Anachronism much? Bear with me. Every historian (hopefully) has their niche. In fact, in today's academy, it's vital that you have one. The more obscure the better. Academics sneer at general historians, and professors loathe teaching survey classes. They would much rather teach you a semester's worth of that one foreign policy decision, that one presidency, or that one battle that they know everything about. It's not ideal for popularity's sake, but it's the only way specialties can be carved out these days.
I've never had a niche. I know, it's tragic, having existed two whole months in the world of graduate history education. Due to professors I loved and advisers I blindly followed during undergrad, I have always been benignly interested in the Cold War. It just happened that it was something I learned a lot about, and so as things got on, it was easier for me to focus on those topics than to learn anything new. Even though I work with the Civil War, through a series of unfortunate events I have never gotten to take a class on it. And so while I know more useless Civil War regiment intricacies than most people, I don't actually know too much about the war itself.
I have a point, I promise.
Today, I found my niche. I'm not saying I will write a PhD dissertation on this or anything. But I have found what every historian must eventually find: that one illusive thread of history that you get so tangled up in, it becomes viscerally invigorating, deeply personal, and a permanent part of your very own history.
His name was George H. Lanning. He started out as a 1st Sergeant in the 1st Missouri Light Artillery, and eventually ended up a Major commanding the 6th United States Colored Troops (USCT) Heavy Artillery.
What made George's file special? Not much. I mechanically turned the pages of the file for QA, and my eyes flickered to the appealingly dwindling pile of files I had left for the day. It was a widow's pension. No children. Easy enough. Proof of service, killed in action, proof of marriage, done. But there was one more thing I had to check. In the back of the file, where normally I wouldn't look during QA, was a document tabbed for conservation. Adding the file number to my growing list, I flipped open the PermaLife folder to see whether it was torn, glued, creased, etc. That is when I found this letter (I will upload the original later):
Ft. Riley KS
I am ashamed to attempt to write to you, yet I must for my conscience smites me so at times that I would rather be dead than alive. I would write to my Mother but I am ashamed to. I have terribly wronged her. She that was my best and kindest of Mothers. I pray from the bottom of my heart that she will forgive. Tell her for me that I have sinned both against her and heaven and earth, and tell her that I have wronged deeply wronged her, yet I will redeem the past if she has not cast me forth. I will return as the Prodigal Son and say am not worthy to be called her child. The reality of what I have passed through is at times enough to set me wild. Tell my Mother I ask her forgiveness and her blessing and I feel almost confident that she will give it me. I am doing very well and have been for the past two years. I am also well and have not had a days sickness since I left. I hope that you are all well and enjoying good health, and my Mother especially. It sometimes flashes over my mind that my Mother is no more, and then remorse seizes me and that terrible monster conscience that never can be quiet. My brother Edward perhaps has forgotten me too if you only knew what trials I have passed through the anguish and despair my present conduct has caused me then you would know what I have not forgotten you. Perhaps you may be glad to hear from me at least I thought you would. I know that it will ease my conscience, for a while if my conduct has not been too heinous in your sight, and if you have not cast me forth although I am not worthy to be remembered by you anyone else Mary I hope I beg of you to write to about my Mother. I ask you Mary and Edward and Eli and all the rest to forgive me to forget the past and I promise as there is a heaven above to be more dutiful. I would come see if I dared to. Write soon and tell me if my Mother be alive or no. I must close my letter as I have no more news to write. I ask you all to forgive me and pardon the past. I am ashamed to sign myself Brother because I am not worthy. So I close wishing you all well.
That is how I met George. I had to know what he was apologizing for, why a letter to his sister would end up in his widow's pension file, and whether he was ever forgiven. Although the letter doesn't give a year, it is safe to assume it was written in 1863, just under a year before Major Lanning would be killed in action at Fort Pillow.
But there is so much more to the story.
Lanning, a fairly high ranking officer, went by the alias of Lionel F. Booth. Aliases were common in the war, mostly for soldiers to hide their fates from their worrying loved ones. Lanning, however, writes to his family openly. They know he is in the army; they are even told where he is stationed. However, in some of the other letters (below) Lanning tells his correspondents to direct his letters for a Major L.F. Booth, who will kindly pass them along. Who was he hiding from? A couple months later, he writes to his aunt:
Ft. Riley, KS
Oct. 28th, 160
I received yours of the 26th last night and was very glad indeed to hear from you the letter much have remained in the Post Office some time as it was advertised. I am glad to learn that you are all well, I myself am in very good health, and doing very well at present with good prospects in and for the future. You say that my Mother was with you when she died. I am satisfied, for I know that she was well taken care off. You tell me that it was her wish to be buried with my father, and that you did it. I am contented. You speak of them in Iowa. Had it not been for them and their Father I might have been a different and a better man, but let it rest as it is. I forgive and with him let all his injuries and faults be buried with them that remain let their faults be buried in oblivion. I forgive them, it was them that caused be to be driven from the presence of those who needed my protection, and they knew it, that if they got me once out of the way they would have things their own way, but there is a fearful account between me and them that by rights should have a final settlement, let that rest for the present.
You tell me that Edward has a place you did not tell me if he was learning a trade or no any way if he can get along with you and if it is impossible for him to get along where he now is I would rather have him with you, because I do not want him to be or have any intercourse with men who are addicted to drinking liquor of any kind. I have seen the consequences and they have proved fatal. You cannot imagine what my feelings were when I received that letter from Mary of my Mother’s death. I would not recall the thoughts which I them experienced for worlds. Had I not known that Edward still had a friend in you I know not what would have been the consequences. I am indeed glad to hear that Uncle Sam is well give him my best respects and well wishes hoping that we may soon meet and Grandfather too, give him my best respects and tell him that I have often thought of him and I still thinks when I was a little boy of the first pair of boots he bought me. I hope that I shall see him soon too. Give my best respects and well wishes to all enquiring friends. Write soon. Give my love to Edward and tell him to write soon.
Your absent though affectionate nephew,
Geo. H. Lanning
Direct to L. F. Booth, as he gets my mail and he will forward it to me.
Who could this family be? Lanning seems to have run away from home-- whether it was for the war or otherwise is unknown. Was it an abusive stepfather? A jealous family of vindictive siblings or cousins? We can never know.
Earlier in 1863, George writes to his aunt:
Corinth, MS, March 10th 1863.
It is with pleasure I take my pen in hand to write you a few lines, although I am ashamed of my past conduct in not writing to you yet it is not too late to ask you forgiveness, promising to do better for the future. I have kept up a correspondence with Edward and received a letter from him night before last which I have answered and shall mail it along with this. It is needless for me to inform you of the ups and downs that I have passed through during this war. Suffice it to say that I have done my share of it since the commencement. What is still before me to go through I must leave for the future to decide.
Yet I wish that this war was over, but not until the Union is restored and the Stars and Stripes float once more over our entire land will I consent to lay down the sword, unless it should please our Father in Heaven to remove me from the terrible conflict which yet has to come, it is unnecessary for me to depict the scenes that I have seen, nor to horror your mind with the dreadful slaughter of human beings that has so frequently has been my lot to behold. History alone must do that. I do not wish to extol myself yet so far I have through this terrible ordeal safe and sound, for which I must praise our Father who art in Heaven for guiding me safe through the various changes, which it has been my lot to pass through.
Your absent, though undutiful nephew
When you write place your letter in an envelope directed to me, then place it in another directed to Sargt. L. F. Booth 1st MO Lt. Artillery in case of Maj. Geo. H. Stone.
George Lanning's stunning reflections on the cruelties of war rival the likes of Lee and Sherman. Unfortunately, Lanning's fate fit what he described in this letter. April 12, 1864 marked the Battle of Fort Pillow, widely known as a massacre. While Lanning was white, as were all USCT officers, his troops were black. Fort Pillow was guarded by about 600 men, about one half of them black. They were the 2nd USCT Light Artillery, Lanning's 6th, and the 13th Tennessee Cavalry. In the spring of 1864, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest set his sights-- and his 2,000 rebel troops-- on Fort Pillow.
The Union troops could not surrender. A surrender, they all knew, would mean a slaughter of every black man in uniform, and every white man fighting alongside him. The fort was besieged, and Lanning (or, Major Booth) was shot dead almost immediately. It is a blessing that he did not have to witness the massacre that followed. Accounts report of rebel soldiers screaming "no quarter!" before shooting in cold blood the Union soldiers who begged for mercy. The Union troops never officially surrendered. Once the siege began, they were never given the chance.
14 Confederates died in the siege. Close to 300 Union soldiers were killed, the vast majority of them black. Fort Pillow is remembered as one of the most terrible engagements of the war, not for its casualty count but for the savagery it demonstrated in Rebel soldiers who saw, many for the first time, black soldiers fighting for the Union.
This is a battle that I had never even heard of. But George Lanning's stunning words led me to follow his trail, and I discovered that he was a piece of one of the most culturally significant battles of the Civil War. I can feel George watching me discover his story, and I hope he understands the fresh anguish I feel in witnessing his passion and death. I will always feel connected to him now. It is stories like Lanning's that remind me of the men behind the hundreds of files I glaze over every day, and the lives and personal dramas that absorbed them even in the midst of the "dreadful slaughter of human beings" happening all around them.