Listen: Bill Howard, on documenting the history of Ball's Bluff

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider
Bill Howard talks about his new book on an early Civil War battle, at Ball’s Bluff, that served as a rude awakening to the eager Union volunteers — many of them Harvard men who later wrote literary accounts — to the horrors of war. “How should they dream that Death in a rosy clime/ Would come to thin their shining throng?” asked Herman Melville in a poem on the sad legacy of Ball’s Bluff. Hear more about Howard’s deep research and commitment to making the story of the nation’s past accessible to its people.

 

 

Transcript:

00:00 Hello, this is Melissa, Hale-Spencer, the editor of the Altamont Enterprise and we have as our guest today, Bill Howard, who has written a book about the battle of balls bluff, all the drowned soldiers. And if you're like me, I'm a little embarrassed to admit I had never heard of the battle of balls block, but this is the kind of book you can read even if you're not an historian and find just some really fascinating, not just facts but insights into human nature. So welcome bill. Thank you. Um, so you were going to tell me and I hashed you because I thought we'd save it for the podcast, how it is that you first got interested in civil war history. So it was a long time ago when I was about nine years old and in elementary school, had a reading problem and it looked like the reading problem was going to hold me back that year.

01:05 They assigned a local reading specialist by the name of Ann Reardon who was well known in the district Bethlehem School district and and worked with me by taking me into the school library and showing me the stacks and said basically pick out a book that you think you'd be interested in. So the book I picked out was the how and why book of the civil war, mostly because of the illustrations more than anything else. So she worked with me on that book for the longest time and from that book moved onto another book on the civil war to yet another book on the civil war. Two books on Gettysburg and the and the battles. And I just started. I'm being really intrigued by the war. I had some family members that went down on a trip to Florida and on their way to Florida, they stopped at some curiosity shop and picked up a little civil war bullet the mini ball that was a fixed to a card and they brought it back for me and gave it to me.

02:02 Well, at that moment I didn't realize that you could actually own something and touch something that had actually been part of the civil war, so that not only enhanced my interest in reading about it, but I started collecting memorabilia associated with the war. So from about age nine to this morning, I've been collecting artifacts related to the civil war and writing about the war. Isn't that fascinating? Well, I noticed throughout the book are these portraits, largely men, although there's one with a daughter and one with a white, um, and often says from the author's collection. So you must have a huge number of portraits. How, how did you go about amassing those? Originally it was, I, I started doing radio shows locally, so I did things for Wgci and Wq, bk and some of the other radio stations and started, uh, you know, having people donate items from their own family collections and then, you know, estate sales and garage sales and that sort of thing.

03:01 And then Ebay and all the other things that have happened with the antique market in recent years. And I do have a large collection I like to collect to tell a story and maybe that's the author and the writer in me, but I like to collect things that can tell a story so I often will buy photographs that have something compelling about them, either the way the visual image is preserved or the story behind who that individual is. And I'm usually collecting because I have something in mind for how that could be used in an article or in a book. So a lot of the photographs in this book did come out of my collection in many photographs in this book came out of another fellow's collection individual by the name of Ken Fleming, who is down in Virginia who only collects images that are related to the battle of balls blocked. So he collects images of soldiers that fought in the battle. Both on the union and confederate side

03:54 itself is just beautifully put together at the pictures. Add to it. Because as you're reading the texts, you can look into a man's face and kind of try to puzzle out who he is, but also just it was put together by the history press. Is that right? Yeah. And it's just the pages and sounds are like magazine quality and glossy. So the pictures really show well and just the layout and design of the book. It's, it's just lovely as a reading experience. Um, but I, I started writing down things just from the very first page that I wanted to talk to you about before we get into the specifics of this battle and white interested you because it just seems like you have such a why and encompassing view of what history is because I think too many us, um, I think especially of war history as kind of a recitation of dates and battles and that's not at all what you do.

04:56 So one of the statements you have that I just wanted to read and have you talk about a little is you said, or you wrote, each published work of history evolves is part of a continuum historian than authors who work to interpret the past are beneficiaries of a rich legacy of foundation of work laid by scores of others who passed this way before and made their best efforts to tell the story of the past and at. To me that's just a really wonderful statement because I'm authorship. So many authors are kind of beating their chest about what they've discovered and putting forward this scope or whatever and you really give credit to those who came before you. So can you just tell us a little about that philosophy and how you. How you develop that. For me,

05:47 growing up a civil war, historians like Bruce Catton or Clifford Dowdy or Bell Wiley, they were my sports heroes. I was interested in sports too, but those people did something special in taking what otherwise would be the dry facts of the past and combining them with like a novelist flare for writing. Turning that into something that was readable at all levels. You could be a sophisticated military officer, historian and get something out of their work. You could be a general reader and get something out of their work because what they were writing is really solid and good writing and also happens to be well researched. Footnote in history, so from the very beginnings as I wrote, I wanted to try to be the best writer that I could write the best history that I could and do it in a way that recognized that in the end history doesn't belong to professional historians.

06:39 It belongs to the people. So if you can tell a story that's compelling to the average reader and maybe get them to go on and be inspired to read other books that might be more academic and more scarily or more focused in a particular area of history. Then you've achieved something and you've kind of lit a spark in the way that Ann reardon lit a spark in me and caused me to want to continue to study the civil war. So all those folks, I think they all came before and they've all done great work and every piece of history kind of builds on what's come before the Internet. They didn't have access to the Internet when they were writing those books. They were diving into archives and they were diving into these personal memoir accounts that were published mostly for family members at the turn of the century. Now, so much material is online from a newspaper stand point, from original record standpoint that you really can kind of reinvent the story of the past with all these incredible resources that are now available.

07:38 Yeah, but it seems like the challenge then would become finding your way through it all to, to have a path that is both original but also a riveting. And you do that just. Thank you. Thank you. Um, another thing I wanted to ask you about, I read that you were someone who had spearheaded the efforts to set up the New York state military museum in Saratoga Springs. And you also write in this book, there is no greater gift in military history than the preservation of the land. Hallowed by sacrifice and those two things to me seem to have something in common. They're both about physical, either places or objects and I'm just wondering if you could talk a little about, not just for civil war, but any war history. What did what it is a person gets by going to a museum or visiting a battlefield that's different than say reading a book.

08:39 I think it's that same electric charge that I talked about when those family members brought that little civil war bullet back from their trip to Florida. That when you can actually hold something in your hand that was there. These kinds of witnesses to the past, but they still tell a. there's something in in the simplest of military artifacts, like a bullet that tells a story about something that happened that you can. Your mind can race off to the fact that if it was found at Gettysburg and it's a confederate bullet that it traveled all those miles and all those dusty roads and ended up being made in Richmond, Virginia, but deposited in this field in the middle of Pennsylvania farmland and it has a whole story attached to it. So you look at this lead bullet and you can see on the very end of it that there's a ramrod mark of where the soldier had hammered this down into his musket or it's been fired and it's in some sort of configuration.

09:33 So I think that's the same thing with the, the military museum or what we did with the capital collection. And finally getting this location up in Saratoga. I was in state government at the time and we had gone for years and years trying to do something with that capital collection that would preserve it and conserve it for the future. So we came up with the idea with the support of the governor to go into this, uh, armory building in Saratoga and lake avenue and develop it into a military museum. So now individuals from all over the country can come there and either research in the archives that we have or take a look at the various special exhibitions that are put on or the main collection itself and learn something about the past by connecting to that uniform or that that musket or that particular artifact, you know, some of the most moving things that we have there.

10:24 There's A. There's a a small dish that was created by a soldier that was in prison at Andersonville prison and it's just shoe leather that he basically formed into a little dish that he could eat his food with this carved wooden spoon. They have that there and that tells a story about the past. That no book, no article, no historian is going to be able to tell as vividly as being able to look at that and consider what that individual's life must've been like, that they resorted to that sort of thing out of shoot later. So what are what, what is the heart of the capital collection? I mean, what are some of the things in it that are display or at least preserved? So when I first got involved with history and we'd go down to the capital on the second floor, which is the same floor that the governor's office is on, there were all these old oak display cases just filled with artifacts that had been brought back from the war and some of them were nailed to the woods.

11:23 Some of them were wired to the woods, some of them were glued to the wood and it was clear to many people that this isn't the best way to store and display this collection. So it was with a little bit of controversy that we decided that we're going to look for a permanent home and in doing that, try to find a way of better exhibiting the items that were there. So the compromise in the end was all those cases were taken out of the capital. All those artifacts were brought up to Saratoga, but that there would always be something left in the capital for display purposes. And that's why on the second today you'll see a civil war battle flag exhibit that revolves and they bring different flags together for different exhibitions. But the main part of the collection that used to be there for 100 years is now all up in Saratoga on, on permanent display.

12:07 So there's a sense of presence at the capital on this revolving exhibit, but the real collection is preserved in a way that it'll last into the future center. Correct. That's wonderful. So, um, I have another thought here from your book. You wrote, military history has a tendency to become myered in the complex details of troop movements, which will important sometimes overwhelm the human dimension of war. And certainly in your book, the human dimension comes through. And if you could just talk a little about how you highlight that as a writer and why, why that's important. One of the great things that I found of interest in balls bluff was the nature of the soldiers that fought in the battle. And one of the regiments, the 20th Massachusetts was known as the Harvard Regiment because so many of the men that fought in that regiment had either graduated or had been students at Harvard University, Harvard College.

13:11 So they left this amazing amount of a personal memoir in the wake of the battle letters, diary entries in the postwar years. Many wrote articles for various publications, so there was this incredible wealth of material, some of which had been tapped and some of which hadn't, uh, we're soldiers. We're talking about their experiences and the type of people we're talking about are Oliver, Wendell Holmes, who was present at the battle, a young Harvard graduate who's writing these diary entries and letters to his family. And then although he's wounded, he survives the battle and he tells you no other stories about the battle to, to other family members which are preserved. So there's just this incredible outpouring of almost literary quality recollection that's done by the participants in the battle that is just makes the history telling part of it, as you were talking about earlier. It's almost hard to edit it down rather.

14:06 There's so much material that's available. So I have always taken the view that the troop movements are important to a certain, a certain type of student of the war. But that in telling the story for the average person, I want to be able to point out that war is fundamentally about the human beings that are involved in it. And that's why so many photographs. That's why so many personal accounts. It's one thing, for example, to think about what it was like for the union soldiers to swim across the Potomac to safety. It's another to actually read the account of Richard Derby, who was the captain of the Harvard swim team who talked about how hard it was for him to get across, let alone some of these farm boys that had never actually even had a swimming lesson before. Well, while we're on that sort of literary

14:52 batch, I was just thrilled by your appendix and it's pages long and has just many rich. There's a letter from a wife who thinks her husband has died and she's writing about it. But what stood out for me because I love Emily Dickinson, is there's a poem and I'm going to read it. I looked up the whole poem. It's along the Potomac. When I was small, a woman died today. Her only boy went up from the Potomac, his face all victory to look at her how slowly the season's must have turn to bullets, clipped an angle and he passed quickly round. If Pride shall be in paradise, I never can decide of their imperial conduct. No person testified, but proud an apparition. That woman and her boy passed back and forth before my brain as ever in the sky and you unearth good. That came out of this same Massachusetts Group of soldiers and he was a blacksmith. Was He this man that had died that she had noticed? Tell us a little about how how you made that connection.

16:09 It was a distant cousin and I read something on the Internet about the connection and then reached out to the director of the Emily Dickinson House who shared some other information. I was able to pull everything together and put it into the appendix after the book had already pretty much gone to press, but we were able to get it in. Boss Bluff was this battle of, I think because of when it occurred so early in the war, the men that were involved in the battle, we're full of the spirit of saving the union and volunteering for the cause. There was no draft at this point. These were all volunteers and they were really. It's probably overused, but they were the best and brightest. They were the people that were most motivated on both sides for whatever the reasons were for going to war. They were the motivated soldiers and what happened after the grinding battles that occurred later on with the draft was a different type of soldiers.

17:00 But these guys were all idealistic volunteers. And the reason why I think balls bluff resonates the way it does is because all that enthusiasm and all that, patriotism was basically all for not when it comes to the way in which this battle was so mishandled by the union commanders. So it gave her this, this horrifying and tragic lesson to people that despite the feeling that our cause is just. And we have this energy and this enthusiasm. People who are going to die in this war that we thought would be this bloodless display that everyone would kind of part from the battlefield and go back to their regular lives and everything would be compromised for the nation. Places like bull run and and and balls. Bluff proved that it was not going to be easy, that this war had a more problems attached to it, that we're going to have to be resolved in the battlefield than things that could be dealt with by the houses of Congress or through some sort of negotiation.

17:57 So I think the horrific impact is this. The sudden terrible tragedy that hits so hard because they had just marched off. They had just left with the bands. They had just left their homes and they were coming back because the war wasn't going to result in much bloodshed. It was all going to be resolved. Balls. Bluff proved that that wouldn't be the case. And both Emily Dickinson and I mentioned Herman Melville in the book, both wrote poems that talk about the way in which that spirit of patriotism was kind of just ripped out of their souls by what happened along the banks.

18:30 Now, Peter, because I was stunned by that and really informed by that too. But then we'll get into the details of the battle because, um, that's Kinda the heart of your book. So, um, this is Melville. I'll just read the first stanza here. One noon day at my window in the town I saw site saddest that eyes can see young soldiers marching lustily unto the wars with Fife's flags in Moto pageantry. Well, all the porches, walks and doors were rich with Levy's cheering riley. And then of course that contrasts sharply with what happened. So if you can, and I know you have a whole book on it, but put it in a nutshell for our listeners. Um, what was the battle

19:25 so early in the war? Just three months after bull run. So we were talking about October of 18, 61 general McClellan looking at his army going into winter camp. Realized that there was a confederate outpost in Leesburg, Virginia, just about 35 miles northwest of Washington that was kind of standing out when the rest of the confederate line had kind of settled into go into winter camp around Centreville, Virginia. So he thought that perhaps if there was a little demonstration of force by the Union army that maybe that could compel this small outpost to kind of pull back and fall into line at Centerville. They would get a little bit of a victory of pushing back the confederate army without much of a of a contact and they could go into the winter, the first winter of the war, knowing that they had ended it with something of a victory.

20:17 So the goal really wasn't to capture Leesburg, but to just kind of do something along the river that would force the confederates to pull back. So they sent over a scouting party and on the front cover in the middle photograph of the front cover, there's chase philbrick who was a captain at the time commanding a company of the 15th, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Mostly at a Boston, but really a statewide unit. But mostly out of Boston, so philbrick is charged with bringing about 20 guys across the river in boats and exploring the area around the town of Leesburg to see what he can see about the confederate position. Well in that early morning fog and mist, he sees what he thinks are confederate tents. He doesn't see any campfires, but he thinks he sees their confederate tents there and it appears that the camp is completely unguarded, so he sends back the message to his commander that it looks as though there's a confederate camp just outside of Leesburg and it looks to be unguarded.

21:16 So the decision was made to send a few more troops across the river in the few boats that were really available and see if they can just do a little bit of a demonstration of force and caused the confederates to pull back well as they approach in the morning hours. Now with with light, it's revealed that what Philbrook thought were tents are actually hay bales that have been stacked and he had missed, misunderstood what he was looking at. So the commanding officer sends back the message of, you know, we've been a little bit misled, but we're going to take position here. We don't believe that we've been discovered. And in the meantime, as this is going back, there are more and more union troops coming over the river and these small amount of boats. Pretty soon there's two full regiments of the Union army, uh, about a thousand or so men on the Virginia side of the Potomac, uh, who are taking position and kind of watching and waiting and seeing what's, what's a further orders might bring.

22:14 Suddenly there's a little bit of an exchange of gunfire on the right side of the line. And one of the union soldiers, a sergeant goes down with a shoulder wound. He later loses his arm and, uh, there's a smattering of fire. The union line pulls back and it's pretty well clear that they've made some contact with the enemy. From that point on, there's just a pouring of troops on both sides into the battle. The union side brings as many men as they can bring to bear on the Virginia side of the river. The confederates bring as many men as they can bring to bear on their side, and there's a pretty fierce battle that develops involving close to 1700 or so troops on each side. So by civil war standards, a fairly small battle. The union line takes position on the top of balls bluff, which is named after the ball family, which were descendants of George Washington.

23:04 They take position on the very crest of that, uh, of that bluff with not a whole lot of ground behind them. And the river as the confederate line throughout the course of this day in October, 20, first of 18, 61 presses the line, the union line suddenly breaks and as it realizes that the situation is untenable, falls back further, further, further toward the river to the point where it's a, it's ordered for a general withdrawal. Every man for himself at that particular time, the union line kind of collapses. The troops kind of fall pill mill down the side of this steep, embanked bluff. And the soldiers begin this a every man for themself crossing of the river. Some take refuge in some of the few boats that were available, others try to swim across the river and others who can't, swimmer or ended up getting captured so of the casualties of the battle.

23:58 There's like a little over a hundred union soldiers that are actually killed a, but there's 615 that are captured or otherwise missing inaction. The commander of the entire operation, a fellow by the name of Colonel Edwin Baker, a baker who was the best friend of Lincoln's is killed in in the in the battle and the remainder of the union force without a whole lot of command, a false pill mill across the river. Attempts to cross to the safety of the Maryland side. And many of the men were unable to make it across the Potomac and ended up drowning. So one of the things, one of the features of balls bluff that's so interesting, it's the smallest national military cemetery in the United States, but of all the grades that are in the cemetery, only a single grave is marked with the name of the soldier James Allen. And the reason is that in those days, soldiers weren't wearing dog tags or it didn't have any other identification, so the tragedy of the battle is in the end, most of the casualties were people that were drowned in the river, uh, and most of the casualties were not killed by bullets of the, of the enemy, but rather, I think viewed as the incompetence of the command.

25:06 They simply had enough individual trips by boat across the river to get the men on one side of the river, but there was a huge short as a transportation to get them safely back. She had anything happen. So the political legacy of the battle in the wake of this catastrophe is a congressional inquiry because clearly this, um, this friend of Lincoln's who also happens to be a sitting United States senator from Oregon, clearly he couldn't have been at fault for what happened at boss bluff. So there must be an investigation determined the blame. The joint committee on the conduct of the war is formed. It turns into a group of a kind of radical Republican senators and congressmen that causes nothing but Agita for Abraham Lincoln for the remainder of the war. They get involved in all sorts of different aspects of the administration of the war, and ultimately, uh, recommend that Charles Stone who was a brigadier general who was in the next line of command of the battle that he be arrested and put in prison on charges.

26:11 So he is a, he is actually arrested stones put in a military prison for 189 days. The charges were never actually formally offered against him. He tries to testify in his defense, but they had already decided who they were going to lay blame for this battle on. And he ends up finally using some political leverage that he realizes might help the situation in having a, a bizarre little amendment added to a congressional pay bill where he is able to get himself a freed from prison. One of the strange ironies of stone, and he really is a tragic figure, he's put in jail at Fort Lafayette, was a New York harbor. And later long after the war, he's brought back as an engineer officer and is in charge of developing the base for the Statue of Liberty, and he actually designs that base for the Statue of Liberty in view of the prison cell where he was once held for what happened at balls blocks.

27:11 So it's very tragic character and a whole bunch of ironies involved with it. But his life is basically ruined by what happened on the field that ball's bluff and by the congressional inquiry that followed. So it's a, it's a tragic battle, not only for what happened to the lives of the soldiers that were wasted, but it has this tremendous political impact in causing grief for President Lincoln and how he administered the war and in really shaking northern confidence in just two or these generals that are leading our sons into battle. And how qualified are they to do that? And it causes tremendous legacy of problems

27:49 set that up in the book because when you introduce Major General George be McClellan, you have a sarcastic passage from James Russell Lowell. Um, that reminded me of when Obama was newly president. And got the Nobel prize. It was this idea that so much was lavished upon him when there was no, um, there was pure expectation and no reality. And then I felt my blood actually rising as I was reading the testimony that stone gave because you have, you know, Alex, the way you do in the book, which is great because it stands out, the original documents you use, um, he had no idea what the charges were against him. And the passage you quote is him defending his patriotism. And my voice is quavering as I'm remembering it. I meant to market and the book to read it, but it's just so clear that it's a kangaroo court and that here's a man that has no sense of what he's up against. And he's escape goat. And you make that so clear without ever having a single sentence saying, this man is a scape goat. It's just, you have the events unfold in a way that the reader is carried along. And I'm in, ranged on his behalf.

29:11 The outrage of it really is to that when Lincoln becomes president and is inaugurated in 18, 61, Washington is basically a southern city and there's probably more southern sympathy in the city than there is for the north or for the union. At that point. Charles stone, who was a colonel at the time, is basically put in command of the city of Washington to make sure that it's secure for the inauguration. So in his own defense, he kind of outrageously suggested. If you think that I'm this loyal, you know how, how can, how can you look at what I did to save this nation and to protect this president during the inauguration and think that I'm not a loyal subject of, of the north that are of the United States, and it really is. He was so over overmatched by the political forces that were against him that it took them a long time to realize that in the end it wasn't about being truthful.

30:04 It wasn't about being right. It was about using his own political pushback in order to get some action and he ends up and he gets that extrication. By combining forces with a California, a congressman who attaches this item to this pay bill, which allows him to be freed from his prison cell, probably showing my ignorance of American history. Is this a unique happening to have a congressional committee deciding on the guilt if someone in a battle. It was almost like a mccarthy, like hearing is really was. And I think that one of the things that's interesting to think about, both with presidential administration of any war, but particularly of the civil war compared to today's time, the president was not viewed in that era as being the commander in chief from the standpoint of being responsible for the administration of the war. We think of FDR, we think of Lincoln as being these powerful commanders in chief.

31:11 But in Lincoln's own time, uh, Congress was seen as administering the war, uh, administration. So this attempt by the congressional committee is really to Yank back what Lincoln was. In some ways you're surfing, uh, under the, uh, under the presidential powers of the time by taking the war and administering it by the horns on his own accord. That was something that was really unique in looking back at the presidents that had preceded them, so it was a political battle as much against stone and as much potentially against Mcclellan as it really was. Congress, pookie, pushing back at a president who seemed to be wanting to get more involved in the administration of a war than probably any president had been previously. From this vantage point, looking back at Lincoln, he's very much the leader of the union. What? What point in history did that switch in the United States from having it be a congressional function to a presidential function?

32:10 I would argue it was Lincoln and one of the things that's interesting is the library of Congress records show that as part of Lincoln's own understanding of his role in in American government and in politics, but also as the commander in chief Lincoln who had only served in a militia during the Blackhawk, wore a little homegrown militia unit and didn't have any military expertise, was taking out of the library of Congress. All of these military strategic and tactical volume. So he was spending time in the White House reading these books about tactics and military history and trying to both proposed things that would result in better administration in the war as well as give him the information to evaluate what his generals were telling him. So he had at the very beginning, you know, winfield Scott, who was a veteran of the war of 18, 12 as his commanding general, uh, winfield.

33:02 Scott wasn't a field commander by any means. He couldn't get out of the field. He couldn't even ride a horse at that point. So I think Lincoln left to his own devices as well. If the generals are going to give me advice, I want to be in the position to evaluate the type of advice they're giving me. So he's actually taking books out of the library and we know that from the records that he was spending a careful study trying to figure out why these generals wouldn't move or how their flood star strategies weren't working. Half an hour has just flown. I want you to be able to tell people if there's certain places they can go to get your book or if you're going to be doing any readings or signs or upcoming events. I did an opening event at north shore up in Saratoga, but I will be doing local events.

33:47 Uh, I'd ask people to maybe check out my website as the best way to figure out where I'm going to be. It's a ww dot bill Howard, author.com. The book is available at local bookstores, the barnes and noble nor Shire. It's also available on Amazon and all the other places where you can buy books. Uh, the reviews on the book are coming in. Well, and I think the things we've talked about today are the things that are seen as the strength of the book is that it's not written for somebody who's intensively involved in military history, but it's intended for general readers. And do you have any closing thoughts? I think that, um, I, I think that I, I was committed to putting in photographs and maps in this book and was very meticulous in working with the publisher who were just great to work with and making sure that the quality of those images were good.

34:38 So I think that the book itself, uh, I was very pleased with the format and the clarity of the images and the quality of the images and I hope that people will recognize that there were a lot of good people both at the publishers and in the collecting world that contributed images that will help tell the story and we really do. It's a very powerful book and I'll just close by describing the front page. In addition to three of the prominent men in your book who have their portraits, there's this incredible drawing that goes with the subtitle that our listeners now understand fully all the drowned soldiers. And these are men. Just, I don't know how to describe. How do you describe flailing themselves into the river is powerful. So thank you. Thank you for sharing this with us. Thank you, Melissa. Thank you very much.

 

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