Monday, September 27, 2010

Book Review--Sultana

Huffman, Alan. Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History. Smithsonian Books, New York, New York. 2009. 300 pages, 281 pages text, index, bibliography. Hardcover ISBN 9780061470547.

 A seldom studied aspect of the Civil War is the immediate aftermath. Thousands of soldiers were far from home and needed to be returned to civilian life. Boat owners were more than anxious to cram every soldier possible on their boats and so was the case with the Sultana. Huffman estimates that nearly 2,600 men were on board though there is no passenger list. At least 1,700 of these men perished in the disaster. All of this plus the conspiracy theory that the Confederates played a role in the explosion of the boilers should have led to a fast paced and exciting story. Unfortunately that's not what we get.

Huffman takes the long route to get to the meat of the story. We read about friends from Indiana who join the military. We get to meet people like Big Tennessee who really have nothing at all to do with the story. He may (or most likely was not) on the Sultana and legend has it he swam away. We read about prison camps and the hope and despair they caused. Finally we get to the joy of being able to go home and the tragedy that awaited.

Ultimately what we have here is a disjointed work that doesn't really seem to have a focus. The book is 281 pages of text yet we don't hear of the Sultana until page 168. By this point this reader was just hanging on hoping for something to improve. Unfortunately it really didn't. There is no serious discussion regarding the theory that the Confederates had something to do with the explosion. Whether or not Huffman puts any weight to the story it should be addressed if for nothing else but to put it to rest. This could have been done as an appendix if nothing else. I couldn't really get a feel for the ship or the people aboard. While I should have cared about both I found myself looking for the end rather than not wanting it to end.

I can't personally speak for the research that went into the book but scholarship seems to be lacking. The bibliography comes in at just over a scant two pages with more than half being secondary sources and websites. There are no footnotes or end notes so don't bother trying to follow up on Huffman's research. There also are no illustrations or maps which become a serious failing in a modern Civil War book.

This is a book where I think Huffman would have been better off writing it as a fictionalized account. In that way the characters he introduces could have been developed and worked their way through the entire story allowing the reader to have gotten to know them and care about them. As it is I can't recommend this to anybody with a serious interest in the Civil War. Those who like an adventure but don't really care about the war may find this worthy of reading however.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Book Review--This Republic of Suffering

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York. 346 pages, 271 pages text. B/w photos, notes, index.

The Civil War was an event unprecedented in American history. Casualties on a scale never seen before or since affected life in every way. With approximately 620,000 deaths (2% of the population) Faust estimates this would equate to around six million deaths today. 1 in 5 Southern men of military age did not survive the war.

Faust puts forth that each generation approaches death in ways shaped by history, culture, and conditions that change based upon space and time. The focus of this book is not to compare these approaches but rather to try and explain how those living at the time were affected by these deaths and how they dealt with them.

Central to this work is "the good death" or Ars moriendi. As a way to lessen the mental burden soldiers tended to look at the war with a focus on dying rather than killing. Dying on a battlefield prevented soldiers from achieving all aims of a "good death". Being far from family and loved ones prevented both the dying and the family from observing the death and preparing for the meeting in the afterlife. In place of the family it was important for fellow soldiers to witness the death. This allowed the final words to be heard and for those left behind to understand that the dying was ready to meet his fate. These witnesses often promised to visit family or deliver written word proclaiming that the soldier had passes in a proper way. Obviously many were unable to have a "good death". Sudden death on a battlefield flew in the face of the tradition and left family wondering as to the eternal soul of the departed.

Killing was a difficult factor for many in the war. Often times fighting was in close confines or even face to face. To combat this soldiers would mentaly try to dehumanize the enemy and often times atrocities were committed against officers or blacks. With the magnitude of death the next aspect of the book becomes the burying of the dead. Both sides were unprepared for the numbers of dead and many men were buried on the spot often times in graves so shallow they were dug up by animals. Families were left to try and sort out the remains if they wished to bring their loved one home for a proper burial. Officers would often be accorded more respect. Many times officers bodies were gathered from the field of battle and shipped home or to more formal cemeteries which in some cases became national cemeteries. Embalming was rare on the battlefield and only available to those families able to afford it.

With the large number of dead and the violence of the war it was common for soldiers to be wounded beyond recognition. Many soldiers died without identification and were buried in large plots marked unknown. After battle casualty lists were put together but many times these lists contained inaccurate information. Those at home would not know for sure that they had lost a loved one without a body. Unfortunately many were in graves marked unknown. Mourning rituals were important at this time. Symbols of grief were common and expected. To not participate in such rituals was considered disrespectful. For those left behind they often dealt with the issue of the fate of the soul. Death was often redefined as the beginning of eternal life and there was the assumption of meeting again. For those who just couldn't wait spiritualism began to become more prominent promising to help the dead and living communicate.

After the war was over many still felt an obligation to the dead and attempts to bring the physical bodies of relatives home began in earnest. Helping to keep sectional differences going was the federal government spending $4 million to help find and bury Union soldiers while those with Confederate relatives were left to their own devices. This led to grass roots movements such as the Hollywood Memorial Association of the Ladies of Richmond. Groups such as these helped find, bring home, and properly bury Confederate soldier bodies. Closure could often only be had with the burial at home.

Faust has written an excellent book. The reader does not have to have a large knowledge of the time frame to understand her points. A basic knowledge of the Civil War is helpful but not required. The research is thorough and the book contains almost 50 pages of notes. Included is much research in library archives using primary sources. The book is illustrated with many b/w photos that help further the discussion. Overall a highly recommended book for anybody interested in the Civil War or death customs.

Monday, September 20, 2010

2010 Lincoln Forum Symposium Registration

I received this email reminder today about the upcoming 2010 Lincoln Forum Symposium that will be held in Gettysburg. Looks like a great group of speakers will be there.


The 15th Annual Lincoln Forum Symposium
"The Coming of the Civil War: Enter Lincoln, Exit the South"

Featuring Mark E. Neely, Jr., John Marszalek, Craig Symonds, William Freehling, Gary Ecelbarger, Harold Holzer, Frank J. Williams, Edna Greene Medford, and Peter S. Carmichael

Plus Panel Discussions, break-out sessions, author book-signings, Lunches, Dinners, tours, & James Getty and George buss performing Lincoln's history-changing words

Year One of a Five-Year Focus on the Civil War Sesquicentennial (2010 - 2015)

November 16 - 18, 2010
The Wyndham Hotel
95 Presidential Circle
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
(866)845-8885 (toll Free)

For more information about registration and hotel reservations, please visit our website at,
EMAIL NOW AT or call Betty Anselmo at (401)624-3722

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Book Review--Discovering the Civil War in Florida

Taylor, Paul. Discovering the Civil War in Florida: A Reader and Guide. Pineapple Press, Sarasota, FL. 2001. 240 pages 209 pages text. Index, bibliography, notes, b/w photos, maps. ISBN 1561642355 $18.95.

Being interested in the Civil War and living in Florida are not a good pairing. Little happened battle wise in the state and what did happen was of very little importance. This is not to say that Florida did not have value to the Confederacy but let's face it the state was far away from any major action. Despite this author Paul Taylor has written a book that anybody who is interested in Florida's role in the Confederacy should own.

Discovering the Civil War in Florida: A Reader and Guide is part history and part travel guide mixing the best of both worlds. Taylor divides his book into geographic regions and then further breaks each region down into various locations. This works effectively by allowing the reader to read this as a book or giving them ideas surrounding their intended travel location. The bibliography is also an importance reference for those wanting to do further research.

Each location is given a brief but for this work complete treatment. Each includes a section called "Summary of Military Activity". Here Taylor describes what happened and when including relevant notes. Readers are then given published works dealing with the area. This may include pieces from the OR, Confederate Veteran magazine, Florida Historical Quarterly or other sources. All include original publication information. This is not meant to include all the published work on these areas but just serves as a brief overview. When possible each location also includes "Today's Sites". This section gives the reader information on various points of interest. Included may be forts, museums, houses, memorials, etc.

This is a valuable resource for anybody living in or visiting Florida who has an interest in the Civil War. The book is in desperate need of revision however. Any travel related book that is 10 years old is woefully out of date. Museums can close, entrance fees are always changing, hours are subject to budget concerns, etc. With advances in technology GPS coordinates are almost a must in a book like this. Website information is not included either. By expanding this section the book would be even more valuable. I would also like to see better maps. Those included are just reproductions of period pieces that do not show troop movements. These issues aside, this is a must own book for Civil War researchers with an interest in Florida.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sadie Strickland has passed away

A few days ago I posted a piece on real life Confederate daughter Sadie Strickland. Unfortunately it is my sad duty to pass on the news that she passed away on September 10. Please read this article and obituary to learn more of her and the life she enjoyed for over 100 years! Prayers are with her family.

Genealogy Society Buys Cemetery

Thanks go to Dick Eastman and his wonderful blog for bringing this unusual article to a wider readership. A genealogy society in Michigan has purchased a no longer used cemetery as a way to help preserve it.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Collection of Civil War letters found by FL man

Interesting article from this weekends newspapers. John Snowden of Tampa discovered a large collection of family letters from the Civil War while going through his grandmothers papers recently. Some of the letters were written by George Shoop who is the writer of several letters in the UC-Santa Barbara special collection of letters of soldiers from the 102nd Pennsylvania Infantry. The article is a bit misleading in saying that Shoop was the only survivor of the war included in the UC-Santa Barbara collection. The website states he is the only one represented in the collection to remain in service until the end of the war. Not important to this article but I just wanted to clarify it after finding different information.

An interesting article and hopefully Mr. Snowden can achieve his goal of transcribing and posting these letters online. According to the article he would also like to publish them with a running narrative.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Local Woman is a true Confederate Daughter

An interesting article was in yesterday's local newspaper. The attached photo is from this newspaper as well.

It turns out that one of the last 30 remaining daughters of a Confederate soldier lives in Flagler county just north of where I live. Sadie Strickland, 100 years old, is the daughter of William Mitchell Stone. Strickland was born on October 27, 1909 when her father was 67 years old. Unfortunately Strickland is currently in hospice care and according to her family is not expected to live through the week.

I did some very cursory research to try and find information on Ms. Strickland's father. Based upon the article I assumed the family to be from Georgia. Unfortunately the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database lists multiple William M. Stone's from Georgia and several William Stone's from Georgia (armed with information from other sources I did however find Pvt. Stone's record on the site). Fortunately the state of Georgia has Confederate Pension applications online and here I found much information on William Mitchell Stone. He served in the 47th Georgia Infantry Company F. He enlisted March 4, 1862 and was discharged on April 26, 1865 at Greensboro, N.C. The 47th fought with the Army of Tennessee at Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and in the Atlanta Campaign. They also participated in the defense of Savannah amongst other battles. At the time of his pension application Stone owned property worth less than $1,300 with the large percentage of this being in land. He and his wife had a combined income of less than $15 per month. Mr. Stone died due to a strangulated hernia on December 8, 1920. This memorial has been created for Mr. Stone. Mr. Stone's widow filed a Georgia Confederate pension application that may be seen here.  Another possible family clue that I did find was burial information on Unity Turner. This website shows Turner being the husband of Quip Turner and also references her being the daughter of William Mitchell Stone CSA and Margaret Spell. I would assume Margaret Spell to have been Stone's first wife especially considering the age difference between Unity Turner and Sadie Strickland.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Newsletter Review--Surratt Courier

The Surratt Courier. The Surratt Society. September 2010, Volume XXX No. 9.

A nice brief issue this month with several interesting items. The main article questions the notion that if Thomas Eckert had accompanied Abraham Lincoln to Ford's Theatre that he would have been acting as a bodyguard. Author Frank Hebblethwaite makes the claim that there is no evidence to suggest such a role. Further even if Eckert were a bodyguard would it have prevented the events that transpired. John Stanton updates his efforts to locate information on alleged Confederate agent Sarah Slater and her role in the plot to kidnap President Lincoln. Joan Chaconas contributes a transcript of a letter written to President Lincoln from Jesse B. Wilson. Wilson owned a grocery store that was frequented by Mary Surratt. Surratt made over $100 in purchases at the store during 1864 and the last known purchase there by her was made on January 17, 1865.

Several other brief items of note are included. Robert Redford's movie The Conspirator has been chosen to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The election of officers for the upcoming year will take place on September 26. A reminder that membership dues for the coming year are due in September. A flier for the new book My Thoughts Be Bloody is also included. The Surratt House will be holding a book signing with author Nora Titone on October 23, 2010 from noon until 4pm. This looks like it is going to be a great book that will be examining the sibling rivalry between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth and it's role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

For a mere $7 per year this is an organization worth being a member of.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Upcoming travel--Ideas needed

Chris and I are planning on taking a short vacation the first week of November. Our current plan is to drive  from Florida to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park area. Does anybody have any suggestions on "Don't Miss" places in the area? I'm not really interested in anything that I can find in Orlando like dinner shows, mini golf, chain restaurants, Ripley's Believe it Or Not, etc. Obiviously Civil War related would be great for me but for Chris, well, she tolerates it. Great sport she is! Anyway we've really just started researching it so any ideas are welcome. Thanks.