Edward Steere – Soldier of the Great War, National Park Service Historian, Author


From Eric Mink:

During the National Park Service Centennial last year, the park staff delved into a bit of research on our own history. We looked at how our predecessors laid the groundwork, both in infrastructure and in historical research, upon which we have benefited and continue to build. The park had the advantage of a strong cadre of historians who conducted some of the first solid research on the park’s battles and resources. Ralph Happel is a name known to most who have studied the Civil War activities around Fredericksburg, but there was also T. Sutton Jett, Branch Spalding, Hubert Gurney, just to name a few. For about six years in the late 1930s, the park benefited from having as its chief of historians Edward Steere, a man whose combined knowledge and skills as a journalist, a soldier, and a historian resulted in a report that became the first in-depth battle study of the 1864 Overland Campaigns first engagement. Steere’s The Wilderness Campaign remains a popular resource for students of the battle.

Young Turks - 1935

Edward Steere (far left) and other National Park Service historians on the Wilderness Battlefield in 1935. To Edward’s left are: T. Sutton Jett, Raleigh C. Taylor, Ralph Happel, and Branch Spalding.

Born in Los Angeles, California on April 21, 1889*, Edward Steere entered a military family. His father, Captain Henry Steere, participated in the Spanish-American War with the 1st Battalion California Heavy Artillery and then in the Philippine Insurrection with the 36th United States Volunteers. Captain Steere later pursued a career in education as both professor of military tactics and commandant of cadets at the Western Reserve University of Cleveland, Ohio, and even later in a similar role at the Shenandoah Valley Military Academy in Winchester, Virginia. Edward’s older sister Ruth married three times, each to an officer in the United States Army. Her first two husbands were medical officers, while her third husband, Colonel Reginald Heber Kelley, commanded the 116th United States Infantry during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918. Edward’s younger brother John entered the United States Army and rose to the rank of colonel. Perhaps it was the military tradition, a sense of adventure, or even personal convictions about the war in Europe that led young Edward to leave the United States and enlist in the Canadian Army on September 23, 1914, at the age of 25. Steere joined “B” Battery, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery and over the following four years he served with his unit in France, presumably taking part in all of its battles. His service record notes little, other than three instances in which he ran afoul of his superiors. The first involved “altering the duration of his watch,” the second punishment came for “using insubordinate language to his superior officer,” and the final instance involved “galloping a horse on a hard road.” Dismissal at the expiration of his service came on May 31, 1919, at which time Steere returned to the United States to pursue an education for a civilian career.

Steere’s college pursuits prepared him well for his future vocation as a historian. He attended the University of Texas and received a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1924 and a master’s in history in 1929. After a stint writing for the Dallas Morning News and the Austin Statesman, Edward landed a job with the National Park Service, working out of the agency’s Washington, D.C. office. The War Department transferred its battlefields and military parks to the National Park Service in 1933, and around that time Steere joined the staff of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He arrived in Fredericksburg as an assistant historical technician, but within five years he rose to the position of “chief historian,” overseeing the park’s historical research and public programming. His largest contribution while stationed at Fredericksburg was his research on the Battle of the Wilderness. The result of that research has benefited historians for decades.

Steere - 1938c

Edward Steere – Fredericksburg Battlefield, 1938

Steere began his study of the Battle of the Wilderness shortly after arriving in Fredericksburg and finished both the research and writing of his manuscript in 1937. Steere’s “The Campaign of the Wilderness, May 2-7, 1864” was intended as an internal document to educate the park staff. Steere utilized the small park library, and with a few small exceptions, he relied entirely upon published sources, specifically the Official Records. Prior to his research, a truly analytical look at the Wilderness did not exist. Andrew Humphreys’ The Virginia Campaigns of ’64 and ’65: The Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James (1883) and Morris Schaff’s The Battle of the Wilderness (1910) both represented studies written by participants, but each lacked the distance and analysis of a historian. Steere’s familiarity with the ground and his painstaking analysis of the source material resulted in a 650-page typed manuscript. It is likely that his manuscript would have remained on the park’s library shelf and out of sight from anyone other than park staff had it not been for an inquiry from soldier and publisher Lieutenant General Edward Stackpole, Jr. two decades later.

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A Battle of Fredericksburg Poem Becomes a Song Performed by Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Many Others


from: Harrison

What is the best-known image of the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg? It may be one based on an artwork or artifact highlighting the courage shown by Federal bridge-builders on the Rappahannock, or by the men who charged Marye’s Heights and the Stone Wall. Or perhaps it’s a counterpart image highlighting the same quality among the Confederates who opposed them at those places or at Prospect Hill. Many among us may think first of pictures (or statues) of Richard Kirkland’s mission of mercy, or the suffering of civilians in ruined homes or as wintertime refugees. During the battle’s recent sesquicentennial, the nation found new visual inspiration in a set of highly evocative battle artifacts shared in the New York Times.

A c. 1907 depiction, now rarely seen, of supporting operations for the final Union assault at Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862.  Battery E, Massachusetts Light Artillery (Phillips’) fires just before or during the evening attack of Getty’s Division—Getty’s infantry evidently hidden by the rise in middleground. The general terrain around the battery appears here with reasonable accuracy, although what’s presumably the Marye House, upper right, has been artistically shifted southward along the heights, and sports what is actually its postwar portico. From: Walter F. Beyer and Oscar F. Keydel, eds., Deeds of Valor 1: 108.

A c. 1907 depiction, now rarely seen, of supporting operations for the final Union assault at Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862. Battery E, Massachusetts Light Artillery (Phillips’) fires just before or during the evening attack of Getty’s Division—Getty’s infantry evidently hidden by the rise in middleground. The general terrain around the battery appears here with reasonable accuracy, although what’s presumably the Marye House, upper right, has been artistically shifted southward along the heights, and sports what is actually its postwar portico. From: Walter F. Beyer and Oscar F. Keydel, eds., Deeds of Valor 1: 108.

This post examines what has at times been one of the nation’s most widely publicized, and powerful, images of the Battle of Fredericksburg: a tableau described in a poem published shortly after it ended. The poem centers around a pair of Union soldiers in wrenching conversation, moments before they accompany a hopeless assault at Fredericksburg–the “last fierce charge” on December 13, 1862.

Since February 1863, the poem has been shared among countless Americans, in venues ranging from the Civil War-era camps and parlors that hosted copies of it; to the front porches, kitchens, and theaters across the nation that saw postwar performances by singers and musicians who set the poem to music; to an endless variety of places where artists shared their interpretations of the song as recordings or live, amplified renditions, after folklorists and musicologists sparked a new round of interest in the poem and its story.

Yet many who came to read the poem, or hear the song, were unaware of the initially specific setting at the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg.

Masthead for the Harper’s Weekly issue that carried the poem, when its story was still set at Fredericksburg specifically.

Masthead for the Harper’s Weekly issue that carried the poem, when its story was still set at Fredericksburg specifically.

(Courtesy Son of the South, whose digital Harper’s Weekly is invaluable to students of the war.)

The tale first appeared in a poem titled “At Fredericksburg” and published in the February 7, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly:

IT was just before the last fierce charge,
When two soldiers drew their rein,
For a parting word and a touch of hands—
They might never meet again.

One had blue eyes and clustering curls—
Nineteen but a month ago
Down on his chin, red on his cheek:
He was only a boy, you know.

The other was dark, and stern, and proud;
If his faith in the world was dim,
He only trusted the more in those
Who were all the world to him.

They had ridden together in many a raid,
They had marched for many a mile,
And ever till now they had met the foe
With a calm and hopeful smile.

But now they looked in each other’s eyes
With an awful ghastly gloom,
And the tall dark man was the first to speak:
“Charlie, my hour has come.

“We shall ride together up the hill,
And you will ride back alone;
Promise a little trouble to take
For me when I am gone.

“You will find a face upon my breast—
I shall wear it into the fight
With soft blue eyes, and sunny curls,
And a smile like morning light.

“Like morning light was her love to me;
It gladdened a lonely life,
And little I cared for the frowns of fate
When she promised to be my wife.

“Write to her, Charlie, when I am gone,
And send back the fair, fond face;
Tell her tenderly how I died,
And where is my resting-place.

“Tell her my soul will wait for hers,
In the border-land between
The earth and heaven, until she comes:
It will not be long, I ween.”

Tears dimmed the blue eyes of the boy—
His voice was low with pain:
“I will do your bidding, comrade mine,
If I ride back again.

“But if you come back, and I am dead,
You must do as much for me:
My mother at home must hear the news—
Oh, write to her tenderly.

“One after another those she loved
She has buried, husband and son;
I was the last. When my country called,
She kissed me and sent me on.

“She has prayed at home, like a waiting saint, With her fond face white with woe:
Her heart will be broken when I am gone:
I shall see her soon, I know.”

Just then the order came to charge—
For an instant hand touched hand,
Eye answered eye; then on they rushed,
That brave, devoted band.

Straight they went toward the crest of the hill.
And the rebels with shot and shell
Plowed rifts of death through their toiling ranks, And jeered them as they fell.
They turned with a horrible dying yell
From the heights they could not gain,
And the few whom death and doom had spared
Went slowly back again.
But among the dead whom they left behind Was the boy with his curling hair,
And the stern dark man who marched by his side Lay dead beside him there.

There is no one to write to the blue-eyed girl
The words that her lover said;
And the mother who waits for her boy at home Will but hear that he is dead,
And never can know the last fond thought That sought to soften her pain,
Until she crosses the River of Death,
And stands by his side again.

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Morris Schaff’s Wilderness, pt. 2: Spirits, Ghosts, and Talking Plants on the Battlefield


from: Harrison

My previous post introduced Union veteran Morris Schaff and his authoring of The Battle of the Wilderness, the first book on its subject. That post also began considering why Schaff’s goal of writing careful, conventional battle history remains virtually unknown today. When we compare his ambition to the same ambition embodied in John Bigelow’s book, The Campaign of Chancellorsville, published the same year, 1910, and destined to garner wide respect for evaluating the tactics and grand tactics of another local battle, the obscurity that befell Schaff’s project is all the more striking.

This post explores the principal, ironic impediment to Schaff’s hope of being remembered for his conventional history: his book’s parallel, unconventional goal of understanding the battle and its participants as affected by activist spirits and ghosts, and intelligent, even compassionate, vegetation. As I noted earlier, a critic who reviewed Schaff’s book in 1911 marveled at an author “who, while framing a military treatise, can at the same time make it a new ‘Alice in Wonderland.’” A second reviewer, commenting on his book in The Dial in 1912, worried that the pairing of very different interpretive methods was “a stumbling-block” for many readers. The Dial critic went on to relate the response of a “distinguished fellow-soldier” to Schaff: “When you get done with your poetry and get down to history you will write a valuable book.”

Marginalia and an inscription in this copy of Morris Schaff’s book indicate that 49-year-old Franklin J. Roth read it over the course of three weeks in the fall of 1912. A 1920’s newspaper article described Roth as president of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania School Board and “a collector of old documents and historical data.” Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park library.

Marginalia and an inscription in this copy of Morris Schaff’s book indicate that 49-year-old Franklin J. Roth read it over the course of three weeks in the fall of 1912. A 1920’s newspaper article described Roth as president of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania School Board and “a collector of old documents and historical data.” Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park library.

If Schaff’s diversions into the supernatural had been less prominent, readers might have understood those as efforts to enliven the book with analogy and allegory, or to achieve other purposes common among writers of his era. For instance, some of Schaff’s passages reflect the view, shared by many of the Civil War generation, that battlefield death could bring nobility, individual peace in the Christian afterlife, and North-South reconciliation. His book at one point has the allegory of Death encountering the mortally wounded Lieutenant Colonel Alford Chapman of the 57th New York Infantry; likely at no other place in the Wilderness had Death “met more steady eyes than those of this dying, family-remembering young man.” At another juncture, the spirits of dead soldiers, from both armies, rise “above the tree tops…a great flight of them towards Heaven’s gate…. [T]wo by two they lock arms like college boys and pass in together; and so it may be for all of us at last.”

Yet Schaff’s supernatural characters appear even more dramatically, across some 25 per cent of his book, in repeated interventions that alter battle outcomes and soldier experiences. For starters, there’s “The Spirit of the Wilderness,” which in turn has the capacity to conjure The Spirit of Slavery. Schaff at several points describes The Spirit of Slavery as a single being and at another as “a resurrected procession of dim faces” moving “in “ghostly silence.” The Spirit of the Wilderness is determined to punish the Confederacy for the miseries suffered in the same forest a century earlier by those people while alive and enslaved on Alexander Spottswood’s vast local landholdings (and more generally by all slaves since then).

Even media not typically hospitable to supernatural interpretation conveyed the view that Stonewall Jackson’s mortal wounding in the Wilderness at Chancellorsville was an eerie, extraordinary event. Detail from Benjamin Lewis Blackford, "Part of Spotsylvania County," Gilmer Civil War Maps Collection, University of North Carolina.

Even media not typically hospitable to supernatural interpretation conveyed the view that Stonewall Jackson’s mortal wounding in the Wilderness at Chancellorsville was an eerie, extraordinary event. Detail from Benjamin Lewis Blackford, “Part of Spotsylvania County,” Gilmer Civil War Maps Collection, University of North Carolina.

(Click here for hi-rez version.)

First, The Spirit of the Wilderness in 1863 takes the life of Stonewall Jackson, who finds himself transformed into yet another specter haunting its depths. Then, a year later, the Spirit strikes down James Longstreet, “just as victory was in his [Robert E. Lee’s] grasp,” and in a battle where success was “absolutely necessary to save the life of the Confederacy.” Schaff’s very next paragraph describes the underlying forces at work, with “miraculous” by no means synonymous with “benevolent”: 

Reader, if the Spirit of the Wilderness be unreal to you, not so is it to me. Bear in mind that the natural realm of the spirit of man is nature’s kingdom, that there he has made all of his discoveries, and yet what a vast region is unexplored, that region among whose misty coast Imagination wings her way bringing one suggestion after another of miraculous transformations….

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Morris Schaff’s Wilderness: Anticipating Future Battlefield Interpretation, 1910


from: Harrison

With the park having concluded sesquicentennial observances of the four battles within its historical bailiwick, I’d like to consider how those engaged the imagination once the guns fell silent. Readers of this blog may recall my interest in the literary aspects of early commentary on the fighting. What follows is adapted from a History at Sunset program I presented recently on supernatural imagery, used by some chroniclers of the Civil War generation in describing Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and the vast tract of woodland encompassing both. 

I drew inspiration from Union veteran Morris Schaff’s The Battle of the Wilderness, published in 1910.  It’s the most unique history I’ve read of a Civil War battle. It’s also the first book to be devoted solely to the two-day clash of May 1864, not to be supplemented in that category until Edward Steere published The Wilderness Campaign half a century after Schaff’s volume appeared.

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Houghton-Mifflin’s advertising for the serialized version of Schaff’s book, Atlantic Monthly, March 1909.

Schaff’s publisher, Houghton-Mifflin of Boston and New York, had serialized the book in their magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, beginning in June 1909. Schaff’s study was thus distributed widely and essentially twice. (The publishers seemed delighted with its reception, inviting him to write an article-length sequel and running that in Atlantic in 1911.)

Readers across the country had this first-ever, book-length encounter with the Battle of the Wilderness in a profoundly strange atmosphere. Schaff’s text swerved back and forth from the conventional to the unconventional, from straightforward terrain- and tactics analysis to supernatural interventions. In 1911, a reviewer for The Nation spent several column-inches trying to finalize his thoughts about Schaff and concluded, “We applaud the writer who, while framing a military treatise, can at the same time make it a new ‘Alice in Wonderland.’” In this blog post, let’s consider the conventional and even “cutting-edge” aspects of The Battle of the Wilderness. These highlight, through contrast, the weird aspects (next post), as strange now as in 1910.

At the battle of the Wilderness, the 23-year-old Schaff served on the staff of Fifth Corps Commander Gouveneur K. Warren. Some of Schaff’s detailed descriptions of what he saw would become popular among later historians, especially his detailed, vivid recollection of Warren meeting with other staffers in the Lacy House, “Ellwood,” and urging them to reduce the casualty return for his corps.

Ellwood and environs. For visitors to the Wilderness today, Morris Schaff is probably best known for his striking account of an episode in the Lacy house, “Ellwood,” involving a casualty tally and a brief but vivid description of one of its rooms. Virtually unknown is his ambitious effort to understand many other aspects of the battle. This entailed Schaff making at least one postwar visit, when a Mr. and Mrs. Jennings hosted him, possibly at a now-vanished postwar structure that appears on a 1930’s map.

Ellwood and environs. For visitors to the Wilderness today, Morris Schaff is probably best known for his striking account of an episode in the Lacy house, “Ellwood,” involving a casualty tally and a brief but vivid description of one of its rooms. Virtually unknown is his ambitious effort to understand many other aspects of the battle. This entailed Schaff making at least one postwar visit, when a Mr. and Mrs. Jennings hosted him, possibly at a now-vanished structure that appears on a 1930’s map.

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Walt Whitman’s Battles of Chancellorsville: Horrific Wounds, Night Fighting, and Other “Strange and Fearful Pictures”


from: Harrison

This year’s sesquicentennial commemorations of the Battle of Chancellorsville will build upon long traditions of eyewitness, published narrative and non-eyewitness scholarship.  Yet I’ve been fascinated lately to realize that Chancellorsville inspired Walt Whitman to make, forcefully, one of his earliest contrarian forecasts for writing about the Civil War, a view that he later expressed in the now-famous sentence, “The real war will never get in the books.”

Walt Whitman in 1863. Library of Congress.

Walt Whitman in 1863. Library of Congress.

Whitman’s longest-known rumination on Chancellorsville, dated May 12, 1863, asked

Of scenes like these, I say, who writes—who e’er can write, the story?  Of many a score—aye, thousands, North and South, of unwritten heroes, unknown heroisms, incredible, impromptu, first-class desperations—who tells?  No history, ever—No poem sings, no music sounds, those bravest men of all—those deeds.  Nor formal General’s report, nor print, nor book in the library, nor column in the paper, embalms the bravest, North or South, East or West.

(If the recording below indeed turns out to capture Walt Whitman’s voice in 1889 or 1890 and shortly before his death in 1892, as has been suggested, it’s one of the few spoken traces of a witness to Chancellorsville, or at least to the ordeals of the battle’s survivors.  The voice reads the first four lines of Whitman’s 1888 poem, “America”:)


In a March 1863 letter to friends, describing the real-life scenes and people he encountered in Washington’s military hospitals, Whitman had ventured an early version of this theme, writing, “To these, what are your dramas and poems, even the oldest and the tearfulest?”

Ironically, he penned assertions of the Civil War resisting accurate representation at the same time that he was creating representations of it vividly and in abundance, drawing special inspiration from his interactions with sick and wounded soldiers.  At one point, he acknowledged harboring an ideal of a “many-threaded drama,” which would include everything from the war’s political context to its national financial burdens and grief.  But above all, he envisioned portrayals of the “nobility of the people:  the essential soundness of the common man” in 1861-1865.

Whitman remained in Washington during the entire period of Chancellorsville but in an important sense became an eyewitness to it.  He recorded his initial responses to the battle in at least four formats in prose:  diary entries, letters, notebook jottings about wounded soldiers whom he encountered in hospitals, and longer reflections in his notebooks.  These together underscored his view that a battle that other writers would portray as one event in a discreet place, albeit a broad one, was in his words actually “many conflicts” and “first-class desperations,” in many places.

“No formal General’s report, nor print, nor book in the library, nor column in the paper, embalms the bravest, North or South, East or West.” An officer of the 30th United States Colored Infantry ponders a skull at Chancellorsville, along or near Bullock Road a year after the fighting. Freeman S. Bowley, The Boy Lieutenant, p. 65.

“No formal General’s report, nor print, nor book in the library, nor column in the paper, embalms the bravest, North or South, East or West.” An officer of the 30th United States Colored Infantry ponders a skull at Chancellorsville, along or near Bullock Road a year after the fighting. Freeman S. Bowley, The Boy Lieutenant, p. 65.

Whitman’s Chancellorsvilles proliferated and spread outward from Spotsylvania County, Virginia, engulfing him via the casualties who reached Washington—their ongoing sufferings, hopes, stories, scars, and rearranged and shifted locations.  (For some thoughts on how Chancellorsville continued to acquire new meanings after the war, see my post on our sister blog here.)

Bodies as well as land composed these numerous battlefields.  Whitman sought to convey through words the “strange and fearful pictures.” And at virtually the same time that he was doing that, medical staff were making literal pictures of and even curating the bodily landscapes of Chancellorsville. The results can be difficult to look at, and even 150 years later are one of the least-discussed facets of the Civil War’s visual record (although certainly not ignored altogether).  Beyond exploring Whitman’s multiple meanings and written pictures, then, my post asks whether the literal pictures of bodies torn and marked by Chancellorsville should be discussed and interpreted more often, or best left in the veiling moonlight of obscurity.

(Graphic images of soldiers’ wounds and remains appear after this page-break.)

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Understanding Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle: an Old Collaboration and a New Blog


from: Harrison

The team of writer and activist Mary Johnston and artist N. C. Wyeth offers a fascinating case study of non-veterans collaborating to interpret Civil War battles.

Public domain images of Mary Johnston (Library of Congress) and N. C. Wyeth (Wikimedia Commons).

Recently, I read portions of Johnston’s Wyeth-illustrated novel Cease Firing (Houghton Mifflin, 1912). It occurred to me that this picture in the book, accompanying her account of the May 12, 1864, fighting at Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle, may now be the least known of its nationally circulated and publicized depictions:


(This black-and-white, online version of the artwork is in the public domain; Wyeth’s original painting resides in a private collection but is viewable in low-rez color here. That, by the way, is from a thumbnailed catalog that inventories many of Wyeth’s other historical works, including some of his sketched studies of Civil War soldiers. Wyeth’s Wiki entry is here.)

And Wyeth’s grim vision of the Bloody Angle only hinted at the horrors of Johnston’s, which began with self-narrating stabs by a Confederate’s blade:

The breastwork here was log and earth. Now other bayonets appeared over it, and behind the bayonets blue caps. “I have heard many a fuss,” said the first bayonet thrust, “but never a fuss like this!” “Blood, blood!” said the second. “I am the bloody Past! Just as strong and young as ever I was! More blood!”

The trenches grew slippery with blood. It mixed with the rain and ran in red streamlets. The bayonet point felt first the folds of cloth, then it touched and broke the skin, then it parted the tissues, then it grated against bone, or, passing on, rending muscle and gristle…. Where weapons had been wrested away men clutched with bare hands one anothers’ throats. And all this went on, not among a dozen or even fifty infuriated beings, but among thousands.

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