December, 2009

31 Dec 2009, by

Happy New Year!

I wish each and every one of you a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year. 2009 was a pretty crappy year no matter how you slice it, so here’s hoping that 2010 is a substantial improvement for all of us. I know 2009 won’t be missed around our household.

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The first review of my biography of Ulric Dahlgren has been published in the new issue of The Civil War News:

Like a Meteor Blazing Brightly: The Short but Controversial Life of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren
By Eric J. Wittenberg
(January 2010 Civil War News)

Illustrated, maps, appendix, endnotes, bibliography, index, 318 pp., 2009. Edinborough Press, P.O. Box 13790, Roseville MN, 55113-2293, $29.95 plus shipping.

Col. Ulric Dahlgren gained lasting notoriety when he was killed leading a cavalry column in a disastrous raid upon Richmond in March 1864. Another column was led by the raid’s commander, Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick.

Papers that the Confederates found on Dahlgren’s body stated that his objective was to liberate Union prisoners in Richmond. Considered a martyr in the North, Dahlgren was despised by the South because the papers also bore instructions to kill Jefferson Davis and his cabinet and to “burn the hateful city.”

The Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid has been the subject of numerous books and articles, but until now the only “biography” of Ulric Dahlgren was written by his father, Adm. John Dahlgren. At long last a new perspective is rendered masterfully by Eric Wittenberg, the dean of Eastern Theater cavalry operations.

Like many biographers, Wittenberg provides a sympathetic view of his subject. This viewpoint is furthered by frequent quotations from Dahlgren’s father and from a lengthy eulogy. But objectivity prevails as the author combines these works with a wealth of other primary and secondary sources and his own insightful commentary.

Wittenberg demonstrates that Dahlgren was an ambitious young officer whose indiscretions in his final venture led to his premature death, just shy of his 22nd birthday. Although he was extremely capable and courageous, his career was advanced by extraordinary political connections.

Dahlgren’s brief life included early artillery training by his father, who invented the gun that bears his name. When the Civil War broke out Ulric Dahlgren fulfilled the duties of a staff officer and demonstrated daring and competence in artillery and cavalry duties.

During the battle of Gettysburg he captured valuable documents, and a few days later he lost a leg.

It was the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid, however, that won him immortality, infamy and a rendezvous with death.

In addition to a lively narrative, Wittenberg provides balanced and perceptive analysis of controversial issues such as the motives for the raid and the authenticity of the incriminating papers that Dahlgren carried.

The raid, he notes, had gross oversights that doomed it from the beginning, e.g., the poorly clothed, malnourished and sick Union prisoners were in no condition for a rapid escape, especially in harsh winter weather. And the Dahlgren papers? Wittenberg accepts their authenticity after meticulous research.

Since the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid and the Dahlgren papers are one of the war’s most fascinating mysteries, anyone who fails to read Wittenberg’s endnotes is deprived not only of documentary support but also of expository notes that are as revealing as the main text.

A few discrepancies crept into the narrative, e.g., on p. 145 it states that Dahlgren was the youngest full colonel in either army (the Army of Northern Virginia alone had at least five colonels who were younger); pp. 146-147 sound like two separate dates and presentations for his colonel’s commission; and p. 173 says that J.R. Dykes did not accompany Dahlgren as scout on the raid whereas p. 174 says that he did.

And some of the maps – all of which are excellent – should have been printed on a full page, rather than a half page. Readers also will encounter a section of the book with numerous typographical errors and conflicting spellings, e.g., Mattoponi/Mattapony River. But many of these slips are the editor’s, not the author’s, and do not diminish the book’s overall quality.

Wittenberg’s decision to write a biography of Dahlgren instead of a book on the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid was an excellent idea. It provides an understanding of the colonel that heretofore was missing. This first-rate book is welcome for its scholarly research and its captivating reading.

David F. Riggs

David F. Riggs is a museum curator at Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown. He has a BA in history from Lock Haven University and MA in history from Penn State. His publications include Embattled Shrine: Jamestown in the Civil War and Vicksburg Battlefield Monuments.

It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that. I couldn’t be more pleased. And it’s that sort of response that gets me fired up to do more. Thanks, David. And thanks to Jim Schmidt for bringing it to my attention.

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28 Dec 2009, by

The Decision

Allow me to begin by thanking everyone who weighed in on the question that I posed a week ago. I got lots of feedback, which is what I was hoping for. One person, Jim Durney, was a resounding no vote, but everyone else was universally supportive, both of my desire to tackle a project on the Revolutionary War, but also to take on the 1780 Battle of Camden.

So, after some reflection, I have decided to tackle the Battle of Camden. My friend Scott Patchan, who has done some terrific work on the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, and I have been looking for a project to do together for some time. We had talked about perhaps doing a biography of William Woods Averell together, but we’re probably the only two people interested in such a book. Scott leads a lot of tours of Revolutionary War battlefields, and is very knowledgeable about the War of Independence.

So I put two and two together and decided to ask Scott if he would be interested in tackling Camden with me, and he readily agreed. Consequently, Scott and I will be teaming up to do the first detailed tactical study of the Battle of Camden, which had far-reaching consequences for the Patriot cause.

Others of you gave me some really good suggestions, including Kings Mountain and a battle study of the Battle of Brandywine. Brandywine has long interested me, as I grew up about an our from the battlefield, and it was the largest set-piece battle of the war. I intend to tackle Brandywine too.

So, here’s the plan. I have a book on Sheridan’s May 1864 Richmond Raid and the Battle of Yellow Tavern under contract, and will fulfill that contract. Then, Scott and I intend to tackle Camden. Then I will do another Civil War book (the third volume in my trilogy with J.D. Petruzzi), and then I expect to take on the Battle of Brandywine. So, fear not, Civil War readers. I will never give up on the Civil War entirely, and I will continue to write about it. I just won’t be doing it exclusively.

I need to grow as a writer and historian, and variety will only make me better.

I will have more news about the Revolutionary War to report soon. Thanks again to all who took the time to give me input on this important decision.

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24 Dec 2009, by

Happy Holidays

I wanted to take a moment to thank each and every one of you who visits this site and supports my efforts. This year was a rough year for me, with needing to take a break and all. Thank you.

I wish each and every one of you a merry Christmas, happy Festivus (for the rest of us), Kwanzaa, and a belated happy Chanukah. For those of you who celebrate Christmas, I sincerely hope that you find no lumps of coal in your stockings tomorrow.

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After 16 books, I think I have proven that I can write and publish a decent account of a Civil War battle. I have lots of ideas for more running around my head, and probably will never run out of ideas.

At the same time, after 16 books on the Civil War, I am ready for a change of pace. I’ve long had an interest in the Revolutionary War, and for the past three or four years now, the bulk of my pleasure reading–meaning what I read that’s not related to either my legal work or my work on the Civil War–has been on the Rev War. Consequently, I think I am ready to try my hand at something Rev War-related.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, and foremost, I like a new challenge, and I’ve never written anything substantive on the Rev War before. Second, it’s a change of pace, and I really need that.

For a long time, I toyed with the idea of doing something on Guilford Court House, which desperately needed a good modern treatment. That idea got scotched when what will probably stand as the standard reference on the battle was published earlier this year. I then shifted my thoughts toward Monmouth, which has not had a real modern treatment ever. I was headed down that road until I learned that old friend and ace New Jersey historian Joe Bilby is finishing up a manuscript on Monmouth that will be delivered to the publisher in 6-8 weeks. That brought that idea to a screeching halt.

I asked a friend what he suggested, and he suggested the 1780 Battle of Camden, SC. I looked into and liked what I saw; there’s lots of interest here, and I think I have decided to write a detailed, book-length tactical narrative on Camden. I have one more book on the Civil War under contract, which I will begin writing next month. Then would come Camden. Other than chapters in books and a one-volume compilation of primary source material, there is no book-length treatment of the battle out there, so this is blazing new territory. Camden represents a terrible defeat for Horatio Gates, who fled the battlefield and didn’t stop running for sixty miles, the death of Baron de Kalb, the presence of Tarleton and Cornwallis, and lots of implications for the future of the southern campaign, since the defeat of Gates led to his replacement with Nathanael Greene, who did a superb job.

Before I take the plunge for certain, I wanted to hear what y’all think about this idea. Am I insane? Should I undertake a challenge like this by moving into a completely different area and era? Or should I stick with what I know and what’s in my comfort zone?

Please don’t be shy. Your candid and honest opinions are what I’m looking for here, and please know that they will be a major factor in the final decision. And fear not. If I do tackle this project, it will not mean an end to my Civil War work. I doubt that anything will ever cause that to halt altogether.

Thanks, and happy holidays to one and all.

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I am pleased to unveil here the cover of my forthcoming Brandy Station book. I really like it.

What do you guys think?

Brandy Station book

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Earlier today, I had a note on Facebook from someone who asked me if the rumors that I was going to be named the next superintendent of the National Military Park at Gettysburg were true. After I stopped laughing hysterically and got over being flattered that someone would even consider me qualified for such a position, I assured the person who asked that they were nothing but rumors, that the next superintendent would come from the ranks of the National Park Service, and that there was precisely a zero percent chance of that person being me.

That was a good laugh, and one I desperately needed after a weekend of misery with an ugly, ugly stomach virus. I even called J.D. and shared the good laugh with him.

Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that I could somehow be eligible for the position, there’s no way. I have way too little patience for, or tolerance for, political game playing. As a general rule, I won’t play political games, and nobody would ever call me politically correct, and those are traits that are absolutely necessary for the superintendent at Gettysburg. I wouldn’t last long in that particular fishbowl, and I couldn’t imagine wanting to do so.

So, fear not. Those rumors are most assuredly not true. Thanks for the flattery and for the good laugh, though.

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Ted Strickland, the Governor of Ohio, authorized the formation of a Civil War sesquicentennial commission in April. The membership of the commission was finally announced this past week, and your humble servant was named as one of its 15 members. From the Ohio Civil War 150 website:

by Kristina – December 10th, 2009.
Filed under: News. Tagged as: Civil War 150 Advisory Committee.
Members Represent Statewide Effort To Ensure Successful Commemoration Effort

(COLUMBUS, OHIO)—In response to Gov. Ted Strickland’s directive to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War in Ohio (2011-2015), the Ohio Historical Society has appointed 15 Ohioans to the Civil War 150 Advisory Committee, announced Jim Strider, acting executive director.

Made up of individuals from around the state, the committee will provide guidance to the historical society on programs and activities to ensure a successful commemoration effort at both the state and local levels. Meeting will run quarterly, and members will serve until the end 2015.

“These individuals represent men and women who have a deep interest in Ohio history, particularly its Civil War heritage,” Strider said. “Advisory committee members also will contribute their professional expertise in history, education, state government, historical organizations, media and tourism.”

The Civil War 150 Advisory Committee includes:

James Bissland is from Bowling Green in Wood County. He taught in the journalism program at Bowling Green State University for 20 years and serves today as an associate professor of journalism emeritus. Bissland is the author of “Blood, Tears, & Glory: How Ohioans Won the Civil War,” published in October 2007.

Tom Brinkman Jr., a former Ohio legislator (2001-2008) from Cincinnati, has an educational background in history and experience with former commemorative initiatives in Ohio. He lives in Cincinnati in Hamilton County.

Andrew Cayton is a Distinguished Professor of History at Miami University. He lives in Oxford in Butler County. He is the author of “Ohio: The History of a People,” published in 2002. He has earned many honors and distinctions for both his scholarship and his teaching, including a Fulbright position in American Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Bob Davis serves as commander of the Department of Ohio, Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War. This patriotic and educational organization seeks to preserve the memory of the Grand Army of the Republic and to care for GAR memorials and identify the location of union veterans’ gravesites. Davis lives in Canal Winchester in Fairfield County.

Gainor Davis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Western Reserve Historical Society of the Western Reserve Historical Society, an organization whose collections include an extensive and unique Civil War-era collection. She has more than 27 years of experience, including leadership roles in history organizations in Pennsylvania, Vermont and Louisiana. She resides in Cleveland Heights in Cuyahoga County.

Paul LaRue is a social studies teacher at Washington High School and lives in Washington Court House in Fayette County. He has been honored for his innovative methods of teaching Civil War history by the American Legion (2003 Educator of the Year) and the Civil War Preservation Trust, among others.

Roger Micker, from Wheeling (West Virginia), is a social studies teacher at Steubenville High School in Steubenville, Jefferson County. He is president of the Ohio Valley Civil War Roundtable, a re-enactor, a member of the Ohio Historical Society Teacher Advisory Committee, and a Teaching American History program participant.

Bob Minton is Colonel of the Army of the Ohio Reenacting Battalion and involved in Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island. He has also raised funds to conserve two Ohio Civil War battle flags. Minton lives in Fostoria in Hancock County.

Don Murphy, from Cincinnati in Hamilton County, serves as chief executive officer of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. He is the former deputy director of the National Park Service and before that served for seven years as the director of California State Parks.

Rep. Mark Okey represents House District 61, which includes Carroll County and parts of Mahoning, Stark and Tuscarawas counties. The McCook House, an Ohio Historical Society site, is within his district. His interest in Civil War history is evidenced by his personal collection and research. He resides in Carrollton in Carroll County.

Dave Roth is the co-founder and publisher of Blue & Gray Magazine, which focuses on Civil War battlefields and provides in-depth information on Civil War sites for its readers. The magazine has surpassed 25 years of operation and 150 issues. Roth lives in Columbus in Franklin County.

John Switzer is a journalist with the Columbus Dispatch, who lives in Columbus in Franklin County. Previously a weather columnist, today he writes a Sunday Metro column, often revealing his interest in historical topics.

Diana Thompson is the executive director of the Miami County Visitors & Convention Bureau. She has 26 years of experience in the hospitality field and is active in the Ohio Travel Association, including teaching for the Ohio Tourism Leadership Academy. Thompson lives in Piqua in Miami County.

Catherine Wilson is the executive director of the Greene County Historical Society. She has experience in archives, genealogy, history scholarship and Civil War re-enacting. She has authored a number of articles on topics of relevance to Civil War history as well. She resides in Xenia in Greene County.

Eric Wittenberg, from Columbus in Franklin County, is an attorney who has authored more than 10 books about the Civil War and also writes a blog, Rantings of a Civil War Historian. He is a member of the Central Ohio Civil War Roundtable and Vice President of the Buffington Island Battlefield Preservation Foundation.

About the Civil War 150

Ohio’s leadership before, during and after the Civil War had a profound influence on American history. Decades later, Gov. Ted Strickland wants to make sure that all Ohioans remember the past of their great state and the sacrifices that were made to preserve the Union. He chose the Ohio Historical Society to lead the effort because the state history organization is “uniquely positioned” to direct the initiative.

“It is important not only to commemorate the historic significance of the Civil War, but to also celebrate the role that Ohio and Ohioans played in achieving the monumental victory,” Gov. Strickland said in his directive to historical society last April. “The Ohio Historical Society is uniquely positioned with the expertise and physical resources to lead the state in commemorating the Civil War in Ohio.”

Civil War 150 Efforts Underway

In addition to establishing the Civil War 150 Advisory Committee, the historical society has organized a statewide network of organizations and historic sites so that the Civil War tribute can be organized seamlessly. One goal is to raise awareness of the upcoming sesquicentennial and encourage Ohioans to visit the many Civil War sites across the state.

“Ohio’s link to the Civil War is a very significant one,” Strider said. “Ohioans had a deep and lasting influence on the war, and the war spurred an age of great prosperity and political power for the state.”

To help raise awareness about Ohio’s pivotal role in Civil War history, the Ohio Historical Society and Cleveland State University’s Center for Public History and Digital Humanities recently launched to commemorate the upcoming 150th anniversary of the war in 2011 to 2015. The Web site is a collection of information as well as a dynamic tool for the public, educators and local history groups to collaborate and share their knowledge of Ohio’s fascinating Civil War history.
The Ohio Historical Society is a nonprofit organization that serves as the state’s partner in preserving and interpreting Ohio’s history, natural history, archaeology and historic architecture. For more information about programs and events, visit

On one hand, this is a very great honor, and I am honored to have been selected. On the other hand, Ohio’s economy is in shambles (and has been for some time), and we’re going to have to put together programming for the sesquicentennial with next to no budget, largely because the Ohio Senate pulled funding for it back in June. It’s going to be a real challenge to pull this off with no budget to speak of, but I will keep everyone posted as to our progress. Our first meeting has yet to be scheduled, but I’m sure it will be shortly after the first of the year.

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I have an update on my forthcoming book The Battle of Brandy Station: North America’s Largest Cavalry Battle for those of you who might be interested. The book is being published by The History Press of Charleston, South Carolina. Originally, I was told that the book would not be out until late May, just before Memorial Day. However, I have already signed off on the page galleys and the book is actually ready to go to the printer just as soon as the cover design work is completed.

I am one of the presenters at a conference on Civil War cavalry operations being held at Liberty University the weekend of March 26-28, 2009, and today I was advised that the book will be out in time for the conference.

So, for those of you who are interested in this book, your wait has been shortened by three months.

By the way, I am also doing another cavalry conference at Longwood University in February of next year that’s put on by my friend Patrick Schroeder. More on that as information comes available.

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The other day, I got a very nice e-mail from Ulric Dahlgren, IV. Ric, as he’s known, is the harbormaster in Annapolis, MD. He is also the great-great grandson of Ully Dahlgren’s younger full brother, Charles Bunker Dahlgren (after Ully was killed, his father, Admiral John A. Dahlgren, re-married and had a second family with his second wife, Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren, which is why I made the distinction).

Ric had some very nice things to say about my biography of Ulric Dahlgren. He said, “I want to express my approval and gratitude on behalf of my family for the way you handled the entire short career of Ulric.” Thanks, Ric. I really appreciate that.

After reading my book, he also came up with a new angle on the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid that I frankly had never even considered, and it’s something that’s well worth considering. In discussing the so-called “Dahlgren Papers”–the documents found on Ully Dahlgren’s body when he was killed in the ambush in King and Queen County–Ric wrote, “What if the slave WAS setting him up for an ambush and this was known to southern troops, and at the last Ulric also knew it? Would this have made a better opportunity for forgery? What if he wrote those papers solely as a personal act of defiance in case he was killed, to instill fear in the South?”

Ric refers to a slave/guide named Martin Robinson, whom Ulric Dahlgren had hanged the night before he and his command tried to enter the city of Richmond, largely because Robinson did not give Ulric good directions to an unattended ford where his men could cross the James River. Dahlgren mercilessly hanged the man by the side of the road.

Ric’s e-mail to me was an absolute bolt out of the blue. I have to admit that the possibility that the Dahlgren Papers were the tool of an intentional plan of spreading disinformation–what the Russians call a “maskirovka”–never, ever occurred to me. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility, as almost anything is when considering the Dahlgren Papers, and it’s worthy of further consideration. It would certainly require a brilliant strategic mind, the time and opportunity to write the documents, and a solid understanding of the Confederate high command structure and how it might respond to such a threat. It’s a fascinating possibility.

I’m going to have to gnaw on this some more, and I likewise want to invite you all to pitch in and tell me what you think about this. Remember that Ulric Dahlgren was three weeks shy of 22 when these events occurred, that he had no formal military training whatsoever, and that he had just returned to duty after nearly dying as a consequence of his Gettysburg Campaign wound. I welcome your thoughts.

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