From Harpers Ferry to Gettysburg: Perspectives of Confederate and Union Soldiers

The September release of The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society includes a wide range of voices and perspectives. The documents include a discourse on slavery in reaction to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry prior to the war; a Confederate general’s report on a Union general during the war; and two retrospectives written years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Often these differing viewpoints provide details and nuances not found in other Civil War accounts.

Letter from General C.F. Henningsen in Reply to the Letter of Victor Hugo on the Harper's Ferry Invasion (1860)

Charles Frederick Henningsen was a mercenary who participated in conflicts in Spain, Nicaragua, and Hungary before joining the Confederacy and serving as a brigadier-general. Although it is unclear whether he was born in England or Brussels, his views on slavery and Africans, as espoused here, are unambiguous. He wrote this work the year after abolitionist John Brown failed in his attempt to seize the Harpers Ferry arsenal and start an armed slave revolt. Victor Hugo, a French writer and political activist, had written a letter asking the United States to spare John Brown’s life, but it was received after Brown had been executed in December 1859. Henningsen’s response to Hugo quickly moves past the specifics of Brown’s raid and his own approval of Brown’s execution. He instead turns to the overall condition of Africans and African-Americans, writing that their “race has a different, and, in some respects, inferior mental organization, certainly, to the Caucasian race, and probably to every other, and that he is wanting in natural capacity for freedom.”

Henningsen explained his understanding of the differences between the races, comparing slavery to European serfdom, before voicing a sentiment still echoed in some corners today.

While European serfdom, in its varying phases, from unmitigated slavery to the enforcement of a portion of the serf’s labor, has shown that the white race will never work as efficiently under coercion as with free labor, the experience of the last sixty years proves that the negro can not be allured by the fruitfulness of a Southern, nor driven by the rigors of a Northern climate, to work without coercion. Yet nature has not only endowed him with aptitude for physical exertion, but he thrives better under it than in idleness. Too far removed above the animal creation to be endowed with the provident instinct of the ant, the beaver, or the bee, he is asserted to be too low in the human family to have reasoning power enough for protracted or provident exertion. Hunger, like a master or an overseer, may oblige him to work to-day, and induce him to look a week or a month ahead, but it is said to be as rare to find a negro who could look and work ahead for a season, as to find a cultivator of another race who would fail to do so. Hence, where a straw hat and breech cloth do not suffice for clothing, and where the earth beneath a tropic sun is not yielding a perpetual crop of plantations, yams, or breadfruit, he must lean, at best, without a master, upon white civilization. In the few instances where he emerges from the pauperism which, without the white man, would be starvation, he becomes a barber, domestic servant, oyster seller, cook, or, perhaps, whitewasher—occupations which, without the white man’s industry and forethought, would have no existence.

It is universally asserted and believed in the South, that the average lot of the negro slave on a Southern plantation is happier than that of the negro in any other place or condition, and frequently his lot is exultingly contrasted with that of the poor white operative or laborer.

Henningsen eventually offered his optimistic opinion on how the condition of African-Americans could be improved were the Southern States not pressured by external forces, such as John Brown and the greater abolitionist movement:

The Southern States, when extraneous pressure ceases to threaten them—but, I fear, not till then—instead of occupying themselves solely with defensive measures, will, no doubt, again turn their attention to the amelioration of the slave’s condition, and one of the first laws in this direction ought to be the prohibition of his being sold or hired to any man who has not resided long enough in the South to insure his understanding something of the peculiarities of the negro.

Upon Henningsen’s death in 1877 it was said he died “without ever winning any of the causes for which he fought.” It would not be unfair to include his debate with Victor Hugo in a list of his ignominious defeats.

Report of Major General Loring of Battle of Baker's Creek, and Subsequent Movements of His Command (1864)   

The May 16, 1863, Battle of Baker’s Creek, or Champion Hill, was a pivotal point in the Vicksburg Campaign, leading to the Siege of Vicksburg and surrender of Confederate Lieutenant General John Pemberton. Included in this report by Major General Loring are letters from his subordinates giving detailed accounts of the battle and confusion at times within the Confederate command. Brigadier General Buford reported the following to Major General Loring:

About eight o’clock, on the morning of the 16th May, the report of artillery announce that the enemy were advancing immediately in front of the division, which formed the right wing of the army, (my brigade being on the left of the right wing.) Dispositions were at once made to meet the advance, and I was ordered to form a line of battle on the ground on which I had bivouacked, it being a covered position, approached through an open field, and quite defensible. My right rested on the road, and my left extended to an open field, through which the cross road passed, on which we had marched the evening previous.    

My line was scarcely formed when I was ordered by Lieutenant General Pemberton to advance and occupy the ground on which Brigadier General Green, of General Bowen’s division, had formed his brigade, which was in my front and to the left. Informing you of the order, I advanced from the covered position I held, and formed, as ordered, on a commanding eminence in the middle of a field, and over which the enemy must advance. The position was a very strong one and tenable.

My line had not been entirely rectified when I received orders to fall back with my brigade some half a mile and establish a line beyond the junction of the military road with the road leading to Raymond by Mrs. Ellison’s.

Brigadier General Buford was soon ordered to again relocate his brigade.  

My command double-quicked the distance, about two miles, under a scorching sun, through corn and rye fields, in about half an hour. When I arrived about the rear of the right wing of General Bowen’s division, which was falling back in disorder before an overpowering force of the enemy, I was ordered by General Pemberton to hold the road immediately in rear of General Lee’s brigade, at a point about half a mile from the negro cabins.

Across this road our men were hastening in wild disorder and in consternation before a very heavy fire of the enemy. I immediately entered the road and was advancing on it in column, when my front (the left) was brought under a most galling fire from the enemy’s sharpshooters, and their line, some two hundred yards distant, posted in a heavy thicket of timber and undergrowth unexposed to view. I found that the enemy held possession of the road, and that I must retake it in order to comply with the command of General Pemberton. It would have been a wanton destruction of life to have formed a line of battle with my brigade in its then position, marching, as it was, by the left flank on the road, and a portion of which had already changed direction to the left in order to enter it under the heavy fire of the enemy, hidden from view, exposed, too, to an enfilading fire from a battery which had been established by the enemy on a commanding eminence at short range, and at the same time my column was continually broken by men of other brigades, who, driven back, were rushing pell mell from the scene of action and resisting all attempts to rally them.

Colonel Scott, who had been detached from General Buford’s command and ordered to attack the Federal force attempting to flank General Green’s brigade, described his perspective of the battle:

Upon arriving on the ground I found General Green’s brigade (or, at least, the right of it) retiring from the field in great confusion. I immediately formed my line at right angles to the line occupied by General Green’s forces, and ordered my men forward. We were soon greeted with a heavy fire, which was returned with spirit. I ordered my men to fire advancing, which they did with great steadiness and precision. I advanced to within forty to fifty yards of a line of two regiments, when they retreated and formed in another line of three regiments, posted in a strong position on the crest of the hill. They all soon opened a heavy fire on me, when finding that the contest was too unequal, I determined to try cold steel. I caused the firing to cease, bayonets to be fixed, and ordered my men to make a steady advance in line… We charged the entire brigade, and caused them to fly in great confusion. I held the ground until ordered by you to join the brigade.

General McClellan's Peninsula Campaign: Review of the Report of the Committee on the Conduct of the War Relative to the Peninsula Campaign (1864)
By Hiram Ketchum

The Peninsula Campaign took place from March through July 1862 with the goal of capturing Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. Although Major General George B. McClellan was initially successful, the advance of his Union forces was eventually halted by General Robert E. Lee’s army at the Battle of Seven Pines. General McClellan was later blamed by the U.S. Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War for losing the initiative and eventually the overall campaign. The author of this work, Hiram Ketchum, was a prominent lawyer and citizen of New York who felt General McClellan had been unfairly blamed by the committee and published his own review of the congressional report. Ketchum alleged the report was part of an attempt to destroy General McClellan’s reputation, saying:

Now I have read the testimony annexed to the report of the War Committee with some care, and in my opinion that testimony, in connection with well known facts of public notoriety, does not authorize the conclusions, unfavorable to Gen. McClellan, made public by the committee in their report. It is evident to my mind that there is a concerted, a party effort, aided by the government, to pervert the truth, and by such perversion to destroy General McClellan.

Mr. Ketchum argued that the failure to capture Richmond was due to consequences and decisions beyond General McClellan’s control.

It appears by the evidence, as shown in my last number, that Richmond would have been taken a year ago, if Gen. McClellan had received the aid promised by the government. If there is any fallacy in the argument which reaches this conclusion, let it be shown. I do not stop to notice the theory of Gen. Ethan Allen Hitchcock; to that I may hereafter return, only remarking that the theory is a discovery of the General himself; he would be entitled, upon application, to receive a patent for it, as new, but it might fail of the other qualification required in the patentable discovery, that is in being useful.

In the end, Ketchum blamed President Lincoln for the campaign’s failure because the president “became apprehensive that if the command should go down below, the enemy might take advantage of the defenseless condition of Washington.” He then quotes General McDowell’s testimony before the committee:

The President, or Secretary of War in the name of the President, telegraphed to send a division up after [Confederate General] Jackson. I did so, although I replied that it was a crushing blow to us all. The President ordered another brigade to move up there, and then another brigade, and then another regiment. And finally the President put the question to me in this way—if I did not think that, as the department commander, it was my duty to be here in Washington. I replied that I had not so thought, or I should certainly have been here; that I thought my presence was most required down below, but as there was a doubt upon that matter I would come up. I had hoped that I should not be diverted from going to Richmond.

The Right Flank at Gettysburg: An Account of the Operations of General Gregg's Cavalry Command (1878)
By William Brooke-Rawle, Secretary of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, formerly Captain Third Pennyslvania Cavalry and Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel United States Volunteers

William Brooke-Rawle’s retrospective of the Battle of Gettysburg is in large part a response to the recent publication of “an avalanche of newspaper and manuscript communications, especially from ‘our friends on the other side.’”

So peculiar do the views of some writers appear to us, that we begin to distrust the memory of those days, and almost to question the general belief that the battle of Gettysburg was a victory for the Union arms. Some might be led to suppose that the dissensions among the Confederate leaders, rather than the ability with which General Meade handled his noble army, brought about the results of the battle. Indeed, it is almost becoming doubtful to the minds of many of the participants in the battle whether they were even present, —so different from their recollections of the events do recent representations appear.  

It has been insinuated by a gallant Confederate officer…who, if indeed he were present, might be presumed to have been in a position to judge correctly, that the cavalry operations on the right flank of the Union army at Gettysburg resulted victoriously for his cause. That this was not the case will be shown conclusively.

Brooke-Rawle then described the movements and operations of General Gregg’s cavalry command on the third day of the battle in terrifying detail. The description of an encounter between the Seventh Michigan and First Virginia regiments gives a sense of the horror the soldiers experienced:

The Seventh Michigan, a new regiment, advanced boldly to meet the First Virginia, but on coming up to a stone and rail fence, instead of pushing across it, began firing with their repeating carbines. The First Virginia came on in spite of the heavy fire until it reached the fence from the other side. Both regiments fought face to face across the fence with carbines and revolvers, while a scorching fire was centered upon the First Virginia from either flank. The enemy’s dismounted line also came up, and assisted the First Virginia to pass the fence, whereupon the Seventh Michigan gave way in disorder, the enemy following in close pursuit.   

The First Virginia, becoming strung out by this movement, was exposed to terrific fire from the two batteries in front, and from the heavy skirmish lines on the flanks, while some the Fifth Michigan, who had succeeded in mounting, advanced to assist the Seventh. It was more than even their gallantry could stand, and the First Virginia fell back on the supports which were fast advancing to its assistance…

Just then there appeared in the distance, turning the point of woods on the cross-road by the Stallsmith farm, a brigade of cavalry. It was manifest to every one that unless this, the grandest attack of all, was checked, the fate of the day would be decided against the Army of the Potomac.

The Spy of the Rebellion: Being a True History of the Spy System of the United States Army during the Late Rebellion (1883)
By Allan Pinkerton

Also included in this month’s release of The American Civil War Collection is a retrospective by the head of the Union Intelligence Service who served from 1861 to 1862 under the nom-de-plume of Major E.J. Allen but who is better known in relation to the detective agency that bore his name, Allan Pinkerton. Although Pinkerton’s account contains many interesting details of the U.S. spy system during the Civil War, some critics have argued this work was in part written to garnish his abolitionist credentials which had been called into question by some after he assisted the Spanish government’s suppression of an 1872 revolution in Cuba, the intent of which had been to end slavery on the island. Regardless of his critics, it is widely accepted that Pinkerton’s home in Dundee, Illinois, was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and it is not surprising, therefore, that his perspective of John Brown would differ from Charles Frederick Henningsen’s. In this work, Pinkerton writes:

As it is, though [John Brown’s] fate may have been in accordance with the decrees of the laws then existing, I can recall with all the enthusiasm that I then experienced, the thundering effect of thousands of our brave ‘boys in blue,’ joining in that electric war cry, the refrain of which was:

    ‘John Brown’s body lies mouldering in the grave,
    But his soul goes marching along,’

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