Tag Archives: Civil War

July 3, 1863

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Rising to the occasion is a concept so misunderstood… it borders on the cliché.  When used in the wrong context it cheapens actual heroic achievement.  Too often, historic deeds are overlooked because well-worn studies have rendered them routine because of historic scope.  In the pivotal battle of the war, at its decisive moment, actions speak louder than the words of any biographer…. as Confederate soldiers stormed over the stonewall at the “Angle”- decisive action was needed, and General Alexander Webb provided it.

The 72nd PA and Webb's charge

The 72nd PA and Webb’s charge

Alexander Webb received the Medal of Honor for his actions on July 3, 1863.  Webb’s brigade occupied the crucial position at the “copse of trees” which was the focal point of Lee’s attack.  Webb marched defiantly up and down his line during the fierce bombardment that preceded Pickett’s charge.  The confederates under Armistead  charged into Webb’s position and the two brigades were locked in deadly combat.  Seizing the colors of the 72nd Pennsylvania, Webb led a charge into the confederates  at the famous “angle” in the stone wall.   The two generals nearly came to personal blows as Webb’s counter attack brought them to within feet of each other.  Armistead fell mortally wounded while a ball passed through Webb’s upper thigh, but he remained on the field.  Webb describes the action in his report of the battle.  General George Gordon Meade nominated Webb for the Medal of Honor which he received in 1891.

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Movie Review- Birth of a Nation (2016)

Mel Gibson’s blueprint to “Braveheart” does a disservice to Turner’s rebellion        Final Grade-  D 

 

First-time director Nate Parker takes full advantage of the Hollywood… surge in independent, minority filmmakers tackling long ignored characters and events.  Parker wrote, directed, produced and stars as Nat Turner, leader of the bloodiest slave rebellion in US history.  In August of 1831, Turner and a band of devoted followers murdered 60 white men, women, and children in Southampton, Virginia.  Turner’s rebels killed nearly everyone they encountered, including the brutal beheading of an infant.  The Virginia militia suppressed the rebellion on August 23, though Turner eluded capture until October.  Virginia authorities executed 56 blacks in retaliation- historians believe as many as 120 slaves may have been killed in the aftermath.  Turner was hanged on November 11.

 

Parker touches on the history with short strokes… choosing to follow the well-used revenge trope  utilized by Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart”.  Turner’s true motivation was religious- a devout Baptist, Turner claimed to receive a calling from God to free  his people and punish their oppressors.  Parker’s Turner is religious, but it barely serves as a set piece- Parker focuses intently on the rape and beating of Turner’s wife and the wife of his chief conspirator(conjectural.)  The comparisons to Gibson’s film about Scottish rebel William Wallace are striking-  martyrdom driven by bloody revenge- a simple,  yet effective way to make a movie.  History is complex and often messy and Parker’s film misses the mark telling the accurate story of Turner’s rebellion.  Villains are beheaded by righteous warriors and the heroes fall in a blaze of glory on the battlefield.  Missing are the atrocities, drunkenness, and religion that comprised those complicated 48 hours.  Far from a pitched battle, Turner’s rebellion could not be sustained when confronted with better armed, and determined troops.  Parker’s final battle is complete with the slow motion charging, battle axes thrust defiantly into the air, muted cries of “Freedom”  drowned out by the artillery of the antagonists- minus the face paint and kilts.

 

There are powerful images found in Parker’s film… but the script is too conventionally written to capture the historical relevance of Turner’s rebellion.  Parker only briefly touches on Turner’s confessional, a stark testimony given by Turner to a lawyer shortly before his hanging.  In his own words, Turner chillingly describes every murder he and his followers committed.  He leaves little doubt that he believed it was God’s will, much like John Brown’s convictions thirty years later.  The ironic title Parker conceived is far from proper acknowledgment of the impact this event had on history.  States throughout the South strengthened already oppressive laws limiting freedoms to slaves and their owners- including the right to unconditional manumission.  Many of these changes came about to placate poor whites, who felt especially vulnerable following the bloodshed. Too much attention falls upon Parker’s Turner and his motivations- lost are the deeper religious and cultural motivations for the uprising.

Nat Turner boldly declaredI had the same revelation, which fully confirmed me in the impression that I was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty.”   Nate Parker’s film fails to appropriately portray the complexities and historical relevance of Turner’s rebellion.    Conventional Hollywood treatment of historical events often lead to missed opportunities- precisely how “Birth of a Nation” treats Nat Turner.

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Movie Review- 12 Years a Slave

Practically Historical Grade-     C+

 

Steve McQueen is obsessed with startling… visuals, the kind that grab an audience and rarely let go.  His first historical film detailed with nauseating frankness the hunger strike of IRA dissident, Bobby Sands.  In his latest effort, 12 Years a Slave, McQueen brings to the screen the brutal captivity of freeman Solomon Northup.  Based on Northup’s memoir of the same name, McQueen’s interpretation is far too concerned with shock value to capture the deeper messages of Northup’s writing.  John Ridley’s conscientious script is at times  sacrificed to the director’s need to visualize brutality even his subject could not describe.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor

Historians have been divided over... the academy award winning film.  John Ridley’s script faithfully follows Northup’s memoir but McQueen wastes little time extrapolating the narrative with visceral images designed to enlighten, but often deliver little more than wincing.  Events Northup leaves to the readers’ imaginations, McQueen brutally visualizes- primarily the whipping of Patsey.  McQueen was more than willing to leave Northup’s story to show a fictional murder aboard a slave ship, again for effect, rather than plot.  What saves the film from being a bloody mess are the performances.  Much attention was awarded to Lupita Nyong’o for her harrowing portrayal of Patsey- but Chiwetel Ejiofor is a revelation as Northup; haunting and tragic, his performance is the real soul of the film.

Michael Fassbender

Michael Fassbender

Scenery, dialect, and costuming were …all well researched- this is not the glorified plantation living of Gone With the Wind, rather a dank, crumbling, stagnate world teetering on the edge of collapse.  Michael Fassbender’s psychotic turn as Edwin Epps is symbolic of the self destructive nature of chattel slavery.  Many critics cite McQueen’s ambivalence to religion as a weakness in the script- Northup spoke strongly of faith as well as the good Christian nature of his first master, William Ford(an understated Benedict Cumberbatch.)   Strong performances, gritty scenery and cinematography, and a historically accurate script make 12 Years a Slave a must see experience.  The film’s horrific depictions of violence are considered necessary by some, will be lamented by all- one has to consider whether McQueen could have told the story without as many scare tactics.

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Political Opportunist in Uniform

James A. Garfield wanted to advance his political career… a brief stint commanding Ohio volunteers followed by an undistinguished term as a Congressman stalled the upstart’s career.

The Mentor

The Mentor

Concluding military service essential to future political ascension….  Garfield used favors of his mentor (and distant cousin) Salmon P. Chase to reenter military service, this time as a General.  The Lincoln administration needed an appropriate duty station for the young Ohioan’s “talents.”

Self-serving service

Self-serving service

Eccentric, brilliant, but irascible…  William S. Rosecrans was on Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s last nerve.  Stubborn to a fault, Rosecrans refused to bow to the Administration’s unreasonable timetables.  The popular Rosecrans needed to go, but Stanton needed just cause.  The cagey Garfield seemed the perfect plant-  Rosecrans needed a new Chief-of-Staff- Stanton needed an ally close to the troublesome Commander.  The drama was set….

Unwitting victim

Unwitting victim

 

 

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Book Review- A new look at Grant

Frank P. Varney, General Grant and the Rewriting of History, California, Savas and Beatty, 2013

A critical examination of Grant’s memoirs and their effects on the historical record. 

 

Professor Frank Varney’s first book is a bold effort to right historical wrongs…. and the wrongs were perpetrated by none other than US Grant.   Varney proposes a three volume examination of the inconsistencies, mistakes, and outright lies found in Grant’s widely utilized memoirs.  Volume one takes Grant (and his historical defenders) to task for ruining the reputation of Major General William S. Rosecrans.  Varney carefully dissects both the historical record and the secondary sources which were deeply influenced by Grant’s account.

“The well of data about Rosecrans has been so tainted that many historians… are simply not motivated to look beyond the traditionally relied-upon sources- the writings of Grant prominent among them.”   Varney sums up how Grant’s memoirs have affected Civil War historiography.  Researchers simply assume Grant was right- they fail to verify with lesser known primary sources; what source could be more valuable than the man credited as the Union victor?  Varney’s research is extensive and provides key insights to the Grant/Rosecrans feud.  At the Battles of Iuka and Corinth, Grant was miles from the fighting- his battle reports change over time- and his memoir bears little resemblance to the Official Records.  Historians like Steven Woodworth and T. Harry Williams  have been complicit in propagating Grant’s distorted account and Varney cites key examples of his peers failing to carry-out the most basic research methodology.

Far from a redemptive piece about Rosecrans… Varney acknowledges the flaws in the man.  But, the evidence of tampering and distortion are too extensive to be ignored by the historical community.  Rosecrans had his flaws, but Grant’s accounts of the war have forever tarnished a General with widely accepted military skill.  Grant didn’t care for his subordinate and Varney skillfully shows how he took credit for victories, exaggerated his own actions, and distorted (even lied) about the performance of others.  Rosecrans was the victim of a concerted effort led by Grant- and historians have failed to give a balanced account of this chapter in Civil War history.  Hopefully, Professor Varney’s future volumes will be as detailed and insightful as this first edition.

The recent Grant renaissance should be reconsidered. 

 

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June 3, 1864

Three days of indecisive movements by Union forces… allowed Robert E. Lee’s army to strengthen its positions near Bethesda Church and New Cold Harbor.  The delay muted the Federal assaults of June 1-2.   The troops in blue knew exactly what awaited them the following day.  The carnage of Grant’s Overland campaign had taken its toll.

1837-1864

1837-1864

Jefferson Truitt was one of the Union soldiers… who knew exactly what was going to happen on June 3rd.  The all-to-familiar pattern could again be seen; Confederates controlled the thoroughfares to Richmond, and Union troops would try bludgeon them open.  War-weary troops began pinning names to their uniform coats for easier identification; many penned one final diary entry- “Killed at Cold Harbor.”   Jefferson Truitt, and his regiment, the 62nd PA. were due to leave the service on July 1.  He had survived the bloodiest conflicts of the war: Malvern Hill, Antietam, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania…  now, with just weeks to serve, he would meet his end near the intersection of Old Church and Walnut Grove roads.

Last full measure

Last full measure

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Weekly History News Roundup

Little noticed Confederate monument now controversial… most in St. Louis unaware of its existence 

 

WWI MIA rediscovered by amateur historians... Government had lost the man’s records in paperwork.

 

JFK turns 100… Why he remains one of our most popular leaders

 

Baltimore mayor contemplates removing monuments… Confederate monuments to Lee and Jackson are considered offensive

 

Trump marks Memorial Day at ArlingtonPresident offers appropriate remarks to families of veterans

 

The lost cause

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