Category Archives: History

Chancellorsville Battlefield

The Chancellorsville battlefield is part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Fought between April 30 and May 6, 1863 near the village of Chancellorsville, the battle pitted  Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Army of the Potomac against Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War. The battle resulted in approximately 30,500 total casualties.

The Battle of Chancellorsville is considered Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s most stunning victory. In violation of basic military rules, he divided his army in the face of a superior enemy and sent Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps around the Union army’s flank. Jackson’s ill-fated death, accidentally shot by one of his own soldiers, was devastating to the Confederate cause.

Pictured above is a re-creation outlining the Chancellor House at the intersection of modern-day Route 610 (Orange Plank Road) and Route 3 (Orange Turnpike). Union General Joseph Hooker used the Chancellor House has a headquarters during the battle. He was slightly injured when a cannonball struck a porch pillar he was leaning against.

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The Wilderness Battlefield

The Wilderness battlefield is part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Fought between May 5-7, 1864, The Wilderness was the first battle of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign against Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War. The battle resulted in approximately 28,600 total casualties.

The battlefield is located between the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road west of Brock Road (Route 613). These two roads were also critical during the battle and the scene of heavy fighting. There is no visitors center here, only an exhibit shelter staffed part time.

A complete driving tour of the battlefield takes roughly two hours, with eight main stops. One of the most exciting episodes in the Civil War occurred in this clearing when Robert E. Lee tried to personally lead a counter attack at a critical moment. Men of the Texas Brigade shouted “Lee to the rear!” and refused to advance until he withdrew to safety.

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Fredericksburg Battlefield

The Fredericksburg battlefield is part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Fought between December 11–13, 1862 in and around Fredericksburg, the battle pitted Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia against Union Major General Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Potomac in the American Civil War. The battle resulted in approximately 16,800 total casualties.

The Battle of Fredericksburg is mostly known for a futile Union charge against a formidable Confederate position on Marye’s Heights. The Confederates stood behind a stone wall, with cannon positioned on the heights above. From there, they swept the open field with musket and cannon fire.

Today, Marye’s Heights is located near the Visitors Center. There is a walking trail that follows former Confederate positions up to Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

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Gettysburg: The Second Day by Harry W. Pfanz

In Gettysburg: The Second Day (1987), Harry W. Pfanz charts the events of the Battle of Gettysburg’s second day, July 2, 1863. July 2 was the Confederacy’s last, best hope for winning a decisive victory on Northern soil. Like the previous day, it started badly for the Union Army of the Potomac, yet ubiquitous action by generals George G. Meade and Winfield Scott Hancock staved off disaster and won what became the most famous Union victory of the American Civil War.

This book is far superior to Pfanz’s later works on Gettysburg, but it only focuses on the action on the Union left flank and not on Culp’s Hill or Cemetery Hill. That received its own book-length treatment. The omission was a relief to this reader, since its grueling 624-page length already pushed the limits of my attention span.

As a micro history, Gettysburg: The Second Day almost entirely focuses on the tactical, rather than strategic, aspects of the battle. It would be unfair to say the author never engages in higher level thinking about the events, but he devotes the lion’s share of text to describing what happened and not how or why.

The maps were helpful because in addition to giving readers a visual representation of the verbosely detailed text, they featured a chronological summary of events. That helped put everything into context.

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The Dreaded Witch Wreath

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Part Two explores beliefs about witchcraft, including a witch’s powers and abilities, which were surprisingly specific. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com

Witches also allegedly used wreaths, birds, and other figures made from pillow feathers to torment their victims. Night after night, believers imagined, the witch snuck into the victim’s bedroom, pulled a partially completed feather wreath from his or her pillow, carefully completed another section, and placed it back in the pillowcase.

As long as the figure remained embedded there, the victim suffered. Folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt recorded over a dozen accounts of these feather fetishes among the German population of Adams County. In nearly every tale, the victim suffers from an illness for which doctors have no cure.

Only the timely intervention of a concerned individual, having knowledge of the existence of witchcraft, can save them. If the witch was allowed to complete this bizarre creation, the victim died.

“I think that if you find a wreath of feathers in your pillow, you have been hexed and will die if your wreath is finished; and if it is not, you won’t die until it is,” a 12-year-old German girl explained to Hyatt.

“My reasons are that I know a lady who had been hexed, and they opened her pillow and found a wreath that was not quite finished, and they left it there awhile; and in a week she died, and they opened her pillow and found that the wreath was finished.”

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Free State of Jones

An ex-Confederate organizes a rebellion in southeastern Mississippi during the American Civil War and continues to battle for equal rights for freedmen during Reconstruction in Free State of Jones (2016), written and directed by Gary Ross. The film alternates between the 1860s and a 1948 miscegenation trial, to the detriment of both. Free State of Jones bombed at the box office and received mixed reviews from critics.

The film begins at the Battle of Corinth in northeastern Mississippi, October 3-4, 1862, in which Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn attempted to dislodge Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans from fortifications around the town of Corinth. Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a medical orderly in the Confederate army from Jones County, a predominantly poor area with few slaves.

Knight is disgruntled to learn of a Confederate law that allows sons of plantation owners to avoid military service depending on the number of slaves his family owns. This was designed to guard against slave uprisings, but it angered some poor whites who believed they were fighting a “rich man’s war”. When Knight returns the body of his nephew Daniel (Jacob Lofland) to his home county, he learns that Confederate Captain Elias Hood (Thomas Francis Murphy) is excessively confiscating goods from the local population.

Things get complicated when Knight meets and falls in love with a slave, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), despite being married to Serena (Keri Russell). He fights back against the tax collectors and hides out in the swamp, where he meets fugitive slaves and befriends Moses (Mahershala Ali). Together with other deserters, they successfully rebel against the Confederacy and proclaim a Free State of Jones. After the war, freed slaves struggle against a segregationist South.

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Gettysburg: The First Day by Harry W. Pfanz

In Gettysburg: The First Day (2001), Harry W. Pfanz charts the events of the Battle of Gettysburg’s first day, July 1, 1863. July 1 went badly for the Union Army of the Potomac, yet quick thinking by generals like Winfield Scott Hancock staved off disaster and set the stage for what would become the most famous Union victory of the American Civil War.

While the author’s strategic overview falls flat, Pfanz shines in his detailed tactical descriptions of the engagements in McPherson Woods, at the Railroad Cuts, Oak Ridge, Seminary Ridge, Blocher’s Knoll, and the subsequent Union retreat through Gettysburg and rally on Cemetery Hill.

Gettysburg: The First Day is not a linear history. Though it is roughly arranged chronologically, the narrative jumps back and forth from events leading up to the battle to the battle itself. As Union and Confederate units appear on the field, Pfanz pauses to reflect on how each unit arrived, sometimes across the span of several days. In such a long narrative, this has a tendency to cause the reader to lose track of how events tie together.

Pfanz’s attempt to describe the armies’ approach to Gettysburg is particularly sloppy. The writing is so awful I briefly wondered if the book was self-published. The author lacks the strategic depth and understanding of Stephen W. Sears, and for a masterful retelling of the entire campaign, read Sears’ Gettysburg (2004). Pfanz focuses almost exclusively on what occurred, not why.

The author’s grasp of history shines through at the tactical level. When Pfanz describes the gritty events of July 1, 1863 in all their gruesome detail, he brings to life the men who fought that day, from the lowliest private to commanding generals. While most authors focus on the exploits of commissioned officers, Pfanz’s narrative includes enlisted men and non-commissioned officers (NCOs). NCOs form the backbone of the U.S. Army and many of the best officers, both North and South, began their careers as enlisted men.

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The Melrose Park Witch

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. The case of the “Melrose Park Witch” shows not only that witch beliefs were common in urban areas, but that witch doctors, or white witches, sometimes ran afoul of the law, despite good intentions. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com

The line between witch and witch doctor sometimes blurred. As the First World War raged overseas and Chicagoans prepared to celebrate Thanksgiving, a modern-day witch hunt threatened to erupt in the near-western suburb of Melrose Park. Incorporated along the Des Plaines River in 1882, the Village of Melrose Park was predominantly settled by Italian immigrants.

In 1915 and 1916, an elderly woman named Carmella Vosella became known as the “Melrose Park Witch,” though she insisted she was Christian and only used her powers for good. Carmella’s practice of selling old Italian charms and folk remedies came to light in a series of legal proceedings that had Melrose Park Police Chief Henry Pein vowing, “We are going to rid Melrose Park of witchcraft.”

On Saturday November 20, 1915, a man named Tony LaRocca appeared in a courtroom in the neighboring suburb of Oak Park to answer charges that he threatened Mrs. Carmella Vosella with a revolver. At the trial, LaRocca caused a sensation by claiming Carmella was a witch and “chaser of devils” who beat the devils out of their human hosts.

“All of which may be efficacious for devils, but inconvenient anatomically,” quipped the Chicago Daily Tribune. Following the trial, Dr. P.B. Klonks, Melrose Park board of health president, called the charges “bunk,” despite the insistence of LaRocca’s attorney, Clarence Baseler, to the contrary.

Not everyone in Melrose Park considered the accusations of witchcraft bunk. On the night of Tuesday, November 23rd, police arrested Carmella at her home on North 21st Avenue following interviews with her alleged victims conducted by Village Board President Charles J. Wolf and Chief Pein.

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