Sunday, September 16, 2012

O, Antietam!

Tomorrow, September 17th, marks the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam.  Historians view it as a pivotal moment in the Civil War and in U.S. history in general.  Along the Antietam creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland, Union general McLellan stopped rebel general Lee's attempt to carry the war into the North.  The names associated with the battle became legendary: the Corn Field, Bloody Lane, Snavely's Ford, and especially Burnside's Bridge.  
Burnside Bridge

Widely believed to be a Union victory, the savage, all-day battle became the bloodiest day in the War of the Rebellion.  The official tally states that over two thousand Union soldiers fell, with nearly ten thousand wounded, while fifteen hundred rebels fell and almost eight thousand wounded.  These numbers are being revised upwards with new methods.  Antietam now stands equal with the Attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the September 11th Attacks as the costliest events on American soil.

The battle also gave President Lincoln the opportunity to present his Emancipation Proclamation.  His decree ordered the Army and Navy to free slaves in the rebellious states after January 1, 1863.  It protected those in loyal states, though it encouraged those areas, such as West Virginia, to free them by other means.  In effect, Lincoln tried to ransom the slaves to compel the rebels to quit fighting.  None ultimately took the bait.  The result became the largest slave uprising in history, creating a second front behind rebel lines.  They could not fight both the growing power of Union forces and maintain slavery at the same time.  By including even the partial abolition of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation also deterred Britain and France from intervening in the war - though if you ask me it was highly unlikely in any case.  It was a master stroke from a master politician.  The war would drag on for another three years and cost as much as a million lives, or three percent of the United States population.

I think that there is another international effect that receives almost no attention.  One Canadian-born soldier in the 4th Rhode Island Volunteers ranks among the ten thousand Union wounded at Antietam.  His name was Calixa Lavallee.  Born near Montreal, Quebec, he showed an early musical talent that led him to move to the U.S. as a teenager in the late 1850s.  Aged 18 in 1861, he joined that regiment at the outbreak of the war.  At Antietam, the 4th made the run around the southern flank of the battle at Snavely's Ford as part of General Burnside's IX Corps. [Fun fact: Burnside gave temporary command of his corps to Jacob D. Cox, who like Lavallee was born in Montreal!]  They then ran directly into rebel commander A. P. Hill's men moving along the southern part of the battlefield.  Lavallee would be wounded in the leg during this savage battle.  Later discharged, he returned to Rhode Island and spent the rest of his life moving between the U.S. and Canada.

Calixa Lavallee

Why is Lavallee important?  Many other Canadians fought and died or were wounded in the War of the Rebellion.  He stands out for a tune he composed in 1880.  The Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, Theodore Robataille, asked him to set a poem written by lawyer and orator Adolphe-Basile Routhier to music.  That poem was called O Canada.  This song became Canada's national anthem in the 20th Century.  Had he died facing A. P. Hill's troops on that hot September day in 1862 or afterwards of the leg wound he suffered, one important element of Canadian identity today would be radically different.  Imagine if Francis Scott Key had fallen overboard and drowned off HMS Tonnant in Baltimore harbor in 1814.  We probably wouldn't have The Star Spangled Banner.  Lavallee's example should tell us just how important the Civil War is beyond the borders of the United States.  As I said in an earlier blog entry, and other historians agree on this point, Canadian Confederation would not have occurred when it did without the Civil War.  So, when you sing O Canada with gusto at your next hockey game, remember that it links you with that major conflict.  I'm astonished that so few people know about this.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Lincoln Trailer

Today, Steven Spielberg released the trailer to his long-awaited film Lincoln.  Everyone interested in the Civil War will definitely see this film.

Judging by the footage here, the film focuses on Lincoln's leadership at the end of the war.  He faces two contradictory challenges - victory over the rebels, and the end of slavery.  I like how the film portrays the numerous factions on each side, from radicals (led by Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones), to conservatives (such as Montgomery Blair, played by Byron Jennings), to members of his own cabinet (David Straitharn as Seward) and even Mary Lincoln (a well-cast Sally Field) bombard the stoic Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) who is determined to do his duty.  We shall see how this movie holds up.  I personally can't wait to see the scene where Lincoln goes to Richmond, and the freedmen and women greet him like the Messiah. The film opens November 16th at a theater near you.  I encourage your comments.

h/t to Kevin Levin:

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Neil Armstrong

Hi again!  Looks like I neglected my blog - three weeks have passed since my last post.  I've been busy working on my dissertation.  Yes, seriously!

I mark the passing of a true, genuine American hero, Neil Armstrong.  The first man to walk on the Moon died last week at the age of 82.  This quiet, retiring man may have shunned his fame but no history book since has failed to mention his exploit.  From earliest times, humans looked up at the Moon with amazement.  Yet, in the Twentieth Century, the technology became available to place people on its surface.  Armstrong was the first, Buzz Aldrin the second, and ten more followed in their steps, so to speak.  It was a childhood dream of mine to meet him, and now I'll never get my chance.  Oh well.  One bit of trivia: he visited the town of Langholm in Scotland in 1972, where a law requiring the summary execution of an Armstrong upon entry still existed on the books.

That's all for now.