Albert Sidney Johnston

Things have changed. Today, invoking the name of Albert Sidney Johnston, former Confederate general, and most people think racist or terrorist. But, on April 10, 1862, Clara Solomon had a far different reaction. She described him as a “nice noble” man and as a patriot. He was killed at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. When his body was transported to New Orleans, she could not bring herself to stand in line with her mother and a close neighbor – to view the casket and soldiers passing by. “Stand there a length of time to see what? Soldiers, and a hearse! No, my heart was aching while at home, and why should I stand among the eager, unfeeling crowd, whose sympathies would not be awakened as the car which contained the remnants of a nice noble man rode by.”

As the blockade of the New Orleans port tightened, she also missed her butter. It was, she said, as though a friend had departed. By April, 1862, the Solomon family’s last butter ran out months ago.

But, then she grew serious again when she recounted that after the casualty lists started to pour in, she knew many families would not leave their homes. In the nineteenth century, those mourning a lost family member would typically stay home and not venture out. After this battle near the Shiloh church in Tennessee, the most bloody conflict ever known on this continent many New Orleanians did indeed stay home.

Before the war, Albert Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee were generally considered the most talented of a younger generations of officers. Gen. Johnston was unique in that he had served in the armies of three different nations: the United States, the Republic of Texas, and in the Confederate States of America.

Gen. Johnston had resigned his commission as a young officer, to care for his ill wife. He farmed for a time in Missouri while caring for her. Despite his efforts, his first wife died while still very young. Yes, Clara, he was indeed a nice, noble man.

See the Texas State Historical Association website here for more informaiton about Gen. Johnston.

Elliott Ashkenazi , ed., The Civil War Diary of Clara Solomon (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1995), p. 325-326.

Veteran Service Forms a Strong Bond

Few movies and television programs get the veteran thing right, in my opinion. One program that does is the Netflix program, Peaky Blinders. If you spend anytime watching Peaky Blinders, you will see many references to the war service of the two main protagonists, Thomas and Arthur Shelby. The two brothers served in World War I. They both served as tunnel men, a very dangerous and grinding sort of war. They dug tunnels under the enemy trenches. It was dirty, dangerous work. It scarred Arthur, and left Thomas with strong, memories. Both Arthur and Thomas are gangsters in early Manchester, England. Yet, constantly, their war service is mentioned by persons in power as reflecting well on the two men.

In one episode, Thomas Shelby approaches a young Winston Churchill for a special trade concession. Thomas comes to Winston’s office with various clerks and bureaucrats busily working in his office. Winston knows Thomas is a gangster, but is also very familiar with his war record. Thomas makes his request. Winston stares at Thomas for a minute. Then he glances around the room and announces loudly that Thomas was a tunnel man at the Somme. The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest battles of WW I. It lasted July 1 to Nov. 18, 1916. On the first day of the offensive, the British army suffered 54,000 casualties. Only American Civil War battles compare with that level of ferocity. Winston looks around the room and asks for a show of hands who was at the Battle of the Somme. Out of about ten men busy working, some five or six raise their hand. Winston explains that Thomas was at the Battle of the Somme and was a tunnel man. Nothing else needs to be said. Instantly, everyone in the room knows what Thomas represents. He may be a gangster now, but his service represents selfless sacrifice and devotion to duty in a gritty, dirty way that all veterans understand. Winston gives Thomas his trade concession.

When the Confederate monuments were erected in the 1890-1920 period, as most were, every veteran alive knew what they represented. It was common in that period of 30 years for Confederate veterans to attend ceremonies for Union monuments and vice versa. Veterans understand. We know sacrifice. We know the dirt and filth that is war. We also know devotion to duty when we see it.


The Final GoodBye

It was a scene played out all across the Northern and Southern United States during the Civil War: saying goodbye. Clara Solomon wrote a diary during the Civil War from her home in New Orleans. As I have discussed elsewhere, she admired a famous soldier, Maj. Roberdeau Wheat. Maj. Wheat was a friend of her parents. Another close friend of the family was Capt. Obed Miller. Miller and Wheat both served in Wheat’s Battalion, known for hard-fighting and for wild conduct between battles. Capt. Miller was wounded in the first Battle of Manassas. In October, 1861, he came home to New Orleans, probably for recovery.

From a mutual friend, the seventeen year old had heard that Capt. Miller and his wife were offended that they had seen Clara on the street and Clara ignored them. So, when Capt. Miller came to the Solomon home on Rampart, Clara thought he might be angry with her. But, no, he appeared “astonished” when she mentioned this. He assured her that he and his wife were not upset with the young schoolgirl. She recorded that Obed Miller was as handsome as ever. She often remarked on person’s looks. He spoke of his impending departure to return to the war. He mentioned they would probably never see one another again. He asked her to sometimes think of him.

Clara knew he was coming. She had considered what to give him. Knowing he had lost his little diary book, she consulted with her mother and asked if she could give him her diary book. Diary books were very important to Clara. She regularly exhausted her supply of paper and would yearn for additional paper. For the young Clara, this was no small gift.

Ma said yes. Clara presented the book, and expressed only the wish that he might at times write her name on the book in “sweet remembrance.” The captain thanked her. He said he would forever (emphasis Clara’s) keep it. He asked Clara to tell her sister, Alice that he could not see her that afternoon, but he would return in the evening. After some 45 minutes, he said he had to go.

Oh . .  I felt so so sad, as I gazed upon him and thought that in all probability we would never meet again (emphasis Clara’s).” She bade her final good bye. As she gazed upon that “proud, manly form, an earnest prayer ascended from my soul that a Yankee bullet would never pierce his noble, generous heart (emphasis Clara’s).” The captain took her hand, “Clara, I have one favor which I wish you to grant. Think of me sometimes with kindness.” She replied, simply, yes.

Capt. Miller released her hand as he said, “God be with you.” In a moment, he was gone. Capt. Miller would later be killed in Virginia in 1863.

When I deployed to Iraq, I did say goodbye to close family friends. I did not do it as well as Capt. Miller. A Southern historian, whose name escapes me, once commented that the soldiers in the Civil War seem to have been so much more gallant than the heroes of WW I or WW II. He suggested that may have been because in the Civil War, especially in the South, the war was so close. The Confederate soldiers went to great lengths to protect the home folks from the dangers and terrors of the war. In truth, the Southern men essentially failed the home folks. They could not protect their homes from the predatory Union soldiers. Perhaps, the best the men could do was to pretend things would work out, knowing the odds were not good. And, the women may have pretended in turn that they believed their men.

Elliott Ashkenazi, ed., The Civil War Diary of Clara Solomon (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1995), p. 217.

When You Lose Your Family

Josh Brodesky wrote a column in the San Antonio Express-News in July, 2017, when the talk about the Confederate memorial in San Antonio was reaching a fever pitch. Mr. Brodesky mentioned several times that the Confederates were fighting for slavery. Certainly, the point of the Confederate States of America was to extend slavery and protect it as an institution. But, did the Confederate soldiers fight to maintain slavery?

I served 12 months in Iraq during the war. We lost a half dozen soldiers. One I knew well. The others I barely knew. The one was enough. It was not just losing 1SGT Saenz. It was the effect on men and women I cared deeply about. Good friends of mine were devastated by the loss of Carlos Saenz. I felt this tremendous concern for the ones who blamed themselves for his loss, or who were simply angry and fired up about his loss. One death had all these ripple effects on the entire military unit.

What happens when you lose buddies and friends everyday? What happens when you lose all your buddies? In war, your buddies are your family. Civilians may not appreciate how close soldiers become when they live with each other 24/7 for months and months. You know which buddy does the best impression of the commander. You know which buddy belches in the morning. You know which buddy will cry when a dog is accidentally killed. You know on whom you can count in times of stress. You would die for them and they will die for you. That is what family is. At the Battle of Antietam in 1862, Hood’s Division saw its first large scale action. At about 8:30 a.m., the Division, which included Gen. Hood’s former Texas Brigade was committed to an assault.

The First Texas Regiment, all of 211 soldiers, went out too far. They were too aggressive. It was a rookie mistake, even if one motivated by the right reasons. The regiment on the right and left did not keep up with them. The First Texas was exposed. It was raked by fire from three sides, though their battle lasted only about 30 minutes. 182 of the members of the First Texas fell that morning. No one survived from Co. F. One man survived in Co. A. Co. C could claim two survivors. Co. E had a whopping three survivors. The First Texas endured an 86% casualty rate in those 30 minutes, the highest casualty rate of any regiment in a single battle during the Civil War. Andrew and Alexander Erskine, two brothers from near Seguin, Texas, were there. Andrew fell. Alexander wrote to Andrew’s wife, Ann about his sorrow, but he knew her sorrow was surely greater. Ann’s brother had been killed earlier that year at the Second Battle of Manassas. Ann was left a widow, with a ranch, a farm, a ferry and a cotton gin and six sons ranging in age from 9 months to 13 years.

Capt. William Gaston lost his brother in the same battle. He wrote his father that he would find Robert, or die in the effort. Many men were wounded and left behind. He explained to his father sorrowfully that they had to withdraw, leaving many men on the battle field. He talked about possibly resigning his commission and coming home to Texas. But, in the end, Alexander Erskine and William Gaston transferred to Confederate units back home in Texas.

Why did they fight? Why didn’t Alexander Erskine and William Gaston quit when the worst that could happen did happen? Why did not every remaining soldier from the First Texas Infantry Regiment pack up and go home? It was not for slavery. No one endures that terror, grief and sorrow simply for material gain. And, this after all, was a battle that the Confederates lost.

Susannah J. Ural, Hood’s Texas Brigade, (Baton Rouge, La.: LSU Press 2017), pp. 130-131.