Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Death of 'Uncle John': Souvenirs and trashing Mrs. Lincoln

John Sedgwick (standing center) with his staff at the Farley plantation house 
at Brandy Station, Va., in 1864. (Library of Congress)
Like this blog on Facebook 

Decades after John Sedgwick was killed by a sharpshooter at Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 9, 1864, a witness to the death of the beloved Union major general wrote of gathering a souvenir of the tragic incident. John G. Fisher, then a lieutenant in the 14th New Jersey, claimed he cut down the bush upon which Sedgwick bled, let it dry in the sun, sliced off a five-inch section that formed a "Y" and carved into it the date "May 9." After the war, he kept it on his mantle, "a reminder of the cold-blooded manner in which our gallant commander was killed."

Another view of John Sedgwick at
Brandy Station, Va., in 1864
(Library of Congress)
Here are 10 other notes about the death of "Uncle John," the highest-ranking Union general to die during the war,  and the Sedgwick monument on the spot he was killed at Spotsylvania Courthouse:

Ulysses Grant's reaction: "I do not think I ever saw Grant so much moved as he was then, except once in Burlington, N.J., when we received a telegram from Mr. Stanton, telling of Mr. Lincoln's death."
--  Frederick Dent, Grant's aide-de-camp. who wrote he plucked a violet from the spot Sedgwick died.

The body man: Thomas Holmes, the man who embalmed Sedgwick in Washington, is known as the “Father of Modern Embalming.” He received a commission as a captain in the Army Medical Corps during the Civil War and was assigned to Washington. He resigned his commission when he realized the commercial possibilities of embalming. (He charged $100 a body.) He also embalmed President Lincoln's body.

"A singular pertinacity" After Sedgwick was embalmed, he was visited at Holmes' establishment on Pennsylvania Avenue by a "large number of persons," the Washington Star reported three days after the general's death. At least one of them was a souvenir hunter. "A lady exhibited a singular pertinacity," the newspaper reported,  "to procure a memento of the fallen hero by clipping two buttons from his coat."

Mary Lincoln
Simply appalled!  On May 25, 1864, the Richmond Dispatch trashed Mary Lincoln, wife of the president. The First Lady's offense? Her signed card attached to a bouquet of flowers lay on Sedgwick's breast during a viewing of the general's remains in New York. Wrote the newspaper:
"The Yankees love of notoriety is a passion which prevades all classes of Yankee society and is equally distributed among both sexes. It flourishes in situations where it could not be expected to exist -- it rages even in the presence of death -- it finds food for gratification in the very honors which are paid to those whom the Yankees are to extol as heroes. Is there a Southern woman so lost to propreity, so destitute of modesty, so entirely divested of that delicacy which should characterize the true lady, as to append her name to an offering so sacred as this ought to have been, upon an occassion so solemn?"
Major donation: Earlier this year, effects of the Sedgwick aide who escorted the general's body home to Cornwall Hollow, Conn., were donated to the Frederickburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Captain Richard F. Halsted's frock coat and kepi will eventually be displayed there, according to the Free-Lance Star of Fredericksburg, Va.

A final goodbye:  As the general's coffin was lowered into his grave in Cornwall Hollow six days after he was killed, "a peal of thunder like the roar of distant artillery reverberated along the heavens, sounding his requiem and the tired soldier rested," according to a Sedgwick family history.

THEN & NOW: Vets pose at John Sedgwick's monument at Spotsylvania Courthouse.
(Large format Then & Now photos here.)

"Detestable" roads: On May 12, 1887, thousands attended the dedication of the Sedgwick monument at the spot where the general was killed 23 years earlier. Getting there from Fredericksburg, about 12 miles away, was a chore for some of the attendees, who included 300 soldiers from Sedgwick's old VI Corps. "It was not the army's fault the roads in Virginia were detestable [during the war]," an account noted. "They were still detestable, and it was only after more than three hours of the roughest sort of journeying that Alsop's farm was reached."

Believe it or not: During their stay in the area for the dedication, 14th New Jersey veterans went searching for the spot they buried Sergeant Abram Black, a comrade killed at Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 13, 1864. Amazingly, according to this 1887 account, a farmer had plowed up the remains a week before their visit. Black's bones were shipped home and re-buried in a family plot.

VI Corps veterans at the dedication of the monument for John Sedgwick, their former commander.
(Sedgwick Memorial AssociationRife & Co, Philadelphia)

Samuel Pingree
"A dream of long ago": In his speech at the monument dedication, 3rd Vermont veteran Samuel Pingree, a Medal of Honor recipient and former Vermont governor, said::
"This fatal spot was the altar on which he made the last sacrifice that falls to the lot of a brave man to make -- the sacrifice of life that his government and ours might continue to hold a name and place among the commonwealths of the earth. Those scenes and tragic activities of our young lives, once so familiar and so real, are now beginning to seem like a dream of long ago."
"Less shaking of hands": After an effort by Confederate veterans was rebuffed to put a monument near The Bloody Angle at Gettysburg, a Virginia newspaper believed Southerners were slighted and should be less magnaminous toward their former enemies. Two days after the Sedgwick monument was dedicated, the Peninsula Enterprise of Accomac, Va., wrote:
"...We cannot refrain from expressing the opinion, that until our victors learn to be more generous, there should be less shaking hands 'over the bloody chasm,' and less of that gushing effusion of sentiment which our people express every time one who wore blue crosses Mason's and Dixon's line. A monument to General Sedgwick, a federal officer, has lately been erected at Spotssylvania C.H., to which no objection not only was ever made, but in the ceremonies attendant thereon many Confederates participated. Was the memory of such a man deserving of more respect than our own heroes? It is right to forgive our enemies, but until they show less enmity to us, perhaps we should be in the future less demonstrative in our affection for them, and less willing to honor the dead of those, however noble the record made in their lives, who are actuated by such hostile feelings for our dead heroes."
     THEN & NOW: Late-19th or early-20th century photo of vet at Sedgwick monument.
         (Emerging Civil War blog via Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania National Military Park.)

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


-- A Sedgwick Genealogy: Descendants of Deacon Benjamin Sedgwick", Page 102

-- Sedgwick Memorial Association; 6th Army Corps, Spottsylvania Court House, Va., May 11, 12 and 13, 1887, Dunlap & Clarke Printers, Philadelphia, 1887

Monday, March 27, 2017

2017 Power Tour: 'Paved paradise' and soldiers' graves

Graves of Confederate soldiers in Cross Keys Cemetery in the Shenandoah Valley.
Like this blog on Facebook

And so another Civil War Power Tour is complete. The five-day tally: More than 1,000 road miles traveled, 35 miles walked and hundreds of memories stored away after visits to hallowed ground from Fredericksburg to Antietam.

In Virginia alone, the Power Tour took me to 10 battlefields, not surprising given that state's Civil War-torn history. "What acre does not have blood on it in Virginia?" a longtime state resident said as we chatted on a chilly Sunday morning about 20 yards from the infamous Stone Wall in Fredericksburg.

Of course, the Tour is more about people than places. At a restaurant on Princess Anne Street in Fredericksburg, I had lunch with local journalist Clint Schemmer, an A+ student of Civil War history, in the vault of what used to be a bank. Abraham Lincoln briefly there visited in 1862. How cool is that? Less than a year ago, it re-opened as Foode.

26-year-old Francis Mobley's grave in the 
Confederate section of Mount Hebron Cemetery in
Winchester, Va. He was mortally wounded at Antietam.
In the middle of nowhere, a friendly woman named Charlie gave me directions to the obscure Mine Run battlefield, where George Meade wisely decided against attacking into the teeth of formidable Rebel defenses in late November 1863. In the Shenandoah Valley, where Stonewall Jackson burnished his reputation in 1862, the niece of controversial former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio took time out from sunning herself on her porch in the village of Port Republic to provide directions to the battlefield there.

And in Winchester, Va., which changed hands numerous times during the Civil War, I found that Johnny Reb and Billy Yank remain on opposite sides -- literally. Within sight of the national cemetery, where hundreds of Yankees are buried, lie the remains of more than 3,000 Southern soldiers in the Confederate section of Mount Hebron Cemetery.  In the Georgia section there, I finally found the small, slate-gray tombstone of Francis Mobley, a 26-year-old lieutenant in the 50th Georgia who was mortally wounded at Antietam. He died in Winchester less than a month later.

"You must not be uneasy about me for I will come as soon as I can and would if it was twelve hundred times twelve hundred (miles away)," Mobley wrote before Antietam to his wife, Rhoda, in rural Nashville, Ga. "I would walk it to come." We salute him, too. Let's keep his memory, and history, alive.

Here are highlights from Virginia from another memorable Civil War Power Tour:

Cross Keys Cemetery, final resting place for many Confederate soldiers. 
At Cross Keys, Va., in the heart of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, I drove the battlefield with the windows down, better to breathe in the smell from freshly manured fields. It was tremendous. Just off State Route 679, I stopped at Cross Keys Cemetery, one of the prettiest, little cemeteries you'll ever see. While cows grazed in a nearby field, puffy white clouds, a deep-blue sky and mountains in the distance served as a grand backdrop for a postcard-worthy scene. During a much-too-brief visit, I paid my respects to two Confederate soldiers buried there: 1st Maryland privates Edward Beatty and Thomas Berry, both of whom died in the Valley on June 6, 1862.

Heater House, a Federal hospital at Battle of Cedar Creek.
At Cedar Creek, I slithered under the wooden fence guarding the old Valley Pike and slowly walked down the long hill to the Heater house, a battlefield landmark, dodging clumps of cow patties along the way. I didn't mind at all. On Oct. 19, 1864, a wounded 6th Vermont captain named Thomas Kennedy was carried to Caroline and Solomon Heater's farmhouse, used as a makeshift hospital. When the area was overrun by Confederates, Caroline, a Union sympathizer, protected Kennedy until the Union army returned. The Heaters were a family divided: two sons served in the Rebel army and Solomon was an ardent supporter of the Confederacy. As the sun began to set beyond the hill near the old, white frame house, I lingered, closed my eyes and breathed in the history.

Bud Hall, Civil War preservationist extraordinaire, at his beloved Brandy Station battlefield.
At Brandy Station, I had the great fortune to tour that remarkable ground with Bud Hall, whose passion for the battlefield of rolling fields and patches of woods is unmatched. The next time you drive there on James Madison Highway, which cuts through Brandy Station, thank Hall that you see a battlefield instead of an auto racing track or vast sea of development. The 72-year-old former FBI agent is instrumental in helping preserve much of that historic land.

                    Meade Pyramid near spot where Union army briefly broke through.

On a chilly morning in Fredericksburg, I heard the crunch, crunch, crunch of gravel beneath my feet as I walked along the old Sunken Road at the base of Marye's Heights. Trying to imagine the scene of the Union army's assaults up the heights on Dec. 13, 1862, I looked past the infamous Stone Wall. Largely an open plain in 1862, it long ago had become a neighborhood of houses and businesses. "What inside a human being could compel him to charge here under fire?" I wondered once again.

Later, I huffed and puffed my way up the steep National Park Service path to the crest of Lee's Hill, which bristled with Rebel artillery during the battle. On the way down, I took the unpaved, and much steeper, route. Just because.

Nearby at the Slaughter Pen Farm, where the battle could have turned in the Union's favor, I marveled at the terrain: flat and mostly open and then a stretch of woods near railroad tracks. I stole a view of the Meade Pyramid near Prospect Hill, where, with a little fortune, the Yankees could have punched through the Confederate lines.

And I winced when I visited for the first time the spot where "Gallant" John Pelham, the 24-year-old artillery officer from Alabama, earned his nickname. Using the only cannon he had left, Pelham shelled the Union army's left flank, delaying its advance and buying time for Robert E. Lee's army. Today, Pelham's Corner is steps from the entrance of Family Dollar and a stone's throw from the parking lot of a CVS Pharmacy.

                 "The Coaling," where Union army set up defensive line on June 9, 1862.

At Port Republic, one of those often overlooked Civil War sites in the Valley, I was astonished two clerks in the convenience store and a woman in the town post office couldn't give me directions to the battlefield. "No one has ever asked that before," the post office worker said. As it turned out, "The Coaling," where the Federals set up artillery and a defensive line on June 9, 1862, is about three miles from the village and two miles from the convenience store. If I had been in the mood to use Twitter, I would have tweeted, "Port Republic. SAD."

Morton's Ford, where the Federals crossed the Rapidan on a misty, cold winter morning.
At Morton's Ford, Hall and I marveled at the most pristine battlefield you'll find anywhere. No markers. No people. Just open ground and woods. In a grove of trees where the Morton House once stood only scattered rocks hint at what was a focal point for the II Corps' attack on the cold, misty morning of Feb. 6, 1864. Ghosts of the 14th Connecticut probably are still peeved at the man who ordered the attack, intoxicated General Alexander Hays, who went into battle with "two or three extra fingers to his morning dram." The regiment suffered 115 casualties at Morton's Ford, nearly half the Union army's total. In another grove of trees near what's left of the old Morton house, the remains of the Morton family lie in a small, ancient cemetery. I took Hall's word for it. It may be a resting place for snakes, too.

                       Site of Stonewall Jackson's famous flank attack on May 2, 1863.

At Chancellorsville, my heart ached when I saw a development of houses had sprouted up like weeds on hallowed ground that once was bucolic farmland. "They have paved paradise and put up a parking lot," a friend of mine with deep roots in Spotsylvania County wrote me about development in the area.

Against my better judgment one afternoon, I briefly stood in the middle of super-busy State Route 3 to shoot present-day images for a friend of photos taken near the old Plank Road long ago. The next time I do that, he suggested, I should probably wear a Day-Glo vest.

Historian Clark Hall stands among the remains of a Union hut on Hansborough Ridge.
At Hansborough Ridge, near Stevensburg, Va., the ground cries out, "We were here!" From December 1863 until May 1864, thousands of Union soldiers made the ridge and surrounding area their home. Trench complexes and foundations of huts and fire pits dot the rugged landscape, silent reminders of the Civil War. After Hall and I reached the crest, we took in the spectacular view toward the Wilderness in the far distance. In early May 1864, soldiers who camped on Hansborough Ridge would become casualties there.

      On a brutally hot day, Stonewall Jackson whipped the Yankees at Cedar Mountain.

At Cedar Mountain, I was all alone. Again. In my only two visits to the battlefield near Culpeper, I have never seen another soul walking the ground. In August 1862, Timothy O'Sullivan captured an image of soldiers standing among graves of the fallen, an ominous-looking Cedar Mountain looming in the background. I stood near O'Sullivan's camera position, trying to envision those wooden grave markers and wondering who once was buried in that field.

James Savage's marker only steps from the grave of 5th Connecticut officer Henry Stone.
I placed a penny on the gravestone
of Henry Stone,
Lincoln side up.
At Culpeper National Cemetery, I drove across railroad tracks near the entrance, parked my car in the small circle and discovered an overwhelming scene: hundreds of pearl-white grave markers. My aim during the early-morning visit was to find the final resting place of Henry B, Stone, a 34-year-old lieutenant colonel in the 5th Connecticut who was severely wounded in the leg at Cedar Mountain. Captured on Aug. 9, 1862, he was sent to a hospital in Charlottesville, where he was treated kindly by his enemy.

After fellow POW James Savage of the 2nd Massachusetts died of his leg wound in Charlottesville on Oct. 22, 1862, Stone was given the major’s woolen garments to replenish his skimpy wardrobe. During his captivity, Stone wrote letters to his wife in Connecticut, but no family letters from home made it to him through Confederate lines, much to his regret. Too weak to write and near death in the winter of 1863, Stone dictated a note to the surgeon who helped care for him.

"I had hope to return home & bring up my family, the children being at that age now when they need a father’s care & attention,” Stone noted. "But there is a merciful Father in Heaven who has always watched over us, & in Him I now put my trust... " Two days later, on Jan. 19, 1863, Stone died in Charlottesville.

After a 20-minute search, I finally found Henry Stone's grave, engraved simply with his name, rank and state. Only 15 paces away is the marker for another soldier mortally wounded at Cedar Mountain: James Savage.

To honor each man, I put a penny on his marker.

Lincoln side up, of course.
5th Connecticut Lieutenant Colonel Henry Stone's grave in Culpeper (Va.) National Cemetery.

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

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Antietam Then & Now: Union graves at Burnside Bridge

In one of the more poignant images from the Civil War, a soldier poses near Burnside Bridge among the freshly dug graves of comrades who were killed or mortally wounded at the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. I shot the "Now" image from near the spot Alexander Gardner shot the original four days after the battle. In the highest-resolution tif version, available on the Library of Congress web site, you can even read wording on some of the wooden grave markers.

Click here to see a larger version of this "Then & Now." 
Click here for more Antietam Then & Now images.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Beyond Frederickburg's Stone Wall: Living on hallowed ground

A rebuilt section of the Stone Wall in Fredericksburg, Va.
        Corner of Mercer and Littlepage: The brick Stratton House has an infamous past. 

Like this blog on Facebook

On a chilly Sunday morning in March in Fredericksburg, Va.,  the sun tries in vain to punch through a leaden sky.

On Mercer Street, a flag of shamrocks hangs
 in celebration of of St. Patrick's Day.
The daily rythmn of life has begun in a neighborhood near the infamous Stone Wall and Marye's Heights.

A train whistle toots in the distance. An ambulance siren wails. The low rumble of traffic builds.

A man strains to control an unruly English Springer Spaniel on a short leash while he balances a cup of coffee in his free hand.

A small child's sled rests on a porch. A toppled basketball hoop lies on its side in a driveway, apparently forgotten. A chime rings in the gentle breeze, barely announcing its presence.

From a porch on a house on Littlepage Street, a large orange, white and green national flag of Ireland sways. Two days after St. Patrick's Day, a triangular flag emblazoned with three shamrocks barely flutters at a house nearby on Mercer Street.

In the tiny front yard of another nearby house, the words on a small, multicolored sign in a garden stand out: "Welcome. Life is Simply Amazing."

At the corner of Littlepage and Charlotte streets, the strains of a choir seep through the stained-glass windows from the service at Fairview Baptist Church, where a sign out front proclaims, "The Key to Heaven Was Hung On A Nail." The brick building was erected in 1925, long after the Battle of Fredericksburg rocked this town and the plain in front of Marye's Heights became a killing field.

Days after St. Patrick's Day, the national flag of Ireland sways from a house on Littlepage Street. 
Yards from the war-time Innis House near the Sunken Road, the present meets the past.
"I found the brick house packed with men," a Union officer recalled about the Stratton house, seen
in an image shot Sunday morning.  (CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
In 1862, the ground beyond Marye’s Heights and the four-foot-high stone wall bordering the old Telegraph Road was largely open plain. Yards from this sunken road, Martha Stephens, one of the more interesting Civil War-era characters in Fredericksburg, owned the tiny clapboard house where her common-law husband, John Innis, lived. On the corner of Littlepage and Mercer streets, 200 yards or so from Marye's Heights,  a man named Allen Stratton lived in a two-story brick house. Nearby, he had a wheelright shop. A few other residences and buildings dotted this landscape outside the prosperous town on the Rapphannock River.

On Dec. 13, 1862, wave after wave of Union soldiers crossed the open ground from the pillaged town of Fredericksburg to attack a well-protected, well-armed and highly motivated enemy behind the Stone Wall and on Marye's Heights just beyond it. The Yankees didn't stand a chance. Eight thousand casualties resulted. No Union soldier reached the Stone Wall. Among the dead and wounded were soldiers in Thomas Meagher's famed Irish Brigade, which went into battle by raising the old Irish cheer “Faugh-a-Bellagh” (“Clear the Way”).

A sign in a front yard on Mercer Street.
"The smoke lay so thick that we could not see the enemy, and I think they could not see us," a Union officer recalled, "but we were aware of the fact that somebody in our front was doing a great deal of shooting. I found the brick (Stratton) house packed with men; and behind it the dead and the living were as thick as they could be crowded together. The dead were rolled out for shelter, and the dead horses were used for breastworks. The plain thereabouts was dotted with our fallen."

When night fell and the temperature plummeted, it was clear the Confederates had secured a victory.

"... nearly 1,500 dead soldiers lay upon an area of two acres in front of our lines," James R. Hagood of the 1st North Carolina recalled. "Three or four times as many wounded howled in the darkness, a dismal concert for assistance which could not be rendered, or perished in the cold from neglect. The pickets of the enemy's army which were posted that night on the skirts of the town erected breastworks of the dead bodies and thus secured themselves from the bullets of the Confederate Sharpshooters."

"It was a night of dreadful suffering," the Union officer recalled. "Many died of wounds and exposure, and as fast as men died, they stiffened in the wintry air."

A temporary truce was called, and Union soldiers eventually buried their dead on the plain. More than 600 were interred in one trench, 130 in another.  After the war, many of those soldiers were re-buried in a terraced national cemetery on Marye's Heights, the very ground they aimed to conquer years earlier.

Beginning in the 1870s, development picked up on The Bloody Plain, and by the time the Fredericksburg battlefield became a national park in 1927, most of the area east of Marye's Heights was covered with houses. Today, it's a vibrant community, but one with a terrible past. Here are snapshots of life on the killing field:

Josh Cameli is house manager at the Sunken Well Tavern, 200 yards from the Sunken Road. 
Dressed in his Sunday best, 81-year-old Wright Campbell slowly walks to the service at Fairview Baptist Church.  A lifelong Virginia resident, he is keenly aware of  Civil War history in general and the Battle of Fredericksburg in particular. Small talk quickly leads to The Big Question: Is it eerie to live in the epicenter of death in war-torn Spotsylvania County?

"What acre does not have blood on it in Virginia?" he says, matter-of-factly. He's right, of course. No state suffered worse than Virginia did during the Civil War. He says residents of this neighborhood don't really think much about its deadly past.  Two women walking to the Baptist church agree. "It's just a nice place to live," says the one whose ex-husband's ancestors fought for the Confederacy.

In the Sunken Well Tavern at the corner of Littlepage and Hanover streets, 45-year-old manager Josh Cameli bounds from table to table. Business is brisk for breakfast.  "Fly" by Sugar Ray plays on the music system. Modern art hangs on the walls. A stuffed lynx and a fox stare at each other on a window shelf.

Well aware of the town's bloody history, Cameli lives in an apartment in a 19th-century building in Fredericksburg. It used to be a carriage house, he says, perhaps making it unlikely anything significant happened there.

"Every year when reenactors come through here," he says, nodding toward the Sunken Road only 200 yards away, "I tell them there is trouble up ahead." Occasionally, an ancestor of a soldier who fought in Fredericksburg stops by for a meal and conversation.

"An older gentlemen came in here one time and told me when he comes here, he walks on the bones of his ancestor," says Cameli, who has an appreciation for the town's history but doesn't dwell on the fact he works on a killing field.

Jacqueline Damm, shown near the Richard Kirkland monument on Marye's Heights, had a
ghostly encounter while she lived on Williams Street in Fredericksburg.
The view up Mercer Street. The Sunken Road is in the far distance. No Union soldier reached
the Stone Wall during the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Crossing the street near the Stratton house, where the bodies were piled high 154 years earlier, a 60-year-old man makes his way home during a morning stroll.

"I used to go up to the national cemetery on Marye's Heights when I was a kid and watch the sun rise," says the lifelong Fredericksburg resident. "Nobody bothered you but the ghosts." The notion of the neighborhood as a killing ground, he says, seems odd now. To him, it's just home.

A young woman walking her dog nearby concurs. She has lived in the neighborhood four years, just blocks from the Stone Wall. Although she found a Civil War-era bottle and a Union button while digging in her back yard, the former journalist rarely thinks about the neighborhood's deadly past.

Thirty-year-old Jacqueline Damm, who has lived near the Stone Wall for several years, appreciates the town's history, especially during walks with her dog and frequent runs through the neighborhood. But she did have a disturbing encounter while she lived in a building on William Street in Fredericksburg. Several times, she insists, an apparition of a woman appeared. "The air felt different," she says, "it felt electric."

Sixty-seven-year-old James Freeman, a longtime neighborhood resident, knows the feeling. While emptying his truck in the driveway of the Stratton House, he recounts stories from his childhood. When he was 5, he swears he saw under his bed the ghost of  Richard Kirkland, the South Carolina soldier who famously aided wounded Yankees near the Stone Wall. The look in his eyes suggests he wasn't kidding.

      Google Earth view of  neighborhood east of  Marye's Heights and the Sunken Road.

Several houses down Mercer Street from the Stratton House, 45-year-old James Tompkins sits on his small front porch, taking a drag on a cigarette.  He's peppered with questions about the city's war-time past.

 "That's about as far as they got," Tompkins speculates about the Union soldiers, pointing to the house next door. His small house is within sight of the Stone Wall, about 150 yards away.

Tompkins has a close association with the Civil War: An ancestor served in the Richmond Light Infantry Blues while another may have been the only commissioned female officer in the Confederate army, he says. "Captain" Sally Louisa Tompkins, promoted by Jefferson Davis for her service as a nurse, was a wealthy philanthropist who lived in Richmond.

A longtime relic hunter, Tompkins has even hunted in his "postage-stamp-sized" back yard, but has never found anything besides bits of glass. "I'd love to look under this foundation" for Civil War relics, he says of the post-war house he has lived in for four years. "Bet there is something there."

Over on the western side of Marye's Heights, Tompkins says he found 10- and 20-pound Parrott shells "just hanging in the roots of trees," possibly overshots from Union artillery on the other side of the Rapphannock River.

"Years ago, old-timers would find relics by just eyeballing them in the woods," he says. "But those guys wouldn't look for relics on the battlefields. That was hallowed ground. People kind of lost their sense of history now."

Not one to believe in ghosts, Tompkins has lived in the area his entire life. He appreciates the neighborhood and its history -- and thinks many of his neighbors do, too.

"It's real quiet here," he says. "There not a lot of drunk college kids around. It's a good place to live.

"And it sure is more quiet than it was in December 1862."

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


-- The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol. 32, Page 635, 1886.

-- Hagood, James R., Memoirs of the First South Carolina Regiment of Volunteer Infantry in the Confederate War for Independence from April 12, 1861 to April 10, 1865, manuscript, University of South Carolina Libraries Digital Collection.

-- Hat Tip: Mysteries and Conundrums: Exploring the Civil War-era landscape in the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania region.

-- Hat Tip: Clint Schemmer.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Finding 'Gallant' John Pelham's little corner of history

A granite marker, placed on the site early in the 20th century, notes Pelham's place in history.
                                     Check out Pelham's Corner in this Google Street View.

Major John Pelham was fatally wounded
at Kelly's Ford on March 17, 1863.

(Alabama Department of
 Archives and History)
Like this blog on Facebook

The site of one of the most audacious acts of the Civil War may be found on a sliver of land 20 yards from the entrance of Family Dollar and a stone's throw from the parking lot of a CVS Pharmacy. On the morning of Dec. 13, 1862, 24-year-old Major John Pelham, commanding J.E.B. Stuart's horse artillery, directed fire from a cannon here toward the left flank of the attacking Union army about a mile away, helping delay the Yankees' assault for nearly two hours during the Battle of Fredericksburg. ""It is glorious to see such courage in one so young," General Robert E. Lee famously said of the young officer, who has gone down in history at "The Gallant Pelham."

On the corner of Tidewater Trail and Benchmark Drive, a Virginia state historical sign, two wayside markers, a 1,700-pound replica Napoleon and a small, granite monument on a one-acre plot mark where Pelham gained valuable time for the Army of Northern Virginia.

If Pelham, a West Point-educated officer from Alabama, were to magically come back in time and direct cannon fire from the little corner today, he would face several challenges. Neither the customers in Family Dollar nor the parents of children in the nearby Creative Childcare on Tidewater Trail would be pleased. It certainly would not be good for the game of the golfers at Fredericksburg Country Club, a wayward cannon shot up the road. Any overshot by Pelham's gunners might crash into the John Deere store or the Wawa Market convenience store on Tidewater Trail, perhaps setting off a nasty explosion of the gas tanks. And Pelham's gunners must avoid aiming low at all costs. Any shot into the climate-controlled storage units across the road at Heated Warehouse would be very bad for that company's business.

If the Civil War Trust had not saved from development 208 acres at the nearby Slaughter Pen farm, just off Tidewater Trail, our immortal Pelham would have had additional targets to snuff out in 2017.

A Yankee Candle Outlet store perhaps?

                      An interactive panorama of the site. Ciick on upper right to expand.

A replica 12-pounder Napoleon was placed on Pelham's Corner in 2013.
A Virginia historical sign celebrates "The Gallant Pelham."
A 7-Eleven and Family Dollar do business now on Pelham's Corner.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Dunker Church, circa 1900: Where are West Woods?

Like this blog on Facebook

In this early-20th century view of the iconic Dunker Church on the Antietam battlefield, the 34th New York monument, dedicated on Sept. 17, 1902, appears at right. A monument to the 125th Pennsylvania joined it in September 1904. Obscured by trees, the small building seen behind the church is long gone.

But where are the infamous West Woods?

By early in the 20th century, the West Woods, scene of savage fight on the morning of Sept. 17, 1862, were largely cut down. Beginning in the mid-'90s, trees there were replanted as part of a landscape restoration plan by the National Park Service. The revealing photo above appears in A Brief History of the Thirty-fourth regiment, N.Y.S.V, published in 1903.

If I could go back in time, I wouldn't mind walking these fields, maybe kick at the ground when no one was looking to see what war relics I could uncover. I'd also walk past the 34th New York monument to see the ground where the 15th Massachusetts fought. Construction of the Rt. 65 bypass would come decades later, so the slope of the terrain toward the old Alfred Poffenberger farm would look just as it did during the battle.

Here's a video of a gum-chomping me -- the nuns in Catholic school would not approve -- walking through those replanted West Woods last September. (Whoops, the NPS misspelled General John Sedgwick's last name on the interpretive sign!)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Honoring General Thomas Meagher, 'quintessential Irishman'

Sculptor Michael Keropian crafts the clay bust of Union General Thomas Meagher, a step in
 the process of creating a bronze sculpture. On July 1, 2017,  the 150th anniversary of the
 Irishman's drowning, the sculpture will be permanently placed next to the grave of his wife.
Like this blog on Facebook

Exiled Irish hero, world traveler, journalist, lawyer, politician, Union officer, scalawag -- Thomas Francis Meagher wore many hats during his short, colorful and well-chronicled life.

At Antietam, Brigadier General Meagher's Irish Brigade suffered 60 percent casualties as it helped drive well-concealed Confederates from the Sunken Road. "Never were men in higher spirits," he wrote in his after-action report. "Never did men with such alacrity and generosity of heart press forward and encounter the perils of the battle-field. " During the battle, Meagher's horse was shot out from under him on William Roulette's farm. Later, he was dogged by stories that his fondness for drink led to less-than-optimal decision-making.

Weeks after the battle, an Irish newspaper reprinted a letter from a 63rd New York soldier that it said "unwittingly dashes to atoms ... the malicious and sneering tones of some journals and people as to the conduct of our young gallant fellow-citizen" at Antietam. "I never saw a man nor read of one," the soldier wrote, "that in my opinion surpasses Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher for true heroism."

Brigadier General Thomas Meagher. "Never
were men in higher spirits," he wrote of his
Irish Brigade soldiers' attack at Antietam.
At Fredericksburg, where the Irish Brigade suffered more than 500 casualties in the attack on the Stone Wall, Meagher wore a tailor-made green suit with a yellow silk scarf around his chest. Suffering from an ulcerated knee, he missed the ill-advised charge because he had gone back to town to fetch his horse.

In his journal, 5th New Hampshoire Colonel Edward Cross had a particularly scathing evaluation of Meagher at Fredericksburg:
"... let me record the opinion formed after more than one year's observations in the field -- that there is not in the United States, certainly not in the Army of the Potomac, another such consumate humbug, charlatan, imposters [sic] , pretending to be a soldier as Thos Francis Meagher! Nor do I believe him to be a brave man, since in every battle field he has been drunk and not with his Brigade. I venture the prediction that the drunkenness & incompetence of General Meagher will sooner or later be exposed."
After the war, Meagher (pronounced Mar) was named acting governor of Montana Territory, a position he held until he drowned on July 1, 1867, in the Missouri River on his way to Fort Benton to receive a shipment of arms for the Montana Militia. His body was never recovered, leading to conspiracy theories that he may have been murdered, perhaps by a Confederate veteran. Meagher's wife, Elizabeth, searched for weeks along river banks for her husband's remains before she finally headed back East.

Meagher's demise led to an outpouring of sympathetic coverage in newspapers from Montana to his native Ireland, where he never returned after his exile by the British in 1848.

"His death is greatly lamented," The New York Times noted about the 43-year-old veteran, "and the public demonstration in honor of his distinquished character are general."

"Gifted with talents of a high order, and endowed with a liberal education, his efforts on the rostrum or in the study were among the most brilliant of the day," The Montana Post gushed in black-bordered coverage five days after Meagher's death. "Rich in the lore of ancient days, a ripe scholar, an observing traveler; uniting with the quick wit of his native land a fervid fancy and ideality toned by the pathos of an exile's life, his forensics appeals were models of beauty and eloquence. In social life, he was courteous, amiable and hospitable, and a welcome guest in every circle. The intelligence of his untimely death spread a shadow of gloom over every heart, and the public tributes of respect are but the exponents of the sincerest sorrow by the people."

Clay bust of Meagher, clad in a Civil War officer's uniform. 
In Waterford, Ireland, where Meagher was born in 1823, the local newspaper devoted four columns of coverage to his death, even publishing text of an address the gifted orator gave there in a courthouse in 1848.

Near Bloody Lane at Antietam, Meagher and his Irish Brigade are remembered with a monument that was dedicated in 1997. Sporting a thick mustache and wavy hair, a determined-looking Meagher appears in bas-relief on the back. (Rub his nose for good luck the next time you're there.)

On July 1, 2017, the 150th anniversary of the death of the "Prince of Waterford," Meagher will be honored in New York, his adopted state. The County Waterford Association of New York and Waterford Hurling Club are raising money to place a massive head-and-shoulders bronze sculpture of the revered Irishman next to the grave of his wife in Brooklyn's historic Green-Wood Cemetery. (A centotaph for Meagher sits in the family plot there.)

"To me, he is the most quintessential Irishman ever produced by Waterford and one of the greatest produced by Ireland," association president Peter Albert McKay, 71, a third-generation Irishman told me over the phone. "He has been inspiration to me."

The association has contracted Michael Keropian to create the sculpture of Meagher, which will be symbolically "buried" in a ceremony at Green-Wood Cemetery on July 1. Timothy Egan, author of The Immortal Irishman, an acclaimed 2016 biography of Meagher, will be principal speaker at the event.

"It should be a wonderful moment for Ireland -- and for us." said McKay, who relishes talking about Meagher and his own Irish roots. McKay's ancestors were from Dunmore East, on Ireland's East Coast. "So close to England, so far from God," the still-practicing lawyer quipped, perhaps with a twinkle in his eye.

Keropian said the clay bust should be completed in the next week or so for McKay's review. Then he will make a rubber mold that will be used to create a wax cast. The wax is used for the "lost wax" bronze casting process, one of many steps before the general is ready for prime time. Keropian hopes to have the cast done by the end of April. A stone monument for the bronze bust to rest on, he said, will be made soon, too.

On Friday in New York City, McKay and many of his other fellow Irish will march in the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade. Naturally, Meagher won't be far from their hearts. Or, for that matter, from their heads -- literally.

Thomas Francis Meagher's mug will be emblazoned on their parade banner.

Check out Damian Shiels' Irish in the American Civil War blog for more on Meagher's Waterford roots.


-- The New York Times, July 8, 1867.
-- The Waterford News, Waterford, Ireland, Nov. 7, 1862, July 6, 1867.
-- United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.
-- Stand Firm and Fire Low: The Civil War Journal Writings of Colonel Edward Cross, Edited by Walter Holden, William E. Ross and Mark Travis, Lebanon, N.H., University of New Hampshire, 2003.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

'Quietly sunk away': Friend's tribute to Massachusetts private

At Second Manassas, Major General Fitz John Porter's V Corps, which included the
 18th Massachusetts,  charged across  this field to attack Confederates in the
Unfinished Railroad Cut. (Library of Congress)

        William Fuller may have been wounded at Unfinished Railroad Cut at Manassas.
                                      (Click at upper right for full-screen panorama.)

Like this blog on Facebook

In cold, clinical language, a Union surgeon described the condition of gunshot victim William D. Fuller, who had recently been admitted to Union Chapel Hospital in Washington.

"...circular wound of arm, four inches below acromion process of scapula; shoulder swollen," William H. Butler wrote shortly after the 18th Massachusetts private had arrived from the Second Manassas battlefield, the regiment's first major action of the war. "Complains of pain on motion. Some yellowish discoloration over outer part of scapula and tenderness on pressure. Applied cold water constantly which had the effect to reduce the swelling."

For the next several weeks, Butler documented his observations of his 30-year-old patient. On Sept. 3, 1862, a piece of a musket ball, "greatly misshaped and irregular," was removed from Fuller's shoulder. Two days later, another piece of the ball was removed from that wound, easing the pain of the shoemaker from Needham, Mass. Ten days later, pieces of small bone were found in his dressing, apparently caused by a "copious discharge."

On Sept. 18, Fuller, whose hospital diet included mutton and oyster broth, had an "anxious look" and a fever. A day later, the nervous soldier complained that the church hospital at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 20th Street was noisy. At night, Fuller, described as "very yellow," was "sleepy and dosy," muttering as he lay in a "heavy typhoid state." He talked "rather thick," Butler noted, "evidently the result of pus absorption."

Another view of Unfinished Railroad Cut, (Photo courtesy Shelly Liebler. More of her images here.)
        20th and Pennsylvania Avenue: 1862 site of Union Chapel Hospital in Washington.
              18th Massachusetts Private William Fuller died here on Sept. 25, 1862.

                                                             (Google Street View)

Butler's patient sipped wine, and Fuller's hemorrhaging wound was controlled by frequent changes of bandages. But early on Thursday morning, Sept. 25, 1862, the married father of four children died. Cause of death: pyemia. An autopsy later that day revealed Fuller had suffered from a fractured shoulder blade and gangrene, among other health issues.

Of course, Butler's detailed account of Fuller's treatment hardly presented a full picture of the life of the 18th Massachusetts private.

On Nov. 21, 1862, nearly two months after Fuller died in a hospital near the White House, an obituary for him appeared in The Liberator, a weekly Boston newspaper published by ardent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Information may have been supplied by Fuller's army comrade or a Needham resident, who wanted a friend to be remembered. We know him only by his initials -- E.S.A. Could he have been 18th Massachusetts Sergeant Eli Atwood Jr., who was killed at Fredericksburg, Va., a little less than two months later?

"Notices like the above are so sadly common at present that they hardly excite attention, much less provoke comment," The Liberator noted in a paragraph after the who, what, when and where of  the death of Fuller, an ardent abolitionist himself. "The individuality of a private soldier, in an army of a million of men, is so far lost, that but for the watchfulness of friends, heroism and cowardice would be buried in one common oblivion. In this instance, as in thousands of others, it is left to a friend's hand to snatch from forgetfulness the memory of a brave and good soldier."

The beginning of Fuller's eloquent obituary in The Liberator on Nov. 21, 1862.
As it appeared in The Liberator, here is the poignant snapshot of the life and death of William Fuller:

Mr. Fuller was one of the earliest to enlist under the first call for three years men. He was induced to take this step, not by the mere enthusiasm of the moment, but after careful consideration of the subject, and counsel with friends, he chose a soldier's life from a sense of duty. Though he left behind him a wife and four children, his high purpose never faltered from the first, His frequent letters were a mixture of womanly tenderness and manly resolve. He knew what he had to leave before he left; he understood what he was to undergo before he encountered it. No man had a juster comprehension of the sacrifice to be made, and no man made it with more thorough heartiness, or with more self-forgetful courage.

William Fuller's gravestone in Washington's
U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Cemetery, formerly
Military Asylum Cemetery.
(Edna Mode | Find A Grave)
He was from the very beginning a strenuous advocate of the policy of emancipation. So strong were his convictions on this subject, that some of his comrades charged him with being a disunionist. But he was not afraid either of the bullets of the enemy or the sneers of friends. He felt it his duty to urge the policy everywhere and always. "What are you all about at home," he writes, "that you do not work night and day to create a public sentiment on this point? As for me, I would willingly lay down my life, if by doing so I could give freedom to a single slave." It is a source of regret that he did not live long enough to see the inauguration of that glorious era, which he so earnestly hoped and prayed might dawn.

He fell on the fatal field of Bull Run, With a single comrade he was skirmishing on the edge of the battle. A rebel sharpshooter, behind a pile of railroad iron, was annoying the men, and he was determined to silence him, which, after a few shots, he succeeded in doing, and then turned his attention to a second, who, hidden behind a similar breastwork, flaunted a small secession flag every time he fired. Just as he was preparing to fire, a ball from his enemy pierced his lungs, and he fell. His comrade raised him, and was about to carry him from the field, but he refused, saying he wanted to see the fight out. Stretched on the field, he watched the shifting phases of the conflict, till, feeling exhausted from loss of blood, he tried to make his way to the rear. He had gone but a short distance when he was struck in the leg by a spent cannon ball and 2was so disabled that he was obliged to be carried from the field, He was put into an ambulance and sent to Alexandria, a distance of twenty-five miles, "the longest ride," he says, "I ever took," and thence to Washington, where , after two operations, the ball was at length removed from the shoulder, where it had lodged. He was supposed to be out of danger and doing well until a few hours before he died, when hemorrhage ensued, and he quietly sunk away into the sleep that knows no wakening.

In this hour, when bereavement is such a general heritage that men are in danger of forgetting all but their own private griefs, a friend who knew and loved the departed would lay this humble tribute on his distant grave. Brave soldier and true man, he realized the promise --

"To them who, by patient continuance in well-doing, seek for glory, honor, and immortality, eternal life"

Grantville, Oct. 28, 1862


Fuller was buried in Military Asylum Cemetery, now called U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Cemetery. His gravesite is Plot B 745.

Another view of  Fuller's gravestone (center) in U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Cemetery in Washington.
(Edna Mode | Find A Grave)

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


-- Buffalo Medical and Surgical Journal, Edited by Julius F. Miner, M.D., Buffalo: Joseph Warren & Co. Printers, 1863.
-- The Liberator, Boston, Mass., Nov. 21, 1862.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

'No end to the things': Fabulous Gettysburg bullet find in 1910

              Widow Lydia Leister's house, George Meade's headquarters at Gettysburg.
        HOVER OVER IMAGE | Then: Alexander Gardner, LOC | Now: Google Street View

Like this blog on Facebook

While digging up Taneytown Road near General George Meade's old Gettysburg headquarters, workers made an amazing find in the spring of 1910: hundreds of bullets from the Civil War. It was the first big relic find on the battlefield in years, according to a local newspaper.

"The plough was turning up the road at a lively rate when the first were seen," the Gettysburg Times reported on May 14, 1910. "A hurried search was made and heaps of thirty or forty were found. There seemed to be no end to the things and before the time for quitting work came almost 850 had been found."

Nothing to sneeze at: A bullet story from the
  Oakland Tribune on March 22, 1915.
The newspaper speculated the ammunition was discarded by soldiers in the Pennsylvania Reserves after they were issued new ammo, or the bullets may have simply fallen from an ammo crate like this one. Or perhaps the little lumps of lead were placed there by someone with an ulterior motive.

"Some have even been so unkind to intimate that they may have been planted," the Times noted, "to accommodate the wishes of the tourist trade for that kind of relic to take home."

In any case, the relics were quickly snapped up by road workers. "One man had half a bucket full of the leaden things," the newspaper noted, "while others managed to get large shares of the bullets."

My all-time favorite Gettysburg "bullet" find story -- pardon the awful pun -- is nothing to sneeze at. During the battle, 6th North Carolina Sergeant Calvin Cook was shot in the head. He survived, but the wound he suffered at Gettysburg troubled him for decades. In the winter of 1915, nearly 53 years after the battle, the veteran from Catawba County, N.C., had a sneezing fit.

"... he 'blew' his nose with uncommon vigor and out rolled his souvenir of the greatest battle of the Civil War," a March 1915 story in the Oakland Tribune  noted under the headline "Vet Sneezes Out Gettysburg Bullet." The story, originally reported in North Carolina newspapers, was picked up by other newspapers in the United States.

“He always thought that it was a piece of shell that struck and cut him,” the Hickory (N.C.) Mercury reported in February 1915. “He had no idea it was a ball. The wound soon seemed to get well. He did not realize there was anything in there, but he could not breathe through one of his nostrils. Saturday, January 23, he blew his nose and a small minnie ball fell out of it on the floor. "

Cook's nasal trouble disappeared when the "bullet" -- perhaps really a large piece of buckshot -- rolled out.

Believe it or not.

-- See large-format Then & Now of Meade's headquarters here.