The American Civil War 150th Anniversary: Catching up

River in timeTrying to learn about an event in the past is a little like trying to paddle up a river in time.

Most traces of the once vibrant life of the past are gone now.

Your route appears mysterious, almost invisible, obscured by reflections of your own world.

Your destination is unrecognizable, blurred by the fog of time and hidden by the myriad of ways the modern world has grown up over it.

It’s easier to celebrate this 150th anniversary of the war by concentrating on what is around us rather than by trying to study only the major battle sites, monuments and museum pieces and then to arrange them in neat order.

Little unexpected discoveries await everyone in their own neighborhoods, towns and cities, because that war was a huge thing all over America and the territories.

Look around. Dig a little bit, if only in musty old newspaper archives at your local library. Go through the attic. Talk to the elderly people of today who once were the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who lived through that era.

What you find may surprise you. If you want, share it here in the comments to widen the perspective, both South and North.


In December 1861, fighting was busting out all over the place. Here are a few examples, mostly taken from a new (to me) and more detailed timeline at

Colonel George Washington Rains, at President Davis’s request, was looking at a site along the Augusta Canal in Georgia that would be a good place to build the Sibley Mill and Confederate Powder Works.

Out in Oklahoma, Chief Opothleyahola and his Unionist band of Creeks and Seminoles were being pursued by Confederate forces under the command of Colonel Douglas H. Cooper after being defeated in battle. The two forces would meet at Chusto-Talasah, or Caving Banks, on December 9th at Bird Creek, and at Chustenalah on the 26th at Battle Creek.

In West Virginia, which had seceded from Virginia but was not yet admitted into the Union, Confederate forces under Col. Edward Johnson occupied the top of Allegheny Mountain to defend the Staunton-Parkersburg Pike. On the 13th, they would be attacked by Brigadier General Robert Milroy’s Union forces, with inconclusive results.

On December 20, 1861, Brigadier General E.O.C. Ord, of the North, would defeat a brigade of Confederate foragers led by Brigadier General J.E.B. Stuart in the vicinity of Dranesville, Virginia.

Three days earlier, on the 17th, the battle of Rowlett’s Station had happened in Kentucky, with inconclusive results.

Union forces had a victory in Missouri on the 28th at Mount Zion Church.

If you come from or happen to live near any of those places, what has come down to us today from those events? If you’re from some other place, do you know of any history of the war there in December 1861?

Meanwhile, in Cohoes, New York

This region was very influential in the years leading up to the war and during the war itself (General Phillip Sheridan, for example, was born in Albany, New York), but it’s very difficult to get a handle on that.

In Battle Cry of Freedom, I’ve been reading about the politics in the antebellum years (in which New York often played a large role). Frankly, it makes me glad most Americans look at politics with a jaundiced eye nowadays.

Echoes of the mid-19th century American insanity remind me, just a little, of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and hearing a great, confused shouting from all sides: America is great! America should be ashamed of herself! We must live up to our ideals! Business will save the country! Business is evil! Human rights! State’s rights! War! Peace! Power to the people (meaning power to whoever is shouting the slogan and his or her friends, all over the spectrum, at the expense of everybody else)!

It sounds like things were a lot more intense and unreasonable back in antebellum America (can you imagine a time crazier than the Sixties?).  It would be comical, if not for the great tragedy that resulted from that uproar.

Better to look at more humble things, like digging dirt. This can be powerful, too.

Clinton’s Ditch (The Erie Canal)

Of note, I have to focus on where I’m living currently, and that will mean, for the next several months at least, a Northern focus. After this series is over, in April 2015, I may, depending on how it has turned out, rewrite things to present both sides throughout. Then again, since this is a voyage of discovery rather than a timeline, maybe that won’t work too well.

In any event, I’m going to get into the canals of the mid-19th century soon and perforce will have to concentrate on the Erie and other canals in New York State. The antebellum years were also the peak canal building years throughout America, and there were great canals built in the South, too, in addition to the vast networks of natural waterways there even before one got to the Mississippi.

I’m not ignoring any of those, and hope to visit them in depth over the next few years.  I  just have to focus on the local stuff right now, and that is because I see this every time I go up to Rite-Aid here in town (click photo to enlarge):

Old Cohoes Company power canal and buildings around it.

Site of old Cohoes Company power canal, summer of 2011. The Erie Canal ran along hillside in back.

That’s not the most perfect photo-stitch, but it accurately conveys the overall sense of a wide, flat space between two rows of narrow brick buildings that obviously were once huge (for the time) factories.

This is an odd place, dating from Victorian times yet thickly covered with a modern veneer. There aren’t many historical markers.

Over the summer and fall, I’ve researched the area and learned that this was one end of a big power canal that the Cohoes Company ran into town. In coming posts, I think it will be possible to make a connection between this little park of today and national events that led up to the Civil War.

As always, all original photographs on this blog, including those above, are mine and posted under Creative Commons – Attribution license.

Categories: American Civil War

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