Episode Archives

Vicksburg Monuments: The Art of Commemoration

General Parker Hills joins Mark to discuss the monuments at the Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi. General Hills’ book, Art of Commemoration, catalogues and details the magnificent sculpture, architecture, the artists and interpretations that memorialize this incredible Park.

Excerpt from the Introduction to Art of Commemoration

Soon after Vicksburg National Military Park was established in 1899, the nation ‘s leading architects and sculptors were commissioned to honor the soldiers that had fought in the campaign. The park’s earliest state memorial was dedicated in 1903, and over 95 percent of the monuments that followed were erected prior to 1917. An aging Civil War veteran who hastened to Vicksburg to see the resulting works was so impressed that he aptly described Vicksburg National Military Park as “the art park of the world: ‘ The work of commemoration has continued sporadically since 1917, and today, over 1,370 monuments, tablets and markers dot the park landscape. Unfortunately, some of these are on former park lands or are not situated along the tour road.

In touring the park, it is helpful to know that the ancient Roman writer, architect, and engineer, Vitruvius, insisted that there were two points in all matters: the thing signified, and that which gave it its significance. The thing signified at Vicksburg – the spirit of the park-is the valor of the soldiers and sailors who struggled as participants in the Vicksburg campaign. The memorials and markers, through their information, art and architecture, signify, or honor, these combatants. The bronze, stone, and iron works were created to help preserve the spirit of duty, honor and country, and hopefully, this spirit will be experienced by the viewer.

The best way to appreciate the park and feel its spirit is to park in designated areas and spend some time on short walks. The reward will be that the works of art will reveal details and fuel emotions that are impossible to appreciate and feel from afar. As composer Daniel Gregory Mason observed; “Art of any profundity can be experienced only slowly, gradually, in leisurely contemplation.” You are, therefore, encouraged to savor your time amidst the heroes of the past.

Parker Hills, Brigadier General (Retired)
Clinton, Mississippi

Civil War New Orleans

Mark discusses New Orleans during the Civil War. In 1861, the City of New Orleans prepared for an imminent invasion by Union forces after Louisiana joined the Confederacy. As a crisis loomed, leadership, politics and military shortcomings become evident.

Ulysses S. Grant: Later War Years

Harry Laver, Professor of History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, returns to review Ulysses S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign, his rise to General-in-Chief of the Union Army, the Chattanooga campaign and his campaigns in Virginia.

Grant and Fort Donelson

General Simon Bolivar Buckner was in command at Fort Donelson when Union forces were moving by land in conjunction with a flotilla of gunboats to besiege the Confederate stronghold. They had known each other at West Point, classes of 1844 (Buckner) and 1843 (Grant), and remained friends after the war.

General Gideon Pillow had been in charge of the Confederates who pushed Grant back to the river at Belmont the previous November. The Tennessean had his men hold off the approaching Union forces but did not take advantage of a break in their lines. He retired to the fort and took command at Fort Donelson when General John B. Floyd decided to make a hasty departure.

Floyd was the senior Confederate commander. As U.S. Secretary of State before secession, he had been under indictment in Washington for the questionable transfer of military stores to southern states before the hostilities broke out. He desperately wanted to avoid capture by the Federals for fear of charges for treason. Before this could happen, he loaded his two Virginia regiments and some artillery onto a steamboat and “skedaddled” upriver (to the southeast) to Nashville. He turned over command to Pillow who had once echoed Patrick Henry’s statement about a preference for death over loss of liberty. When the situation looked grim at Donelson, Pillow had a change of heart and sought “liberty” in a rowboat across the Cumberland river under cover of night. General Grant had a terse assessment of him as an adversary: Pillow “was no soldier, and possibly, did not possess the elements of one.”

On February 13, the Union continued to move into position and surround the fort. Both division commanders ordered attacks against the Confederate works without success. This gave the Confederates precious time to reinforce the garrison, increasing the ranks to about 15,000 to 17,000. They now had a force nearly equal or slightly larger than the attackers. Grant sent word to Fort Henry ordering W.H.L. Wallace to bring his brigade to Donelson. That night the wind shifted and the temperature began to drop. A heavy rain that soaked both armies, changed to sleet then freezing rain and finally a snowstorm that lasted all night. By morning, there were several inches of snow on the ground and the temperatures remained well below freezing.

There are reports that many of the soldiers who had marched in the balmy weather discarded their overcoats and blankets. They were unused to such mild days in February and enjoyed the false dose of spring that was concealing a wintry blast. They regretted their hasted the following day when they were exposed to the snow and unprotected from the icy winds.

In the Podcast, we discuss the terms of surrender, Grant’s relationship with Buckner and how the Northern press picked up on the new moniker. Civl War Trust has an informative feature on Fort Donelson including statistics and an overview at CWT.com.

Ulysses S. Grant: Early Career and Civil War

Mark and Harry Laver, Professor of History at the US Army Command and General Staff College will discuss Ulysses S. Grant’s early career and his leadership in the Western Theatre of the War up to the Vicksburg Campaign. This is Part 1 of a two-part podcast.

Grant at Belmont

In late 1861, Confederate General Leonidas Polk occupied Columbus in southwestern Kentucky on the Mississippi River. He broke the “neutrality” of the state and gave Union forces a reason to take aggressive action. Pro-union officers were actively recruiting Kentuckians to take up arms to support their cause and were breaking the neutrality in their own right. Just across the river, in far southeast Missouri, was the sparsely populated ferry landing of Belmont, where the Confederates had set up an outpost. Missouri’s U.S. military commander, General John Frémont sent Brigadier U.S. Grant into the region with 3,000 troops. Grant sent an initial force to overrun the Confederate encampment at Belmont. However, Polk learned of their approach and sent reinforcements who forced Grant’s men out and re-gain control of that section of the Mississippi River.

Grant’s plan was to capture the Confederate stronghold at Columbus, but first he had to take the Confederate garrison at Belmont. The 1,000 men that Polk had sent across the river to protect that bank of the river would be no match for Grant’s approaching numbers and Polk sent an additional 2,500 troops across the river to provide relief for his troops on the other side. He wanted to retain control of both sides of the Mississippi. Grant’s arriving force was able to push the Confederates back into a disorderly retreat and scatter them along the river. Discipline broke down within the Northern ranks, who prematurely began to celebrate their victory and engaging in wholesale looting of the Confederate camp.

General Charles Smith (who would also serve with Grant at Forts Henry and Donelson) began an advance from Paducah, Kentucky, just to the northeast. He was to make a feint and make Polk commit forces to pursue and keep them away from Belmont. Grant hoped that Polk would believe that Smith’s advance was the primary attack and that Belmont was the diversion. However, Polk recognized the move and dispatched additional troops to Belmont. Five Confederate regiments arrived as Grant was attempting to restore order and withdraw his men back to the river and move to a safer position. Grant himself narrowly escaped capture, but was able to get most of his force back to the boats, cross the river and retreat to Cairo, Illinois.

Union casulaties were 120 dead and 487 wounded or captured, while the Confederates lost 105 dead and 536 wounded or captured. Grant realized that maintaining order among the troops was of paramount importance. His men mistakenly felt that victory was theirs until surprised by the Confederate reinforcements. He had been facing General Gideon Pillow, who would later make his hasty retreat as Grant’s troops moved on Fort Donelson.

Tudor England in the Media

Mark discusses Tudor England with Professor Bill Robison from Southeastern Louisiana University (SELU). Professor Robinson, who is chair of the history department at SELU, talks about how people see Tudor England portrayed in film and on TV. They especially concentrate on the Showtime series “The Tudors,” which is historical fiction set in 16th C or the 1500s. They also discuss two of the books Professor Robison has written and/or edited. As head of the history department, Professor Robinson specializes in British History and European History after 1500.

January Events in American History

The beginning of a new year has often seen major developments in U.S. history. Mark reviews some of the key events such as the Battle of New Orleans and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Spring Lineup

Mark gives a preview of some of the historical topics he’ll be discussing and the historians who will join him on History with Mark Bielski for the “Spring Semester.”

Christmas in Wartime – Part II

In this episode, Mark reviews some of the happenings that American and Allied soldiers experienced during WWII. There are a few items from the home front and some from where the fighting occurred, as well as a few segments from POWs.

First, a mention that I forgot to include in the last episode. On Christmas Day 1868, US president Andrew Johnson extended amnesty and a full pardon “to all and to every person who, directly or indirectly, participated in the late insurrection or rebellion.”

The Civil War had ended more than three years before and most of the South was in ruins. In many ways, the country had come out of the war, just as divided as it had been at the start. Reconstruction and occupation were the rules of life in the South. The Radical Republicans who had opposed President Lincoln’s conciliatory tendencies wanted nothing more than further punishment for those who had supported Secession. Andrew Johnson, a staunch Unionist from East Tennessee was both feared and loathed by many Southerners. However, his Attorney General James Speed reminded Johnson of Abraham Lincoln’s planned policy of reunification.

1941 — Japan seized Hong Kong from the British. In 1941 Tokyo confronted the West with its imperialistic, aggressive expansion plans. American military involvement in WWII began with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Immediately following was Japan’s invasion of the British colony of Hong Kong. The battle lasted 18 days, leaving hundreds dead and many wounded or shipped off to POW camps. Japan symbolically announced the British surrender of the colony with a 1941 Christmas Day radio broadcast.

1941 — Free French Admiral Émile Muselier captured Saint Pierre and Miquelon from Vichy control. Soon after France fell to the Nazis, the colonial governor of a few small islands off the coast of Newfoundland started working with the resistance. He disdained the Vichy government—the Nazi’s puppet regime in France. On Christmas Eve, 1941, a small task force under Admiral Émile Muselier stormed the island under the cover of night.They met no resistance and the island’s administrative centers were taken within an hour. This kept the islands from serving as a Nazi outpost deep within Allied territorial waters.

The episode also recounts Christmas in the POW camps and the great work done by the USO (United Service Organizations). We specifically reference two prison camps, Stalag Luft I and Stalag Luft III. Airmen prison camps one and three. For the USO, we cite Bob Hope’s long association and support for our service men and women.

Christmas in Wartime – Part I

War brings few joyous moments. Over the years, Christmas time has provided a few glimmers of warmth. From a surprise victory for George Washington, to mules masquerading as reindeer in the Civil War, to a flare-lit soccer game between Brits and Germans in WWI, Mark shares some wartime Christmas memories.

Lewis & Clark With Hal Stearns

Montana historian Hal Stearns joins Mark to discuss Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. They had their talk at Fort Clatsop, the winter encampment of the Expedition. The restored fort is near present day Astoria, Oregon on the Columbia River.