Saturday, February 24, 2018

Antietam in 1907: 'Sacred' damage, mass grave in 'lot yondah'

"The spot that probably has more interest of New York State veterans is Burnside's Bridge,"
 the Buffalo newspaper correspondent wrote in 1907. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
Like this blog on Facebook

Even in the summer of 1907 -- nearly 45 years after Antietam -- the effects of the Civil War battle were apparent in the village of Sharpsburg, Md., and in the immediate surrounding area. Assigned to write a feature about the battlefield that year, a Buffalo Evening News correspondent easily found artillery damage on the Dunker Church, bullet marks on Burnside Bridge and "great gaping apertures made in the gables" of houses in town, undoubtedly caused by Union cannon fire on Sept. 17, 1862.

A lengthy feature story about the Antietam battlefield appeared
 in the Buffalo Evening News on June 29, 1907. 
"It is not due to the shiftlessness on the part of the people that these have not been repaired. No, indeed!" the correspondent wrote about war damage in the village. "With them those shot holes are well nigh sacred and they have no other reasons for preserving them but that you and I and our children and children's children may see them when we come."

The reporter's most astonishing moment came the morning of his second day on the battlefield, when he and farm laborers gazed at a grisly find: a mass grave for six Confederate soldiers. The bodies were uncovered by the farm workers while plowing on the old David Smith farm. "Most remarkable of all," the reporter wrote in his "exclusive" feature story about the discovery, "their clothing and accoutrements, even to their shoes, were in a perfect state of preservation when uncovered but crumbled to dust when exposed to the air."

Undoubtedly eager to serve a readership that included many Civil War veterans, the Evening News  devoted nearly a full page to its Antietam account, which included seven photos and an illustration. The lengthy feature story didn't include a byline for the reporter, who made several errors. But before you declare it "fake news," give his work a read and decide for yourself:

(Written Exclusively for The News)

The inclination of the Federal and Confederate authorities to choose varying names to designate their great battles may have been justified at the time, but at this late date it is confusing, to say the least. Thus is is that when a man from the South speaks of "Sharpsburg" it is apt to drive his Northern brother to a long session with his history, where he fill find no mention of a battle of Sharpsburg. And when a Northener asks a Southern native to "direct him to the battle of Antietam," said native is apt to put him on a long and tortuous highway leading in the opposite direction. Occasionally there is "reason and rhyme" for this variance, but at other times there seems there was a mischievous desire to confuse posterity. For instance, I can see why Southern people would change the name of the battle of Cedar Mountain to the battle of Slaughter Mountain and get some little satisfaction out of it, for there, they maintain, "we-all give you-all a right smaht drubbin'!"

Beyond this single instance I have never found any possible excuse for this selection of varying names, beyond that given me by Gen. Alexander, the last of the Confederate historians, an explanation that, by the way, sounds entirely logical.

"It was the result of the difference in the people who fought the battles," said Gen. Alexander. "The men who composed the Northern army were, for the most part, men from the cities and were naturally attracted by the natural things about the battlefields. On the other hand, the men of the Confederacy were largely from the rural districts and natural things did not impress them much."

PANORAMA: Iconic Burnside Bridge across Antietam Creek. 
 (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

Hence, the Federals were attracted by the little stream -- Antietam Creek -- that crosses the battlefield and named the great struggle the Battle of Antietam. But their opponents, men from a country where the natural scenery far excelled that along the Antietam in point of beauty, were attracted by the village -- the only artificial thing thereabouts -- and named it the Battle of Sharpsburg.

"Sharpsburg," or "Antietam," it gives the same impression to the visitor, a beautiful rolling expanse, dotted with fertile farms and cosy, white-washed homes of humble standing, that it is difficult to reconcile with even a thought of war. The people are simple and just now enjoying a considerable degree of prosperity. Many of them, the older ones, suffered terribly during the campaign that McClellan "fought with a halter around his neck," but today manifest a good-natured toleration of the scars that surround them -- scars reminding them of the bitter old days of the past -- and have figuratively "ploughed around" and preserved them for posterity. So it is that scarce a house in Sharpsburg -- for few have been built since the war -- but that shows its bullet holes and, many of them, great gaping apertures made in the gables by cannon balls. It is not due to the shiftlessness on the part of the people that these have not been repaired. No, indeed! With them those shot holes are well nigh sacred and they have no other reasons for preserving them but that you and I and our children and children's children may see them when we come.

And these natives are taciturn when it comes to the war. They seem to be as much divided in sentiment today as when the Rebellion rolled all about them and their sentiment changed with the change of the battletide, for it was obviously unsafe to be of one mind when their homes were within range of guns manned by those opposite sentiments. Once launched on their story, however, and they describe vividly the scenes to which they were a party or saw with their own eyes; the magnificent charge across the cornfield, the stand made by our own New York soldiers at Burnside's Bridge, the piles of Confederate dead that were packed solid almost to the height of a man behind the Hagerstown Pike fence and along Bloody Lane after the battle.

Bloody Lane was "invariably associated the world over" with Antietam, the reporter noted in 1907.
Early in the morning of my second visit day on the Antietam field I was aroused by my host knocking at my door.

""Sorry, sah, to disturb you," said my host apologetically, "but the boys ah plowin' this mawnin' and they've just tunned up somethin' I reckon you-all will be interested in!"

Hurriedly dressing I met my host at the door and together we went down into "the lot yondah," where three strapping boys were doing the belated spring plowing. The plow lay turned in the furrow and the boys and the negroes on the place were gathered around a spot in the center of the field, the later more or less terrified by the sight before them. The plow point had uncovered a burial trench and the help had cleared away the dirt to the depth of a foot or more. There lay the remains of six soldiers just as they were placed, probably that rainy night after Antietam. Most remarkable of all, their clothing and accoutrements, even to their shoes, were in a perfect state of preservation when uncovered, but crumbled to dust when exposed to the air. One, a major, had been buried with his shoulder straps, sword and revolver across his breast. Later, after my return, I received a letter saying that the bodies have been identified as six members of an Alabama command. The identification was made by a man who belonged to the burial party and to whose attention the discovery of the bodies came. The officer was identified by his sword and his body was claimed by a brother now living in Savannah. It was impossible, of course, to identify the other five and their bones were sent to the Frederick Confederate Cemetery for burial in one grave. (See Postscript for more details.)

But from this incident it may be seen that the scars of Antietam, rather than diminishing, are increasing and for many, many years the ground will show its association with war in various ways.

THE 40-ACRE CORNFIELD: "It seems to be the popular conception that a battle is fought in a 10-acre lot," 
the Buffalo Evening News correspondent wrote.
You -- I am speaking to you men who helped fight Antietam -- probably have grim recollections of that march to Sharpsburg; vivid recollections of the tramp over narrow roads already congested with miles and miles of heavy army wagons. Today, if you were to revisit it, I fancy you would approach from the Frederick side, over a smooth running trolley line that might or might not have contributed to the success or failure had it been operating when Antietam was fought. Instead of thousands of comrades, silent before the impending storm, you would have for company a jolly old market woman with a basket of eggs and two live geese, as I had. But do not pass her lightly -- she is a rather remarkable character. She lives -- and has always lived -- in Hagerstown, and if you can engage her in conversation she can tell you a wonderful story of that terrible September day.

"I remember just as well, suh," she will continue. "I was sittin' in the kitchen an' all day we had heard the cannons 'tother side of the mountain an' knowed McClellan an' Lee was at it again! Late in the afternoon 'Liza -- she was our colored woman, suh -- come runnin' into the house shoutin', 'Fo de Lawd, missy, deys a-comin' up de road! Deys wagons an' wagons fill up to de top wif de sojers what's hurt! De blood am runnin' knee-high 'long de road I reckon!' Then we went into town to take care of the wounded. I remembah -- I was a gal, suh -- but I remembah of workin' ovah the wounded in the old warehouse and remembah bein' faint at the smell and sight of so much blood and sufferin' Finally, suh, I just shut my teeth hard an' said: 'If I faint I just hope somebody kicks me int' a corner an' leaves me stay there. After that I got along well enough with my work. I staid there two days helpin' t' dress the soldiers' wounds an' then I had t' give up. It was awful, suh. Tell yoush ladies up No'th I'm glad none o' them evah had t' do it!"

At Beaver Junction you must leave the trolley and the old lady with the live geese and the reminiscences for at that point the spur leading to Sharpsburg and Antietam leaves the Hagerstown trolley. In a ride of a half hour or an hour and a half, depending much on the activity of the fireman at the power house -- we reach the battlefield. There is always something ridiculously pathetic in the person, who, shunted off a train on a battlefield, says: "Well, where's the battlefield?" It seems to be the popular conception that a battle is fought in a 10-acre lot and that a snake fence marks the line where historic ground ceases and commonplace farm land begins. As a matter of fact, most of our battlefields cover more ground than one can see from a single point. So it is with the battlefield of Antietam -- a great rolling expanse which wanders beyond our vision for many miles.

BURNSIDE BRIDGE: In 1907, it was still scarred by war,  the Buffalo newspaper correspondent wrote.
Of the landmarks which veterans will remember, few have been obliterated. Thus far they have not formed any material barrier to the simple progress of these farming folk. The houses that stood there when the battle was fought are good enough now; the land that was put to corn then is still good enough for corn; the same old spring houses, the same bridges, the same lanes and pathways that were there when McClellan fought Lee, would be there for their use if McClellan should fight Lee again.

The soldier who fought at Antietam, should he revisit the scene today, would find little change in the village of Sharpsburg. Entering on the pike he would see to the right the Grove House where Lee made his headquarters when "Sharpsburg was in the Confederacy for a few minutes." It is still in its natural state, no remodeling has been done and only enough repairing performed to preserve it. In the accompanying picture it may be seen on the extreme right. On the left and not discernible in this picture is the Lutheran Church that figured so much in covering the sharpshooters.

The spot that probably has more interest of New York State veterans is Burnside's Bridge, or Sharpsburg Bridge as it was known at the time of the battle, for it was here they most distinguished themselves. During the progress of the fighting orders were received from Burnside to hold the bridge at all hazards -- this after the disastrous attempt of the 2nd Maryland and 6th New Hampshire regiments to cross it. Receiving Burnside's order General Sturgis selected the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania and directed them to not only hold the bridge, but cross it in the face of the enemy's fire. This was done and afforded one of the most magnificent spectacles war has ever shown. It is said two regiments started with a cheer and though under terrible fire crossed the bridge with a rush, planting the flag on the opposite ban amid the cheers of not only our own army but those of the enemy who could not but admire gallant impetuous dash. The same bridge is in use today and shows its scars in the shape of bullet marks.

               PANORAMA: Bloody Lane, where Confederate dead were "piled high."
                                      (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

A spot of greater historical interest because it is invariably associated the world over with the story of the battle is Bloody Lane. We have evidence of the terrible slaughter there -- photographs that show the dead piled high and far too horrible to print. Its appearance at the time of the battle and its appearance now forms and interesting contrast and is shown in pictures accompanying this article. The Government has spent considerable money macadamizing it and otherwise improving it. The picture showing Bloody Lane as it was when it became historic was secured by your correspondent from an old gentleman, a photographer of Hagerstown, who took the picture but a few days after the battle.

DUNKER CHURCH: In 1907, it too bore the marks of  the 1862 battle.
Another center of hard fighting during Antietam was the Dunker Church which stands out sharply in white outline against the green Westwood. A commendable effort has been made by the people to preserve it in its original form. Close inspection, however, will show traces of great holes in its sides torn by cannon balls, and innumerable chips taken out of the walls by the old-fashioned "minnies." The church is still in use, services being held, I believe, every other Sunday.

The "Little Mill" and its environments are practically the same today as in that September when thousands of blue and grey-coated men crowded into the natural "pocket" where it is located and fought practically a "battle royal" that had but few survivors. The bridge has been rebuilt upon the abutments of the old, wire fences replaced the old ones, but the same buildings stand today that gave cover to the sharpshooters then and the sharpshooters' presence is attested by thousands of scars in the old walls.

Everywhere the story is transcribed. One might walk through the Smoketown Hospital woods and there uncover dozens of interesting little relics of the day; from the position of the Union camp can still be seen the ruins of Antietam furnance; if you care to walk you may go past the toll house and the North Woods on the Hagerstown Pike, then cross Bridge No. 1 over the Antietam where Hooker took his men across and into action. All are in a good state of preservation.

   PANORAMA: The National Cemetery. (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

The sight which impresses one most with the horror of it all is the National Cemetery situated there. We speak of "thousands of men" and have but a vague understanding. When, however, we see them stretched out, row after row, all marked with little white stones, we more clearly comprehend the awful cost of war! In the Antietam Cemetery the burials number about 5000, soldiers from nineteen states. The greatest sacrifice was made by our State, burials of New York State men numbering 869 as against 644 from Pennsylvania, the State that furnished the next largest number for the sacrifice. Fully one half of the burials are of unknown men, only their regimental and corps affiliation being obtainable.

The Government has taken a most commendable part in improving the grounds, preserving the historic spots and in other ways saving the battlefield for posterity. Also division, regimental and company organizations and individuals have materially assisted by marking positions and erecting monuments to their dead. Notable among these monuments is that erected to the memory of the late lamented McKinley by his native State. Major McKinley fought at Antietam with the 23d Ohio. Others are the monuments to the 11th Ohio, 50th and 51st Pennsylvania Infantry, 9th New York Infantry, Confederate Artillery, the Roundheads, the National Soldiers' Monument erected by the Government; Maryland State Monument and beautiful shafts to General Mansfield and General Reno.

POSTSCRIPT: Although the bodies of six Confederate soldiers were indeed recovered near the Antietam battlefield in the spring of 1907, an Alabama soldier apparently was not among them.

According to a story published in the Frederick (Md.) News on May 23, 1907,  Frank Otto and Arthur Day discovered the bodies while plowing in an orchard on the old David Smith farm. (Click on report at right to enlarge.) The body identified by the Buffalo Evening News correspondent as an Alabama officer apparently was Colonel William T. Millican of the 15th Georgia, who was wounded and captured at Antietam. A lawyer, he  died on Smith's farm, where he was buried.

On Oct. 15, 1862, the Southern Watchman of Athens, Ga., published a eulogy for the 37-year-old officer. "While we offer to his memory the tribute required by a becoming custom,"  the report concluded, "our interest in the duty is deepened by our recollection of him as an honorable and useful man and a valued friend."

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Dunker Church hotel? In 1889, an awful idea for Antietam

1884 photograph of the Dunker Church at Antietam. (Mollus Collection)
Like this blog on Facebook

On Oct. 10, 1889, the Hagerstown (Md.) Torch and Light reported that "several New Yorkers" were negotiating to purchase the Dunker Church property with the intention of constructing a "large hotel" there on the Antietam battlefield. "The church building will not be disturbed," the newspaper reported, "but is to be preserved as a distinguishing mark of the battlefield."

Thankfully, this plan never got off the ground.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

'Secret' stash: What public doesn't see at Springfield Armory

This Enfield, part of the "secret" stash at the Springfield Armory, has bullet embedded 
near the trigger guard. (SEE VIDEO, PHOTO BELOW.)
A fraction of the collection of Civil War rifles in the Springfield Armory storage room.
Like this blog on Facebook

If you've been to the Springfield (Mass.) Armory National Historic Site, you probably were impressed with the Civil War weaponry. Hands-down my favorite exhibit there is the organ of Springfield muskets, certainly a work of art. But only about half of the Civil War weapons in the Armory's collection is on public display.

During an hour-long visit to the Armory recently, curator Alex MacKenzie and National Park Service ranger Susan Ashman showed off some of what's currently not on public view -- the "secret" stash, so to speak.  In a massive, temperature-controlled storage room,  rows of meticulously tagged Civil War weaponry are kept in huge cabinets. Look but don't touch were my orders from MacKenzie, who carefully handled the artifacts while wearing gloves. Here are some of my favorites from the "secret" stash:


The name "R.H. Weakley" -- perhaps a 42nd Tennessee private who was killed at the 
Battle of Franklin  -- is carved into the stock. (WATCH SHORT VIDEO ABOVE FOR MORE.)


Springfield Armory curator Alex MacKenzie holds one of the pikes fiery abolitionist John Brown intended
 to use for his slave insurrection in Harpers Ferry, Va. The pikes were made in Collinsville, Conn.


Manufactured in Paris, this circa-1855 big-game rifle reputedly was found among the belongings 
of Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy, when he was captured on May 10, 1865.
A close-up of the weapon shows the fine French craftsmanship. (READ MORE HERE.)
The rifle's maker -- F.P. Devisme -- is engraved on the barrel. The .74-caliber weapon was 
designed to fire exploding projectiles. It has been in the Springfield Armory collection since 1887.


Perhaps the sad demise of this Springfield musket was caused by a Union soldier who forgot 
to remove the tompion before he fired it.


For most of the Civil War weaponry in its collection,  such as these swords, the Armory does not 
have provenance. The 12 edged weapons may have been battlefield pickups during the war.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Flashback: 1976 images of house where Antietam officer died

A 1978 image of the Jacob A. Thomas house, where Union officer Wilder Dwight died on Sept. 19, 1862.
The post-war bay window seen here has crumbled, leaving a gaping hole. (See this post on my blog.)
                                   HOVER ON IMAGE TO SEE PRESENT-DAY VIEW
         In 1976, the second-floor porch, a feature of several area houses, was still intact.
                                   HOVER ON IMAGE TO SEE PRESENT-DAY VIEW
            The circa-1850 summer kitchen and farmhouse have deteriorated since 1976.

Like this blog on Facebook

In a little more than 48 hours since I hit the publish button, a post on the crumbling house where a Union officer died from his Antietam wounds has cracked the top-10 most popular entries on my blog. The story of 2nd Massachusetts lieutenant colonel Wilder Dwight -- who succumbed in an upstairs bedroom of the old Jacob A. Thomas house near Boonsboro, Md. -- has many tentacles.

2nd Massachusetts officer
Wilder Dwight died of his
Antietam wounds on Sept. 19, 1862,
in a bedroom of Jacob A. Thomas'
house near Boonsboro, Md.
Since publishing the piece, I've learned that, upon receiving news of his son's wounding, Dwight's father traveled south to the battlefield via train from Massachusetts with the father of 20th Massachusetts officer Oliver Wendell Holmes, who had suffered a neck wound at Antietam.  (He recovered -- Oliver became a U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1902.) William Dwight received news of his son's death when he reached Baltimore.

Also, a reader of the blog has shared with me a letter from a 2nd Massachusetts officer, dated Sept. 19, 1862, to Chaplain Alonzo Quint, who was with Dwight  when he died.  "My best love to the Col.," Colonel George Andrews wrote. Wilder, a Harvard-educated lawyer, died early that afternoon.

Unsurprisingly, many of you wonder why the house hasn't been preserved, and I'll aim to write about that in another post. In the meantime, I want to share these 1976 images of the circa-1850 Thomas house and circa-1870 barn on the property. The photographs were part of a 1978 Maryland Historical Trust  report, which noted that even then the farmstead was "deteriorating seriously."

Compare the images here to photos from my recent visit. Also, hover on the second and third images in this post to see a present-day view of the summer kitchen and farmhouse. (Note: Hover effect does not work on phone or tablet.) At the bottom of this post, find an interactive, present-day panorama of the old Thomas farmhouse and summer kitchen.

I'm keenly interested in telling the story of Wilder Dwight's death. If you have information to share, e-mail me here.

The summer kitchen in 1976. It has deteriorated significantly since this image was taken.
Another 1976 view of the front of the once-stately home on a knoll near Boonsboro, Md.
The fence seen in this 1976 image has long since been removed.
The circa-1870 barn underwent significant restoration in 1999, 23 years after this photo was taken.
       INTERACTIVE PANORAMA: Present-day view of  summer kitchen and farmhouse.
                                     (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Death spiral: A sad end for house where Antietam officer died

Boarded up and battered by time and nature, the circa-1850 Jacob A. Thomas house near Boonsboro, Md.
The summer kitchen and farmhouse have seen much better days.

Like this blog on Facebook

In its death throes, the circa-1850, red-brick house is cloaked in sadness.

As if scooped out by a massive hand, gaping holes expose the heart of the abandoned, two-story structure on a knoll just off a Maryland country road. Steps away, tall weeds grow from a pile of rubble -- all that remains of what once was a splendid bay window. An ancient, well-worn set of stone steps is an orphan due to the demise of small, wooden porch. Once an eye-catching accessory on an impressive house, a second-floor porch mirroring others in the area is nearly gone.

Because peeling green paint and graffiti on the front door aren't unwelcoming enough, a small sign on the weather-beaten, white transom warns would-be intruders: "Private Property Keep Out." Probably baked on the farmstead kiln long ago, bricks litter the sloping front yard. A stone's throw from the back door, a wooden privy and summer kitchen slowly lose their battle for life while yards away a beautifully restored, post-Civil War barn thrives.

The interior of the once-stately home may be seen through gaping holes.
A warning sign to trespassers on the weather-beaten and graffiti-marred front door.
Who trod on these well-worn -- and probably original -- steps?
A view of the once-splendid second-floor porch.
A close-up of outside brickwork reveals effects of time and neglect.
Time, nature and trespassers conspire to wreak havoc inside the Greek Revival-style house. Debris spills from a fireplace on the first floor -- one of five in the once-stately home. A brown doorknob, perhaps a victim of a vagrant, lies on the floor, forgotten. Boarded-up windows block a magnificent view of South Mountain.

Wary of falling through rotting wood, two visitors gingerly make their way upstairs, carefully stepping over more rubble. Bricks choke the hearth of a bedroom fireplace while steps away, a beam of light from the outside reveals walls painted deep blue in a small room. Nearby, a chasm created by the collapse of a section of the second floor prevents further exploration. 

Briefly alone upstairs, one of the visitors closes his eyes and says a silent prayer for a long-ago inhabitant of one of the bedrooms.

Debris litters the steps leading to the second floor.
Bricks and debris clutter a second-floor bedroom. Could this be where Wilder Dwight died?
Light streams into a second-floor bedroom, revealing the remains of a bed (left) near a wall.
In late-summer 1862, this was the home of Jacob and Sarah Thomas and their daughters, 23-year-old Annie and 17-year-old Eliza. In the vortex of the war in mid-September 1862, families such as the Thomases heard the boom of artillery and crackle of musketry as Union and Confederate armies clashed nearby at South Mountain and at Sharpsburg, near the banks of Antietam Creek.

Wounded at Antietam, Wilder Dwight 
died two days later in a bedroom at the
 Jacob A. Thomas house near Boonsboro, Md.
On the afternoon of September 18, war arrived on the doorstep of the "airy and comfortable" house of Mr.  Thomas, a wealthy farmer. A sense of urgency spurred a group of Massachusetts soldiers, who carried their grievously wounded commanding officer into one of the family's upstairs bedrooms. The lieutenant colonel, a Harvard-educated lawyer, had somehow endured a harrowing, three- or four-mile mile journey on a stretcher from the Antietam battlefield, where his left thigh had been shattered by a Rebel bullet. As he lay in agony near the Hagerstown Pike on the morning of September 17, he completed a note, stained with his blood, to his mother: "All is well with those that have faith."

As comrades lifted him into his bed at the Thomases' house, the soldier repeated, "Now, boys, steady and true! Steady and true!" Soon after soldiers left the bedroom, the wounded man summoned enough energy to tell them, "Wait a minute, boys; you've taken good care of me, and I thank you very much. God bless you!"

Thankfully, the beloved officer was in good hands -- unlike many of their neighbors, the Thomases were a staunch Union family. A devout man and member of the United Brethren Church, 46-year-old Jacob Thomas may have even tended to the spiritual needs of his important house guest.

Also shot in the left wrist, the officer -- who "seemed quiet" -- suffered intense pain in his wounded leg that afternoon. But 2nd Massachusetts Chaplain Alonzo Quint still expected he would live a few more days. Growing weaker, the officer sent a note to a surgeon. "They tell me," he said, "that I may recover. I do not believe it ... " He wondered if his brother, William, a colonel in the 70th New York, were near. Preparing for the worst, he also had a dispatch sent to his father back home in Brookline, Mass., urging him to quickly travel to the red-brick house near Boonsboro, Md.

Painting of Wilder Dwight, completed in 1863. 
(Harvard University Portrait Collection,
 Gift of the children of Mrs. William Dwight
 to Harvard College, 1884.)
The next morning, the ever-attentive Quint kept the blinds closed in the soldier's bedroom and allowed no one to enter. At about 10 a.m., the chaplain noticed his comrade was "considerably weaker." About two hours later, Quint was in the kitchen with Sarah Thomas, who was preparing a beef tea. Suddenly, the wounded soldier's servant alerted the chaplain, "The Colonel is wanting you quick, sir." Quint rushed to the bedroom and  "instantly saw a change" for the worse. Grabbing the wounded man's hand, he said a short prayer; the officer, who couldn't distinguish Quint's features, slowly moved his lips in prayer, too, concluding with an audible "Amen."

Pale and his eyes sunken, the lieutenant colonel slipped away at about 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 19, 1862. "Oh, my dear mother!" he said shortly before he died.

Wilder Dwight -- "the best man in the world," according to a 2nd Massachusetts comrade -- was only 29. He left behind his parents, William and Elizabeth; three brothers and scores of comrades and friends to mourn.

Art Williamson, the friendly owner of the old Jacob Thomas property, on the front steps
 of the crumbling farmhouse. (CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

Understandably, this Civil War story of the old house and the Massachusetts officer fascinates more than just its two visitors.

"If only I had known this history back then," says 76-year-old Art Williamson, who bought the Jacob Thomas house and surrounding property, including a barn, in 1986.

A peek inside the decrepit summer kitchen, 
which also pre-dates the Civil War.
A retired Bethlehem Steel employee, Williamson and his wife, Judy, originally intended to restore the farmhouse. A contractor gave the couple an estimate of what it would cost to make the place liveble and to modernize it. But the price tag was exorbitant, Williamson says, so Art and Judy moved instead into a large house they had built nearby on the property. Even as long ago as 1978, the homestead was on life support. "... deteriorated seriously in recent years," a Maryland Historical Trust report noted then about the Thomas farm and other area properties.

In 1999-2000, Williamson did sink a considerable sum into renovating the circa-1870 barn on the farmstead. Justifiably proud of that fabulous structure, he also enjoys showing visitors about his farm, where he raises llamas, emus, toy donkeys and an assortment of goats. "It's my funny farm," Williamson says with a chuckle. On a recent morning, the gregarious man flaps his arms to shoo away two pesky llamas while an inquisitive donkey nudges a visitor.

Some think the Thomas house is haunted, says Williamson, who regrets that wayward youths have used it for parties and other mischief. As visitors inspect the back of the house, he tells the story of a local man who used a first-floor room for much more ceremonial purposes. His fiancee relished old houses, and so one day the man took her to the Thomas house, where he had a bottle of wine, two glasses and an engagement ring placed on a small table. He proposed right there. "How 'bout that?" says Williamson.

The bedgraggled backyard outhouse.
As the visitors leave the "funny farm," they try to imagine the awful September day the mortally wounded Wilder Dwight was brought to this beautiful western Maryland countryside. And they also mull many questions, perhaps unanswerable:

Could the property somehow have been saved long ago?

In what room did the courageous 2nd Massachusetts officer die?

What was Dwight thinking as his life flickered out?

What was the reaction of the Thomas family upon his death?

What written record, if any, exists of the family's thoughts about that day?

As the visitors drive off, a small part of them also grieves. A remarkable house is dying, and a sliver of our history will soon die with it.

I thank my friend, longtime Washington County (Md.) resident Richard Clem, among the best Civil War detectives around, for his tremendous assistance on this story.

Donkeys and an emu approach a visitor on Art Williamson's "funny farm."

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


-- Dwight, Wilder and Dwight, Elizabeth Amelia, Life and Letters of Wilder Dwight, Lieut.-col. Second Mass. Inf. Vols, Boston, Ticknor and Fields, 1868.

-- Wilder Dwight battlefield letter to his mother, Sept. 17, 1862, Massachusetts Historical Society Collection.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Antietam Then & Now: Exploring site of 1891 Gould photo

Like this blog on Facebook

In September 1891, 10th Maine veteran John Mead Gould and his son, Oliver, traveled to Sharpsburg, Md., to photograph the Antietam battlefield. Keenly interested in documenting where his regiment fought, the 51-year-old former Maine officer had his son photograph sites in the East Woods, including where Union General Joseph Mansfield was mortally wounded. In all, the Goulds may have documented dozens of spots at Antietam, but only seven of the photographs have surfaced. In January, I was fortunate to acquire six of them.

War-time image of John Mead Gould
(Courtesy Nicholas Picerno)
On a beautiful February afternoon, Stephen Recker, author of Rare Images of Antietam, joined me, Antietam expert Tom Clemens, preeminent 10th Maine collector Nicholas Picerno and battlefield guide Gary Rohrer to match up five of my Gould images to present-day sites. (A sixth site, on private land, was inaccessible.)

For Civil War photo nerds, it was nirvana -- sort of like getting a double helping of your favorite dessert or watching the Patriots lose in the Super Bowl.  (Sorry, I couldn't help myself.)

Of the photographs we matched up, the image of the Smoketown Road and the unheralded Samuel Poffenberger "10-acre Cornfield" is my favorite. By using the slider, you may toggle from Gould's 1891 view to a present-day image that I shot there.

What's really cool about my six Gould images -- the cherry on top of the sundae, if you will -- is his detailed descriptions in his own handwriting on the reverse of each photograph. That's gold for a historian. Regarding the Smoketown Road image,  Gould wrote:
"The 10th Maine crossed the Smoketown Road (as well as I can tell) about where the small bush is growing to the right of the mulberry tree. We came to 'front' here east of the road, then advanced down & up the gentle slope & deployed about in the shadow of the tree on the extreme right."
In the video, Recker explains the significance of the Smoketown Road photograph -- a unique window into the state of  Antietam in 1891, four years before the War Department added avenues for tourists.

Stephen Recker, author of Rare Images of Antietam, shows the reverse (below closeup) of the
 framed Gould image of Smoketown Road on the site where the photo was taken on Sept. 21, 1891.
Veteran John Mead Gould's handwritten description of the Smoketown Road photograph.
 (Blogger's collection)

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Video: Visit to 16th Connecticut monument at Antietam

On a crisp February afternoon, I visited the 16th Connecticut monument in the 40-acre Cornfield at Antietam, where the Nutmeggers were routed on the afternoon of  Sept. 17, 1862, in their first battle of the war. Seldom-visited by battlefield tourists, this is my favorite spot on the field. My aim was to shoot a "Now" image of the photo William Tipton took the day the monument was dedicated on Oct. 11, 1894. I'll post the result soon.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Help ID veterans, ladies in 1894 Antietam monument image

AFTER DIGITALLY RESTORED: An image of 16th Connecticut veterans at the dedication of their
monument at the 40-acre Cornfield at Antietam on Oct. 11, 1894.
BEFORE RESTORATION: The original albumen is tattered and separated into two large pieces.
Like this blog on Facebook

On Oct. 11, 1894, 16th Connecticut veterans gathered in a rolling field at the south end of the Antietam battlefield for the dedication of a monument where the regiment had shed so much blood. A prominent inscription on the multi-colored granite obelisk told of the regiment's sacrifice in the notorious 40-Acre Cornfield on Sept. 17, 1862 -- the Nutmeggers' first battle of the war:

"Number engaged --779
Killed 43
Wounded 161
Total 204"

Post-war image of  Frank Cheney,
 the former 16th Connecticut 
lieutenant colonel.
The afternoon was marked by speeches, of course, as well as by the invocation by former 16th Connecticut chaplain Charles Dixon, who recalled "noble men whose hearts glowed and burned with patriotic fire." But the most poignant event that day may have been the reading of a poem by 60-year-old Nathan Mayer -- the regiment's former surgeon -- which brought many of his comrades to tears.

At least two photographers were there to document the solemn event. Before the dedication -- one of four such events that early-fall day at Antietam for Connecticut regiments -- an unknown photographer shot an image of the monument blanketed by a massive American flag. Afterward, Gettysburg-based photographer William Tipton took several images, including the previously unpublished photo seen at the top of this post. The tattered and torn original -- digitally restored with the magic of Photoshop -- was found in a box with other family items by Willa Biewald, who has generously allowed me to dig into its secrets. (Hat tip: Matt Reardon, executive director of New England Civil War Museum.)

Unfortunately, there are no identifications on the front or reverse for the 28 people shown in the 13- x 16-inch albumen. The white-bearded gentleman to the immediate right of the monument almost certainly is former 16th Connecticut Lt. Colonel Frank Cheney, who suffered a severe wound to his left arm at Antietam and was discharged from the army on Christmas Eve 1862. A 62-year-old wealthy businessman and a beloved figure in the regiment, he contributed a large sum to pay for the land where the 16th Connecticut monument was located.

Further research surely will yield the names of some of the other veterans, several of whom hold canes, as well as the women who appear to the right of the monument. Those ladies, probably wives of veterans, may have traveled from the village of Sharpsburg, Md., to the dedication site in the carriage seen in the left background. Thanks to a complete list of the "excursionists" published in October 1894, we have a starting point for our investigation into the names of all subjects who appear in the photograph.

We do know with 100 percent certainty the photograph was taken by Tipton, whose name appears near the bottom left of the image. A meticulous record-keeper, Tipton compiled a catalogue of images he shot at Gettysburg and elsewhere in 1894. But the 16th Connecticut monument dedication photograph surprisingly does not appear in his 40-page booklet.

Perhaps by sharing this post with readers we'll soon know much more about this old image taken in the 40-acre Cornfield.

In the left background, a carriage used by some of the "excursionists" to get to the remote field. 
Photographer William Tipton included his name near the bottom of the image.
Among those who attended the dedication were four women, probably wives of 16th Connecticut veterans.
A photograph number and date the image was taken appear near the bottom right of the albumen.


* Hover effect does not work on phones, tablets

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.