Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Meet my friend Richard Clem, the Babe Ruth of storytellers

Richard Clem on the Philip Pry farm at Antietam battlefield.

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Nearly a decade ago, I connected with Richard Clem for a story about a Connecticut soldier who was killed by friendly fire at the William Roulette farm at the Battle of Antietam (Md.) on Sept. 17, 1862. Since then, we have become great friends, and no Antietam visit is complete for me without a visit with Richard, who knows the nooks and crannies of the battlefield from his days hunting for relics (legally) and visiting with many of the locals. He’s one of the all-time great storytellers — the “Babe Ruth of storytellers,” I call him.

Before we hit the battlefield during a recent visit, his lovely wife Gloria told him: “You’re an old man. Watch yourself out there.” But the 82-year-old, a lifelong Washington County (Md.) resident, had zero trouble navigating the field.

On Sunday afternoon, accompanied by our friend John Davidson, another lifelong area resident, we visited the O.J. Smith farm (an Antietam hospital site) and the Bloody Cornfield. (You can follow John's relic hunting adventures on Facebook here.) I shot the above image of Richard on the Philip Pry farm, where he unearthed dozens of bullets long ago. Soon, I’ll spend some quality time with Richard to create a record of his battlefield stories.

What a storyteller. What an outstanding human being.

I am proud to call him one of my best friends.

Here are stories Richard has written for my blog, including several on his remarkable Civil War ID tag finds. And below is a video we shot on the Pry farm.

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Thursday, September 30, 2021

In nine images: A visit to historic St. John's Episcopal Church

The exterior of the church, near downtown Columbia, Tenn.

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The baptismal font.
I’ve visited the cemetery behind St. John's Episcopal Church in Ashwood, Tenn., a dozen or so times. That's where Confederate Major General Patrick Cleburne, a Battle of Franklin victim on November 30, 1864, was buried until the Irish-born soldier’s 1870 exhumation and re-burial in Helena, Ark. A visit to the graves of slaves here, in a separate area from the white burials, is especially meaningful for me.

I recently spent time inside this magnificent plantation church, completed in 1842 for the Polk brothers, whom you can read about here in my Rambling column for Civil War Times magazine. True story: A U.S. Army soldier tooted on a pipe he swiped from the church organ as he marched up Mount Pleasant Pike, which was used often by both armies. You can see the pike in the image I shot through a second-floor window of the church. Slaves worshipped here, too.

In 2001, according to the Episcopal church web site, teen vandals broke windows, damaged the beautiful baptismal font, tossed the organ from the second-floor loft into the sanctuary floor below, and toppled tombstones in the graveyard. The men were arrested and charged. The community, regardless of denomination, cleaned up the church and made repairs. Donations covered the cost.

The church is used once a year for services.

The magnificent exterior.
Nearly all the interior is original, including these pews.
A view of the altar.
A view of the interior of the Gothic Revival-style church.
Shadows on the original pews.
A view from the second-floor loft.
A view of Mount Pleasant Pike from a second-floor window. The pike was used by both armies.

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Friday, September 24, 2021

A visit to 'The Quarters,' cabins of Gideon Pillow's enslaved

Farmer Campbell Ridley explores one of the slave cabins on his property.
The exterior of a log slave cabin.

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Gideon Pillow
Steps from the east fork of Green Lick Creek in Columbia, Tenn., stand log cabins where the enslaved of Gideon Pillow lived. A wealthy politician, lawyer, speculator and underwhelming Confederate major general, Pillow resided at Clifton Place, a magnificent mansion that still stands astride Mount Pleasant Pike. 

On Thursday afternoon, farmer and friend Campbell Ridley—a Pillow descendant—showed me and Cliff Roberts of the General Barton & Stovall History/Heritage Association the interior of one of the slave cabins, tucked on his property behind trees, brush and weeds. We didn’t go inside another slave cabin, but examined its brick chimney and deteriorating porch.

Pillow was one of the wealthiest men in Maury County—one of the wealthiest counties in the country before the Civil War. Much of that wealth was accumulated because of those who toiled for him—the enslaved who lived in these cabins.

Ridley, whose family has farmed in the area for generations, has long called these structures “The Quarters.” In addition to slaves, the cabins housed workers on the farm into the 20th century. Ridley also farms the land where Ashwood Hall—one of the most magnificent residences in Tennessee—once stood. The fabulous plantation mansion, owned by Leonidas Polk, “The Fighting Bishop” of the Confederacy, and later his brother, was destroyed in an 1874 fire. I wrote about it for Civil War Times magazine. 

Farmer Campbell Ridley slips inside the door.
Ridley examines the interior of a cabin, once occupied by slaves and later by workers
on his family farm.
Evidence of a fireplace in the cabin.
The deteriorating porch on another cabin.
The original, brick chimney.

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Friday, September 17, 2021

Did this daguerreotype save a soldier's life at Antietam?

On Oct. 2, 1927, the Baltimore Sun printed this photograph of daguerreotype a
5th Maryland soldier carried into battle at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862.

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Soldiers often carried a photograph of a loved one into battle during the Civil War. Images of sweethearts, wives, or family members sometimes were discovered with the fallen by burial crews or souvenir hunters. Following Gettysburg, a carte de visite of three children clutched by a dead Union soldier led to his identificiation—Sergeant Amos Humiston of the 154th New York became one of that battle's most famous casualties. At the war's bloodiest single-day battle, a family photograph may have even saved a soldier's life.

The 5th Maryland monument near Bloody Lane
at Antietam. 
On Oct. 1, 1861, George D. Wernex enlisted in the 5th Maryland, a Union regiment. He survived the Civil War physically unscathed, mustering out as a corporal on Sept. 1, 1865. At the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, he carried with him a daguerreotype of his 25-year-old sister, Anna Mary—before he marched off to war, he promised to carry the picture of his bejweled sibling in the breast pocket of his coat. 

During that day's brutal fighting, perhaps near Bloody Lane, a bullet struck Wernex in the chest, denting the daguerreotype but apparently doing no physical damage to him. Wernex was among the lucky ones in the 5th Maryland, which suffered 39 killed and 109 wounded at Antietam.

"Returning to his home [after the war]," the Baltimore Sun reported on Oct. 2, 1927, "he presented the picture to his sister, asking her to retain it always as the charm that saved his life." After the war, George served as a Baltimore fireman—he missed only three alarms in 30 years—and ran a cigar store for 42 years. 

"His customers numbered many of those who were frequent passengers on trains leaving Camden Station, his business being located just across the street from the depot," the Sun reported after Wernex's death from Bright's disease at age 71 in 1915. "He had been a reader of the Sun ever since he had received sufficient education to be able to read."

Werner undoubtedly was pleased that his sister prized the battle-damaged photo. After she married  Charles L. Mattfeldt, the couple gave the daguerreotype a "prominent place in their home." After Anna Mary's death in 1916, the image was inherited by her son, Charles, a doctor and Baltimore County health officer. He kept the "cherished" photo, "draped with Stars and Stripes," in his office in Cantonville, Md. Dr. Mattfeldt died in 1934.

The current whereabouts of the image, however, are unknown.

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  • Baltimore Sun, July 14, 1915, Oct. 2, 1927
  • Find A Grave

Friday, September 10, 2021

Lee Harvey Oswald and me: A strange obsession of a lifetime

In the room where Lee Harvey Oswald slept, I tried to commune with his spirit.

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Twenty-four-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald lingers in the deep corners of my mind—tormenting me, mocking me, smirking at me like a madman.

As a teen growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, I pored over everything about my tormentor and JFK's assassination—Life, Time, Look and other magazines, newsletters and scores of books. TV documentaries, too. In 1975, I watched as the horrific Zapruder film was shown to the American public for the first time, on the late-night show "Good Night America," hosted by some guy named Geraldo Rivera. Then I bought a bootleg copy of the film of Kennedy's murder to study it for myself. In our basement, I watched, aghast, when Frame 313—the gruesome head-shot impact frame—melted from the heat from my family's ancient 8-millimeter projector. 

A Life magazine, a tattered assassination book, and a 
bootleg copy of the Abraham Zapruder film—
the stuff that occupied my time long ago.
Full of fury, I called into a local radio talk show to argue with U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter about his "Single-Bullet Theory." Eager to test my interrogation skills, I purchased a Dallas phone book to dial up assassination witnesses. 

I thought of "The Smirker" in the snowy woods in northwestern Pennsylvania  while peering through the scope of my dad's deer rifle and in my high school Russian class as I struggled with the Cyrillic alphabet. I studied the language, naturally, because he spoke it, too.

To uncover the "truth" about the "The Crime of the Century," I even dreamed of joining the CIA. 

As a 25-year-old, I took a job in sports at The Dallas Morning News, in part, because of you-know-who. In Dallas, I often visited Dealey Plaza after the paper was put to bed and downtown bars closed. Full of beer and bluster, I stood behind the infamous (and rickety) picket fence on the grassy knoll and then on the "X" on Elm Street that supposedly marks the spot of the president's limo when he suffered his fatal head wound. When director Oliver Stone filmed the motorcade scene in Dealey Plaza for his awful "JFK," I watched from the sixth floor of the old Texas School Book Depository, near the sniper's nest. 

The Smirker's nest.

A historical marker at 10th and Patton streets near 
where Dallas police officerJ.D. Tippit was murdered
by Lee Harvey Oswald.
When I met Marina, my tormentor's  Russian-born wife, I handed the 60ish woman photos of her family from 1963. (Don't ask.) Before we were married, I took Mrs. B to an assassination conference, attended by a mishmash of oddballs, buffs, and academics; and, years later, our 9-year-old daughter in tow, met a prominent conspiracy author at another gathering of the crazies. When I told him he was the sole reason for my attendance, the man loudly said, "No shit!" I smiled and laughed, nervously.

In the strip of ground across from the grassy knoll, I got an autograph from "The Lady in Red," assassination witness Jean Hill. The tattered card with her signature remained in my wallet for years. In Dallas' West End, I met a man so obsessed with the assassination that he became a postman in the Oak Cliff neighborhood where The Smirker killed Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit. While delivering mail there, he aimed to quiz witnesses to the crime.

I understood his obsession because it was mine, too.

The 'morgue,' a visit to his grave, and a new haunt

Holding left-wing literature and a rifle, Lee Harvey Oswald stands in the backyard
of his apartment on West Neely Street  in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas; Right, the same site today.

In the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, I stood outside the grungy apartments where my tormentor once lived with Marina, as well as at the University Park mansion where The Smirker squeezed off a rifle shot at former U.S. Army major general Edwin Walker in March 1963. The bleak corner of 10th and Patton, where he killed the Dallas cop, became an assassination destination, too. 

This "X" on Elm Street marks the approximate
location of JFK's limo when he received his fatal wound.
At The Dallas Morning News' "morgue," where the newspaper stored photos and other treasure, I examined images of his near-lifeless body on a stretcher after strip club owner Jack Ruby pumped a .38-caliber bullet from a Colt Cobra revolver into his gut in the basement of Dallas Police HQ. At The News, I even worked on the same area on the second floor where Ruby placed ads for his clubs the morning of the assassination. 

At Shannon Rose Hill Park in Fort Worth, I stared at The Smirker's gravestone—the Spanish-speaking workers there weren't supposed to tell me where he lay, so they used hand signals to direct me to his plot when the bosses weren't watching. Perhaps he weighed on their minds, too.

The gas station where Oswald tossed his jacket after
killing Dallas cop J.D. Tippit at 10th and Patton.
Still a curious journalist, I recently stopped by old assassination-related haunts in Dallas for the first time in ages—The Smirker's now-decrepit West Neely Street apartment, site of the infamous backyard photos; 10th & Patton; the gas station on Jefferson, where he tossed his jacket after killing Tippit; the Texas Theatre, where he was captured; and grimy Dealey Plaza, where contemptible tourists smile for selfies on that Elm Street "X." 

I also visited a new haunt: the Oak Cliff rooming house where The Smirker, then estranged from Marina, lived for six weeks leading up to 11/22/63. For 30 bucks, Pat Hall—granddaughter of the house's 1963 owner, Gladys Johnson—will show you around and tell you stories. It's her home now.

So, what would I find in the last residence of my tormentor's life? How would I feel communing one more time with the spirit of LHO?

The rooming house at 1026 North Beckley

Pat Hall, granddaugther of the 1963 owner of the rooming house where Oswald lived
for six weeks in the fall of 1963. Oswald watched TV and read newspapers in this room, she told me.

Red, white and blue bunting hangs from the porch at 1026 North Beckley, an 89-year-old, one-story brick house with a major 1963 vibe. The place seems small from the outside, but back then it included 18 rooms—six in the basement. Grandma Johnson rented rooms to single men—a large room cost 18 bucks a week, 12 for a mid-size. A tiny room cost the The Smirker, a thrifty man with little means of support, 8 bucks a week. 

The Dallas rooming house where Oswald lived in the
fall of 1963. You can go inside ... for 30 bucks.
In the corner of the musty living room stands an ancient Silverstone television, just like the one there on that day. Like a scene from The Twilight Zone, it plays newscasts from Nov. 22, 1963. (Uncle Walter Cronkite, we sure miss you.) Above the television now sit more than a dozen assassination books, each signed by the author. 

In the living room, The Smirker watched the 10 o'clock evening news and read Grandma Johnson's newspapers—she usually purchased four, the two Dallas dailies, one from Fort Worth, and another from New York.  

On a coffee table rest original assassination newspapers, pieces torn off some by disrespectful souvenir hunters. On a wall hangs a framed photo of Hall's father, Harlon, who bears a passing resemblance to Elvis Presley. Steps away are photos of Hall's brothers, Hal and Mike. On a small table sits a framed copy of the president's "memorial certificate," an autopsy report for those into the macabre. "Shot by a high powered rifle," it says about JFK. 

So damn surreal.

Near the doorway and a sign for the rooming house Facebook page, generous visitors can stuff donations into the slot of a wooden box. 

A copy of the president's "memorial certificate." 
Business for Hall fluctuates from two or three appointments a week to two a day.  Other visitors come with guides from three area tour companies, who give Hall a cut of their profit to supplement the 69-year-old's Social Security and to pay for work on a house that needs TLC. On the 50th anniversary of the assassination in 2013, Hall did 42 tours by herself. Capitalism can be a beautiful thing.

Visitors come from all over—Australia, Russia, "several African countries and all of Europe," says Hall. Hell, even California.

As we sit on the couch—the same one The Smirker plopped down on in 1963—I wince as Hall talks about him. "We knew him as a sweet, kind compassionate man who loved children," says Hall, who was 11 in '63. She and her family called him "Mr. Lee"—he registered in the rooming house under a pseudonym, "O.H. Lee."

In the small front yard, Hall says, "Mr. Lee" played with Hal, 10 in 1963, and Mike, then 6. Both the boys are long gone now. "Grandma didn’t want them playing in the driveway because she was afraid they’d throw the ball and hit a window. It was perfectly fine to play in the front yard and roll the ball into the street," the lifelong Oak Cliff resident tells me, chuckling. 

The Texas Theatre, where Lee Harvey Oswald was
arrested by Dallas Police on Nov. 22, 1963.
On the day of the assassination, Hall was in school at James Bowie Elementary. A TV was stationed in the hallway that Friday so teachers could watch coverage of the president's visit. After Kennedy was shot, Hall sensed the mood change dramatically. Then the principal announced the president's death on the speaker system.

Blocks away, Hall's mother, Fay Puckett—who owned a photography studio on Jefferson Boulevard, across from the Texas Theatre—was horrified as she witnessed the arrest of "Mr. Lee" there. That's the man who played with my kids at Grandma’s rooming house! At home, Puckett unplugged the TV, refusing to turn it on until Sunday morning. 

Then Ruby murdered The Smirker that day. Pat, Hal, and Mike were watching. "My brothers went crazy," says Hall. 

“That’s Mr. Lee!" they cried. "Why did they shoot Mr. Lee?!”

The Room

Oswald lived in this room, no bigger than a large walk-in closet. That's me with my foot on
 the bed—with permission of the rooming house owner, of course. The frame
is from Oswald's bed; the mattress does not date to 1963.

"Can I see The Room?" I ask politely, interrupting another of Hall's stories.

Steps from the living room, there it is, his room, no bigger than a large walk-in closet. It was Grandma Johnson's favorite-she put plants in here. After the assassination, "Mr. Lee" returned to this tiny space to grab his jacket and revolver. Law enforcement picked this room apart nearly 58 years ago.

Pat Hall shows a replica Eisenhower jacket like the one
Oswald wore on Nov. 22, 1963. He used the armoire in
which the jacket is stored.
To my right stands a small armoire, the very one The Smirker used. Inside it, wrapped in plastic, hangs an Eisenhower jacket like the one "Mr. Lee" dumped behind the gas station nearby on his mad scramble to the Texas Theatre. 

And then there's the bed. The frame dates to 1963, but the mattress does not because "that would be too creepy for me,” Hall says. The Smirker slept here. When "Mr. Lee" went to visit Marina in Irving, Hall says she did.

To show the size of the room, many visitors stretch their arms and touch opposite walls and takes pics. Hall shoots a photo using my iPhone of me doing just that, with my feet planted on The Smirker's bed in a spike-the-football moment for me.

Sadly, this might be as close as I'll ever get to communing with the spirit of my tormentor. The best I can probably do is wonder what he was thinking as he lay in this room in 1963.

Why doesn't Marina love me any more?

Do I really need curtain rods for this place?

The rooming house phone from 1963 remains.
Lee Harvey Oswald used it, Pat Hall told me.
Should I really kill Kennedy?

Will my fellow plotters pick me up and take me to Mexico like they told me? 

Should I call them on that phone steps from my bed?

Is it worth haunting John Banks the rest of his life?

Clearly sympathetic toward "Mr. Lee," Hall doesn't believe he was an assassin but concedes The Smirker may have been in on the plot to kill the president. "He could have been a CIA operative," she says.

And then Hall tells another story.

One day her brothers were wrestling in the front yard while "Mr. Lee" sat on the porch. Hal had a temper and could fly off the handle. The Smirker separated the brawlers. "Boys," he said, according to Hall, "let me tell you something: You gotta care for and love each other.”

There are no words—well, except these:

Curses to you, Lee Harvey Oswald.

"Hello? Is this hell? May I speak to Lee Harvey Oswald?" The phone I hold—and wallpaper
behind me in the rooming house—date to 1963. (CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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Friday, September 03, 2021

Nashville Then & Now: Looking south toward Redoubt No. 5

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The Battle of Nashville Trust recently acquired digitized copies of a remarkable set of images taken of the battlefield in 1899 by Albert Kern, a Dayton, Ohio, attorney and photography hobbyist. Nashville was one of many battlefield stops Kern made between 1890 and 1910. It's neat to see these photos of what the battlefield may have looked like in 1864, because pitiless developers have devoured much of it in the past 30-40 years.  

Here's info on how to join the
Battle of Nashville Trust.
(I am on the board.)

While dodging traffic and drawing incredulous looks from drivers, I shot a "Now" version of Kern's 1899 image on Hillsboro Pike looking south toward Redoubt No. 5, one of five earthen-and-log forts constructed by John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee in the countryside south of Nashville prior to the Dec. 15-16, 1864, battle. Above is a rough but representative "Then & Now" showing the significant changes at the site over the past century. (Here's a larger version on my Then & Now blog.) 

For a spot-on "Now" version, according to a fellow Battle of Nashville Trust board member, I needed to stand at the McDonald's a little farther north on Hillsboro Pike. (Ugh, I hate their Big Macs.) Urban clutter from that spot would have prevented a decent "Now" shot. Besides, I had a construction nail in my shoe and desperately wanted to avoid tetanus. 

The historical marker
on Hillsboro Pike for
Redoubt No. 5.
According to a source, remains of Redoubt No. 5 may be found behind the condos complex on the hill in the distance. (Pssst: Don't tell Mrs. B. or my insurance agent, but months ago I shot a photo of the historical marker along Hillsboro Pike denoting Redoubt No. 5 while driving my car.)
There's not much good about this section of Hillsboro Pike—well, maybe except for the Shake Shack that serves an awesome strawberry shake topped with whipped cream 😅 and a Whole Foods market that sells a lot of swell but overpriced fruit and vegetables. As you can see below in the Google Street View, an apartment complex and a church occupy ground along the pike that once was a cornfield and pasture. 


I zoomed in on the "Then" image by Kern hoping to find a stray musket or perhaps an artillery shell left over from the battle. Alas, no relics were found. But I discovered neat details: a dry-stack wall (some  survive in the Nashville area); a small bridge over Sugartree Creek; and in the field at right, a residence and outbuildings. I'll check out deed/property records from the period. 

Dry-stack walls in Nashville
along Granny White Pike, similar
to what once lined Hillsboro Pike.
According to Jim Kay of the Battle of Nashville Trust, the property to the left of the pike was the Felix Compton farm—Colonel Bill Shy of the 20th Tennessee was taken there after he was killed nearby at Compton's Hill, now known as Shy's Hill, on Day 2 of the battle. (Smart people from the University of Vanderbilt recently used ground-penetrating radar to examine that site.) 

While I head over to Shake Shack, check out my posts on visits to what remains of Redoubts 3 and 4. And here's my Rambling column in Civil War Times magazine on Nashville hallowed ground today, what I like to call a "battlefield of the mind."

As always, let's keep history—and strawberry milkshakes topped with whipped cream—alive.

A cropped enlargment of Albert Kern's 1899 Kern photo shows dry-stack walls and a bridge
 on Hillsboro Pike. The historic road looks much different today.
A residence and outbuildings appear on the right side of Hillsboro Pike in this cropped enlargement
 of Albert Kern's 1899 image. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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Friday, August 27, 2021

Will historic 'Bachelor's Rest' farmhouse walls be saved?

In early April 1865, the Union Army used Truely Vaughan's farmhouse near Deatonville, Va.,
 as a makeshift hospital. Confederate prisoners may have been cared for here, too. 
(All photos courtesy of Michael Meehan)

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In early April 1865, as the battered but still deadly Army of Northern Virginia crept toward Appomattox Court House, the U.S. Army fought Robert E. Lee's rear guard near Truely Vaughan's farm outside Deatonville, Va. To care for their wounded, the Federals' III Division, II Corps established a makeshift hospital at the bachelor farmer’s modest, four-room house.  

The farmhouse, now in disrepair, dates
to the late 18th century.

For posterity or perhaps simply because they were bored, some of the 250 to 300 wounded at Vaughan’s farm—it was known during the war as “Bachelor’s Rest”—wrote their names or initials on the homestead's walls. One of them, John Shivler of the 105th Pennsylvania, suffered from a ghastly, life-altering battle wound to his face. 

More than 155 years after the corporal left his mark in a house near Lee's final retreat route, his heart-rending story touched a Pennsylvania native with a deep interest in Civil War history and historic preservation.

“It’s almost like he has reached back in time—I really have affinity for this guy,” says Michael Meehan, who aims to preserve the scrawling in the farmhouse for future generations.

“Just walking into that room in the farmhouse and seeing that man’s name on the wall and you go, ‘Holy cow!’”  

Meehan—who grew up in Stewartstown, Pa., roughly 45 miles from Gettysburg, but now lives in Meherrin, Va.—must work fast. Victimized by nature, time, and neglect, Vaughan’s late-18th-century house has nearly deteriorated beyond repair. With the blessing of the farm’s current owner, who acquired the house and surrounding property in 2011, Meehan intends to remove the walls. But he needs the public's help, so he has established a GoFundMe Page to raise $3,500 to defray costs. Ultimately, Meehan and other local preservationists want to have the artifacts displayed in a museum.   

A view of the Virginia countryside from the farmhouse.

Besides Shivler, Meehan has identified three other soldiers who wrote on the farmhouse walls: Privates Luther Calkins and Cornelius Mahorn of Company K of the 105th Pennsylvania; and Corporal George McKechnie of Company I of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. With the aid Patrick Schroeder, the historian at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, and others, Meehan has researched the backgrounds of each soldier, with pension file documents providing rich details.

On April 6, 1865—three days before Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House—the 105th Pennsylvania fought Confederates near Deatonsville, a continuation of fighting at Saylor’s Creek. Among the regiment's 16 wounded that day were Shivler, Calkins, and Mahorn. 

Calkins suffered a wound in his left foot, between his second and third toe, with the bullet coming to rest near his ankle. “It must have been incredibly painful,” Meehan says. Less than a year earlier, he had suffered a wound in the right arm in brutal fighting at the Wilderness. After the war, he married, raised a family, and moved throughout the country. 

Meehan identified Mahorn by his initials on the wall, but the nature of the Pennsylvanian’s wounds and his background require more research. 

McKechnie, who battled dysentery in 1864, suffered a wound from a stray bullet in his left hand in support of a firing battery near Amelia Springs, Va. The bullet tore through his index finger and middle finger, exiting below the thumb. Following the war, McKechnie—who was probably in his late teens when he enlisted—returned to Maine.

Near his name, Private Luther Calkins of the 105th Pennsylvania may have drawn
 the illustration at lower left.
Severely wounded John Shivler of the 105th Pennsylvania wrote his name on the farmouse wall.

But it’s the story of Shivler, who served in the 105th Pennsylvania’s color guard, that moves Meehan most. 

After a bullet struck the corporal in the face, a 105th Pennsylvania comrade thought he was killed. As Shivler, who was 30 or 31, staggered to his feet, he was nearly trampled by a horse. Somehow, he made it to Vaughan's farmhouse, where his grievous wound was treated. Perhaps Vaughan, who remained on his farm during fighting in the area, walked through his house as Shivler and other Federal wounded lay in the cramped quarters. 

An illustration from John Shivler's pension file
depicts his April 1865 battlefield wound.
(Courtesy Michael Meehan)
In an era long before plastic surgeons,  Shivler endured with a terribly mangled face. After the war, the veteran married a widow named Maria and made a living as a tailor. But by 1902, he resided in an insane asylum in Mahoning Township, Pa. Nine years later, Shivler died at age 77 and was buried in a cemetery in South Philipsburg, Pa.

“This incident affected him forever,” says Meehan of the corporal's wounding, perhaps in a “grand charge” on earthworks near Deatonville. 

In addition to money, the removal of the  fragile walls requires expertise. Luckily for Meehan, his brother is a building contractor who will aid the effort. The plan is to cut studs from the walls, put plywood behind and Plexiglas in front of them, squeeze the Civil War treasure together “like a sandwich,” and remove the artifacts.

"I saw John Shivler wounded in the face," 105th Pennsylvania comrade Daniel Shomber
testified in an affidavit found in Shivler's pension file. "He fell and I thought was killed."
(Courtesy: Michael Meehan)

In the meantime, Meehan will continue to research the backgrounds of each of the ID’d soldiers as well as Truely Vaughan, who owned roughly 1,400 acres, 30 slaves and farmed tobacco, among other crops. Through ancestry.com, a genealogy site/rabbit hole, Meehan has even tracked down descendants of Calkins and McKechnie. The Maine soldier’s descendant was “absolutely stunned” when Meehan contacted her.

Meehan also will continue to research the fighting at Deatonville, the little-known scrap in the war's waning days. "We are still trying to lay out battle there because there are very sparse records on it," he says. Dozens of soldiers wounded from the battle may have been cared for on Vaughan's farm.

For Meehan, all this work is, well, a labor of love. (Forgive me, seventh-grade English teacher 😅) 

“I have been passionate about history since I went to Gettysburg when I was 6,” he tells me, "and I’ve been married to it ever since.”

John Shivler's grave in Philipsburg Cemetery in South Philipsburg, Pa.
(Find A Grave)

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Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Are there other Gettysburg stories like Amos Humiston's?

An enlargement of a CDV of 154th New York Sergeant Amos Humiston's children.
(Library of Congress)

Amos Humiston
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The heart-rending account of Amos Humiston, one of the Civil War's most famous casualties, touches many of us more than any other human-interest story from the Battle of Gettysburg. Carrying no identification, the 154th New York sergeant was found clutching an ambrotype of his three young children after suffering a mortal wound near John Kuhn’s Brick Yard, north of the town square, on July 1, 1863.

Thousands of carte-de-visites of the ambrotype were created and distributed in the hope someone would recognize the children and thus lead to the soldier’s name. The publicity campaign worked. Months after the battle, Humiston was identified by his widow, who learned of his fate after reading a detailed description of the photograph in a religious publication. (In 1999, Mark H. Dunkelman's definitive Humiston biography was published — the book was reprinted in 2020 by Gettysburg Publishing. Read a Q&A with Dunkelman on my blog here.)

In the aftermath of the three-day battle, other photographs — a torn portrait of a fiancée, a blood-spattered image in a captain’s stiff fingers, a baby’s likeness smeared with blood, and many others —were discovered among bodies, bibles, scraps of letters, clothing, and weaponry. In his book, The Lost Children of the Battlefield, G. Craig Caba details some of the photo finds.

Four years after the battle, a daguerreotype of a woman—in her early 20s with “dark hair, combed back and falling loosely over her shoulders”—was found inside a cartridge box near a soldier's remains. Presumably the image was of the soldier's wife or sweetheart. This story was originally reported Oct. 30, 1867, by the Gettysburg Star and Sentinel and subsequently picked up by other Pennsylvania newspapers (see newspaper clip in this post). 

"There was nothing to indicate the corps, division, regiment or name," the newspaper reported. "From the locality, it is presumed to be that of a Rebel soldier. The cartridge box was marked U.S., but many of these, captured during the war, were carried in the Rebel ranks."

The Star and Sentinel reported the image was in possession of M.J. Emory, a Pennsylvania College student.

What happened to the photograph? Was it ever identified? 

Do you know of similar stories involving photographs found on the battlefield?

I'm working on a story about two photographs found on the Gettysburg battlefield with fallen Confederates and could use your help. 

E-mail me at jbankstx@comcast.net if you know more.

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