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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Book Review - Civil War Curiosities

I just finished last night a book entitled Civil War Curiosities: Stange stories, oddities, events, and coincidences. This book was not really what I expected. I thought it would have more items in it that would make you say, "Wow, that's strange"! I know there are numerous things about the war between the states that make for intriguing reading. The personalities and the scope of the battles are among some of the most written about aspects of American history.

As is nearly always the case the winner gets to write the history and the textbooks. That is not to say that the history is inaccurate it may simply be only part of the picture. I am coming to believe this is largely true about the war between the states, consequently I am doing some more reading in this area. But..........back to the book. It was written by Webb Garrison. Mr. Garrison is apparently the author of more than fifty five books several of them concerning the war between the states. It comes in at 266 pages so it is not very long.

The book is divided into sections in which there are several chapters apiece. The titles of the sections are Memorable Players in the Nation's Greatest Drama, Supporting Members of the Cast, No Two Military Events were Identical, Eye of the Beholder, Beyond the Headlines.

Some of the chapter titles are Famous - Or Soon to Be, Civil War Critters, In The Heat of Battle, Sights and Sounds of Combat, Strange New Weapons, Of Life and Death, No One Called Lincoln Handsome, Atrocities, War Fever, or Journalistic Hype?, Abolition of Slavery Not the Union Goal in 1861.

As you can see from some of the chapter titles there are some interesting things addressed and some controversial. It was generally easy to read, primarily because it was in short, little "bites". It was a good book to read before going to sleep which is what I did because there were numerous good stopping points. Most of the chapters were not that long. I was able, most nights, to read a chapter and some nights two. Many of the items I did not find that interesting, but there was enough to keep me reading. It is certainly not a book I would ever read again, nor would I even necessarily recommend it to others. Of course if you have even a casual interest in the war between the states then you will probably find this book easy and interesting reading. I am not sorry I read it.

Following are a few excerpts:

"Jefferson Davis lost the sight of one eye during the Mexican War and was subject to nerualgia so severe that during bouts of it he was all but blind. His agonizing stomach pains suggest that he had peptic ulcers. As though these handicaps were not enough, during sever attacks of head-splitting pain he sometimes was unable to use his right arm."

"Some present-day medical specialists who have studied his photographs believe that Abraham Lincoln was a victim of Marfan syndrome. This hereditary condition leads to elongation of bones and abnormalities of the eyes and the cardiovascular system."

"Confederate Brig. Gen. Ben Hardin Helm was the only Southerner whose combat death caused conspicuous mourning in Washington. Having married Mary Todd Lincoln's half-sister Emilie, he turned down his brother-in-law's offer of a commission as Union paymaster. When Helm died from wounds received at Chickamauga, the Union commander in chief and his family went into mourning."

"Episcopal priest William N. Pendleton exchanged his robe for a gray uniform and at age fifty-one became a captain in the Rockbridge Artillery. Quickly promoted, he became chief of artillery on the staff of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston. Inordinately proud of four six-pounder brass smoothbore cannon, he said they "spoke a powerful language." Hence he named them Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John."

Pendleton, the clergyman who become Lee's chief of artillery, "seems to have first surged to prominence at Bull Run in 1861. Men who fought under his direction later swore that when a cannon was aimed to his liking he signaled for it to be fired, bowed his head, and prayed: "Lord, preserve the soul while I destroy the body.""

"Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman devised a special role for captives. No man to treat the enemy lightly, he became furious when a buried torpedo (now known as a land mine) blew off the foot of an officer as Federal forces approached Savannah, Georgia. Sherman immediately brought bands of Confederate prisoners to the head of the column. These hostages were forced to test the ground at points where torpedoes were suspected."

"The Federal government owned approximately 150,000 horses and 100,000 mules. During the first two years of fighting, Union cavalry units - which never had more than 60,000 men in the field - were supplied with about 240,000 horses. Before Lee surrendered, Federal funds had paid for an estimated 840,000 horses and 430,00 mules."

"Most Federal and some Confederate cavalry units rode to battle but dismounted as soon as action was expected. Because the typical horseman fought on foot, one-fourth of the manpower of most cavalry regiments was needed for the essential job of horse-holding."

"When he wasn't lounging around a theater, part-time Washington resident John Wilkes Booth could often be seen going about town - riding a one-eyed horse."

"A mongrel was adopted as their mascot by the men of the Sixth Iowa Regiment. To make sure that the animal would win at least a footnote in accounts of their achievements, they gave it a carefully chosen name: Jeff Davis."

"Lt. Stoddart Robertson of the Ninety-third New York Regiment had fought through the Wilderness, but he was not prepared for the carnage at Spotsylvania. To him the sector famous as "the Horse Shoe" was "a boiling, bubbling and hissing cauldron of death." Musket fire was so intense, said Robertson, that undergrowth seemed to have been leveled by scythes, "and a white-oak tree, twenty-two inches in diameter, was cut down wholly by bullets.""
This may seem hard to believe but when we were at the American History Museum of the Smithsonian there was the trunk of a tree there at least 22 inches in diameter that had been cut down by bullets in one of the battles of the war between the states. Quite frankly I think it must be impossible to imagine the intensity of some of these battles.

"In the battle of Hanover Court House, "Two of the dead, according to the Boston newspapers, were sergeants. One wearing blue and the other dressed in gray, the two bodies were discovered in the woods, closely intertwined, each having his knife "buried in his opponent up to the hilt.""

"Before Abraham Lincoln took over as the nation's chief executive, it was clear that the North was badly split concerning black Americans and slavery. During his debates with Stephen A. Douglas, the man later known as "the rail splitter" made it clear that he did not consider blacks to be biological equals of whites. As president, he led the divided nation into war with one overpowering objective: preservation of the Union."

"In both North and South, Americans fighting Americans refused for many month to endorse the concept of putting blacks into uniform. Had the Confederates not been superbly led, it appears unlikely that Lincoln would have agreed to such a course of action. There is no certainty that he would have penned the Emancipation Proclamation if the end of the war had seemed to be in sight."
This I realize is a controversial issue. As I have done a little more reading on this issue I have begun to lean in the direction that the Emancipation Proclamation was more of a political maneuver in the midst of a vicious war, a propaganda tool rather than a decision that was rooted in the moral certainty of racial equality. Its objective, it seems, was more of an attempt to punish the south for electing to leave the Union rather than a genuine concern for the emancipation of the slaves. In fact the proclamation only freed the slaves in the south, and of course would only be in effect if the North won which they did.

"Giving formal testimony concerning Gettysburg, Pvt. James Wilson remembered, "Every man picked out his man. That lasted a short time, then what was left of them fell back . . . . I saw an officer cut off the head of a Confederate color-bearer and take his banner back.""
One thing I learned from this book was the the color-bearers usually went into battle at the head of the troops and unarmed. There were usually, I think it was 8 to 10 men assigned to protect him and the colors. They were the color-guard a term we still use today. By the end of the war most Confederate color guards were manned by only one or two men plus the color-bearer himself.

"When Robert E. Lee decided to take the war far into enemy territory, fifty-one generals accompanied him across the Pennsylvania state line. Returning to a relatively safe position in Virginia after Gettysburg, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia had only thirty-four generals with him. In the decisive Pennsylvania battle, seventeen Confederate generals died."

"Without using field glasses, an experience observer could tell from a distance whether or not an attacking unit was moving rapidly. When its flag bobbed up and down jerkily, that was a signal that the color bearer was "on the double-quick.""

"On the first day of Gettysburg, nine color bearers died carrying the regimental flag of the Twenty-fourth Michigan Regiment. During the same period, men of the Twenty-sixth North Carolina Regiment saw one comrade after another assume the crucial role; when darkness fell, their tally showed that fourteen color bearers had been shot."

"Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston died of pneumonia after attending a lengthy funeral service. He was there to mourn the passing of Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, to whom he surrendered his army in 1865."

"Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg saw Confederates "mowed down like ripe grain." Yet Maj. Gen. Martin T. McMahon considered a Federal assault at Cold Harbor, Virginia, to be the most terrible moment of the war. According to him, during a period "not over eight minutes in length," at least seven thousand men were killed or wounded."

"After the Confederate States of America were defeated, Jefferson Davis was stripped of his citizenship. He considered it futile to petition for clemency, so he died as a man without a country. His citizenship was restored by Congress during the administration of a post-war president - Jimmy Carter."
Who by the way was from Georgia!

"Gen. Robert E. Lee somehow managed to keep an elegant dress uniform clean during months in which he took it along on campaigns. As though he had watch over it for use on a very special occasion, he donned it in order to meet Grant at Appomattox."
No doubt he had hoped to make use of it under different circumstances.

"At Wilson Creek, opposing forces clashed before most units had an opportunity to adopt uniforms of any kind. Some members of the Missouri state militia were blue, while others were in gray. Federals of the First Iowa took to the field in gray, while Confederates of the Third Louisiana wore blue."

This is just a sampling of the interesting "tid bits" that can be found in this book. It is a book that would be conducive to just reading a few snippits at a time. It does not so much tell a story as it gives bits and pieces of generally unrelated information.

My book rating **

One last quote not found in the book but somewhere else I was reading a few years back:

Robert E. Lee, preparing to advance, the Wilderness 1864, "Alabama soldiers, all I ask of you is to keep up with the Texans!"

last night I started a biography about John Bell Hood a Confederate General. I am also reading The Path Between The Seas about the construction of the Panama Canal by David McCullough.
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