Thursday, March 15, 2018

American Civil War Demobilization

Grand Review of the Armies May 23-24, 1865

      With the end of the Civil War, the Union army gathered for one last grand victory parade in Washington.  Anne Frobel wrote in May 1865, “Today we see tents and camps spring up in every quarter…. The roads filled with soldiers as far back as we can see through the woods, coming-coming-coming, thousands and tens of thousands. I hardly thought the world contained so many men and the wagons, O the wagons, long lines of white wagons coming by roads and crossroads...Tomorrow there is to be a 'grand review' of the 'grand' U.S. Army at Washington and great has been the stir of preparation...Rose Hill is literally covered with Sherman's army and such immense, immense numbers of splendid horses and mules.”

      The one million men under arms in the Union army at the end of the Civil War were largely volunteers and wanted to go home. (Many professional Prussian officers derided the armies of the American Civil War as, “Two armed mobs colliding.”)  Almost all of the volunteers were mustered out by late October 1867.  Congress voted for the establishment of a regular army of 54,302 officers and enlisted men on July 28, 1866.  This number was reduced to 27,442 in 1876.  The army was scattered over a vast continent, mostly in the West.  America’s defense depended almost completely on the same thinking that existed at the time of the American Revolution, “leave it to the volunteer militias”.

     In November 1889, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy called for the rapid expansion of the United States Navy, stating that since the end of the Civil War the fleet had been neglected and become technologically obsolete.  America stood twelfth among the naval powers of the earth.  The U.S. fleet consisted of 11 armored and 31 unarmored vessels, whereas the British fleet boasted 76 armored and 291 unarmored vessels.  The German fleet had 40 armored and 105 unarmored ships.  The American fleet was outranked by even the eleventh rate navy of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire which had 12 armored and 44 unarmored ships.  Secretary Tracy complained, “We have an exposed coast line of 13,000 miles upon which are situated more than twenty great centers of population, wealth, and commercial activity, wholly unprotected against modern weapons.  These are inviting objects to attack, with a wide range of choice as to the points to be selected.”

General George S. Patton once said, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.

Monday, February 26, 2018

George Armstrong Custer: Why All the Controversy?


     In his book, Custer and the Great Controversy, Robert Utley writes, “Almost every myth of the Little Bighorn that one finds today masquerading as history may be found also in the press accounts of July 1876.”  In the bitter election year of 1876, the Custer tragedy was a godsend for Democrats to use against their Republican opponents.  “The Little Bighorn disaster…instantly became a pawn on the political chessboard.” (Utley, 39)

     Utley writes that the New York Herald launched a vicious attack on the Grant administration, denouncing President Grant as, “the author of the present Indian war.”  On July 16 the Herald asked “Who Slew Custer?”, and in answer declared, “The celebrated peace policy of General Grant…that is what killed Custer.” The press placed the battle “…in a political context that assured its rise to a national issue of the first magnitude.”  (Utley, 39, 41) 

     After the initial wave of political hysteria abated, the press insured that the Custer controversy would be constantly reignited by readily publishing the prejudices, opinions, and grievances of officers who had served with Custer or on the frontier. Pro-Custer editor’s rushed to Custer’s defense.

     And so it continued between pro and anti-Custer partisans for half a century.  Utley concludes that it was the press that, “laid the foundations for the evolution of the history of the Little Bighorn into one of the most misunderstood, confused, and controversial events in American history.” (Utley, 48)

Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

George Armstrong Custer: Hero or Villain?

George Armstrong Custer

     Since his death along the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn River, in Montana, on June 25, 1876, over five hundred books have been written about the life and career of George Armstrong Custer.  The earliest works portrayed Custer as a romantic, knightly figure, a paragon of virtue and chivalry.  Custer was the valorous paladin killed in the cause of Christian civilization and American Manifest Destiny.
     Views of Custer have changed over succeeding generations.  Custer has been portrayed as a callous egotist, a bungling egomaniac, a genocidal war criminal, and the puppet of faceless forces.  For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values.  Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history.  
     The broader importance of the controversy that rages around the Battle of the Little Bighorn centers on the nature of truth.  The battle (which by modern standards would be classified as little more than a frontier skirmish) lasted at most six hours, and yet, after almost one hundred and fifty years, we cannot agree upon what happened, why, or who was responsible.  This roiling controversy forces us to ask, “How do we know what we know, and how do we know if it is true?”

Last Stand Hill

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Custer Conspiracy

Marcus Reno

Frederick Benteen

    In 1954, a small book entitled Kick the Dead Lion: A Casebook of the Custer Battle appeared.  Some seventy-five years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, pro-Custer and anti-Custer partisans continued to lob incendiary charges at Reno and Benteen on the one hand and at Custer on the other.  This book repeats the standard pro-Custer line in a venomous and emotionally charged voice: Reno was a coward, a drunkard, and a man of low character whose cowardice led to the Custer disaster.  Benteen was jealous, peevish, and insubordinate.  His failure to obey Custer’s orders was criminally negligent.

     There would be little of interest in this book except that, for the first time, DuBois challenges the underlying evidence upon which anti-Custer historians such as Frederic Van De Water, E.A. Brininstool and Fred Dustin relied, namely the testimony of the first hand witnesses.  DuBois challenges the motivations of the witnesses. “Much of the testimony taken at the Reno Court of Inquiry was not, as tradition demands, ‘The whole truth and nothing but the truth.’  Especially is this true of statements made under oath by Captain Frederick W. Benteen, Major Marcus Reno and a select group of subordinate officers who felt some inexplicable obligation either to actually change their testimony or to phrase it in such a manner as to cast a different implication on Reno’s various actions.” (DuBois, 46)

    DuBois goes on to take issue with the so called “Enlisted Men’s Petition” (which lauded the actions of Reno and Benteen and called for their immediate promotion), cited so tellingly by Graham and Van De Water in vindication of Reno and Benteen.  According to DuBois, the former Superintendent of the then Custer Battlefield National Monument, Major Edward S. Luce, submitted the signatures on the petition together with a photostatic copy of a payroll of the 7th Cavalry to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for a comparison of handwriting.  In a November 1954 report the FBI concluded that in the case of 79 of the 236 signatures on the petition, “…variations were noted which suggest in all probability that the signatures on the petition are forgeries.”(DuBois, 49)

    DuBois goes on to make the case that Reno and Benteen conspired to introduce exculpatory evidence into the record almost immediately after the battle.  On July 4, 1876, only nine days after the battle, Reno and Benteen concocted the Enlisted Men’s Petition.  “Only an enormous sense of guilt would compel Reno and Benteen to attempt to pre-arrange the evidence in advance of any possible inquiry, and a complete vindication by the enlisted men would weigh heavily in any decision that might be made later.” According to DuBois it was probably Benteen’s first sergeant Joseph McCurry who circulated the petition and in all probability forged signatures when necessary.  DuBois concludes, “The reader must bear in mind that these allegations are hypothetical even though they have basis in reason.” (DuBois, 54) 

    DuBois introduced the concepts of “cover up” and “manufactured evidence” into the story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn at precisely that time in American history when conspiracy explanations had come into vogue.  For a period of years in the early 1950s Senator Joseph McCarthy launched a series of widely publicized (but largely unsubstantiated) charges of communist infiltration into the State Department, the Truman administration, the Voice of America and the United States Army.  In response to McCarthy's initial charges with regard to alleged communists within the State Department, Democratic Senator Millard Tydings convened hearings.  The Tydings Committee concluded that the individuals on McCarthy's list were neither communists nor pro-communist, and labeled McCarthy's charges a “fraud and a hoax”.  The Committee’s report said that the result of McCarthy's actions was to “confuse and divide the American people…to a degree far beyond the hopes of the Communists themselves”. Republicans responded that Tydings was guilty of “the most brazen whitewash of treasonable conspiracy in our history”.

Views of Custer have changed over succeeding generations. Custer has been portrayed as a callous egotist, a bungling egomaniac, a genocidal war criminal, and the puppet of faceless forces. For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.

Gifts for Dogs and Dog Lovers

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Custer Legend and Arlington National Cemetery

William Belknap

The legend of George Armstrong Custer began at the First Battle of Manassas.  Custer would enjoy a spectacularly successful military career until massacred by Sioux Indians in 1876 at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  Custer is buried at West Point but some of those involved in his legend are buried at Arlington.

William W. Belknap was a Civil War Union Brigadier General, and later served as Secretary of War during the Grant Administration.  By 1875 allegations of bribery surrounded Belknap because of his appointment of post traders who sold merchandise on military installations.  George Armstrong Custer was called to testify before Congress in the matter.

Custer accused President Grant's brother and Secretary of War Belknap of corruption. Belknap was impeached and sent to the Senate for trial.  President Grant stripped Custer of overall command of the column chosen to subdue the Sioux and placed him under the command of Brigadier General Alfred Terry.  Custer lost his life trying to regain his career.

Views of Custer have changed over succeeding generations. Custer has been portrayed as a callous egotist, a bungling egomaniac, a genocidal war criminal, and the puppet of faceless forces. For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.

Gifts for Dogs and Dog Lovers

Thursday, February 08, 2018

The Union Army’s Railroad Genius: Herman Haupt

Railroads in the 1860s were small scale local enterprises. The Union army wanted priority treatment, but railroad managers still had an obligation to maintain civilian traffic and make money. In January 1862, the United States Congress authorized President  Lincoln to seize control of the railroads and telegraph for military use. Operations were turned over to the new War Department agency called the U.S. Military Rail Roads (USMRR). Herman Haupt, once the chief engineer, of the Pennsylvania Railroad, became chief of construction and transportation in the Virginia theater of operations. He also eventually attained the rank of brigadier general.  Haupt’s Construction Corps emphasized speed, rather than permanence, and his well-organized trains kept the Union Army supplied, and carried thousands of Union wounded to hospitals.

Trains traveled five times faster than mule-drawn wagons, which reduced the number of supply vehicles required. Faster travel meant cargoes arrived at the front in better condition. Troops traveling by train experienced less fatigue. Railroads boosted logistical output by at least a factor of ten having a profound impact on the outcome of the Civil War.  

When defeated the Union army, an army supplied by rail, could often be reinforced before its Confederate enemies, supplied by wagons could exploit success. Confederate tactical victories seldom led to strategic gains.

A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in the Civil War. The book covers courtship, marriage, birth control and pregnancy, divorce, slavery and the impact of the war on social customs.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Queen Victoria's Wedding

Queen Victoria

     White did not become a popular option for wedding dresses until 1840, after the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.  Victoria wore a white gown for the event so that she could incorporate lace of sentimental value into the design of the dress.  Victoria’s wedding picture was widely published in America and many American brides opted to wear a similar dress. Today’s “white wedding” continues the tradition, though prior to Victorian times, a young bride was married in any color except black (the color of mourning) or red (which was connected with prostitutes).   

Why did Queen Victoria select white?  Many theories have been put forward including: (1) color symbolism,(2) to represent purity of heart and the innocence of childhood, (3) an effort by the Queen to promote lace sales, and (4) to encourage conspicuous consumption by status-conscious families. Later, it was believed that the color white symbolized virginity and should be only be worn by virgin brides.

There was a great deal of cake at Buckingham Palace in February 1840.  Queen Victoria's wedding cake weighed three hundred pounds and measured nine feet across and fourteen inches high and was adorned with roses. An ice sculpture of Britannia surrounded by cupids capped the cake. Traditional white wedding cake or bride's cake did not appear in the United States until the 1860's. Prior to this, cakes served at wedding receptions were a dark and spicy concoction. A more refined cake was created with the introduction of finely ground white flour and the manufacture of baking powder and baking soda. The heavier "fruitcake" was relegated to being the "groom's cake."

The Civil War Wedding, an entertaining look at the customs and superstitions of weddings during the Civil War era.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Duke Street Slave Pen, Alexandria Virginia 1861

The Duke Street Slave Pen
(Now the Offices of the Urban League)

     Alexandria, Virginia was a major center for the domestic slave trade during the antebellum period.  Hundreds of thousands of slaves were shipped to the labor hungry cotton fields of the Deep South. 

Slaves being sold to cotton planters further south were brought into Alexandria from the countryside and housed in the slave pen until the time for sale.  After sale, they were herded to the Alexandria wharves and shipped out in lots by steamboat.  Lewis Bailey, taken from his family and sold as a young boy walked back to Alexandria from Texas after the Civil War to be re-united with his mother. Masters were forced to explain why contented and well cared for servants ran away so frequently and in such large numbers.  Many owners concluded that frequent runaways were mentally imbalanced.  Masters devoted considerable energy to controlling the movement of slaves.  Written passes were needed to leave the plantation.  Overseers watched the slave quarters, slave patrols were formed, professional slave hunters were employed, and rewards were offered.

Slave trader George Kephart went out of business abruptly on May 24, 1861 as the Union army marched into Alexandria.  When Federal troops arrived at the slave pen on Duke Street, the pen was in complete disarray, the sole occupant one old slave still chained to the floor.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Falls Church, Virginia in the Civil War

The Falls Church

The Falls Church, the church for which the city is named was first built in 1734. The present-day brick church, replaced the wooden one in 1769. By 1861, Falls Church had seen the arrival of many Northerners seeking land.  The township's vote for secession was about seventy five percent for and twenty five percent against.

The Falls Church was vandalized by occupying Union troops.  The 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry, camped near Falls Church, confiscated fences and gates for firewood and even harvested five acres of potatoes.  Volunteers of the 40th New York took pride in the name the “Forty Thieves” because they could find plunder where others failed. 

A dedication marker at The Falls Church recognizes unknown Union soldiers who were buried in unmarked graves in the church yard during the Civil War. The soldiers were from the 144th and 80th New York Volunteer Infantry regiments stationed at Upton’s Hill. The soldiers all died of disease, with the exception of one who was “accidentally shot.”

There are currently two markers at The Falls Church, one for unknown Union soldiers and one for Confederate soldiers.  These markers are located in the front of the church yard on South Washington Street and were dedicated on Memorial Day, 2004. The remains of a single unknown Confederate soldier were removed after the war.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Centreville, Virginia in the Civil War

Centreville in the Civil War

On July 16, the great Union army, marched out of Washington City to meet the Confederates at Manassas Junction. The Union Army marched through the sleepy village of Centreville, Virginia (seen above).  On July 21, 1861, the two great armies grappled. Both sides had armies of about 35,000 men.

The Union Army was defeated on the plains of Manassas.  The retreat was relatively orderly until the cry went up, “The Black Horse Cavalry are coming.”  At the Bull Run crossings (below) the retreat became a humiliating route, as soldiers streamed uncontrollably toward Centreville, discarding their arms and equipment.

Ruins of the Stone Bridge across Bull Run

The Summers family, whose house, north of Fairfax Court House, was in the path of the retreating soldiers, woke up to find bales of blankets and uniforms in the yard, along with barrels of fish and flour and beef tongues, and even a crate of champagne, all left behind in the panic of retreat.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The George Washington Masonic National Memorial

Under Construction 1922 - 1932

Sitting high atop Shuter’s Hill in Alexandria, Virginia, once considered as the site for the U.S. Capitol, the Alexandria-Washington Freemason Lodge No. 22 dominates the local skyline, as well it might, being the Lodge of none other than Worshipful Brother George Washington.  In Masonic terms, George Washington was, "a just and upright Mason", a "living stone" who became the cornerstone of American civilization.  Washington presided over the cornerstone ceremony for the U.S. Capitol in 1793, laying the cornerstone of the United States Capitol in Masonic garb, as chronicled by the Alexandria Gazette of September 25, 1793.  A family cemetery was located to the right of the George Washington National Masonic Shrine (seen here under construction). In early America small family cemeteries were common.  An English visitor to colonial Alexandria, noted, “It is the custom of this place to bury their relatives in their gardens.”

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Alexandria’s Military Prisons in the Civil War

The Cotton Factory

The Union Army operated five prisons in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War.  The Mount Vernon Cotton Factory, now transformed into luxury condominiums, housed some 1,500 Confederate POWs. Prisoners housed at this Washington Street prison were generally in route to prison camps in the North.  Spies and enemy sympathizers were housed in Odd Fellows Hall. 

The Duke Street slave pen

The Duke Street slave pen was used to house drunken and disorderly Union soldiers. Union deserters were imprisoned in the Prince Street prison (formerly Green’s Furniture Factory which had been requisitioned by the Army).  The old Alexandria Jail, in use since 1826 was also used.  Captain Rufus D. Pettit served as superintendent of U.S. Military Prisons in Alexandria (1864-65).    In November, 1865, Pettit was court-martialed for his brutal treatment of prisoners he believed to be deserters from the Union army, found guilty and dishonorably discharged.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

St. Mary’s Church, Fairfax Station, and the Founding of the American Red Cross

In 1838, two Catholic families donated a tract of land near what is now Fairfax Station, Virginia in hopes of having a church built and a Catholic cemetery consecrated. A cemetery was created immediately. Irish immigrants became the nucleus of the new parish. Their names are inscribed on the cemetery’s tombstones. St. Mary’s church (seen below) was dedicated in 1860.

St. Mary's Church 

After the Second Battle of Manassas in August, 1862, Clara Barton, a clerk at the Government Patent Office, who had gathered a group of volunteers, nursed the wounded for three days at St. Mary’s Church. Many soldiers died and were buried in the churchyard. There was no official system for identifying the dead. The lucky could rely on friends to write to the family.  In the spring of 1865, Clara Barton established the Missing Soldiers Office in Washington City.  This organization helped provide information about 22,000 soldiers to anxious families.

Clara Barton

As a result of her experiences in the Civil War, Clara Barton went on to establish the American Red Cross.  She began this project in 1873, but was initially told that since the United States would never again face a crisis like the Civil War such an organization was unnecessary. Barton finally succeeded in convincing critics by using the argument that the American Red Cross could respond to crises other than war such as earthquakes, forest fires, and hurricanes. Clara Barton became President of the American Red Cross in May 1881.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier 1921

On March 4, 1921, Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American serviceman from World War I at Arlington National Cemetery. A highly decorated soldier, Sgt. Edward F. Younger, selected from four identical caskets. The World War I Unknown lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda prior to burial at Arlington National Cemetery.  On Armistice Day, November 11, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over the interment ceremonies. 

Even in 1921 the intention had been to place a superstructure atop the Tomb, but it was not until 1926 that Congress authorized the necessary funds for completion of the Tomb.  Architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones won a design competition for a tomb that would consist of seven pieces of marble in four levels (cap, die, base and sub-base.)  The “die” is the large central block with sculpting on all four sides. By September, 1931 all seven blocks of marble were at the Tomb site. By the end of December 1931, the assembly was completed.  Carvings on the central block under the direction of the sculptor Thomas Jones started thereafter. The Tomb was completed in April, 1932.

Installation of the sarcophagus for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The Tomb sarcophagus was dedicated on April 9, 1932.  The marble sarcophagus weighs seventy nine tons and is inscribed, “Here Lies in Honored Glory – An American Soldier – Known But to God”.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Golden Era of Potomac River Bridge Building

Construction of Memorial Bridge ( view from the Lincoln Memorial)

     The 1930s saw the construction of two new bridges across the Potomac.  The Arlington Memorial Bridge, widely regarded as Washington’s most beautiful bridge, was opened on January 16, 1932.  Memorial Bridge was designed to symbolically link North and South in its alignment between the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial.  The functional Point of Rocks Bridge connecting Loudoun County with Maryland was completed in 1937.

Memorial Bridge from the air

     The late 1950s and early 1960s were the hey-day of bridge building in Northern Virginia.  As part of the Interstate Highway System created by Congress in 1956, the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge was opened in 1961.  The American Legion Memorial Bridge, originally known as the Cabin John Bridge, was built in 1963.  The Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, connecting Rosslyn to Washington was opened June 23, 1964.

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