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

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