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Monday, 29 November 2010
Me and My Civil War Memory


The Carnegie-Carnegie Music Hall screening could not have gone better. Thanks to all who came out. We packed the hall and raised over $1400 in ticket sales to benefit the Capt. Thomas Espy Post No. 153 (GAR). There is a professionally taped (30-minute) video of the entire program to come. In the meantime, here is an audio version of my address that was recorded from the audience. There is an event page for the Pittsburgh screening with a recap, photos, newspaper articles and full video posted over on the movie’s website. Read Here.  

Below is a transcript of my speech which details how my own interpretations of Civil War Memory have evolved due to this film and trip home:

Thank you ladies and gentlemen. I want to begin tonight by recognizing Maggie Forbes, Diane Klinefelter, and all the folks here at the Carnegie-Carnegie for their wonderful support and hospitality. When we were looking at screening venues in Pittsburgh, they were at the top of our list. I also want to thank all of the media who helped to promote this event including our friends at the Post Gazette and the Green Tree Times. Marylynn Pitz in particular, wrote a wonderful article on us that ran today and we appreciate her attention very much.

Our entire cast and crew send their thanks as well. They are all celebrating the holiday with their families. Clint Ross, my partner at Right Stripe Media, as well as the director, co-writer, producer and visionary behind this entire project sends his regards too. He is back home putting the finishing touches on the DVD, which we plan to release next month for the Anniversary of this battle.

We have some handouts for you available in the reception area. All attendees who register tonight will be emailed a special code and receive a discount on the DVD upon its release. That is our way of showing appreciation for your support.

Without a doubt, the biggest thrill for me as a historian is the opportunities that I get to travel around and speak to audiences at museums and universities. Most of the time I am standing up on a stage staring out at a room full of strangers, yet tonight, I see a theater full of family, friends, and familiar faces. It truly feels like a homecoming and has made this night very special indeed.

For the past 16 years, I have been down in Fredericksburg, writing and speaking about the wartime experiences of Virginia’s civilians and soldiers. Four major battlefields sit within a 20 mile radius of the town and the entire region is saturated in both Colonial and Civil War history.

Richard Kirkland was an individual who captured my attention early on, and I have spent years sharing his story through books, tours, and now film. His legacy is that of a man who was ordinary - doing the extraordinary. Over the years, I have given many private tours down at the stone wall. I have walked visitors up and down the sunken road and told them of the courage and compassion of this simple infantry sergeant. I have talked about the 2nd South Carolina and Gen. Kershaw. I have presented the arrogance of Ambrose Burnside and the futility of the Union’s assault.

Yet at the same time, I never leapt the wall myself, to focus on the Federal troops perspective. I never really gave them the time necessary to understand their point of view. I thought of them more as victims than soldiers. Certainly I was aware of their sacrifice, but not at a personal level. This film forced me to re-examine the story of The Angel of Marye’s Heights, of which I had written and lectured about for years.

If I ever was considered an authority, I must confess that I was a one-sided authority in many ways and as I set-out to co-write a balanced script, I found myself metaphorically leaping that wall and gaining a newfound respect and admiration for the tenacity of those Union forces that fell at Fredericksburg. As a result, I have made a pledge to literally leap that wall on my next tour and spend some time on the Union lines. In preparation for tonight, I felt called to dig even deeper for ties to my hometown. There are many.

Fredericksburg is different when compared to most other Civil War Battlefields. Unlike Gettysburg or Antietam, it does not boast any high-command equestrian monuments. You will not find any sword wielding titans on this field. This is extremely unique as during the Battle of Fredericksburg, all of the South’s marquee-generals were standing at the top of Marye’s Heights. These are men who are still held in the highest of regards in the South.

Robert E. Lee and his most trusted Lt. Generals including Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet and Jeb Stuart stood on that field. Yet when you visit the Fredericksburg Battlefield today, there is but one statue – the Kirkland Monument – depicting a lone infantry sergeant and a fallen foe. It is the common soldier that they chose to commemorate. The ones who spilled blood and endured the suffering of one of the most horrific engagements of the conflict. They are the memory that is forever frozen in time.

There is another monument of note at Fredericksburg. It stands atop Marye’s Heights and commands the center of the National Cemetery - the final resting place of 15,000 Federals who never made it home. This statue portrays General Andrew A. Humphreys and commemorates his Division of Pennsylvania Infantry, the Fifth Corps.

Humphrey’s men took place in the assault and made it to within 100 yards of the ridge before being cut to pieces and driven back. Theirs was the furthest advance on this portion of the Army of Northern Virginia’s lines. On the side of the general’s pedestal read the names of the units that participated in this doomed assault with unparalleled courage and conviction. Included on this list is the 123rd Volunteer Regiment who were mustered out of Allegheny County. Many of these men had ties to Pittsburgh either as residents or through family relations. Three veterans were members of the ESPY Post. One soldier who survived the Battle of Fredericksburg later recalled the carnage he witnessed.

He wrote: “On the following day the battle opened, and at three P. M., after the corps of Hancock and French had been checked and terribly slaughtered, Humphreys' Division was ordered in. It was a forlorn hope, but gallantly it went forward, and charged again and again those impregnable heights. What brave men dare do, they did; but it was all in vain. No human power could stand against the storm that swept that fatal ground. The One Hundred and Twenty-third occupied a position in the line, with its right reaching nearly to the pike, and bore manfully its part in the battle, suffering grievously. Lieutenant James R. Coulter was among the killed, and Captain Daniel Boisol and Lieutenant George Dilworth among the mortally wounded. The entire loss was twenty-one killed, and one hundred and thirty-one wounded. All night long it lay in position and through the weary hours of the following day, exposed to a constant fire of the enemy's pickets, and until nine at night, when it was ordered to retire”.

It is well that we have these words and those of thousands of others to preserve this history. And it is very well that we have places like the Espy Post here at the Carnegie-Carnegie, which allow visitors to immerse themselves in the legacies of their forefathers. The Espy Post truly is a national treasure and it is made even more special in the fact that it was the veterans themselves who established and filled it. This room represents the Grand Army of the Republic. It represents how they wanted to remember themselves and their comrades - and be remembered in turn by future generations.

The Espy Post is their gift to us. This room is much more than a museum. It is a doorway to the past, just like our battlefields in Fredericksburg. And we all have a responsibility both in the North and the South, to see that they are protected and allowed to prosper. Next year our Nation will begin to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War. This Sesquicentennial  lasts for the next four years and will be filled with hundreds of ceremonies and events that pay homage to the participants in this conflict.

As a native northerner, now a transplanted southerner, I hope that we all ‘leap that wall’ which divided our ancestors, and celebrate the re-unification of our country, that could only come through such a war. As a historian, I hope that we never forget that there are two soldiers adorning Felix DeWeldon’s Monument – personifying the courage and sacrifice of the common soldier. One is in blue and one is in gray. Finally, as a native Pittsburgher, I pray that we all remember the boys of the 123rd, those who sleep beneath the fields at Fredericksburg, as well as those who made it home and established the Espy Post.

Let us all work together, respecting both sides of this conflict, to see that their stories are shared for future generations. Let us keep the stories of these men alive, so that our children – and their children, can gain a deeper understanding of where we come from – and what it truly means to be an American. Thank you.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 10:31 PM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 1 December 2010 1:28 PM EST
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