Thursday, August 28, 2014

How did they do? Lecture surveys characters of four Atlanta Campaign generals

William Tecumseh Sherman savors victory in Atlanta (Library of Congress)

Maneuvering around the heaps of corpses, Second South Carolina Sgt. Richard Kirkland earned the sobriquet “The Angel of Mayre’s Heights” for bringing water to the parched lips of enemy soldiers wounded during a horrific, doomed assault at Fredericksburg.

“Heroism is a true reflection of character,” said Steve Davis, a Civil War author and historian living in Atlanta. “That is character.”

Of course, character is a complex aspect of man. It is made up of qualities, temperament and disposition, among other things.

And, as Davis will elucidate in a lecture on Sept. 2, timed to the 150th anniversary of the surrender of Atlanta, character can play out in many different ways.

Steve Davis
Davis will speak that evening at Lovett School, a private K-12 institution, which since May 2012 has sponsored, in conjunction with the Atlanta History Center, a series of talks entitled “The Civil War and the Forging of Character.” It continues through April 2015.

The author of What the Yankees Did to Us: Sherman’s Bombardment and Wrecking of Atlanta” and “Atlanta Will Fall: Sherman, Joe Johnston and the Heavy Yankee Battalion,” will focus on what the Atlanta Campaign revealed about the character and integrity of four pivotal generals: The Confederacy’s Joseph E. Johnston and John Bell Hood, and the Union’s William T. Sherman and George Thomas.

“They varied widely in performance and record,” said Davis. “All four were dedicated.” He will discuss their early military careers and the formation of character.

“General Johnston, for instance, was capable, experienced and respected as a general,” Davis told the Picket. “But he lacked the will to fight. In my first work I call him Johnston Cunctator, after the Roman Quintus Fabius, who cunctated (delayed) before the advance of Hannibal toward Rome.”

Joseph E. Johnston
“His flaw was that as a soldier and army commander he lacked that will and resolve which an officer has to have,” David continued. “He has to be able to send his mean to death. That distinguishes him from Robert E. Lee.”

Of Johnston’s successor, Hood, Davis said the hard-fighting general has risen in historians’ estimations from “buffoon and bumbler” to a talented and dedicated officer who did well at brigade and division levels but became a poster boy for the “Peter Principle” in higher commands, including Atlanta.

Hood did have a good tactical mind, said Davis. The Battle of Atlanta was a Stonewall Jackson-style flanking attack that was the “closest he came to a battlefield victory” during the campaign. Davis has a contract to write a book about Hood’s 1864 generalship.

John Bell Hood
Before his evening lecture, Davis will spend some time with upper classes at Lovett, which sits along the Chattahoochee River and has some remaining breastworks erected by the 20th Corps of the Federal Army of the Tennessee to protect river crossings.

The historian will ask students, who did summer reading about the Civil War, for their thoughts and definitions of character, which may include discipline and sacrifice.

One example is Thomas’ devotion to principle by deciding to stay with the Union, rather than join fellow Virginians in the Confederate army.

His family owned slaves, but he took an oath to the U.S. Army.” His sister despised him for the choice, said Davis.

“Sherman I call skillful, (a leader) who enjoyed a stellar rise to theater command. In personality, he was mercurial, if not quirky.”

George Thomas
The Federal commander, had a bark worse than his bite, at least during the Civil War, Davis argued. “He wrote letters with strong language. He talked about exterminating. He never killed people, he just took their stuff.”

Eventually, Sherman went from “hard” war to “total war,” where killing was the prime objective. The Plains Indians were the later recipients of that part of his character.

Davis is preparing a slideshow for his evening lecture at Lovett. Students, parents, faculty, alumni and the community at large are invited.

The author is keeping secret which of the four generals to whom he will give the highest marks.

Admission to the 6 p.m. Sept. 2 lecture at the Hendrix-Chenault Theater at Lovett School in Atlanta is free, but reservations are suggested. Please call (404) 262-3032, ext. 1717, or email Light refreshments will be served before the lecture starting at 5:30 pm. For more information, visit

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Medal of Honor, finally, for Gettysburg hero

More than 151 years after his heroic service at Gettysburg, 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing, a Union battery commander, will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously, the White House announced. "He does deserve it without a doubt," said John Heiser, historian at Gettysburg National Military Park. "The tragedy is ... that it should have been awarded long, long ago." • Article

Sunday, August 24, 2014

PBS show in a 'race against time' to find the exact location of Civil War prison

Chelsea Rose with artifact (Ann McGarry, Oregon Public Broadcasting)

PBS’ “Time Team America” wants viewers to feel like they are right alongside archaeologists bent over in trenches, dabbing sweat while digging for historical treasure.

Viewers better be prepared to move quickly.

Tuesday night’s one-hour episode on a Civil War prison in Georgia will adhere to the show’s format of a “race against time” – 72 hours to unearth “secrets” and structures that give context to what occurred at a site.

The six-member team’s aim is to find the original site of Camp Lawton, which housed 10,000 Union prisoners near the small railroad town of Millen. At least 750 of them died.

“What artifacts are buried beneath the ground and what do they tell us of the hellish experiences of the prisoners once held captive here?” a promotional release asks.

Archaeologists look for stockade wall evidence (Georgia Southern U,)

The “Time Team America” crew was on site for three days in October 2012, but the episode is being broadcast only now because of a delay in season two of the series, which also has a strong online audience.

To some degree, the cat is largely out of the bag on what’s been confirmed at Camp Lawton. While the Civil War Picket and other outlets have written about more recent discoveries and research, most Americans likely know very little, if anything, about the prison. And I saw several artifacts for the first time while watching the episode.

The show’s quick pace, of course, is not typical of most archaeological digs.

But the quest for discovery, combined with solid storytelling and compelling characters, does create drama as the team deals with successes, setbacks and a deadline.

"Time Team America" crew (Ann McGarry, Oregon Public Broadcasting)

The “Time Team America” team splits up to concentrate on certain aspects of the large, 42-acre site that straddles a Georgia state park and a former federal fish hatchery.

Their goals: To confirm the location of at least one stockade wall and a corner, excavate Confederate guard and Union prisoner artifacts, and to find a powder magazine and the compound’s front gate. They also want to determine the age of timbers found in a stream, possibly associated with the stockade. One member even built a replica prisoner shelter, or shebang, and spent the night on site.

Among the discoveries is a Union soldier’s brass frame to hold a photograph.

“It was such a profound artifact,” archaeologist Chelsea Rose says in one segment. “That picture frame could have been somebody’s kids or wife. Someone they thought they may never see again … It would be hope, it would be freedom, it would be everything that was sacred to you.”

Excavation in the prisoner area. (Ann McGarry, Oregon Public Broadcasting)

The episode includes animation of the wall and historical context about the prison, which was built to relieve overcrowding at Andersonville prison. Camp Lawton was quickly evacuated in late November 1864 when the March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah would mean certain liberation.

Archaeology students at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro for several years have conducted digs on the site. The findings of one, Kevin Chapman, contributed to further research and the 2010 announcement of significant finds at the site.

Lance Greene, an assistant professor overseeing the work, said GSU since the filming has since done a lot of work inside and outside the stockade. “In particular, we have done more excavations on two prisoners' huts and on one of the brick ovens inside the stockade.”

(Georgia Southern University)

The Camp Lawton Facebook page on Sunday said the school will soon begin updating its website with 3-D scans of artifacts.

The scans and other information will begin appearing on the website soon. This is part of our effort to make information about Camp Lawton available to the public, not only in the region, but around the world."

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Vicksburg park bans drone flights

Vicksburg National Military Park officially is closed to unmanned aircraft, including drones, because of safety and noise concerns.

"The use of unmanned aircraft in parks is a relatively new, but quickly growing trend," said park Superintendent Michael Madell in a statement this week. "Although we have not experienced problems here at Vicksburg, we are concerned that flying the aircraft may have negative impacts on visitor experiences and safety, the solemnity of the battlefield, and park resources."

Other sites in the National Park Service system this week are taking similar stances. In June, the NPS announced the prohibition, saying it needed time to develop the proper permanent policy on unmanned aircraft.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Elmira prison exhibit shows the struggle to survive, desire to make a fast buck

Items made by prisoners at Elmira (Chemung County Historical Society)

“There were people trying to help. There were people trying to cash in.”

Rachel Dworkin, archivist with the Chemung County Historical Society, succinctly summed up the two sides of human nature as they played out at the famed Civil War prison camp in Elmira, N.Y.

The society’s Chemung Valley History Museum on Thursday night opened “So Far From Home: Life in Elmira's Confederate Prison Camp.” The exhibit, the fourth in a series on the Civil War, is open until July 2015, the 150th anniversary of the camp closure.

Once a Union recruiting center, the camp was transformed into a prison facility that opened in July 1864 and eventually housed 12,123 Confederates. Nearly 3,000 died, a staggering 24% death rate.

Ball and chain and other items (CCHS)

The exhibit, which features panels and descriptions of prisoner and guard life and the camp’s connection to the city, includes a small structure that represents two competing, commercial observation towers that sat just outside the stockade walls.

Owners charged 10 to 15 cents for the curious to gawk at the prisoners below. Visitors also could buy photographs and snacks.

James Huffman, a soldier from Virginia, blamed the Northern press for sending "a constant stream of people winding their way to the top of these observatories to get a glimpse of the Rebs, as they supposed us to be some kind of curious, monkey-shaped animals,” writes Michael Gray in his book about the prison, “The Business of Captivity.”

Life was extremely difficult, as the exhibit points out. Prisoners weathered hunger, illness, melancholy and exposure to the elements. Not enough of the men had stoves during the harsh winter.

All that remains today of Elmira Prison is a well-kept cemetery along the banks of the Chemung River, according to the National Park Service.

Dworkin told The Picket that officials hope visitors “come away with a better sense with what life was like for both sides during the conflict here.”

Coat belonging to Union guard
Townspeople were both fearful and fascinated with the camp, and many took part in charitable efforts to ease the suffering. The towers, however, were typical of a “circus element” until they were closed.

The prisoners generally fared better when they had skills, such as carpentry, that benefited the operation of the camp. They tended to get better rations and shelter. “The unpleasantness varied widely,” said Dworkin.

Prisoners maintained a strange economy providing services to comrades, Dworkin said. 

“There were people who taught people French in exchange for rats.”

Others made furniture and jewelry to be sold outside the camp. The exhibit features a chair made by a prisoner.

The historical society’s previous exhibits focused on soldier life, the home front and artifacts owned by local residents. Officials are working on creating digital versions of those programs.

Civilian artifacts include telegraph machine from train station (left)

Wartime photograph of prison camp (Library of Congress)