Sunday, July 27, 2014

Harrison's Landing: Where Lincoln met McClellan

Click here for my interactive Antietam, Cedar Mountain, Chickamauga, Cold Harbor, Gettysburg, Harris Farm, Manassas, Malvern Hill, Salem Church and Spotsylvania Courthouse battlefield panoramas. 

                                       Click on image for full-screen interactive panorama.

When I saw this field for the first time two weeks ago, my initial reaction was "Dang, I'd give almost anything to scour that ground with a metal detector for three or four hours."  In July and August 1862, 140,000 Union troops camped here at Harrison's Landing, Va., site of George McClellan's infamous "change of base" after the Peninsula Campaign debacle that summer. President Lincoln conferred with the general at Harrison's Landing on July 8, 1862, seven days after the Union army's victory at nearby Malvern Hill, the last of the Seven Days' battles. (See my interactive Malvern Hill panoramas here.)

Lincoln reviews Union troops in July 1862 in this painting, part of a Civil War display in the basement 
of the Berkeley Plantation mansion. The mansion appears in the far right background of the painting.

No fan of the president's, McClellan supposedly gave Lincoln an undersized horse to make the tall chief executive look a little silly during a review of troops at Harrison's Landing. The Little Napoleon also handed Lincoln a letter that outlined his vision for how to conduct the war -- a vision that noted that "neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, territorial organization of states or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment."

Lincoln read the letter without comment, disappointing McClellan, who wrote to his wife that the president "really seems quite incapable of rising to the heights of the merits of the question & the magnitude of the crisis." (On Sept. 22, 1862, five days after the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, leading to the abolition of slavery in states that were still in rebellion.)

Marker at Harrison's Landing field in honor of Union drummer boy Willie Johnston.

It was also at Harrison's Landing that "Taps" may have been played for the first time by a private named Oliver Norton, although that's in some dispute, and where 11-year-old Willie Johnston, the only drummer boy to retain his instrument throughout the disastrous Union retreat during the Seven Days' battles, played for a division review on July 4, 1862. For his spunk and bravery, the lad in the 3rd Vermont was awarded the Medal of Honor by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on Sept. 16, 1863, when he was 13 -- the youngest person to be awarded the honor.

The Berkeley Plantation mansion was built in 1726.

By the time the Union army had arrived at Harrison's Landing, many soldiers were exhausted and ill  from continuous fighting in the grim, swampy land around Richmond

William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the U.S., was born
at Berkeley Plantation in 1773.

"The malaria from the borders of the Chickahominy and from the swamps throughout the Peninsula to which it had been so freely exposed now began to manifest its baneful effects upon the health of the men," Union army medical director Jonathan Letterman wrote. "In addition to this the troops, just previous to their arrival at this point, had been marching and fighting for seven days and nights in a country abounding in pestilential swamps and traversed by streams greatly swollen by the heavy rains, which made that region almost a Sarbonean bog."

 On July 1, 1862, Letterman established at hospital at the Berkeley Plantation mansion, also used by McClellan as a headquarters. Berkeley Plantation was the birthplace of Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the Declaration of  Independence, and his son, William Henry, the ninth U.S. president. The mansion --  "the only available building for the purpose in that vicinity," according to Letterman --  proved "wholly inadequate."

"Only a few wall tents could be obtained at that time with which to enlarge the capacity of the hospital," Letterman wrote. "No hospital tents could be procured."

                                       Click on image for full-screen interactive panorama.

While his troops staved off disaster at Malvern Hill, McClellan found comfort aboard the gunboat Galena in the James River, near Harrison's Landing, drawing the ire of some Army of the Potomac soldiers. Private Robert Sneden disgustingly noted that "McClellan was not on the ground (as usual) until the battle was over." 

Two years later, a political cartoonist used the incident to lampoon McClellan, Lincoln's Democratic opponent in the 1864 presidential election. "Fight on my brave soldiers and push the enemy to the wall," reads the thought bubble above the general, who eyes the fighting at Malvern Hill, "from this spanker boom your beloved general looks down upon you."

But not all soldiers found McClellan's behavior unsettling. Three days after Malvern Hill, on the Fourth of July, Elisha Hunt Rhodes, an officer in the 2nd Rhode Island, recalled meeting the general at Harrison's Landing:

This morning all the troops were put to work upon the line of forts that have been laid out. As I was going to the spring I met General McClellan who said good morning pleasantly and told our party that as soon as the forts were finished we should have rest. He took a drink of water from a canteen and lighted a cigar from one of the men's pipes. At Malvern Hill he rode in front of our Regiment and was loudly cheered. I have been down to the river. I rode the Adjutant's horse and enjoyed the sight of the vessels. Gun boats and transports are anchored in the stream. Rest is what we want now, and I hope we shall get it. I could sleep for a week. The weather is very hot, but we have moved our camp to a wood where we get the shade. This is a queer 4th of July, but we have not forgotten that it is our national birthday, and a salute has been fired. We expect to have something to eat before long. Soldiering is not fun, but duty keeps us in the ranks. Well, the war must end some time, and the Union will be restored. I wonder what our next move will be. I hope it will be more successful than our last.

                                            Click on image for full-screen inteactive panorama.

By mid-August 1862, the Union army had been transported north on the James River, its hopes to take Richmond and end the war that year over.  Although Interstate-95 is only miles away, I had the feeling I was in the middle of nowhere when I shot the image above from the shores of the river -- until I glanced to my right and saw a huge power plant in the distance.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Cold Harbor National Cemetery interactive panorama

                                Click on image above for a full-screen interactive panorama.

The Tomb of The Unknown Soldier at Cold Harbor National Cemetery was built in 1877.

Perhaps no Civil War photo depicts the horror of war better than the iconic, and horrific, image below of remains of soldiers on the Cold Harbor battlefield. It was taken less than a year after the war by John Reekie, a photographer employed by Alexander Gardner, and it shows African-American workers and soldiers disinterring remains from the scarred landscape. The uncropped version of the image may be viewed here on the Library of Congress web site.

Of the nearly 2,000 Civil War soldiers buried in Cold Harbor National Cemetery, more than 1,200 are unidentified, so it's possible that the remains of the soldiers in Reekie's image ended up there in trenches near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  "Near this stone," the inscription on the sarcophagus at the back of the cemetery reads, "rest the remains of 889 Union soldiers gathered from the battle fields of Mechanicsville, Savage-Station, Gaines-Mills, and the vicinity of Cold-Harbor." 

After the war, a massive federal effort sought the remains of Union soldiers in the South for reburial in newly established national cemeteries. But even well into the 20th century, woods and fields near the Cold Harbor battlefield gave up their dead. A relic hunter told me he had unearthed more than 70 skeletons, most likely all Civil War soldiers, on private land in the area.   

In this enlargement of a photo taken by John Reekie, the remains of at least five soldiers have been placed on a stretcher-like device ....

... and in this macabre enlargement of the same image, a shoe is still attached to the remains of a leg...

... while in yet another enlargement of the same image, three skulls and other bones appear with the remains of a soldier's clothes. (Click here for the original of this image on the Library of Congress web site.)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Cold Harbor interactive panoramas: Spirtual, frustrating

Click here for my interactive Antietam, Cedar Mountain, Chickamauga, Cold Harbor, Gettysburg, Harris Farm, Manassas, Malvern Hill, Salem Church and Spotsylvania Courthouse battlefield panoramas. 

          The 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery suffered more than 300 casualties here on June 1, 1864. 

It's 6:15 on a Monday morning, and as I stand on a bed of pine needles behind the remains of Rebel earthworks, I gaze across a field where vultures circled, circled, circled ... and then dived to pick at scores of Union dead and wounded more than 150 years ago. Even this early, the air is thick as hominy grits, and aside from a man in his early 70s chugging along a path, I'm the only soul in the national park.

Nothing much has changed at Cold Harbor battlefield since my first visit here three years ago. Towering pines stretch to the sky, giant gnats are as pesky as ever and the grass is still tall and unmowed. Trenches, which offered some protection to both armies during the Civil War, zig-zag through the woods, heaps of earth still packed fairly high in places. 

There's something spiritual about Cold Harbor early in the morning. Something frustrating, too.

I feel a little bit guilty when I kick at the sandy soil, hoping to uncover evidence of the terrible slaughter that occurred here in early June 1864. A piece of artillery shell or a button. Perhaps a bullet or a knapsack hook.

This sign denotes where the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery paused before making final, and futile, push toward Rebel lines.

When I walk in the footsteps of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, mostly men and boys from Litchfield County, I hope to find answers but never do. I wonder where
 Private Charles Hoyt of Company K took a bullet that he carried in his body until his death at 86 in 1932. 

German-born Edward Reicker, a private in Company E, lost an arm at Cold Harbor. After the war, he returned to his native country but came back to the U.S. in June 1891, telling a comrade he "wanted to get back to God's Country to be laid away." Less than a month later, he died in Bridgeport and was buried in New Britain, Conn. Another German, Private Augustus Hain of Company E, was shot through the chest at Cold Harbor and lay on the battlefield for hours, "his fallen trunk a breastwork" for retreating troops. 

Where were they wounded? Where did they suffer? What were they thinking? 

In their first major fighting of the Civil War, more than 300 "Heavies" were casualties at Cold Harbor. In a clearing, the names of the regiment's dead appear on a bronze plaque on a block of white granite -- the only monument to a regiment for either side on the battlefield. When I saw it for the first time after a walk through a strip of  woods in 2011, the hair on the back of my neck stood up.

It was here in this clearing, so tidy today, that the "shrieks and howls of more than 250 mangled men." according to 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery adjutant Theodore Vaill, "rose above the yells of triumphant rebels and the roar of their musketry." 

It's all quiet this morning, though. Frustratingly quiet.

                                                    A view from behind Rebel earthworks.

 To protect these historic treasures, visitors are discouraged from walking on remains of earthworks.

                                           Union dead and wounded lay in this field in June 1864.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Malvern Hill interactive panoramas: 'It was murder'

Rebels never got close to expertly placed Union artillery at the top of the Malvern Hill slope.

More than 152 years ago, Robert E. Lee attacked a position head-on that bristled with Union artillery ... and failed miserably. Troops mistakenly took a road leading away from the battlefield. A plan for a grand artillery bombardment never materialized. And Confederates, so successful in pushing the Union army away from Richmond in the previous Seven Days' battles, simply ran out of steam.

"It wasn't war; it was murder," Confederate general D.H. Hill famously lamented after the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862.

I suppose you could say that about a lot of the fighting during the Civil War.

Early Monday morning, I visited the best-preserved battlefield in Virginia for the third time. I left it with the same feeling I have after I walk in the footsteps of the 16th Connecticut at John Otto's cornfield at Antietam or stand where the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery charged at Cold Harbor:

How could they do this?


The Union army massed up to 36 cannon at the top of this plateau, which was only about 900 yards wide at its crest. Once Yankee cannoneers had silenced Rebel artillery, they turned their attention to masses of enemy infantry that moved up the gentle slope. (It's a misnomer to call it a hill.)

Their work was effective and deadly.

"The battle-field, surveyed through the cold rain of Wednesday morning, presented scenes too shocking to be dwelt on without anguish," the Richmond (Va.) Examiner reported three days after the battle. "The woods and the field ... covered with our dead, in all the degrees of violent mutilation."  The Rebels suffered more than 2 1/2 times the casualties (5,600 to 2,100) as the Union army at Malvern Hill.

Even Yankee gunboats anchored in the nearby James River joined the fight, although their effect may have proved more damaging to their own troops; three soldiers in the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery were mortally wounded by fire from the gunboats. 

"To add to the horrors, if not the dangers, of the battle, the enemy's gunboats, from their position at Curl's Neck, two and a half miles distant, poured on the field continued broadsides from their immense rifle guns," the Examiner reported. "Though it is questionable, as we have suggested, whether any serious loss was inflicted on us by the gunboats, the horrors of the fight were aggravated by the monster shells, which tore skrieking through the forests, and exploded with a concussion, which seemed to shake the solid earth itself. The moral effect on the Yankees of these terror-inspiring allies must have been very great; and in this, we believe, consisted their greatest damage to the army of the South."

The right of the Union line was anchored in front of the home of Nathaniel West. The current structure, seen by panning to the left, was built in the early 20th century on the foundation of the original house. Although his house survived the fighting, Farmer West's field were ruined.

Wrote the Examiner reporter afterward: 

Great numbers of horses were killed on both sides, and the sight of their disfigured carcasses and the stench proceeding from them added much to the loathsome horrors of the bloody field. The cornfields, but recently turned by the ploughshare, were furrowed and torn by the iron missiles. Thousands of round shot and unexploded shell lay upon the surface of the earth. Among the latter were many of the enormous shells thrown from the gunboats. They were eight inches in width by twenty-three in length. The ravages of these monsters were everywhere discernible through the forests. In some places long avenues were cut through the tree-tops, and here and there great trees, three and four feet in thickness, were burst open and split to very shreds.

The Union army anchored its left flank here on Malvern Cliffs, which really is a large hill rather than a cliff. In 1862, this area was largely treeless and provided Yankee artillery and infantry a superb field of fire. Rebels from Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Louisiana negotiated a series of ravines and ridges as they approached this high ground near the James River.

"The last hill we passed over, the Yankee canister killed our men in large numbers," wrote Private Asa Winn of the 3rd Georgia Infantry. "We ran up [to] the top of the hill and poured volleys into them and would run back under the hill and load. ... Every time we would go to the top to fire, someone would fall." Winn, according to this letter from a comrade, survived the battle "without a scratch."

2nd Louisiana Private Edwin Jemison was
born in Georgia. (Photo Library of Congress)

Among the Rebel casualties was Edwin Jemison, whose haunting image has been used in scores of  Civil War publications. His hands folded in front of him, the 2nd Louisiana private with the sad eyes and look of innocence was killed near here, likely a victim of Yankee artillery fire from the top of the slope. Only 17 years old, he reportedly was decapitated. 

None of the attacking Rebels, who used two small slave cabins in this field as cover, reached the line of Union artillery in the distance. (Remains of the historic trace to the cabins may be seen by panning to the right.)

"The long line of dead extended towards our right until lost in the woods and sloping ravines towards the river, and then extended forward, contracting from our left upon our center, until its apex reached halfway up [to] Crewe's quarters," wrote Major Joseph Brent. "Crewe's quarters" was a reference to the house owned by the farmer whose property a major portion of the battle was contested. (The Crew house was used as Union headquarters and a field hospital. The original building burned after the war and remains in private hands, although the property is targeted by the Civil War Trust.)

Lee's plan called for his artillery to bombard Union lines from two positions, including the one here, but the strategy went awry because the Rebels couldn't mass enough cannon at either spot. Accurate Union fire from the plateau 1,500 yards away had a lot to do with that.

Confederates poured from these these woods, moving up the slope of Malvern Hill to attack the Yankees, whose artillery often fired into the treetops.

"As we came fully in sight of the Federal batteries, not 400 yards in our front, the open space behind them became black with troops, thousands of whom issued from the woods in their rear," wrote Sergeant James J. Hutchinson of the 5th Alabama. "It was madness to go on, but our men moved steadily forward till within 250 yards, when the order was given to fire, and they immediately without orders, dropped to the ground and began loading and firing as fast as possible."

Depressions left for gravesites of two Rebel soldiers can still be seen in the woods across the road.

In the clearing at left, Confederates attacked the right flank of the Union army, whose position proved impregnable. Ruins of the Willis parsonage, which burned in 1988, are in the right background. Rebels formed on this property for their assault.

 "I must confess that I slept through most of the uproar of this battle -- slept the sleep of the thoroughly tired out," a Maine soldier wrote years later, "and I understand that all that could of the army did so, too."

Click here for my interactive Antietam, Cedar Mountain, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, Harris Farm, Manassas, Malvern Hill, Salem Church and Spotsylvania Courthouse battlefield panoramas.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Gaines' Mill panoramas: 'Like a swarm of angry bumblebees'

Click here for my interactive Antietam, Cedar Mountain, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, Harris Farm, Manassas, Salem Church and Spotsylvania Courthouse battlefield panoramas.

                                                 Union perspective at Battle of Gaines' Mill.

When Rebels charged out of these woods during the latter stages of the Battle of Gaines' Mill on June 27, 1862, they were hot on the heels of Federal troops, preventing nearby Yankee artillery from immediately blasting away with canister.

Lieutenant Charles Phillips witnessed the
rout of the Union army at Gaines' Mill.
 "The woods were full of smoke and bullets buzzed round our heads like a swarm of angry bumblebees," Lieutenant Charles Phillips of the 5th Massachusetts Light Artillery wrote after the battle. "... My horse had a bullet in the flank and one sergeant's horse lay dead on the ground. As yet no men were hit, but louder and louder roared the musketry, and thicker and thicker buzzed the bullets, and suddenly out poured our infantry in disorder, frightened and reckless -- they made an attempt to rally, rushing out right in front of the muzzles of our guns, which were right in front of the trees, but broke and retreated."

So overwhelming was the Rebel attack that Phillips was forced to abandon his cannon, galloping away on his wounded horse. When the animal was struck in the leg by an enemy volley, he tumbled to the ground and was stunned to see a Rebel flag planted on his cannon.

"By this time," Phillips wrote, "all was confusion, the road was filled with fugitives, the officers in vain trying to rally their men, and the thunder of artillery and musketry incessant."

Phillips, a 21-year-old Harvard law school graduate, reluctantly left behind his pocket testament, bridle, saddle and blanket to the Rebels. It could have been worse. In its defeat at Gaines Mill, the largest of the Seven Days' battles near Richmond, the Union army suffered 6,800 casualties.

                                          Another view of Gaines' Mill battlefield from Union perspective.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Author Q & A: Lesley Gordon's 'A Broken Regiment'

The 16th Connecticut was routed in John Otto's cornfield at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. The monument
to the regiment was dedicated on Oct. 8, 1894.

Inexplicably thrown into the fighting at a critical juncture at Antietam, its first battle of the war, the 16th Connecticut was routed -- a debacle that defined the regiment. Many 16th Connecticut soldiers skedaddled on Sept. 17, 1862, one deserting and fleeing all the way to England. Less than two years later, nearly the entire regiment was captured at Plymouth, N.C., and sent to a Rebel prison in Andersonville, Ga., where many were among the nearly 13,000 Union soldiers who died there. 

While much has been written about Antietam and Andersonville, comparatively little has been written about the hard-luck 16th Connecticut, which was recruited mainly from prosperous Hartford County communities such as Hartford, Avon, Bristol, Farmington and Glastonbury and elsewhere. Due out in November, Lesley Gordon's book, A Broken Regiment (Louisiana State University Press), aims to fill that void.  A professor of history at the University of Akron, Gordon spent 10 years researching the book, combing through diaries, old newspapers, soldiers' letters and a trove of documentation on the regiment at the Connecticut State Library in Hartford. 

"I knew I couldn’t write 1,000 individual biographies -- how could I say something fresh and different about this group of individuals?" wrote Gordon in explaining the lengthy process of researching and writing the book. "It took me a long time to figure that out." Gordon, who grew up in East Granby and Simsbury in Connecticut, recently took time out to answer my questions about A Broken Regiment.

Lesley Gordon's book, A Broken Regiment, will be available in November.
Let's get right to the title of the book, A Broken Regiment. Why did you call it that?

Gordon: The title comes from a quote -- a Rhode Island colonel referred to the 16th CV at Antietam as a “broken regiment,” in describing their rout and his own unit’s (the 4th RI’s) collapse.  I like how it also speaks to the 16th’s general state after the battle, where they struggled to replace their numbers and their morale.  They never really did; less than two years later they were captured at Plymouth and most spent months at Andersonville. There were moments of hope when members talked of “regeneration,” believing they had moved on from the debacle at Antietam, but they never really did recover. Also, the title underscores the notion of a “broken” narrative; many of these soldiers struggled to make sense of their experience and construct a familiar, in many ways, heroic story about themselves (as Civil War soldiers often did). But their experiences didn’t quite fit. There were just too many jagged edges.

The book took more than a decade to complete. Why did it take so long?

Gordon: There are a few reasons why this took me so long -- I became involved in other projects, including a CW textbook This Terrible War and editing two essay collections.  I also became editor of Civil War History.  But I also had so much material -- the George Q. Whitney papers at the Connecticut State Library, for example, are very large and chock full of rich materials. I read through as many soldiers’ letters and diaries as I could, as well as the major local newspapers, transcribing, sifting, and thinking for a long time about what to do with all this information.  It was a challenge for me after writing a biography (My first book, General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend). I knew I couldn’t write 1000 individual biographies -- how could I say something fresh and different about this group of individuals? It took me a long time to figure that out.

Author Lesley Gordon on the 16th Connecticut: 
 "There were moments of hope when members talked
 of  'regeneration,' believing they had moved on from 
the debacle at Antietam, but they never really did recover."
Much has been written, of course, about Antietam, the 16th Connecticut's first battle of the war. What new did you learn about the regiment's experience there?

Gordon: I already knew the basic contours of their experience -- that is what first drew me to their story (Stephen Sears’description of them in Landscape Turned Red).  What struck me as I dug deeper was how quickly their individual (and candid) accounts of panic, anxiety and sheer terror evolved into a story of heroism. You can see a transformation within a matter of weeks in soldiers’ letters and in newspaper accounts. I found that process fascinating.

Tragically, many soldiers in the regiment died at Andersonville, the most notorious Civil War prisoner of war camp. What story about the regiment's experience there stands out most?

Gordon: Probably the fact that several members accepted Confederate paroles to leave the pen. This is something denied or glossed over in the public record and in most published accounts -- but prisoners talked about it openly and bitterly in their diaries.  It was a shameful thing on one level to do such a thing; but it also became a simple matter of survival for others.

More than a dozen soldiers in the 16th Connecticut, including Lieutenant Colonel John Burnham and Private Bela Burr, ended up in insane asylums after the war. Can this be tied directly to their war experience?

Gordon: I can’t make a direct tie, but it has made me wonder.  I’ve been able to confirm 16 members classified as “insane.” It is important to note that in the mid-19th century, this term did not necessarily mean the same thing as it does today; nonetheless, given this unit’s unique and uneven service, especially their long imprisonment, I do think there may well be a connection.

Not all stories about the regiment involve tragedy. Are there any soldiers who either during the war or post-war could be called heroes?

16th Connecticut Lieutenant Colonel John Burnham
died in an insane asylum after the Civil War.
(Mollus Collection)
Gordon: Three in particular come to mind:  Color Corporal Ira Forbes, Lieutenant Bernard Blakeslee and Lieutenant Colonel John Burnham. Each of these men exhibited undeniable personal bravery in battle, a deep commitment to the war and a love for their regiment. Forbes in particular is credited with helping to save the regimental colors at Plymouth, which were torn and preserved by many members, even while imprisoned.  But their stores are not without complications:  Forbes wrote extensively about the unit (and individual members), after the war, yet he ended up alienating his closest friends and former comrades when he began expressing (and publishing in local newspapers) apologetic views toward the former Confederacy, especially on the issue of race; Blakeslee authored the only complete regimental history of the 16th, but stirred controversy because he angrily insisted that Confederates “massacred” African-Americans at Plymouth; and Lieutenant Colonel. Burnham drew anger and resentment when he sought to discipline the troops. Each of these men ended up committed and dying in the Hartford Insane Asylum.

Finally, what do you hope that the reader takes away from your book?

Gordon: The 16th Connecticut had a unique military service; yet they sought desperately to make it fit into a larger conventional narrative of gallant soldiers and glorious battles.  I hope readers will see how important those ideals were to mid-19th century Americans (and remain to present-day Americans); but also that much of what they endured was not that uncommon at all: their failings and disappointments, their anger and resentments were all part of the human experience, particularly in a war of this scope.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Malvern Hill: Tragic evidence of a long-ago war

Union artillery shelled these woods during the Battle of Malvern Hill.

One of the best-preserved Civil War battlefields, Malvern Hill, near Richmond, is always a treat to visit. During a stop there early this morning, it also served up a surprise: Just off a path in woods where Rebel troops formed and later sought shelter from Yankee artillery, two depressions in the ground, each about six feet long, are easily seen. According to a National Park Service marker, the depressions once probably were graves for Rebel soldiers, most likely casualties during the battle on July 1, 1862. After the war, the remains may have been disinterred and re-buried in a cemetery in Richmond. Union dead from the area were re-buried at the nearby Glendale National Cemetery.

Depressions in the woods at Malvern Hill probably held the remains of Rebel soldiers, according to the National Park Service.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Faces of the Civil War: 45th North Carolina Private James Hill

James H. Hill (right) shown with family members in this circa-1888 tintype.
(Photos courtesy Kim Hill Marley)

Descendants of Civil War soldiers often e-mail me, eager to tell the story about an ancestor. Here’s one sent by blog fan Kim Hill Marley, whose great-great grandfather served in the 45th North Carolina and was wounded in the arm at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.

“Not really a heroic war history,” she wrote, “but I'm sure he was a 22-year-old not ready for what he got himself into!”

James H. Hill's gravestone in the Rockingham County (N.C.) pasture
that he farmed long ago. 
Private James H. Hill was born in Rockingham County, N.C., where he was a farmer. He enlisted on Feb. 12, 1862, deserted six months later and returned to Company A of the 45th North Carolina  sometime before Nov. 1, 1862.  He left his company again and was court-martialed in early January 1863 for being absent without leave. The penalty: 25 days' hard labor with a ball and chain weighing 12 pounds attached to his left leg and seven days' solitary confinement on bread and water.

Besides Gettysburg, the 45th North Carolina  saw action in some of the fiercest battles of the war -- including Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862 and at Cold Harbor in June 1864 before it  surrendered with Lee’s Army at Appomattox. But the war for Hill was largely over by July 1864, when he was retired to the Invalid Corps, perhaps still plagued by his Gettysburg wound.

Hill  survived fierce fighting on July 1 at Gettysburg when his 600-man regiment suffered 63 killed and 156 wounded in fields west of town. Two days later, the regiment fought up Culp's Hill, and a few minutes after it took an abandoned line of breastworks, it opened fire on exposed Union soldiers.

"At that time almost every man of the regiment was firing into them as they passed the opening, certainly killing a great number," an after-battle report by 45th North Carolina Captain J.A. Hopkins noted. "At times it seemed as if whole masses of them would fall.  At one time this continued cross-fire kept up for about   five minutes, in which time we killed more than in all our fighting before and after."

It's unclear when Hill suffered his wound.

 “I picture in my dreams and thoughts that he was wounded at the Culp's Hill battle (at Gettysburg),” Marley wrote, “but will never know. His gravesite is on his old farm pasture. Wish I owned that land but can visit whenever I want at least.”

Hill was 65 when he died 13 days before Christmas in 1905. The United Daughters of the Confederacy placed a marker in his honor near his small, weathered gravestone that includes the inscription "a kind husband and a faithful friend."

The United Daughters of the Confederacy placed this marker for Hill in a farm field near his grave.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Touching history: Envelope to N.Y. cavalry officer's father

Envelope addressed to the father of  Charles Greenleaf, a lieutenant in the 5th New York Cavalry.

Charles Greenleaf did not survive the war.
(Photo: Connecticut State Library)
Research at the National Archives can be a crap shoot. Sometimes you hope for big things and nothing pans out, and then there are days like Tuesday, when I found more than 20 letters written by soldiers from Connecticut to their parents back home. I doubt that the large, musty envelopes that I found the letters in had been touched in decades. I also found another neat nugget: an envelope in which Charles Greenleaf, a lieutenant in the 5th New York Cavalry, mailed $40 to his needy parents back in Hartford. Sadly, Greenleaf didn't survive the war. The 22-year-old soldier, who also served in the 1st Connecticut early in the war, was mortally wounded in a skirmish near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., on Aug. 25, 1864. He died two days later at U.S. General Hospital in Sandy Hook, Md.

The Adams Express Co., which Greenleaf entrusted with his hard-earned money, also handled and shipped more precious cargo during the war: bodies of soldiers. Although not the norm, the company shipped the body of Union General Nathaniel Lyon, who had been killed at the Battle of Wilson Creek, back to Connecticut from Missouri for free.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Pain to portraits: U.S. Patent Office hospital in Washington

The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum in Washington are housed
 in what during the Civil War was the U.S. Patent Office building.
A 19th-century view of the U.S. Patent Office building, which was used as a hospital for soldiers during
 the Civil War. (Library of Congress collection)
In the mid-20th century, the colossal building at the corner of F and 8th streets in Washington that once housed the U.S. Patent Office barely survived the wrecking ball, finally earning a reprieve when President Eisenhower ordered that it be preserved. Today, the Greek Revival structure houses the fabulous Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum, a collection of three centuries of America's artistic achievement. It's difficult to imagine strolling down its pristine corridors today that the building was the scene of immense suffering more than 150 years ago.

Walt Whitman served as a nurse during the Civil War.
In 1857, the U.S. Patent Office building, which housed displays of  models that inventors submitted with their patent applications, was a major tourist destination, drawing more than 100,000 visitors. Clara Barton, who would gain fame during the Civil War as a nurse, worked as a clerk there -- the first female government employee to receive the same salary as a man.

Soon after the Civil War broke out in April 1861, the building served as a temporary barracks for Union soldiers and later as a hospital and morgue as casualties poured into Washington from nearby battlefields. Wounded lay in cots on the second floor, jammed among glass cases that contained the latest inventions and historical treasures. Among those who tended to the wounded there was Walt Whitman, the famed journalist and poet, whose brother served as a lieutenant in 51st New York.

A frequent visitor during the Civil War to what he called "that noblest of Washington buildings," Whitman later wrote about the sick and mangled men he saw there:
It was a strange, solemn, and, with all its features of suffering and death, a sort of fascinating sight. I go sometimes at night to soothe and relieve particular cases. Two of the immense apartments are fill’d with high and ponderous glass cases, crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine or invention, it ever enter’d into the mind of man to conceive; and with curiosities and foreign presents. Between these cases are lateral openings, perhaps eight feet wide and quite deep, and in these were placed the sick, besides a great long double row of them up and down through the middle of the hall. Many of them were very bad cases, wounds and amputations. Then there was a gallery running above the hall in which there were beds also. It was, indeed, a curious scene, especially at night when lit up. The glass cases, the beds, the forms lying there, the gallery above, and the marble pavement under foot -- the suffering, and the fortitude to bear it in various degrees --occasionally, from some, the groan that could not be repress’d -- sometimes a poor fellow dying, with emaciated face and glassy eye, the nurse by his side, the doctor also there, but no friend, no relative -- such were the sights but lately in the Patent-office."
 On March 6, 1865, President Lincoln held his second inaugural ball  on the third floor of the U.S. Patent Office
 building. Here's the third floor of the building today, greatly changed since Lincoln's day.  

Maria Hall, the beautiful daughter of a Washington lawyer, was among the nurses who served at the U.S. Patent Office hospital. She was initially rejected to serve as a nurse by U.S. Army Superintendent of Nurses Dorothea "Dragon" Dix, who preferred nurses to be older than 35 and more matronly than the 25-year-old Hall. Failing to discourage her, the wife of a prominent U.S. Patent Office employee finally agreed to let Hall and her sister tend to wounded soldiers there in August 1861. "Well, girls, here they are," Almira Fales said, "with everything to be done for them. You will find work enough."

Nurse Maria Hall. (Photo courtesy Barbara Powers)
Soldiers at the hospital were "very dirty, the 'sacred soil' of Virginia clinging to their clothing and persons in plenty," according an account written shortly after the war. "Their hair was matted and tangled, and often, not free from vermin, and they were as Mrs. Fales had said, a rough set."

Hall, beloved by soldiers for her work after the Battle of Antietam in the fall of 1862, tended to the wounded at at the U.S. Patent Office hospital for nearly a year and under "her gentle ministrations cleanliness took the place of filth, order of disorder, and profanity was banished."

On March 6, 1865, the third floor of the building was used for President Lincoln's second inaugural ball -- one of the grandest events of the president's tenure in the White House. A ticket for the event cost the princely sum $10, and the menu included oyster stew, pheasant and six flavors of ice cream. For Whitman, it was a stark contrast to the scenes of horror he saw in the building earlier in the war:

I have been up to look at the dance and supper rooms, for the inauguration ball, at the Patent office; and I could not help thinking, what a different scene they presented to my view since, fill’d with a crowded mass of the worst wounded of the war, brought in from second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburgh. To-night, beautiful women, perfumes, the violins’ sweetness, the polka and the waltz; then the amputation, the blue face, the groan, the glassy eye of the dying, the clotted rag, the odor of wounds and blood, and many a mother’s son amid strangers, passing away untended.
Few direct connections to the Civil War and the hospital exist today. In a gallery of modern art on the third floor, the carving "C.H.F," presumably by a Civil War soldier, and the date Aug. 8, 1864 are preserved under Plexiglas near a window ledge.


Brockett, Linus Pierpont and Vaughn, Mary C., Woman's Work in the Civil War, A Record of Heroism, Patriotism, and Patience, Philadelphia, Zeigler, McCurdy & Co., 1867.

Whitman, Walt, Specimens Days & Collect, Philadelphia, Rees Welsh & Co., 1882

The initials "C.H.F," perhaps carved by a Civil War soldier, and Aug. 8, 1864 are preserved near a
 window ledge on the third floor of the National Portrait Gallery. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Gettysburg, Antietam, more: Resources for you on my blog

5th Connecticut monument on Culp's Hill at Gettysburg.
During the past year, several resources for Civil War buffs/researchers were added or enhanced on my blog. All are accessible down the right hand side of the page. Here's a recap:

Connecticut Gettysburg death list: The most comprehensive list of its kind,  this downloadable Excel spreadsheet includes the names as well as the rank, regiment, company, place of death, family information, links and more about Connecticut soldiers who were killed or mortally wounded at Gettysburg.

Connecticut Antietam death list: Same information as above for the four regiments of soldiers from the state who fought Sept. 17, 1862 -- the bloodiest day in American history.

Connecticut New Bern death list: With the aid of researcher Skip Riddle, an expert on the battle, this downloadable Excel spreadsheet lists soldiers from the 8th, 10th and 11th Connecticut regiments who died at the Battle of New Bern (N.C.) on March 14, 1862.

                                        Interactive panorama: Spangler's Spring at Gettysburg.

James Branscomb, a 25-year-old sharpshooter in
the 3rd Alabama, was killed at the Battle of Harris Farm.

Branscomb is included on my Faces of the Civil War
thread.  (Photo courtesy Frank Chappell)
Antietam and Gettysburg battlefield panoramas. From Antietam, you will find interactive panoramas of Bloody Lane and the Roulette Farm, as well as less-visited sites such as John Otto's 40-acre cornfield. From Gettysburg, you'll find interactive panoramas of the Railroad Cut as well as Devil's Den, Little Round Top and more. This thread includes interactive battlefield panoramas of Cedar Mountain, Chickamauga, Harris Farm, Salem Church and Spotsylvania Courthouse as well as Antietam and Gettysburg.

Antietam Pinterest page: A compilation of photos of soldiers who were killed or mortally wounded at Antietam as well as images of their memorials or gravestones in Connecticut.

William Tipton Pinterest page: This is a compilation of images taken by Gettysburg-based battlefield photographer William Tipton, whose images of dedications of monuments at Gettysburg include amazing details.

Antietam Up Close: An examination of details in images taken at Antietam by Alexander Gardner in 1862.

Faces of the Civil War: And, of course, there's this thread, which includes images of Civil War soldiers and their stories.

For more Civil War stuff, like my Facebook page.
If you want to read more on Antietam, consider purchasing a copy of my book, "Connecticut Yankees at Antietam," which tells the tales of those who witnessed the battle and its aftermath. You can order an autographed copy ($20) by e-mailing me here. I'll pick up the postage.

And for even more Civil War stuff, consider liking my blog Facebook page. Depending on which way the wind blows, it will either raise or lower your IQ.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Gettysburg: Michigan Cavalry Brigade monument dedication

Michigan Cavalry Brigade veterans and the governor of Michigan (center in top hat) at monument dedication.

Upon closer inspection, there are lots of neat details in this William Tipton image of the dedication of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade monument at East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg on June 12, 1889. While Michigan Gov. Cyrus Luce (large top hat) appears with veterans and presumably their family members in the center foreground, another group apparently listens to a speaker in the background at the monument. Judging from the man standing on two rocks in a large puddle in the left foreground (see enlargement below), it must have rained in Gettysburg recently. And how about the scowl on the face of the woman next to the governor? She didn't appear like she wanted to be there. Led by the boy general, George Custer, the Michiganders stopped Jeb Stuart's attempt to get around the right of the Union army here on July 3, 1863. Here's a thread of Tipton-related posts on my blog and here is my Tipton Pinterest page.

For Michigan veterans, a bushy moustache apparently was required.
The man in the bowler hat stands on two rocks to avoid stepping in a puddle. It rained in Gettysburg the day
of the monument dedication for the Michigan Cavalry Brigade.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Second Manassas: 'A stream of blood spurting a foot'

                          A portion of the Unfinished Railroad Cut at Second Manassas battlefield.

On a spectacular April day, the morning after a hard rain, I trudged by myself about 3/4 of a mile through muddy fields, a patch of woods and over a small stream to look at a large ditch. Peaceful and unremarkable today, the Unfinished Railroad Cut on the Second Manassas battlefield was the scene of death and destruction on a large scale on Aug. 29, 1862.  Perhaps the most horrific account of the fighting there comes from John H. Worsham, who as a 23-year-old private in J.R. Jones' Brigade helped stop a Union attack at the railroad embankment. As Rebels counterattacked, they came under artillery fire, killing at least four men in Worsham's 21st Virginia regiment.

Wounded in the left leg in 1864, 
John Worsham was left permanently 
disabled. (Photo courtesy Robert Caudle)
"The striking of one shell sounded like "a thud on my right, as if one had been struck with a heavy fist," according to the post-war account by Worsham, who was horrified by the result:
"Looking around, I saw a man at my side standing erect, with his head off, a stream of blood spurting a foot or more from his neck. As I turned farther around, I saw three others lying on the ground, all killed by this cannon shot. The man standing was a captain in the 42nd Va. Regt., and his brains and blood bespattered the face and clothing of one of my company, who was standing in my rear. This was the second time I saw four men killed by one shot. The other occurred in the battle of Cedar Run, a few weeks earlier. Each time the shot struck as it was descending -- the first man had his head taken off, the next was shot through the breast, the next through the stomach, and the fourth had all his bowels torn out."

Wounded in the left leg at the Battle of Winchester on Sept. 19, 1864, Worsham was left permanently disabled. He was 81 when he died in 1920, 56 years to the day of his wounding in Virginia. While the physical toll of the war is clear, one wonders about the mental effects on men such as Worsham and others who witnessed up close the terrible mangling of their comrades. Post-traumatic stress disorder was largely unknown during most of Worsham's lifetime. So, we're left to wonder: What did John Worsham see in his dreams?

(Click here for my interactive battlefield panoramas of Antietam, Cedar Mountain, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, Harris Farm, Salem Church and Spotsylvania Courthouse.) 

The Groveton monument near the Unfinished Railroad Cut was dedicated by Union veterans in June 1865.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Cedar Mountain panoramas/photos: 'Almost annihilated'

             PANORAMA 1: The center of the Confederate line was located here at Crittenden Gate.

            PANORAMA 2: The 5th Connecticut advanced from left to right at  Cedar Mountain.

It was so hot that some Union soldiers suffered from sunstroke and "lay by the roadside in almost dying condition" as they advanced to fight the Battle of Cedar Mountain, near Culpeper, Va., on Aug. 9, 1862. Four regiments of Yankee infantry, including the 5th Connecticut, nearly pushed through the center of the Rebel line at the intersection of a farm lane and the Orange-Culpeper Road before enemy reinforcements stopped them. (Interactive Panorama 1)

An old Virginia state marker briefly explains Stonewall Jackson's
role at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, the only battle where
the Rebel general is said to have drawn his sword.
"Battle commenced in the afternoon in earnest," 5th Connecticut  Sergeant Harlan P. Rugg  of Company I wrote in his diary.  "Our brigade ordered to charge and executed a bold, splendid charge, from woods across a wheat field (Interactive Panorama 2), driving back two or three lines or the enemy at the point of the bayonet and with the butt of the gun, but we have no support and are obliged to fall back. Myself badly wounded in the right shoulder by blow of rebel musket and taken prisoner but made my escape. Myself at field hospital near by. Apparently our regiment almost annihilated. Enemy threw shot and shell at hospital and along our line in the evening."

At least two 5th Connecticut national color bearers were killed and three were wounded during the charge. (The national flag was captured by the Stonewall Brigade.) According to another account, seven Connecticut soldiers who carried the colors were killed that day, "which does not seem improbable judging from the disastrous passage across the wheatfield." Color Sergeant James Hewison of Company D was so intent on avoiding capture and preventing the state colors from capture that he wrapped the flag under his uniform and crawled off the battlefield after he was wounded.

After Union infantry had closed on the Confederate line, savage hand-to-hand fighting broke out for 15 minutes. "There were few loaded guns on either side," a 5th Connecticut regimental historian noted. "Clubbed muskets and bayonets were the rule." In the melee, Lieutenant William Rockwell claimed that he shot six Confederates and that Rugg's Company I "fought like demons, strewing the ground with dead, so that one could scarcely step but upon rebel dead."

The 5th Connecticut suffered 179 casualties at Cedar Mountain, including 48 killed or mortally wounded -- the worst day by far for the regiment during the Civil War. After the battle, famed Civil War photographer Timothy O'Sullivan, one of Mathew Brady's crew, shot an image (see below) of fresh Union battlefield graves -- the second known such image -- with Cedar Mountain looming in the background.  I shot the present-day image from O'Sullivan's vantage point during my first visit to the Cedar Mountain battlefield in early April. (Click here for an excellent assessment by Gary Adelman of O'Sullivan's Cedar Mountain images.)

(For my interactive battlefield panoramas of Antietam, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, Harris Farm and Spotsylvania Courthouse, click here.)

SOURCE:  Marvin, Edwin E., The Fifth Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, Hartford, Conn., The Press of Wiley, Waterman and Eaton, 1889

THEN AND NOW: In August 1862, Timothy O'Sullivan shot the image of fresh Union graves at
 Cedar Mountain,  much of which is privately owned today. Friends of Cedar Mountain Battlefield works closely 
with the Civil War Trustwhich has saved 152 acres of the battlefield.  (O'Sullivan image: Library of Congress collection.)