Monday, April 20, 2015

A Heartrending Letter from Freedman’s Village

Every once in a while in my research I find something that transcends the usual dry recitation of facts and events – something that leaps off of the page and eradicates the 150 year barrier that separates me from the people and events I am investigating.

A recent find that falls into that category is a letter housed in the collection of the Library of Georgia from a woman named Ann Butler who lived in Arlington’s Freedman’s Village.

Freedman's Village. Courtesy: LOC
The letter is unique in several respects. First of all, most of the primary source documents pertaining to the newly freed African Americans residing in Freedman’s Village were written by whites who worked in the village – teachers, administrators, soldiers, and missionaries. Any firsthand account from one of the actual residents is a rare find.

Second, the letter is written to her husband William, who was serving as a soldier in the 2nd United States Colored Infantry. The 2nd USCT was a unit recruited straight out of Arlington, which means we have a situation where a family comes into Freedman’s Village and the wife and children stay in the village to work and learn while the husband enlists in the U.S. Colored Troops. Again, this is a rare scenario to find any primary documents for.

Finally, as we will see, there is a surprise ending.

And now for the text of the letter itself – the following is a transcription of the original, which was written on January 30, 1865:
Jan 30 1865
Arlington Va
Freedmens Village
My dear Husband, 
I have waited and longed and longed and waited for a letter from you but seems all in vain why don’t you write to me and let me some thing from you. Not since October last have I heard one word from you is any thing the matter with you do write and let me know to relieve my anxious mind the children are all anxious to see you and hear from you William is living not very far from me he is waiting on an officer at Fort Woodbury and Matthew is waiting on an officer at fort smith near about 2 or 3 miles off, but I see him very often which is a great comfort to me as I cannot see you but I hope the time is not far off when I shall once more both see you and be separated no more until death which is unresistable while we see each other let us pray that harm may not overtake I feel it my especial duty and greatest comfort to pray for you at all times you must pray for me and the children Mary is living in Washington. She and all the rest send their best love to you their dear absent father. Now William when you receive this make no delay in writing but hast to answer this at once and tell me every[thing] concerning yourself and your where abouts. The smaller children go to school in the village every day they want to see how much they can learn by the time their Father come with spoils from the war. I will say no more not but will trust in the Lord for the safe keeping of us both and our little flock.
I remain as ever your devoted wife,
C. Ann Butler
Direct your letters as before Freedmens Village
Care Capt Larrs
Arlington Va

The immediacy of Butler’s living situation and obvious concern over her beloved husband leaps off of the page, and makes what follows next truly heartrending.

At the bottom of the letter is a note written in a different hand that reads in part:
This letter was taken out of a knapsack found close by a dead body on the Battlefield of the Natural Bridge near St Marks Fla March 6th 1865 … It is believed the Butler above named was killed at that fight.
One can only imagine the grief experienced by Ann and her children when that news was delivered to her.

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending!

I recently looked at William Butler’s service record and, as it turns out, he was captured at the Battle of Natural Bridge – which explains why his knapsack was left on the field of battle.

William Butler's Parole. Courtesy: NARA
The end of the war brought about William’s release as a P.O.W. on April 28, 1865 and he was discharged from the army on May 20th at Annapolis, Maryland.

It must have been a joyful occasion when William, Ann, and their small children were reunited.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

In Memoriam: Elizabeth Brown Pryor

Today the sad news was announced that Elizabeth Brown Pryor, author of the Lincoln Prize-Winning Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through his Private Letters, was killed in a tragic car accident in Richmond, Va.

I had the pleasure to meet Ms. Pryor on a few occasions, mainly when I worked at Arlington House, and she was always upbeat and kind, with a memorable smile.

She was a truly remarkable person – a State Department employee who stared down some of the world’s most despicable villains, a biographer of Clara Barton and Robert E. Lee, and a professor at the University of Richmond.

For the Civil War community, however, she will be remembered as the person who did more to refashion our image of Robert E. Lee than any other biographer in the past half-century.

It will take a long time for this loss to be truly felt and understood, but until then, reflect on a lecture by Ms. Pryor on her master work.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Lest We Forget: New Market Heights Medals of Honor Issued 150 Years Ago Today

While the nation is busy commemorating the Battle of Sailor’s Creek and Lee’s flight to Appomattox, today marks another, less famous anniversary that is nonetheless extremely significant.

On April 6, 1865 – 150 years ago today – the Medal of Honor was authorized for African American foot soldiers for the very first time in American history (Sgt. William Carney of the 54th Massachusetts did not receive his Medal of Honor for gallantry in the 1863 assault on Battery Wagner until May of 1900).

The symbolic importance of what would become the nation’s highest honor being awarded to a class of people whom the Supreme Court had just eight years earlier deemed unworthy of any “rights which the white man was bound to respect” is truly astounding. Furthermore, the number of medals issued on that day – twelve (two more would follow in the postwar years) – is equally impressive.

All of these medals were issued for one momentous clash outside the gates of Richmond – the Battle of New Market Heights, fought on September 29, 1864. This battle involved black soldiers from the Army of the James successfully attacking a fortified position east of the Confederate capital.

Following the victory the Army of the James’s commanding general, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, forwarded a list of men he thought deserving of the Medal of Honor to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. The list was reviewed by Grant’s staff and then sent along to the War Department. For months, the matter was forgotten until finally, on April 6, 1865 the medals were issued to the following soldiers (unit and citation included):

1.) Pvt. William H. Barnes, 38th USCT: “among the very first to enter the rebel works, although himself previously wounded”

2.) 1st Sgt. Powhatan Beaty, 5th USCT: “in command, all their company officers being killed or wounded, and led them gallantly and meritoriously through the day”

3.) 1st Sgt. James Bronson, 5th USCT: "took command of his company, all the officers having been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it"

4.) Sgt. Maj. Christian Fleetwood, 4th USCT: “when two color bearers had been shot down, seized the national colors and bore them nobly through the fight”

5.) Pvt. James B. Gardiner, 36th USCT: “rushed in advance of his brigade, shot at a rebel officer, who was on the parapet cheering his men, and then ran him through with his bayonet”

6.) Sgt. Alfred Hilton (posthumously), 4th USCT: “the bearer of the national colors, when the color-sergeant with the regimental standard fell beside him, seized the standard, and struggled forward with both colors, until disabled by a severe wound at the enemy's inner line of abatis, and when on the ground he showed that his thoughts were for the colors and not for himself”

7.) Sgt. Milton M. Holland, 5th USCT: "Took command of Company C, after all the officers had been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it"

8.) Cpl. Miles James, 36th USCT: “after having his arm so badly mutilated that immediate amputation was necessary, loaded and discharged his piece with one hand, and urged his men forward; this within thirty yards of the enemy's works”

9.) 1st Sgt. Alexander Kelly, 6th USCT: “gallantly seized the colors, which had fallen near the enemy's inner line of abatis, raised them, and rallied the men at a time of confusion and a place of the greatest possible danger”  

10.) 1st Sgt. Robert Pinn, 5th USCT: “in command, all their company officers being killed or wounded, and led them gallantly and meritoriously through the day”

11.) 1st Sgt. Edward Ratcliff, 38th USCT: “thrown into command of his company by the death of the officer commanding, was the first enlisted man in the enemy's works, leading his company with great gallantry”

12.) Pvt. Charles Veal, 4th USCT: “after two bearers of the regimental color had been shot down, seized it close to the enemy's works and bore it through the remainder of the action”

Unfortunately, such a large number of medals being issued to African American soldiers has been viewed by many historians as a form of what I often refer to as “19th century affirmative action” – the fact that these were black troops commanded by a boastful Butler has led many to conclude that these medals were not anything special.

One historian referred to the victory at New Market Heights as “hoopla…contrived by Butler and his partisans.” Another leading historian once referred to the celebration of the black soldiers’ success as “militarily irrelevant negrophelia” and bemoaned the “modern writers [who] have willingly and uncritically accepted it.” (Needless to say, I offer a different take in my examination of the battle.)

Regardless of the position one might take on these matters, the significance of 150 years ago today should not be overlooked, as it proved that the march towards freedom, equality, and the full benefits of citizenship was becoming a tangible reality.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Back in the Saddle (Again)

Well hello there, sorry for the prolonged absence! In my defense, my wife and I recently welcomed a third bundle of joy into the House of Price, so things have been a bit chaotic recently.

Other than checking in to reassure you that I am still alive and have not absconded my role as Civil War author, blogger, and occasional annoyance to Kevin Levin, I thought I’d update you on my newest book and give you a few dates for some upcoming appearances.

To begin with, I’m happy to report that The Battle of First Deep Bottom has been getting some favorable attention over the past few months. Brett Schulte provided the book’s first review at his excellent Siege of Petersburg Online blog and concluded:
Those looking for a “battle book” which focuses on new operations rather than rehashing Gettysburg for the 10,000th time will find it well written and entertaining.  It may give Gettysburg buffs new insight into Hancock, one of the heroes of that famous fight.  The author and publisher are to be commended for bringing to light not one but two obscure Petersburg Campaign battles with Price’s first two books. 
I am extremely grateful for his kind words!

Drew Wagenhoffer also gave a lengthy review at Civil War Books and Authors, stating in part:
Price's The Battle of First Deep Bottom strikes an ideal balance when it comes to small unit detail within a larger battle narrative. The author proves himself adept at simplifying complex events without the demanding reader feeling shortchanged in the bargain. How the topographical features of Deep Bottom's surrounding military landscape would affect both defensive and offensive operations are clearly explained in the text but they are also well rendered visually in the three maps created by master cartographer Steven Stanley.
Matthew Bartlett at the Gettysburg Chronicle also stated:
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the Petersburg Campaign or anyone interested in General Hancock after the Gettysburg Campaign.  James Price has created a readable narrative which flows greatly along with a well-researched work that is extensively resourced.  The Battle of First Deep Bottom is greatly important to the overall campaign of Petersburg and thanks to James Price, there is now a cohesive comprehensive account concerning the engagement. Highly recommended.
I must admit to being a bit overwhelmed by such effusive praise, but I’ll certainly take it!

If you’d like to see me in person discussing this book or my previous work on USCTs and New Market Heights, here's a events I have lined up for the summer:

June 14thManassas Museum: book talk on The Battle of First Deep Bottom

July 23rdLibrary of Virginia: moderated panel on Virginia USCTs with Emmanuel Dabney and Cassandra Newby-Alexander

July 24thChambersburg Civil War Seminars & Tours: “The United States Colored Troops at Richmond and Petersburg” panel with Ed Bearss and Emmanuel Dabney

Yes, you read that last line correctly – I will be sharing the stage with the one and only Ed Bearss!

Let’s hope I have something meaningful to contribute to the discussion.

Also, if you happen to live in Northern Virginia, I will be appearing on the Virginia Time Travel television show discussing Arlington’s Freedman’s Village and various and sundry other matters.

Finally, I have also been getting some questions on what my next book project will be, to which I can only say that I have more ideas for books than Robert E. Lee would deem “practicable.”

That being said, I have two Civil War subjects that I would like to write about – Freedman’s Village and Sheridan’s Richmond Raid and the Battle of Yellow Tavern.

Which would you like to see come to fruition first?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Fun with Facebook: New Market Heights Edition

For those interested in an exercise regarding history, memory, and modern (mis) understandings of the American Civil War, I present to you the following link from the Civil War Trust’s Facebook page. 

The link gives the full text of an article by Gordon Berg entitled “Battle of New Market Heights: USCT Soldiers Proved Their Heroism.” The article originally appeared in the March 2006 issue of America's Civil War magazine and succinctly states the events of September 29, 1864 with an emphasis on the USCT Medal of Honor recipients.

Within five minutes of posting the article, some people began to chime in with all sorts of ignorant and mystifying comments. I’ve selected a few that are particularly illustrative of the divide between popular perceptions of the Civil War and, well…reality as the rest of us perceives it.

Here goes:

“Health tip: Never charge at Texans when they are holding guns.”

“They didn't deserve the CMoH”

“I just want say Happy Birthday to the incomparable Robert E. Lee!! It would be his 208th birthday!”

“There is no mention of the teenage students from VMI that Gen. Thomas Jackson conscripted to defend New Market.”

“How many MOHs were awarded when they murdered nearly 300 Souix at Wounded Knee?”

“Were there actually any white guys in that war, for crying-out-loud?!!!!!!!!”

While most of these speak for themselves and appear to express emotions ranging from confusion over basic historic facts to ill-suppressed white supremacist angst, I did feel the need to share these with you all.

 It’s best not to get too worked up over these things, but these comments reveal a strain of ignorance that I find everywhere I talk about New Market Heights:
  • People have no idea what it is and confuse it with the Battle of New Market in the Shenandoah Valley, and
  •  Some people just can’t bring themselves to admit that black Union soldiers could be worthy of the Medal of Honor without what I call “19th Century Affirmative Action.” The idea that these men earned the Medal of Honor fair and square appears to throw some Civil War enthusiasts into a full blown existential crisis.

That being said, my favorite comment came from my friend and fellow blogger Emmanuel Dabney, who wrote – “Wow. The disgusting comments about SOLDIERS not deserving of the Medal of Honor?! #TrashExistsEverywhere”

In sum, as the South’s greatest strategic philosopher, George Pickett, once said in a Ron Maxwell movie – “book learnin’ ain’t for gentlemen.”

‘Taint for followers of the social media, neither, apparently.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Few More Thoughts on Civil Discourse

As you may have seen, Kevin Levin has responded to my previous post and I thank him for taking the time to clarify a few things.

He and I are certainly on the same page when it comes to keeping the discussion all “about the history.” I was further relieved by Levin’s admission that, “I agree with Jimmy that many of the comments that followed the post are troubling for the reasons he cites.

After these preliminaries, Levin rehashed his objections to the video in question, stating that “the views of the three individuals in this video ought to be taken on their own merit and I find them lacking in certain ways.

Fair enough.

As I made abundantly clear, I also found the video lacking and based my objections on the tone of the post and its commenters.

Predictably, some of those commenters chimed in with some unfortunate remarks that make me question if they even bothered to read my original post or if they just responded to Levin’s summation.

One person stated: “Mr. Price implies that a non-Chrsitian, or anti-Christian consensus dominates the discussion of Civil War history, as though this field has become the particular province of who? Jews, atheists, and Wiccans?”

Unfortunately, I cannot answer this question because I implied no such thing in the first place.

Another commenter proclaimed that “some Christians are beginning to adopt the SCV’s ‘looking for victimhood’ mode of operation. Just as it is wrong for any group to be pilloried based on vague generalizations, it is equally wrong for any group to interpret any criticism as an unfair attack on their beliefs.

If this person was referring specifically to me, I defy them to find one scintilla of this victim mentality in any of my published work.

I won’t hold my breath.

Conversely, an anonymous commenter here at Freedom by the Sword said that they “tried to respond the one of Harrigan’s comments at Levin’s blog, but was censored.” If true, this is troubling.

In sum, my objections from the start were purely in regards to the hostile tone and some of the alarming insularity on display in Levin's original post. Any speculation beyond that misses the point entirely. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Civil Discourse: A Memory?

In our increasingly polarized society there seems to have been a shift from a “live and let live” mentality to a vigorous prosecution of “thought crime” – no longer can we agree to disagree, but anyone who strays from what is considered the cultural mainstream is called out and proverbially tarred and feathered for not keeping in lockstep with the rest of us.

This creeps into the Civil War history community from time to time, usually in fairly innocuous ways. While I’m used to the usual back and forth about the merits of the newest ACW titles or the constant drumroll of snarky comments related to the latest gaffes of the “heritage” movement, I was more than a little troubled by the tone of a recent post over at Civil War Memory that features members of the history department of Liberty University.

The video explores the “enduring legacies” of the American Civil War and was put on Vimeo by an L.U. film student who apparently asked different members of the faculty to describe what they imagine to be the war’s major legacies.

The result can be seen here.

Levin states that the video is “just all around really bad,” and if he is referring to the overall watchability and quality of the film, I’m with him (but keep in mind this is the result of an undergrad film project, for crying out loud). But the vitriol aimed by Levin and the dozens of folks who took the time to leave their own acerbic musings is aimed at what the professors interviewed in the film said about how the war still affects the country to this day.

It would be one thing if these professors were wearing Dixie Outfitters shirts and talking about how tariffs were the real cause of the war and that slavery had nothing to do with it. But the views espoused by the faculty were not terribly out of the mainstream. Certainly not ideal or complete, but we aren’t even privy to everything these people said to the film student during the interviews.

For this reason I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, but not so with Levin and his cohorts. For instance, Prof. Robert Ritchie is scorned for reducing “the war down to sectional differences.” Not exactly League of the South type stuff here.

Or consider Prof. Chris Jones, who said that slavery was the main cause of the war but goes on to say that modern Americans are being “enslaved” by the Federal government. He also cites a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll that states that the idea of secession is still popular in today’s modern political climate. That might not be your particular outlook on life, but it’s not a harebrained conspiracy theory.

All of this leads to a dubious claim that these professors make the causes and impact of the Civil War “impossible to understand.”

And the comments? Wow.

Rather than attack what these professors actually said about the war, the commenters (not Levin himself) launch into a diatribe about the credibility of Liberty University itself. James Harrigan, who teaches at UVA, says Liberty is “not an actual university” while commenters on the blog and the blog’s Facebook page chime in with comments calling L.U. a “fake school” and suggesting that the professors quoted got their PhDs from the University of Phoenix. See the original post for more of this lowbrow fare.

I can personally attest that these representations are not accurate because I actually spent two years at Liberty University from 1998 – 2000 and during that time I took two Civil War courses. One was a survey course which had as its main text McPherson’s Ordeal by Fire and also included Thomas’s Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience. Nothing by Clyde Wilson, sad to say.

The other course was a Civil War literature class taught by Kenneth Rowlette (who also runs the university’s well-regarded National Civil War Chaplains Museum) with readings that included Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane and more recent books such as Cold Mountain and Jacob's Ladder.

Can you just smell the vast Christian Right conspiracy? Somebody call the mayor of Houston!

I digress.

The point is that in no time during my two years at L.U. did I encounter the crude caricatures envisaged in these comments.

It is unfortunate that Christians are increasingly lampooned as science-hating mindless sycophants who have no place in a discussion about history. I’m not implying that that is what Levin was going for, but the feeding frenzy that ensued shows that he certainly left the door open for what passes as civil discourse nowadays.

I can think of several Christians, such as Steven E. Woodworth (who also happens to be part of Liberty University’s distinguished adjunct faculty) and Robert Tracy McKenzie, professor and chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College, who maintains the excellent Faith & History blog, who have made stellar contributions to Civil War history.

To quote another Christian historian, John Fea, “We live in a sound-bite culture that makes it difficult to have any sustained dialogue on these historical issues.”

It is especially difficult for this dialogue to take place when you’re pre-judged by your religious views.