The Class the Stars Fell On at Gettysburg, 1915

The West Point Class of 1915–The Class the Stars Fell On–toured Gettysburg in early May 1915 a few days before the sinking of the Lusitania and graduated one month later. Two years after this many of these men would be lieutenants and captains serving in France.

We are going to continue with the Gettysburg theme this Fourth of July Week with this photograph of the West Point Class of 1915 posing on the steps of the Christ Lutheran Church on Chambersburg Street. This West Point cohort is called The Class the Stars Fell On because so many of the firsties we see here went on to become generals by the time of the Second World War. Somewhere in here are Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley. They arrived in Gettysburg on 2 May and toured for several days under the supervision of Colonel Gustav J. Fiebeger, the legendary instructor who for more than a quarter of a century served as chair of the Academy’s Civil and Military Engineering Department. Among Fiebeger’s important works was “Campaign and Battle of Gettysburg,” which was studied by students at West Point. Remember that military parks like Gettysburg still fell under the auspices of the War Department in 1910s, not being turned over to the National Park Service until the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration.

When these cadets graduated a month later on June 12 they were the largest West Point Class up until that time, comprising 164 second lieutenants. Secretary of War Lindley Garrison was the commencement speaker. This was the first United States Military Academy class to graduate since the outbreak of the Great War the previous year and everyone understood that these young men might eventually be leading men into battle. The Lusitania was sunk later the very week this photo was taken. A very short list of those in attendance when the West Point Class of 1915 graduated the following month included Major General and Chief of Staff Hugh L. Scott; Major General George W. Goethels, who built the Panama Canal during the Theodore Roosevelt Administration; a West Pointer from the Class of 1847 who went on to become a brigadier; and Horace Porter, another West Pointer, who was an important aid to General and President Ulysses S. Grant and who went on to build Grant’s Tomb and was managing the mausoleum up through this time.


Sunday morning coffee

A colonel at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, Edward B. Fowler led the 14th Brooklyn in Wadsworth’s division of Reynold’s I Corps at the railroad cut.

I am finishing up my coffee before I head out the door for Grant’s Tomb. It is going to be a warm one today, close to 100. I’m trying to embrace the heat to the extent I can. Today is the 155th anniversary of Day One of the Battle of Gettysburg. I was with a friend in Green-Wood Cemetery Friday and yesterday and, with a sense of longing for Adams County, was paying close attention for headstones of men who fought and/or were killed at Gettysburg. Yesterday I took this photograph of the Edward B. Fowler headstone. He and his men served under James Wadsworth in the Union I Corps. After the war he was a prominent figure in Brooklyn. When he died in 1896 he lay in state in Brooklyn’s City Hall and then had a full military burial in Green-Wood.

On Friday I finished re-reading David Blight’s Race and Reunion. While I don’t believe the work’s arguments were as groundbreaking as some would have us believe, R&R is no doubt an extraordinary work of scholarship. I gained a lot from going back to it. One of the things that most fascinates me about Grant’s Tomb, besides the life and times of the man resting there, is how the general’s death fit in to Americans’ memory and understanding of the war. Once I have my Grant history and historiography down a bit more, I intend to explore some of these things in a deeper way. I have already begun doing that. Grand Army Men were visiting the tomb for Decoration Days well into the 1920s. After the Armistice, they marched with men from the Spanish-American and the Great War.

Yosemite and the Civil War

Albert Bierstadt began “Valley of the Yosemite” in 1863 and completed the small painting, less than 1′ x 2′, in early 1864. That spring it sold at the New York Sanitary Fair for $1600. In June Congress and Lincoln granted Yosemite and Big Tree Grove to California and Frederick Law Olmsted studied the area for the state over the next year. The painting today is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act on this date in 1864. This legislation deeded Yosemite and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California. It is interesting to note that Congress wrote and President Lincoln signed the measure in late June 1864, just days after the Overland Campaign in which so many men had been killed or wounded in ghastly ways. Even with the war far from decided people were looking ahead.

I tell the story a little bit in my book. The painting we see here was begun by Albert Bierstadt in 1863 and finished in 1864. While out west Bierstadt was also writing to his good friend John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary, back in Washington about the scenic beauty of California. It is not difficult to imagine Hay describing all this to his boss in the White House. As it happened, another man from back east was in California in 1863: Frederick Law Olmsted. He had resigned his position as secretary of the United States Sanitary Commission in September to take a job running a mine in Mariposa. Olmsted was burned out from his work with the Sanitary Commission and got as far away as he could by going out west. Soon after Lincoln signed the Yosemite legislation, Frederick Law Olmsted found himself part of a commission whose job it was to survey Yosemite and the Big Tree Grove and create for California officials a plan the state might use to make these protected parklands. Olmsted and his colleagues went about their task and submitted a report in August 1865. California officials ultimately tabled Olmsted’s report, deeming his provisions too expensive.

As for the painting we see above, it quickly ended up in New York City just after Albert Bierstadt completed it in early 1864. That spring officials of the Sanitary Commission sold the art work during the Metropolitan Sanitary Fair. The fair, like others held in various locales, raised funds for the Sanitary Commission to do its work tending the needs of soldiers out in the field. Albert Bierstadt’s “Valley of the Yosemite” sold for $1600, the highest sum for any artwork on sale for charity at the New York Sanitary Fair.

(image/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

Life’s small pleasures

I spent a few hours walking Green-Wood Cemetery this morning with a friend. When I got home, there in the mailbox was the new John Coltrane cd waiting for me. I have it on right now. I love stories of “lost” audiotapes, manuscripts, archival photographs, and whatnot. It is easy to be cynical about these things–it is easy to be cynical about a lot of things–but this is no filler or outtakes that should have remained in the vaults. These lost tapes are the real thing, another tile in the mosaic to help us better understand Coltrane’s legacy. I have always believed that Coltrane’s output in the 1960s, when he began going more “out there,” has withstood the test of time when others’ has not is because his music is rooted in both blues and his time in a Navy band just after the Second World War. Whatever the era, military musicians usually bring a discipline to their work. They respect tradition. The Lost Album will take a while to fully absorb and I can already tell will be part of the soundtrack to the summer.

Grant at Gettysburg

Ulysses S. Grant arrived in Gettysburg on this date in 1867. Grant had been made lieutenant general the year before and, with Andrew Johnson’s presidency increasingly in jeopardy, it was becoming increasingly obvious that Grant might make a feasible run for the White House in 1868. David Wills invited Grant to visit Gettysburg to tour the battlefield and also meet the commissioners of the National Cemetery where Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address four years earlier.

The photograph we see here was taken by Charles J. Tyson on June 21. Charles and sibling Isaac were the Tyson Brothers who took so many of the iconic images of the battlefield just after the fighting ended. This image was taken with the boys and girls at National Homestead orphanage for Union soldiers on Baltimore. The girls are on the left and the boys on the right. The photo was taken for charity, with proceeds going to fund the orphanage. The children seem to have been selected from many states to increase public interest in the photograph and thus the orphanage itself.

It is difficult to distinguish the four men but based on other versions of the photograph online that zoom more closely on the adults, Grant seems to be second from the right. Grant and his entourage toured the Gettysburg battlefield and cemetery that day. After that, the busy Grant was off to Harrisburg. In an interesting coda, when Grant indeed assumed the presidency two years later, Wills wrote to him asking to be made U.S. minister to Italy.

(image/Library of Congress)

Grant off to Mount McGregor

An afternoon paper, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle chronicled Grant’s June 16, 1885 journey to Mount McGregor almost in real time. New Hamburgh is a reference to one of the stops Grant’s entourage made along the way.

Like news outlets throughout the country the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was closely monitoring Ulysses S. Grant’s health and progress in the spring and summer of 1885. This is an excerpt from the June 16th edition of that Brooklyn newspaper. As we can see, it was 133 years ago today that Grant and his family traveled to Mount McGregor, outside Saratoga New York, to escape the heat here in the city. At Mount McGregor Grant would push himself to finish his Memoirs. Everyone knew that General Grant’s health was failing due to throat cancer and that it was a race against time.

William H. Vanderbilt, who had helped Grant financially after the collapse of the Grant and Ward investment firm the previous year, now put his personal railroad car at Grant’s disposal. Another Grant admirer, Joseph W. Drexel, was lending Grant and his entourage the use of a spacious cottage for the general to complete the draft in comfort and relative solitude. We stress “relative” solitude. Public interest in Grant was so ardent that a continuous stream of onlookers came out regularly to the mountain retreat to bear witness. From a respectful distance they might have seen Grant on the porch, hard at work with the writing and edits but looking up occasionally and waving in acknowledgment. On other days spectators might note the comings and goings of such dignitaries as Mark Twain or Simon Bolivar Buckner, Grant’s old West Point friend who went on to surrender to him at Fort Donelson during the Civil War. The ailing Grant and his editorial team worked diligently on the book over the next five weeks at the cottage. Grant died there on July 23rd, days after finishing the manuscript.

Hancock and Armistead say goodbye in Los Angeles

Detail from the Gettysburg Cyclorama depicting the mortal wounding of Lewis A. Armistead

About six years ago a friend and I hired a licensed battlefield guide to take us around Gettysburg. Even then I knew the outline of the battle pretty well, and had walked the terrain many times, but we wanted someone to do a deep dive specifically on Day 2. This of course means a strong emphasis on Winfield Scott Hancock. When the tour was over my friend and I had a discussion with our guide about various generals from the war. I mentioned that I volunteer at Governors Island and that Hancock commanded there after the war, and indeed died on the island in February 1886. I noted that it was from Governors Island that Hancock organized Ulysses S. Grant’s funeral in August 1885. The guide asked me about the relationship between Grant and Hancock. I explained that the two were deeply ambivalent to one another but that when Grant died Hancock said and did all the right things.

I say all this because today marks the anniversary of one of the most romanticized moments of the Civil War. It was on June 15, 1861 that Hancock and wife Almira hosted Lewis A. Armistead and others who were leaving immediately afterward for San Diego and then the long journey across the country to join the Confederate Army. Interestingly Almira Hancock later remembered George Pickett as having been there that evening, though he was not. Pickett was out west, in the Washington Territory, and eventually too made his way back East. He was not however at the party, as Almira recounted it in the reminiscences of her late husband that she edited and published in 1887. Some historians speculate that Mrs. Hancock remembered Pickett being there because he passed through Los Angeles shortly thereafter, just ahead of the military authorities seeking his arrest, and that the Hancocks may have secretly and illegally offered George Pickett refuge for a day to two before he went on his way. Looking back on it more than twenty years later, the argument goes, she conflated Pickett’s clandestine stay with the party that had taken place a few weeks previously. It seems plausible.

I am not much for romanticism when it comes to the American Civil War, and I am not succumbing to it here. The scene with Armistead, Hancock and the others has been sentimentalized in books, paintings, and treacly movie scenes countless times over the years. Nonetheless the emotions experienced that day were genuine. It is a very human moment.

(image/Ron Cogswell via Wikimedia Commons)

Flag Day

Flag Day 1918 was a fairly big endeavor here in New York City. For one thing, the United States was now fully engaged in the war in Europe. The Battle of Cantigny for instance had taken place just weeks earlier, with significant casualties and American deaths. Labor, management, public school children and other constituencies turned out that June 14 to show their colors. Overall Flag Day 1918 seems to have been a positive thing. However it commenced what to some may have appeared a more worrying event: June 14, 1918 was the kickoff to what national organizers were calling Loyalty Week, in which the foreign-born, especially Germans, were being asked to demonstrate their adherence and show their support for the war effort. Here we see a whiff of the nativism that had been escalating for some time. Anti-German episodes had occurred in the United States since the start of the war and had increased after the Ludendorff Offensive had begun in March 1918.

Still, tens of thousands of New Yorkers from across the five boroughs, including Russians and Slovaks from Brooklyn, Jews and Italians in the Lower East Side, German-Americans from Yorkville, and those whose roots dated the Revolutionary War Era turned out in a celebratory mood. Here are a few photos, just three of many, from that day.

The Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York held this gathering at the Sub-Treasury building near Wall Street. The sign reads: Eat less. Feel better. Look better. Help win the war.

Central Park

New York City schoolchildren

(images/National Archives)


46 years ago today…

I left Grant’s Tomb in mid afternoon and was walking south on Broadway when I saw this at 102nd Street. It’s an electronic billboard that the city uses to let the public know about subway changes and things like that. Actually Elvis recorded two live albums this day, though one of them was not released until twenty years after he died. The King played four shows at Madison Square Garden during his June 1972 stint, the first time he had performed in New York City since the late 1950s. The shows on Saturday the 10th ended up as An Afternoon in the Garden and Elvis As Recorded at Madison Square Garden. The latter was rushed into production and released just one week after the concert, and the afternoon show was released in 1997.

Cocaine and Rhinestones

Ernest Tubb played Carnegie Hall in 1947.

When Charlie Parker hung out in the bars he was well known for putting his dimes in the jukebox and listening to country music. Because he was Bird, none of his fellow jazzmen dared try to stop him; if Yardbird Parker wanted to listen to country music, then that’s what was going to happen. When they asked incredulously why he spent his time listening to that genre, his answer was always the same: “Listen to the stories, man.” A great artist–and make no mistake, Charlie Parker is on the shortlist of great artists of the twentieth century–understands that inspiration can come from anywhere and through anyone, whether that be Louis Armstrong, Shostakovich or Hank Williams. The reason I say all this is to highlight a podcast that has been preoccupying me for much of the past week: Tyler Mahan Coe’s Cocaine and Rhinestones.

Tyler Mahan Coe is the son of outlaw country musician David Allan Coe. Tyler spent his childhood years on his father’s tour bus, partying and listening to the stories as he heard them coming from the stage and the back of the bus. Father and son had a falling out somewhere along the way and apparently are estranged today. As Coe points out, everyone in country music is a historian because the music references its antecedents much more than most other styles. Plus, musicians have a great deal of time on their hands and spend a great deal of it swapping stories of what they have seen and heard along the way. Cocaine and Rhinestones wrapped up its first season of fourteen episodes earlier this year. So far I have listened to about 1/3 of those, starting with episode one about Ernest Tubb but skipping around after that. One of the things I like most about Coe’s sensibility is that he states explicitly that there is no purity test for what is and is not country music. Race, region, economic status, educational level: none of these are barriers for who is and is not a “country” artist. The only litmus test is sincerity.

He did an extraordinary job breaking down Loretta Lynn’s mid-1970s hit “The Pill,” explaining the sexism and hypocrisy that went into why more than sixty radio stations across the country banned it. Another episode explores Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee.” The degrees to which Haggard is parodying and/or paying tribute to Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority has been lost on less reflective listeners for the half century since the song’s release in July 1969. Coe’s conclusions about Haggard’s “Okie” are surprising, and I for one found his argument convincing. I felt Coe was unduly harsh on Herbert Hoover in the early part of this episode however, where he describes the early years of the Depression and the flight of the Okies from Oklahoma and its neighboring states to California. Hoover didn’t cause the Depression and he wasn’t the ogre people made him out to be. Every good story deserves a villain and Hoover was, then and today, the ideal scapegoat for Depression Era America.

Americans in that decade after the First World War began buying radios in record numbers, which transformed our culture much like the internet has transformed our own time. Without the radio there would have been no Babe Ruth as we know him today. The same goes for the music people listened to and shared. Someone, I believe it was Kris Kristofferson, once said that he never worries about country music, that its death has been greatly exaggerated and that it will always be here and move forward. Tyler Mahan Coe does a good job putting the music into historical and cultural contexts and explaining that the music business has always been . . . wait for it . . . a business. Greed, lust, abuse in its many forms, envy, shallowness and vindictiveness have intertwined with moments of great generosity, clarity and understanding within various artists and producers to create the canon that is country music. It’s a human tale, as old as Adam. One would be wise to listen to the stories.

(image/Library of Congress)