Tuesday, 30 November 2010

John Stewart Walker's First Letter

This weekend I retyped the first of Maj. John Stewart Walker's letters home to his family. Most of the letter is a confused discussion of a sermon he had recently read, but I have extracted a piece below that I think might be of more general interest to students of the war.


Camp Davis, near Young Mill,
5th January, 1861

Since my last, we have had one or two alarms of the advancing enemy, and the night of the rain and sleet were ordered to march at 4 o’clock the next morning, but the order was countermanded, fortunately for us. The enemy seem to be getting bolder. A day or two ago about 500 of their cavalry came up as high as Bethel (we have no troops stationed there now) and set fire to the Church in four places, but our men came up and put the fire out, so the church was not destroyed. Since then our forces have been sent to Bethel and the cowards will likely remain in their strongholds. Should they come to give us battle, my trust for victory is in the God of battles.


As near as I can determine, Camp Davis is just outside of Lynchburg where J. S. Walker lived. These days it is hard to imagine sending a letter to someone in the same town, but I supose it was the only way he had to communicate at the time.

Note the date - it is early in 1861 and still months from the first actual battle of the war, but already we get reports of a raid.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Maj. John Stewart Walker

When I was just a little boy, spending the summer holidays on my grandfather’s farm, I remember seeing a frame that held the remains of a confederate uniform. The uniform belonged to my great-great-great grandfather, Major John Stewart Walker who was killed at the battle of Malvern Hill.
I’m not sure where that original uniform is now, but I at least have a photographic copy of it, and if I ever managed to find a scanner big enough, I’ll be sure to share it. It only contains the sleeves and the major’s stars from the collar, but there is something more than a little haunting about it.
Despite all of this, I only know a little about the man and his short military career. I believe he came from Lynchburg, VA. He joined up early in the war as part of the 15th Virginia Infantry, a unit constructed from numerous independent groups, mostly from in and around Richmond. Walker served during the battle of Big Bethel, arguably the first land battle of the war.
The unit next fought during the Seven Days battles, and in the last of those, the battle of Malvern Hill, John Stewart Walker was killed by an artillery shell. His death is recorded in the official records:
“My own coat, while I was in front of the Fifteenth Virginia was cut by a fragment of a shell. Major [John Stewart] Walker was soon after killed while advancing with his regiment.”

Paul J. Semmes
I have in my possession type-written copies of letters that John Stewart Walker wrote to his wife during the war. They are old and faded.  It is my goal over the coming months to retype these old letters to produce a fresh copy, and to have them bound into book form for easier preservation. For the most part, these letters are about missing his family and his deep religious devotion. They do include a few interesting notes about the war however, and I will endeavour to share these as I come across them.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Quick Notes

Here’s a really nice illustration of the Union Fleet on the Red River campaign. There is something satisfyingly solid about those ironclads.

Thought of the Day:

When General Grant crossed the Rapidan in 1864, his army contained around 120,000 men, enough men to form a line, two ranks deep, stretching for 25 miles! Despite this, in his first engagement, he managed to get outflanked on both ends.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

1st Division, Confederate Army of Oxford

In the subset of wargaming known as ‘The Old School’ there is a concept called the ‘Imagi-nation’. Usually, these are fictional, 18th-Century German principalities. Wargamers create these imagi-nations so that they can develop their own armies, with fictional uniforms and commanders, and fight their own battles within a frame-work of actual military history. Now, despite the seriously cool hats, my interest in 18th century European warfare is limited, but the rest of the idea really appeals to me. So, a few months back, I decided to build my own imagi-army, the Confederate Army of Oxford, and I have just finished the 1st Division.
The 1st Division consists of two brigades of twenty figures each. It is commanded by Brigadier-General Elias Oakland.  Please let me know what you think!
Click on the image to enlarge it:

1st Division, 1st Brigade

Brig. Gen. Elias Oakland

1st Division, 2nd Brigade

Unfortunately, all my group shots came out a little blurry, but hopefully you get the idea. My goal for the Army of Oxford is to have two infantry divisions, one cavalry division, and a two gun battery. After that, I can begin working on their Union opponents.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Red River is Rising (or is it?)

Last night, I finished reading Shelby Foote’s discussion of the Red River campaign, the Union’s attempt to seize Shreveport. Undertaken more for political reasons than strategic military concerns, the campaign proved a dismal failure and essentially ended the military career of Nathaniel P. Banks.

Three items caught my attention while reading about Red River:

1) The incredible aggression of Confederate General Richard Taylor. Badly outgunned, Taylor bided his time until Banks foolishly split his force. Taylor then pounced on Banks and thrashed him at the battle of Sabine Crossroads. Less wisely, he followed up this victory with another attack at Pleasant Hill, where he was beaten back. Despite this loss, Richard Taylor’s aggressive tactics forced a superior enemy force to abandon the campaign and retreat.

2) The most fascinating part of the campaign wasn’t on the battlefield, but was actually a feat of engineering by Union engineer Joseph Bailey. During the retreat, it became clear that the Red River was rapidly falling and the Union river fleet was trapped on the wrong side of a heavy falls. Faced with the threat of abandoning the entire fleet, former lumberman Joseph Bailey proposed building a dam to raise the river. In the end, he had to build two dams, but he managed to save the fleet.

3) Among the heroes of the Confederate victory at Sabine Crossroads was General Camille Armand Jules Marie, Prince de Polignac, better known to his men as ‘Prince Polecat’. One wonders exactly how a French prince ended up fighting for the Confederacy, but I¹m thinking that perhaps the Confederate Army of Oxford might need a member of the French Nobility serving in its ranks, a flash of color amongst the butternut!

Monday, 8 November 2010

Painting Up an Army

I have been painting toy soldiers for most of my life, first as props for role-playing games and later as wargaming figures. At a guess, I’d say I’ve painted between 2,000 and 3,000 figures in the last twenty years. But, until recently, I’ve never had much interest in painting Civil War soldiers. I guess I just found the uniforms a bit uninspiring. Then, right around the time I started reading Shelby Foote, I got the desire to paint a few Confederates, just for the fun of it. So, I ordered a 28mm Confederate Command pack from Perry Miniatures, and the result can be seen below.
These figures aren’t meant to represent any particular people or even a particular unit. They are just supposed to be representative. I gave them gray tops and brown pants to give the figures more visual appeal. Probably some unit somewhere wore something similar. My standard-bearer carries the state flag of South Carolina. State flags were actually a rare sight on the battlefield, especially later in the war, but it’s such an attractive flag I decided to go with it anyway. And there I might have left my Civil War painting, except for a lucky encounter with an old enemy.
Back in July, my work sent me to Valley Forge, PA for Historicon, America’s largest wargaming convention (yes, sometimes my job rocks). There, amongst the isles of wargaming goodies, I came across Sash and Sabre, who were running a 40% off special on all of their Civil War figures.  While examining the wonderful sculpting on the little metal men, I got to chatting with the owner. It turns out he went to Duke University (yup, he’s a Blue Devil, and I have my suspicions that he’s a carpet bagger too!) Despite that, I just couldn’t resist his combination of quality and price. For less than $70, I left with a small Confederate army including 40 infantry, 2 guns with crew, 9 Cavalry, and 3 mounted generals. Plus they fit perfectly with my Perry Miniatures.
I am now hard at work on the Confederate Army of Oxford (a rather weak joke, but one that amuses me nonetheless). I’ve already got about half of them painted, and I hope to share some of my progress in the weeks and months to come. I’m also thinking about exactly what figures I’m going to buy to oppose this force.  
Confederates emerge from the Mississippi swamps...

Sunday, 7 November 2010

James Harvey Merrimon

James Harvey Merrimon is my great (x3) grandfather through my paternal grandmother, and until a few months ago, he was just another name on the family tree.  That is when my Aunt Dabney, keeper of the family archives, discovered a photocopied page from an old journal. The page included a photograph of a portrait that hangs on the wall of the Superior Courtroom of the Buncombe County Courthouse (in North Carolina) and little note about Merrimon, including the line “When the Civil War broke out, Merrimon enlisted as an adjutant in a Confederate Army cavalry brigade.”  I was off!
First, I wondered if I could obtain a better picture of the man. As you can see above, the one I’ve got has been reproduced a few too many times, until Merrimon has become a sort of ghostly figure. I don’t know if the portrait still hangs in the courthouse, but I figure it must still exist somewhere. I did a little searching on the web, but have been unable to come up with an email address of anyone useful. There are a couple of mailing addresses, but considering my current distance from North Carolina, I decided to leave it for the moment and concentrate on finding out more about his war record. This proved more successful.
James H. Merrimon volunteered with the 7th North Carolina Cavalry Battalion formed in 1862, as the adjutant for Company F. The unit served in the Department of East Tennessee, and was first bloodied during the skirmish at Monticello, KY in 1863. Soon afterward, the unit combined with the 5th North Carolina Cavalry Battalion into the 6th North Carolina Cavalry Regiment (which confusingly is also sometimes called the 65th N.C. regiment). While this unit participated in a number of battles, including Chickamauga, its casualty figures suggest that it was never heavily engaged. The unit’s last listed battle is Kinston, NC (Wyse Forks) in March of 1865. Most likely the unit surrendered along with Joseph E. Johnston, though I haven’t been able to find confirmation of this.
Obviously the 7th Battalion and 6th Regiment of N.C. Cavalry were minor units, and I am doubtful that anyone has done a regimental history of the unit. Still, I will keep my eyes open for any information I can find.  More interesting than Merrimon’s unit though, is his position. I must admit, I didn’t realize that companies had adjutants. I’m left wondering, was Merrimon a full-time clerk, or was he a soldier with added administrative duties? These are the kinds of questions whose answers are often difficult to obtain. Still, identifying the question is the first step to finding the answer.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

3,000 Pages of Shelby Foote

Most of what I know about the Civil War, I learned in college. I studied history under some top-notch professors, but I also read everything I could get my hands on. I spent hours picking books from UNC’s library, and many of my cafeteria lunches were accompanied by the new issue of America’s Civil War magazine. And yet, somehow, I made it through University without ever reading a cover-to-cover account of the entire war.
In the dozen years since I graduated, I’ve never completely lost touch with the Civil War, but it became just one interest among many. That changed earlier this year. All of a sudden, I noticed that several of my hobbies seemed to be drawing me back to this great conflict. My interests in military history, family history, and wargaming, all seemed to be guiding me... back home, in a way.
Now eight months ago, writing a blog never even occurred to me, but I knew that I wanted to do something to embrace the Civil War again. Something that would say to myself, I’m into this in a big way. Then it struck me, something I had always secretly wanted to do, but never quite had the guts. I would read The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote.  If you think that reading a book isn’t much of a declaration of intent, then I can only assume you are not familiar with the work. Shelby Foote’s trilogy tells the story of the war from beginning to end, on land, on sea, and in the offices of the two presidents. The first tome covers Fort Sumter to Perryville in just over 800 pages. The second goes from Fredericksburg to Meridian in 960 pages. The final volume covers Red River to Appomattox and needs well over a 1,000 pages. Put another way, these three paperback books together weigh almost exactly five pounds.
So, it has been about eight months since I began my reading project, and I have just finished volume two! I may not be the world’s fastest reader, but I devote a lot of time to the pursuit. The books are really just that big. They are also really that good! Shelby Foote has done a masterful job of presenting a highly complex war in an accessible and enjoyable narrative, packed historical information, interesting stories, and more than a little bit of wit.
I’m taking a little break before I begin volume three, but it won’t be long. I already find myself missing the narrative. Over the coming months, I don’t doubt I’ll be sharing a lot of thoughts that have occurred to me while reading Mr. Foote.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

A Southern Accent, where I come from

Hello and welcome to ‘What color is butternut’, my new blog devoted to the Civil War, little toy soldiers, and family history. To me, these three things are closely linked, and I hope that keeping this online journal will help focus and encourage my further explorations into the hobby.
Now, before I get down to it, there are a few things I want to say. First off, I’m glad the North won. I’m glad that the disgusting practice of slavery was abolished and saddened that my ancestors had anything to do with it. I also believe that the United States is a stronger, better place for being forcibly held together. Despite all of that, I freely admit that my interest mostly lies with the Confederacy for a number of reasons:
1.       I’m a tarheel born, I’m a tarheel bred.
I was born in Greensboro, NC, the last encampment of the army of Joseph E. Johnston before he surrendered. I got my degree in history from UNC at Chapel Hill.
2.       I have at least five direct ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, most notably Col. James McCullough of the 16th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment. I’d like to learn all I can about them.
3.       I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog.
That is not to say that this is a Confederate only blog, far from it. I just ask your forgiveness if I show an occasional southern bias.