BLOG, or DIE. Author Bio
Tuesday, 24 March 2009
March 28: Voices from the Storm program

Our good friend John Hennessy of the Fredericksburg- Spotsylvania National Military Park Service just sent me information on a wonderful event that is taking place this Saturday at the historic Massaponax Baptist Church in Spotsylvania County. In addition to standing just down the road from the Aubrecht homestead, MBC was also the site of Alexander Gardner’s famous photo of Grant’s War Council. On Saturday, the NPS will present two, one-of-a-kind programs (5 pm & 7 pm) that present the experiences of those who witnessed the Civil War firsthand. Admission is free. View event poster (PDF). Here is the promo:

No place in America suffered more during war than Spotsylvania. Children, churches, parents, and homesteads--all were caught in a maelstrom that transformed them. On Saturday March 28, members of the community, Massaponax Baptist Church, and the National Park Service come together to tell the story of Spotsylvania’s residents during the Civil War. Using a vivid historic setting, music, images, and the words of the people who lived here–-both slave and free--”Voices from the Storm: Spotsylvania's Great Trial ” will portray a community amidst four years of struggle.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 11:33 AM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 24 March 2009 4:54 PM EDT
Permalink | Share This Post
Friday, 20 March 2009
Thank you Manassas

I literally just got back from my lecture at Manassas Museum on “The Historical Churches of Fredericksburg: A Study in Race-Relations.” I was glad that my newest program was received well and I now have two tentative talks scheduled through members of the audience. For this particular piece I focused specifically on three churches and their pre-war conflicts over racial inequalities.

My presentation discussed the split between the whites and blacks attending Fredericksburg Baptist, resulting in Shiloh Baptist (Old Site), as well as the denominational split between the Methodist churches over the issue of slavery. As usual, I will post the complete transcripts and slides over on my website later this week.

In the meantime, here is a 2-minute Quicktime uncompressed video that my daughter Madison shot. (It’s a tad large and may take a minute or two to load. In it I am explaining the segregated entrances and seating areas at Massaponax Church and the tensions that existed at Fredericksburg Baptist.)

3/21 UPDATE: I posted the complete transcripts from my talk "Houses of the Holy: A study in pre-war race relations at Fredericksburg's landmark churches." Read Here

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 11:06 PM EDT
Updated: Saturday, 21 March 2009 5:12 PM EDT
Permalink | Share This Post
Q&A with Sean Allen Pratt

This week I had the pleasure of speaking with one of my favorite historical individuals, one Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire, personal physician and surgeon on General Thomas Jackson's staff. Of course you may recall that the good doctor was responsible for the successful amputation of "Stonewall's" left arm following an accidental wounding at the Battle of Chancellorsville. He then went on after the Civil War to become a brilliant doctor, author, president of the American Medical Association, and father of 10 children before dying from a cerebral embolism on September 19, 1900.

Of course when I say that I spoke to the "good doctor," it was actually through an equally gifted actor who portrayed the man in the critically acclaimed, and sometimes panned movie God's and Generals. Despite anyone's personal issues with the film (many consider it to be Lost Cause propaganda), no one can deny the quality of acting it offered and the excellent job that the cast did in bringing their characters to life. Personally, I have always enjoyed watching G&G (in the context of a Hollywood film) and two performances that always stood out in my mind were of course Stephen Lange's portrayal of Gen. Jackson, and Sean Allen Pratt's depiction of Dr. McGuire. As these two gentlemen shared so many scenes together, each complimented the other on screen.

Sean Allen Pratt's resume in film, television, and theater is extremely impressive and he has played many complex and dynamic characters over the course of his career. His credits include on film: Gods and Generals, Tuck Everlasting, Iron Jawed Angels and Ladder 49; on television roles: The District, Homicide and The Wire; and on stage: Oedipus The King and The Game Of Love And Chance. In addition to his acting, Sean holds seminars and workshops for actors looking to break into the biz.

Via Facebook, Sean was nice enough to discuss his thoughts on playing perhaps the most celebrated surgeon in Civil War history. I asked him how he prepared for the part:

SEAN: I read a boatload of books about the Civil War, conducted Internet research on him and his family, traveled to Richmond to see his statue and the CW Medical Museum, took a lot of horseback riding lessons and tried not to lose my hat during any of the battle scenes. We had a standing deal that whoever had their hat knocked/blown off during a big scene had to by a round at the bar that evening....I bought my share. Stephen Lange had a great line about our costumes, "These wool uniforms are great. They keep you hotter than hell in the summer and colder then ice in the winter."

As a student of "Stonewall," I have used more than my share of the doctor's transcripts and I have always been impressed with his commitment to preserving the stories of his time as the lead physician on Jackson's staff. I live just a few miles from the Stonewall Jackson Shrine (where he died at Guinea Station). I often lead private tours there and I speak about the fallen general's emergency surgery at Wilderness Tavern. I always quote Dr. McGuire's report as the fact that Jackson survived the perilous ambulance ride from the Chancellorsville area to Caroline County testifies to his gifts as a military surgeon.

I also asked Sean if he came away from the G&G project, having studied and portrayed such a noteworthy individual, with a different impression of the Civil War.

SEAN: Beyond the awe of being involved in a film project of that size (which quite literally was like an army on the move), I came away with two things: The understanding of how men could deal with the loss of thousands of soldiers in one battle as a matter of course, even as a "glorious" thing, and the utter grief caused by the death of one man. Also, how far we have come from such notions of the antebellum ideas of "honor," "duty," "forbearance," and what constitutes the concept of "The United States of America."

Sean also added that he is currently in the process of narrating the new Abraham Lincoln bio by Michael Burlingame and that it will be released through For more on Sean Pratt's work, visit his website SEAN PRATT PRESENTS.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 3:09 PM EDT
Updated: Monday, 23 March 2009 3:31 PM EDT
Permalink | Share This Post
Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Never forget

Last night I had the pleasure of giving a private tour of the Fredericksburg Battlefield to a visiting film director from Savannah Georgia named Clint Ross and his lovely wife Lizzie. Both had spent the day up at Chatham Manor, gathering sources from the National Military Park Service’s archives and they were anxious to visit our hallowed ground. We met at the Visitor’s Center downtown around 5:30 and then slowly walked the surrounding area as the sun set. Our hike took us from the National Cemetery, down the Marye’s Heights Trail to the Sgt. Richard Kirkland Monument, and back along the Sunken Road. Clint was in town doing research for a very special documentary project that he is working on. I really enjoyed sharing the stories of noteworthy witnesses such as the stubbornly courageous Martha Stephens who is said to have ridden out the battle in her house near the Stone Wall and later tore strips from her own garments to bind the wounds of the fallen.

Obviously they had done a great deal of reading about the Battle of Fredericksburg in preparation of their visit and Clint and his wife asked some really great questions that facilitated discussion. I was very glad that he had an opportunity to visit Chatham where the Federal artillery was positioned on Stafford Heights, and then accompany me to the ridge of Marye’s Heights where the Washington Artillery had positioned their guns. The perspective of course was the distance between both sides and the city and the expanse in between that was essentially an artillerist’s shooting range. As we stood atop the bluff near the Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys monument and watched the sun set, I recalled a piece that I had posted several years ago that seemed appropriate for the occasion. I quoted the piece “Then Vs. Now” as it summarizes my personal feelings as a local historian and outlines the understanding I would like visitors to take with them. Here is the 'short' version:

When you come to Fredericksburg and tour her hallowed grounds, everything is perfect. The grass is neatly trimmed and the markers are polished. The freshly painted cannons are all lined up neatly and the landmark buildings are restored to their original splendor. Depending on the time of year, there can be rows and rows of flags or luminaries in the cemeteries and you can often find living historians or re-enactor’s walking about. These romantically peaceful and serene settings unfortunately make it far too easy to forget that at the time of the war, specifically as the events that made these spots memorable in the first place transpired, the fields, roads, and downtown areas were absolutely devastated. In fact, it was probably not at all a nice place to be. The scene was likely one of anguish and atrocity, as dead soldiers and horses covered the ground. At the time, millions of flies and the stench of black powder and rotting flesh filled the air. The sickening sights that littered the city were the scenes that nightmares are made of. In other words, touring a Civil War battlefield means literally walking among the dead. Therefore, we must consciously remind ourselves that the beauty of these places is a façade and that the men that fought and died there baptized the very soil we stand on today with their blood. Never forget that. The next time that you find yourself touring one of these picturesque places, try to remember that although our National Battlefields are beautiful, the war that took place on them was ugly.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 4:25 PM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 19 March 2009 8:58 AM EDT
Permalink | Share This Post
Tuesday, 17 March 2009
Reverend Father William Corby: Chaplain of the Irish Brigade

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, and to appease my very Irish wife and boss, here is the story of the most beloved Irish chaplain in American military history:

According to Catholic doctrine, one of the most important duties that a priest administers is the act of "Last Rites," which is a form of absolution that is given to a dying person. In time of war, this provides a problem as men obviously fall on the battlefield without having a priest nearby. In order to compensate for this absence, Catholic chaplains would perform a universal form of this prior to the battle. Much like their Protestant peers, the Catholics would gather together on the eve of (or hours before) an anticipated engagement, but their ceremony would include a special ritual that would prematurely absolve them in the event that they were killed.

This 'Mass' was extremely important to brigades that were made up of immigrants such as the Irish and German contingencies. Perhaps the most famous of these was "The Irish Brigade," who deployed with Father William Corby. On The American Civil War website, they describe his invaluable service: "For many Civil War soldiers, both North and South, religion served to provide hope and meaning given what they endured during this bloody, violent conflict. When possible, men of the church would take an active role in lending such to the troops both during times of idleness and of combat."

They add, "The Reverend Father William Corby, chaplain to the Union's Irish Brigade among others, extended general absolution to all soldiers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. He was also known to administer Last Rites to the dying on the field while under fire. Prior to the conflict in the Wheatfield on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, he offered general absolution to the Irish Brigade. Despite the loss of 506 of their men during that day's battle, one soldier stated that, because of Father Corby, "He felt as strong as a lion after that and felt no fear although his comrade was shot down beside him." Not the only example of heroism by people of the clergy, Chaplain William Hoge ignored the Union Blockade to bring Bibles to Southern soldiers."

Father Corby was born in Detroit on October 2, 1833 to Daniel, a native of King's County, Ireland and Elizabeth, a citizen of Canada. Daniel became a prominent real estate dealer and one of the wealthiest landed proprietors in the country. He helped to found many Detroit parishes and aided in the building of many churches. His son William was educated in the common schools until he was sixteen and then joined his father's business for four years. Realizing that William had a calling to the priesthood and a desire to go to college, Daniel sent him and his two younger brothers to the ten year old university of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. The Congregation of the Holy Cross staffed the school then, as now.

After graduation, Corby returned to the school as a faculty member. During the Civil War, he volunteered his services as a chaplain in the Union Army at the request of Father Sorin, who was the Superior-General of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Corby resigned his professorship at Notre Dame and was assigned as chaplain to the 88th New York Volunteer Infantry in the famed Irish Brigade of Thomas Francis Meagher. It has been written that he boarded the train with a song on his lips - singing, "I'll hang my harp on a willow tree. I'm off to the wars again: A peaceful home has no charm for me. The battlefield no pain."

For the next three years, Father Corby ministered to the troops with great enthusiasm. This made him popular with the men. According to the Catholic Cultural Society, "Chaplains, like officers, won the common soldiers' respect with their bravery under fire. Father Corby's willingness to share the hardships of the men with a light-hearted attitude and his calm heroism in bringing spiritual and physical comfort to men in the thick of the fighting won him the esteem and the friendship of the men he served. Frequently under fire, Corby moved among casualties on the field, giving assistance to the wounded and absolution to the dying. For days after the battles, he inhabited the field hospitals to bring comfort to men in pain."

Known for their glorious (and disastrous) charge at Fredericksburg, the Irish Brigade also made a gallant stand at Gettysburg, where their priest has been forever memorialized in a modest statue that stands near the Pennsylvania Monument. The CCS recalls this as the defining moment for BOTH the brigade and their chaplain: "Before the Brigade engaged the Confederate soldiers at a wheat field just south of Gettysburg, Father William Corby, in a singular event that lives in the history of the Civil War, addressed the troops. Placing his purple stole around his neck, Corby climbed atop a large boulder and offered absolution to the entire unit, a ceremony never before performed in America. Kohl, editor of Corby's memoirs, tells us that Father Corby sternly reminded the soldiers of their duties, warning that the Church would deny Christian burial to any who wavered and did not uphold the flag. The members of the Brigade were admonished to confess their sins in the correct manner at their earliest opportunity."

After repenting in the eyes of their Lord, the Irish Brigade plunged forward into battle and were met with a massive volley of fire from the Confederate forces. At the end of the day, 198 of the men whom Father Corby had blessed had been killed. A tragedy? Yes. But it was dulled by the fact that the departed heroes had been absolved and blessed prior to the engagement. This surely made the family and friends of the dead, a little less sad, believing that their loved ones received the promise of salvation. Father Corby's presence was invaluable and a great comfort to all who attended his services. He is perhaps, the most famous and revered Catholic priest of the entire Civil War.

Following the war, Father Corby returned to Notre Dame in 1865 where he was made vice president. Within a year, Corby was named president. At the end of his term at Notre Dame 1872, Father Corby was sent to Sacred Heart College. He returned to Notre Dame as president in 1877 where he became known as the "Second Founder of Notre Dame" for his successful effort to rebuild the campus following a fire. Later he became Assistant General for the worldwide order.

Father Corby wrote a book of his recollections, entitled "Memoirs of Chaplain Life." He stated, "Oh, you of a younger generation, think of what it cost our forefathers to save our glorious inheritance of union and liberty! If you let it slip from your hands you will deserve to be branded as ungrateful cowards and undutiful sons. But, no! You will not fail to cherish the prize--it is too sacred a trust--too dearly purchased."

He died in 1897, and as he was being buried, surviving veterans of the Grand Army Of The Republic are said to have sang this song: "Answering the call of roll on high. Dropping from the ranks as they make reply. Filling up the army of the by and by."

Excerpts taken from 'The Southern Cross: A Civil War Devotional' by Michael Aubrecht. Copyright 2008, Patriot Press.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 1:00 PM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 17 March 2009 1:11 PM EDT
Permalink | Share This Post

Newer | Latest | Older