Tuesday, July 24, 2012


   Who are the historians? and what is history?
   It is amazing how many people who write about the Civil War are called historians. Can just anyone be a scientist? a doctor? an architect? a lawyer?
   One has to be careful when reading history, given the broad spectrum of qualities that make up the group of historians. It should have come as no surprise that people write fiction (Jeff Shaara, who "draws on meticulous research" [Smithsonian Associates] for his new novel about Shiloh) that can fix the way readers come to see the conflict.  There are narratives written to set a tone, to make history "come alive" by the careful choice of archaisms (Bruce Catton's use of "rod" and "furlong" to put us into a contemporary soldier's mind). Other narratives are written by reporters, who by training seek to influence and persuade (Clifford Dowdey). Some books seem to be more neutral, written to lay out the facts and their referents, as well as to expose mere opinions and falsehoods that were generated by the participants themselves (Gordon Rhea).
   Several companies of the 179th New York were mustered in the spring of 1864 and reported in battalion strength to the army in the field after Cold Harbor. To better understand the context for their ensuing move to Petersburg I have been lucky to have time enough to read different descriptions of the Overland Campaign.

   Here are two versions of the fact that

On 2 May 1864 the generals of the Army of Northern Virginia met on Clark's Mountain to have a look at the Army of the Potomac on the opposite bank of the Rapidan River.

First version **
   On May 2, Lee ordered his corps and division commanders to Clark's Mountain, a high ridge that dominated the surrounding countryside and afforded a bird's-eye view of Meade's camps. Longstreet, back less that two weeks, was up from Gordonsville with his new division heads, Field and Kershaw. A bachelor again for over a week, Ewell trotted from nearby Morton Hill with Early, Johnson, and Rodes. Hill's division chiefs, Wilcox, Heth, and Anderson, along with their frail commander, were there as well. This was the last time these men would meet.
   From the summit, Lee and his generals assessed Grant's possible moves. Six hundred feet below, a shimmering line marked where the Rapidan meandered in a gentle arc from left to right. Earthworks scarred the banks, and Union pickets clustered just across the river. Farther back, at Culpeper, Stevensburg, and Brandy Station, all plainly visible from the mountain, spread cities of huts and white conical tents housing the Army of the Potomac....
   Raising field glasses as so often during the winter, Lee studied Meade's camps. The bustle confirmed what he already knew. Meade was preparing to move. But what route would he take? ... Logic favored a Federal strike downriver, and Lee said so, pointing east and stating that in his opinion the Army of the Potomac would cross at Germanna Ford or Ely's Ford.

Second version ++
   In that spring the pageantry was not yet, not quite, gone from the war. Through all privations, general officers in Lee's army managed to turn themselves out well. Though the cadet-gray cloth of their uniforms was usually no more than a thread through the motley of the soldiers' makeshifts, when seen in a group, the generals still suggested the panoply of the chivalric tradition.
   On May 2, 1864, the high command of the Army of Northern Virginia formed such a spectacle for the first time since Gettysburg, the year before, and for the last time in their lives. Full-bearded, booted and spurred, with gauntleted hands resting on sword hilts and buttons gleaming on double-breasted coats, the generals stood near their saddled horses like the figures in old lithographs and murals. Even the background, a mountaintop in spring, was almost an idealized setting.
  To Lee, silent on the mountaintop, no definite information from his cavalry or his usual sources guided him in anticipating the thrust the Federal host was obviously prepared to deliver ...
  Grant's logical choices of approach were through a front restricted to little more than twenty-five miles in width...The tented city of the enemy's camp, with a population larger than that of all Virginia cities combined, was spread between the northwest and southwest forks of the Rappahannock, and the Federal army would be forced to cross two rivers if it advanced east of the forks, toward the ravaged small city of Fredericksburg.
   Lee held his field glasses the longest on the wild country of the Wilderness, where two fords, Germanna and Ely, crossed the river in the heart of freshly flowering jungle. Then he pointed with his wide, strong hand, encased in a leather gauntlet, towards the two fords. Giving no reason, he said, "Grant will cross by one of those fords."
   Perhaps becaused of the solemn overtones of the spectacle of this last meeting of Lee and his generals, men remembered more vividly Lee's prediction of Grant's move. Because the Army of the Potomac moved within thirty-six hours by the crossings to which Lee had pointed, the aging General became more deeply enmeshed in legend. It was as if a patriarch of the olden times had ascended the mountain and there he experienced a vision; then he came down from the mountain and it was as he had said it would be.

** The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, Gordon C. Rhea
++ Lee's Last Campaign, Clifford Dowdey

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


One way Ed and I judged a book about the Civil War was by the clarity of its maps ... and ... how much useful information they contained. The best books had removable end-paper maps which could be unfolded into sheets much larger than a normal page. These were treasured.

Even if I were to photocopy the maps in today's books to have on hand for visual reference they would still be too small. We intend to publish an e-book of reasonable size, so the maps will have to have few bytes yet be large enough that zooming and panning show enough detail. The digital maps stored on the website, though, can be quite large and available for printing at the reader's convenience. Files could be brought to a printer and made into posters (18" x 24", for example). We could also print the posters and send them by ground mail to a reader who didn't have a print shop nearby.

As I wrote earlier in April, if you are reading online then you have the option of opening another view. I tried this with my laptop connected via HDMI to a 46" Sony Bravia and the map on view was stunning. Using this method, perhaps there would be no reason to have large, printed maps.

If you are to read the published e-book on your Nook, Kindle, iPad or other device, the screens are too small to hold a battlefield in any detail. Nevertheless, it would help to have some visual to go along with the written. Go to the website and bring up the large map on your big-screen monitor ... or ... print posters or perhaps even an 18" x 24" map that folds up three times to fit your device (6" x 8"). This would be today's technology providing what we treasured 50 years ago.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Gordon C. Rhea

has written four volumes about the Overland Campaign which began when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan in early May, 1864. In his last book Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864 he continues to correct misconceptions and false myths about the personalities and the battle ... Rhea writes:

"This narrative is about Grant’s Cold Harbor offensive and events leading up to the major attack on June 3, 1864. It is a campaign study about commanders and armies. So much happened from May 25 to June 3, 1864, and so little has been written about those momentous days, that the telling fills this book. I ask forbearance from those seeking expositions about the campaign’s political and social ramifications. My next book, covering the last week of operations at Cold Harbor and Grant’s crossing of the James River, attempts to place the Overland campaign in a broader context."

My biggest disappointment has been the non-appearance of that "next book". In setting the stage for what will be so important in the history of the 179th, Rhea makes things clear: both Grant and Lee are aggressive generals who make mistakes, miss opportunities and continue to adapt; they have subordinates who can be frustrating or even incompetent; the stories written about them and this almost continuous 6 week battle were written for many reasons, some of which were to portray events accurately and many of which had such pronounced biases that we must work to distill the "real" from the "characterization". Apparently Grant wasn't the only "butcher", when considering effects of generalship:

"Judging from Lee’s record, the rebel commander should have shared in Grant’s “butcher” reputation. After all, Lee lost more soldiers than any other Civil War general, including Grant, and his casualties in three days at Gettysburg exceeded Union casualties for any three consecutive days under Grant’s orders." 

One reason for this mention of Rhea's work is that he corrects and enlightens:

"Grant’s and Lee’s battles spawned persistent legends almost as farfetched as the parodies of the generals themselves. Grant’s critics hold up the early-morning assault of June 3 at Cold Harbor as Exhibit 1 in their brief, deriding the offensive as a senseless undertaking fueled by Grant’s bloodlust. “The decisive action was over in eight minutes,” a popular author claimed, intoning the mantra that generations of historians have repeated without question. “Within less than an hour seven thousand men fell, killed or wounded, in moving against a fire power so uniform in its destructiveness that no living thing could advance in the face of it.” A reviewer in the prestigious New York Times Book Review recently opined that Grant’s frontal assault at Cold Harbor “lost 7,000 men in an hour, most in the first ten minutes,” perpetuating for modern readers a picture of the battle and of Grant that has no basis in reality."
[footnote in original: Dowdey, Lee’s Last Campaign: The Story of Lee and His Men Against Grant, 1864 (New York, 1960), 297; Jay Winik, “A Narrative of Hell,” New York Times Book Review, September 16, 2001, p. 23.]

Ed and I will have to change the "fact" we report at the end of our Chapter 6, "Grant Given Command", that it took only a half hour of battle on June 3rd to produce 7000 Union casualties (from Bruce Catton, The Stillness at Appomattox). Read Rhea: the total for three days of operations around Cold Harbor cost 7500 men killed, wounded, captured and missing. Of the 6000 lost on June 3rd, 1200 were wasted in the northern sector, Warren's 5th and Burnsides 9th Corps launching fruitless, uncoordinated and untimely assaults. In the main area of battle Hancock's 2nd Corps lost 2500, Smith's 18th Corps 1500 and Wright's 6th Corps about 600. Further adjustments can be made to these numbers to account for casualties suffered during the grand, but disjointed, assault and its aftermath when sharpshooters and artillery took their toll. By comparison Pickett's charge cost the Army of Northern Virginia over 5000 men, with total losses that day in July almost a year earlier more than 8000.

There is so much more. Rhea has been a trial lawyer and uses his experience to build a tight case to support his ideas and understanding of the events. Read his books. And please, Mr. Rhea, write that fifth volume!

A final example: Grant's quote of "regret" in his Memoirs that we cite can be seen with greater nuance:

"Grant agreed that the offensive had been botched. “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made,” he wrote from his deathbed. Carefully employing the passive voice, Grant’s mea culpa left future generations to speculate whether the general’s regrets were over his decision to attack on June 3 or, more pointedly, over Meade’s bungled management of the affair."

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


We are particularly interested in your comments on our general approach.  Are we covering things about the 179th that you are not interested in?  Are there things about the 179th that you are interested in that we are not covering? Is there too much context and not enough focus on the 179th?  Etc.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Large graphics

The website graphics are best seen on a multi-screen setup, where the map, photograph or other image can be displayed in a large window next to the text. Something like this:
Any suggestions to improve this concept are welcome. When the e-book is published, we intend to link back to the website for very high resolution images. This is all a work-in-progress.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Welcome !!

We are now live.
In the next two years we hope to develop this blog, the website, and the book.
Looking forward to the challenge and the support from our readers.