Saturday, December 29, 2012

Wicked Yankee Abroad - The Battle of Bentonville, NC

Well, I was really outside of New England this week. Instead of exploring Yankee history, I was on a long road trip visiting relatives in Florida. However, driving from Cape Cod to Florida did allow me to experience some pieces of history I generally do not get a chance to. Although time was a factor, so I could not spend days stomping around the south, my wife and I did make a stop at a Civil War battlefield while traveling through North Carolina. I lucked out in this instance because this battle actually had a Yankee connection. As I was to learn, one of the most Wicked Yankees of them all, General William Tecumseh Sherman, once blazed his way through this particular area of North Carolina. In that time, he participated in a conflict which would help decide the fate of the Carolinas, the Battle of Bentonville.

From November to December of 1864, a Union Army led by General William Sherman burned and destroyed its way from Atlanta to Savannah Georgia. Sherman’s army not only destroyed military targets but was also aimed at crippling southern industry and civilian infrastructure. They burned civilian property and destroyed southern railroad in an attempt to cripple the south physically and psychologically. In a letter to General HW Halleck, Sherman justified his tactics of total war.
"We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies. I know that this recent movement of mine through Georgia has had a wonderful effect in this respect. Thousands who had been deceived by their lying newspapers to believe that we were being whipped all the time now realize the truth, and have no appetite for a repetition of the same experience."
In short, Sherman wanted to make sure that the south lost their morale and their will to fight against the Union. In addition, he wanted to ensure that the people of the Confederacy could never again gather the support necesarry to rebel. For his actions, I believe Sherman is disliked throughout the south.

General William Tecumseh Sherman
After the capture of Savannah, Sherman was ordered by Ulysses S. Grant to transport his army to Virginia in order to end Grant’s stalemate with Robert E. Lee. However, within the Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman, Sherman records a letter he sent to Grant in December of 1864. Sherman believed that transporting his army north by sea would disrupt the morale and unity of his men. He believed his armies could do more by destroying Confederate railroads in a march through the Carolinas. Sherman expressed to Grant that he wanted to end the war as quickly as possible. He guessed that Robert E. Lee would remain in Richmond, but also believed he would be able to handle Lee if he ever left the Confederate capital. If not, he also knew Grant would then pin Lee’s army between them.

General Ulysses S. Grant
Commander of the Union forces

Robert E. Lee
Commander of the Confederate Forces

On March 8 of 1865, Sherman’s army crossed into North Carolina, their goal was to reach Goldsboro by passing through Fayetteville. Sherman knew that Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston was gathering rebel forces in the Carolinas to stop the advance of the Union army. In reaching Fayetteville on March 11, parts of Sherman’s army encountered and skirmished with several Confederate leaders.
General Joseph E. Johnston
As Sherman’s army destroyed Confederate weapons, railroads, and fortifications, The General continually expressed resentment for the people of the Carolinas. In his letters to Grant and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Sherman states that the people of the Carolinas should never again be trusted to amass weapons at their own discretion.

After just participating in a serious battle at Averysboro, Sherman believed that Johnston would not make any serious opposition. However, while five miles outside of Bentonville on March 19, Sherman was notified that a division of his army commanded by General Henry Slocum had just encountered the combined forces of General Joseph E. Johnston’s army. Sherman sent command to Slocum to fight defensively until Sherman could arrive with reinforcements.

According to General Johnston’s Narrative of Military Operations Described During the Late Wars Between the States, Johnston overestimated the distance between the two wings of Sherman’s army. He believed it would take about a day’s march to combine Sherman’s forces. This would prove to be incorrect. However, on the first day of battle, the Confederates were successful in holding the advance of the Union army.

According to Sherman’s memoirs, he and General Johnston spent the next day deploying their armies. Johnston’s army was formed into the shape of a "V" enveloping the village of Bentonville. Sherman’s forces, already split into two wings, engaged both sides of the Confederate force. As a heavy rain began, both armies prepared for battle.
Looking out over the battlefield from the Confederate side
According to Johnston, he knew that he was vastly outnumbered. He spread his forces thin to match the Union front in order to appear as an equal force. About noontime March 21, Sherman ordered the whole rebel line to be engaged in a strong skirmish fire. In his memoirs Sherman admits that he should have immediately begun a general battle. However, he also admits that he misjudged how strong Johnston’s forces were. While in reality, Sherman commanded around 60,000 men, Johnston led around only 21,000.
Examples of equiptment and weapons used at Bentonville
Courtesy of the Battle of Bentonville Visitor's Center
Confederate soldier's equiptment at Bentonville
Courtesy of the Battle of Bentonville Visitor's Center
Although the Confederates were successfully holding their position, Johnston began to understand he and his army were in danger. Therefore, before daybreak on March 22, he ordered that his forces retreat across the creek to their rear. Sherman detected the retreat too late. In addition, seeing the roads now clear to Goldsboro, he failed to follow and engage Johnston because he was still unsure of the strength of the Confederate forces.

Sherman reported that his loses over three days of battle were around 1,604. According to Johnston, over the course of three days 223 confederates were killed, 1,467 were wounded, and 653 were either missing or captured. The site North Carolina Historic Sites, lists the Federal loses at 1,527 and Confederate loses at 2,606. Although Johnston might not have known it, this battle would be his last chance to stop Sherman’s army in North Carolina. In addition, this was Sherman’s best chance to defeat and capture most of Johnston’s combined forces. Thus, hastening the end of the Civil War.

This 19th Century farmhouse was used as a battefield hospital

A row of unmarked graves of Confederate soldiers from Bentonville
However, according to Sherman’s own writing, he was very focused on capturing Goldsboro, hoping that he could continue to cripple any supply lines supporting General Lee in Richmond. He believed this would either force Lee's surrender or force him to march out of Richmond to confront the Union army. Ultimately, he believed his actions were bringing the war to a close as quickly as possible. In addition, he believed his tactics would destroy the morale and combat capabilities of the southern people for years to come.

As for Johnston, he knew that he was greatly outnumbered in Bentonville. In his narrative, he does not speak about defeating Sherman at this point. Rather, he and his army were fighting just to maintain a standstill. Retreat was his best option and definitely saved lives at that point.

The Civil War ended only a few months after the action at Bentonville. After Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9 1865, General Johnston and General Sherman met at a small farm in North Carolina. After Johnston's surrender Sherman issued ten days of rations to the starving Confederate soldiers who had once been enemies. Both men carved out moderately successful lives following the war and seemed to have earned a respect for each other. They maintained contact through friendly letters and even occasionally met for dinner. It is said that Johnston would not hear an unkind word said about Sherman in his presence.

When General Sherman died in New York City in February of 1891, General Johnston served as a pallbearer at the military procession following his funeral. It was reported to be a very cold day and Johnston refused to wear his hat, presumably out of respect for Sherman. When one of Johnston’s friends, fearing that the now older General would catch a cold, ask him to wear his hat, Johnston is said to have replied, "If I were in his place, and he were standing in mine, he would not put on his hat." Unfortunately, Joseph E. Johnston did become ill and died of pneumonia about a month later.

As my wife, dogs, and I traveled north on I-95 I watched these important southern cities fly by from my window. I saw cities and landscapes that I had only really read about in history books or taught to my students when I used to teach American history. I wish we had more time to explore, but time was short. As a Yankee, I don’t often get to see Civil War battlefields. Even though sometimes the miles and hours felt long, I made an effort to remember that we were literally following in the footsteps of heroes who fought for their beliefs and for the survival of our country. I was absolutely reminded of this when I was able to visit the site of and learn about the Battle of Bentonville.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Roger Williams' Code Cracked

Roger Williams
According to the Washington Post, as well as many other sources, a long enduring mystery concerning Rhode Island’s founding father has recently been solved. Roger Williams was not only the founder of the Providence Plantation, he was one of the first men to preach for a separation of Church and State. In addiiton to leaving behind a tradition of religious dissent, he also left us pages worth of code in his own hand.

Williams has long been imfamous and famous for his conflict with the government of Massachusetts. Soon after his arrival in Boston, Williams made his religious views clear. He stated that people should be free to follow their own conscience in religious matters, because he believed the conscience was a gift from God. In addition, while in Plymouth, he openly questioned the practice of illegally acquiring land from the local Wampanoags. For these views, he was banished from Massachusetts in 1635.

Williams spent the next several months as a guest of Massasoit, only to further flee the influence of Massachusetts by entering the territory of the Narragansett tribe in modern day Rhode Island. It was in Rhode Island where Williams and a group of his closest followers purchased land from the Sachem of the Narragansett to create their own plantation. He called the area Providence, because he felt that it was God’s providence which led him there. From its birth, Providence became a haven for those who were deemed religious dissenters.

Although most of the life of Roger Williams is well documented, he left behind a mystery. In a 250 page volume entitled “An Essay Towards the Reconciling of Differences Among Christians,” William left pages of written code. Although the book was donated to the Brown University Library in the 1800’s, the code within had never been deciphered.
Preface of the Mysery Book at the Brown University Library
Provided by Brown University
Although attempts had been made at a translation in the past by university staff, this year Brown University extended the challenge of the mysterious code to undergraduate students. Several students accepted the challenge and began independent research projects.

Finally, a 21 year old senior at Brown began to make some progress. Lucas Mason-Brown, who majors in math, first attempted to solve the code by analyzing the frequency of the different symbols and how often they appear in groups together. This did not initially prove helpful.

Mason-Brown then studied Roger Williams. He learned that Williams had been trained in shorthand while living in London. Using these clues, he was able to create a key to Williams’ code. He found that the code used 28 symbols which stood for either English letters or sounds. These symbols could then be arranged and re-arranged to make words. Mason-Brown also found that Williams often improvised his code, which sometimes made translation difficult.

The translation provided three separate sections of Roger Williams’ own notes and thoughts. Unsurprisingly, the content of many of these notes dealt with religious issues of the day, like infant baptism. In addition, Williams commented on the conversion of Native tribes to Christianity, which he felt was being done deceptively. These new translations give huge insight into the mind of Roger Williams toward the end of his life. It will certainly be fascinating to see what Williams was secretly writing about in the margins of his books, as he was already so vocal about his controversial opinions.

I find this type of discovery both interesting and instructive. I have often heard the theory that an historic education has very little practical application in life. In some ways, I agree. I could possibly live my life without my love of history. But I guess I could live a dull life without color, or candy, or bacon cheeseburgers too. I wouldn’t want to, mind you.  However, in the case of cracking the Roger Williams code, a student first attempted to use a math based solution, which failed. Ultimately, it was through historic study and a knowledge of the life of Williams that a key to the mystery was found. There are literally thousands of modern mysteries waiting to be solved. One should never rule out the possibility that the solution to any of them might actually be found in the past.