Category Archives: Sesquicentennial

Sesquicentennial Observance: The soldiers’ experience was more than combat

Yes, the experience of the Civil War soldier was much more than days of battle.  We can all agree with that, right?  There were days spent marching.  Lots of camps.  Days of drilling.  Or days spent doing little else but just being in uniform and performing military responsibilities associated with being a soldier.

But our interpretation of the soldier’s experience is heavily weighted to the battles. Those days are the “main events” which receive most of the attention.  After all, it was on those handful of days on which the war turned, right?  Well… perhaps those are the places in time where we can best demonstrate where the war turned.  There were other, more subtle, points where the war turned.  But the nature of those activities are somewhat complicated to get across in a fifteen minute tour stop… or even a 1000 word blog post.  How can one explain that THIS place…

Winter Encampment 070

… was one where the soldiers in the Army of the Potomac rested, refitted, and reorganized in a manner which propelled them to victory over 1864-5?  I don’t know, it took me the better part of four months blogging to discuss that aspect of the war.  And in case you are wondering, that’s the site of the Alexander house outside Culpeper, and where Colonel Charles Wainwright composed most of his diary entries during the winter of 1864.  (And Culpeper in particular offers a wealth of opportunities to offer “now” and “then” photography.  Because of the Winter Encampment of 1864, Culpeper became one of the most photographed localities of the war.)

Beyond just saying “this was a turning point” of sorts, is it not important to relate that the life of a soldier was not simply a series of engagements in mortal combat, fighting to the death on the battlefield?  Indeed.  And study of the “stuff outside of the battles” makes the whole somewhat richer and relative to us today.  The soldiers were not merely one-dimensional beings which existed during battle.  There were more facets to their experiences, some of which tied into the important themes of the war.

That said, I think it a positive that during the sesquicentennial we saw a lot of activities associated with these “off the battlefield” soldier activities.  Specific to the location pictured above, the Friends of Cedar Mountain and other organizations in Culpeper hosted a Winter Encampment Seminar during the winter of 2014, at the Germanna Community College campus just a few hundred yards removed from Wainwright’s quarters.  And later Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield hosted a tour of sites related to the 1864 Winter Encampment.   And those sesquicentennial events are just two handy references I can make (tied to the place pictured above).  Across the country, similar events, some hosted by the National Park Service or state organizations, but more so by local, grass-roots groups, showcased the “other than battle” experiences of the soldiers.

I think we should point out that emphasis as a “success” for the sesquicentennial.

On the other hand, we might also point out, for the sake of those bicentennialists to follow, many missed opportunities.  For all of the focus in late June and early July upon Adams County, Pennsylvania, the public-facing programming left out exactly how those armies got there.  Almost as if the soldiers were suspended in time at Chancellorsville, then magically re-appeared, somewhat worse for the wear, at Gettysburg.  That’s just one handy example.  I’m sure we could demonstrate a few more worth noting.  The point to push home here is, again, that the soldiers were not one-dimensional, and their experience was more than combat actions.

This is somewhat odd, I think, given the current trends with a lot of noise about “new military history.”  Shouldn’t historians be seeking out those interpretive opportunities to discuss the life of soldiers beyond the battlefields?   But we often see tours, especially those focused more on the “education” function over the general “entertainment” functions, that simply hit a set of battlefield sites….

And I’m picking out Kevin Levin’s recent tour, with a group of students tracing the story of the 20th Massachusetts from the fall of 1862 through summer 1863, out of convenience here.  I know Kevin’s not a “bugles and bayonets” type, and is genuinely interested in MORE than what regiment was on the right of the line at a particular phase of the battle.  So, I also am very sure that Kevin related more than just the raw details of the battles during that tour.  However, outside of the list of sites noted on his blog post, I don’t know what other stops were made on the way.  So  I stand to be corrected, if need be.

There was certainly ample material for a stop discussing the non-combat experience of the 20th Massachusetts.  The regimental history includes a full chapter on events during the winter of 1863 (though I’m not sure how accessible the Second Corps’ campsites are today, compared to those of the Eleventh and other corps).  There are some observations recorded by the 20th Massachusetts as they marched through Loudoun, so perhaps Gum Springs would offer a location to reflect upon those words. Or perhaps the reflection of soldiers at Edwards Ferry as they crossed the Potomac downstream of Balls Bluff, their first battle of the war.

Would such stops have been appropriate? Well, that’s one best left to the tour leader and determined by what stops fit within focus.  Sometimes logistics is the ultimate governing factor on stop selection.  But I would offer there are ample opportunity stops during our “on the field” tours to flesh out the soldiers with more than the “battle” experiences.  Yes, the monuments are great places to stop… but it is important to consider what happened between those monuments along the way.

However, that said, I think the activities witnessed during the sesquicentennial went a long way to bring attention to the non-combat experiences of the soldiers.  We can point to a rounded interpretation of the soldier experience as a success for the sesquicentennial… and one we can hand over to the bicentennialists to improve upon.

May 1, 2015: My Sesquicentennial streak comes to an end

In late December 2010, WordPress sent out a “blogger challenge” which encouraged us towards a “blog post every day” schedule.  Yes, as content drives traffic, that sort of thing brings in advertizing dollars to the host up there in the cloud somewhere.  On my end of things, I saw that challenge as a means to sharpen and improve blog writing skills… but more importantly, and more for my own satisfaction than anything else, be able to to visibly demonstrate how I followed, observed, and participated in the Civil War sesquicentennial.

On January 1, 2011, I posted the first of many entries which focused on what happened around Charleston, South Carolina, 150 years from the date of posting.  So 37,944 hours later (that would be 1581 days, or four years and four months for those who prefer simpler figures), I am posting this one.  Over that time, I’ve put up at least one blog post each day. On a lot of days, two posts.  And on a few days, three posts.  The total for the time was 1791 blog posts, not counting this one (or two at the end of 2010 that were not “sesqui” posts).  I’m going to take a blogging-break this weekend and thus end the streak.  The Sesquicentennial is not over, as there are indeed more dates related to the war as it wound down.  But my daily posting cycle will lapse just as the pace of the war lapsed 150 years ago.

Some of those 1791 posts were simply mentions of upcoming events.  Others were trip reports and “live” blogging where I tried to give the reader a taste of what was going on out there.  Some posts were slim and thin.  And others – and I have not taken a formal count, but hopefully the majority – are “red meat” posts where I wrote about things which happened 150 years from the date of posting.  For those posts, I often sought out topics which were covered less by historians and other bloggers.  My over-arching purpose with that was to demonstrate, using our sense of time in the contemporary space, how operations during the war were greatly inter-connected with dependencies all around.  I liked taking the “simple” as presented in the general histories and showing it in natural light to expose all the “complexities” that exist in situ.

I sort of evolved the approach to “150 years ago” posts as things went along.  Early on, I think I was more commentary heavy in the content.  Later posts were heavier on the source material.  Around about mid-2012, the realization set in that I was “forcing” posts and I should return to the advice given by my college mentors – let the sources speak for themselves.  So, turning to my many, many notebooks compiled over the years, I organized things by date to have “scheduled” writing assignments.  For example, this section from January 2014:

Blog Schedule

As with any “marathon,” the key is having a solid, organized approach.  I think this really paid off in the fall of 2014, following Price’s Missouri Campaign along with Sherman’s March.  However, if I had to pick one set of posts to highlight, it would be those discussing the Second Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter.  In approaching that event, as with much of the story of Charleston’s Civil War, I was inspired by the late Warren Ripley.  During the Centennial, Ripley ran articles (along with Arthur Wilcox) in the Charleston News and Courier and Evening Post.  Many of those were later collected into a booklet which is still sold today.  Ripley worked under the constraint of column inches.  But the blogging format allowed me the freedom of exploring many of the “dirty details” of the siege of Charleston.  I do hope it was as entertaining to the reader as those posts were enjoyable for me to write.

In addition to the posts, I’ve worked to bring the Sesquicentennial experience by way of tweets, status updates, and streaming video.  Being able to tweet that I was standing AT a place AT a time just 150 years removed from AN event provided perspective.  At the same time, sharing my thoughts as quality speakers challenged my understanding of the war added to the experience.

But beyond the blogging aspect of the sesqui, I look back at four plus years of tours, talks, seminars, and other activities.  I can say, with pride, that I didn’t just “see” the Sesquicentennial, but rather waded in up to my neck.  To paraphrase a famous author, I know now of our Civil War because I’ve walked its fields and turned its pages.  I’ve experienced sunrises that brought light upon the ground – literally and metaphorically speaking.

Antietam 150 042

While I cannot run some “official” tally of how many sites I visited or 150ths I attended, I can say “I was there” for as much as possible.  And I hope that others who could not be there were able to gain some appreciation through what I was able to present.

As mentioned, there are still some 150ths to mention in the months ahead.  But mostly I am, as the nation was 150 years ago, about to transition my blog a bit.  There are a lot of posts that were not posted in the correct time frame.  So I have an obligation to pick those up.  And there are other story lines that I wish to explore.  But at the same time, I sense a need to return to my “base.”  There is much to write about the big guns.  Thus my notebook is filled with possible “cannon posts” for the year to come.

However, before I close any Sesquicentennial books, I do want to share some thoughts about the 150th that I’ve rolled around over the last four years.  Some have already started pointing to successes and failures with the 150ths.  I’m not about that sort of ranking.  It’s all relative to the viewers perspective.  My experience with the Sesquicentennial, as you have no doubt seen and read, was positive.  Now I feel somewhat obligated to share my reactions to that experience in a sense of closure.

Those thoughts to follow later.   For now, I’m on break.

Join me in Farmville!

A reminder, the 16th Annual Civil War Seminar, hosted by Appomattox Court House National Historic Place and Longwood University, in Farmville, starts this evening.  This seminar will be larger than those of the past.  The events, spread across three days, focus on 1865 events… and quite a number local to the Farmville-Appomattox area.

I’ll be Tweeting from the seminar.  So pick up the feed if you’d like.