Sunday, October 27, 2019

Ancestors of Two Twentieth-Century Hollywood Influences Clash in Antietam's Cornfield

     Some of the most popular movies portraying the Civil War appeared on the big screen in the era before and during the centennial anniversary of the conflict. Two of those films include Gone with the Wind (1939), based on Margaret Mitchell's novel published three years earlier, and Shenandoah (1965), starring Jimmy Stewart. Both films portray Southern families caught up in the Civil War and how the war affected immensely affected their lives. It should come as no surprise that two of the leading hands in these films, which shaped people's perceptions of the Civil War for years to come, likely drew inspiration from their grandfathers, both of whom served in the war.
Sgt. Russell Crawford Mitchell (left) and his granddaughter Margaret Mitchell (right)

     While filmmakers adapted Mitchell's literature into a film, by creating the story she did, Mitchell's fingerprints are all over the screen version of Gone with the Wind. Mitchell grew up hearing and feeling war stories from her grandfather, Sgt. Russell Crawford Mitchell of the 1st Texas Infantry. Russell was born and raised in Georgia but moved to Texas a couple of years prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Mitchell supported secession and raised a company of Texans to fight in the war. His company voted to enter the scene of war in Missouri. Mitchell, however, "believed the big fighting would be" in Virginia and so resigned his command and joined Company I of the 1st Texas.(1)

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

As Circumstances Permitted: Capt. James Duane and his Reconnaissance of Antietam Creek's Crossings on September 16

     Antietam Creek provided a question that George B. McClellan needed to answer. In order to fight the Army of Northern Virginia at Sharpsburg, his army had to navigate across that stream. Doing so presented an issue for the Federals, as straddling a stream in the face of the enemy was a less than ideal situation, something the Union commander experienced in the Seven Days' Campaign. Few officers in the Army of the Potomac were better suited to finding reasonable places to cross the Antietam than Capt. James Duane.
Capt. James Chatham Duane (courtesy
of the United States Lighthouse Society)
     Since his graduation from West Point in 1848, Duane had served in the Corps of Engineers, both in the classroom and in the field. At Antietam, he commanded the Army of the Potomac's Regular Engineer Battalion and served on McClellan's staff.(1)
     The situation on the northern end of the Federal line did not present as much of an issue as the state of affairs in the sector of the Ninth Corps when it came to crossing the Antietam. There, Confederate forces positioned themselves overlooking the creek and a major bridge crossing (the Lower, or Burnside, Bridge). In fact, some of the Confederate skirmishers held a foothold on the creek's eastern bank, making any Federal reconnaissance surveying the approaches to the bridge or additional crossing points incredibly difficult. Despite those circumstances, McClellan looked to Duane and his engineers to survey the creek on the battlefield's southern end.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Antietam Brigades Book Notes: First Impressions of Jack Dempsey's Biography of Alpheus Williams

     As soon as I saw Michigan's Civil War Citizen-General: Alpheus S. Williams advertised online, I knew this would be a book to purchase. Williams commanded the 12th Corps for most of the Maryland Campaign and the Battle of Antietam, with the exception of a couple of days when Joseph Mansfield took charge of the corps. Once Mansfield fell mortally wounded on the morning of September 17, Williams again took the reins.
     This book is of particular interest because it is the first modern biography of Williams (there weren't even many old biographies of him though his wartime letters are published). This citizen-general was an outlier in the Army of the Potomac. While he commanded a corps at times, he did not have a resume that listed a military education. It has often been said that is the reason Williams never rose above the rank of brigadier general. I'm hopeful Dempsey's new look at Williams will shed some light on this dynamic.
     For those of you familiar with previous Antietam books, Jack Dempsey should ring a bell. In 2015, he co-authored Michigan at Antietam: The Wolverine State's Sacrifice on America's Bloodiest Day. This book provided a good examination of Michigan's units and officers that participated in the campaign.
     Dempsey's newest book is, like his 2015 work, published by The History Press, which provides good quality books that never break your budget. Michigan's Civil War Citizen-General weighs in at 238 pages and includes pictures, maps, four appendices, a notes section, and an index. The book covers Williams' entire life, not just his Civil War service.
     The first commentary on the book will discuss the opening 71 pages, which includes Williams' life up to and including the Battle of Antietam (this is a Maryland Campaign themed blog, after all).