This Day in the American Civil War for January 20

Monday Jan. 20 1862


The U.S. Army and Navy’s amphibious attack on Hatteras Inlet was not exactly setting any speed records in its execution. Part of this was by design, intended to avoid problems encountered in prior attack attempts in wintertime. For this reason it had been prearranged to sail in two groups, which were to rendezvous offshore and wait for stragglers to catch up so the attack could be made as a unified force, a not-insignificant factor given the vicious gales that could strike the coast in the wintertime. The rendezvous had been set for Jan. 13, and in fact the weather had been dreadful, with many ships driven onto shoals, sandbars and land. Today, however preparations for the initial attack, on Roanoke Island, were firmly in hand. A Confederate ship chancing on the scene hastened to alert Navy Sec. Mallory that he “there saw a large fleet of steamers and transports.”

via This Day in the American Civil War for January 20.

This Day in the American Civil War for January 19

Sunday Jan. 19 1862


His superiors had told Gen. George Crittenden not to go north of the Cumberland River–and he had ignored them and moved his men anyway. This proved not to be a good idea at all, as he discovered when his forces were set upon by the troops of U.S. Gen. George Thomas. Thomas, who was still a year away from getting the title of the “Rock of Chickamauga”, was still operating under an earlier nickname, “Old Slow Trot.” He was far from speedy but implacable once prepared for an attack. They called it the Battle of Mill Springs. Crittenden’s fellow Gen. Felix Kirk Zollicoffer was also on the north side of the river and caught up in the fight as well. Zollicoffer’s habit of wearing a white raincoat proved most unfortunate, as he was shot dead in the altercation. Most of the Confederate troops escaped back across the Cumberland, but much equipment and supplies were left behind.

via This Day in the American Civil War for January 19.

This Day in the American Civil War for January 18

Saturday Jan. 18 1862


U.S. Gen. George Thomas had faced the same agonizing choice as Robert E. Lee at the outbreak of the Civil War. Both Virginians, they had had to choose between their state and the nation they had sworn to defend. Thomas had stayed with the Union, and today was living up to his nickname of “Old Slow Trot” as he neared the Confederate troops under Brig. Gen. George B. Crittenden in Kentucky. Crittenden had made a number of mistakes: aside from the matter of entering Kentucky in the first place, which under law was a neutral state, he had placed his forces in such a way that they had their backs against the Cumberland River. His most drastic mistake, however, was lack of proper intelligence: he didn’t know Thomas was approaching.

via This Day in the American Civil War for January 18.

In Defense of History: 25th Missouri Vols

This will be a series of articles written for my other blog, In Defense of History, a place where I post civil war research.

In my novel, They Met at Shiloh, Robert and his pards find themselves standing at the edge of the Hamburg – Purdy road staring downhill at the gathering mass of Confederates preparing to march upon them. A steep slope of about 75 yards leads up to the camps of Peabody’s brigade and the memorial to Colonel Everett Peabody surrounded now by trees and young forest. The 25th’s camp site was their last stand before the regiment disintegrated and scattered along with the rest of Peabody’s brigade.

via In Defense of History: 25th Missouri Vols.

This Day in the American Civil War for January 17

Friday, Jan. 17, 1862


Two groups of Union forces were on the move in Kentucky this day…or at least trying to. Troops of Grant’s command, under McClernand, struggled along through increasingly unpleasant weather and ground conditions. Theoretically, they made up one arm of a two-prong assault down the Mississippi, the overall intent of which was to take Vicksburg, Miss., and reclaim the Father of Waters for the union. In practical terms, Grant could not really have expected this to succeed, especially in one of the bitterest winters in memory. Afloat, gunboats under the overall command of Brig. Gen. C.F. Smith were working up the Tennessee River, intending to threatened Ft. Henry. These ships represented the waterborne arm of the two-pronged assault. They were not making much progress: Ice was so bad on the Mississippi that shipping was blocked just below St. Louis.

via This Day in the American Civil War for January 17.

This Day in the American Civil War for January 16

Thursday, Jan. 16 1862


The USS “Hatteras” steamed into the harbor Cedar Key, Fla., and wreaked a path of destruction. She destroyed seven blockade-running ships, albeit rather small ones. Crews from the Hatteras then went ashore and wrecked the railroad depot, tore up a telegraph office, and ruined a wharf. Miscellaneous other damage caused the community disruption for some time. Elsewhere, in Kentucky, Gen. Felix Zollicoffer knew he was in trouble with his superiors, but did not yet know just how much trouble he was about to be in. He had taken his troops from Mill Springs north across the Cumberland River, and then been ordered back to his previous position. He stayed where he was, unaware that Federal forces under Gen. Thomas were a good deal closer than he realized.

via This Day in the American Civil War for January 16.

Research Methodologies

Researching methodologies: primary sources

I am in love with the ability to recall an out of print book free of charge! More than anything else, this has revolutionized research by and large for those of us who write in the civil war time frame.


Two good examples of this are Google Books and Project Gutenberg, even more so for Google since they improved their iPad app. I can now download my bookshelf to my device (it used to only read from an internet connection) and be able to treat the pdf files as a virtual book a la iBook with page turns, etc. Project Gutenberg offers a variety of book formats for any device. What the epub files offer me over Google Books is the ability to highlight and make notes via iBooks.

Though there are some limitations still with Google Books, i.e. inability to make notes or copy text, I’m greatly satisfied with where this technology has taken us. There’s a wealth of primary source material out there that has sat in special collections for decades (one or perhaps a handful of collections depending on the source) requiring travel, working with a curator to navigate the unique file systems, and limited time for study.

I would give a word of caution regarding primary source materials, especially like the ones that I’ve been using for my own particular brand of fiction. One needs to filter out the primary motives of the author. Some of my materials (see my research page) are regimental histories written decades after the war and primarily for the survivors and their families to recount their common experiences. These contain a certain lack of objectivity (not their primary purpose) and may at times contain objective opinions or one-sided information regarding a battle or a prominent figure. These should be used for gaining a flavor of the common experience of the regiment, how they saw what was happening around them, how the author saw it (regimental histories are written by single individuals), and data on where the regiment was at any given time in the narrative. Sometimes this information can be had from other sources, but the regimental history can be relied upon for accuracy for dates and actions engaged in.

War of the Rebellion Official Records of the Union and Confederate ArmiesWar of the Rebellion Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies
One favorite of mine is the Official Records of the Rebellion, a copious collection of orders of battle, field reports, correspondence, and battle reports. Not everything can be found, but one can usually find individual regiments mentioned in brigade and division reports to clarify what a unit was doing on any given date. The same can be said for normal daily operations. What I like about tracking down where a regiment was is you usually get some little snippet of anecdotal data that can only add to the narrative of your story. I like fleshing these out, placing my characters in the regiment and then building a framework of the historical record, adding scenery, characters, emotion, and conversation to build a story around the story. This is one of the best resources for this data I’ve found. These are as close as you can come to real narrative data to the events as they are often real time records.


Link to book

Personal Recollections of a Cavalryman With Custer's Michigan Cavalry Brigade in the Civil WarPersonal Recollections of a Cavalryman With Custer’s Michigan Cavalry Brigade in the Civil War
The second, as I’ve already alluded to above, is the regimental history. Written from a designated point of view using collected reports from its time in the war, the regimental historian builds a dialogue, sometimes first person, recounting what he and the regiment experienced. The hard marches, the battles, the politics of army life, and the synopsis of the experience that comes with time, these are the real trademark of the historian. These histories also help fill a void in building the narrative based on recorded fact. They add that flavor of tension at times, recalling events that loomed large with the regiment and giving the story arch needed to place action with fact. It does not do to have a regiment in a battle but in the wrong place (Chamberlain’s 20th Maine behind the stone wall on the third day in the Movie Gettysburg, anyone?) doing things that it never had opportunity to do because it was somewhere else. These experiences built the character of the regiment and I like using that in my novels to not only be factually accurate but to pay tribute to those men now long gone. Having this sense of commitment is important, in my opinion, to the historical fiction novelist as fact is often more entertaining than fiction.


Link to book

Review of Mother, May you Never see the Sights I’ve seen

Mother, May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen: The Fifty Seventh Massachusetts Veteran Volunteers in the Army of the Potomac 1864-1865Mother, May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen: The Fifty Seventh Massachusetts Veteran Volunteers in the Army of the Potomac 1864-1865 by Warren Wilkinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The 57th Mass. Volunteers was a Veteran Volunteer infantry unit who participated in the last campaigns of the war, a campaign that differed from every other in the civil war. Grant, now a Lt. General and in command of all the Union forces, orders Mead’s Army of the Potomac to march and unleashes unrelenting and daily combat the likes that no one in either army had ever experienced before. This book draws from personal letters and the war record of this unit as it marched and fought in every battle from the Wilderness to the siege at Petersburg and the final chase of Lee’s forces to Appomattox.

Noteable in this record are the accounts of those taken prisoner and paroled and of thier experience in the exchange sysetm (though prisoner exchanges had largely been halted there was still some activity going on). Overall a very good unit history, written for the modern day (as opposed to a history written for the civil war generation).

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