Wednesday, November 11, 2015

World War II Veteran and Civil War Student

I had the privilege to enjoy a lively discussion over dinner at Remington's Restaurant with World War II veteran Chester (Chet) F. Rohn. We were seated together so we might talk about our mutual interests in the Civil War.

Mr. Chester F. Rohn
World War II Veteran
and Civil War Enthusiast
Mr. Rohn is a proud member of the Color Guard of The Iron Brigade Association of the Civil War Round Table of Milwaukee. He recalled the many meetings he attended especially those presented by Ed Bearss. During a visit to Vicksburg, Chet heard Ed's distinct voice through a fog-shrouded battlefield. After Ed was finished speaking, Chet shouted "Is that Ed Bearss?" I mentioned that Mr. Bearrs was going to speak at the Dallas round table in December and urged him to attend.[1]

Chet's favorite battlefields are Vicksburg, Shiloh, and Antietam. He is understandably proud of the Iron Brigade, which fought in the Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Mine Run, Overland, Richmond-Petersburg, and Appomattox campaigns.  He talked about the intense battle in the Miller Cornfield at Antietam that Captain Benjamin Cook described as "...the most deadly fire of the war. Rifles are shot to pieces in the hands of the soldiers, canteens and haversacks are riddled with bullets, the dead and wounded go down in scores."

Our conversation turned to Chet's participation in World War II where he was in the 11th Armor Division of General George Patton's Third Army. He was part of the division that came to the relief of the 101st Airborne Division and other units in the Battle of the Bulge. Mr. Rohn, then a twenty-year old soldier, said that it was the coldest weather he had experienced. Considering Chet's Wisconsin roots, it must have been bitter. He was in a foxhole by himself and was ordered not to shoot unless attacked so he would not reveal his position.

Perhaps Rohn's most difficult wartime experience occurred during the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp. As he traveled to the camp, he noted the bodies of men dressed in striped pajamas and that they were not soldiers. He soon learned that these corpses were victims of the Holocaust. He recalled meeting the walking skeletons of the camp and his shock at the horrors that Germany inflicted on these people. He said that the military made the local residents visit the camp to see the monstrous behavior that existed near their homes.

Mr. Rohn shares his experiences with students to inform them about the sacrifices made by their great grand parents to defeat the Germans and preserve democracy. Chet brought the war to life for these students and put a face on pages in a history book. I hope these young people will treasure Chet's stories. Thank you Chester Rohn for your service to this country; and for a delightful evening. 

[1] Mr. Bearss, Chm. Emeritus National Park Service, Author will be speaking at Civil War Round Table of Dallas on December 9, 2015. He will talk about The Petersburg Campaign: The Eastern Battles. The Round Table meets at JJ’s Restaurant, Northlake Shopping Center, 10233 E. NW HWY at Ferndale: Ste 434 (NE Quadrant), 214.221.4659, Dinner: 6PM, Program: 7PM

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Paying My Respects

Kurt Wille (left) and Allen (right)
pay their respects to General Smith

On October 30, 2015, my wife and I paid our respects to Major General Charles F. Smith at his grave in the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, PA.   We were joined by Smith's distant cousin, Kurt Wille, and his friend Jeff Albright. Kurt has been assisting my research on General Smith for over five years and has been an enthusiastic supporter of the general’s biography.

Allen at grave site
The General, his wife, Fanny M. Smith, and Smith's mother, Margaret F. Smith, are buried at the Laurel Hill site. The 55-year old general was interred on May 5, 1862. Fanny was 47 when she died and was buried on May 28, 1866. The last grave belongs to Smith's mother, Margaret, who died at 75. It appears that her remains were moved from another site and re interred on December 6, 1901.

Laurel Hill was founded in 1836 by John Jay Smith "Laurel Hill was not only established as a permanent, non-sectarian burial place for the dead, but also as a scenic, riverside sanctuary for the living." Laurel Hill is comprised of about 78 acres that is divided into three sections—the North, Central and South. . Laurel Hill is one of the few cemeteries in the nation to be honored with the designation of National Historic Landmark. Many prominent people are buried at the cemetery, including many of Philadelphia’s leading industrial magnates. General George Meade and over thirty other Civil War-era generals and six Titanic passengers are buried here. The Civil War generals include about twenty who received brevet promotions as part of the omnibus promotions issued after the Civil War. Many of these promotions were post dated to March 13, 1865. The cemetery also includes the grave of John C. Pemberton who was a Pennsylvania native who joined the Confederate Army. 

About 125 Union officers and soldiers who died during the war are buried at Laurel Hill. Of this total 53 died from disease, 39 were killed in action, and 25 died from wounds.  Seventy-four of those men were officers and fifty-one were soldiers.

Old Pine Street Church
Reverend John Blair Smith's Grave
at Old Pine Street Church

Smith's father, Dr. Samuel B. Smith, is buried in the Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Philadelphia near the grave of his father Reverend John Blair Smith. The Pine Street Church was founded in 1768 as the Third Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.One of Old Pine's first pastors, George Duffield served as chaplain to the First Continental Congress in 1774 and, with many of his parishioners, joined Washington at Valley Forge in the winter of 1776-77. Old Pine became known as the "Church of the Patriots" because of George Duffield's activities and those of parishioners such as John Adams and other members who supported the Revolution. It is the only Presbyterian structure in Philadelphia dating back to colonial and revolutionary times. Over the years, two congregations merged into Old Pine and today, the official name of the church is The Third, Scots and Mariners Presbyterian Church.


Sunday, October 18, 2015

Embattled Rebel by James M. McPherson

President Jefferson Davis
Embattled Rebel - Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson is an examination of President Jefferson Davis' performance as leader of the Confederate military forces. McPherson explains that he attempts "to describe and analyze Davis's conception and execution of his duty as commander in chief on its own terms and merits, without reference to Lincoln." After his research, McPherson became "less inimical [hostile or unfriendly] toward Davis than I [he] expected when he began this project."

Davis was vilified by his own generals and political rivals. McPherson
believes that Davis' fragile heath might account for the "Jekyll and Hyde descriptions of his personality." McPherson said that Davis "articulated the principal policy of the Confederacy with clarity and force: the quest for independent nationhood." Davis also supported slavery as "the core institution of the Confederate policy." Mr. McPherson concludes that "no other chief executive in American history exercised such hands-on influence in the shaping of military strategy."  As chief architect of Confederate strategy, Davis must absorb the blame for the failure strategy to achieve its goal.

Joseph Johnston
McPherson presents a statement by Davis that should quiet the arguments about the reason the South wanted its freedom. Davis argued that Republicans advocated "a persistent and organized system of hostile measures against the rights of the owners of slaves in the Southern States" and this policy would result in "annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars" and "rendering the property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless."

Davis' plan to protect slave-owner assets produced a military strategy of perimeter defense. Key to this approach was the rapid movement of troops via interior lines. However, it is one thing to articulate a strategy and quite another to execute it. This failure ultimately lies with the senior officer corps. Davis, like Lincoln, was plagued by generals who would not fight (Johnston and McClellan), arrogant officers (Beauregard and McClellan), petty rivalries between officers, incompetent officers, and disobedient military leaders. Davis was further burden by having 30% of his generals his own political appointees.

P. G. T. Beauregard
Davis never seemed to be able or willing to address these issues which festered throughout the war. McPherson's biography clearly illustrates these points.  Ultimately, Davis proclaimed that in trying to protect the whole country, the Confederacy had "attempted more than it had power successfully to achieve." As McPherson chronicles the events and produces the evidence, this reader found little in the way of restoring Davis' reputation. However, I will allow readers to form their own decisions about Davis as Commander in Chief.

McPherson defends Davis by saying he was "the best man for the job" and "no clear evidence exists" that his fellow Confederates were wrong. The author also points out that the Confederates appeared to "on the cusp of success on at least three occasions." However, Davis' major fault was his choices of generals and his relationship with them rather than strategy. This was a fatal flaw because the generals were the instrument of his strategy and Davis' failures here meant that his strategy and perhaps any strategy was doomed to failure.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Civil War in Texas and the Southwest by Roy Sullivan

Civil War in Texas and the Southwest by Roy Sullivan is a fine narrative of the Civil War battles in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. I discovered Sullivan's work while preparing for my class on "Texas in the Civil War."

Battle of Sabine Pass
The book contains descriptions of the well-known Texas engagements at Galveston (Galveston, TX I and Galveston, TX II), Sabine Pass (Sabine Pass, TX I and Sabine Pass, TX II), and Palmito Ranch (Palmito Ranch, TX). Sullivan also includes the out-of-state battles at Val Verde (Valverde, NM) and Glorieta Pass (Glorieta Pass, NM).

Battle of Galveston
What I liked best about Sullivan's book were his descriptions of actions in the Rio Grande Valley and on theGrande Valley were fought by two Tejanos: Santos Benavides, a staunch supporter of secession and Confederacy, and Juan Cortina, the “fearless, self-possessed, and cunning” fighter who was aligned with the Union. One of my students discovered a link supported by the University of Texas Pan American called Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail, which is worth visiting.
Texas Gulf Coast. The battles in the Rio

Union Lieutenant J. W. Kittredge led the assaults along the Texas coast. He captured Aransas Pass, burned homes on Mustang Island and Matagorda Island, and raided undefended coastal villages and stole food and supplies. Kittredge failed to take Corpus Christi and was eventually captured by Confederate forces.
The book focuses 

Sullivan's book focuses on the military engagements in Texas and the Southwest. It does not discuss the activities of Texas units, such as the Texas brigade, in other theaters of war. The author does not describe the role that civilians played in war effort or the Gainesville Hangings, Nueces Massacre, and Juneteenth. The author uses invented dialogue or what appears to be invented dialogue in describing some of the battles, which straddles the fence between historical fact and historical. The absence of footnotes detracts from its use by historians. In spite of these issues, I found that the book was most enjoyable to read.

Sullivan is a retired US Army colonel and author of Scattered Graves: The Civil War Campaigns of Confederate General and Cherokee Chief Stand Watie

For those readers interested in the topic, the Texas State Historical Association has just issued a free e-book called Civil War In The Lone Star State