Your History Geek Installment II: A Critical Look at the Concept of Militia in United States History

(ca, 1903)

Disclaimer: I want to be clear, the term well-regulated militias refer to the National Guard and State formed auxiliaries as established by the Militia Act of 1903. Independent and/or private militias will encompass all others who make the claim of being well regulated but may or may not honor United States’ laws.

Movies like the Patriot (2000) advocate a hyper patriotic view of the American militias’ grass roots fight to defend a fledgling country, while the movie simultaneously whitewash issues like slavery, treatment of freed slaves, divided loyalties, and tactical failures. Such images of militia harken back to the grade school myths surrounding our country’s quest for independence. The history of the Militia success has largely been overblown in the narrative of the last 250 years of American History. I’m not trying to suggest that militias have not contributed to military successes or fought in some battles as well as regulars, but their inherently unregulated nature during the American Revolution made it incredibly difficult for military commanders to depend on them.

Today unregulated (private/independent) militia groups threaten the very fabric of our society. Empowered by the rapid communication abilities within social media to spread a false message and inflame those with similar ideology, private militias provide the same things to unstable individuals, that the military offers to more balanced individuals without those pesky strict consequences for insubordination, hate crimes, or violations of federal laws which the formal military and National Guard enforce. Why is this so difficult regulate a militia? It’s simple, the standing military in the United States was established first by the Continental Congress and then later defined by the Constitution and is governed under very specific laws, has civilian oversight to prevent coups, and at its core, possesses an altruistic vision that, in our nation, our diversity makes us stronger.

Militias groups, especially in the last 20 to 30 years, are increasingly anti-government, politically polarized, and homogenous (same with respect composition and to ideology).  While condemning the lifestyles of religions and cultures they chose not to learn about, tolerate, or understand, these types of militia recruit from an echo chamber which is similarly homogeneous. Militias love to wave the flag but the flag they wave has become unrecognizable to the average U.S. citizen. The flags militias wave often have political logos superimposed or symbols hijacked from the American Revolution or Civil War, or religious messages stenciled across the field. This blog will take a critical look at the history of Militia in the North America and the United States from 1607 to 2021.

In the early 1600s, when Europeans began significant colonies on the Eastern seaboard, militias were organized to protect Christian settlers who were (let’s be completely honest here) encroaching on Native American lands. Encroaching is stressed here because that is what Europeans did, and not just in North America, European did this in South America, India, Africa, and the far East. Under the perceived enlightened concepts of post reformation Protestantism, these settlers also believed in converting indigenous peoples to Christianity, often with violent coercive measures (Tebbel & Jennison 2006). When coercion failed wars of expansion began in earnest by all European power involved in colonizing the New world. Where does the militia play into this, you ask? Well starting with Jamestown and then continuing to Plymouth, no formal military troops were sent to the North America. Since Jamestown and Plymouth were commercial ventures to find gold and relocate religious separatists, these colonies had to rely on mercenaries to defend themselves (Bradford, 2016). As time progressed these mercenaries began training militia to take on defensive and later offensive roles. One only needs to read the frustrations experienced by Captains John Smith (Jamestown colony) (Thompson, 2007) and Miles Standish (Plymouth colony) (Abbot, 2019) to see how difficult militia were to regulate. Under his strict military discipline John Smith managed to guide the Jamestown colony through a period known as the starving times, Smith was eventually wounded in a freak accident (Thompson, 2007) and subsequently forced to leave the colony. Miles Standish had a little more success but was equally frustrated in his endeavors to create a true military organization.

(Duke, S. & C., 1888).

North America 1607 to 1630s:

The site of Jamestown was selected for accessibility to deep draft ships and defensibility from England’s primary threat, the Spanish. The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) was a consequence of Columbus voyages. It was a Papal treaty which divided the New World between Spain and Portugal. Endorsed by the Pope, the treaty stipulated that any lands under control of a Christian king would not be colonized (Bergreen, 2003). Since indigenous people were not under the authority of a Christian king and Spain and Portugal were the only two powers present in the New World at that time, they were the only ones with a claim. England and other European powers would not actively settle in the New World in significant numbers until after the Protestant Reformation. The post reformation government in England sponsored numerous ventures into the New World as did France. Spain jealously guarded its holdings in the New World and posed a significant military threat to any European powers attempting to gain a foothold in the Americas. Spain made no pretense about military conquest, they sent naval and formally trained military ground troops into the New World after Columbus’s multiple voyages. Although a couple of private mercenary type ventures did occur, by in large, Spain’s conquest established an economic lifeline of gold from the New World to continental Europe and they guarded it as jealously as modern billionaires guard their tax returns.

(ca. 1904)

Colonial Militias:

Most European colonies in the North America, possessed some sort of militia ostensibly to protect themselves from Native Americans. Over the course of the first 145 years from 1607 to 1752, conflicts in the New World often mirrored tensions in continental Europe. France and England often employed Native Americans to launch guerilla raids on the frontier of their respective colonies. In these cases local militias were activated to fight these conflicts as well. These militias elected their own leadership which presented unique challenges to the defense of the colony (Bobrick, 1997). It was very hard for militia leaders to maintain control of their members. While activated in a distant sector of a colony, if a member of the militia received word that his home was being attacked, they would often (understandably) desert to protect their family. Over time this became a concern of colonial governments. When militias were activated in the future, they were under individual colonial legislation which provided for more military like penalties for desertion.

While colonist feared standing armies of their leaders in mainland Europe (Bobrick, 1997), they also realized the standing professional military forces operated under discipline and consistent training. When the French and Indian War erupted in North America (essentially an extension of the Seven Years War in Europe), colonies outright requested troops from England to protect their colonies. Now there were very effective militia units that fought on the side of the British and more or less matched deployed British troops in number. Militia of this time period, though raised, financed, and lead by local colonial officers were subordinate to and answerable to the British Military and the Crown in particular. To give an example of this, a lieutenant (a junior officer) in the British Army in the North America could hold military authority over and appointed colonial militia colonel (a much more senior officer) (Bobrick, 1997). Because colonists were loyal to the Crown at this point in history, the consequences of resisting authority in time of war were grave. Washington himself, a militia colonel who tried repeatedly to obtain a royal commission, eventually became General Braddock’s aide-de-camp to avoid being answerable to junior British officers he viewed as beneath him (Bobrick, 1997). 

(Currier & Ives, 1876)
(Doolittle, A. & Marian S. Carson Collection, 1940 & 1950).

Militia in the American Revolution 1775 to 1783:

When British colonist began resisting the permanent presence of British Troops in North America and the more heavy handed leadership of colonies by Crown’s appointed leadership, bands of local militias began to actively engage British forces using guerilla tactics (Leckie, 1993). Historical movies love to highlight the roll of the militia at Lexington and Concord against the British. The casualty count was certainly lopsided and impressive, but the British Commander at the time had limited resources and was absolutely dependent on using Boston as a base of operations. There were only about 25,000 British troops on the continent at this time and re-enforcements were 8 to 12 weeks away due sail power and limited communications with Europe (Leckie, 1993).  What many U.S. citizens today don’t realize is we fought a war for a little over a year from April 1775 to July 1776 without trying to become independent from Britain. At the beginning of the American Revolution, independence was not even a secondary objective (Bunker, 2014). The colonies wanted autonomy and representation not independence.

Many colonies resisted the move toward independence vociferously, since their interest were primarily agricultural in nature and dependent on trade with the mother country and its naval protections for that trade (Ellis, 2002). The vote for independence was tricky and required the softening of language critical of slavery to gain the support of southern colonies (Ellis, 2002). In June 1775, a little less than a  year before the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Army was formed and George Washington was appointed as its Commander in Chief. He would command each colonies forces as a single unified Continental Army (Leckie, 1993). Militias would continue to support this army with varying degrees of success. In many early battles the Continental Army was left holding the bag when militia fled in the face of British soldiers. During his service during the New York campaign Private Joseph Plumb Martin observed the following: “When I came to the spot where the militia were fired upon, the ground was literally covered with arms, knapsacks, staves, coats, hats and oil flask, perhaps some of those from the Madeira wine cellar,” (Martin 2002, p. 32). Washington spent two years keeping the British forces at bay by engaging and redeploying (retreating). His goal was preserve the Continental Army long enough for European intervention from Spain and France (Lockhart, 2008). Where many militia members would come and go in their support of the Continental Army, the soldiers of the Continental Army, representing individual state regiments. These solders remained (for the most part) and endured countless hardships, negligible if any pay, and countless other privations to win our independence.

In 1975 when I was in 2nd grade, I was taught that we won the American Revolution because we wore blue uniforms and hid behind trees and rocks when we fired at the evil redcoats with our Kentucky long rifles. Now many believe that it is much too hard to teach a young child the more complex aspects of our quest of independence but what I was taught was absolute fiction. We did not start consistently winning land battles until we deployed organized army units under strict military command and training with allied help (Lockhart, 2008). Our success was hinged upon the effective use of European stye muskets, artillery, and tactics, delivering massed fires at opposing bodies of troops. Militias were important adjuncts to those forces but they were far from decisive in the big picture of how the war was won. America’s war for independence was won through organized military leadership of disciplined soldiers with some help from militias, economic pressure (thanks to privateers and the French Navy), support of allies (ground and naval forces from France and money from Spain), and diplomacy (Chavez, 2002). No single element alone won our independence but if you want to truly thank someone for our independence, thank maritime insurance companies in Great Britain. Thanks to privateers, insurance premiums rose so much for British ships, that merchants pressured Parliament for peace, so that normal trade could be resumed (Toll, 2006).

Shay’s and the Whiskey Rebellions:

Following the American Revolution, when we operated under the ineffectual Articles of Confederation (AOC I’m sure in modern context this acronym with trigger some people). Inequitable treatment of former solders by business interest led foreclosures and subsequently to a rebellion. Daniel Shay, a Captain in the Continental Army during the Revolution, led a force of organized farmers and discharged soldiers to assault the armory at Springfield, MA (Toll, 2006). When states were petitioned by Congress (we didn’t have a president at the time), many states viewed this as a regional/state issue and not a national issue, so many  states ignored the request. Shay’s Rebellion, demonstrated the need for a stronger national government. From Shay’s Rebellion, we had the Annapolis Convention organized by Alexander Hamilton. The Annapolis convention sought to fix some of the problems with the AOC. The members soon realize what was needed was a drastic change. That change would come from  the Constitutional Convention (Ellis, 2002).

Following the Constitutional convention, yet another rebellion over the excise tax on whiskey resulting in the use standing military and the calling up of troops from the states to support putting down the rebellion. This was one of the first uses of Constitutional authority and Washington was actually prepared to lead those troops as Commander In Chief (Toll, 2006). Fortunately, as in the Shay’s Rebellion, the crisis was solved relatively peacefully, without executions or a scorched earth policy. Frankly, it’s amazing the AOC functioned as long as it did without the nation falling apart.

The War 1812:

If you want a handbook on how militias hurt a cause look no further than the War of 1812. Let’s be clear, this was really a naval success story not a land forces success story. In the interim years between the ratification of the Constitution and the War of 1812, The United States grew in population, land mass, and wealth but it was not, by any conventional definition, a super power. Under Thomas Jefferson’s administration the military had been castrated, most of the Navy except for six frigates had been placed in ordinary (ordinary was a term for storage) in favor of rather impotent gun boats (Toll, 2006). The expansion of the United States into areas acquired after the Revolution and the territory covered in the Louisiana Purchased left many Native American tribes with the choice of assimilating into U.S. society as third class members (note I avoid using the word citizen) or seek the help of the British in Canada. British sponsored Native American attacks on the western frontier combined with British atrocities on the high seas, compelled the United States to narrowly vote for a war with Britain (Borneman, 2004).

The War of 1812 was not a high point for the United States Army or the militias which supported it. The fall of Ft. Dearborn and the Bladensburg Races, where U.S. forces regulars and militia fled from the British, resulted in an unpopular war becoming more unpopular with the citizenry (Borneman, 2004). Privateers (not quite a naval militia) and our Navy once again drove up insurance premiums on British merchant vessels, just as they did during the American Revolution. The most famous land battle success of the War of 1812 (The Battle of New Orleans) actually occurred after the war was technically over. While this was technically a militia heavy battle and a victory, the militia participants  which included some Native Americans, pirates, and some African Americans, did not achieve any enfranchisement for their efforts (Broneman, 2004).

Between the War of 1812 and the Mexican American Wars, militias were largely silent since peace and prosperity were prevalent on the eastern seaboard and most conflict was in the newly acquired western territories.  Conflict with indigenous peoples were primarily the responsibility of the very small regular army. During this time States did have various militia originations which met once in a while for some training and politicking subsequently their regulation was very loose. Their uniforms ran the gamut of revolutionary war leftovers and homespun clothing. Many who commanded and/or organized them did so to further their political clout rather than for any truly defensive purpose.

(Unidentified soldier in Virginia militia uniform, between 1861 and 1865)

 The Civil War:

When the southern states elected to secede from the Union, they did so as a confederacy of independent states. Temporarily without a standing army, many who initially answered the call of their states came from the militia (Foote, 1986). States rapidly began raising regiments of troops. The state troops differed from militia because they were specifically called up by the respective state governments to fight as a collective armed force against the United States. In some instances militias were rolled up into the state regiments. In the north as well as the south, militias performed more of a home guard function (Catton, 1969). In this capacity, they were often viewed with contempt by the regular forces of both sides.

In the South, as the war progressed, the Confederacy passed the Partisan Ranger Act. This would empower private militia forces to run irregular operations, primarily in the frontier regions to assist in the harassment of United States forces (Fellman, 1989). This would also produce some of the most notorious psychopaths and criminals the United States had ever encountered up to this point.. Bloody Bill Anderson, John C. Quantrell, and Jessie James are a few nefarious biproducts of the Partisan Ranger program. Quantrell would continuously try to flex his perceived military authority and be a thorn in the sides of military leaders in both the north and the south. Jessie James would expand his criminal career into the late 19th century long after the war ended. The atrocities committed by these partisans militias often had reciprocal consequences for POWs of both sides (Speer, 2002). Militias in the part of the United States that remained loyal to the Union would often be composed of people to old or unhealthy for front line military service (Catton, 1969). They would protect lines of communication well inside Union territory and would become a strategic necessity in light of  Lee’s two invasions and raids by John H. Morgan.

Interwar Years: 1866-1914.

In the time period between the Civil War and World War I, there was not much written about militias. They fell out of favor despite the United States vast territory. What militia groups that did exist, acted more like social clubs rather than a protective force. In this period (particularly in the years of Reconstruction 1865 to 1877) in the south private armed groups such as the notorious KKK engaged in campaigns of voter intimidation of freed negroes (lynching’s, arson and other acts of terror) and harassment of northern businessmen (referred to as Carpet Baggers). The western territories and states had small local groups activated for specific emergencies. By the late 1800s militias were essentially a dying institution. 

The National Guard and Militia in the Modern Era:

I have to control myself every time I see someone wearing a shirt that says National Guard Est 1620. The National Guard has its roots in the American Revolution and Civil War with the calling up of state regiments but it was established in 1903 not 1620. We weren’t even a nation until 1776. I love technicalities. The National Guard was established under the Militia Act of 1903. This formalized the regulation of state military forces in the United States. The Militia Act has been revised since its adoption and is now part of Title 10 United States Code Armed Forces (10 U.S.C., 2011). Title 10 has removed the language referencing the unorganized militia as defined in the original act of 1903.

The National Guard has served with distinction in every war since World War I. Like any organization it has its good units and bad units. This variance in quality has more to do with individual unit leadership than history. Since the Gulf War of the early 1990s, the federal government has increased oversight on training of its reserve component units, of which the National Guard is a part. The National Guard has had its dark days. The Kent State massacre 1970 is probably the most famous incident. Like the regular military, the National Guard has also been misused from time to time and sent into impossible situations for which it was neither trained nor properly  prepared. The National Guard is a well-regulated militia as envisioned by the Constitution of the United Sates. Governors often falsely believe that the National Guard is their personal army to command but specific regulations are in placed to prevent abuse of powers by governors.

Modern Militia Groups:

Modern militias are not representative of the United States military or reserve components (National Guard and Reserves). With the exception of auxiliaries that require no formal military training such as the Texas State Guard and Kentucky State Guard, modern militias are ideologically rooted, homogonous (except for token members used to claim diversity), and claim to be strict constitutionalist (though they cherry pick which parts of the Constitution they choose to believe or follow. Basically they disregard everything past the first ten amendments). Many do not believe in religious freedoms, rather they believe that religion should be part of the government and the religion they want is more often than not is evangelical Protestant Christianity. In the last 30 years unregulated militias have grown more violent and with the influx of former military members more tactically savvy.

Though Ruby Ridge Idaho and Waco Texas demonstrated how the Federal Government can mishandle situations, it doesn’t change the fact that anti-government groups, some of whom where the title of militia, were every bit as at fault in those satiations as the government was in its response. Private militias have capitalized on this sentiment to justify their existence. Since these events, private militias have grown not diminished. Those who died at Waco and Ruby Ridge serve as martyrs to the movements and reinforce twisted ideology that private (very unregulated) militias are necessary.  Reality is far from this picture.

Many modern private militias are conditioning their members to believe the end is nigh and to prepare for an apocalyptic landscape. Their post-apocalyptic vision has more in common with Salem of the 1600s than it does of the United States of the late 1700s. A short trip though YouTube provides you with an eye opening glimpse into the paranoid and delusional vision these groups perpetuate. Some militia organizations “supported” law enforcement during recent civil unrest giving the illusion that all law enforcement has a high opinion of militia but on January 6, 2021 the true color of their support of law enforcement was evident by their storming of the United States Capital and assault of capital and metro DC police.

Many militias members love to quote Thomas Jefferson which is only appropriate. He believed colored and native American races were inferior to Caucasians of European decent, hated slavery but retained his own slaves, evaded any semblance of courage during the Revolution (fleeing Virginia with Banastere Tarleton hot on his heals), exceeded his authority as Minister to France and Secretary of State, undermined Washington, screwed over his friend John Adams, created the salacious nature of political partisanship in the United States, castrated the military prior to the War of 1812 (leaving his successor with a financial and military mess),  and impregnated his chattel. But hey, he gave us the Declaration of Independence so all of his sin must therefore be absolved, right? His most famous quote used by the militia community is undoubtably “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure” (Ellis 1998, p. 118). Such quotes have been used as motivational rallying cries for such radicals as Timothy McVey, Eric Rudolph, and countless political pundits.

Many militia members, gun rights, and (ironically) gun control advocates quote the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to solidify their respective positions.

 “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” (As quoted by Jordan 2007, p. 45).

Militia members believe the clause ‘. . .a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State’, justifies their position and existence. Gun advocates claim the literal interpretation by the clause ‘. . .the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed’, to justify their position. Gun control advocates believe the clause ‘. . . a well regulated militia’, justifies their position of limiting guns to the National Guard. In reality, no one at the highest levels of our government can universally agree about this polarizing amendment our constitution.  Our founding fathers could not visualize, the types of firearms we have today, nor could our founders visualize school shootings, hijackings (as air travel didn’t exist in the 18th and 19th centuries), or voter intimidation with arms. Our founders developed a system of government where no single person, or branch of the government wields absolute power. The unregulated militias would have this changed so that their chosen charismatic leader wields power, and there have been such precedents in history prior to our revolution. Our founders recognized the threat such unregulated forces could pose.  After all, world history up to that point and in the modern era is full of  examples of militia installing dictators.

The term militia, in the modern context, has become synonymous with extremism, and their members are culpable for that image. Many in the National Guard do not want to be viewed a militia because of this modern image. I know many who serve in the Guard who are very proud of their service and the part of their uniform that says U.S. Army or U.S. Air Force. They wear the same exact uniform that I wore for 21 years in the regular Army. Make no misstate the National Guard is our Nation’s well-regulated militia because it operates under regulations advanced and approved by the people of the Untied State and not polarized ideologs that cherry pick the constitution when it convenient for them to do so. The men and women that make up our nations well-regulated militia (the National Guard) have sacrificed time, energy, and blood to protect our country both domestically and abroad. They’ve expedited recovery after natural disasters and responding to incident of domestic terror and unrest. Are they perfect, far from it, but they take the same oath as everyone else in our nation’s military and are subject to the same level of accountability to the people of the United States and not to a megalomaniac.


Abbot, J. (2019). Miles Standish, the Puritan captain. Glasgow, UK. Good Press.

Bergreen, L. (2003). Over the edge of the world: Magellan’s terrifiying circumnavigation of the

     globe. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Bobrick, B. (1997). Angel in the whirlwind. The triumph of the American Revolution. New York,

     NY: Penguin Books.

Bradford, W. (2016). Bradford’s history of ‘Plymouth Plantation’-From the original manuscript.

     With a report of the proceedings incident to the return of the manuscript to Massachusetts.

     Lexington, KY: Filiquarian Publishing LLC.

Borneman, W. (2004). 1812:The war that forged a nation. New York, NY: Harper Collins


Bunker, N. (2014). An empire on the edge: How Britain came to fight America. New York, NY:

     Ventage Books.

Catton, B. (1969). Grant takes command. Boston, MA: Little Brown and Company Inc.

Chavez, T. (2002). Spain and the independence of the United States: An intrinsic gift.

     Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

Ellis, J. (1998). American Sphinx: The character of Thomas Jefferson. New York, NY: Vintage


Ellis, J. (2002). Founding brothers: The revolutionary generation. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Fellman, M. (1989). Inside war: The guerrilla conflict in Missouri during the American Civil War.

     New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Foote, S. (1986) The Civil War a narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York, NY: Random


Lekie, R. (1993). George Washington’s war: The saga of the American Revolution. New York,

     NY: Harper Perennial.

Lockhart, P. (2008). The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the making of

     the American Army. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Martin, J. (2001). A narrative of a revolutionary solder: Some of the adventures, dangers, and

     sufferings of Joseph Plumb Martin. New York, NY: Signet Classic.

Speer, L. (2002). War of vengeance: Act of retaliation against Civil War POWs. Mechanicsburg,

     PA: Stackpole Books.

Tebbel, J., & Jennison, K. (2006). The American Indian wars. Eddison, NJ: Castle Books.

United States Code Armed Forces 2011, 10 U.S.C. §§ 3001 to  §§ 10001 (2011).

Thompson, J. (2007). The journals of Captain John Smith: A Jamestown biography. Washington,

     D.C.: Natinal Geographic, LLC.

Toll, I. (2006). Six frigates: The epic history of the U.S. Navy. New York, NY: W.W. Norton &

     Company, Inc.


Doolittle, A. & Marian S. Carson Collection. The battle of Lexington April/ A. Doolitle sculpt. Massachusetts Lexington, None. [Place not identified: publisher not identified, between 1940 and 1950] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

(ca. 1903) The battle of Lexington. Massachusetts Lexington, ca. 1903. Boston: Published by John H. Daniels & Son, Jan. 15. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

(ca. 1904) Captain Miles Standish. , ca. 1904. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Currier & Ives. (1876) The “minute-Men” of the Revolution. United States New England, 1876. [New York: Published by Currier & Ives 125 Nassau St. New York] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Unidentified soldier in Virginia militia uniform. United States, None. [Between 1861 and 1865] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

W. Duke, S. &. C. (1888) Captain John Smith. America, 1888. [Place not identified: Publisher not identified, ?] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Your History Geek Installment I: How to Research History


I debated long and hard about writing this installment. You will notice that I changed the title of my blog to Your History Geek rather than Your Civil War Geek. There are two reasons for this, first and foremost, this allows me the freedom to tackle a number of topics, secondly, after the events of the Wednesday 6 January 2021, I have formally resigned from re-enacting. I may continue with living history, or later down the road, I may start a You Tube channel, but I’ve seen a significant change in the re-enactment community that is noticeably different from when I began in the community. I’m not going to elaborate on the deeply personal reasons I left the hobby. Those who need to know the specifics of why I left are aware of my reasons. I’m hoping the community goes back to the way it was when I joined in 2009, but until I see a change in the community as a whole, I’m stepping back.

How to Research History:

There is a growing movement in the United States to launch an assault on education and historical and scientific education in particular.  This is particularly true when that education runs counter to deep seated philosophical beliefs. These beliefs may include but are not limited to, religious, political, social, or beliefs re-enforced by charismatic narratives. Everybody, including myself, has a “position” on things. My position has changed over the years as I’ve learned to research objectively. Objective research may mean you learn that your heroes are complete tools. In the 1970s, I grew up on a diet of Black Sheep Squadron, Hogan’s Heroes and MASH. Of those “historical” shows Black Sheep Squadron set me on a lifelong desire to learn everything I could about the renegade, devil may care figure Major and Medal of Honor Recipient, Gregory “Pappy” Boyington. As a nine year old, I read his biography (trust me that is a hard read for 9 year old).  To this day, I still admire what he accomplished and I still enjoy watching the show but I understand that the show is entertainment and not history. It was a show that actually alienated Boyington from many of the pilots he lead in World War II. It was a work of shameless self-promotion that made all of his pilots look like screwups which they most certainly were not. As I pealed back the layers on that onion, I learned that he only commanded the men of his squadron for a very short rotation of combat, albeit with a remarkable record, but his pilots were accomplished men in their own right. I began to read more books written by his fellow pilots, general officers, and I looked into the historical record. I also researched the decades long history of the Squadron that carried on his legacy. He’s still a hero to me, but very, very flawed one, that would not want to follow.


Primary sources: Primary sources are written in the time by the witnesses to the events. The Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant is a primary source. It was written by Grant in the 1800s, as he was dying of throat cancer. Grant consulted official war records, and where feasible, consulted with officers both the Union and Confederate armies to insure that his details were as close as possible to accurate. Primary sources are considered by many to be the best sources because they do not have as many hands touching them. Reading a biography of Grant written by a person in the 20th century, removes the reader from seeing events through the figure’s eyes. You are viewing history through the author’s eyes instead. So, the author may intentionally or unintentionally soften or sharpen language to make it more palatable or more repugnant to a contemporary audience or paint the figure in the historical light that the author chooses. Other examples of primary source materials include official records which may be retained by governments, libraries, municipalities, or organizations. The United States Library of Congress has a wealth of primary source documents for historians to use.

Secondary Sources: These are the sources written by second parties or researchers. These usually analyze the primary source subject. Many secondary sources, if they are worthwhile, have and enormous quantity or primary sources listed in the work. When choosing a secondary source work, go to the very back of the work and look at the reference list, end notes, and index. If it is thin, than it’s a safe bet that the work is pretty thinly researched. I have discovered many such works in my two decades of researching.

Internet sources: The web is simultaneously a goldmine and an open sewer. You should rarely use blogs, web based encyclopedia’s, or encyclopedias as sources for your research. These are great places to get ideas or direction when you are in rut but many web based encyclopedias can be edited with little or ineffective moderation and a regular encyclopedia is not providing you with any depth of information. Encyclopedias are not intended to be research sources (don’t believe me write a master’s or doctoral thesis) they are the cliff notes of research. When I consult the internet for anything, I look at the “about us” tab most sites have. I look at who paying for the site and if there is any peer review process. If a political party, religious organization, or movement is paying for the website I immediately move to somewhere else to obtain facts.

Peer Reviewed Journals: Many people don’t understand what a peer review is. First and foremost, it is NOT a popularity contest. A peer review is  a body of experts in a particular field that examine the quality of the research. For the most part, peer reviews include (as in the case of history and political sciences) people from opposing viewpoints. What they all have in common is a pedigree of expertise in the subject matter and an understanding of how to conduct research. They examine how the author conducted research, what sources were used, and the opinion of the author is not the focus of the review, the integrity of the research is the focus. Peer reviews do not necessarily remove the author’s bias but it does make the author do quality research.

How to Approach Historical Research:

I like the scientific method as a guiderail in historical research. I find, in many cases, it works well with history. You begin with a historical subject and an idea about that subject. For instance, you may want to examine how illness impacted historical decisions at the Battle of Waterloo. Now in order to develop a thesis (hypothesis in scientific research), you actually need to know something about the battle itself. In order to appreciate and understand that battle you need to know something about the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte (and his military education), disease, hygiene in 19th century armies, weather on the day of the battle, and the physical condition of his opponent’s and ally’s armies. 

The scientific method requires experimentation so it will not always perfectly fit with historical research but you can use its precepts as guide. In the scientific method you design an experiment which may or may not reject a null hypothesis (the polar opposite of your hypothesis). In historical research you are trying to prove your thesis and reject the opposite of your thesis. You collect as much primary and quality secondary source data as you can find an then you compare that data to your thesis.

Sifting through Data: It is very easy in historical research just to parrot information you read in multiple sources. It is a true researcher that examines the veracity of the data and compares that data to plausible facts. For instance, when I was in grade school and middle school I was told that the United States won every war it fought. Well this is not consistent with historical facts. The War of 1812 ended in negotiated peace which neither side clearly came out a winner. For all intents and purposes, it was a stalemate which actually favored the British Empire. The belligerents reverted to Status Quo Anti-Bellum (which means as it was prior to the war). We won many of our naval battles, few of our land battles, and our attempts at invading Canada were soundly and decisively repulsed. We did win one thing from that war, we established that we could stand up to a larger nation. By the end of that war, we were almost engaged in a civil war our own and almost economically bankrupt (Toll, 2006).

When you have gathered enough data to support or maybe reject your hypothesis/thesis, submit your work for review. Don’t send it to people who are blindly going to accept it as fact, seek out people who will critically examine it. When I wrote my master’s thesis, my advisor was rubber stamping my work without providing me critical feedback. In point of fact he was virtually telling me I was the greatest thing since the invention of Ziplock bags. This did wonders for my ego but what goes up must eventually come down. When my thesis was submitted for review, a second reader provided me with some stinging and critical feedback that my thesis advisor should have been providing me all along. I learned more from the criticism than I did from the person who was supposed to be guiding me. This is a hard lesson. Interestingly enough, I valued my second reader’s opinion and have used it as a lesson rather than wallowing in self-pity.

Revisionist vs. Apologist:

History does not change, despite what the cynics on the pulpits, lecterns, and speaking platforms my lead you to believe. The events happened, that’s why they are history. What changes is our understanding and or presentation of those events. The people who love to assault “revisionist” history, in many instances, are upset that some of their heroes are not so great after all. The threat of losing that worship factor their hero may have is powerful and threatening to people who are not objective in their research. If you want an experiment in understanding, look at how we have portrayed Native Americans from up into the 1970s in our text books. There is no greater example of how we molded our texts to support our “patriotic” vision. Once text books began examining the injustices, they were immediately vilified and labeled as revisionist by the apologists. Yet, we exploit Native Americans to this day, we look down our noses at reservations, criticize their polytheistic/naturalist based religions, and try to tap into energy reserves on their lands. This is not revisionism, its empirical fact. Up until the 1950s we tried to forcibly eradicate their non-Christian beliefs through government sponsored Indian Schools (Krupat, 2018). I didn’t learn about any of this through textbooks, I learned it through research. I also learned that George Armstrong Custer was and absolute blithering idiot and monster (Tebbel & Jennison, 2006).

A Revisionist: Takes a topic and crafts selected facts to bolster only their viewpoint. Sometimes this is done in very negative light and does not take into account all sides of an argument.

An Apologist: Takes the stance which defends reprehensible conduct of the actors during a particular time in history. There were (and still are) apologists for slave owners, Nazi’s, the KKK, and Senator Joseph McCarthy, David Koresh, and yes even Kim Jung Un.  In many instances the narrative of apologists are true examples of revisionist history that have been in place for decades.

Whitewashing the past is not unique to the United States, but for so many years we’ve criticized how the Japanese barely mention atrocities committed in the years prior to World War II or barbarism committed by their military during the war, yet we have sanitized our history so much that our history books make it look like our nation completely without sin. Apologists want you to ignore the faults and “move forward”. This is exactly why history repeats itself. We don’t want to look at the negative aspects because it’s a major “downer” but just like any recovery program, you have to address the negative to effectively move forward. A note on true revisionist. There are some people who are so biased (one way or the other) that they discard any facts which may challenger their viewpoint (without researching them). I won’t mention any names but there is a former political pundit who loves to write “history books” under a franchised series of titles. I’ve read a couple of his books and they are so badly sourced as to be completely farcical. I wouldn’t even call them historical fiction. Sadly writing history and children’s books is a common profession for exiled pundits who were removed from their positions for sexual misconduct or slander. Don’t let these people teach your children about history.

Research opens your eyes and your mind but beware, you’ll lose friends, family support (in some cases), and maybe even your religion. Oh, and you wont be popular if you conduct proper research. You’ll be vilified, you’ll be called a revisionist, a heretic, and maybe even a communist. You will however be more patriotic (in as much wanting to make your country better can be called patriotism). You’ll also be better able to understand perspectives, think for yourself, and maybe just maybe tap into your humanity and become a better person. Research is not easy, it can be painful and a struggle. But at its core, research is the forbidden fruit. That is why so many religions equate the fall of man with the pursuit of knowledge and that is why politicians launch campaigns against education. Education and research based education in particular is empowering.

In the reference section of this work, I’ve listed both books I use when I formulate a research project as well as the sources I used to support this blog.


American Psychological Association (2011). Publications manual of the American Psychological Association (6th Ed). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Creswell, J. (2003). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed method approaches (2nd Ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Frohnen, B. (2002). The American republic: Primary sources. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc.

Krupat, A. (2018). Changed forever volume 1: American Indian boarding school literature. Albany, NY: University of New York Press.

McPherson, J. & Cooper, W. (1998). Writing the Civil War: The quest to understand. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Tebbel, J & Jennison, K. (2006). The American Indian wars. Eddison, NJ: Castle Books.

Toll, I. (2006). Six frigates: The epic history of the founding of the U.S. Navy. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.

Turabian, K. (2007). A manual for writers of research papers, theses, and dissertations: Chicago style for students and researchers (7th Ed). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Your Civil War Geek Installment IX.

Your Civil War Geek Installment IX.

Use and Limitations of Intelligence During the Civil War.

            Anyone that seriously devotes time and energy to studying the Civil War, will realize that the type of intelligence gathered and employed by commanders and used by chiefs of state during the war was, more often than not, flimsy. It’s very easy to armchair quarterback mistakes made between 159 and 155 years ago from the comfort of our climate-controlled dwellings. While military science experts today can easily see the faults and flaws committed by the actors on that great stage, it was much harder for the players in that time to effectively gather, interpret, and employ that intelligence. Today, I’m going to attempt to shed light on the way intelligence was gathered, interpreted, and employed during the Civil War.

            Before, I go too in depth into this post, I want to use modern terminology to explain types of intelligence use by the military.

  1. HUMINT: Human intelligence, first, second, or third person information gathered from actual living breathing humans. In the War, this would include scouts, runaway slaves, deserters, soldiers, civilians, refugees, and spies (Department of the Army, 2004).
  • IMINT: Imagery Intelligence: IMINT was not really applicable during the Civil War because Cameras of the time required and absolutely motionless platform, 10-15 seconds of exposure to light, and almost no ability to enhance images (Department of the Army, 2004). Even military produced topographical maps were at best a derivative of HUMINT back then.
  • SIGINT: Signals Intelligence: During the Civil War wide-spread use of the telegraph was used and visual signaling such as Wig-Wag flags were employed (Department of the Army, 2004). Tapping into telegraph lines was a tactic frequently used during the Civil War.
  • CI: Counterintelligence: This craft is devoted to ferreting out enemy intelligence gathering operations and interrogation of civilians, soldiers, and known spies. Both sides employed CI but just didn’t call it CI (Department of the Army, 2004).

Without going into a Battle Staff lecture on intelligence, I’m going to use specific examples and events during the Civil War, to attempt to convey some understanding of the impact of intelligence during this conflict. Very little real time intelligence was available to commanders in the Civil War until two armies were within spitting distance of one another (figuratively), compared to conflicts of today. Today we have radar, satellites, drones, and signal receivers which seem to provide modern commanders with too much information in some instances.

Modern armies focus more on small unit tactics, squad, platoon, and companies, whereas the Civil War focused on larger units, squadrons (cavalry), regiments, divisions, brigades, corps, and armies. Below is a quick breakdown of these formations so the novice reader can appreciate the scale of battle in the Civil War. For the purpose of this example between 80 and 100 men comprised a company (Hardee, 1990). This figure is not exact because recruitment and organization was not always uniformly consistent throughout both sides during the war.

Unit                             Approximate Number of Persons                   Commanded by:

Regiment                    10 companies (800-1000 men)                       Colonel or Lt. Colonel

Brigade                       2-5 regiments (up to 2600 men)                     Brigadier General*

Division                      2-4 brigades (up to 8000 men)                       Major General*

Corps                          2-3 Divisions (Up to 26,000 men)                  Major General*

Army                           3 or more corps (Up to 80,000 men)              Major General* (American Battlefield Trust, 2020).

*In the Confederate army, due to size restrictions, a brigade could be commanded by a Colonel, a division by a Brigadier General, a Corps by a Lieutenant General, and Army by a  by a Lieutenant or full general. The Union Army general officer ranks during the Civil War only went as high as Lieutenant General.

So, now that the sheer size and scale of units has been established, we can understand the type of numbers which were of interest to 19th century commanders. Today, small unit operations are very significant, in the Civil War, cavalry and irregulars were not as highly weighted as larger units were in the overall intelligence picture. Since it was difficult to hide large unit movements, in many cases small unit movements were dismissed out of hand when reported (Griffith, 2001). That is not to suggest they were not relevant or important to commanders, but unlike Napoleonic cavalry, they were not used as a major arm of combat power. There were instances were cavalry performed enormous feats such as J.E.B. Stuart’s ride around the Army of the Potomac, or Nathan Bedford Forrest’s and John Hunt Morgan’s raids, and John Buford’s delaying action at the Battle of Gettysburg (Foote, 1986). While individually successful and impactful, cavalry as a whole was often mis-used or ignored by some commanders. The cavalry’s purpose in the Civil War, was flank protection in battle, screening movements of larger units, and intelligence collection for the field commanders. Collectors of intelligence during the Civil War tended to be fixated on the large units (Fischel, 1996).

Today, every soldier is in basic training is taught the fundamentals of how to report observations of enemy movements in the form of a SALUTE report (Size, activity, location, unit (size or actual designation) time, and type of equipment) In the Civil War, basic training was the company drill practiced by both side in the form of School of The Soldier. When not marching or fighting both sides drilled the School of the Soldier rigorously (Hardee, 1990). After the fighting started in 1861, neither side had the luxury to spend the nine weeks devoted to basic training as we do today. Soldiers in the Civil War were expected to march, stand picket duty, load and fire their weapon as part of a larger unit, and drill. As armies drew closer, both before and after battles, pickets from both sides would regularly fraternize when their senior officers were not around (Foote, 1986).

Rose Greenhow:

An old photo of a person

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(Ms. Rose Greenhow. Between 1855 and 1865)

The outbreak of the Civil War placed the capital of the United States in a slave holding the slaveholding state of Maryland, with a significant portion of its population sympathetic to the Confederacy (Catton, 1967). One of the primary sources of intelligence to the Confederacy early in the war was the Confederate spy, Mrs. Rose Greenhow. As far as the Confederacy’s intelligence collection was concerned Ms. Greenhow was much more effective than Pinkertons was for the Union. Rose was widowed when her husband Robert Greenhow, a State Department employee was fatally injured in San Francisco (Fischel, 1996). Prior to the War, she settled in the D.C. area and made personal social acquaintances with politicians and families of pro-union, and secessionists political bents. Her most significant contribution to the Confederacy was information she provided General P.T.G. Beauregard prior to the battle of Manassas/Bull Run in July 1861. Ms. Greenhow’s intelligence on the movement of McDowell’s Army into northern may have empowered the Confederacy to make necessary changes to troop dispositions, but famed reports to Beauregard prior to First Bull Run had significant gaps in time. The battlefield exploits of men like Jackson, the greenness of soldiers and commanders on both sides, and the fog of war had more to do with the victory than Ms. Greenhow. There were opportunities on both sides for victory, success in that battle came down to who panicked first, and in that first major battle, sadly, it was the Union which set the tone for other failures in 1861 and 1862 (Griffith, 2001).

Ms. Greenhow certainly provided the Confederacy with actionable HUMNT early on in the War ,but she was compromised by Union intelligence operating inside D.C. and kept under observation until her arrest in August of 1861. Many historians have jumped on the “Greenhow” bandwagon, over rating her contribution to the Confederacy’s victory at Bull Run/Manassas. These contributions are based on accounts of questionable veracity, namely Greenhow and Allan Pinkerton (Fishel, 1996). Because Greenhow’s exploits or as historians should say, alleged exploits, make for thrilling reading, people through mostly embellishment and word of mouth continue to make her contributions much larger than they actually were. Pinkerton, who was famous for providing unreliable intelligence, was a consummate self- promoter. Greenhow herself, believed she was much larger a figure in the confederacy than she was (Fishel, 1996). Greenhow was ultimately banished to the South where she could do no harm and provide less of a distraction to the Union.

Intelligence failures in the Civil War sometimes were biproducts of personal relationships between the collector and commander, rather than the veracity of the intelligence collected. In December of 1860, following the election of Abraham Lincoln, a moderate Republican, South Carolina became the first state to succeed from the Union. James Buchannan, the outgoing president, did nothing and was content to let his successor deal with the division of the nation (Foote, 1986). John B. Floyd, Buchannan’s Secretary of War, actively used his office to position army supplies and weaken forts located in southern states, where they could easily be acquired in the event of war. In May of 1861 Floyd was commissioned as a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army.

A group of people posing for a photo

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(Gardner, 1862)   Allan Pinkerton far Left, Abraham Lincoln Center, and Major General John A. McClernand Right.

            From the very beginning of his presidency, Lincoln became acquainted with a Scottish immigrant turned railroad detective by the name of Alan Pinkerton. Pinkerton provided security for the President Elect during his trip from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, DC (Catton, 1967). Pinkerton, though successful in this mission, would prove woefully inept in his later role as Head of Union Intelligence. 

After the battlefield setbacks in late 1861, Lincoln appointed McClellan as General in Chief of the Union Armies. McClellan, an effective organizer and motivator, was not in any stretch of the word an aggressive combat leader. McClellan relied on Pinkerton to provide reports of Confederate troop strengths, fortifications, and movements. Pinkerton’s numbers were often severely inflated. Pinkerton relied exclusively on HUMINT gathered by deserters, runaway slaves, and informants (Fishel, 1996). Pinkerton created an elaborate staff of agents who operated behind Confederate lines. In some instances, his agents were able to get close to key administration officials. The problem with Pinkerton’s intelligence was that it was often inflated, his observers were easily fooled, and they did not take the time to individually validate the information they gathered before reporting. Since McClellan trusted Pinkerton’s information, he was doomed to fear a phantom force rather than appreciate his own numerical advantage (Catton, 1990).

In the late spring of 1862, after months of vacillating, Lincoln finally grew tired of McClellan’s delays. McClellan, possessing between 100,000 to 130,000 troops, persisted with the excuse that he was outnumbered. His correspondence with Lincoln from February to April was insistent, (to the point of insubordination at times) that he required more troops to confront Pinkerton’s estimate of 200,000 confederates. (Donald, 1995). As a result of McClellan’s reluctance, he was demoted to just the commander of the Army of the Potomac rather than General in Chief (Foote, 1986).

Following the Major General Pope’s failed campaign culminating in the 2nd Battle of Bull Run (or second Manassas), McClellan was restored to command of all troops formerly under Pope. Not learning from his lessons during the Peninsula Campaign, McClellan once again listened to Pinkerton’s inflated estimates. In early September 1862, while stopping near a former Confederate camp site, two Indiana soldiers stumble across cigars wrapped in a document. As it turned out, the document was a copy of Robert E. Lee’s Special Order 191 which outlined part of his invasion plan for Maryland (Priest, 1992). McClellan was supremely pleased with this intelligence coup, was reported to have said, “Here is the paper with which, if I cannot Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home” (Murfin, 1993, P 133).

Over the next two week, McClellan’s forces would fight at South Mountain and Antietam Creek in Sharpsburg, MD. Both would go down as Union successes, but McClellan failed to capitalize on his success failing to employ all his forces at Antietam and allowing Lee’s army to escape back across the Potomac after the battle. Convinced once again by Pinkerton that Lee had numerically superior forces, he remained at Antietam, licking his wounds and sending excuses for his army’s lethargy to Lincoln. After almost five weeks of inactivity Lincoln’s patience was at a breaking point. After receiving an excuse that McClellan’s horses were fatigued Lincoln sent the following telegram.

“Telegram to General George B. McClellan War Department, Washington, October 25, 1862

I have just read your dispatch about sore-tongue and fatigued horses. Will you pardon me for asking, what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?

  1. Lincoln” (Lubin 2005, P. 365.).

The next month McClellan was replaced by his friend Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. In his tenure of command of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan saw shadows and apparitions of Pinkerton’s construction, which played into his slow and deliberate way of thinking. Lee had between 45,000 and 60,000 thousand troops at any given point who were fit for battle (Priest, 1992). McClellan had a large portion of his army that had not seen action during the battle. He retained these men in reserve believing he would need them if Lee launched a counterattack with his phantom forces. Had McClellan used cavalry effectively, or employed military scouts rather than a close friends network of amateur spies, his chances of defeating Lee would have been much better.

            In the western theatre of the war, exploitation of SIGINT was almost the downfall of two leaders early in the war. Many armchair historians love to jump on the presumed “fact” that Ulysses S. Grant was a drunkard. Historians, such as Catton, Foote, and Chernow have almost conclusively disproved this claim, but it is a theme that some historians love to return to, time and time again (this will be the subject of a future post). Why it is mentioned in this instance was Grant’s relief by Halleck following the Henry Donelson campaign. While it is not a secret that Halleck did not like Grant, following Henry Donelson, Halleck believed, erroneously, that Grant was not transmitting returns on his army’s strength and dispositions and was drinking again. In truth, a telegraph operator, who was also a confederate sympathizer, was not relaying those dispatchers forward to Halleck (Catton, 2000). There was no way, Grant, from his position in northern Tennessee could be aware of the actions of a telegraph operator in St. Louis. As a result, Halleck had relieved him, and was authorized by McClellan (then General in Chief) to place Grant under arrest if necessary.

            Major General Don Carlos Buell was, like McClellan cautious, but unlike McClellan, Buell was hampered by irregulars with a keen appreciation of how to exploit SIGINT to their advantage. During John H. Morgan’s first raid into Kentucky, the took inordinate pleasure in intercepting Buell’s telegraph communications on a regular basis (Dyer, 1999). At one point the Brash Morgan even complained through an intercepted telegraph line complaining of the quality of horses he captured from Union forces (Foote, 1986). Buell, perhaps unfairly, earned a reputation as being the western theatres equivalent of McClellan. Unlike McClellan, Buell operated in a state, while nominally neutral, was in practice a hotbed of irregular activity. 

            Like commanders today which are subjected to incalculable quantities of intelligence, in the Civil War the challenge was to make since of intelligence and rapidly apply it to military operations. Unlike modern commanders, Civil War commanders mostly depended on HUMINT and validating that intelligence in a timely manner was problematic and costly in terms of lives. Cameras of the time could not be operated from areal platforms such as Professor Thaddeus Lowe’s balloons (Marvel, 1991). In the Civil War observes would sit in a basket and relay observations to people below. With the primitive optics of the day, this proved problematic and the Balloons, as in World War 1 over 50 years later, provided excellent targets for opposing forces on the ground.

A vintage photo of an old building

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(1862)   Fair Oaks Untied States Virginia, 1862

            So, my fellow armchair generals, remember intelligence is ever evolving, and as it evolves, it often proves more challenging in its processing and interoperation. Commanders today who have access to almost, if not instantaneous, intelligence, still make fundamental errors. In the Civil War, even with its relative boom in technology, most intelligence was HUMNT and that has always been the most difficult to read.

Sincerely, Your Civil War Geek

Patrick D. Stoker, PhD

US, Army (RET). Firefighter/AEMT


American Battlefield Trust. (2020). Civil War history: Civil War army organization.

Catton, B. (1990). The Army of the Potomac trilogy: Mr. Lincoln’s Army. New York, NY: Archer Books.

Catton, B. (2000). Grant Moves South. New York, NY: Castle Books.

Catton, B. (1967). The coming fury: The centennial history of the Civil War, volume 1. New York, NY: Washington Square Press. 

Department of the Army. (2004). FM 2-0: Intelligence. Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army.

Donald, D. (1995). Lincoln. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Dyer, C. (1999). Raiding strategy: As applied by the western Confederate cavalry in the American Civil War. Retrieved March 24, 2009: 263-281.

Fishel, E. (1996). The secret war for the Union: The untold story of military intelligence in the Civil War. Boston, MA: Mariner Book.

Foote, S. (1986). The Civil War a narrative: Fort Sumpter to Perryville. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Foote, S. (1986). The Civil War a narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Foote, S. (1986). The Civil War a narrative: Red River to Appomattox. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Griffith, P. (2001). Battle tactics of the Civil War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Hardee, W. (1990). Hardee’s rifle and light infantry tactics: For the instruction, exercises, and manoeuvres of riflemen and light infantry. (2nd reprinting). Union City, TN: Pioneer Press.

Lubin, M. (2005). The words of Abraham Lincoln: Speeches, letters, proclamations, and papers of our most eloquent president. New York, NY: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers Inc.

Marvel, W. (1991). Burnside. Chapel Hill, NC: North Carolina University Press.

Murfin, J. (1993). The gleam of bayonets: The Battle of Antietam and Robert E. Lee’s Maryland campaign, September 1862. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.

Murray, R. (2003). Legal cases of the Civil War. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

Priest, M. (1992). Before Antietam: The battle for South Mountain. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Books.


(1862) Fair Oaks, Va. Prof. Thaddeus S. Lowe observing the battle from his balloon “Intrepid”. Fair Oaks United States Virginia, 1862. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Gardner, A., photographer. (1862) Antietam, Md. Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand. Antietam Antietam. Maryland United States, 1862. October 3. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Mrs. Rose Greenhow. , None. [Between 1855 and 1865] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Your Civil War Geek Installment VIII: The Fire Services, EMS, & the Civil War




Your Civil War Geek has two seemingly all-encompassing passions. I’m a Civil War Re-enactor and I’m a Volunteer Firefighter and an Advanced Emergency Medical Technician (AEMT). Through one passion, I’ve learned more about the other passion. In this installment, I’m going to talk, just a little bit, about how firefighters contributed to both sides in the Civil War, as well as, how battlefield medicine during the Civil War contributed to Emergency Medical Services (EMS). While I have not done enough research to provide a comprehensive list of firefighters and medical personnel who fought or contributed services in the Civil War, I hope to provide a little spark to get my fellow firefighters, EMT’s, nurses, and paramedics to become excited about the history of their profession, and create a few new Civil War Geeks in the process.

In 1861, after the assault on Ft. Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to respond to the national emergency. Volunteers in the Northeast and in western territories flocked to recruiting stations to answer the call. Among those volunteers were groups of fire-tested type-A personalities, namely volunteer firefighters. Initially two regiments from New York, consisting of volunteer firefighters, answered the President’s call. Called Fire Zouaves, they adopted a gaudy dress of bright red baggy pants and a fez or turban for headgear. In Pennsylvania the 72nd Regiment which became known as Baxter’s Fire Zouaves joined the fight. The Union was not the only side to see firefighters contribute regiments during the Civil War. A significant portion of the crew of the CSS Virginia (AKA the Merrimack) were volunteer firefighters. At the beginning of the war, the Atlanta Mechanic Fire Co. No. 2 formed a unit and fought under that name. In addition to the fire service thousands of nurses and doctors would begin to change the mindset of front line medical care.

Fire Zouaves:

Heading south of the town of Gettysburg on the Emmetsburg Road, just before the intersection of the Wheatfield Road, is a unique statue about fifty or so yards to your left (east). The monument shows a 19th century soldier standing shoulder to shoulder with a late 19th early 20th century firefighter holding a trumpet, wearing a leather fire helmet, and sporting the classic fire service’s handlebar mustache. This is a monument to the 73rd New York (Fire Zouaves) Regiment. On the 2nd of July 1863, this regiment commanded by Brigadier General Andrew Humphreys fought bravely as part of Major General Daniel Sickles’s Third Corps. At one point in the battle, as the 73rd witnessed units of the 114th Pennsylvania being pushed back by confederate Major General William Barksdale’s Mississippians. The 73rd fired a volley into the oncoming Mississippians. “The Seventy-third’s color sergeant fell; the next man to hold the flag was struck in the arm by a minie ball; and then a third man grasped the staff and held the banner high (Pfanz, 1987 p. 330)”.  Although pushed back to Union lines later on the 2nd day, the 73rd New York demonstrated that indomitable spirit that lives in firefighters today. Many witnessed this spirit through the bravery of the firefighters who entered the World Trade Center on 9/11.

1862 Clara Barton, a True Combat Medic:

When you get down to it, EMS is combat medicine. The roots of EMS go back as far as the recorded history of combat. During the Civil War care for the combat wounded was rudimentary at best and definitely a male dominated service. The Civil War, believe it or not, was one of the first major instances in American History, of women serving as medical professionals extremely close to the front lines of battle.

Nurse Clara Barton is perhaps one of the best known of these front line caregivers. In the early morning of September 17th 1862, General Robert E. Lee’s newly re-organized Army of Northern Virginia encountered the right wing of Major General George B. McClellan’s army of the Potomac north east of the sleepy town of Sharpsburg Maryland on the banks of the Antietam Creek. The morning fight which dominated the northwestern side of the battlefield consisted of struggles simply named by geographic and agricultural descriptions (The East Woods, The West Woods, The Cornfield, & Dunker Church). Barton arrived at the at a concealed position near the Union lines proximal to the Poffenberger’s orchard. Along with her orderly she brought desperately needed bandages, stimulants, and other medical supplies. She worked alongside Union Surgeon and close friend, Dr. James Dunn (Priest, 1989).

The Battle of Antietam would go down in American History our bloodiest single day. Despite the carnage of WWI & WWII we have yet to encounter a single day as bloody as this one. Over 24,000 soldiers on both sides were killed, wounded, or missing, in a little over 12 hours of fighting. Roughly 20% of the forces engaged would become casualties in this battle (Kennedy, 1998). Clara Barton would work tirelessly throughout the day, and for three more days. She worked so close to the combat, that a bullet passed through her clothing, missing her, but killed the soldier she was fighting to keep alive (Sears, 1983). Between 1861 and 1968 combat medicine evolved from just nurses and surgeons to combat medics, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, and flight medics. Today with rapid transport, many traumatic conditions (whether combat or otherwise) once ruled out as imminently mortal became survivable.

First Female Army Doctor Mary E. Walker

Dr. Mary Walker, one of the first women to graduate from a medical school, had to fight to practice her profession on the battlefield. At the beginning of the Civil War combat medical services as a physician was limited to only men. Indeed, many of the nurses, attendants, and almost all of the surgeons and their attendants were men. Despite thousands of years of women ministering to men, gender stereotypes relegated women to rear area hospitals with limited roles. Victorian morals of the time required women to dress in impractical outfits bordering on physiologically unhealthy. Mary Walker eventually was able to procure a contract position as a doctor to the Army of the Cumberland (Burns, 2013). She served alongside male doctors close to the action and sharing the same risks.

Dr. Walker was captured by Confederates in 1864 near the Tennessee/Georgia border, wearing the practical clothing her male counterparts wore. She was offered freedom if she would change her clothing to the corseted full length dresses that women of the time traditionally wore. She refused and was subsequently imprisoned in Richmond, Virginia. After the Civil War, she was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson (Burns, 2013). She was the first woman in United States history to receive this award. Despite her accolades as a physician, after the war, she would continue to fight for women’s rights and be arrested for not wearing clothing befitting a woman. Fortunately for hundreds of thousands of trauma victims, women in medicine and EMS today, no longer have to wear ridiculous gender restrictive uniforms. They wear, scrubs, bunker gear, or jumpsuits suited to the task rather than assumptions of what a particular gender should wear.

The 72nd Pennsylvania at Gettysburg

Through a number of leadership faults during the first two years of the war, the 72nd Pennsylvania part of Baxter’s Fire Zouaves, had a lackluster reputation. On the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, these men redeemed themselves at the Bloody Angle. While Pickett’s charge on the last day of battle is often viewed as a futile failure, the fighting at the Bloody Angle near the Union center was muzzle to muzzle and hand to hand. At one point in the fight the confederates managed to fire a volley into the Pennsylvanian’s causing them to stagger. A determined color sergeant named William Finecy clung to the staff of the unit’s colors. Dazed and wounded in the action, Fincey refused to relinquish his colors, even to his own Brigade Commander General Alexander Webb. Webb ultimately had to threaten to shoot him to secure the colors (Wert, 2001).

The anecdotes I’ve related above are only a snapshot of the great men and women who came from their communities to fight for their country. Emergency services have a rich history in the United States and should be celebrated just as much as any other profession. The key to honoring these men and women is to take some time and learn their history. We take so many of our advantages for granted. The men of the New York and Pennsylvania fire brigades left their communities to save their country. Today hardly a county in the United States doesn’t have at least one first responder, doctor, nurse, or paramedic that has either served, or is in the National Guard or Reserves. Like their ancestors of the 1800s, they serve both inside and outside of the military for their country and their communities.

Sincerely, Your Civil War Geek

Patrick D. Stoker, PhD

US, Army (RET). Firefighter/AEMT



















Burns, B. (2013). Curiosities of the Confederate capital: Untold Richmond stories of the spectacular, tragic and

                  Bizzare. Charleston, SC. The History Press.


Foote, S. (1986). The Civil War a narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York, NY: Vintage



Hattaway H., & Jones, A. (1991). How the North won: A military history of the Civil War.

Urbanna, ILL: University of Illinois Press.


Kennedy, F. (1998). The Civil War battlefield guide 2nd Ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company


McPherson, J. (2003). This hallowed ground: A walk at Gettysburg. New York, NY: Crown



Petruzzi, D., & Stanley, S. (2009). The complete Gettysburg guide. New York, NY: Savas Beate,



Pfanz, H. (1987). Gettysburg: The second day. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina



Priest, J. (1989). Antietam: The soldier’s battle. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


Sears, S. (1983). Landscape turned red: The battle of Antietam. Boston, MA: Mariner Books.


Wert, J. (2001) Gettysburg: Day three. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.




Your Civil War Geek Installment VII: Walden’s Ridge and the Fight for Chattanooga: A Combat Engineer’s Perspective

Walden’s Ridge, is a 74-mile-long prominence stretching from Moccasin Bend on the Tennessee River northeast to a gap in the terrain that runs diagonally between Crossville to Rockwood Tennessee. In the late summer and fall of 1863, this imposing ridge-line influenced the operations of two armies combining over 100,000 men. Though dotted with towns, county roads, and state highways today, during the Civil War Walden’s Ridge represented a daunting obstacle to any travel from west to east. As a retired combat engineer with an appreciation of the impact of terrain on military operations, Your Civil War Geek cannot ignore the immense importance of Walden’s Ridge to the overall success of Union operations during the Campaign for Chattanooga.

Without rehashing the entire Chattanooga campaign, this installment will provide an examination of the impact of Walden’s Ridge through the lens of a Combat Engineer. For 21 years, your Civil War Geek was a combat engineer. To the uninitiated, when historians mention combat engineers it is usually in reference to bridge building or finding landmines, but combat engineers do much more. Engineers shape the battlefield with obstacles and strategically placed openings, conduct reconnaissance, employ military explosives to create or reduce obstacles, and advise senior commander on the advantages and disadvantages of terrain. These fundamental missions have existed on a basic level since the 1800s but technically the capabilities of Combat Engineers have evolved astronomically since the corps was formed in the early days of the American Revolution.

To understand the importance of Walden’s Ridge one needs to understand how military engineers and commanders evaluate terrain. Modern field manuals refer to the acronym O.C.O.K.A. (Observation and fields of fire, Cover and Concealment, Obstacles (manmade and natural), Key or decisive terrain, and Avenues of approach). Regardless of the type of military operations wise commanders throughout military history have used these considerations when evaluating the usefulness of terrain in military operations. The Chattanooga campaign, is a prime example of the effective use of terrain by military commanders to turn a protracted siege into a victory for the besieged.

After Major General William S. Rosecrans’s successful Tullahoma campaign, he endeavored to press his advantage and defeat Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s army (Cozzens, 1996). After his inglorious defeat at Chickamauga in September, Rosecrans’s and his men were penned into Chattanooga (a city of roughly 6,000 inhabitants in 1963).  Confederate forces occupied an L shaped position around the city by securing the key terrain of Missionary Ridge on the east side of Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain due south and across the Tennessee River from Walden’s Ridge.

During the Siege of Chattanooga, the Confederates controlled the major railroads which supplied Chattanooga prior to the Siege. The sheer difficulty of navigating across Walden’s Ridge and the success of Confederate cavalry made retreat from Chattanooga untenable. The river route between Lookout Mountain and Signal Point (located at the extreme southern end of Walden’s Ridge) was affected by treacherous currents and lack of cover from Confederate artillery and infantry pickets. Confederates had the advantage of interior lines and a fully functioning and accessible railway network behind those interior lines. Rosecrans was almost completely cut off from his supply lines and unable to get his depleted forces across Walden’s Ridge. This was the Union situation in late September 1863.

Even today Walden’s Ridge presents a daunting obstacle to anyone who lives on Signal Mountain that also works in Chattanooga or Hixon. Anderson Road, (Anderson Pike) was the only major road on Walden’s Ridge in 1863 which would be recognizable to the contemporary traveler (Lardas, 2016). Today there are three main roads providing access to Walden’s Ridge from Chattanooga. On the south side is Signal Mountain Road and the W Road. Signal mountain road, is probably the easier of the arteries to Walden’s Ridge with its relatively gently winding switchbacks and scenic view including a house shaped like a flying saucer. The W-Road, a place where cars go to die, is actually situated diagonally across the east face of the ridge. The W-Road has switchbacks at both ends that resemble V-tach on a cardiac monitor and have a similar effect on the driver’s heart rate in bad weather. Northwest of Chattanooga is Robert’s Mill Road which is only slightly easier to navigate than the W-Road. All three of these roads are subject to weather closures, have numerous twist and turns. None of them were developed much beyond goat trails back in 1863.

After Rosecrans’s defeat at Chickamauga, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had an emergency meeting with Grant in special rail car traveling between Indianapolis and Louisville (Grant, 1999). During that meeting, Grant received permission to assume command of forces operating in that part of Tennessee, relieve Rosecrans of his current command, and replace Rosecrans with Major General George Thomas. Thomas earned the nickname Rock of Chickamauga for his covering of the Union retreat (Cozzens, 1996). Grant made some quick adjustments to existing commands and then set off for Chattanooga. Grant’s approach to the city required him to cross Walden’s Ridge by horseback.

Grant’s trip across Walden’s Ridge is described in his memoirs.

“We then proceeded to Bridgeport, where we stopped for the night. From here we took horses and made our way by Jasper and over Walden’s Ridge to Chattanooga. There had been much rain, and the roads were almost impassable from mud, knee-deep in places, and from wash-outs on the mountain sides. I had been on crutches since the time of my fall in New Orleans, and had to be carried over places where it was not safe to cross on horseback. The roads were strewn with the debris of broken wagons and the carcasses of thousands of starved mules and horses.” (Grant, 1999 p.330-31)

After linking up with Thomas and his subordinate commanders in Chattanooga, Grant set to work re-opening the supply lines both from Sequatchie Valley by land and from Bridgeport Alabama by water. Collectively both of these supply lines were affectionately referred to, by  Union forces in Chattanooga, as the Cracker Line.

Despite the difficulty in crossing Walden’s Ridge with any sizable forces, the crest of the ridge could be occupied and made useful for an enterprising commander. The crest of Walden’s ridge is between 1800 and 2000 ft. above sea level. Missionary Ridge is roughly 1000 feet above sea level. Even with primitive optics an individual can see detail on both Missionary Ridge to the east and Lookout Mountain to the south. Grant established a signal station on what is now Signal Point (the smallest National Park in the United States). Corral Road which connects one end of Anderson Pike to Sawyer Pike today, was given its name because it was a staging area for horses, wagons, and mules in 1863.

In preparation for the battle of Chattanooga, Major General William T. Sherman would move his forces and pontoon bridges between Walden’s Ridge and the hills which now conceal the city of Redbank from Chattanooga. His assault on the Confederate right, Thomas’s assault on the Confederate center, and Hooker’s seizure of Lookout Mountain, resulted in Bragg withdrawing his demoralized army back into Georgia. By using and securing the imposing terrain of Walden’s Ridge, rather than writing it off as an impediment, Grant not only set the conditions for the Union’s success in lifting the siege, but he also denied the use of that terrain to the Confederate forces.

From Chattanooga, forces would be sent to re-enforce Major General Ambrose Burnside at Knoxville as well as Sherman’s assault on Atlanta.  Chattanooga, as much as any other Union victory, sealed the fate of the Confederacy. Had Grant not made use of Walden’s Ridge, or had Bragg secured it during the siege, outcomes for the war and the United States would have been drastically different.

Patrick D. Stoker, PhD.

Cozzens, P. (1996). The shipwreck of their hopes: The battles for Chattanooga. Urbana &

Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Grant, U.S. (1999). Ulysses S. Grant: Personal memoirs. New York, N.Y. Penguin Classics.

Lardas, M. (2016). Chattanooga 1863: Grant and Bragg in central Tennessee. Oxford, UK:

Osprey Publishing.

Your Civil War Geek: Installment VI A Summer of Civil War Reflection


Since my wife has become more successful in her new career as a romance author, we have had the opportunity to move the Signal Mountain Tennessee.  More specifically, we live on Walden’s Ridge directly astride Grant’s route into Chattanooga in the fall of 1863. Though we formally bought our house in the fall of 2017, I had to finish out the academic year at the university where I worked in Texas. Since I was towing my fifth wheel travel trailer with me, I decided to stop at Vicksburg, MS and Shiloh, TN on my way to Tennessee.  Following my road trip, I began examining the Civil War sites closest to my new home, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, and Brown’s Ferry. In this installment I will share with you some of the more interesting things I came across during this summer of Civil War Reflection. As I continue to explore around my new home and settle in with my new Re-enactment unit, Co. E 8th Tennessee (Union), I will post more in depth blogs.

Before I began my trip, I really tried to do some research on the sites I would be visiting. I must confess, that as a fan of U.S. Grant and James Longstreet, I never got around to researching the Battle of Chattanooga much. A lot of attention is placed on what I call the big five events of the Civil War, Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Sherman’s March, and Petersburg/Appomattox but had Chattanooga been a Confederate Victory it is entirely possible that the war would have lasted two to three more years. As for Vicksburg and Shiloh, I have paid a lot more attention to these conflicts in my research. Both fascinate me for the way they demonstrate the evolution of what I believe were two underrated commanders, namely U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman.


I departed Tolar, Texas for Vicksburg, Mississippi at 04:00hrs on May 19, 2018. The trip to Vicksburg took a little over six hours and I was able to disconnect my trailer and proceed to the battlefield in the early afternoon. A couple of things the reader should understand before I post any pictures of the battlefield. In 1863, Vicksburg was sparsely vegetated due in part to the clearing of fields of fire around the bluffs, military and civilian excavations, and artillery bombardments. Today, you cannot see the no man’s land between the lines except at a couple of spots due to overgrowth of conifers, oak trees, and an invasive species of ivy which makes the battlefield look like a jungle. In late 1862, Maj Gen. Grant had been restored to field command after Maj Gen. Henry W. Halleck had been moved to Washington to assume command as General in Chief of all Union Armies (Catton, 2000).

Before settling into a siege in May of 1863, Grant had experimented unsuccessfully with several ventures to take Vicksburg. Vicksburg was strategically located on high bluffs which overlooked the Yazoo and Mississippi River at one of the bends in the Mississippi. Although fortified, during and inspection tour, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston was not pleased with the fortifications. According to Foote (1986), “To his professional eye, they not only left much to be desired in the way of execution; their very conception it seemed to him was badly flawed” (p. 10). After almost two months of protracted siege warfare Vicksburg’s commander, a Confederate officer from Pennsylvania, Major General John C. Pemberton surrendered his forces to Grant on July 4, 1863 the same day Lee withdrew from Gettysburg (Hathaway & Jones, 1991).

Rather than tying up transport ships, Grant elected to parole the Confederate prisoners in Vicksburg. Ostensibly, prisoners of war on parole were required to be kept in their respective side’s camps and could not engage in armed hostilities until exchanged for a prisoner of the other side. Paroles freed capturing armies of the burden of feeding and caring for prisoners while depriving the opposing side of armed troops. In the 19th Century belligerents generally honored paroles because the consequences if being capture in combat without being properly exchanged could include execution (Stoker, 2010).

As I drove through the somewhat claustrophobic entrance to the National Park, I was struck by the number of monuments. I often hear re-enactors complain of monument pollution. At Vicksburg the monuments are necessary in order to geographically mark positions, otherwise you’re just driving past a continuous berm in the middle of woods. Timing of my trip was not ideal. Early afternoon thunderstorms and squadrons of biting insects who laugh at repellant forced me to conduct a driving tour. Despite the petty inconveniences, I was able to make the best of my trip. On the second day of the trip, I left before the heat and humidity of the day became unbearable. To anyone visiting Vicksburg there are three places that are definitely worth seeing, 1) The surrender site, 2) the Cairo wreck, and 3) the National Cemetery.

The site where Grant sat down with Pemberton to discuss the terms of surrender, is located at a lower piece of ground between the Union and Confederate lines across a paved road from the old National Park headquarters. To appreciate this site requires you to remove yourself from the current time period and place yourself on that hot July day in 1863. When you look up from either side you cannot help but realize how venerable you are out there in the open between two armies. Confederates had made a practice of rolling hog’s heads (55 gallon barrels wooden barrels) full of gunpowder down the hill at Union troops. Both sides had made sport of sniping at anyone who poked their heads above the edge of trenches. In an earlier message to Grant, Pemberton arrogantly claimed to have enough rations to hold out indefinitely. When Grant accepted his surrender and marched his troops into town the truth was revealed. The citizenry and soldiers were reduced to consuming any form of animal protein which could be found including horses (Catton, 2000).

The wreck of the USS Cairo is one of the rare examples of a shipwreck you can actually walk through. The USS Cairo was commissioned into active naval service in January of 1862. On December 12, 1862, the Cairo’s skipper Lt. Commander Thomas Q. Selfridge was in charge of a flotilla of gunboats moving down the Yazoo to neutralize Confederate batteries and remove torpedoes (underwater mines) in order to open a waterway toward Vicksburg. At point between seven and eight miles north of Vicksburg two sudden explosions opened up the Cairo and it sank without any loss of life in just under 15 minutes (Johnson, 2002). The Cairo would be the first ship in naval history to be sunk by electrically detonated mines.

In 1964 the USS Cairo was raised from its muddy grave and transported to a shipyard for storage. In 1972, Congress approved funding for relocation and restoration of the ship. Due to funding shortfalls, in 1977 the restoration stopped. The Cairo sits on high ground just northeast of the National Cemetery at Vicksburg (National Parks Service, 2018). Wooden catwalks allow visitors to walk through the once proud gunboat and look at the technological advances of the mid 19th century. The adjacent museum has hundreds of preserved artifacts including journals, medical supplies, disarmed munitions, weapons, and many other artifacts. As you walk through this vessel you have to imaging the noise, smells, claustrophobic darkness below decks. The National Parks Services has done an outstanding job of preserving and displaying both the ship and the artifacts. Some of these items look as if they were just unwrapped from their packaging while others show the effects of time and submersion.

The final spot on my visit to Vicksburg is the National Cemetery. The Parks Service has done a tremendous job of maintaining the beauty and solemnity of this final resting place for the men who fought at Vicksburg as well as other veterans who have fallen since its opening. The cemetery at Vicksburg is a series of concentric descending tiers with a view of the river. It’s peaceful and quiet with one exception during visit, a father letting his kid run amuck until stopped by a park ranger. Prior to World War II cemeteries (national or private) were always places regarded with quiet dignity and respect. For the last 60 + years our society has seen fit to disregard what they represent.


Though I’ve visited Shiloh four times now, this trip which also included a trip down to the Corinth Interpretive Center was another opportunity to learn some new things. Shiloh was calamitous for both sides involved. On the first day of the battle on April 6, 1962, the Union forces almost got pushed into the Tennessee River but the Confederates lost General Alfred Sidney Johnston (the highest ranking General officer to die in the war). The next day, with the help of lackluster performance by Gen. P.T.G. Beauregard and the arrival of Union Re-enforcements the Union was ultimately successful in chasing the Confederates from the field.

shiloh church

Sadly, for me, part of the Military Parke (about 1/3rd) was closed due to Bald Eagle activity. There is a permanent nest of Eagles which resides Buell’s section of the battlefield and their immature hatchling was out of the nest but unable to fly a significant distance. The activity was being closely monitored by naturalist on the park’s payroll. During this trip around the park I took a lot fewer photographs and spend more time following the footsteps of the Union regiments on their first day of battle. In doing so, I tried to imaging the fear, confusion, and chaos of that first bloody day of fighting. The opening of the battle was not too far from the Methodists Meeting house which gives the battlefield its name.  Just behind the actual modern Methodists church is the field where an academically acclaimed high school once stood. The school was built in the late twenties and torn down in the late 1950s. All that remains is the remnants of its foundation.

At Shiloh’s visitors center the Park Service set up a white board in preparation for Memorial Day where members could write the name of a family veteran who served their country and passed away. I put my dad’s name on the white board. I thought it was a very nice gesture on the part of the NPS. Over both days I did some exploring of the National Cemetery at Shiloh. It is breathtakingly beautiful and solemn. It is on high ground overlooking the Tennessee River and it,s quiet, incredibly quiet. Birds and squirrels move around the grave markers and headstones and really give meaning to the places namesake. Shiloh is the Hebrew expression for place of peace (Riedel, 2016).

Since I could not visit much of the Shiloh due to the park closure, I did get to go down to Corinth and visit the National Parks’ interpretive center. The Corinth Interpretive Center is a small museum situated on the east side of the town. As you walk up from the parking lot to the museum, you see that they have different bronzed artifact molded into the sidewalks to the building. Few people who study Shiloh and little else fail to realize that Corinth was the original objective of the union forces and that the Confederate Surprise attack on the 6th of April put Union plans for the capture of Corinth on hold (Daniel, 1997). Because it is an interpretive center, it is designed to tell a story and allow people to reflect on what took place.


Corinth was a small town in the 1860s. It was never intended to house and feed thousands of troops. For the six months of February to July 1862 it would see tens of thousands of both sides. It would be besieged and become one of the most fetid places of the war. It does not capture headlines because it was a stepping off point for the Confederates before the Battle of Shiloh and a transitional point between Halleck assuming command in the field and being recalled to Washington to assume command of all Union forces. To its credit the Interpretive Center does and outstanding job of telling that town’s story, not just from the military prospective but from the civilian perspective as well. Though 600,000 men and women died in the service of their respective sides during that war, hundreds of civilians would be trapped between both political sides of this war. Their homes were turned into hospitals, their fields into open latrines, and their lives completely turned upside down. It’s important not to lose sight of this when you study wars.

On my second day at Shiloh, I visited the Museum of the Tennessee River located in Savanah Tennessee. This museum is under renovation and has a lot of interesting displays which don’t just focus on the Civil War but also tell the story of the settlement of Tennessee, displacement of Native Americans from Tennessee, the Naval Battles during the Civil War, and the influence of the river during the 20th Century. What can I say? I’m a history geek and I can get lost in museums. The museum is quaint, the staff is friendly, and there is something for everyone in this museum.


After finally getting settle into my new home, I did some exploring around both with my Mother-In-Law and myself. Since living here I’ve been to Lookout Mountain, Brown’s Ferry, Signal Point (the smallest Civil War park), and Missionary Ridge. Our current home sits along the path Grant followed in the Fall of 1863 to relieve the siege of Chattanooga. In fact, one of the roads which leads to the street our house is on Corral Road, was a corral location for the horses of Union forces manning a signal station (Catton, 2000). As I mentioned earlier, Chattanooga is a battle that actually shortened the war by essentially bifurcating the Confederacy.

trail of tears marker

We’ll begin with Brown’s Ferry. Brown’s Ferry is notable for two key roles it played in 19th century history, the Indian Removal Act and the opening of the Cracker Line which relieved the near starvation conditions of the Union forces in Chattanooga. On the morning I set out to find Brown’s Ferry, which is only about a 15-minute drive from my house, I did not realize that I would end the trip with soaked feet from marshy and dewy conditions culminating in two small hikes. I found a trailhead which from my understanding of maps coincided with a point parallel to the actual ferry location. After dodging mosquitos, hearing animals moving in the brush, and wondering if I was going to be on an episode of one of those real crime dramas where the person mysteriously goes missing. I came across a jogger who gave me the real location of where I needed to go, so I retraced my steps back to my car and felt much better when I saw an NPS sign for Brown’s Ferry and a small parking cutaway. I followed the trail markers and was surprised to discover that the Ferry’s first historical function was a crossing point west for the Cherokee who were evicted from Tennessee during the Indian Removal Act of the 1830s. I’m sure some of our 21st century historical revisionists would claim this was Fake News and that the Cherokee were really a threat to national security (yes, this is sarcasm on my part). For the under educated, the Indian Removal Act was the beginning of the ethic cleansing of native American culture from eastern seaboard of the United States. It required that native Americans either, assimilate into white culture (as second class members of society) or relocated to lands west of the Mississippi river between the Red River and the Plate River (Brands, 2005). Ostensibly, Jackson sold this as a humanitarian solution to the inevitable conflict brought about by continued incursions into Native American lands by white settlers in areas consisting of present day Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. The reality would be a re-enforcement of a regional bias and virtual extinction of Native American culture.

Flash forward to the fall of 1863. Brown’s Ferry provided the Union forces sent to relieve Chattanooga the opportunity to secure a beachhead of sorts which would allow for the transport of desperately needed forage and supplies into Chattanooga and allow the Union to occupy, secure, and re-enforce Lookout Valley on the west side of Lookout Mountain. Sadly, today all that remains is a wide swath of cleared trees where the old corduroy road once stood and an open field protecting a chemical Plant to the southwest of the crossing site.

Lom from missionary ridge

Early in June, my Mother-In-Law Jane stopped by for a visit and I took her on a tour of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. From a historian’s perspective, this tour was less than ideal, like Fredericksburg and Vicksburg, after the battle and the war, residents of Chattanooga immediately began rebuilding their lives and as the industrial importance of Chattanooga’s location became more evident, the city swallowed up most of the former battlefield to accommodate urban sprawl.  The drive across Missionary Ridge offers very few opportunities to park your car and observe. It’s a 25mph road with no shoulders to speak of and very expensive houses on the crest. There is one significant pullout at De-Long Reservation-National Military Park. Don’t let the name fool you, there are only about 10 parking spaces (very narrow) and the park is only about 200’ x 100’. One of these day’s I will have to bite the bullet, pack a bag with water and snacks and walk the entire 4-5 miles of Crest Road to fully explore Missionary Ridge. Today the Chattanooga area and its surrounding hills are lush and covered with trees and vegetation. This was not the case in 1863, the landscape was barren because both armies felled trees to build works, fires, and structures. From the city with a spy glass you could clearly see artillery emplacements on both Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain. That is not the case today.

I’ve made a couple of trips to Lookout Mountain since moving to Tennessee. On my most recent trip there was one particular spot I wanted to see the first was Robert Craven’s house. Robert Craven managed an iron production facility in Chattanooga before the war. Appalled by the pollution his plant produced he move up on the east side of Lookout Mountain a couple hundred feet below the top on a brow overlooking the city. During the war his house became a headquarters for Confederate commanders during the Battle and by the end of the fight, all that would remain were a few shattered planks and the frame of the chimney (Cozzens, 1994). Like so many Civil War sites today, Lookout mountain is kind of sad (except for the views). There is a meager NPS museum and a civil war souvenir shop at the summit and little else. Parking on the Mountain is expensive and the park really does not do justice to either sides sacrifices during the war. I do not mean to disparage the NPS employees, they must work within their budget and geographic restrictions, but sadly for history, Lookout Mountain is and elite neighborhood of expensive home which make Civil exploration difficult.

I hope you have enjoyed this somewhat disjointed and rambling post. I will be posting more detailed stories as I explore my new environs over the next several months.


Brands, H. (2005). Andrew Jackson: His life and times. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Catton, B. (2000). Grant moves south. Edison, NJ. Little Brown & Co.

Cozzens, P. (1994). The shipwreck of their hopes: The battles for Chattanooga.

Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Daniel, L. (1997). Shiloh: The battle that changed the Civil War. New York, NY:

Simon and Schuster Books.

Foote, S. (1986). The Civil War a narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York, NY:

Vintage Books.

Hathaway, H., & Jones, A. (1991) How the north won: A military history of the Civil War.

Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Johnson, C. (2002). Bull’s-eyes and misfires: 50 people whose obscure efforts shaped the

       American Civil War. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press.

National Parks Services (2018). U.S.S. Cairo gunboat and museum. Retrieved from:

Riedel, L. (2016). The Civil War: A traveler’s guide. Washington, DC: National Geographic.

Stoker, D. (2010). The grade design: Strategy and the Civil War. New York, NY: Oxford

University Press.



Your Civil War Geek: Installment V Reflections on the 155th Shiloh


It was a chilly morning in April 1862, when a forward thinking officer by the name of Colonel Everett Peabody sent a patrol from the 25th Missouri to reconnoiter the area in front of his regiment’s position. Under orders not to be sucked into a larger engagement, Peabody had no idea that his skirmishers would be starting point for a battle that claimed more casualties that all other American wars combined up to that point in time. Nor did he realize that by the end of the war there would be over a dozen more conflicts with equal or greater casualties. Flash forward 155 years and two days later to Saturday morning April 8, 2017. We awoke from a brutally cold night of sleeping. The air temperature was 34 degrees and most of us were stiff and sore as we were roused from our fitful sleep. We donned our equipment and fell in for the march to a battlefield about a mile from our camp.

We arrived at the battlefield at 6-630ish in the morning and the lead regiment sent out skirmishers. Re-enactments rarely take place in the dark for safety purposes. As we went through the battle, I couldn’t help but think back to what it must have been like for Peabody’s green troops groping around in the dark unsure of what lay in front of them. As the battle unfolded we could see our skirmishers engaging the Confederate line coming out of the woods to our Southeast. 155 years ago Peabody’s men actually hit the leading edge of General Alfred Sydney Johnston’s Confederates.

We did not experience the level of confusion Peabody’s men would have encountered as we re-positioned, returned fire, and kept re-positioning. We eventually ended up where the cannons were positioned and we could experience some of the sounds and smells of the battle. The sickeningly sweet smell of the wildflowers mixed with the acrid sulfurous smell of black powder from our muskets created a unique assault on our senses.   As we stood online with our cannons, shoes and pant-legs soaked from the dewy grass we had been marching through all morning, we again gained a small understanding of the physical sensations of combat in the 19th Century.  The cannoneers did a good job of replicating the systematic, disciplined, and rapid reloading and firing of a unit being pressed by a superior force.

That morning battle ended as the script dictated and we marched back to camp. In camp, we had about an hour or so to clean our muskets, eat, and get water before we replicated how soldiers lived in camp in the 1800s. In a union camp (when not engaged in combat) the day was run by the call of the bugle and drums. You had morning parade (a fancy name for formation with inspections), you had drill, guard duty, picket duty, and officers had frequent meetings with regimental commanders. On this Saturday 155 years since the battle we replicated that life with an hour of drill to prepare us for the next battle. After drill, the day’s temperatures took a swing to the other end of the thermometer ending up in the mid 80s by noon. We had a brief respite after drill and then we were lined up for the next battle.

In 1862, the first day of the battle was calamitous for the Union. With green troops, untested commanders, and poor intelligence, the Union forces were pushed back to a horseshoe shaped defensive position where the present National Park’s visitors center and national cemetery is located. Individual battles and places earned iconic names such as the Hornet’s Nest, Sunken Road, and Bloody Pond. Fortunately for the Union two things happened which changed the pace of the fight. In the early afternoon General Johnston was hit by a musket ball in his popliteal artery, just behind his knee. He did not believe he was seriously injured at first and continued to direct the care of Union prisoners. In about 15 minutes the story was much worse. He had essentially bled out into his boot and died shortly after the severity of his wound was discovered. The second event that played into the Union’s hand was General PTG Beauregard’s assumption of command of the Confederates after Johnston’s death. Earlier in 1862, Beauregard had fallen out of favor with the Confederacy’s president Jefferson Davis and many subordinate leaders questioned his aptitude for command.

Back to in the 21st Century, our afternoon battle was marked by extreme heat, poor water supply, and organizational confusion which made the event last longer than the planned hour and a half. Like the morning battle, we had an intimate association with the sights and sounds of an 19th century battle. We saw artillery rapidly repositioned, men fall, and ranks break and reform. Almost three hours after the battle started we were back in our camp for very brief rest. Our group was tasked to re-create a Union patrol of a civilian town (called Purdy) harboring Confederate sympathizers. All of the civilians were re-enactors and they were very good at playing their respective roles. As it turned out the town’s pharmacist bragged to one of our solders that he was at the battle on the Confederate side of the lines. We were instructed to bring him in for questioning. The townspeople formed a ring around him and tried to move him to what they perceived as safety. We were ordered to fix bayonets, which did not phase them. This is where re-enacting breaks from reality. The civilian actors know that we are not permitted to use any real force especially with bayonets fixed, so they pressed into us more aggressively. We were given the command to unfix for safety sake. Mongo, our fearless First Sergeant decided to use his whit to try and defuse the situation by commenting “You sure have a Purdy (an alliteration for the towns actual name) town,”  at which point the suspect bolted for the nearby woods. Myself and two of my buddies Corporal Alex Bell and another who’s name escapes me, gave chase and we cornered him in the hollowed out roots of a tree by a creek bed. By the end of the encounter we were tired, irritated, and glad to be heading back to camp. We were given a break that night and our guard duty was deferred to the next morning since we had taken one for the team.

As I laid down to sleep that night, I thought of what it was like on the night of the 6th. Union soldiers were being rallied and reorganized as Buell’s reinforcements arrived. That evening there was a terrible thunderstorm (fortunately that wasn’t the case for 2017). In between the claps of thunder in 1862, the Union gunboats Tyler and Lexington bombarded the weary Confederates, depriving them of any substantial rest. The next day, with Buell’s re-enforcements and a change in the Confederate command, Grant and Sherman were able to secure a victory for the Union and drive the Confederates from the field. This would go down as one of the worst days for the Confederacy and marked a turning point for the war in the west.

In 2017 we gathered around our fires in the morning and we discussed how miserable we felt after a day with two battles, drill, and reindeer games with civilians in a mock town. We also discussed the realization that soldiers in the 19th century did this every day until they died, were severely wounded, or until the end of the war. Most of us agreed that Shiloh 2017 was one of the more difficult re-enactments we had attended but our miseries were of no consequence compared to the men that actually fought the battle. Despite this we managed to enjoy ourselves, enjoyed each other’s company, and gain a newfound respect for what those men endured 155 years ago.

I’d like to send out special thanks to my all of the men I had the privilege or re-enacting with from the Army of the Wabash. We always have a great time and you readily treat me like a family member even though I only get to see you once a year.



Your Civil War Geek: Installment IV The Making of A Civil War Geek.



There I was, standing at the Union Center, facing west toward the stepping off point of Pickett’s Charge. Having seen the movie Gettysburg, and reading a few books about the battle itself, I couldn’t help but feeling an emotional charge imagining what those men felt on that historic July afternoon in 1863. I was hooked at that moment, in December of 2001, I became a certified Civil War geek. As a child I developed a love of reading at a relatively early age. I started reading non-fiction military histories well before I entered high school. Most of what I read was about World War II and Vietnam. My dad was a Vietnam veteran and had difficulty communicating with laymen about the conflict. I read as much as I could so I could effectively communicate with him.

By the time I joined the Army in 1987, I was well versed on 20th Century conflicts, but my understanding of our earlier conflicts were sadly based on many of the lackluster lectures I had endured in high school and pop culture movies which were never known for historical accuracy. In 1994 while stationed in Germany, I along with three other members of my unit, were sent to an exercise in Stuttgart for a month. During that time, we ended up spending evenings, when not on shift, watching various movies. One of my soldiers had a copy of the movies Glory and Gettysburg. With nothing much else to do we all watched these movies several times. I was impressed by what people were capable of enduring back then.

When I returned to the States in 1996, I did a lot of reading about the American Civil War. I got to work, in a volunteer capacity, with the First Cavalry Divisions museum in Ft. Hood, TX. The docent of the museum, Steve Draper, pointed out that he was actually in the movie Gettysburg. He was a re-en-actor and the bulk of the real actors (not Sheen, Daniels, and Beringer) were re-enactors. One of my soldiers in Germany was in that movie as a Union soldier. I wanted to become a re-enactor but the U.S. Army has a habit of stationing me as far away from Civil War battlefields as possible.

In December of 2001, a year after Susan and I were married, her Father took us on a trip to Antietam and Gettysburg. It was my first time stepping on a Civil War battlefield. I was hooked. There was so much to see and the two days we spent there did not do it any justice. I needed more. Since 2001, I’ve been back to Gettysburg and Antietam about half a dozen times. If I have anyone to really blame on me being a Civil War geek it would be Susan. When I met her I was awed that a person with a Bachelor’s degree would stoop to date a person without one. She got me started on my path toward not only a bachelor but also a master degree in history. Part of my studies involved reading primary source documents written by some of the people that fought in the Civil War. Back to blaming Susan. In May 2007 she had a surprise for our anniversary, she had purchased me a replica Springfield 1861 rifled musket. That was the very first piece of a growing kit for my re-enacting hobby.

When I retired from the Army we moved to Lafayette Indiana. In 2009, I contacted Ron Wilkins who was the company commander of a unit that portrayed Company K of the 19th Indiana Infantry. The 19th fought as part of the Iron Brigade of the 1st Division of the 1st Corps of the Army of the Potomac in most of the battles in the Eastern theater of the war from 1862 to the Battle of Gettysburg. After helping me acquire the initial parts of my kit, I fell in with that unit at a couple of local re-enactments and living history events.

In September of 2012, I got to participate in a living history/re-enactment for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. We slept on the ground outside of the Dunker Church, retraced the steps of the Iron brigade, and put on demonstrations for the public. As awesome as this was it was to participate in that anniversary event, nothing compared to what would take place in the summer of 2013.

In July of 2013, I got to participate in the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg along with 11,000 other re-enactors.  This was my first national event. As we marched to re-enact our Iron Brigade’s pivotal role in that epic battle I heard the fife and drum corps play “The Campbells are Coming”. Every hair on the back of my neck stood up. I was transported back 150 years, I was hot, sweaty, tired, and excited all in the same moment. The final day we participated in the Union repulse of Pickett’s Charge. When the horn sounded the end of the battle we looked out over hundreds of Confederate re-enactors prostrate on the field. I couldn’t help but feel how awed those Union troops must have felt in 1863 when they observed a similar but considerably more bloody scene.

I have met so many terrific people along the way I in this hobby. Their experience range from high school students to real estate agents. Education ranges from GED to PhD. All of them share a passion for the hobby and are part of the reason I will be in this hobby until I’m unable to physically do anything. All kinds of personalities come out in these events and they are the greatest group of geeks I know.

Below are some of the fantastic influential people I’ve met:

Ron Wilkins, Chuck Vonins, William Eichler, Joel, Sam, and Kimberly Foust, Andy, Brian, and Matthew Wash, Dietrich Smith, Rob Van, Jon Mitchell, Scott Cummings, Brandon Kreisher, and probably dozens more I can’t call to mind.

Although I live in Texas now, I’m still involved with my Unit in Indiana. I’ve been to the 154th anniversary of Perryville, I’m going to the 155th anniversary of Shiloh and plan on attending the 155th of Antietam in the fall of 2017 and Gettysburg in the summer of 2018.  Words don’t begin to express my fascination with the hobby. It really is a marrow deep desire to travel back in time and experience what those brave men on both sides went through. Being a geek is not cheap. I have a couple thousand dollars’ worth of books on the Civil War, my kit cost over 2000 dollars and I’m constantly updated or working on it to make it better. My wife never ceases to surprise me with historical odds and ends. I wouldn’t trade this hobby for anything else. I am eternally grateful for her support of my eccentricities.



Your Civil War Geek

Your Civil War Geek: Installment III

Your Civil War Geek: Installment III.


A Day at Shiloh


Sadly, I must confess that I am not an expert on the Battle of Shiloh but I am currently working to remedy that deficiency. Like many Civil War geeks before me, I have been sucked in by media portrayals of the Civil War which focus quite heavily on the battles fought by the Army of the Potomac in the eastern theater of operations. This is truly ironic since my master’s thesis focused on the irregular operations in the western theater and I’m a fan of General Ulysses S. Grant.

Recently, on my way back from the 154th re-enactment of the Battle of Perryville, KY, I made time in my trip to stop by Shiloh, TN for my first visit to this historic battlefield. On my way to Kentucky and down to Shiloh I was listening to The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and Bruce Catton’s Grant Moves South on audio through my iPhone. I have read both of these books several times but I wanted to immerse myself in the era. As I pulled into the battlefield I was immediately struck by the awesome beauty of the place. Ironically, as with so many other Civil War battlefields, the beauty of the place is in direct conflict with the magnitude of the slaughter which took place. On this ground in 1862 more casualties were suffered in two days of fighting than all other previous U.S. Wars up to that date combined. According to the Defense Casualty Analysis data base, only 19,978 died prior to the battle of Shiloh in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and the Mexican American Wars combined (DCAS, 2014). In terms of killed, wounded, and missing Shiloh eclipsed this casualty count with 23,746 (Gudsmans, 2005). Shiloh, in terms of geographic size is quite similar to Gettysburg but there is where the similarities end. Gettysburg is a series of distinct hills, small wooded patches and a prominent town adjacent to the battlefield. Shiloh is densely wooded broken by fields that are with few exceptions about 1-2 square kilometers in size.

The fighting in Shiloh was very close and confused. On the first day the fighting was disorganized by the Union and fell apart for the Confederates after General Alfred Sydney Johnston was killed in the afternoon of the sixth (Catton, 1969). Despite this confusion, the Union commander Major General U.S. Grant was not inclined to resort to defeatism in battle, or be passive in the face of overwhelming odds. During the evening of the 6th gunboats Lexington & Tyler under the orders of Flag Officer Foote (the Navy did not have a rank of Admiral in 1862) pounded away at Confederate positions during a thunderstorm. The sound of thunder from the storm and the sound of cannon fire combined to deprive the tired Confederate soldiers of any vestiges of a restive evening (Arnold, 1998).

On the 7th with re-enforcements from Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, Grant was able to push the Confederates from the field and into retreat. The last shots fired at Shiloh were in a skirmish between Union forces and Nathan Bedford Forest’s Confederate Cavalry (Grimsley & Woodworth, 2006). As I’ve stated before I’m not expert on this battlefield (yet). But I was very impressed by two remarkable features of the battlefield. Bloody Pond and Shiloh Church.

These two features, which seem so benign and peaceful, were places of unspeakable bloodshed and sorrow. Bloody pond saw so many Union and Confederate wounded  trying to quench their thirst or clean their wounds that the color of the pond itself took on a sanguine tint. The Church, a bare bones meeting house with simple plank seating for pew and a mud fire place, is the feature which gives the battlefield its name. Like the Dunker Church at Antietam, one cannot escape feeling of the weight of the lost souls at this place.

I would like to offer a note of thanks for the person featured in the photo at the beginning of this post. Ranger Timothy Arnold was a wealth of information and enthusiasm. I have a job I love to do but to work at a national military park would be an honor and Ranger Arnold is certainly deserving of that honor. Like myself, he is a re-enactor and there is nothing disingenuous about his love of history or excitement about his park. I will always love visiting Gettysburg and Antietam, Bull Run and Petersburg, but Shiloh is without a doubt one of the best preserved parks it has been my pleasure to visit. Before I visit again, I hope to be better prepared to enjoy my stay.



Arnold, J. (1998). Shiloh 1862: The death of innocence. Oxford, UK: Osprey


Catton, B. (1969). Grant moves south. Boston, MA: Little Brown Company.

Defense Casualty Analysis System. (2014).

Grimsley, M., & Woodworth, S. E. (2006). Shiloh: A battlefield guide. Lincoln,

NB, University of Nebraska Press.

Gudsmans, J. (2005). Staff ride handbook for the battle of Shiloh 6-7 April 1862.

Ft. Leavenworth KS: Combat Studies Inst.

Your Civil War Geek: Installment II

(10) Corbet B

The Mad Hatter Who Killed John Wilkes Booth

History is fickle. What people remember, choose to write about, or emphasize for that matter often overlooks the truly remarkable.  April 1865 was a roller coaster of a month for the United States. On the 9th of April General (CSA) Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant (USA). On the 26th of April General Joseph E. Johnston (CSA) surrendered the Army of the Tennessee to Major General William T. Sherman (USA). Even though these two armies combined represented over 80% of the total military strength remaining in the Confederacy, the joy was dampened by the intense anger and grief felt by the nation over the April 14th assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (Winik, 2001). One of the most focused man hunts in history lead to the cornering and killing of John Wilkes Booth, the man who fired the fatal shot into the back of Lincoln’s head (Swanson, 2006). Although, almost every school child from fifth grade to 12th grade can tell you who killed Lincoln, very few know the name of the man responsible for killing Booth.

Thomas “Boston” Corbett was a member of the 16th New York Cavalry which had cornered John W. Booth in the pre-dawn hours of April 26, 1865. During the standoff one of Booth’s conspirators was captured alive but Booth insisted that he would not be taken alive. In an attempt to smoke him out, the barn, where Booth was hiding, was set on fire (Kauffman, 2004). Sergeant Corbett took aim at Booth through slats in the planking around the barn and fired his weapon. The bullet entered Booth’s neck and severely damaged the spinal cord. He would die just before sunrise on the same morning (Weichmann, 1975). Although many applauded the actions of Sergeant Corbett, he was immediately brought up on chargers for disobeying orders. But since it could not be proven that he had actually violated any orders, he would later be pardoned by the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Swanson, 2006).

Prior to the Civil War, Thomas “Boston” Corbett was an English immigrant who became a hatter (person who makes hats, I know it’s obvious but it is a profession that is no longer in our vernacular). Shortly after starting a family his wife and daughter died (Kauffman, 2004). He moved to New England and fell into a deep depression. It was during this time he had a spiritual awakening with a sect of Methodists in the town of Boston. He changed his name to Boston in honor of the town where he came into contact Jesus Christ (Swanson, 2006). Corbett spent a great deal of time enthusiastically acquainting himself with his new found faith.  He grew his hair and beard in an imitation of his savior and even began preaching on the streets. One day he was approached by two women of ill repute and was tempted by their charms and felt himself moved so to speak (Swanson, 2006). Not wanting to fall victim to their wicked presence again, he went home made an incision in his scrotum and withdrew and cut off his tentacles with a pair of scissors (Swanson, 2006). Following the procedure, he went to a prayer meeting and then out to dinner. It was only after his scrotum swelled and turned black that he went the Massachusetts General Hospital for treatment where a medical doctor repaired what damage had been done (Kauffman, 2004).

Following his role in the killing John Wilkes Booth, Corbett had a hard time resuming his former profession and drifted from job to job. He became worried that his life was in danger from people sympathetic to Booth (Swanson, 2006). He ended up settling in Topeka Kansas and became a doorkeeper for the State legislature. His last known residence was literally a hole in the ground which is now a famous landmark in Kansas. In February 1887 he ended the session of the legislature at gunpoint over blasphemous language and was sent to a mental institution for the rest of his life (Kauffman, 2004). Corbett eventually escaped, and although imposers tried to draw on his pension, he disappeared and was not seen or heard from again.

It is very sad that not much is recorded about this man. He appears in footnotes and is briefly mentioned in the stories of the Lincoln Assassination but he does not appear in any of the numerous history text books I use in my classes. Though I’m sure that most evangelicals today would not advocate self-mutilation, they would however admire his commitment to his faith. Sergeant Corbett never sought out fame, was not in competition with is peers for promotion, was a surviving candidate for the Darwin Awards (removing himself from the gene pool), and he killed the man who executed one of the more visionary presidents of American history. This mad hatter had no redemption in his life. Afflicted by personal loss, post war jealousies, and his zealous beliefs he virtually disappeared not only from life but from history itself.


Kauffman, M.W. (2004). American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln conspiracies.                New York, NY: Random House.

Library of Congress (2016). Sergt. Boston Corbett, 16th N.Y. Cav., who shot J.Wilkes Booth,       April 26,1865/Brady, Washington. [Illustration]. Retrieved from

Swanson, J. L. (2006). Manhunt: The 12-day chase for Lincoln’s killer. New York, NY: Harper     Collins.

Weichmann, L. J. (1975). A true history of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and of the conspiracy of 1865. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Winik, J. (2001). April 1865: The month that saved America. New York, NY: Harper Collins.