‘The Demagogue and His Recital of Imaginary Wrongs’: Highlights from The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922
The June release of The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society includes unique accounts of the war by two Union surgeons and a recipient of the Medal of Honor.
Three Years in the Sixth Corps (1879)
By George Thomas Stevens
George Thomas Stevens (1832-1921) served as a surgeon in the 77th Regiment of New York Volunteers. He draws on his own contemporaneous notes, official reports, and letters from officers to write “a concise narrative of events in the Army of the Potomac from 1861 to the close of the rebellion, April, 1865.”
Stevens describes his regiment’s march to Gettysburg, writing:
The plot was thickening, and the hostile forces were moving cautiously, each watching the movements of the other, and each ready to seize any opportunity for rushing upon its enemy to destroy it. Thus far our marches had been of most fatiguing character. We had, in the last four days, passed over one hundred miles of road. It is to be remembered that these marches were made under burning suns, and that each soldier carried with him his gun, knapsack, haversack containing five days’ provisions, and forty rounds of cartridges.
As arduous as was the march to Gettysburg, the pursuit of Lee’s retreating army from Gettysburg was grisly. Stevens’ horrifying account is a poignant reminder of the brutality of that historic three-day battle.
During the night of the 4th of July, Lee’s army retreated, and on the morning of the 5th, our Sixth corps, Sedgwick’s cavalry as the corps was called, was sent in pursuit on the Fairfield road. The battle-field was horrible. Dead men were thickly strewed over the fields with their faces blackened, and eyes starting from their sockets; and upturned, swollen horses lay, sometimes in groups of six or eight, showing where some battery had suffered fearfully. As we passed the scene of the conflict on the left, at the foot of Round Top, was a scene more than usually hideous. Blackened ruins marked the spot where, on the morning of the third, stood a large barn. It had been used as a hospital. It had taken fire from the shells of the hostile batteries, and had quickly burned to the ground. Those of the wounded not able to help themselves were destroyed by the flames, which in a moment spread through the straw and dry material of the building. The crisped and blackened limbs, heads and other portions of bodies lying half consumed among the heaps of ruins and ashes, made up one of the most ghastly pictures ever witnessed, even on the field of battle.
An Illustrated History of the Missouri Engineer and the 25th Infantry Regiments (1889)
By Dr. William A. Neal
William A. Neal also served as a surgeon, but unlike Stevens he was assigned to an engineer regiment. He compiled the experiences of his brothers in arms with nearly 25 years of hindsight. Rather than describing combat and its aftermath, Neal’s history focuses on topics such as easing the movement of his comrades and inhibiting that of the enemy.
In describing his regiment’s effort to cut down trees beneath the waterline of a swamp, Neal includes a narrative by Colonel Bissell who offers his “account of the passage of the steamboats through the swamps of New Madrid, thus avoiding the formidable batteries of Island No. 10…” Bissell continues his laudatory chronicle, writing:
In such an operation the public only want to know what was done and how; they take no interest in the fact that Sergeant Prescott never seemed to get tired, or that Devillo Grow was always the first to jump into the water if the saw was “pinched;” the man at the head gets all the credit, while these details, which are often the gist of the whole thing, pass almost or quite unnoticed.
Later Neal includes a description of one particular effort to prevent the enemy’s movements:
About noon we marched through Jonesboro, and the men were set at work tearing up the railroad track, which they did by placing a company along one side of the track with levers and hooks. They would lift about 150 feet of the track at one side and turn it over, then taking crowbars and sledge hammers would knock the ties free from the rails, lay them in piles of fifty or so, set fire to them, and place the rails with their center across the burning ties until they were red hot, then two men at each end of the heated rail would seize it with a pair of tongs, give it a twist, take it to the nearest small tree and wrap it around, making an iron collar for the tree.
New York in the War of the Rebellion 1861 to 1865 (1890)
Compiled by Frederick Phisterer
Frederick Phisterer (1836-1909) was awarded the United States’ highest military honor for extraordinary heroism during the Battle of Stones River. Phisterer’s illustrious military career included serving in Ohio’s 3rd Artillery Regiment and 18th Infantry Regiment and as an officer in the New York Militia. While serving in the latter he assisted in its reorganization to become part of the National Guard, organized and trained soldiers for the Spanish-American War, and acted as Adjutant General.
Phisterer’s extensive history of the Civil War begins by describing the cultural and political conditions in the South prior to the war.
The result of the presidential election in November, 1860, was received in the Southern States in such a manner, that ambitious and unscrupulous politicians felt encouraged to advocate, and to endeavor to carry out, their long and well-designed theories and plans of secession. The Southern people were stimulated to violence by inflaming harangues and falsehoods. The voice of the Union-loving citizen was drowned in the excited and specious arguments of the demagogue and his recital of imaginary wrongs of the South, or terrorized into silence by lawless elements, encouraged by the leaders of the secession movement.