Posts Tagged 'Civil War'

“The Troubles of His Country Were His Own”: Rev. N. A. Staples

By James Marten

This year two parts of my lives collided: my work as a historian of the Civil War era and my membership in the First Unitarian Society in Milwaukee.  First Church is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, and I’m helping the congregation commemorate the milestone by organizing speakers and writing a monthly blog.

First Church was formed in the spring of 1842, but a few months earlier a notice had appeared in a local newspaper asking Unitarians interested in starting a church to gather at a local meeting hall “at early candlelight” to talk it over.  Although the congregation has had its ups and downs–in fact, it suspended services at least twice in the nineteenth century, and once had its mortgage foreclosed–since 1892 it has been housed in a brick church at Ogden and Astor, on Milwaukee’s lower east side.  The denomination as a whole and our congregation in particular is noted for its social activism; today it is one of the largest congregations in the denomination with around 800 members.

My January blog highlighted the unique life of one of our earliest ministers, N. A. Staples. He was an unusual character–kind of hard to live with, it seems–but he represented the radical abolitionists who helped spark the Civil War in 1861.  The blog is based largely on a biography and collection of sermons written and compiled by one of his close friends, but Staples’ complicated personality comes through as clearly as his passion for reform and his belief in the liberal Christianity promoted by Unitarians.

You can read the blog here.

Jim Marten is chair of the MU History Department and has been a member of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee for over twenty years.

With Your Indulgence: Corporal Tanner Redux, for Veterans Day

By James Marten

“It was a pleasure reading . . . America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace,” the email from James Fitzpatrick of Chevy Chase, Maryland, began.  Historians rarely hear from non-historians who have read our work, so it was great to receive this kind piece of fan mail.  But it proved to be much more.  “With your indulgence,” the message continued, “this email shares something of my forebears’ relationship to Tanner, in hopes it may interest you.”

I first wrote about Corporal Tanner in February 2012, a couple of years before America’s Corporal was published (see “Reflections on a Man With No Feet“).  Tanner was an eighteen-year-old corporal in the Union army when he lost the lower thirds of both legs at the Battle of Second Manassas in 1862. He went on to become a powerful advocate for veterans and the disabled, a Republican operative, and a famous speaker at Chautauquas and other public venues. He eventually became one of the most famous men from the late nineteenth century who you’ve never heard of.  I also reported two other “out-of-the-blue” contacts.  One included three letters written by Tanner at different times in his life (see My Dear Comrade: Adventures with Corporal Tanner [continued]), while another was from a New Jersey woman named Sabrina who wondered why a letter from Tanner had showed up in her dead grandmother’s effects (see “It will sound rather strange to you…”: A Phone Call, a Letter, and the Corporal). I couldn’t help her, but the Tanner letter (one of the few surviving letters he wrote) provided a poignant end to America’s Corporal.

Sabrina had no idea who James Tanner was; she was trying to figure out how he fit into her family. The September 25 email from Mr. Fitzpatrick was quite different. So in honor of Veterans’ Day, here’s a little story about my continuing journey with Jim Tanner.

Mr. Fitzpatrick’s family enjoyed a close relationship with the Corporal during the quarter century before his death in 1927). Several documents and photographs had come down through the generations, and Mr. Fitzpatrick recalled several family stories about the Tanner family.  He hoped that I could fill him in on a few details about the Tanners; unfortunately, I wasn’t able to help much. Indeed, I’m afraid I learned more about the family from Mr. Fitzpatrick than he learned from me.  Here’s the list of the many links between the Fitzpatricks and the Tanners (the names get a little confusing—“Mr. Fitzpatrick” refers to my correspondent in Maryland):

–Tanner, who worked as a pension attorney for many years, probably helped Fitzpatrick’s great-grandfather apply for his Union army pension and, later, may have helped his great-grandmother complete her widow’s pension application;

–the Tanners (Jim, his wife Mero, and their daughters) lived in the same Washington, DC, boarding house as Mr. Fitzpatrick’s grandfather, John Fitzpatrick, around the turn-of-the-twentieth-century;

–Tanner may have served as best man at the wedding of John and Mary (Mr. Fitzpatrick’s grandparents);

btf-james-tanner–John and Mary named their son (Mr. Fitzpatrick’s father), Berchmans Tanner Fitzpatrick, after the Corporal (they are pictured to the left);

–Tanner’s daughter Ada, a long-time federal employee, sometimes drove out to Chevy Chase to give Mr. Fitzpatrick’s grandmother Mary rides in her car (Ada and Mary may also have worked together);

–on at least one occasion Mary came home to find John hosting a card party with the Corporal and other men that included drinking and smoking cigars (she poured the alcohol down the sink);

These are wonderful anecdotes, but two more took my breath away:

tanner3–James gave two books to young Berchmans, both on the Civil War; one he inscribed, “I present this little volume to my dearly beloved friend and namesake,” while in the other, written when Tanner was nearly eighty years old, he poignantly refers to the book as “Some record of the days where [when?] youth was mine.”

–Berchmans Fitzpatrick, who would later become a noted attorney in the federal government, worked for two summers as a kind of intern in the District of Columbia’s Register of Wills office, which Tanner ran for the last couple of decades of his life. Tanner wrote a heart-felt thank you note after the summer of 1925, when Berchmans returned to law school: “I cannot in justice to you let you go without saying how eminently satisfactory has been your work while you have been with us during vacation time.  I knew you had intelligence enough to discharge faithfully the duties assigned to you, but outside of that your courtesy, your readiness, your strict attention to business have been noticeable by all the members of our office force. . . . You go with the best wishes of every member of my force.  We all wish you every possible happiness that God may see fit to bestow upon humanity.”

These last two items meant that there were only two degrees of separation between the Corporal and me. This is obviously fun, and interesting, but it meant more to me than that.

The exchange with Mr. Fitzpatrick came just a couple of months after I’d completed my “Tanner pilgrimage.” A couple of years ago, while in Washington for a conference, I’d walked past the Du Pont Circle townhouse he’d shared with his daughters for two decades; his Washington apartment next door to the Peterson House, where he had taken testimony in shorthand while President Lincoln died; and the magnificent Pension Building (now the National Building Museum), where he had worked briefly as Commissioner of Pensions.  This last summer I drove to within one or two hundred yards of the spot on the Manassas Battlefield where he’d been wounded; visited the Virginia Theological Seminary, where he had been treated at an army hospital for several weeks; and Arlington National Seminary, where he and several members of his family are buried near a rustic amphitheater that was recently renamed after him (see below).

tanner-2                tanner-1

My low-level stalking of a long-dead old soldier was a personal attempt to get closer to the Corporal. Although I do feel I got to know the “legless corporal” fairly well—he was a shrewd, funny, outgoing man—I also wondered if the persona that emerged from the public documents, newspaper articles, speeches, and bits of memoirs revealed the “real” Tanner. Thanks to Mr. Fitzpatrick, I now have a few more hints as to the kind of guy Tanner was, and more information about the kind of people who admired him.

James Marten is chair of the MU history department. His two most recent books are Sing Not War: Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2012) and America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2013).

My Dear Comrade: Adventures with Corporal Tanner (continued)

n honor of Memorial Day (the traditional date of May 30), and under the assumption that no one can get too much of The Corporal, Jim Marten offers yet another blog on James Tanner.

In February 2012 I posted a blog (“Reflections on a Man With No Feet,”) on a project about a disabled Civil War veteran that became America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014). A couple of months later, in a phone call I reported in another blog (“It will sound rather strange to you . . . “: A Phone Call, A Letter, and the Corporal), a New Jersey woman offered to send me a rather surprising and moving letter from the Corporal to an old comrade. I knew of only a handful of other surviving letters from Tanner, and this small find inspired a poignant paragraph in the book’s conclusion.

So America’s Corporal appeared in print in May 2014—and three months later, out of the blue, an email appeared offering a trio of letters written by my favorite Civil War veteran. Each came from a different period in Tanner’s life. (Although the author of the original email readily sent me scans of the letters, he never answered my questions about his background or his interest in Tanner.)

The first, dated mid-November 1863, was written a little over a year after the Battle of Second Manassas, where Tanner lost the lower third of both legs as an eighteen-year-old Union soldier. Tanner was writing from West Richmondville, New York, his home town jumarten bookst west of Albany, but this may be the period in his life when he was taking a course in shorthand at a business school in Syracuse. He’s writing to a James Sprague of Brooklyn, New York, pleading for news about James’s brother Jonathon, “the dearest friend I had in the army,” and one of the men, Tanner explains, who had carried him from the battlefield as the Union army collapsed around them. Someone had told Tanner that his friend had lost a leg in battle. “Can this be so?” he asked. The slightly older Jonathon had been a friend and a mentor to Tanner, who closed by writing, “Hoping to hear from you soon and to learn where he lost his leg and where bouts it was taken off and also wishing that He who offers the wind to the shore land will in His mercy restore our brother to health.” Unfortunately, Jonathon died of his wounds; Tanner would mention him from time to time throughout his long life.

Tanner wrote the second letter twenty years later, after he had moved to New York and then to Brooklyn, where he served for a number of years as Collector of Taxes. It’s a friendly letter to Arthur Spitzer, an official in the Richmond Customs House who was apparently involved with creating a badge for an organization for Confederate veterans.   Tanner offers some advice about the design and about pricing. He knew what he was talking about—by this time he had served two terms as Commander of the New York state branch of the Grand Army of the Republic (the main organization for Union veterans) and was one of the best-known Memorial Day speakers in the region. He would eventually serve as national commander and his name would be synonymous with veterans’ issues by the 1890s. Tanner also become famous for accepting the end of the war as the end of hostilities between the sections; his commitment to “reconciliation” would lead him to speak at many Confederate veteran events and at the laying of the cornerstone of the controversial Confederate monument in Arlington National Cemetery in 1912. Tanner’s specific advice is interesting: although Spitzer is working on a badge for a Virginia organization Tanner thinks bigger: he suggests that the badge “should be a badge for all the ex-Confederates.” Rather than using the Virginia coat of arms, “it strikes me that you should have the coat of arms of the Confederacy. I presume that in those days of high hope you indulged in such a trifling luxury.” Tanner managed to be encouraging and a little condescending at the same time; it seems that the Confederate veterans did not take his advice.

The third letter was written six years later, in September 1889. A lot happened in the meantime: Tanner’s rise to prominence in the GAR and in the Republican Party had led to his appointment in spring 1889 by the newly elected President Benjamin Harrison to the prestigious and lucrative position as Commissioner of Pensions. The letter is typewritten in a jazzy, italicized font, on Pension Bureau stationary. Tanner administered thousands of employees and millions of dollars in pension payments (which comprised the largest single item in the federal budget at that time). Tanner’s high-flying responsibilities were short-lived, however: he immediately got into trouble with his superiors, including the president, over certain policies and practices and his ruthless firing of Democratic clerks. This letter was written less than a week after Tanner had submitted his forced-resignation. Yet, as he declared in this fourteen-line note, “the report of the investigating Commission contained no reflections upon my character and integrity.” His only fault—this is one of those “faults” that is really not a fault at all—“is that I was too liberal and too hasty in the adjudication of just claims of needy comrades. On these charges I am willing to be judged by the boys [other veterans].” In fact, the purpose of the letter was to return an application for a job in the pension bureau, since Tanner would no longer be in charge. But he used the occasion to show that he remained unbowed and steadfast in his support for fellow disabled veterans. He would continue to work on behalf of soldiers and, along the way, make a small fortune as a claims agent for veterans applying for pensions.

Although interesting, these letters won’t require a new edition of America’s Corporal. Indeed, they have no real historical significance, other than to further confirm the sometimes conflicting character of the feisty, emotional, patriotic, and often kind Corporal Tanner. They do, however, prove the truism that the sources we have at hand for any given project are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of sources that were lost, burned, hidden, or otherwise denied to posterity. Yet we soldier on, and when we’re lucky we get to write about guys like The Corporal, these letters let me spend another hour or two with him.

Jim Marten is professor and chair of the history department.  You can find out more about America’s Corporal at ttp://

“It will sound rather strange to you…”: A Phone Call, a Letter, and the Corporal

James Marten is professor and Chair of the history department at Marquette University.

2. Tanner 1862I first blogged about James “Corporal” Tanner about a year-and-a-half ago.  I was maybe half way through a book manuscript about his long and eventful life.  As an eighteen-year-old he had lost both feet at Second Manassas, but the native New Yorker recovered to become a nationally famous lecturer, Republican operative, and advocate for veterans’ pensions.  I’ve since finished the book, which will be published by the University of Georgia press next spring under the title, America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace.

That blog led to one of the more serendipitous phone calls I’ve ever received. Late this summer a very nice young woman named Sabrina Ramoth called my office.  She was from New Jersey and had found among her recently deceased grandmother’s effects a letter from Tanner to a man named James Jaycox, along with a typescript of a 1916 article about Tanner’s experiences in military hospitals written for the American Red Cross Magazine.  She had no idea why they were there; although she did have an ancestor who fought in the Civil War, there was no known connection between her family and Tanner.  A google search led to my blog about Tanner (it’s the fifth or sixth on the list when you enter “Corporal James Tanner”—who knew?), and she called in hopes that I could help solve this little mystery.  I couldn’t, unfortunately, but despite the baby I could hear fussing half-heartedly in the background, she talked to me for fifteen or twenty minutes.  Sabrina eventually sent me scans of the typed, two-page letter (see the excerpts below), and I added two paragraphs to the last chapter of the book just before the final version went to press. Continue reading ‘“It will sound rather strange to you…”: A Phone Call, a Letter, and the Corporal’

Emancipation Rings in the New Year


“Reading the Emancipation Proclamation,” J. W. Watts, 1864.

As we begin the second semester of the Freedom Project at Marquette: A Sesquicentennial Commemoration, I’d like to highlight the 150th anniversary of the event at the center of the commemoration: the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863.  The whole text appears below.  The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, issued after the Battle of Antietam a few months earlier, had warned the “people . . . in rebellion against the United States” that if they did not lay down their arms by January 1, their slaves would be freed.  They kept fighting, of course, and President Lincoln, as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the United States, kept his promise.  Although historians contemporaries and historians debated the effectiveness, the motivations, and even the legality of the Proclamation—a debate renewed, in some ways, by historians’ reactions to last fall’s Steven Spielberg movie, Lincoln, about the passage of the 13th Amendment two years after the Proclamation—it changed the course of the war and of American history.

This semester’s Freedom Project events include a history of African Americans through song, a lecture about the pathbreaking African American filmmaker Oscar Michaux, a symposium on personal freedom and domestic surveillance, plays exploring multiple facets of freedom, and a Casper Lecture on emancipation in the US and the Caribbean.  See the complete schedule of Freedom Project events at

Marquette University’s Library also has a Research Guide on the Emancipation Proclamation:

Continue reading ‘Emancipation Rings in the New Year’

Civil War Christmas

Although many Americans, especially the Puritans who founded New England, had rejected rowdy European-style Christmas celebrations, that began to change in the nineteenth century, when the holiday evolved into a family-centered, wholesome celebration of the birth of Jesus. By the time of the Civil War, many of the traditions that modern Americans associate with Christmas had been established in the United States, including decorating Christmas trees, giving gifts (including the increasingly available commercially produced toys and children’s books), and anticipating the arrival of the Saint Nicholas or, as he was increasingly called, Santa Claus. Clement Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known as “The Night Before Christmas”) had appeared in 1823. By the 1850s, observers were complaining of the commercialization of Christmas, as newspapers ran countless ads for Christmas sales of toys, food treats, and virtually every other imaginable item. The practice of sending Christmas cards and of spending every increasing amounts of money on lavish gifts would grow with the American middle class after the war ended—Christmas became a federal holiday in 1870—but Christmas celebrations would be familiar to modern Americans by the time the war began. An excellent history of the ways that Americans have celebrated Christmas is Penne Restad, Christmas in America.

But the Civil War changed Christmas for countless children and parents. When I wrote The Children’s Civil War a number of years ago, I came across a number of references to war-time Christmases in autobiographies of Americans who had grown up during the war, in children’s magazines, and in the popular illustrated weekly magazines. Indeed, this was the period during which the prolific political cartoonist Thomas nast Christmas 1863Nast was fine-tuning the modern image of a rotund, jolly, red-clad Santa in the 1860s. Nast’s “Christmas 1863” offering in Harper’s Weekly integrated traditional scenes of Christmas–Santa delivering presents, children delighting in their gifts—into the facts of war-time, in this case, a father returning home on furlough from the army. [Harper’s Weekly, December 26, 1863.]

Inevitably, the war affected Christmas celebrations differently in the North and South. As Union army incursions, a deteriorating economy, and the blockade tightened belts throughout the Confederacy, Christmas gifts and feasts became ever sparser. A North Carolina mother reported that she and her husband gave their children mountains of dolls and books and games in 1862, but a year later, with Santa Claus “gone to the war,” they could manage to put a few cakes and coins in their stockings, while in 1864, her only mention of a “dull, gloomy, and cloudy” Christmas day was attending church. Some parents suggested to their children that, because he was, of course, a Yankee, Santa would be held up by Confederate pickets, or that, perhaps, Union blockading vessels had interrupted his journey. Others took less care in explaining the absence of a normal Christmas. The Richmond Examiner played Scrooge when it called Santa Claus “a dutch toy-monger, an immigrant from England, a transflated scrub into New York and New England,” who “has no more to do with genuine Virginia hospitality and Christmas merry makings than a Hottentot.” A slave told a family of children Georgia not to expect a visit from St. Nick because the Yankees had shot him.

Continue reading ‘Civil War Christmas’

Three Historians and a Furnace Guy

Jim Marten reminds us that the scholar’s profession isn’t just about teaching and publishing.  We are all part of a living historiography. 

I doubt that the following stories will help anyone achieve a deeper understanding of the process of doing history, but I think they represent the evocative web of connections that every historian will encounter in his or her own life.  The people making one set of those connections for me include my predecessor at MU, my mentor, my mentor’s mentor—and a furnace guy.

When I came to Marquette in 1986 I succeeded Frank L. Klement, the legendary professor who had taught here since the 1940s (there was actually someone else in the line for a few years, but he wasn’t a Civil War historian, so I feel like I followed Frank rather than the person I really did replace).  Frank had won the Award for Teaching Excellence, served as international president of Phi Alpha Theta, the history honor society, and published several well-received books on northern dissent during the Civil War. Alums remembered him fondly—many recalled Frank’s mantra that “C” really was the average grade in his classes (which would horrify students today!)—and when we sought donations for the Klement Lecture fund, they really came through, with over 200 of them contributing well over $50,000 in less than two years.  So it was humbling to have been hired, in effect, to succeed him.  (For a brief biography of Frank Klement and information about the lectures, go to

It turned out that we had a number of connections.  The first is the least interesting, at least for the purposes of this blog: while he studied dissent in the Civil War North, my dissertation and first book was on dissent in Civil War Texas.  More interesting to me is that it turned out that he had a personal connection not only to my advisor but to my advisor’s advisor.  When Frank and I first met, he asked who I’d studied with, and I told him Robert Abzug.  I doubted if he’d have heard of him, since Bob was a very young historian and his work in social history and psychohistory (his first book was a psychobiography—very big in the early 1980s—on the abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld) was way outside of Frank’s research his.  But Frank surprised me by arching an eyebrow and referring to that “unfortunate article.”  I found out later that Bob’s first published article (in the Indiana state history magazine) was on northern Copperheads (arch-opponents of Republican policies) and in it he had criticized Frank’s sympathetic portrayal of dissenters, especially his assertion that the secret societies they allegedly had organized were figments of Lincoln-era Republicans’ imagination.  Frank had a long memory; the article had come out sixteen years earlier.

But the connections ran deeper than that.  Bob Abzug had been a PhD student of Kenneth Stampp at Berkeley.  Stampp wrote books on everything from pre-war politics to Reconstruction to slavery; his most famous book, read by hundreds of thousands of students from the 1950s through the 1980s (and probably beyond) was a history of slave life in America called The Peculiar Institution. It was one of the first books I read in graduate school, although I have a dim memory of having read it as an undergraduate, too. I benefited from Abzug’s extraordinary admiration for Stampp, who had ten or twelve students at a time, yet managed to turn chapter drafts around quickly, with great splashes of red corrections, suggestions, and questions. I was Bob’s first and only student at the time (he’s had almost two dozen since), and he did the same for me (although he eased the shock by using less-alarming blue ink and calling me ahead of time to warn me of the looming set of revisions waiting in my department mailbox). He was a careful editor and a compassionate advisor who visited my wife Linda and I in the hospital after the birth of our daughter Lauren, bringing flowers and chocolates. Two days after I accepted my job at Marquette, he and his wife Penne took us out to a celebratory dinner (and paid for a babysitter for Lauren!). A year or two before, when Stampp had visited Texas to give a lecture, Bob introduced me to him. “Ah,” he said, “you must be my grand-student.” It was a nice moment.

Continue reading ‘Three Historians and a Furnace Guy’

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