The Other Custer

Thomas Ward Custer rode to his death… along side his brother at the battle of Little Big Horn.  The dynamic, rowdy pair had been soldiers nearly all their lives.  Tom followed in his older brother’s foot steps, enlisting in the Union army at the age of 16.  Though George achieved more fame, he thought the world of his little brother, “Do you want to know what I think of him? Tom should have been the General and I the Lieutenant.”   The elder Custer was the youngest man to achieve the rank of Major-General while young Tom was one of 19 men to win the Medal of Honor twice.  Personally capturing two Confederate battle flags under severe fire (the second attempt nearly cost his jaw)  Tom was undoubtedly a hero.  The exploits of his older brother have relegated him to obscurity.

He won all the medals (commons)

George (Autie, as Tom called him) was austere, devoted, and a teetotaler.  Tom tried to emulate his brother, but strayed to drink and hell raising when his sister-in-law Libbie was not near to regulate him.  Together, the Custer boys were notorious pranksters, and few familiar with them on the frontier were immune from their antics.  Autie Custer had molded the 7th Cavalry into a fast-moving, hard-hitting combat unit;  His brother was with him every step of the way.  Detractors labeled them the “Custer Clan”, and resented the good fortune which seemed to follow the family, “Custer’s Luck.”  That luck ran out on June 25, 1876.  George, Tom, and baby brother, Boston Custer died on the dusty hills of Southeastern Montana.

The Custer clan

Tom Custer was an American hero… He died bravely on the field of battle fighting for his country.  His enemies mutilated his body beyond recognition that day.  His remains were only identified by a tattoo on his wrist.  Ironic that warriors described as noble by our society are excused for such behavior.  Cultural sensibilities must be respected, even in the desecration of the dead.   Should we believe this?  

June 11, 1864: Battle of Trevilian Station

Almost Chosen People

Sheridan's_Trevilian_Station_Raid

The largest all cavalry battle of the War, the battle of Trevilian Station occurred during a raid by Major General Philip Sheridan leading 9000 Union troopers. Grant ordered the raid with a two-fold purpose: first to draw off Confederate cavalry as he prepared to disengage from Cold Harbor and cross over the James River to attack the Confederate rail road hub at Petersburg south of Richmond, and, second for Sheridan to tear up as much as he could of the Virginia Central railroad that connected the Shenandoah Valley to Richmond.

The second goal wasreached as Major General Wade Hampton, now commander of the Army of Northern Virginia Cavalry Corps after the death of Major General Jeb Stuart, set off in pursuit of Stuart with 6,000 Confederate cavalry, with Hampton traveling west south of the North Anna river, while Sheridan traveled west north of the North Anna.

Sheridan planned to destroy…

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Lincoln: The Deepest Sadness

Presidential History Blog

Abraham Lincoln

“It is hard, hard to have him die.”

Man of Sadness

Most historians agree that Abraham Lincoln, when he wasn’t laughing and telling droll stories, was a generally sad man. He described his upbringing as the “annals of the poor.” His mother died when he was nine. His only sibling died in childbirth when Lincoln was still in his teens. 

While he made friends easily and engaged socially, he still remains elusive. Other than a long-standing close relationship with Joshua Speed, his friendships remain superficial or professional rather than deep bonding. He was, by and large, a solitary soul. His deepest feelings were “conceptual” rather than personal, in the sense that he was distraught over the enormous deaths of the Civil War: but they were people he did not know.

He was nearly thirty-three when he married, partly due to insufficient income, and partly due to his…

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On Experimentation

The American experience has always been built on experimentation… Our very existence doubted by most of the world, the optimism of Thomas Jefferson became essential to the survival of our republican experiment.

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As the election of 1796 loomed… the friendship between Jefferson and John Adams waned.  Jefferson reminded his friend of their experiment:

 

“I am aware of the objection to this, that the office becoming more important may bring on serious discord in elections. In our country I think it will be long first; not within our day; and we may safely trust to the wisdom of our successors the remedies of the evil to arise in theirs. Both experiments however are now fairly committed, and the result will be seen. Never was a finer canvas presented to work on than our countrymen…. This I hope will be the age of experiments in government, and that their basis will be founded on principles of honesty, not of mere force….If ever the morals of a people could be made the basis of their own government, it is our case.”   Jefferson to Adams, February 28 1796

Cold Harbor Reconsidered

“I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made.” – US Grant

With that observation in his best-selling memoir… Grant started the historical firestorm around the second-to-last battle of the Overland Campaign. Through the years and volumes documenting every facet of the war, Cold Harbor has come to symbolize the carnage and suffering endured by the fighting men. Writers have elevated the battle to the conclusive example of obsolete tactics brutishly utilized during an ill-conceived campaign. Images of doomed soldiers pinning name tags to their uniforms and ranks of men mowed down in place haunt students of the Civil War. But does the Battle of Cold Harbor truly measure up to the perception of needless slaughter?

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Battlefield historian Gordon Rhea… takes this and other misconceptions to task in his multi-volume study of the Overland campaign. The facts simply do not support the popular reputation of June 3, 1864 being a day of unspeakable slaughter. Grant’s forces suffered between 5,500-6,000 casualties- making it only the 5th bloodiest day of that Summer. Every day of the Wilderness battle saw more casualties- Spotsylvania stands as one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Rhea smartly points out that there were bloodier days in the two years preceding the Overland Campaign. What happened to our Remembrance?

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*NPS Richmond

The Summer of relentless combat… that marked the Overland Campaign took a drastic toll on the Army of the Potomac. The soldiers remembering June 3, 1864 were tired and weary of combat- particularly massed frontal assaults against entrenched Confederates. “Fog of War” is a concept bordering on cliche, but clearly, the judgement of many of the battle’s participants was clouded. Grant’s own recollection of the day only solidified the misapprehensions and flawed narrative.

Reynolds and Destiny

Lincoln summoned Major General John F. Reynolds to the White House on June 2, 1863. The situation was pressing as Lee’s army continued its drive northward. Reynolds left his beloved First Corps on the dusty roads of Virginia to hear the entreaties of his Commander-in-Chief.

Maj. Gen. Reynolds

No firsthand accounts remain, but a preponderance of evidence indicate that Lincoln offered command of the Army of the Potomac to Reynolds. The administration had grown tired of Hooker’s wrangling and complaining. Reynolds had established himself as one of the “fighting Corp Commanders.” Some accounts claim Reynolds would only accept if given a “free hand” in strategic operations. All agree that he turned down the offer to remain in command of his Corps.

Reynolds would lead those troops to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Furious at the Rebel invasion of his beloved Commonwealth, Reynolds was spoiling for a fight on the morning of July 1. His decision on June 2 seems part of his destiny.

Memorial Day Tribute

Thomas Jefferson Truitt enlisted in… Company D of the 62nd Pennsylvania Volunteers on July 24, 1861.  He was a carpenter working near Kellersburg in Armstrong County PA.  His father, Anderson, died suddenly in October of 1860, leaving the family deep in debt and without a steady income.  To make ends meet, the widowed Sarah Caldwell Truitt was forced to sell pieces of the family farm and work odd jobs.  The outbreak of the war in 1861 rallied the young men of Armstrong County to the Finlay Cadets.  It also provided Jefferson and his younger brother David the opportunity to assist their family financially.

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1837-1864

Truitt served with distinction… as the company’s color sergeant.  On July 1, 1862 at the battle of Malvern Hill, he rescued the 62nd PA’s flag from capture by securing it inside his uniform coat.  For his valor, Truitt received a promotion to 2nd Lieutenant.  Marching with the 62nd from  Antietam Creek to Fredericksburg, Manassas to Gettysburg, Truitt survived the fiercest fighting of the war.  With its three-year enlistment set to expire, the 62nd soldiered on through the unprecedented carnage of the Overland campaign in the Summer of 1864.  Jefferson Truitt was killed June 3, 1864 at the Battle of Bethesda Church, Virginia, just one month before he was due to be mustered out of service.

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Last Full Measure

Heroism is more than just… exploits on the battlefield.  Ordinary citizens, like Jefferson Truitt, display heroism by putting their lives on hold to serve their country.  The causes, justifications, and implications are immaterial to the sacrifices made by citizen soldiers.  Calling these people heroes does not make a political statement, nor is it a rallying cry for more conflict.  Wars can be pondered and debated without applying undue scrutiny to the brave men and women who fought them.  Publicly doubting the heroism of fallen soldiers on Memorial Day is not reasonable discourse.  His patriot grave is proof that Jefferson Truitt was a hero.

William McKinley: The Best Career Move

Presidential History Blog

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Major William McKinley

At the suggestion of General Rutherford B. Hayes, William McKinley decided to study law.

The Hard-Knocks Youth of William McKinley

Born in Niles, raised in the little village of Poland, Ohio, William McKinley, Jr. was the seventh of nine children. His father was a hard working iron monger, and the devout Methodist family struggled financially. Nevertheless, educating their children became uppermost in their minds. As such, after young Billy’s local schooling, the family scraped together enough money to send him to Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. Briefly. Midway through his first semester, he became seriously ill, and had to withdraw, hoping to return at a later date. That never happened.

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Young William McKinley

When he recovered, the Civil War had just begun in earnest, and young McKinley believed it his duty to enlist. He was eighteen. He served for four years, rising from private to brevet major…

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Second Winchester Battlefield in Frederick County, Virginia

M.A. Kleen

In the first major infantry battle of the Gettysburg Campaign, Confederate forces dealt a crushing blow to Union designs in the Shenandoah. Today you can visit the remains of a fort where they fought.

The battles of Second Winchester and Stephenson’s Depot were fought from June 13 to 15, 1863 between Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. Robert H. Milroy and Confederate forces commanded by Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell in Frederick County, Virginia during the American Civil War. These dramatic Confederate victories in the Gettysburg Campaign’s opening phase cleared a path through the Shenandoah Valley for Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army, allowing it to invade Maryland and Pennsylvania. Taken together, the battles were among the most lopsided of the war, with 4,747 total casualties, mostly Union prisoners.

On June 1, 1863, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia slipped away from the Union

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Lincoln’s Duty

In his first inaugural address, Lincoln was prophetic. He told the nation that a civil war would only be started by their “dissatisfied fellow countrymen” actively looking to destroy the Constitution. Lincoln did not recognize secession, and rightfully so. The rebels started the war, so he now had to defend that government.

Secession was not a concept built into our Constitution. Why would the framers create a less perfect Union so easily disassembled? Lincoln presented the philosophical absurdity of the Confederate cause:

The seceders insist that our Constitution admits of secession. They have assumed to make a national constitution of their own, in which of necessity they have either discarded or retained the right of secession, as they insist it exists in ours…by their own construction of ours they show that to be consistent they must secede from one another whenever they shall find it the easiest way of settling their debts or effecting any other selfish or unjust object. The principle itself is one of disintegration, and upon which no government can possibly endure.

To the joint session of Congress gathered on Independence Day that summer he stated his solemn war powers:

“It was with the deepest regret that the Executive found the duty of employing the war-power, in defense of the government, forced upon him. He could but perform this duty, or surrender the existence of the government.”

People all over the Union were answering his call with patriotic fervor. Lincoln understood what the contest meant to them:

This is essentially a people’s contest. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the Government for whose existence we contend.”