Tag Archives: American Civil War

Working to understand France

Lynn M. Case & Warren F. Spencer, The United States and France: Civil War Diplomacy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970. (part two)

As I mentioned in part one of this commentary, The United States and France is a long piece of nearly 610 pages followed by extensive notes and bibliographic commentary.  I also pointed out that in the first go round, the general style appeared to be very formal in sentence structure and wording.  I’m happy to report that this issue resolved itself relatively quickly – whether I simply got used to the authors’ idiosyncratic choices or the material did, in reality, smooth out, I’m still unclear.  Perhaps by our third or fourth report I’ll have a conclusive thought.

While at times Case and Spencer have a tendency to go for the long quote to prove a point (there are some immensely long block quotes) the authors also make use of primary evidence in an interesting manner by going for a more conversational style at times.  The reader gets a a good sense of this when conversations between Napoleon III and his foreign ministers or other nations’ foreign ministers are taking place.  This choice has the effect of bringing the words to a livelier level – the authors still maintain their point, but do so in a manner that reminds the reader of the human element.  This skill is sometimes lacking in historical writing.

From a content perspective, the debate back and forth within France over supporting preservation of the Union, supporting the Confederacy, or maintaining neutrality is interesting.  It is clear that in the early going most of the French press was at least nominally unionist.  However, Case points out that some of this may have been due to a clever tack by French writers, praising American democracy as a method of critiquing their own limitations on freedom under Napoleon III.  Northern diplomats at times despaired that the Confederacy would be granted “belligerent rights.”

This point on belligerent rights is of interest as well because of its repercussions in the modern era.  Case reminds the reader that the world looks at those in revolt and wonders whether they should be recognized as a new nation.  However, foreign countries, (even today, but particularly in the late sixties) delay.  Case used the historical example of France waiting two years to recognize the United States as an independent nation.  Further, he points out that recognizing independent sovereignty was often dependent on the new nation using bellicose actions to demonstrate authority.  For their part, officials from the United States consistently demanded foreigners stay out of what was described as an American affair and problem.  Meanwhile, Case also does a great job portraying how even within France itself, the foreign ministry was less than clear as to what its government wanted to do in relation to the Confederacy.  Case also conveys clearly the trepidation that French ministers had when dealing with Secretary of State Seward.  I imagine, and Case helps create the scene, that discussions must have been very uncomfortable and tense as ministers have to explain that France would be interested in ideas like neutrality or mediating a settlement between the two parties, etc.

…the Federal government, which is determined to perish rather than recognize the Southern Confederacy, will not suffer the Europeans to have relations with its present leaders, which would raise their prestige.” – William Seward, United States Secretary of State, 1861


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Civil War diplomacy

Lynn M. Case & Warren F. Spencer, The United States and France: Civil War Diplomacy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970. (part one)

The late co-authors of this work make clear from the preface that their interest in pursuing the topic of Franco-American relations in the Civil War era is a labor of love driven partially by the fact that not a lot of recent work had been done on the subject by the late 1960s.  Chiefly, the authors believed that other historians had mined the diplomacy with England and even Germany effectively, but France promised “undiscovered” diplomatic history.

Case and Spencer divided the labor on the text.  The authors had previously pursued studies of the French foreign ministers who served during the Civil War (Edouard Thouvenal and Drouyn de Lhuys respectively).  Case worked through the first nine chapters, while Spencer wrote chapters ten through sixteen.  Together, the two men wrote the preface, introduction and seventeenth chapter.  As I have written before, co-authored books always intrigue me because of the compromises that must be made as well as the practical problems authors may face in putting together a book at a distance from one another (Case worked in Pennsylvania, Spencer in Georgia).

The book is a long piece at some 608 pages of regular text followed by extensive notes and bibliographic commentary.  As a result, I have been slowly working my way through the wording, not helped out by the general style which, while readable, is very formal in sentence structure and wording.  A little over twenty years ago I used the book as a source for an independent paper project I was completing along with two other students.  At the time, I was looking for only certain points related to diplomacy in 1863 and early 1864, so it was very much an index and skim search.

Despite its very formal nature, the book remains clear.  Readers identify quickly the main intent of the authors and the citations demonstrate the depth of their research.  Case and Spencer attest that the diplomatic impact of the American Civil War was extensive, particularly in the Western Hemisphere.  They tie the event to a number of others that relate to nationalist conflicts in Italy, the Prussian and Austrian territories, etc.  Case and Spencer also emphasize that the war period was almost a proving ground of sorts for international law with examples of how to deal with recognizing new nations, defining neutral rights, protecting foreign people and property in wartime, and more.  The authors make interesting points about the war’s impact on employment and poverty in Europe, the historiography of foreign affairs in the period is explored, and revelations about previously unknown resources and papers are made  (particularly documents from Edouard Thouvenel that later amounted to some 25 microfilm rolls after legal reproduction issues were cleared).

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Primary source collection, oldie but a goodie

Ned Bradford, editor Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. Markham, Ontario: Meridian Books, 1984 (original publication date, 1956).

The two things that stick out in my memory of this book were the pictures adorning most introductory pages to each source, and the catchy titles for each selection. When I picked it up off the shelf this afternoon, I was reminded of a few other details including density and variety.

As Bradford explains, the American Civil War story is a common one for American consumption and this fact results in many new books published on the topic each year. Yet, argues Bradford, the basic history of the war was written in the 1880s by the very men who were leaders. Commanders of Union and Confederate forces had been convinced to write up their experiences for Century Magazine. While asked to emphasize tactics and strategy, the magazine hoped the soldiers would throw in the odd story here and there to capture readers’ attention in different ways (xi).

The original collection resulted in four volumes organized both geographically and chronologically. For his version, Bradford chose to reduce the numbers of accounts by publishing a single volume. Bradford offers the readers useful terminology lessons regarding the organization of most armies in the era. This vocabulary list is useful, particularly because it clarifies points within the context of several of the essays. In addition, prior to each document is an introductory essay, offering the readers the proper context for every primary source.

Like the original, Bradford has published the documents with an order and chronology. The first, for example, comes to us from Abner Doubleday and focuses on his experiences at Forts Moultrie and Sumter in 1861. This particular document came with a very useful map of Charleston harbor – I have seen Sumter from a distance and have a sense of its placement, but the map clarifies. Doubleday’s entry introduces readers to the utility of the collection. If you wanted to produce an effective classroom exercise about the beginning of the war, having students read this account and do comparisons with other witnesses would be useful.

Having recently traveled to Chancellorsville and Gettysburg I took a quick look at those sections of Bradford’s edition. The former has a few documents including a comment from a Union general about Lee out- generaling his opponents and a piece reacting to the mortal wounding and death of Thomas Jackson. One of the great aspects of the collection is reflected in these samples – brevity is important and achievable even when trying to tell complicated stories. These documents are easy to edit and shorten or perhaps expand by including the comparative sources. The illustrations and maps are helpful as well.

Lee’s farewell message to the Army of Northern Virginia rounds out the collection and were it on its own, that inclusion might be called to question. Instead, the document can easily be made part of an assignment on the end of the war. The source is none other than the officer who took down Lee’s final message. Readers might consider asking questions about authenticity and for more information on this staff officer, Charles Marshall. Alternatively, teachers might seek out a Union officer’s description of reacting to the disbanding of the Army of Northern Virginia. The text is a useful one and should be considered as a reasonable substitute for the four full length editions.

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A modern war

Standing looking west at the fields across which marched Pickett's division

Standing looking west at the fields across which marched Pickett’s division

Bruce Catton, The Coming Fury: Volume I, The Centennial History of the Civil War.  New York: Doubleday, 1961. (part three)

One hundred and fifty years ago today, arguably the hubris of Robert E. Lee pushed a division across a little over a mile of open ground in a bid to assail a strong Union position.  Whether this division’s failure was truly representative of the “highwater” mark of the Confederacy, or whether the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi one hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow mattered more, is a point of debate for military and political historians alike.  I stood and took the picture to the left last week, gazing west towards the monument of General Lee and wondering, for not the first time during this recent Gettysburg visit, what was Lee thinking?

Bruce Catton was surely thinking when he signed onto this project nearly sixty years ago.  The strengths I have described in the previous entries about Catton are continued throughout this entire text.  Catton’s use of the sources E. B. Long and his wife Edith unearthed is consistently good, giving us reich portraits of figures whom we might not otherwise fully understand or comprehend.  But it is not just the people who gain personality and dimension in Catton’s hands.  Even inanimate objects like Forts Pickens and Sumter take on different gravity because Catton chooses to make the forts, their topography, and their situations say something meaningful.  Another wonderful example of Catton’s use of detail is his comparisons between a personal letter demanding assistance from Italian opera singer Amalia Valtellina and a rather bold missive from Secretary of State William Seward (287 – 291).  The lead up to the firing on Fort Sumter  on April 14, 1861 is equally masterful.

What’s intriguing to me as someone who is knowledgeable about the causes and thread of the American Civil War itself is that reading a book that is fifty years old can say as much as it does to me.  I suppose that is the mark of quality writing and research, though it also seems to speak to the nature of sources that were available to the author.  By effectively using the documents, Catton succeeded in describing everything from the Democratic convention of 1860 to the confusion and tumult of two ‘nations’ occupying the space of one, and the equally confusing results of combat near Manassas Junction in the summer of 1861.  Catton’s assessment of the conditions in states like Missouri and Virginia in the aftermath of the Sumter victory for the Confederacy are important to understand, especially as they give readers a sense of uncertainty, while augmenting the idea of how potentially disruptive this civil conflict would become.

As he does throughout these chapters, Catton makes a deeper impact the more he relies on the words and thoughts of the witnesses.  Following his excellent description of the battle at Manassas, Catton faces a subject most recently brought to light by Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering – the physical and emotional consequences of combat.  To that end, Catton talks about the wounded and the dead, the hospitals and those on whom it fell to notify the relatives of loves ones lost.  Finally, he concludes with a quote that over the years has been corrected – Catton lists the quote as coming from a Major Sullivan Bullen of Illinois, written to his wife Sarah before Manassas.  “The Letter” as it became known after 1990’s Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War, was probably penned by Sullivan Ballou of Rhode Island.  Regardless, the words are used to great effect to describe the pain felt by many women and men across the nation.

“Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait, for we shall meet again” (473).

The men marching across that field pictured here must have felt some of the same angst as Major Bullen/Ballou, perhaps knowing that the assault which they were about to make, might be their last action on earth.  One might argue had Lee realized this attack could not succeed, perhaps Pickett’s division would have been used differently – then again, this was a man who had written to his cousin early in the war, “I prefer annihilation to submission.  They may destroy but I trust will never conquer us” (472).

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The Union is dissolved…

Memorial to the 9th Massachusetts Artillery Battery, Peach Orchard, Gettysburg Battlefield

Memorial to the 9th Massachusetts Artillery Battery, Peach Orchard, Gettysburg Battlefield

Bruce Catton, The Coming Fury: Volume I, The Centennial History of the Civil War.  New York: Doubleday, 1961. (part two)

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Captain Bigelow’s Ninth Massachusetts Battery made an important stand at the Peach Orchard and Trostle’s Farm, Gettysburg.  Bigelow’s battery, never before in combat, was ordered to help the III Corps of Daniel Sickles hold advancing Confederate forces at bay as the Union army pulled its forces back into defensible positions on the second day at Gettysburg.

This fighting at Gettysburg took place because of the dissolution of the Union, which Bruce Catton describes in great detail beginning with chapter three of The Coming Fury.  Catton describes a Union that is drifting towards war despite the fact that most people in the United States (even those in the soon to be seceded states) wanted to remain at peace.  Catton then uses speeches and personalities from the South Carolina secession convention to illustrate the desire for independence, but, in a peaceful way if at all possible.  He describes then President James Buchanan as the “unhappiest man in America” which seems like an understatement given Buchanan’s reaction when told about secession – ‘he looked at me stunned’ wrote a witness, and rode off to the White House to face the crisis (140).  This kind of theater in writing, despite covering ground that students of history might know, is highly effective.

The next stage of the crisis, that regarding Federal property in the seceded states is an interesting section as well.  As is typical of his style, Catton gives us much to think about regarding the personalities involved and he fleshes out an important question.  Why does South Carolina assume the right to own these federal properties?  It is one thing to claim the right to secede, but is it not something entirely different to claim the right to property owned by a separate governing body, simply due to geographic location?  And this is to say nothing of the men, materials, etc. within armories and forts, etc.  The back and forth between the Buchanan administration and the government of South Carolina is uncovered in fascinating detail.

The fourth chapter of Fury depicts the rival presidents, Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln, as each takes the reins of their respective governments.  Catton points out that the Southern position is a bit unsteady as a little less than half of the slave states initially seceded.  Again, a mixture of speeches, documents, and newspaper accounts give the reader a sense of the times.  The book itself revealed a little more recent history to me too – a bookmark in chapter four (page 226, “Colonel Lee Leaves Texas”) proved to be a selective service system notice of classification card for a young man from Hartford, CT.  I’m fairly certain this individual (declared 1-A which meant available for military service) was my father’s freshman year roommate – the book has held this card for some fifty-two years!

Finally, the chapter concludes with Lincoln’s inaugural address – in it, Lincoln points out that the Union was unbroken.  It was together, despite any actions taken at Charleston, Montgomery, or anywhere else.  Lincoln reminded the audience that “he was its (the Union’s) chief executive, and he would behave accordingly” (265).  Lincoln confirmed what many had suspected – he would “hold, occupy, and possess the government’s property.”  Clearly, Lincoln meant that the United States was not to surrender Fort Sumter or any other locations without a fight (266-270).



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We are met…

Bruce Catton, The Coming Fury: Volume I, The Centennial History of the Civil War.  New York: Doubleday, 1961.


150 years ago this morning, on the fields surrounding the ridge (McPherson’s) in this picture, two great armies of Americans met, somewhat accidentally, and did commence to a grand fight for three days.  The fields, town, buildings, rocks, and more in this small community of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania became important touchstones in American history.

Fifty-two years ago, Bruce Catton’s first volume of a proposed trilogy was published as part of the centennial history of the American Civil War.  The Coming Fury is a lengthy work so I will limit my comments this evening to a few remarks as I continue to work my way through the text.  In it, Catton portrays the background behind the Civil War in compelling prose which illustrates not only the breadth of research (for which he had help) and his not inconsiderable writing skills. A journalist by trade, Catton became a historical writer by the late 1940s, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for A Stillness at Appomattox.   By 1955, Catton had been commissioned to construct a multi-volume history of the war with research directed by Everette B. Long, who worked alongside his wife Edith Long gathering an incredible array of documents.  The research not only served Catton in writing the trilogy, but remains an important collection for research, housed at Texas A & M University.

Catton’s works on the Civil War have held my eye since I was about ten years old.  The texts were all in “the library” of my father, which in those days was housed in the basement of our family home in Sudbury, MA.  While Stillness and This Hallowed Ground grabbed me first, my dad insisted that at some point I examine The Coming Fury – “Catton has his problems,” he’d pronounce, “but the story of why and how is laid out.”  Indeed.

This first volume uses the Longs’ research to great effect portraying people in deep and meaningful ways.  Except for very particular Civil War historians, a personality like William Yancey is not likely to grab people’s attention yet it is here that Catton chooses to begin his tale and it sets the stage powerfully for his style.  Using newspaper accounts, letters, and other pieces of of information, a rich portrayal of the man and his importance to the question of the Democratic ticket in 1860 are laid out.  By the time Catton reaches the end of his second chapter and the reactions to a Republican victory are playing out, we have a rich sense of the coming dissolution.

The Coming Fury was not necessarily intent on making deep historical connections into the 1840s like the posthumous book by David Potter, The Impending Crisis.  Nevertheless, Catton tried to use the events of spring 1860 and the personalities involved to lay out the compelling tale of how the war came to pass, whether it was “irrepressible,” and why it was fought at all.


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Sesquicentennial visitations

This week I am co-leading a group of teachers on a tour of Civil War battlefields at Chancellorsville, Virginia, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I am also reading through a few books here and there including some texts I will be using in a summer course that begins the week of July 1. Yesterday was a special privilege as I was walking the grounds over which my great-great grandfather passed 150 years ago last month.

Readers of this blog will recall that in teaching the American Civil War to high school students, I would somewhat playfully emphasize the deaths of two important commanding officers at Chancellorsville – my students had heard of Stonewall Jackson for the most part. They had not heard of the former theater manager from Detroit who helped recruit company A of the 5th Michigan, and then rose to lead the regiment.

By April 1863, Sherlock had been wounded at least once, promoted to Major, promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and become commander of the 5th Michigan for Daniel Sickles’ III Corps. Of course Jackson’s mortal wounding at Chancellorsville holds the balance of Confederate hopes more so – was the battlefield a great victory for the South or did the loss of over 20% of fighting effectives and Jackson harm the Army of Northern Virginia irreparably? Walking yesterday over the ground was enlightening and, for me, seen through different eyes than my last visit here in 1984.

Our park guide, Beth Parnicza, was excellent and helped us understand the flow and confusion of the battle, as well as making us think about it’s consequences (both immediate and long term). One can readily see that if you ever had the chance to take students to a battlefield, it can clearly make a deeper impression about the event.

We took only partial steps over what was a wide space, but walking at Catherine Furnace, Hazel Grove, and Fairview in particular was eye opening. The 5th Michigan was placed into 22 different positions during Chancellorsville and we covered only perhaps 5 of them yesterday. I was fortunate to also be traveling with a colleague whose great grandfather was also in the III Corps, was an officer in Berdan’s sharpshooters, and whose unit was often attached alongside that of Edward Sherlock’s. His letter describing the battlefield near Catherine Furnace and Fairview in particular is detailed and revealing – “The bullets began to whistle uncomfortably close but in a few minutes I got so excited I did not think of them” (George A. Marden, letter courtesy of Rob Wilson, but also in Special Collections at Dartmouth College).

In the heat of June, seeing scattered cicada shells about, I wondered about the temperature in May 1863, whether the whirr and buzz of insects and chirping of birds was the same then in the few quiet moments as what we experienced. When our guide stopped at Fairview and we cast our eyes back to the higher ground we had occupied at Hazel Grove I thought Sherlock was lucky to not have been killed on the orderly withdrawal from that hill. Of course, Sherlock was not so fortunate at Fairview, as a shrapnel burst took his life, leaving friend John Pulford in charge.

I stood at the lunettes near the cannon monuments at Fairview musing on that fact and wondering whether anything would have changed had the shrapnel clipped Sherlock’s arm rather than his chest. Hard to say obviously, but in the years after the war, the family, like so many across the United States must have struggled. In addition to losing a husband and father, Mary Sherlock and her children never received the body for the resolution of that “good death” of nineteenth century culture.

Making history personal for students is not always as possible as the example I offered above, but sometimes the space itself can speak to students. Chancellorsville can be made to speak as you walk the trails, marvel at the insanity of establishing lines in an open field of artillery fire, or pass through the confusion and disorientation of the woods north and east of the park visitor center. A site visit, combined with judicious readings from documents and letters, studying campaign maps, and examining photographs can all enrich a student’s understanding of the past.

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