Tag Archives: History

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.

CampbellInterior

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.

Robert_E_Lee_1838

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.

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.

Five_Points_-_George_Catlin_-_1827

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.

Dead_Rabbit's_Riot_1857_New_York_City

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.

Unconditional Surrender Grant

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.

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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.

800px-Battle_of_Fort_Donelson

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.

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“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.

Little Mac Attack

When my great-grandfather, Archibald Van Orden, served in the Union’s Army of The Potomac in 1862, Major General George B. McClellan was in charge. At West Point, classmates nicknamed him “Little Mac” in joshing reference to his short stature. After elevation to overall command of the US Army, he earned a new sobriquet: “Young Napoleon.” This illustration may show a small resemblance.

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Rarely have soldiers and politicos disagreed so vehemently about a General.

McClellan’s troops are known to have “adored” their General, hailing him as “charismatic” and “highly popular.” Conversely, President Abraham Lincoln (and his cabinet) belittled McClellan, especially with news reporters in earshot.

Was this a case of the tall man (Lincoln) putting down the small man (McClellan)? Or was it the case of a Major General with a minor talent for aggressive warfare?

History, as it is said, is written by the victors. Lincoln demoted McClellan. In the Presidential Election of 1864, McClellan ran as the Democratic candidate against Republican Lincoln. Lincoln won. McClellan lost.

As the original Napoleon might have said of the outcome:  “C’est la guerre.”

Napoleon_in_His_Study

Yell Like Furies

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.”

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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.

Chasseur, For Sure

When my great-grandfather, Archibald Van Orden, enlisted the in the NY 12th Infantry of the US Army on January 27, 1862, General Daniel Butterfield was in overall command of that brigade. Just 30 years old, Butterfield was already renowned for three things. First, his career rocketed from Sergeant to General in just a few months, before he served on a battlefield (this earned him enemies). Second, he was fond of stylish military uniforms (this earned him critics). Third, he sported an awesome full mustache (this earned both admiration and jealousy.)

Daniel_Butterfield

A vain man, General Butterfield wanted his Corps to stand out for its uniforms. So he advocated purchase of French Chasseur uniforms for the 12th volunteers. If war was decided by style alone, his choice may well have been victorious.

Unfortunately, Chasseur uniforms were made in too small a size to fit most Americans. However, Archie being only 16 at the time he received his Chasseur uniform, was able to wear it with pride, no doubt cutting a fine-looking figure. This shows how he may have imagined it would appear in gallant warfare.

1861 Chasseur Uniform

In actuality, few (if any) Chasseur uniforms were ever worn on the battlefield.

Butterfield himself, however, went on to gain fame as the composer of “Taps”, the bugle call played at the end of the day, and also at funerals.  But he gained notoriety when he became chief-of-staff serving General Hooker. It was said that General Hooker’s command post was a sordid mixture of bar-room and  brothel. From this place came a slang term for prostitutes who were known as “hookers.”