Sunday, February 23, 2020

After a battlefield visit, my spirit lifted by best of humankind

My new friend Robert Burton, who fixed my flat.
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So I rambled on up from Nashville to rural Nancy, Kentucky, on Saturday morning for my first-ever visit to the Mill Springs battlefield, where Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer was killed on fog-enshrouded ridge on the morning of Jan. 19, 1862. My plan of attack was the usual: See everything — “Last Stand Hill,” the Zollicoffer monument, a Confederate hospital site, the ferry landing where Rebel boys disembarked on the Cumberland River. I’m a nooks-and-crannies guy, so I headed down farm lanes, curvy back roads and gravel pathways. Anywhere to breathe in a little history.

Well, somewhere along the way, my left front tire had a rude encounter with a rusty nail. At the beginning of the 2 1/2-hour drive back to Nashville, the tire light flickered. A quick inspection in a parking lot in a small town confirmed the worst. A flat. Damn.

The local tire store wasn’t open, so I stopped at the only car dealership in town, and that’s where I met Walter, a salesman who was about to close the place. He couldn’t fix the tire, he told me, but he knew who could. Walter placed a call to Robert, who arrived 20 minutes later.

My character meter flashed “Good People” moments after I met these guys. Robert popped on my spare, then filled it with air. I followed him to his service station eight miles down the road. At his humble place of business, Robert jumped from story to story as fast as he and his son fixed my tire. Robert is battling cancer. Married five times. Has 11 kids. Lived in California and Georgia. Really likes the ladies.

In a flash, Robert & Co. had me back on the road back to Tennessee. His fee? No charge, he told me, “this is what we do.” I told Robert how deeply appreciative I was for what he and Walter did. We took a selfie and hugged.

Be well, my new friends. And, fellas, look for some fine Tennessee whiskey in the mail soon.


Enjoy the journey.

Always. 😁

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Tuesday, February 11, 2020

'Capitol' improvements: A brief history of Fortress Johnson

A section of the original column from the Tennessee State Capitol Building, which appears
 in the background. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
1863 photo by George Barnard of the Tennessee State Capitol Building in Nashville.
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Under supervision of Federal engineer James St. Clair Morton, a fort was constructed in the immediate area surrounding the Tennessee State Capitol building during the Union Army's occupation of Nashville. Stockades and earthen parapets were built, and Capitol Hill bristled with artillery. "Fortress Andrew Johnson," Morton called it in honor of Tennessee's wartime governor.

Union engineer James St. Clair Morton and Andrew Johnson,
the military governor of Tennessee from March 12, 1862 to
March 4, 1865. 
(Credits: Official and Illustrated War Record | Library of Congress)

Johnson, a longtime state politician, politely disapproved.

"As the skillful, talented and efficient officer, under whom the military defenses of Nashville have been so well and energetically constructed has, from his innate modesty, no doubt, declined affixing his own name to any of them," Johnson wrote Captain Morton, "I may be permitted to say that, while thankfully acknowledging the compliment implied, I doubt the propriety, under all the circumstances, of having my name bestowed upon this important stronghold."

Johnson suggested former U.S. presidents Andrew Jackson and James Polk -- both of whom lived in Tennessee most of their lives -- were more worthy of the honor. But the name for the fort stuck.

James St. Clair Morton's plan of defenses
on Capitol Hill in Nashville.
"... I feel more than flattered at the compliment conferred," wrote Johnson in correspondence with Morton, published in the local newspaper, "but a consciousness of duty performed is my present remuneration, and the only reward I ask in the future is the lowly inscription of my name with those who loved and toiled for the people."

After Nashville was occupied by the Federals in February 1862, Confederates never seriously threatened the capital. The fort's guns were only fired during drills and celebrations.

In March 1865, Johnson became vice president under Abraham Lincoln, and when the 16th president was assassinated a month later, he was elevated to president. In 1868, Johnson was impeached and later acquitted. St. Clair Morton, who supervised the construction of other forts in Nashville, was shot in the chest and killed at Petersburg, Va., on June 17, 1864.

During a massive renovation of the circa-1859 State Capitol Building in the 1950s, sections of the original columns were replaced. Four decades later, the beautifully carved limestone became a public art display on Capitol Hill.

Perhaps even Andrew Johnson would approve.

                           PANORAMA: Click at upper right for full-screen experience.

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-- The Nashville Daily Union, Oct. 29, 1862

Friday, January 31, 2020

'If we don't save it, it's gone': A relic hunt at Lunette Negley

A musket ball found at the site of Lunette Negley in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
PANORAMA: Developers have claimed the site of Lunette Negley.
(Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

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On a brisk, windy afternoon, the 21st century batters the 19th in another unequal fight in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Bulldozers and other earth movers grunt as they carve up and pound ground on the site of Lunette Negley at Fortress Rosecrans, the largest earthen fort of the Civil War. Near the construction zone, cars and trucks whoosh by on a busy four-lane road. In the distance, a huge crane hovers next to the skeletal frame of a high-rise.

Meanwhile, armed with metal detectors, history buffs Stan Hutson and David Jones aim to recover pieces of the past before the Civil War site is lost forever. Wearing a gray hoodie, blue jeans and work boots, Hutson sweeps his machine across the mostly barren ground. Clad in a light blue, long-sleeve shirt and camouflage pants, Jones pokes at the soil with a shovel. Twenty or so yards away, a mound of earth is all that remains of Lunette Negley’s once-imposing walls.

This isn’t the friends’ first relic hunt here. At the remains of a war-time fire pit, Hutson has found pieces of a mangled U.S. Federal cartridge box plate, a dozen Yankee eagle buttons, shards of period glass from an 1860 Drakes Plantation X Bitters bottle – even cow bones and hog tusks. Elsewhere on the well-hunted site, they have discovered Williams cleaner bullets, a Schenkl artillery shell fragment, a period watch cap, a bayonet, a butt plate to Enfield musket, and a piece of a harmonica, among other artifacts.

“If we don’t save it, it’s gone,” Hutson says of the finds.

Stan Hutson (left) and David Jones hunting the former site of  Lunette Negley.
All that remains of one of Lunette Negley's once-imposing walls.
Spurred by Army of the Cumberland commander William Rosecrans, the Union Army began building the fort in the aftermath of the Battle of Stones River, fought near Murfreesboro Dec. 31, 1862-Jan. 2, 1863. The 42-year-old general considered the site ideal for stockpiling supplies for campaigns or as a strong fallback position in case the Federals were forced to retreat.

Union Major General William Rosecrans
(Library of Congress)
Fortress Rosecrans included eight lunettes, four redoubts, steam-powered sawmills, quartermaster depots, warehouses, magazines, and quarters for thousands of soldiers. Its 10- to 15-foot earthen walls were fronted by a 10-foot ditch filled with sharpened stakes. The Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad line ran through the fort, which fed a ravenous Union Army war machine for its advances on Chattanooga in 1863, on Atlanta in 1864, and for William Sherman’s March to the Sea.

“Truly astounding,” wrote a contemporary observer about the skill and labor used to build Fortress Rosecrans. Among the thousands of construction workers who created the marvel were contrabands and soldiers in the Pioneer Brigade, an elite Michigan unit.

“Astonishing,” The National Tribune, a newspaper for Civil War veterans, called the fort in 1906, “… equal in magnitude and strength to those which defend great cities in Europe.”

In mushrooming Murfreesboro, where developers have wiped out hundreds of acres of Stones River battlefield outside the national park, the National Park Service protects only small slivers of what remains of Fortress Rosecrans.

The fort was abandoned soon after war; in recent years, the Lunette Negley site was a city dump, says Jones, a lifelong area resident. In 2019, the City of Murfreesboro opened a new fire department on the grounds. Across Medical City Parkway, a strip mall opened.

And now, sadly, we witness the coup de grace of what little remains.

A piece of a hoe discovered eight inches below the surface.
Brick from a fire pit.
Trigger guard, perhaps for an Austrian Lorenz musket like the one below.
Beep, beep, beep … beeeeeep, beeeeeep!”

Minutes into his relic hunt, the sound from Hutson’s Fisher F75 detector changes tone, an indication of metal in the deep-brown earth. He scoops out about two inches of soil with his shovel, reaches down, and picks up an unusually shaped object roughly 6 ½ inches long.

At the Murfreesboro, Tenn., construction site.
relic hunter Stan Hutson found a trigger guard
for a musket, perhaps part of
an Austrian Lorenz (above).
“I cannot believe this. Holy cow!” Hutson says. Minutes later, he’s still on a relic hunter high: “I’m gonna get cotton mouth.”

The 19th century has finally let go of a trigger guard for a musket, perhaps an Austrian Lorenz, used by soldiers on both sides in the Western Theater. Maybe the weapon belonged to a soldier who served under 75th Illinois Captain David M. Roberts, who commanded a battery at Lunette Negley. The officer’s artillery included two 6-pounders, a 3-inch gun, a 6-pounder James rifle field gun, and an 8-inch siege howitzer. With such impressive weaponry, the imposing fort was never seriously threatened by the enemy.

A close examination of the ground reveals an interesting mosaic: soil, stone, shards of opaque glass, period nails, and small porcelain chips from dishes. Some, if not all those artifacts, are from the Civil War era.

At the Lunette Negley fire pit site, Stan Hutson holds a large hook, perhaps used for cooking by soldiers.
A chunk of earth shows evidence of its use as a fire pit.
Less than a year ago, Jones found on the site a .54-caliber bullet mold, probably Confederate. “It's like Christmas every time I dig,” he says. “You don’t know what you’re going to get when you dig it up.” The day before the Battle of Stones River, Johnny Rebs camped on the ground before their assault on the Round Forest. Nearby, Lt. General Leonidas Polk, a Confederate corps commander, made his headquarters in the James house, which was destroyed by arson in 2003.

A porcelain button found on the surface.
Probing at the ground after a hit on his metal detector, Hutson uncovers another piece of metal. “What do you think this is?” he asks Jones. “A door handle?” He tosses it on a mound of dirt pushed aside by the construction crew. On the surface, Jones picks up a porcelain button, probably from a soldier’s blouse. Later, he uncovers a .69-caliber round ball.

At the remains of the fire pit, Hutson points out tell-tale burn marks in the soil from a log as well as ash. He finds a large, iron hook and speculates it was used by soldiers to hold a pot for cooking. Scattered about are 19th-century nails, bolts and bricks. He uncovers a piece of glass. “That probably hasn’t seen the light of day in 157 years,” he says, marveling at the mundane piece of history. Fifteen minutes later, he uncovers a piece of a hoe eight inches deep.

About an hour before dusk, diggers’ shadows dance on a bank of soil richly illuminated by the sun. Another relic hunt is nearly over. Time is rapidly running out, too, for another Civil War site in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Shadow play: A journalist and a digger go about their work.

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-- The National Tribune, July 12, 1906.
-- The Summit County Beacon, Akron, Ohio, Oct. 15, 1863.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Orchard Knob: Chattanooga's fabulous outdoor art gallery

Battery E Pennsylvania Volunteers (CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
PANORAMA: Monuments and cannon atop Orchard Knob.
(Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

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The best art gallery in Chattanooga, Tenn., may be on Orchard Knob, site of Ulysses Grant's headquarters during the Battle of Missionary Ridge. The bubble of earth in a working-class neighborhood is studded with magnificent Civil War monuments. On a brisk Saturday afternoon, I had this free outdoor gallery all to myself. About a mile away rises Missionary Ridge; its larger cousin, Lookout Mountain, rises in far distance. What a sight.

10th Michigan monument.
Close-up of bas-relief bronze plaque on 10th Michigan monument.
New York state monument.
27th Pennsylvania monument.
The Illinois monument and Missionary Ridge in the distance.
109th Pennsylvania monument
Monument to 5th and 20th Connecticut
                             PANORAMA: Monuments on west side of Orchard Knob.
                                      (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)
Battery E Pennsylvania Volunteers monument (foreground) and others on the west side of Orchard Knob.
Illinois monument with Lookout Mountain in the distance.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

A moment in time: Yankees at Washington Circle in April 1865

(Library of Congress)
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In April 1865, more than two dozen soldiers in Company I of the 9th Veterans Reserve Corps gathered for a photograph in Washington Circle in the nation's capital. Enlargements of the glass-plate image, believed to have been taken April 9, the day Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Va., are revealing. I spy two unshaven, young soldiers in the back row; a drummer boy grasping a pair of drum sticks and holding a large drum at far right; and in the background ...

... there's this impressive, bronze equestrian statue of George Washington. It was dedicated by President James Buchanan with great fanfare on February 22, 1860 -- Washington's birthday. Among the honored guests, according to the Washington Evening Star, were "surviving Officers and Soldiers of the Revolution, in uniform" as well as War of 1812 and Mexican War veterans.

At the far left of the image, we find this smartly attired officer, undoubtedly the commanding officer of this Veterans Reserve Corps unit. The soldier leans on an impressive dress sword, and on the front of his frock coat, he wears a badge or medal. Originally called the Invalid Corps, the VRC consisted of partially disabled or infirm soldiers who were designated to perform light duty. 

The soldiers wear gloves, probably an indication they have gathered for a ceremonial event.

And here's the youthful drummer boy. His eagle drum apparently is like this one auctioned by Heritage Auctions for $3,750 in December 2018, and here's a pair of Civil War drumsticks sold by The Horse Soldier of Gettysburg for $225. During the war, the Union Army contracted Noble & Cooley of Granville, Mass., and other firms to make military drums. Noble & Cooley is still in business today, although not at the original factory, which burned in 1889. (Here's a 2012 blog post on my visit there.)

In the left background, we find a soldier with large ears -- why so grumpy, sir? -- and a comrade sporting a beard any of these guys would appreciate.

A good view of their weapons of war.

March in this footwear? I think I'll pass.

And thanks to Google Street View, here's a October 2018 shot of the 1865 photograph site ... with a lot modern clutter, of course. The Washington statue, which cost the government $60,000, is still in the circle. Go here to tool around the image for yourself. Go here to download the 1865 image in jpeg and .tif formats from the Library of Congress Civil War photograph collection web site. Let me know what else you find ... or what I may have screwed up.

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Saturday, January 18, 2020

'Sad havoc': A reporter's 1882 visit to Atlanta-area battlefields

1864 view of Kennesaw Mountain battlefield from behind Confederate lines. 
(The Photographic History of The Civil War in Ten Volumes: Volume Three, The Decisive Battles)

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From his vantage point atop Kennesaw Mountain, newspaper reporter George Morgan had an awe-inspiring view in the fall of 1882: spires of Atlanta in the far distance to the south, a "network of red road-beds," brown fields and a sea of swaying trees. Most of the ground within sight of the Philadelphia Times correspondent was consecrated two decades earlier by the blood of thousands of soldiers from both sides during William Sherman's Atlanta Campaign.

At Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, 1864, Sherman's army suffered an estimated 3,000 casualties; Confederate commander Joseph Johnston's roughly 1,000. "Each acre of ground between us and New Hope's forests, indistinguishable at their distance of twenty miles, belongs to the battlefield," Morgan wrote.

Nearby, at Kolb's Farm, where the opposing forces fought on June 22, 1864, Morgan and his guide found bullet-scarred trees and remains of earthworks.

At New Hope Church, where Union General Joseph Hooker's XX Corps suffered heavy losses on May 25, 1864, the war-time church was a casualty, too.  "... even the foundation stones had been torn up [by soldiers]," Morgan recalled. ".... Every plank had been spirited, as though by Satan himself, clear away." But earthworks still stood in 1882 --  "as high as one's neck," the reporter wrote -- within a short distance of a new church built on the site.

On a bush-covered slope nearby, Morgan discovered bullets, a rusty canteen and an artillery shell. And in the "dark corner of a black-jack woods," his young guides directed him to a ghastly sight.

Here's Morgan's Page 1 story in the Philadelphia Times about his three-day visit to Kennesaw Mountain and other nearby Georgia battlefields -- one of a series of accounts of his trips to hallowed ground in the South in 1881-82. (Note: Morgan used an alternate spelling of Kennesaw throughout his story.)

Special Correspondent of The Times

MARIETTA, Ga., September 28 -- Jack Boxer gave a chirrup, held the lines taut so that his horses would prance impressively through Marietta's court house square and then reined the span out on the Kenesaw road, along which he sent them scurrying. The old guide was a thing to look at. With a stovepipe hat no less shiny than his eyes, and a swallow-tail coat of cloth, he seemed just to have sprung from the bandbox of polite plantation days.

"I'so much a-bleege, sah," he said, as when we had got into the country I held out a cigar; "I'se much a-bleege, but I nebber smokes befoah gemmen; no, sah, praise de Lawd I diden get fotch up like dese heah sassy town nigguhs. I was fotch up in a place like dat yo' see, sah, ober dare."

''That nice old house, with the man sitting under the oaks?"

"Yessah; dat man dare had mo'an six hunnered slabes, but de Yankees cotched 'im an' was gwine to hang 'im on one ob dem oaks. He passed fru de Red Sea, he did."

While Jack dwelt upon the war trials of the planter, who seemed to be a typical baron of the South's past, we moved along the grove of oaks and, trotting a mile beyond, drew sharply up at the base of the battle-scarred mountain for the summit of which we had set out.

A climb up Kenesaw

         GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Present-day view of Kennesaw Mountain terrain.

Kenesaw rises from the level land like an uneven dome. Its cap of stone touches the lower folds of the clouds and every side of the acclivity has a garb of green. So steep did the slope appear that I thought our ascent would be difficult, but the ride half way up was easy and in the climb that followed we stopped once only to catch our wind.

The entrance to the summit road is through a farm, which a darkey has blazed out near the foot of the eastern slope, the thrifty owner having paid for his land from the sale of timber, cut at the crest and hurled down the mountainside. Even among the stripped stalks of corn that stand in this little patch thus stolen from the wilds we struck heavy earthworks, rifle-pits and a continuous parapet that reaches up and over Kenesaw and along the crest of Little Kenesaw, encircling Marietta on the west. As we rode upward it was at the edge of this line, nor did we lose sight of it until we came to great piles of rocks on the summit.

Sights from Kenesaw's summit

       GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Present-day view from near Kennesaw Mountain summit.

That which was before us when we had clambered to the top of the mountain's tip-topmost boulder ought to have been a sight to brighten even the eye of the eagle which we happened to discover perched in the crotch of a dead tree within a stone's throw of our rocky outlook. But that bird of patriotic song seemed to be using the long-range spy-glasses, affixed by nature above his beak, rather in mousing out small creatures to pounce upon than in drawing thrills of delight from the grand panorama down on level earth -- the rivers shining in the sun, the network of red road-beds, the tops of trees swaying as waves of a sea, brown fields in the sedgy skirts of which one fancied he could see the rabbit coax his young to a frolic, and the many objects given strange beauty because thus looked upon in unaccustomed view.

Nor were these marked parts of the landscape long in our eyes. All the stretch of land from the rocks at our feet to the far sky-line in the west was the field of a whole month's combat, wherein a score of men fell between every two strokes of the clock --  a place of hot maneuvers with constant clash of arms, of continuous skirmish, of ceaseless crack of rifle and scream of shell. Each acre of ground between us and New Hope's forests, indistinguishable at their distance of twenty miles, belongs to the battlefield. Dim in the south rise the spires of Atlanta, as they appeared to [William] Sherman when he stood here gazing at the goal of his three grand armies, while just at the edge of Marietta, so near that we can count tombstones until  I tire, is a green hillside dotted with the graves of more than ten thousand Union dead.

Twenty miles of battleground

It was not long after sunrise the next day that we started on a long drive through this famous stretch of battle-fields. At Culp's Place [also known as Kolb's Farm] we found such evidences of the hot fight there as earthworks and chipped trees. Near towns as populous as Marietta war relics quickly disappear and even in timbered sections the darkeys have scraped up most of the lead.

At a debating society in Georgia not long ago a question before the members was: "Am fire more useful dan iron?" It is said that the champions of fire were about to carry the day when an old Solomon scattered them "as though with a bombshell by the remark: "Hole on dar, feller-citerzens! Ef hit haden' been furr iron de white fokes would 'er been lickin' de niggers yit!" And the old fellow might have added that if it had not been for the iron and lead left on the battle-fields many persons, white as well as black, living in their impoverished vicinities, would have fared worse than they did.

Endless lines of earthworks

While such uncanny things as the skull and cross-bones no longer bleach at Culp's nor by the side of the Dallas road to New Hope Church, whither we drove that day, they are found sometimes in ravines, as well as in untilled fields. Moreover, lines of earthworks extend for about twenty-five miles, from Kenesaw to Dallas and beyond.

When Sherman would outflank [Joseph] Johnston the Southern strategist straightway would settle down behind a new line. A witty girl once said that all men are like lobsters -- break a lobster's claw and another will sprout; break a man's heart on the back piazza at night, when the romantic stars look down, and it heals again for breakfast. So, too, Johnston could mend his heart, his claw and his earthworks. These fortifications were seen in their undiminished strength when, after passing the foothills of Lost Mountain, which, seeing that it has such a name, must be the Charlie Ross of rocks, we left the Dallas road and came out of the woods at New Hope Church.

Sad havoc at New Hope

Earthworks at New Hope Church in 1864.  Reporter George Morgan found well-preserved earthworks
 here  18 years later. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
It is likely that between 75,000 and 100,000 men, who were minute parts of the vast armies that confronted each other at this famous church, are yet living, and if they can recall what the county around looked like then, they have in mind a clear idea of what the place looks like now. Few changes have come about. After the battle the Baptists who had been accustomed to gather at the meeting house looked in vain for their church. Even the foundation stones had been torn up for use in the earthworks that still stand as high as one's neck within ten feet of the new building. Every plank had been spirited, as though by Satan himself, clear away. But the Christian fights a great fight.

The New Hope congregation met one Sunday on the spot where their church had stood. They knelt amid ashes, and who shall say that the prayer then sent up by the good preacher did not go higher than the stars! Getting up from their knees they built a house with oak limbs and cedar branches, and under the arbor they met for years. Now a small frame building, paid for this very year, is the church of New Hope. It has taken the congregation just eighteen years to recover from the blow that the myriad black imps, riding in Sherman's sulphur, gave it.

Confederate entrenchments at New Hope Church, Ga., in 1864.
(National Archives and Records Administration)

Queer things for a churchyard

It would be easy to dwell to the length of a column in The Times upon the battle-field objects that are within sound of the singing and the hallelujahs. Around the church are oak, pine and black-jack trees cut by bullets. A few paces from the church door are rifle-pits, now pawed deeper by the horses that bring their masters hither on Sundays, and just across the road is a fort of white clay soil and overgrown with smart-weed.

Confederate General Leonidas Polk was killed 
at Pine Mountain (Ga.) by a Federal artillery shell
on June 14, 1864.  
(Collections of the Alabama Department 
of Archives and History)
Not less notable is the graveyard, with some of the mounds housed in, through which runs the ever-present line of earthworks. The occupants of this graveyard were by no means as jolly as three boys whom I met a little later. While Boxer slept in the buggy the boys took me to the slope, now covered with bushes, where [Joseph] Hooker made his fierce charges, as well us to the place where the countercharges of the enemy occurred. We picked up bullets, found a shell, examined a rusty canteen, and visited a dark corner of a black-jack woods where the skeleton toes of a soldier stick from the sod.

Similar sights came up at Pickett's Mill, the other end of the battle-field, and having seen them Boxer whipped his horses into Dallas. In passing over the same ground on the following day, being then bound back to Kenesaw and Marietta by way of Gilgal Church, I noticed that the armies left Egyptian cloverseed at New Hope, as they did at Resaca. The New Hope farmer prizes the plant also, and he regards it as a sort of recompense made by Providence for the destruction of the church.

The return ride by Gilgal had in it little of interest, except a good view of Pine Mountain, halfway up the northern side of which we drove. If Boxer could have pointed out the spot where fell General [Leonidas] Polk, who goes down in history as a good officer as well as a Bishop in the Protestant Episcopal Church and a brother of a President of the United States, I should have gone to it, but Boxer was honest enough to confess that he did not know where to find the place. [Leonidas Polk was actually a second cousin of the 11th U.S. president.] One of the cannon balls sent by [George] Thomas killed the Fighting Bishop as he stood talking with [William J.] Hardee near the mountain top. So, too, when further along, we would have visited the place where General [Charles] Harker and Dan McCook got their death-wounds, but none save comrades may indicate where they lost their lives.

Confederate General William J. Hardee (left) was near Leonidas Polk when "The Fighting Bishop"
 was killed by Federal artillery. Union generals Charles Harker (middle) and Daniel McCook suffered
mortal wounds at Kennesaw Mountain in 1864. (Credits: LOC | Unknown | Ohio History Connection)

Red flowers in Kenesaw's Crest

Our second ascent of Kenesaw was made to get a good-bye glimpse of the ground across which we had come. On the road Boxer passed the time in telling me how Mr. V. J. Hames had cleared a tract of sixteen acres at an elevation of 1,800 feet and had succeeded in bringing up a thousand peach trees in the way they should grow. He showed me, moreover, after we had passed the orchard, millions of cypress vines, which plant was not known on the mountain before Johnston's men occupied it, and said that in July the whole crest is crimson with the little red cypress flower. In fact, I was so interested in this duplicate wonder of the clover story that not until we had gained the summit did I notice a thunder-storm swiftly approaching from the West. The sky had been dark with clouds all day, but the new cloud, bearing so close down upon us that it looked as though it would envelop our heads, was like an immense strip torn from the smutty curtains of Pluto's darkest chamber.

Heaven's artillery on Kenesaw

Union entrenchments in foreground, Kennesaw Mountain in the distance.
(The Photographic History of The Civil War in Ten Volumes: Volume Three, The Decisive Battles)
As one ear-splitting crack of God's own great guns came fast and hard upon another I could not help letting fancy fly to the days when the mock thunder of Sherman's cannon roared against this same stronghold. Then, throughout the hot time when Sherman had his hand on Johnston's throat here, the parapets flashed in lines of red, the earth shook under close recoil and battle-clouds in sulphurous folds swathed the green. But now forks and streaks and zig-zags of white fire dance among the rocks or fall in bolts to the lowlands, whence roll deafening booms reverberating up and down tho sky.

"See heah, honey," protested old Jack, edging up and pointing to the western slope, where the rain had begun to roar like the rush of a cataract, "ain't we gwine to git outen dis?"

"Oh, it'll pass over. You said there were many things yet to see up here."

"Bress yer soul, honey, dar ain't nuflin moah up heah -- we'se seed hit all," continued the old man, who had changed his tune from that of an hour before.

In spite of the wild storm about to burst I thought of one Jim Duke, a scapegrace darkey, known in Western Pennsylvania as the biggest rascal out of jail, who once likewise changed his tune in a manner entirely worthy of Falstaff. Duke, being a rogue himself, thought everyone else a rogue. Going into a store one day to buy a plug of tobacco, Duke pulled from his pocket a purse which contained a handful of dimes. As he held the purse upside down the clasp gave way and out dropped the coin in a silver shower, scattering from one end of the room to the other. Duke stood aghast for a second and then, fearing that the crowd present would pick the money up, shouted: "God-a-mitey, gentlemen, let's all be honest!"

So my guide Boxer, fearful lest his beaver would be ruined by the rain, or lest his hard coconut of a head would be split by one of the thunderbolts waltzing around, had changed his tune.

Chased down the mountain

But Boxer's plea really was not needed. The storm was on and it was time for our heels to do quick work. We left the crest, struck down the mountain and with rocks rolling after us made two-forty time for the half-way place where the horses were hitched. Boxer led the way. Neither Phipps nor Arabi could have made better time in their flight than we did down Kenesaw.

At a particularly near crack of the storm's whip Boxer would redouble his wild leaps, as though hit in the back by a full-grown thunderbolt. His stovepipe stuck on the back of his head like a tin cup on cucumber, his long coat-tails flapped at half-mast horizontally in the breeze and his whirling legs seemed at every stride to measure off enough earth for a circus ring.

At last we got to the buggy and as Boxer thrust his stovepipe and his cloth coat under the seat, taking the storm bareheaded and in his shirt-sleeves, while he unhitched he said: "Bress de Lawd, honey, dat was wuss'erna hornet's nest or a fight at a co'n shuckin' down on de ole Ocheco-bee."


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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

A death at Fort Fisher of a 'young man of unusual promise'

Robert Gillette of Hartford, paymaster aboard the U.S.S. Gettysburg, was killed
when the magazine exploded at Fort Fisher on Jan. 16, 1865. 
(Library of Congress | Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs)

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After Federal soldiers forced the surrender of the Confederate stronghold at Fort Fisher, Union sailors on ships in the Atlantic off the North Carolina coast climbed the rigging of their vessels, cheered wildly, and marveled at "a regular Fourth of July scene on the ocean."

Roman candles and rockets fired from Union ships lit up the night sky. Steam whistles blew.
Jubilant Federal soldiers rejoiced in the conquered fort.

The celebration of the enemy's surrender Jan. 15, 1865, was like few in the Union Navy had seen during the Civil War.

Images by famed Civil War photographer Timothy O'Sullivan 
show the magazine at Fort Fisher (top) and a cannon 
crippled during  the Union attack in January 1865.
 (Library of Congress collection)
The land-and-sea assault on the strategic fort at the mouth of the Camp Fear River near Wilmington -- the "Gibraltar of the South," it was often called -- was successful but not without a high cost.

"Glory forever!"  Robert Hooker Gillette, a paymaster aboard the U.S.S. Gettysburg, hurriedly wrote his parents back in Connecticut late that winter night. "Fort Fisher and the entrance to Wilmington are ours. Everything we have been fighting for they have just surrendered. ... Our losses are heavy and we have had a hard fight, both on land and sea, but the result is glorious."

Nearly 1,100 Union soldiers, marines and sailors were killed or wounded in the assault -- including Roswell Lamson, the captain of the Gettysburg, who suffered severe arm and shoulder injuries.

At daylight the next morning, Gillette and a party of officers slowly made their way ashore to inspect damage at the vast fort. As the 22-year-old from Hartford and two other officers stood on the parapet at about 8:20 a.m., a massive explosion -- "something louder than the boom of a 15-inch gun," according to a Baltimore American correspondent -- rocked the fort's magazine.

"A volume of smoke and sand rose fifty feet in the air, enveloping and hiding from view the whole of the immense work for four or five minutes," the New York Times reported on Jan. 19, 1865. "It was at once apparent that the magazine had exploded, and that it must have been accompanied with great loss of life." The explosion was so great, in fact, that it caused a large crater nearly 50 feet wide.

Although he was nearly 50 yards from the magazine, Gillette was struck by pieces of timber, thrown from the parapet and killed -- one of perhaps 200 men from both sides who died in the blast. His body was found covered in sand.

(A Confederate torpedo or black Union troops were originally suspected of causing the deadly explosion; however, an official inquiry determined that careless Federal soldiers, sailors and marines -- many of them drunk, firing their weapons and carrying torches in the magazine of the fort -- were to blame.)

Seaside view Gillette may have had as he approached Fort Fisher on Jan. 16, 1865. This image 
appeared in The Photographic History of The Civil War in Ten Volumes: Volume Five, 
Forts and Artillery in 1911.
Lamson was especially shocked by the death of Gillette, who was "as near and dear to me as a brother," the captain wrote to the parents of his dead paymaster later that day.

"The joy of victory is saddened by the loss of our comrades," Lamson noted in the letter to Francis and Elisabeth Gillette, "and there is no one whose fall is more generally mourned than that of your son, who was loved and respected throughout the fleet."

For Gillette, it was a tragic end to a remarkable, short life. From a prominent Connecticut family -- his Yale-educated father was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1854 -- Robert had accomplished plenty by the time he was 22. As a teenager, he sailed around the world aboard a merchant ship and visited China. He later traveled to California to visit his 23-year-old  brother, Frank, who died of consumption in Sacramento before his arrival. Robert brought the body back East to be buried.

Gillette's death shocked Roswell Lamson,
the captain of the U.S.S. Gettysburg.
Initially involved in recruiting troops at the start of the Civil War, Gillette aimed to secure a commission in the 16th Connecticut in July 1862. Instead, he was commissioned as captain in Company K of the 14th Connecticut on Sept. 6. But the young soldier didn't catch up with his regiment in Maryland until Sept. 18, one day after the Battle of Antietam.

Inexperienced as a leader of troops, Gillette was initially reluctant to take his position as captain.

"... I do not really know what to do," he wrote his parents on Sept. 17, 1862 from Middletown, Md., about 15 miles from Sharpsburg. "I shall not do anything dishonorable, but if it is so that I can I shall fight on my own hook, in the ranks, as a private, to-morrow, rather than take my place as captain. I should like a few hours with my men before going into action."

When he arrived at the battlefield, Gillette was shocked by what he saw.

"The whole field is covered with the dead and wounded, and it is an awful sight," he wrote his parents on Sept. 18.  "We are expecting every minute the firing will begin. The enemy's lines are close by, and all that we are waiting for on both sides is rest."

After the 14th Connecticut moved to Harpers Ferry days later, a fatigued Gillette became ill with a dangerous fever that shattered his health. Resigning his commission, he returned to Hartford. But he couldn't stay out the of service long. In 1863, he was appointed an assistant paymaster in the navy, serving aboard ships blockading the North Carolina coast. He later rose to paymaster, a position that entailed ensuring sailors were paid their wages but also included duties as Lamson's right-hand man.

Throughout his war experience, Gillette often wrote his parents, describing in vivid detail the toll the fighting took on soldiers. In his final letter home, he described about the assault on Fort Fisher.  "The officers and sailors who were landed to charge the Fort have been slaughtered like sheep," he wrote, "and the sand-beach in front is covered with their dead bodies. I am saddened by the loss of so many brave men, but the victory is glorious."

Close-up of the unusual gravestone for Robert Gillette in
Riverview Cemetery in Farmington, Conn.
Hours later, he too was dead.

Gillette was "a young man of unusual promise," the Hartford Press wrote in a lengthy obituary.

"He had good principles, and kept himself pure and upright," the newspaper said, "and his friends who were warmly drawn to him, by his affectionate and generous nature, saw no bad habits in him to overlook. His family have the heartfelt sympathy of the whole community." (9)

Robert Gillette's final resting place is in Riverview Cemetery in Farmington, Conn., a short distance from the Farmington River. His parents are buried to the right of Robert's gravestone, a block of marble topped by a slender, 5 1/2-foot stick of stone.

On the bottom right side of his tombstone are these words:

"I shall go into battle trusting in God that he will do by me what is best for us. All I hope is he will permit me to live. Soon all will be over and whatever is to be will have been."

Robert Gillette's tombstone (right) is next to the marker for his father, Francis, who well known for his
anti-slavery stance before and during the Civil War. Bottom: "I shall go into battle trusting in
God..." reads the inscription on the side of Gillette's tombstone. He was only 22 when he died.

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-- A Discourse Delivered January 29th, 1865 In Memory of Robert H. Gillette, Nathaniel J. Burton, 1865.
--  Hartford Press, Jan. 20, 1865
--  New York Times, Jan. 19, 1865