The First Defenders meet at 6:30 PM on the second Tuesday of each month from September through May. Meetings include dinner and a speaker who may be a guest or a member. Meetings are currently held at The Inn at Reading. A book raffle is held each month with all proceeds donated to battlefield preservation. Guests and new members are welcome. Space is limited in the restaurant, so please contact a board member or the First Defenders by email (see the Regimental Staff page).
|The Battle of Rappahannock Station: A Prelude to 1864-1865|
|The autumn campaign in Northern Virginia does not get much attention from historians or in Civil War literature, but Ed Alexander launched the First Defenders' 20th Campaign by explaining why the Battle of Rappahannock Station was an important and somewhat ground-breaking event in military tactics.
On November 7, 1863, two brigades of the Union Sixth Corps defied conventional tactics during their frontal bayonet charge against a like number of Confederates who protected a critical bridgehead on the Rappahannock River. Robert E. Lee had just left the area when the attack was about to open (and possibly avoided an ignominious capture!) convinced the river crossing was secure. But, in short order, the Yankees executed a pair of flanking maneuvers supported by artillery that left veterans of Lee's Second Corps, "Stonewall" Jackson's old command, bewildered and defeated (and, for many, captured)!.
The action at Rappahannock Station did not loom large in the battles of the Eastern Theatre. However, the tactics used would be repeated with greater success in May 1864 at Spotsylvania and again several times in front of Petersburg during the War's final year.
Alexander's description of the fall campaign and this battle in particular was another excellent program presented by the "young guns" from the Emerging Civil War stable, and brought this little-studied action to life with color and detail!
|"Mosby's Rangers"- The Bane of Union Armies in Northern Virginia|
|"Mosby's Confederacy" extended primarily throughout Loudon and Fairfax Counties in northern Virginia, and it is fair to say John Singleton Mosby and his 43rd Virginia Partisan Rangers were worth more than their weight in gold as they continually vexed Union armies throughout the Civil War. Indeed, Mosby's men never actually surrendered in 1865; they quietly disbanded, returned to their homes and eventually received pardons.
Jeff Wert, one of only a few speakers who has presented to the First Defenders on multiple occasions, has researched and written about Mosby and shared some of the hair-raising stories escapades of him and his men. A retired high school teacher, Jeff added touches of humor in his descriptions of how Mosby's band evaded larger and better-equipped Union forces sent to destroy them while exacting a huge toll on northern logistics, disrupting plans and even conducting a brazen midnight raid that netted sorely-needed horseflesh and a Union brigadier general. When told of the episode, Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, "For that I am sorry, for I can make brigadier generals, but I cannot make horses."
Mosby was a favorite of Confederate cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart, and also was favorably mentioned in Robert E. Lee's reports on many occasions. Slow to embrace secession, Mosby nonetheless aggressively and ruthlessly led his men in support of the Southern cause.
Jeff is always an entertaining speaker, and took time before and after his talk to discuss a variety of Civil War topics with First Defenders. An old friend of the Round Table, Jeff's take on Mosby's Rangers was interesting, unusual and well-received.
|Women Soldiers in The Civil War|
|The Victorian Era was an age of men, but that did not deter more than a few women from making their ways into the ranks of Civil War armies. Their reasons were often the same as the men: patriotism, a desire for adventure, defense of hearth and home and the like. These determined women came from all social classes and educational backgrounds according to First Defender Sherri Stull, and went to great lengths to hide their "secret." Sherri told specific stories of Frances Clayton, Jessie Hodgers, Sarah Edmonds, Loreta Velaquez and Sarah Wakeman. They, along with many others, endured the hardships of the common soldier; if they were discovered, they would be whisked away from the armies in the fastest and easiest manner, but certainly would not be permitted to stay with the troops even after their combat prowess had been well-proven. Those whose secret was kept from army officers risked the potential of being wounded, captured or even killed in battle.
There are few studies of women soldiers in the Civil War (although a recent Mort Kuntsler painting did shine a light on a female Georgia militia unit, the Nancy Harts, that actually went head-to-head with Union cavalry), but Sherri brought refreshing light to the stories of some of these women and what they experienced, and in the process expanded First Defender insights into a unique aspect of the Civil War.
|Did the Second Battle of Winchester Pave the Way for Union Triump at Gettysburg?|
|That is the question posed to the First Defenders during their December holiday program by noted author and lecturer Scott Mingus who, along with Eric Wittenberg, has penned the definitive account of the "1863 Valley Campaign" that is often lost in the glare of the Gettysburg spotlight two weeks later. For many of the veterans of Second Winchester, the rest of their lives would be spent making the case their sacrifice made the Union victory at Gettysburg.
It is often left to the losers to find a silver lining in their sacrifice, and the veterans of Robert Milroy's 8th Corps division are no exception. That they held the battle-tested troops of the late Stonewall Jackson in combat for three days, delayed the Confederate advance into Pennsylvania, kept Harrisburg from falling and allowed the Army of the Potomac to close the distance forced Robert E. Lee to fight a battle he was not prepared to bring on. Or so Milroy and many of his men would believe until their dying days.
Scott reviewed the developing battle that was nothing short of a disaster for the troops engaged (more than 4,000, nearly half of the troops present, would find themselves marching to Libby Prison in the largest surrender of American troops until the early days of World War II). The 8th Corps soldiers were victims of the Federal War Department, a martinet commander, their own lack of combat experience and, of course, the Second Corps of the Army of Northern VIrginia.
Gettysburg eclipsed the events at Winchester for both North and South. Lee's troops could not find much to celebrate from their journey into Pennsylvania, and the Union victory at Gettysburg overshadowed everything else for the North. But, for those who fought and suffered around the picturesque town of Winchester for three days in mid-June, there remains an ever-lasting legacy that they, too, were integral to the outcome of the Pennsylvania Campaign (and the war!).
|~Program Cancelled Due to Winter Weather~|
|Simon Cameron: Amiable Scoundrel|
Almost every student of the Civil War era has heard the old chestnut about Simon Cameron being so corrupt that the only thing he wouldn't steal was a red hot stove. Thaddeus Stevens, who supposedly made that immortal statement, would eventually take it back (or so he said), but the reputation of Cameron has been defined by that story for over 150 years. Until now.
Author, historian and educator Paul Kahan has written the most recent, and likely the most accurate and even-handed, biography of the famous (or infamous) 19th Century Pennsylvania political boss who, by virtue of his iron-fisted control of the Keystone State Republic political machine, made it possible for Abraham Lincoln to become the president of the United States.
Cameron's reward for his political support was being named as the Lincoln Administration's first secretary of war, a position Cameron did not truly want because he considered himself unqualified as a military man. Yet he performed capably during the first year of the war in transitioning a peacetime military establishment racked by huge losses in its officer corps as a result of secession and placing it on a wartime footing.
Dr. Kahan contends there is no evidence to suggest Cameron was a corrupt politician, at least no more than any other office seeker or holder of the mid-1800s who curried favor with the press and dispensed the spoils of victory to loyal supporters. It was those political aspirants who regularly and openly sought out Cameron's counsel, support and access to his political organization that had a reputation of delivering the votes.
Through a lively presentation that compared modern political environments, tools and practices with those of the 19th Century, Dr. Kahan clearly demonstrated the common perception of Simon Cameron is more perception rather than reality, and that Cameron was among the first to push Lincoln toward enlisting black soldiers in the cause long before Old Abe had come to accept that notion.
Cameron may have been an "amiable scoundrel," but his importance to the Union cause is worthy of reconsideration. And, if he was on trial for corruption, Paul Kahan has proven a brilliant and capable defense counsel.
|~Program Cancelled Due to Winter Weather~|
|"An(other) Evening with Ed, Celebrating the 'First Defenders' & More"|
|It seems almost impossible to believe there is something about the Civil War that Ed Bearss cannot pull from his encyclopedic reservoir of the great and not-so-great events from 1861-65, but the historian emeritus of the National Park Service admitted he had to crack the books to study up on the First Defenders for his program to their namesake Round Table. (And, as only Ed can do, he found a mistake in the book!)
Ed talked about the early days of the Civil War when President Lincoln was desperate for troops to defend the nation's capital, and how five Pennsylvania companies were the first to arrive in answer to the call. Their service was not particularly glamorous, and the only "combat" they truly experienced was passing through a hostile Baltimore on their way to Washington. Still, they would each be greeted and thanked personally by the President (which was more than they would receive from their own state that did not band them together as the 1st Pennsylvania and split them into other regiments after their 90-day emergency service).
As a bonus, Ed took additional questions about history, the military and his interesting life, including opinions about past and present commanders. He noted that, of all the generals he has studied, he considers George S. Patton at the top of the pantheon for the simple reason the Germans (who knew a few things about war) feared him more than any other commander.
Ed's visits with the First Defenders are always a treat, and he shared an early piece of 94th birthday cake with the Round Table as it celebrated its 20th campaign. Here's to many more for Ed and the First Defenders!
|"Myths of the Lost Cause"|
|In the spring of 1865, most Confederates accepted the loss of the "Second War for American Independence." Within a decade, however, the "Lost Cause" was born in an effort to enoble the sacrifices made and the defeat of the South. There are seven essential components to the Lost Cause dogma: that slavery was a benevolent, dying institution; states' rights, not slavery, led to the conflict; the overwhelming odds against the Confederacy ensured its defeat; Robert E. Lee was one of the greatest military leaders in history; James Longstreet was personally responsible for the Confederate loss at Gettysburg, and, by extension, the war itself; Ulysses S. Grant was an incompetent butcher who could only win with brutality and superior numbers; and, the North won by waging an unprecedented "total war" against the South.
Not so fast says Edward Bonekemper. He has written a balanced, well-researched and compelling refutation of the Confederate Lost Cause catechism, and he will present his arguments to the First Defenders at the May program. Bonekemper's conclusions will have original Lost Cause warriors Jubal Early and William Nelson Pendleton spinning in their graves, and 20th Century apologists like Douglas Southall Freeman and Shelby Foote would have been very uncomfortable under this spotlight!
Edward Bonekemper is a lecturer in military history at Muhlenberg College. He earned a B.A. cum laude in American history from Muhlenberg College, an M.A. in American history from Old Dominion University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. His prior Civil War books include Lincoln and Grant, Grant and Lee, McClellan and Failure, Incompetence and Worse, A Victor, Not a Butcher, and How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War. His latest book is titled The Myth of the Lost Cause.