Category Archives: Civil War

“I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”

Becoming a lay expert on a specific historical period, the American Civil War, two related methods for learning history have become crucial to me. First, having broad-based knowledge about this period deepens my understanding of specific local history. Second, travelling to a place to imbibe the local atmosphere where important history happened, brings the sights, smells, sounds and imagination to bear on that history. Both improve the richness of my full understanding of that time – and the human experience overall.

When travelling, I’ve taken to purchasing a book about local history, preferably about Civil War history, to bring these two learning tools together. My most recent experience in central Kentucky was especially delightful. The area we visited was Bowling Green, a place that switched hands several times throughout the war, as both sides tried to bring this crucial “neutral” boarder state into their fold. As newly-elected President Lincoln said about his birth state, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”

The book I found is Josie Underwood’s Civil War Diary, edited by Nancy Disher Baird. A passionate 20-year old woman from a prominent Kentucky family, whose father was a leader of the pro-Union elements in the state, writes movingly about the shattering impact of the war on the families in Kentucky. As the country descends from arguments about preserving the Union, the principles of the Constitution, and the status of slavery to outright war, the dissolution of families, friends, and communities into outright hostilities is heartrending. The articulate and beautiful young woman finds her life pulled apart as the miasma of a country in upheaval at a fulcrum point in history throws her life into disarray.
A favorite part of the book was her one-time meeting with Abraham Lincoln when in Washington with her father, who was being appointed by the President as Ambassador to Glasgow. Like many contemporary accounts of Lincoln, its cinematic quality is captivating:

“As we returned to the city, about sun down, there were no other people in sight on the road [from the Soldiers House] except a lone horseman we were meeting. He was on a long-tailed black pony (the horse looked so small) galloping along – a high silk hat on his head – black cloth suit on, the long coat tails flying – behind him. Pa called our attention to him—saying ‘some farmer – who has been in the hot city all day and is now eager to get home to supper and his family.’ So Miss Bell and I thought the man and he looked it. As we met, Pa had the carriage stop. The man did the same and Pa introduced us to Mr. Lincoln. He leaned over, shook hands with us, then slouched down on one side of the saddle—as any old farmer would do, as he talked for ten or 15 minutes with us.”

Can you imagine it? She captures so many historical facts in this one little story. Lincoln’s notorious lack of concern for personal safety, chillingly foreboding—His “everyman” demeanor of an uncouth Westerner—His benevolence toward humanity. It’s all there in this brief, personal account. She goes on…

“Pa and Mr. Etheridge thought is very imprudent and unwise risk for him in such a time of warfare and especial hatred of Mr. Lincoln himself for him to be riding unattended, unguarded out a lonely country road – and called his attention to the dangers—Mr. Lincoln’s smile—expressed kindliness to all men and fear of none—as he said—he ‘did not think anybody would hurt him that way’—shaking hands again with us—he galloped on, neither did we meet anybody else for quite a little way so it was very evident there were no guards—following him.”
Finally, she summarizes her impressions of the man she, and her contemporaries from the South, even those “Unionists” who supported the war effort.
“Lincoln in appearance certainly falls far short (though he is so long) of my idea of how a President should look. In fact a very common-looking man he is—but I must confess there was a kindliness in his face—that does not fit the tyrant—unfair man I have been thinking him…Thinking of his kind, troubled face I can’t believe it is.”

Absolutely spellbinding.

Much of this moving account, especially for a Civil War buff, is infused with details and examples of the local consequences of the war in the border states. I urge anyone with an interest in the times or who is visiting the area to read this mesmerizing account, especially during this 150-year anniversary of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House. And to remember the 150-year anniversary of Lincoln’s untimely death at the hands of one of the people he so confidently believed wouldn’t “hurt him in that way.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War, History, Lincoln, vacation

Visiting Joshua Chamberlain’s House (Part 2)

(Part 1 can be seen here).

A Remarkable Life

By any measure and for any time, General Joshua Chamberlain lived a remarkable, dramatic life of adventure – especially for a professor of religion.  Most famously, he was the colonel leading the 20th Maine Volunteer Company in the Civil War who defended the far left flank of the entire northern Army of the Potomac on Little Round Top at Gettysburg. With a left-wheel, bayonet charge down the rocky hillside, they are credited with saving the army, and perhaps the war, on that July 2nd day.  He endured one of the six serious wounds he ultimately received in the course of the war, leaving him in constant pain for most of his long adult life.  One of those wounds was a .50 caliber minie-ball through two pelvic bones, which nicked his bladder, and was universally considered fatal.  When General U.S.Grant heard about the grievous wound, he had Chamberlain promoted to General on the spot in the field, in order for him die as a general. From the hospital, Chamberlain wrote a lovely “last letter” to his wife as he lay awaiting death.  Against the odds, he recovered and rejoined the war effort, despite a significant limp and severe difficulty in riding his horse.  He continued to lead his regimen so well, as fate would have it, he led them to trap General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia as they retreated from Petersburg to Appomattox Court House.  The Fighting Professor was then asked by General US Grant to be the regimen to receive the official surrender of Lee’s army.  At the crucial moment of the surrender, as Lee’s army approached to lay down their swords, heads’ bowed in grim defeat, Chamberlain ordered his men to “present arms”, a gesture of honor and respect to a worthy opponent.  It memorably altered the moment’s tenor, converting it from a conquest of a hated enemy to a hat tip to a future colleague, and becoming a symbolic offer of “charity towards all” harkening back to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Chamberlain had a kind of “perfect pitch” for history’s pregnant moments.

Following the war, Chamberlain returned to Maine, serving four terms as Governor, followed by a lengthy stint at President of his alma mater, Bowdoin.  Much of this time he spent writing his memoirs, particularly of his exploits in the Civil War, mostly from within the house on Potter Street, just off the Bowdoin campus.  This is where the Chamberlain Museum is now located.  We turned in.

A Remarkable House

We arrived just in time to sign up for a tour of the facility, which overlooks the Bowdoin campus.  The tour is enthusiastically led by a loquacious volunteer, an 80-something docent – my absolute favorite kind of historical guide.  The WWII vet, so reminiscent of the men I cared for during my clinic during residency at the University of Pittsburgh VA hospital, is full of facts, opinions, and a gleaming eye for the kids on the tour. As he limps through the house, holding on for support, he offers an authoritative opinion on anything and constantly asking, “What other questions do you have?”

The lovely old mansion is somewhere between dilapidated and magnificent, with cracked walls competing with restored, original furniture.  The on-going, underfunded restoration effort is battling with an on-going process of weathered decay, with the final outcome standing in the balance, a distant echo of Little Round Top itself.  The lady up-front tells me they just received a small private grant to restore the chimney, but need about 50 times that much to complete the full restoration. Two of the rooms have significant recent water damage, making one of them, the kitchen, off-limits for the tour.

The house itself has an unusual history.  Built originally in early 1800s, the original structure was later moved en masse and pivoted, rotated from facing Maine Street to facing Potter Street and the Bowdoin campus.  Later, when Chamberlain became college president, his wife refused to move into the official president’s house a short distance away.  In order to maintain the desired living quarters while adding an area to conduct official business, the entire structure was then jacked up 11 feet, and a new ground floor was added, a predecessor of Chicago’s later raising of its downtown buildings from the sinking muck they were built upon.

A Remarkable Collection

In the first room, the docent asks the kids, what U.S. President with the initials J.Q.A. was in office at the time of Chamberlain’s birth.  To my delight, my 11 year old nails it – John Quincy Adams.  I’m especially tickled because the kids rarely pay attention at these history tours I inflict upon them, but because I’m reading a biography of John Adams right now.  Which leads to another of those “can-you-believe-it?” facts of history – Chamberlain’s wife “Franny” is related, in a tangential way, to the Adams family.  She was born to a relative by marriage of John Quincy’s, then adopted by another, childless member of the family.  A tenuous tie between the Revolutionary Generation and the Civil War generation – I absolutely delight in such connections.  The docent is equally delighted that one of the kids got the answer to his question, and we’re off and running.

The displays within the house mirror the contrasting quality of the overall building. The displays are not the polished work of, say, the Lincoln Museum in Springfield; rather, they are competent descriptions of the items. They are arranged loosely by themes in specific rooms, but they are not thematically arranged or organized into a narrative.  Our guide points to items that strike his fancy, but completely overlooks some others.  But what a selection of items!  There is a room that contains his actual Medal of Honor – the most prestigious medal given by the military, one that Truman reportedly said he’d have given up the presidency to receive.  It hangs, unprotected, on a wall and receives a short mention by the docent.  In a case, there is a bullet fragment – that was removed from Chamberlain!  The docent doesn’t mention it, but when I ask, he says it’s from the foot wound he received at Gettysburg while fighting on Little Round Top!  We linger over portrait paintings of his parents, while the original Tojani oil painting of the bayonet charge on Little Round Top goes undiscussed.  I have to confirm the authenticity of the painting as we move out of the room.  The house is simply full of amazing artifacts, openly displayed for inspection, and the docent offers great anecdotes.  But one is best served with a prior knowledge of the relevant history in order to fully appreciate the value of many items.

As we meander through the house, we learn more and more quirky facts. The odd-shaped rooms with rounded walls and no corners was designed by the ship-builder, not an architect.  Among those who sat on the furniture in the dining room are U.S. Grant and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Ms. Stowe’s father taught as Bowdoin.  Speaking of Bowdoin, Chamberlain had Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as a teacher, and student Chamberlain’s signed book from class is there.  A red velvet-lined chair sitting at a desk looks like a throne – and it is, brought there by Chamberlain as a gift from the Queen of England.  These details provide a rich tapestry to the intertwining lives of history.

Remarkable Legacy

Chamberlain and his wife were something of medical marvels of the age.  His wife had strabismus, which left her with a lifelong vision problem, despite attempts at surgical correction.  Chamberlain’s pelvic wound, which left him with a permanent limb for life, also left him with a damaged urethra, requiring a catheter.  Having received 6 wounds in the course of the war, he lived a remarkably active, long life and was a “happy man”, by all accounts, according to the docent, shaking his head in disbelief.  Like many of the day, several of their 5 kids died of “consumption” – tuberculosis – in part because all 4 boys slept together, since the cause of the disease was not known.  Chamberlain has a personal nurse for much of his later life, to help given his mobility limitations.  The challenges of growing older echo across the ages.

One reason we know so much about Chamberlain’s life is that he wrote so much of it down for us.  While the Civil War soldiers were a remarkable literate lot, Chamberlain was an academic and gifted prose stylist well beyond average.  He left behind vivid, first-hand accounts of his experiences, and he was happy to take a starring role in the script.  Some have criticized him for this, complaining that he, and his defenders like Shaara, have glorified his place in history, while pushing others equally worthy to the side.  People like Gouvernour Warren and Strong Vincent, equally valiant and arguably more important participants on Little Round Top, have been relegated to supporting roles in the story, despite their actual importance exceeding Chamberlain in historical fact.  There’s something to be said for making sure to get your own side of story out – which I try to use as inspiration.  I also encourage those with time and inclination to read the relevant history and decide for themselves the truth.   By any measure, Chamberlain had a fascinating story to tell, and we are lucky to have it to learn from.

Chamberlain’s remarkable life has been an inspiration for this academic over the years.  His bold decision to leave the safe confines of the academy – his took a leave of absence, promising his bosses and his mother he was going to Europe to study – and raise volunteer troops to fight for the noble twin causes of “union” and “abolition” challenges me to pursue my inner beliefs.  That he taught himself the military arts and rose to the rank of Major General, even in those times of rapid ascension via attrition, illustrates true self-sufficiency and personal growth.  His magnanimous gesture to his defeated opponents showed a generosity of spirit, especially coming from someone nearly killed by those adversaries-turned-countrymen.  Would that we all could muster such courage and grace when the telling moment calls.

Leave a comment

Filed under Aging, Civil War, History

Visiting Joshua Chamberlain’s House (Part 1)

My second favorite historical figure from the Civil War, after Abraham Lincoln, is “the fighting professor”, Major General Joshua Chamberlain.  Like many, I became a fan after reading the classic Michael Shaara novel Killer Angels about the Battle of Gettysburg, in which then-Colonel Chamberlain plays a starring role as the rhetorician-turned-soldier who saves the union army on Little Round Top.  Like some Nietzchean philosopher-warrior come alive, he “refuses the line” at the far end of the Union left flank, with a desperate bayonet charge down the rocky hillside, all while contemplating the meaning of it all.  Straight out of central casting, what academician wouldn’t salivate at admiring this action-hero figure?

But was it too good to be true?  Could a rhetoric and religion professor really become a military hero?  The academic skeptic in me just couldn’t rest without separating the rhetorical chaff from the history wheat. In my typical OCD way, I started reading about Chamberlain, Gettysburg, Lincoln, and the Civil War overall in hopes of answering these and other questions. I also made the trip to Gettysburg, stood on Little Round Top – on the very large boulder from which Chamberlain anchored the “wheel” for his company’s charge down the hillside – and tried to imagine that burning hot July 2nd so many years ago.  Would I have been able to measure up?

In addition to spending much time on Little Round Top in Chamberlain’s shoes, while moving about the park, I lingered at two other places that day that invited introspection. The first, not far from Little Round Top was the national cemetery where Lincoln stood to deliver his great speech. It sent chills down my spine to imagine being there that day.  The second was standing in the woodline where the young Confederate soldiers in Pickett’s brigade would have stood, preparing to march across a near-mile long, open field into the teeth of the Union line, looking across the way to tiny copse of trees where the Union lines waited.  How could they do it?  What could possibly motivate them to make that march of death?  Would I have been willing and able to do it?

These questions, and many others, led me to explore a reasonable chunk of the available Civil War literature.  This includes multiple books on Gettysburg, another handful on other battles (and visits to the sites), a dozen or so Lincoln biographies, and another 10 on other significant figures.  Regarding Chamberlain, I’ve read several of his own first-hand accounts of the war he provided, but I haven’t read a full biography.

But I was tingling with excitement about seeing the house he lived in, now converted to a museum about his life.  What items did they have within?  What new facts would I learn about his extraordinary life?

In the next post, I’ll describe the museum visit itself.  As is so often the case, the truth is a little different than what I thought I knew.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Civil War, History, Risk