not misunderstand: This is not an argument for illiteracy. It is an argument for an improved opportunity for historical literacy – that is, to give your knowledge some flavor. Don’t overlook the old or little books!
One familiar example should serve here. A commonly – encountered, yet rarely read book-case standard is Fletcher Pratt’s “Civil War In Pictures,” from 1955. Pratt’s book was a reflection of its time – a “general interest” text, just over two hundred and fifty pages, unsourced (no notes outside of the text). It’s what I refer to as a medium format, roughly five and a half inches by eight and a half. It’s the biggest of the “small books” we’ll look at.
I recall owning a copy almost since I could read. It is stuffed with many of the old line-drawings and articles that had appeared in Civil War –era papers, primarily Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated.
The book covers the entirety of the war, from Sumter to surrender. The focus is, as the title suggests, on the period illustrations, but, Pratt spends considerable time highlighting the difference between the reporting and the newspaper artists of the day. The author’s supporting text is, in the style of the era, painfully bereft of footnotes, yet it leaves a definite sense of the moment in his descriptions. Regarding the disaster of Chancellorsville, and how the news broke in Washington, Pratt observed (p. 105)
It was on May 6 that there began to come off the wires the news that made Lincoln stagger so that he had to be helped down the War Department steps: the dreadful news of the Battle of Chancellorsville. (Author’s emphasis)
Of course, new research (in new books, natch,) often presents new information, but that is not always cause for neglecting the old, especially if the fresh augments, without contravening, the familiar. In recent generations, scholars have renewed their look at the message of equality contained in Lincoln’s words. Yet other facts of the moment were also at play. Concerning the coverage of the Gettysburg Address by Harper’s Weekly, Pratt wrote (p.157-158)
Harper’s did not give the event picture coverage; its Eastern artists seem to have been with the Army of the Potomac. Also, in spite of its salute to Lincoln for his speech, it was much more interested in the speech made by Henry Ward Beecher, who had been given an enormous reception on his return from England. The leading editorial of the Gettysburg dedication week is a long disquisition on his experiences there, including some twisting of the lion’s tail –
“It is to avoid a rupture with this working population that Lord Palmerston has refused to recognize the rebels. He doubtless honestly expects to see the United States destroyed; and calculates that, when that cheerful catastrophe occurs, he will crush out democracy in England.”
Moving down the bookshelf, we encounter the booklet. These can be wonderful storehouses of long-forgotten truths (or half-truths, depending upon the author, and the argument in question.) For that is reliably the purpose of a pamphlet; to convince the reader of the righteousness of a particular cause. These appear in nearly all areas of human endeavor, but those dealing with political and military issues best fit our discussion here.
One that appears with some frequency on the political end of this collection was crafted by an attorney, Captain Samuel A. Ashe of North Carolina. In classic Lost Cause fashion, an aging Capt. Ashe produced a seventy-five page monograph entitled A Southern View of the Invasion of the Southern States And War Of 1861 – 1865. The work was clearly intended to “keep the flag flying” in the minds of a great many old Confederates – as well as some newer ones, too young to have smelt powder during the war.
In a segment entitled, The Modern Case of John Brown,” Ashe invited Dr. Lyon Gardiner Tyler (descendant of President John Tyler) to write “The parallel afforded by the cases of [Nicola]Sacco and [Bartolomeo] Vanzetti to that of John Brown is too striking not to be noticed by the historian.”
Background on this case for the modern reader: The two were Italian immigrant anarchists, controversially convicted of murdering a guard and a paymaster at a Massachusetts shoe company robbery in 1920. Anti-Italian and anti-immigrant bias, recanted testimony, coupled with a very short consideration time by the jury before the guilty verdict led to numerous appeals. All were denied, and Sacco and Vanzetti were ultimately electrocuted in 1927, resulting in worldwide riots and protests. Even following the executions, investigations continued through the 1930’s and 1940’s. Finally, in 1977, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis officially proclaimed “all stain should be removed from their names.” Now back to 1938, and the reprinted thoughts of Dr. Tyler, as found in Ashe’s booklet (p.39.)
The sober thought of the present hour in the North repudiates the madness of seventy years ago. In the language, however, of the song “John Brown’s soul marches on,” it marched right on through the bloody war of the sixties, and remarkable to say, has marched on in our day, carrying murder and riot into the bosom of Massachusetts. The lawless soul of John Brown entered into…Sacco and Vanzetti. Their cause was exactly the same as that of John Brown and his abolitionists. Sacco and Vanzetti desired anarchy and the abolitionist pronounced the Constitution “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.”
Of course, both time itself and Tyler too saw to the weakening of these arguments. Witness the following (p.40)– “Demonstrations of sympathy with Sacco and Vanzetti exceeded those bestowed upon John Brown in 1856, …although the case against Sacco and Vanzetti, being based on circumstantial evidence,(author’s emphasis) was nothing like as strong as that as the evidence against John Brown.”
Happily, a variety of pamphlets await the focus of the student; not all political. Two of my favorites in this realm complement each other in regards to a particular aspect of the Battle of Gettysburg, in this case over the same portion of the Second Days’ fight.
Sergeant J.S. McNeily, a newspaperman and member of the Twenty-First Mississippi, chose the approach of the battle’s fiftieth anniversary to author an article in the pages of the Mississippi Historical Society on “Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade at Gettysburg.” Later, it would appear as a stand-alone booklet. Some thirty-four pages in length, it reflected the journalistic roots of its author, who had risen to work with a variety of newspapers in postwar Mississippi. Telling the whole story of the battle, McNeily overlooked none of the “glory,” real and imagined, of his famed fighters.
“The assertion is made [writes McNeily] that no other brigade, in that battle, if in any other, has made such a record in two hours of fighting – of assailing four separate positions, engaging regiments of three corps, four divisions, of Ward’s, DeTrobriand’s, Graham’s, Burling’s, Brewester’s, Carr’s, Willard’s, and Harrow’s brigades – besides capturing several guns of the Third corps, and two batteries, one of the Reserve artillery and one of the Fifth corps, and turning its back on none. “For the moment,” said General [Andrew] Humphreys, “I thought the day was lost.”
But such was not to be. Noting “the sad reflection of what might have been,” had all gone well that day, the author concluded, “[t]he 3rd of July as the “dies irae” [the day of wrath] upon the Confederacy. Yet, in summing up his thoughts on the Peach Orchard, McNeily noted,
Gettysburg had been written in the book of fate, as we read it. But the glory that Mississippians achieved in Peach Orchard hill will shine undimmed, through all time. And when the state erects a monument on the memorable field it will be placed there, surmounted by the effigy of Wm. (sic) Barksdale.
The Federals, of course, recalled both the desperate resistance on July 2, as well their subsequent “dies irae.” A goodly portion of the struggle at “The Peach Orchard” was recalled by Captain (later Major) John Bigelow, of the 9th Massachusetts Light Artillery in his sixty-two page booklet, properly entitled The Peach Orchard: Gettysburg July 2 1863; Explained By Official Reports And Maps. Published in 1910, just prior to the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, this “little book,” like others, has much to offer.
Well-organized, and provided with five maps, Bigelow’s account is concise, primarily (and perhaps expectedly) through the viewpoint of the artillery service. Broken into three parts, the first portion deals with an overview of the Second Day’s fight, and the role of the forces of the ‘Long Arm’ in their proper supporting role in the Third Corps debacle. The critical role of supporting infantry, either by its presence or absence, is noted; but not indulged. Relevant elements from various Official Records reports (noted as Rebellion Record) are cited. One of those marvelous tidbits of precision reading is to be found in this segment of the book. For many, there has always existed the “Who was right- Meade or Sickles?” question. Should the Third Corps have been posted to the orchard? If so, it was bound to require artillery support. Take in General Hunt’s perspective – what he does, and does not say. (p. 36)
After the war, the writer, [Bigelow] sitting in a carriage at the Peach Orchard with Gen. Hunt, Chief of Artillery of the Army of the Potomac, asked him if, with guns placed where we were, he could not have swept clean the low land, in our front, where Gen. Meade had intended the 3rd Corps to have been. He replied: “I cannot afford to answer;(Author’s emphasis) but I will say, that, when this advanced position was lost, the opportunity passed away for acting on the offensive after the repulse of Pickett’s charge, on July 3rd.”
Take a moment to ponder the multiple meanings of that.
Skipping Part 2 for the moment, the final portion of the booklet, Part 3, “Experiences of a Light Battery at Gettysburg,” covers what one would expect from the commander of the 9th Massachusetts – a great, detailed story, worthy of that unit’s heroic fight. The Major recalled taking on the infantry of Semmes Georgia brigade,
…whom we saw forming around the Rose building, 600 yards in our front…Our case shot and shell broke beautifully. One struck beneath the horse of the officer, who had apparently ridden out to give the order to advance-and brought down both horse and rider, causing sufficient delay, apparently, to break up their formation. After the war I met one of Semme’s men, who told me that if I would visit his Georgia home, he would show me enough graves and one-armed and one-legged men to satisfy me for my lifetime.
Of course, for Bigelow’s battery, the worst was nearer; and it would not require a trip to Georgia. Mississippi was coming to them. Holding their position in an ever-more untenable position, while Federal infantry “supports” fell back all around them, the isolated artillerists gained the Union command a precious 30 minutes. Through a tremendous determination, yet ultimately almost overrun in the corner of Trostle’s fields, the experience of Cole, the driver on the 6th piece, is typical (p.59.)
The limber chest saved me. The cover was open, in retiring, and there were thirteen holes in it besides some in the chest. There seemed to be a body of enemy on our right front, (Barksdale’s Brigade) and at every discharge they were mowed down in swathes.
In Bigelow’s “Narrative,” (Part 1 of the booklet,) fair highlight is given the role played by Lieutenant- Colonel Freeman McGilvery, following the wounding of Colonel George Randolph, Artillery Chief of the Third Corps. McGilvery, commanding the First Volunteer Brigade Artillery Reserves, then assumed fire control of the batteries in the orchard and along the Trostle Lane area. His critical work there with the batteries prevented the Confederates from exploiting a large gap in mid-field, from about 6:30 to 7:15 or so.
At the time of the booklet’s release in 1910, Gettysburg National Military Park was overseen by the War Department, which was still expanding the park’s boundaries and road network. There was as yet no Hunt Avenue, nor anything dedicated to the memory of Lt.–Col. McGilvery. Part 2 of Bigelow’s pamphlet, “An Appeal,” was the author’s attempt to challenge what he saw as an injustice to his chosen combat arm. For on page thirty-eight, the following charge appears:
Notwithstanding that Gettysburg was the greatest artillery battle of the Civil War and nearly fifty years have passed since the battle was fought, while the Battlefield Commission have (sic) had many fine avenues built over the field, which they have named after Infantry or Cavalry Officers, yet in no instance have they so honored the Artillery branch of the service…Trostle’s Lane, misnamed “United States Avenue,” by the Commission, it is believed should be renamed
not because the artillery there performed other than its duty, …but because it is the only avenue one the field where the artillery exclusively fought, without the support of cavalry or infantry, and where no “Generals of Corps or Divisions” can set up claims for themselves…The new avenue, (emphasis in original) proposed by the Commission, should be named after Col. McGilvery, whose artillery, on July 2nd, alone occupied it and from it on July 3rd, with eight batteries, he swept the right of Pickett’s attack with destructive effect.
A few statements aimed at Union Army veterans willing to take up the cause were included as a portion of this “Appeal,” as well as a couple of letters from Commissioner Nicholson opposing the idea. In one, dated November 1, 1909, Nicholson memorably stated,
If the Commission were to undertake to change the names of Avenues and the locations of organizations as named and placed before they came on to the Field, never a map would be completed.
Major Bigelow never succeeded in getting the Commission to change the name of United States Avenue. They had their reasons, and so it remained. Yet today there is both a Hunt Avenue, as well as a designated McGilvery “Artillery” Avenue on the field. Perhaps his work, his little pamphlet, had some of its desired impact.
I trust you have found something of interest in our tour of some “little books.” In the study of ever-growing Civil War history, there is yet more out there, some in the big books, and some, in the little ones. So find a book (of any size,) unplug the computer; and pull up a chair!
Ranger Bert Barnett
Gettysburg National Military Park