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Gettysburg: The Last Invasion by Allen Guelzo

Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (2013) by Allen Guelzo charts the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 to July 24, 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the North during the American Civil War. The campaign culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, in which approximately 48,000 Americans became casualties. In the end, the two armies settled into camps in roughly the same place they started.

The book is divided into four parts. Part 1 covers the march to Gettysburg, and the others cover each subsequent day of the battle. It’s a linear history from beginning to end, and focuses on the big picture. There’s nothing new to read about the fighting, but Guelzo draws from extensive sources to explore how the battle was fought and the politics of both armies.

Guelzo compares the Battle of Gettysburg with battles from mid-nineteenth century European conflicts to argue that the American Civil War was a decidedly pre-modern war. The high casualty rolls were not the result of outdated tactics facing modern weapons, but the result of inexperienced, amateur soldiers and officers. Instead of driving their opponents away with bayonets, they stood and blasted away at each other at close range. This poor training erased any advantage the rifle might have offered, with some estimating that only one in 500 shots actually hit their target.

Politics also played a role in how the armies fought. The Union Army was roughly divided into two camps: pro-McClellan and anti-McClellan, or moderate pro-war Democrats and radical abolitionist Republicans. Guelzo makes an interesting case that George G. Meade, who took command of the Army of the Potomac days prior to the battle, was a McClellanite who promoted his fellow partisans over their ideological opponents. Meade is usually described as non-political, so this is a fresh perspective.

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Abandoned Paper Mill in Deferiet, New York

In 1899, the St. Regis Paper Company built 52 homes, a general store, and a hotel on a manmade island in the Black River and called it Deferiet. The St. Regis Paper Company at one time employed hundreds of Italian, Hungarian, and Polish immigrants, and up to 1,500 people lived in Deferiet. Today, Deferiet is home to less than 300 residents. The EPA and the village consider the old mill an environmental hazard.

Gettysburg 2017: Pickett’s Charge

In this installment of my video blog documenting my recent trip to Gettysburg National Military Park, I explore the main Confederate attack on July 3, 1863: Pickett’s Charge. Longstreet’s attack on the Union center at Gettysburg is stuff of legend, but even at the time most observers knew it wouldn’t succeed, including Longstreet himself. Years later, when asked why the attack failed, George Pickett replied, “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

Gettysburg 2017: Little Round Top and Sickle’s Salient

In this installment of my video blog documenting my recent trip to Gettysburg National Military Park, I explore key sites of the fight on July 2, 1863: Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Peach Orchard, and Cemetery Ridge. Longstreet’s attack on the Union left flank at Gettysburg is probably one of the most famous of the war. It was only quick action by Union commanders that saved the day.

Gettysburg 2017: Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill

In this installment of my video blog documenting my recent trip to Gettysburg National Military Park, I explore key sites of the fight for Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill on July 2, 1863. That evening, Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s Corps demonstrated against the Union left flank, but this became a sideshow, gaining nothing but additions to the casualty roles. It’s interesting to explore the battlefield’s lesser-known quarter.

Gettysburg 2017: Day 1

In this installment of my video blog documenting my recent trip to Gettysburg National Military Park, I explore key sites of the first day of battle, July 1, 1863: McPherson Ridge, Barlow’s Knoll, the death of General John F. Reynolds, and capture of Brig. General Archer. I’ve learned a lot about this important Civil War battle, but I also learned not to eat a powdered doughnut before recording a vlog.

Are We Too Politically Correct to Accurately Portray the Past?

Last weekend, I attended the 14th Annual Marilla Civil War Days in western New York. I haven’t been to a Civil War reenactment since I briefly participated at the Gettysburg reenactment in 2009 (aw yea, check it out ladies—->).

The event website promised a unique experience (“The Civil War Days event is nowhere close to your typical reenactment. We have been known for barn burnings, ground charges, falling trees & buildings and much more!”). Suffice to say, only one of those things happened while I was there. I left disappointed, but not only because nothing caught on fire.

I thought the purpose of reenacting was not just to have fun and dress up for the day but to educate the public and commemorate the American soldiers who fought on both sides.

Before I continue, a disclaimer: Nothing I’m about to say is meant to disparage the men and women who have a passion for history, the Civil War, and historical reenacting. I love all those things, and am happy to find people who share those interests. I wish more would become involved in these events.

However, there were a number of things that left me shaking my head.

  • Where were the horses? Horses were the primary means of transportation for wagons, cannon, officers, and mounted troops during the Civil War. Not. One. Single. Horse.
  • The Confederates used what I was told was a 30-pound cannon. The 4.2-inch (30-pounder) Parrott rifle was a siege cannon that wasn’t used in the field. Historically, Confederates used two at the Battle of Fredericksburg in defensive positions but their barrels burst.
  • I saw women reenactors dressed up as soldiers and fighting in infantry units.
  • I saw African American reenactors (one with a huge Afro) fighting with white troops in a Union regiment.
  • I saw some reenactors wearing obviously modern clothing (including sneakers).

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The Great Cat Massacre and other Episodes in French Cultural History

In The Great Cat Massacre: and other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984), historian Robert Darton attempted to reconstruct and understand the mental world of early modern French peasants through their folktales. He began with the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” as told around firesides in peasant cottages during long winter evenings in eighteenth-century France. It’s a little different than the version you may have been told. The story went as follows:

A young girl was instructed to bring some milk and bread to her grandmother’s house. While walking down a path through the woods, a wolf stopped her and asked her where she was going. She told him, and the wolf took off down a second path. The wolf, “arrived first at the house. He killed grandmother, poured her blood into a bottle, and sliced her flesh onto a platter. Then he got into her nightclothes and waited in bed…”

When the young girl arrived, the wolf (disguised as her grandmother) offered her meat and wine from the pantry. “So the little girl ate what she was offered; and as she did, a little cat said, ‘Slut! To eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother!’ Then the wolf said, ‘Undress and get into bed with me.’”

After a prolonged scene in which the young girl is instructed to undress and toss her clothes into the fire, the conclusion proceeds in the now familiar manner until, at the very end, the wolf eats the girl. No hunter comes to her rescue in the original version.

The version as we know it today, according to Darton, was taken by the Grimm brothers from Charles Perrault, a popular writer at the turn of the seventeenth century, who changed the stories to suit the tastes of the Paris elites. The ending we are familiar with, in which the hunter rescues Little Red and kills the wolf, was added by Jeannette Hassenpflug, the Grimm’s neighbor, from a popular German story “The Wolf and the Kids.”

Through an examination of folktales like “Little Red Riding Hood”, Darton hoped to unlock the mentalité of the French peasant during that time period. “Folktales are historical documents,” he argued. “They have evolved over many centuries and have taken different turns in different cultural traditions… they suggest that mentalités themselves have changed. We can appreciate the distance between our mental world and that of our ancestors if we imagine lulling a child of our own to sleep with the primitive peasant version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’”

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