Tag Archives: civil war

Today in 1776: “… conceived in liberty…”

4 Jul

Today in 1776, fifty-six men gathered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to discuss a public declaration of the adoption of the Lee resolution, “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, Free and Independent states…”

The Declaration of Independence, originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson, was debated, edited, and ultimately adopted by the end of the day. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” it said, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Jefferson would later write over and over again of the “sacred fire” kindled on that July day, and he knew that the light of liberty would “spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished…” (letter to John Adams, September 12, 1821). And throughout history, Jefferson has been proved right, even in his own country. Though Jefferson was never able to reconcile the issue of slavery for the Republic or even in his own personal circumstances, the sacred fire which he so succinctly captured in the Declaration would still be burning to set men free four-score and seven years later.

On July 4, 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was leading the Army of Northern Virginia in retreat to the Potomac after the defeat at Gettysburg, and Ulysses S. Grant was leading the Union army under his command to victory at Vicksburg, Mississippi. The tide of Civil War was turning.

Today, our nation was, as Abraham Lincoln put it in his Gettysburg Address, “conceived in liberty.” Our country was “trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth…” (Jefferson, March 4, 1808), and today light and liberty are still on steady advance.

Happy Independence Day, friends. May every day find us “…with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence,” for the continual support of the freedoms upon which our country was founded, together may “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Today in 1863: “On great fields, something stays.”

3 Jul

“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.” — Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s address at the dedication of the 20th Maine monument.

150 years ago today, the Battle of Gettysburg ends at the cost of 51,000 casualties from both armies. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under the command of Robert E. Lee, invaded the north late in June. The Army of Northern Virginia had successfully repulsed the Union Army on multiple occasions, and the situation was perilous. If Lee destroyed the Union Army of the Potomac in the north, there would be nothing to prevent him from continuing on to Washington, and ultimately, the breaking off of the Confederate states forever.

On July 1, 1863, Union Cavalry encountered Confederate Infantry just outside Gettysburg, setting off what would be a three-day engagement with horrific losses. By the end of the first day, most of both armies had converged outside Gettysburg and the Union held the high ground. On July 2nd, Lee ordered assaults which were tactically unsuccessful but very costly for the Union army.

Lee’s next move is inexplicable, given his experiences at Fredericksburg (which, essentially, was Gettysburg in reverse and happened not VERY long before). On July 3rd, he ordered a Napoleonic charge at the Union center, which he believed to be vulnerable. The assault, which later was known as Pickett’s Charge, sent divisions under Gen. Longstreet over a mile of open field under heavy fire from Union guns on the high ground. In the end, the Army of Northern Virginia was only briefly able to break the Union center. They were soundly defeated and sustained heavy losses. On July 4, 1863, Lee’s army retreated south. The Confederacy would never recover.

The Civil War Trust has been live-tweeting the event, and their feed is really worth a scroll-through for a good narration of the action. The Smithsonian also has a really snazzy interactive post on their website that walks you through the battle and allows you to see the ground. For more on Gettysburg, be sure to check out the Civil War Trust’s page.

I was up at Gettysburg this last weekend to kick off the 150th festivities. On Sunday night, the Park Service along with the Gettysburg Foundation held a commemorative service which included a dramatic account of the battle narrated by actors reading eye-witness accounts, Trace Adkins singing the national anthem, speeches by Charlie Gibson and Doris Kearns Goodwin (author of Team Of Rivals), and an illumination of the graves of the Union soldiers’ graves at Soldiers National Cemetery, lead by the Old Guard (widely known as the US Army Infantry Regiment which guards the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington).

Being there on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the battle was like being on one side of a one-way mirror; I could see everything. The nearness was palpable, I was inexorably tied to what happened, but could not touch it or hold it in my hands or change it. Standing there on that field, where the beauty, peace, and calm belied strife of a century past, I was a witness. And I understood more completely than ever before the words of Pres. Abraham Lincoln:

“… we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” — Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Adventures in Genealogy: Letters

11 Jun

On June 8, 1864, Abraham Lincoln was nominated by the Republican party to seek a second term as president.  News spread across the country at a moderate pace, and by June 11, 1864, it reached the ears of the men of the 115th Ohio Infantry Regiment stationed at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Among them was my three-times great-grandfather, Edward Ellis.

Edward was born in Pennsylvania on April 5, 1835, to Thomas and Mary Ellis who emigrated to America from Wales. He married Elizabeth Ellen Evans, also from Wales, on April 12, 1855. I haven’t really been able to figure out how they ended up in Ohio, but Edward and Elizabeth lived in Summit County with their two children, Charles and Nettie, who is my two-times great-grandmother.

Edward was 30 when he enlisted in the Union Army (the 115th Ohio Infantry) on August 14, 1862; he was taken as a prisoner of war in December of 1864 and held at Andersonville prison camp. Miraculously, he survived Andersonville, but died in the explosion of the Sultana in 1865 on his way back home.  He wrote prolifically to his wife throughout his service during the Civil War, and I count myself very blessed to have copies of his correspondence that came to my family through our Ellis cousins. I’ve been working my way through his letters and transcribing them for the public record. It’s really heartbreaking to read some of his letters, particularly the ones he wrote just after being liberated from Andersonville. He was very eager to see his family again, but never got the chance.

Edward’s letters are all rather clincial; he gives reports rather than his opinions (other than his nearly-constant and understandable desire to see his wife and kids) most of the time, so the post-script of his June 11, 1864 letter caught my attention:

“Old Abe has been nominated to be our president for the next term, he is my choice and the choice of most of the soldiers, next to him would be Butler, the vice president is to be Andy Johnson of this state another good man, Hurrah for Lincoln and Johnson.”

1864-06-11EllisLetterPS

Not sure he ever got that furlough — but I’m not done going through the over 400 pages of letters yet. So, to be continued…

Today in 1779: Virginia gets a new capital

5 Jun

Today in 1779, Virginia’s house of delegates approves legislation to move the capital from Williamsburg to Richmond, hoping that the more inland location will assist in a better defense against the invading British. … Alas, not really (see: yesterday).

Richmond was also home to Patrick Henry during some of his most boisterous years; he argued the Parson’s Cause case in Hanover Courthouse on Route 301, and he delivered his “give me liberty, or give me death!” speech at St. John’s Church.

The capital city of Virginia also served as the capital city of the Confederacy during the Civil War. You can still visit and tour the Museum and White House of the Confederacy today.

And while I’m on the subject of the Civil War, you know we’re in the sesquicentennial years, yes? At this moment 150 years ago, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army was invading the North, driving towards what was widely assumed to be a Confederate victory and ultimate end of the war. Wedged between the Confederate Army, the Union Army, and victory, was a little town in Pennsylvania named Gettysburg.