Tale for The Ages

I am an ordinary American. Yet I am blessed by extraordinary ancestors.

Foremost among them is my great-grandfather, Archibald Stark Van Orden. At age 18, Archie was a US Cavalryman in the Civil War. The adventures and dangers he encountered confound the imagination.

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Inspired by the exploits of his youth, I am writing a book that tells his tale.

As Archie wrote to his family: “Half the truth hath not yet been told.”

Now, 150 years later, the hidden-half of truth will finally see the light of day.

Honest Abe

Tomorrow, February 12, 2013, will be the 204th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President. While I’ve been studying the life of this extraordinary American, I’ve also been pondering a sketch of the President by Steven J. Myles, who is a lifelong friend and an exceptional artist. It really catches the character of the man. So, happy birthday, President Lincoln. And thank you, Artist Myles.

Lincoln by Myles

Winter of Discontent

By the fall of 1862, after a serious wound in his thigh from a Confederate Minié ball in the Virginia Battle of Gaines Mill, my great-grandfather Archibald Van Orden finally arrived in Washington, D.C., for recuperative care and recovery.

The recently opened Campbell Hospital in the Capitol was his first stop. Pain, sickness and infection were constant companions of Union soldiers who were able to receive care there. But the camaraderie of wounded vets encouraged all.

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Like Archie, many fellow soldiers and bunk mates survived dire wounds during The Seven Days Battles. They talked of exploits in war and hopes of returning home alive.

Yet, when Archie was mustered out of the 12th NY Infantry due to his debilitating leg wound that would prevent further infantry service, he was greatly saddened. Comrades-in-arms had become his best friends and he missed them dearly.

Returning home that winter to Peekskill, NY, to continue rehabilitation and recovery, Archie avidly followed reports of the war, reading newspapers and Harper’s Weekly. Distressingly, most of the news was bad for the North. Southern victories came often, and Northern losses mounted devastatingly. Emotional depression descended deeply into the psyche of Knickerbockers, who waited grudgingly for Spring to bring a new Campaign season — and victories.

Lincoln Lives

“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” This wisdom from Abraham Lincoln continues to inspire many lives.

A&TLincoln

My great-grandfather, Archibald Van Orden, first saw President-Elect Lincoln at Peekskill, NY, in 1861. He would meet President Lincoln personally in 1865. Lincoln and his abiding commitment to Union would inspire Archie for a lifetime.

As I post in this blog highlights from the historical research I am pursuing, I am moved to add these thoughts about my great-grandfather himself: During four years serving his country in the Civil War, Archie lived more — and more fully — than most men live in a lifetime.

It is my honor and privilege to author the book that is inspired by Archie’s life — dire challenges, fearsome warfare, devastating losses, and the final triumph of love — that make his adventures more than a story of a man, and truly a tale for the ages.

Greenbacks Over Greybacks

“Greenback” was the nickname for paper money, first issued by the US Federal government in 1862. It was the only legal tender other than coinage. The back of the $1 bill shown below makes it obvious why this bill was called a greenback.

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The US government took the unprecedented step of issuing paper money to fund rapidly escalating costs of conducting the Civil War without using coinage. “Legal tender” status meant that creditors were required to accept the bills as payment. By 1863, nearly a half billion dollars worth greenbacks were in public circulation.

The CSA printed their own paper money beginning in 1861, but with one critical difference: Their bills were not legal tender; instead they were issued with a “promise” to pay after (and only if) the Confederates won victory in the war. Their bills were called “greybacks”, as shown in the photo below, in which only the front of the bill was printed and the back revealed just a faint gray image.

Confederate Greyback

The term “greybacks” was also a pejorative, because that is what soldiers called lice (a bane of their existence), and what Union soldiers called Confederates for the color of their uniform as Southerners ran away from Northerners in battle.

If war was only between currencies, greenbacks totally annihilated greybacks. Greybacks suffered 9000% inflation during the war, ending up as worthless as the paper on which they were printed. Conversely, Greenbacks experienced only 80% inflation during war, and became the standard for US currency afterwards.

Whipping Bobby Lee

Robert E. Lee was among the great officers in the history of the United States Army.

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Undoubtedly, Lee was the greatest officer in the Confederate States Army.

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My great-grandfather, Archibald Van Orden, twice fought against the CSA Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee. In the US Infantry, Archie was seriously wounded in battle. In the US Cavalry, Archie was captured.

Some may say that war is not personal. Archie would tell us war gets personal fast when someone is shooting at you. Yet he would also see boys his age, just 16, shot and even killed on battlefields of Virginia, both Union and Confederate soldiers.

So who do you fight? The boy shooting at you? Or the man in command? Both.

Like many Northerners, Archie would personalize war on the enemy’s General. Colloquially, it was all about “whipping Bobby Lee”, before he whipped you.

Bloody Lane: No Turning Back

Antietam is a name most Americans have heard. We learn it in high school history. However, many don’t recall why they know it, or even where it is.

Here’s where it is: Robert E Lee’s first invasion of the North occurred near Sharpsburg, Maryland. He was pressing southern momentum at Antietam Creek, toward Washington D.C after recent Confederate victories in Northern Virginia.

Battle_of_Antietam

Here’s why it matters: More Americans — both Southern and Northern — died at Antietam  on September 17, 1862, than any other battle ever fought on our soil.

The deadliest place was the sunken road, later named Bloody Lane. Thousands from both sides fell here while cannon, muskets and men fought tooth and nail.

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My great-grandfather, Archie Van Orden, was in New York at that time, after mustering out from the Union infantry, recovering from serious battle wounds. But Antietam enflamed his patriotism, even if he could not walk. He yearned to rejoin troops fighting for Union. Months later he would enlist in the US Cavalry.

Mere days after the costly standoff at Antietam, with casualties of nearly 23,000, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In the South, this was a monumental change. No longer was this a war over states rights, they now viewed it as a conflict to pursue a way of life, in which slavery was necessary. For the North, there was finally a future in which no slavery was permitted.

That’s why after Bloody Lane, there was no turning back. Too many Americans on both sides had given their lives for opposed beliefs. Only a winner would take all.

Escaping From Bandit’s Roost

When my great-grandfather, Archibald Van Orden, arrived at New York City in late 1861, he was 15 years old. Alone and with few funds, he sought shelter in an area called Five Points. Though the center of this notorious slum was called Paradise Park, nothing could have been farther from the truth. It was a living hell-hole.

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Cheap lodgings were available in squalid tenements, where robbery, assaults and even murders were almost daily occurrences. This was no place for a boy. Just walking the streets, danger lurked in every alley, such as “Bandit’s Roost” below.

Bandit's_Roost_by_Jacob_Riis

Even worse, the infamous gangs of Five Points — Bowery Boys, Dead Rabbits, and Roach Guards — frequently battled over their filthy turf. Innocent bystanders were hurt and even killed in sudden skirmishes among criminals.

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Archie was desperate to escape the daily dangers that surrounded him in the city, which increased his earlier resolve to join the Union Army, despite the fact that he was too young to enlist. The way he was able to accomplish his goal, in spite of the impediments, will be revealed in my book which I in the midst of writing now.