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.

For the last stretch of sesquicentennial blogging… what do you want to see?

I don’t think we can put a mark on the calendar and say “This is when the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War Ends.”  But at the same time, the surrenders of key armies in Virginia and North Carolina is generally recognized as the point of closure.  As such, my project focused on 150th blogging will likewise start winding down. I’d taken on a “post a day” challenge at the end of December 2010, as part of my personal observance of the Sesquicentennial.  And that will come to a close in the next few months.  Reality is there are about sixty days or so to consider, after which the pace of 150ths slows considerably.   (Again, not to dismiss the surrenders west of the Mississippi.  But there’s a lot of empty dates on the calendar after the end of April.)

There are a lot of areas to explore in regard to the last days of the Civil War.  And if you have been reading for a while now, you know I like to work on some of the lesser worked rows, and in particular where the military history (under the classic definition) edges into some other divisions of history.  I’m mulling over continuing the posts on the Carolinas Campaign through North Carolina.  Unlike that of South Carolina, my perception is that the march through North Carolina has gotten its “due” attention from historians.  I don’t think I can improve upon the work done by Mark Bradley or my friend Eric Wittenberg in regard to the Bentonville Campaign or Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads (respectively).

There are some other subjects that I will put focus on through the spring.  One is the last military campaign into South Carolina, lead by Brigadier-General Edward Potter and consisting largely of USCT, through the state in April.  It’s another “footnote” in the larger story of the Civil War, but one that provides a bridge into the post-war situation in South Carolina.   Another topic I’d like to work in within the “day by day” format is President Jefferson F. Davis’ flight through the Carolinas and Georgia.  The path is well blazed by markers, so that allows me to showcase some of those along the way.

And of course… I will be “in the field” at several events between now and the end of April, from which I’ll do my best at covering here on the blog, on Twitter, and through Facebook.

All that said…. let me ask what you folks who spend a little part of your day reading the “stuff” I post what would be preferable.  More on Uncle Billy’s march?  More on something else?  I’ll offer up a poll here, but feel free to drop a comment if you would like:

I can’t say that my coverage of Lee’s Retreat or Wilson’s Campaign would be set upon the firm grounding of the …well… full appreciation of the ground on which the actions took place… as I’ve been able to offer for the Georgia and South Carolina operations.  But I’d consider taking up the task if the need is great.  That is so long as it does not detract from the two topics (Potter’s South Carolina Campaign and Davis’ flight) mentioned above.

Petersburg 150th Events

Petersburg National Battlefield has posted their 2015 schedule of events.  These include a good number sesquicentennial observances.  Some of those which caught my eye, as specifically timed to 150th events:

150th Anniversary of The Battle of Hatcher’s Run

Date: Thursday, February 5, 2015, 3:00 pm
Location: Five Forks Contact Station, 9840 Courthouse Road, Dinwiddie, VA

Lecture will commemorate the first of the 1865 battles aimed at cutting off supply lines to General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and bringing about the fall of Petersburg.

The Saturday following (February 7th), the park hosts a set of talks.  One focuses on the death of “Sallie,” the mascot of the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry in the battle of Hatcher’s Run.  With the talk is a demonstration by the 544th Military Working Dog Detachment from Fort Lee.  “See the evolution of military dogs from mascots to modern day working dogs.”  (I don’t think that angle has ever been worked for Civil War interpretation… good one!)  The second talk, scheduled for 2 PM, as Emanuel Dabney discussing “how Confederate soldiers were dealing with the war in what turned out to be the last months of service for the Army of Northern Virginia.”

Civil War 150th : Battles of Ft. Stedman and Jones Farm Living History Weekend

Date: Saturday, March 21, 2015
Time:  Ft. Stedman 10:00 am – 11:00 am;  Jones Farm 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm
Locations: Ft. Stedman Tour Stop #5 Eastern Front, 5001 Siege Rd. Petersburg VA; and Jones Farm Tour Stop #3 Western Front, Church Rd. & Flank Rd. Dinwiddie Co. VA.

The weekend event matches to the “real time” observance which falls on the following Wednesday:

Civil War 150th: Battles of Ft. Stedman and Jones Farm Real Time Tours

Date: Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Time: Ft. Stedman 5:00 am -8:00 am;  Jones Farm 3:00 pm -3:45 pm
Locations: Ft. Stedman Tour Stop #5 Eastern Front, 5001 Siege Rd. Petersburg VA; and Jones Farm Tour Stop #3 Western Front, Church Rd. & Flank Rd. Dinwiddie Co. VA

The following weekend (March 28-29) feature living history displays at Five Forks, Fort Gregg, and Hopewell (in conjunction with a panel discussion about the River Queen Conference).  There is also a night-time tour of Five Forks on March 28, 6-8 pm.

Then over the first days of April, the observances come as thick as the action of 1865:

Faces of Five Forks
Date: Wednesday, April 1, 2015, 2:30 – 3:30 pm
Location: Five Forks Contact Station, 9840 Courthouse Road, Dinwiddie, VA

Civil War 150th: Breakthrough Real Time Tour
Date: Thursday, April 2, 2015, 5:30 am – 6:30 am
Location: Tour Stop #3 Western Front, Church Rd. & Flank Rd. Dinwiddie Co. VA

Civil War 150th: Breakthrough: Ft. Mahone Commemorative Ceremony
Date: Thursday, April 2, 2015, 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm
Location: Ft. Mahone & Pennsylvania Monument on Wakefield Drive, Petersburg VA

Civil War 150th: Breakthrough: Battle of Ft. Gregg Commemorative Ceremony
Date: Thursday, April 2, 2015, 4:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Location: Tour Stop #4 Western Front, Sampson Rd. & 7th Ave. Dinwiddie Co. VA

See the Petersburg NPS website for more details on these events.

Couple these events along with those occurring at Appomattox starting on April 8 and you see the last spring of the Sesquicentennial will be a busy one!


16th Annual Civil War Seminar at Longwood University: Three days in March!

This year will mark the 150th anniversary of the Appomattox Campaign, which brought the Civil War through Farmville, Virginia and eventually to Appomattox.  So it is fitting that Appomattox Court House National Historic Place and Longwood University pull out all the stops for their 16th Annual Civil War Seminar – three days of top speakers along with a battlefield tour.  From the Appomattox Court House NHP website:

Friday, March 13

5:30 p.m. Doors open

5:50 p.m. Introduction by Dr. David Coles, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of History, Political Science, and Philosophy, Longwood University

6:00 p.m.Tracy Chernault, The Fall of Petersburg

7:00 p.m. Michael Gorman, Photo Forensics: Richmond, 1865

8:00 p.m. Chris Calkins, The Appomattox Campaign: Nine April Days

Saturday, March 14

8:30 a.m. Doors open

9:00 a.m. Introduction by Dr. David Coles

9:10 a.m. Chris Calkins, Black Thursday: The Battles of Sailor’s Creek, April 6, 1865

10:15 a.m. Patrick Schroeder, The Battles of Appomattox: Final Fury and the Last to Die

11:15 a.m. Ron Wilson, Surrender at Appomattox

12:30 Lunch

1:45 p.m. Elizabeth Varon, Legacies of Appomattox: Lee’s Surrender in History and Memory

2:45 p.m. Mark Bradley, Fort Fisher to the Bennett Place: Closing Operations in North Carolina

4:30-6:00 Sailor’s Creek State Historical Park Special on Site Visit with Chris Calkins and Park Staff

Sunday, March 15

8:30 a.m. Doors open

9:00 a.m. Introduction by Dr. David Coles

9:10 a.m. Bert Dunkerly, The Forgotten Surrenders: Alabama, the Trans-Mississippi, and Indian Territory

10:15 a.m. Casey Clabough, Confederadoes

11:15 a.m. John Hennessy, Freedom, the Civil War and its Legacies

Except for the battlefield tour, the location is Longwood University, Jarman Auditorium, Farmville, Va.   And the “price” is easy on your pocket book – FREE. 

The seminar is sponsored by the Department of History, Political Science, & Philosophy at Longwood University; Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, and Eastern National Bookstore.

As with the last few years, I consider the seminar somewhat a “prep” for the sesquicentennial season ahead.  I plan to attend, blogging and tweeting while there.  Hope to see you there!

Sesquicentennial’s final stretch run … to Appomattox in 2015!

Civil War Trust is playing the “Long Game,” as they have all through the Sesquicentennial, as they look to 2015.  On Friday, October 31, the Trust and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe will hold a press conference to announce new preservation efforts at Sailor’s Creek and High Bridge.   Efforts to preserve more of those battlefields happens right at the time our 150th-focused attention looks towards the Virginia Southside.  (And, oh by the way, the Trust has now passed the 40,000 acres preserved mark… just four years after passing the 30,000 mark.)

April 2015 is not far off.  For those of us who’ve taken the time to be “in the moment” for the 150ths, it’s time for some long range planning of our own.  Not to overlook the actions at Petersburg and Richmond between now and March …  but if I may offer a critique, those events need to get posted on the respective park websites!  I know many will look at that first couple of weeks in April as an “anchor” in sesquicentennial plans.

And the trail is blazed well, thanks to long efforts to provide interpretation along the route of Lee’s Retreat.  And there are plenty of resources to follow this campaign.   So no excuses for this one!

Appomattox Court House NHP already has posted a list of events from April 8 to April 12, 2015.  Links there also mention events in the county and the Museum of the Confederacy – Appomattox.  I’m glad to see a number of real time events, to include printing paroles, listed.  Such will be a bit less “battle” than at other 150th NPS events.  But that’s the nuts and bolts history that I like. Walk us through the history, as it happened!

Still there’s a lot of space between Five Forks and Appomattox.  I’m sure more events are planned for those opening days of April next year.  Certainly a bus tour or two.  If nothing else, just a drive through the Southside over those days, with Chris Calkins guide in hand, is attractive.  Regardless, I plan to be out there every day I can.  Maybe using a hashtag like #apmtx150?

Who’s with me?