Tuesday, June 24, 2014 was the final day of this year’s Civil War Institute. We started with bus tours of the Gettysburg battlefield, following specific soldiers. I was following the steps of Lieutenant J. Warren Jackson of the 8th Louisiana Infantry (Louisiana Tigers) with Scott Mingus and Edwin C. Bearss. It was a pretty good tour, starting at Barlow’s Knoll and talking about the Tigers’ participation in the overrunning of that mistaken position. From there we went over to Koster Avenue and the site of the Brickyard Fight, another action the Tigers were in. We discussed their staying in town the night of July 1 and then went over to East Cemetery Hill for a discussion of their actions on July 2.
You might have heard that Ed Bearss fainted that day. He did, due to dehydration. It’s a lesson for all of us to make sure we stay hydrated on the battlefield. Even the seemingly indestructible Ed Bearss can fall victim to dehydration. The Louisiana Tigers were a lawless crew of cutthroats. They went into each fight after drinking whiskey laced with gunpowder, and they bayoneted wounded Union soldiers on the field. The tour ended at East Cemetery Hill and the night action where the Tigers got among the Union guns but were repulsed by Union reinforcements.
After the tours we had lunch, followed by our Breakout Sessions. My first session was “Lee to the Rear: The Texas Brigade, Robert E. Lee, and the Chances for Confederate Victory in 1864” with Susannah Ural of the University of Southern Mississippi. We learned that the night of May 5 in the Wilderness, A. P. Hill doesn’t have his soldiers entrench, and his lines are poorly laid out. Lt. Col. William Poague commanded 16 guns in the Tapp Field, but there were no pickets or other defenses around him. Susannah read extensive excerpts from a remarkable letter by Private Sam Blessing of the Texas Brigade to his sister, dated May 29, 1864. In coming to the Wilderness, Longstreet traveled 35-40 miles in 40 hours with only 5 hours of rest, the last 2 miles at the double quick. Susannah covered the events surrounding this first “Lee to the Rear” episode of the war. Afterward she asked what was the significance of the event? Essentially, Lee’s subordinate commanders aren’t performing well and he has to show personal leadership to save the day. For those who like to pile on General Hood, though, we should recall that even after the war, the veterans of the Texas Brigade, even after knowing the results of the Battle of Franklin, always called themselves HOOD’S Texas Brigade.
The second breakout session was “Re-Thinking Confederate Defeat in the Summer of 1864” with Kevin Levin. Confederate soldiers were thinking a great deal about the US Election of 1864. They looked on it as a make-or-break event. Confederate morale peaked in mid-summer of 1864, with many believing the Overland Campaign was a victory. Lee’s men are optimistic. They have faith in the cause, and they have faith in Lee. With the siege of Petersburg, for the first time Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia is now defending a civilian population for a length of time. At Petersburg there is no distinction between the battlefield and the home front. The battlefield is at the home front. Lee’s men see the civilians of Petersburg as surrogates for their own families. They understand clearly what is at stake if they lose: physical destruction, destruction of their social system, and slavery and white supremacy. They have a peculiar objection to fighting against “Beast Butler’s Miscegenators.” Lee’s men are unified by their commitment to slavery. For many of them, the Battle of the Crater wasn’t a battle at all, but rather putting down a slave insurrection.
The final event of the conference was a panel on The War in 1864. The panelists were Peter Carmichael of Gettysburg College, Brooks Simpson of Arizona State University, Susannah Ural of the University of Southern Mississippi, Barton Myers of Washington & Lee University, Kathryn Shively Meier of Virginia Commonwealth University, Anne Sarah Rubin of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and Jennifer Murray of the University of Virginia Wise. The panel took questions from the audience for over an hour.