Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Confederate Flag in Canada

Hello again.  I just returned from a trip to northwestern Ontario with the family.  Along the way, I came across an actual Confederate flag flying at a local house.  I won't say where to protect its resident's privacy.  Ironically, I just happened to have a copy of John Coski's 2004 book The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem on me at the time.  

This comes at a time when the Confederate battle flag has come under increasing scrutiny.  In June, a white man killed nine African Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.  After his arrest, pictures emerged of him with Confederate flags.  Demands to take down the flag everywhere soon came from across the country.  This was a tall order, but down they came. Walmart and Amazon stopped selling items with the flag on them.  Most remarkably, the South Carolina Legislature voted to remove the flag from its Confederate war memorial at the Capitol in Columbia.

The Confederate flag is far less common in other countries but it appears from time to time. As I understand it, some use it as a substitute for the Nazi Swastika, which is banned in numerous countries.  This may or may not apply to the Swedish van covered in Stars and Bars that I saw in late 2013.  I am not sure why this homeowner flies the flag, because I never asked.  I certainly hope that they do not subscribe to any such philosophy.  Yet they may do so as an act of defiance, oblivious to the racist symbol that it clearly is.  All it proves is that the Confederacy's legacy is well known around the world.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Civil War Memorials in Norway and Sweden

 I recently returned from a two-week long trip to Norway, Sweden and Finland.  While in Scandinavia, I sought out a couple of Civil War-related monuments.  The first is of Colonel Hans Christian Heg of the 15th Wisconsin Infantry, also known as The Scandinavian Regiment due to its mostly Norwegian and Danish (but not Swedish) membership.  Heg was killed in action at Chickamauga.  In 1925, the residents of his hometown of Lierbyen in Brakar County, about 50 miles west of Oslo, erected this monument to him.  A similar statue is on the grounds of the Wisconsin State Legislature.

The next monment is the grave of Brigadier General Ernst Matthias Peter von Vegesack (pronounced fe-zeck).  A descendant of a distinguished military family -- his grandfather had been a prominent Swedish general in the Napoleonic Wars, fighting mostly to keep Finland from the Russians -- he resigned his Swedish Army commission to head to the United States to serve in the war.  He was one of George McClellan's foreign aides.  

In that role, he served bravely in the Peninsula Campaign.  For his courage at the Battle of Gaines' Mill, he received the Medal of Honor in 1893.  Vegesack later commanded the German-speaking 20th New York at Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.  Afterwards, he resigned his United States commission and returned to his Swedish military career.  In 1866, he received an American promotion to Brigadier General.  He died in 1903.  He is buried in Norra Begravingsplaten (Northern Cemetery) in Solna, north of Stockholm.  Other famous internments include Alfred Nobel, director Victor Sjostrom, playwright August Strindberg and actress Ingrid Bergman.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Addendum: General Sherman's 1880 Visit to Winnipeg

Yesterday, I wrote about General William Tecumseh Sherman's 1886 visit to Winnipeg.  In the related news stories, he commented to journalists how much the area had changed since his previous stay there.  I said that I could find no information about that event.  Thanks to information provided by a friend, I can correct that view.

Courtesy of the New York Times, three stories exist about the trip in July 1880.  The first, dated July 7, reports that the General was met by Premier Norguay (actually John Norquay), Major Alexander Logan (who met him on his subsequent visit), and Colonel Osborne Smith, commander of the local militia units.  Smith, according to Wikipedia, spent much of the Civil War guarding the border around Windsor, Canada West, opposite Detroit.  This time, he received Sherman, who at the time was Commanding General of the United States Army, with a full military parade.  "A procession was formed, with an escort of cavalry, and as it crossed the Red River, was greeted with a salute of 19 guns, on the Winnipeg bank of the River, by a field battery," the Times reported.  A parade of infantry met Sherman at Government House where a band played "the national anthem", but it does not say which country's.

The second story is dated two days later, July 9, 1880.  It adds some more detail about the political reception extended to Sherman. Traveling via special train from St. Paul, Minnesota via St. Vincent (in the northwestern corner of the state), and Pembina in Dakota Terrtory, the general arrived in the afternoon of the 7th.  Greeters included Lieutenant Governor Joseph Édouard Cauchon and Madame Cauchon, the first Francophone to hold that office, Speaker Gilbert McMicken, Mayor Logan, some clergy and other prominent citizens.  

The third story is dated three weeks later from a Minnesota newspaper.  It adds little new detail about the visit itself, but instead describes the conditions in this part of the North American continent.  The report states that Sherman spent three days in Winnipeg, which with a population of 12,000, was the capital of "a newly-developed region, the Province of Manitoba."  It goes on to describe the position of the Lieutenant Governor as being "as independent as the Governor of Missouri" in his relationship to the British home government.  Moreover, it reports that Sherman disclaimed any notion of annexation of the area to the United States, "that there is talk of annexation of the United States to Canada."  Perhaps assuaging the fears of the white population in Manitoba as in other parts of the North American west, the paper reported that local authorities had "the right to try and punish Indians for individual crimes, the same as the courts do."  

While limited in scope, these stories reveal that General Sherman received a warm welcome in Winnipeg, at least from the higher echelons of its society. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

General Sherman's Visit to Winnipeg, early September 1886.

Here is another blog post about Canada's connections to the American Civil War.  I recalled being told years ago that General William T. Sherman once visited the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.  One of the city's premier clubs, the Manitoba Club, even boasted about it on their website.  Being a historian, I wondered if this was true.

It turns out that it is.  Sherman visited the city in September of 1886.  He and one of his daughters returned to their home in New York City from a trip to the West Coast of the United States via the then-newly completed Canadian Pacific Railroad. Indeed, the president of the CPR, Donald Smith (later Lord Strathcona, who used his wealth to outfit a cavalry regiment for the Boer War in 1899.  It still serves in the Canadian Army today) accompanied the General on the trip.

Perusing the Manitoba Archives' superb website, I found notices in two local newspapers about the visit.  The first comes from the Brandon Sun of September 9, 1886.

Cyrus W. Field was an American-born investor who laid the first trans-Atlantic submarine cable in 1858, and who had extensive contacts in Britain, Canada and the United States. 

I can find no evidence about Sherman's claim to have visited seven years before, but it could be possible.  

The second excerpt comes from the Minnedosa Tribune.  Although only a small town west of Winnipeg, surviving issues of this newspaper provide extensive coverage of Manitoba's early years. 

The consul was James Wickes Taylor, a New Yorker who represented the U.S. government in Manitoba from 1870 to 1893.  Henry Shaver Wesbrook (or Westbrook) was the mayor at the time.  His predecessor, Alexander Logan, also attended. 

Although brief, Sherman's visit nonetheless brought out many of the area's dignitaries.  One can imagine that the local branch of the Grand Army of the Republic, headed by Harper Wilson, an Irish-born veteran wounded at Gettysburg, turned out to see the famous commander. Sadly, no records have survived from this organization.  Here is just another of the ways in which the American Civil War shaped Canada.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Scottish-American Civil War Memorial, Edinburgh

The Scottish-American Civil War Memorial
I recently came across the only full Civil War memorial outside of the United States.  In previous entries, I have described monuments pertaining to the war abroad, including the John Ericsson Memorial in Sweden or the grave of Simeon Cummings in South Africa.  This one in Edinburgh is more on par with the local monuments found in town squares across the U.S.  In 1892, some impoverished Scottish veterans of the war asked the U.S. government to mark their graves.  It appears that they received a bit more.  The monument includes the first statue of Lincoln in a foreign country (Manchester and London would get theirs later).  It also has a freed slave who is carrying a book, indicating that he is both free and educated.  What another fascinating example of how the Civil War touched the rest of the world.  If only there were more like this one.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Review: Point of Honor (ABC Signature and Amazon Studios)

Here we have yet another entry into the ‘family divided’ theme of Civil War television and movies.  Point of Honor is a proposed series for ABC Signature and Amazon Studios, the online retailer’s video programming branch, focusing on a slaveholding family in Lynchburg, Virginia.  So far, only one hour-long episode has been released, produced and written by Carlton Cuse of Lost fame and Randall Wallace (writer of Braveheart, and director of Pearl Harbor, We Were Soldiers, and this).  Its promise does not look good.  Its southern focus, ridiculous handling of the slavery issue and basic historical errors ruin its dramatic impact.  The result is a series similar in style to The Blue and the Gray and North and South but also their flaws in portraying families torn apart by the Civil War. 

First, the family structure works for and against the narrative.  Ralston Rhodes (played by Apollo 13’s Brett Cullen) owns the Point of Honor plantation near Lynchburg (which actually exists if the family itself is fictional).  Although in financial straits, he still commands great respect from those around him, as evidenced when he hosts a large party with his neighbors.  Here, we are introduced to four of his five children, including arrogant and aggressive daughters Estella, Kate and Lorelei, whom Ralston prepared to be strong-willed.  Garland oversees the plantation.  John attends West Point where his best friend is an anti-slavery northerner, Robert Sumner, who also happens to be married to Lorelei.  These relationships are the grounding for the movie, but the southern focus expects the audience to see them as the heroes.  Sumner, a peripheral member of the family, serves no purpose except to tear at his wife’s allegiances, and barely so at that.  This may play out in later episodes, but it is unconvincing in the pilot.

Second, the slavery issue occupies a prominent part of the story but in ridiculous ways.  The Rhodes’ family appears to own about fifteen enslaved persons and employs them in domestic and field tasks.  When war begins, John renounces slavery to Robert’s great relief, but resigns from the Army to return home and raise a regiment of non-slaveholders for the Confederate cause.  Somehow, we are supposed to believe that this makes John the great hero, indeed it fulfills the series’ title.  Word of his decision reaches the plantation incredibly fast, for the family has a hard time believing it.  Adding to their woes, a mob of neighbors condemning the possible liberation appears at the front gate.  This part is actually credible, for non-slaveholders still had a stake in maintaining the institution.    When John carries out on his promise, the slaves are relieved but none know what comes next.  The Rhodes family promise to pay wages to them, but it is clear that they do not know what to do either. One slave is not freed as she was sold to another plantation, headed by a stereotypically cruel master and overseer, similar to David Carradine in North and South.  Even if the audience accepts John’s emancipatory act as sincere, it is clear that no one else, not even his family, does.  This evading of the politics and economics of slavery is intended to make the Rhodes the heroes.  It fails as both as drama or history. 

There are too many historical errors in this episode to count.  At West Point, Robert says that John has the highest standing since Robert E. Lee.  Either he or the screenwriters did not know that Charles Mason graduated ahead of the more famous Lee.  The assertive daughters appear out of place for an upper-class southern woman of the time.  Their father’s desire that they be strong-willed, possibly since he was a widower, may explain part of that.  A small Union cavalry troop, led in part by Robert, manages to make it from the north to outside of Lynchburg within days of the attack on Fort Sumter.  This act completely ignores the five-week delay on secession in Virginia pending the outcome of a statewide referendum.  Ralston dies in a clash with these raiders, yet it is not explained why he wore a blue uniform with officer’s insignia.  If one could speculate, he may have served in the Mexican War.  Please note that no comment has been made about limited production values.  The combined effects of its southern bias, poor handling of the slavery issue, and historical errors thwart Point of Honor in its attempt to tell a story that we have heard many times before. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Review: Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation. By John Boyko.

Review: Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation. By John Boyko.  Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2013.  Pp. 355.

This story of how the American Civil War brought the British North American colonies to form the Dominion of Canada is well known.  Every Canadian history textbook covers the issue, as do previous specialist works by Robin Winks sixty years ago and Greg Marquis fifteen years ago.  With the 150th anniversaries of both the end of the Civil War and of Confederation soon approaching, the need for a new work on Canada during this turbulent period would help.  John Boyko, a school administrator and author of five previous books, produced this book for that purpose.  The result, however, is a major disappointment.  The author contributes nothing new to the scholarship.  Even if he intended it for the popular market, flaws in research, analysis and writing reduce its value considerably. 
My first thought after reading this book is “where’s the blood and where’s the daring”?  Neither exists in this book.  Instead, he attempts to use the stories of six contemporary figures to prove a tenuous thesis about how the conflict mobilized the British North Americans to set aside their differences and form a new identity in the Dominion of Canada in 1867.  Poor research prevents him from achieving this goal.  Boyko uses the first case, escaped slave John Anderson to prove that Canadians opposed pressure from Britain and the United states by freeing him.  He neglected to mention the increasing resistance in the northern states to the institution after the Compromise of 1850, such as the Christiana Riots and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Boyko intends to show William Henry Seward as a rabid expansionist whom Canadians stopped in the Trent Affair, but the secretary of state barely appears in the chapter.  Sarah Edmonds stands in for the forty thousand or so colonists who served in the Civil War, but perhaps due to the spotty nature of the evidence, little is learned about their experiences. 
The research problems mar the remaining three chapters in ways that undermine Boyko’s thesis.  He based the book on a shallow base of including handful of Canadian archives and only U.S. printed sources.  The section on spies, as represented by Jacob Thompson of Mississippi, shows how Canadians escalated wartime tensions by aiding the rebellion, instead of being a victim.  George Brown, the Horace Greeley of Canada, portends to show how the Confederation process began amid the war’s tense last two years.  Boyko concludes with John A. MacDonald, who guided the new nation towards its new status amid Fenian Raids and annexationist fears.  He quotes Canadian leaders at length about the American threat, but contradicts himself by saying how U.S. officials rounded up the Irish invaders after the raid (p. 273) and demobilized the mighty Union Army after the war (p. 290).  These inconsistencies not only disprove his thesis, but distract the reader.  There is not much blood or daring in this book.
Writing issues compound throughout this mess.  The Civil War appears mostly as narrative in each chapter, save for the first which has no context at all.  Boyko skips over the major events of the four year conflict with celerity.  One suspects that he knew little about the subject before he started.  His handling of Confederation is likewise thin.  This book ends on a low note, with Boyko citing how Confederation yielded a “unique centralized parliamentary democracy governing a bilingual, multicultural, tolerant country with too much democracy and too few people, was underway” (p. 304).  The partisan nature of this statement needs no further commentary.  Amateurishly researched and weakly written, Blood and Daring offers nothing to scholars and little to the general public.  Its sole purpose is to capitalize on the sesquicentennials of the Civil War and Confederation.