Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Civil War @150: April 1865

It's been too long since I've posted, but it's been a crazy few months at the Tremel house. What I wanted to do is run down some major anniversaries for April. This month, we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War. So here are a few (somewhat centered on the Eastern Theater, so apologies for the fans of what was going on in North Carolina).

April 1 The battle of Five Forks: A Union victory by General Philip Sheridan over Confederate General George E. Pickett, the engagement opened the door for a major assault on Lee's lines at Petersburg.

April 2 Siege of Petersburg ends: General Ulysses S. Grant began the siege of Petersburg, Virginia in June 1864. The town was the last major railroad junction south of Richmond and Robert E. Lee held on tenaciously for nine months. Finally, his lines broke, forcing Lee to retreat to the west.

April 3 Union Troops occupy the Confederate capital of Richmond

April 4 President Abraham Lincoln visits Richmond.

April 9 General Robert E. Lee Surrenders at Appomattox Court House: After a series of engagements over several days, General Grant suggests that he and Lee meet to discuss terms. At first, Lee resists, but finally sees the inevitable: his starving, shrinking army cannot withstand the Union onslaught. He surrendered his army to General Grant at Appomattox Court House. They met in the parlor of William McLean. Ironically, McLean lived in Manassas originally and left after the first engagement of the war to a quieter area, where he hoped to escape the conflict.

April 12 Lee's Army formally surrenders: This poignant event is less remembered than what happened on April 9, but on this day, Lee's men stacked arms and Confederate colors. Supervising was Brevet Major General Joshua L. Chamberlain. Chamberlain ordered a salute to the Confederates; Confederate Lieutenant General John B. Gordon ordered his men to return the salute.

April 14 The President is shot: At 10:15, in the president's box at Ford's Theater, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln.

April 15 President Lincoln dies: Abraham Lincoln died at 7:22 in the morning. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said, "Now he belongs to the ages."

April 17 Peace terms in North Carolina: Generals William T. Sherman and Joseph E. Johnston, after a series of engagements near Durham, North Carolina, discussed peace and reached an agreement on April 18. It was a far-reaching peace, ending the war politically as well as militarily. The presence of Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge led to this. There was tremendous outcry that Sherman stepped well beyond his powers as an army commander; Congress rejected the terms and Johnston was left with a choice: either accept terms like the ones Grant gave to Lee or keep fighting.

April 26 John Wilkes Booth killed: After a manhunt of nearly two weeks, soldiers shot and killed John Wilkes Booth. On the very same day, Confederate General Johnston surrendered formally to General Sherman at Durham Station, North Carolina. This was the last major Confederate force to capitulate.

Looking for something to read and learn more about this pivotal month in American history? I highly recommend Jay Winik's April 1865. The History Channel also ran an excellent piece based on this book. I'm re-reading it. I'm also going to finally tackle James Swanson's book Manhunt, about the search for John Wilkes Booth. I've had it on my shelf for ages and I'm long overdue to check it out.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Happy February!

I haven't posted in a while. Yeah, I'm a slacker. And I missed that yesterday was the 150th of the House of Representatives passing the Thirteenth Amendment--what was portrayed in the movie Lincoln.

And tomorrow's Groundhog Day.

Just for fun, here's a quiz on February Happenings. I scored 27/29. How'd you do?

Saturday, January 10, 2015

1812 @ 200: The Treaty of Ghent

Signing of the Treaty of Ghent, Christmas Eve 1814. From nps.gov
I said in the last post that I'd post something on the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. We're right now in the period between the signing of the treaty in Ghent, Belgium on December 24, 1814 and when news of the treaty arrived in America, sometime in February 1815.

The War of 1812 is a forgotten war. The causes are as difficult to understand now as they were 200 years ago. Nonetheless, the war shaped the decades between its conclusion and the American Civil War. In fact, the War of 1812 set the stage for the latter conflict.

First, the US went to war with Great Britain to address the impressment of American sailors into the British Navy, the effect of the Napoleonic Wars on American trade, and Native American uprisings in the West. Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky, like other westerners, blamed British Canada for the uprisings. None of these issues came up in the Treaty of Ghent. The first two, impressment and trade, were moot with the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Early in peace negotiations, the British pushed for an Indian reservation in the Midwest, but dropped it as the British public clamored for peace. The treaty enacted status quo antebellum. In other words, everything reverted to how it was before the war.

That begs the question. Did the War of 1812 accomplish anything? Well, yes, in fact, quite a bit.

1. Established a sense of national pride. The US survived a war against arguably the strongest military in the world. The Americans had few victories to brag about, one of which came in September 1814 in Baltimore, Maryland. Francis Scott Key penned "The Defense of Fort McHenry" as he witnessed the American defense of the Charm City. After someone set the poem to the tune of an English drinking song, it became known as "The Star-Spangled Banner." Finally, in 1931, it became the national anthem.

2. Rapid Westward Expansion. Before the War of 1812, a small percentage of Americans lived west of the Appalachian Mountains. By 1820, it was a quarter of the population. Between 1815 and 1821, six new states joined the Union, all but one in the West: Indiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama, Maine, and Missouri. Expansion (particularly the admission of Missouri) brought up a topic that dominated American politics for over forty years: the question of slavery in the new territories.

3. Diminished resistance by Native Americans. Since colonial times, there's been a push to the West (thus the definition of "West" and "frontier" changed quite a bit in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). As far back there had been a push to expand, there had been resistance from the First Nations. When the War of 1812 began, a Shawnee named Tecumseh cast his lot with the British. He led a confederation of tribes resisting American expansion. He was killed in battle in 1813 and his confederation crumbled. Tecumseh's defeat and the collapse of his confederacy ended organized resistance (cooperation among multiple tribes) in the Old Northwest (what we now call Midwest). Similarly, losses by tribes in the South ended organized opposition in that region as well (Andrew Jackson was responsible for a number of American victories, notably at Horseshoe Bend, Alabama in 1814). Though Native Americans resisted westward expansion well into the late 1800s, the War of 812 broke down any organization.

4. Major Diplomatic Achievements. For the first time in its history, the US was able to assert itself on the world stage. The man behind many of these accomplishments was the lead negotiator at Ghent and President James Monroe's secretary of state, John Quincy Adams. Here are those diplomatic accomplishments:
  • Commercial Treaty with Great Britain that restored trade between those nations (1815)
  • Rush-Bagot Treaty (1817)- disarmed the Great Lakes
  • Treaty of 1818- protected American fishing rights off the coast of Canada, set the US-Canadian boundary from Maine to the Rocky Mountains, provided for the sharing of Oregon Territory, confirmed the 1815 trade treaty, and settled the issue of captured American slaves serving on British ships.
  • Adams-Onis Treaty (1819)- Purchased Florida after Andrew Jackson sparked a diplomatic crisis by invading it (a long story for another time). The treaty also settled the border between the Louisiana Purchase and Spanish Mexico.
  • Monroe Doctrine (1823)- Though this is not law, it has been a key part of American foreign policy for nearly a century. President Monroe gets the credit, but John Quincy Adams wrote this section of Monroe's annual message to Congress. The Monroe Doctrine challenged European attempts/desires to re-colonize the Western Hemisphere. The doctrine considered this a threat to American sovereignty.
This list of achievements from the War of 1812 is by no means exhaustive. For instance, I can probably write a post at some point on the economic effects of the war, including the Second Bank of the United States and the debate over internal improvements. Also, many of the figures involved in the war--politically or militarily: Andrew Jackson, Winfield Scott, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and the list goes on. Just remember, though the War of 1812 did, in some ways, set the stage for the Civil War, those who lived through all this didn't know that a civil war was fifty years away. They were entering the Era of Good Feelings, a time of political calm and economic growth. They knew as much about the Civil War as we do about the 2050s or 2060s.

Until next time...

Thursday, January 8, 2015

1812 @ 200: The Battle of New Orleans

Battle of New Orleans, Gen. Andrew Jackson holds the American defensive line. From the Library of Congress, loc.gov
January 8, 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, Louisiana. This was the last battle of the War of 1812. This was one of the biggest American victories of the war--one of the few and most important victories. News of the battle made Andrew Jackson, a rugged Tennessee general, an instant American hero. Interestingly enough, the action took place weeks after the Treaty of Ghent officially ended the war. American and British diplomats signed the treaty on Christmas Eve 1814, but word didn't reach American shores until February. Initially, most Americans believed that Jackson's victory won the war. It may have secured a peace, but didn't quite win the war. For further reading, check out this recent article.

The War of 1812 shaped the decades that shaped the decades that led up to the American Civil War. Come back here in a few days and I'll have something up on the impact of this forgotten war.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Book Reviews, Part III

Here are my last notes on my 2014 reading.

The Lost State of Franklin, Kevin T. Barksdale. University Press of Kentucky, 2009.

I liked this, but it was clearly a doctoral dissertation and if you're not from Western North Carolina or Tennessee, you might struggle. There were a few moments I had no clue what exactly was going on. Nonetheless, this was an interesting piece on how what is now Eastern Tennessee attempted to become the state of Franklin in the 1780s. It was an act of secession against North Carolina--the counties that worked for statehood were in lands ceded to the Continental Congress (then under the Articles of Confederation), then reclaimed by North Carolina. John Sevier, the first and only governor of Franklin, was ultimately arrested for treason. He went on, however, to be Tennessee's first governor.

The Last Battle of the Civil War: United States v. Lee, 1861-1883, Anthony Gaughan. Louisiana State University Press, 2011.

This book got a bit redundant at times, but it was very enjoyable. The history of Arlington and Robert E. Lee remain strong instances (when I did my Washington Semester in 2004, I worked for the National Park Service at Arlington). This looks first at the Union occupation of Arlington in 1861, followed by the government's seizure of the property in 1864, and the protracted court battles in the 1870s and 1880s, until Congress finally paid Lee's eldest son for the land and house. There was no question that the government's refusal of the Lee family's payment (through Mary Custis Lee's cousin) was illegal, and there were legal problems with the tax itself. The government tried to argue that Lee had no power to sue. Had Lee lost the case, the country would still be reeling from the effect on due process.

Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard. Knopf, 2012.

I loved this. I knew very little about James Garfield, but he was a brilliant man, potentially a great president after distinguishing himself over seventeen years in the House of Representatives. He was shot by a disturbed, unsuccessful office seeker in July 1881, only months into his presidency. It wasn't the bullet that killed him however, it was the care of a doctor who wanted to make a name for himself for saving the life of the president.

I read a few others over the year, but none jump out, really. Except for one last fiction work:

The Known World, Edward P. Jones. Harper Collins, 2003.

This is an incredible, fictional account of a black slave owner in a fictional county in Virginia. His widow took the property after his unexpected death and problems emerge along race lines in this community. The book moves around into how the black slave owner purchased his own freedom, how he established his farm and married, as well as how things unravel once he dies and his widow manages the property.

I have quite a list for this year. I'm currently at the beginning of Robert Caro's seriers on Lyndon B. Johnson. I'm 100 pages or so into the first book. We'll see if I make it through the four volumes that are out so far! Happy reading to all of you in 2015!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book Reviews,Part II

As I said in my return post, I'm going to write some very brief reviews of books I read in 2014. Maybe I'll eventually review what I'm currently reading too. We'll see. Anyway, here are a few more books for your consideration. I won't give too much detail...nor any spoilers.

Washington, A Life, Ron Chernow. Penguin Books, 2011.

This won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, and certainly deserved it. I read a few biographies this year, and this was the best. It was another lengthy book, but everything a biography should be. Chernow provides fresh analysis of the well-known events in Washington's life and the not so well known areas. Chernow looked in depth at Washington's marriage to Martha Washington (more of a friendship than a romance), his flirtatious relationship with neighbor Sally Fairfax, his frustrations in command of the Continental Congress, and the successes and failures of his presidency. Some might argue that this book borders on hero worship. I beg  to differ. As Chernow points out, for two hundred years people have tried to dig up dirt on Washington--unsuccessfully. Chernow examines and refutes many of the claims against our first president.

The Man Who Saved the Union, H.W. Brands. Doubleday, 2012.

If you're looking for a quick read on what Grant did throughout his life, you might enjoy this. If you're like me and want more analysis into Grant's relationships, feelings, attitudes, etc., look elsewhere. You might want to read Grant's memoirs instead.

Catastrophe 1914, Max Hastings. Knopf, 2013.

The second book on my list by Sir Max Hastings (see last post), this looks at the first months of the First World War. I actually read this around the time of the centennial of the conflict's beginning. The political intrigue, the tangled alliances, the question of whether or not Britain would intervene, were fascinating.

I Wish I'd Been There, Byron Hollinshead. Vintage, 2007.

I like the concept of this book--twenty historians picked events they would have wanted to witness. Though some of the essays were good, like the piece on the Salem Witch Trials that look at the relationship between the trials and the fear of war with Native Americans, and Joseph Ellis's piece on Washington's efforts to forge some sort of agreement with the Native Americans in the Midwest. Others, less so. I guess it was predictable that Robert Remini's piece on the alleged "corrupt bargain" between Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams in the Election of 1824 annoyed me. Remini seemed to want to find some sign of corrupton to vindicate his hero, Andrew Jackson, bu alas, he had to agree with the historical evidence. Was there an implied agreement between Clay and Adams? Probably. Was there a formal deal? No.

John Quincy Adams, Harlow Giles Unger. Da Capo, 2012.

I haven't gotten to the Fred Kaplan bio on Adams that came out in 2014 yet, but Unger's work was excellent. The more I read about John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, the more I'm impressed with him...aside from his unsuccessful presidency, of course. I found the sections on John Quincy's relationship with his parents, John and Abigail Adams, to be quite intriguing. In short, they pushed him hard and messed him up for life. Yes, the Adams Presidency (1825-29) was a failure, but he showed his genius as a diplomat, senator, secretary of state, and as representative. For those of you who don't know Adams was the only person to serve in the House of Representatives after his presidency.

Freedom's Cap, Guy Gugliotta. Macmillan, 2012.

This was one of my favorites this year. Gugliotta looks at the transformation of Washington, DC from a country town to an urban center in the 1850s. The center of his focus? The U.S. Capitol. The 1850s and 1860s saw the Capitol get closer to what we see on the news. A Philadelphia architect named Thomas Walter designed the current chambers of Congress, occupied by the House and Senate in the late 1850s. At first, he cooperated well with army engineer Captain Montgomery Meigs, but soon, there was a clash of egos. Two very talented men felt threatened by the other. At the center of it all was Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, who was, as Gugliotta successfully argues, the most influential political figure behind the construction of the new chambers of Congress  and the Capitol dome. He laid the groundwork for the projects as a senator in 1851-52, had the work transferred under the War Department's jurisdiction while he was secretary of war, then when he returned to the Senate, he kept an eye on things. In the background to all of this is the rising tensions between northern and southern congressmen. Davis, for instance, was an ardent supporter of states rights and slavery while having a very nationalistic vision for the Capitol. He believed a great country ought to have a great building for its representatives. He held to that until he could no longer reconcile this paradox.

The final few reviews coming soon!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Archive is Back!

For the dozen or so of those who missed reading my random musings/history lessons, I decided for 2015 to make a return to the blogging world! I'm going to continue the random musings, the random facts, and an occasional look into what I'm reading. Of course, if you like what you read, share!

So what have I been doing for the past 16 months? Well, I'm working, I got married in November 2013, bought a home early in 2014, and have been keeping up with getting that in order.

I've also read...a lot. I mean, not as much as I would if I were in academia, but I think 30 books in a year was pretty good. As you might have guessed, most of them were history. So what I thought I'd do is start off with short reviews over several posts of 15 (give or take) books I've read in 2014. Keep checking over the next week or so--I have a bunch of things coming!

Let's kick 2015 off with a few reviews.

To Make Beautiful the Capitol: Rediscovering the Art of Constantino Brumidi, edited by Amy Elizabeth Burton. Government Printing Office, 2014.

This is easily the most recent publication I've read. My reading list is a bit backlogged. This is a series of essays put together by the Office of the Senate Curator that features a ton of images of the beautiful art in the US Capitol. The work examines the more recent research on artist Constantino Brumidi, who pained in the Capitol from 1855-1880. Conservators have been working on restoring Brumidi's murals since at least the mid-1990s. One of the big themes that is apparent in the book is the influence of westward expansion on the paintings in the Brumidi Corridors and how researchers found that one of Brumidi's main sources was a twelve volume report on possible routes of a transcontinental railroad, published in the late 1850s--the time when Brumidi and his team of artists did much of their work.

Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, Max Hastings. Vintage Books, 2012.

Hastings wrote several volumes on various parts of World War II, but this is the only one of his books on that conflict I've read so far. The book is long, some 800 pages. Though some of the military history is a bit dense, and at times, plodding, it was still a worthwhile read. There were parts of the war in the Pacific and the Middle East that I knew almost nothing about. Hastings wasn't focused merely on America and Europe: he showed that World War II was indeed a global conflict.

The Smoke at Dawn, Jeff Shaara. Ballantine Books, 2014

This is one of two fiction works I'll write about over the next few posts. This is Shaara's third of four novels on the Western Theater of the American Civil War. I've loved Shaara's writing since Gods and Generals came out in the 1990s (caution: avoid the movie at all costs!) and he keeps getting better. His style and research really shine in this series. His account of the Chattanooga Campaign in Fall 1863 is very accurate. Early in his career, Shaara told the story through the eyes of the officers. As he wrote about the First and Second World Wars, Shaara brought in the perspective of the front line soldiers, something he continues here. It is a welcome part of this series. I can't wait til the fourth and final book comes out sometime this year!

Again, stay tuned for more reviews over the next few days!