Sunday, October 30, 2005

Apocryphal History

After posting the article "The Heart of a Soldier", I received comments properly cautioning a certain wariness concerning Sallie Pickett’s writings suggesting that they lack a certain degree of historical accuracy. Perhaps this is so. Several of the Late Unpleasantness’ most visible participants have had such accusations levied towards them. Certainly, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and John Brown Gordon reside high on the ledger of those so charged.

Notably, despite their storied accomplishments, neither man entered the conflict as a professional soldier yet neither failed to meet the colossal challenges which lay in wait. Both would suffer grievous wounds expected to prove mortal. Both would return to again lead their men.

John B. Gordon would suffer first at Antietam in what to most has become a familiar story. As the then Colonel Gordon commanded the 6th Alabama along the northern end of the Bloody Lane, he swore to General Lee that “These men are going to stay here, General, till the sun goes down or victory is won.” Later as minnie balls swarmed like angry hornets, Colonel Gordon, who had escaped injury in previous engagements, found himself walking his lines with blood flowing from where three bullets had found him.

The Georgian would later describe, “A fourth ball ripped through my shoulder, leaving its base and a wad of clothing in its track. I could still stand and walk, although the shocks and loss of blood had left but little of my normal strength. I remembered the pledge to the commander that we would stay there till the battle ended or night came. I looked at the sun. It moved very slowly; in fact, it seemed to stand still…I had gone but a short distance when I was shot down by a fifth ball, which struck me squarely in the face, and passed out, barely missing the jugular vein.”

Gordon was far from the only soldier to face such a grim fate in that Bloody Lane. As one soldier would later describe, “In this road there lay so many dead rebels that there formed a line which one might have walked on as far as I could see, many of whom had been killed by the most horrible wounds of shot and shell and they lay just as they had been killed apparently amid the blood which was soaking the earth.”

Colonel and later Major General Chamberlain would suffer likewise in a war that shattered the lives of so many formerly whole and vigorous men. Wounded in several prior engagements, his most threatening would come during the war’s 3rd year. On June 18, 1864, outside of Petersburg Virginia, a Confederate bullet tore through both of Chamberlain’s hips breaking his pelvis, severing arteries, and nicking his bladder. Expected to die as would most at the time with such wounds, he recovered to lead his men once again, suffering an additional wound in the process.

Understanding why and how these men faced then escaped death’s indifferent grasp only to willingly re-enter the same arena remains an integral part of the study of this time in our history. To pursue these questions, we inevitably search for insight within the text of the participants' own words. In doing so, we recognizing the factors that impact objectivity while attaching equal importance to the question of why each wrote what they did. We pursue the motivations these men possessed which allowed them to both endure and achieve and then choose how to recall and record their experiences. The same certainly applies to Sallie Pickett who suffered during this war in her own right. Along with enduring the daily perils and uncertainties of war, her husband, Major General George Pickett would become famous not from glorious victories but from the disastrous assault at Gettysburg which would ever after bare his name. The Southern General would also suffer strained relations with General Robert E. Lee, a potentially insupportable impiety.

The question becomes then why Sallie wrote what she did, seeking her reasons within the context of her times. Instead then of banishing her writings from the canon of our shared history, Sallie’s writings serve as an integral part of that history offering a window into the motives and actions that formed the nation in which we live today. If in part she pursued the elevation of her husband's wartime image, we can ask why she focused on the perceptions of Northerners as opposed to his Southern brethren. The previous article noted Sallie Pickett’s underscoring of his friendship with Lincoln, certainly a nod to the victors as opposed to the vanquished in this great and bloody conflict. Labeling her intentions as wholly self-serving perhaps approaches the truth but likely ignores other no less explanatory motives.

While answering the above, we note that these men and women were not substantially different than those of today. Ordinary people throughout the centuries have risen to great heights to commit deeds of valor and courage. Some too exerted their energies for motives far less worthy of admiration and praise. Understanding that we possess the same potential for greatness while harboring the same for narcissistic self-serving provides one of the great benefits of the study of our both glorious and sometimes shameful past. Learning from these lessons to better our future proves far nobler still.



Please visit my primary site at

All original material Copyright © 2005. All Rights Reserved

References for this article:

  1. Documenting the South
  2. e-history: Ohio State University

Sunday, October 23, 2005

A Short Break

I've been taking a short break from posting here while I do some non-digital work before winter sets in. My time hasn't all been spent on non-Civil War activities however. After spending a wonderful day at Antietam National Battlefield recently, I have about 300 pictures to edit and will post the best of the bunch at my main site ( once completed.

Check back soon for more postings. Upcoming articles will include an update on changes at several Eastern Theater Battlefields and a response to a comment I received concerning my article "The Heart of a Soldier".



Friday, October 07, 2005

The Heart of a Soldier

While researching information for my last blog entry "Manhood", I stumbled upon this segment from "The Heart of a Soldier, As revealed in the Intimate Letters of Genl. George E. Pickett C.S.A." Assembled by the wife he treasured, LaSalle Corbell Pickett, this incredibly moving collection of letters offers a window into the heart of one of the war's tragic figures. Of the many gems found in the writings, the portion below surprised more than the rest. The person speaking is LaSalle "Sally" Pickett.


"I was in Richmond when my Soldier fought the awful battle of Five Forks, Richmond surrendered, and the surging sea of fire swept the city. News of the fate of Five Forks had reached us, and the city was full of rumors that General Pickett was killed. I did not believe them. I knew he would come back, he had told me so. But they were very anxious hours. The day after the fire, there was a sharp rap at the door. The servants had all run away. The city was full of northern troops, and my environment had not taught me to love them. The fate of other cities had awakened my fears for Richmond. With my baby on my arm, I answered the knock, opened the door and looked up at a tall, gaunt, sad-faced man in ill-fitting clothes. who, with the accent of the North, asked:

"Is this George Pickett's place?"

"Yes, sir," I answered, "but he is not here."

"I know that, ma'am," he replied, "but I just wanted to see the place. I am Abraham Lincoln."

"The President!" I gasped.

The stranger shook his head and said:

"No, ma'am; no, ma'am; just Abraham Lincoln; George's old friend."

"I am George Pickett's wife and this is his baby," was all I could say. I had never seen Mr. Lincoln but remembered the intense love and reverence with which my Soldier always spoke of him.

My baby pushed away from me and reached out his hands to Mr. Lincoln, who took him in his arms. As he did so an expression of rapt, almost divine, tenderness and love lighted up the sad face. It was a look that I have never seen on any other face. My baby opened his mouth wide and insisted upon giving his father's friend a dewy infantile kiss. As Mr. Lincoln gave the little one back to me, shaking his finger at him playfully, he said:

"Tell your father, the rascal, that I forgive him for the sake of that kiss and those bright eyes."

He turned and went down the steps, talking to himself, and passed out of my sight forever, but in my memory those intensely human eyes, that strong, sad face, have a perpetual abiding place—that face which puzzled all artists but revealed itself to the intuitions of a little child, causing it to hold out its hands to be taken and its lips to be kissed."


Before becoming President, before hostilities tore the nation apart, Abraham Lincoln helped a young George Pickett obtain an appointment to West Point.

You can find the entire publication at the Project Gutenberg Website.



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Sunday, October 02, 2005


During the winter of 1862-63, the Corbin family offered Confederate Lieutenant General Thomas J. Jackson the hospitality of Moss Neck Manor, their magnificent home along the Rappahannock River in Eastern Virginia. Perhaps the most feared Southern warrior, Jackson's formidable reputation had spread throughout the fiercely divided nation. In the spring of 1862, he had mystified Northern Generals in the Shenandoah Valley, crushing all forces unfortunate enough to make his acquaintance. He pushed his men to the brink of exhaustion and beyond while severely dealing with even mild infractions of discipline. Old Jack became the General who could change the fate of the young nation. Yet during his time at Moss Neck, he spent much time with six year old Janie, one of the Corbin's young daughters. As a staff officer would note, “Her pretty face and winsome ways were so charming that he requested her mother that she might visit him every afternoon, when the day’s labours were over. He had always some little treat in store for her—an orange or an apple—but one afternoon he found that his supply of good things was exhausted. Glancing round the room his eye fell on a new uniform cap, ornamented with a gold band. Taking his knife, he ripped off the braid, and fastened it among the curls of his little playfellow.”

When the spring campaigning season slipped away from winter's cold grasp, Jackson returned to the field leaving his little friend behind. Janie would not see her famous playmate again, but not because of his accidental wounding at Chancellorsville. Little Janie would die that spring of an illness 19th century medicine could neither prevent nor cure. When the General learned of the sad news, the stern warrior's heart shattered and he wept openly with some reporting that he fell to his knees in prayer. However, none interpreted the fearsome General's emotional display at the death of a child as a sign of potential weakness. This man who had to maintain razor sharp focus on the battlefield regardless of the human devastation enveloping him, cried at the loss of a little girl.

At some point in my education, I recall a professor discussing the genesis of the perceived lack of emotional expression in men, especially those throughout our country's founding days. This purveyor of psychosocial wisdom offered that, due to the many hardships encountered, men by necessity had to bury their feelings in order to set a steely example for the family. This no-nonsense pragmatic approach to a life fraught with danger would ensure the family's survival, or so the explanation continued, by concentrating only on the essentials of existence. Without grand, romantic sentimentality, the inevitable disasters and tragedies would neither overwhelm the intensely focused father nor distract him from providing for those depending upon his labors. The head of the household needed to be hard as nails, ready to fight the animals, hostiles, diseases or elements that may threaten his household. This attitude, this way of being, would allow the young family and the nation within which they lived to survive.

Certainly, the people of the 19th century placed value on the ability to endure hardship without complaint. General Ulysses S. Grant implied as much in his memoirs when discussing General Lee's surrender. Grant recalled, "What General Lee's feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation…"

One southern diarist, Mary Polk Branch, documented a Southern Colonel's account of the death of her uncle, Confederate General Leonidas Polk. Colonel Hopkins, a member of the General's staff, wrote admirably of the stoic passing. "In an instant I was at his side, but, alas! too late, for at that very instant a solid shot was tearing its murderous way, with a hissing sound, through his chest, carrying his heart, and shattering both his arms. Without a groan his great manly form, so full of honor and of love, tottered and fell, with his feet to the foe, and his face upturned to the sky above."

Despite the chasmal prejudicial divides during this era, even race proved insufficient to consistently temper admiration when considering manly virtues. Ohio Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood spoke with high honor of the US Colored Troops at the Battle of Milliken's Bend. "I thought that by the help of these blacks the enemy had been prevented from boasting a victory for rebel arms, and I thanked God that they had the manliness and the bravery to come forward and help us. I thought it made little difference whether men were white or black or what color they were. Let men be pea green or sky blue, or any other color under the heavens, if they have the manliness and the courage to come up and fight for the old flag, I am ready to say Godspeed to them."

A Union private offered a glimpse into his view of masculinity when discussing how wounded soldiers typically responded to their fate. "The enlisted men were exceedingly accurate judges of the probable result which would ensue from any wound they saw. They had seen hundreds of soldiers wounded, and they had noticed that certain wounds always resulted in death. After the shock of discovery had passed, they generally braced themselves and died in a manly manner." Manhood meant a lack of self-pity or unnecessary emotional expression.

The alleged denial of such expression and attention to duty allowed the man to focus on the crucial tasks at hand without distraction, or so the theory went. His status, his needs, became secondary to those depending upon his works. Some 19th century accounts seemed to support this contention. Another diarist, Mrs. Burton Harrison, wrote of Private Randolph Fairfax, her 18-year-old cousin, and his death at the Battle of Fredericksburg. She lamented, "This youth, handsome and gifted, serious and purposeful beyond his years, the flower of his school and college, in all things worthy the traditions of his warlike ancestry, was killed by a piece of shell entering the brain, as he stood by his gun at sunset under a hot fire from the enemy's batteries." General Robert E. Lee would later write to Private Randolph's father, "I have grieved most deeply at the death of your noble son. I have watched his conduct from the commencement of the war and have pointed with pride to the patriotism, self-denial and manliness of character he has exhibited." Both emphasize the sacrifice and forbearance that contributed in their eyes to the essence of manhood.

The early American male also had to be ready to fight when necessary to protect his family, community, and honor, allegedly further burying any thought of egocentric self-expression or emotional gratification. Soldiers respected this willingness to face peril and fight, even when present in their adversaries. Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain wrote with admiration of his Alabamian protagonists at Gettysburg, "Ranks were broken; some retired before us somewhat hastily; some threw their muskets to the ground- even loaded; sunk on their knees, threw up their hands calling out, 'We surrender. Don't kill us!' As if we wanted to do that! We kill only to resist killing. And these were manly men, whom we could befriend and by no means kill, if they came our way in peace and good will." If deemed not sufficiently manly, the male would resist fighting, lest he strain his sense of honor. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest's well-documented insubordinate altercation with General Braxton Bragg displays this clearly. "I have stood your meanness as long as I intend to. You have played the part of a damned scoundrel, and are a coward, and if you were any part of a man I would slap your jaws and force you to resent it."

Overcoming hardship to prosper indicated the finest attributes of manhood. Frederick Douglas would honor his martyred President with such sentiment. At the dedication of the Freedman's Memorial, he would offer to the crowd gathered, "Born and reared among the lowly, a stranger to wealth and luxury, compelled to grapple single-handed with the flintiest hardships of life, from tender youth to sturdy manhood, he grew strong in the manly and heroic qualities demanded by the great mission to which he was called by the votes of his countrymen. The hard condition of his early life, which would have depressed and broken down weaker men, only gave greater life, vigor, and buoyancy to the heroic spirit of Abraham Lincoln. He was ready for any kind and any quality of work. What other young men dreaded in the shape of toil, he took hold of with the utmost cheerfulness."

Although these incidents include only a minute portion of those occurring during the war, they provide some support to the contention that men needed to suppress emotion to overcome challenges and survive. Those successful at obtaining this emotional void, earned the respect of others, thus reinforcing the ideal. Based on the above, perhaps the original thesis may prove true. However, these same battle-hardened men who provided examples to support this presumption likewise furnished similar instances that both contradict and inspire. The men of this age did not hesitate to express emotion. Love, affection, sadness, and a host of other emotional outpourings flowed as comfortably as the harder, more familiar sentiments already noted.

Perhaps the most well know examples include the letters men wrote to their wives. Major Sullivan Ballou, in preparation for the coming Battle of First Manassas, wrote an emotionally gripping letter just days before he died. Opening his heart to his beloved wife, the Major offered, "Not my will, but thine 0 God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready.…But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night -- amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours -- always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by."

In a letter to the woman he dearly loved, Confederate Major General George E. Pickett would speak of his fervent desire that she become his wedded wife. "Now, my darling, may angels guide my pen and help me to write—help me to voice this longing desire of my heart and intercede for me with you for a speedy fulfillment of your promise to be my wife. As you know, it is imperative that I should remain at my post and absolutely impossible for me to come for you. So you will have to come to me. Will you, dear? Will you come? Can't your beautiful eyes see beyond the mist of my eagerness and anxiety that in the bewilderment of my worship—worshiping, as I do, one so divinely right, and feeling that my love is returned - how hard it is for me to ask you to overlook old-time customs, remembering only that you are to be a soldier's wife? A week, a day, an hour as your husband would engulf in its great joy all my past woes and ameliorate all future fears. So, my Sally, don't let's wait; send me a line back by Jackerie saying you will come. Come at once, my darling, into this valley of the shadow of uncertainty, and make certain the comfort that if I should fall I shall fall as your husband. You know that I love you with a devotion that absorbs all else—a devotion so divine that when in dreams I see you it is as something too pure and sacred for mortal touch."

And yet, such sentiments did not pass only between man and wife or those wishing to be. After the war, Robert E. Lee wrote to his old war-horse, James Longstreet about the latter's business ventures. In this letter, he did not hide his feelings concerning his old friend. "If you become as good a merchant as you were a soldier, I shall be content. No one will then excel you, and no one can wish you more success and more happiness than I. My interest and affection for you will never cease, and my prayers are always offered for your prosperity."

The expression of emotion towards old comrades occurred in other settings as well. Also after the war, George Pickett would have his former officers to his home for breakfast before they left for their own families in other parts of the battle-scarred country. His wife Sally wrote of their sad goodbyes. "He gave his staff a farewell breakfast at our home. They did not once refer to the past, but each wore a blue strip tied like a sash around his waist. It was the old headquarters' flag, which they had saved from the surrender and torn into strips, that each might keep one in sad memory. After breakfast he went to the door, and from a white rose-bush which his mother had planted cut a bud for each. He put one in my hair and pinned one to the coat of each of his officers. Then for the first time the tears came, and the men who had been closer than brothers for four fearful years, clasped hands in silence and parted."

A few years earlier, on the fateful day that George Pickett's name would burn into historical immortality, the General spoke to his fiancee of his commander's heart-wrenching decision to send men forward in what would become the heroic tragedy of Pickett's Charge. "While he was yet speaking a note was brought to me from Alexander. After reading it I handed it to him, asking if I should obey and go forward. He looked at me for a moment, then held out his hand. Presently, clasping his other hand over mine without speaking he bowed his head upon his breast. I shall never forget the look in his face nor the clasp of his hand when I said: - "Then, General, I shall lead my Division on." I had ridden only a few paces when I remembered your letter and (forgive me) thoughtlessly scribbled in a corner of the envelope, "If Old Peter's nod means death then good-by and God bless you, little one," turned back and asked the dear old chief if he would be good enough to mail it for me. As he took your letter from me, my darling, I saw tears glistening on his cheeks and beard. The stern old war-horse, God bless him, was weeping for his men and, I know, praying too that this cup might pass from them. I obeyed the silent assent of his bowed head, an assent given against his own convictions, - given in anguish and with reluctance."

So it was then that the men of our earlier years did not reside in the silent chasms of emotional void. No surprise then stems from what occurred when General Stonewall Jackson met his own storied end, surrounded by his closest friends. The Reverend James Power Smith, formerly Captain Smith of Jackson's Corps, would describe the last minutes. "And here, against our hopes, notwithstanding the skill and care of wise and watchful surgeons, attended day and night by wife and friends, amid the prayers and tears of all the Southern land, thinking not of himself, but of the cause he loved, and for the troops who had followed him so well and given him so great a name, our chief sank, day by day, with symptoms of pneumonia and some pains of pleurisy, until, 3:15 P.M. on the quiet of the Sabbath afternoon, May 10th, 1863, he raised himself from his bed, saying, " No, no, let us pass over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees"; and, falling again to his pillow, he passed away, over the river, where, in a land where warfare is not known or feared, he rests forever 'under the trees." As Jackson's now widowed wife would later note, "Tears were shed over that dying bed by strong men who were unused to weep."



Please visit my primary site at

All original material Copyright © 2005. All Rights Reserved

References for this article:

  1. The Project Gutenberg: Stonewall Jackson and The American Civil War
  2. The United States National Park Service: The Story of the Battle of Gettysburg
  3. History 101: Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln
  4. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant
  5. The Forrest Preserve
  6. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Documenting the American South
  7. Spartacus Educational: The American Civil War
  8. African Americans and the Civil War