Author:

The General

Eric J. Wittenberg is an award-winning Civil War historian. He is also a practicing attorney and is the sole proprietor of Eric J. Wittenberg Co., L.P.A. He is the author of sixteen published books and more than two dozen articles on the Civil War. He serves on the Governor of Ohio's Advisory Commission on the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, as the vice president of the Buffington Island Battlefield Preservation Foundation, and often consults with the Civil War Preservation Trust on battlefield preservation issues. Eric, his wife Susan, and their two golden retrievers live in Columbus, Ohio.

Website: civilwarcavalry.com

Part 2 of 2. Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.

Joseph E. Johnston

Joseph E. Johnston

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, ever the good soldier, obeyed Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s order. He informed his adversary, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, that the civil authorities in Washington, D. C. had rejected their treaty on the grounds that Sherman had exceeded his authority. He informed Johnston that his sole authority to treat with him was to offer him the same terms that Grant had offered to Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Davis, opposed the surrender of Johnston’s command under the terms given to Lee, ordered Johnston to disband the infantry and escape with the large force of cavalry attached to Johnston’s army. To his undying credit, Johnston disobeyed those orders and surrendered the nearly 90,000 Confederate troops remaining under arms on the same terms given to Lee’s army at Appomattox. The troops included men in the Carolinas, Georga, and Florida. Only after Johnston surrendered did the armies of Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor and Gen. Edmund Kirby-Smith finally surrender, too.

Johnston and Sherman meet to discuss the terms of Johnston’s surrender.

Johnston and Sherman meet to discuss the terms of Johnston’s surrender.

On April 26, 1865, just eight days after the execution of the putative peace treaty, Sherman and Johnston reconvened at James Bennett’s small log farmhouse near Durham, North Carolina, where they had negotiated their putative peace treaty, to complete the formal surrender of Johnston’s army. Initially, the two generals had trouble reaching an accord. Johnston was concerned that without adequate provisions in place, the disbanding Confederate army would turn into marauders and robbers—in other words, that anarchy would reign. Sherman persuaded Johnston that he need not be concerned about that, and eventually got the Virginian to agree to the same terms that Grant had given to Lee.

Sherman presented Johnston with a prepared instrument of surrender, and Johnston signed it:

Terms of a Military Convention, entered into this 26th day of April, 1865, at Bennitt’s House, near Durham Station, North Carolina, between General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army, and Major-General W.T. Sherman, commanding the United States Army in North Carolina:

All acts of war on the part of the troops under General Johnston’s command to cease from this date.

All arms and public property to be deposited at Greensboro, and delivered to an ordinance-officer of the United States Army.

Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate; one copy to be given to an officer to be designated by General Sherman. Each officer and man to give individual obligation in writing not to take up arms against the Government of the United States, until properly released from this obligation.

The side-arms of officers, and their private horses and baggage, to be retained by them.

This being done, all the officers and men will be permitted to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by the United States authorities, so long as they observe their obligation and the laws in force where they may reside.

W.T. Sherman, Major-General

Commanding United States Forces in North Carolina

J.E. Johnston, General

Commanding Confederate States Forces in North Carolina

Approved: U. S. Grant, Lieutenant-General

These were precisely the same terms as those accepted by Robert E. Lee for the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. The difference was that Johnston surrendered all remaining Confederate forces still in the field—nearly 90,000 men.

With the execution of the instrument of surrender, Joseph E. Johnston and his 32,000 man army stacked arms in a ceremony reminiscent of the one wherein Lee’s army surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House. Rifles were stacked, and colors were furled, and then the defeated Confederate soldiers tearfully returned home. Their war was over.

In the years after the war, the War Department purchased the entire village of Appomattox Court House and turned it into a shrine. It’s now part of the National Park Service, with many of the buildings–including Wilmer McLean’s handsome home–having been reconstructed as replicas of the original structures. The Appomattox Court House National Park consists of 1800 acres and includes 27 original structures. It is amply monumented, and the small battlefield area–the fight was brief and aborted when Lee realized that Union infantry had arrived and that his plight was hopeless–is well interpreted. There’s even a small military cemetery on site, a large Eastern National Park & Monument Association bookstore with an excellent selection, and a visitor center with a nice museum.

In many ways, what happened at Bennett Place is more remarkable, and more important, than what happened at Appomattox. However, the Bennett Place episode has long been ignored in light of the more dramatic events at Appomattox. The Bennett Place surrender site is a North Carolina state park that occupies about four acres. The Bennett house burned to the ground in 1921, and a replica was constructed on the site. In 1923, a Unity Monument was placed on the site to commemorate this historic event. There is a recently remodeled visitor center with some museum exhibits, a movie, and some books for sale. The contrast is absolutely shocking when compared with the plush and huge national park at Appomattox. The Bennett Place site sits a couple of hundred yards from an Interstate freeway, nestled among houses, so there is no way that it could be expanded. And that’s all there is to commemorate the place where two of the great men of the Civil War era combined efforts to accomplish one of the most important and remarkable events of the American Civil War.

The Unity Monument with the replica of James Bennett’s farmhouse in the background.

The Unity Monument with the replica of James Bennett’s farmhouse in the background.

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Part 1 of a two-part series. Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman

Gen. Joseph E. Johnston learned of the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in Wilmer McLean’s parlor in the hamlet of Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 several days later. Lee had been trying to outrace the pursuing Union armies in an attempt to link up with Johnston’s army near Weldon, North Carolina. Once Lee’s army surrendered, there was no reason for Johnston to continue the bloodletting—it was over, and the wise old Confederate general knew it. Johnston, also horrified by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and worried about potential recriminations stemming from it, was eager to end the war. The wily old Virginian had a great deal of respect for his adversary, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, and he saw an opportunity to not just end the fighting, but to end the war itself. Sherman, weary of the butchery, also wanted the same thing.

Bennett Place

Bennett Place

Johnston proposed a meeting between the two army commanders to treat for peace, and they selected James Bennett’s modest farmhouse, near Durham, North Carolina, which was approximately halfway between the positions of the two armies. As one of Sherman’s staff officers put it, “two great men came together in the heart of North Carolina, intent, with true nobility of soul and in the highest interest of humanity, upon putting a stop to the needless sacrifice of life.”

As Sherman was preparing to leave for his conference with Johnston, he learned of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln via telegram. He swore the telegraph operator to secrecy to keep word from reaching the men and jeopardizing the meeting.

On April 17, the two army commanders entered the little Bennett house and began hashing out the terms of not just the surrender of Johnston’s army, but for peace and the restoration of the Union. Each commander arrived with his staff and a cavalry escort. Sherman informed Johnston of the assassination, and the Virginian said that the president’s death “was the greatest possible calamity to the South.” Sherman offered Johnston the same terms offered to Lee by Grant. However, Johnston believed the purpose to cease the fighting so that the civil authorities could make peace. He proposed to surrender all remaining Confederate forces in the field, and idea that Sherman eagerly embraced, as he wanted to avoid a long guerrilla war.

Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton

Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton

Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton of South Carolina, Johnston’s chief of cavalry, and the highest-ranking Confederate cavalry officer, and Bvt. Maj. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, Sherman’s cavalry commander, accompanied their commanders to the peace conference. Both officers had transferred from the Virginia theater of operations, and they had tangled many times. Hampton was a patrician, reportedly the richest man in the antebellum South. Kilpatrick, small, ambitious, and with an unsavory reputation, were two entirely opposite personalities.While their men mingled and chatted, Hampton and Kilpatrick instead engaged in a loud and ugly argument that led to “both parties expressing a desire that the issue of the war should be left between the cavalry.” Their row had grown so loud that Sherman and Johnston had to interrupt their important discussions to separate their quarreling subordinates. A few minutes later, the two respective contingents mounted up and rode off after scheduling another meeting for the next day to finalize their discussions. Johnston needed time to communicate with the Confederate authorities. Hampton remained at headquarters the next day to avoid another ugly confrontation with his old adversary.

Bvt. Maj. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick

Bvt. Maj. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick

The next day, April 18, Sherman and Johnston met again. Johnston wanted to have the advice of General john Breckinridge, the Confederate Secretary of War, and an experienced attorney and politician, as to the legalities, so he invited Breckinridge to attend the meeting. Sherman initially opposed the presence of a civil official of the Confederacy, but agreed to permit the Kentuckian to remain once Breckinridge agreed to act solely in his capacity as a major general. Pausing only to take a sip of whiskey, Sherman began writing. The two commanders then signed a remarkable document:

Memorandum, or Basis of Agreement, made this 18th day of April A.D. 1865, near Durham Station, in the State of North Carolina, by and between General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army, and Major General William T. Sherman, commanding the Army of the United States in North Carolina, both present:

The contending armies now in the field to maintain the status quo until notice is given by the commanding general of anyone to its opponent, and reasonable time – say forty-eight hours – allowed.

The Confederate armies now in existence to be disbanded and conducted to their several State capitals, there to deposit their arms and public property in the State Arsenal; and each officer and man to execute and file an agreement to cease from acts of war, and to abide by the action of the State and Federal authority. The number of arms and munitions of war to be reported to the Chief of Ordinance at Washington City, subject to the future action of the Congress of the United States, and, in the mean time, to be used solely to maintain peace and order within the borders of the States respectively.

The recognition, by the Executive of the United States, of the several State governments, on their officers and legislatures taking the oaths prescribed by the Constitution of the United States, and, where conflicting State governments have resulted from the war, the legitimacy of all shall be submitted to the Supreme Court of the United States.

The re-establishment of all Federal Courts in the several States, with powers as defined by the Constitution of the United States and of the States respectively.

The people and inhabitants of all the States to be guaranteed, so far as the Executive can, their political rights and franchises, as well as their rights of person and property, as defined by the Constitution of the United States and of the States respectively.

The Executive authority of the Government of the United States not to disturb any of the people by reason of the late war, so long as they live in peace and quiet, abstain from acts of armed hostility, and obey the laws in existence at the place of their residence.

In general terms – the war to cease; a general amnesty, so far as the Executive of the United States can command, on condition of the disbandment of the Confederate armies, the distribution of the arms, and the resumption of peaceful pursuits by the officers and men hitherto composing said armies.

Not being fully empowered by our respective principals to fulfill these terms, we individually and officially pledge ourselves to promptly obtain the necessary authority, and to carry out the above programme.

W.T. Sherman, Major-General,

Commanding Army of the United States in North Carolina

J.E. Johnston, General,

Commanding Confederate States Army in North Carolina

This remarkable document, if ratified, would not only ensure the surrender of Johnston’s army, it would end the war and restore the authority and civil government of the United States in the former Confederacy. It marked Sherman’s and Johnston’s attempt at statesmanship. Sherman then ordered the halting of hostilities by all troops under his command.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis quickly accepted these generous terms. However, the civil authorities in Washington, D. C., still enraged over the assassination of Lincoln, declared that Sherman lacked authority to treat for peace. Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant, Sherman’s superior officer, ordered Sherman to abrogate his treaty and to inform Johnston that he could only offer to Johnston the same terms that Grant had offered to Lee at Appomattox. Their remarkable efforts came to naught.

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15 Mar 2015, by

Back in print!!!

UnknownI’m excited and very pleased to announce that one of my favorites of my titles, 2006’s The Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads and the Civil War’s Final Campaign is back in print after being out of print for four or five years. The folks at Savas-Beatie have just released a softcover edition of the book just in time for the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the battle, which was fought on March 10, 1865. For those attending the 150th commemoration of the Battle of Bentonville next weekend (March 21-22) or the 150th anniversary of Johnston’s surrender to Sherman at Bennett Place on April 18, I will have copies of both editions available for sale there. Signed copies are also available by contacting me directly.

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Ben Buehler Garcia hosts a weekly talk radio program on Tucson, Arizona’s KQTH called American Warrior that airs every Sunday from 12:00-1:00 PM PDT, or 3:00-4:00 PM, EDT. I was Ben’s guest today, where we spent an hour commemorating the 150th anniversary of the March 10, 1865 Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads. Those interested can download that hour-long discussion here.

Unlike some of the radio hosts that I have talked with over the years, Ben had read the entire book and was extremely well-prepared for our conversation. It was an interesting and enjoyable discussion, and I hope that some of you will check it out.

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Conclusion of a series. Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.

Battle of Monroe's Crossroads, second phase

Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads, second phase

After rallying his troops, Kilpatrick found a ragged old nag of a horse, and ordered a counterattack by his men, who surged forward out of the swamp and engaged the Confederate cavalrymen. In the meantime, Lt. Stetson was able to man first one, and then other, of his guns near the Monroe house, taking the starch out of the Confederate attack. Butler ordered an attack on the guns, which was led by The Citadel Cadet Ranger Company of the 4th South Carolina Cavalry, led by Capt. Moses Humphrey. Leading his troopers forward, Humphrey and his horse were both felled by a blast of canister. The captain and his loyal steed were buried in the same grave. Lt. Col. Barrington S. King, the commander of the Cobb Legion Cavalry, was also mortally wounded by one of Stetson’s blasts.

Those blasts of canister served to rally the Union men. One of Kilpatrick’s troopers described the determined counterattack by the Union horse soldiers as “one of the most terrific hand-to-hand encounters I ever saw.” Blue and gray mingled promiscuously as they slugged it out for possession of the Union camps. One of Wheeler’s division commanders, Brig. Gen. William Y. C. Humes, was badly wounded in the leg, and a brigade commander, Col. James Hagan, lay on the ground bleeding from a severe wound.

Sign indicating the location of the battlefield. In the background are graves for unknown Union dead.

Sign indicating the location of the battlefield. In the background are graves for unknown Union dead.

Kilpatrick’s determined counterattack re-took his headquarters at the Monroe House and then began shoving the Confederate cavalry back toward the Morganton Road. They also punished those elements of Wheeler’s corps that had gotten bogged down in the swamp for the better part of 90 long minutes. After taking heavy losses—Wheeler had lost two division commanders and two brigade commanders badly wounded—and realizing that he had done all that he could, Hampton finally ordered his command to withdraw. Law’s reserve troopers came forward to cover the Confederate retreat and were joined by Brig. Gen. George Dibrell’s late-arriving brigade of Wheeler’s corps, and these troopers fended off Kilpatrick’s final attacks and allowed the rest of the Confederate cavalry to break off and withdraw safely.

Kilpatrick was happy to let them go. Having been caught by surprise and having taken heavy losses, he was in no hurry to pursue the grayclad horsemen. His command spent the rest of the day licking its wounds. Maj. Gen. James D. Morgan’s 14th Corps Division arrived to reinforce Kilpatrick after the battle ended, and the Union commander soon became a laughingstock when the story of his flight into the swamp clad in only his nightshirt spread. The foot soldiers quickly dubbed it “Kilpatrick’s shirt-tail skedaddle,” not without merit. So ended the final major cavalry engagement in the Western Theater of the Civil War.

Longstreet Church Cemetery. This cemetery is about a mile and a half from the battlefield. Many of the Confederate dead from the battle rest here.

Longstreet Church Cemetery. This cemetery is about a mile and a half from the battlefield. Many of the Confederate dead from the battle rest here.

In the end, Kilpatrick won the battle by retaining the field at the end of the day, and having driven off Hampton and Wheeler. However, winning or losing the battle was not the issue. Hampton’s plan was designed to buy time for Hardee’s infantry to make its escape, and in that, the Confederates were wildly successful. By keeping Kilpatrick’s cavalry tied up for the entire day on March 10, Hardee was able to reach Fayetteville unmolested, and to cross his entire command safely. Wheeler’s troopers served as the rearguard, and the last of them to cross the Clarendon Bridge set it ablaze as the lead elements of Sherman’s army entered Fayetteville on the morning of March 11. The destruction of the bridge forced Sherman to halt in Fayetteville for several days until his pontoon bridges could be floated up the Cape Fear River from Wilmington. Hardee’s command pulled back and established three strong defensive positions at Averasboro, where his small command of less than 10,000 men successfully held off fully half of Sherman’s army for a full day on March 16, 1865 before withdrawing after dark that night. Hardee’s command then joined Johnston’s army at Smithfield the next day.

In short, the determined attacks by Hampton and Wheeler at Monroe’ Crossroads made the Battle of Bentonville possible. But for the bold surprise attacks that nearly destroyed Kilpatrick’s command, Hardee’s troops might have been brought to ground at Fayetteville and the Clarendon Bridge might have been seized by Kilpatrick’s troopers and made available for use by Sherman’s army, which might have arrived before Johnston could concentrate his army for the battle that became known as Bentonville.

Battle monument erected by the U.S. Army.

Battle monument erected by the U.S. Army.

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Part two in a series. Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.

Col. Gilbert J. Wright

Col. Gilbert J. Wright

Col. Gilbert J. “Gib” Wright, who commanded Hampton’s old brigade, was determined to try to capture Kilpatrick. He ordered Capt. Samuel D. Bostick of the Phillips Legion Cavalry to head straight for the Monroe farmhouse to capture the Union cavalry leader while the rest of the dawn attack launched.

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Col. George E. Spencer, 1st Alabama Cavalry (U.S.)

Col. George E. Spencer, 1st Alabama Cavalry (U.S.)

Joe Wheeler wanted to attack dismounted, as a thick swamp lay between his corps and Kilpatrick’s campsites. Hampton ordered the attack to be made mounted, and Wheeler rode off to prepare for the attack. At dawn, Wright’s men thundered into the sleeping Union campsite, catching many of Spencer’s men still in their bedrolls. Bostick and his company headed straight for the farmhouse. Kilpatrick, awakened by the commotion, came out onto the front porch of the house clad in only his nightshirt to see what was going on. Fortunately, he was a quick thinker—when one of Bostick’s men asked him where was General Kilpatrick, he pointed at a man riding away on a horse and told the Confederate soldier that the man was the general. The Confederates spurred off after the man, and Kilpatrick, now fully awake and aware of the grave threat, retreated to the swamp barefoot, without weapons, and dressed only in his nightshirt. In the meantime, the Southern horsemen surged through the camps, headed toward the Monroe house, freeing some prisoners of war that had been traveling with Kilpatrick’s command.

In the meantime, two factors came into play to stymie the Confederate battle plan. First, a significant portion of Wheeler’s command got bogged down trying to push through the nearly impenetrable swamp. Those who got through lost all sense of discipline when faced with the veritable bounty of Kilpatrick’s campsites. Famished men stopped to feast on the ample Union rations or to loot the camps instead of pushing on. The combination of these two factors allowed sufficient time for those elements of Kilpatrick’s command that had not been gobbled up by the initial Confederate assaults to escape into the swamp, where Kilpatrick began to rally them.

In the meantime, Wheeler himself drew his saber and pitched into the melee, and so did Hampton. The big South Carolinian—6’4” and about 240 pounds—carried a heavy broadsword and not a saber, and he ended up killing a couple of Kilpatrick’s troopers during the day’s fighting, the 12th and 13th men that he had killed in personal combat during the Civil War. The scene in the Federal camps was utter chaos. Hampton’s plan for a surprise attack had succeeded beyond his wildest expectations, but with the complete breakdown of discipline, and the nature of the terrain, which naturally funneled the action toward the swamp, the Confederate tidal wave was rapidly running out of steam.

In the meantime, Judson Kilpatrick was rallying his routed command and getting it organized to launch a counterattack. After his humiliating flight into the safety of the swamp, the Union commander was determined to regain his camps.

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Part 1 of a series. Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War:

The stakes were high. Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee’s 5,500 man corps was in a race for its life. If it could reach the Clarendon Bridge across the Cape Fear River in Fayetteville, NC first, Hardee could get his men across and then destroy the only crossing of the Cape Fear in the area. The Cape Fear is navigable as far north as Fayetteville, so it could only be crossed by bridge or ferry in the Fayetteville area. If Hardee could destroy the bridge, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s 65,000-man army would have to halt and wait for bridging materials to be brought up river from Wilmington. By the time that the bridging materials arrived and Sherman got his army across the Cape Fear, Hardee would be well on his way to joining the force that Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, who came out of retirement to assume command of the remaining Confederate forces in North Carolina in February 1865, was assembling near Smithfield.

kilpatrick_webLeading Sherman’s pursuit was the Third Cavalry Division, commanded by Bvt. Maj. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick’s division—consisting of three brigades of mounted men and an ad hoc brigade of those men who had lost their horses and had not been able to replace them—was the only cavalry with Sherman’s grand army. Kilpatrick, of questionable reliability, had already demonstrated that his command could be caught by surprise at Aiken, South Carolina on February 11, was the weak link in Sherman’s army. However, in the absence of any alternatives, Kilpatrick and his troopers would have to do.

wheeler_inlineClosely shadowing Kilpatrick’s pursuit of Hardee’s infantry was a large and still effective force of Confederate cavalry. Even at that late date, the Confederates could still put more than 5,000 horsemen in the field, consisting of f about 4,000 men under the command of Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler, whose command had been shadowing Sherman’s army since the beginning of the March to the Sea, and another 1,200 or so troopers from the Army of Northern Virginia under command of the newly-promoted Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton who had been sent to South Carolina at Hampton’s request in February to help defend against Sherman’s army. As the highest-ranking officer in the Confederate cavalry service, Hampton had overall command of this large force of Southern horsemen.

220px-wade_hamptonBy the afternoon of March 9, 1865, Kilpatrick’s command was only a few miles behind Hardee’s infantry. Each of Kilpatrick’s three brigades of mounted men used a different road to pursue the Confederates. Kilpatrick himself rode with the brigade of Col. George E. Spencer, which was accompanied by Lt. Ebenezer Stetson’s two-gun section of the 10th Wisconsin Battery, and the dismounted troopers, organized into ad hoc regiments based on which brigade they served in, all under command of Lt. Col. William B. Way of the 9th Michigan Cavalry. Nightfall came quickly on the short early March days, and Kilpatrick decided to halt at the intersection of the Morganton and Blue’s Rosin Road, not far from Fayetteville. Kilpatrick established his headquarters in the Monroe farmhouse, where he spent the night in the company of an unidentified woman who was traveling with his command and who was considered to be a woman of loose morals. That intersection, known as Monroe’s Crossroads, would become the site of the last large cavalry battle in the Western Theater of the Civil War the next day.

Kilpatrick was careless and sloppy in his dispositions. He had only a single company of the 5th Kentucky Cavalry of Spencer’s brigade deployed as pickets on the Morganton Road. Wheeler’s lead elements—scouts of the 8th Texas Cavalry (Terry’s Texas Rangers) under command of Capt. Alexander Shannon—caught the Kentuckians by surprise and captured them en masse, meaning that Kilpatrick had no other early warning system in place in case the Confederates approached. This was incredibly negligent and violated nearly every rule for cavalry in the field, and it nearly cost Kilpatrick dearly.

matthew_calbraith_butlerWheeler and Hampton recognized that Kilpatrick’s entire command was vulnerable. Hampton developed a plan whereby his entire command would pounce on Kilpatrick’s vulnerable camp. Wheeler, with his entire corps, would attack at dawn from the west, while Maj. Gen. Matthew C. Butler, commanding Hampton’s old division, would attack from the north with Col. Gilbert Wright’s brigade (Hampton’s old brigade), while the brigade of Brig. Gen. Evander M. Law would be held in reserve. It was a brilliant plan, and if it was executed properly at dawn as ordered, the grayclad horsemen would fall upon the sleeping Union camp like a tidal wave.

However, as the old cliché about the best-laid plans of mice and men goes, while the plan was brilliant, its execution left something to be desired.

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Some clown named Donnie Johnston (who can take someone named Donnie seriously anyway? It raises memories of Donny Osmond….) writes a regular column for the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star newspaper. He was born and raised in Culpeper County, Virginia, where numerous major engagements occurred, and where the Army of the Potomac spent the winter of 1863-1864. This unenlightened troglodyte also is a fierce opponent of battlefield preservation. He has a long track record of it.

On December 29, 2001, he declared his enmity to battlefield preservation in his column:

Avoid getting bogged down in swamp or historic land
Posted: Saturday, December 29, 2001 2:30 am | Updated: 8:47 pm, Fri Jan 30, 2015.

“Possible Civil War battlefield site,” it said.

I suppose the owner figured that this was a valid selling point, but knowing that a Civil War battle might have been fought on that property would surely have dissuaded me from investigating further.

In this day and time, there are two types of acreage the average working man should avoid like the plague–historic land and swamp land. Either can wind up costing you money and causing you grief.

Now your old pappy may have warned you to stay away from deals that involve swamp land, but I doubt that men of his generation would have put historic land in the same category.

My, how things have changed.

We live in an area so Civil War conscious that sometimes it is hard to make people believe that we actually have history that predates that conflict.

Many act as if some mysterious land bridge magically appeared in 1861 and civilization began when men wearing blue uniforms walked down from the North to confront men in gray uniforms walking up from the South.

What happened after that is considered so sacred that one historic preservation group has declared that nothing so seemingly innocent as a game of softball should be played on the hallowed Civil War battlefield ground it owns.

That’s fine for big preservation groups, but, increasingly, government wants to restrict how small landowners use their historic property, too. And a man who has his life savings invested in a few acres of ground that are declared historically significant can suddenly find himself behind the eight ball.

Now I have nothing against preserving our history, but every site on which a Civil War soldier slept cannot be kept inviolate forever.

Given the thousands of soldiers that marched through Central Virginia, there is hardly a square foot of ground between Richmond and Washington that didn’t figure in the Civil War in some way.

And every acre between the Blue Ridge Mountains and Fredericksburg was most certainly used by either one army or the other between 1861 and 1865.

It can’t all be declared hallowed ground–not if we want our children and grandchildren to build homes and continue to live in this area.

But as open land dwindles, no one can be certain which parcels will be preserved and which will not.

And if you happen to own land on which a Civil War battle was fought, you just might get caught in a costly squeeze someday and your property rights severely restricted.

Increasingly, historic land is more of a liability than an asset–especially for persons who are not wealthy.

The same holds true for swamp land, which has become an even greater liability than historic land.

No one seems to know what you CAN do with swamp land, but there are two things that you almost universally CAN’T do with it.
You can’t use it and you can’t clean it up.

And if you can’t do either of those two things, a swamp is about as useless as a pregnant chad on a Florida ballot.

So why own it? Why pay taxes on land that is absolutely no good to you?

If you are buying land that has a swamp on it, ask the seller to deduct that acreage from the parcel.

And if you own swamp land, consider deeding it to the government so you won’t be taxed on that part of your property.

Even if the government owns your swamp, you can still enjoy the beavers that flood it and the ducks that swim in it. But you won’t be responsible for that land and you won’t have to pay taxes on it.

Let the government figure out what to do with it!

A donation of “valuable wetlands” to the government should even earn you a big tax break.

If you’re rich, you might not worry about owning a few acres of unusable swamp or a battlefield site whose use might be severely restricted one day.

But if you’re just an old working Joe, you might want to look the other way when someone tries to sell you land that is either swampy or historic in nature.

And if someone tries to interest you in a marsh where a Civil War battle was fought, run for your life!

The government probably wouldn’t even let you look at property that sacred–let alone use it!

DONNIE JOHNSTON is a staff writer with The Free Lance-Star. He can be contacted by mail at The Free Lance-Star, 616 Amelia St., Fredericksburg, Va. 22401; by fax at 373-8455; or by e-mail marked to his attention at gwoolf@freelancestar.com.

Note that he updated his angry rant on January 30 of this year, more than 13 years later.

Then, on February 21, 2015, he fired this unenlightened cheap shot.

Nothing ‘hallowed’ about war

Posted: Saturday, February 21, 2015 12:00 am
BY DONNIE JOHNSTON/THE FREE LANCE-STAR | 6 comments
DonnieJohnston
Posted on Feb 21, 2015by Donnie Johnston

I am so sick of hearing people cry about “hallowed ground” I could scream.

Everywhere a Union or Confederate soldier set his chamber pot is now declared “hallowed ground.”

You can’t build a store because there may be a Minié ball somewhere in the ground. Housing developments get axed because some farmer once plowed up a rusty bayonet in that field. You can’t construct a road because some soldier once fired a cannon from that spot.

This is all getting absurd.

Yes, the Civil War figures prominently in our country’s history, but the surrender at Appomattox was 150 years ago. Get over it and let’s get on with life.

Why people are so adamant about glorifying war—any war—is beyond me. Ask anybody who ever fought in one and they will tell you that war is indeed hell.

People kill other people in wars. They blow their heads off—literally. They disembowel fathers and sons and brothers with cannons and mortars.

Soldiers lose their arms, their legs, their feet and their hands in wars. You want to glorify that?

I’m not a fan of war and I certainly don’t celebrate killing. As Jimmy Stewart once said, the only people who win wars are the undertakers.

We talk of the soldiers who fought the Civil War as if they were holy vessels sent down by the Almighty to purify the Earth. These were people like you and me—some good, some bad.

Few fought because there was some holy cause involved. Most of the Confederates fought mostly because they resented being invaded by the Yankees. Most of the Federals fought because they wanted to teach Johnny Reb a lesson.

The Civil War began because big landowners in the South wanted to keep black people enslaved. You can sugarcoat it all you want, but slavery was what that conflict was all about. You want to glorify slavery?

Those big landowners—the aristocracy—were the political leaders of the South and they developed political policy. The average guy who had never owned a slave just got caught up in the excitement and the politics of the day.

Yes, the slaves were freed as a result of the Civil War. But then America proceeded to treat black people like dirt for another 100 years. It was only after the Civil War centennial that black children were even allowed to sit next to white children in many public schools.

Civil War soldiers killed, looted, stole and burned homes and outbuildings. If you see glory in that, you’ve got better vision than I.

Six miles from where I live, a wounded Union soldier was executed in the bed where he was convalescing—shot in the head at point-blank range—as a means of revenge. You want to glorify that?

My great-grandfather went off to war on a lark, leaving his wife and children to almost starve to death. He came home and wasted away with dysentery. That was some glorious death.

Now we want to save every inch of ground trod upon by every Federal and Confederate. Why? Well, partly so that re-enactors can line up, fire blank shells and show us what the war was like.

If these people want to show us what the war was like, let them fire real bullets and cannon and then accept only the type of medical help that was available during the Civil War.

Let us watch a few limbs being amputated with hacksaws and without anesthesia or antibiotics. Let’s see how romantic that is.

Enough is enough. We don’t glorify World War I or World War II or even the Revolutionary War, where we won our independence. It is only the Civil War that seems to excite us.

Yes, we should honor our history, but we can’t save every inch of soil that was part of the Civil War. If we did, most of Virginia would be an empty field.

As for this “hallowed ground” business, no war is a holy war. War is an atrocity, no matter which side is in the right.

We can respect the men who fought in the Civil War without stripping landowners of their rights 150 years after the fact. The re-enactors can still play soldier and have a high old time, but let the people have homes and let the roads pass.

Like we do with most everything else, Americans take history and run it into the [hallowed] ground.

The Civil War is over. Let’s move on. The good earth was put here for us to use, not to glorify because one man killed another man at some particular spot.
?
Donnie Johnston: djohnston@freelancestar.com

This ignoramus clearly doesn’t get it. Which is a tragedy.

Mike Stevens, president of the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust, which does a magnificent job of stewarding battlefield land in and around Fredericksburg, wrote this excellent letter to the editor of the Free-Lance Star that rebuts the ignoramus:

To the Editor:

Donnie Johnston’s recent column, “War shouldn’t be hallowed,” made clear his antipathy toward, and opposition to, preserving our remaining Civil War battlefields. He was direct, forthright, and pulled no punches.

I am President of our local preservation group, Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT), and would like to respond. (For a more complete picture of why we preservationists do what we do, please check the paper’s archives for my past op-ed articles.)

–We of CVBT don’t wish to preserve the ground of a Civil War battlefield in order to glorify war or to enable reenactors to “play soldier and have a high old time.” Rather, we do so in order to commemorate this most important and defining event in the history of our country, to preserve the memory and meaning of what took place on that ground, and to remember and honor the men in both blue and gray who fought and fell there, to ponder what they did and why they did it. There are lessons to be learned by having such special ground to walk upon.

–We of CVBT do not attempt to save every inch of battlefield ground where “there may be a Minie ball somewhere in the ground” or where “some farmer once plowed up a rusty bayonet in that field.” Rather, we consider the ground sanctified by the blood and bravery of thousands of Americans (ground almost certainly still containing the remains of many of those men) to be consecrated and special, to be as worthy of respect and preservation as is the consecrated and special ground of any existing cemetery.

–We of CVBT are not “stripping landowners of their rights.” We understand that a man’s property is his own, and we support this as a fundamental right of citizenship, as long as the corresponding responsibility to respect the historical stewardship of that property is taken into serious account.

–Finally, some of us might wonder about his comment that “the good earth was put here for us to use, not to glorify because one man killed another man at some particular spot.” It might be more respectful and honest to say that we are called upon to be good stewards of God’s created order, to use what we have been given not exclusively for personal profit and gain but with the acknowledgment that there are places touched by such suffering and sacrifice that they become special and Spirit-filled, worthy of being preserved forever. To us of CVBT, a Civil War battlefield is just such a place.

Mike Stevens
Fredericksburg, VA

Clark B. Hall, who has done more to preserve battlefield land in and around Johnston’s home, Culpeper County, writes:

There are many who are both shocked and surprised at Mr. Donnie Johnston’s provocative column asserting battlefield preservation is “absurd,” but as one who has labored three decades to help save Civil War battlefields in Culpeper County—from where Mr. Johnston hails—I am neither shocked nor surprised as his cynical insensitivity toward preservation is well known in Culpeper.

Back in the mid-80’s, a California developer arrived in Culpeper and deigned to build a commercial office park on the Brandy Station Battlefield. A group of local citizens—not including Mr. Johnston—directly aided by the Fredericksburg-based, Association of the Preservation of Civil War Sites, Inc. (today’s Civil War Trust)—opposed that proposal and the developer declared bankruptcy. Another developer successively purposed to build an automobile racetrack on the battlefield, but he was also beaten back by preservation advocates.

And today—directly supported by enlightened Culpeper citizens—the Civil War Trust owns, and has placed in easement, thousands of acres of historic landscape in Culpeper County. This protected, “Hallowed Ground”—a poignant term scorned by the censorious Mr. Johnston—incorporates portions of the Brandy Station, Cedar Mountain and Kelly’s Ford Battlefields.

It is a fact none of these Culpeper County battlefields would have been saved absent the direct support of Culpeper citizens. It is also a fact Culpeper County officials have inserted battlefield preservation in their “Comprehensive Plan” as a vital element the county must consider when rendering planning decisions.

And, by the way, Culpeper County now experiences a heavy visitor experience on its battlefields and Culpeper’s hotels, restaurants and stores can easily confirm “heritage tourism” directly conveys cultural and economic benefits. We can confirm, however, Mr. Johnston does not today join Culpeper student groups out on the battlefields while these young charges learn valuable lessons about the tragedy of war, along with the attendant components of courage, ultimate sacrifice, and the importance of tending our collective historical memory.

And please know battlefields now saved in Culpeper County are today protected despite the acerbic obstinacy of Mr. Donnie Johnston.

Clark B. Hall

My wise old father used to say, “opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one.” Mr. Johnston apparently has two, both of which are dead wrong.

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510yL1u7HTLOn January 9, 2015, I announced that I had made a deal with Savas-Beatie to bring out a Kindle version of my Ulric Dahlgren biography very soon, and a softcover version of it later this year. I am pleased to be able to tell you that the Kindle version is now available, as are all other digital formats. The cost is $9.99, and I hope some of you will check it out!

I will let everyone know when the book is back in print later this year.

And thank you for your support.

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17079761-largeRand Bitter forwarded a link today to update the nonsensical theory that Col. Robert H. G. Minty, probably the best Union cavalry brigade commander of the Civil War, stole the Confederate treasury’s gold from Jefferson Davis and that said gold is now at the bottom of Lake Michigan.

This time, the reporter was responsible and asked Rand for his opinion. Rand has published an exhaustively researched book on Minty’s life, and there is nobody alive who knows more about Minty than does Rand. If Rand says it’s nonsense, it’s nonsense. And Rand says it’s nonsense:

Confederate treasure in Lake Michigan? Despite skeptics, divers pursue fantastic story

By Garret Ellison | gellison@mlive.com
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on February 23, 2015 at 8:35 AM, updated February 23, 2015 at 11:02 A.M.

FRANKFORT, MI — Sometime in the mid-1890s, a boxcar laden with gold bullion stolen from the Confederacy at the end of the Civil War was allegedly pushed off a ferry into the roiling waters of Lake Michigan during a storm.

Today, it awaits discovery on the lake bottom.

As far as treasure stories go, it’s a doozy. But is it believable?

Unfortunately, there’s only one way to know for sure whether the story advanced by Muskegon area shipwreck divers Frederick J. Monroe and Kevin Dykstra is anything more than a new entry in the encyclopedia of theories about what became of the fabled Confederate treasury after the war.

Based largely on a deathbed confession relayed to Monroe in 1973, Monroe and Dykstra have spent several years searching the waters off Northern Michigan’s Benzie County for the treasure, which they fully expect will be found this summer.

On board with the tale is Frankfort Superintendent Joshua Mills, who is excited by the economic prospects of treasure seekers descending on his coastal town en masse with a modern day version of gold fever.

“We’re pretty certain that gold will be found”

Less convinced are Civil War historians, who consider the story preposterous.

“It’s all a bunch of hogwash,” said Rand Bitter, author of a biography about the Union Army officer at the center of Dykstra and Monroe’s treasure theory.

One might expect nothing less when it comes to a gold story.

A tale of the tallest order?

The thought of Confederate gold sunk in local waters is an intriguing notion that’s sure to fire the kiln of interest among Michiganders. If true, then the answer to one of the country’s greatest mysteries has been in our backyard for more than a century.

The story bubbled into the public eye last fall, when Monroe and Dykstra announced the discovery of an unidentified Lake Michigan shipwreck bearing resemblance to Le Griffon, the yet-undiscovered “holy grail” of Great Lakes wrecks.

Amid the ongoing clamor around Le Griffon, the duo’s real purpose was almost rendered a footnote. Finding the shipwreck — which they did in 2011 but held back announcing for several years — was an accident, they said. The two were actually searching for sunken Civil War gold.

Wait… what?

Their story about how rebel gold found its way into Lake Michigan seems plausible — as plausible, anyway, as any of the other folklore based on the 150-year-old legend of the Confederate treasury, which vanished under fairly well-known circumstances in 1865.

There’s even an established Michigan connection. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was captured on May 10, 1865 by members of the Fourth Michigan Cavalry near Irwinville, Ga., about a month after the fall of Richmond.

Davis had fled Richmond with the rebels’ hard currency reserves. Accounts differ on the exact size and makeup of the treasure, but it’s generally thought to have been about $1 million worth of gold, silver and jewelry.

According to historical account, the treasure was gone by the time the cavalry caught up with Davis and his men, who had little money on them.

What happened to the treasure? Monroe and Dykstra have a theory. Here it goes:

A colonel with the Fourth Michigan named Robert Horatio George Minty went back down to Georgia more than a decade after Davis was captured and dug up the hidden gold.

Minty, who retired as a Brigadier General, was wrongfully court-martialed during the war. This, Dykstra and Monroe think, gave him motive to commit treason.

Minty, who worked as a railroad superintendent after the war, somehow managed to get the treasure onto a boxcar headed north for Michigan. His destination: Upper Peninsula copper country, a region with known gold deposits.

To get there, the gold needed to cross Lake Michigan. In 1892, the Ann Arbor Railroad began using coal-powered lake ferries to bypass congested Chicago train yards. From Frankfort, the ferries served ports in Wisconsin and the U.P.

In dire straits, rail cars were sometimes pushed overboard in rough seas.

During one side-scan sonar search of the lake off Frankfort in 2012, Monroe and Dykstra found a coal car on the lake bottom. The two divers consider it a signpost indicating the deathbed confession is accurate and gold is real.

“I believe the boxcar is out there and this spring we’ll find it,” Dykstra said.

Do the dots connect?

Many dots must connect for Monroe and Dykstra’s theory to hold water.

Rand Bitter, a former Ford Motor Co. design cost specialist who self-published an exhaustively researched 2006 book called “Minty and his Cavalry: A History of the Sabre Brigade,” thinks the theory is built on a shaky foundation.

Colonel Minty, Bitter said, was not present when Davis was captured by men led by a subordinate officer, Lt. Col. Benjamin D. Pritchard of Allegan.

“If three tons of gold had been hidden away in a hurry by Prichard and his men, how would Minty have coordinated that from 150 miles away?” Bitter asked. “He wouldn’t have even known about it. They had to send a courier with word that Davis had been captured.”

Other elements of the Minty connection are suspect, Bitter said, who contends that Minty’s postwar railroad employment never put him in the right position to manage a secret boxcar all the way from Georgia to Michigan.

After the war, Minty’s first wife, Grace Ann Abbott, was apparently seen in Traverse City with a necklace made from a Confederate gold coin sovereign — a detail Dykstra and Monroe feel supports their theory.

Here, Bitter and the divers are almost on the same page. The coin necklace was real. Bitter thinks it was most likely given to Minty following Davis’ capture. The cavalryman also got Davis’ revolver and holsters, which are now on display in a Richmond museum. He never got any reward money for the capture.

But the hardest part for Bitter to reconcile is the family connection. Minty scandalously moved to Indiana in the 1870s and started a second family with his wife Grace’s sister, Laura Abbott. Minty essentially became persona non grata with the much of the Abbott family after that.

It’s an important detail because Minty’s brother-in-law, George Alexander Abbott, was the person who allegedly made the deathbed confession about a boxcar full of gold in Lake Michigan to a friend of Monroe’s grandfather.

From depositions taken after Minty’s death, Bitter said it’s quite clear George Abbott did not care much for Minty after the cavalryman’s affair.

“That’s supposedly someone who would know all about Minty’s gold?” he said. “Interesting he’d have all the details.”

Frankfort ready for gold seekers

Bitter and Dykstra have talked, but the divers and their chief theory critic didn’t connect before the gold-in-the-lake story hit the news.

If the deathbed confession turns out to be true and gold is found, Dykstra acknowledged the possibility that it may not be from the Confederate treasury. The Minty theory grew out of his early research. Dykstra was drawn to the Civil War angle when that was the only reference to missing gold from the time period he could find on the Internet.

He realizes it’s a “long stretch.”

Civil War experts aren’t the only skeptics. Shipwreck divers around the state are curious, but some question, privately, whether Monroe and Dykstra aren’t also angling for something like a reality TV show.

The duo isn’t tightly networked with the wider Great Lakes shipwreck diving community by choice, they said.

The two men met about 20 years ago at a wedding. Both have backgrounds as professional photographers. Monroe, 61, of Muskegon, is a scuba instructor who says he graduated from dive school in California in 1972. He taught Dykstra, 51, of Fruitport, to dive a few years ago.

“I’ve been treasure hunting pretty much my whole life,” said Monroe.

The divers have met with Michigan officials, but state archeologist Dean Anderson declined to take a strong position on the veracity of their theory. If gold is found, the state will likely claim it as abandoned material on Michigan bottomland.

“It’s not a story I’m familiar with,” said Anderson, who called the divers “forthcoming and cooperative,” particularly in recent discussions about a planned dive to the possible Le Griffon site this spring or summer.

“I’m not in any position to evaluate what they’ve had to say” about the gold, he said. “We only learned much detail about it very recently.”

More discussions between the divers and the state are possible, but not planned.

In Frankfort, city superintendent Joshua Mills is eager for something to happen.

Monroe and Dykstra have kept Mills in the loop since their initial dives began in 2011. The pair had a hand in helping outfit the Frankfort Fire Department with dive equipment paid for with some local private grants.

They’ve also done some training sessions with the dive team, said Mills.

If Frankfort gets an influx of treasure-seekers drawn to the gold story, it’s best the city be prepared for whatever could happen, said Monroe.

“We’re pretty certain that gold will be found,” said Monroe. “With all the people who come out, we think there’s a good chance it’ll be found this summer.”

If that happens, Mills wants folks to know there’s no monetary incentive in the treasure hunt. The state of Michigan would probably claim the gold, but, assuming there is gold down there, there could be other legal ownership claims advanced depending on the treasure’s origin.

“I think preserving the history and putting closure to the legend is something that could be a benefit to all,” said Mills. “We’ll see.”

Garret Ellison covers business, government, environment and breaking news for MLive/The Grand Rapids Press. Email him at gellison@mlive.com or follow on Twitter & Instagram

This theory is nothing but a flight of fancy. It’s a shame that such nonsense is even taken seriously.

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