For me, the highlight of the Clark County Historical Society’s third annual Civil War Symposium came when retired brigadier general and now Civil War historian Parker Hills recalled Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s description of journalists as “sneaking, croaking scoundrels.”
Ever since, I’ve been singing “I’m a sneaking, croaking scoundrel ….” to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy.
The 175 others who showed up at the Heritage Center to make the April 13 installment of Paul “Ski” Schanher’s brainchild such a success had many other highlights to choose from.
Some came during Springfielder Mary Humphries’ wonderful depiction of the life of a woman on the home front during the war. Other came as Stephen Brown of Urbana of and Tyler Detrick of Springfield played and told the stories behind Civil War era songs. Yet others emerged as Jerry Feinstein of Skokie, Ill., and Tayler-Jo Mullins of Springfield morphed a demonstration of the loading and firing of an Enfield Rifle into stand-up comedy.
None of this detracted from the main acts:
• Hills’ explanation of how a music teacher’s creativity played a key role in one of the most important battles in the war.
• Kent Masterson Brown’s account of how Gettysburg, Pa., became the site of one of the war’s largest battles in part because Union Gen. Abner Doubleday, purported inventor of baseball, found himself suddenly out in left field.
Hills, author of “Receding Tide: Vicksburg and Gettysburg — Campaigns that Changed the Civil War,” set his presentation about the Union victory at Vicksburg in the context of war as an undertaking that requires the support of the people, the army and the government to win.
After suffering serious setbacks in the fall 1862 election, President Abraham Lincoln looked on in horror as his generals lost a series of battles in December.
“The Congress has given up on him, the people have given up on him, and the army has been defeated,” Hills said.
Adept politician that he was, Lincoln was able to spin-doctor Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg’s bizarre withdrawal from the battle of Murfreesboro, Tenn., into a Union victory in the newspapers.
But after an outnumbered Gen Robert E. Lee launched a surprise attack and bloodied Gen. Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville, Va., Lincoln was again in the dumps, muttering to himself “What will the people say?”
Those familiar with Civil War history know that Ulysses S. Grant came to Lincoln’s rescue by laying siege to the Confederate army at Vicksburg, as much a commercial as military victory, in that it both destroyed that army and opened up the Mississippi River as the route for northern goods to go to market.
A major element in that victory, Hills said, was the work of music teacher and Pennsylvania Col. Benjamin Grierson.
“He’s going to do a lot of creative thinking on his raid,” Hills said, a 500-mile venture in which Grierson and Iowa Col. Edward Hatch, make a series of feint attacks to draw the attention of Confederate generals from what Grant is doing.
The distraction was so successful, he said, that, in conjunction with a bombardment by Admiral David Porter, Grant was able to move 27,000 troops across the Mississippi River without opposition and in perfect position to cut off the Confederates at Vicksburg.
“This is the most important spot, arguably, in American history,” Hills said. “This is D-Day with no Germans (in sight).”
Hills said “generalship is not getting people killed, it’s keeping people from being killed.” And although as a Mississippian, “I get in trouble bragging on Grant in Mississippi,” he said, “this is generalship at its finest.”
For his part, Brown heaped praise on Gen. George Meade, a figure whose contributions are overlooked, for his skill in the Union victory at Gettysburg, won the day before the Confederate surrender at Vicksburg.
Just as Hills did before him, Brown quoted Prussian military theoretician Carl van Clausewitz. In the face of what Clausewitz called the “friction of battle,” said Brown, “all plans go to hell.”
Brown said Meade, about whom he is writing a book, learned he would command the Army of the Potomac in a note delivered to him at 3 a.m. June 28 from a messenger he later wrote told him he had “come to give me trouble.”
That was just days before the battle at Gettysburg.
Meade, who was pursuing Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia but had no idea where he was, was told to continue his pursuit while making sure his army could defend both Washington and Baltimore from attack.
Given these “pretty restrictive orders,” Brown said, Meade decided to establish a line of defense along Maryland’s Pipe Creek, where a series of bluffs provide good high ground and intersect all the major roads to Baltimore and Washington.
The idea was to send a force forward that would contact Lee’s army, then draw it back to the Pipe Creek line, a place “where his whole army could fall back on” to do battle.
In searching for Lee, Meade sent his old friend John Fulton Reynolds north to make contact with Lee.
Responding to a call for help from the Union Cavalry commander, John Buford, at Gettysburg, Reynolds had taken up a defensive position on the high ground in the Peach Orchard when the battle began.
But after Reynolds was killed, command passed to Gen. Abner Doubleday, who, instead of retreating toward the Pipe Creek Line stayed and fought.
Brown said he’s seen conflicting evidence as to whether Doubleday knew about the plan to fall back, and he wonders whether Doubleday forgot in the press of battle, or whether he had other reasons for his actions.
“Whatever it is,” Brown said, “Doubleday felt he had nothing else he could do but sit and fight it out. And that’s how the battle begins.”
Here Brown gives Meade great credit for not simply blowing up as his well-considered plans came unraveled. With the battle going, he said, Meade ordered his troops forward on a quick march and seized the ground at Gettysburg that helped them win the battle.
In doing so, Brown said, Meade lived up to Clausewitz ideal of “the great commander” who “can stand like that obelisk (pillar) in the middle of chaos and prevail.”
“I submit to you this is exactly what George Meade did in spectacular form,” he said, when Abner Doubleday, at least according to the best laid plans, found himself in trouble out in left field.
Brown added that Meade’s need to overextend his army during the battle made his pursuit of Lee afterward more difficult. If this left Lincoln frustrated, early July of 1863 still found Lincoln in a much better frame of mind.
The Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg helped the president to recapture the support of the government, people and army.
Neither he nor anyone else could have imagined, however, that after the massive blood-letting that produced 51,000 casualties in three days of fighting at Gettysburg, the nation’s suffering would stretch on for nearly two more years.