Friday, September 28, 2012

Battle of New Market Heights

September 29, 1864 was the battle of New Market Heights, an attack on the Confederate lines during the skirmish of Petersburg. The reason I blog about it today? I haven't made an entry all week. No...seriously, I wrote part of my master's thesis on this battle. It was important, in my opinion, because it provided further evidence to doubtful white Union generals that African Americans made excellent, gallant soldiers. Union officers still needed more proof, but that's another blog post for another time.

By early Fall 1864, Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee had been entrenched around Petersburg, Virginia, a railroad depot south of Richmond. Throughout the nine month siege, Grant made several attempts to crack Lee's lines with only limited success. On September 29, Grant ordered General Benjamin F. Butler to assault Lee. A number of regiments of African American soldiers (United States Colored Troops or USCT), in the brigade of Brigadier General Charles Paine, were involved in the fighting. In fact, of the twenty-five African American soldiers who received the Medal of Honor during the Civil War (both army and navy), fourteen earned the award at the battle of New Market Heights.

For more on the battle, here's a link to the National Park Service's overview.

Monday, September 17, 2012

150th Anniversary of Antietam

Sunken Lane (Bloody Lane), Antietam National Battlefield. Photo by Andrew Tremel
September 17, 1862 was the bloodiest single day in American history. Nearly 23,000 Americans were killed or wounded in a single day's fighting. Places like the Cornfield, Dunker Church, Bloody Lane, and Burnside Bridge entered the national vocabulary. Matthew Brady displayed "The Dead of Antietam" in his New York City studio and made Americans understand the human cost and suffering of a war that seemed distant.

Matthew Brady, Confederate dead near Dunker Church, from
The fighting between Major General George B. McClellan's Union Army of the Potomac and General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia ended in a tactical draw. Yet, the battle was a strategic victory for the Union, especially on the political front. That Robert E. Lee had to retreat from Northern soil was enough for President Abraham Lincoln to release the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln feared that if it became public after a Union defeat, a proclamation declaring an end to slavery in the eleven Confederate states would look like desperation. Lincoln took advantage of McClellan's claim to victory and changed the meaning of the war. Until Antietam's aftermath, the Civil War was merely to save the Union. Though the Emancipation Proclamation technically didn't free a single slave when it became official on January 1, 1863, (because it only applied to the states that seceded), the document showed that to Lincoln, the war was for Union and an end to slavery. The rest of the country would grow (slowly) to accept that meaning for the war. Some historians, such as James McPherson, argue that the 1862 Maryland Campaign marked the closest the Confederacy had been to foreign recognition from Great Britain and France. European nations likely took the Emancipation Proclamation into account when they chose to stay out rather than backed a country based on the institution of slavery.

So, pause for a moment this evening. Look back to Antietam and remember the sacrifice made by so many.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Anniversary of Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia from Maryland Heights, taken by Andrew Tremel
This coming Monday marks the 150th anniversary of the battle of Antietam, one of the most significant turning points in the American Civil War. A key moment in the Maryland Campaign took place on September 15--the capture of Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia).

At the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, Harpers Ferry is best known as the site of John Brown's 1859 raid.  The sleepy town grew from industries (including Hall's Rifle Works and the U.S. Armory) that relied on water power, but numerous floods in the post Civil War years (including the great flood of 1936) destroyed any hope of reviving a once prosperous town. Now, Harpers Ferry sits as a tourist attraction along the Appalachian Trail. I'm a regular visitor--it's one of my favorite spots to visit, and I've never seen it as overwhelmingly busy as some Civil War sites.

An interesting fact: Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times during the Civil War--more than any town except for Winchester, Virginia (over seventy). One of those occasions in which Harpers Ferry was captured came just before the Battle of Antietam. As Robert E. Lee entered Maryland, he divided his army between his two chief lieutenants--Generals James Longstreet and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Lee ordered Jackson to take Harpers Ferry and its Union garrison.

From a military standpoint, Harpers Ferry is virtually impossible to defend. Jackson understood this and divided his three divisions among the three hills overlooking the town: Loudon Heights in Virginia, Maryland Heights in Maryland (duh), and Bolivar Heights in present-day West Virginia (near the National Park Service visitor center). On September 13, troops under Generals Joseph B. Kershaw and William Barksdale drove a regiment of Union troops from a small fort on Maryland Heights. He moved troops to the base of Loudon Heights on the 14th and by the 15th, was ready to move in from Bolivar Heights. With the town surrounded, Union Colonel Dixon S. Miles opted to surrender. He was mortally wounded, however, before he could personally do so.

The Union surrendered 12,500 troops, artillery, wagons, and military supplies--the largest surrender in U.S. army history until the Philippines in 1942. Jackson was able to capture the garrison quickly with very few casualties of his own (less than 300). It was a brilliant victory for Jackson. "Stonewall" then marched his men to Sharpsburg, Maryland, in compliance with Lee's orders, for a showdown with Union General George McClellan.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Battle of Lake Erie

Battle of Lake Erie, William H. Powell, 1873. From
This year marks the beginning of the 200th anniversary celebration of the War of 1812. Militarily, there were few bright spots for the United States. One of them took place today in 1813, the Battle of Lake Erie. Near Put-in-Bay Ohio, American Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry defeated British Commander Robert H. Barclay. It was a strategically important victory that allowed Americans to hold on to Lake Erie until the war's end. Thus, states bordering the lake were protected from British attack. The picture, from the Senate's art collection, shows Commodore Perry leaving the damaged Lawrence (his flagship) for the Niagara.

For more on next year's bicentennial of the Battle of Lake Erie, click here.