Vermont Reads: Wartime Leadership

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All this week VPR is examining the social context of war and the experience of battle itself, as part of our 2012 collaboration with the Vermont Humanities Council’s statewide reading program Vermont Reads.

This year, Vermonters are reading Paul Fleischman’s Bull Run, a novel published in 1993, and The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, a classic tale of the Civil War first published in 1895. 

Both books offer detailed descriptions of life and leadership in a time of war, based on an extensive archive of personal narratives written at the time, and still available in collections today.

Civil War historian Donald Wickman has been studying the 9th Vermont regiment. Wickman compares the writers of those detailed, first person accounts of the war with the embedded reporters of today.

"Because they were soldiers writing back to the home press. Three of the writers were representatives of the 9th Vermont. And even though they weren’t a "bloodied regiment" like the first Vermont brigade and didn’t have a stellar moment like the second Vermont brigade at Gettysburg on July 3rd, they served the second longest time from 1862 to the end of 1865, it’s more of a social military history," Wickman said.

The soldier traveled quite a bit, and picked up a lot of diseases and illnesses a long the way.

"Train travel and steam ship were the methods they got around and traveled through 13 different states. They were unfortunately captured at Harper’s Ferry on September 15, 1862, which lead them to become paroled prisoners in of all places, Chicago, IL before they were exchanged and then they were guarding confederate prisoners and then they ended up with the Army of the James with their climactic moment of being some of the first troops to enter Richmond on April 3, 1865. So they did see limited action, but what they were facing more was malaria, dysentery, typhoid. They had the second greatest number of disease related deaths versus the seventh Vermont regiment," Wickman explained.

And he says there are some individual soldiers of note in the Vermont 9th that he found especially compelling in his research.

"Edward Hastings Ripley, who was 22 years old when he enlisted from Rutland, and was commander of the company B, and he left a wonderful legacy of letters behind. The person I really sort of bonded with was another captain who at 27 enlisted for the second time. He was a part of the first Vermont regiment, and he rose up to be the lieutenant colonel of the regiment and that was Valentine Barney of St. Albans. And he wrote on common terms, he would describe common life. He was one that I would equate with that you could sit down and have a nice quiet meal with and chat about things," Wickman said.

Another soldier-correspondent was Alfred C. Ballard, of Tinmouth, who wrote letters to the Rutland Herald. In one letter, Ballard offers an ironic take on southern hospitality.

"The captain and I made an evening call not long since, at the house of one of the first families of North Carolina, and after roasting some of the potatoes in the fireplace, they peeled them and passed them around, all hot and smoking and soft and stick been told the common way of waiting on people is to poke them potatoes out of the ashes with the toes of the boot, kick them toward you and say help yourself, but the captain and I were evidently more refined people," Ballard wrote.

Encountering unfamiliar circumstances that could prove a serious and frustrating challenge was a common experience for the Civil War soldier.

In the following excerpt from Bull Run, author Paul Fleischman imagines what Union General Irvin McDowell might have been thinking just days before Bull Run, the first major battle of the war.  

"I felt myself to be a horse who’s ordered to gallop while still hitched to a post.

As commander of the Army of the Potomac, I was expected to crush the Confederacy’s army and, if need be, take Richmond, its capital.

The public, the press, the politicians the President – all demanded it.

And since many of my soldiers were ninety-day men, whose enlistments would expire in July, I was expected to accomplish this with all speed.

Despite the fact that my troops were as green as June apples, spoke a Babel of tongues, and were led by officers who knew nothing of battle.

Despite lacking sufficient weapons, ammunitions, mules, food, and equipment of every sort.

Despite the fact that my success depended on keeping the Confederate army in the west from leaving Harper’s Ferry and joining Beauregard, a duty given to General Patterson, who was too old and too timid for this or any task.

Despite my not having a single reliable map of Virginia, which I was to invade.

And despite the most worrisome problem of all, one I dared not complain of in public: I, who’d just a few weeks before been made a brigadier general in command of an army of thirty thousand, had seldom led more than a hundred men."

During the Civil War, the challenges of leadership reached all the way up the chain of command and into the White House. In his book, Lincoln Seen and Heard, scholar and author Harold Holzer includes political cartoons that show the criticism Abraham Lincoln faced during his presidency, not just by southerners and Democrats, but also by many of his fellow Union Republicans.

"In his own time he had three basic opposition groups. The first was the South and pro slavery zealots and of course they expressed their indignation at his election by simply severing their connections to the union. But within the United States, it was extremely partisan, really not very much unlike how things are now. Democrats and the democratic newspapers, opposed almost everything he did and made fun of almost everything he said, and within his own Republican party, he was seen as conservative, too conservative, by many of his reform-minded liberal, as they were called then and it’s something of a misnomer, the Radical Republicans. They wanted Lincoln to move more quickly, not only on emancipation but also on equal rights for African Americans, which Lincoln felt like he needed to resist only to keep the border slave states loyal to the union," Holzer said.

Still, Lincoln is often held up as one of the greatest of America’s Civil Rights champions, after all, he freed millions of people from bondage, but  he also invoked the Sedition Act and that gave the federal authorities the right to prosecute any individual suspected of plotting against the federal government.

Holzer points out that civil rights and civil liberties are a bit different, but says the suspension of Habeas Corpus does raise questions.

"It was an unprecedented moment. There’d never been an internal rebellion of this scale. And it was a genuine rebellion against federal authority. The constitution allows specifically for the writ of habeas corpus to be suspended in moments of revolution. Lincoln did it on his own, assuming unprecedented war powers when he first suspended the writ, but he did get Congressional approval ultimately. It is almost impossible for us to put ourselves in the situation that he felt he was in. The enemy just a few miles from Washington perpetually. Cities like New York, tilted heavily toward Democrats and against African American rights and against Emancipation, urging people not to volunteer, not to obey the draft, riots in cities in 1863 when conscription was first announced. Lincoln is a darn good ideal, and yes, there is an ongoing debate and there has been since the 1890s, about what the legacy means in terms of economic policy, human rights policy, presidential authority, but I think that’s lively. It enlivens the debate, it makes us look to the past to enlighten the future and I think that’s the whole idea of why history is important," Holzer said.

And Holzer believes Lincoln was our greatest president.  

"As great as Washington was in establishing the country and the presidency without monarchy, without life terms, as great as I think Roosevelt was in facing not one but two gigantic cataclysmic crises, Lincoln was not only unexpectedly brilliant as a manager and a thinker, not only wrote more beautifully than any other president, but he embodied this aspiration that I think someone like Barack Obama emulated and is part of his appeal. And that is he showed that anybody in the United States can aspire to leadership and opportunity from the humblest and most unexpected origins. So Lincoln not only saved the American dream, he exemplified it," Holzer said.

Tomorrow, we’ll consider the aftermath of the Civil War, as Vermonters return from the fighting.

Vermont Reads 

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