April 1865. by Jay Winik

My dad married a Northerner. But he could hardly be accused of having been one himself. The year I turned twelve, our family spent the muggy summer evenings reading aloud to each other Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. Huck and Jim already had become close friends to the imaginations of my brother and me, not to mention Aunt Sally and Tom Sawyer.

Winik April 1865Yes, the Washington I grew up in had become the post-WWII ‘capital of the free world.’ But I never loved my hometown for that reason. I loved, and love her still, for the same reason that Robert E. Lee loved Virginia.

The land you come from deserves and demands your loyal affection, whether that particular land lies thick with trees and hedgerows or with streets and buildings. I never had any serious interest in the halls of national and international power near the places to which I delivered pizzas during high school.

Marion Barry meant more to me during the 1980’s than Ronald Reagan ever did. During the Grant administration, they debated moving the U.S. Capitol to Kansas. If they had, I wouldn’t love Washington, D.C., any differently than I do. My hometown, south of the Mason-Dixon, originally a swamp bordered by two slave states.

Just trying to explain why the month of April, 1865, fills me more with a sense of tragedy than triumph.*

Also, the end of the Civil-War Sesquicentennial, now upon us, fills me with guilt, because I haven’t paid more attention to it. And with sadness that it’s over.

Anyway: If you share any of these feelings, or if you simply seek a short, readable book with which to begin your acquaintance with Civil-War history, read April 1865 by Jay Winik.

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Sites Near I-95

The_Peacemakers_1868

“They come from another age. The Age of Virginia.” (The Killer Angels)

Can a guy have fun tramping around the nooks and crannies of greater Richmond in search of Civil-War sites with epic historic significance? Listening to Coldplay on the way to the Cold Harbor National Historic Battlefield Park?

Yes.

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Peninsula, Seven Days, Fortnight for Freedom

I don’t drink tea, so I’m not really sure how much it costs. But I guess a person could pay $10/lb. for tea these days.

As it happens, that is also how much it cost exactly 150 years ago, in Richmond, Virginia. Shortages led to outrageous price inflation.

But let’s back up…

Countless eons ago, the water came down and filled up the oceans. Some of it became the York and James Rivers. Between these rivers: a peninsula.

John Smith & Co. made camp on this peninsula back in May of 1607. Later, colonists built Williamsburg on it, and from there the statesmen governed the vast Commonwealth that extended to the Ohio River basin and gave homesteads to countless Scotch-Irish families.

Thomas Jefferson studied on the peninsula.

Then he and some others signed the Declaration of Independence, and war ensued.

After an inconclusive battle campaign, the British, under Lord Cornwallis, holed-up in a town on the north side of the peninsula, a town named for the river on which it sat. Their king had the best navy on earth, so it made sense to secure a sea port. Yorktown offered an ideal situation.

To defend the town from land attack, Cornwallis and his army piled up enormous earthen tranches around the town.

But they never counted on the French navy fighting for the Americans, keeping mother England’s ships at bay at the mouth of the river. Nor did they anticipate that the French army would attack their stronghold, alongside George Washington’s Continentals.

The British did not bring siege cannon for their campaign. They travelled with only portable field cannons. The French and Americans showed up with long-range siege artillery. Cornwallis could not answer fire. The British surrendered.

…Eighty years later, Virginia seceded from the Union. Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy. The city between the James and the tributaries of the York had more wealth and power then any other southern town.

If you wanted to defend Richmond from invasion from the sea, from the Chesapeake—you might well decide to garrison an army at Yorktown. You could easily build up the trenches. Much of the earth that the British shoveled still remained in big piles around the town. From Yorktown, your Confederate army could cover the river with batteries of artillery and prevent Federal ships from sailing up close to Richmond via the Pamunkey, which fed the York.

If you thought along these lines, you would be thinking like Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ military advisor thought in 1861. Namely, Robert E. Lee.

The following spring, if you were like U.S. General-in-Chief George McClellan, you might decide to get the meddlesome, apish chief executive off your back by formulating a grand plan to ferry all your troops down the Potomac, to the storied peninsula. Then you could slowly lay an elaborate siege on Yorktown. Once it fell, on to Richmond!

Honest Abe, a prudent man if ever there were one, did not think that this made for a very good plan. Why not just march south to Richmond over land? But the President was desperate for McClellan to something, anything. ‘Okay. Go for it.’

So: Once again, eighty-one years after Cornwallis, the besiegers of Yorktown outgunned the besieged. Massively.

But, this time, the besieged had somewhere else to go. Confederate General Joe Johnston didn’t even wait for the shooting to start. He craftily allowed McClellan and Co. to spend weeks lining everything up for an extended siege. Then Johnston evacuated Yorktown under cover of night and retreated to trenches around Richmond. (George Armstrong Custer, scouting from a hot-air balloon, was the first Federal to learn that Johnston had cleared out.)

A battle between the Federal vanguard and the Confederate rear erupted just south of sleepy old Williamsburg. They re-enacted the battle nine days ago. (Your servant had the pleasure of encountering one of the re-enactors.)

You may be wondering, does Father have a point here? Do I need one? Listen:

McClellan moved his armies up towards the Confederate capital. He planned to besiege it with all the might he could muster. He had plenty of guns and troops to beat the Rebs. But a pathological timidity would soon overcome him.

In a battle east of Richmond on May 31, Johnston suffered severe wounds. Who would replace him in command of the army defending Richmond? Jefferson chose to put his military advisor in command. Robert E. Lee.

It rained and rained. Lee knew that he did not have time on his side. If he faced a more reasonable man than McClellan, then the Confederate capital almost certainly could have been taken during the summer.

So Lee planned a dangerous, complicated offensive maneuver. It required Stonewall Jackson to come east from the Shenandoah Valley.

Jackson had just conducted a campaign with the dexterity of a magician, keeping Federal troops occupied to the west, making McClellan crazy that he couldn’t have a juggernaut as big as he wanted for the peninsula.

Jackson’s biographer James “Bud” Robertson titles his chapter on this phase of the war “Fatigue.” Jackson managed completely to bungle his role in Lee’s plan. Stonewall never really even understood Lee’s orders. Robertson recounts how Jackson was fighting off sleep when Lee was explaining his plan.

What ensued has come to be known as “The Seven Days.” Bloody battle after bloody battle, every day for a week, June 25 to July 1.

Panicky, paranoid McClellan ran for a secure route of retreat. He did this even though he had more men and much more firepower. Lee again and again tried and failed to make himself understood by his generals—men who would eventually become legends right alongside him: “Pete” Longstreet, J.E.B. Stuart, John Bell Hood, and Jackson.

Tiny twists of fate could have changed things so that July 1862 could have seen Abraham Lincoln walking the streets of Richmond—almost three years before he actually did. Or July 1862 could have seen the Federal war machine ruined, for all intents and purposes. Such a victory lay within Lee’s grasp. But he could not get his generals to do what he thought he had told them to do.

In other words, the war could have ended, with either side the victor, but for a few details one way or the other. If Little Mac weren’t there, and Grant was: Richmond taken and war over in 1862. Or: if Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson really understood what they were saying to each other: Federal army crippled, Northern morale crushed, and war over in 1862.

Instead, it all came to nothing in the short run. By the end of the summer, the Union army was back in Washington.

I really do have a point. Kind of.

I would like to be the first blogger on the interwebs to point out that: The “Fortnight for Freedom” declared by our Bishops coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Seven Days battles.

I leave it to you, dear reader, to interpret the significance of this fact.

Dated Gettysburg Movie

The coming of the sesquicentennial has transformed me from an assiduous student of the Civil War into a budding fanatic.

The 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg is still two years away. But you might be tempted to lay your hands on the Martin Sheen-Tom Berenger-Jeff Daniels “Gettysburg” movie of 1993.

I would strongly caution you.

Not because the movie is too violent. (It is violent, but what do you expect?) Not because it is biased, because it isn’t. Not because spending four hours learning about the battle of Gettysburg isn’t a good idea; it is a good idea.

The battle of Gettysburg endlessly fascinates. But “Gettysburg” endlessly runs on.

Watching Martin Sheen attempt to impersonate General Robert E. Lee is a fate worse than death by bayonet. I would prefer to see Britney Spears clad in butternut debating tactical matters with Old Pete Longstreet ad nauseum.

And the movie possesses no narrative unity. It just plods through events.

It plods through them with stunning verisimilitude. I guess that illuminates an important truth: There is a big difference between the pace of an exciting weekend battle re-enactment and the pace of a watchable movie.

Making “Gettysburg” may have been the thrill of a lifetime for all the re-enactors involved. I do not begrudge them one minute of the fun they had. It’s just that the movie version of a Civil War re-enactment is really boring.

The battle itself is immortal, as Abraham Lincoln so eloquently captured it. Realistic as “Gettysburg” is, such immortality has eluded its grasp altogether.

Here is the only truly captivating scene:

“Gettysburg” aside, let’s give Ted Turner credit for “Gods and Generals.” When “Gods and Generals” ended after almost four hours, I wanted it to go on for another four hours. “Gods and Generals” rocks.

‘Martyrs’ on our Potomac

On May 23, 1861, Virginia’s voters ratified the state’s ordinance of secession.

Perhaps you will remember that one of my favorite subjects is: Things that happened on May 24:

Confederate militia had held Alexandria, Virginia, since shots were fired at Fort Sumter. Only the “Long Bridge” over the Potomac separated them from tens of thousands of Union soldiers mustering in the capital.

Shortly after midnight on May 24, 1861, a force of thousands of Federal troops crossed the Potomac.

New York Militia Major General Charles Sanford marched to Arlington Heights and established headquarters in Robert E. Lee’s vacated home.

The few Virginia militia who remained in Alexandria retreated to Culpeper.

New York Fire Zoave Colonel Elmer Ellsworth marched with his troops down Main Street in Alexandria to cut the telegraph wires to Richmond. Ellsworth was a friend of Abraham Lincoln’s.

Ellsworth espied the Sic Semper Tyrannis secessionist flag flying over an inn called Marshall House. He entered the edifice, and climbed the stairs to remove the flag. James W. Jackson, the proprietor of the house, announced that the flag would be removed over his dead body. After the exchange of gunfire which followed, both Ellsworth and Jackson lay dead.

Lincoln wept at Ellsworth’s funeral the following day, and the northern press hailed him as a martyr. Later, the Sons and Daughters of Confederate Soldiers erected this plaque:

ADDENDUM/ERRATA:

Please forgive my haste in the original post. According to this Currier and Ives print from 1861, the flag flown over the Marshall House was in fact the Confederate “Stars and Bars.”

Apparently one of the stars of the flag can be seen at the Fort Ward museum in Alexandria. If the flag had stars, it couldn’t have been the Virginia state flag. Sorry.

Metaphysics of Morals Compendium (with Punishments) + April 9 Palm Sunday

If you find yourself at a Knights-of-Columbus pancake breakfast with Spanish-speakers from various countries, you will encounter different words for ‘pancakes’: panqueque, crepa, cachapa, panqueca, güirila, panqué

…The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter will fall on Tuesday night. The Sesquicentennial unfolds.

The older of my brilliant nephews was born on April 9. Palm Sunday fell on April 9 that year, 2006.

Palm Sunday also fell on April 9 in 1865, the day when Robert E. Lee rode up to the McLean house and, in the words of James Robertson, “after 39 years of dutiful military service, did what duty demanded of him.”

The Army of Northern Virginia most certainly was beaten. Lee nonetheless displayed acute moral discernment at Appomattox.

The prospect of the southern cause continuing as a guerrilla war was the most likely sequel to the fall of Richmond and the routing of Lee’s army. At Appomattox, Lee rose above the normal pattern and effected a decisive stroke for reconciliation.

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