Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overulling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

James Garfield and the Civil War: For Ohio and the Union

Greetings all!

I am excited to say that a project which I have been working on for a little over a year is now almost finished. With a publication date of November 2, 2015, I am pleased to announce the publication of my second book, James Garfield and the Civil War: For Ohio and the Union. The front and back cover are below:

This project, being published by The History Press, focuses on the Civil War career of native Ohioan and 20th President of the United States James Abram Garfield. I have been fascinated by Garfield for many years, having grown up just a short 20 minute drive from his home in Mentor, Ohio. Over the past few years, I have gotten to know the staff at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site, and have had the pleasure to do some volunteer work there, taking part in the park's Major Battles of the Civil War lecture series. It is a great NPS site, and I encourage you to visit there if you are ever in the Cleveland area.

While other presidents who served in the army during the Civil War have had books written which chronicle their service, no such books exist for the military career of James A. Garfield. From 1861 to the end of 1863, Garfield served in the Union army, raising a regiment of Ohio troops, leading men in combat in Kentucky, taking part in the second day of the Battle of Shiloh, sitting on a court martial of a prominent Union general, and serving as the Chief of Staff for the Army of the Cumberland. His Civil War career was as eclectic as it was important. Garfield had a hand in several of the war's most important battles and campaigns, and his experience shows how hard work and perseverance allowed a man born in a log cabin in the old Western Reserve of Northeast Ohio rise to become a major general in the Union army.

This book tells the story of Garfield's Civil War service, following him through the conflict and examining the role this famous Ohioan played in our nation's most trying hours. While the focus is on his time in the army during the war, I also discuss his early years and career before the war began, as well as his post-war political career, and how the Civil War had a continuing impact for the rest of Garfield's life. Garfield held many titles throughout his life, but none was more meaningful to him than "General Garfield." While Garfield's presidency was tragically cut short by his assassination in 1881, twenty years earlier he bravely donned his country's uniform and took part in the American Civil War. Just as the war changed the United States, it also changed the lives of those who took part in it. James Garfield was among them. His post-war political career and his eventual rise to the presidency were made possible by his heroic service to the Union cause during the Civil War.

I hope to post more on this forum in the coming weeks and months, sharing more regarding the life and Civil War career of James Garfield and the publication of the book. Stay tuned for updates!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

"I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good".

With these words, Charles Appleton Longfellow notified his father, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, that he was joining the Union army in 1863. The younger Longfellow was wounded in November 1863 during the Mine Run Campaign in Virginia, giving his father great cause to worry about the life of his son. With his own son having shed blood in the war and the conflagration of death and suffering across the nation showing no sign of ending soon, Christmas of 1863 saw Henry Wadsworth Longfellow pen the words to a poem which would eventually become one of the most celebrated Christmas Carols of all time.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the soundThe carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlornThe households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Friday, July 4, 2014

July 4, 1864: Ohio Soldiers Reflect on Independence Day

150 years ago today, the United States–a nation mired in the fourth year of a bloody Civil War–was celebrating the anniversary of its independence from Great Britain. In the ranks of the vast Union armies fighting to preserve that nation, the significance of the day did not go unnoticed.

On July 4, 1864, hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers were spread out across the Southern United States, occupying lands of the Confederacy in what was the final year of the American Civil War. Most notably, two Union commanders were on the precipice of seizing major southern cities. In Virginia, Grant was settling in near Petersburg, beginning a months long siege that would force he and his men to wait until 1865 until their goals of victory in the campaign for Richmond could be realized.

Far to the south, in the state of Georgia, William Tecumseh Sherman’s army group, consisting of the Army of the Cumberland, the Army of the Tennessee, and the Army of the Ohio, rested just miles from Kennesaw Mountain, the imposing height which had stalled Sherman for the latter half of June and the first several days of July. It had only been on the morning of July 3rd that Union soldiers discovered that Confederates had vacated their Kennesaw trenches, having been forced out by yet another flanking maneuver from Sherman. Kennesaw Mountain had been a resounding defeat for Sherman’s men, as each attacking column the Federals sent forward on the morning of June 27, 1864, was handsomely repulsed. Yet, one week later, the Confederates had retreated, and the Union soldiers who had seen their comrades slaughtered in such great number in front of the Kennesaw Line were preparing to push for the Chattahoochee River and toward Atlanta itself.

Thus, 150 years ago, Union soldiers had cause for both sadness and gratefulness, for both remorse and relief. The troubles of Kennesaw Mountain were past, yet the struggle for Atlanta lay firmly in their future.

“One year ago were in Shellbyville Tenn. Wonder next 4th will find us, or me. Enjoying the blessings of peace, I hope. Hardly think it will. One consolation, my term of service will have nearly expired. Weather very warm. A man would have been called insane three years ago, who would have prophesied that the war would last till July 1864”
O.M. Scott, Commissary Sergeant, 121st Ohio Volunteer Infantry
“This is a holiday to all Americans whether it will be so to us remains to be seen.”
Sgt. Israel Connell, 51st Ohio Volunteer Infantry

“We are celebrating the birthday of the Nation by firing an occasional salute on the works of the foe in our front. Company E was on the skirmish line all day, and it was very interesting. A year ago we were at Shelbyville, Tenn., and on that day Vicksburg was taken by General Grant. Where will we be July 4th, 1865?”
Francis McAdams, 113th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

“Thankful should we be to Divine Providence that our ever honored and memoriable National Birthday is thus made the more sacred by a victory over the Nation’s and Freedom’s enemies.”
Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Traveling to Georgia!!

 One week from today, I will be in the great state of Georgia once again!! I am traveling for the Kennesaw Mountain 150th. It will be my great privilege to be bringing my ranger hat to Georgia to assist the staff of Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park by providing interpretive programs next weekend at the battlefield park. I don't know where I will be stationed just yet, but I do know that I will be quite busy!!

In addition to my NPS work in Georgia, I will be doing several author talks and book signings in the area. The schedule is listed below. You will have plenty of chances to catch up with me if you are in the area. I am particularly pleased to be speaking at the park on the morning of the 27th on the lives of Charles Harker and Dan McCook, two exemplary individuals who sacrificed everything at Kennesaw Mountain.

If you live in the Atlanta area, or if you will be traveling there for the Kennesaw 150th, I hope to see you either at the park or at one of my book talks in the area!!

Athens Clark-County Public Library, Athens, Georgia–June 26, 2014
1:00 Author Talk and Book Signing
Atlanta History Center–Atlanta, Georgia, June 26, 2014
8:00 Evening Lecture and Book Signing
Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park: 150th Anniversary Events–Kennesaw, Georgia, June 27, 2014
Author Talk (10:00) “Facing Fearful Odds: Colonel Dan McCook and Brigadier General Charles Harker at Kennesaw Mountain” and Book Signing
Marietta Museum of History–Marietta, Georgia, June 28, 2014
Author Talk (2:00) and Book Signing

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

May 7, 1864: Grant Turns South

150 years ago this evening, the American Civil War took yet another turn. After two days of bloody, chaotic, and brutal fighting in the Wilderness west of Fredericksburg, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant faced a key decision. In the past, generals with names such as McClellan, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker had turned back after difficulties and defeats. The Wilderness had not been a total defeat, simply an impediment to Grant's southward push. Lee's Confederates had proven themselves able to deliver vicious blows into the Federal lines, leaving thousands of men in Blue and Gray bleeding among the Virginia forest, some of them burning from the fires among the leaves set by the blaze of muskets and cannon.
On the evening of May 7th, with the fires of the Wilderness still smoldering, Grant began to move. Instead of turning back to Washington to recuperate, Grant and his army turned south. The sight of Grant continuing southward sent waves of admiration through the men of the Army of the Potomac. They knew that unforeseen and unknowable difficulties and trials lay ahead. They knew that turning south meant more fighting, killing, and dying. Yet, with Grant in command, these veteran soldiers were ready to make the final push into Virginia, hoping that with this campaign, the days of the war were numbered.

The situation has been best described by the words of Bruce Catton, whose work A Stillness at Appomattox still stands as a gold standard of writing on the Civil War, or on any history topic for that matter. For myself, and for many others who have written books about the Civil War, Catton is a standard to which we always aspire to reach but will always fall short. His work shows us that history can be well written and truthful.

This army had known dramatic moments of inspiration in the past—massed flags and many bugles and broad blue ranks spread out in the sunlight, with leadership bearing a drawn sword and riding a prancing horse, and it had been grand and stirring. Now there was nothing more than a bent shadow in the night, a stoop-shouldered man who was saying nothing to anyone, methodically making his way t of the head of the column—and all of a moment the tired column came alive, and a wild cheer broke the night and men tossed their caps in the darkness.

They had had their fill of desperate fighting, and this pitiless little man was leading them into nothing except more fighting, and probably there would be no end to it, but at least he was not leading them back in sullen acceptance of defeat, and somewhere, many miles ahead, there would be victory for those who lived to see it. So there was tremendous cheering, and Grant’s big horse Cincinnati caught the excitement and reared and pranced, and as he got him under control Grant told his staff to have the men stop cheering because the Rebels were not far away and they would hear and know that a movement was being made.

It was the same on other roads. Sedgwick’s men backtracked to Chancellorsville, and as the men reached that fatal crossroads the veterans knew how the land lay and knew that if they took the left-hand fork they would be retreating and if they turned to the right they would be going on for another fight. The column turned right, and men who made the march wrote that with that turn there was a quiet relaxing of the tension and a lifting of gloom, so that men who had been slogging along quietly began to chatter as they marched. Here and there a regiment sang a little.

Back by the wagon trains one of Sedgwick’s officers came upon Burnside’s division of colored soldiers, so dust-colored the men looked white. They were heading south like everyone else, and the officer saw a big colored sergeant prodding his men on with the butt of his rifle and ordering, “close up dere, lambs.”

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Book Review--Confederate Combat Commander: The Remarkable Life of Brigadier General Alfred Jefferson Vaughan, Jr., by Lawrence Peterson

While there are far too many books on the Civil War to count, there are surprisingly few on the Confederate forces of the war’s Western Theater actions. In the theater which many historians argue saw the largest impact on the overall strategic outcome of the war, there is a dearth of biographies and examinations of key Confederate leaders. This extends from the relative lack of studies on Braxton Bragg to lesser known generals and officers. One of these lesser known officers is Brigadier General Alfred Vaughan Jr., a brigade commander in the Army of Tennessee who lost his leg to an exploding artillery shell near Smyrna, Georgia, in early July 1864.

I drew interest in Vaughan because his brigade was positioned at the “Dead Angle” position at Kennesaw Mountain, seeing some of the fiercest fighting during the days of struggle at Kennesaw in late June 1864. But a recent biography by Lawrence K. Peterson--Vaughan's great-great grandson--opened my eyes to the remarkable Civil War career which Vaughan had, stretching far beyond Kennesaw Mountain. Vaughan’s career in the Army of Tennessee extended back to the very origins of that army. His personal list of battles reads as a list of the bloodiest and most important battles of the West: Shiloh, Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and the Atlanta Campaign. If one wanted to follow one officer through the worst of the West, battle by battle, Vaughan is an excellent choice.

Peterson’s biography is well written and well researched, providing great insight on Vaughan’s leadership and experiences. The narrative focuses heavily on Vaughan’s actions in each of the major battles, as well as the behind the scenes action in the Army of Tennessee, which, considering the personalities in that army, could be just as complex as the battles themselves. The primary source used appears to be Vaughan’s own account of his regiment, the Personal Record of the Thirteenth Regiment, Tennessee Infantry, C.S.A. (Memphis: S.C. Toof, 1897). Vaughan was instrumental in the formation of the regiment, serving as the first Captain of Company E, which was previously a militia group known as the “Dixie Rifles”, a group of Mississippians (Vaughan’s adopted home state was Mississippi, despite his Virginia birthplace) who were armed and equipped by the state of Tennessee. By June 1861, Vaughan became the lieutenant colonel of the regiment. During the fighting at Belmont in November 1861, Vaughan assumed command of the regiment, and was promoted to the rank of colonel after the battle. He served with distinction at Shiloh, and later in 1862 he rose to brigade command. Peterson follows Vaughan and the Army of Tennessee through the rest of the war with a nice balance between the biographical narrative and the broader history of the campaigns and battles which Vaughan was involved in. It was only after his stellar conduct at Chickamauga in September 1863 that Vaughan was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, receiving praise and recommendations from numerous commanders, including Patrick Cleburne and Benjamin Cheatham.

The author makes mention several times that Vaughan had a “personal servant” with him during the war, named Roach Howard. Howard was, of course, one of the Vaughan family slaves. Peterson notes that after the war Howard was set free, but does not give further detail into why or how this occurred. It is only one small instance in a larger book, but this reader wished that more information and detail was provided in the text on the life of Howard, as well as the master-slave relationship between the two men.

Peterson's biography goes beyond Vaughan's war years as well, discussing the general's post war years, a subject often neglected by Civil War studies of particular officers and units. These insights, as well as the detailed focus on Vaughan and his brigade through the western theater of the war, make this a very well rounded book, the likes of which there are too few, especially in regards to the leaders and brigades of the Army of Tennessee.

For those looking for a deeper understanding of the Army of Tennessee, as well as a deeper knowledge of the major battles of the war’s Western Theater, pick up Lawrence Peterson’s biography of Alfred Vaughan, published by The University of Tennessee Press, titled, Confederate Combat Commander: The Remarkable Life of Brigadier General Alfred Jefferson Vaughan, Jr. Peterson deftly examines the life of an important yet little known Confederate brigade commander who saw some of the war’s fiercest combat.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Now Available...

Very proud to say that my book, The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, is now available!!!

If you are interested in ordering a copy, you can learn more by visiting the new "Buy the Book!" page at the top of the blog. It is currently available through The History Press, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, and will soon be in bookstores!!