As I Remember: A Civil War Veteran Reflects on the War and Its Aftermath 
through personal reminiscences, diaries, and correspondence.  From a collection of Lewis Cass White, a soldier in the 102nd Pennsylvania Volunteers

Edited by Joseph Scopin, Jr. 
Additional narrative by Dr. Benjamin Franklin Cooling III
Scopin Design, 2014, 184 pp., $39.95        

Review by Gordon Berg

Just when you think everything that can be said has been said, along comes a previously unknown batch of historical materials that puts a new light on everything.  Joseph Scopin, Jr. experienced such a moment in 2011 when he was cleaning out the basement of an elderly relative.  Hidden among a lifetime of moldy, water-logged debris, Mr. Scopin unearthed a bag of handwritten reminiscences, daily notes from diaries, correspondence, speeches, newspaper clippings and photos, and other odds-and-ends belonging to Lewis Cass White, a Civil War veteran of the 102nd Pennsylvania Infantry.  No one seemed to know how the material came to be in a Bethesda, Maryland basement and Mr.Scopin wasn't sure just what he had found. Fortunately, he reached out to Civil War scholar Benjamin Franklin Cooling, who did.

What sets the White collection apart from the papers of hundreds of other Civil War veterans dutifully annotated and edited by scholars almost from the time the Blue and Gray guns went silent?  White's brief obituary in the Butler County Record of Aug. 31, 1916, gives no hint of the rich life lived by this young western Pennsylvania school teacher who, like tens of thousands of other young men of his time, volunteered to participate in this nation's defining event.  The richly illustrated, carefully crafted volume produced by Mr. Scopin, an experienced art director, coupled with the extensive contextual narrative supplied by Cooling, explains why a bag of 19th century ephemera, much of it reproduced in stunning clarity, deserves the attention of serious students of the Civil War. 

It turns out that the school master was a pretty good writer, too.  The transcriptions of his yearly diaries and most of the daily entries from which they were taken show White to be a cool and careful observer of what it was like to be a common soldier in the Army of the Potomac.  Many of the daily entries began "Got up and cooked," or "Stood guard as usual," or "We attended the usual duties of the day," the mind-numbing routines that filled most soldiers' days.  Even his Salem Church entry for May 4, 1863, about the retreat of the Union Army after the disaster at Chancellorsville, describes events in a very matter-of-fact way, typical of a battle-tested veteran. 

                 We laid in line near all day.  In Eve we marched round to 
                 the front, then to the left, where we were left in line and
                 the rest of the army fell back over the river.  Regt came
                 near being taken prisoners. We had to run for our lives. 
                 Some of Co. and Regt were taken. 

White lost his right hand at Cedar Creek and he spent the last months of the war recovering in a hospital.  In Philadelphia's Christian Street Hospital, he recorded the news of Lincoln's assassination on April 15, 1865.  "We were surprised and filled with sorrow and sadness by the news of of the death of President Lincoln," White wrote, "by the vile hand of a villain, a fiend in human shape."

After the war, White bought property on the old Fort Stevens battlefield and lived near where his regiment stood picket. Life after the war for the one-handed veteran was better than for many disfigured soldiers. He married and soon secured a position as a clerk in the Pension Bureau in Washington DC. There he lived for the last 50 years of his life. But his connection to old army comrades through the Grand Army of the Republic and other fraternal organizations led White to revisit one of the war's seminal moments: the Battle of Fort Stevens on July 11-12, 1864.  That battle was the only time a sitting president ever came under enemy fire, and some of the documents Mr. Scopin found shed new light on that oft told tale.

White's regiment, the 102nd Pennsylvania, was one of the Sixth Corps units sent from Petersburg, VA to bolster the undermanned defenses north of Washington when Confederate General Jubal Early's Army of the Valley paid an unexpected visit.  In a history of the regiment White wrote just after the war, he recalled Lincoln's visit to the fort as well as the wounding of Surgeon Cornelius Crawford who was standing near the president.  More importantly, correspondence to White from old comrades disputes what historians have long written about where Lincoln was standing when fired upon.

White was a founding member of the Fort Stevens/Lincoln Memorial Association dedicated to preserving the remnants of the rapidly deteriorating fort.  Materials from that organization are reproduced in the book.  In 1900, he decided to write a history of the battle and called on fellow veterans to supply details of their experiences during those fateful days. One of those contacted was Surgeon Crawford who replied with a detailed letter and a diagram of where the principles stood when he was wounded.  According to Dr. Crawford, he was on the parapet and was shot about 5:30 p.m. on July 12.  Lincoln, however, was not on the fort's parapet (where most historians have placed him), but within the fort, standing behind Sixth Corps commander, General Horatio Wright, who was prone on the parapet, observing the enemy.  Dr. Crawford remembers the close proximity of the shot "impelled the President to involuntarily diminish the height of his personage, which he did by suddenly crooking his knees."

This scenario was confirmed in a series of letters White received, beginning in 1911, from George E. Jewitt, a member of the 13th Michigan Battery,  He remembers that "Mr. Lincoln was standing inside the fort behind these officers, the top of the parapet coming up to about his breast."  After the shot that wounded Dr. Crawford, Jewitt claims Lincoln "picked up an ammunition box and sat down on it, the top of the parapet just about covering the top of his tall silk hat."  Veteran James W. Latta opines that the story of Lincoln on the parapet originated in the multi-volume Life of Lincoln written by John Nicolay, one of his personal secretaries.

Which story is true is asking the wrong question.  History is an ever unfolding kaleidoscope of incidents probably imperfectly recalled from the depths of fading memories.  For historians, the quest is not in finding the answer; it's in the gathering of previously unexamined materials or taking a different look at what's already been found.  The Lewis Cass White collection demands that we do both.
Gordon Berg is a past President and member of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia (  His reviews and articles appear in the Civil War Times and America's Civil War, among other publications.

No comments: