Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Random Thoughts, including Perryville

I know I have not posted frequesntly in recent weeks and a couple of my posts have simply been typing of old newspaper articles without a lot of analysis. I like those posts, as the articles are ones I think are unique, at least to the area I live, as I am using an obscure old local newspaper, but I realize they do not appeal to all people. I do want to post more original thoughts and comments for thought and discussion and hope to do so, but I have been going through some stuff that has distracted me. Fortunately, I have found a new job, which will be starting in a couple of weeks, so that may allow me to focus more time here.

Anyway, as this hot summer continues, I've been thinking about the soldiers who marched and tried to camp in such weather. I have walked over the Perryville battlefield in hot weather before, even carrying a backpack full of drinks & snacks, but that was nothing like the equipment soldiers carried, though they would have loved the convenience of bottled water. I also was wearing a t-shirt, shorts and gym shoes, not wool pants and coat and brogans.As hot and tiring as my hike was, it was nothing compared to the soldiers' experience. Plus, I knew I was going to sleep in a cool air-conditioned room on a nice bed, not on hard ground during a hot, humid night, possibly with enemies just a few hundred yards away. I did not have to rely on old hardtack for supper, nor did I have to build a fire to  try to cook any meat I was lucky enough to have. The sheer boredom of so much of their time, plus the various physical challenges, including marching so many miles would have only  made a tough situation worse. I also wonder how bad our modern warriors have it on various fields throughout the world.

This little rambling session also reminds me that Perryville will be having a big re-enactment this fall. I hope to get to see it, though my new work may involve some weekends. The 2012 re-enactment was a pleasure to watch, one of the more memorable trips I have taken in recent years. Even if I go as just a spectator and not a volunteer, I think it would be neat to see this year's event, as they will be focusing on the area near the Bottom Farm and the burning barn. I have heard they have some neat plans for that, if the weather cooperates. I hope they will be able to pull off everything they have discussed.

At least they have good news about the preservation efforts there, as this article discusses. It is terrific to read and I am very pleased with it. The entire battlefield saved so far is in such nice shape and I'm sure the new acquisition will be well taken care of as well

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Ancestors in the war: Henderson Turner



Henderson Turner and his 2nd wife Sarah (I'm descended from his 1st wife.)

 My 3 times great grandfather Henderson Turner provides an intriguing story, probably the most interesting of those of my ancestors involved in the Civil War. He was the grandson of Roger Turner, a Revolutionary War soldier who served with multiple volunteer companies from Surry and Wilkes Counties, North Carolina. The farm Henderson owned on Turkey Creek, Ky.  may even have been given to his grandfather as a land grant for his war service. (It appears that one of Roger's uncles, Roger Turner Jr. (Roger was a popular name it seems) fought for the British during the war and had his land confiscated afterwards. I have not found any Confederates in my family tree, but apparently had a Tory.)

Most of what I post about Henderson will come from family oral tradition, as little official documentation exists about his military service.

This family lore claims that Henderson served in the Civil War but never mustered out, making him ineligible for pensions, though no official records confirming that have been found. I have also heard that he may not have any official paperwork due to his age. He was born in May of 1847, so he apparently was only 15 years old when he entered the service. If so, he may never have mustered in either, which would eliminate the possibility of any paperwork. He may have snuck into camp with his half-brothers who did officially join the army. Henderson perhaps served as a scout for their unit. Whatever his role, he would not have been the only boy to serve in the military during the war, though many others were drummer boys.

The one piece of documentation that does exist is the 1890 Veterans' Census which lists him as a private in Company K of the 14th Kentucky Cavalry, a Union regiment, from October 10, 1862 until March 24, 1864. If these dates are accurate, he had not even turned 18 - the minimum age to join the military - when he left the service. Another part of the family legend claims that he left the army at the Newport Barracks, along the Ohio River in northern Kentucky, and walked all the way to his home in Breathitt County, which is about a three hour drive even today. Unfortunately, he apparently left Newport before getting any discharge papers, so his application for a pension was denied.

Henderson's great-granddaughter, my great-aunt, had heard much of this information and wrote a brief description of him in a story in a local history book called Common Folk, Volume 2, published by the Breathitt County Historical Society. She described “Grandpap Hent” as a tall and skinny man whose legs nearly dragged the ground when he rode a horse. That must have made him an interesting-looking figure when scouting or serving in the cavalry.

In his later years, he lived with one of his children but sometimes became upset and threatened to leave and go someplace else only to have one of his grandchildren beg him to stay, which he inevitably did.

Henderson died May 29, 1933, at 86 years of age and is buried in the Hannah Sebastian Cemetery.

Here are pictures of his headstones, courtesy findagrave.com. A descendant applied for a veteran's headstone for him, and this was approved, so someone in that office saw enough evidence that he had served.




Why Henderson may have left the service in Newport instead of at Camp Nelson, where most of the regiment apparently mustered out - the two places are more than 100 miles apart - is another mystery, perhaps going back to his youth and unofficial status in the military. Or perhaps family oral legend may not have this part correct. Nonetheless, it is an interesting story to ponder. I just wish there had been some documentation, but oral tradition is a different sort of history and can be important itself. Without it, very little else is known of his military career and I admit is intriguing to have such a story in my family tree.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Book Review: Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Civil War by James McPherson


Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Civil War 
By James M. McPherson 
2015, Penguin Books


Embattled Rebel is another enjoyable book I have recently read. It is a quick read and, like most of James McPherson's books , has a good, smooth flow that makes it a pleasant and easy book to read. 

It is not a long book. One of the blurbs on the back cover calls it "concise," and that is an apt description. It is not a full biography of Davis or a detailed retelling of the war, but, rather, a quick look at Davis' performance as Confederate President.

It does a fine job of providing a balanced look at Davis' performance, his strengths, his flaws and the many challenges he faces. Overall, I thought it tended to be mostly sympathetic to Davis, but it did describe some of his failings such as his poor health, his inability or refusal to delegate work, his insistence on handling detailed paperwork and the poor relationships he had with some Confederate political and military officials.

On the other hand, he had a tremendous work ethic, plenty of military knowledge and experience and was extremely devoted to "the cause." People criticized his decisions or personality, but not his devotion to the Confederacy.

I read the paperback version of the book and one thing I found interesting about it was the cover. The top of the book cover featured McPherson's name, with the book title at the bottom of the page. McPherson's name is also in slightly larger font than the book title. I found this apparent emphasis on the author over the title to be an interesting approach. I have not noticed this on any other book I've read. 

Embattled Rebel is a fine book about one of the key figures of the Civil War. It is a quick, easy read, with a balanced view of its subject. It is a good, pleasant read and a fine addition to my bookshelf. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Female soldiers in the Civil War?

This came from the Covington Journal of April 13, 1861 - too soon for it to mention Fort Sumter, but it did include other national news including this interesting note. Women soldiers in the Civil War is not an unknown topic, with many stories of women dressing as men and serving in various armies, but the idea of an organized company of women working as a military unit is new to me. I wonder if this was true and what happened to them, especially once southern troops were mustered into Confederate service instead of state service.

Military Spirit in Mississippi

The Holly Springs (Miss) Herald learns that the county of Chickasaw in that State has already ten companies of volunteer soldiers ready to be mustered into the service of the State. It adds this: in addition to these, the country has a regularly officered and drilled company of young ladies, who have pledged themselves, in the event that the men are called into service, to protect their homes and families during their absence, and see that the crops are properly cultivated and full crops raised not only for the supper of the country, but for the armies of Mississippi. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Some Thoughts on Free State of Jones


I am in no way, shape or form a movie buff, but as a student of the Civil War, I wanted to see Free Story of Jones when I heard about it and, surprisingly, have already seen it, only a few days after its release. I did not even see Lincoln until a couple of months after it came out, so this was different.

I enjoyed this movie. It was entertaining and seemed reasonably believable, not like a fairy tale or total fabrication. I will discuss it here a bit, with the disclaimer that I do not watch a lot of movies and am not an experienced reviewer of them, even ones based on historical occurrences. I won't discuss acting, cinematography or anything like that. 

This may end up as more of a "discussion" than an actual review, as I try to explain the thoughts I had during and after seeing it. I do not intend to give any sort of "spoilers" in this discussion but I make no promises, so anybody who does not want to read about parts of the storyline may want to read this post later. I imagine I will get into some specific scenes for which I had some thoughts or ideas.

I also admit that I have not read the book on which the movie is based, nor studied the situation in Mississippi much, so I cannot opine on how accurate the details of the movie are. I will just do my best to describe the thoughts and reactions that the movie provoked in my mind.

The intensity of the movie surprised me. The intensity (the best word I an think to use) began with the excellent (and surprising) opening scenes. Whoever decided to open the movie like that made a very good call . Not all of the movie was at that same level, but much of it was, which I thought made the whole movie better. 

I like that the movie has both action scenes and more "talking" scenes instead of all of just one of those. Another movie I watched the same day was almost all action and fighting. It was a decent film (seeing it in 3D helped) but all of the action kind of blended together. That really did not happen in Free State. 

The portrayal of Newton Knight as a soldier and how he became disillusioned with the Confederacy seemed reasonable. The reality of battle, his nephew's death, the tax-in-kind on common citizens and the 20 Negro rule all were part of the script. The common line "rich man's war, poor man's fight" also was spoken as part of his developing dislike towards the cause for which he had enlisted.

His escape from the Confederates who were trying to catch him seemed a bit too good to be true to me. Even when the dog caught him and delayed  him, the rest of the party did not catch up to him or see exactly where he went, even as he limped forward.

Once he was in the swamp with a few escaped slaves and an increasing number of deserters, the remaining Confederates came across as silly, almost stupid, repeatedly going down what appeared to be the same road in the woods only to be ambushed by Knight's men multiple times without seeming to try a different route or strategy. Did it really happen like that?

When the story needed to show the increase in the number of Confederate deserters, it simply flashed "July 1863, Vicksburg is surrendered. Desertion increases" on the screen. I guess that was a good way to tell of increased desertion in a timely manner, but thought the movie could have at least indicated that Vicksburg was also in Mississippi, like the rest of the story. Any non-Civil War students may not have realized that and I do think that would have helped at least a bit.

Also at this time, two images of the damage caused by war flashed on the screen. I did not recognize one of them, but the other was the famous image of the Dunker Church at Antietam. My first instinct was to ask why use an image from such a far battlefield, but this really does not matter. That level of detail was probably insignificant; I suppose the picture used was good enough to make its point.

A couple other items I wish to mention include the "hanging" scene. I thought it was very good overall, especially the lead-up showing the emotions involved - the fear and sadness were very clear - but thought it could have been more powerful or intense had they shown the bodies dropping and jolting to a stop. That may have, however, been a bit too much for the intended audience, so I cannot complain much about it.

The role women played in this movie was noteworthy too. The moment I especially noticed it was when the women were sitting and shucking the corn while the men were picking it and carrying the baskets of corn to be shucked. There was an unmistakeable separation of gender roles in that scene, but in earlier and later scenes the movie showed women running the household while men were gone, directing slaves to help refugees and even carrying arms to defend their homes. A later scene even showed women firing guns at Confederates who were trying to capture Newton and his men. This movie did portray mostly traditional roles for men and women (men in the army, women at home) but still gave the women some strength and determination. They were not helpless victims at all.

I thought the same showed for the African-Americans who joined Knight's group, though I thought they disappeared for a while. When Knight went into the swamps, he was with a small group of escaped slaves but as the movie showed the increasing amount of army deserters joining Knight, the ex-slaves did not seem to be as present for a while, before re-emerging as strong characters towards the end of the film. I thought the various scenes showing some parts of African-American life as slaves and immediately after the war added a lot of meaning to the movie. The characters "Rachel" and "Moses" were especially important ones.

This added meaning especially showed up in the Reconstruction scenes. Having a section on Reconstruction was a great, perhaps brilliant, idea, providing valuable perspective on some of the difficulties African-Americans faced during this time and the legacy of the war. This is a lesson many (most?) American can use. 

I did find the Reconstruction section, as valuable as it was, to be a bit disjointed. There were frequent captions on the screen to provide information on what was happening or on what the movie could not show. It seemed to me that the movie writers had a lot to say in this part of the film, but did not have enough time, so they had to pick and chose some storylines to include while omitting others. The final product turned out well, but perhaps could have been smoother, though that may be easier said than done. Even a long movie like this has limits.

The voting scene, including the showing of the actual vote count, with only two Repiublican votes being counted, was very effective.

One nit I do wish to pick here was that the Reconstruction piece of the film began with a quick showing of a portrait of Abraham Lincoln to represent his passing. I felt that an image of the actual assassination would have been more powerful in showing the change of leadership.

In addition to the war and Reconstruction storylines, the  various court scenes about the challenge to Knight's descendant's attempted marriage were powerful as well, showing how the legacies of the war and reconstruction (and the importance of race and racial roles) were still around Mississippi in the 1940s, so many years later. This was tied in to the movie's depiction of the relationship between Knight and Rachel, giving these scenes a connection to the rest of the story.

One thing that I noted and thought was interesting about the entire film is that the words "Confederacy" and its derivatives ("Confederate," etc.) were barely mentioned. I only remember seeing it in a couple of the captions and am not sure if any characters uttered such words. If so, it was not frequent. I wonder if this was intentional and if it actually means much or was just a natural part of the story's flow. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this movie, despite the few small quibbles I mentioned. It is a long movie, but tells several different stories about the war, Recinstruction, race relations and family ties. There is quite a bit of intense action throughout it, as well as a mix of more peaceful scenes of thought and discussion. It features several characters who earn the viewers' sympathies, as well as a few "villains" who are less likable. I certainly believe that anyone interested in the Civil War should find time to go see it and that even those not particularly interested in history should as well. I may even go see it again, which is not something I often do for movies. (I'm not sure I have ever watched the same movie twice in a theater.) It is a good, enjoyable film with plenty of action, stories and characters to catch the viewers' interest and tells a story of the Civil War era perhaps unlike any other in popular media. 


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Press vs. Press: A Few Period Thoughts on the Charleston Mercury

This brief untitled story is from the Covington Journal of March 9, 1861. 

The Charleston Mercury is frequently quoted in the North as a representative of Southern opinion. The following, from the Mobile Register, will remove ths false impression.

"No man who has more than the merest superficial knowledge of current politics, or, who does not deliberately intend to mislead, will quote the Charleston Mercury as the leader or even the organ of the prevailing sentiment of South Carolina, much less the Cotton States at large."

"Always discontented and grumbling, arrogant in tone, flippant in judgment, intolerant in any opinion but its own, intensely self-sufficient and supercilious, I should, indeed, regret to be compelled to accept it as the exponent or type of South Carolina character. So far from the Mercury representing the policy of its State, the South Carolina deputation here has taken an active and prominent part in the very action of the Congress with which it finds fault. It may be added that at no steps which this Congress had taken has the influence of South Carolina failed to the side of moderation, prudence and wise statesmanship."


Monday, June 20, 2016

Where Has the Time Gone?


Less than half a score years ago, I brought forth onto this platform a new blog, conceived in curiosity and dedicated to the proposition that blogging was a worthy experiment.

Now I am engaged in a great continuation of this quest...

Well, enough of that, but I do wish to take a moment or two to note that yesterday, June 19, marked the seventh anniversary of My Civil War Obsession - the blog if not the actual passion. I had hoped to discuss this milestone then, but just did not get it finished in time. Oh well.

Anyway, I find it both hard to believe I have kept this up so long, and, strangely, not so hard to believe. "Time flies when you're having fun," supposedly, and the last seven years do seem to have flown by, at least in retrospect, which is, of course, the perspective a history blogger most often takes. 

A lot has happened since I started this blog. I have continued to volunteer as a board member at the James A. Ramage Civil War Museum, even having served as President a couple of times. I have talked on behalf of the museum, represented it at events, and have met many interesting people, holding more than a few fascinating conversations. I have made good friends through the museum, and, unfortunately have lost a few, especially Bob Clements, whose enthusiasm for the museum is something I can never match. He showed me that you can collect Civil War items on a normal budget and my current collection, from which I've found several topics for this blog, is largely due to his influence. He has been gone for almost four years but even Saturday at Roeblingfest, two different people stopped by the museum's table and talked about missing him. RIP, Bob. (As I type this entry, I checked my email and learned that another long-time museum volunteer and history enthusiast, Bill, passed away today. I just saw and spoke to him last Sunday. I am sad.) 

I have also started serving on the board of the Campbell County Historical and Genealogical Society and though that is not a direct Civil War group, it has allowed me to do some research into the war in this county and write a couple of newsletter articles, though more research remains in front of me.

I also volunteered at Perryville's reenactment in 2012, the 150th anniversary of the battle. That was fun, and I never will forget a couple of experiences there. One morning they had a "sunrise battle." I could not see it as I was helping register reenactors, but they were just trickling in at that point. My volunteer partner soon called me outside the building and from there, across the road, we could hear the sounds of the "battle" starting -the bugles and fife, the drums and, soon, musket and cannon fire. None of this was in eyesight, but was plain to the ear. It was really fascinating and it almost felt like we were civilians during the war, wondering what was happening, full of uncertainty. I don't know if I can find the words to describe it any better. Goosebumps. 

Later, during the main "battle," I was near the fighting in the cornfield, where the smell of the black powder from the reenactors' guns awed me. I have read about the sight and smell of smoke over a battlefield, but experiencing it, especially that unmistakable smell, was something special. It made everything seem so real. I was so lucky to be right there, right then, stuck in 1862, if even momentarily. 

During these seven years, I have had health issues, job issues and other life issues, of course, yet the Civil War has been a constant interest for me, my bookshelf serving as an anchor of hope and happiness.

One of my goals when starting this personal project was to increase my own learning and understanding of the war. I think that has been my best success of these years, as this site introduced me to the blogosphere. Concepts like historical memory, southern unionism, confederate history being different than southern history and others may have been topics I had encountered in my previous reading, but were not ones I recognized or specifically considered. Also, when writing sbout the Confederate army's opponent, should I call it the "Union" army or the "United States" army? Or just say "Federals?" Does it matter? That is one idea I had not pondered before this blog and my introduction to the blogosphere, which I found because I started this project. I now try to pay more attention to the words and phrases I chose to use.

This type of thinking is now more frequently present in my mind, and perhaps even my writing, especially when reading or writing about my native Kentucky or doing family research. My understanding of the Commonwealth's place in the war and the development of its post-war reputation and image has grown exponentially in the past seven years, at least somewhat because of books I've heard about in the blogging world. How did my slave-owning, Union-supporting family fit with this? Or did other ancestors differ?

now no longer think just about "concrete" parts of the war like battles, leaders and elections, but these more abstract concepts and ways of considering the war have helped me view this period differently. What happened during the war years is clearly important, but putting these events in perspective matters at least as much. I feel that part of my knowledge of the Civil War has grown.

Despite this viewpoint, I have also learned more "facts." For instance, and ironically, I had not heard of "Jubeteenth" before starting this blog, and though I'm still no military expert, I feel more confident when reading military studies now than I did previously. At least part of this is due to my trips to Perryville and walking around the battlefield, both on my own and for guided tours. Before the blog, I had not been to Perryville since 2000 or 2001, and never on my own. Since then, I have been there several times, once or twice per year except for 2015. 

Another example of learning was in my discovery of the Abraham Lincoln statue in downtown Cincinnati. Finding it after I had worked near it for years was a great surprise. It is a monument I have since visited several times. Doing research for a blog entry led me to find the statue and its fascinating history. 

As for the future, who knows? The blogosphere world may little note nor long remember what I do here, but at this point this blog is almost a selfish enterprise on my part. I do hope that I find and write at least some topics that catch the interests of other people, of course, but I'm not in this for page hits or shares. I need to continue growing and this platform has been a terrific vessel for that goal. 

As I go forward, continuing to write these entries, what will I learn next? I do think I need a better understanding of Reconstruction and the effects the war era produced, so I have purchased a couple books on those years. I will need to read those and see where they lead me and my studies. I am especially interested in seeing how the post-war years in "reconstructed" states compared to those in Kentucky, a southern-leaning state (at least late in and after the war) which was not subject to the terms of reconstruction, including Republican government and military occupation. 

I will still read and write more about "my" state, of course. I think my personal philosophy that "all history is local" is mostly an exaggeration and not literally true, so I try not to utter it often, but it seems to me there is at least a kernel of truth in it. At least there is to me, so reading more about Kentucky (a new book on the topic is due out in November, I believe) and more study and research of Northern Kentucky, Cincinnati and my Civil War ancestors will be part of my continued obsession. I make no claims on bring a professional historian or teacher or anything of the sort. I am not beholden to any employer or institution, even the places for which I volunteer. 

After typing that last line, I do realize that I have an ethical responsibility tp  practice good history and help promote accuracy in the places where I volunteer. I cannot simply say anything I want to when representing a public history organization and should not do so when acting for myself. That would be irresponsible.  Perhaps my whole self-image as a practicer of history and public history is another topic for future thought. When with family or friends, I am often seen as the "history guy," a big fish in a small pond, but as I entered the blogging world, I found out I'm just a minnow in the ocean, one grain of sand in the Sahara. The knowledge of (and even moreso interest in) the Civil War is widespread and its online presence opened my eyes to how big the world truly is. My few hundred Civil War books seem impressive, at least until I see other private libraries that dwarf mine. It is a humbling, yet exciting, realization, to see so much Civil War discussion and knowledge to study and to contemplate if I can play some small role in that world.

I do like the idea of "being my own boss" on my blog. I can use this site to explore my own interests and perhaps experiment with posts or topics, as I wish. I do not need to comment on current events and controversies if I choose not to, letting the mudslinging occur elsewhere. I have frequently tried to create a new tag line for this site but I just cannot say it better than "exploring anything and everything that fascinates me about this war." It sums up my goal perfectly and is what I have done and hope to continue to do well into the future. 

As I conclude, I apologize for the length of my post. It was intended as a quick look back at the last seven years, but quickly became an enjoyable exploration of my past and future. Thank you for reading this entry and others. Here's to many, many more years of my civil war obsession.