February, 2006

6 Feb 2006, by

Gettysburg Again

As I have mentioned here previously, I provide forum boards for discussion for folks at the Civil War Discussion Group. Although these boards were already in the works at the time of the demise of a prior group run by a con man who conned me and a lot of others, upon the demise of that group–which was solely devoted to the Battle of Gettysburg–my boards replaced the con man’s boards. Thus, the majority of my members are Gettysburg people. I get that. In fact, it even makes sense to me. In a very real sense, I am a Gettysburg person, too. It’s always been–and always will be–my first love when it comes to the Civil War.

At the same time, I think that a measure of a person’s growth is his or her capacity to learn. I have an insatiable thirst for learning, in almost any area of endeavor, but especially in the realm of the Late Unpleasantness. Consequently, I have expanded my horizons significantly. In fact, in a lot of ways, I now find the Battle of Chancellorsville more interesting and often more compelling than Gettysburg. Perhaps it’s that I don’t know the ground as well. Perhaps that I’m a relative newcomer to the study of C-ville. Perhaps it’s my firm belief that nobody can really and truly understand the Battle of Gettysburg without having a solid understanding and knowledge of Chancellorsville. Perhaps it’s that I have a very short attention span and need variety to keep from losing my mind. So, while Gettysburg remains one of my primary interests, I cannot say that it is my sole interest. It hasn’t been since I was a child, and I can’t see it ever being that way again.

Yet, I know folks that are that way. There’s one fellow I know–a fellow lawyer and a good guy–who once told me that he had made a conscious decision that it was better for him and more important to him that he focus exclusively on Gettysburg to the exclusion of everything else. What that means is that he’s taking a micro perspective on things that overlooks the big picture, and expecially that portion of the big picture that places Gettysburg in its proper historical context, including seeing the inexorable connection between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg that I described in more detail in an earlier post on this blog.

Then, there’s another fellow who has been a CWDG regular since day one–a good guy, too–who is so focused on Gettysburg that he developed his own acronym to describe the affliction–GAS, which means not too many baked beans but rather Gettysburg Addiction Syndrome. He recently proceeded to list an entire litany of symptoms of this dreaded affliction, such as ” You consider the best vacation you have ever had was spent at one of the anniversarys of the Battle” or “You keep trying to convince your MRS that we MUST move to Gettysburg or at least closer to it!” Obviously, he is afflicted by all of these maladies and many more.

I can appreciate that, as this fellow has a famous forebear who made his mark at Gettysburg, but at the sime time, I can’t comprehend having such an all-consuming obsession with one particular battle as to largely ignore all others. Maybe it’s just me and my short attention span, but I would go bonkers if all I ever studied was Gettysburg. Another thing I don’t get are the endless arguments that come up time and time again about specific points of controversy, such as whether Sickles should have advanced to the Emmitsburg Road plateau on July 2. That drives me crackers. Most of the time, I won’t even read it when that happens, as I have no interest in hashing the same thing over and over again when there is no new evidence to warrant a reconsideration.

And finally, there’s the one thing that bugs me most of all. There seems to be a need among some to propound bizarre new theories about the battle, irrespective of whether there’s any evidence to support them. There are a few folks out there that seem to feel a pathological need to do this, in the hope of making some big find. Perhaps they like the sound of their own voices. Perhaps they feel some overwhelming, compelling need to find something new or to leave their mark on the interpretation of the battle. These folks will ignore you when you make an effort to disprove them with evidence, or they lash out at you, with insult after insult. Some insults are wrapped up in a prettier package–couched in seemingly polite terms but in reality condescending and tinged with disgust that you’re not on the same plane of existence because you cannot or will not accept the validity of this novel theory, just because the proponent says you should.

In addition, the proponent has certain disciples (minions?) who seem to (a) defend him unfailingly, even when you point out that he’s being condescending and insulting and that you have a legitimate gripe about how you’re being treated. The minion immediately shuts you down, claiming that you’re actually the one in the wrong and defending the proponent, no matter what, even though the other person has just given you the extremely polite and condescending digital version of the Finger and (b) accept the proponent’s BS unquestioningly, just because he says it’s so. I see way too much of this going on on one of the other forum board sites to the point that I’ve pretty much stopped reading the posts there. It’s caused me to pretty much lose all respect for the principal defender who is, by the way, one of the moderators of the site. You can dress it up any way you like, but a pig dressed in a tuxedo is still a pig, no matter how you slice it. Condescending and insulting is still condescending and insulting even when it’s dressed up in courteous and respectful tones.

I cannot, for the life of me, understand this trait or tendency. Folks, there WERE other battles. Other things of significance did happen in the Civil War–it did not begin or end with those three days at Gettysburg. Open your eyes–there’s a big world out there, full of interesting things that really did happen, and not a fantasy world filled with bizarre and unsupportable theories. Wake up and smell the coffee, folks. There is more. Live it, learn it, love it. You will be a better and more well-rounded person for it.

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Morris Island is a spit of sand just south of Charleston Harbor. During the Civil War, it was the site of Battery Wagner, a formidable sand fort that helped to defend the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Because of the narrowness of the island and the fact that any attacking forces had to run a gauntlet to get there, Battery Wagner never fell during the Civil War. It was also the place where the 54th Massachusetts Infantry made its ill-fated but heroic attack, as depicted in the Oscar-winning 1989 film Glory. No matter what, Morris Island played a major role in the drama that played out as the Union made attempt after attempt to force the surrender of Charleston throughout the war. Interestingly, the commander of the Union forces trying to take Charleston for much of the war was Rear Adm. John A. Dahlgren, the father of Ulric Dahlgren. Ulric spent some time there in the fall of 1863 while recuperating from the combat wound that cost him a leg, all of which just further adds to my interest.

The passage of time, the relentless pounding of the sea, and the damaging winds and waves and hurricanes have not been kind to Morris Island. In spite of that facct, it remains a powerful and moving place. Perhaps it’s the connection with the 54th Massachusetts that makes Morris Island such an important spot. Perhaps it’s that Battery Wagner was never conquered and represents a proud symbol for the Confederacy. Perhaps it’s that what remains of Morris Island–much of it has eroded away, including the remnants of Battery Wagner–is completely pristine and undeveloped. What remains of the island remains in the same wild condition that it was in prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. It is therefore, no surprise that there was a great hue and cry raised when plans to develop what remained of Morris Island were announced. It’s no secret that oceanfront property is tremendously valuable, that oceanfront housing is tremendously profitable, and that the developer stood to make tens of millions of dollars if the development was done. Oceanfront property in a wealthy community like Charleston is doubly valuable.

As Dimitri Rotov has documented so well in his blog, a coalition of local activists, led by the mayor of Charleston, national preservation groups, and grass roots opposition to the idea of developing Morris Island quickly came together and mounted an extremely effective campaign. Bobby Ginn, the owner of Morris Island, listened to what they had to say. In a startling turn, Morris Island has been saved. Unlike most instances where greedy developers use the fact that land is historic to blackmail preservation groups or the government to pay a super-premium price to preserve the land, Mr. Ginn has done something really remarkable. “Mr. Ginn already has set a sterling example. He purchased the property from its owner for $6.5 million and is selling it to the Trust for Public Land for $2 million less. Further, he has promised another $500,000 to plan and provide for public access,” noted a recent newspaper account.

Let’s be clear about this: the developer is taking a $2 million LOSS on this property AND is going to donate an ADDITIONAL $500,000 to make the island accessible. There are no strings attached; it’s an outright purchase and sale of the property that will keep Morris Island in pristine condition. “What we have here is a very generous and community-spirited company,” said Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. who helped work out the deal.

First, and foremost, we all owe Mr. Ginn a great debt, both for being an eminently reasonable man who was willing to listen to public opinion, which was overwhelmingly against the development of Morris Island, and also for being unfailingly generous by not only giving up his profit, but for selling the land at a loss just to make sure that it remains pristine.

Second, we can all learn a lesson from this episode, which demonstrates how effective a well-coordinated public and private preservation effort can be when the city fathers look beyond tax revenues and see the importance of preserving our historic legacy. “This is the best scenario possible: Everybody wins,” said Blake Hallman, a volunteer with the Morris Island Coalition that sought to preserve the tract. Charleston Mayor Riley, who led the charge to save Morris Island, quite correctly observed, “We were able as a community to make a very important decision that we would not allow the pressure of economic growth to damage a special and sacred place.”

I tip my hat to all involved in this great battlefield preservation victory.

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Prof. Brian Dirck has joined the blogosphere with an interesting and well-written blog on Lincoln and the Civil War. The primary focus is Lincoln, and not the military aspects of the war, but I found the topics interesting and refreshing. I’ve added a link to Brian’s blog on my list of Blogs I Like. Check it out, and welcome, Brian.

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2 Feb 2006, by

Book Updates

Time for some further updating on several book projects.

Ted Savas told me today that my Monroe’s Crossroads book is at the printer. We inserted the last of the maps on Tuesday, so it’s been there for a couple of days. This means that in about a month, we will have books. This book is apparently being selected as an alternate book of the month for the History Book Club, although we’re waiting for final confirmation of this.

That the Monroe’s Crossroads book is now completely finished now means that Ted’s getting started on the book on Stuart’s Ride in the Gettysburg Campaign that I did with J. D. Petruzzi. This book is scheduled for release just before the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, at the end of June. Ted already has all of the maps and illustrations, and they’re all good to go, so there will be no hold-up on this one. Ted has agreed to allow us to add an extra appendix to the book, which is a partial driving of Stuart’s raid route, beginning and ending at Gettysburg. It covers Westminster, Hanover, Carlisle, Hunterstown, and, of course, the route of march along the way. JD and I are really proud of this book.

JD, Mike Nugent, and I did a volume on the retreat from Gettysburg for Ironclad’s Discovering Civil War America Series that was supposed to have been published last year, but it didn’t get done due to financial reasons. We’re expecting it to be published later this year. It includes a decently detailed tactical treatment of the fighting during the retreat–as contrasted to Kent Brown’s book, which focuses more on the logistics; they complement each other very nicely–as well as two driving tours, one that follows the Wagon Train of Wounded, and the other that follows the fighting that occurred during the retreat.

Finally, the maps for my new regimental history of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, which has been in the works for more than a decade, are under way. I am contracted with Westholme Publishing to publish it, and am to deliver it to them by June 30. Whether it will actually be published this year, I don’t know. If not this year, early next year for sure.

I’ve now signed a contract with Bison Books, a division of the University of Nebraska Press, for them to do a new edition of my book on the Battle of Trevilian Station, which has been out of print since early 2003. Bison has not yet given me a release date for the new edition, and I have a few revisions to make. We’re discussing adding a driving tour to the book, which would be a great addition. If Bison agrees, I will shoot the pictures this summer when I am helping to lead a tour for the Little Big Horn Associates annual convention, which is being held in Richmond this July.

It’s been nearly three years since my last book, The Union Cavalry Comes of Age: Hartwood Church to Brandy Station 1863, was published. Apparently, that drought is about to end, in a very big way. It’s possible that I could have four books released this year.

My worry is that somebody might say, “how can this hack turn out four books in a single year?” That is probably a legitimate question to ask. Most folks don’t know or appreciate the years of work that go into one of these books; I have more than a decade invested in the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry book. My research on the retreat from Gettysburg actually began before that. It’s not like I’m just churning stuff out without putting in the effort or doing my homework; a review of my bibliographies and endnotes ought to dispel that illusion. Nevertheless, I worry about people’s perceptions with as prolific as I seem to be. Yes, I work quickly, but at the same time, I hope that nobody can ever accuse me of not being thorough.

More updates to follow as I learn more……

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The following statement now appears on the web site of Western Union: “Effective January 27, 2006, Western Union will discontinue all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your loyal patronage. ” This means that there is no company left in the United States that offers telegram services.

The telegram, of course, has become obsolete. The downhill slide began with the deregulation of long distance telephone services–cheap long distance meant that people slowed down their use of telegrams. Then, the advent of cell phones, the Internet, and e-mail all combined to make telegrams completely obsolete. There really is no reason to use telegrams any more, and Western Union made a logical and reasonable business decision that I cannot really criticize.

At the same time, the advent of the telegram was a major technological leap forward. During the Civil War, the telegram provided the primary means of communication between armies in the field and the national command authority back in Washington and Richmond. The speed of telegraph communication–nearly instantaneous–made it possible for information to flow quickly and easily and for commanders to keep their respective presidents abreast of situations as they played out. I spend a lot of time working in the Official Records, and I know that a large percentage of the correspondence that is included in the OR was transmitted by telegraph and not by mail or by courier. From a technological standpoint, the telegraph was a quantum leap forward that played a significant role in the progression of the Civil War.

However, technology inevitably marches on. Next came the telephone, which was even more instantaneous because it did not require a telegraph operator to translate. Then came wireless radios, which untethered commanders in the field wanting to communicate with anyone. And now we have satellite communications and wireless Internet. The demise of the telegram was, therefore, inevitable.

That, however, does not mean that the end of an era isn’t noteworthy or worthy of commemorating. January 27, 2006 marked the end of an era, the severing of another tie with our past.

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