Tag Archives: American Civil War

Civil War perspectives

Thought everyone in the country was aware of the Civil War sesquicentennial, especially in the month April when so many key Civil War dates occur. Then I mentioned it to my wife and was surprised to learn that she had no idea. That’s a failure on my part within my own house!

Glad that I didn’t have to live through the American Civil War but still feel a part of it, even though nearly all my ancestors were still in Scandinavia at the time. Two of my wife’s great-great-grandfathers served in the Union army during the war, and I’ve looked up their units to see what action they saw.

My daughter and me years ago on Little Round Top, checking out the memorial to the 20th Maine.

My daughter and me years ago on Little Round Top, checking out the memorial to the 20th Maine.

Here’s what I learned about the Civil War in high school. The South lost. It was all about Lincoln and  slavery. It started at Fort Sumter, the tide turned at Gettysburg and it ended at Appomattox.  Robert E. Lee was a cool and revered dude. U.S. Grant wasn’t, but he could operate a steamroller.

I think that got me a “B” on that week’s history quiz. Never took another class about the war or any more Civil War tests except for questions posed to Jeopardy answers.

Since then, however, I’ve done some reading on my own and developed a deeper appreciation of what many see as the most significant event in U.S. history.

Basically, there are two camps when it comes to talking about the cause of the war — slavery or states’ rights — and there’s no question that slavery brought the war to a head in 1861. But I’m not so quick to dismiss the so-called Lost Cause logic of the states’ rights side. Perhaps I’m a rebel at heart, because I grow more sympathetic to the states’ rights side every time the federal government imposes on my civil liberties.

My interest in the Civil War was stoked by my first visit to Gettysburg in the early 1980s, when my wife and I were literally blown off the Pennsylvania Turnpike by a late-summer thunder storm while hauling her sister to school at Slippery Rock.  The booming thunder, lightning, wind and driving rain simulated battle conditions as we sought shelter while driving  into town from the north in same direction from where the Confederate troops came on the opening day of the battle. Stayed up most of that night, reading brochures about the Gettysburg battlefield and plotting the next day’s mini-tour, conducted in beautiful morning sunshine.

Ken Burns’ Civil War film series in 1990, which featured historian Shelby Foote, recharged my interest, and I followed up by reading Foote’s epic, three-book history about the war. I’ve since read more and followed up with visits to several other battle sites that include Sharpsburg, Harper’s Ferry, Manassas, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Courthouse. Just saying, there’s something spiritual about walking those famous battle grounds. Adds greater perspective after reading about them.

At Gettysburg, looking out from the trees from where Pickett’s Charge was launched, I remember the feeling and Foote’s commentary about William Faulkner’s description in Intruder in the Dust: “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.”

I’d encourage anyone to check out Civil War sites across the country. Perhaps even attend a Civil War re-enactment. You might find it enlightening. As a member of the Civil War Trust, I also encourage others to support efforts to keep battlefield sites from being paved over and lost to urban sprawl.

Five of My Favorite Civil War books

James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom”

Bell Irwin Wiley’s “The Life of Johnny Reb” and “The Life of Billy Yank”

Michael Sharra’s “The Killer Angels”

Sam Watson’s “Company Aytch”

Favorite Civil War Sites

1. Devil’s Den and Little Round Top  at Gettysburg

2. The Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania

3. Bloody Late at Antietam

4. The sunken road at the base of Mayre’s Heights in Fredericksburg

5. The  stone bridge over Bull Run outside Manassas

6. Burnside’s Bridge over Antietam Creek outside Sharpsburg

7. The engine house at Harper’s Ferry, site of John Brown’s failed raid.

8. Chancellor House ruins in Chancellorsville, plus the unmarked site near the Chancellorsville Interpretive Center where Stonewall Jackson was shot by his own troops.


Filed under Memoirs

Dolan to Doubleday to Chance

It’s October, and I’m feeling a resurgence of baseball interest with the major league playoffs about to begin. I played baseball as a kid,  and, after overcoming fear of failure,  managed to gain confidence, if not athletic competence,  on the Little League fields of Snohomish, Wash., home of Baseball Hall of Famer Earl Averill and a half-dozen other big-league players. Farther from home, my wife’s paternal grandfather and two other relatives played pro baseball in the  early 1900s, and I’ve uncovered evidence linking her Irish immigrant great-great grandfather John Dolan to the national pastime as far back as 1861.

Records confirm that Pvt. John Dolan did two tours in the Union Army during the American Civil War, the first a three-month stretch in Company H of the 10th Pennsylvania Volunteers, which was mustered less than two weeks after the war’s opening shots at Fort Sumter on April 12. 1861. That’s about the same time of year that baseball season traditionally begins.

John Dolan

Known as the Allegheny Guards, the 10th became part of a 16,000-man force under Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson, ordered to occupy a force of Gen. Joe Johnston’s Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry and Winchester, Va., while the main part of the Union Army under Maj. Gen. Irwin McDowell attacked the main Confederate forces under Gen. P.G.T.  Beauregard at Bull Run outside Washington.  The idea was to keep Johnston from reinforcing Beauregard, but we all know that didn’t happen and Johnston’s arrival at Bull Run saved the day for the rebels and sparked a rout of the federals.

A regimental history of the 10th from Samuel P. Bates’ “History of Pennsylvania Volunteers” suggests the Allegheny Guards went through spring training with the Yankees but saw little live pitching until confronted by an occupied toll house near the Potomac River.

According to Bates:  “On Monday, the 24thof June, Capt. Doubleday, having completed an earth work, placed in the battery one smooth-bore 24-pounder and one 8-inch howitzer, and opened on the toll house, a stone building situated about 1 mile from the river on the Martinsburg Pike and occupied by rebel

Abner Doubleday

scouts. The first shot struck the corner of the building, driving out a party of about 20 of the enemy, who were just then preparing to partake of a bountiful supper. Unwilling to leave the savory dishes, prepared with much care, the party halted some distance from the house to consider the situation. But a well-timed shell from the howitzer brought the conference to a sudden conclusion, scattering the party in all directions, amidst the cheers of thousands of Union soldiers who witnessed the scene from the Maryland shore. On entering the house on the following day, the supper was found undisturbed.”

I love this story, because Capt. Doubleday was Abner Doubleday,  mythically portrayed as the inventor of baseball in 1832 but more accurately perceived as the man who fired the first shots for the Union at Fort Sumter, where he was second in command to Maj. Robert Anderson.

After an “0-fer” day batting leadoff at Sumter, these might’ve been Doubleday’s first hits of the war.

Imagine the rebel scouting report from the toll house: “Watch yourselves, they’ve got a cannon out there in center.”

Or consider the lingering banter from the Union side, perhaps by Pvt. Dolan himself:

“Ah, Cap’n, those were a fine couple o’ balls ya pitched at ’em the other day. The first one might’ve been a wee high, but ya sure knocked dem buggers off da plate.”

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Filed under Athletics, Memoirs