MOVIE REVIEW: “Free State of Jones”

Free State of Jones (IM Global, STX Entertainment, Huayi Brothers Media, 2016)

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Kerri Russell

Running Time: 139 Minutes

Film Rating: R for Brutal Battle Scenes and Disturbing Graphic Images



By October of 1862, the American Civil War was entering a new phase. With Confederates being pushed back from Maryland and Kentucky, Lincoln issues his Emancipation Proclamation, freeing those slaves in the states in rebellion. In the South, the Confederacy begins conscripting men into the army (A similar practice also goes on in the north, in the name of the “draft”). However, this conscription also comes with the “20 Negro Law,” meaning that those families with 20 or more slaves could be exempt from it. This policy would lead to great turmoil in the south. In particular, the state of Mississippi would see one of their own, a deserted soldier named Newton Knight, lead a band of former slaves and white subsistence farmers and other deserters against the Confederacy. For a time, Knight and his band successfully drive Confederate forces out of Jones County, and other counties, in Mississippi. With no aid from either Confederate or Union armies, they set up their own “country,” calling it the Free State of Jones County. The subject of Knight and his guerrilla band are the subject of the film Free State of Jones, a dramatic film from director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit, Pleasantville).

The film begins in October, 1862, as we see Confederate and Union forces engaged in brutal fighting near Corinth, Mississippi. Here, we are introduced to Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a soldier who’s helping bring wounded from the battlefield back to the hospital camps. When his nephew arrives after being conscripted, he does his best to keep him safe. Sadly, during trench fighting, his nephew is shot, and his attempts to get him aide at the hospital fails, ultimately leading to his death. Despondent, Knight decides to return the body back to his home, ultimately becoming a deserter. While at home, he sees the affects of the war on the people there, as the Confederate Army takes food and livestock from local farmers, leaving them with little to subsist from. Knight ultimately joins a band of freed slaves, who are soon joined by more deserters and other white farmers, who ultimately join together to fight against the Confederacy, and drive them from Jones county. We then follow Knight and his friends through the post-war period, as Reconstruction threatens to return men and women of color back into slaves, and attacks from the Ku Klux Klan send fear to all who oppose them.

Whether you view Knight and his band as heroes, fighting an oppressive system in the name of freedom, or as villains enacting brutal attacks against the government they took an oath to, there is no denying that their story is a very dramatic one, and ripe for a big-screen offering. The ideas that it espouses (Freedom and liberty, the right to own your own land, and keep what you grow for yourself, and sacrifice) are themes that are still important to this day. Knight truly believed what he fought for, and the men and women who followed him were willing to fight and die for those same ideals, even if they didn’t always agree with Knight.

It’s just a shame that this little-known story from the American Civil War couldn’t have been presented in a better film. While it is far from a horrible film, it is a disappointing one for certain. A lot of the weakness boils down to the screenplay for the film. While the film covers over fourteen years of time, it does so in a way that is downright dull at times. The filmmakers chose to devote most of the film’s screen time in the first hour to the buildup to the events leading to the creation of the Free State. While this does give us time to get to know Knight, the people he would come to lead, and how the situation affects them, it spends a little too long getting there. It is just a series of meetings between people, discussions and speeches about how things are, and what should be done about it, and long glances and walks from place to place.

When events do finally move toward driving Confederates out of Jones County, it is done, and over very quickly. What should’ve been the main focus of the film takes up just twenty or so minutes of screen time. The last forty minutes or so of the film deals with Reconstruction, and how Knight attempted to fight the return of slavery in, albeit by another name, and getting men of color the right to vote. While this part of the story is compelling, it feels by this point that the filmmakers are just wanting to tell as much of Knight’s story as possible in one film. This ends up hurting the film, as it starts to feel like too much on the plate.

What’s more, the filmmakers also chose to include a subplot with one of Knight’s descendants in 1947. The subplot tells of Davis Knight and his getting married. However, because Davis was the great-great-grandson of Knight and his wife Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a black woman, that made him 1/8 black, and therefore, a black person not eligible to marry a white in Mississippi at that time. He was sent to prison for this “crime,” but the conviction was eventually overturned. While it is also a compelling and powerful story, it deserves to be told in its own film, and not in a film whose focus was on a completely different story altogether.

And therein lies the central problem of Free State of Jones. At the end of the day, the film attempts to tell three different stories in its 139-minute running time, making it a film with very little focus. For those who might not be familiar with the era and its people, this might make the film difficult to follow. And despite these different stories, the story drags from time to time. It definitely feels more like something that should’ve been a History Channel docudrama, with historian interview thrown in (Replacing the film’s use of text titles to explain events).

However, despite these issues, there is much to admire in the film. It’s beautifully-shot, and has a very powerful cast. McConaughey does a fantastic job as Newton Knight, bringing this character to life with a realism that does make you admire what he stood for. Mbatha-Raw gives a very effective performance as Rachel, the slave and healer who eventually becomes Knight’s wife, and joins him in his quest. Mahershala Ali, as the runaway slave Moses, gives the film’s most subtle performance, understating his character’s desire to be treated as a man despite the color of his skin.

In probably the film’s most powerful moment, when Knight asks Moses why he wants to be free, he gives the film’s greatest sentiment: “Because you cannot own a child of God.” It is this scene, and the interaction between the characters, that really makes Free State of Jones come alive. We understand these people, and care for them. So, when brutal acts come to them, we are saddened and angered by their loss.

The few action scenes are well-shot and edited, giving the film a visceral impact. The recreation of the fighting around Corinth, is well-staged, exciting, and brutal. There are a few historical quibbles (Formations seem to not be consistent between shots, in addition to uniforms and equipment looking a little inaccurate), but it conveys the brutality of war, and its impact on the individual.

However, despite all the good it has going for it, this is not a film I can fully recommend. While it does have great performances, and some great technical merits in how it’s shot, Free State of Jones squanders its opportunity to tell a powerful story by delivering a film that lacks a focused narrative, and is boring at times. Only those with a real interest in the period, and learning more about this story, will find something to appreciate. But even for history buffs like myself, it leaves a lot to be desired. In the end, Free State of Jones is neither a good experience, nor a bad one. It’s just a middling experience.

Overall Grade: 5/10, or C.

Help Historic Latta Plantation in Huntersville, NC!

For those of you who support historic preservation, here is an opportunity to help support an historic site in North Carolina that is in danger of losing a good portion of its funding!

A View of Historic Latta Plantation in Huntersville, NC.

A View of Historic Latta Plantation in Huntersville, NC.

Located in Huntersville, just north of Charlotte, Historic Latta Plantation is one of the state’s most treasured historic sites. Built in 1800 by James Latta, an Irish immigrant, the site was purchased by William Sample in 1853. The site has connections to the American Civil War, as several of Sample’s sons joined the Confederate Army as part of the 53rd North Carolina Infantry. In the 1970s, Latta Place, Inc. began to secure funding to restore the plantation house. The site opened in the later part of that decade. The site was then transferred to Mecklenburg County. Today, Historic Latta Plantation is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the site’s rich history.

Today, the site is hosts over thirty different events, and several summer camps for children. Between 12 and 20,000 school children visit the location every year. The site also hosts an annual Civil War Reenactment, which draws hundreds of visitors each year. In addition, the site provides one of the most tranquil places you could ever visit. Except for the Visitor Center and the occasional airplane flying over, you would scarcely believe that you are in the 21st Century.

But now, Latta Plantation is in danger of losing its funding from Mecklenburg County due to proposed budget cuts. The site has only a handful of full-time staff to run the site, and has already had its funding cut drastically. If the county does go through with its plan to cut funding to the site, it would greatly hinder the site, and its continued programs.

A petition has been started to encourage the commissioners of Mecklenburg County to not cut its funding to Latta Plantation. I encourage everybody who is interested in saving this valuable piece of history to sign the petition. The link to the petition can be found here. And for more information, you can visit the official website to learn about the Latta Plantation, and why it is important not only to North Carolina history, but to overall American history as well. Please, do not hesitate. Help support this beautiful historic site today!

CONNECTIONS TO THE PAST: Part One – Primary Documents

The first part in a series of articles discussing the personal connections we have to the people, places and events of the Civil War era.

Although the events of the American Civil War are a century-and-a-half behind us, there are still many things that connect us to those people, places and events that shaped this important part of American history. One of the most important are what have been termed “Primary Documents” by modern scholars. From diaries and journals, to letters home, to telegrams and after-action reports, to discharge and parole papers, these are our most important, and most intimate, connection to the people who lived at this time. It is by reading these primary documents that we can get a sense of who these people were, what they were fighting for, and how combat affected them mentally, physically and spiritually.

I am currently in the middle of working on my Master’s Thesis, the final research project for Graduate School. I am focusing my research on two units that fought in the American Civil War. One of those units is the Confederate 49th North Carolina Troops. As part of the research, I have to go through many primary documents pertaining to the unit. Not only has this been very good for my research project, but it has also been an eye-opening look into the lives of the men who fought in the unit. Much of what I have found has been truly memorable, and also heartbreaking.

In all the research that I have done so far, three moments stand out for me. The first was on my first research trip in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, back at the end of November this past year, to go through the Southern Historical Collections. I went through several documents, but probably the most fascinating that day was the diary of Captain Henry A. Chambers, who served in Company B of the 49th North Carolina, which he kept between June 1863, and April 1865. The diary gives many detailed accounts of the battles the unit fought in during that time, as well as his feelings about the outcomes of those conflicts. His description of the Battle of the Crater, fought on July 30, 1864, is truly memorable for its great detail, and its heartbreaking description of the loss of men (The full transcript of his diaries, including the one kept 1863-65, can be found here).

The second moment came the following day, as I was going through the special collections at Duke University in Durham, NC. I was going through the papers of John Lane Stuart, who fought in Company D of the 49th NC. He wrote several letters to his family at home. But while going through the packet of documents, I stumbled across two small slips of paper. Both were the parole papers given to him after the war had ended, and he had taken the oath of allegiance to the United States. These are important, because there are apparently only a few of these parole slips known to exist. What is also interesting to point out is that, in the first one given to him in August of 1865, the man writing the document misspelled his last name. On the document, the man filling out the form spelled it “Steward.” But when Private Stuart affixed his signature to the document, he spelled it the correct way. This is fascinating, and a bit humorous as well. The other one, which is a “copy” of the oath given to him a month later, the name is misspelled again, this time as “Stewart.” These are unique documents to see, and to find them was a real treasure.

The last moment, and probably the most emotional one, was going back to UNC-Chapel Hill a couple of weeks ago to do more research for the project. This day, I went through the Phifer Family Papers, and some of what I found truly moved me. One of the soldiers who’s letters I went through was Ed Phifer, who went on to be a Lieutenant in the 49th NC. He wrote several letters home, each time wishing members of his family well. As I did a quick look through other letters, I came across a slip of paper folded in two, covering a document that was a little more brittle than the other documents I looked through that day. As I opened it to investigate, I discovered it was the funeral notice for Lieutenant Phifer, who died after suffering wounds. I went back, looking through other documents, and discovered a telegram sent on July 18th, 1864 from Petersburg by his brother to his family notifying them of his death. It was very heart-wrenching to realize that the man whose letters I was going through was one of the men who did not return home from the war. Although I did not know him personally, I did begin to well up a little bit for him and his family, knowing that he gave his life for his home and family, and that his loved ones would not see him again in this life.

To go through these primary documents from the war is to connect personally with the men and women of that time period. To see how they lived through America’s darkest days. To read for yourself what they fought and died for. And most important of all, to feel a personal connection to the events of the American Civil War, a feeling that historical books cannot give you. To me, these documents are just as important a connection as the battlefields and structures of the period that are preserved. For it is through these letters, diaries, journals, and other items that the men themselves are given life again. I encourage everybody to take a day or two to visit the places that hold these types of documents, to see for yourselves the private collections of the men and women who shaped the most important time in our nation’s history.

Happy New Year from CIVIL WAR DIARY!

2012 seems to have flown by. Hard to believe that we’re about to begin 2013 already. The year has been one of the more slower years for the blog, but business picked up in the last four months, with an article on the Battle of Antietam, a look at my trip to the Antietam battlefield, and a review of Steven Spielberg’s highly-anticipated film, Lincoln. With these articles, the blog achieved its highest viewership numbers ever, and I am grateful to everybody for spreading the word on this blog.

2013 promises to be an exciting year. Here is a taste of what is to come:

-The Legacy and Controversies of the Emancipation Proclamation;

-Articles covering major battles of the war, including Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and others;

-Reviews of previous and upcoming film and television releases connected to the American Civil War;

-Interviews with historians and filmmakers;

-Visits to Civil War battlefields and historic sites;

-And much, much more!

Cannot wait to start the new year. Here’s to hoping all of you have a safe and happy 2013! God bless you all!

Movie Review: “Lincoln”

Lincoln (Touchstone Pictures, Dreamworks SKG, 20th Century Fox, 2012)

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tommy Lee Jones

Running Time: 149 Minutes

Rated: PG-13 for an Intense Scene of War Violence, Some Images of Carnage and Brief Strong Language

When I first heard several years ago that Steven Spielberg planned to do a movie about Abraham Lincoln, I got very excited. One of the greatest film directors of our time tackling a story of one of the greatest Presidents in American history is just exciting to think about. Say what you will about Spielberg’s political beliefs, but his historical films, from Shindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan, are some of the best in the genre. Now, over a decade after his decision to do a film about the Great Emancipator, Spielberg’s Lincoln finally hit the cinemas nationwide this past Friday. This has certainly become one of the more scrutinized films by historians and modern filmmakers. So, here I am to give my thoughts on this remarkable film.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s historical drama “Lincoln.”

The Cast

For this film, Spielberg has assembled one of the greatest all-star casts ever assembled. But this movie truly belongs to it’s leading man: Daniel Day-Lewis. As I expected before seeing the film, Mr. Day-Lewis gives us what will surely be the definitive screen depiction of our 16th President. As the man has a penchant for doing, he delves into the role with a passion never seen by any actor who has donned the top hat. He truly shows the torment of the man who was overseeing the bloodiest war in American history, while also dealing with a wife whom he loves, though she does drive him angry at times, and the loss of his son Willie years ago. But he also shows Lincoln was a fiercely political animal, as he works to get the necessary votes needed to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, and with bringing an end to the war. But most of all, Lincoln shows the humorous nature of the man, telling yarns and jokes to help get his points across. In all three areas, Day-Lewis excels. If he doesn’t at least get a nomination come Oscar time, then something is definitely wrong with affairs in Hollywood.

Another actor who should be considered for an Oscar is Tommy Lee Jones, who portrays Thaddeus Stevens, a member of the Radical Republicans, and a strong voice for abolition in the U.S. House of Representatives. As usual, Jones gives a strong, humorous performance as a man who is not above insulting his Democratic rivals in the House to bring his point across to the people. He also shows that, despite taking a strong stance against slavery, he is willing to calm his rhetoric to get the amendment passed. This is definitely some of Mr. Jones’ finest work, and deserves some recognition come Oscar time.

Sally Field portrays Mary Todd Lincoln. I have to admit, I was slightly disappointed by Ms. Field in the role. She wasn’t bad. She just wasn’t as good as I thought she’d be. But she does manage to get some laughs, as well as some emotional intensity. It is possible that, had she had more screen time, her performance would have been more fleshed out. But still, she does a solid job in the role.

There are several notable minor roles that should be mentioned. James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, one of the three men hired by the Lincoln administration to “bribe” several key Democrats to vote in favor of the amendment. He is a very funny character, and Spader does good in the role. Also turning in fine performances are Lee Pace as Fernando Wood, a Democrat who stands against Emancipation; Hal Holbrook as Francis Preston Blair, the Postmaster General who calls for Lincoln to attempt to bring the war to a peaceful end; David Strathairn as William Seward, Secretary of State, and Lincoln’s closest friend in the cabinet; Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, the President’s oldest son, and a man who wants more than anything to do his part by joining the army, and; Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant. Although a very bit role, his performance comes off as very authentic, and he really gives you a good impression of what Grant was like in his short time in the role. The rest of the supporting cast truly does a commendable job in bringing this story to life.

The Script

Tony Kushner’s script covers a very short amount of time in Lincoln’s life, from January to April of 1865, the closing months of the war. But in choosing to focus on this short amount of time, we get to see two of the most important moments in American history: the final abolition of slavery, and the ending of the American Civil War. Here, we get to see Lincoln as a husband, a father, a politician, and as a human being, and how his involvement in affairs brought about great changes in our country. The script also provides Spielberg with his most character-driven piece to date. While the script does occasionally drag in places, it provides a thorough and emotional look at the events depicted in this film.

Weak Points

To me, there were only three weaknesses in the film. First and second, as already mentioned, are Sally Field’s slightly disappointing turn as Mary Todd Lincoln, and the tendency of the film to drag at times. But these are not a major problems with the film. The third weakness is in the choice of actor to portray Robert E. Lee in the brief depiction of the surrender at Appomattox. While the scene itself is depicted fairly accurately, the fact that they chose to cast a man who, although he looks like Lee in the face, is rather chunky to play the frail, skinny commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, is somewhat distracting from the emotional impact of the scene. But again, this is a minor quibble in an overall moving film.

The End (Spoiler Alert!)

As my friend Greg Caggiano said in his review of the film, the way Spielberg and Kushner chose to end the film is very moving, and different from how it is generally portrayed. Instead of seeing Lincoln at the theater, we see him prepare to leave the White House to go to the theater. And here, Lincoln gives a line that is meant to be off the cuff, but turns out being prophetic: “I have to go, but I wish I could stay.” Then, we see Lincoln walking down a corridor, as one of his help looks on. We then cut to Tad Lincoln, the President’s son, watching a performance of “Aladdin,” which is interrupted by news that the President has been shot. We then go to the Petersen House, where Lincoln dies. But the film does not end there. It ends with Lincoln giving his Second Inaugural Address. This is probably the most powerful scene in the film, as Mr. Day-Lewis gives a powerful rendition of what I believe is Lincoln’s greatest speech. The way Spielberg chose to end his cinematic story truly moved me to tears, and proved to be a powerful way to end the film.

Final Thoughts

Lincoln is definitely one of the greatest films made about Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War. From the amazing performances by Daniel Day-Lewis and an all-star cast, a powerfully-written script, to a moving finale, this is definitely the defining portrait of the man considered by many to be our Greatest President. If you have an interest in American history, or enjoy serious, thought-provoking drama, then Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is definitely a movie worth seeing.

Grade: 9 out of 10.

“It Was Not War – It Was Murder:” The Battle of Malvern Hill, July 1st, 1862

Today marks the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Malvern Hill, which was fought on July 1st, 1862, outside of Richmond, Virginia. Although a tactical victory for Union forces, this conflict, the final in a series of battles known as the Seven Days’, this battle marked an end to General George B. McClellan’s first time in command of the Army of the Potomac. It also marked the rise of General Robert E. Lee, and the Army of Northern Virginia, as a forced to be reckoned with in the Eastern Theater of the war. Here, we shall look at this battle, and its effect on the war.

Drawing of the Battle at Malvern Hill

The Battle of Malvern Hill was the culmination of the infamous Peninsula Campaign, which began in March of 1862, when Union General George B. McClellan led the Army of the Potomac from the Virginia Peninsula, in an attempt to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. Although a cautious man, “Little Mac,” as his soldiers affectionately called him, was almost successful, bringing his men to within a few short miles of the city. But it was mainly because McClellan faced a similarly cautious general in the form of Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. But all of that changed on May 31st, 1862, when Johnston was severely wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. In his place, Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed his military adviser, General Robert E. Lee, to command the Confederate army in the field. It was a decision that Johnston himself credited as a great moment for the Southern cause.[1]

Lee wasted no time in preparing a campaign against McClellan. He sent one of his best cavalry officers, James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart, on a reconnaissance ride that would eventually complete an entire circuit around the Union army between June 12th and June 16th. From the information Stuart gathered, Lee chose to attack the enemy. This decision would culminate in what would become known as the Seven Days’ Battles, of which Malvern Hill would be the final conflict in a series of six engagements fought over several days. In assaults at Oak Grove, Mechanicsville, Gaines’ Mill, Savage Station and Glendale, Lee would time and time again attempt to drive Union forces from strong defenses.  And with the exception of Gaines’ Mill, Lee would be defeated at every chance. This frustrated Lee, who wanted to deal a complete blow to his enemy. However, it did have an effect on the mind of his opponent. McClellan feared that he was outnumbered, and even though he won several of the engagements during the Seven Days’, he continued to pull his troops back, fearing that his men might be destroyed, and with it his reputation.[2]

After several failures to defeat the enemy, and drive them from their positions, Lee still hoped to achieve success. But this time, the Federals had set up a defensive position on Malvern Hill, their strongest one yet. “One hundred and fifty feet high and flanked by deep ravines a mile apart, Malvern Hill would have to be attacked frontally and uphill across open fields. Four Union divisions and 100 guns covered this front with four additional divisions and 150 guns in reserve. Unless these troops were utterly demoralized, it seemed suicidal to attack them.”[3] Yet lee chose to do so, with many signs leading him to believe the enemy was demoralized. That, along with his frustration at continual failure, led him to attack “those people” yet again. Longstreet, usually against this type of assault, shared his commanding officer’s sentiments.[4]

The attack was planned for the morning of July 1st. That morning, “Longstreet found two elevated positions north of Malvern Hill from which he thought artillery might soften up Union defenses for an infantry assault. Lee ordered artillery to concentrate on the two knolls. But staff work broke down again; only some of the cannoneers got the message, and their weak fire was soon silenced by Union batteries. Lee nevertheless ordered the assault to go forward.”[5] Lee had once again hoped that artillery crossfire would silence enemy artillery, and once again, that hope was not realized. Despite this, the men were ordered to move forward. What followed was a series of piecemeal assaults. “Some intrepid souls actually stormed to the crest in the face of overwhelming fire; most were mowed down along the slope or fell to the ground, unwilling to advance farther, and made their way back when they thought it was safe.”[6]

For some of the Confederates, Malvern Hill would be their first time in battle. One of the units who would see the elephant for the first time was the 49th North Carolina, commanded by Colonel Stephen Ramseur, and part of Robert Ransom’s brigade. Having only trained for two months before being put into battle, Ramseur wrote to his brother about his misgivings before the fight. “I do not put much confidence in my men,” and said that they “look scared & anxious.”[7] But just as other Confederates would make their own states proud, the 49th NC would do well under fire. One of the men who wrote of his experiences in this fight was William A. Day, a private in Company I from Catawba County. Years after the war ended, he wrote of his experiences while serving with the 49th.

Of Malvern Hill, Day wrote a vivid description of his Company’s action:

We arrived in the vicinity in the evening and formed our line of battle in the woods near the clover field. We remained there till late in the evening. When the advance was made we moved out of the woods into the clover field, and were soon in full view of the hill. We moved rapidly across the field, keeping our lines in perfect order under terrible fire from the batteries on the hill. We could see our artillery retreating, lashing their horses. The fired was too hot for them, and they had lost so many men they had to fall back. When we reached the fence a staff officer was there sitting on his horse crying at the top of his voice: “Lord God Almighty double quick, they are cutting are men to pieces,” and kept on repeating those words. In crossing the fence and swamp our lines were broken and, moving on the foot of the hill where we were sheltered from the fire, we re-formed our line. In a few moments the command charge was given. We gave what the Yankees were pleased to call the “rebel yell,” and started at double quick up the hill, and were soon breasting the storm.

General Bob Ransom, with a white handkerchief around his cap, spurred his horse through the lines and dashing in front of the 49th Regiment, called out in a voice that could be plainly heard above the uproar of battle: “Come on boys, come on heroes, your General is in front” and kept cheering us until we had nearly reached the Crews house. He then turned and galloped down the line. We charged up to the Crews house within thirty feet of the batteries. Sergeant Frank Moody of company I was carrying the colors. They almost wrapped us in flames – we could go no further. We halted and fired round after round at the Yankee artillerymen, whose faces shined by the flash of their guns. Our firing seemed to make no impression on them. Our Colonel Ramseur was badly wounded, and passed the order down the line to lie down. This sheltered us from the fire, which passed over our heads. We lay upon the ground about five minutes, when orders were passed down the line to fall back in good order. The batteries by this time had slacked their fire. We moved back until we were under cover of the hill and re-formed our line.[8]

According to Day, Company I lost sixteen men killed, wounded or captured. Losses amongst the other companies in the regiment were high as well.[9] Overall, Lee’s failure at Malvern Hill cost the Confederates over 5,600 men, while Union losses amounted to around 2,100. D.H. Hill called the battle murder, and not war.[10] Once again, Lee had failed to dislodge Union troops from their defensive positions. And yet, McClellan, fearing himself outnumbered, once again ordered his men to fall back. In August, after spending the entire month of July with their backs against the James River, Lincoln ordered the men to withdraw from the Peninsula to help with events taking place in Northern Virginia.

The Seven Days’ battles, which culminated with Malvern Hill, had been extremely costly for the Confederacy. In the six battles that took place between June 25th and July 1st, the Army of Northern Virginia had only won one of the engagements, and lost over 20,000 men in the process, while Union forces lost nearly 16,000 men. However, despite Confederate failures, McClellan’s cautiousness forced him to continue falling back, despite outnumbering his forces. When he and his men were pulled from the Peninsula in August, Lee and the Confederates had a tactical victory. With this, Lee began to plan an offensive against the Union Army of Virginia, commanded by John Pope, leading to the Battle of Second Manassas at the end of August, briefly freeing Virginia from Union troops, and leading Lee to plan his first invasion of the North. With the Seven Days, the legend of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia was forged.

Works Cited

Day, William A. A True History of Company I, 49th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, in the Great Civil War, Between the North and South. Newton, N.C.: Enterprise Job Office, 1893.

“Dod Ramseur to Brother, 5 June 1862.” Stephen D. Ramseur Papers. Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse. New York: Free Press, 2008.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

[1] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 461-462.

[2] McPherson, 463-469.

[3] McPherson, 469.

[4] McPherson, 469.

[5] McPherson, 470.

[6] Joseph T. Glatthaar, General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (New York: Free Press, 2008), 139-140.

[7] “Dod Ramseur to Brother, 5 June 1862,” Stephen D. Ramseur Papers (Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill).

[8] William A. Day, A True History of Company I, 49th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, in the Great Civil War Between the North and South (Newton, N.C.: Free Enterprise Job Office, 1893), 20-21.

[9] Day, 21-22.

[10] Glatthaar, 140.

Remembering Family on Memorial Day

Memorial Day. To some, this is just a day off from work, where we do labor around the house, go to baseball games, grill hot dogs and hamburgers, amongst other things. Those are all well and good. But for many, this is one of several days every year where we reflect on our American freedoms, and those who have fought and died in the preservation of our country.

In honor of our fallen soldiers.

For me, it is a day to reflect on all of those ancestors of mine who served in our armed forces. And in the past couple of years, we have discovered that our military ancestry goes as far back as the American Revolution, the war that broke off the tyrannical chains of Britain, and set up the country we live in today. In that war, my five times Great Grandfather, Thomas Hemphill, was an officer in the North Carolina militia, part of the famed Over-Mountain Men. He was a Lieutenant when he led his men into battle at King’s Mountain on October 7, 1780. It was at this battle that an entire wing of British General Cornwallis’ army was surrounded and captured, helping to turn the tide of the Revolution in the South. Lieutenant Hemphill would eventually be promoted to Captain before the war’s end.

When it comes to the American Civil War, I know of at least two ancestors who fought in the Confederate army during the war. While it is not popular to honor Confederate soldiers on American Memorial Day, I do so because these men fought for the same reasons that all American soldiers have fought: the defense of their homes and families. On my Mother’s side of the family, my three or four times Great Uncle, Henry P. Brendle, fought as a part of Thomas’ Legion, a Confederate unit in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee/Western North Carolina, and was comprised entirely of Cherokee Indians and Mountaineers. They fought in several major engagements  in the mountains, and a portion of this force was even involved in the fighting in the Shenandoah Valley, and at Monocacy, in 1864. After the war, Henry Brendle returned home to start over.

On my Father’s side of the family, my three times Great Grandfather, Elijah W. Marlowe, served in Company A of the 49th North Carolina Troops. This unit first saw action at the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862, and was also present at the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, before spending most of 1863 in North Carolina to help with troubles in the state. They returned to Virginia in 1864, and took part in the vicious battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864. What was left of the regiment was virtually destroyed at the Battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865, and surrendered just a few men at Appomattox eleven days later. Elijah Marlowe was apparently captured twice, before being paroled at Point Lookout in June of 1865. He returned home to start his life anew.

The Second World War saw thousands upon thousands of families send their families off to fight. My family was no exception. On my Dad’s side of the family, my Grandfather, Joseph Hancock, and three of his brothers (Leroy, Howard, and Adolphus Hancock Jr.) served in the war. My Grandfather and Howard served in Europe, while Leroy and “Junior,” as Adolphus was called, served in the Pacific. Another of my Grandfather’s brothers, Sherman Hancock, served in Japan during the occupation following the end of hostilities. All saw the horrors of war in their most brutal form, as they fought to virtually save the world from the Axis powers, and make the world safe for democracy. My Grandfather would go on to serve in Korea as well.

Vietnam saw its own share of horrors, and those men who served there have never been given credit for the sacrifices they made. My Uncle Conrad served in that war at the beginning, but was not there to see the horror that it became. My Uncle Joe was also in that war, though I was unaware of this until recently.

Of course, not all of my family who has served in the military has seen war. But that does not mean their service was any less appreciative. On my Mother’s side, my Grandfather, Clifford Payne, served in the Navy during the 1950s. He always jokes about “having served in the Cold War,” but in a sense, he is not joking. If American and Russia had gone to war, men like him would have served in a conflict far more brutal and unforgiving as any way previously fought. We are grateful to them for serving in a time of such unrest.

And today, that service to our country has not waned. My fourth cousin, Joel Evans, is currently an officer in the United States Army. We are grateful to Joel for his continual service to our country, and pray that he will remain safe.

If there is any of my family I have missed, it is hard to keep track of everybody who has served in our armed forces, both in war and in peacetime. But know that your contribution is still on my mind. And to all of those who have served, and are currently serving in the United States military, thank you all for your service to our country. It is your sacrifice that is keeping our country safe. May God continue to watch over you, and keep you safe from harm.

Movie Review: “The Conspirator”

The Conspirator (The American Film Company, 2011).

Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Danny Huston and Tom Wilkinson

Running Time: 122 Minutes

Rated: PG-13 for Some Violent Content

“In times of war, the law falls silent.”-Cicero

Every American is familiar with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by famed actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth that took place on April 14th, 1865, five days after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox. But few Americans are familiar with the events that transpired afterward. The assassination was part of a conspiracy to kill President Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward, with only the Lincoln part of it succeeding. Following the assassination, Booth was hunted down and killed, and the Federal Government rounded up those who were considered part of the conspiracy. Among those arrested was Mary Surratt, who owned the boarding house where Booth and his conspirators met to plan the abduction of Lincoln, and whose son was Booth’s right hand. The military trial of Surratt and other members of Booth’s party is the subject of Director Robert Redford’s latest film The Conspirator, the premiere project of the American Film Company, whose purpose is to create films based on actual stories from American history.

Redford is no stranger to films with dealing with political commentary (All the President’s Men, Lions for Lambs), and The Conspirator is no exception. The film follows Frederick Aiken, a Union war hero who is given the thankless task of defending Mary Surratt against a military tribunal which has already made up its mind on the verdict for Surratt, a known southern sympathizer and devout Catholic. Although he questions whether or not she is truly guilty or innocent of the crime, he cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that the War Department will do anything it can to make sure she is found guilty, and tries everything he can to make sure she is given fair treatment.

The film presents a powerful argument on the Constitutionality of civilians being tried in military tribunals. Although most of those tried were indeed guilty of the crime of conspiring to assassinate Lincoln, Johnson and Seward, these men should have been tried in a civilian court, with a jury of their peers, and not a group of officers charged not with issuing justice, but enacting what was nothing more than Government-sponsored revenge. And when things do not go according to plan, the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, presses to make sure that they do. The outcome of this trial would have great ramifications on the judicial system, and lead to laws being passed that would guarantee that travesties such as this would not happen in the United States again.

As for the movie itself, it is fantastically done. The performances in this movie are dynamic overall. James McAvoy plays Aiken, and gives a thoughtful and riveting performance as Surratt’s attorney. Robin Wright gives a warm and tender portrayal of Mary Surratt, making you feel very sympathetic to the character, while also realizing she may not be telling the whole truth. Evan Rachel Wood, Colm Meany and Tom Wilkinson give terrific performances as well. But the finest performance in The Conspirator belongs to Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Stanton. He gives a subdued performance, but behind his eyes can be seen a man who wants revenge for what has happened. You cannot help but despise the man after seeing this, and the characterization of the man as presented in the film is spot on to what history has to say about him. Aside from a rather uncomfortable performance by Alexis Bledel as Aiken’s love interest, the rest of the cast is solid.

While James Solomon’s script tends to drag from time to time, the courtroom scenes, terrific performances and fantastic direction make up for a lot. There is no denying that Robert Redford is a master director, and when given a story as good as this one, he gives his all into telling it as best he can. Despite a few moments of poetic license, this is definitely one of the more historically accurate films to come out of Hollywood in recent memory. The attention to detail, from costumes and props, to historic structures and scenery, is startling to behold. This first outing from the American Film Company bodes well for that company’s future.

In closing, I highly recommend The Conspirator to those who love history, as well as those who enjoy serious films. It features terrific performances, a fine story, and fantastic direction from Oscar-winner Robert Redford. The film also has much to say about Constitutional rights, and how the impact of this trial would lead to ramifications in the judicial system that are still with us today.

Movie Grade: A-

The Importance of the Western Theater in the American Civil War

On this day in 1861, the first major battle of the Civil War in the west took place when around 5,400 Union troops under General Nathaniel Lyon attacked Confederate General Ben McCullough’s force of 12,000 at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Missouri. General Lyon was killed in the action, and the Federals forced to retreat, in what became the first defeat for Union forces in the west. Over 2,500 men fell on both sides during the battle. The Battle of Wilson’s Creek was the first battle in a part of the war often overlooked in light of events in Virginia. Here, we shall look at the Western Theater of the American Civil War, and its importance in the outcome of the conflict.

When it comes to the history of the American Civil War, the events of the Eastern Theater, and primarily those that took place in Virginia, are the most studied of them all. But the Western Theater, primarily the events in Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia, are sadly overlooked in the realm of Civil War study. Although some battles and campaigns are mentioned, the attention to given to this part of the war, and to the men that fought it, pales in comparison to what has been lavished on the events of the east. But the events of the Western Theater of the American Civil War are just as important, and in some cases, probably more important, than the events of the east. To me, there are three reasons that this theater of war was important to the Union war plan.

1. Splitting the Confederacy

It was in this theater of the war that the United States would deal a severe blow to the Confederacy by tearing the country asunder by dividing the country. The Union first did this by taking control of the Mississippi River, which served as a natural divide, with the Confederate States of Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas to the west of the river. Control of this river would divide the far western states from the rest of the country, and would allow passage for Union gunboats. The campaign to take control of this vital waterway was planned and led by Union General Ulysses S. Grant, and, although it would take longer than expected, was successful. With the capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 4th, and the capitulation of Port Hudson on July 9th, the Union took complete control of the Mississippi, and divided the South in two.

But Union plans would eventually lead to the Confederacy being divided yet again. In 1864, with Tennessee securely in Federal hands, Union General William T. Sherman began his infamous Atlanta Campaign, which ended with the taking of that city that September. With that success behind him, Sherman then made his legendary “March to the Sea,” capturing Savannah in December. With this campaign, the Confederacy was now split into three parts, with the Union in control of much of the country between the Mississippi and Tennessee/Georgia. Sherman was also able to march virtually unopposed through South Carolina, leaving a path of destruction in his wake before entering North Carolina in March, 1865.

2. Success in Georgia and Lincoln’s Reelection

The Elections of 1864 became heavily connected with the Western Theater of the war. By September of that year, the chances of Abraham Lincoln winning reelection were slim at best. Not only had previous presidents before him failed to gain a second term in office, but many citizens of the United States felt the war was not going well, and were ready to see it over. To make matters worse, Lincoln faced strong opposition from the Democratic Presidential nominee, General George B. McClellan, former commander of the Army of the Potomac. Although he was not fully supportive of the idea, McClellan ran on a peace platform that, if elected, would see him seek negotiations for an end to hostilities, and possibly see the war conclude with the Union still divided, and slavery still in existence in the South.

But with news of the fall of Atlanta in September, things brightened for Lincoln and his administration. People began to realize that the war could be won, and that the Union could be preserved. That November, Lincoln won reelection, and was given the opportunity to see the war to its conclusion. Had the Confederacy held on to Atlanta until the time of the 1864 Election, things might have turned out differently.

3. The Rise of Ulysses S. Grant

The most important element of the Western Theater of the war is that this is where Union General Ulysses S. Grant made a name for himself. Yes, he is remembered as the man made Lieutenant General, the second since George Washington, and sent to defeat Lee in Virginia, culminating in the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. But had it not been for his success in the West, Grant would never have gained prominence in the eyes of Lincoln, who saw in him the man who could defeat Lee, and end the war.

He first gained recognition in capturing Fort Donelson in February 1862, where his call for surrender with no conditions earned him the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. Although taken by surprise at the Battle of Shiloh in April, and nearly undone by drinking and superior officers jealous of his popularity, he would go on to lead the successful taking of the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and taking control of the Mississippi River from the Confederates, in July of 1863. Then, the icing on the cake came when he successfully broke the Confederate siege of Chattanooga by driving Braxton Bragg’s army from their positions on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge on November 24-25, 1863. It was because of these successes that Lincoln called Grant east, pinned a third star on him, and gave him supreme command of all Union forces in the field.


These are the reasons why the Western Theater of the American Civil War was vital to the Union war effort. The taking of the Mississippi River, and Sherman’s successful campaigns in Georgia, split the Confederacy in three. Moreover, Sherman’s taking of Atlanta made it possible for Lincoln to win reelection, and continue the war effort. Finally, it was the actions of Ulysses S. Grant in this theater of war that gained him prominence, and brought him east to finish the fight against Lee. Without these successes in the west, victory for the Union may not have been achieved, and the preservation of the Union, and the ending of the “peculiar institution” of slavery, would possibly have been in vain.


Steven Hancock, Civil War Diary.

Works Consulted

McPherson, James M. Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

An Unnecessary Conflict?


This blog was originally posted on my Facebook page on Tuesday, April 12th, 2011.

Today is Tuesday, April 12th, 2011. It was on this day a hundred and fifty years ago that the American Civil War began with the firing on Fort Sumter by Confederate Forces in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. During the 34-hour bombardment, not a single man on either side was killed, wounded or captured. After the battle, an exploding cannon killed or wounded four Union soldiers during a 100-gun salute they were allowed to fire before evacuating the fort. It was a nearly bloodless beginning to the bloodiest conflict in American History.

Regardless of which side of the conflict you sympathize with, there is no question that the issue at the heart of the conflict was the issue of slavery. The Confederates were fighting for States’ Rights (Which did include the right to continue slavery), and many of the common soldiers in the ranks were not fighting to preserve slavery, but to defend “home and hearth.” And it can also be said that not all Union soldiers were willing to lay down their lives to free the slave. All of that is true. But there is no denying that slavery was the central issue that drove the South to secede from the United States, and plunge the country into civil war.

One of the things that deeply saddens me about this war is how it could have possibly been avoided. When one looks at the history of Europe in regards to slavery, you see that cooler heads were able to prevail for the most part in that part of the world. The greatest example of this is in Great Britain. In 1807, after a twenty-year battle in Parliament, William Wilberforce and his followers were successful in seeing the British Slave Trade abolished. Twenty-six years later, three days before Wilberforce’s death, the government of Great Britain abolished slavery itself throughout their empire. The rest of Europe would eventually follow suit, and slavery was ultimately defeated with little or no blood spilled to do so. The voices of reason, stating that there was no need for force, allowed for a more peaceful end to the institution.

But here in the United States, slavery ended at a terrible cost: 620,000 dead, another half-a-million wounded, millions of dollars worth of destruction, and a nation scarred forever. Why did the abolition of slavery here in America come with such a high price? The simplest answer is this: the voices of reason, which had prevailed in Europe, were not listened to in this country. Radicals on both sides of the issue prevailed in this country. Radical secessionists and abolitionists alike helped push the country into a bloody conflict. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, with an armed group prepared to use force to free the slaves, was the harbinger of what was to come. After that raid failed, and John Brown executed, there was possibly no turning back from war.

I think now of the final scene at the end of North and South: Book One, where Orry and George, two friends from South Carolina and Pennsylvania, discuss the coming conflict. Orry asks George if there is any way they could have prevented the war from occurring. “I think we had a chance somewhere along the line” George replied, “and we missed it.”

“Or threw it away” Orry comments.

This is just one of the reasons that the American Civil War is one of the most tragic episodes in our history. While almost all of Europe was able to abolish slavery with little or no fighting, the freedom for Blacks here in America was paid at a terrible price. If cooler heads had prevailed, slavery could have come to an end with no need for a war. But those voices of reason were swept away, as radicals on both sides took over, and any chance of going about it reasonably was thrown away, setting the stage for the bloodiest four years in America’s history.


Steven Hancock, Civil War Diary