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A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783

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Charles Royster. A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783. Reprint. University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

In his award winning, sweeping work on the American Revolution, Charles Royster sets out to prove his thesis that “there was an American character prevalent during the War for Independence and that we can profitably analyze it.” His focus is on the emotions, attitudes, and conduct of Americans in wartime but he also set out to prove that Americans exemplified collectively the disposition of revolutionaries. This notion of national character is an important one because it suggests an emergence of a sense of nationhood among the inhabitants of America’s colonies. Royster acknowledges that not all Americans were anti-British but he does conclude that the majority of Americans during the War for Independence were loyal to the revolution’s cause. These arguments are foundational to his discussion of the Continental Army. Royster deals with the rather broad topics of the ideals of revolutionary citizenship, society, and state by limiting his scope to the standards “that Americans defined for themselves in creating, recruiting, and fighting in an army” and it is this focus that makes the book more relevant to the military historian. He finds evidence of a disparity between society’s ideals and its actual conduct, the latter being “always flawed.” To find reasons for the disparity he touches, admitted lightly, on other areas such as religion, government, and commerce, drawing a connection between these and the way in which Americans related to the army.

Royster describes his book as analytical rather than narrative history. This distinction drives the book’s chronological format which supports his position that the study of revolutionary attitudes and the changes that took place over time are best observed “in the order that Americans experienced them.” Royster begins with an examination of the high ideals that Americans caught up in the revolutionary mindset placed upon themselves and others, ideals of virtue and valor. This foundation then allows him to explore the “tension” created when Americans failed to live up to those ideals and how they dealt with the disparity between desired standards and reality. Thus Royster begins with the years prior to the war’s start, describes the “rage militaire” of 1775, and then proceeds through the early war years in a series of chapters with religious titles and analogous themes: 1776: The Army of Israel, Jericho, and The Promised Land. The second half of the book focuses on Valley Forge, Treason, Division, and finally Legacy. It is in this final chapter that Royster brings together his analysis of the whole of the American experience at war.

This work is intended for students of early American history and particularly those who want to better understand the American Revolution. It should also find interest among military historians because of its focus on the experience of soldiers in the American Army of Independence as well as the institutional history of America’s armed forces. Royster’s forays into the realms of sociology, psychology, political, and civic history, should allow the book to find even broader readership. The work’s extensive notes section is worth mention. There is also an essay in the appendix that challenges some other authors who draw conclusions too quickly from statistics about American soldiers who fought in the Revolution, many of whom were both young and poor. The book is particularly noteworthy for its use of readily available primary sources but fresh approach to the information contained therein. His presentation is entirely satisfying albeit occasionally repetitive. One of the clear strengths of the book is its introduction to the reader of a broad number of characters of the period often through their own narrative or those of others around them.

Charles Royster brings impressive credentials to his work which is a shortened version of his doctoral dissertation. He received all of his degrees from the University of California, Berkeley including an A.B. (1966), M.A. (1967), and Ph.D. (1977). At the time of the book’s publication, Dr. Royster was assistant professor of history at the University of Texas. He is now professor of history at the Louisiana State University. Royster has amassed an impressive list of publications several of which received academically recognized awards. His work Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans won the Bancroft Prize, The Lincoln Prize, and the Charles S. Sydnor Award in Southern History. A Revolutionary People at War was recognized with the 1981 Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians, the 1979 John D. Rockefeller III Award, the 1981 National Historical Society Book Prize, the 1980 Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award from the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York, and the 1980 Silver Medal, Nonfiction from the Commonwealth Club of California.

Overall, Royster provides an excellent addition to scholarship of early America.

Fixing an Army – Steuben

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The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783 (norton In-house Inst PbI’m still finishing up last week’s reading of A Revolutionary People at War: The Continential Army and American Character, 1775 – 1783 by Charles Royster which has been very interesting albeit a bit redundant at times. It covers in some detail the character of both American (and to some extent British) enlisted men and officers. Also examined are the experiences of “camp,” march, battle, and discipline. Of absolute certainty is that Continental enlisted men had an independent streak and “such a high opinion of their own prowess that an officer had to be exceptionally overweening to outdo them.” [i] This puts in perspective my study of Civil War enlisted soldiers who still swaggered with independence.

Prior to the arrival of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (right), who became Inspector-General to the Baron Von Steuben Continental Army, American officers made a concerted effort to pattern themselves after their British peers. A rather startling example… Commander-in-Chief George Washington lobbied congress for permission to allow 500 lashes as punishment to maintain discipline among his soldiers! Congress never approved above 100 lashes. The British allowed 1000! Officers were becoming more and more “separate” from the enlisted cadre. The divide was often one of respect.

When Steuben arrived at Valley Forge (see the park site here), he found an army still struggling with many military basics. He introduced “skills of the parade ground, then attention to dress, cleanliness, equipment, health, camp sanitation, orderliness on the march, grievances among the men, and all the other elements of mutual respect and hierarchical obedience. These provided a code by which soldiers could judge officers and expect to be judged by both their officers and their fellow soldiers. ” [ii]

“The survival of American independence entailed not only the preservation of revolutionary ideas and the reluctant use of the coercive powers of government, but also the growth of military discipline that proudly replaced individual freedom with the professionalism of an army.” [iii]

Steuben helped the Continental army become “an internally disciplined group apart, more self-consciously virtuous than the society at large. The professional loyalty and pride of achievement that Steuben encouraged provided a tangible partial expression of the unity in unselfish service to which revolutionaries aspired.” [iv]

[i] Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continential Army and American Character, 1775 – 1783, (The University of North Carolina Press, 1979), 222.
[ii] Ibid., Ibid.
[iii] Ibid., 228.
[iv] Ibid., 223.

 

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The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War

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[Note:  This post continues a series on The Civil War as Revolution which is available at the following links:  Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part VThe Revolutionaries of the American Civil War, and Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary.]

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All revolutions require revolutionaries. If the American Civil War was, in fact, a second American Revolution, who were its revolutionaries?

william-lowndes-yancey

William L. Yancey

The Confederacy as a Revolutionary ExperienceEmory Thomas in his work The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience suggests that Southern “fire-eaters” should be included on the roll call of revolutionaries because they “used radical means to achieve conservative ends and therefore began [my emphasis] the Confederate revolutionary experience. Their role was reactionary – to preserve the Southern way of life. Yet in pursuit of this goal, the fire-eaters acted in ways commonly associated with revolutionaries.” [i] First on the list would be the triumvirate whose voices for southern unity, independence, and succession were the loudest and of longest duration: Robert Barnwell Rhett (dubbed the father of succession), William Lowndes Yancey (secession’s orator), and Edmund Ruffin. All had connections to South Carolina which proved the hottest bed of Southern revolutionary thought. But, points out Thomas, “fire-eaters cut a broad swatch across many professions and every state in the antebellum South.” [ii] Influential clergymen like James H. Thornwell and Benjamin M. Palmer used their pulpits and pamphlets to “deepen the sentiment of resistance in the Southern mind.”[iii] Men with control of the editorial content of widely read publications added their voices including: James D. B. DeBow (DeBow’s Review), Roger A. Pryor, editor of the Richmond Enquirer newspaper, William Gilmore Simms (editor of the Southern Quarterly Review), and various editors of the Southern Literary Messenger. <[iv] Teachers in the classroomsJames DeBow of schools and colleges taught “Southern Nationalism” and impressed on the minds of students the “standard ‘line’ on the issues of slavery, politics, and economics.”[v] The system also expunged itself of faculty members who dissented. Taken in the aggregated, these activities resulted in what Thomas rightly labels an “intellectual blockade” as the Southern rights mantra came to dominate press, pulpit, and classroom.”[vi] Was this revolution or defending Southern institutions? The line between the two is admittedly a fine one. [vii]

It can also be argued that some from the Southern political elite, while advocates for Southern rights, did their advocating within the Union and so are not so easily labeled revolutionaries. Jefferson Davis falls into this camp as does Calhoun, Alexander H. Stephens and R. M. T Hunter. [viii] These men moved into the secessionist camp once it was a “fait accompli.” Were they, along with many of those who would take up arms on behalf of the South, thus revolutionaries or were they simply caught up in the fray? Jefferson Davis considered the use of the label revolution “an abuse of language.”[ix] “‘Ours is not a revolution.’ We left the Union ‘to save ourselves from a revolution’ that threatened to make ‘property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless…Our struggle is for inherited rights.’”[x]

The Black Republicans were the real revolutionaries, southerners insisted, “a motley throng of Sans culottes…Infidels and freelovers, interspersed by Bloomer women, fugitive slaves, and amalgamationists…active and bristling with terrible designs and as ready for bloody and forcible realities as ever characterized the ideas of the French Revolution.” Secession was therefore a “political revolution,: explained a Georgian in 1860, to forestall the “social revolution” sure to come if the South remained in the Union.[xi]

Can Northerners be assigned the label of revolutionist? Certainly extremists like James Brown [photo to right], Abolitionist James Brownwho resorted to violent acts to try to force social change, qualify as radicals. Harriet Beecher Stowe influenced social change by reaching hundreds of thousands with abolitionist sentiments through the power of popular literature. See an excellent summary of her writings here.

Representative James A. Garfield and contemporary William H. Seward considered the rise of the Republican Party to be a “revolution.”[xii] Garfield studied the French Revolution and found striking parallels with mid-19th century America. He became an ardent voice of revolution and “one of the most radical of the radical Republicans.”[xiii]

Abolitionist Wendell Phillips was considered by historian James McPherson to be “the most articulate spokesman for a revolutionary policy,” pegging Civil War as social revolution and calling for the “taking to pieces” of the whole social system of the Gulf States.[xiv] Similarly, Thaddeus Stevens, a leader of radical Republicans in the House, asserted that “‘we must treat this [war] as a radical revolution…and free every slave–slay every traitor–burn every rebel mansion, if these things be necessary to preserve’ the nation.”[xv]

Activists from both the South and the North could agree that secession was a counterrevolution to the revolution of 1776. But their frames of referenced were completely opposite. Secessionists saw it as a counterrevolution against the anticipated revolutionary threat of slavery.[xvi] Northerners saw secession as “not a just revolution, but an unjust counterrevolution.”[xvii]

For consideration of Abraham Lincoln as “revolutionary,” please see my previous post “Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln on Revolutionary.”

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree
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[i] Emory M. Thomas, The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience. (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1971), 24., [ii] Ibid., 30., [iii] Ibid., [iv] Ibid., 35., [v] Ibid., 34., [vi] Ibid., [vii] Ibid., [viii] Ibid., 32.,
[ix] James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press), 26. [x] Ibid., 26., [xi] 3., [xiii] Ibid., 4., [xiv] Ibid., 5-6., [xv] Ibid., 30., [xvi] Ibid., 27., [xvii] Ibid., 28.

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The Civil War as Revolution – Part III

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[Note: This post is part of a series on The Civil War as Revolution which is available at the following links: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War, and Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary.]

Gettysburg, Pa. Dead Confederate soldiers in "the devil's den." LOC Digital Ref#: (LC-B811-0277A) Gardner, Alexander, 1821-1882, photographer.

Barrington Moore “sees the revolutionary dimension of the American Civil War not simply as a triumph of freedom over slavery, or industrialism over agriculture, or the bourgeoisie over the plantation gentry – but as a combination of all these things.” He saw it as“a violent breakthrough against an older social structure.”[i] In this Moore is in agreement with James McPherson that the American Civil War qualifies as an upheaval of the period’s status quo by intense domestic violence. As historians have pointed out on numerous occasions, the Civil War is unsurpassed in its degree of violence in the American experience. As to the overthrow of the “existing social and political order,” a survey of the changes driven by the war makes the point for the Civil War as revolutionary. External Changes Driven by the Civil War McPherson categorizes the transformations resulting from the Civil War as revolution in an external and internal sense.[ii] He considers external revolution to be “the sweeping transformation in the balance of economic and political power between North and South.”[iii] Sweeping political change occurred at the point of “withdrawal of southern representatives and senators from Congress when their states seceded.”[iv] It made possible the passage of Republican-sponsored legislation that promoted economic development in line with the Republican agenda, legislation that had been continually blocked by the southern-dominated Democratic Party. During the war, Congress “enacted:

  • land grants and government loans to build the first transcontinental railroad
  • higher tariffs to foster industrial development
  • national banking acts to restore part of the centralized banking system destroyed in the 1830s by Jacksonian Democrats
  • a homestead act to grant 160 acres of government land to settlers, and
  • the land-grant college act of 1862, which turned over federal land to the states to provide income for the establishment of state agricultural and vocational colleges, which became the basis of the modern land-grant universities.”[v]

East and West Shaking Hands at Laying Last Rail. Source: Public Domain: Wikipedia Commons

These changes were made possible because the war had changed the long-term sectional balance of power.[vi] It broke the domination of the country’s leadership by members of the slave-holding elite of the South.

In 1861 the United States had lived under the Constitution for seventy-two years. During forty-nine of those years the president had been a southerner-and a slave-holder. After the Civil War a century passed before another resident of the South was elected president. In congress, twenty-three of the thirty-six speakers of the House down to 1861, and twenty-four of the thirty-six presidents pro tem of the Senate, were from the South. For half a century after the war, none of the speakers or presidents pro tem was from the South. From 1789 to 1861, twenty of the thirty-five Supreme Court justices had been southerners. At all times during those years the South had a majority on the Court. But only five of the twenty-six justices appointed during the next half-century were southerners.[vii]

In the next post, I’ll take a look at internal changes driven by the American Civil War.

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

[i] James McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 9

[ii] Ibid., 13, [iii] Ibid., [iv] Ibid., 12., [v] Ibid., [vi] Ibid., [vii] Ibid., 12-13.

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The Civil War as Revolution – Part II

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[Note: This post continues a series on The Civil War as Revolution which is available at the following links: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War, and Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary.]

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Charles Beard

Mary Beard

The idea that the American Civil War was a second American revolution originated with Charles and Mary Beard in the late 1920’s.[i] It began a debate which has taken pendulum-like swings through the years as history’s revisionists and counter-revisionists have tangled with the questions of cause and effect of the war. Beard considered the war a “class conflict between a Yankee capitalist bourgeoisie and a southern planter aristocracy.”[ii] It was thus a struggle between the “contending economic interests of plantation agriculture and industrializing capitalism.”[iii] He downplayed sectional struggles as a cause of the war and even slavery, considering both consequential and peripheral. Beard’s case for the war as transforming on a revolutionary scale was that “the triumph of the North under the leadership of a Republican party, which represented the interests of northern capitalism, brought about ‘the unquestioned establishment of a new power in the government, making vast changes in the arrangement of classes, in the distribution of wealth, [and] in the course of industrial development.”[iv]

Photo of Unfinished portrait miniature of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper Public Domain [Wikipedia]

Oliver Cromwell

He likened it to the overthrow of the king and the aristocracy by the middle classes of England in the 1640s that was the Puritan Revolution and also to the French Revolution in which the middle classes and peasants of France overthrew their king, nobility, and clergy. Beard considered that “‘the social cataclysm in which the capitalists, laborers and farmers of the North and West drove from power in the national government the planting aristocracy of the South,’ was the ‘Second American Revolution, and in a strict sense the First’ – the first because the Revolution of 1776 had produced no such changes in the distribution of wealth and power among classes.”[v]

Wikipedia Commons]

Declaration of Human Rights

Roger L. Ransom, in his article “Fact and Counterfact: The ‘Second American Revolution’ Revisited,” presents two additional “cases” for associating the Civil War with revolution. First, he considers “the elimination of slavery and destruction of the slave regime in the South as the revolutionary outcome of the war.”[vi] Both caused post war upheavals in the South.[vii] Secondly, he recognized that the people who lived through the war “saw revolutionary aspects in their struggle. Southerners regarded their ‘rebellion’ as a revolution against tyranny– in this case Northern Republicans–and looked for inspiration to the war in which their forefathers had rebelled against King George. Northerners, by contrast, saw the conflict as an effort to hold together the sacred union that was formed out of the rebellion against England. For both sides, the Civil War was a continuation of the struggle for freedom that began in 1776.”[viii]

King George III in Coronation Robes Public Domain [Wikipedia Commons]

King George

Perhaps the best case for the Civil War being America’s second revolution can be made by considering it in aggregate, the sum of parts. McPherson suggests that the arguments put forth by American political sociologist Barrington Moore, did just that. He “portrayed the Civil War as ‘the last Capitalist Revolution.’”[ix] Moore “sees the revolutionary dimension of the war not simply as a triumph of freedom over slavery, or industrialism over agriculture, or the bourgeoisie over the plantation gentry – but as a combination of all these things.” [x] More in the next post…

Note: For an excellent article by Professor Roger L. Ransom see The Economics of the Civil War.

This series on The Civil War as Revolution continues at the following links:  Part I, Part III, Part IV, Part V, and The Revolutionaries of the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary]

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree
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[i] Roger L. Ransom, 1999. “Fact and Counterfact: The ‘Second American Revolution’ Revisited.”Civil War History45, no. 1: 28. Database on-line. Available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5001254452. Internet. Accessed 27 October 2007.
[ii] James McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 8., [iii] Ibid., 6-7, [iv] Ibid., 7, [v] Ibid., 8.
[vi] Ransom, “Fact and Counterfact: The ‘Second American Revolution’ Revisited,” Civil War History, 4, [vii] Ibid., [viii] Ibid.
[ix] McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, 9., [x] Ibid.

The Civil War as Revolution – Part I

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[Note: This post is part of a series on The Civil War as Revolution which is available at the following links: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War, and Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary.]

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Earlier this month, I posted some thoughts on Abraham Lincoln as revolutionary. It ties to one of the topics we were asked to consider this term, whether the Civil War should be considered the second American revolution. I suspect it is an essay question in many American history programs dealing with the Civil War. I’d like to explore this over the next several posts. A proper place to start is with the question, what is revolution?

Fist [Source Wikopedia Commons]According to William A. Pelz in his study on the history of German social democracy, “revolution” comes from the German word “Ugmwälzung” which means “rotation,” as in the turning of an axle. He posits that “in the socio-political realm, revolution means the displacement of a state, governmental, social and economic system by another, higher, more developed state, governmental, social and economic system… Two things are essential to the concept of revolution: that the rotation (Ugmwälzung) be comprehensive and fundamental–that everything old and antiquated be thrown out, weeds torn out by their roots; that a higher and better state replace that which has been done away with. Both conditions must be maintained.”[i] Thus social revolution results in nothing less than transformation.

Painting by Eugene De la Croix (Charenton-Saint-Maurice, 1798 – Paris, 1863) July 29, Liberty guiding the people. Musée du Louvre. Public Domain

Pelz offers two examples of undisputable social revolution. The first, not surprisingly, is the French Revolution, “…the revolution par excellence…that swept away the last remains of medieval feudalism and created the foundation of modern bourgeois society.”[ii] The second example – though hardly resembling the first – was none the less more profound. It was triggered by “the introduction of machine work, which fundamentally altered the nature of work and thereby the basis of state and social life. Every sphere of human existence was penetrated by this revolution (Umwälzung). These two organically related revolutions (Umwälzungen) born of the same impetus, only manifesting themselves differently, are probably the most important revolutions known to history. They toppled and purged from top to bottom and brought humanity forward with a violent jolt.”[iii]

Revolution in politics has been described as “fundamental, rapid, and often irreversible change in the established order.”[iv]

Wikipedia Commons_Photo by Luc Viatour
Da Vinci

Revolution involves a radical change in government, usually accomplished through violence[,] that may also result in changes to the economic system, social structure, and cultural values. The ancient Greeks viewed revolution as the undesirable result of societal breakdown; a strong value system, firmly adhered to, was thought to protect against it. During the Middle Ages, much attention was given to finding means of combating revolution and stifling societal change. With the advent of Renaissance humanism, there arose the belief that radical changes of government are sometimes necessary and good, and the idea of revolution took on more positive connotations. John Milton regarded it as a means of achieving freedom, Immanuel Kant believed it was a force for the advancement of mankind, and G.W.F. Hegel held it to be the fulfillment of human destiny. Hegel’s philosophy in turn influenced Karl Marx.[v]

Historian James McPherson offers the following as a “common sense” definition for revolution: “an overthrow of the existing social and political order by internal violence.”[vi] With this as background the question becomes, does the American Civil War qualify for revolution status? Was it sufficiently transforming?

Mark Twain
Mark Twain

More in tomorrow’s post but let me leave you with this quote from Mark Twain.
No people in the world ever did achieve their freedom by goody-goody talk and moral suasion: it being immutable law that all revolutions that will succeed must begin in blood, whatever may answer afterward.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

[Addendum: This series on The Civil War as Revolution continues at the following links:  , Part II, , Part III,, Part IV, Part V, The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War, and Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary.]

[i] Pelz, William A. and William A. Pelz, eds. Wilhelm Liebknecht and German Social Democracy: A Documentary History. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), 264-265, Book on-line. Available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=15096547. Internet. Accessed 13.October 2007.

[ii] Ibid., 265.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2007

[v] Ibid.

[vi] James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 16.

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Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as "Revolutionary"

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[Note: This post is part of a series on The Civil War as Revolution which is available at the following links: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War, and Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary.]

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Indulge me while I – mull over and expound upon - one of Dr. McPherson’s essays in Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution.

If the mantel of “revolutionary” is worn by individuals who – because of their unique presence – drive transformational change, Abraham Lincoln must certainly be considered among them. Such a label might at first seem unfitting in that Lincoln was known for his conservatism. Indeed his early actions reflected caution and a desire for a limited, minimally disruptive war. His journey toward “revolutionary” took a big leap forward when the Border States ignored his repeated offers of graduated and compensated emancipation. His failure to sway them left him angry enough to, as McPherson phrased it, “embrace the revolution.” Lincoln’s “revolutionary” response? He issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the final version of which was delivered on New Year’s Day 1863. With it came a new “revolutionary” charter for the war: forceful overthrow of slavery and the South with it.

Emancipation Proclamation
McPherson considers the enabling of black soldiers to fight and kill their former masters “by far the most revolutionary dimension” of Lincoln’s “emancipation policy.” And embrace it Mr. Lincoln did. Over 180,000 black soldiers would serve in Northern armies before the conflict ended. I must agree with Mr. McPherson’s conclusion that Lincoln evolved to fit the pattern of a revolutionary leader and became – once over his initial reluctance – arguably more radical than some of the founding fathers

Troops
District of Columbia. Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln
Civil War photographs, 1861-1865 (Library of Congress)
Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree