Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Unionists in Virginia by Lawrence M. Denton


George W. Summers
In early 1861, a group of Union-loyal Virginians worked to prevent the Civil War.  The Union faction led by George Summers, John Brown Baldwin, John Janney, and Jubal Early believed that a war with the North could be prevented.  The Union supporters defeated Southern Rights Democrats in voting for delegates to the Virginia Secession Convention.  In Washington, Secretary of State William H. Seward worked behind the scenes to support the Unionists efforts. However, just when it appeared that cooler heads might prevent disaster, a series of actions by President Abraham Lincoln destroyed reconciliation efforts and propelled the nation into a bloody Civil War. 

These are the events that author and historian Lawrence M. Denton examines in Unionists in Virginia - Politics, Secession and their Plan to Prevent Civil War.  Denton's scholarly effort captures the difficult times as the country waited for Virginia - the lynch pin of avoiding Civil War. After Lincoln's election in November 1860, "Virginia truly occupied a unique position at this critical moment in the nation's history."

Denton cites many historical sources in navigating the reader through the complexities of the Virginia political landscape.  He characterizes the Unionists as wanting to remain in the Union and trying to rebuild it. The author points out that, "...just after Lincoln's election, the vast majority of Southerners did not favor secession."  The conflict fought in Virginia had more to do with political power than slavery.  It was a battle between the aristocratic planter class ("Slave Power") who controlled the political apparatus in the state and non-slaveholders who considered the slaveholders to be the embodiment of "undemocratic government at its worst."

As early as 1850, the undemocratic structure was under attack by Southern "liberals, moderates, and conservatives - essentially all those who were excluded from the process." The anti-Slave Power won a huge victory by first winning the vote for a state constitutional convention and then gaining the right to vote for "all white men," election of the governor, reducing the power of the legislature, and giving more control to residents of their local government.

Northern support for the James Brown raid partially offset these victories. "As a result of Northern sympathy, or supposed sympathy, for Brown's crime, all factions in Virginia were united in their resentment."

Denton presents some interesting statistics on the Union support from Confederate States. His data indicates that 102,000 Southerners from Confederate States fought for the Union.  He also indicates that 200,000 border whites joined the Union army compared to 90,000 who enlisted in the Confederate army.

Even after Lincoln's election, Virginians loyal to the Union maintained their strength. The Unionists "unleashed their most virulent attack on the Southern Rights Democrats" denouncing them as the Slave Power faction and disunionists. In the referendum vote of February 1861, the anti-Slave Power supporters accounted for 69% of the votes.


Willard's Hotel
Site of Peace Conference
Denton characterized February as "a time for hope." The Peace Conference met in Washington during that month and drafted a proposed thirteenth amendment to the Constitution.  Among its seven articles were reestablishment of the Missouri Compromise Line, prohibition of Congress interfering with slavery in any state, strict enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, and ending the foreign slave trade.  When a committee from the conference met with Lincoln, the president-elect refused to endorse the Peace Conference Amendment.


William H. Seward

The author presents the role that William Seward played in supporting the efforts of the Virginia Unionists. Denton leads the reader through the events of March and April that eventually resulted in war.  Seward's efforts to abandon Fort Sumter were dashed by a mismanaged scheme to resupply the fort.  Lincoln is portrayed as a political novice who refused to make any concessions to the South. Soon, Seward realized, "the final decision regarding compromise lay in the hands of one party, and ultimately just one man: Abraham Lincoln."


Seward's Letter to Lincoln
Denton puts the blame on the two presidents: Jefferson Davis for approving the attack on Fort Sumter and, more significantly, Abraham Lincoln for calling for troops to put down the rebellion.  Lincoln's last measure alienated the remaining Union support in the South and ended the nation's best chance of saving the Union without war.

Lawrence Denton's book is a worthy addition to any Civil War library. His well-researched narrative provides an in-depth view on how Lincoln and the Radical Republicans seized defeat from the jaws of victory.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Field of Lost Shoes


The motion picture, Field of Lost Shoes, that is currently available on Netflix, tells the story of the role of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) at the Battle of New Market.

Field of Lost Shoes is a 2014 American war drama film directed by Sean McNamara and written by Dave Kennedy and Thomas Farrell. The film stars Luke Benward as Cadet John Wise, Lauren Holly as Mrs. Clinedinst, Jason Isaacs as Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, Tom Skerritt as Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant, Keith David as "Old Judge," and David Arquette as Col. David DuPont. The movie focuses on a group of five cadets from VMI who fought in the battle.  The story begins shortly before the battle and reveals the character of the young men from Virginia.  They adopt a new student Robert as "Sir Rat," defend "Old Judge" from accusations of stealing food, and fall in love.  The story features VMI's first Jewish cadet, Moses Ezekiel, who survived the battle and became an famous sculptor.  The film received a 47% "liked it rating" from Rotten Tomatoes.  I liked the movie and found it one of the better independent films on the Civil War.  The cast and acting is certainly superior to many military films.


The Battle of New Market took place on May 15, 1864 as part of the Lynchburg Campaign in May and June.  In conjunction with his Spring offensive, Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant ordered Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel to move up the Shenandoah Valley along the Valley Pike with 10,000 men to destroy the railroad and canal complex at Lynchburg. At New Market, a makeshift Confederate army of about 4,100 men commanded by Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge attacked Sigel's forces. At a crucial point, a key Union battery was withdrawn from the line to replenish its ammunition, leaving a weakness that Breckinridge quickly exploited. He ordered his entire force forward, and Sigel’s stubborn defense collapsed. Threatened by the Confederate cavalry on his left flank and rear, Sigel  ordered a general withdrawal burning the North Fork bridge behind him. Sigel retreated down the Valley to Strasburg and was soon replaced by Maj. Gen. David Hunter.
Each May 15, VMI commemorates the Battle of New Market. The battle represents a rare moment in U.S. history when an entire student body fought as a unit in pitched battle. On May 11, 1864, the Corps was given orders to rise early to begin the nearly 85-mile march northward to support Gen. John C. Breckinridge’s troops in battle. Of the 257 cadets engaged, 10 were killed or died as a result of their injuries. Six are buried beneath the statue Virginia Mourning Her Dead in front of Nichols Hall. Every year on the battle’s anniversary, they are remembered with a parade and ceremony on post.  From the start of their cadetships, VMI cadets learn the names of those who “died on the field of honor” as emblems of service, duty, courage, and integrity. As they take their oath at the site of the battle, retrace the steps of the New Market cadets, and honor them in ceremonies, they aspire to make these qualities of character their own.


Gen. Franz Sigel's Union troops atop Bushong's Hill raked the Confederate line with cannon and musketry creating an ugly gap in the line. Originally, Breckenridge refused the advice of Major Charles Semple to send in the Corps, saying, “This will not do. … I cannot expose them to such a fire as our center will receive.” Breckenridge soon realized he had no choice, and reluctantly ordered the cadets to fill the gap. Remarkably, the cadets helped close the gap, allowing the Confederate forces to regroup and push back the Union army. Eventually, Breckenridge forced Sigel and his men to retreat, securing the battlefield and the Valley for the Confederacy. Many cadets lost their footwear in the freshly plowed soil, turned to thick mud after several days of rain. That section of the battlefield became known as the “Field of Lost Shoes.”

The cadet charge, and the shoeless field, are depicted in a painting, New Market Battle, by Benjamin West Clinedinst, VMI Class of 1880, a dominant feature in Jackson Memorial Hall since its unveiling in 1914. The days following the battle were filled with caring for the wounded and burying the dead. The cadets were ordered to Richmond where they were honored by President Davis and Virginia's Governor William Smith. They received the accolades of all and a new set of colors to replace their bullet-ridden banner. The Corps arrived back on post as Gen. David Hunter attacked and burned V.M.I. on June 12, 1864. In October of 1864 the Corps was dispatched to Richmond for fatigue duty in the trenches and on the Poe Farm until academic duties resumed at the Alms House in December of that year. On October 17, 1865, VMI reopened in Lexington and academic work resumed.

(Sources: The Battle of New Market - Wikipedia, Field of Lost Shoes Review - Rotten Tomatoes, Field of Lost Shoes - Wikipedia, New Market - Civil War Trust, Virginia Museum of the Civil War -VMI) 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Role of Engineers in the Civil War: The Topographical Engineers (part 1)


The evolution of topographical engineers as an important arm of the military began when the first topographical engineers were appointed during the War of 1812. An act of Congress on March 8, 1813 authorized the selection eight engineers and eight assistants to serve on the general staff. The engineers were given the rank of brevet majors and the eight assistants as brevet captains. The topographical engineers were assigned the duties "to make such surveys and exhibit such delineations as the commanding generals shall direct; to make plans of all military positions which the army may occupy and of their respective vicinities, indicating the various roads, rivers, creeks, ravines, hills, woods, and villages to be found therein; to accompany all reconnoitering parties sent out to obtain intelligence of the movements of the enemy or of his positions; to make sketches of their routes, accompanied by written notices of everything worthy of observation therein; to keep a journal of every day's movement when the army is in march, noticing the variety of ground, of buildings, of culture, and distances, and state of roads between common points throughout the march of the day; and lastly, to exhibit the positions of contending armies on the fields of battle, and the dispositions made, either for attack or defense."

Following the War of 1812, the topographical engineers were disbanded as part of the reduction of the Army in 1815. However, President Madison retained two officers to conduct surveys on the northern frontier and of Lake Champlain. An April 24, 1816 law organized the Army general staff defined northern and southern divisions and allocated three topographical engineers and two assistants for each organization.

Burning of Washington
In 1816, Congress appropriated funds to construct a system of fortifications along the Atlantic Coast. The forts were in response to the successful British invasions including the burning of federal offices in Washington during the War of 1812. The War Department organized a Board of Engineers for Fortifications to examine and to select sites for the works. The same year, Major Stephen H. Long began to explore and conduct surveys in the West. His initial operations were surveys of the Illinois, Fox, Wisconsin, Upper Mississippi, and Minnesota Rivers in connection with construction of forts on the frontier. During 1819-1820, he conducted an expedition to the Rocky Mountains. In 1823, he determined the northern boundary with Canada at the 49th parallel at Pembina while exploring the Minnesota River and the Red River of the North. Another officer was assigned topographical duties with General Andrew Jackson’s army in it operations against the Seminole Indians.

Pawnees in a parley with
Major Long's expedition
The Topographical Engineers were placed under the Engineer Department in 1818. In 1824, the Topographical Engineers were given the responsibilities to make improvements in the nation's transportation system. A Board of Engineers for Internal Improvements was formed to perform surveys, plans, and estimates for roads and canals. One of the Board's earliest projects was the survey of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

On June 22, 1831, the Topographical Bureau was made an independent office of the War Department directly responsible to the Secretary of War. During the 1830's, the Topographical Engineers were extensively engaged in public and private internal improvements. Numerous surveys were made of rivers, roads, canals, railroads, and harbors throughout the country. After the Topographical Engineers completed the surveys, government projects for the improvement of rivers and the construction of roads were performed under contracts administered by the Corps of Engineers and the Quartermaster's Department. Topographical engineers worked on the survey of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. They managed construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal aqueduct over the Potomac River at Georgetown.

Beginning in 1834, the Topographical Engineers were employed in construction of lighthouses. The completed facilities were turned over to the Treasury Department for administration.

Indians and Negroes Attacking Whites 
In 1836 several Topographical Engineers were sent to Florida for service with the Army against the Seminole Indians. The Topographical Engineers had been so busy with other assignments that they had not been able to conduct military surveys and explorations. The lack of this information for Florida impeded operations against the Seminoles. Throughout the war, topographical officers and other officers of the Army were assigned to military expeditions where they obtained topographical information. This work allowed the engineers to assemble a topographical map of Florida for use by General Zachary Taylor in his campaign against the Seminoles.

Efforts continued through the 1830's to form a Corps of Topographical Engineers. On July 5, 1838, the Florida war and the expansion of the western military frontier forced Congress to increase the Army. As part of this law, a Corps of Topographical Engineers was organized with one colonel, one lieutenant colonel, four majors, ten captains, ten first lieutenants, and ten second lieutenants. After the Corps of Topographical Engineers was organized, the Secretary of War assigned it all civil engineering works directed by the United States. The new Corps was now responsible for all civilian works. Projects involving improvements of rivers and harbors along the Gulf, Atlantic, and Lake coasts were transferred from the Corps of Engineers to the Corps of Topographical Engineers. The Corps of Engineers would concentrate on military works. Plans and drawings of fortifications were transferred from the Corps of Topographical Engineers to the Corps of Engineers.

(Source: A History of the U. S. Topographical Engineers, 1818-1863, by Henry P. Beers, U S Corps of Topographical Engineers, http://www.topogs.org/History.htm.)