“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.
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.
Robert E. Lee was among the great officers in the history of the United States Army.
Undoubtedly, Lee was the greatest officer in the Confederate States Army.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most Americans did not know the name Ulysses Simpson Grant in early 1862. However, by late 1868, all knew who he became: President of the United States.
The man known as U.S. Grant seemed destined for the highest office in the USA. He first came to national notice with a nickname: Unconditional Surrender Grant.
Here’s how that came to be. After the defeat of the Union army by Confederates at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, Northerners became worried, and even despondent, about possibly losing a war they thought would be won in Virginia.
Out west, General Grant was marching his Union troops to surround by land the southern stronghold, Fort Donelson in Tennessee, while the Union navy attacked from the Cumberland River. At first, the battle did not go well for the North — Fort Donelson’s powerful cannon repulsed the Union boats. Then Confederate forces broke through Grant’s lines, seeking their escape from the trap.
U.S. Grant rose to the occasion, rallying his volunteers to resume the offensive, hold their lines, and drive Confederates back into their fort. On February 16, 1862, Southern General Buckner had no choice but to seek terms for surrender.
“No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender” was Grant’s reply. Telegraphs spread the news of this Union victory like wildfire, vaulting the General to celebrity with his new nickname “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”
In April 1865, my great-grandfather Archibald Van Orden would meet U.S. Grant while serving in his Union honor guard at the long-fought-for surrender of Robert E. Lee’s entire Army of Northern Virginia at Appommattox Courthouse.
None of us alive today has ever heard the screech of a rebel yell at the point of attack in the Civil War. But many veterans of those times recounted its effect.
For Confederate soldiers, while at a full forward sprint, the piercing yowl sounded more animal than human, enflaming their courage to do-or-die.
Southern Colonel Keller Anderson described it this way: “that maniacal maelstrom of sound; that penetrating, rasping, shrieking, blood-curdling noise that could be heard for miles and whose volume reached the heavens–such an expression as never yet came from the throats of sane men, but from men whom the seething blast of an imaginary hell would not check while the sound lasted.”
On Union soldiers, the effect was truly terrifying, as attested by northern troops: “If you claim you heard it and weren’t scared that means you never heard it.”
Near the beginning of the Civil War, when rebel forces scattered federals at the First Battle of Bull Run, General “Stonewall” Jackson exhorted the 4th Virginia Infantry with this order: “When you charge, yell like furies.”
I can scarcely imagine the spine-tingling horror my great-grandfather, Abraham Van Orden, experienced the first time his ears were assaulted by the rebel yell.
My last post was entitled “Crossroads of Life”, focusing on the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, forever changing America for the better.
This post is entitled “Crossroads of Death”, for a key battle that took place in the same time period, beginning December 31, 1862, and ending January 3, 1863.
The USA called it The Battle of Stone’s Creek. The CSA called it The Battle of Murfreesboro. Either way, it was a watershed clash with critical consequences.
Of all the battles in the Civil War, the highest percentage of casualties on both sides occurred here. One out of every three soldiers engaged in this bloodbath was either killed or wounded. The carnage was inconceivable. As confederates charged one key federal position, four of every five attackers were shot down. No surprise that this hillock was thereafter dubbed “Hell’s Half Acre.”
Prior to this turning point, southern armies in the eastern theatre had repeatedly whipped the northern armies. But Union General Rosencrans proved at Stone’s Creek that the boys in blue could give as good as they got. Northerners finally won a hard-fought struggle with bravery, determination and sacrifice.
Eventually, this battle would enable Union General Sherman to seize control across Tennessee, readying a surge into Georgia, dealing a mortal cut to the CSA. When my great-grandfather, Archie Van Orden, read news of the great victory at Stone’s Creek, it steeled his resolve to re-enlist for the US Cavalry in 1863.
Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, but it was not to go into effect until 100 days later on January 1, 1863. If slave states in rebellion returned to the Union before then, slaves would not have been freed.
Imagine the tension, the anticipation, the fear, and the hope in the hearts of African-Americans on New Year’s Eve 1862. It was the ultimate crossroads — one road led to a life of freedom; the other to a living death of slavery continued.
As this painting depicts, in evening church services, known as a Watch Night, whole families of slaves waited with baited breath, hungering for the moment a pocket watch would tick to 12:01 AM on January 1, 1863. The crossroads of life were finally reached, which would ultimately end slavery in America forever.