Review: The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee: The Forgotten Case Against an American Icon by John Reeves

Review: The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee: The Forgotten Case Against an American Icon by John Reeves

Katie Thompson reviews John Reeves’ new work The Lost Indictment of Robert E Lee, a reevaluation of Lee, President Johnson, and Reconstruction through the lens of the legal case brought against the former Confederate General in the aftermath of the Civil War.

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Diary Disclosures: David Hunter Strother on Civil War Leaders

Diary Disclosures: David Hunter Strother on Civil War Leaders

Forty-five years old at the start of the Civil War, David Hunter Strother had built his career through pen and pencil. A renowned artist, known via his pen-name "Porte Crayon," Strother traveled throughout the nation in the antebellum years, sharing sketches and stories of his travels via popular magazines of the day. Yet as the nation collapsed in 1861, Strother, who hailed from western Virginia, decided to put his artistic talents to use for the Union army. In the war's early years, Strother served as a topographer for Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley and western Virginia; he eventually earned a commission as a Union officer. Besides Strother's daily work of scouting terrain and sketching maps, the observant Virginian also kept a meticulous, detailed diary which would eventually span dozens of journals. In today's post, I want to share David Hunter Strother's experiences and opinions of various important Civil War figures with you. All of these diary entries date from September, 1861-February, 1862; these diary entries were not published in Cecil Eby's Virginia Yankee. While I have edited lightly for clarity, I have largely left Strother's words and occasional misspellings as they were. After each entry, I have offered a small note with my thoughts and biographical information.

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A Challenge Issued: The Hartwood Church Raid

A Challenge Issued: The Hartwood Church Raid

Four hundred cavalrymen splashed across the icy waters of the Rappahannock River in central Virginia, moving north into enemy territory.  The Confederate cavaliers, undeterred by the bitter cold and snowfall nearly eighteen inches deep, consisted of some of the Old Dominion’s finest:  portions of the First, Second and Third Virginia Cavalry.  At the gray-clad column’s head was twenty-eight year-old Fitzhugh Lee, nephew to Robert E. Lee and already a grim veteran of war’s horrors.  On this day, February 24, 1863, Brigadier General Fitz Lee led his men across the Rappahannock in reconnaissance, seeking to determine what movements, if any, the Union Army of the Potomac was undertaking around Fredericksburg.  The mission’s directive had come from Robert E. Lee himself. 

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Did Robert E. Lee Kill A Man? Did Douglas Southall Freeman Cover It Up?

Did Robert E. Lee Kill A Man? Did Douglas Southall Freeman Cover It Up?

Tucked away in a brief footnote within later editions of Douglas Southall Freeman's monumental four volume R.E. Lee, the famous Civil War historian penned a short account of an intriguing and "unhappy" episode in Robert E. Lee's younger life.  The young Lee spent the summer of 1835 surveying the boundary between Ohio and Michigan Territory.  Buried in a Freeman footnote, we learn the following:

An unhappy incident of Lee's experience on this survey was the accidental death of a Canadian lighthouse keeper "in a scuffle" over the use of his tower for running one of the survey lines.  The only reference to this, so far as is known, is in Lee to G.W. Cullum, July 31, 1835...A search of Canadian records yields no details.

Did Robert E. Lee kill a man?

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Stone Heroes North and South: The Connection between Mount Rushmore and Stone Mountain

Stone Heroes North and South: The Connection between Mount Rushmore and Stone Mountain

One displays the heroes of the Confederacy—Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson—all on horseback riding across the wide gray canvas that is Stone Mountain near Atlanta, Georgia.  The other features four bust-style depictions of famous American presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln—gazing formally from Mount Rushmore over the Black Hills of South Dakota.  Each was created out of pride for heritage and nation.  Each inspires awe at its size and wonder at the artistic skill necessary to carve such massive. 

And each have very different meanings.  One is a very nationalistic and patriotic piece featuring four of America’s favorite presidents that was conceived to bring tourism into the area.  The other is a monument to the Confederacy led by Southerners who wanted to honor and sustain the Confederate legacy.  One honors the United States of America, the other the Confederate States of America.  They stand a nation apart, both figuratively and literally (in terms of locations), yet they are connected by the life of one man, the sculptor who set out to complete both projects and ended up finishing neither.

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The Mayhem & Mystery of May 3: Joseph Hooker and the Battle of Chancellorsville

The Mayhem & Mystery of May 3:  Joseph Hooker and the Battle of Chancellorsville

Complacency endangers history.  The first plausible answer is not always the correct or solitary one, yet all too often we content ourselves with simplistic solutions to murky questions.  Civil War historians have grappled with the Battle of Chancellorsville for nearly 150 years, and we (surprisingly) we still have very simple rejoinders for why Joseph Hooker and the Army of the Potomac lost a struggle which they entered into with every advantage.  Joe Hooker lost the Battle of Chancellorsville because of his own arrogance and errors.  Joe Hooker lost Chancellorsville because he was no match for the Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.  Fighting Joe Hooker lost Chancellorsville simply because Fighting Joe Hooker lost confidence in himself.

In all likelihood, there are grains of truth to all these theories.  Yet one should be careful of placing too much emphasis on anyone of them singularly.  Instead, I wish to focus on a forgotten answer to the age old question of what went wrong for the Union army and Joe Hooker in May of 1863.  On the morning of May 3rd, General Hooker was wounded, probably suffering a severe concussion received from Confederate artillery fire.  This event, minimized and overlooked in many accounts of the battle, perhaps played a far greater role at Chancellorsville than history has given credit for.

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Scapegoat or Scandal? J.E.B. Stuart and the Battle of Gettysburg

Scapegoat or Scandal?  J.E.B. Stuart and the Battle of Gettysburg

The June 12th, 1863 edition of the Richmond Examiner seethed.  Just days before, Confederate cavalry had been caught completely by surprise in a daring strike by their Union counterparts at Brandy Station Virginia, and only after a hard fight with the help of Southern infantry was the enemy repulsed.  “But this puffed up cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia,” the Examiner crowed, “has been twice, if not three times, surprised since the battles of December, and such repeated accidents can be regarded as nothing but the necessary consequences of negligence and bad management.”  Such humiliations were unacceptable, and the Examiner concluded by charging that better organization, more discipline, and greater earnestness among “vain and weak-headed officers” was needed.  Other Southern papers offered more of the same.  The Richmond Sentinel called for greater “vigilance…from the Major General down to the picket.”  The Charleston Mercury thought the affair an “ugly surprise,” while the Savannah Republican thought it all “very discreditable to somebody.”  The commander of Confederate cavalry, James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart, had to be wondering if the Brandy Station fight wasn’t “discreditable” to him...

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In the Shadow of Appomattox: The Significance of Bennett Place

In the Shadow of Appomattox: The Significance of Bennett Place

Yesterday marked the 150th anniversary of the surrender of Confederate General Joseph Johnston to Union General William Sherman.  While history focuses on Lee’s surrender at Appomattox as the end of the Civil War, Johnston’s surrender at Bennett Place was significantly larger and demonstrates the lack of a definitive end to the war.

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Caught in the Crossfire: Civilians at Fredericksburg

Caught in the Crossfire: Civilians at Fredericksburg

In December 1862, the city of Fredericksburg found itself in the crossfire of the armies of Lee and Burnside.  For several months that summer, residents were forced to deal with the indignities and inconveniences of living in an occupied city.  Now the Union army was back once more and this time General Robert E. Lee and his army were in place to contest their presence.  With armies on either side of it, Fredericksburg braced itself for the storm.

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Sesquicentennial Spotlight: After Appomattox

Sesquicentennial Spotlight: After Appomattox

Now that the 150th anniversary of Appomattox has passed, the Civil War sesquicentennial is over, right?  Not quite.

Most Americans consider Appomattox the end of the war; that was certainly what I was taught in school when I was younger.  However, Robert E. Lee’s surrender is only the beginning of the end.  When Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox he surrendered only the men under his command, not the entire military force of the Confederate States of America. 

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“To See What Freedom Meant:” April 9, 1865 (Sesquicentennial Spotlight)

“To See What Freedom Meant:” April 9, 1865 (Sesquicentennial Spotlight)

Much has been made of the surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865. Historians note that myth surrounds those final bedraggled days of the Army of Northern Virginia, the magnanimity with which Union soldiers welcomed their fellow Americans back into a nation at peace, and the causes won and lost in the subsequent years. Though it took months for the rest of the remaining Confederate forces to surrender their arms, no moment stands more clearly in historical memory as marking the end of the United States’ most costly war than the meeting in which Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to Ulysses Grant. While myth may obscure some of the more concrete realities of that day – what was with Wilmer McClean anyway? – the peace wrought by those two great generals was nothing short of remarkable both for what it ended and what it began.

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Sesquicentennial Spotlight: Destruction at Sailor's Creek

Sesquicentennial Spotlight: Destruction at Sailor's Creek

The Battle of Sailor’s Creek, many will argue, was a final death knell for Lee’s army.  In the day’s engagements Lee lost about a quarter to one-third of his army (depending on which casualty report you look at), 8,800 men out of the roughly 30,000 effectives he had that morning.  Of these casualties, around 7,700 were captured or surrendered—one of the largest surrenders without terms during the war.  Among this number was almost the entire corps of Richard Ewell—3,400 of his 3,600 men were among the dead and captured.  Ewell himself was taken prisoner, along with seven other Confederate generals: Joseph B. Kershaw, Montgomery Corse, Eppa Hunton, Dudley M. DuBose, James P. Smith, Seth Barton, and Robert E. Lee’s son, George Washington Custis Lee.  Anderson’s corps lost around 2,600 out of 6,300 and Gordon’s casualties numbered at 2,000.

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Sesquicentennial Spotlight: Richmond Occupied!

Sesquicentennial Spotlight: Richmond Occupied!

The Union army broke the Confederate lines at Petersburg early on April 2 after the engagement at Five Forks the previous day.  Lee knew the position was lost, and the army’s only hope was to move west to find reinforcements and supplies.  With the Confederate army moving west, Richmond was now exposed to the Union army.  That night the Confederate government and the troops left in the city evacuated in haste, taking the last open rail line to Danville, VA, which would be the last seat of the Confederate government.  Throughout the night into April 3, retreating Confederates set fire to portions of the Confederate capital, hoping to destroy supplies before the Union soldiers could reach them. 

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The First Battle of the Civil War? The Battle of Philippi

The First Battle of the Civil War?  The Battle of Philippi

When asking about the first battle of the Civil War, the expected answer is First Manassas/Bull Run on July 21, 1861. Thus I was stumped by a student last year whose answer was instead the Battle of Philippi.  Because it was a smaller engagement, it does not usually hold any real standing in the eyes of historians, but it technically was the first land engagement of the Civil War, occuring on June 3, 1861.  Philippi was not of great military importance, but the juncture of the Parkersburg-Grafton Railroad and the Baltimore & Ohio lay 25 miles north at Grafton, connecting the eastern states and the midwest. Robert E. Lee, then in command of all military forces in Virginia, ordered Colonel George Porterfield to recruit a Confederate force in the western countes to hold the rail lines at Grafton.  With Virginia's definitive vote for secession and Porterfields destruction of roadways, George McClellan received the green light to move troops and supplies into western Virginia to occupy the area and protect Unionist civilians.

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