Civil War Talks on the Life of Jacob Cox, the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Franklin, and the War in West Virginia

The First Civil War “Staff Ride” and a Call for Preservation

On our way back from my talk on the Battle of Franklin May 19 to the North Carolina Civil War Round Table in Burlington, NC, we stopped at the Guilford Courthouse Battlefield.  This Revolutionary War battle was a costly British victory, forcing Cornwallis to withdraw for supplies and reinforcements.

While there I recalled that in his memoirs, Jacob Cox, who was the military governor of western North Carolina after the war, described how he led his staff on what was probably the first “staff ride” of a battlefield and why historic preservation was so

important. In modern times our army has led hundreds of future officers on such rides to Civil War battlefields to learn the lessons of tactics and strategy.  They also learn a lesson about historic preservation.

Here is what I wrote in my biography of Cox about this event and why we visit Civil War battlefields.


In the last paragraph of the reminiscences, Cox made an appeal to preserve the memory and reality of the war as he had fought it. While military governor of North Carolina in 1865, he and his staff visited the Revolutionary War battlefield of “Guilford-Old-Court-House” near Greensboro. With an official report in his hand, he and his staff “could trace with complete accuracy every movement of the advancing enemy and his own dispositions to receive the attack.” Cox recalled, “We could see the reasons for the movements on both sides.” He found himself critiquing the movements “as if they had occurred on one of our own [Civil War] recent battlefields.” That in turn, he noted, “made us realize, as perhaps nothing else could have done, how the future visitor will trace the movements in which we have had a part; and when we have been dust for centuries, will follow the path of our battalions from hill to hill, from stream to stream, from the border of a wood to the open ground where the bloody conflict was hand to hand, and will comment upon the history we have made.”

He concluded that future historians would assess “what is accurate in our reports and narratives.” Further, they will come to understand that “the face of the country itself will be an unalterable record which will go far to expose the true reason of things…to show what statements are consistent with the physical conditions under which a battle was fought, and what, if any, are warped to hide a repulse or to claim a false success. Nature herself will thus prove the strongest ally of truth.”

Cox could not have anticipated the degree to which his nineteenth century vision has been fulfilled in our time. Every year millions of visitors walk on the ground where he and other Civil War soldiers fought, fell, and died, studying the strategy, tactics, and movements of two great armies, the memory of which Cox helped to make an indelible part of our nation’s history.”



Battle of Franklin talk at North Carolina CWRT Saturday May 19

Tomorrow I will be speaking for the second time to the North Carolina Civil War Round Table in Burlington, NC, this time about the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee.  When I spoke to this group last year about Jacob Cox and his role in North Carolina, the group noted that they seldom heard much about the war in the West.  This in fact is a phenomenon I too have noticed — the groups in the West seldom talk about the East, and vice versa.  It’s not quite as divided as North vs. South, of course, but certainly of interest.

Below is a photo of me with Ed Bearss outside the Carter House — Jacob Cox’s headquarters that day — and the Kurz and Allison painting of the battle showing Jacob Cox encouraging his men to stem the Confederate tide and save the day.  741


Patton of the 22nd Virginia’s Intel Failure

One of the earliest battles in the war, on July 17, 1861, at Scary Creek in what is now West Virginia, just north of Charleston, was a  minor Confederate victory which led to a major Union victory a few days later.  A key reason was the unwitting willingness of Colonel George Patton (the famed WWII General’s grandfather) of the 22nd Virginia Infantry, to tell a Union spy, Pryce Lewis, a few days before Scary Creek, all about Confederate capabilities and emplacements.    Patton was wounded and captured at Scary Creek, but was paroled and returned to battle later.  Among his future accomplishments was “grandfathering” George Patton.

Jacob Cox, the Union commander, used the intel to launch a flanking maneuver around General Wise’s troops holding Charleston.  Wise skedaddled out of town quickly, and after July 23, 1861, the future capital of West Virginia was firmly in Union hands.  battle-of-scary-creek17904093_642155862651075_9014560043996005236_n51GKVtzGzoL9780821420829

Stonewall, the Female Institute, and John B. Floyd

Abingdon, VA is the home of the State Theater of Virginia, one of whose venues was once the home of John B. Floyd, a former VA governor and Civil War (Confederate) general.   We went to see Richard III there last Saturday and saw the two interesting historical markers (below) in front of the building.

The first, about Floyd, is less “praising” than most of these, pointing out the controversy of his defeat at Fort Donelson.  But it doesn’t note that as Secretary of War under Buchanan he shifted military resources to the South during the secession crisis,  nor does it discuss his disputes with fellow-former governor Wise in western Virginia in 1861  which helped the Union establish control of what would become West Virginia.

The second, one of the many echoes of the “Lost Cause,” notes that in 1868 a Presbyterian church bought the property to establish a school for girls, and they named it in honor of Jackson.  It later became “Stonewall Jackson College,” but closed in 1930.


Andrew Johnson: A Cipher and a Failure? Echoes from the First Impeachment Trial

We will be returning to Franklin, Tennessee this week for a talk at the Round Table there, and we will once again be passing through Greeneville, TN, the home of the Andrew Johnson house/visitor center.   The site is rarely visited, but now that Johnson’s impeachment has been the recent subject of historical recall (and, of course, revisionism, depending on your politics), I thought I would re-send this item.

First, I think it should be said that Johnson should not be forgotten solely because of his trial.  In addition, we should remember that he was responsible for so many of the problems of Reconstruction with which we are still living.  Or was he?  The debate will go on, of course, as we Civil War types continue to “re-fight” the war and also Reconstruction.

Below are pictures from the visitor site and Johnson’s statue there, and also a picture I took earlier of the statue of Johnson (along with Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk) on the Raleigh, NC statehouse lawn (these three presidents were born in NC).  Note that Johnson’s accolade is that “he defended the Constitution” — of course that included the 14th amendment, which he strongly opposed.

One of Johnson’s strongest supporters in the early days of Reconstruction was Jacob Cox, who believed Johnson’s policies were consistent with those laid out by Lincoln before the assassination.  Eventually even Cox turned against Johnson when the latter showed almost no ability to adjust to changing attitudes in the Congress and the country.

The following from Cox’s writings is apt:  In a letter in November 1866, Cox wrote: “Johnson has disappointed everybody: the Democrats who adopted hm as well as the Republicans whom he abandoned.”  Calling Johnson a “failure and a cipher,” an embittered Cox said he had stayed as loyal as long as he did only to protect against the kind of Reconstruction that no one could accept.  Cox wrote acerbically, “he is obstinate without being firm, self-opinionated without being capable of systematic thinking, combative and pugnacious without being courageous…The Democracy played with him as an angler with a trout,” and their Southern allies, who had “always looked down upon him as a ‘mean white,’ puffed him with the idea that he was to be the leader of their class of Southern gentlemen.”

Below are images from Cox’s memoirs and from the Johnson site.   Please share this item.






Battle of Franklin Visit

Last weekend I returned to Franklin for the annual “Legacy Dinner” (on Friday the 27th), which celebrates the many advances the Battle of Franklin Trust is making in preservation and expansion of the Civil War-related areas in the city.  Their work is nothing short of fantastic, with many more acres of land now open for visitors and a new visitors center about to be built.  I was of course especially pleased to see the large exhibit in the visitors center of Jacob Cox’s sword, epaulets, and other memorabilia, courtesy of a family trust.  This “unsung hero” of the Battle of Franklin is now getting the recognition he deserves.   Below are three pictures from my most recent visit, of the Carter House (Cox’s headquarters), Carnton Plantation (a confederate hospital), and the statue of a rebel soldier on the town square.  I have also added an older picture, one of my most cherished memories, of my shaking hands with Ed Bearss during the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Franklin, November 30, 2014.  Enjoy!


Robert E. Lee the Marble Man

Over the last few days, in between my lectures in Raleigh and Kitty Hawk, NC and Hershey, PA,  I had the occasion to see several Lee statues — Monument Avenue in Richmond (the most controversial of all); Gettysburg battlefield (Lee sending his men to their deaths during Pickett’s charge); and at the Antietam battlefield’s newest segment, the Newcomer House.  The Lee statue there was authorized by the previous owner, and the National Park Service has agreed to leave it there.  This statue is full of inaccuracies, e.g. Lee had injured both his hands and couldn’t ride and he did in fact support slavery and secession (the statue’s placard says he didn’t).  What was also interesting is that the statue is looking South across a segment of the battlefield where Jacob Cox fought.  And finally, Lee is wearing a hat only in the last statue.  All of the above is why this war continues to be the source of debate, not all of it, unfortunately, civil.



Civil War Sites and My Lectures

After my lectures to the Raleigh and Outer Banks CWRTs over the last few days, I stopped to visit a few Civil War sites, some of which have been, shall we say, a bit controversial in the last few months.  Some not so much, but the potential is there, of course.

The four pictured here, are, in Raleigh, the North Carolina memorial to Confederate dead; and the statue on the North Carolina statehouse grounds honoring North Carolina’s three presidents (Polk, Jackson, and Andrew Johnson).  The one for Johnson says he “defended the constitution,” primarily against the 14th amendment, unfortunately.

In Richmond we visited the “Museum of the Civil War,” which was formerly the Museum of the Confederacy.  This included a visit to the “Confederate White House,” which a fellow named Abraham Lincoln also visited for a few hours on April 4, 1865.  The final picture is of the overwhelmingly large (clearly intentionally) statue of Lee on Monument Avenue.

Some day I’ll comment on the whole Civil War statue issue.  But it is of some note that the “One Way” sign appears on the Lee picture.  Here are the pics:



Continuing my movements around the country, it will be my pleasure to speak to the Round Tables in Kitty Hawk, NC and Hershey, PA next week.

On April 17 In Kitty Hawk, I will discuss with the Outer Banks Civil War Round Table the role Jacob D. Cox played in the final months of the Civil War in North Carolina.  Having just regained his second star as a Major General, Cox and his 23rd corps forced the Confederate forces out of Wilmington and then took that city for the Union, thereby closing off the final open Confederate port city.  Subsequently, he was assigned to re-build the railroad from New Bern to Goldsboro in preparation for the merger of his army and that of General Sherman, advancing from the south.  From May 7-10 Cox and his men fought his final battle against the forces of  General Braxton Bragg at Kinston/Wyse Forks  The victorious Union forces then advanced to Goldsboro where the united forces prepared for the final advance against Raleigh.  While they prepared they received the news of Lee’s surrender, and the final days of the war ensued.

On April 19 at the Hershey Civil War Round Table, I will discuss Jacob Cox’s life as one of the finest “citizen generals” in the Union forces.  Without formal training in the military, he achieved considerable success on the battle fields of West Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina.  But his greatest contribution may have been his writings in Civil War literature, including four books, dozens of articles, and over 160 book reviews of relevant literature.  To this day historians make reference to his books not only as original source materials, but also as objective, well-documented histories.

“GRANT” Thoughts on Chernow’s book

I just finished reading the latest “sensation” in Civil War history, Ron Chernow’s “Grant.”  At 1074 pages (including notes, etc.), it was a grind, but for someone interested in the war and nineteenth century American history, it was an enjoyable and interesting grind  — for the most part.

There is no question but that I have a far better understanding of Grant’s character and personality now than before, thanks to this book.  He was a complicated man with many elements of greatness and probably an equal number of faults.  His blind spots were legion — e.g. he defended friends/relatives-turned-criminals repeatedly; he seemed incapable of introspection; he accepted gifts with no understanding of the motivation of the givers.  But his achievements on the battle field are his rightful badges of honor.

The book’s problems include numerous small errors of fact and all too much emphasis on Grant’s drinking problem and his efforts to combat it.  Also, despite the appearance recently of two books documenting Grant’s prejudices and distortions in his memoirs, especially against certain generals like William Rosecrans, Chernow takes no notice.   He rightly says that Grant’s writing the memoirs while at death’s door was a monumental achievement.  But while the memoirs are an important document, a more balanced view of that book’s problems would have been helpful.

In sum, every student interested in an in-depth understanding of this man and his times should read this book — and of course other books with different points of view.


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