Tag Archives: Civil War

Blog 2014: The Fifth Year In Review.

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 3.03.08 PMBanner2Banner3-b

2014 was the fifth year for this blog — and though I have to admit I was a relatively infrequent blogger this year — there were a handful of events I could not let pass without trying to say something. Most important was the loss of two iconic figures who granted me (and many others) the privilege of their invaluable friendship and mentorship. The passing of Sheldon Patinkin and Ray Shepardson made 2014 a year I will always remember.

Paul’s Voyage of Discovery & Etc. has attracted 189,401 viewers since it began — 24,929 in 2014. The busiest day of the year was September 21st with 505 views. The most viewed post that day was O Captain! My Comedy Captain! — my post on the passing of Sheldon Patinkin.

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I continue to be honored that 179 subscribers have now signed on to have my posts automatically delivered to them via e-mail. (And 59 more who follow this blog on Twitter.)

Are you a subscriber?

If you’re not — then look to your right at the photo of the saluting Matey and follow the simple instructions to “Hop Aboard!”

What follows is a list of The Top Ten Most Popular Posts of 2014.

Just click on the title of each post to access the original article.

1. The Top Ten Rock & Roll Singers of All Time

singerbanner1

There’s nothing like a Top 10 list to promote discussion on a blog – and this December 5, 2011 post did just that. It’s one of the posts that has generated the most comments. A lot of people feel I’ve left one of their favorites off the list. Check it out – and then weigh in with your own opinion. Just realize that your opinion on rock & roll singing cannot possibly be as informed as my own.

2. 
O Captain! My Comedy Captain!



Sheldon Banner

I don’t know where my life would have gone if the great Sheldon Patinkin had not walked into a small storefront theatre on Howard Street in Evanston — and took my silliness seriously. Sheldon didn’t just change my life. He changed generations of lives. I will miss him every damn day. But, in essential ways, he will always be with me — and with all of the thousands of creative people whose lives he touched. (Posted on September 21, 2014.)

3. My Book Report: “The Battle of Midway”midway

What a great book! What an amazing chapter of world history! On January 23, 2012, I wrote this review of a book that captures all the incredible heroism, good luck, and turns of fate that made this epic World War Two naval battle an overwhelming victory that turned the tide of the war against Imperial Japan. In 2013, I wrote another report on an excellent World War Two book, The Day of Battle, about the campaign to liberate Italy. A few weeks after I wrote that post, my family and I visited the American cemetery in Tuscany and paid our respects to the soldiers whose valor, sacrifice and victory are recounted in Rick Atkinson’s fine book.

4. 
Farewell to Ray Shepardson, the Visionary Who Saved the Theatres

Ray Banner

I honestly had no idea how to headline this tribute to the great Ray Shepardson, who died suddenly and shockingly in Aurora, Illinois in the spring of 2014. The man who saved dozens of great old theatres and movie palaces from the wrecking ball was a man of prodigious energy, drive, and “can do” creativity. He is greatly missed by many. This was posted on April 16, 2014 — my birthday.

5. Victory at Pearl HarborPearl Harbor

Originally posted in 2010 on the anniversary of the “day that will live in infamy” – this post has become an annual event. A lot of military history fans visit this blog, but I think Pearl Harbor fascinates and resonates with Americans whether they have an interest in military history or not. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks took more American lives – but Pearl Harbor was the shocking opening act in a drama that ultimately made the United States the world’s preeminent superpower.

6. The Occupy Wall Street Movement Doesn’t Need Black Bloc Buffooneryblackboc

Though we didn’t hear much about it in 2013,  the Occupy Wall Street movement has inspired a lot of posts on this blog since 2011. This post, written on November 2, 2011, has proven to be the most popular. Maybe that’s because people agree that we don’t need a bunch of foolish, immature anarchists screwing up a noble movement that ultimately helped to put Barrack Obama back in office. Without Occupy Wall Street, would Romney’s attack on the 47% have evoked such a profound and spirited response? Without Occupy Wall Street, would the concept of the 99% and 1% have ever entered the Zeitgeist? And can Occupy Wall Street — or something even more effective yet peaceful — please come back in 2o15?

7. Happy Birthday Bill of Rights!

On December 15, 2010 – the 215th birthday of our Bill of Rights – I wrote this basic primer on the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution and it’s become one of the most-read posts in the history of this blog. I guess that’s because Americans still give a damn about their rights and are keen to understand their Constitutional foundation.

8. Bazooka Joe, Jay Lynch & Me

One of the first posts I wrote for this blog back on January 9, 2010 celebrated my brief but soul-satisfying collaboration with the legendary underground comix artist, Jay Lynch, who gave Vic and me the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to write a series of Bazooka Joe comics. It was one of the coolest chapters in my creative career. The Practical Theatre Company, Saturday Night LiveBehind the Music, The Vic & Paul Show and Bazooka Joe. Classics all. Can I retire now?

9. Paul McCartney & The War of 18121812banner

This was originally posted on June 18, 2012. That day was not just Paul McCartney’s 70th birthday – it was also the 200th anniversary of The War of 1812. 130 years after the young upstart United States declared war on Great Britain, Paul McCartney was born. I thought that was a real fun fact.

10. LeBron: The King Moves Onlebron-banner-2

As a Cleveland native, I’ve often been asked my opinion of LeBron James leaving the Cavaliers several years ago — and my friends and co-workers are usually shocked that I’m not upset or indignant or jilted, etc. And while the blogosphere hardly needed one more commentary on LeBron James’ move to the Miami Heat, I wrote this post on July 9, 2010 to explain that LeBron James didn’t owe me anything. He’s a professional basketball player who wants to win and be remembered as the best to play the game. The two NBA championships he’s won in Miami since I wrote this post have given LeBron all the scoreboard he needs. in 2014, The King came back to Cleveland, which is doubtless the reason for renewed interest in this post.

So, that’s the best of 2014. Stay connected. Subscribe. And please keep posting your comments!

Here’s to a worthy, adventurous voyage in 2015!

And here are the All-Time Top 10 Blog Posts from January 2010 up to today:

1. Happy Birthday Bill of Rights!

2. Victory at Pearl Harbor

3. The Occupy Wall Street Movement Doesn’t Need Black Bloc Buffoonery

4. The Top Ten Rock & Roll Singers of All Time

5. History & Honeymoon: Part Three

This post was the #3 post in 2010. 24 years ago, my wife Victoria and I went to Gettysburg and other Civil War battlefields on our honeymoon! I needed no other assurance that I had married the perfect woman. On our 20th anniversary, we returned to Gettysburg. Now both students of the battle, we walked the battlefield on July 1, 2 and 3, 2010 on the 147th anniversary of that critical conflict. My four-part account of our battlefield tramping became one of the most popular items on the blog. (Originally posted July 20, 2010)

6. A Childhood Memory of Kent State, May 4. 1970Kent State

On the May 4, 2012 anniversary of this very dark day in America history, I posted this personal remembrance of a young Ohioan’s earliest memories of that terrible day. Unlike the Pearl Harbor post, I haven’t re-posted this article every year — but readers still find it. “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming.” The shootings at Kent State should never be forgotten.

7. Aliens Among Us?

I’ve always wondered where singular, epochal, “out of this world” geniuses like William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci and Bob Dylan came from. So, on January 26, 2011, I wrote this speculation on the possible alien origin of such monumental minds. Evidently, my curiosity (if not my Erich Van Daniken “ancient astronaut” fantasy) is still shared by a lot of people who read my blog in the past year.

8. Growing Up in the Space Age

The last American space shuttle launch inspired this July 14, 2011 remembrance of my personal connection to the Space Age. This popular post salutes my fellow Ohioan, John Glenn, who served as both the first man to orbit the Earth and as a Senator from my home state. I wish that my three daughters had grown up experiencing something half as exciting and inspirational as The Race to the Moon.

9. My Book Report: “The Battle of Midway”

10. Bazooka Joe, Jay Lynch & Me

 

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Filed under Adventure, Art, Comedy, History, Politics, Sports

ObamaCare & Italy & Everything Else — Blog 2013: The Fourth Year In Review.

New Year'sObamacareitaly-banner-1 S&GFor my family and me, 2013 ended on an upbeat note with “Mr. Olsen’s New Year’s Rockin’ Neighborhood” — a raucous, sold-out celebration of comedy and rock & roll at 27 Live in Evanston, Illinois. The weather was bitterly cold but there was a delightful, enveloping warmth in our comic camaraderie with longtime friends, bandmates, fellow Northwestern University alums and members of The Practical Theatre Company.

P&EvaI even got to sing duets with my college roommate and fellow Practical Theatre founder, Brad Hall (as Simon & Garfunkel, above) — and with my daughter, Eva.

We closed the evening with two spirited sets by Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation, the band I’ve been playing with since the early 1980’s. There’s no better way to ring in the New Year than by rocking with your best buddies. All in all, it was a wonderful way to say goodbye to 2013 and hello to 2014.

suess-graphic-cruz26nI’ll be candid. For some reason, 2013 was not a very prolific year for this blog. I don’t know whether it was the fact that the excitement of the 2012 Presidential election gave way to Congressional constipation courtesy of the recalcitrant, reactionary Tea Party bloc in the House of Reps — or that the rollout of the Affordable Care Act led to the dispiriting madness of the government shutdown. I managed to get off a few broadsides skewering the likes of Senator Ted Cruz (Tea Party, TX) — but the I should have written more in defense of President Obama and progressive politics. (Though my most commented-on post in 2013 was President Obama Goes to War.) Still, I resolve to do a better job of blogging on politics in 2014.

ItalyBThe highlight of 2013 was our family’s two-week trip to Italy and the provinces of Tuscany and Umbria in August. I tried to sum up the experience in an article entitled, Our Italian Adventure. I could easily have written a series of blog posts on each of the beautiful cities and towns we visited, the artwork we saw, the food we ate, and the people we met — but I stuffed the whole, glorious journey into one account. To make amends to my readers I promise that, before too long, I will post a link to the movie we shot on the grounds of Camporsevoli. Stay tuned…

2013 was the fourth year for this blog — and here are the year’s vital signs:

Paul’s Voyage of Discovery & Etc. has attracted 164,472 views since it began four years ago. There were 34,572 visits in 2013. I’ve posted 299 articles since this blog began. This post is #3oo: certainly a notable milestone.

This is not the real subscription sign up box. The real one is further to the right. And up a little…

I am honored that 147 subscribers have now signed on to have my posts automatically delivered to them via e-mail. (And 43 more folks follow this blog on Twitter.) Are you a subscriber? If you’re not — then look to your right at the photo of the saluting Matey and follow the simple instructions to “Hop Aboard!”

The search terms that readers used most to find this blog were “Pearl Harbor”, “Occupy Wall Street”, “trial by jury”, “Bill of Rights” and “Pickett’s Charge”. And these are the posts that readers were most attracted to this year…

What follows is a list of The Top Ten Most Popular Posts of 2013.

Just click on the title of each post to access the original article.

1. Victory at Pearl HarborPearl Harbor

Originally posted in 2010 on the anniversary of the “day that will live in infamy” – this post has become an annual event. A lot of military history fans visit this blog, but I think Pearl Harbor fascinates and resonates with Americans whether they have an interest in military history or not. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks took more American lives – but Pearl Harbor was the shocking opening act in a drama that ultimately made the United States the world’s preeminent superpower.

2. Happy Birthday Bill of Rights!

On December 15, 2010 – the 215th birthday of our Bill of Rights – I wrote this basic primer on the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution and it’s become one of the most-read posts in the history of this blog. I guess that’s because Americans still give a damn about their rights and are keen to understand their Constitutional foundation.

3. A Childhood Memory of Kent State, May 4. 1970Kent State

On the May 4, 2012 anniversary of this very dark day in America history, I posted this personal remembrance of a young Ohioan’s earliest memories of that terrible day. Unlike the Pearl Harbor post, I haven’t re-posted this article every year — but readers still find it. “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming.” The shootings at Kent State should never be forgotten.

4. The Top Ten Rock & Roll Singers of All Time

singerbanner1

There’s nothing like a Top 10 list to promote discussion on a blog – and this December 5, 2011 post did just that. Check it out – and then weigh in with your own opinion. Just realize that your opinion on rock & roll singing cannot possibly be as informed as my own.

5. The Occupy Wall Street Movement Doesn’t Need Black Bloc Buffooneryblackboc

Though we didn’t hear much about it in 2013,  the Occupy Wall Street movement has inspired a lot of posts on this blog since 2011. This post, written on November 2, 2011, has proven to be the most popular. Maybe that’s because people agree that we don’t need a bunch of foolish, immature anarchists screwing up a noble movement that ultimately helped to put Barrack Obama back in office. Without Occupy Wall Street, would Romney’s attack on the 47% have evoked such a profound and spirited response? Without Occupy Wall Street, would the concept of the 99% and 1% have ever entered the Zeitgeist?

6. My Book Report: “The Battle of Midway”midway

What a great book! What an amazing chapter of world history! On January 23, 2012, I wrote this review of a book that captures all the incredible heroism, good luck, and turns of fate that made this epic World War Two naval battle an overwhelming victory that turned the tide of the war against Imperial Japan. In 2013, I write another book report on an excellent World War Two account, The Day of Battle, about the campaign to liberate Italy. A few weeks after I wrote that post, my family visited the American cemetery in Tuscany and paid our respects to the soldiers whose valor, sacrifice and victory are recounted in Rick Atkinson’s fine book.

7. LeBron: The King Moves Onlebron-banner-2

As a Cleveland native, I’ve often been asked my opinion of LeBron James leaving the Cavaliers several years ago — and my friends and co-workers are usually shocked that I’m not upset or indignant or jilted, etc. And while the blogosphere hardly needed one more commentary on LeBron James’ move to the Miami Heat, I wrote this post on July 9, 2010 to explain that LeBron James didn’t owe me anything. He’s a professional basketball player who wants to win and be remembered as the best to play the game. The two NBA championships he’s won in Miami since I wrote this post have given LeBron all the scoreboard he needs.

8. Growing Up in the Space Age

The last American space shuttle launch inspired this July 14, 2011 remembrance of my personal connection to the Space Age. This popular post salutes my fellow Ohioan, John Glenn, who served as both the first man to orbit the Earth and as a Senator from my home state. I wish that my three daughters had grown up experiencing something half as exciting and inspirational as The Race to the Moon.

9. The Wrecking Crew

Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine, Carol Kay, Tommy Tedesco, Leon Russell, Earl Palmer: the cream of Los Angeles studio musicians in the late 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s became known as “The Wrecking Crew”. I’m thrilled that my March 21, 2011 blog article celebrating Tommy Tedesco’s son’s marvelous documentary film about these rock & roll legends has proven to be such a popular post. If you haven’t done it already, do a Google search on “The Wrecking Crew”. Until then, your rock & roll education is not complete.

10. The Matey’s Log: Sailing Season Begins raceheader

This post recounted a sailboat race held on February 13, 2010.  It was a good thing that the race was being run the day before Valentine’s Day. Like golf, sailing is a sport that takes men out of the house for long stretches of time on the weekend. But sailboat racing is worse than golf because it’s never certain when you’ll be done. 18 holes of golf always take about the same amount of time to complete. The duration of a sailboat race depends upon the vagaries of the wind and conditions on the water. I don’t sail as much as I used to to — but I still love it. And I’ll continue to report on my sailing adventures in the new year.

So, that’s the best of 2013. Stay connected. Subscribe. And please keep posting your comments!

Here’s to another fine voyage in 2014!

And here are the All-Time Top 10 Blog Posts from January 2010 up to today:

1. Happy Birthday Bill of Rights!

2. Victory at Pearl Harbor

3. The Occupy Wall Street Movement Doesn’t Need Black Bloc Buffoonery

4. History & Honeymoon: Part Three

This post was the #3 post in 2010. 24 years ago, my wife Victoria and I went to Gettysburg and other Civil War battlefields on our honeymoon! I needed no other assurance that I had married the perfect woman. On our 20th anniversary, we returned to Gettysburg. Now both students of the battle, we walked the battlefield on July 1, 2 and 3, 2010 on the 147th anniversary of that critical conflict. My four-part account of our battlefield tramping became one of the most popular items on the blog. (Originally posted July 20, 2010)

5. A Childhood Memory of Kent State, May 4. 1970

6. Aliens Among Us?

I’ve always wondered where singular, epochal, “out of this world” geniuses like William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci and Bob Dylan came from. So, on January 26, 2011, I wrote this speculation on the possible alien origin of such monumental minds. Evidently, my curiosity (if not my Erich Van Daniken “ancient astronaut” fantasy) is still shared by a lot of people who read my blog in the past year.

7. Growing Up in the Space Age

8. The Top Ten Rock & Roll Singers of All Time

9. Bazooka Joe, Jay Lynch & Me

One of the first posts I wrote for this blog back on January 9, 2010 celebrated my brief but soul-satisfying collaboration with the legendary underground comix artist, Jay Lynch, who gave Vic and I the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to write a series of Bazooka Joe comics. It was one of the great chapters in my creative career. The Practical Theatre Company, Saturday Night LiveBehind the Music, The Vic & Paul Show and Bazooka Joe. Classics all. Can I retire now?

10. History & Honeymoon: Part Four

2011 was the 150th anniversary of the commencement of the American Civil War – and the Civil War Sesquicentennial is likely the reason that two of my “History & Honeymoon” posts are still among the most-read this past year, including this one, first posted on July 26, 2010. This post covers everything from my wife Victoria and I battle tramping Pickett’s Charge on the third day of Gettysburg –to our visit to Philadelphia and the eccentric, visionary artwork of Isaiah Zagar.

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Filed under Adventure, Art, Comedy, History, Politics, Sailing, Sports, Travel

Remembering Lincoln at Gettysburg

Screen Shot 2013-12-05 at 12.53.31 AM objectathand_dec08_631 Screen Shot 2013-12-05 at 12.44.43 AM

IMG_2718I was honored and delighted when my good friend Darroch Greer invited my wife Victoria and me to take part in another of his wonderful historical events at the Bedford Winery in Los Alamos, California, hosted by the great winemaker, history buff and raconteur Stephan Bedford.

Darroch is the Bedford Winery’s resident historian. (Does any other winery boast a resident historian?)

I’d been to several of Darroch and Stephan’s presentations staged in the courtyard of the Bedford Winery’s tasting room — and I’d always enjoyed the combination of fellowship, fine food and wine, and respect for history.

UnknownSo, on November 16, 2013, Vic and I took part in Lincoln at Gettysburg: The 150th Anniversary of the Dedication of the National Soldiers’ Cemetery and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, Celebrated Through Eyewitness Accounts, Music and Victuals of the Era.

Darroch's wife Stephanie goes over the script with Victoria before the reading.

Darroch’s wife Stephanie goes over the script with Victoria before the reading.

The main event was a staged reading of Remembering Lincoln at Gettysburg, written by John Copeland: featuring the words of eyewitnesses to that famous event at Gettysburg, when 15,000 people gathered in the town four months after the great battle to dedicate a final resting place for thousands of fallen Union soldiers.

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A rare photo of Lincoln at Gettysburg. November 19, 1863.

Darroch gave me the task of summing up the battle itself before we began the reading.

What follows is my attempt to capture the stakes, the major action, and the drama of those three epic days of combat in ten minutes.

 Reflections on The Battle of Gettysburg

gettysburg_sept_09_261Seminary Ridge, Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Ridge, the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, Devil’s Den, Little Round Top…

On June 30th, 1863, these were not yet legendary place names: they were simply topographical features on the landscape surrounding the small crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

imagesIn the summer of ‘63, the war to preserve the union was not going well for President Lincoln and loyal Americans who wished to keep the United States intact.

Crushing Confederate victories at Fredericksburg that winter and Chancellorsville that spring left Unionists anxious and dispirited. The Army of the Potomac staggered under the blows delivered by Robert E. Lee’s seemingly invincible Army of Northern Virginia.

meadeAfter the debacle at Chancellorsville, another in a series of unsuccessful Union commanders had been sacked – as General Joe Hooker was replaced by George Gordon Meade. Meade was a Pennsylvanian. That would prove provident. Just three days after taking command, General Meade would face Lee at Gettysburg.

Yet, as bad as the war was going for the North, the stakes for the Confederacy were existential. Two years of warfare fought almost exclusively on Southern soil took a terrible toll in battle casualties, civilian morale, economic viability and agricultural productivity. Rebel leaders knew they couldn’t win a war of attrition against the superior industrial strength and manpower of the North.

grant9Something had to be done to change what was ultimately a losing equation — and convince the European powers to recognize the Confederacy.

In the west, General Grant’s army was closing in on Vicksburg, the last rebel bastion on the Mississippi. If Vicksburg fell, the Confederacy would be split in two. Meanwhile, the Union naval blockade continued to strangle Southern ports and cripple its economy.Invasion1863

Lee decided to take the war to the North. The goal of his invasion was to relieve pressure on war-torn Virginia. And if Lee could beat the Federals on their home turf — his army could threaten, or even capture, Washington DC and force President Lincoln to seek peace.

HD_EnemyApproaching1863_0.previewAs Meade took command of his army, Lee’s 75,000 veterans were already in Pennsylvania. The opposing armies weren’t sure where each other were, but Meade knew Lee was somewhere west of the state capitol at Harrisburg. As Meade groped northward to find his foe, nobody thought the decisive battle of such a critical campaign would be fought at an insignificant dot on the map like Gettysburg.

Yet, when the battle came, both sides well understood what was at stake. Gettysburg lies just 86 miles from Washington DC:  two days forced march to the nation’s Capitol. The battle for Gettysburg, therefore, would ultimately decide the outcome of the war.

John_BufordIt was nearing 6:00 PM when General John Buford and his cavalry rode into Gettysburg on June 30th. Buford watched with concern as a brigade of Confederate infantry came down the Chambersburg Pike. When the rebels saw Buford’s troopers they withdrew — and informed their superiors that Union cavalry barred their way. But the Confederate generals refused to believe there was anything more than green Pennsylvania militia in Gettysburg.

In fact, Buford’s cavalry were the tip of the spear. The Army of the Potomac was on its way. The fighting would wait until morning.

standencssThe next day, July 1st, the Rebs returned down the Chambersburg Pike determined to push Buford’s cavalry off the ridges north of Gettysburg. Fighting dismounted, Buford’s troopers put up a stiff resistance, buying time for reinforcement. In the cupola of the Lutheran Seminary overlooking the fight, Buford watched the progress of the battle raging to his front — and looked anxiously to his rear for the approach of General Reynold’s First Infantry Corps.

I would’ve loved to be there at the moment Reynolds rode up to the seminary and called out, “How goes it, John?” And Buford shouted back — “The devil’s to pay!”

220px-GenJFRenyoldsBuford was right. Before the day was done, Reynolds was dead and Union troops were driven off Seminary Ridge, through the town of Gettysburg, and into defensive lines on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge above the town and fields below. The Union First Corps lost two thirds of its men: dead, wounded, taken prisoner, and missing in action. But their sacrifice had kept the rebels from taking the high ground.

Lee wasn’t pleased that Union forces occupied the heights. But his army had once again driven their enemy from the field.

James_LongstreetDay Two at Gettysburg was a violent, chaotic stage on which some of our favorite Civil War characters played their most memorable roles. For most of the day both armies consolidated their positions.

Ironically, Lee’s units arrived on the battlefield from the north and Mead’s army came up from the south.

It wasn’t until 4:00 pm that General Longstreet’s Corps began the Confederate attack on the Union’s left flank along Cemetery Ridge.

sicklesBut the Rebel advance ran into something unexpected: Union General Dan Sickles’ Corps, posted in a peach orchard – far in front of the main Union line.

Sickles was the only Union corps commander without a West Pointeducation. But while he was not a professional soldier, he was a born leader: a pugnacious New Yorker who never shied away from a fight.

And he was in for an epic one.

sherfy-orchard-warThere were innumerable peach orchards in America on July 2, 1863. But the stand of trees that Sickles’ troops defended from 4:00 to 6:30 PM that day would be known ever after as The Peach Orchard. It was here that Confederate General William Barksdale’s brigade of Mississippians made their famous charge. It was here that Sickles lost his leg to a cannonball. It was here that, after fierce fighting, Sickles’ men were forced to fall back under heavy fire.

ExcelsiorbrigadeAnd it was here that New York’s Excelsior Brigade made their heroic stand.

But the bravery of the Excelsior Brigade could not stem the flood of Rebels charging through the peach orchard to exploit the gap in the Union line caused by the collapse of Sickles’ exposed position.

220px-WinfieldSHancockGeneral Winfield Scott Hancock – in command of the Union center – and another Pennsylvanian — knew that, in just a few minutes, the Rebs would plow through that gap and penetrate his defensive line. The day, the battle, and the war, could be lost.

Hancock rode toward the crisis point and rallied Sickles’ retreating troops. But the few shell-shocked soldiers willing to reform their lines would not be enough. Hancock called for reserves, but they’d never arrive in time. He needed something to plug that fatal gap.

That something was the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment.

220px-William_ColvillHancock asked the unit’s officer, “What regiment is this?” “First Minnesota,” replied 23-year old Colonel William Colvill. With the clock ticking toward disaster second-by-second, Hancock pointed toward the oncoming Rebels and bellowed, “Charge those lines!”

Said a First Minnesota veteran, “Every man realized in an instant what that order meant — death or wounds to us all, the sacrifice of the regiment to gain a few minutes’ time and save the position. And every man saw and accepted the necessity for the sacrifice”.

1stmnmonumentwebThe 262 men of The First Minnesota advanced on the double quick, shouldering their muskets through a hail of lead, bearing down on the center of the enemy line. On Colvill’s order to charge, they raced forward with leveled bayonets. The lines collided with a shock, muskets blazed, and fighting raged hand-to hand. The First Minnesota’s flag fell five times, but it was taken up again each time.

The Southerners were stunned by the First Minnesota’s fury and tenacity, and for 15 precious minutes, paid for in blood, the Rebel advance was stalled. Of the 262 men who made that charge, only 47 survivors rallied back to General Hancock: an 83% casualty rate that remains the greatest loss by any American military unit in a single battle. But the men of The First Minnesota bought Hancock the time he needed to reinforce the gap in his defensive line.

gettysburgkeenan9aLongstreet renewed his relentless assault on the Union left in bloody engagements that made The Wheat Field and Devil’s Den synonymous with savagery, gallantry and wholesale sacrifice.

Before the fights in The Peach Orchard and Wheat Field, Union General Gouvernor Warren stood on Little Round Top and saw Longstreet’s battle line forming on the ridges beyond The Wheat Field.

4548_1004430988Realizing that Sickles’ advanced position left Little Round Top undefended, Warren sent couriers scrambling for units to help defend the hill. One of his couriers encountered 26-year old Colonel Strong Vincent.

Told that Warren needed troops “to occupy yonder hill,” Vincent declared, “I will do so and take the responsibility.”

Vincent rushed to Little Round Top and placed the four regiments of his brigade in line on the extreme left of the Union army, with the 385 men of Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine anchoring the end of the line. Soon after that, the Confederate assault began.

IMG_0465Vincent, brandishing his wife’s riding crop, urged his men, “Don’t give an inch!” It wasn’t long before Strong Vincent fell, mortally wounded. Like General Warren, Vincent had done his part to save the Union left flank. Now, it was up to Chamberlain’s 20th Maine to play their role in the deadly, decisive drama on Little Round Top.

colonel-joshua-chamberlainAt 6:30 PM, after repulsing yet another rebel attack, Chamberlain’s troops were nearly out of ammunition — and running out of time. Ordered by Vincent to “Hold at all hazards,” Chamberlain knew he couldn’t retreat. He ordered his men to “fix bayonets.”

Said Chamberlain, “I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough. It ran like fire along the line, from man to man, and rose into a shout, with which they sprang forward on the enemy, now not 30 yards away. The effect was surprising; many of the enemy’s first line threw down their arms and surrendered… The enemy’s second line broke and fell back, fighting from tree to tree, many being captured, until we had swept the valley and cleared the front of nearly our entire brigade.”

Longstreet’s Corps had failed to take Little Round Top – and both sides regrouped for the fighting that would climax the next day.

battlefield On July 3, 1863 the exhausted armies faced each other across a mile of open farmland — preparing to commence the final violence of their epic battle. Though Lee planned to strike the Union center early in the day, the thunderous cannonade preceding General Longstreet’s assault did not begin until 1:00 in the afternoon.

robert-e-leeActually, the third day of the battle began at dawn as Union guns opened fire in defense of Culp’s Hill on the Federal right flank. By 11:00 am, Billy Yank was once again in possession of the earthworks they’d lost to Johnny Reb the day before. The fight on the Union right was over almost before it began.

The legendary "copse of trees" that marked the Union center on Cemetery Ridge.

Lee’s target: the legendary “copse of trees” that marked the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge.

Lee had attacked both Union flanks – and the Federals had paid dearly in their defense. Since General Meade must have had to draw troops from his center to reinforce his embattled flanks, Lee resolved to attack the Union center.

Lee’s “Old War Horse” Longstreet argued that the wiser course was to go around Big Round Top, get behind the Union army’s left flank and threaten the roads to Philadelphia and Washington D.C. – thereby forcing the Union army off the high ground on Cemetery Hill to give battle on ground of the South’s choosing.

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The copse of trees (center right) seen from Confederate positions across the farm fields.

But Lee was resolved to strike – and break – the Union center. “The enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.” After all, his army had never failed to break the Union lines in a frontal assault. But Gettysburg was a different: for the first time, Pennsylvanian Generals Meade and Hancock and the Army of the Potomac under their command were defending home turf. There was nowhere to run. As Hancock rode his lines that morning, he no doubt reminded his troops of the need to hold firm and give no ground.

imagesGeneral Pickett’s division would lead the charge that became known forever after as “Pickett’s Charge.” The three brigades of General Pickett’s division were led by Generals Garnett, Kemper and Armistead. General Lo Armistead was a close friend of General Hancock, who waited for him across the open killing field.

armisteadPickett’s brigade commanders would pay a heavy price: Garnett and Armistead died in the charge. Kemper was severely wounded. The rebels managed to punch a hole in the Union center, led by Armistead, shot down as he placed his hand on a Federal cannon. But the Army of the Potomac sent the rebels in retreat across the farm fields over which they had so gallantly, but futilely, charged.

Of the more than 13,000 Confederates who made the assault, more than 7,000 lay dead or wounded on the field afterward.

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July8.63On July 4th, the day after General Meade’s Army won the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg fell to Union troops under General Grant.

At great cost, the soldiers of the Union Army had given their war-weary nation two great birthday gifts. And while it would wear on for two more grinding years, the Civil War was essentially over.vicksburg-great-victory

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The Third Day at Gettysburg: 150 Years Ago Today…

The final installment of a series of blog posts on my 2010 visit to the Gettysburg battlefield.“The enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.”

On July 3, 1863 the exhausted armies of the North and South faced each other across a mile of undulating farmland in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania — preparing to commence the final violence of their epic battle. Though Confederate General Robert E. Lee planned to strike the Union center early in the day, the thunderous cannonade preceding General Longstreet’s assault did not begin until 1:00 in the afternoon. If Lee had placed my wife, Victoria Zielinski, in command of the attack, things would have gotten started much sooner. Indeed, Victoria and I were up and ready to go by 9:00 AM.

Our third day at Gettysburg would be a brief affair as we were due in Philadelphia later that same day. Victoria had planned a reunion in the City of Brotherly Love with a group of her closest college sisters (Northwestern University alums, of course). Therefore, we’d have to leave the Gettysburg battlefield before the climactic action — legendary “Pickett’s Charge” — began 147 years ago. But we’d still be leaving long after the day’s fighting began.

Few remember that the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg started at dawn as Union guns opened fire in the defense of Culp’s Hill on the Federal right flank. Soon afterward, Union troops drove the Rebels off the hill, and by 11 o’clock, Billy Yank was once again in possession of the earthworks they’d lost to Johnny Reb the day before. The third day’s battle on the Union right was over almost before it began. Undaunted, Lee was determined to attack the Union center.

“Storm Over Gettysburg” by Mort Kuntsler. Lee and Longstreet confer before the third day’s fighting.

Much has been made of the dispute between Lee and his “Old War Horse” General James Longstreet on the third day at Gettysburg. Longstreet argued that the wiser course was to get behind the Union army’s left flank and threaten the roads to Philadelphia and Washington D.C. – thereby forcing the Union army off the high ground on Cemetery Hill to give battle on ground of the South’s choosing.

Lee, however, was determined to strike – and break – the Union center. “The enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.” After all, Lee’s army had never failed to break the Federal lines in an all-out assault. But at Gettysburg, there was a critical difference: for the first time, Pennsylvanian Generals George Meade and Winfield Scott Hancock and the Army of the Potomac under their command were defending home turf. There was nowhere to run. As Hancock rode his lines that morning, he no doubt reminded every subordinate officer of the need to hold firm and give no ground to the enemy.

With the fight on Culp’s Hill essentially over, Lee ordered Longstreet to attack the Union center – to drive toward the infamous “copse of trees” at the heart of the Federal line on Cemetery Hill. Longstreet attacked with three powerful divisions, led by Generals Trimble, Pettigrew, and Pickett. The three brigades of Pickett’s division were led by Generals Garnett, Kemper and Armistead. Armistead was a close friend of General Hancock, who waited for him across the open killing field.

General Pickett

Pickett’s brigade commanders would pay a heavy price that afternoon: Garnett and Armistead died in Pickett’s Charge, and Kemper was severely wounded. Once again, it’s good to be reminded that general officers in those days of close combat led from the front.

As Victoria and I had to leave for Philadelphia before Pickett’s Charge, I refer you to The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

“Lee’s Old War Horse” by Mort Kuntsler. Longstreet and Lee prepare for Pickett’s Charge.

“Hell for Glory” Pickett’s Charge by Keith Rocco

Shaara does a great job of bringing the conflict between Lee and Longstreet to life – and his account of Pickett’s Charge is well worth the read. I won’t give anything away to say that Pickett’s Charge failed and that of the more than 13,000 Confederate soldiers who made the assault, more than 7,000 lay dead or wounded on the field afterward. The Union won the day – and the Battle of Gettysburg.

Presudent Lincoln (center, without his hat) shortly before his Gettysburg Address.

A little more than four months later on Thursday, November 19, 1863, President Lincoln came to the battlefield to dedicate the military cemetery — and the “few appropriate remarks” he uttered that day would cement the worldwide fame of Gettysburg for generations to come.

Secure in the knowledge that the Union would ultimately be saved, we drove east to Philadelphia to meet up with Victoria’s college mates. I left Gettysburg knowing that I would certainly be back again, perhaps in 2013 – the 150th anniversary of the battle. (Come to think of it, I’d better book our hotel room now.)

It was a glorious, sunny drive through rural Pennsylvania and we arrived in Philly with plenty of daylight left. (General Zielinski drove us hard for good reason.) We rendezvoused with our hosts in South Philly, Mary Bartlett and Roy Backes, and began the second stage of our honeymoon adventure.

Vic’s friend Mary’s husband Roy is the Production Manager of the Walnut Street Theatre – the oldest operating theatre in America. So, while Vic joined Mary, Roy, and her college roommates at the Walnut Street Theatre’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof”, I met up with my own dear NU friend, Jim McCutchen – now one of those damn Philadelphia lawyers you hear so much about. (Actually, Jim clerks for an appellate court judge. His work entails more life and death responsibility than I’d want to deal with.)

Jim McCutchen, Esq. & Me

Jim showed me around the historic heart of the city, especially Independence Square, the site of Independence Hall, on Chestnut Street between 5th and 6th Streets. Every school child should know (though, alas, they probably don’t) that Independence Hall is the place where both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were born. Completed in 1753 as the Pennsylvania State House, it became the home of the Second Continental Congress from 1775 to 1783 and the site of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. It’s one thing to read about this place – it’s another thing to actually be there. It’s a pilgrimage every American should make.

The Liberty Bell is housed in a groovy new glass and steel building across the street. I don’t care for the setting. Somehow, that proud, historic bit of brass doesn’t fit its modern surroundings. The bell looks out of place, out of time, an anachronism. I’m sure that’s not the message that the Park Service intends. But while the Park Service has housed the Gettysburg Cyclorama in a setting that adds to it’s dignity and power – The Liberty Bell is diminished by the manner in which it’s exhibited. Alas. Where’s Davy Crockett when you need him?

Jim and I hoisted a few cold ones and caught up with each other (after a quarter of a century) before meeting Victoria and her NU pals at the Walnut Street Theater, where Mary’s husband Roy gave us a private backstage tour of his historic domain. The Walnut Street Theater, which has stood at the corner of Ninth and Walnut Streets for two hundred years, bills itself as the nation’s oldest theatre. If so, there must be a lot of eminent theatrical ghosts haunting the place. Roy took us all around the stage and backstage – and into a room filled with fabulous old handbills and theatrical notices.

NU friends and goddesses Bea Rashid, Mary Bartlett, Betsy Dowd, Jean Marie Pla and Vic in front of the Walnut Street Theatre.

The Walnut Street stage has seen the likes of Edwin Booth, Edmund Kean, the Barrymores, George M. Cohan, Will Rogers, The Marx Brothers, Helen Hayes, Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Jack Lemon, William Shatner – and the Practical Theatre’s own Louis DiCrescenzo in a long-running production of “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?” There’s even a picture of Louis in the balcony lobby – right up there with all the other theatrical luminaries.

The next day, was July 4th – and there’s no better place to be on the Fourth than Philly. That’s what made this whole trip so special. Vic and I were at Gettysburg on the exact dates of the battle in 1863, and now, on the Fourth of July, we were headed out to the spot where the newly signed Declaration of Independence was first read aloud to the crowds outside Independence Hall in 1776.

As a group, we walked from Mary and Roy’s townhouse to Independence Square and enjoyed the sights and sounds of a Park Service July 4th ceremony complete with a male choir, a color guard, and what looked to be several dozen aged Sons and Daughters of the Americas Revolution. (A few looked to be no more than a couple years too young to have served at Lexington and Concord.)

Not far off Independence Square stands a statue called “The Signer”, representing all those brave patriots who chose to hang together rather than hang separately. However, my personal interest in the statue was magnified when I read a plaque that revealed “The Signer” was modeled after signer George Clymer of Pennsylvania. Few but historians remember George Clymer – but if, like me, your mother hails from the tiny coal country borough of Clymer, Pennsylvania – that name is far more significant. I just love connections like that: discoveries that let you know you’re in the right place at the right time.

We headed back toward Mary and Roy’s house by way of South Street. Our hosts were eager for us to see something called Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens – which lay somewhere down South Street. I loved South Street right away. From the moment we started down this funky urban artery, its mix of Starbucks coffee culture, punk ethos, hippy vibes, and Rastafarian island groove captivated me. But wait, said our hosts, the best – and the grooviest – was yet to come.

After we’d walked a few blocks, we began to see what they were talking about — storefronts, buildings and alleyways adorned with glittering mosaic murals: the unique and stunning work of Philadelphia folk artist, Isaiah Zagar. I was immediately reminded of Antoni Gaudí’s work in Barcelona – and Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles. (I am ashamed to say I have yet to visit the Watts Towers. See Sally Nemeth’s blog for her visit to this incredible Los Angeles art treasure.)

The transcendent highlight of our South Street trek was our exploration of Isaiah Zagar’s masterwork, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens – a work of art that must be seen and experienced to be appreciated. We were surrounded by it, engulfed in it, and astounded by it. Like the monuments of Gettysburg, these amazing artworks by Isaiah Zagar are timeless testaments to the better angels of our nature.

Later that night, we took in the July 4th fireworks from Mary and Roy’s townhouse rooftop. But I’ll let the brilliance and color of Zagar’s art stand in for the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this 4-part account of our honeymoon journey through history.(Zagar photos by Steve Rashid. Thanks, Steve!)

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The Second Day at Gettysburg: 150 Years Ago Today

The second in a series of articles I first posted in 2010.“My god, are these all the men we have here?”

On the morning of July 2, as we enjoyed our communal Doubleday Inn breakfast of orange juice and a tasty vegetable, egg, and cheese dish, I was particularly excited about our agenda for the day. The plan was to experience the second day’s fighting at Gettysburg by assaulting the Union positions in the Peach Orchard and on Little Round Top from the perspective of Confederate General Longstreet’s attacking infantry.

General Sickles, when he still had two legs.

The second day at Gettysburg was a violent, chaotic stage on which many of our favorite Civil War characters played their most memorable roles, including Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine, Union Generals Winfield Scott Hancock, Dan Sickles (Vic’s offbeat romantic antihero), Gouverneur Warren, and Strong Vincent — plus Colonel Colvill’s First Minnesota Volunteers. Some of these guys would survive the day’s brutal fighting and some would not – and at least one would survive, though not in one piece.

For the day’s campaign, Victoria and I armed ourselves with Joshua Chamberlain’s battle memoirThrough Blood & Fire at Gettysburg and the volume of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War covering the second day’s fighting at Gettysburg. Battles and Leaders was first published as a series of articles in “The Century” magazine between 1884 and 1887. The articles were penned by Union and Confederate officers with their own personal insights, reflections, and in some cases grievances, regarding the battles they fought and the enemies they contended with – both in the opposing army and their own.

In addition, we carried a handy, little guide to the monuments and sites on Little Round Top.

BTW – You can actually read any and all of Battles and Leaders on this link. Articles on the second day at Gettysburg begin in Volume 3 on page 290. You may want to check out the article “Reply to General Longstreet” on page 355 to see how the battle was still being re-fought among veteran officers two decades after the guns fell silent at Gettysburg.

Victoria and I left the Doubleday Inn and drove west along Seminary Ridge toward Longstreet’s position on the Confederate right wing, passing the positions held by the bulk of Lee’s army at the end of the battle’s first day. On July 1, 1863 the Union forces had been driven from Seminary Ridge to the higher ground on Cemetery Ridge, nearly a mile of flat, open farmland to the south.

The two-lane road that runs along the Rebel lines, SW Confederate Avenue, is lined with vintage cannon marking each of the Army of Virginia’s artillery batteries, and monuments to all of the Southern states that fought at Gettysburg.

Every state in the Confederacy, including far-off Texas, was represented in the ranks of Lee’s invading army.

The South Carolina Monument.

Of these monuments, the South Carolina monument is the most compelling, dedicated to the Southern state that had more soldiers – and more casualties at Gettysburg than any other. The huge, imposing monument to General Robert E. Lee shows how the South, quite literally, put Lee on a pedestal – and still does to this day.

The Louisiana monument (below) is also dramatic: one of the very few to portray a fallen Rebel soldier.

At the far right of the Confederate line, where General James Longstreet made his headquarters, stands the Longstreet monument. Sculpted by Gary Casteel and unveiled on July 3, 1998, Longstreet’s monument is not only one of the very last to be erected on the battlefield — it is striking for what it is not. It is not a grand or heroic memorial in the manner of all the other monuments dedicated to commanders of both sides.

Longstreet is not placed on a pedestal, and he is practically hidden in Pitzer’s Woods.

If you’re curious about why it took so long to honor Longstreet at Gettysburg – and why his memorial is so understated – I challenge you to explore the post-war controversy that arose over the man his troops called “Old Pete” and the soldier General Lee referred to affectionately as “my old War Horse.” This link will take you to an article that’s a fine start to such an exploration.

Longstreet’s statue stands in the eastern edge of Pitzer’s Woods, where the general reins in his favorite horse, “Hero” — as they both look across the fields toward the enemy.

“Longstreet” by Mort Kuntsler

From this shady spot, Victoria and I began our own assault on the Union forces waiting for us across the sun-blasted farmland to the southeast – just as Old Pete’s corps did on July 2, 1863. Victoria, driven by motivations both historical and health-conscious, had decided that we should tramp the battlefield on foot. So we parked the car near Longstreet’s monument and stepped off into the knee-high wheat and weeds, books in hand, headed toward the rocky prominence of Little Round Top.

Our objective: Little Round Top, across a mile of open killing ground.

A little more than halfway across the wide swale between Seminary and Cemetery ridges runs the Emmitsburg Road (now interstate Route 15) – then as now, a fence-lined barrier across the battlefield. It was on the other side of this road that the Rebel advance ran into something unexpected: Union General Dan Sickles’ Third Corps, posted in a peach orchard. At the time, Sickles was the only Union corps commander without a West Point education. But while Dan Sickles was not a professional soldier, he was a born leader with great confidence in his own abilities. A pugnacious New Yorker, Sickles did not shy away from a fight. And he was about to have an epic one.

There are innumerable peach orchards in the United States, just as there were on July 2, 1863. But the stand of peach trees that Dan Sickles’ Third Corps defended from 4:00 to 6:30 PM that day would become known ever after as The Peach Orchard.

How Dan Sickles’ troops came to be posted in The Peach Orchard is another longstanding Gettysburg cause célèbre. The commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George Meade, had ordered Sickles to align his right flank with the rest of the Union defensive line along the base of Cemetery Hill, with his left flank anchored on the rocks below Little Round Top. But, after looking over the terrain where Meade had placed his corps, Sickles had another idea.

General Sickles could see that the ground rose in front of his position for half a mile until it reached an elevated ridgeline in that peach orchard along the Emmitsburg Road. Sickles was concerned that Rebel artillery might soon occupy that ridgeline — and rain down shot and shell on his position in “the hole” that Meade had placed him in along the base of Cemetery Ridge. So, Sickles took it upon himself to order his men forward to occupy the high ground in The Peach Orchard before Johnny Reb’s cannon got there first.

Sickles’ initiative put his men on higher ground, but it also created a huge, exposed gap between his right flank and the rest of the Union line thousands of yards behind him – and between his left flank and the base of Little Round Top, which was virtually undefended. Sickles’ Third Corps now occupied an exposed salient, far in advance of any support or reinforcement from the Union rear: reinforcement they would soon need.

“Barksdale’s Charge” by Don Troiani

After a deadly exchange of artillery fire in which both ends of Sickles’ salient got hammered, Longstreet’s infantry announced its assault with a Rebel yell. Confederate Brigadier General William Barksdale’s brigade of Mississippians smashed into Sickles’ center and Brigadier General Wofford’s Georgians hit him on his left. The fighting was fierce, but Sickles’ troops could not hold their line, and eventually fell back across the pulverized peach orchard.

“Retreat by Recoil” by Don Troiani. The 9th Massachusetts battery fights a heroic rear guard action against Barksdale’s brigade at Gettysburg.

Where the Excelsior Brigade made their stand.

As Sickles’ line broke, the Thirds Corps’ Excelsior Brigade, made up of several New York regiments made their stand in the orchard and along the Emmitsburg road. Among them were The Second Fire Zouaves, a regiment of New York City volunteer firemen.

Alas, the brave defense of the Excelsior Brigade could not stem the tide as the Rebels flooded the peach orchard, charging hard to exploit the wide gap in the Union lines caused by Sickles’ debacle.

Meanwhile, General Sickles tried to rally his men – when his leg was nearly torn off by a cannon ball. While his aides applied a tourniquet to staunch the bleeding, Sickles was alert, smoking a cigar, and issuing orders even as he was being borne to the rear. An army surgeon’s saw soon claimed Sickles’ leg. (What happened to that leg is another story. See item #3 in this article.)

A painting by Don Troiani depicts the critical moment as troops from Sickles Corps retreat and a mounted General Hancock readies the First Minnesota to save the day.

The collapse of Sickles’ salient created a rapidly developing crisis on the Union left. As the Confederates raced across the peach orchard in hot pursuit of the retreating remnants of the Union Third Corps, General Winfield Scott Hancock – in command of the Union center – knew that, in just a few minutes, the Rebels would charge through the gap and get behind his main defensive line. The day, the battle, and the war, could soon be lost.

Hancock spurred his horse toward the crisis point and tried to rally Sickles’ retreating troops. But the few shell-shocked soldiers willing to reform their lines would not be enough. Hancock had called for reserves — but they’d never arrive in time. He needed something to plug the gap: that something turned out to be the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Hancock, fate, and a band of stalwart men were about to meet their moment.

Colonel Colvill

Arriving on the scene, Hancock saw a fresh regiment providing support for an artillery battery and wondered aloud, “My god, are these all the men we have here?” Hancock asked the unit’s officer, “What regiment is this?” “First Minnesota,” replied 23-year old Colonel William Colvill. With the clock ticking toward disaster second-by-second, Hancock pointed toward the oncoming Rebel horde, and bellowed, “Charge those lines!”

“The First Minnesota” by Don Troiani

“Every man realized in an instant what that order meant — death or wounds to us all, the sacrifice of the regiment to gain a few minutes’ time and save the position” recalled First Minnesota veteran Lt. William Lochren, “And every man saw and accepted the necessity for the sacrifice”.

The First Minnesota Monument.

Imagine that scene. At such a moment, moral and physical courage are joined. The moral courage to give and obey such an order: the physical courage to make such a desperate, sacrificial charge.

Led by Colvill, the 262 men and officers of The First Minnesota advanced on “the double quick” in line of battle, shouldering their muskets through a hail of lead as they bore down upon the center of the enemy’s line. Relentlessly, without pausing to fire, upon Colvill’s order to “Charge!” the Minnesotans ran toward their foe, leveling their bayonets. As the lines collided with a vicious shock, muskets blazed away and savage fighting raged hand-to hand. The First Minnesota’s flag fell five times — but it was taken up again each time.

The Confederates were staggered by the First Minnesota’s fury and tenacity, and for 15 precious minutes, paid for in blood, the Rebel advance was stalled. Ultimately, sheer force of numbers prevailed, and Colvill’s surviving troops fell back to the Union lines. But by then, the men of The First Minnesota had bought Hancock the time he needed to plug reinforcements into the gap in the Union defenses.

Of the 262 men who made that heroic charge, only 47 survivors rallied back to General Hancock: an 83% casualty rate that remains the greatest loss by any American military unit in a single battle. The regimental flag that was saved five times in that fateful fifteen minutes is now safely enshrined in the rotunda of the Minnesota Capitol building.

Soon after the disastrous drama of Sickles’ debacle turned a peach orchard into The Peach Orchard, a nearby wheat field just a few thousand yards to the southwest was becoming The Wheat Field.

Victoria settled beneath a tree along the road overlooking The Wheat Field and read from Battles and Leaders. I didn’t know much about this part of the battle, but Victoria regaled me with the story of how a Confederate division of Longstreet’s Corps under General John Bell Hood was ordered to take the high ground of Little Round Top.

Below that rocky summit lay a jumbled landscape of giant boulders, thick woods, and a hilly, undulating wheat field: terrain General Hood called, “the worst ground I ever saw.” (At least that’s what he said in the movie, Gettysburg.)

“Gettysburg: Into the Wheatfield” by Bradley Schmehl

The fighting back and forth across the wheat field and nearby woods claimed more than 4,000 Union and Confederate casualties. Billy Yank and Johnny Reb traded possession of farmer George Rose’s 19 acres of bloodstained wheat six times – but the Rebels could not gain the high ground on Little Round Top.

The now-silent, weed-choked acreage infamous as The Wheat Field was truly one of the deadliest patches of battlefield at Gettysburg.

“Saving the flag” by Don Troiani. Colonel Jeffords of the 4th Michigan rescues the regiment’s flag in the wheatfield.

I ran from monument to monument in that field, trying to take in the ebb and flow of the fighting. But I couldn’t dwell on The Wheat Field much longer.

Like General Hood, our objective was Little Round Top.

On the second day at Gettysburg, that rocky promontory, rising 650 feet above The Wheat Field, was the scene of the Civil War story closest to our hearts: the defense of Little Round Top by “The Fighting Professor” Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the volunteers of the 20th Maine.

I begin our exploration of Little Round Top with a salute to those who fought there.

Soon before the fights in The Peach Orchard and Wheat Field raged, Union General Gouvernor K. Warren, chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac, reconnoitered Little Round Top and noticed a Confederate battle line forming on the ridges beyond The Wheat Field. Seeing that Sickles’ ill-considered advance had left Little Round Top essentially undefended, Warren took it upon himself to protect the high ground. He didn’t have much time, sending couriers scrambling for units to help defend the hill.

One of Warren’s couriers encountered 26-year old Colonel Strong Vincent (what a fabulous name!), in charge of a brigade, and asked for his commanding officer. Sensing the high stakes of the moment, Vincent replied, “What are your orders?” Told that General Warren needed troops “to occupy yonder hill,” Vincent declared, “I will do so and take the responsibility.”

Not waiting for formal orders from his superiors, Vincent rushed to Little Round Top and placed the four regiments of his brigade in line on the extreme left of the Union army: the 16th Michigan, 44th New York, 83rd Pennsylvania, and Chamberlain’s 20th Maine. Soon after Vincent’s brigade took up their positions, the Confederate assault began — and Vincent, brandishing his wife’s riding crop, urged his men, “Don’t give an inch!” It wasn’t long before Strong Vincent fell, mortally wounded. Like General Warren, Vincent had done his part to save the Union left flank. Now, it was up to Chamberlain’s 20th Maine to play their role in the deadly, decisive drama on Little Round Top.

The right flank of the 20th Maine on Little Round Top.

Victoria and I hiked up to the position defended by Chamberlain and the 385 men of his regiment. There, we found a Civil War re-enactor dressed as an infantryman in the 20th Maine. He knew the details of the battle pretty well, and I enjoyed sharing the story with him as we stood together on that hallowed ground where Little Round Top, the Union Army – and perhaps the nation – was saved.

At about 6:30 PM, after once more repulsing an uphill attack by the 15th Alabama, Chamberlain’s troops were nearly out of ammunition. And they were running out of time.

“The 20th Maine & 15th Alabama at Gettysburg” by Dale Gallon

They had been fighting for several hours and had inflicted and suffered heavy losses. Ordered by Vincent to “Hold the ground at all hazards,” The Fighting Professor knew he could not retreat. He ordered his men to “fix bayonets.”

“Chamberlain’s Charge” by Mort Kunstler

According to Chamberlain’s own words, “I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough. It ran like fire along the line, from man to man, and rose into a shout, with which they sprang forward on the enemy, now not 30 yards away. The effect was surprising; many of the enemy’s first line threw down their arms and surrendered. An officer fired his pistol at my head with one hand, while he handed me his sword with the other. Holding fast by our right, and swinging forward our left, we made an extended “right wheel,” before which the enemy’s second line broke and fell back, fighting from tree to tree, many being captured, until we had swept the valley and cleared the front of nearly our entire brigade.”

Longstreet’s Corps had failed to take Little Round Top – and Victoria and I had failed to take any water with us on our battlefield hike. So, a dehydrated Vic and I joined exhausted Johnny Reb as he retreated across the Gettysburg farm fields and regrouped for the fighting that would climax on the Third Day.

The sun was starting to set but it was still plenty hot as we tramped back down Little Round Top, through The Wheat Field, across The Peach Orchard, over the Emmitsburg Road, and all the way to Pitzer’s Woods, where General Longstreet and his warhorse defended our rental car.

To be continued…

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The First Day at Gettysburg: 150 Years Ago Today

This is a re-post of the first of a series of articles I wrote about the trip my wife and I made to Gettysburg in 2010. On this, the 150th anniversary of the first day of that great and decisive Civil War battle, I thought it would be a fine idea to put this old post back into service. Part travelogue, part history lesson, it’s a good way to walk the hallowed battlefield and enjoy the charms of the town if you can’t actually be in Gettysburg for this weekend’s sesquicentennial events.

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On Sunday June 27th, my wife Victoria and I gave our last performance of “The Vic & Paul Show” in it’s three-week run at PUSH Lounge in Woodland Hills. It was a satisfying end to a wonderful run — made all the more special by so many great friends, Northwestern pals, and people we dearly love but haven’t seen in ages who showed up to share the experience with us. It had been more than twenty years since we’d done a comedy show together – and exactly twenty years since we’d said “I do” in a Greek Orthodox service on a blistering hot day in Chicago.

With our 20th wedding anniversary on June 30th, the show was essentially a celebration of our two decades of married bliss – and as we struck the stage at PUSH for the last time, our thoughts turned to our upcoming anniversary trip: a return to the great Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg.

We were we going to Gettysburg for our 20th anniversary because that’s where we spent our first honeymoon in 1990. Back then I was in the early throes of a mad crush on Civil War history that was inspired by the Oscar-winning 1989 movie Glory and had continued unabated since. As we planned our nuptials, I gave my darling bride a choice of honeymoon excursions

1. A tour of National League ballparks

2. A tour of Civil War battlefields

That I could even propose two such options to my bride-to-be was proof that I was already the luckiest man in the world – but when she chose the battlefield tour, I was certain that our union (just like the Union that Lincoln’s armies defended on that hallowed ground) would long endure.

Our first stop in 1990 was Gettysburg, and while we did not plan it that way, we arrived on July 1st – the 127th anniversary of the first day of that epic 3-day battle. It was kismet. We were where we were meant to be. Thus, it felt right that on such a momentous marital (and martial) anniversary, we should go back to the small Pennsylvania crossroads town where Robert E. Lee’s 1863 invasion of the North came to a bold and bloody end. Romantic, yes?

We flew into Philadelphia on June 30th, the eve of the battle, and drove west to Gettysburg. We wanted to make sure that we got to our Bed & Breakfast while these was still light on the battlefield. It was a 3-hour drive and we were hungry, so we stopped for a late lunch. But no service plaza grub would suit this history-loving couple – and with the help of her iPhone, Victoria located the perfect spot for a picturesque and historic nosh just a few miles off the turnpike. So, we turned off at the Morgantown exit, headed for the Inn at Saint Peters Village.

Saint Peters Village was entered onto the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. It’s a small, late 19th century industrial “company village” on the banks of French Creek in Chester County, PA.

For about half a mile, vintage buildings line the main drag that winds up a steep, rocky ravine, with the creek running through giant boulders below. Artists and craftsmen have set up shop in the clapboard 19th century storefronts, and the biggest and most architecturally impressive of these is The Inn at Saint Peter’s Village, where we enjoyed lunch on a large wooden deck overlooking French Creek. It was beautiful. So far, so good.

Interestingly, National League baseball managed to re-enter our honeymoon thoughts when our waitress casually mentioned that Mike Piazza’s dad “owned the whole town.” It turns out that arguably the greatest hitting catcher in Major League history (427 Home runs, career .308 batting average) grew up in nearby Phoenixville with his parents, Vince and Veronica. It was nice slice of local history to go with my pizza.

Hey, pizza and Piazza!

It was nearing 6:00 PM as we drove into Gettysburg down PA Route 30 and onto the old Chambersburg Pike – the same road that General John Buford rode into town with his division of Union cavalry late in the day on June 30th, 1863. That evening long ago, a grimly determined Buford watched with concern as a brigade of Confederate infantry under General Pettigrew probed south from Cashtown along the Chambersburg Pike toward Gettysburg.

Pettigrew’s brigade had been sent by his division commander, General Henry Heth, of A.P. Hill’s Corps in search of much-needed supplies — including a cache of shoes they understood to be in the town.

But when Pettigrew saw Buford’s cavalry arriving south of town, he returned to Cashtown and told Heth and Hill what he had seen. Despite Pettigrew’s claim that Federal cavalry was on the Chambersburg Pike, neither of his superiors believed there was anything more than Pennsylvania militia in Gettysburg.

Fate – and the fighting – would wait until tomorrow. And so, as Victoria and I pulled into the parking lot of The Doubleday Inn, would our own adventures on the Gettysburg battlefield wait until the following day.

The charming house at 104 Doubleday Avenue, now The Doubleday Inn, was built in 1939 and it’s the only B & B or hotel located on the grounds of the Gettysburg National Military Park. It stands on the very ground that Buford and his cavalry would defend the next morning. There are 42 battlefield monuments within a quarter mile of the Inn honoring the regiments that took part in the fierce fighting that took place here on July 1, 1863.

Before we turned in for the night, we took a sunset stroll along Doubleday Avenue on Oak Ridge to check out the monuments lining the road in front of the Inn.

Our favorite was the monument dedicated to the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. All of the monuments at Gettysburg are stirring, heartbreaking testaments to valor and sacrifice – but this one is unique because of a dog.

On the side of the monument that faced the enemy that bloody day is a cast iron representation of the regiment’s beloved mascot, a terrier named “Sallie,” who was said to have hated three things: Rebels, Democrats, and Women.

According to the well-documented story, after the first day’s battle was over, faithful Sallie refused to leave the field where her brave boys had fought and fell. She stayed with her dead soldiers until she was found, weakened and close to death, a day after the battle. Sallie’s regiment nursed her back to health and she fought with them until she was killed in battle in February 1865. Sallie’s boys never forgot their faithful canine comrade – immortalizing her on their regimental monument.

To this day, visitors paying their respects at the 11th Pennsylvania monument on Oak Ridge often leave dog biscuits and bones for the devoted Sallie – as they did on the evening that Victoria and I paused to remember the regiment’s service and sacrifice before going back to the Doubleday Inn to prepare for the next morning:

July 1, 1863 – the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

“Forward men, forward for God’s sake…”

On the morning of July 1st, my wife, Victoria, and I got up early enough to enjoy breakfast at The Doubleday Inn with our housemates — a collection of congenial history buffs and their spouses.

One of our fellow guests, a 40-something Pennsylvanian named John, was there by himself, and this was clearly not his first visit to Gettysburg. It was fun to see how enthused he was about getting out on the battlefield.

I shared John’s excitement as I downed my breakfast, a delicious, maple syrup drenched version of French toast that proved too heavy for Victoria. She needn’t have worried about the calories: battlefield tramping burns ‘em off big time.

By the time we left the Doubleday Inn on Oak Ridge that morning, headed for the new Gettysburg Visitor Center and Museum, we could imagine General John Buford’s battle-weary cavalry corps falling back under fire from Confederate General Henry Heth’s reinforced infantry to positions along Oak Ridge (and the adjacent McPherson’s Ridge) 147 years ago.

Buford’s boys had been fighting off Heth’s two brigades since 5:00 AM, and here we were, two honeymooning sluggards, just getting into action at 9:00.

As we drove toward town and the Visitor Center, we could see the distinctive cupola of the Lutheran Seminary along Seminary Ridge, an important landmark on the battlefield in 1863 – and to this day. We could envision a grimly determined General Buford up in that cupola, field glasses in hand, watching the progress of the battle raging to his front, and looking anxiously to the rear for the approach of General Reynolds and his infantry corps.

In fact, if we were there on that fateful morning in 1863, General Reynolds would soon be passing us on the road, riding up to the seminary and calling up to Buford, “How goes it, John?” Buford would reply, “The devil’s to pay!” and the next chapter of Gettysburg history would soon be written. But that would have to wait. We wanted to check out the new Visitor Center first.

Our hosts at the Doubleday Inn (and several of our fellow guests) had spoken in glowing terms about the wonders of the new Museum and Visitor Center, which opened in April 2008 — and they were not blowing smoke. Victoria and I have been to a lot of National Park visitor centers, and this one blows them all away.

Far more than the usual place to pick up maps, brochures and a gift or two, the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center is 22,000 square feet of exhibits, battlefield relics, inter-active exhibits, and multi-media presentations, including the film, “A New Birth of Freedom”, narrated by Morgan Freeman (who also starred in the film, Glory, which triggered my Civil War obsession in 1989).

Victoria and I watched the film and checked out the incredible exhibits – including the stretcher used to carry the mortally wounded Stonewall Jackson from the field at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863. (Jackson’s death 8 days later would have dramatic repercussions at Gettysburg.)

The humble furnishings of Robert E. Lee’s personal field quarters were also on display, as were hundreds of period muskets, rifles, pistols, artillery shells, uniforms, and other treasures discovered on the battlefield over the years. It would be very easy to spend the entire day there – but with General Reynolds arriving on Seminary Ridge to reinforce Buford and the first day’s fighting heating up – we were eager to get back on the battlefield.

But first, we had to see the fully restored Gettysburg Cyclorama.

We’d seen it 20 years ago, when it was something of a sideshow attraction along with the old electronic map with its more than 600 lights that, for forty years, tracked the major action in the battle for visitors. Today, in its new home, the Gettysburg Cyclorama — the nation’s largest painting — gets its due.

The massive artwork, entitled “The Battle of Gettysburg”, is a 360-degree cyclorama by the French artist Paul Dominique Philippoteaux. The vivid painting wraps around the curved walls of the exhibit, surrounding the viewer with a stunning, colorful, and violent depiction of “Pickett’s Charge” on July 3, 1863 – the climactic action of the three-days of unprecedented valor, fury and sacrifice that was The Battle of Gettysburg. You really have to see it to understand the scale and power of this thing. The whole experience made me proud to think “Your tax dollars at work.”

“Reynolds and the Iron Brigade” by Keith Rocco. © Keith Rocco and Traditional Studios http://www.keithrocco.com

After our rewarding morning at the Visitor Center, we drove back out to McPherson’s Ridge, where Heth’s reinforced Confederate brigades of General A.P. Hill’s corps were about to confront the vanguard of the Union Army of the Potomac, hurriedly deployed by its commander, General John Reynolds. Reynolds First Corps included the famous Iron Brigade, wearing their distinctive tall black hats. For Heth’s rebels, one look at “those damn black hats” made it clear that one of the Union’s hardest-fighting, battle-tested veteran infantry units had now joined the fight for the Gettysburg high ground.

Victoria and I knew that our first stop on McPherson’s Ridge would be a somber one: the spot where Reynolds fell, shot from his horse in the opening moments of the engagement as he urged his troops forward, bellowing, “Forward men, forward for God’s sake and drive those fellows out of those woods!”(Generals led from the front in those days.)

The sudden loss of Reynolds was a brutal blow to the Union cause. John Reynolds wasn’t just any general – he was one of the Union army’s best.

Some historians maintain that Lincoln wanted to give Reynolds command of the Army of the Potomac, but that Reynolds demanded more autonomy than Lincoln could grant him. Ultimately, Lincoln put Pennsylvanian George Meade in charge of the Army of the Potomac with Reynolds leading the army’s First, Third, and Eleventh Corps.

Upon Reynold’s death, command of the Union forces fighting on McPherson’s Ridge and Oak Ridge devolved to General Abner Doubleday. (The Doubleday Inn, get it?) Two years earlier, Captain Doubleday had fired the first shot in defense of Fort Sumter, now, promoted to general, he was called upon to once again play a pivotal role in an epic moment.

And while it may well be that the claim Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 (he was in West Point at the time) is no more than a legend, what he did for the five furious hours after Reynolds death would have been legend enough for any man.

Doubleday’s men fought hard all morning, holding fast to the critical ridgelines just outside of town. As the Confederates threw wave upon wave of reinforcements into the fray, Doubleday’s 9,500 men battled ten Rebel brigades numbering more than 16,000, inflicting casualties on their attackers ranging from 35 to 50 percent in various regiments. The monuments that line McPherson’s Ridge and Oak Ridge are silent testaments to the valiant resistance of Doubleday’s troops in the face of overwhelming odds.

Eventually, Confederate troops finally pushed Doubleday off those ridgelines, past the Lutheran Seminary, and onto Cemetery Hill — where Union troops were concentrating to secure the high ground overlooking the town and fields below. At day’s end, Doubleday’s First Corps had lost two thirds of its men, dead, wounded, taken prisoner, or missing in action. But their sacrifice saved the day. The gallant stand made by Buford, Reynolds and Doubleday had kept the Confederates from reaching the high ground on Cemetery Hill.

The contest for that high ground – and victory on the bloody Gettysburg battlefield — would last two more days.

First Minnesota monument at the base of Cemetery Hill: Heroism on Day #2

Victoria and I returned to The Doubleday Inn with a greater appreciation of the man whose name our pleasant B&B bore.

To be continued…

Victoria and a friend ask Honest Abe for directions in downtown Gettysburg.

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150 Years Ago Today: A Victory for Modern Naval Warfare…

cropped-Carnage-140th-Spotsylvaniamontauk1pAs we continue to acknowledge the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War…

On Saturday, February 28, 1863, 150 years ago today, a now-forgotten Civil War engagement pointed the way toward the future of naval warfare.

imagesOn this day, Federal Naval Commander, Captain John L. Worden (former captain of the original Union ironclad USS Monitor) was at the helm of the Union ironclad warship USS Montauk on the Ogeechee River south of Savannah, Georgia — when he saw the CSS Nashville, sold as a privateer and now named Rattlesnake, run aground, lying under the guns of Fort McAllister.

With the U.S. Navy gunboats Wissahickon, Seneca and Dawn providing supporting fire, Captain Worden trained The Montauk’s batteries upon the enemy ship and started firing.

h59286Minutes later, the Montauk’s cannonade hit the CSS Nashville, struck her gunpowder magazine — and the Confederate ship exploded with “terrific violence.”

Alas, after his brief, triumphant engagement with the Confederate privateer, Commander Worden’s own ship hit a submerged mine, and he had to beach the USS Montauk on a mud bar to make repairs.montauk1j

The Confederacy could hardly afford the loss of the Nashville. The CSA commissioned shipbuilders to build 50 warships — and 22 were built and sent into battle, including CSS Virginia, CSS Arkansas, CSS Tennessee, and CSS Nashville.

21862The fate of the Nashville on this day in 1863 is not very well known – but what happened one year earlier to the CSS Virginia — the first steam-powered ironclad warship in the Confederate States Navy – became an epochal moment in naval warfare.

Built as a Confederate ironclad from the hull and steam engines of the scuttled Union warship, USS Merrimack — the CSS Virginia was sunk by the Union ironclad USS Monitor in the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862: the first battle between ironclad, armored warships.

h58899150 years ago today – on the banks of Georgia’s Ogeechee River — the American Civil war adds another explosive, revolutionary chapter to the history of modern warfare.

Five months from now, in July, we’ll note the 150th anniversary of The Battle of Gettysburg.

And there won’t be a boat, ironclad or otherwise, anywhere near the battlefield.gettysburg

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