FLS Town & Country

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Shining a light on black Confederates (FLS 6/3/06)

Reconstructed Yankee
by Jack Maples
By Michael Aubrecht, FLS Town & Country
Date published: 6/3/2006 CIVIL WAR

In the chronicles of American history, no event tested the strength of our great nation more than the Civil War, a brutal, bloody four-year conflict that left the Confederacy defeated and the South devastated, and ended the institution of slavery at the cost of more than half a million lives. Even today, there are many aspects of the War Between the States that continue to be debated by historians and enthusiasts alike.

But no topic, with the exception of secession, instigates more heated discussions than the service of African-Americans on behalf of the Confederate States of America.

Understandably, black Confederate soldiers appear to be one aspect of the conflict that many find virtually impossible to believe. Despite the existence of photographs, military records and firsthand accounts that support the notion, some people still seem unable to comprehend why anyone would fight on behalf of a government that ultimately held its own people in bondage.

The fact is that there were free African-Americans living in the South at the outbreak of the war, and some of them took up arms alongside their white neighbors in an effort to protect their own families and interests. The discrepancy lies in the numbers of black Rebels, which have been quoted as anywhere from 10 to 10,000.

Although the Confederate Congress did not sanction so-called "Colored Units" until 1865, when it was too late, there were many "unofficial" soldiers supervised by officers who were desperate to fill the ranks that were so quickly diminishing. Also, many individual Southern states authorized "Colored Militia Units," which included free men as well as slaves and waged tremendously successful guerrilla campaigns against the occupying Federal forces.

Regardless of their exact numbers or motivation, the courage and tenacity of these men was just as extraordinary as that of any other gray-shirted combatant, and their memory is to be valued with the same respect and admiration as that of any Confederate soldier.

Due to the wide range of conflicting statistics, many Civil War authors shy away from this subject, which in my opinion is a terrible disservice to the legacy of all black Confederate soldiers. Luckily, we have historians such as Jack Maples, who have dedicated themselves to preserving the stories of these remarkable men.

I had the pleasure of meeting Maples, who lives in Manassas, when we shared a book-signing bill at a Civil War re-enactment in Harrisonburg known as the Gathering of Eagles. In addition to being a meticulous researcher and a talented writer, Maples is first and foremost a wonderful storyteller. After spending some time discussing the synopsis of his work, I must admit that I was captivated and knew that I had to share his highly original contribution with my readers.

Maples' book, titled "Reconstructed Yankee," is a blend of both fictional and nonfictional material. It tells the life stories of two North Carolina friends, one white and one black, who fought together during the Civil War, first for the Union and later for the Confederacy.

The main characters are Caleb Parker, a free person of color, and his best friend, Tom Parker. Both men are talented gunsmiths following in the footsteps of their fathers, and together they carry on a prospering business creating arms that include "The Parker," their own version of the Spencer repeating rifle. As their reputation as master craftsmen begins to spread far and wide, each man starts a family and both appear to be living out the American Dream despite their unconventional relationship.

All that changes, however, with the first shots fired at Fort Sumter in 1861. At the outbreak of war, these "brothers in arms" are caught up in the midst of a moral dilemma: whether to fight for a cause they do not believe in, or seek vengeance for the unprovoked hanging of their fathers. What follows is a bittersweet adventure spanning many years that recalls the triumphs and tragedies of the war from both the Northern and Southern perspectives.

Clearly an expert on his subject matter, Maples has labored to present an enjoyable tale that is firmly rooted in historical fact. He goes on to provide a most welcome conclusion that breaks down each and every major character and event while explaining which are fact and which are fiction. That alone makes this book worthy of applause, and I beg other novelists to try the same approach, as it truly helps the readers to distinguish what is real, in case they wish to research additional materials on a particular person or subject.

Maples' story line takes the reader on a journey through the entire Civil War, encompassing major battles, minor skirmishes and unsanctioned raids on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Along the way, we are introduced to men of high moral character as well as bloodthirsty outlaws who exploited the conflict as an opportunity to spread hatred and chaos under the guise of military action.

As a result, Maples has presented a very honest and straightforward commentary on the frequent atrocities perpetrated by both the Union and Confederate forces. Far beyond the glory of courageous charges and last stands, it was the citizens of the North and South who suffered devastating blows to their homes, families and economies.

Another forgotten aspect of the war was the struggle that was endured by blacks who were trying to establish their own identities in the postwar Reconstruction era. Many of these emancipated citizens were unable to find jobs or establish homesteads despite the best efforts of the Freedmen's Bureau, whose mission of establishing "freedom and liberty for all" was often corrupted by crooked politicians and white supremacist societies.

Making matters worse was the expanse of this injustice, which stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border and beyond. I was surprised by the enormous distance that was covered by free men and ex-slaves alike in an effort to start over. Many traveled from town to town for months, or even years, before finding acceptance. Clearly, racism continued to exist as a scourge that plagued the North and South despite the surrender of the Confederacy and the reunification of the U.S. government.

In some instances the war changed very little, and many black Southerners actually considered themselves better off before the conflict, since they were able to practice a trade and feed their children by sharecropping. As the conquered Southern economy lay in ruins, so did its railroads, homes and businesses. Most of the plantations had been burned to the ground and their fields destroyed, leaving thousands of families with nothing. This trial was shared by both black and white citizens alike.

Perhaps the worst discrimination of all fell on the shoulders of the black Confederate veterans, who were not given the same postwar pensions and accolades as their white peers. Maples persistently tackles the subject of this struggle, leaving us with a feeling of sadness for the plight of these heroes that is tempered with a great sense of pride for their sacrifice and service.

Offering no apologies, this book pulls no punches in depicting the good, the bad and the ugly of America's greatest trial. More importantly, it is a story of two men of different races, bound by brotherly love and one man's ultimate triumph over oppression.

A well-written and powerful novel, "Reconstructed Yankee" will appeal to readers of historical fiction and Civil War buffs alike.

In addition, this book has already been scripted and appears to be headed for the big screen. Maples is currently in the process of locating investors to fund the $5.8 million project, and the movie's preproduction is already under way. I cannot wait to see it.

MICHAEL AUBRECHT of Spotsylvania County is the author of "Onward Christian Soldier: The Spiritual Journey of Stonewall" and "Christian Cavalier: The Spiritual Legacy of J.E.B. Stuart." Visit his Web site at...




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Inside the Stonewall
Brigade (FLS 7/1/06)

Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade by John O. Casler
Introduction by Robert K. Krick
By Michael Aubrecht, FLS Town & Country
Date published: 7/1/2006 CIVIL WAR

It has been estimated that more than 4 million men from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line participated in the War Between the States. According to a study of enlistment and pension records, the Union armies claimed from 2.5 million to 2.75 million men, while the Confederate strength--known less accurately because of missing records--declared from 750,000 to 1.25 million men.

Regardless of the exact figures, the most grotesque statistic to come out of the Civil War was its enormous casualty rates. At least 618,000 Americans died during the conflict, and some experts say the toll reached as high as 700,000. (The number that is most often quoted is 620,000.) At any rate, these fatalities exceeded the nation's losses in all its other wars, from the American Revolution through Vietnam.

Throughout the conflict, many groups of soldiers, in both the blue and the gray rose above seemingly unsurmountable odds to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Their gallantry on the battlefield has become legendary, and the memory of their courage and convictions is still heralded today. Topping this list of heroes are several groups, including the Irish Brigade, the Iron Brigade, the Orphan Brigade and perhaps the most famous of them all, the Stonewall Brigade.

Answering Virginia Gov. John Letcher's call for militia companies, 2,611 men gathered at Harpers Ferry in April 1861 and were organized into five regiments of infantry and a battery of artillery that was designated as the 1st Brigade, Virginia Volunteers. The regiments were made up of 49 companies, each with a letter designation and a nickname.

These "Valley men" were placed under the command of then-Col. Thomas J. Jackson, who had been picked to lead the 1st Virginia Brigade by Robert E. Lee, then an adviser to Jefferson Davis. At the time, Jackson was a professor at the Virginia Military Institute. After being commissioned in the Confederate army, he was immediately tasked with transforming this ragtag band of volunteers, veterans and VMI cadets into a formidable fighting force.

Despite being very unpopular with the troops at first, Jackson continued to drill his men incessantly and to passionately preach of the swift and total destruction of the enemy. His reputation for having a somber demeanor quickly gave way to his being known as a fierce warrior, which became infectious throughout the ranks.

Jackson's intensity and fortitude earned the affection of his men in the Battle of First Manassas, where the commander's courage and his brigade's steadfast action at the Henry House earned them both the nickname of "Stonewall."

Following Jackson through the Romney campaign in the first winter of the war, which solidified the relationship between men and commander, the Stonewall Brigade continued to earn the respect of both Confederate and Federal forces.

The year of 1862 saw the Valley men defeating three separate Union armies and keeping reinforcements from marching on the Confederate capitol of Richmond during Gen. George McClellan's failed Peninsula Campaign. The brigade then followed Lee into Maryland, and on to Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. It was there that the brigade, and ultimately the Army of Northern Virginia, suffered one of its greatest casualties in the death of Lt. Gen. Jackson. It was a loss from which they would never recover.

Minus its beloved commander, the brigade went on and took part in the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Mine Run campaign and the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

Sadly, by April 1865 only 210 men from the original Stonewall Brigade were left when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Because of its noble reputation in the North and the South, the Stonewall Brigade was the first group of Confederate soldiers to march through the Federal lines at the surrender.

Over the years, entire shelves of literature have been published on the history of the Stonewall Brigade. Many of these books present the same legendary stories over and over, recalling the unit's resilience at First Bull Run and its magnificent attack during Chancellorsville. Unfortunately, few of them have captured the essence of what these men really experienced in their day-to-day lives.

To truly understand what it meant to be a member of the Stonewall Brigade, one must go directly to the source. Thankfully, we have the memoirs of John O. Casler, who presented an account of his service to the Confederacy, titled "Four Years In The Stonewall Brigade."

First published in 1893, and significantly revised and expanded in 1906, Casler's book recounts the truths of camp life, marches and combat. More importantly, the work contains the intimate and unapologetic stories that are consistently lacking in third-party accounts.

According to the author's biography, he was a native of Gainesboro with an "inherent wanderlust and thirst for adventure." Enlisting in June 1861 in what became Company A, 33rd Virginia Infantry, Casler participated in major campaigns throughout the conflict, including Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Captured in February 1865, he spent the final months of the war as a prisoner at Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

This latest edition features a new introduction by Civil War expert Robert K. Krick, a Fredericksburg resident, who chronicles Casler's origins and his careers after the war as a writer and organizer of Confederate veterans groups.

Krick was chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for 30 years before his retirement. A native of Northern California, he began his National Park Service career at Fort McHenry, then supervised Fort Necessity in Pennsylvania before coming to Fredericksburg. Since then, he has authored 14 books and more than 100 published articles. Krick's insight provides a fresh perspective on the author's pre- and postwar experiences.

For me, the most enjoyable parts of this read are the "undocumented" adventures that took place off the battlefield.

Recalling many of his unsanctioned escapades, the author describes sneaking in and out of the ranks in order to visit friends and family and participating in unofficial raids that resulted in the acquisition of food, horses and liquor. As the book continues, Casler openly confesses to the moral ambiguities of thievery and survival at the front. He describes the deliberate cruelties of capture and chastises his Union captors for their irreverent treatment of prisoners of war.

The level of Casler's literary skill is very impressive. His honesty and straightforward candor shine through in this very enjoyable read. It is not an easy task to write a nonfiction piece that flows like a novel from start to finish, but Casler managed to do just that. His accounts are must reading for anyone who wishes to experience the feel of everyday life in the Stonewall Brigade, and to appreciate the sacrifice and devotion of the average Confederate soldier.

MICHAEL AUBRECHT of Spotsylvania County is the author of "Onward Christian Soldier: The Spiritual Journey of Stonewall" and "Christian Cavalier: The Spiritual Legacy of J.E.B. Stuart." Visit his Web site at...


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