Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Sheet of Fire: The Battle of Franklin

"On the Rim of the Volcano" by Keith Rocco.
Fought 150 years ago today, the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee was an all-consuming struggle that is frequently overlooked within broader context of the American Civil War.  Over the course of that day, some 60,000 Federals and Confederates became embroiled in a lethal confrontation that all but destroyed General John Bell Hood's Confederate Army of the Tennessee.  The stage for battle here was set resulting from a deadly match of cat and mouse between Hood and his Union opponent, John Schofield.  After failing to annihilate Union forces at the nearby Battle of Spring Hill the day prior, Hood (who was pained by his many war wounds), became all the more determined to crush the opposition before it reached the bastion of Nashville.  The result was a series of devastating southern assaults on entrenched Union positions outside the sleepy town of Franklin.

Historian Eric Jacobson explains the lead up to the battle.

The culminating assault at 4 p.m. that day included some 20,000 Confederates--7,000 more than what participated in Pickett's Charge over a year prior.  A desperate hand-to-hand struggle ensued with troops being pistol-whipped and having bayonets lunged into their stomachs.  Although Schofield's Federals withdrew from the town in the aftermath of the fight, their victory was otherwise complete.  Over 6,000 rebels had been killed, wounded, or captured--rendering the Army of the Tennessee a force no longer capable of mounting truly threatening offensives.  The once proud but now disgraced Hood resigned his position that January.

The Carter House--still bearing the scars of battle 150 years later.

Eric Jacobson discusses the brutal nature of close quarters combat at the Carter House.

For those fortunate enough to survive the battle's wrath, the level of carnage surrounding them seemed incomprehensible.  The Carter Family, whose modest brick home had been at the epicenter of the fighting, cautiously emerged from their cellar to witness the smoldering landscape.  Their home and surrounding dwellings were riddled with shot and shell.  Windows were broken.  Blood was smeared upon the floors.  Yet the family had survived the maelstrom unscathed.

Capt. Tod Carter
Or had they?  Unbeknownst to family patriarch Fountain Branch Carter up until that moment, his middle son--Tod--lay grievously wounded only some 175 yards away from the Carter porch.  In an episode of the war that is almost Shakespearean in its ironic tragedy, Captain Tod Carter had not seen home for over three years.  He fought in many of the war's most momentous campaigns and even escaped captivity as a prisoner of war.  Then, as an aid to General Thomas Benton Smith that November 30, he found himself leading a column of men against Yankees who were entrenched in his family's side yard.  He shouted out to his fellow Confederates, "Follow me, boys!  I'm almost home!"  The homecoming he received was far from ideal.  The twenty-four year-old was shot nine times, which included a bullet wound directly above his left eye.  Found by his family by lantern light, the riddled and delirious boy was carried to the family household.  Captain Carter succumbed to his painful wounds two days later.  His final words were, "Home, home, home."

The catastrophic situation of the moment was immediately apparent to the surviving Confederate high command.  Corps commander General Frank Cheatam was plagued by the sight of the battlefield as the morning sun of December 1, 1864 crept over the far horizon.  Burial crews began their daunting and morbid task of recovering the dead.  Among the deceased was General Patrick Cleburne--often called "Stonewall of the West"--who was robbed of his personal belongs after death.  Cheatam remarked of this apocalyptic vista:

"Just at daybreak I rode upon the field, and such a sight I never saw and can never expect to see again.  The dead were piled up like stacks of wheat or scattered like sheaves of grain.  You could have walked all over the field upon dead bodies without stepping upon the ground.  The first flame of battle had nearly all been confined within a range of fifty yards, except the cavalry fight on the other side of the river.  Almost under your eye, nearly all the dead, wounded and dying lay.  In front of the Carter House the bodies  lay in heaps, and to the right of it a locust-thicket had been mowed off by bullets, as if by a scythe.  It was a wonder that any man escaped alive. . . . I never saw anything like that field, and never want to again."

An outbuilding at the Carter House is pocked with bullet holes still.

A scarred chair in the Carter Home speaks of the fight's ferocity.

Remnants of the original Union trenches at the Carter House remain.

The recently reclaimed spot marking General Cleburne's death.

Carnton Plantation--the iconic home of "The Widow of the South."
Nearby Carnton Plantation was a thriving agricultural enterprise prior to the Civil War.  Its grand features and lavish gardens were emblematic of the wealth displayed by the elite of the aristocratic planter class.  Home to the McGavock Family, the house was the centerpiece of a 640 acres operation worked by thirty-nine slaves.  Any idyllic preconceptions the McGavock's had about plantation life came to a quick halt as the maimed and wounded began pouring into their mansion and property.  Four of the six Confederate generals killed in the battle lay covered on Carnton's front porch--John Adams, Patrick Cleburne, Hiram Granbury,  and Otho Strahl--a sure symbol of the Confederacy's forthcoming downfall.

Dark blood stains remain on the floorboards of Carnton.
One Confederate officer remarked of the scene at Carnton: "the wounded, in hundreds, were brought to [the house] during the battle, and all the night after. And when the noble old house could hold no more, the yard was appropriated until the wounded and dead filled that."  As this chaos ensued, resident Carrie McGavock struggled to provide care and comfort for the distressed masses that huddled within her once grand homestead.

The disastrous Confederate defeat at Franklin marked the end of a chapter for southern forces in the Western Theater of the American Civil War.  An army was shattered, half a dozen generals were lost, another general was ruined, and a Union force won free reign of central Tennessee.  In the long term aftermath of this struggle, the McGavocks oversaw the creation and care of a Confederate cemetery only yards from their front door--a perpetual reminder of what the Civil War had done to their community and the nation as a whole.  Walking through this graveyard, one gains a true sense of what the Battle of Franklin was.  The human cost seen on this burial ground not only marks a death knell of the Confederacy but also a step toward the freedom of the three dozen individuals who were enslaved on that same property.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Two Black Fridays of 1963

Christmas in Kansas City, 1963.  Despite the pomp and pageantry of Black Friday and the holiday season, Americans were downtrodden by the recent death of their president.  (Courtesy tacitus on Imagur.)

As the Thanksgiving holiday of 1963 quickly approached, retailers and store owners had much to be hopeful for.  The Christmas shopping season would soon be upon them.  Ohio's Mansfield News Journal expressed optimism when it wrote, "Cash registers are playing the merchant's favorite tune again.  The Christmas buying spree is on!  Some retailers feel it will be a 'boom' year.  They base their predictions on layaways which started as early as July this year and are already 10 to 15 percent ahead of last year."  One store manager in Mansfield reported that sales on Christmas merchandise consisted of 25% of his business over the month of November. 

An improved economic climate seemed to add to the positive premonitions.  Stagnation from the 1958 economic recession finally seemed to be wearing away.  Time reported later that year that the "U.S. economy in 1963 showed a vitality that hardly anyone had looked for when the year began. The year opened with gloomy forecasts of a downturn—but the downturn never came. It resounded to calls for a tax cut to prevent a downturn—but did well without the cut." Although "a lot of worry was expended on it, the U.S. economy produced a year of good, steady growth."  President Kennedy envisioned such progressive economic advancement as a pillar of his forthcoming 1964 re-election campaign.  Simultaneously, financially empowered American consumers relished the approaching opportunity to make benefit of Black Friday sales on November 29.

The Blacker Friday of 1963.
The celebratory opening of the holiday shopping season was undercut, however, exactly one week earlier when gunshots in Dallas claimed President Kennedy's life.  The same issue of the News Journal that expressed anticipation of Christmas shopping concurrently mourned the sudden demise of the commander-in-chief.  "America observes Thanksgiving Day but her heart won't be in it," the newspaper observed.  "The tragic death of President John F. Kennedy was too recent and too deeply etched for a normal observance of the traditionally happy time of bountiful feasts and family reunions."

Accordingly, stores suffered in the first phases on the 1963 holiday season merely because so few Americans felt like participating in anything celebratory or self-indulging.  "I can barely pull myself away from my television set let alone go Christmas shopping at a time like this," one mother confessed to a reporter.  "The recent events surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy greatly hurt the expectations of area retailers," surmised Pennsylvania's Connellsville Daily Courier.

These ripples were felt at both state and national levels.  The Connellsville paper also recorded on December 6: "State fiscal officials have attributed a revenue deficit in November to the death of President Kennedy. . . . Officials said much of the [state economic] lag was caused by the slowing of business and government activity following Kennedy's death on November 22."  Sales taxes were $2.9 million below projections.  Cigarette taxes were $1.1 million below estimates.  However, liquor tax expectations were only $68,000 short--feasibly because citizens tried to drown out their sorrows of Kennedy's death with alcohol.

Holiday joy seemed improbable in 1963.
That Christmas season was a difficult one for Americans.  The hollowness of the time may be best represented by the Kennedy's unsent Christmas card of that year.  Meanwhile, Cleveland Mayor Ralph Locher used the death of JFK not to reassure consumers but to promote civility.  He remarked, "Christmas 1963 marks a time of joy tempered by a note of sadness for all Americans. . . . Let each of us draw from our recent national tragedy a greater understanding, a greater compassion, a greater tolerance for our fellow man.  In this way we will achieve for our nation a new spirit of unity and a new spirit of brotherhood."  As each of you scramble to hunt for cheap, imported goods this Black Friday, it behooves us all to take into account Mayor Locher's words more than any commercial promoting store-wide discounts.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

History Matters is back!

Yes, I realize that over five months have passed since my last post on History Matters--the longest hiatus in blog writing I have ever had since I started this site in January 2009.  Trust me, all of this has been for good reason.  A mere day after my previous writing here I was offered a full-time History Instructor position at Penn State Altoona.  I am ecstatic to be embarking upon this new adventure of my life within the realm of something that means so much to me.  Simultaneously, the summer of 2014 was essentially the first one in many years that afforded me some leisure time to travel and work on manuscripts.  This time was put to good use.  (Did you notice that the blog has a new look?)  The same week I accepted my new position, a colleague and I headed to Indiana to celebrate a friend's wedding.  Along the way we relished numerous historic sites--including the First Infantry Division Museum (above) near Chicago, on the 70th anniversary of D-Day no less.  Below is a brief rundown of some of my adventures in the last months.

Although this was the first summer since 2009 that I was not a full time employee of Gettysburg National Military Park, I was still able to return here and there throughout the year wearing the green and gray--including the 151st anniversary of the battle.  On the evening of July 3, I delivered a presentation on Pickett's Charge in historical memory--chronicling the powers that have shaped our perceptions of that defining moment of the Civil War.

The past several months have also afforded innumerable opportunities to participate in the ongoing Civil War sesquicentennial commemorations throughout the country.  Along with my brother and friends, we traversed the battlefields of New Market, Monocacy (above), and Cedar Creek on their respective 150th anniversaries.  We look forward to attending more in the coming months!

A great joy of settling down is that I once more have a greater opportunity to experience and contribute to historical sites in my own area of Central Pennsylvania.  I find myself able to enjoy programs and special events at places such as Fort Roberdeau (above), Baker Mansion, the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum, and the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site.  In my many travels, I constantly see that citizens tend to take their local historical resources for granted.  I shall endeavor not to find myself within that scenario.

In September, I also had the chance to return to my old stomping grounds at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park to assist in the annual Schoolhouse Ridge program that educates and entertains some 700 schoolchildren from that region of West Virginia.  Discussing various aspects of 19th century life, we had a fun and meaningful experience on the battlefield heights above the historic town.  Here, I stand alongside fellow rangers Stan McGee and Casimer Rosiecki.

Perhaps most interestingly, some additional free time allowed me to develop and grow my own WWII reenacting organization.  Entitled the Furious Fourth, the squad seeks to interpret the experiences of the average GI serving in the 4th Infantry Division from 1942-1945.  This hobby has provided all manners of unique and insightful adventures--including me rotating the propellers of a vintage B-17 Bomber prior to its takeoff.

Most importantly, my undertakings as an educator in the classroom have enabled me to learn more about American History and academia.  Hopefully, a degree of the enthusiasm I have for the study of the past will be imparted to my students.  In this respect, I seek to nurture such appreciations both in and out of the classroom.  In October, I took a handful of students to Gettysburg to participate in the park's landscape restoration initiative.  It was the first visit to the park for many of the students but hopefully it will not be their last.

A final point of noteworthiness I would like to address deals with my next book: Images of Modern America: Altoona.  Taking a critical, visual look at my hometown since 1945, the book will chronicle the downfall and continuing resurgence of this classic Pennsylvania city.  Scheduled for release this coming spring, I will be providing more commentary on this project and others in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, thanks for your continued support--especially considering that this blog has surpassed 100,000 hits!