Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Lincoln's Assassination by Edward Steers, Jr.

Abraham Lincoln
Edward Steers' Lincoln's Assassination traces the actions leading to John Wilkes Booth's assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and Booth's attempt to escape capture. Steers clearly and concisely describes the events surrounding the murder and skillfully refutes the popular histories and conspiracy theories.

The attacks against Lincoln might have begun with a proposed raid on Richmond with the objective of freeing Union prisoners, capturing Davis, and burning the city. The raid failed but a document recovered from the body of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren contained instructions to destroy the city and kill Jeff Davis and his cabinet. This launched what the Richmond Examiner declared was a "war under the Black Flag." Another factor in the assault on Lincoln might have been Grant's suspension of prisoner exchanges.  Booth thought that if he could capture Lincoln, the president could have been exchanged for southern POWs.

John Wilkes Booth
We learn how Booth, often accused of being a "mad actor fueled with delusional revenge, was a
"fully rational person" whose original plan to capture Lincoln could have succeeded. The author clearly demonstrates that no one in the Lincoln Administration was part of the President's murder plot.  We also learn that both Mary Surratt and Samuel Mudd were integrally involved in  the plans to capture or kill Lincoln.

Steers describes the role that the Confederate spy network in Canada played in Booth's plot. He was given money to fund the attack and a letter of introduction to Dr. William Queen and Dr. Samuel Mudd. From Mudd, Booth gained access to the spy network in south Maryland and a safe haven halfway between Washington and the place where the conspirators would cross the Potomac River. Far from being an innocent doctor who carried for a stranger, Mudd was well acquainted with Booth and assisted Booth in planning and carrying out the attack. Mary Surratt's delivery of weapons and instructions to John Lloyd in Surrattsville "would put her on the gallows."

Ford's Theater
The author also reveals that the conspirators were not just a randomly selected group but were chosen for the special skills they brought to the enterprise.

Steers indicates that Booth shared Jeff Davis' views on continuing the struggle for Southern Independence and Booth's plan to decapitate the Union Government might have succeeded. After Lee's surrender, Booth concluded, "our cause being almost lost, something decisive & great must be done."

The author provides details of the events prior to and following the assassination with maps of Booth's escape route in Washington and from the Capitol to the Garrett farm. Steers also includes photographs of sites and people involved in the conspiracy.

What may be most disturbing about the assassination is how many of the conspirators, especially John Surratt, escaped punishment entirely or received minimal sentences for their participation. Especially puzzling is Andrew Johnson's pardoning of three conspirators. I was left with the feeling that in some misguided way, justice was not served.

Steers closes his history by noting, "History is the one area of study where no amount of scholarship can dissuade those who believe in the conspiratorial nature of important events."  

Edward Steers is the author, editor, coauthor, or coeditor of thirteen books, including Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln; The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia; The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence; The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators; and Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Abraham Lincoln.  Steers is a scientist retired from the National Institutes of Health.

Friday, December 19, 2014

This Jolly Little Gunboat edited by Patrick E. Purcell

USS Winona at Baton Rouge
This Jolly Little Gunboat
is based on a journal written by a crewman on the USS Winona from December 1861 to August 1863.  Although the journal's author is unknown, the most likely candidate is Montgomery P. Griffis.  Patrick E. Purcell, who has edited the journal, reaches that conclusion because Griffis is the only crewman who was assigned to the engine room of both the Powhattan and the Winona

The Winona was built in late 1861 at a private shipyard on the Northeastern Coast at a cost of $101,000. She was one of the "Unadilla Class" gunships. She was 158 feet in length and manned by a crew of about ninety-five.  The Winona was originally armed with an eleven-inch Dahlgren, a 20-pounder Parrott rifle, and two 24-pounder howitzer. She received two 32-pounders in June 1863.

The first journal entry from December 11-19, 1861 describes Griffis' joining the crew and his delight in reuniting with some of his old shipmates from the Powhatan. The narrative continues with a detailed description of the life on board the ship as she made her way into service in the "channel between the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf."  Purcell's footnotes help us through the nautical jargon of the times.  He also ties the journal entries together through his commentary on the vessel's movements and its role in overall campaign strategy.

The Winona was part of Admiral David Farragut's fleet and participated in the capture of New Orleans.  In mid-January 1862, Farragut's West Gulf Blockading Squadron began preparations to secure the entrance to the Mississippi River at the Head of the Passes.  In order to capture New Orleans and seize control of the Mississippi River, Farragut's Squadron would have to capture or pass by Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip.  The first phase of the battle was a mortar bombardment that lasted from April 18-23. The next phase was passing the forts which took place on April 24.  The Winona was part of the six-ship third section designated to pass the forts.  Griffis described the situation:
The mortar shells were flitting like meteors in the gray twilight of early morning, the roar of the broadsides of the ships and the heavy guns of the forts, all sounded to me like the breaking up nature, for I could see nothing but mortar shell flying thick and fast as hailstones.
Unfortunately, she along with the Pinola was turned back because the dawn was breaking.

Griffis' journal is delightful to read with a mixture of battle narratives, accounts of mundane duties, and personality descriptions.
His successor, 2nd Asst. Engr. E. S. Boynton, who took charge on the same day, is a man who looks as if he was sent for and couldn't come.
Most of the Winona's time was spent patrolling the Mississippi River between Port Hudson and Donaldsonville. The gunship's tour on the river ended in August 1863 and on August 30 the ship arrived in Baltimore for repairs. Most of the crew, including Griffis, were discharged. The Winona spent the last year of the war on blockade duty off Charleston.  She was decommissioned and sold in November 1865.

Mr. Purcell includes a number of machine poems/songs that were part of the Winona's history.  He also includes an Appendix with a list of the various ships that the Winona fought with and against during her time on the Mississippi. Students of the brown water navy will certainly want to add this book to their library.
This jolly little gunboat Winona was her name. She was called after an Indian girl of sad romantic fame.
 Please see USS Winona (1861) for more information.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Three Friends: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe and Slavery

Most students of the Civil War understand that the founding fathers sowed the seeds of disunion. Among those leaders were Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. I had the opportunity to learn more about these men during a Road Scholar program in Charlottesville, VA on November 16-19, 2014.

As presidents, founders, and plantation owners, these men shared a common problem --- a conflict between the moral dilemma of slavery vis-a-vis freedom and their personal dependence on the evil institution for their own welfare. In the end, all three decided to leave it to future generations to solve the issue. Practicality trumped ethical beliefs.

Jefferson statue at Monticello
Thomas Jefferson is considered the architect of the Declaration of Independence. The opening sentence of the second paragraph states the fundamental aspect of democracy: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." There is no asterisk after all men, but it seems clear that all men excludes slaves and other disenfranchised minorities. According to the website, Vindicating the Founders, Jefferson included a paragraph condemning the king's role in promoting the slave trade. The paragraph was omitted after objections by representatives from South Carolina and Georgia.

Slave life exhibit at Monticello
Thomas Jefferson owned many slaves in spite of his opposition to the institution of slavery on both moral and practical grounds. He attempted to advance legislation to abolish slavery. Jefferson advocated passage of the Northwest Ordinance, which was approved in 1787.  

Article 6 - "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid. "

James and Dolley Madison
statue at Montpelier
James Madison is regarded as the author of the Constitution. The Constitution addresses slavery in three passages.

Article I - Section 2 - "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons."

Article I - Section 9 -"The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person."

Article IV - Section 2 - "No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due."

James Monroe statue at
Ash Lawn-Highland
When James Monroe was governor of Virginia, he was involved in two slave uprisings. In the first incident in 1799, Monroe "help[ed] secure a modicum of civil protection for slaves sentenced to death for capital crimes." In 1800, hundreds of slaves in Virginia planned to kidnap Monroe, take him Richmond, and negotiate for their freedom. A storm prevented the slaves from carrying out their plans. Governor Monroe called out the militia and soon the slaves were captured. The accused conspirators were given quick trials without a jury. Monroe convinced the Virginia courts to pardon and sell some slaves instead of hanging them. However, between twenty-six and thirty-five slaves were executed. As president of Virginia's constitutional convention in the fall of 1829, Monroe blamed Britain for bringing slavery to the Colonies. Monroe proposed that Virginia accept the federal government's financial assistance to emancipate and transport freed slaves to other countries.

Membership Certificate from
American Colonization Society
Aside from being consecutive presidents, influential policy makers, and good friends; the three Virginians shared another distinction --- they were all members of the American Colonization Society (ACS). The Society was founded in 1816 to advocate and finance the return of free African Americans to Africa. The group was established by abolitionists who believed blacks would face better chances for full lives in Africa than in the United States and slaveholders who to wanted to remove free blacks as "promoters of mischief" and avoid slave rebellions. Virginia society was strongly opposed to freed slaves becoming citizens, and black colonization was viewed as an acceptable alternative. However, most blacks wanted to remain in the US, where they had been born, and opposed "repatriation." With about $100,000 in Federal grant money, the organization also bought land for the freedmen in what is today Liberia. The Society closely controlled the development of Liberia until its declaration of independence. Beginning in 1821, the ACS transported thousands of free blacks to Liberia. Over twenty years, the colony continued to grow and establish economic stability. In 1847, the legislature of Liberia declared the nation an independent state. The capital of Liberia was named Monrovia after President Monroe

President Abraham Lincoln initiated several failed attempts to resettle blacks in the Caribbean. In the five years following the Civil War, the ACS sent 2,492 blacks to Liberia. By 1867, the ACS had moved more than 13,000 blacks to Liberia. The Freedmen's Bureau provided some financial support for the relocation. The Society finally disbanded in 1964.

In 1779, Jefferson proposed a gradual emancipation plan to the Virginia legislature. The plan consisted of voluntary training, sponsorship, and resettlement for slave families outside the US. Following the slave uprising in 1800, Jefferson again proposed a colonization plan for freed slaves to prevent a violent race war. While President, Jefferson was unsuccessful in his personal attempts to settle freed Virginia slaves to Sierra Leone through British and Portugal companies.

Madison supported the ACS efforts and believed that colonization would achieve a "rapid erasure of the blot on our Republican character." The British sociologist, Harriet Martineau, visited with Madison during her tour of the United States in 1834. She characterized his faith in colonization as the solution to slavery as "bizarre and incongruous." Madison may have sold or donated his gristmill in support of the ACS. The historian Drew R. McCoy believes that "The Convention of 1829, we might say, pushed Madison steadily to the brink of self-delusion, if not despair. The dilemma of slavery undid him."

Monroe was part of the American Colonization Society formed in 1816, which members included Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson. They found common ground with some abolitionists in supporting colonization. They helped send several thousand freed slaves to the new colony of Liberia in Africa from 1820 to 1840. Slave owners like Monroe and Jackson wanted to prevent free blacks from encouraging slaves in the South to rebel.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S. C. Gwynne

As I was enjoying my morning coffee, I read an interview by Sharon Grigsby of the author of Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.   My reading came to abrupt halt when I read the response to Ms. Grigsby's first question.

Grigsby: Stonewall Jackson's war making strategies have merited generations of study, even though he attended West Point at a time when little warfare was taught.  How did he compensate for that, and what in his strategies and leadership is significant today?
Gwynne: West Point was almost shockingly deficient when it came to teaching actual military tactics. One professor taught the course to fourth-year students. Period. Grant wrote later that he really had no use for what he learned there.
There are several problems with the statements by the author and interviewer. Both have confused tactics with strategy.  The words don't mean the same thing. Strategy is "the science and art of military command as applied to the overall planning and conduct of large-scale combat operations." While tactics is "the study of the most effective ways of securing objectives set by strategy, as in deploying and directing troops, ships, and aircraft against an enemy." The words are not synonymous!

Tactics was taught at West Point from the moment a candidate enrolled at the Military Academy.  Even before they were admitted as a plebe, they were drilled in tactics using Winfield Scott's Tactics or Rules for the Exercises and Maneuvers of the Infantry of the U. S. Army and later W. G. Hardee's Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics. Drill was an integral part of the daily program at the Academy.

The First Class (Fourth Year) course on Tactics was taught by the Commandant of Cadets who was a Regular Army officer. The Commandant supervised the Corps of Cadets during the academic year drills and intensive summer programs. Each class was tutored in the School of the Soldier. More than any other individual, the Commandant exercised an "important influence on the military character and opinions of the junior officers of the Army."

I doubt that Grant said that "he really had no use for what he learned there" words because he held his Commandant of Cadets, Major General Charles F. Smith, is very high regard.What Grant probably noted was the lack of training in strategy. Strategy and divisional operation were considered the province of general officers in the military. The concept was introduced in a brief, perhaps half-day lecture, at the Academy.  If you replace "tactics" with "strategy," the comments make much more sense.