Vicksburg National Military Park is a big place. At over 1,800 acres and a 16 mile tour road, there is no such thing as a quick swing around the park. And while you spend your 45 minutes or more on the winding one-way roads, you will see monuments, markers and tablets. Lots of them. Should you be in the mood to count them all, you will need about a bus load of passengers to count on their fingers and toes. In the event you miss a few—or lose count—the total in the park is over 1,300.
Now imagine that Vicksburg is just one of 39 military parks, battlefields and historic sites that feature monuments, tables and historic markers. There are thousands of tributes dotting the landscapes of our Civil War battlefields, and yet it wasn’t until 2004 that a monument dedicated to regiments of African American soldiers was placed on National Park Service land. That monument, the African American Monument in Vicksburg National Military Park, is one of the newest additions to the commemorative landscape. Designed by Brookhaven, Mississippi OB/GYN Dr. J. Kim Sessums, the monument was proposed by Vicksburg Mayor Robert M. Walker in 1999 and commissioned by the State of Mississippi. Its purpose is to commemorate the 1st and 3rd Mississippi Regiments of African Descent, and all African American Mississippians to fight in the Vicksburg campaign, but since it is the first monument of its type in the National Park Service, it also serves as a commemoration of the service of over 178,000 former slaves and freedmen who served in the Union Army and another 18,000 who served in the Union Navy.
When asked about the African American contribution to the Union war effort, most people will point to the assault on Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, memorialized in the award winning movie Glory. What most people don’t know is that before the 54th Massachusetts gave them hell, United States Colored Troops (USCT) in the Vicksburg campaign proved their mettle in battle at Port Hudson (May 27, 1863) and Millikan’s Bend (June 7, 1863), assuaging the fears of civilian and military leadership in Washington, D.C. about the bravery and fighting ability of the African American troops.
It took 141 years for these troops to be commemorated in the way that their contemporaries were being honored all the way back at the beginning of the 20th century. At Vicksburg, the first monument was erected in 1903, and by 1917, 95% of the monuments that currently exist had already been placed.
Let’s take a look at one of the park’s newest monuments and see what story the sculptor chose to tell about the African American soldiers who helped take the Confederate bastion of Vicksburg.
The base of the monument is polished granite. The bronze plaque on the pedestal reads “Commemorating the 1st and 3d Mississippi Regiments, African Descent and all Mississippians of African descent who participated in the Vicksburg campaign.”
The pedestal is topped by three figures. Two soldiers represent the 1st and 3rd Mississippi Regiments, African Descent. The soldier in the center is wounded and is being supported on his left by a field hand, who looks back over his shoulder and on his right by another soldier, who looks forward and upwards. Behind the trio, on the ground, lay a pick and a shovel.
This monument uses black African granite, unlike the Mississippi State Memorial which uses white granite quarried from Mount Ary, North Carolina. The African origins of the granite used in the pedestal gives the monument a sense of place and the color draws a direct connection to the African American troops it honors. In a park filled with white granite monuments, including the other monument placed to honor Mississippi troops, the black color is distinctive. Only one other monument, the Connecticut State Memorial, features black granite, and its location is not in the park proper, but in a rarely visited portion of the park located across the river in Louisiana.
The center of the three figures, the wounded USCT soldier, represents the sacrifice of blood the 1st and 3rd Mississippi Regiments of African Descent made during the Vicksburg campaign. It represents the struggle of the soldiers' present. Their active participation in combat during this campaign was an important step in winning their own freedom and eventual citizenship. Port Hudson and Milliken’s Bend were trials by fire for the African American troops that participated, but they earned the respect of Union leadership which enabled a transition from providing manual labor to active involvement in the fighting that would secure their status in a new social order.
The field hand represents slavery. His glance behind him symbolizes that slavery is in the past. The second soldier is glancing forward, into the future he and his comrade helped to create. His gaze slightly upward indicates this future is filled with hope and promise.
Behind the trio lie tools of the past—a pick and a shovel—used by both the slave and the soldiers as they performed as pioneers digging graves, building roads and bridges. They have been abandoned in the pursuit of freedom and the future.
As with all monuments, however, the intended symbolism is just a part of the story. Monuments are imagined and commissioned by people or groups of people to remember things they believe are important. To understand the unintended symbolism, it is important to examine those who are responsible for bringing the monument to life and the societal events that make it possible for the monument to be raised at the time it was.
The Vicksburg National Military Park was established in 1899 to protect and memorialize the land on which the siege of Vicksburg took place. By the centennial celebration in 1999, there were still no monuments to the African American troops who had participated in the campaign. The park’s two metal markers commemorating the efforts of members of the African Brigade (or African Descent) came down after 39 years within the park grounds, in 1942. They had been melted down during WWII to help the war effort. Only one recreated tablet returned, and it was consigned to the isolated location of Grant’s Canal in Louisiana. Vicksburg’s mayor, Robert M. Walker, wanted to rectify the oversight. Before being elected, he had been a history professor at several colleges and universities. And when he was elected in 1988 to finish an unexpired term, Robert Walker became Vicksburg’s first African American mayor. He was still in office during the 1999 park centennial and it was his efforts that first broached the subject of installing an African American monument within the military park boundaries.
Mayor Walker timed his proposal well. As the park’s centennial approached, and with the critical and box office success of the 1989 movie Glory, the interest in the little told story of nearly 200,000 African American soldiers and sailors increased. Using Google’s Ngram program, we can track the occurrence of certain words and phrases in books over a period of time. We see a marked increase in the occurrence of the term “USCT” in 1987, 1992 and a final jump in 2001, when the term was seven times more frequent than it had been in 1970.
The monument, the movie and the increased attention to the 200,000 African American troops that fought in Union blue…all indicate that there was a new societal awareness of, and interest in, non-traditional stories from the Civil War. The placing of this monument at the advent of the 21st century was a long-overdue acknowledgement of the contributions of 9.5% of the total Union army 141 years after the action along the bluff tops above the Mississippi River.
Schools across the country are on summer break and families are planning to hit the road to spend quality vacation time together. Summer is the perfect time to take your family to a Civil War battlefield. The National Park Service’s biggest parks expand their ranger programs for the summer and the longer summer days allow your family to explore the battlefield well into the evening when temperatures are lower and crowds are smaller.
If you are considering stopping by a battlefield on your way to the beach, the amusement park or a camping weekend, here are some tips to help your family get the most out of your visit.
1. Visit rangerously. The Interpretive Rangers who work at Civil War battlefields are experts on the battles that took place on the land they steward and are conversant in other military actions in the campaign, and social and political history of the time period. They are also public historians. Their primary purpose is to bring history to the public in meaningful and impactful ways. They like talking to people and answering questions. So, make their day and ask them.
2. Get with the program. Those public historians who love to answer questions also enjoy telling the stories of their battlefields. National Park Service battlefields feature a wide variety of ranger programs that tell the story of the men who fought and the civilians who were caught in the crossfire. Many rangers create their own programming, using rare primary sources from the park's archives, so the topics are ones the rangers tend to be especially passionate about. Some parks' regular calendars and others' special events calendars include special programs aimed at children and teens. Ranger programs are included in any park admission fee.
4. Collect them all. As part of its commemoration activities for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the National Park Service created a series of trading cards kids can collect by visiting over 90 historical sites nationwide. The cards tell stories of the Civil War and Civil Rights. To see all the trading cards available and where you can pick them up, check out the NPS’ Flickr site.
5. Get personal. There are lots of ways to tour the battlefield. You can hike and drive. You can use the tour brochure offered for free at the Visitor’s Center or purchase an audio tour CD. If you are in Gettysburg your options even include buses, horses, Segways, bikes, and horse-drawn carriage rides. Some of these options are better than others, and if you have no other choice, any one can be an adequate introduction to the battlefield. Unfortunately, in each of these cases, you are at the mercy of what someone else thinks is interesting or important.
Several parks including Gettysburg, Antietam and Vicksburg have licensed battlefield guides that must go through rigorous testing before they are admitted to the program. Other parks don’t run a battlefield guide program, but guides can be found by searching the internet (Google the battlefield name and “personal tour guide”) or by calling the park’s Visitor’s Center and asking them for a recommendation.
Personal tour guides can customize tours for your family’s specific interests and ages and are able to read and react to the interest level as the tour progresses. Guides can ask and answer questions to encourage dialog with your family. It may sound like an expensive proposition, but depending on the number of people in your family, it may be less expensive than lunch in a fast casual restaurant.
7. Do your homework. I know, it’s summer. No one enjoys summer homework. But when my husband suggested we add a stop at Gettysburg to our summer vacation several years ago, he had one condition: before we went, we had to watch the movie Gettysburg while I provided a running commentary about what we would see and who we would hear about again. When it was time for my parents to visit the battlefield, my husband told me to have them watch the movie.
Preparing in this way allows you to become familiar with the people and places you will hear about on the battlefield. It can also introduce you to some interesting story lines you may want to investigate further once you are there.
That may all sound good, but history books are boring, right? The good news is that there are lots of great resources you and your family can use to provide this basic understanding: picture books, graphic histories, biographies, movies and popular battle histories. Check out the Intelligence Reports page to find just the right resource for every member of your family.
Do you have any tips from your family's visit to a battlefield? Comment below!
The McLean Family had seen war before. Back in the summer of 1861, they lived in a house near a small winding creak called Bull Run outside the northern Virginia railroad town of Manassas when the first major land battle of the Civil War commenced. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard took over their home as his headquarters. They fled the day before the Battle of Blackburn Farm (a precursor to the First Battle of Bull Run), during which a Union artillery shell crashed through the kitchen wall and into a lunch being prepared for General Beauregard.
When another battle erupted the next summer near the old battle ground on Bull Run Creek, Wilmer McLean decided he had had enough of war. The family found a home in a small Southside Virginia town of Appomattox Court House and he moved his wife, three daughters and a son there in the fall of 1863. The area had been untouched by war, and the family settled into a quiet and peaceful life as Wilmer took up sugar speculation, supplying sugar to the Confederate Army.
In April 1865, as General Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fled the confines of its trenches around Petersburg and Richmond and tried to make it to Danville to meet up with General Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, the Union’s Army of the Potomac was in hot pursuit. After a week of hard marching and nearly constant contact between the two opposing armies, they arrived at the little hamlet the McLean family called home: Appomattox Court House.
On the morning of April 9, 1865, Union infantry had the Confederate army boxed in. The only way out for the Confederates was to push through the Union cavalry on the western end of town. But the cavalry posed stiff resistance, and when it seemed like the Confederates were successfully pushing them back, an entire corps of Union infantry--made up in part of Freedmen and former slaves of the United States Colored Troops--rose up to block the Confederates’ path. Lee knew it was over when General John B. Gordon sent him a message that proclaimed Gordon’s troops had been “fought to a frazzle” and needed reinforcements.
Under a white flag, Lee’s message went out to Grant, and Lee’s trusted aid, Charles Marshall, set out to look for a suitable place for the two generals to meet.
The McLean family had waited out the battle in their kitchen on the ground floor of their home as men and horses were shot down around them. Now in this lull, Wilmer McLean went out to investigate. It was then that he was spotted by Marshall.
Wilmer McLean’s three story brick home was one of the most prominent structures in the small town, and Marshall approached McLean with a request: Did he know of anywhere the Generals could meet? After an empty barn was rejected as unsuitable, McLean reluctantly offered the use of his parlor, and soon after, Marshall and Lee returned to sit in the small room overlooking the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road. Lee wore his best uniform and a sword at his side. He and Marshall waited for half an hour before Grant showed up, dressed in his dusty uniform and muddy boots.
After small talk, the two got down to business. Grant offered terms of surrender that Lee found acceptable: officers could keep their personal baggage, sidearms and horses, and the men would be allowed to return home without fear of prosecution by the federal government if they only obeyed the rules of their parole and the laws that governed where they lived. Lee pointed out that cavalry and artillery soldiers owned their own horses and requested that they be allowed to take those horses home. Grant, knowing the importance of horses in farming, agreed. The two departed.
The scene was witnessed by only one member of the McLean family--a small rag doll belonging to seven year old Lula McLean. Lula apparently left the doll in the parlor as she was ushered out of the room in preparation for the meeting. The doll was found after the generals left and Union officers rushed in to collect souvenirs of the meeting. Several of the younger officers tossed the doll between them before Captain Thomas W.C. Moore of General Sheridan’s staff, took it with him.
The doll was made of unbleached cotton, and stuffed. She wore a bodice, skirt and leggings of printed cotton. Someone had used ink to draw two eyes, but her face bore no other features. She made an odd war trophy for the Moore family--a Silent Witness to history.
Lula’s doll was just one of many souvenirs taken by Union soldiers. They carried out the tables, inkstands, and candles. They cut strips from the sofas and from the cane bottom chairs. Some of the officers paid, some of them didn’t. Even in peace, McLean’s home was destroyed.
Captain Moore’s family passed the Silent Witness down from generation to generation for 127 years until the family donated the small doll to the National Park Service. The Silent Witness can now be seen in the Appomattox Court House Visitor’s Center museum located in the old village courthouse.
References and Further Reading
How the Civil War Stalked Wilmer McLean
Silent Witness to the Surrender
On April 9, 1865, two military giants, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union General Ulysses S. Grant, met in the parlor of the home of Wilmer McLean in the small Southside Virginia town of Appomattox Court House. Grant, under orders from President Lincoln, offered generous terms to the surrendering Confederates. The officers could keep their personal sidearms, and baggage, and any soldier who brought a horse was allowed to take it home. Most importantly, the surrender terms allowed each man to return home and remain undisturbed by the Federal government as long as they observed “the terms of their parole and the laws in force where they may reside.” Lee, by turning down a subordinate’s suggestion of guerrilla warfare, accepted reunification and Federal authority. After nearly four years of bitter military struggle and political posturing, the effective end of the Civil War was enacted by two military men coming to an apolitical accord that would allow the country to move past the difficulties of the past and into a peaceful future. Except….
Elizabeth R. Varon tells us that this apolitical view of a new era of peace and reconciliation is simply a myth. In Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War, Varon examines how the participants and the population at large both interpreted and used the language of the surrender terms to reinforce their own ideas of what the end of the war actually meant. The result is an echo of the partisan and regional tensions that continue 150 years after the surrender at Appomattox.
Varon looks at how Grant, Southern Loyalists, Radical Republicans and some moderate Democrats saw the surrender terms as magnanimity to a defeated foe. In victory, the Federal government could afford to be kind to the Confederacy, and in doing so, lay the foundation for a chastened and repentant people to come back under Federal authority. By foregoing retribution, Lincoln--who dictated the general tone of the surrender terms-- and Grant, believed they were easing their wayward brethren back into the fold. Lee, his fellow Confederates and northern Copperheads, believed that the terms were a contract with the Federal government, guaranteeing the former Confederates of every rank and position freedom from prosecution and freedom to live “undisturbed”--the definition of which was broad, vague and varying. The Freedmen of both the North and South saw the leniency granted by the Federal government as a betrayal of the promise of freedom Appomattox had originally portended, as southern state governments were again filled with Confederate leaders passing Black Codes to limit Freedmen’s freedom.
This book is an instructive look at just how much work was still left to do at the end of the war and the advent of Reconstruction. Much of what we identify today as a “Confederate” or “Union” bias even in today’s academia and popular history can be traced back to the varying interpretations that Varon highlights. The image of honorable Confederates who fought for the right to be paroled, and who never really lost but were simply overwhelmed by superior numbers is a primary tenant of the Lost Cause interpretation of the war. The image of a magnanimous Union that could claim moral superiority for forgoing retribution and instead being generous to a fault, glosses over the reestablishment of de facto slavery throughout the Confederates states when the Federal government allowed Confederate leaders back into governance.
What strikes me most about this work is that, in the study of history and throughout life, there is fact and there is truth and those two are not necessarily the same thing. It is a fact that the terms of surrender offered by Grant and accepted by Lee read, “ General; In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all officers and men to be made in duplicate, one copy to be given to an officer to be designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly [exchanged], and each company or regimental commander to sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery, and public property to be parked, and stacked, and turned over to the officers appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by the United States authorities so long as they observe their paroles, and the laws in force where they may reside.”
It is truth that those words were interpreted by individuals based on their own personal biases, backgrounds and objectives. Those who would agree to yielding but not submission saw one truth---that they had earned the right to continue on without being disturbed by forced changes to the social relationships between the races and other changes to their way of life. Those who marched victoriously down the streets of Washington, D.C. in the Grand Review saw another truth--that those words would encourage the Confederates into accepting that the Union was right all along and the Confederacy was fatally flawed. And those men and women of color, who had been born free, or recently freed from the bondage of slavery, saw an entirely different truth--after a war that became about their freedom, those words were poor protection against the status quo.
Varon’s research and writing are top notch. Her challenge to the historical myth of Appomattox not only sheds light on one of the least understood periods of American history--Reconstruction--but on current interpretations of the Civil War which have their basis in the dueling interpretations of the truth that came out of the surrender terms. If you are looking for book about the military history of the Battle of Appomattox Court House, this is not the book for you. If you are looking for a insightful challenge to what you think you already know about the surrender and its aftermath, you can’t do better than this.
When you ask people about the authors that first got them excited about the Civil War, two names always pop up: Shelby Foote through his amazing three volume The Civil War: A Narrative and Bruce Catton. At the ripe old age of “old enough to know better”, it is embarrassing to admit that I hadn’t read anything by one of the best authors on the Civil War. This past winter, it was time to rectify that.
Bruce Catton was a prolific writer and has several three-book series on the Civil War including his Army of the Potomac Trilogy containing its Pulitzer Prize winning volume A Stillness at Appomattox. And while I have every intention of reading his other titles at some point, I opted for a shorter survey of the conflict called This Hallowed Ground. Originally published in 1955, a new paperback edition was published for the Vintage Civil War Library in 2012.
For the beginner, there is an awful lot to like. Even for someone like me, who gets overwhelmed with tactical movements and the campaign and battle books focused on them, this book has a lot to offer. The information itself is probably not ground breaking to someone who has read other Civil War works before (and since it was written in 1955, it predates a lot of original research and scholarship that we’ve seen in the past several decades). It is not in the details that Catton excels—though he isn’t a slouch in that respect---it is in his readable and informal storytelling prose. Sometimes, he made me chuckle and at other times he brought tears to my eyes. Several beautiful passages stayed with me long after I turned the final page, including his final description of the Army of the Tennessee outside of Washington, D.C. before the formal Review in April 1865. I went to bed dreaming of the soldiers and their candlelight march.
There are obvious limitations for a survey that only comes in at 479 pages (400 pages of text). Unlike other surveys such as James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, this book does not spend long on the causes of the Civil War. Confederates open fire on Fort Sumter promptly on page 18. Major battles and even campaigns are dealt with concisely; the three days at Gettysburg, for instance, are covered in all of four pages.
It appears that the publisher dropped the subtitle--The Union Side of the Civil War--for this book upon the reprint. I won’t say Catton's writing is necessarily biased; it is clear that he approaches the war through the eyes of the Northerner. It is perhaps one of the greatest limitations of this book that he does not spend equal time on the Confederate perspective. It is not balanced in this way, and it was never intended to be. This can be remedied by seeking out other sources that provide the Confederate perspective. There are great authors out there who focus on the Confederacy (Foote, for example), and when taken with these other authors’ works, This Hallowed Ground presents a very enjoyable piece of the puzzle.
If you are ready to begin reading about the Civil War, This Hallowed Ground is a great place to start, as suitable for reading on the couch as it is on the beach (were you, unlike me, to visit the beach for extended periods of time). For those of you who still read hard copy books, the 2012 reprint has a wonderful feel to it. That may not matter, but if it does, get the reprint.
PS--Check out the footnote about Emily Hoffman and how she gets the news that changes her life. The tale was told to the author by her great nephew, Walter Lord. Anyone interested in the Titanic disaster will be familiar with this name as he wrote one of the seminal works on the disaster, A Night to Remember.
As an action hero, Sarah Emma Edmonds is the Lara Croft of the Civil War. Assuming the identity of the male soldier Franklin “Frank” Thompson, she joined the Union Army in 1861 as a battlefield nurse, and spent time as a courier before taking on the role of Union spy. If young women of your acquaintance need a historical role model, they could certainly do worse than Sarah Emma Edmonds.
Behind Rebel Lines has been on my reading list for longer than Civil War Scout has existed. I have been anticipating this fictionalized version of Edmonds’ story, but in the end, it didn’t live up to my (perhaps too lofty) expectations.
At just under 150 pages, this is a relatively short book, and as such, it doesn’t provide more than a few pages of context to explain Edmonds’ adopting a male persona even before her time in the Union Army. This results in a rather flat character who is driven by vague, unspecified motivations usually attributed to an “imp voice”. Unfortunately, this motivation is confusing for several reasons:
This book was originally written in 1991 and has been republished several times. The language and stereotypes may be a bit jarring, especially when Edmonds takes on the personas and dress of others as she is inserts herself in her spy career, but I suspect that much of that comes directly from her memoirs and is indicative of the contemporary accounts during the Civil War.
Though it is on my (extensive) reading list, I have yet to read Edmonds’ memoirs Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, so I can’t judge how faithfully the narrative follows the original memoirs, but I can confirm that the soldier Allen Hall, whom Edmonds discovered on one of her espionage missions, does show up on the muster rolls of the 25th Virginia Infantry which fought at Gaines Mill (also known as the First Battle of Cold Harbor), so it does lead credence to the veracity of the story. Until I have a chance to read the source documentation (or what the author claims as his source documentation), I will categorize this as historical fiction.
A great companion to this book is the History Channel’s Full Metal Corset: Secret Soldiers of the Civil War which introduces Edmonds with more background and fleshes out her personality and her history.
I wanted to save my posts for this Women’s History Month to highlight the lesser known contributions of women to the war effort. The soldiers, spies, and healers who defied traditional gender roles and took action to effect the course of the war instead of letting the war happen to them. At first glance, Sarah Morgan, a 19 year old young woman living in Baton Rouge with her family when the war started, may not exactly fit the bill. Though she never donned a uniform, or slipped secrets of the enemy’s whereabouts to her army’s commanders, Sarah Morgan’s candid writing made her one of the best known diarists of Civil War America and her words have helped countless generations understand the ravages of the war on the southern home front.
Sarah Morgan’s published diary, The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman, measures 615 pages and spans a time period from January 10, 1861 through June 15, 1865. A tome of that size might prove intimidating for an adult, so, author Debra West Smith decided to make it more accessible to a middle school audience. By editing the source volume and creating dialog from the material, Smith has crafted an engaging, and largely faithful recreation of Morgan’s diary.
The key to Sarah’s relevance is that she observed life from a young woman’s point of view, and much of it was emotional and visceral writing. That comes through in Smith’s adaptation and enhances the value of such a book to engender critical thinking and discussions with middle school students or family members.
One of Sarah’s earliest revelations is that the Union soldiers are not the monsters that prevailing sentiment claimed them to be. Sarah, feeling defiant with her friends, wears a homemade Confederate national flag pinned to her shirt when she goes to the State House. There she unexpectedly sees fifteen to twenty Union soldiers standing on a terrace, being watched like animals. Sarah says she is ashamed that she drew attention to herself, and claims she felt humiliated and conspicuous. At first, she lays the blame for her feelings on the idea that she has not been ladylike in her behavior. Just one paragraph later, she reveals the true issue…she hadn’t expected the Yankees to be such gentlemen--fine and noble looking “showing refinement and gentlemanly bearing.”
Sarah’s later interactions with the occupying Union force shows her earlier revelation about the Yankees drives her actions--taking food to the injured Union troops because she acknowledges that they have loved ones at home. She also hopes that someone would do the same for her brothers fighting with the Confederate forces.
Her revelation that she can be compassionate to men who wear another uniform and not compromise her loyalty to her brothers and her cause is described as doing the right thing, and is a lesson appropriate today.
There are some really good discussion opportunities for families and classes to discuss attitudes of slaveholders and how they perceive the motivations of their slaves as is evidenced in the passage in which Sarah watches the Linwood “servants” (Sarah uses “servants” much more frequently in her diary than she uses “slaves”) laughing in the sugar house while the master’s young guests play games and try their hands at stirring the boiling kettles of sugar. Smith’s Sarah says “It occurred to her that if Abe Lincoln could spend grinding season on the plantation he would recall his Proclamation. Never in her home, nor at Linwood, had she seen the cruelty abolitionists railed about, and the dark faces that joined her silly songs seemed far from miserable.”
In her diary, Sarah Morgan includes a lament of the same nature on November 9, 1862: “ And to think, Old Abe wants to deprive us of all that fun. No more cotton, sugar cane, or rice! No more old black aunties or uncles! No more rides in mule teams, no more songs in the cane field, no more steaming kettles, no more black faces and shining teeth around the furnace fires!
“If Lincoln could spend the grinding season on a plantation, he would recall his proclamation. As it is, he has only proved himself a fool, without injuring us. Why last evening I took old Wilson’s place at the baggasse shoot, and kept the rollers free from cane until I had thrown down enough to fill several carts, and had my hands as black as his. What cruelty to the slaves! And black Frank things me cruel too, when he meets me with a patronizing grin, and shows me the nicest vats of candy, and peels cane for me! Oh! Very cruel! And so does Jules, when he wipes the handle of his paddle on his apron, to give ‘Mamselle’ a chance to skim the kettles and learn how to work! Yes! And so do all the rest who meet us with a courtesy and ‘Howd’y young missus!”
This scene raises questions such as:
“I am going away to the Great House Farm! O, yea! O, yea! O!”
This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do. I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them.”
Since the text of Sarah Morgan: The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman is available online, advanced readers can verify Smith’s version of events by checking it directly with the source material as they read along.
The only thing that keeps this from being a 5 star book is some confusing writing that results in Sarah’s mother magically appearing in the story several times without explanation. She was miles away and suddenly, there she is, back at the house in Baton Rouge or ministering to wounded soldiers in Sarah’s presence after she has tearfully taken her goodbyes and moved away. It is likely this is the result of the heavy editing required to trim 600 pages to 173 pages, and the excluded material probably helps with context, but more careful editing could have avoided these issues entirely.
Unlike many of the families in the area of Virginia the Boyds lived (which was so against secession that it broke from Virginia to create the Union-loyal state of West Virginia), the Boyds had deep southern roots and supported the cause of the Confederacy. Belle’s father volunteered for a Virginia infantry regiment which was commanded by Colonel Thomas Jackson before he had earned his famous nickname for standing like a stone wall. After a skirmish between Confederate and Union forces at the Battle of Falling Waters, just 8 1/2 miles north of the Boyds’ home, Union forces came through Martinsburg. One of the Federal soldiers entered the Boyd home and confronted Belle’s mother. Belle would not tolerate the disrespectful and harassing language and behavior. She shot the man. The Union officer sent to investigate determined that Belle had been in the right and she escaped punishment.
Belle was not considered beautiful, but because she was tall, vivacious, well-dressed and young, she was able to charm unsuspecting Union officers into revealing information which she would then pass to the Confederates through her neighbor or her slave. Eventually, she became an official operative for Generals PGT Beauregard and Stonewall Jackson.
In May 1862, after having been detained by Union forces, she was at her aunt’s home near Fort Royal. The home was now the headquarters of Union General James Shields, who was on a mission to whip Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. The General called a Council of War--a meeting with his subordinates to set a course of action--held in her aunt’s drawing room. On the second floor, directly above the drawing room was a closet. And in the floor of the closet was a hole.
Belle gathered her intelligence while in the cramped closet, then when the Council ended at 1 a.m., she set out for Confederate lines on horseback, her pockets holding cast off passes for Confederate heading south. The papers fooled the sentries, and she was able to get her information to Confederate cavalryman Colonel Turner Ashby.
On May 23rd, Jackson’s men approached Front Royal. Belle had more valuable information that she believed could ensure a victory for the Confederate forces. She knew the size and disposition of Union forces in the lower (northern) Shenandoah Valley. Though she approached several men who had professed Confederate sympathies to carry the information to Jackson, none agreed to do so. So she went herself.
Belle’s escape from the Union lines was harrowing, with Federal picket fire hitting the ground near enough to spray dirt in her eyes and other Union bullets tearing holes in her dress. When she was safely behind Confederate lines she was greeted by Jackson’s aide Henry Kyd Douglass who recognized her and took her notes to Jackson himself. Jackson was so grateful for her daring that he wrote her a note of thanks:
May 23d 1862
Miss Belle Boyd,
I thank you for myself and for the army, for the immense service that you have rendered your country today.
Hastily I am your friend,
T.J. Jackson, O.S.A
Only two months later, Belle was captured and imprisoned at Old Capitol Prison on Washington, D.C. She spent a month there before being exchanged. She went back to her career in espionage and again, she was capture and imprisoned, this time for five months. After her release the second time, she was banished to the south, but instead of retiring, she simply decided on a change of base, and set sail for England. While enroute, her ship was stopped by the Union navy and again, she was arrested as a spy.
Belle went on to captivate one of her Union captors, Samuel Hardinge, who she hoped to convert to the Confederate cause. Whether his loyalty to his country was compromised or simply his heart, he did serve time for giving aide to Belle.
When you think of a Civil War soldier, what image comes to mind? Perhaps a young man, thin and haggard, wearing tattered butternut. Maybe a middle aged African American soldier wearing blue for the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Maybe you think about a little boy, wearing a drum across his small body or a bugle over his shoulder. No matter what image pops into your mind, chances are the soldier you are picturing is male.
According to the Civil War Trust, over 3 million soldiers fought during the Civil War and the vast majority of those soldiers were men as neither the Union nor Confederate army had a policy allowing the enlistment of female soldiers. But as many as 400 women fought regardless, serving in Union and Confederate uniforms during the war. One of those dressed in Union blue, Sarah Emma Edmonds, left behind a memoir detailing her history, and though historians are skeptical of some of her claims, what is verified fact about her life shows a woman not content to sit on the sidelines while her adopted country fought its defining war.
Sarah Emma Edmonds was an American by choice. She was born in the province of Nova Scotia, Canada in December in 1841. Her father was disappointed she was not a boy, and she spent much of her young life trying to prove to him her worth. Eventually, seeing the futility of her efforts, she fled from her father’s oppression and an arranged marriage, first to New Brunswick, and later, to put more distance between herself and her father, she immigrated to the United States. She did so in disguise, adopting the persona of a young man named Franklin Thompson.
She had established herself as a traveling Bible and bookseller, first in Connecticut, and later outside of Flint, Michigan where she was living when the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter and President Lincoln issued his call for 75,000 troops to suppress the rebellion. Edmonds decided it was time to fight for her new country.
She disguised herself as black male “contraband” named “Cuff” performing manual labor for the Confederate army.
She drew on her experience as a traveling book seller to pose as an Irish peddler woman named “Bridget O’Shea” selling goods to Confederate soldiers behind enemy lines.
She donned black face and a red bandanna and while working as a washer woman, came across a packet of official papers that had been in a Confederate officers’ uniform jacket.
Her unit was transferred several times, and it eventually ended up in the western theater, where Edmonds continued her work as a spy, and then as a nurse. It was here, while she was tending wounded and ill soldiers, that she contracted malaria in 1863. Afraid her secret would be discovered if she were treated by the army surgeons, she requested a furlough. When it was denied, she left her unit for treatment. Franklin Thompson was declared a deserter and Edmonds’ military career was at an end.
Even while the war still raged, she wrote her memoirs titled Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, the first edition of which was published in 1864. She donated the money she earned from book sales to various soldiers’ causes. When the 2nd Michigan held a reunion in 1876, her former comrades in arms welcomed her warmly and took up the cause of removing the blight of “desertion” from Franklin Thompson’s military record, which led to Edmonds being able to receive a military pension in 1884. In 1897, she joined the Grand Army of the Republic, the fraternal organization of Union Civil War veterans. She was the only woman ever to do so.
After the war, Edmonds married and had three children. She moved to Texas with her family and died in 1898. She was buried with military honors in Washington Cemetery in Houston.
References and Further Reading
Sarah Emma Edmonds, Private
Sarah Emma Edmonds Biography
Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy: A Woman’s Adventure in the Union Army by Sarah Emma Edmonds
Intelligence Report--Mary Walker Wears The Pants: The True Story of the Doctor, Reformer and Civil War Hero
Children who see women dressed in pants and shorts these days may not understand how unusual the practice was in the past. Nor may they understand that being a female doctor in the mid-19th century was unusual. But both of these things, and others, make Mary Walker a unique woman. Mary Walker Wears the Pants is a picture book that looks at all the ways Mary Walker was different and the way society treated her because of it.
She was a courageous woman whose parents had encouraged independent thinking. That led her to embrace a movement called “dress reform” trying to change the norm of restrictive clothing women were expected to wear. She believed in women’s suffrage and equal civil rights for men and women. And author Cheryl Harness shows that she was whispered about and ridiculed for her choices.
The story quickly gets to Dr. Walker’s service during the Civil War in which she volunteered as a nurse, was finally accepted as an official Assistant Surgeon, and was captured and became a prisoner of war. Harness then explains the awarding of the Medal of Honor and her post-war career. Harness does not explain the controversy which resulted in the rescission of Dr. Walker’s Medal of Honor in 1917 or its later reinstatement.
Dr. Mary Walker’s story is exciting and appealing, and Harness does a capable job of telling her story. Harness does frame much of Dr. Walker’s experiences around her choice of clothing, and the theme is never really distant. At points, it seems as though Harness is trying to promote this as the most unusual thing about Dr. Walker’s extraordinary life. Unfortunately, this seems to be done at the expense of more thorough discussion of her medical school experience and her career as an army surgeon. I will give the author the benefit of the doubt in the latter, however, as it is not easy to find an age appropriate way to address the blood and gore of a field hospital. It also at least provides a framework for other discussions including how people treat others who dress differently or make unconventional choices for their life.
Harness certainly paints Dr. Walker as a capable, dedicated and persistent surgeon who encouraged rethinking many previously held ideas including gender roles and traditional medical treatment in combat situations.
This is a great book for girls and boys to be introduced to a little known, but important, female hero of the Civil War (and the country’s only female Medal of Honor winner).
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.