Friday, August 31, 2012

Philip Kearny at Chantilly

"General Kearney's Gallant Charge,"
Major General Philip Kearny is one of the somewhat forgotten figures of the Civil War. He is remembered as one of New Jersey's statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol and that there's a fort named for him in Wyoming, and a few other honors. He also has one of only two equestrian statues at Arlington National Cemetery. September 1 marks the 150th anniversary of his death at Chantilly, Virginia, after the debacle at Second Bull Run.

Kearny, born in 1815, distinguished himself during the Mexican War, particularly at Churubusco, just outside of Mexico City, in 1847. There, while leading his troops, he was wounded in the arm (the arm was amputated).

Kearny took command of a brigade at the beginning of the Civil War. He quickly became popular with his troops. He instituted the idea of unit insignia (it was later adopted throughout the Army of the Potomac), ordering all his officers to wear a red patch on their cap. The soldiers in his brigade adopted the practice as well. During the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, Kearny was a fierce and vocal critic of George McClellan, the army commander, for not aggressively pushing toward the Confederate capital of Richmond. The publication of his attacks on McClellan earned him the ire of the army, but greater respect from his brigade. The unit bravely followed Kearny at the Battle of Williamsburg, where Kearny led his troops with his sword in his only hand and the reigns of his horse in his teeth. After the Peninsula Campaign, Kearny was promoted to major general.

He took part in the disastrous defeat at Bull Run on August 28-30. During the Union withdrawal toward Centerville, Virginia, Kearny engaged Confederates under Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart at Chantilly. On a rainy day, he rode along the Union line, finding a break. He ended up among Confederates, who demanded that Kearny surrender. Kearny tried to return to Union lines, but was shot and killed. Robert E. Lee returned the body to Union lines under a flag of truce, along with a condolence note. Kearny was buried in New York, and in 1912, reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery.

It is always important to remember the gallant men who fought in the Civil War--and the officers who inspired and led them. There were rumors that Kearny could have taken McClellan's job. Would an aggressive commander been able to bring the war to a quicker conclusion? Unfortunately for tens of thousands who gave their lives for the Union or Confederacy, that wouldn't be answered for over two more years.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Happy birthday, National Park Service


One of the problems with being new to this whole blogging thing is simply forgetting to post. Yesterday (August 25) marked the anniversary of the National Park Service. The organization, founded in 1916, preserves and protects this nation's resources and does a great job.

I love the national parks...not that I've visited that many. I've been to a number of mid-Atlantic Revolutionary War and Civil War sites and regularly bike the Mount Vernon Trail. I biked a lengthy section of the trail the other day--one of the reasons that I forgot to update. We were planning on visiting Prince William Forest Park, a great place for hiking, biking, and New Deal and World War II history, but rain interfered (I love the park, but I'm biased--I spent a couple summers there as a seasonal ranger).

So, visit a park...or better yet, several parks and thank the rangers for all they do to protect some of our nation's richest treasures.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Counting the dead

"Dead Confederate Soldiers in 'The Devil's Den',"
 Reviewed article: J. David Hacker. "A Census-Based Count of the Civil War Dead." Civil War History 57, no. 4 (December 2011): 307-348.

"Why are there historians?" "Hasn't everything in the past been written about?" These are questions I always feel like I need to be prepared to answer as a public historian. There are historians because it is always important to remember where we came from. In addition, interpretations and methodologies change; new sources may come to light. Part of passing along our past is visually and orally, through our national parks and museums.

J. David Hacker, a professor at Binghamton University, SUNY, made answering these questions a lot easier. His article “A Census-Based Count of the Civil War Dead” was published in Civil War History last December. It took longer than I planned to get a hold of it and read it, but it was well worth the wait. Hacker uses quantitative methodology to argue that the traditional estimate of Civil War dead was likely underestimated by about twenty percent. The original count of 620,000 was calculated in the 1880s and Hacker adeptly demonstrates why the figure was wrong—low numbers of deaths in muster out rolls, destroyed or lost records, and faulty assumptions (i.e. that Union and Confederate soldiers were equally susceptible to disease. The truth is that Confederates didn’t have a built up immunity because they lived in rural, rather than urban areas, nor did they have medical care equal to the Union troops.).

The author uses a two-census approach to estimate the war dead: “If a population was fully and accurately counted in two censuses separated by a span of years and experience negligible in- and out-migration between the two censuses, then changes in the size of birth cohorts (defined by age group) can be assumed to be due to mortality” (318). In other words, he looks at men aged 20-29 in one census and looks at how that portion of the population changed ten years later. This requires calculating what the mortality rate would be if there was no war in the 1860s. Hacker estimated the normal mortality rate by averaging the death rate in the 1850s and 1870s—the decades surrounding the Civil War. “Excess deaths” among white men of military age could then be attributed to the Civil War.

While this method is not perfect, it is important to note that there is no way to know the exact count of Civil War dead. Even the 620,000 number was an estimate. There are, however, better ways to get an accurate count. The census-based method does require some assumptions. A few of them are:

1. The U.S. was closed to migration—the arrival or departure of citizens has virtually no impact.
2. Hacker worked primarily with statistics for native-born white men of military age, but worked with the idea that foreign-born men had the same level of excess mortality.
3. The census is traditionally undercounted, especially in the nineteenth century. The net undercount was between 3.7% and 6.9%, with a preferred undercount of 6%.
4. The War Department’s estimate on the death of 36,000 African American soldiers is correct.
5. Excess male mortality is exclusively a result of the Civil War.

Taking these assumptions into account, Hacker states that the range of Civil War deaths was between 650,000 and 850,000 (depending on the undercount). Using the preferred undercount of 6%, the tally comes to 750,000. Hacker included not only soldier deaths, but the 50,000 civilians (including 9,000 Southern women) and those who died between 1865 and the 1870 census of war-related causes. The author concludes that while the census method is not perfect, it is the preferable method in calculating Civil War dead. Though I’m not a statistician and don’t have the demographic knowledge that Hacker demonstrates, the assumptions are reasonable and the conclusions are reasonable. Historians have known for years that 620,000 was likely a low count of war dead.

So, what does all of this mean? As Hacker concluded, “The human cost of the Civil War was greater than historians have long believed” (348). To put that in context, the great James McPherson wrote in the article’s preface, “The figure of 750,000 soldier deaths would translate into 7.5 million American deaths in a war fought in our own time by the United States, with its tenfold greater population than during the Civil War” (310). This could change the way that we look at post-Civil War society—mourning and memorial practices, the South’s coping with defeat, Reconstruction policies, and more.

As far as the antebellum period (the area of my current research), I see some level of impact. There was no way for nineteenth century politicians to know what the cost of war would be. A number of figures predicted that only war could solve the issues dividing North and South (primarily slavery and its place in the territories). Abolitionist John Brown’s final words indicated as much: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood." Did Brown know how bloody a civil war would be? Did the Fire-Eaters know how much economically, demographically, and personally war would cost when they pushed for secession? They might have known they had to sacrifice some, but I don’t think anyone knew that one in ten white men of military age (North and South) would not return home. They didn’t know that there would be 200,000 war widows. After Fort Sumter in 1861, very few expected a long war. Most believed there would be one battle and then it would be over. Hacker’s research is a grim reminder of the consequences of prewar political failures.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Transatlantic Telegraph

From "Marine," The Apotheosis of George Washington, Constantino Brumidi, 1865.

August was a big month for the telegraph. If you don't know a lot about the invention, or technological advances of the nineteenth century in general, I highly recommend Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought (it won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2008). Howe begins the book with a look at Samuel F.B. Morse's public demonstration of the telegraph at the U.S. Capitol on May 24, 1844, in which he wired the message "What Hath God Wrought" to his assistant in Baltimore. Not long afterward, the telegraph brought news to a pro-Henry Clay (that year's Whig presidential nominee) crowd that the Democrats nominated former Speaker of the House James K. Polk for that year's presidential election. Howe adeptly navigates his study of early antebellum America with a focus on technology and social change.

There were several attempts at running a transatlantic telegraph cable. The first successful cable was completed on August 5, 1858. The month before, the Agamemnon, Valorous, Niagara, and Gordon, all British and American ships, met in the Atlantic Ocean to connect a telegraph wire. The North American end was placed at Trinity Bay, Newfoundland and it ran to Valentia, Ireland. The cable ran almost 2,000 miles and at times, reached depths of two miles.

August 16 (this coming Thursday) marks the anniversary of President James Buchanan and Queen Victoria exchanging pleasantries over the newly completed wire. However, the transatlantic cable failed by September.

When Constantino Brumidi painted the Apotheosis of George Washington at the top of the Capitol dome in 1865, he included Venus, the Roman goddess of love, laying a new transatlantic telegraph cable in a scene titled "Marine." As Brumidi painted, workers were preparing a new wire across the Atlantic. The cable was completed in 1866.

Daniel Walker Howe wrote of Morse's 1844 experiment, "The invention they had demonstrated was destined to change the world. For thousands of years messages had been limited by the speed with which messengers could travel and the distance at which eyes could see signals such as flags or smoke.... Now, instant long-distance communication became a practical reality" (What Hath God Wrought, 1). Not only could news be spread through remote areas of the United States, but information could now reach places around the world. And to think how far we've come since Morse's day!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Ask the Historian

This is the first ask the historian column (something that will hopefully take off). It comes from a question from my friend Joey on the Declaration of Independence post last week.

Question: Are there any remaining drafts of the Declaration of Independence? Do the drafts really include a reference to slavery?

I believe the Library of Congress has one? I could be wrong. So far, I've been striking out on an answer I'm happy with.

We do know the text of the original draft, however, from The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. What is here might be similar to what Jefferson, et. al. submitted to the Continental Congress. And yes, there was a reference to slavery. The Virginian wrote:

"[King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another."

The Continental Congress voted to remove the passage--considering that slavery existed in most of the colonies, it isn't a surprise.

A little more (which, I think, clarifies another question I got via email):

On July 4, the Continental Congress adopted a heavily edited version of the Declaration. It went to John Dunlap, a Philadelphia printer. Though it is unknown exactly how many copies he produced, there are twenty-six remaining: twenty-one in American institutions, two with the British, and three in private hands.

I didn't note that time that on the July 4 vote, New York abstained. By July 9, however, the delegation had the colonial assembly's permission to support independence. There were some minor changes and on July 19, the Continental Congress ordered an embossed copy on parchment. The likely scribe was Timothy Matlack, as I mentioned in the last post. Most of the 56 signers signed this on August 2. A few signed days later. This is the copy that is currently on display at the National Archives. It traveled around quite a bit, thus, if you visit the Archives, you'll see that it is quite faded. The travel and the poor preservation methods in the nineteenth century have done their damage.

If you're interested in more of the Declaration's travels, click here.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

My First Thank You Post

Thank to my mom, Joyce Tremel (my mom) and her fellow fiction writers at the Pittsburgh Sisters in Crime for driving up my hit count.

From what I've heard, there was some interest in sending questions my way. I'd be glad to help out with anything I can answer off the top of my head, with minimal research, or with a trip to the library (though if there's extensive research, I take payment in cash and/or alcohol). I finally figured out how to add a contact page, so click up above and send your questions!

Though my specialty is on American history (particularly 1820-1877 with a Civil War focus), I do have an interest in all areas and could possibly help. I know enough to get by with history outside of the U.S.

Note that if you send a question, I may use it for an "ask the historian" post. If you don't want your answer posted, I will respect that.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

This Week in History

John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence (

This year marks the 236th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The above painting, by Revolutionary War veteran John Trumbull, is commonly confused to be the signing of the Declaration. It actually shows an event that took place weeks earlier: the presentation of the first draft.

On June 2, Virginian Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution in favor of independence from Great Britain. It was a huge step, fourteen months after the war began at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. But was the Continental Congress ready to formally declare their break from the mother country? They tabled Lee's resolution and instead, appointed the Committee of Five: Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut. Partly because of his writing ability, the work of creating a draft went to Jefferson (it is still up for debate whether it was Adams, another committee member, or the Congress that had Jefferson author a declaration of independence). He produced a draft in about two weeks; much of the editing fell to Adams and Franklin.

The above image is Trumbull's glorified portrayal for what happened on June 28, 1776: Jefferson and the committee presented their draft to the Continental Congress. They tabled it, however. John Hancock and the other delegates wanted a unanimous vote on Lee's resolution. After Caesar Rodney rode overnight through a thunderstorm to break a tie (as seen on the back of the 1999 Delaware quarter), on July 2, the Continental Congress adopted Lee's resolution. Then, they went to work on the Declaration. Jefferson called the edits "depredations."

The edited document was copied, likely by Timothy Matlack (that name should sound familiar if you've seen National Treasure) and the rest is history.

But what does it all mean? In short, fifty-six men committed treason. Note that in the Trumbull painting there are no American flags on the wall. You can see the red and white flag of England and the Union Jack for Great Britain. The men believed in a cause greater than themselves and by affixing their signatures to the Declaration, they risked their lives for the freedoms they found valuable. As Benjamin Franklin said, "We must all hang together, or surely we will all hang separately." The Declaration expressed the very cause that the colonies had been fighting for since April 1775--the king and Parliament abused the power of taxation, dissolved colonial representative bodies, forced colonists to quarter British troops, interfered with trade, and refused to hear previous petitions: "Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."

Thus, the delegates to that solemn assembly in Philadelphia deemed it necessary to declare themselves as representatives of "Free and Independent States"--the United States of America. It was on August 2 that the delegates began to sign the great Declaration.


Welcome! I'm Andrew Tremel, a public historian who has worked for the National Park Service and the Architect of the Capitol. This Fall, my first article will be published in Pennsylvania History, the journal of the Pennsylvania Historical Association, titled "The Union League, Black Leaders, and the Recruitment of Philadelphia’s African American Civil War Regiments."

My focus is on America from 1820-1877, though I have a strong interest in all of America's past. I'm hoping to use this blog to provide some occasional book reviews and reminders of anniversaries of key historical events. Hope you enjoy reading!