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Historical background

"A Scratch with the Rebels" -- Battle Accounts

Chapter 10
Grape, Canister, Shot, and Shell
As in any such tumultuous event, accounts of the battle at Secessionville on 16 June 1862 differ according to the position and emotional involvement of the observer. In the ensuing days, each officer submitted to his immediate superior a report of the actions of the men under his command. Understandably, these accounts tended to emphasize the hardships faced by each unit and the courage with which the men met their particular challenge. The Confederates, for example, reported three distinct assaults; the Union commanders regarded it as one sustained attack that came in waves only because the front was too narrow to allow simultaneous troop movements. When one reads all of the official reports, however, certain points become clear.

The Union forces obeyed orders to form their lines in silence during the night. Each man was to carry sixty rounds of ammunition but to advance with fixed bayonets and unloaded rifles, since surprise was the key to a successful attack. The regiments lined up in this order: the Eighth Michigan, the Seventh Connecticut, the Twenety-Eighth Massachusetts, the Seventy-ninth New York, the Hundredth Pennsylvania, and the Forty-Sixth New York. General Wright's division was on the left to protect the leading troops from a flank attack. They were ordered to remain one-half mile to the rear and to provide support. The troops assembled at various times between 1:00 A.M. and 3:30 A.M. They were to move at daybreak.

A major discrepancy in the accounts concerned the time at which the attack actually began. General Stevens reported that they moved before dawn. "It was," he said, "a very dark and cloudy morning. I moved at 4 o'clock. It was so dark that one man could not follow another except at very short intervals, it was much darker than on usual starlight nights." Colonel Joseph R. Hawley, Seventh Connecticut Infantry, whose men were near the forefront of the advance, maintained that he was able to see clearly for a distance of over 75 yards when the attack began. Most accounts place the time of the attack between 4:00 A.M. and 5:00 A.M.; observers variously described the morning as overcast, cloudy, or foggy. The question of available light became important in later attempts to understand what went wrong with the attack, for surprise was only possible if the approach were made under cover of darkness. On 16 June 1862, at latitude 33 degrees, sunrise occurred at 4:51 A.M. More significant, the beginning of morning nautical twilight, which permits observation of objects on the ground at 400 yards, came at 3:45 A.M. It seems evident that the approaching forces would have been easily visible from the fort.

The Union forces faced a march of two miles. The front was approximately 200 yards wide, narrowing to some thirty yards in front of the earthworks. The ground was sandy and ridged by old cotton furrows and stubble. Trisecting the field over which the Union army had to march were two ditches lined with hedgerows that provided some meager cover. On either side of the approach to Battery Lamar (Tower Fort), pluff mud and salt marshes lined the narrow finger of navigable ground.

General Isaac Stevens described it this way: "The front on which the attack occurred was narrow, not over 200 yards in extent, stretching from the marsh on the one side to the marsh on the other. It was at the saddle of the peninsula, the ground narrowing very suddenly at this point from our advance. On either hand were bushes on the edge of the marsh for some little distance. The whole space at the saddle was occupied by the enemy's work, impracticable abatis on either hand, with carefully prepared torus de-loup on our left and in front a ditch 7 feet deep, with a parapet of hard-packed earth, having a relief of some 9 feet above the general surface of the ground. On the fort were mounted six guns, covering the field of our approach. The whole interior of the work was swept by fire from the rifle pits and defenses in the rear, and the flanks of the work itself and the bushes lining the marsh on either hand were under the fire of riflemen and sharpshooters stationed in the woods and defenses lying between the work and the village of Secessionville."

Although technically outnumbered, the Confederate troops possessed a tactical advantage by virtue of their strongly entrenched position. The Confederates themselves, however, were not at all sure that their defenses would prove adequate. Although they were aware that attack was imminent from their observations of Union troop movements, they were not yet fully prepared for battle. On the night of 15 June, they had stationed pickets 800 yards in front of the earthworks to alert them to any advance. Most of the rebel soldiers had worked through the night on the entrenchments. They had not fallen asleep until 3:00 A.M. Then, at 4:00 A.M., the pickets were captured, and the defenders found themselves rudely awakened and plummeted into battle. The Union army had begun their attack in what should have been an opportune moment when the Confederates were still sleep-logged. The Eighth Michigan under William Fenton was first out, designated, according to Patrick Brennan's study of the battle, to serve as "bait" in the "forlorn hope" that they might attempt such a daring assault and live to tell about it.

The original 500 men stationed on the earthworks were armed with an eight-inch Columbiad loaded with grape and canister, two rifled 24-pounders, two 18-pounders, and a mortar. Defensive forces were not complete until the arrival of General Evans, leading the Pee Dee Battalion, the Charleston Battalion, and the Louisiana Battalion. These troops had not moved until alerted by the first sounds of gunfire; encounters with their own troops further delayed the Eutaw Battalion along the way.

The New York Herald published a lengthy eyewitness version of the battle, which the New Castle Courant later reprinted. Their correspondent wrote: "The forces of General Stevens were formed in perfect quiet at his outer pickets at 2 1⁄2 yesterday morning. The men fell promptly into line, having been at that hour first apprised of the movement they were to undertake. The morning was cold, and the entire sky was overcast with black, heavy clouds, so that in the darkness the task of maintaining silence and avoiding confusion was one of no little difficulty. We moved at half past four, no accident occurring to interrupt our progress. Colonel Fenton's brigade consisting of the Eighth Michigan Volunteers, under Lieutenant Colonel Graves; the Seventh Connecticut, under Colonel Hawley, and the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts, under Lieutenant Colonel Moore—was in the advance.—Colonel Leasure's brigade comprising the Seventy-ninth Highlanders, under Lieutenant Colonel Morrison, the Hundredth Pennsylvania, under Major Leckey, and the 46th New York, Colonel Rosa—was in support, together with Rockwell's Connecticut Battery, Captain Sears' company of Volunteer Engineers, and Captain Sargeant's company of Massachusetts cavalry. A storming party consisting of two companies of the Eighth Michigan, led by Lieutenant Lyons, Aid-de-Camp to General Stevens, with a negro guide was in the extreme advance."

General Stevens led his forces very quietly as far as Rivers Causeway, where he stopped to let stragglers catch up. Shortly thereafter, they ran into Confederate pickets from the Charleston Light Infantry. The Charleston paper the next morning reported, "The enemy, about daylight Monday morning, made a sudden move upon them, capturing some three or four and driving in the remainder. The alarm was immediately given, but the enemy had also pushed rapidly forward and had got within three hundred yards of the battery . . ."

The New York Herald correspondent made the encounter sound more dramatic: "Our route lay over an extensive cotton field, or rather a succession of cotton fields separated from each other by hedges and ditches. The ground was broken by these ridges peculiar to the plantations in this vicinity, and the passage over the uneven, billowy surface, marching as we were upon the 'double quick' was excessively fatiguing; yet we moved forward very rapidly. Although our line was formed within rifle shot of the enemy's pickets so quietly were the troops maneuvered that they were ignorant of it, and a rebel lieutenant and four privates were surprised and captured.—Orders had been given to move forward by the flank, regiment following regiment. In no event were we to fire, but to press on and forward into line by regiments. When the enemy should open upon us, we were to use the bayonet on him and endeavor if possible to gain possession of the works.

"These orders were faithfully executed. Reaching the open fields about a mile from the rebel fortifications, Fenton's brigade directed its attack against the right, and Leasure's against the left of the work. These two brigades now pushed forward with great rapidity, the regiments keeping within supporting distance of each other and the Michigan regiment keeping close to the storming party.

"Inside the fort, confusion reigned for a few minutes as sleeping Confederate soldiers came awake to the reality of a battle already in progress. Captain R. L. Crawford, of the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, described the scene: "I suppose by the time you get this, you will have seen an account of the battle day before yesterday. We had a hot time of it for about 3 or 4 hours. The battle commenced about 5 oclock in the morning and lasted until 9. The enemy had for nearly two days and a night been fighting our batteries at Secession Ville. Finding that they could not silence them, they finally concluded to take them by storm. They ceased firing about 8 oclock at night. When the firing stopped, Col Lamar ordered his men, who wer nearly exhausted from the long continued fight, to go into the rat holes and rest. Pickets wer then thrown out, and every thing thought to be secure.

"Next morning however they were completely surprised. The enemy passed our pickets and advanced under cover of a thick skirt of woods, and when the sentinel at the Fort discovered them they wer not more than a hundred yards off, he fired his gun and gave the alarm. Capt Reid [sic] who was in command of one of the companies ran out, and to his utter surprise found the enemy in strong force about forty yds from the fort, he immediately leveled our piece and fired into them. By this time one of the sergeants had got to another gun, but was unable to sight it, he called to Capt Reid to send some one to sight his gun, he jumped to the gun saying he would do it himself, just as he was getting the piece into position, he was shot through the head, the sergeant was also severely wounded. By this time Col Lamar had got to another gun and fired it with his own hands, he too was wounded in the face and back of the neck. The whole command was now in the fort but as they had no small arms and the Yankees had begun to come up the breast works their condition was truly critical. Determined however not to give up their works they gathered the large sticks they use to put their pieces in position, and succeeded in clubbing them back as they would come up. they must have done good work from the quantity of brains which I saw on the breast works."

Confederate guns on either side of the breastworks fired down the center of the field, causing the Yankees to veer both left and right. The New York Herald described the design of Confederate defenses: "When within about four hundred yards of the fort a terrific fire of grape and canister was opened on our columns from the work, and from the woods, abattis and rifle pits on our right. Four heavy guns on the enemy's parapet sent their murderous charges through the files of our brave men; masked batteries, of whose existence we had no knowledge, poured their terrible missles against us; sharp-shooters stationed all along the rebel line selected our officers for targets, and many a gallant leader fell at their first volley, while the men in the ranks dropped by scores."


My Favorite March Column

How Green is Your March?
            March has only two real holidays, both of them commonly associated with the color green.  The first day of Spring comes in March, and we have every reason to expect the world to turn green.  In Memphis, though, you can't count on that.  Statistically, it is as likely to snow on March 20 as on any day of winter.  If the neighborhood does not turn not white from snow in March, the Bradford pear trees will produce enough white blossoms to make it look like snowfall. At the same time, the wonderful old post oaks in the south grow long fuzzy catkins in the Spring, and they are capable of producing enough pollen paint your car yellow if you park under one. Green will simply have to wait.
            The most dependable signs of Spring are the migrations.  Our little juncos and red-winged blackbirds will be heading north, along with those other snow-birds, the folks from along the U. S./Canada border, who have been keeping warm in Florida all winter. You'll see them on the interstate, chugging along in their overloaded motor homes.  Another migration path leads south in March – northern college students on Spring Break.  You'll want to avoid them on the highways, too.  There will be a vertical migration as well.  Do you want to know how close Spring really is?  Check to see how far down in the dirt you have to dig to find an earthworm.  Their migrations may only cover a distance of six inches or so, but when they start to stick their wormy little heads up in your garden, Spring is definitely here.
            If  you are Irish, or want an excuse to behave like an Irishman, you'll want to deck yourself out in the brightest green outfit you can find on March 17th.  Just one word of warning.  When I was a kid, my Scotch-Irish mother boasted to me that her family came from Northern Ireland, where the people were Orangemen (supporters of the 18-century Protestant claimant to the English throne, William of Orange).  So I went off to school proudly wearing my new tangerine-colored sweater on March 17.  Not a good idea! 
            What about St. Patrick's Day?  If you happen to be in New England, you may notice that small towns dye their rivers green for the day.  In Memphis, you can drop by Silky Sullivan's down on Beale  Street and have a green beer.  Everyone you meet will claim to come from Ireland.  And you'll need to be up-to-date on your knowledge of all things Irish, like blarney stones, leprechauns and shamrocks.
             St. Patrick was real enough, although he was a pagan, came from Wales rather than Ireland, and was named Maewyn.  His first trip to Ireland occurred when he was captured by Irish marauders and carried off as a slave at the age of 16.  After 6 years, he escaped and made his way to Auxerre in Gaul, where he studied at a monastery and adopted Christianity.  He returned to Ireland as a bishop and spent some 30 years fighting with the local Druids and converting the population to Christianity. 
            Legend has it that he drove the snakes out of Ireland.  True enough, there are no snakes there.  But, then,  there never have been.  The island broke away from the continent well before the last Ice Age, and snakes never managed to make the swim to re-establish themselves.  My guess is that when Patrick promised to drive the snakes out of Ireland, he was actually casting an ugly slur on the Druids, who were pagan priests – "the little snakes!"
            Leprechauns are also problematic.  We all know what they look like – about three feet tall, old and ugly, with pointed ears and a pointed cap to match.  They smoke long-stemmed pipes, make shoes, and hide pots of gold under rainbows. They are anti-social, tricksters, thieves, and creators of mayhem in the middle of the night.  They like to get drunk on a homebrew called poteen and as a result usually have pink-tipped noses.  There are no female leprechauns, but I'm not going to touch the problem of how they make new baby leprechauns!  They are associated with St. Patrick because they are elves and therefore join the group of folks Patrick wanted to run out of the island.  Patrick's connection with shamrocks is better-grounded in fact.  He used the native three-leafed plant to explain the nature of the Trinity and adopted the shamrock as his badge. Despite the pictures you'll see, leprechauns probably do not hide under shamrocks.
            There is a real Blarney Stone, and Irish legend says that if you kiss it, you will be rewarded with the gift of eloquence.  The stone itself is located on the third story of Blarney Castle, just northwest of the village of Cork.  To kiss the stone, you must sit with your back to it, lean backwards (with someone holding your feet), and lower your head down a crack between two stone walls.  They tell me there are iron rails to hold onto, but I think I'd rather just remain green with envy for those who speak with honeyed tongues.

150 Year Later.

One hundred fifty years ago today —on April 9, 1865 — Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. The long Civil War was finally over, although its effects would last much longer — in fact, right down to today. The anniversary has started me on a path of reminiscing about my own last ten years.

I started writing about the Civil War in 2004 — not because of any anniversary, but simply because I had retired from teaching, and for the first time in 20 years, I had the freedom to write about what interested me, rather than about the no-less-interesting but more pressurized medieval history that would determine my success or failure as an academic.

I had a family story to tell. My great uncle had actually served in the Civil War, and I had inherited a small bundle of his letters.  I wanted to write the story of Sgt. James McCaskey before those letters crumbled into dust. And so I started on a little manuscript that would become a full-size book. My first publisher urged me to “get on with it,” pointing out that the sesquicentennial of the Civil War would start in 2011, and I could be “in on the ground floor” if I had a book or two finished by the start of the celebration.

That was the start of my new writing career. A Scratch with the Rebels was published in 2007.  It was straight military history, a documentary account of the first year of the war and the experiences of the 100th Pennsylvania Regiment. It wasn’t a particularly good book, but it appealed to the descendants of the men of that regiment, and they helped to publicize it. Today it’s still in print and into a second edition, thanks to a far-sighted publisher. (In fact, the first edition is on sale for 30% off today to celebrate the end of the war!  Click Here.)

Then I took the same set of events and told the story from the point of view of the regimental nurse, who had barely been mentioned in the first book. Beyond All Price came out in 2010 and fulfilled the promise suggested by that first publisher. As interest in the Civil War ramped up, so did interest in the second book and by August of 2011, it became a run-away Kindle best seller, staying at the top of its category for several weeks and earning enough money to force me to hire an accountant.

That’s all I intended to do, really, but I soon realized that the Civil War was too deeply embedded in my soul to let the observation of its sesquicentennial pass without me. So there followed a series of books, tied closely to the actual dates of the war. In 1862, a band of missionaries arrived in South Carolina to help educate the slaves who had been left behind when their owners fled from the invasion of the Union Army. By November of 1862,  one woman had established the first black school. In November 2012, I published the story of Laura Towne in The Road to Frogmore.

Stories about other fascinating people began to appear more frequently in the next couple of years as celebrations of the Emancipation Proclamation and the “Day of Jubilee” spread through the academic world. In 2013 I added Left by the Side of the Road — a book of short stories that featured several of the more prominent African Americans who made their mark in 1863 and beyond. Gen. Sherman began to organize his “March to the Sea” in late 1864, and in 2014, I published my first  historical novel, Damned Yankee, set directly in Sherman’s path.

And now? Now that the Sesquicentennial has come to an end? Am I finished as well? No, there are still stories to be told. I’m working on a sequel to Damned Yankee — one that is set in the period of Reconstruction immediately after the war.  Yesterday, as I reached the end of a chapter, a Freedman had a chance to speak his mind. I didn’t mean the words to be prophetic, but Hector sums up where I — and my new book —are at the moment:

“In time? In time we’ll all be dead. Look, Jonathan, I respect your position, but the simple truth is that most black men are no better off now than they were under slavery. We may be free, and we may even have the right to vote, but nobody’s offering much help when it comes to having a right to eat. The great promise of land didn’t last long, did it? And while the Black Codes may be gone, the land is still in the hands of white men. If we want to work the land, we have to become sharecroppers, which means doing whatever the white man says. We have to borrow money from white men to buy food, and our seeds and farm tools, and then when our crop comes in, we have to give it to the white man to pay what we owe him. So we’re stuck in poverty and beholden to the same men who were once our masters. That’s why I’m still in South Carolina. Someone has to fight back. The war may be over for you, but for me, it’s just beginning.”

So stay tuned. The Civil War may be over, but the fight goes on.

What Do Eggs and Bunnies Have to Do with Easter?

There's been an interesting controversy on the Internet about that question.  Among the participants have been Richard Dawkins, an atheist and evolutionary biologist: several followers of Sylvia Plath's writings; one or two offended Christians; and a few medieval historians whose academic training has exposed them to as much history of religion as most theologians ever receive. [I leave it to you to decide where I fall in that august crowd.]

The following is an excerpt from the most rational discussion I have seen. It is reproduced here by invitation from its author. Read the whole article (language alert!) at:  http://bellejar.ca/2013/03/28/easter-is-not-named-after-ishtar-and-other-truths-i-have-to-tell-you/

Most scholars believe that Easter gets its name from Eostre or Ostara, a Germanic pagan goddess. English and German are two of the very few languages that use some variation of the word Easter (or, in German, Ostern) as a name for this holiday. Most other European languages use one form or another of the Latin name for Easter, Pascha, which is derived from the Hebrew Pesach, meaning Passover. In French it’s Pâques, in Italian it’s Pasqua, in Dutch it’s Pasen, in Danish it’s Paaske, in Bulgarian it’s Paskha, and so on and so forth.

In the Christian Bible, Jesus returned to Jerusalem from his forty days in the desert just before Passover. In fact, in the Gospel according to John, Jesus was killed on the day before the first night of Passover, at the time when lambs were traditionally slaughtered for the Passover feast (because Jesus was the Lamb of God, etc. – SYMBOLISM, Y’ALL). There are a few differing accounts of when Jesus actually died, but most Christian texts, philosophers and scholars agree that it was around the time of Passover. Easter is still celebrated the week after Passover, which is why it’s a different day each year, because the Jewish calendar is lunar rather than solar.

Her symbols (like the egg and the bunny) were and still are fertility and sex symbols (or did you actually think eggs and bunnies had anything to do with the resurrection?).

Actually, according to Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie, which he wrote after journeying across Germany and recording its oral mythological traditions, the idea of resurrection was part and parcel of celebrating the goddess Ostara:

“Ostara, Eástre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the Christian’s God. Bonfires were lighted at Easter and according to popular belief of long standing, the moment the sun rises on Easter Sunday morning, he gives three joyful leaps, he dances for joy … Water drawn on the Easter morning is, like that at Christmas, holy and healing … here also heathen notions seems to have grafted themselves on great Christian festivals. Maidens clothed in white, who at Easter, at the season of returning spring, show themselves in clefts of the rock and on mountains, are suggestive of the ancient goddess.”

Spring is a sort of resurrection after all, with the land coming back to life after lying dead and bare during the winter months. To say that ancient peoples thought otherwise is foolish, naïve and downright uninformed. Many, many pagan celebrations centre around the return of light and the rebirth of the land; these ideas are not new themes in the slightest.

And yes, rabbits and eggs are fertility symbols, and they are, in fact, associated with Eostre.

Look. Here’s the thing. Our Western Easter traditions incorporate a lot of elements from a bunch of different religious backgrounds. You can’t really say that it’s just about resurrection, or just about spring, or just about fertility and sex. You can’t pick one thread out of a tapestry and say, “Hey, now this particular strand is what this tapestry’s really about.” It doesn’t work that way; very few things in life do.

The fact is that the Ancient Romans were smart when it came to conquering. In their pagan days, they would absorb gods and goddesses from every religion they encountered into their own pantheon; when the Roman Empire became Christian, the Roman Catholic Church continued to do the same thing, in a manner of speaking.

And do you know why that worked so well? Because adaptability is a really, really good trait to have in terms of survival of the fittest (something I wish the present-day Catholic Church would remember). Scratch the surface of just about any Christian holiday, and you’ll find pagan elements, if not a downright pagan theme, underneath.

Know what else? Most Christians know this. Or, at least, most of the Christians that I’m friends with (which is, admittedly, a fairly small sampling). They know that Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25th, and they know that there were never any actual snakes in Ireland, and they know that rabbits and eggs are fertility symbols. But they don’t care, because they realize that religions evolve and change and that that’s actually a good thing, not a bad thing. The fact that many Christian saints are just re-imagined pagan gods and goddesses doesn’t alter their faith one iota; because faith isn’t about reason or sense, it’s about belief.

The View from the Back of the Classroom

"Are we going to get a new book soon?" It's an often-repeated question, one that delights an author: (My readers want more!) and terrifies her: (Oh, no, I'm still stuck in chapter 15!) Right now the "stuck" part is really bothering me. I'm not usually subject to writer's block. But as many of you know, my husband died in January, and I'm finding it almost impossible to move past my own grief to think about the imaginary problems of my book characters.

To counteract the problem, I've told you all about those characters, but I can't make them come alive for me yet. So I'm trying now to focus on some of the issues and problems that will face them as the story moves forward. The period of Reconstruction is not a well-known or well-understood one.  I remember the term from history classes, but little of the details. I know the lurid crises that arise -- the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, the lynchings, the street riots -- but not a whole lot about the underlying causes. So what does an old teacher do in a situation like that?  She turns to the experts and takes a class.

No, really! Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, there are thousands of college-level classes available on the internet, and I recently stumbled upon one called "The Civil War and Reconstruction - 1865-1890," taught by a renowned historian, Eric Foner, of Columbia University. His lectures are broken down into small segments (10-15 minutes) with breaks for a quick one-question quiz, a look at accompanying illustrations, or examination of primary source documents. Longer, 5-question quizzes wrap up each major topic.

I'm learning a lot, although obviously not enough. My quiz scores (for the sake of complete transparency) have been 90, 80, and 100 -- not bad but an embarrassing B+ in my own grade book. Despite that, I'm really enjoying the experience. In one of today's segments, Dr. Foner mentioned a Northern general and abolitionist who worked with the Freedmen's Bureau in South Carolina. Anyone want to guess? Raise your hands. Yes! General Rufus Saxton (complete with photograph) jumped out at me, straight from the pages of "The Road to Frogmore." Maybe I know more about this stuff than I thought.

Hang around and I'll share some of my other discoveries with you as the course progresses.