Friday, January 25, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Saturday, Jan. 25, 1862

“The Astronomer-Soldier”

Robert Caldwell of Elmore, Ohio, is a corporal in Company I, 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, wintering at Camp Jefferson, Kentucky. Bored and lacking any combat experience, Caldwell longs to see some action—but when he does, he is confident that Brig. Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel of Cincinnati (right) will provide the leadership needed to succeed . (Caldwell’s 21st Ohio is brigaded with five other regiments, the brigade one of four forming Mitchel’s Third Division of Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio.)

Mitchel is, in a phrase, yet another of the remarkable, colorful men in an army that is full of them. A gifted child, he was raised in Lebanon, Ohio, by a widowed mother, who left him to his books for as long as she could, but finally had to send him to work in a store, at age 12, for 25 cents a week.

Mitchel entered West Point when he was only 15 and graduated in upper third of a class that included Robert E. Lee. After four years in the army, he resigned to become an esteemed professor of mathematics and science at what is now the University of Cincinnati.

Professor Mitchel is one of those high-energy Victorians who could do many different things and do them well. He was a compelling speaker, a design engineer for railroads, and a commander in the Ohio militia. It was astronomy, however, that brought Mitchel his greatest fame. He raised money to build a planetarium, became a popular lecturer on astronomy, and wrote several books on the stars and the planets. In the summer of 1861, he jumped into the war as a brigadier general.

“Gen Mitchel has the confidence of every man in his Division,” Corporal Caldwell wrote home. “You can see him at all times upon his horse riding through the various regts of his command, superintending the drill of his men….This forenoon he took command of the 21st while on battalion drill and put us through several new movements. He gave us great praise, for the promptness and accuracy with which we performed these new and difficult maneuvers. He is a strict disciplinarian and insists upon having everything done in a soldier-like manner.”

The “astronomer-soldier,” as Mitchel came to be known in the army, will rise like a shooting star in the Civil War and fade away as quickly. For an uncommon man, his story will become all too common.

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3½ years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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1 comment:

mannie said...


How funny is this?

I was a child of the centennial. Born in 1952 I was able to savor every moment and aspect of the commemoration and marketing of the American Civil War. I swooned. Today I find myself a National Park Service Ranger at Antietam National Battlefield.

How the nine-year-old me would have gasped at such a future.

The thing is, I remember counting up the years to the sesquicentennial and thinking " I'll be an old man or dead by then!"

A fat lot I knew!

Best wishes,

Ranger Mannie