1860’s Politics: The Ohio Election that “Saved the Union”

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Here is a guest post from Emerging Civil War:

Emerging Civil War is pleased to welcome guest author David T. Dixon

The current presidential contest reminds us that politics is indeed a blood sport. Those expressing regret that negative campaign ads and nasty election rhetoric are unfortunate indicators of a post-modern loss of civility need to examine history. The dire electoral struggle between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1800, for starters, was rife with character assassination, dirty tricks and copious mudslinging. That landmark election not only created America’s two-party system, it also set the tone for future partisan bickering that has become a staple of American politics.

President Lincoln understood that he was actually fighting two powerful enemies in the middle of the Civil War: Lee’s army and Northern Peace Democrats, who were calling for an immediate armistice by 1862. Constituents were listening and handed the Republican party a series of stunning defeats in the mid-term elections that year. By the time the 1863 gubernatorial contests rolled around, The Lincoln administration was anxious for some wins on the political battlefield.

Ambrose Burnside, the general commanding the Department of Ohio, could not stand idle and listen to prominent Copperheads like Clement Vallandigham criticize the war effort and actively discourage enlistment. He arrested the popular Democrat at home in his nightclothes. A military tribunal convicted the former U.S. representative from Dayton of treason. In his zeal to silence a traitor, the general created a martyr.

Clement Vallandigham

Clement Vallandigham

Lincoln attempted damage control by altering Vallandigham’s sentence to deportation, but it was too late. Vallandigham was already a folk hero to many war-weary citizens throughout the North. To prove their point, Ohio Democrats nominated the exiled traitor as their candidate for governor, despite the fact that he was living in Canada. The convention vote was 411 to 11. This was turning into a dangerous political nightmare for the president.

Fierce opposition to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, particularly in the border North, caused the Republicans to abandon their party standard and join with so-called “War Democrats”, rebranding themselves as the Union Party. Ohio’s Union Party nominated John Brough, a well-respected Democrat and railroad executive, who had opposed Lincoln’s election in 1860 and had indicated that he would likely do so again in 1864. Brough urged his fellow Democrats to suspend their partisan prejudices and support the administration’s war effort for the good of the country.

George Pugh

George Pugh

Vallandigham’s banishment created an unusual campaign dynamic. The Democrats were forced to rely on their lieutenant governor pick, the tall, attractive forty-one-year-old Mexican War hero George Pugh, to carry their message on the hustings. Brough, whose prosperity had greatly enlarged his waistline, cut a rather portly and ponderous figure compared to the dashing Pugh. The Union party countered by nominating Charles Anderson, a Texas slaveholder in 1861, but an unconditional Union man. Anderson had escaped from a Confederate prison, raised and commanded an Ohio regiment, and had been wounded twice at the battle of Stones River. The six foot, ruggedly handsome Anderson would be the Union party’s mouthpiece as the two candidates for lieutenant governor prepared to square off and barnstorm across the state.

Anderson did not attend the convention. The day after the meeting closed, party leader John Caldwell wrote to the candidate to inform him of his nomination. The following day, Anderson received another letter from an old friend, newly-elected U.S. Congressman William Johnston. The congressman congratulated Anderson on his achievement and proposed a tongue-in-cheek campaign slogan: “Charlie is lean and Jack’s not that. A steak of lean and a steak of fat.”[i] There would be few such humorous moments in this campaign, which has been remembered by many as one of the nastiest gubernatorial races in the history of the country.

Charles Anderson

Charles Anderson

The Ohio gubernatorial election became a referendum on Lincoln’s war policy. The Democrats were hurt by bad timing, as Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg added an air of inevitability to the conflict. Confederate general John H. Morgan’s alarming but ill-advised raid through Indiana and Ohio during July 8-26 also helped rally voters behind the Union cause. Brough and Anderson entered the race as the favorites when only weeks before the Democrats had held sway with public opinion.

The campaign was fierce, ugly and violent. The pace was relentless. The candidates themselves retained an air of civility, but their minions were crass and even vulgar. One of Salmon P. Chase’s flunkies contacted Anderson, advising him to tone down his refined image on the stump. “Smoke and throw away your cigarettes, “Joseph Geiger wrote to the candidate in July 10. “Use a horse cock,” Geiger bleated, and “look like a man, not a female baby.” The Dayton Empire, Val’s hometown organ, lashed out at Anderson, branding the sectional moderate as an abolitionist. “We cannot conceive how any man can remain in such company,” the Empire sneered, “without becoming black.”[ii]

Senator John Sherman and his brother General William T. Sherman were personal friends of Anderson and lent their support. Senator Sherman ridiculed Copperhead complaints about Vallandigham’s arrest and exile. If Democrats really must vote for someone they feel was wronged, then vote for Anderson, Sherman reasoned, “who suffered ten thousand times more at the hands of traitors” than had Vallandigham in his civilized banishment. General Sherman was typically blunt. Vallandigham’s supporters were cowards, the general insisted. “They try to cover up their cowardice with a plan of peace.” “I have seen such men in battle,” Sherman continued. “When bursting shells and hissing bullets made things uncomfortable, they would suddenly discover that they were sick or had left something back in camp. I am no voter but I have some 20 lb. rifles that have more sense than 4100 of the voters of Ohio,” the general exclaimed. “If you want them say so.”[iii]

This election was the first in which Ohio soldiers in the field could cast a legal vote. Joseph Leeds of the 79th Ohio Infantry wrote that there was not much excitement in camp as all but a dozen soldiers in his regiment were voting for Brough. He described a “frolick” that the men had a few days before the election. “We hung old Val in effigy,” Leeds related, “and if we had the old boy himself we would serve him the same way.”[iv] Numerous officers, like Colonel Stephen McGroarty of the 61st Ohio Infantry, were given furloughs so they could hit the meeting circuit and stump for the Union candidates.

From mid-August to the middle of September, Anderson gave 19 speeches in 34 days. George Pugh’s voice gave out during an exhausting campaign schedule as he stood in for his exiled running mate. As victory for Brough and Anderson neared, the election rhetoric grew more personal. Vallandigham gained a coup of sorts on August 21, when Anderson’s brother Marshall declared for the Democrats. Marshall’s logic was simple. Whoever supports the war effort, by virtue of the Emancipation Proclamation, supports abolitionism. ”Abolitionism,” Anderson’s brother declared, “is the sire and dam of disunion.” Marshall had worked hard early in the war to enlist troops and willingly sent two sons into Union service. His nephew died at Vicksburg. What he could not abide, however, was the loss of civil liberties that Lincoln’s wartime actions foreshadowed. He supported Vallandigham, he declared, “because I prefer the principle of Liberty to the price of blood.”

Marshall went on to compare the Union ticket to a jockey and his horse. “Smiling Jack” left Anderson carrying the heavy speaking load during the campaign. If the former slave owner was not kept to a focused message, Marshall claimed, “just as sure as the glowing hide of the fat knight emits the odors of Africa, so surely will Charley fly the track, and then ‘farewell, a long farewell to all your hopes and glory’.” Vallandigham sent the same message about Anderson in a less brotherly tone: “Charles is a very uncertain quantity – a filthy gentleman whose brain is not very securely anchored in his skull cap.”[v] Political independence was not something that many politicians or even brothers understood or respected.

Brough and Anderson won the day by over 100,000 votes amid the largest turnout in Ohio electoral history. They won the solider vote by a majority of nearly 40,000, while winning both Vallandigham’s home county and the city of Dayton. Officials in the Lincoln Administration celebrated. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase said that the Union could “count every ballot a bullet fairly aimed at the heart of the rebellion.” Lincoln himself admitted that he was more anxious about the Brough-Vallandigham contest than he had been over his own election in 1860.When Ohio Governor David Tod wired the good news to the president, Lincoln reportedly responded, “Glory to God in the highest; Ohio has saved the Union.”[vi]

The Ohio election results were widely publicized, thrusting Anderson into the national spotlight. New York’s Union Party faced a tough battle with Democrats for control of the state legislature. Party leader William P. Wellen reached out to Anderson, asking him to speak before the November 3 contest. He declined. Anderson had made it clear to anyone listening during his own campaign that he was in the race for one purpose only: to win the war and save the Union. “I am and expect to be neither a Republican nor a Democrat,” he declared. “The one is not better than the other.”[vii]

Lincoln’s political allies had one final request that Anderson could not resist. Governor Tod asked Anderson to be the keynote speaker at a rally following the dedication of the new soldier’s cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19. The meeting would be attended by Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and other important dignitaries. The lieutenant-governor-elect accepted and gave a fiery oration in a forty-minute address which concluded the day’s events. It was a fitting epitaph to a raucous election season, when the most notorious Copperhead in the North threatened the fragile political coalition that Lincoln and his friends had worked so hard to maintain; but it was just the beginning of yet another momentous campaign, as Lincoln sought the re-election he felt was essential to winning the war and preserving the Union.

David Dixon earned his M.A. in history from the University of Massachusetts. His articles appear in numerous scholarly journals and magazines. David Dixon hosts “B–‐List History,”a website celebrating obscure characters and their amazing stories. http://www.davidtdixon.com/

[i] John Caldwell to Charles Anderson, June 18, 1863, William Johnston to Charles Anderson, June 19, 1863, Richard Clough

Anderson Papers, Huntington Library.

[ii] Joseph Geiger to Charles Anderson, July 10, 1863, Richard Clough Anderson Papers, Huntington Library. Dayton Empire,, March 27, 1863.

[iii] Cleveland Morning Leader, October 8, 1863. William T. Sherman to Charles Anderson, August 13, 1863, , Richard Clough Anderson Papers, Huntington Library.

[iv] Joseph Leeds to Liberty Ball, October 13, 1863, Cincinnati Historical Society Library.

[v]Daily Ohio Statesman, August 27, 1863. Daily Empire (Ohio), August 29, September 2, 1863. Belmont (Ohio) Chronicle, October 1, 1863.

[vi] The telegram, repeated in countless histories as addressed to either Tod or Brough, is not found in the voluminous records of Lincoln correspondence.

[vii] William P. Wellen to Charles Anderson, October 19, 1863, Richard Clough Anderson Papers, Huntington Library.

The Lost Gettysburg Address Book

New Gettysburg Book Reviewed by Harry Stout at Yale

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The Lost Gettysburg Address by David Dixon represents a masterful reconstruction of the life and times of Charles Anderson, 27th Governor of Ohio, and member of an accomplished American family descended from Revolutionary War hero, Richard Clough Anderson. Meticulously researched and engagingly written, this book illustrates the importance of “B list” American luminaries who did not make it into the history books, but who played indispensable roles in making the early American republic.  A Civil War hero in his own right, Governor Anderson also delivered an address at the Gettysburg dedication that “bookended” the famous orations of Edward Everett and Abraham Lincoln.  Through clever detective work, Dixon located this supposedly lost address and includes it in the appendix to this work.  Throughout, Dixon provides an account of Anderson’s life and career, and the forces that shaped them, that is informative, richly documented and consistently interesting.


Harry S. Stout

Jonathan Edwards Professor of America Religious History

Yale University

Lost Gettysburg Address Returns After 153 years

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A lost Gettysburg address that even the National Park Service was unaware of? How could that possibly be?

What makes history so exciting to me are the new discoveries that keep popping up on a regular basis. Who knew that someone would find Richard III’s bones below a parking lot, or that one lucky garage sale addict would find an original copy of the Declaration of Independence behind an engraving in a battered, old picture frame?

I felt a little like Indiana Jones when Rob Tolley, the man responsible for saving and donating much of former Ohio governor Charles Anderson’s private papers, asked me to review and identify a stack of documents. While reading through them, several pages sounded familiar. As it turned out, these were drafts that Anderson created while he prepared for his address, which followed Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. Since the delivery manuscript has already been donated to the Ohio Historical Society, Rob and I felt that Gettysburg also deserved to have a small piece of this long lost history so they could preserve it for posterity.

On Monday, September 19th, 2016, I had the pleasure of acting on behalf of The Lost Gettysburg Address 005Tolley to donate eight original manuscript pages of Charles Anderson’s Gettysburg address. Ed Clark, superintendent and Greg Goodell, curator of the National Park Service at Gettysburg National Military Park were on hand to receive the artifacts. It was an exciting moment for all of us. Now the complete story of the speeches on Dedication Day can be told, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg address more fully understood as part of a rhetorical ensemble, with each speech having a distinct political purpose.

We hope that some day, a small mention might be made of Anderson’s Gettysburg address in the park museum, or perhaps at the Wills house downtown, where Lincoln finished composing his iconic address.

A Rookie Outfielder in the World Series of Civil War History

By | On the Road with the LGA | One Comment


Please forgive me for resorting to the time-honored, but hackneyed habit of using sports analogies to describe important life events. I certainly do not want to waste time arguing about which golfer was the best player never to win a major tournament, or if Jim Kelly was still one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks, despite losing multiple Super Bowls. I rarely watch sports anymore and recycled my television set last year. Popular parlor games in the Civil War community, such as: “Who was the best/worst Union general?” bore me to tears.

That said, when I received the email from the Gettysburg Foundation inviting me to speak at the 2016 Sacred Trust Talks I was, for lack of a more sophisticated emotion, giddy. The roll of participants in past events reads like the lineup at the upcoming geezer lollapalooza in the desert. The Who, Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan have nothing on McPherson, Holzer, Goodwin and Gallagher in my estimation of a star-studded event. What in the world were they thinking, inviting an unknown author with one book, a dozen published articles and a rather thin, second career resume?

When the schedule came out online, I was so well-known that the coordinator gave me a different middle initial. The fact that I was speaking before a history rock star, Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, only made it more intimidating. Would my listeners retain anything I said after hearing Guelzo ponder whether Lee was a traitor or a hero? I guess I should be thankful that I did not follow S.C. Gwynne, who sells more books about Stonewall Jackson in one week than I ordered from the printer.

Multiple cameras and microphones, teleprompters, and an audience that included several people that know more about a single battle than I know about the entire conflict, all conspired to create the potential for anxiety and fear. Then the unexpected happened. I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. The talk went well, and I incorporated all of my wife’s last-minute changes. Thankfully, there were questions answered and even some books signed and sold.

I am used to showing up at most speaking engagements lugging my books around like a cross between a one-man-band street performer and a door-to-door vacuum salesperson. The Gettysburg Foundation, on the other hand, leaves nothing to chance, pampering their speakers at the tent and during the book signing. Cindy Small and her staff, along with Ed Clark and Chris Gwinn from the National Park Service, deserve a lot of credit for their professionalism. Year after year, they pull off an outstanding event.

At the book signing tables, I was the only author participating with one lonely book to peddle. Jeff Shaara had his own library and Guelzo’s line of admirers stretched well into the hallway. Despite my meager offerings, I wore a smile as big as Ernie Banks on the day of a doubleheader. This might be old hat to some of the participants, but for this rookie, it was a magical day. Thanks to everyone who made this dream come true.



Civil War Talk Radio – Best in Class

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  1. Did my rite of passage as Gerry’s guest last night on Civil War Talk Radio. This podcast has been running for about 12 years now, and I do think it is best-in-class. I have done other interviews and podcasts but here are the differences that I believe make this show worth your time:

    First, the host, Gerry Prokopowicz, with both a PhD and a J.D, is an expert in the field and a skilled interviewer. He reads the books carefully (not all hosts or reviewers do that, believe it or not) and asks intelligent, thought-provoking questions. He challenges his guests and uses his skills as a former attorney to follow up when the conversation flows in an interesting direction.These questions are entirely unscripted, as the guests are not asked to give Gerry pre-planned or stock questions. This gives the show added credibility, in my view.

    Second, the programming, covering not only fiction and non-fiction books published by trade, university, and indie presses, but gaming, publishing and other aspects of the contemporary Civil War enthusiast landscape, offers listeners variety.

    I find it best to skip through the first 10 minutes or so of updates on the East Carolina sports teams or his senior soccer league ( a technique he uses to establish a relationship with his audience) and get to the start of the interviews. This is very easy to navigate to when on the computer, not as easy in the car.

    If you have not checked out Gerry’s show, I recommend that you give it a shot. You can scroll through the archives and pick out the topics and guests that most interest you. load them on your device and listen to them as you drive to your favorite battlefield.

My Interview with Bull Runnings

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Bull Runnings | A Journal of the Digitization of a Civil War Battle

Interview – David T. Dixon,”The Lost Gettysburg Address”


David Dixon is the author of The Lost Gettysburg Address, a book I thought I previewed a while back. It seems it slipped through the cracks! In brief, this is the story of the third speaker on the program for the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery in November, 1863, Charles Anderson. Mr. Dixon took some time to answer a few questions about himself and his book. Read on!


Dixon4x5rBR: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

DTD: I became fascinated with history at an early age, when my father gave me a copy of the historical fiction classic Northwest Passage, by Kenneth Roberts. Throughout my adult life, I served on the boards of historical societies, organized local preservation efforts, and helped create a maritime museum. After more than twenty years in marketing with Fortune 500 corporations, I went back to school and earned his M.A. in history from the University of Massachusetts in 2003. Since then I have published numerous articles in scholarly journals and magazines. Most focus on black history and on Union sympathizers in the Civil War South. They are available for free download at my website, B-List History. My biography of U.S. and Confederate congressman Augustus R. Wright appeared in The Georgia Historical Quarterly in 2010. I am most intrigued by the vexing problem of defining “loyalty” in the context of the American Civil War.

BR: What got you interested in the Civil War? Who were your early influences?

DTD: When my father passed away at a young age, I began to examine his family history and found that a number of his ancestors were Southern Union men. This really surprised me, since my great grandmother was involved in a Georgia chapter the United Daughters of the Confederacy. I had no idea that there was so much active dissent on the Confederate home front. I began reading voraciously on that subject. Scholars writing about Southern Union men and their families such as Carl Degler, William W. Freehling, Daniel Sutherland, John Inscoe and many others helped me understand this lesser-known side of the Civil War. Coincidentally, the late Thomas Dyer of the University of Georgia was finishing Secret Yankees: The Union Circle in Confederate Atlanta around the same time as I was doing research for my M.A. thesis, Civil War Unionism in Floyd County, Georgia. Dyer’s book is wonderful and remains my favorite in the sub-genre.

BR: Why the interest in Charles Anderson?

DTD: I stumbled upon Anderson quite by accident. He had been in my idea file due to his progressive views on racial equality and his denial of the generally accepted notion (in his day) of white Anglo-Saxon supremacy. I planned to write a short article about him, but as I started to research him I found many interesting story lines. Once I saw a brief article on the discovery of the lost Gettysburg speech, I was hooked. Anderson is a character who deserves a scholarly biography.

BR: Can you briefly describe the discovery of the document in question?

DTD: Rob Tolley, a lecturer in anthropology at Indiana University, befriended Anderson’s great grandson, Bartley Skinner. One day, several cardboard boxes containing Anderson’s papers arrived at the Skinner ranch in a remote area of western Wyoming. Among the hundreds of letters and documents that Skinner asked Tolley to identify, catalogue and donate was a 39 page speech, handwritten on a gray, lined legal pad. Tolley donated Anderson’s speech to the Ohio Historical Society without knowing its importance. A few years after he donated the item, he determined that it was indeed the long-lost manuscript of Anderson’s Gettysburg oration. I took part in the thrill of discovery last year, when asked by Rob to help identify a number of documents yet to be donated. Among these were eight draft pages of the speech. We have arranged to donate these drafts to the Gettysburg National Military Park. We hope to bring more attention to the third major address at Gettysburg. In my book, I argue that one must consider all three major speeches at the Gettysburg dedication (Everett, Lincoln, and Anderson) as a rhetorical ensemble. Each had a distinct purpose. Those purposes were not only to honor the dead Union soldiers, but they were also expressly political.

BR: How does an understanding of Anderson better our understanding of his times?

DTD: Anderson was one of the most outspoken Southern Union men of his day. He was a slave owner who risked everything on numerous occasions due to his loyalty to the Union. This devotion to Union, as Gary Gallagher describes so well in his book, The Union War, was the overwhelming factor in motivating loyal men, north and south, to risk their lives and fortunes to support Lincoln’s war effort. Anderson’s experiences as a Union man who lived in both the north and the south in the critical years leading up to the war, supports Gallagher’s thesis. In Anderson’s life story, one can trace both the origins of this strong allegiance to Union, as well as the challenges that Southern men faced, in particular, to stay true to their country.

BR: Can you describe how long it took to write the book? Was there anything that you discovered along the way that surprised you? When did you know you were “done”?

DTD: The research took about 15 months, and then another 4 months to complete the manuscript, all while holding down my day job. What surprised me the most, besides the incredible adventures of Anderson himself, was the wealth of primary sources available to help me tell Anderson’s life story. Hundreds of family letters, dozens of speeches, parts of his personal library, diaries of his daughters, newspaper reports, photographs – you name it, it was there for my inspection. This allowed me to paint an intimate portrait of this unusual character with some sense of certainty. In many ways, Anderson tells his own life story and I simply moderate and add historical context. I knew I was “done”, if one can ever really be done, when the entire narrative felt complete and was well-supported by primary sources.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process?

DTD: Most non-fiction authors whom I know enjoy the research part of the book-writing process the most. I was very fortunate to begin this project early in 2014. With so many archival indexes now online, I was able to make my trips to various libraries and archives in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas organized and efficient. I was also lucky that the largest collection of Anderson papers resides at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, about 80 miles from my home. Many historians will tell you that the Huntington is a Mecca for 19th century American history research.

My process involved several steps. First, I tried to locate and get my hands on every shred of primary source material I could find. Second, I developed a detailed chronological timeline of important events in Anderson’s life. At this point, a number of compelling story lines emerged and I constructed detailed outlines for each. Some stories were worth only one chapter, but others, like Andersons’s role in the secession drama in Texas, ended up as several chapters. After I organized my data and thoughts in this way, I poured over relevant secondary sources, adding context to the timeline and outlines. I then wrote the chapters I felt most prepared to write first, with the idea that they should be able to stand on their own – small stories within the larger narrative. Once I had peer reader feedback and had revised at least a dozen times, I turned the manuscript over to the professional editors and copywriters for the “red ink” treatment. It is an arduous process, but tremendously rewarding.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

The Lost Gettysburg Address 30 March 2015 KINDLEDTD: I am happy to report that the book has been received very well by reviewers in several of the important Civil War blogs and magazines. I was especially pleased to read Civil War News Book Review Editor Ed Bonekemper’s comments. He said, “It’s amazing that stimulating and informative Civil War books with whole new perspectives keep coming out of the woodwork. This one makes it a pleasure to be a book review editor and reviewer.” I have never met Ed, but I feel that I owe him an adult beverage at the very least.

BR: What’s next for you?

DTD: The book launched recently, so I am really focused on getting the news about the lost speech and Anderson’s story out to a broad audience over the next year at least. My calendar is filling up with speaking engagements at round tables, historical societies, and conferences. I really enjoy sharing the story with these intelligent audiences, and this will take up much of my time for the balance of 2016. When I do embark on the next book, it will need to meet several criteria: The story has to be one that has not been told. There has to be a large collection of primary sources available. Finally, the main character or characters need to have a close connection with an important event or series of events. The Lost Gettysburg Address sets a very high bar for me in terms of these essential elements. I would rather wait until I find another amazing untold story like this one, rather than spend my time on previously plowed ground. I have been approached with a few ideas, but none of them meets all my requirements. So, for now, I will continue to talk and write about Charles Anderson and his compelling life story – at least until my wife decides to kick his ghost out of our house.

Diversity and Vibrant Civil War Round Tables

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dixonatSFCWRT   Cocktail hour at the San Francsico CWRT

What image do people outside the core group of Civil War enthusiasts have of the typical round table club? This is an important question, as such impressions may largely determine the ultimate health and success of these organizations in the today’s fast-changing social landscape. In the early 19th century, fraternal orders like the Masons and the Odd Fellows were a vital part of the social fabric of most every city of any size in our nation. Many of these chapters are now defunct. Membership, in many cases, has dwindled for decades.  A related question is: How is interest developed among those who have never attended any of the thousands of CWRT monthly meetings occurring every year?

My demanding business career over the past 35 years compelled me to operate on the fringes of the American Civil War community, publishing a few articles each year on topics that interested me. I never ventured into the inner circle of CW buffdom. Now that my first book is out, I am faced with delivering talks to more than a dozen such clubs over the next several months. I began this rite of passage for most serious authors in the genre with more than a little trepidation.

I am not a military historian. Having never attended a round table before last fall, I imagined a small, monolithic assembly of ancient white ex-military men arguing over the miniscule details of this troop movement on that day of a particular battle that their ancestor happened to fight in. My perceptions began to change when I started visiting CWRT websites. Numerous clubs have an excellent and informative presence on the web. Speaker lineups often include not only books on battles and tactics, but also a wide range of topics, from wartime politics to slavery to women and the home front.  Other sites seem to be stuck in an older paradigm, are not terribly visitor-friendly, or lack variety in their program topics.

On January 21, I gave my first talk of the New Year at the San Francisco Civil War Round Table. I must admit that as an outsider, I had low expectations. Their website is adequate, but still probably ranks in the lower half of the CWRTwebsites I have surfed. Patrick Doyle is the president of this group and the meetings are held at the United Irish Cultural Center just steps from Ocean Beach. Early arrivers at the cocktail hour made me feel welcome. Despite their greetings, I was apprehensive. My book does have two chapters concerning military campaigns and battles, but if this crowd was looking for bold new perspectives on Perryville and the Battle of Stones River, they were in for a big disappointment.

I need not to have worried. Once I met a the members it became clear to me that this was no motley collection of old school Lost Cause adherents and testosterone-infused military strategy wonks.  The men and women of this fine club were from every conceivable background. A number were accomplished authors themselves. A well-known local singer and actor attended as a guest. There was no shortage of advanced degrees in this crowd. I got the distinct impression that these folks had a lot going on in their lives that did not revolve around the Civil War. It is San Francisco after all.

I believe that diversity is one of the recipes for the SFCWRT’s success. The program director, Bob Hubbs, does a nice job of bringing a wide range of speakers on many different topics to this club – no small feat, given the accomplished constituency he serves. Table talk in my corner of the room went in many different directions, including local history, film, and other arts and entertainment subjects. At times, it felt more like a colloquium than what I expected to be a narrowly-focused discussion. My audience was attentive and enthusiastic, and the questions were probing and thought-provoking.

Many CWRTs are embracing change in terms of technology and recognizing the value of diversity in membership and programming. Others, I am afraid, may be left behind as new generations of adults experience an avalanche of leisure options, both virtual and attendance-based to enhance their lifelong learning. The SFCWRT seems to be on the path towards a 21st century club model that really works, despite being so far away from the major battlefields of our great national struggle. It will be good to watch them grow and prosper.

An Author’s Adventures in Gettysburg

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Bringing Charles Andeson Back to Gettysburg After 152 Years

Bringing Charles Anderson’s Address Back to Gettysburg After 152 Years


A warm, orange sun rose over Gettysburg National Battlefield as I drove in from the west on the Chambersburg Road Thursday morning. Wisps of fog inhabited the low areas of the landscape, reinforcing the quiet solemnity of this place. Like many visitors, I was astonished to witness a scene of such horrific carnage now appearing so calm and beautiful. I walked the paths in the National Cemetery, and parts of the battlefield, hoping that the dead heroes and other ghosts inhabiting this mystical scene would appreciate me uncovering a long-lost piece of Gettysburg history, while forgiving me for the shameless self-promotion I was about to undertake on its behalf.

Ray Matlock and his own army of dedicated volunteers with the Gettysburg Foundation could not have been more welcoming or encouraging. I feel like a little worm on the ocean floor of Civil War scholarship, watching whales like Holzer, McPherson, and Blight swimming above me. Dare I be so bold to suggest that I had anything new or significant to offer? For the time being, at least, I could pretend so and peddle the book, while I waited for the rock star Civil War historians to render their verdict. I signed up as a patron with Ray’s team and made my way to the Cyclorama. It was the only way I could keep from checking the UPS tracking number every ten minutes to see if the first carton of newly-printed books had arrived at my hotel.

As I exited the Cyclorama with the morning’s bucolic battlefield memories obliterated from my consciousness, I checked my phone again. The books had arrived! I rushed to the Hampton Inn full of the excitement  that I imagine most first book authors feel when they are about to see their work finally in print. I expected to hyperventilate. Instead, as I carefully paged through the book, I felt only relief. The research was a joy and the writing challenging and invigorating. The book production process, however, was an arduous slog, made bearable only by my strong and dedicated ad hoc team of professional designers, editors and printing experts. Now that the book was finally done, I put on my marketing hat and hit the street.

Cold-calling museums and independent booksellers was not on anyone’s list of recommended book marketing techniques, yet I felt that a personal call in these days of email spamming would be a good way to start to gauge interest in the book. After all, if this story would not “scour” in Gettysburg, 2500 hard bound books would someday move from my garage to the recycling bin. I donated copies to the Adams County Library, Peter Carmichael, and a few other local luminaries. All the museum bookstores have a review process that will take time. Then I walked into For the Historian on York Street, nosed around a little, and gave Larry Weindorf my elevator speech. He thumbed through the book, asked about the price, and told me he would buy five copies, or ten if I signed them. I returned after I wore holes in my shoes, signed and delivered them. By then, all but three books in the case of 22 had been spoken for. Encouraged and exhausted, I hit the rack at 8 p.m.

Friday morning, I had breakfast with licensed battlefield guide Joe Mieczkowski. Joe graciously offered to assist me in networking in the local history community. Lunch with my dear friend Gary Henderson turned into a spontaneous roadshow to Mechanicsburg, where I met Jim Schmick at his store, Civil War and More. The portfolio and the book in hand must have been a dead giveaway, as Jim announced us as salespeople the moment we entered his shop. After perusing the pages politely, Jim turned the tables on me. I walked out with two books and a free lecture on troop movements in and around the town.  It was a real pleasure to meet a local historian so passionate about preserving the past and sharing stories.

Saturday found me driving again up highway 15, this time to Harrisburg and the National Civil War Museum, run by Wayne Motts. What a gem in an extraordinary setting! While I waited for the museum to open, I struck up a conversation with two couples on vacation from California. When they noticed the book I had brought to drop off for Wayne, and discovered that I was the author, they wanted to buy three books. I only had two left. I had to chuckle as they insisted on pictures and signed copies. I hope they did not mistake me for someone famous!

The hardest work of this journey into independent authordom is just beginning.  Next year I hit the Civil War Round Table lecture circuit with whistle stops already scheduled in California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. This should be fun!


The Ancestors of 12 Years a Slave

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With so few actual first-hand accounts of slave life available, many historians have relied on secondary sources written by whites to describe this important and tragic part of American history. Readers must make a special effort to examine the books and other material written by former slaves themselves to get closer to the truth of our nation’s most shameful legacy. As I mentioned in a previous post, even slave biographies and autobiographies themselves can be problematic. Scholars have long-questioned the veracity of some of the accounts and the motivations behind their publication. Let’s examine several different types I consider best-in-class and consider their value as historical sources.

The first known slave narrative is a good place to start. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of O. Equiano, or G. Vassa, the African, was published in London in 1789. Like most slave biographies to follow, Olaudah Equiano’s account was motivated by the author and his sponsor’s strong abolitionist sentiments. Some historians have questioned Equiano’s claim to have been born in Africa (he may have been born in South Carolina) and other details of his life story. There is no doubt, however, about both the popularity and impact of this work. The book went through nine printings and enabled Equiano to achieve modest wealth and worldwide fame. The book was instrumental in bringing public attention to the horrors of the African slave trade, and marked the beginning of the end of this practice (at least legally), with the eventual passage of the British Slave trade Act of 1807. Equiano had an amazing life as a merchant explorer who even travelled to the arctic regions.  The book is a worthy introduction to the genre.

Perhaps the most widely-heralded of all former slave authors was Frederick Douglass. In fact, Douglass’s fame in his own time and in ours has cast such an enormous shadow that many students of history read one of his three autobiographies and stop there. That is unfortunate, as there are a number of contemporary black authors who, when combined with Douglass, offer a more varied perspective on slave life from the fields to the “big house” and in between. I prefer his initial effort, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, published in 1845. No black man in the history of our country until Martin Luther King, has had a greater impact on black identity and race politics. Some contemporaries expressed doubt that a black could have written the narrative, until they heard him speak or read his many letters and pamphlets. The man was a genius and a seminal figure in the early movements for civil rights.

The 1840 to 1865 period was a high water mark for slave biographies. Most were funded by white abolitionists. Many are worth reading. In 1861, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, was published. The author was former slave Harriet Jacobs. This was the first and one of the very best narratives focused on the life of a slave woman. It is a heartbreaking tale that is part autobiography and part novel. Jacobs merged the two popular forms to create style that was used most effectively in groundbreaking works like The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Another important memoir by a former slave was William Wells Brown’s 1847 classic, Narrative of William W. Brown, written by himself. Brown was a contemporary and often a rival of Frederick Douglass. Brown wrote what is generally believed to be the first African-American novel, Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter: a Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, which was loosely-based on the mixed-race children of Thomas Jefferson. Ezra Greenspan did a marvelous retelling of Brown’s complete life story in 2014.

The efforts of Greenspan and Annette Gordon-Reed (The Hemingses of Monticello) are examples of how modern scholars are using the accounts of former slaves, as well as the vast archival resources now available, to flesh out these stories and interpret them within the broader context of their time. Historians with the advantage of hindsight can look back on these accounts and consider the inherent biases of the publishers, as well as do fact-checking that 19th century readers and even editors may not have been equipped or even motivated to do. Modern edited versions of slave biography often lead to a much more rewarding reading experience.

That is certainly true of the gifted historian, David Blight. Perhaps it was some sort of fortunate destiny that led Blight to uncover two slave narratives in 2003 that were never intended for publication. These accounts represent post-bellum accounts, but are different than most, as they were never edited or mediated. In the hands of a brilliant researcher and writer like Blight, they become more than merely fresh primary source documents. Blight uses genealogical sources to reconstruct the lives of Wallace Turnage and John Washington, supplementing their own stories with enhanced context and meaning. The discovery of these two accounts was a historian’s dream and Blight made the most of his opportunity.

The adept use of family history resources can help fill in the story gaps when dealing with a diary or a memoir, as in the case of Blight’s work, but the process can also work effectively in reverse. Edward Ball’s first book, Slaves in the Family, created a buzz when first published in 1998. Ball’s desire to learn more about his ancestors and their slave-owning past led him on a nationwide odyssey , knocking on the doors that held such secrets. In the process, the author met and interviewed dozens of descendants of the Ball family slaves. The book goes well beyond the bounds of conventional history to promote understanding between descendants of both master and slave – a rift that, even 150 years after the civil war, still yawns deep and painful in the psyche of many Americans, especially in the Deep South.

The first stirring of slave biography in the mass media came when I was in high school. My family, whose ancestors had also been southern slaveholders like the Balls, was riveted to Alex Haley’s Roots: the Saga of an American Family.  Although the television series was based on a novel, parts of which were plagiarized from an earlier work of fiction, the miniseries created a sensation and was viewed by 130 million Americans. Despite the dubious historical value of the book and television show, they both had an indelible impact on the acceptance of alternatives to the Lost Cause mythology of the Civil War, and helped initiate a revival of interest black history that continues to this day.

The legitimate child of the Roots television series from a historical perspective has to be the 2013 blockbuster film, 12 Years a Slave, adapted from the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northrup. The film will go down in history not simply because it was awarded the Best Picture nod at the Academy Awards, but because it was the first mass market film to accurately depict slavery. The fact that it brings a slave narrative to life and is almost completely derived from extant historical sources bodes well for the history business going forward. In these days of strident gibberish and uncivil animosity from all sides of the political spectrum, it is gratifying to see a popular film with such a truth-telling focus. The public is hungry for such compelling stories told with brutal honesty and human sensitivity.

Finding the Wealthiest Slave in Savannah

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How do historians find compelling characters for biography? Trade publishers tend to play it safe, focusing on authors writing about A- list subjects viewed from a different perspective. Many of these works end up providing readers with fresh insight into a seemingly inexhaustible thirst for stories about dead white presidents, royalty, and military leaders. I certainly enjoy a book like Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography by William Lee Miller much more than another pop culture rehash like the recent Killing Lincoln and that ilk. Unless some newly-discovered diary or other primary source comes to light on Old Abe, it is hard to imagine much new scholarship coming down the pike that is more than either reduction or revision.

So where can historians turn to find untold stories that are worth telling about new subjects? Rebecca Skloot (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) proved that entertaining and innovative biography can emerge from the most unexpected sources. She found her amazing subject in a test tube and held her readers in suspense as she wove together genetic therapy and human interest into something entirely original and important. Such subjects and stories are much harder to uncover than the bones of Richard III, but even the much maligned hunchback king himself could not have been rescued from his ignoble resting place below an asphalt parking lot without the careful archival work of a dedicated local historian. The parade and reburial will be long-forgotten by the time some enterprising researcher uses DNA and forensic examination to craft a new interpretation of this much-studied figure.

With slave biography, as I discussed in my last post, the challenges are immense. There are probably few potential subjects left with enough verifiable life data to produce a book-length treatment; however, there are many ghosts of former slaves whispering in the dreams of interested scholars, ready to reveal their secrets and inspire quality articles. As most historians are not trained in the art of the séance, serious seekers need to return to the gravesites of all great sources: the archival record. Perhaps my own journey of discovery to produce a recent modest study in Georgia Backroads magazine illustrates this point.

One of my favorite archival graveyards is a set of records that was just becoming popular about fifteen years ago when I was studying for my M.A. in history at UMass Boston. My interest in Civil War Union supporters in Floyd County Georgia led me to examine the voluminous records of the Southern Claims Commission and the U.S. Court of Claims. Many families in the South stayed loyal to the Union during the war, and most were rewarded by having their farms and homes plundered by foraging U.S. troops. If they could prove that they were true to the old Star Spangled Banner for the duration of the conflict, the government offered to pay for some of the damages they incurred from the hungry armies living off the land in their ravaged region. The beauty of these accounts, mostly sworn depositions, were that they included not only white male property owners, but women, children, free blacks and even ex-slaves. Few contemporary sources contain the voices of these forgotten people, and they have become a much mined source of new information on many aspects of the Civil War home front experience.

After developing six or seven decent articles out of my thesis research, my idea file had become a little sparse. My paying job did not afford me much time to dive into various archives on the off chance I would find a worthy subject. Fortunately, the family history website Ancestry.com has placed some scanned files from the Southern Claims Commission on their site. They are a wonderful resource, even if one’s purpose is pure genealogy. Having found so many interesting stories in its tattered folders in the past, and having read most of the Floyd County files cover to cover, I shifted my focus to Savannah, thinking that perhaps Chatham and surrounding counties might yield an interesting figure or two. I wanted a slave subject to challenge myself and see how much I could learn. Rachel Brownfield stepped into my web browser and filled the bill.

The first thing I noticed about Mrs. Brownfield was the size of her claim and the subsequent award. Rachel claimed over $1659 in damages from the Union army occupation of her boarding house after Sherman entered the city in December 1864. This seemed like a very large amount for a slave woman. The skeptical commissioners, most unfamiliar with the widespread practice of slaves hiring out their own time, awarded her only $253.70. Her loyalty, however, was hardly in question. Her testimony that she visited Union prisoners and secreted escaped soldiers in her home and place of business was supported by numerous credible witnesses: black and white, slave and free. This story was getting juicier by the minute, so I decided to do an in-depth web search on my potential protagonist. Using various spelling variations and a lot of patience, I managed to find several leads. One was quite promising.

The papers of former attorney William Wiseham Paine are housed in the Georgia Historical Society archives in Savannah. Having published in their quarterly journal some years previous, I had a few contacts willing to help me view this collection while sitting at my computer in California. What I found was wonderful and helped me fill in many of the details of this enterprising slave woman’s life. The documents even allowed me to name her white plantation owner father without the DNA evidence that Skip Gates might use on his prime time family history show. Rachel Brownfield hired three different lawyers to recover money stolen from her from a particularly unscrupulous master. It was all for naught. She estimated her tidy fortune, much of which she spent trying to purchase her freedom and that of her children, at $16,000. Whether this amount was exaggerated, we will probably never know. What is certain is that few persons of color in the state achieved anything close to her level of affluence, even after she was cheated out of most of it late in the war.

When I learned that Rachel and her slave husband had been married by Savannah’s Catholic Vicar General Father John Francis Kirby, I contacted the Archdiocese of Savannah. Of course, no record of this illegal marriage exists, but the baptism of one of Rachel’s sons in 1867 was confirmation of this slave family’s religion and corroborates her deposition statement.
With my appetite for knowledge about this unusual slave and her family growing more intense with each new document, I decided that a trip to the Georgia Archives was warranted. There I found a wealth of information of Rachel’s property transactions, both during and after the war, as well as her detailed will and estate records. Census records and other typical online resources filled in the picture of Rachel’s family life during Reconstruction and gave me enough data to build a reasonably full account of her life and her many challenges.

Sadly, my many efforts to find descendants brought little payout, and certainly not the most anticipated undiscovered treasure – a photograph of the woman herself. All I had was a modern image of her lavish cenotaph, still standing unblemished in the black section of the most prestigious 19th century white cemetery in the city. Few would guess that the woman buried there was an ex-slave. I like to think that the elaborate monument was a way for her to permanently turn up her nose in perpetuity at the white society who had taken so much from her and her family.
Such stories may never reach a broad audience, nor profile this slave woman and her family with the degree of depth or certainty that studies of more well-known white property owners produce. Yet these brief vignettes serve an important purpose. By aggregating numerous such stories, carefully researched and verified, scholars and readers can look forward to an enhanced understanding of various aspects of the slave experience: white rape of slave women, religious collaboration with white churches, the activities of slave entrepreneurs, and many other interesting topics.

Subscribers to my monthly newsletter may download the complete pdf article, “The Wealthiest Slave in Savannah: Rachel Brownfield and the True Cost of Freedom.” This and all my published articles are available free.

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