Stones’ River: Bloody Winter in Tennessee

One-hundred and fifty years ago today the eyes of the nation turned

Hazen Brigade Monument & cemetery, the oldest CW monument in the US

Hazen Brigade Monument & cemetery, the oldest CW monument in the US

upon the tiny Southern town of Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  There two great armies were engaged in a titanic struggle for the control of Middle Tennessee and the fate of the Southern Confederacy. The battle opened early in the morning of December 31, 1862 and wasn’t concluded until late in the day, three days later, Jan. 2, 1863. At the end of the first day of the battle the outcome seemed clear: the Confederate army was going to win.  And the formerly unknown town of Murfreesboro, regardless of the outcome, would find a place in the American history books.

It wasn’t  Murfreesboro’s first CW battle.  Earlier in the year, after occupying the town for several months, unsuspecting Union forces from far away Michigan and Minnesota awakened the morning of July 13 to the sound of gunfire to the East. A cavalry force under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest had fallen upon them.  They put up a good fight but after a few hours the Union forces surrendered to that man destined to become one of the great military legends of the war and the town returned to Southern control. Forrest and his men paroled their prisoners and moved on, but soon after other Southern units began arriving and more and more until by mid December, a major army of nearly forty thousand under the command of General Braxton Bragg was encamped in and around Murfreesboro.

It was a significant enough development to draw the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis away from Richmond to make the long journey by rail to Murfreesboro. Arriving in mid-December he was “wined and dined” and celebrated at one ball and celebration after another each evening after spending his daylight hours reviewing troops, meeting with the generals and giving speeches and pep talks to prepare the army for the big battle to come.  He left town with his entourage hoping to arrive back in Richmond before Christmas.

Thirty miles away in Nashville Union authorities, being well aware of all this, finished up their preparations for a renewed  Southern offensive. The army that had gathered there was christened the Army of the Cumberland, a force forty-thousand strong (mostly stout Midwesterners) under the command of General William S. Rosecrans.  Just after Christmas the great blue beast got moving.  Though their wagon train was harassed by the cavalry of the energetic, youthful General Joseph Wheeler, the Union army arrived in the Murfreesboro area on December 29-30 and went into camp with it’s adversary only a short distance away. The stage was set.

Unlike so many other Civil War battles that occurred when armies simply stumbled into one another bringing on a big fight (as at Gettysburg) or when one army made a surprise attack upon the other (as at Shiloh earlier in the year) this battle, both as to time and place, was anticipated by the men of both sides. On December 30, each army was well aware of the other. All eighty-thousand or so men knew that they would soon be locked in mortal combat. That night the brass bands of both sides played  a strange and unprecedented pre-battle concert, trading songs back and forth through the frosty night air, until  all joined in playing the familiar tune : “Home Sweet Home” drawing tears to the eyes of thousands of homesick men. Then it was silent and the men lay down on the cold hard ground to get what sleep they could knowing that  it might be their last night on earth. And for several thousand, it was.

The majority of the soldiers in both armies knew what was coming. The happy confidence of 1861, the innocent illusion that the war would be short and relatively bloodless was long gone, drowned in the bloodbaths of Shiloh and Antietam and Perryville. By late 1862 the “butcher’s bill” had already far exceeded even the most pessimistic expectations. With the  war now well into it’s second year,  the majority of the soldiers in both armies were grim veterans, men who had “seen the elephant”, men who would go into yet another battle hopeful against hope that this next fight would be the last, that it would settle things once and for all, at least things in the Western theatre, and that the outcome of this next big fight would make it possible to march in one last happy review,  get their discharges and return to home sweet home.

In the early morning of December 31, just before daybreak, Southerners under the command of William Hardee attacked  and drove in the Union pickets to their front not far from the spot along Highway 96 where , interestingly enough,  a Hardee’s restaurant now stands. Throughout the morning  Union forces, caught off balance by the furious Southern onslaught, stepped backwards, leaving dead, wounded, and a great deal of camp equipment baggage and wagons behind. Today this part of the battlefield is now largely obliterated by development. One can now drive, shop, and eat where thousands of men fought and died.

Throughout the day the Union army, with it’s headquarters well to the rear on the Nashville Pike was rolled back and bent like a “jackknife.”  Finally, after being forced back nearly two miles and with disaster looming, the men of Hazen’s Brigade made a firm “stonewall” type stand at a place on their left called the “Round Forest” and their line held firm hugging the Nashville road, a lifeline for supply and reinforcement.  The victorious Confederate forces, who had also suffered great losses in killed and wounded, ceased fire when darkness fell, confident that their foe could be finished off the next day. General Bragg dashed off a telegram to President Davis, their recent guest, that God had granted the Confederacy a great victory.

Yet many rebel soldiers were, no doubt, worried. They remembered how months earlier at Shiloh, the Union army, though clearly beaten the first day of the battle, had counterattacked the next day after receiving reinforcements and had then won the battle forcing the Southern army to abandon the field.

Curiously enough, very little happened on the second day of the battle of Murfreesboro, or Stones River. Both armies were exhausted and battered. And though the Nashville Pike remained in Union hands, no reinforcements (to speak of) arrived. The army of the Cumberland was on it’s on. Sporadic firing and occasional artillery rounds erupted but no major attacks occurred.

For most of the third day it appeared much the same. But a division under the command of John Breckenridge gathered on the Confederate right and began moving North toward a place on the Stones’ River called McFadden’s Ford, forces that were relatively fresh having seen little action on December 31  for a major blow against the Union left wing.  At first it went well, scattered Union forces were quickly driven back and forced to flee for their lives across the freezing cold river.

After being informed of what was occurring, Rosecrans, knowing how difficult it would be to get an adequate force of infantry to the spot, ordered every available piece of field artillery to the West side of McFadden’s ford. The efficient and highly mobile Union artillery rushed to where they were needed and fifty-eight guns lined up just in time, hub to hub, we’re told, and along with a brigade of infantry in support, unleashed a hail of fire upon the attacking Confederates that ripped their ranks apart and made the river run red with Southern blood. The handful of rebels who made it to the west side of the river were killed or captured. Breckenridge’s brave survivors, pursued now by victorious Union soldiers, pulled back and retired from the field. The Union pursuit stopped when they regained the ground they had lost two hours before and the battle of Stones’ River, one of the great battles of the American Civil War, and (arguably) the most costly battle to occur in the state of Tennessee, was over.

One of those rebel soldiers who retired from the field and lived to tell the tale was my great-great uncle, Logan Nelson, brother to my great-great grandmother. I have a photo of Logan taken around the turn of the century, an old soldier posing in front of the regimental flag he carried off the field that terrible day. Despite the hail of fire taking down his comrades all around him, he made sure that those colors stayed with his regiment, the 18th Tennessee. They had lost their flag at Fort Donelson the previous February to the enemy and had had to endure that humiliation throughout their months of captivity in Springfield, Ill. Only a few weeks before, the ladies of Murfreesboro had presented this flag to them. Keeping their flag was to them, a small victory in the midst of defeat.

Furthermore, for many of the men in the 18th, including Logan, Murfreesboro was home. A few of these men, mortally wounded that day, were able to take their final breath in their own bed at home surrounded by loved ones and laid in a family cemetery-the preferred way to die, for them another small victory. Surely better than dying far from home among strangers in a field hospital and laid in a mass grave- the fate of  many soldiers in that war, particularly Confederate soldiers.

Today thousands of people visit the Stones River National Battlefield. The park, roughly four hundred acres, covers only a fraction of the actual battlefield. One can visit the national cemetery (Union graves only), a modern visitor center, and tour that part of the battlefield that lies within park boundaries. One of the more interesting sights in the official park tour is the Hazen brigade monument located about a quarter mile East of the visitor center, a limestone monument and small enclosed cemetery established just after the battle by the survivors of the battle. This monument is unique, the oldest CW monument in the nation, as far as we know, and one of the few erected DURING the war.  There is nothing else like it in any battlefield park. Even the much larger Shiloh park in West Tennessee with its hundreds of fine monuments and markers has nothing like it.

From the standpoint of battlefield  preservation however, the Shiloh battlefield is the clear victor. Encompassing nearly four thousand acres, nearly all of the area where fighting occurred at Shiloh is now safely protected and preserved by the national park service. On the other hand, experts now assert that the Stones River battlefield is the most endangered major CW battlefield in the nation. The battlefield land surrounding the park is being developed and lost even as I write and the people of Murfreesboro have done almost nothing to stop it. It’s a shame.

Down the road in Franklin, interestingly enough, just the opposite is occurring; the battlefield of the 11/30/64 battle that happened there is being reclaimed. Money is being raised to purchase more historic property. Already key parts of the Franklin battlefield have been reclaimed, marked and preserved for future generations by forward-thinking citizens while short-sighted money-hungry citizens and developers thirty miles away, oblivious to the historical significance of the real estate to which they have regrettably been entrusted, have given us more places to shop in Murfreesboro.

There is some reason to be hopeful. In a fairly large area just south of the Stones River Park located between Asbury Lane and the new Medical Center parkway, there remains some, maybe two hundred acres, of undeveloped battlefield land. But this farm land and cedar glades will likely go under asphalt, brick and mortar like the rest. The National Park Service, now feeling the effects of nationwide budget cuts, can do little. It’s up to the people of Murfreesboro and Rutherford county. But I’m not optimistic. Their track record is abysmal.

On January the 3rd, 1863, the Confederate army struck their tents and pulled out of the Murfreesboro area leaving the place once again in Union hands. Most of the Confederate soldiers were angry about this, nearly as angry as they had been months before after the disaster at Fort Donelson, feeling quite sure that they had won the battle and yet again, were being “sold out.” But Braxton Bragg, after a brief consultation with his division commanders, had had enough and ordered the withdrawal. In the months to come the men of the Army of Tennessee would come to despise Bragg and he would be eventually replaced, but it would take another year, another hard year, for that to happen.

Later that year the same would happen to William Rosecrans, the Union commander at Stones River. After the disaster at Chickamauga, he lost his job and was effectively out of the war.

After the battle of Stones River, the war was by no means over. It would go on for another punishing two years and the body count would surpass even the wildest predictions. The South fought on. But, exhausted and, quite simply running out of men to fill the ranks, the South was forced to give up in the Spring of 1865. And our great US war, a war in which more men died than in ALL other US wars combined, was over.

How many died at Stones River? Probably more than died at any other Tennessee battle, so some experts have said, even Shiloh, a battle often compared to Stones River. About three thousand died on the field and in the weeks and months to come, it is safe to assume that about that many died from wounds or complications from wounds suffered at the battle. And for many who survived their wounds, such as those who lost limbs, they would return to their homes and carry for the rest of their days a grim reminder of  the horror of Stones River.

For men like my uncle Logan Nelson, even though he came through it physically unscathed,  the battle of Stones River would be the one that left the deepest scars. For him, it was the big fight seared with fire into his consciousness, even though he would see many other battles and, against all odds, surrender at war’s end with a tiny handful of his comrades of the 18th Tennessee Infantry after which he returned to Murfreesboro and lived out his days there. I’ve often wondered if he would ever wander out to McFadden’s Ford and relive in his mind the terrible sights and sounds of Jan.2. Did he then cross the river and stand again on the spot where he picked up the flag that had dropped to the ground after the last man of the color guard had gone down? Did he see again those faithful comrades dropping in the smoke and noise, men who he had come to love like brothers? Did he feel guilty that he had survived when they had not? I don’t know. But someday, I plan to speak with him about it. Bye and bye.

************************************************

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Stone’s River: Bloody Winter in Tennessee

ushistorybuff:

One-hundred and fifty years ago today the eyes of the nation turned

Hazen Brigade Monument on the Stone's River Battlefield, the oldest CW monument in the US

Hazen Brigade Monument on the Stone’s River Battlefield, the oldest CW monument in the US

upon the tiny Southern town of Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  There two great armies engaged in a titanic struggle for the control of Middle Tennessee and the fate of the Southern Confederacy. The battle opened early in the morning of December 31, 1862 and wasn’t concluded until late in the day, three days later, Jan. 2, 1863. At the end of the first day of the battle the outcome seemed clear: the Confederate army was going to win.  And the formerly unknown town of Murfreesboro, regardless of the outcome, would find a place in the American history books.

It wasn’t  Murfreesboro’s first CW battle.  Earlier in the year, after occupying the town for several months, unsuspecting Union forces from far away Michigan and Minnesota awakened the morning of July 13 to the sound of gunfire to the East. A cavalry force under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest had fallen upon them.  They put up a good fight but after a few hours the Union forces surrendered to that man destined to become one of the great military legends of the war and the town returned to Southern control. Forrest and his men paroled their prisoners and moved on, but soon after other Southern units began arriving and more and more until by mid December, a major army of nearly forty thousand under the command of General Braxton Bragg was encamped in and around Murfreesboro.

It was a significant enough development to draw the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis away from Richmond to make the long journey by rail to Murfreesboro. Arriving in mid-December he was “wined and dined” and celebrated at one ball and celebration after another each evening after spending his daylight hours reviewing troops, meeting with the generals and giving speeches and pep talks to prepare the army for the big battle to come.  He left town with his entourage hoping to arrive back in Richmond before Christmas.

Thirty miles away in Nashville Union authorities, being well aware of all this, finished up their preparations for a renewed  Southern offensive. The army that had gathered there was christened the Army of the Cumberland, a force forty-thousand strong (mostly stout Midwesterners) under the command of General William S. Rosecrans.  Just after Christmas the great blue beast got moving.  Though their wagon train was harassed by the cavalry of the energetic, youthful General Joseph Wheeler, the Union army arrived in the Murfreesboro area on December 29-30 and went into camp with it’s adversary only a short distance away. The stage was set.

Unlike so many other Civil War battles that occurred when armies simply stumbled into one another bringing on a big fight (as at Gettysburg) or when one army made a surprise attack upon the other (as at Shiloh earlier in the year) this battle, both as to time and place, was anticipated by the men of both sides. On December 30, each army was well aware of the other. All eighty-thousand or so men knew that they would soon be locked in mortal combat. That night the brass bands of both sides played  a strange and unprecedented pre-battle concert, trading songs back and forth through the frosty night air, until  all joined in playing the familiar tune : “Home Sweet Home” drawing tears to the eyes of thousands of homesick men. Then it was silent and the men lay down on the cold hard ground to get what sleep they could knowing that  it might be their last night on earth. And for several thousand, it was.

The majority of the soldiers in both armies knew what was coming. The happy confidence of 1861, the innocent illusion that the war would be short and relatively bloodless was long gone, drowned in the bloodbaths of Shiloh and Antietam and Perryville. By late 1862 the “butcher’s bill” had already far exceeded even the most pessimistic expectations. With the  war now well into it’s second year,  the majority of the soldiers in both armies were grim veterans, men who had “seen the elephant”, men who would go into yet another battle hopeful against hope that this next fight would be the last, that it would settle things once and for all, at least things in the Western theatre, and that the outcome of this next big fight would make it possible to march in one last happy review,  get their discharges and return to home sweet home.

In the early morning of December 31, just before daybreak, Southerners under the command of William Hardee attacked  and drove in the Union pickets to their front not far from the spot along Highway 96 where , interestingly enough,  a Hardee’s restaurant now stands. Throughout the morning  Union forces, caught off balance by the furious Southern onslaught, stepped backwards, leaving dead, wounded, and a great deal of camp equipment baggage and wagons behind. Today this part of the battlefield is now largely obliterated by development. One can now drive, shop, and eat where thousands of men fought and died.

Throughout the day the Union army, with it’s headquarters well to the rear on the Nashville Pike was rolled back and bent like a “jackknife.”  Finally, after being forced back nearly two miles and with disaster looming, the men of Hazen’s Brigade made a firm “stonewall” type stand at a place on their left called the “Round Forest” and their line held firm hugging the Nashville road, a lifeline for supply and reinforcement.  The victorious Confederate forces, who had also suffered great losses in killed and wounded, ceased fire when darkness fell, confident that their foe could be finished off the next day. General Bragg dashed off a telegram to President Davis, their recent guest, that God had granted the Confederacy a great victory.

Yet many rebel soldiers were, no doubt, worried. They remembered how months earlier at Shiloh, the Union army, though clearly beaten the first day of the battle, had counterattacked the next day after receiving reinforcements and had then won the battle forcing the Southern army to abandon the field.

Curiously enough, very little happened on the second day of the battle of Murfreesboro, or Stones River. Both armies were exhausted and battered. And though the Nashville Pike remained in Union hands, no reinforcements (to speak of) arrived. The army of the Cumberland was on it’s on. Sporadic firing and occasional artillery rounds erupted but no major attacks occurred.

For most of the third day it appeared much the same. But a division under the command of John Breckenridge gathered on the Confederate right and began moving North toward a place on the Stones’ River called McFadden’s Ford, forces that were relatively fresh having seen little action on December 31  for a major blow against the Union left wing.  At first it went well, scattered Union forces were quickly driven back and forced to flee for their lives across the freezing cold river.

After being informed of what was occurring, Rosecrans, knowing how difficult it would be to get an adequate force of infantry to the spot, ordered every available piece of field artillery to the West side of McFadden’s ford. The efficient and highly mobile Union artillery rushed to where they were needed and fifty-eight guns lined up just in time, hub to hub, we’re told, and along with a brigade of infantry in support, unleashed a hail of fire upon the attacking Confederates that ripped their ranks apart and made the river run red with Southern blood. The handful of rebels who made it to the west side of the river were killed or captured. Breckenridge’s brave survivors, pursued now by victorious Union soldiers, pulled back and retired from the field. The Union pursuit stopped when they regained the ground they had lost two hours before and the battle of Stones’ River, one of the great battles of the American Civil War, and (arguably) the most costly battle to occur in the state of Tennessee, was over.

One of those rebel soldiers who retired from the field and lived to tell the tale was my great-great uncle, Logan Nelson, brother to my great-great grandmother. I have a photo of Logan taken around the turn of the century, an old soldier posing in front of the regimental flag he carried off the field that terrible day. Despite the hail of fire taking down his comrades all around him, he made sure that those colors stayed with his regiment, the 18th Tennessee. They had lost their flag at Fort Donelson the previous February to the enemy and had had to endure that humiliation throughout their months of captivity in Springfield, Ill. Only a few weeks before, the ladies of Murfreesboro had presented this flag to them. Keeping their flag was to them, a small victory in the midst of defeat.

Furthermore, for many of the men in the 18th, including Logan, Murfreesboro was home. A few of these men, mortally wounded that day, were able to take their final breath in their own bed at home surrounded by loved ones and laid in a family cemetery-the preferred way to die, for them another small victory. Surely better than dying far from home among strangers in a field hospital and laid in a mass grave- the fate of  many soldiers in that war, particularly Confederate soldiers.

Today thousands of people visit the Stones River National Battlefield. The park, roughly four hundred acres, covers only a fraction of the actual battlefield. One can visit the national cemetery (Union graves only), a modern visitor center, and tour that part of the battlefield that lies within park boundaries. One of the more interesting sights in the official park tour is the Hazen brigade monument located about a quarter mile East of the visitor center, a limestone monument and small enclosed cemetery established just after the battle by the survivors of the battle. This monument is unique, the oldest CW monument in the nation, as far as we know, and one of the few erected DURING the war.  There is nothing else like it in any battlefield park. Even the much larger Shiloh park in West Tennessee with its hundreds of fine monuments and markers has nothing like it.

From the standpoint of battlefield  preservation however, the Shiloh battlefield is the clear victor. Encompassing nearly four thousand acres, nearly all of the area where fighting occurred at Shiloh is now safely protected and preserved by the national park service. On the other hand, experts now assert that the Stones River battlefield is the most endangered major CW battlefield in the nation. The battlefield land surrounding the park is being developed and lost even as I write and the people of Murfreesboro have done almost nothing to stop it. It’s a shame.

Down the road in Franklin, interestingly enough, just the opposite is occurring; the battlefield is being reclaimed. As I write money is being raised to purchase more historic property. Already key parts of the Franklin battlefield have been reclaimed, marked and preserved for future generations by forward-thinking citizens while short-sighted money-hungry Murfreesboro citizens and developers, oblivious to the historical significance of the real estate to which they have regrettably been entrusted, have given us more places to shop.

In a fairly large area just South of the Stones River Park located between Asbury Lane and the new Medical Center parkway, there remains some, maybe two hundred acres, of undeveloped battlefield land. This land will likely go under the bulldozer like the rest. The National Park Service, now feeling the effects of nationwide budget cuts, can do little. Now it’s up to the people of Murfreesboro and Rutherford county. But I’m not optimistic. Their track record is bad, very bad.

On January the 3rd, 1863, the Confederate army struck their tents and pulled out of the Murfreesboro area leaving the place, once again, in Union hands. Most of the Confederate soldiers were angry about this, nearly as angry as they had been months before after the disaster at Fort Donelson, feeling quite sure that they had won the battle. And for the most part they had. But Braxton Bragg, after a brief consultation with his division commanders, had had enough and ordered the withdrawal. In the months to come the men of the Army of Tennessee would come to despise Bragg and he would be eventually replaced, but it would take another year, another hard year, for that to happen.

The same would happen to William Rosecrans, the Union commander at Stones River. After the disaster at Chickamauga, he lost his job and was effectively out of the war.

After the battle of Stones River, the war was by no means over. It would go on for another punishing two years and the body count would surpass even the wildest predictions. The South fought on. But, exhausted and, quite simply running out of men to fill the ranks, the South was forced to give up in the Spring of 1865. And our great US war, a war in which more men died than in ALL other US wars combined, was over.

How many died at Stones River? Probably more than died at any other Tennessee battle, so some experts have said, even Shiloh, a battle often compared to Stones River. About three thousand died on the field and in the weeks and months to come, it is safe to assume that about that many died from wounds or complications from wounds suffered at the battle. And for many who survived their wounds, such as those who lost limbs, they would carry for the rest of their days a grim reminder of  the horror of Stones River.

For men like my uncle Logan Nelson, even though he came  the battle physically unscathed,  the battle of Stones River would be the one that left the deepest scars. For him, it was the big fight seared with fire into his consciousness, even though he would see many other battles and, against all odds, surrender at war’s end with a tiny handful of his comrades of the 18th Tennessee Infantry after which he returned to Murfreesboro and lived out his days there. I’ve often wondered if he would ever wander out to McFadden’s Ford and relive in his mind the terrible sights and sounds of Jan.2. Did he then cross the river and stand again on the spot where he picked up the flag that had dropped to the ground after the last man of the color guard had gone down? Did he see again those faithful comrades dropping in the smoke and noise, men who he had come to love like brothers? Did he feel guilty that he had survived when they had not? I don’t know. But someday, I plan to speak with him about it. Bye and bye.

************************************************

Originally posted on ushistorybuff:

US propaganda poster, circa 1942

American naval personnel stationed at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands on Sunday morning December 7,1941, were startled by the sound of dozens of aircraft. They looked up and were stunned by what they saw: the aircraft was not American, it was Japanese. Seconds later bombs began falling and Americans began dying and for the 100 million people of the United States, the world changed.

In the weeks and months previous, trouble had been brewing with the empire of Japan, but the US was still shocked that the attack came when and, where it did. If trouble with Japan was to come, so many experts at the time believed, it would come in the Philippines, not in Hawaii. The Japanese would never get lucky enough to get that far undetected with a task force big enough to do any real damage. The logistics and dependence upon pure luck would…

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Christopher Columbus and the Flat Earth Society

Most of us over the age of forty were raised on the idea that

No one knows for sure what he looked like. He sat for no portraits in his lifetime. A deeply flawed but crucial historical figure.

Christopher Columbus boldly went where no man had gone to discover America.  Well, that much, though simplistic, is true. We were told something else, that he was particularly brave and bold in doing so because he and he alone refused to join the Flat Earth Society, that mass of human beings who believed that the earth was flat and that if a ship sailed West into the unknown it would drop off the edge into the abyss if it were lucky enough to escape the many sea monsters swimming in the oceans out there in the great unknown. This made Columbus quite the independent thinker and his entreaties for ships and crews to Ferdinand and Isabella a hard sell indeed. Nevertheless, being the kind of clever, determined  fellow who could sell ice to Eskimos he finally persuaded them against the counsel of their advisers that the earth was indeed round like every other planetary body visible to the naked eye and off Columbus went in search of a shortcut to the East Indies and a rendezvous with destiny.

When Columbus arrived in the West Indies rather than the East Indies the natives he encountered there, thinking he and his crew were gods, fell down and worshipped them and well , the story seemed to get a bit murky after that (as I recall) or maybe the textbook authors wrapped it  up quickly and moved on to the English settlement at Jamestown. Or maybe we sort of naturally lost interest in Columbus after he hit the beach in America. Whatever the case I don’t remember taking a huge interest in “the rest of the story.”

Years later I discovered that a great deal of what I had learned was pure myth.

The true story is far more interesting. Long before he sailed West, cartographers or mapmakers, the group Columbus was associated with, were involved in a lively debate with scientists, many of whom were astronomers, as to the manner by which lines of longitude were measured on a map or a global representation of the earth.  There was little or no debate among educated, literate people as to whether the earth was flat or round. It was universally acknowledged, as it had been for years, that the earth was round. But how big was the earth? That was the real question. And when you’re sailing on a tiny wooden ship with limited supplies it is not a question to be ignored.

This lively debate between the opposing groups went on for much of the fifteenth century. Columbus and his cartographers, in their calculations of longitude, calculated a much smaller planet than the scientists who, in their view of a much larger planet, insisted  that  any ship sailing West would never reach the East Indies and dry land before water and provisions were exhausted. They weren’t worried about sea monsters and the great abyss.  Any voyage due West , they were quite sure, would be a fool’s errand, a terrible exercise in futility. And, based on the knowledge at hand, they were right. As to the correct size of our planet, we now know that they were  closer to the truth than Columbus and the cartographers. Years later, after Magellan circumvented the globe, the calculations of those sensible scientists were vindicated.

Christopher Columbus was able to make his first voyage in the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, because he came to the monarchs at the right time in history and was able to convince them, not so much that he and his map-makings colleagues were correct but simply that a voyage West, reaching the East Indies by another shorter route, was worth a try. The spices, silks, and riches of the Far East were quite an attraction indeed. Ferdinand and Isabella came to the conclusion that this likeable, insistent fellow just might be on to something. In giving Columbus what he wanted, they were, after all, gambling only with their wealth and resources. This fellow was gambling with his life. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And so, for the glory of Spain and her imperial destiny, off he went.

We need to remember something here. Columbus’ first voyage was gutsy and daring. As far as anyone knew at the time, such a voyage had never been attempted. As the crowds saw the ships off that fateful day in July, 1492 many standing on the dock were convinced that Columbus and his crews were sailing to their doom- that is if the crews did not mutiny first and turn the ships around in time. They were quite sure that between themselves and the East Indies lay nothing but a vast expanse of water that no slowing moving sailing ship could ever cross. Sea monsters would be the least of their problems.

Of course we now know something very important that they didn’t know in July 1492. It wasn’t just a lot of salt water. Between Europe and Asia lay  two enormous continents, North and South America- in a sense, a new world. Nevertheless when he arrived in this new world, Columbus believed that he was still in the old, that he had merely reached the outskirts of Asia. Cartographers were stubborn fellows. Despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary, Columbus would never retreat from his initial calculations as to the size of the earth. Though he surely had his doubts, it was his story and he stuck to it to his dying day.

The great irony is that the man who made the greatest discovery in the history of humankind would never really know or admit his stunning accomplishment. It is unfortunate in our time that this crucial fact seems to get lost in the current rash of Columbus bashing due to his lousy treatment of the natives he encountered in his journeys. He was no saint.  Let’s remember that there are very few important historic figures who will survive modern scrutiny. Nearly all will come up short.

Yes, the idea that Columbus was a progressive, forward-thinking guy who believed the earth to be round while all the idiots around him thought it flat is pure moonshine. In our time we see a very brave and  daring but deeply flawed man, a man of his time who believed in king and country, a man under considerable pressure to please his superiors,  who, in spite of it all and mostly in spite of himself, stumbled upon something astounding.

The discovery of the Americas by Europeans was, next to the birth of Christ, the most important axis or turning point, in human history. Love him or hate him, Christopher Columbus was the “game-changer,”  the guy who put those forces in motion resulting in the “settlement” and conquest of the Americas by Europeans.

Today we celebrate/recognize Columbus Day with a certain poignancy knowing that the natives of the Americas suffered terribly

in the clash of civilizations that followed his discovery. Europeans gained a great deal but the natives lost a great deal, mostly their lives when European imported epidemics are considered.  In spite of the dark side, it is an important day, a red-letter day and I hope it stays on our calendar. But it may disappear, who knows how our grandchildren will look at things?

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Large Slow Target

The other day I was sitting at a local eatery reading a WW II book,

Rare World War Two photo of the LST 325 aground on the beach at Salerno, Italy. Note the enormous doors through which heavy equipment was unloaded, often under enemy fire.

one of the Time-Life series that appeared thirty years or so ago, sold on television in thirty five volumes, now out- of -print. The book is entitled RETURN TO THE PHILLIPINES and features on the cover the famous, iconic photo of Douglas MacArthur wading ashore at the Leyte beach making good on his “I Shall Return” promise. A man walked by, saw what I was reading and asked: “”Can I see your book for a minute?” An odd request I thought but said “Sure. He took my book, walked over to a group of ladies sitting nearby and spoke to them pointing to the cover photo. Now even more curious I asked why he was giving this impromptu history lecture to a group of ladies who smiled and talked excitedly as he spoke. “The man you see here” he said pointing to the soldier walking beside MacArthur at his left, obviously an enlisted man,  “was a friend of mine. He lived here in Nashville for many years and just died last year.”

Pretty neat tale. But there was something else worthy of mention in the photo, two very large guys behind the famous general on either side of him there on that famous beach: LST 814 & 840, two specially designed landing crafts manufactured in the United States during the war.  Many scholars and WW II enthusiasts over the years have christened the LST as “the ship that won the war.” Others argue that the “Higgins boat” the LCVP, the much smaller, simpler  boat just behind MacArthur in the photo, the boat that actually carried him onto the beach, the craft featured in that famous opening scene in the movie “Saving Private Ryan” demands that honor.  Regardless of the outcome of this competition, the LST was clearly the bigger, more expensive, more sophisticated brother of the pair. But the two crafts had different purposes. One was designed to carry personnel, for the most part, and the other was designed to carry heavy equipment-for the most part. To seize an enemy held beach both were needed. Because nearly every major operation the US mounted in World War II began with an “amphibious” landing, this was no small matter.

A couple of years ago I visited the WW II museum in New Orleans and saw a real “Higgins Boat.” The museum was located in that city because those boats had been manufactured nearby during the war-about twenty-thousand I’ve heard.  Knowing of the sheer volume and size of an LST, I was quite sure I’d never see one of these in a museum. It is not the sort of thing that can be put indoors unless it was housed in a building the size of a football stadium.  It’s not a boat; it’s a ship.

Now I can say that I’ve not only seen but have actually been on one. A few days ago LST-325 came to Nashville and docked at Riverfront Park. About twelve years ago it was located having just been retired from a thirty-five year stint in the Greek navy, saved from the scrapyard, purchased, repaired, and brought back home to the USA. Of the thousand or so manufactured during WW II, it is now the only functioning LST in existence-a national historic treasure.

“Large Slow Target”. That’s the affectionate nickname the GIs, frequent passengers, applied to this plain-jane, not-so-pretty naval vessel that appeared in the early days of World War II, a craft designed to efficiently deliver men and material onto an enemy-held beach. “LST” simply stood for “Landing Ship, Tank.” No, the proper government name was not an ear-catching, dignified, heroic name, just a simple designation of its’ role with a three-digit identification number. And yet, as the conflict rolled on, this vessel was used time and again by US forces in both the European and Pacific theatres of that great war.  Later, the  remaining LSTs, those that had not been sold or scrapped, were used In the Korean and Vietnam conflicts-an enormous, expensive piece of equipment  that would be used, so it was believed ( at first), only once or maybe twice before being scrapped or sunk. It was an odd thing. In this the LST was similar to the jeep, the M-4 Sherman tank, and the DC-3 airplane.  None of these were very sexy, sleek, or state-of-the-art but they all found post-war uses. All were workhorses practically designed, easily maintained, and versatile-adaptable to different situations. While other seemingly high-tech, state-of-the –art, sexy, tools of war were declared obsolete or unneeded and sent to the scrap-yard at wars’ end, the LST with these others,  became like the cat with nine lives.

Nevertheless, as time passed, time caught up with it and the LST slowly passed into oblivion. Of the thousand or so manufactured in the US during WWII, and none were manufactured after the war, only a handful that had escaped the metal salvage wrecking ball were still in use by the nineteen-seventies. By this time our military had been issued an updated  model and the remaining old WWII era LSTs were sold or scrapped.

There was nothing unexpected about this. Like so many other pieces of heavy equipment manufactured during the war, the LST was not designed for long-term use.   It was designed to win the war and little if any thought was devoted to what would be done with it afterward.  And within the broad context of winning the war, the LST had a very specific “raison d’etre”, or role. It was designed to hit the beach with the “grunts” and quickly unload heavy equipment , principally tanks, to support their tactical objectives. And it worked pretty well in this task.

It was a revolutionary idea at the beginning-a ship that would purposely run aground on a beach. Traditionally ships tried to stay afloat and ran aground only by accident or misfortune. When they needed to unload they would go to a harbor to unload large items  or simply unload men and a limited amount of supplies from small boats. A ship designed to run aground and unload large items directly and quickly onto the beach? A pretty novel idea. Of course it was also important that the ship be able to get OFF that beach & back into the water, that is if the enemy cooperated! Through the creative use of tides coupled with an extended anchor out in the water used to pull the ship backwards, the LSTs could usually get back into the water without too much difficulty. At Normandy the LST 325 made several round trips back and forth to its’ base in England carrying soldiers and equipment forward to the front and wounded and POWs on the return trip to base. It was always loaded either way-a real work horse.

There is no question that without the LSTs and the smaller LCVP or “Higgins” boats, the second front  in the ETO (European Theatre of Operations) could never have been established  and the seizure of numerous islands in the Pacific theatre would not have occurred. Necessity is the mother of invention and the demands of the conflict made the development and manufacture of such vessels necessary. Nothing like it existed before World War Two.

This particular ship, LST-325, was manufactured in late 1942 and was later among the first convoy of LST’s to sail for the Mediterranean in early March, 1943. No LST’s were used in “Operation Torch”, the invasion of North Africa in late 1942, but quite a number including the 325 were used in “Husky”, the invasion of Sicily in July, ‘43. Later, in September, the 325 took part in the Salerno operation, the invasion of Italy, making three trips to the beachhead.  Then it sailed to England and from that point in early June 1944 took part in the Normandy invasion delivering men and equipment to Omaha beach-the most famous amphibious assault of the war.

I took the nine stop ten dollar tour. At each point a guide would say a few words and cheerfully answer questions. Most of these guides were older gentlemen who had actually served on an LST in either WW II or the Vietnam conflict. Stop #1 was the “Tank Deck.” Everyone entered  through the bow forward, the business end of the vessel with the enormous double doors that would open to release it’s payload upon touching the enemy beach. The interior/hold or “Tank Deck” is enormous, 230 feet long,30 feet wide and 14 feet high with the capacity to hold 20 Sherman tanks or a mixture of various vehicles.  Various shops, electric, machine, etc.  line the sides. Other tour stops took us to engine rooms and mess deck (crew tables and quarters) In this room is a plaque honoring those who brought LST325 from  Greece in 2001 back to the US. Then we walked through and past the mess deck, galley and up onto the main deck where most of us took a photo op in the seat of a revolving 20mm anti-aircraft gun. Then we passed through the officer’s quarters and dining room to  the forward portion of the upper “main deck” where additional vehicles, artillery, and personnel were carried when headed toward an enemy beach. Pictures of these vessels when in action (headed toward the beach) taken during the war show the main deck packed with vehicles and supplies. This was also the case on return trips back to base when the ships were often loaded with wounded or prisoners-of-war or both. To and fro there was alot to carry.  Before heading back downstairs to the Tank deck we passed through a troop berthing area where up to 300 troops-passengers (usually soldiers) could be quartered. Then there was finally, the inevitable gift shop, with lots of things for sale: books, souvenir caps, shirts, sweaters, etc. and  an opportunity to make a donation for the general operating fund and join the LST Memorial Membership. It is all privately owned and operated and they do need money. After a few days in Nashville, the ship, being fully operational, headed back up the river to its’ home in Evansville, Ind. on September 23.

It one thing to see photos and read about these vessels that played such a key role in liberating the world from tyranny in the nineteen forties. But it’s quite another to really walk inside one and speak to LST vets.  One old fellow I spoke with said that it was very emotional for him.  When he walked aboard the 325 a few years ago, it was the first time since WW II that he had been aboard an LST. And it sure brought back some memories for him. I’ll bet.

History truly comes alive aboard the LST 325, the closest thing to being there. Standing on that main deck looking toward the bow, I tried to imagine how it would have been on June 6, 1944, crowded with men and material, the choppy English channel bouncing us up and down, salt spray in the air, hundreds of boats and vessels of all kinds all around us, and  the deafening roar of the naval guns upon nearby battleships pounding the beach up ahead where the enemy awaits our arrival. Gives you goose bumps and makes you proud once again of the men, our vets who stood aboard this ship and boldly and bravely moved toward the sound of the guns into harm’s way and in doing so made this world a much better place. Did they “make a difference”, not only the vets of WW II, but the vets of Korea and Vietnam?  You bet they did.  I know I’m grateful.

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For more information contact: lstmemorial.org

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THE ENDURING PHOTOGRAPHIC LEGACY OF ANTIETAM

One hundred and fifty years ago today, September 17, 1862, the

Confederate dead piled together a few days after the 9/17/62 battle near Dunker church

armies of General Robert E. Lee and George McClellan clashed near the village of Sharpsburg, Maryland, a bucolic, lovely setting, a peaceful landscape where the fields were ripe for harvest and any sound of gunfire more than the report of a hunter’s shot was rarely heard. In the following weeks when the casualties were tallied up, Americans would grimly realize that this had been the costliest single day in a war that had already gotten way out of hand. Those who had rattled their sabres and beat their drums for war in early 1861, especially those who had confidently predicted a quick and relatively bloodless war, now felt, if they had any sense at all, like complete fools. Rabble-rousing war-hawks and pompous politicians both North and South had rushed in where the angels feared to trod. And the nation was paying a terrible price for it, a price far beyond anything that anyone had imagined. My God, they muttered quietly to themselves, what in the world have we gotten ourselves into?

Two days after the battle, the battered Southern army was already back in Virginia having left most of its’ dead and wounded behind on the battlefield.  Makeshift field hospitals and nearly every structure in the area with a roof, overflowed with the wounded of both armies.  The badly bruised Northern army, in nearby camps, remained in and around Sharpsburg. But on the battlefield itself, things were now fairly quiet, the principal sounds heard being that of the pick and shovel and the voices of those employing those tools as they worked steadily to get the Northern dead into the ground. At this point, most of the dead still above ground were Southerners and they would have to wait till the gravediggers got around to them. Here and there some brave Southern family or house servant was seen wandering the field in wagon or carriage looking for a loved one to take home to a family plot. Maybe the gravediggers would respectfully pause in their work when they heard a plaintive scream or shout of recognition echo across the shattered landscape when the seekers found who they were looking for.

No doubt other curious locals had somehow slipped past security guards posted at key points to explore the fields and take it all in. Some of the more mercenary among this group may have been seen going through the pockets and haversacks of the dead searching for anything valuable. Occasionally a gun shot would be heard as a gravedigger paused in his work to pick up his rifle and fire a warning shot in their direction to run them off.

The battalions of gravediggers, mostly soldiers, also noticed a different set of visitors, a duo of photographers, Scottish born Alexander Gardner and his assistant, James Gibson, working for the Matthew Brady firm, rumbling past in their specially built “dark-room” wagon, stopping, unloading their cumbersome equipment, and going  through the strange rituals of “wet-plate” photography. For these two men, a visit to a battlefield was a new experience, sobering and sad, but intensely exciting. Prior to this they had done little outside-field photography. Mostly they had worked in indoor studios where subjects had come in clad in their Sunday best, paid a fee, stood or sat rock still, and had their portrait taken. Every now and then they had photographed the dead, usually an infant, carried into the studio by grief stricken parents wanting a likeness of that little person about to be buried. But on this day, they walked amongst the dead, hundreds of them, singles here and there, pairs here and there, and in some cases, such as the area known as the Sunken Road, they lay in heaps, not just men, but dozens of horses. And, I suspect, with the temperatures of early Fall being fairly warm, the smell was rising to a fearful level. In one way these subjects were easier than before, they would not have to be given instructions to stand still.

Gardner and Gibson had to work fast. Most of the Union soldiers were already underground, buried where they fell.  If they were to get photos that could actually be seen by the public, photos not too grisly or gross, they had no time to lose. Most of the corpses were already swelled and bloated. At night, the gravediggers surely warned them, the feral hogs would sneak onto the field and gorge on the corpses making their subjects  even more unacceptable for portraits.  It was hard work. In many cases, they had to move around to try new angles not only to get the composition right, but to get unacceptable subjects out of the picture.  They were artists, and what they were doing was not substantially different from what painters would do. But photography was essentially a new medium, and the rules were being written as they went.  After taking an exposure or two in one place they looked around, scanned the shattered landscape, and moved on to another. It was a long hard day and the next morning, having used all of their wet-plates and chemical solutions, they rolled out of the area, saying little to one another, happy to depart, troubled  by the images that had filled their heads, images that would haunt them the rest of their lives.

A month later their work was featured at an exhibition in New York City. Crowds flocked to see it. This sort of thing was new, terribly new, no one had ever seen anything like it. Photography, known principally as a means of portraiture, had entered a new realm.  Attendants worked hard to keep the dumb-struck crowds moving in and out of the place. Wide-eyed, open-mouthed people would stand and stare at an image, examining every detail as long as they were allowed to do so until being pushed to the next photo or out the door. The war that they had heard about had suddenly entered a new, disturbing, more immediate, more tangible dimension. People left the exhibit speaking in excited, hushed tones.  Until it closed a few weeks later, this exhibit, the first of its’ kind, was a real sensation, the talk of the town.

A NEW YORK TIMES journalist would write: “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along our streets, he has done something very like it.”

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Gone with the Wind: The Confederacy’s Last Victory

That’s how Pat Conroy put it last year on the 75thanniversary of the

Margaret Mitchell of Atlanta, author of GONE WITH THE WIND

publication of the famous novel.

Conroy, surely one of our greatest living American (and Southern) writers, a South Carolinian, had a point. GWTW, both the novel and the movie, was a triumph. All these years later, people are still watching the movie and reading the thousand page book. It has never gone out of print.  A few years back I did some work at the home of a Chinese-American couple.  They were watching the movie and hearing the dialogue in  (over-dubbed) Chinese.  I couldn’t help but wonder if: “Frankly my dear…damn,” would lose something in translation! GWTW was a worldwide phenomenon.  And it did, to a large degree, cast Southerners of 1861-1871 in a positive, sympathetic light-a Southern victory of sorts, not on the battlefield, but years later, accomplished in the hearts and minds of people across the world.

Most of us know the what the book/movie is about. It is essentially the tale, and a long one by the way, of  Scarlett O’Hara, a young Southern woman struggling with her own desires and aspirations within the turmoil and upheaval of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Before the war, Mitchell tells us,  the Old South was a land of romantic cavaliers of old, a land of well-meaning kind masters and grateful, happy servants, the land of cotton where the “darkies” gaily sang at the end of the workday and ate watermelon and strummed the banjo in their carefree leisure hours.  In GWTW the old Southern “myth” achieves it finest and most famous expression. The Georgia poet Sidney Lanier, a Confederate veteran who composed in the late nineteenth century, was surely envious. Mitchell, a woman, achieved in a work of fiction what he had never been able to do in his poetry-to successfully present this version of the Old South to the world.  And with the movie, a stunning cinematic achievement, Hollywood stayed pretty true to her vision. Though lengthy to an extreme, it’s still quite watchable.

Then came the “Yankees” and Mitchell’s peaceful ordered world came apart. The Yankees (along with a few “Scalawags-Southern Yankee sympathizers) are the bad guys throughout the tale, the source of most of the misery and suffering.  Southerners are victims of Northern aggression and cruelty during but especially after the war, when Scarlett, the heroine, struggles to keep the Old Home Place, “Tara” from destruction and neglect. Those devils from the North, Mitchell reminds us, came South and pulled the lid off Pandora’s Box leaving Southern white folks to deal with the chaotic result, a disordered world ruled by greedy carpetbaggers, corrupt “scalawags” and footloose-confused “free-issue” negroes-not the kind of tale that would find a cooperative Hollywood film industry these days.

Maybe I’m selling Ms. Mitchell a bit short. Yes, she does present a romanticized view of the “Old South”, one that modern folk have a hard time digesting, but this view is presented alongside another view: that of the Old South as a culture doomed to extinction, a world peopled by rash, foolish hotheads, oblivious to the wider world, rushing to their doom.  Ashley Wilkes is the amiable but doomed romantic, a symbol of the Old South, unable to cope with the modern world. But even Ashley thinks the sabre-rattling of his fellow planters is foolish. Then there is Rhett Butler, a man quite at home in the modern world, who agrees with Ashley and actually tells his fellow Southerners what he thinks. In a famous scene near the beginning of the tale, he informs his fellow guests at the big party that they cannot win a war against the North, that all they have is “cotton, slaves, and arrogance.” As for Scarlett, she has nothing but loathing for any talk of war and hates it even more when it visits Tara and Atlanta. Therefore the South, in Mitchell’s view, blew it. If they had just kept their wits about them and worked with Mr. Lincoln things would have gone a great deal easier. And in this she was surely correct. Her view of the Old South was romanticized but not completely unrealistic.  After the war, Southerners lay in a bed largely of their own making.  Mitchell was quite willing to admit this.

Most problematic is Ms. Mitchell’s portrayal of African-Americans. It is not a flattering portrait. The “darkies” of GWTW are, for the most part, simple, lovable, childlike, and well, pretty happy with their assigned lot in this world.  This book ain’t “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” No slave is unhappy and eager to escape. After the war they all stick around and, for the most part, pick up where they left off.  Any trouble with the “darkies”, and the trouble all occurs AFTER the war, is the fault of the Yankees, the outside agitators who have caused the social upheaval and put “uppity” notions into the heads of the simple-minded freedmen.

But, before we conclude this matter, there is Mammy. Her character, both in the book and movie, is important, complicating an otherwise stereotyped African-American cast. Mammy is strong, smart and sees through every pretense and charade Scarlett brings on. For this Rhett clearly loves and respects Mammy. Indeed, one can make a case that Mammy is the only character in the entire story, white or black, that has any sense! Nevertheless, her destiny is bound up in service to white people, and this is presented as the natural order of things.  Despite their shortcomings and faults, white folks are Mammy’s superiors.  She gets no life of her own. Her dreams are bound up in their dreams. She is noble because she is a loyal servant bound to flawed but well meaning white people. Her nobility would vanish if she tired of and rejected her social superiors.  Rhett can walk out on Scarlett. Mammy can’t-not in this story.

Despite  its’ shortcomings, the racial picture featured in GWTW was stark contrast to that which had appeared in DW Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION  twenty years earlier in 1914.  Yes, GWTW gave us tiresome, troubling stereotypes of African Americans, but Griffith gave us something worse-  vicious, disturbing stereotypes with a fully robed Ku Klux Klan to deal with them,  heroes riding on horseback to rescue a town from black savages in the climactic scene of his two and a half hour silent film.  In another scene he depicts lazy-simple minded  negro politicians eating watermelon in the statehouse chambers.   This film, admittedly an important one representing a milestone in cinematic history for its many innovations and techniques, was based on a book titled “The Klansman.” Both book and movie helped resurrect this disturbing organization so that by the nineteen twenties, hundreds of thousands across the nation were members.  There was a huge Klan rally in Washington DC in 1925, something hard to imagine in our day. Nothing like that can be blamed on GWTW. Surely the simple-minded but good-hearted African-Americans in GWTW, though flawed, was a vast improvement over the even more one-dimensional, predatory, dangerous rascals we find in  Griffith’s film. If GWTW makes us roll our eyes nearly every time an African-American speaks, watching BIRTH OF A NATION, a silent film, will literally make us sick.

Perhaps Mr. Conroy felt that the South, for a time, rose again, in GWTW. The many fans of this book and movie were willing to give the South a final victory-of sorts. Maybe the timing was right. The Civil War  had been over for quite some time in 1936. Sectional passions had cooled. Only a handful of the old veterans were yet alive.  Their final joint reunion had been at Gettysburg in 1933 on the anniversary of the battle. I saw a film years ago of a very old man sitting on the rail fence on Cemetery Ridge wiping the perspiration off his forehead with his left hand, his right arm gone, the sleeve pinned up.

Nothing stays the same. The times they were  a changin’ in the US. In the late nineteen-thirties the civil rights movement was just around the corner.  In GWTW, the old South, or at least a certain sentimental image of the old South, had its’ last hurrah. It’s hard to imagine GWTW being so widely received after World War Two. From the mid-fifties on, a major Hollywood production of this kind would have been out of the question.The “Old South” became quite unfashionable during the civil rights era and has remained so to this day.

There’s another angle to this tale, a undeniable feminist angle. It is the tale of a strong  female taking matters into her own hands.  Except for Rhett, most of the men around her are either foolish or nasty or weak. All in all, the depiction of white men is little better than that of African-Americans! Yes, Scarlett is stymied by her attachment to Ashley and the old ways, but in the end she embraces Rhett, who represents the future. No, she’s not totally liberated in the modern sense, she still has to have a husband.  This book was, after all, written in the first half of the twentieth century, a time when women had only recently secured the right to vote. Still this story centered around a strong female must have rubbed some masculine, chauvinistic nerves at it’s appearance.  Clark Gable, so we’re told, did not, at first, want to do the part of Rhett Butler. Why? It was a “dame’s movie” he said.

Gable wasn’t too far off base in this assessment. In large part it was a “Dame’s movie.”  The book upon which the movie was based was written by a woman. Hattie McDaniel, who portrayed Mammy, was awarded the first Oscar ever presented to an African American. Vivien Leigh, a British actress, received the Oscar for best actress. As for Clark Gable himself, he was unforgettable and mighty good. But no Oscar for him.  And none for Leslie Howard (Ashley). But, this was no great disappointment to him.  He was no nonchalant and uncaring about GWTW that he not only failed to show up for the Atlanta premiere, he never even bothered (so we’re told) to visit a cinema and see the movie after returning to England! He died in World War Two in the service of his country.

And there’s the usual historical consideration. Is GWTW good history? Does Ms. Mitchell give her readers a reliable dose of US history? Does she get her facts straight? Well, yes and no. In short I find her presentation of the war pretty good, but her view of reconstruction problematic. Slavery?  She is an good source for how most white Southerners FELT about slavery and the “Old South” in the post-war years, but not, as before stated, a good source for real historical inquiry on the subject. Take GWTW with several “grains of salt.”

In spite of all it’s shortcomings, Gone with the Wind demands respect. As the old saying goes, you can’t knock success. It is probably the most successful historical novel ever! I still find it utterly charming and compelling, a rousing good yarn, highly readable. The movie? Great entertainment packed with unforgettable performances. I have the deluxe edition on DVD with lots of special features. Don’t challenge me in a GWTW trivia contest, you’re not likely to survive!  Indeed, there’s only one person who can.

Years ago I met a girl in college and took her to see the movie. Afterward I discovered that she had read the book not once, but twice. I was mighty impressed, so impressed by this, and for, admittedly, a few other reasons, that I asked her to marry me and, like Scarlett’s first foolish husband Charles, was surprised when she said “Yes.”

We discussed the book again a few weeks ago. “What was the name of the fellow who stopped for a visit at Tara after the war and wound up staying to look after the place and marrying Sue Ellen, Scarlett’s sister?” she wondered. I was stumped. He was a major character in the book totally left out of the movie, one of the few truly positive, sensible, intelligent white males in the whole story. This got her going. So what did she do? She read the book again. Lordy, I’m still impressed with this wonderful woman. And who was that guy? She reminded me:  Will Benteen.  Ah, yes, now I remember.

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An Evening with Ed Bearrs

A few weeks ago I heard Ed Bearss, legendary historian emeritus of the National Park Service, speak to a gathering of the Clarksville, TN Civil War roundtable. Knowing of his advanced age, (he is eighty-eight ), and not likely to be doing this sort of thing for many more years, I quickly accepted the invitation of a friend and we traveled together from Nashville for the event.

It seems that the sounds of faraway Civil War battles were echoing through the rolling plains of Montana all around him in 1923 when Ed Bearrs was born. He gravitated to CW military history early on, so much so that on the family farm he would name farm animals after Civil War generals. His favorite milk cow was  “Antietam. “ After graduating from high school in 1941 he was so anxious to visit some CW

Ed Bearrs speaks to a gathering of the Clarksville Civil War Roundtable, July, 2012

battlefields that he hitchhiked to the East for his first self-led tour. Soon after he enlisted in the Marine Corps and was sent to the Pacific as part of the legendary First Marine Division where he was severely wounded in action at Cape Gloucester in early 1944 and after a long recuperation was discharged in early 1946. He still has only partial use of his left hand and arm.  After taking two degrees on the GI Bill he entered the national park service in the mid fifties. His first posting was to the Vicksburg National Military Park. Over the years he  held positions at battlefield parks in Mississippi, Tennessee, & elsewhere.  In 1981 he became the chief historian of the National Park Service, a position he held until 1994. Through the years he has authored many books and publications establishing himself as one of the principal authorities in the nation on the subject of the Civil War. He was featured in the Ken Burns Civil War series and has also appeared numerous times in the series “Civil War Journal.” For many years he has been steadily employed by tour groups as a battlefield guide. To put it mildly, among Civil War “buffs”, Ed Bearss is something of a legend.

The crowd that gathered to hear Mr. Bearss that evening wasn’t disappointed. After a meet and greet in the lobby of the downtown customs house we made our way to the auditorium for the main event. The subject for the evening was the career of Union General George Thomas with a special emphasis on his relationship to US Grant. I’m not exactly a stranger to the subject myself. Still  I learned a great deal, details that I’ve missed over the years namely that Thomas, as a youngster, barely missed being murdered in his home in Virginia during the “Nat Turner” slave rebellion, that Thomas was, along with Earl Van Dorn, one of the two majors appointed to the legendary 2nd US Cavalry before the war, that he was a big man back in a time when  men weighing more than 250 lbs were something of a rarity, that he was never treated with the respect and deference by his peers that his obvious abilities merited and much more.

Bearss spoke for about an hour and a half, never once looking down at the podium in front of him (as far as I could tell) at any notes. He would continually cite chapter and verse, month, day and year  with a remarkable precision as if the information was simply part of his DNA.  Those soldiers of old came alive in our midst as Bears told their story, flesh and blood real-life fellows, with their own share of idiosyncrasies, petty jealousies, and shortcomings, mixed with their admirable traits and accomplishments. Ed has a wry sense of humor and we found ourselves laughing time and again at these all-too human fellows who came to the South and made war upon their fellow Americans, a thing that many Southerners have not since that time, considered a laughing matter.  Even the uniformed wool clad, overweight, over-aged  SCV (Sons of Confederate Veterans)  “reenactors” in the crowd chuckled along with everyone else.

My SCV friends might have been a little surprised when Ed reminded us that at the beginning of the war RE Lee was NOT Jefferson Davis’ man. Albert Sidney Johnston was “his huckleberry.” It was Johnston, not Lee,  who was made Colonel of the old 2nd US cavalry when Davis was Secretary of War and, a few years later, the commander of the Western theatre of the war at a time when Lee was being moved around in now nearly-forgotten postings prior to being commissioned  commander of the army of Northern Virginia.

Still the principal subject at hand was the career of George Thomas, a Virginian who, unlike Lee, had no overriding  loyalty for the state of Virginia or for the South. IN 1861, unlike so many of his peers, he had no interest in serving under a new flag or putting on a new uniform. The oath he had taken as a young soldier to the US superseded all. He had given his word and that was that. For this he paid a bitter price.  After deciding to stick with the Union, his family disowned him and not only never spoke to or communicated with him again, it is said that they never even spoke OF him again, as if he no longer existed.

In spite of his family troubles, Thomas never looked back or regretted his decision, a decision that proved invaluable to the cause he served.  Bearss reminded us that Thomas was, along with Grant, one of the most consistently successful  generals of the entire war, the first Union general in the war to win an important battle, that of Mill Spring or Fishing Creek, in SE Kentucky in January 1862, a battle that  secured Eastern Kentucky for the Union, a few weeks before Grant’s victory at Fort Donelson and, after an impressive record of solid achievements in between, including saving the Union army just after the disaster at Chickamauga, Thomas won what has often been considered the most complete victory of any army in that war at Nashville in December, 1864. During the war he compiled a resume that Bearss, though he didn’t quite say it directly, considers second only to US Grant.

Indeed, Bearss seemed to admire Thomas far more than Sherman who he described as “not very likeable” and “a capable strategist but a poor tactician.” Shermans’ resume, Bearss pointed out, was uneven while Thomas’ was positive throughout.  He cited example after example such as the business in Chattanooga in November, 63’ where Sherman struggled and got nowhere against the gallant Pat Cleburne on the North end of Missionary Ridge while Thomas’ men stormed up the center to gain a spectacular victory. Again and again, Thomas outshone Sherman.  Yet in this, US Grant seemed to have a blind spot. By favoring Sherman over Thomas, Bearss added, Grant allowed his regard for his friend Sherman and his own negative personal feelings toward Thomas to interfere with his judgment never giving the more talented Thomas the credit he deserved.  In short, Thomas was the better general, Bearss maintained, but Grant just couldn’t quite see it.

It was a delightful evening listening to Ed Bearss go over what was, for nearly everyone in the room, pretty familiar ground. In his indomitable style, wit, and complete mastery of the subject matter, he held our attention with ease receiving a standing ovation at the end.  I can only hope that if I’m called to the lecture hall when I reach that age thirty years from now, I’ll do at least half as well.

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