"The trouble with Jeff is that he lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech."

American Horrors, Part II: No Justice for Them Here

Note: This is the second part in a series of vignettes about the roots of post-Civil War institutionalized racism in the United States, focusing on the lives of two participants– Ida B. Wells in defense of African-American lives and rights, and ‘Pitchfork’ Ben Tillman, one of the architects of Jim Crow.

Part I: Roots of Racism, Oppression, and Black Resistance

Ida B. Wells, approximately 1888.

Ida B. Wells, approximately 1888.

Ida Wells received quite a bit of attention for her 1884 court case against the railroad, despite its eventual failure at the level of the Tennessee Supreme Court. In her memoirs, she noted a critical point– that as the first black plaintiff to have a case reach the level of the state supreme courts since the gutting of the Civil Rights Bills of 1875, she stood to set precedent. The crux of those 1883 decisions was that African-Americans were not wards of the Federal government first, but rather wards of their states; and thus would need to seek redress for harms in state courts– courts controlled by home rule and with many former Confederates re-exerting power with the close of Radical Reconstruction. Needless to say, the vast majority of these courts would not be particularly sympathetic to the cause of black Americans who only years earlier were held as their property in chattel slavery, and whom a number who’d have owned nary a single slave would still have blamed as scapegoats for the loss of brothers, fathers, and sons in the war. The loss of Wells’ case dampened similar effort– if Wells could get no satisfaction, why should any other African-Americans expect differently? And how many could afford to not only lose their case, but also some $200 in fees ($5100 in 2015 dollars) as did Wells? (Wells, Crusade for Justice, 1970, pp. 20).


American Horrors: Roots of Oppression, Racism, and Black Resistance, Part I

A protester demonstrates against police killings in Louisiana, July 2016.

A protester demonstrates against police shootings in Louisiana, July 2016.

Preface: On NPR this morning, I heard a news story about one of the many series of protests of the police killings of black men across the United States, two just this week alone. Increasingly, and indeed in one of the sound clips NPR played, these killings of unarmed black men are increasingly portrayed as the lynchings of the 21st century; racist social control given a vector for expression and protection of white supremacy through violence. There is some truth to this assertion.

This all turned my mind to the historical background the story obliquely referenced, and its roots in the post-Civil War America of the soft Johnsonian readmission of the Confederate oligarchy back into the Union and  power, the more stringent Radical Reconstruction that followed, and the subsequent ‘Reconstruction of White Supremacy’ and creation of Jim Crow that carried one hundred years later, into the Civil Rights era.

With that considered, I’ll be undertaking a new project to highlight some points of this period that I’ve read on, and that may be of some interest and use for those following along. The first is to highlight a personal hero of mine, Ida B. Wells. Wells was a tireless crusader for the dignity and human rights of not just African-Americans, but also women. She endured violence, lost friends to murder, found herself sidelined and ignored– only to refuse to bend or break, and instead consistently found new ways to stand to and to fight. This first post will begin her story, and the first roots of her resistance.


Massachusetts Civil War Monuments Project

Sharon's Civil War Monument, in Rock Ridge Cemetery as captured by Patrick Browne.

Sharon’s Civil War Monument, in Rock Ridge Cemetery as captured by Patrick Browne.

In the interest of blatant self-promotion, I wanted to share widely and boost the signal of an informal project that I’m very happy to have become involved with. A little earlier this year on Memorial Day Weekend, long-time friend and historian Patrick Browne (he of the Historical Digression blog, which you really need to follow if you have interest in history) shared a batch of images he’d taken of Civil War monuments in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on Facebook, and noted the following:



 “This weekend, take a minute or two to walk across your town common or city park to go look at that old monument that everyone passes by. If you have youngsters, bring them along, read the inscription. Once, folks with living memories of those named on these monuments stood there and remembered.”


When the World Grew Mad: The Somme

somme-remembranceA strange sight crossed the eyes of travelers at London’s famed Waterloo Station this morning, a vision one hundred years anachronistic. Hundreds of young men dressed as Tommys from the Great War milled about in the main concourse, some quietly, others chatting with their chums, a number answering questions from confused passers-by. The answer to the most frequent question was undoubtedly echoed time and time again: “We’re commemorating the Somme.”

To those with a grounding the history of the Great War, that name should provide a chill. The Somme was a bloodletting unlike any that British forces had ever fought before, or would ever fight again– inclusive of the next war to follow. The Somme was a long British offensive designed to take pressure off the French army that was cracking under pressure at the Battle of Verdun, and the Russian Imperial Army driving against Austria-Hungary in the Brusilov Offensive in the east.


Not Your Father’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’

chattanooga-wauhatchiePerhaps one of the more amusing tales of the Civil War is the nigh-forgotten Battle of Wauhatchie on October 28-29 of 1863. While there may be some myth amongst the tale, and a healthy dose of a soldier’s exaggeration of the truth, there are sufficient reports to suggest that one particular, peculiar incident did in fact occur, much to the amusement of the Federal troops who witnessed it.

Late October of 1863 saw the Federal Army of the Cumberland besieged in Chattanooga Tennessee following the disastrous Battle of Chickamauga that left Union General William Rosecrans “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head” according to President Lincoln. Rosecrans was sacked, and the man who fought a tremendous rear-guard action at Chickamauga, George Thomas, placed in his stead. Forces were rushed to the area to relieve the Army of the Cumberland from Virginia and Mississippi, but the men in Chattanooga were starving. There was only one tenuous link between Chattanooga and Federal depots– a narrow, snaking road through the mountains, bypassing the entrenched Confederate forces holding the mountains and hills around the city– and that too was soon cut off by a Confederate cavalry raid. By late October, the soldiers in the Army of the Cumberland were reduced to only “four cakes of hard bread and a quarter pound of pork” every three days. They were at risk of being starved out before help could arrive. The situation was truly dire.


The Case for Major General William Shepard

shep-statueMajor General William Shepard was a man with a complicated legacy. At one turn, hero of the French and Indian War of 1754-63 and the American Revolution, Shepard commanded the 4th Massachusetts Militia through 22 actions as its colonel before it was sent home in the winter of 1783, one of the last to leave revolutionary service. At the next, Shepard became a goat to his neighbors—and especially those with whom he’d served faithfully in the revolution– owing to his actions on an icy day in January 1787, where despite the venom that would be later directed at him, he made decisions with forbearance, wisdom, and such humanity as war allows one to retain. Worse, it was ultimately his actions on that day that ensured his own financial ruin, even as it perhaps saved the Commonwealth and even the nation.


The Many Roads of Edwin Wentworth

One of my favorite poems from the Civil War era was one written by an author whose name remains unknown, an ode to the unheralded, uncelebrated common soldier (reproduced in this post). One of the points it makes so poignantly is that the officers, the generals, the politicians– they are well represented in the histories (perhaps overly so), to the detriment of that private in the ranks who, though legion, often blends in to become just one face in the crowd. That focus on the officers and leaders does a grave disservice to the vast majority of men who fought, suffered, bled, and died in service to their country. As the poem states (in part):

Nobody cared, when he went to war,
But the woman who cried on his shoulder;
Nobody decked him with immortelles:
He was only a common soldier.

Nobody packed in a dainty trunk
Folded raiment and officer’s fare:
A knapsack held all the new recruit
Might own, or love, or eat, or wear.

Nobody gave him a good-by fete,
With sparkling jest and flower-crowned wine:
Two or three friends on the sidewalk stood
Watching for Jones, the fourth in line.

One such common soldier is one that I have based some of my impression on–indeed, he was the first such private I began to research when I became involved in Civil War reenacting six years ago; this fellow by the name of Edwin Henry Charles Wentworth. His is a peculiar tale that leads him through some very challenging events during the war. Unlike many of the more celebrated figures, and in contrast to the heroic image many would prefer to paint, Wentworth was a flawed individual. He was part of one of the ‘first blood’ moments of the war. He battled in the botched Peninsula Campaign under McClellan and nearly was captured or killed in the largest Confederate assault of the war (Gaines Mill). He deserted the army, only to return under an assumed name, under which he fought before Petersburg and in the brutal trench warfare. He saw the war through to its end.


Goodrich’s War: Epilogue

This is the final entry detailing the letters home of Loren Goodrich of Co. F, 14th Connecticut. The rest of the series– ten parts in all– may be found in the archives of this website.

Goodrich’s War: Complete

Loren Goodrich remained with Co. F and the 14th Connecticut for another thirteen days or so, crossing the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers through the Loudon Valley; retracing their steps out of Harper’s Ferry of 1862. The regiment marched on through Bloomfield, Uppersville, Paris, and made camp in Ashby’s Gap by July 22. They pushed on through fatigue and hunger through Manassas Gap and to Front Royal. Regimental historian Charles Page notes by July the 24th, the army had so far outmarched their supply that they were angry, bordering on mutinous. Indeed, ten members of the 14th were arrested for foraging liberally off the land without orders (Page 173-4).


Goodrich’s War: The Gettysburg Campaign

This is Part 9 of an ongoing series built around the letters home of Loren Goodrich, Co. F 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. See the entire collection to date here:

Temporary Hero Archive: Loren Goodrich (Parts 1-9)

The Gettysburg Campaign, and the pursuit of Lee into Pennsylvania.

The Gettysburg Campaign, and the pursuit of Lee into Pennsylvania.

The Gettysburg Campaign of 1863 was Robert E. Lee’s last invasion of the north– an attempt to defeat the Federal army somewhere north of Washington, embolden Copperhead Democrats in the legislatures, and force a negotiated peace– as well as, tactically, to pull the seat of war off the bare Virginia fields into the  untouched farms of Pennsylvania, where his Army of Northern Virginia could forage effectively.

The campaign kicked off on June 3, with Lee moving his army north, through Manassas Gap and into the Shenandoah Valley on the far side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where their movements would be masked by the peaks; and where their flank would be protected by the barrier of the hills and the river. The Army of Northern Virginia already had quite a lead over the Federals by mid-June, as they were near Winchester Virginia and the Army of the Potomac was just setting out– having realized, finally, that Lee was on the march– and northwards!– threatening the capital and their critical line of supply.


Goodrich’s War: Chancellorsville

This is Part 8 of an ongoing series built around the letters home of Loren Goodrich, Co. F 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. See also…

Part One (with letter of Sept 5 1862)
Part Two (with letter of Oct 2 1862)
Part Three (with letter of Dec 9 1862)
Part Four (with undated, post-Fredericksburg letter)
Part Five (with letter of Jan 5 1863)
Part Six (with letter of Feb 11 1863)
Part Seven (with letter of Apr 23 1863)

Hooker's plan of battle for the Chancellorsville campaign.

Hooker’s plan of battle for the Chancellorsville campaign.

The Union Army of the Potomac’s battle at Chancellorsville was a messy affair– and a brief one. Union General Joseph Hooker (born rather near me in Hadley, Massachusetts) sought to reverse the continual ill fortunes of his command following two years of loss after loss, retreat after retreat, with yet another advance across the Rappahannock in the late spring of 1863. Bold in conception, Hooker’s plan called for a masking force to remain before Fredericksburg on the rebel front, while the bulk of the army moved to the west, crossing the river at United States Ford, then pressing east, striking at Lee’s rear. This plan avoided the foible of the frontal assault that doomed the campaign at Fredericksburg the year before, and perhaps might have succeeded, had it not been for the combination of an audacious move by Lee to split his forces before a superior foe, and blazing incompetence on the part of the corps commanders of the Army of the Potomac.