Category Archives: Civil War

Putting the History in the Historical Novel: Cold Harbor

This is the twelfth in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Last week, I wrote about the “Associates,” the principals in the Central Pacific Railroad, the company that built the western leg of America’s first transcontinental railroad. This week, I return to the Civil War, specifically the battle of Cold Harbor.

In an earlier article on this site (May 23, 2014), I spoke about Cold Harbor as a battle which witnessed General Ulysses S. Grant at his worst and at his best. At his worst, because he failed to insure adequate surveillance of his enemy. Lee exacted a bloody, unnecessarily costly price, a fact that Grant acknowledged in his memoirs. It’s difficult to fathom today. On the morning of June 3, 1864, Grant ordered an attack of 60,000 Union soldiers across open ground. Along a seven-mile line, Lee’s soldiers stood safely behind log and earth barriers. The Confederates stacked logs with openings at eye-level, where a soldier could stand and fire his rifle with little danger of being struck by return fire. Artillery units were primed to bombard the enemy. Most of the slaughter was over in eight minutes. Seventeen hundred men lay in windrows. Another nine thousand lay wounded on the field, expecting their commander to request a truce so they could be retrieved from the field.

In New Garden, I lend the battle a personal touch, illustrated by the plight of two brothers at dawn of the fateful day:

Perry McDougal’s thoughts drifted to Hemlock Lake. If he survived the war, he would return there and never leave. He would marry Gloria McBride and have at least ten children. He would gladly leave the war behind him and never speak of its horrors.

It was the only cool part of the day, but Perry was all perspiration. He knew the Federals’ failure to attack the previous day had given Lee too much time. Perry knew it. His brother Tom knew it. All sixty thousand men about to make the frontal assault knew it.

Perry nervously opened his cartridge box, fingering its contents. The paper encasing the ball and powder grew damp with perspiration.

Somehow Perry calmed down as his hands dried.

“Tom,” he whispered.

“Yeah, Perry,” Tom whispered back.

“If you make it, tell Pa I didn’t shirk. I didn’t waver.”

“Shut up, Perry. You’ll make it. Don’t bring us bad luck.”

And then came the horror of the rebel barrage:

The sun then appeared to flash above the horizon, but, no, that wasn’t east. Twenty-five thousand rebel muskets fired, along with over a hundred cannon.

Tom glanced left. Perry had pushed left, as if doing so might save his brother.

The glimpse was horrible. A head, a limb, then the entire mass of his brother disintegrated before him, just as the shock of the rebel explosion threw him to the ground.

Tom awoke, unable to hear anything. He crawled to his right, safe, he thought, in a swale. Minnie balls whistled around him or thudded in his comrades’ bodies, now lying in rows like fallen dominoes.

It wasn’t much, but Tom recognized it instantly. Somehow the blade of a pen knife had survived the volley. Tom could make out the engraving, “Perry A. McDougal” with “1863” beneath the name. Tom had bought the knife in Baltimore for Perry’s birthday last November. The brothers had been safe at the time, pulling artillery duty outside the city. Tom grabbed the blade, then fell back into the swale. He had seen nothing resembling his brother. Tom lay still through the day’s scorching heat, soaked in sweat, with black flies and mosquitoes waiting for him to die. At nightfall he crawled back into the safety of the Union camp.

New Garden, pp. 277-278.

“Unconditional Surrender” Grant had never suffered a defeat on the battlefield. Rather than admit one now, Grant attempted to negotiate a truce, as if the battle had been a draw. Lee would have none of it. Grant persisted, asking that Lee demonstrate humanity toward the “suffering from both sides.” Finally, on Tuesday, June 7, Grant acknowledged defeat and Union soldiers recovered their brethren under a flag of truce. Only two Union soldiers remained alive on the field. Any other survivors had crawled back into Union lines under cover of darkness. For many, the delay had sealed their doom or cost them an arm or a leg from prolonged exposure. For all of them, Grant’s pride had inflicted unnecessary misery.

As I stated earlier, Cold Harbor also illustrated Grant at his best. He was not immobilized by the horrible loss. Instead, he planned and executed the next critical step. On the same day he acknowledged the defeat, he sent General Phil Sheridan with two cavalry divisions toward Charlottesville. Lee had no choice but to order cavalry General Wade Hampton to respond in kind, taking his cavalry to intercept Sheridan. The cavalry served as Lee’s eyes, scouting the enemy’s movements. Without Hampton near Cold Harbor, Lee could no longer keep an eye on Grant. Ten miles downriver from Cold Harbor, Grant’s engineers laid a half-mile pontoon bridge across the James River. Had Lee learned about the crossing in time, he could have destroyed Grant’s army. The Union army’s deliberate withdrawal across the James allowed Grant to “steal a march” on Lee. By Monday, June 13, the Yankees were safely across the James and Grant had set up headquarters at City Point (modern day Hopewell).

Please consider a longer read. New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

Trouble at Mono Pass, the sequel to New Garden, is available on line and at the referenced Greensboro locations. In California, it is available at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve (Lee Vining) gift shop, the Mono Lake Committee Bookstore (Lee Vining), and the Donner Memorial State Park Bookstore (Truckee, Californi

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Putting the History in the Historical Novel: Partus Sequitur Ventrem

This is the fifth in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Last week, I wrote about the portrayal of young Ulysses S. Grant in the Mexican War. This week, I shift to slavery in North Carolina, where one’s status in life was determined by that of the mother. Specifically, I turn to a moral and legal dilemma faced by young attorney Richard Grier, whose father-in-law, Edward McAllister, has given him Alicia, Edward’s slave daughter. Alicia is now pregnant with Richard’s child. (Alicia’s mother, Annie, was given to Edward by his father.)

Richard rushes to Johnston County, North Carolina, where Edward is on his deathbed in a cottage. In New Garden (196-199), I depict North Carolina law and Richard’s dilemma.

[Richard] returned to the cottage, uncorked one jug [of whiskey], and placed it on the sill.

“Thank you, lad.” Edward took a long swallow, then coughed up more blood.

“Richard, nothing shames me more than the wrong I have done to Annie and Alicia.”

“You’ve treated them very well, sir, like family.”

“Richard, the fact is, they are family, in every sense of the word.”

Richard swallowed hard. “What do you mean by that, sir?”

“Richard, you must not perpetuate the wrong committed by my father – and by me. Before I left Virginia, my father told me the truth about Annie. You do know that she is a mulatto?”

“Yes, of course.”

“In most such cases, the father is white and the mother is black.”


“Annie’s mother was white. The father was a mulatto. Partus sequitur ventrem.

***The legal doctrine held that the status of a child followed that of the mother. Early English common law had held that among English subjects, a child’s status was inherited from the father. In the seventeenth century, Virginia colonists adopted the partus sequitur ventrem doctrine to protect slave owners from legal responsibility for their slaves’ offspring. Other colonies followed Virginia’s example.

“And you, sir, I surmise, are Alicia’s father.”

“That’s hardly news, Richard. Strangers often ‘mistake’ Alicia and Lydia for sisters. There’s no ‘mistake’ about it. Which brings me to you. Alicia is with child. Are you the father?

“I believe so. I mean … there is no doubt.”

“Richard, give me your solemn promise that you will make this right. Annie and Alicia must be free.”

Richard chose his words carefully. “On my honor, sir, I will do right by you and the family.”

So now Richard is faced with a terrible dilemma. He was raised in a Quaker household, which also served as a station on the Underground Railroad. His parents taught him that slavery is immoral, but he has married into a family of slave owners. If Alicia has been free from birth, Richard, who has married Alicia’s half-sister, has violated his marriage vows by committing adultery. If she is still treated as a slave, she remains Richard’s mistress, and Richard is free of reproach under North Carolina law.

In just a few pages, the reader learns how partus sequitur ventrem could play out. The historical details, gathered in many hours of research, are told in the context of a story, not sometimes mind-numbing text.

New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.


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Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The Underground Railroad

This is the second in a series of articles in which I will share my methodology for crafting a story which I hope is both interesting and informative. In my first article, I discussed slavery in the context of the slaveholding household and women’s non-existent legal rights. This week, I turn to the underground railroad, which played a significant role in the antebellum history of Guilford County, North Carolina.


Levi Coffin                          Source:

Among the underground railroad’s leaders was its unofficial president, Levi Coffin, who was born in the Quaker community of New Garden. He moved to another Quaker community in Richmond County, Indiana, as a young man and later moved to Cincinnati, Ohio.

My research for the novel included many hours of perusing microfilm of the period’s weekly newspaper, the Greensborough Patriot. Although the newspaper’s editor, often spoke out against slavery, he married a woman who owned slaves and he ran advertisements offering rewards for the capture of runaway slaves. Slavery, as they say, was a “peculiar institution,” and William Swaim was not the only person who fell in love with someone whose circumstances differed dramatically from his or her own.

My research also included many hours researching the Greensboro Public Library’s rare books room. There and from many other sources, I learned much about the operation of the underground railroad. Nails were sometimes hammered into the bottom of fence rails as a sign that a farmhouse was a safehouse for runaways – a “station” on the underground railroad. “Station masters” sometimes hid runaways in cellars, not in a typical cellar, but one with a niche dug adjacent to an open square, with barrels or other objects employed to conceal the niche.

New Garden includes one chapter (pages 12-14) dedicated to Tom and Sara Grier’s operation of a station on the underground railroad. I open the chapter with a newspaper advertisement similar to one a subscriber might read in an 1843 edition of the Greensborough Patriot:


Ran away from the subscriber on Sunday the 5th of September, instant, a negro man, named JOE, about 5 feet, 9 inches high, black complection, a cook by trade. It is suspected that he is attempting to get to a free State in company with some free negroes. The last account of him he was in Asheboro; had on a white hat, and in his shirtsleeves. The above reward will be given for his apprehension and confinement, or delivery to me in Wentworth. JAS. W. WOODLEY Oct. 21st.

The story then goes on to find Joe near the Grier farmhouse:

The sun’s last rays finally dropped below the western tree line. Joe rubbed his left hand along the bottom rail of the split-rail fence, just as the blacksmith at the last station had instructed. This had to be the right house. ****

The story continues, as Joe, with some trepidation, knocks on the door and is admitted into the farmhouse. Tom leads Joe into the cellar to change into different clothes.

Tom led Joe down the ladder. At first glance the cellar appeared to be a twenty-by-twenty-foot square. When Tom removed some barrels, however, there was an additional four-by-eight-foot space off to one side with a cot in the middle.

The next day, Tom transports Joe in a false-bottom wagon to the next station. A runaway would not spend his entire journey in such a wagon, but he would do so when traveling through areas where he might be seen.

Joe crawled into the false bottom. He could barely move. Stories about the slave ships sailing the Middle Passage from Africa’s Gold Coast had passed through generations of American slaves. The slave trade had been so profitable that the ship captains had crammed Africans into every available crevice. As Joe thought of those horrible stories, his mouth opened into a wide grin. This was a different vessel, one that would carry him to freedom. He would escape the land of the Pharaohs while walking this earth, unlike the millions of his brethren who listened to the slave preachers and would do so only after drawing their last breath.

In just a few paragraphs or pages, the reader learns about an evening on the Underground Railroad. The historical details, gathered in many hours of research, are told in the context of a story, not sometimes mind-numbing text.

New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.


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Putting the History in the Historical Novel: Slavery and Women’s Rights in Antebellum America

If you read my blog, you probably are already a rabid history fan. Even if you’re not, you should consider the historical novel, so long as it accurately portrays the history of the period. This is the first of a 12-part series of articles in which I will share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Let’s begin with New Garden, a Civil War era novel.

The book is largely about two Quaker brothers who make decisions that put themselves at odds with their faith. Jack Grier joins the U.S. Army at the eve of the Mexican War. His brother Richard becomes a lawyer and politician and marries into a slaveholding family. How do those decisions affect them and everyone around them? No matter how much success Richard achieves, he can never get past his father’s obvious favoritism for Jack, even when Jack is on the other side of the country in California.

Slavery is the overwhelming issue of the day. I did not try to convey the meaning of the institution by merely citing statistics and quoting famous politicians of the day. That’s for a history class. I weave the topic along with that of women’s non-existent legal rights in the context of a story. How did slavery and women’s position play out in Southern society?


Mary Chesnut Source:

White masters and overseers often took advantage of their power over the women held in bondage. Their children’s legal status was determined by the status of the mother, not by the status of the father. If the mother was free, the child was free. If the mother was a slave, the child was a slave. How did this play out in the Southern household where the children included those who were free – the offspring of the master and his wife – and those were slaves – the offspring of the master and a household servant?


The Civil War diarist Mary Chesnut (whose husband served as a United States Senator from South Carolina before the Civil War) was highly critical of miscegenation and offered this commentary:

Every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds.

In New Garden Richard Grier’s future father-in-law, Edward McAllister, transfers ownership of Alicia, his daughter by his household servant Annie, to Richard as a wedding gift. Richard is engaged to Alicia’s half-sister, Lydia. McAllister sent both daughters to Canada for an education, but Alicia’s legal status has reverted to that of a slave upon her return to North Carolina. The following is an excerpt (183-184) in which Annie and Alicia discuss her plight.

“You say you think he’s giving me to Richard? No, Mama, he wouldn’t do that. He might give me to Lydia, but not to her husband. Why would he do that?”

“Now, Alicia, we’ve talked about that. Giving you to Miss Lydia would make no difference at all. You’d belong to Mr. Grier anyway. Even I know that about the law. You seen the other slave owners. Most of ‘em have at least one colored girl to keep ‘em warm when the wife’s not willing or able. I figure you going to be that girl for Mr. Grier.”

Alicia shuddered, then said in a soft, weepy voice. “Mama, I don’t think Lydia would allow it.”

“Miss Lydia about to get a big-time lesson on how things are. White women got no rights once they say the ‘I do’s.’ After that they do whatever the husband tells them, just like us. Better not back talk neither. You seen Old Man Hoskins and all the colored folks in his house. Most of them’s his children. Old Miz Hoskins has to grin and bear it. Better act like she don’t know what’s going on.”

In just a few paragraphs or pages, the reader learns how the peculiar institution actually played out in the southern household of slave owners. The passage should tug at the heartstrings of anyone.

New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

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The Emancipation Proclamation and the Evolution of Lincoln’s Views on Slavery

As I mentioned in my previous article, I serve as a docent at the Greensboro Historical Museum. The museum currently has among its exhibits one of the 48 copies of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln in 1864. The copies were sold to raise money to care for wounded Union soldiers. The original proclamation, of course, was issued by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863.

I thought this would be a good time to correct some misunderstandings about the famous document and to discuss how Lincoln’s own thinking evolved about the subject of slavery. Every president takes an oath of office whereby he or she swears to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Thus, if Lincoln – a seasoned lawyer of at least regional if not national reputation – wished to extend freedom to those held in bondage, he was well aware that he had to do so consistent with the Constitution. (In 1863, the United States Constitution did not include the Thirteenth Amendment, which in 1865 abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.)

So, Lincoln relied on his Constitutional war powers as authority to declare free all persons held as slaves in states, or designated parts of states, “then in rebellion.” The proclamation did not release the bonds of slaves then living in Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and parts of Louisiana and Virginia (including the counties that had seceded from Virginia to form West Virginia, and other counties under Union control). Lincoln wished to retain his tenuous hold on the border states and was prepared to allow slavery to continue there to preserve as much of the Union as possible. Critics complained that the proclamation granted freedom to slaves where he lacked the military capacity to enforce it and kept them in bondage where he had the military might to guarantee their freedom.



Whatever Lincoln’s personal views about slavery, his first priority was to hold the Union together. Various anecdotes indicate that Lincoln’s views evolved during the course of the war. He campaigned on a Republican platform that slavery would not be allowed in any new states carved out of United States territories. Slavery would remain legal where it already existed. He likely hoped it would wither on the vine. But Southern politicians saw execution of such a platform as the first step in a major shift in the existing balance of power between the free states and the slave states. Thus, before Lincoln took the oath of office, seven states made the fateful decision to attempt to extricate themselves from their existing governmental relationship with their northern brethren, thereby accelerating the end of the peculiar institution they hoped to preserve.

The idea certainly began earlier, but in July 1862, Lincoln raised the prospect of an emancipation proclamation with his cabinet officers. At the time, Union armies were faring poorly in the field and some officers argued that under then-existing conditions, it would look like a last gasp effort by a government headed to defeat. Lincoln agreed that any such proclamation should await a significant Union victory.

That victory came on September 17, 1862, at Antietam. There, General McClellan’s forces won a bloody, hard-fought battle against General Lee. Although in what would become an all-too-common theme, McClellan failed to pursue and destroy Lee’s army after the victory, it was nonetheless a victory on whose peg Lincoln could hang the proclamation. He issued a preliminary proclamation on September 22. The proclamation allowed slavery in any rebel state that chose to return to the Union before January 1. All of the rebel states remained in rebellion.

In meetings with African-American leaders, Lincoln suggested that once freed, blacks should leave the United States because he could not see the white and black races living side by side in harmony. Black leaders rebuked such a suggestion, noting that generations of slaves had lived in the United States for over 200 years. They had earned the right to share the bounties of democracy on an equal footing with the white race. In time, he accepted the argument, but not without reservation. Generations of free blacks would find that freedom did not mean equality.

Back to the constitutional authority for the Emancipation Proclamation. Rebels depended upon slave labor to prop up the war effort. They built trenches and military fortifications. They sowed and harvested fruits and vegetables. They raised and slaughtered the livestock. They produced the cotton that provided the rebel government the financial means to prosecute the war. They were a significant component of the Confederate war effort. Depriving the South of that component, in turn, would greatly enhance the Union’s chances of suppressing the rebellion.

Lincoln certainly harbored doubts about his constitutional authority to suppress slavery once hostilities drew to a close. There would no longer be a war to justify freedom for the slaves. Thus, his campaign for the Thirteenth Amendment, to guarantee the end of slavery in the United States. But for the moment, and indeed for the generations that have followed, the Emancipation Proclamation served as a historically powerful first step – recognition by our nation’s chief executive that slavery is an evil incongruous with democracy.


I wrote this article based on dozens of books and articles on the subject. Three excellent sources are:

  • Catton, Bruce. Terrible Swift Sword. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1961 (republished by Fall River Press, New York, New York, in 2009).
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York, New York: Random House, 1974.

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My Second Book: Trouble at Mono Pass

Cover of my second book, Trouble at Mono Pass

Trouble at Mono Pass cover

As far back as I can recall, I have wanted to write a history-based novel. But between working a demanding full-time job, raising a kid, and just life in general, I started and stopped the book more times than I can count. Upon my fairly recent retirement, I had run out of excuses and finally published my first book, New Garden, in 2013.

Two years later, I am excited to announce that my second historical novel, Trouble at Mono Pass, is now available in paperback and later this month as an eBook.

The novels follow two Quaker brothers from Guilford County, NC, where my wife and I have lived for 30+ years (yes, I am dating myself here). In New Garden, both brothers break ties with their faith in order to pursue very different life paths. The book provides insights into American life in 1835-1865, including the practices and customs of nineteenth-century Quakers and the complex relationships in a slaveholding society.

Here is a teaser from my second book, Trouble at Mono Pass.

 “Why is the train stopping?” asked Ellen nervously.

Kate laughed. “It’s just the last pause before the train descends to the east.” She took Ellen’s hands. “Don’t worry. I’ve taken the train a hundred times.”

Next, they heard the faint metal grind of Wessels decoupling their car from the dining car. Several minutes later, when the forward cars were well beyond earshot, the girls heard a scuffle in the caboose. Wessels barged into the passenger car, waving a pistol. “Outside, girls!” he shouted.

The girls did as ordered, and walked out of the darkness of the snowshed into the daylight to see four horsemen heading their way with a string of horses behind them. Ellen and Kate held each other tight as they realized only their car and the caboose sat on the tracks. They watched in horror as Melon dragged Tyson’s bloody body from the caboose and tossed it at their feet. One hundred feet down the line, Jackson and Appleton pried two outside rails from the railroad ties and loosened the bolts from the fishplates that connected them to the adjacent rails. Wessels released the brakes, sending the car and caboose plunging into the ravine beyond their view. Jackson and Appleton put the rails back into place as quickly as they had removed them. The girls now realized no train passengers or employees headed this way would detect anything amiss.

“Mount up, ladies,” ordered Crawford, as Rollins brought the empty horses their way. * * * *

If you like the excerpt, please spread the word. The book is available in paperback from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The e-Book version will be available at the end of March from, Apple (iBooks), and Barnes &

Cover of my first book, New Garden

Cover of my first book, New Garden

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February 1865 – The War Comes Full Circle to South Carolina

The seeds of rebellion were sown in South Carolina, not in April 1861 at Fort Sumter, but a full year earlier in April 1860, at the Democratic Party’s national convention in Charleston. Not getting their way on a pro-slavery convention plank, the Fire Eaters – Southern politicians hell-bent on breaking away from the Union – walked out of Charleston’s Institute Hall after two days. Unable to nominate a Presidential candidate under the arbitrary rule that the nominee must win two thirds of the votes of all the delegates (including in that number the delegates who had walked out of the convention), the Democrats adjourned until June in Baltimore. There, the convention nominated U.S. Senator Douglas of Illinois. Infuriated, the Southern delegates held a separate convention and nominated Vice President John Breckinridge as their Presidential candidate.

Former Whigs nominated another candidate, John Bell of Tennessee, as the candidate of the Constitution Union Party. The table was set for Abraham Lincoln, whose Republican Party vowed not to allow expansion of slavery beyond the states where it already existed. One by one, the states of the Deep South seceded after Lincoln’s election.

It was with this national recollection of events that Sherman prepared to march his 60,000 soldiers into South Carolina after making Georgia howl and tendering the City of Savannah to Lincoln as a Christmas gift in 1864. Initially, Grant had considered commandeering Sherman’s troops to Virginia to aid in the destruction of Lee. But Sherman prevailed on Grant to allow his troops to march through South Carolina to take the fight out of its citizens and troops.

After a month of planning, Sherman’s troops (the Army of Tennessee under General Oliver Howard and the Army of Georgia under General Henry Slocum) began the march into South Carolina on February 1. The Confederate troops in Sherman’s way numbered only 20,000, and split their forces between Charleston, SC, and Augusta, Georgia. Sherman initially feinted Howard’s troops in the direction of Charleston and Slocum’s troops toward Augusta, thereby generating the illusion of complying with the Confederates’ expectations. But while crossing swamps and rivers during one of the state’s rainiest Februaries, the Yankees cut northwest through the state in the direction of the state capital, Columbia.

Once the Confederates grasped the truth, it was too late. They could do little more than burn cotton and tobacco in Sherman’s path, presumably to keep the North from profiting from the crops. Sherman could not have been happier. He had no intention of burdening his troops with the products, and would have burned them to keep the South from selling it to support their war effort.

By the time Sherman’s troops reached Columbia, with the state burning in its rear, the mayor and other leaders surrendered the city to Sherman in hopes that Columbia would be spared. Unfortunately for the Columbians, Confederate General Wade Hampton had filled the downtown’s streets with piles of smoldering cotton before retreating. Cotton and whiskey are a dangerous combination, especially in the windy conditions that prevailed on February 17. While the commanding officers issued orders to protect private property, the night saw many more fires lit, and by the next day one third of Columbia lay in ashes.

Sherman blamed Hampton for the fire, having left behind him “lint, cotton, and tinder.” [Foote, Red River to Appomattox, p. 795] But Sherman shed no tears over the event. The burning of Columbia was consistent with his belief that the war would only end when “the hard hand of war” destroyed the spirit of Southern soldier and civilian alike. Lieutenant Ensign H. King of the 15th Iowa probably spoke for most of Sherman’s troops:

The burning of Columbia, S.C. February 17, 1865 (Source: Wikipedia)

The burning of Columbia, S.C. February 17, 1865 (Source: Wikipedia)

South Carolina, the nation state of John C. Calhoun, the hot-bed of treason, the first state to Rebel, the most defiant aider and abettor of the Rebellion, pays this small price for her crime. To our mind, the punishment is but commensurate with the crime.

[Woodworth, Nothing but Victory, p. 624]


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Grant’s Final Battle

Ulysses S. Grant (

Ulysses S. Grant (

We all hope to show courage in some form during our lifetimes. We are seldom required to do so in dramatic fashion. For most of us, it’s limited to the courage required to put bread on the table or to put our children through school.

Ulysses S. Grant had shown great courage on the battlefield in the Mexican War. Afterward he struggled with near-poverty, dressing shabbily and working long days at Hardscrabble – 60 acres of Missouri farm land his father-in-law gave to Grant’s wife, Julia. Just before the Civil War, Grant had been reduced to going hat in hand to his father, accepting employment as his father’s store clerk in a last-ditch effort to keep his family above water.

Then came Fort Sumter. The rest, as they say, is history. Grant, of course, went on to rise to the rank of commanding general over all the Union armies and in 1868 was elected as the country’s 18th President.

Between his times of military service and occupation of the White House, Grant had struggled to achieve some form of financial security. In early 1884, he smiled at the thought that he had finally gotten the knack of finances or, at the very least, had met someone who had the knack. On paper, Grant was almost a millionaire.

In the early 1880’s, Ulysses, Jr. (“Buck”) partnered with a young wizard of Wall Street, Ferdinand Ward, to form the investment house of Grant & Ward. Ward had the charm and apparent investing talent that drew many wealthy clients. Adding the Grant name to his business did not hurt. All of the Grants bought in. The former general and President saw double-digit returns between 1881 and 1884.

But just like many victims before and since, the Grant family ultimately realized they had bought into a pyramid scheme. The jig was up in May of 1884. Ward could no longer cover his loans and his clients were left with nothing.

Grant, who previously had resisted writing articles for the magazine Century about some of the great battles of the Civil War, no longer had any choice. He wrote articles about Shiloh and Vicksburg for $500 each. The Century’s subscriptions and advertising business increased dramatically.

Century Magazine (Source: Wikipedia)

Century Magazine (Source: Wikipedia)

Grant was prepared to write his memoirs for a 10% royalty when his friend Samuel (“Mark Twain”) Clemens learned about the arrangement. Clemens was aghast when he heard about the small fee Grant had received for his articles and persuaded Grant to negotiate better terms before signing a contract for his memoirs. Grant ultimately reached an agreement to allow Clemens’ publishing company to publish the memoirs, and went to work.

In October, 1884, a physician gave hints that Grant’s horribly sore throat probably was due to cancer. Grant did not falter. He had to provide something for his widow. At the invitation of industrialist Joseph Drexel, Grant spent the spring of 1885 at Drexel’s rambling cottage in the Adirondacks. On July 22, he completed his over 200,000-word memoirs. He died the following morning.

He had done what he must to provide for his widow. In the fall of 1886, Clemens presented Julia Grant with a royalty check of $200,000 (equivalent to between five and six million dollars in 2014 currency). Another $250,000 in royalties would follow. Between Grant’s perseverance and Clemens’ good timing, Julia Grant could spend her remaining years in comfort.

Grant’s military talents are beyond dispute. His Presidency – perhaps not. But as a man in the really hard times, when events did not turn his way, he soldiered on, doing the best he could for his family. In the end, his perseverance and, finally, one turn of good luck in the form of Mark Twain, won out. He provided for the woman he loved his entire adult life. This is the Grant I admire the most.


Brands, H.W. The Man Who Saved the Union. New York, New York: Doubleday, 2012.

Mark Twain Project. Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Smith, Jean Edward. Grant. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.


See also The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (reprinted by Konecky & Konecky, Old Saybrook, Connecticut).


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The Battle of Nashville – General George Thomas’s Christmas Gift to Lincoln

Battle of Nashville (Source:

General George Thomas (Source:

Just as this month marks the 150th anniversary of General Sherman’s capture of Savannah, it marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Nashville, when Virginia-born General George Thomas led his forces to a resounding victory over Confederate General John Bell Hood’s army.

I particularly admire those southern-born United States military officers who did not abandon their union loyalties to serve in the Confederate ranks. They had to prove themselves one-better than their fellow officers, as their loyalty to the Union was often called into question. And George Thomas proved himself on more than one occasion.

He built a strong record, defeating Confederate troops led by General George Crittenden at the Battle of Mill Springs in January 1862. He followed up that victory with service at Shiloh, Perryville, and Stones River. He achieved his greatest fame as “the Rock of Chickamauga” in September 1863, when he mounted a stubborn resistance to General Braxton Bragg’s assault on Horseshoe Ridge, allowing other Union troops to retreat to safety.

By the end of 1864, one would think that Thomas’s reputation was secure. While Sherman made his March to the Sea, he left Thomas to deal with John Bell Hood, who planned to march 39,000 Confederate troops north into Tennessee and beyond. In the Battles of Spring Hill and Franklin, Thomas’s forces inflicted devastating casualties on the ever-aggressive Hood, whose numbers had fallen to 26,500 men by the time Hood sought to engage the heavily fortified Union troops at Nashville.

But Lincoln and Grant grew frustrated that Thomas appeared to repeat the same pattern as other Union generals – McClellan at Antietam and Meade at Gettysburg – allowing the Confederates to lick their wounds and recover their strength rather than taking the opportunity to take a major army out of play.

Confederate General John Bell Hood (Source: Wikipedia)

Confederate General John Bell Hood (Source: Wikipedia)

Hood was not looking to retreat and Thomas was nothing like McClellan or Meade. While severe winter weather delayed his movements, Thomas used the time to rest and refit his troops, particularly the cavalry. He moved forward only when the weather cleared, and, even then, a layer of ice still covered the ground. But he had a battle plan in place, and his troops were prepared to execute it.

Even as Grant sent General John Logan to replace a general he and the President thought too reluctant to destroy the enemy, General Thomas employed one corps to pin down Hood’s right and then applied the bulk of his force on Hood’s left. The sunset on December 14 before Thomas’s men could destroy Hood’s army, but after another day of battle, Hood’s army was a mere shell of its former self.

Hood had left Atlanta with 39,000 men. After casualties and desertions, his army arrived in Tupelo, Mississippi, with less than 15,000 men – a force that could not be wholly ignored, but one that could cause little more trouble and deprived Lee of a serious counterweight to keep Union troops occupied outside Virginia. Jefferson Davis’s choice to replace Joe Johnston, John Bell Hood resigned his command. Johnston would return to lead the beleaguered force.

It was Lincoln’s last, of course, but Sherman and Thomas had made December 25, 1864, the President’s best Christmas of the Civil War. Lincoln saw genuine hope that the country’s nightmare was near its end.

Battle of Nashville Then & Now, from the Tennessean:


  • Catton, Bruce. Never Call Retreat. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1965 (republished by Fall River Press, New York, NY, in 2001).
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York, New York: Random House, 1958 (First Vintage Books Edition, 1986).
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Red River to Appomattox. New York, New York: Random House, 1974 (First Vintage Books Edition, 1986).

Postscript: Thomas devoted the rest of his life to the United States Army. He assumed command of the Division of the Pacific in 1869. He died of a stroke at the Presidio in 1870.

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Savannah – Sherman’s Christmas Gift to Lincoln

Sherman's handwritten note to Lincoln

Sherman’s handwritten note to Lincoln

For some of us, the City of Savannah elicits thoughts of ghosts in America’s Most Haunted City. Many southern college students see the city as a St. Patrick’s Day celebration when the city is awash with green beer and visitors in the tens of thousands.

But this month also marks the 150th anniversary of General William T. Sherman’s capture of Savannah. On November 15, 1864, after Confederate General John Bell Hood left Georgia for his army’s ultimate destruction in Nashville, Tennessee, Sherman left Atlanta for his famous march to the sea to make Georgia howl. He cut his supply lines behind him and his men grew fat on the livestock and produce that lay in their path from Atlanta to Savannah.

On December 13, Union troops took Fort McAllister, outside Savannah. Eight days later, Mayor Richard Arnold surrendered the city to Sherman and Union troops marched into Savannah. Afterward, Sherman sent President Lincoln a message:

I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.

Lincoln received the dispatch on Christmas Eve. Sherman, who had wrecked Atlanta and pillaged and burned his way through Georgia, had applied a gentle touch to Savannah.

In one rare moment, after burning his way through Georgia and before doing the same to South Carolina, Sherman spared the town’s historic architecture from the hard hand of war.

Sherman's march into Savannah "March to the Sea" (Source:

Sherman’s march into Savannah (Source:

If you have the pleasure of visiting this historic Southern city with its many beautiful town squares, whether to search for ghosts or to lift a glass of green beer, pause to give thanks to “Uncle Billy” (the troops’ nickname for General Sherman) for sparing much of the beauty that surrounds you.


  • Catton, Bruce. Never Call Retreat. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1965 (republished by Fall River Press, New York, NY, in 2001).
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Red River to Appomattox. New York, New York: Random House, 1974.
  • Woodworth, Steven E. Nothing but Victory: the Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.


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