America’s Civil War- Letters from Readers January 2008 | HistoryNet MENU

America’s Civil War- Letters from Readers January 2008

6/6/2018 • America's Civil War Magazine

Great-grandfather was a bugler

Joseph Bilby’s article (“Load the Hopper and Turn the Crank,” July issue) put me more in touch with one of my forefathers. Captain Albert Mack of the 18th New York Light Artillery is buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Springwater,N.Y.Still serving with him is one of his buglers, George Withington, who served with him from 1863 until the end of the war. Both graves have GAR markers,and both are identified as having served in the 18th. George, my great-grandfather, also served in the 13th New York Volunteer Infantry from 1861 to 1862 and served under Colonel William T. Sherman at Manassas Junction.A case of measles got him sent home, and he reenlisted in the 18th in 1863.While Mack was an associate of Dr. Josephus Requa and raised the 18th in hopes of using the Requa gun, the 18th’s gunners were still servicing 20-pounder Parrot rifles in April 1865.

Paul Withington

Mount Sherman, Ky.

“Uncle Billy” rules!

I just got my latest issue of your magazine in the mail today and was surprised to see that particular photo of old “Uncle Billy”on the cover! It turns out that I just did a painting (right, above) from that exact photo several weeks ago!

While going through my books of Civil War photos to pick the one to paint, I ran across an engraving made from that same photo by Harpers New Monthly Magazine in 1877 (right).Note how the engraver softened his features, making him look less mean!

Roger Kreiter

Chester Springs, Pa.

How were the historians graded?

In the July 2007 issue, Gettysburg National Military Park ranger and historian Eric A. Campbell discussed a letter that CSA Brig. Gen. Ambrose Ransom “Rans” Wright penned to his wife just five days after the Battle of Gettysburg. The letter, which was published and eventually led to Wright being courtmartialed and acquitted of disobeying a superior officer, remains a controversial document. In one part of the article, Campbell graded three respected historians— Douglass Southall Freeman, Edwin B. Coddington and Harry Pfanz—on their use and interpretation of the letter. For the sake of brevity,let’s look at Campbell’s criticism of Coddington, who said that Wright’s memory of July 2 should be “included among the better Civil War romances.”

Campbell notes that Coddington contended that the Union accounts failed to support Wright’s statements of having broken through the Union line. Campbell challenges Coddington by pointing out that Union Brig. Gen. John Gibbon wrote that Wright’s men “came…through a vacancy in our line.”

A more complete excerpt of Gibbon’s view of July 2 reveals that the Union general wrote that “the head of his [Wright’s] column came quite through a vacancy in our line to the left of my division,opened by detaching troops to other points.” The key here is that Gibbon states the hole through which Wright’s men filed was opened as a result of the Union forces being shifted to other points on the field. If we look back at what Coddington wrote—that there was nothing supporting Wright’s claim that his men had “broken” through the main line—then Campbell’s analysis of Coddington is unfounded, as he would be criticizing the author for something he actually never said.Wright is saying his men “broke” through the line, and Gibbon is implying that Wright’s men merely walked through a “vacancy” that the Union had created. Coddington is critical of Wright for exaggerating,a contention that is supported by the very report Campbell uses to fail Coddington. Did Campbell consider the use of these particular words (“vacancy” and “broke”) when analyzing Coddington’s work?

No matter how one looks at this, America’s Civil War readers would have benefited more from understanding how the conclusions were reached instead of merely being told that the historians had passed or failed.

Jeff Anderson

Mount Laurel, N.J.

Eric Campbell responds: First let me say I believe that Edwin Coddington’s The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command is by far the most thorough and complete study ever done on the battle. However, no study, including Coddington’s, is infallible.

I agree with Mr.Anderson’s statement that “America’s Civil War readers would have benefited more from understanding how the conclusions were reached instead of merely being told that the historians had passed or failed.” My original article did not “grade”the treatments of Wright’s letter by the various historians mentioned. The “pass” or “fail” method was created by the magazine editors and was based on my commentary. My original analysis of Coddington’s assessments was substantially more detailed than that which appeared in the article’s final form.

I believe that Coddington went too far in labeling Wright’s letter as “Civil War romance.” While Wright exaggerated in sections, many aspects of his narrative ring true, especially his accurate description of the series of ridges and swales his regiments encountered early in the advance (which can be clearly seen today by walking his attack route). As to Wright’s claim that his brigade broke the Union line (which Coddington rejects),one need look no further than the official report of Brig. Gen. John Gibbon (whose division faced Wright’s assault), who wrote, ‘the advance of the enemy [was]…so rapid as to drive everything before him…the head of his column came quite through a vacancy in our line to the left of my division….’”

Mr. Anderson’s argument on whether Wright’s brigade “broke”or penetrated through a “vacancy” in the Northern line is a quibble of semantics. The point I was attempting to make was that Wright’s men actually penetrated the main Union line on Cemetery Ridge, something that Coddington clearly believes did not happen. Concerning the attacks by all of the Confederate brigades against Cemetery Ridge on July 2,Coddington wrote,“Nowhere did the rebels push through to the crest of the ridge. Most of them got no farther than the bottom of Plum Run Valley or the low ground north of it between the east slope of the Emmitsburg road ridge and the west slope of Cemetery Ridge.” Coddington’s statement that “none of the Union accounts in any way supported his claim of having broken through the main line” is incorrect. Not only did Gibbon admit that Wright’s men reached Cemetery Ridge, but so did Major Sylvanus Curtis of the 7th Michigan, whose regiment was positioned just north of the “vacancy” mentioned by Gibbon. Curtis wrote in his report that “They [Wright’s men] succeeded in passing through between the guns of the battery on our left, driving the gunners from their posts.The line on our left gave way and our flank was almost turned….”The battery mentioned by Curtis was Battery B, 1st Rhode Island Artillery, which had just fallen back from its advance position southwest of the Copse of Trees. Finally, giving Wright’s account no respect, Coddington wrote,“If true, it meant that he [Wright] had the distinction of having penetrated the main line on this part of the [Cemetery] ridge deeper than anyone else, even farther than General L. A. Armistead the following afternoon.” Ironically, I feel that is exactly what happened, and the sources and statements I have listed above confirm it. I hope the above shows Mr.Anderson how my conclusions were reached and benefits the readers of America’s Civil War.

Point well taken

In the November Open Fire piece, “Prison Camps: Hell on Earth,” you have Point Lookout Prison in Maryland marked as a Confederate-run prison. It was actually a Union-run POW camp. Two of my greatgreat-grandfathers,William A.Thompson and Hugh Johnson,spent time there. Both were Confederate Partisan Rangers from Kentucky, who were released upon taking the Oath of Allegience.

Vince Barker



Originally published in the January 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here

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