Reflections on the New York Times’s “Disunion” Blog

Disunion will come to an end in 2015, according to Clay Risen, who edits the popular New York Times blog. This is perhaps the biggest news item announced during the panel held Friday afternoon at the Southern Historical Society’s 2014 meeting in Atlanta, Ga.

IMG_4382Organized by Blain Roberts of the California State University at Fresno, the panel included her husband, Ethan J. Kytle, also of the California State University at Fresno, Clay Risen, Staff Editor, Op-Ed, New York TimesSusan Schulten of the University of Denver, Kate Masur of Northwestern University and me.

The two-hour discussion started with brief presentations by the panelists, followed by a Q and A from the live audience and twitter (#sha2014). Subjects ranged from basic questions about the blog and thoughts about how scholars can benefit by this format to a strong plea by historian Masur for Disunion to continue on and examine the Reconstruction era.

Megan Kate Nelson, writer, historian, culture critic, and author of the blog Historista, tweeted the panel. She accurately summarized my role in Disunion:

Not tweeted but mentioned in my opening remarks is the importance and relevance of the portrait photographs of the Civil War period to the country’s visual record.

10626295_966761333352034_7770915906265575458_oI thoroughly enjoyed my visit and was honored to participate. My stay in Atlanta was brief but active. One of my favorite moments was catching up with Bob Brugger of The Johns Hopkins University Press. Bob is my editor, and he was manning the Hopkins Press booth in the exhibitor area.

I will miss Disunion after it wraps up next year, and am very curious to know how Risen will bring it to a conclusion.

The MJF Edition of “Faces of the Civil War”

bookYesterday I received a few copies of a new edition of Faces of the Civil War: An Album of Union Soldiers and Their Stories. It is published by MJF Books in conjunction with The Johns Hopkins University Press, and is available at Barnes and Noble. If you’ve ever wondered how some books make it to the bargain section of B&N, this is how it happens!

There are two big differences in this edition. First is the jacket, which features a different Union soldier. Second is the weight—it’s much lighter due to lesser quality paper. This is reflected in the price, which is much lower than the original edition. Still, the content inside is unchanged.

Afternoon Book Signing at the Smithsonian

“I’m Margaret!” are the first words I remember spoken by Margaret Fisher after she appeared at the table where I was signing my books yesterday afternoon. Margaret is a longtime and supportive fan of this page, and regularly comments on posts here. I was absolutely delighted to meet her in person, and have the opportunity to learn more about her Civil War connections.

Margaret is one of many individuals who stopped by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History yesterday afternoon. Anne and I were set up at a table on the main floor of the museum next to the mall exit—so we were the last stop for many visitors as they lingered at the gift shop or prepared to leave after a day of exploring the exhibits.

1-ron-coddington-signs-john-smithsonianAmong those I met was John (he’s pictured here), who had a particular interest in the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry. We had a great chat. A big thanks to everyone who stopped by, and especially those who purchased a copy of one of the books.

Special thanks to manager Brendan McGurk, who made Anne and I feel right at home, and the always energetic and enthusiastic Robin Noonan of Hopkins Press, who made the event happen!

“African American Faces” Talk at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum

wisconsin-meI felt right at home in the Wisconsin Veterans Museum from the moment I entered the building yesterday afternoon. Located across from the stately Capitol building in Madison, the museum delivers on its tagline, “Connecting the past to the present, one story at a time.” Established by Civil War veterans in 1901, the museum is ably led today by Director Michael Telzrow (pictured, right) and Curator of Research & Public Programs Kevin Hampton (left).

Mike and Kevin generously shared their time and expertise as they took me on a behind the scenes tour of the museum, the highlight of which was a viewing of Wisconsin Civil War soldier images. In recent years they’ve built an impressive collection of cartes de visite, tintypes and ambrotypes. The team at the museum are on the front lines of preserving these wonderful images, and they deserve tip of the forage cap for their ongoing efforts.

Mike himself collected photos for a number of years, and we had fun referencing dealers we know and trading stories about unusual finds we’ve made along the way.

Another highlight was a viewing of original flags from Wisconsin regiments. These celebrated relics, torn and damaged from being carried into action on battlefields and faded from the elements, still remain powerful icons of the sacrifice of citizen soldiers from Madison and elsewhere in Wisconsin who stood up to fight for freedom and Union. The emotion attached to these banners continues to resonate, and I was instantly moved by their power.

We then toured the museum’s Civil War exhibit, which includes a Confederate cannon captured at Shiloh and almost immediately shipped to Wisconsin as a war trophy, and other objects with stories that are equally fascinating.

Mike, Kevin and I then had dinner, followed by my presentation about African American Faces of the Civil War at the museum. I was impressed with the quantity and quality of questions from the audience.

wisconsin-booksAfterwards, I signed books in the lobby gift shop. Here I met Kate Wheat of the 1st Brigade Band. Kate has purchased “Huzzah” refrigerator magnets from my wife, Anne. Kate kindly gave us her CD, “Frock Coats & Hoopskirts: Music for a Military Ball.” It’s currently playing in the background as I write this post.

I also met a young man named Matthew, who purchased a copy of the book. He is fascinated with the Civil War, especially the Battle of Gettysburg and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. He reminded me of myself as a boy, and I was particularly pleased that a copy of African American Faces is in his possession. I hope it deepens his appreciation and understanding of this pivotal moment in our nation’s history.

I’m deeply appreciative for the opportunity, and thankful to Mike, Kevin, Jen, and the rest of the staff for making my Wisconsin visit memorable! I left the museum deeply impressed, and highly recommend a visit. I look forward to working with Mike and Kevin as they continue to seek out Wisconsin Civil War images.

Eyes out for the five-button coat!

“African American Faces” in the Baltimore Sun

sunFred Rasmussen, who writes the popular column Back Story for the Baltimore Sun, featured African American Faces of War yesterday. Fred attended my recent book talk at the Johns Hopkins Club, and I thoroughly enjoyed having he opportunity to meet him. Fred was born in raised in Dunellen, N.J., only a mile or two from my boyhood home in Middlesex.

An excerpt from Back Story:

Some 200,000 African-Americans enlisted in the Union army or navy — some of them were free while others were runaway slaves. They served as soldiers, servants or laborers.

Not only did Coddington, who lives in Arlington, Va., draw on his own collection, he turned to other collectors, historical societies and libraries such as the Beinecke Library at Yale University, which had images of the 108th Infantry of the U.S. Colored Troops in its collection, for instance.

He selected only images of men who were identified by name, which allowed him to go to the National Archives and the Library of Congress, where he was able to go through pension records, revealing a great deal of biographical information on the individuals.

Read the full column.

The Underlying Truth in a Staged Image by a Gettysburg Photographer

Devil's DenAn excerpt from my guest post on The Johns Hopkins University Press Blog:

“I walked through Devil’s Den a few weeks ago with Chuck Myers, a veteran reporter and photographer for McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. A talented writer with a passion for history, Myers is a meticulous planner who leaves no stone unturned in his quest for information. Superintendent J. Robert Kirby of the National Park Service accompanied us. Kirby heads up operations at Gettysburg, and he is clearly at home there among the supersized boulders.”

Read the complete post.

New on Disunion: Pinned Down at Port Hudson

Washburn PaineThe story of Fifty-third Massachusetts Infantry Capt. Edward Richmond Washburn’s experience at the massive failed assault on the Confederate defenses of Port Hudson was published this afternoon. Washburn is pictured, left, and Brig. Gen. Halbert E. Paine (Wisconsin Historical Society image).

An excerpt:

Confederate artillery and infantry fire roared from the formidable defenses of Port Hudson, La., on June 14, 1863. Shot and shell raked the rough-and-tumble terrain where Union forces were pinned down after a failed assault, caught between the lines and unable to advance or retreat.

A glimpse through thick drifts of gun smoke revealed a knoll littered with broken bodies of men in blue. Dead, dying and wounded soldiers blanketed the exposed ground in the scorching heat of the day. Those who had not been struck hugged the earth as the hail of fire continued.

One of the injured federals trapped on the hill was Edward R. Washburn, a popular captain in the 53rd Massachusetts Infantry. A musket ball had ripped into his right leg during the attack. Near him lay the brigadier general who led the assault, Halbert E. Paine. He had also been shot in the leg. Attempts to rescue the general cost the lives of two men, and two more wounded. Paine waved off other rescuers. He “begged them to make no further efforts to get him,” reported First Lt. Henry A. Willis, who told the story of the assault in the 53rd’s regimental history years later.

Read the full story.

New on Disunion: Redemption at Port Hudson

James F. O'BrienMy profile of James F. O’Brien is now available. After a shaky start in his first engagement at Plains Store, La., Lt. Col. James F. O’Brien of the Forty-eighth Massachusetts Infantry had an opportunity for redemption as commander of a “Forlorn Hope” against the formidable defenses of Port Hudson. O’Brien and his 200-man storming party assaulted the Confederates on May 27, 1863, with terrible losses. An excerpt from the story:

In an open letter to the mayor of Charlestown written about the time of the Battle of Plains Store, O’Brien announced his strong support for the Emancipation Proclamation, “I say that the crime of rebellion which has caused thousands of our citizens to fill bloody graves is but partially atoned for in the sweeping array of the noxious institution of slavery. The policy of our government with respect to that institution is just, and wise, as any thinking man who has an opportunity of practically witnessing its effect will acknowledge.”

O’Brien also shared his views on black soldiers in blue. “Slave labor feeds our enemy in the field, digs his ditches, and builds his fortifications. Every slave liberated by our arms is a diminishment of rebel power. Every slave who wields a spade or musket in our cause is so much added to our strength.”

He ended his letter with a rallying cry. “The great American heart beats true to the cause. On its patriotism and courage an Empire might be wagered with security, it was resolute and hopeful in the beginning and will not falter or despair now that we are slowly though surely and successfully approaching the end. The first year of this war was prosecuted compromisingly. We strove to make the people of the South believe that we warred not on their institutions, that all we desired was to save our beloved country. But their blood was hot. They would yield nothing. They would propose nothing. They would accept nothing. Now then our blood is up, our armor is buckled on, the shield and sword are in our hands, and we are ready to stand on the blood sprinkled fields of our ancestors and swear in the presence of high heaven that this Union in which the happiness of unborn millions reposes shall live.”

Read the full story.

New on Disunion: The Last 15 Feet at Vicksburg

wrightMy profile of Joseph Cornwall Wright is now available. A prosperous and popular Chicago entrepreneur, Wright made a rousing war speech in early 1862 that led to the formation of the Seventy-second Illinois Infantry. A modest man, he declined the colonelcy due to his lack of military experience and instead served as lieutenant colonel and second-in-command. The Seventy-second wound up in Vicksburg and suffered major losses during the ill-fated assault against the stronghold on May 22, 1863.

An excerpt from the story reveals an exchange between Wright and Brig. Gen. Thomas E.G. Ransom before the attack. The exchange was recounted by Maj. Joseph Stockton of the Seventy-second:

Wright and Ransom sat with other regimental and staff officers on the sweltering morning of May 22 and discussed the pending attack. The main topic of conversation was most likely the finalization of plans for the participation of the 72nd and the rest of Ransom’s Brigade in Grant’s full-scale assault set for that afternoon. Major Stockton attended the impromptu gathering and recalled, “We all knew we were to assault the rebel works, and that there would be bloody work.”

The conversation continued. Stockton recalled that Ransom noticed an especially fine field glass carried by Wright. Ransom turned to Wright and, perhaps in an effort to ease tensions, jocosely remarked, “Colonel, if you are killed I want you to leave that glass to me.” The good-natured Wright replied, “All right.” Stockton chimed in: “Stop, Colonel, you forget you left that to your boy when you made your will at Memphis,” where the 72nd had spent part of the last winter. “That is so,” said Wright in acknowledgment of the promise he had made to his 13-year-old son, John. The discussion presumably turned back to the grim work ahead before breaking up.

Read the full story of Wright and his war experience.

New on NYT Disunion: Samuel Noyes, Mountaineer

Samuel Bean NoyesMy profile of Samuel Bean Noyes is now available. A New Hampshire native who dropped out of school to enlist in the Twelfth New Hampshire Infantry, Noyes’s officers did not think he had much potential as a soldier at first, and assigned him to be the regiment’s mail carrier. After the Twelfth was decimated at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Noyes was moved into a combat role and participated in his first big fight at Gettysburg.

This is my 45th contribution to Disunion, and the first in which I included a paragraph to explain the origins of the carte de visite:

“Noyes went home to New Hampshire for a brief visit about this time and sat for his portrait in a Concord photograph studio. His image was captured in the popular carte de visite format, a French style that became a world phenomenon after it was introduced in 1854. Indeed, “Cardomania” was all the rage in America during the war years. One of the advantages of the format was that multiple paper prints could be inexpensively produced from a glass negative. Photographers typically offered a dozen cartes de visite for a few dollars. Noyes likely purchased at least a dozen and distributed them to family and friends.”

Read the full story of Noyes and his war experience.