General musings

In his 1948 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner left us a brilliant reflection on Pickett’s Charge that still resonates to this day:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….

149 years ago today…..

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Mother Mother Ocean, I have heard your call….

So wrote Jimmy Buffett nearly forty years ago in my favorite song of his, “A Pirate Looks at Forty.”

I have heard its call too. I’ve heard it for my whole life. My favorite sound in the world is the sound of the surf crashing against the beach. My favorite sensation is having sand and ocean water between my toes. My favorite sight is the horizon where the sky meets the ocean in the distance, with the vast expanse of water in between. I feel at home at the beach. More importantly, I feel happiest when I am at the beach. And I feel most at peace here. There is nothing more therapeutic for me than standing on the beach, flying my kite, with the ocean waves lapping at my feet. It’s sheer joy. Nothing beats the tranquility of watching my kite ride the waves of the sky while the ocean waves cover my feet. It’s the one time when I truly feel completely at peace. I spent nearly 90 minutes doing that today, and it seemed as if just a few minutes had passed. And for those nearly 90 minutes, all was right with the world. For those nearly 90 minutes, I forgot all about the stresses and pressures of my job, and for those nearly 90 minutes, I was immune from the toll that the ordeal with my parents has taken on me.

Susan and I are presently in Kure Beach, North Carolina for the week. We’re here with our friends Tom and Debbie and their daughter Elizabeth. This is our second summer vacationing with them, but it’s certainly not our first visit to the Cape Fear region. Susan and I first started coming to the Wilmington area in 2002, when I was first invited to speak to the Cape Fear Civil War Roundtable by my friend Chris Fonvielle. We’ve been coming here for at least a week for nearly every year for the last ten years. It brings about the intersection of two things that are near and dear to me: the Civil War and the beach, so I always savor these visits. Some years, we’ve come here twice. We love this area, and I can easily see ourselves retiring here someday. That’s the dream, anyway.

Kure Beach is at the southern end of Pleasure Island. The southern tip of the island is where the remains of Fort Fisher are. Fort Fisher was a behemoth fort made entirely of sand. Its purpose was to keep the vital Cape Fear River open to Wilmington, about 17 miles upriver, so that blockade runners could continue to supply the Confederacy. When Fort Fisher finally fell in January 1865, the final ocean going port available to the dying Confederacy was closed, and the beginning of the end came. For those interested, Chris Fonvielle has written THE definitive work on the Wilmington Campaign, which I highly and strongly recommend to you.

The years have not been kind to Fort Fisher. The entire eastern face of the fort is gone, devoured by the hungry waves and the destructive forces of the many hurricanes that have battered Cape Fear since 1865. A segment of the northern face of the fort remains, but it’s incomplete. Part of it was lost to the waves, and another part of it was lost to World War II, when a grass runway for coast watching aircraft was developed at the cost of some of the fort’s sand ramparts. Battle Acre, where the monument to the Union soldiers who fought and died to capture Fort Fisher stands, now sits nestled among a major recreation area. The southernmost battery, Battery Buchanan, also remains, but there is very little left. Although there is very little of Fort Fisher left, what remains is the most heavily visited historic site in North Carolina.

We paid a brief visit there yesterday upon our arrival in the area. I collect pins from Civil War battlefields that festoon my old Civil War Preservation Trust hat, and I needed one for Fort Fisher, so we headed there to get one. When Susan and I got there, we were pleased to find fellow Civil War historian, author, and blogger Michael C. Hardy. Susan took this photo of Michael and me, and I used the opportunity to purchase a copy of Michael’s new book on North Carolina in the Civil War for my burgeoning collection of books on the subject.

We have rented a house in Kure Beach for our week here. It sits just over two miles due north of the northern face of Fort Fisher, just across Fort Fisher Boulevard from the ocean. In 1865, this area was wide open sand dunes, covered only by the maritime forest and the occasional shack. Today, it’s a very popular beach resort area filled with upscale homes that are rented to folks like us. In 1865, this area was certainly within the range of the huge guns that peppered Fort Fisher. The land-based Union assaults on Fort Fisher staged here and kicked off from here, and this area was surely struck by shells from the Confederate guns at Fort Fisher. In short, the house we have rented for the week sits on a Civil War battlefield.

And that causes me to suffer the terribly mixed emotions that I am now feeling. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this is where I feel most at peace with the world and most happy. But the fact that all but a small portion of the Confederate goliath at Fort Fisher has been destroyed bothers me a great deal. I completely understand that this is some of the most desirable and most expensive real estate in the United States, and I completely understand that the inexorable march of progress dictates that not every inch of every battlefield can be preserved. I get that. And I am grateful that the small surviving piece of Fort Fisher is preserved and is in good hands. But my time here in Kure Beach is marked by terribly mixed emotions. The development really irks the battlefield preservationist in me. The rest of me adores the beach and the ocean and the fact that I am where I should be in the universe. I have learned to balance those mixed emotions, but they nevertheless rear their ugly head from time to time. Today happens to be one of them.

The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothing to plunder, I’m an over-forty victim of fate…

That’s “A Pirate Looks at Forty” again. And I think it sums me up best of all. I was born more than 150 years too late to have been a Civil War cavalryman, but I feel drawn to their stories, and I feel compelled to share them. Jimmy Buffett often says that this song is to ease people’s pain. It works for me. And it helps me to balance my mixed emotions.

My occupational hazard is my occupation’s just not around…

No, it’s not. And so, I lawyer on. But I will keep fighting the good fight of battlefield preservation, and I will continue to tell the stories of the men who fought, died, and gave the last full measure of their devotion. And I hope that all of you will accompany me on that journey a bit longer.

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Today, on Memorial Day, a day when we remember and commemorate the sacrifices of the men and women who gave the last full measure of their devotion to allow us to live in a free country, we have a guest post by Scott Mahaskey. Scott has done some yeoman work to set the record straight on a forgotten member of my favorite regiment, the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry, and when Scott shared his findings with me, I asked him if he would be willing to allow me to publish them here. What follows is what he sent along:

While paying respects at Arlington National Cemetery yesterday, I made the following photograph. Nice light, but thought nothing of it until I realized while editing that the flag obscured Christian Gross date of death. Could it be found online? I cobbled together the following tale after 2 hours of research.

Meet Private Christian Gross of Company K, 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry. This historic cavalry unit earned the named “rush lancers” after their early use of 15 foot lances, replaced with carbines in 1863. Organized from companies raised in Philadelphia and Berks counties, Richard H. Rush was appointed colonel of the regiment upon authorization of Governor Andrew Curtin.

Private Gross mustered into service September 24, 1861, died June 8, 1864, of wounds received during battle May 30, 1864. The battle was likely the Battle of Old Church and part of Grant’s Overland Campaign against Lee. There, just south to Totopotomoy Creek in Hanover County, Virginia, the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry narrowly survived an outflanking maneuver to be drawn into heavy dismounted hand-to-hand combat with South Carolinians.

A random ray of light lead to a rewarding Memorial Day epic. Thank you, Private Gross. Thank you all. — at Arlington National Cemetery.

After even further research, I updated the post to include the following:

Oh my – a Memorial Day mystery: Who is buried in the grave of Christian Gross? In his book, Rush’s Lancers, historian Eric Wittenberg published a roster of the 6th Cav in 2007. In it, the roster lists CHRISTOPHER GROSS as the soldier whose story is above. CHRISTIAN GROSS, the name of the tombstone and also part of the 6th Cav, is listed as ‘not accounted for’. I’ve reached out to the author for assistance. Maybe this ray of light wasn’t so random after all. Creepy.

Thank you, Scott, for both setting the record straight and for your allowing us to highlight a forgotten enlisted man otherwise lost to history. And thank you Pvt. Christian Gross for making the ultimate sacrifice to save the Union.

And thank you to all of the veterans, both living and dead, for your sacrifices as well. May they never be forgotten, and may they never be in vain.

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2012 is a memorable year for the commemoration of historical events. The sesquicentennial of the Civil War continues. The bicentennial of the war of 1812 is celebrated this year. And today marks the centennial of the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. Given my lifelong fascination with the sinking of the Titanic, I would be remiss if I did not at least mention it here, off topic as it may be.

I’ve long been fascinated by shipwrecks. Perhaps it stems from the fact that the anchor of the U.S.S. Maine rests in my hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, and I went on a childhood search to learn the story of that big anchor in the park. I have a small shelf full of books on the sinking of the Titanic, and we made a special trip to Chicago to see the traveling museum exhibit of artifacts from the sunken liner. The arson fire that destroyed the Morro Castle in 1934 has long fascinated me. I have several books on the sinking of the Andrea Doria in 1959. Even the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald intrigues me. I have read several books on its tragic ending. I’m sure that when the books begin to appear on the wreck of the Costa Concordia, I will invest in them too.

None, however, hold sway over the public’s imagination like the Titanic. Certainly, James Cameron’s movie stirred another generation’s fascination. Personally, I could have done without the distracting love story, but the footage of the shipwreck and Cameron’s slavishly and eerily accurate recreation of the ship made the mawkish story of Jack and Rose tolerable. The scene at the beginning of the movie where the image transitions from the shipwreck to the promenade deck of the recreated ocean liner alone was worth the price of admission.

I’ve read a bunch of books about the tragic ship and her only voyage, and I find myself just as drawn to it today as I did the first time I ever read A Night to Remember as a boy. The story of the bravery of the musicians, as one example, as they continued to play even as they knew they were doomed, has always been very moving to me. The courage, bravery and dignity of the male first-class passengers, such as John Jacob Astor, one of the wealthiest men alive, as they stepped aside to allow women and children to board the lifeboats awes me. The quiet dignity of these men changing into their finest clothes so that they could die like gentlemen inspires me. The story of Isadore and Ida Strauss choosing to die together even though Ida could have taken a spot in a lifeboat has always moved me too. The story of the cowardice of Bruce Ismay, who refused to do the honorable thing and go down with his ship equally repels me. The human toll is what I find most fascinating. And being a dog lover, the story of the dogs of the Titanic is equally compelling. I have always wanted to visit the cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where so many of the victims of the disaster were buried, and it’s on my bucket list of places to go.

Often overlooked in the tragedy of the Titanic is the eerily similar fate of her sister ship, the R.M.S. Britannic. Britannic was the largest of the three sister ships, and she also sank. She was launched just before the outbreak of World War I, and was used as a hospital ship during the Great War. In that role she struck a mine off the Greek island of Kea, in the Kea Channel on November 21, 1916, and sank with the loss of 30 lives. Only the R.M.S. Olympic, the third sister ship, managed to avoid the fate of her sisters.

Let’s not forget the 1,514 souls that departed this earth one hundred years ago today when the Titanic sank.

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25 Dec 2011, by

Happy holidays!

To all of my readers, I wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year. I hope that 2012 is a better year for all of us.

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Reader Gordon Ponsford, a sculpture conservator, is apparently also a poet. He forwarded this poem about battlefield monuments at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chickamauga to me, and I have decided to share it with all of you, as I find it moving. Enjoy.

The Sentinels of Hallowed Ground

On Battlefields across our land
Flags raised high, sword in hand
Standing guard over fallen dead
Where history dwells, now tourists tread

Gazing upon the open fields
Where valor stood and didn’t yield
These statues are more than bronze and stone
They’re bought with blood, by boys from home

Now a century and a half have gone
Since the silence of the drums and guns
Etched in stones are their epitaphs
Told to those who this way pass

So remember those who heard the call
They fought the fight, and gave it all
The cannons salute with a solemn round
To the Sentinels of Hallowed Ground

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My old friend Terry Johnston approached me last year to talk about an idea he had. I’ve know Terry for fifteen years now, and he’s a good guy and an excellent historian in his own right. That he’s a Philadelphia sports fan doesn’t hurt any either. I had a lot of interactions with Terry while he was the editor of North & South before Keith Poulter ran it into the ground, and Terry did an excellent job in that role.

Terry came to me last year and said that he was thinking about starting his own, new mass market Civil War magazine. We talked about lots of things, and I failed to talk him out of it. I’ve been consulting with him all along, and Im pleased to announce that the first issue of the magazine is out.

The new magazine is called The Civil War Monitor, and it’s intended to be a new look at the Civil War. The first issue has a number of good articles, with a nice blend of tactical detail, political history, and social history. The presentation is handsome, and I’m very impressed with the first issue. Congratulations, Terry.

I also introduced Terry to a client of mine, Blind Acre Media, and together, the folks at Blind Acre and Terry have created an excellent website to go along with the print edition of the magazine.The website includes some additional content from the magazine, and will grow as the magazine does.

The Civil War Monitor is off to a great start, and I can only hope that it will hammer the last nails into the moldy corpse of North & South, which has been dying a long, slow, painful death for a long time now. Good luck to Terry with his new venture, and I hope you will check it out. I’m honored to have played a small role in its launch. I’ve added a link to the magazine’s website.

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The following poem about the June 9, 1863 Battle of Brandy Station appeared in the Journal of the Military Service Institution of the United States, Vol. 49, July-August 1911, page 142. It was originally published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat,, date unknown.

The Cavalry Veteran

This sabre-cut on my forehead scored?
I picked it up at Beverly Ford
The day we turned “Jeb” Stuart’s flank
And hurled him from the river bank.
It was parry and thrust with a hearty will
As we fought for the guns on Fleetwood Hill,
While over the fields and through the pines
Backward and forward surged the lines;
Twelve thousand men in a frenzied fray;
Charge and rally and mad melee —
Oh, the crash and roar as the squadrons met,
The cheers and yells — I can hear them yet!
But we’d forced the fords, so our work was done,
And we galloped away ere set of sun.

With thanks to Clark B. “Bud” Hall for sharing this with me. Good stuff.

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There’s only one word to describe the scope of this reenacting fail…epic….

To see a larger version of the photo, double click on it.


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Readers of this blog will remember that I had very little good to say about History’s Gettysburg film when it aired back in May. I wasn’t alone in this assessment. I was concerned that old friend Garry Adelman, who was one of the talking heads in the program, might have his reputation sullied by being involved in such a God-awful project.

Garry has been silent about it to date. However, Garry has penned a guest post on Kevin Levin’s excellent Civil War Memory blog today that addresses his role in the project. Garry points out that the film, even with its almost countless inaccuracies, has spurred new interest in the battle, and for that reason it was worthwhile. I can’t really disagree with that, although I still hate the almost innumerable inaccuracies in it.

Here’s what Garry says about those inaccuracies:

Just before the scripts got under way, the Gettysburg National Military Park’s Supervisory Historian, Scott Hartwig, came on board. Scott and I served as the primary historical consultants thereafter. We reviewed three versions of the script and watched rough cuts of the production as it emerged. Together, we made no fewer than 400 specific comments and requests for changes, and, to History’s great credit, almost every single one of these comments was addressed in the final show. Scott and I have both worked with other production companies before and we agree that none were so dedicated to trying to get it right as was History and Herzog & Co. In the first scripts, there were scores of significant errors and I mean significant.

He points out that there was nothing that could have been done about many of the wrong sets, uniforms, etc., as all of those were filmed before he and Scott Hartwig got involved, so they focused on what they could fix. That makes good sense to me, and I certainly can appreciate it.

The film will air again on Wednesday night. I will do all in my power to avoid it, as I still think it’s just atrocious. However, I do appreciate Garry’s insight, and I also understand completely where he’s coming from on this. And if it does manage to spur new interest in the Civil War, then I suppose I can live with it. Thanks for setting the record straight, Garry.

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