Sunday, May 31, 2020

Meet the eagle-eyed birdwatchers at Shiloh battlefield

Shiloh National Military Park's resident bald eagles live in a nest in the pine in the far distance.
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They sit in their lawn chairs along Brown's Landing Road at Shiloh National Military Park, their eyes (and cameras) trained on the sky, searching, searching ... searching. Yards away, in Cloud Field, four cannon marking a Federal battery position loom ominously.

Will their quarry come from the east, from near the banks of the Tennessee River? Or will they come from the south, following the approximate course of the Hamburg-Savannah Road? Then something appears in the distance. Could it be?

"Look up there," says Faye Armour, pointing to the flapping figure in a baby-blue sky dotted with billowy clouds. "Oh, it's just a heron."

Shiloh eagle-watchers Faye and Ronald Armour.
Meet the six-person Shiloh bald eagle photographers/social club, a group of friends whose birdwatching adventures on hallowed ground sometimes last until dark. The object of their attention during their frequent Shiloh visits are the resident eagles that nest in a massive pine roughly 100 yards away. The two adults were named "Hiram" and "Julia" by the park staff. That's homage to General Ulysses Grant --- whose real name was Hiram, and his wife, whom some small part of me wishes was named Lady Bird. 

The eagles have made their home at Shiloh, where Grant whipped the Rebs in April 1862, since the fall of 2007, according to the National Park Service web site.

Faye, 69, is a retired floral designer; husband Ronald, also 69, is a retired electrician. The couple, married for 52 years, live in Selmer, Tennessee -- about 15 miles away as the eagle flies. The county is best known as home of the famous crime-fighting sheriff, Buford Puser. (Ronald even recalls seeing Puser -- whose story was told in the 1973 movie Walking Tall -- on the night he died in a car accident in 1974.)

Faye, whose ancestor George Washington Foster fought as a private for the 66th Illinois at Shiloh, and Ronald first came to the battlefield to see the eagles in 2012. "They flew over the trees," Ronald says, "and we just fell in love with it." The next year, the couple came armed with cameras for eagle photography.

As she awaits an eagle sighting, Faye cradles a $2,000 Canon 7D Mark 2 camera with a $1,500 lens. Some who come here for eagle shooting bring cameras that cost much more. Clearly, this can be serious business.

"I even gave up fishing to come here," Ronald says, half-kiddingly.

A bald eagle captured in flight Saturday.
On this gorgeous Saturday afternoon, the Armours are joined by four friends. When they aren't shooting picture of eagles, the group enjoys shooting the breeze at the battlefield. There's lots of laughter from this bunch, which has become so close that they even have vacationed together.

In pre-Covid 19 times, their spot at Shiloh might be occupied by dozens of eagle photographers. But the disease has thinned the flock, so to speak, and the Armours and their friends are the only shooters. In their years photographing eagles, the group has met battlefield visitors from Australia, Scotland, England, Germany, Israel and elsewhere around the globe.

As for the eagles, well, they can be a little flighty. By roughly 5 p.m., only two adults and an eaglet have been spotted by the group, which started gazing at the Shiloh sky about noon. "Eagles," one the Armours' friends chimes in with a chuckle, "have minds like Confederate generals -- minds of their own." When the eaglets are small, the adults tend to be more active, bringing in plenty of food to feed their young.

With my bird brain stuffed with knowledge, I slowly walk to my car for the trip back to Nashville. Before departing, I glance over my shoulder. Sure enough, the collective gaze of the eagle-eyed group is aimed skyward.

"When the eagle comes in," Faye assures me with a smile, "you will be totally ignored."

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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Grievously wounded at Fredericksburg, vet has face 'restored'

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On Dec. 13, 1862, Private Oliver Dart of the 14th Connecticut was grievously wounded in the face by a piece of artillery shell at the Battle of Fredericksburg. When another soldier in his regiment saw Dart's wounds, he was aghast. "Poor Oliver Dart," he said. "As he rolled over he looked as though his whole face was shot away."
A circa-1866 image of Oliver Dart with a
bushy beard and mustache. (Image courtesy of
Dart descendant Frank Niederwerfer)

Months later, Dart somehow had the fortitude to have his image shot in a studio in Hartford -- perhaps evidence for his pension claim. Dart, whom I wrote about in the February 2018 issue of Civil War Times, endured surgeries on his face, and he eventually grew a beard in an effort to cover up his grievous wounds.

"In time he recovered," a post-war account noted, "though the wound was always visible and in later years his mind was somewhat affected, undoubtedly due to the shock and the suffering that ensued from the injury." In the summer of 1879, Dart died of consumption at age 40.

Several years ago, Dart's Connecticut descendant, Frank Niederwerfer, was thrilled to receive a copy of an 1863 image of Oliver discovered by his friend Allen Crane in the National Archives. And recently, sketch artist Doug Fortin drew an image of what Oliver might have looked like without the wound.

"... my pard Dan Hayden came to my house with a huge surprise," Niederwerfer wrote on Facebook. "He had a friend reconstruct my great-great uncle Oliver's face using two other pictures of Oliver (1863 wound picture and post-war picture) and his older brother's picture. This picture helps complete Oliver's legacy. ... I have had a crazy connection to Oliver for 40+ years and to have this collection of pictures is very special."

Frank Niederwerfer, descendant of Oliver Dart, holds an image of the 14th Connecticiut private at the
 site of the old Rowe house in Fredericksburg, Va. Dart was cared for at the divisional hospital there.

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


-- Dart family history.
-- Oliver Dart pension file, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
-- Page, Charles Davis, History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, Meriden, Conn.: The Horton Printing Co., 1906.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

'My hart akes for you': Nashville National Cemetery snapshots

More than 16,000 Union soldiers were buried at Nashville National Cemetery.
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Union General George Thomas, commander of the Department of the Cumberland in Kentucky and Tennessee, was blunt when he talked about a location for a proposed national cemetery near Nashville. Put it near the Louisville & Nashville Railroad tracks, the Virginia native said, so anyone from the North traveling to the city can see the enormity of the sacrifice to perserve the Union.

In fall 1866, the Nashville Union American reported, "a gang of negroes" began clearing the site Thomas suggested, and by late that year, the grounds were ready for the burial of Federal dead. "Some time will be required to complete this worthy undertaking," the local newspaper noted, "as there are about twenty thousand soldiers buried near this point, and some fifty or sixty per day will probably be average removals."

Railroad tracks bisect Nashville National Cemetery.
George Thomas would be pleased.
In a remarkable effort, the U.S. Quartermaster Department recovered Union remains from battlefields, hospital cemeteries, church graveyards and elsewhere in the region for re-interrment. By early spring 1867, 12,000 Federal dead were buried in the national cemetery -- at "an expense of $1.10 on each body." More than 16,000 Federal soldiers rest today under pearl-white tombstones on the  beautiful, rolling grounds.

If you can ignore the hum of traffic on busy Gallatin Pike, the 64-acre cemetery remains an oasis in what was countryside six miles or so north of downtown Nashville in the 19th century. From the bottom of a hill on the 64-acre grounds, the waves of gravestones seem overwhelming. Almost on cue during my visit, graffiti-scarred CSX cars rumbled by on train tracks that still bisect the cemetery. The Rock of Chickamauga" would be pleased.

Perhaps "Pap" Thomas would be pleased, too, that I paid respects Saturday to three Wisconsin soldiers. Here are snapshots of their lives:

Edward Soper's gravestone in Nashville National Cemetery is in Section J, site 14605.
The death of Edward Soper, a 5-foot-11 private in the 44th Wisconsin with blue eyes and dark hair, was especially heart-rending. In early April 1865, the 25-year-old carpenter from Manitowoc was on night guard duty in Nashville. According to his captain, he "fell over a bank," discharging his weapon into his knee. He died from the wound at Post Hospital (125-bed Cherry Street Baptist Church) in Nashville on April 9 -- the very day Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant, effectively ending the war.

"I called to see him the evening before we left [for Paducah, Ky.]," Captain John W. Moore wrote Soper's widow, Josepheen, "and I found him very bad but had no idea of it resulting so seriously and do asure you that the notice of his deth was very astonishing to me and do asure you that I simpathize with you. My hart akes for you." (See full transcript below.)

Besides Josepheen, Edward left behind two children: Charles, 4, and Flora, almost 5 months.

(National Archives via

Hed quarters, Co. "E." 44th Regt. Wis,. Infantry
Paducah, April 18, 1865

Mrs. Josepheen Soper

Dear Madam:

It is my painful duty to inform you that I have just received the sad intelligence of the deth of your husband Edward Soper. He died on the 9th Inst. Post Hospital Nashville, Tenn. We left him there when we left. He was on gard a few days before and in the night fell over a bank and shot his nee. I called to see him the evening before we left and I found him very bad but had no idea of it resulting so seriously and do asure you that the notice of his deth was very astonishing to me and do asure you that I simpathize with you . My hart ...

(National Archives via
... akes for you. The will of Providence seams hard yet we as Christians should bare it with fortitude and submition. Every infirmation that you may nead herafter I will be very hapy to communicate to you. I now close by Praying that the God of the widow and the orphans may sustain you in your affliction.

I have the honor of subscribing my self yours very respectfully.

J.W. Moore
Capt. Co "E", 44th Regt. Wis. Infantry
Paducah Ky.

Wilhelm Spickermann's gravestone is in Section D, site 3342. I placed a penny, Lincoln side up, atop 
German immigrant Wilhelm Spickerman served in the 15th Wisconsin, a hard-fighting regiment filled with so many Scandanavians that it became known as the "Norwegian Regiment" or "Swedish Regiment." The 35-year-old private from Manitowoc enlisted in November 1861 and toiled for a time as a wagoner, but he apparently was ill so often that he spent more time in the hospital than fighting Johnny Rebs. In December 1862, he became sick and was left behind with the commissary supply train. Months later, he spent time in the camp hospital in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Sadly, Wilhelm wasn't given a furlough when two of his three children died in Wisconsin while he was in the army. (The Spickermanns' lone surviving child, a girl named Minnie, was 2 in 1863.)

Death certificate for Wilhelm Spickermann, who died from 
chronic diarrhea in Hospital No. 15 in Nashville on Nov. 21, 1863. 
(National Archives via | CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)
Ill again in early November 1863, Spickermann died of chronic diarrhea at Hospital No. 15 in Nashville on Nov. 21, 1863. The 400-bed facility near the notorious Smokey Row, site of the city's infamous brothels, was known as the “Soldier’s Syphilitic Hospital.”

Spickermann's wife, Sophia, filed for a widow's pension, which was approved in 1864. Years later, things got really strange.

In 1878, Widow Spickermann was dropped from the pension rolls because her $8-a-month allotment had gone unclaimed for three years. In October 1892, the 60-year-old applied to restore it. An agent from the U.S. Pension Bureau sought her out for an interview to confirm her "widowhood." The intrepid special investigator was, ah, dubious about her request.

"From the evidence," he wrote, "it appears that claimant resided in Wisconsin till about 1867 when she went to New York City, and took up with a man named William Hoffman, 'kept house,' for him till 1872, when they left together to Stillwater, Minn., taking with them his boy and her girl, that she continued to keep house for Hoffman, and was known only as Mrs. Hoffman, from the time they landed in Stillwater until about 1883, when they left Stillwater and located at West St. Paul, Minn,, where she has kept house for him in an old tumble-down two-story frame tenement house."

Spickerman and Hoffman lived together in a poor section of St. Paul known as the Wagner Block, along the Mississippi River.

"These shanties are occupied by foreigners who are poverty-stricken and of questionable repute morally," the investigator wrote in his report, "and the neighborhood is anything but safe or inviting after dark. It was difficult for me to obtain testimony from these people as they were suspicious."

As for Hoffman, who immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1868, the agent was especially scathing. He arrived in America with a girl named Mary, "whom he had gotten in a family way," and she deserted him after the child was born. The couple were never married. "He is a libertine," the agent wrote of Hoffman, "and, while he was supporting claimant was running after women of ill-repute."

Hoffman's record for "truth and sobriety" were "bad," added the agent, whose moral outrage oozed from the pages of the widow's pension claim.

Close-up of the gravestone for Wilhem Spickermann.
"When the character of this man, his past life, and his desire for women, are taken in connection with the fact that claimant has slept in the same room with him almost from the time he got rid of his paramour (in 1868) ... and has been supported by him, and allowed herself to be known only as his wife and under his name, without attempting to deny it, it is quite evident that she either is the wife of William Hoffman, or is not rendering that respect to the memory of the deceased husband, Wilhelm Spickermann ..."

Widow Spickermann's claim, the agent concluded, was of "very doubtful merit."

Sophia told a quite different story: When she moved to Stillwater, she made money sewing until her eyes got bad. Then she became the housekeeper for Hoffman, a laborer three or four years her junior whom she first met in New York. When the woman who Spickermann thought was Hoffman's invalid wife died, Sophia moved in with him in St. Paul. "It was while I was keeping house for Hoffman," she wrote "that I dropped my pension. I thought I had a living in my hands and did not want to bother about my pension."  Besides, Hoffman's eldest son, Johnny, believed she was his mother. If she continued to draw the pension, Sophia said, Johnny could find out she was previously married and his feelings might be hurt.

Yikes, this one's a head-spinner.

As for all the talk that she was William Hoffman's wife, well, Spickermann insisted that was just rubbish. They never even slept in the same bed, Sophia claimed in a deposition, adding, "I have never had any sexual intercourse with William Hoffman at any time." Sophia said a miffed Hoffman sometimes even showed her the door, telling her, "I keep you long enough, go, and see how you get along." She said she also took care of Hoffman's teen-aged son, Henry, an aspiring baker, "as if he was my own son." He even called her "Ma."

William Hoffman, too, denied he was married to Spickerman, whom he insisted was merely his housekeeper. "If I marry," he said, "[his son's mother] may put me in state's prison." He said he only supplied Sophia with a place to live and clothes for Minnie. The investigator was highly skeptical. "Unreliable," he wrote next to Hoffman's name in his report.

Hoffman's Wagner Block neighbors offered conflicting stories. Some said he and Sophia lived as man and wife; others weren't so sure. "I don't know her name," one of them said, "but it ain't Hoffman."

Ultimately, the U.S. Pension Bureau rejected her pension request. Years later, the bureaucrats re-examined her claim when she was no longer living with Hoffman. But "a careful review of all the evidence on file," the agency wrote in 1898, "fails to show that injustice was done her."

Oh, Lord, what would Wilhelm think?

George West, who died of disease, rests in Plot E, gravesite 778.
When grievously ill George West got to Hospital No. 19 in Nashville, the 37-year-old soldier was "insensible ... and without a knowledge or consciousness of the fact that he was discharged" from the army, the captain of his company recalled.

A note signed by government undertaker William Cornelius 
regarding the disposition of George West's remains.
(National Archives via
On Feb. 18, 1863,  West -- a 5-foot-6 private with dark hair and black eyes -- died there of erysipelas, an especially ghastly infection that attacked a wound, killing and blackening tissue. The mortality rate was 46 percent. Compounding the 21st Wisconsin private's misery, he also suffered from partial paralysis of lower extremities and chronic diarrhea.

William Cornelius, a local undertaker contracted by the Union Army to bury Federal and Confederate dead, buried West in Grave No. 3567 in the Soldiers' Cemetery in Nashville, near Fort Negley. (My gawd, there could be thousands of more bodies still there.)  After the war, the private's remains were re-buried in Nashville National Cemetery.

West was survived by his wife, Jane, and their two children -- a 1-year-son named Julius Elton and a daughter named Georgia Edith. She was born the day her father died.

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-- Nashville Union and American, Sept. 9, 1866, Dec. 14, 1866.
-- The (Nashville) Tennessean, April 14, 1867.
-- Widows' pension files for Edward Soper, Wilhelm Spickermann and George West, National Archives and Records Service via

Friday, May 22, 2020

A block of Civil War history in downtown Nashville

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Downtown Nashville is filled with Civil War history. Within one block on Church Street, you'll find the site of the St. Cloud Hotel, where Union commander George Thomas stayed when the Battle of Nashville opened Dec. 15, 1864; a church that served as part of Federal Hospital No. 8; and the site of the Maxwell House Hotel, where tragedy struck on Sept. 29, 1863.

19th-century engraving of the St. Cloud Hotel, used as HQ by Union General Don Carlos Buell
 during  the Federal occupation of the city. George Thomas, commander of Union forces during
 the Battle of Nashville on Dec. 15-16, 1864, also stayed here. The hotel on Church Street 
was torn down long ago. (Tennessee State Library and Archives)
Downtown Presbyterian Church, which was part of Federal military Hospital No. 8.
The old Maxwell House Hotel occupied a large footprint on Church Street. On Sept. 29, 1863,
at least a dozen Confederate POWs died here in a collapse of a floor in the unfinished hotel, which also
was used as  Federal prison. The hotel was destroyed by fire in 1961.  (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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Sunday, May 17, 2020

Battle of Nashville: A visit to remains of Shy's Hill earthworks

Battle of Nashville Trust president Jim Kay and retired Lt. Col. James Reese discuss the defense of Shy's Hill, where left of Confederate line was anchored at the Battle of Nashville on Dec. 16, 1864. (Check out the Battle of Nashville Trust site here. Full disclosure: I am on the board. Turn up sound.)

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Sad demise for ancient Battle of Nashville 'witness' tree

Nels Jensen, my brother-in-law, stands by the massive trunk of what remains of 
the Battle of Nashville "witness" tree. (CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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This Battle of Nashville "witness" tree -- located about a half-mile from Shy's Hill, the left of the Confederate line on Dec. 16, 1864 -- toppled in a severe storm on May 3. For perspective on the size of this once-majestic oak, my brother-in-law Nels stood next to it during a brief stop on our recent bike ride through the area. It's unknown if there is battle lead in this tree, located near Granny White Pike on the J.T. Moore Middle School campus. Check out the video below for more.

Even the tree's bark, held by my brother-in-law Nels, is massive.
The tree's core was rotted, perhaps a reason it toppled in the May 3 storm.
A marker on the oak, "believed to have been planted when Thomas Jefferson
was President of the United States (1801-1809)"

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Sunday, May 03, 2020

Straining to hear 'mournful sound' near Dutchman's Curve

A CSX train heads toward Dutchman's Curve, site of the deadliest train accident in U.S. history.
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Gingerly navigating piles of rocks, I make my way down the embankment to the railroad track. Ominous weather threatens but doesn't deter a visit near a bend in the line called Dutchman's Curve -- site of the deadliest train accident in American history.

Fifteen yards away, three teen-aged boys fish in a creek; beyond them, on a rise, a strip mall. Steps away, a kaleidoscope of graffiti covers a bridge abutment. Thick, deep-green woods and brush border the track.

Grafitti-covered bridge abutment near Dutchman's Curve.
A historical marker by the trail and busy road draws the curious to this place of death in West Nashville. What an awful story it tells.

Shortly after 7 a.m. on July 9, 1918, as World War I grinded on overseas, two packed trains traveling between 50-60 mph collided on this track. More than 100 died in the accident; most of the dead were African-American laborers en route to work at the DuPont munitions plant in Old Hickory -- "Powder City" the company town near Nashville was called.

Bound for Memphis, Train No. 4 included a locomotive, two mail and baggage cars and six wooden coaches. Headed for Nashville, Train No. 1 included a locomotive, a baggage car, six wooden coaches and two steel Pullman sleeping cars. Blacks traveled in the rickety, wooden Civil War-era cars while whites were in the Pullmans.

Thousands in Nashville gathered at the scene; as many as 50,000 reportedly visited the site. What they saw was gruesome and heart-rending: mangled bodies and body parts, blood everywhere and anguished survivors and relatives searching for loved ones in the wreckage amid the cornfields.

Thousands viewed the aftermath of the grisly accident. This photo appeared in the Nashville Tennessean.
Up ahead: Dutchman's Curve. 
Twenty-two-year-old attorney Milton Lowensten, "a splendid type of young manhood," was among the dead. He was preparing to join the U.S. Army. Lowenstein's parents died while he was young, so he was reared by an aunt and uncle.  "He was of a jovial and genial disposition." the Nashville Tennessean reported the day after the tragedy, "and made friends of everyone he came in contact with ..."

Front page of  Nashville Tennessean on July 10, 1918.
Under a massive, two-deck headline on Page 1, a lengthy list of dead appeared in the local newspaper:

"Thomas W. Dickerson, baggage man on No. 4," "An unidentified soldier, address unknown," "Two unidentified dead" ... 

And under a separate category, a list of "Colored" dead was published:

"Oliver Hope, Craggie Hope, Tenn.," "Nine unidentified women," "Thirty unidentified men." ...

By 10 p.m., the tracks were cleared. Days later, coverage of the train accident waned, replaced by news about the Great War. An investigation concluded the crew of Train No. 4 was largely to blame for the tragedy. Decades later, David Allen Coe recorded a song about it:

"Now every July 9th a few miles west of town. To this day some folks say. You can hear that mournful sound.” 

Moments before I depart, a loud whistle eerily toots in the near-distance. A distinctive clickety-clack grows louder. Another Nashville-bound train rumbles down the track and under an overpass.

Dutchman's Curve is dead ahead.

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-- Nashville Tennessean, July 10, 1918.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

How Bible saved life of 'Comrade Strickland' at Chancellorsville

This Bible, similar to the one carried by Myron Strickland at Chancellorsville, was struck
 by a bullet  at Sailor's Creek in 1865. It was auctioned in December 2012 for $15,535.
(Heritage Auctions)

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In the decades immediately after the Civil War, newspapers were peppered with stories of the war-time experiences of veterans. Some told bizarre stories, such as the removal of bullets in their bodies by sneezing or crude self-surgery. Others recalled narrow brushes with death.

(Go down this rabbit hole yourself by perusing stories on the fabulous website. Proceed with caution, however. Some veterans were prone to, ah, exaggeration.)

On April 19, 1915, a Wilkes-Barre (Pa.), newspaper published a short story about how a Bible blunted a bullet and thus saved the life of a 53rd Pennsylvania veteran Myron Strickland at the Battle of Chancellorsville in early May 1863. The private had the holy book in his left breast pocket when he was struck by Rebel lead.

Private Myron Strickland was captured at Fair Oaks, Va., in June 1862, 
and spent seven months in Confederate captivity.
(Library of Congress)
"There are few that equal and none that surpass, so far as is known,  the experience of Comrade Myron Strickland ... who holds sacred a relic, or rather 'the' relic that saved him from death ...," the story noted under an image of the grim-faced veteran with the large, bushy mustache. Strickland, who endured seven months as a POW after his capture at Fair Oaks in June 1862, served until the end of the war.

Others stories of Bibles (and even rolled-up newspapers) stopping bullets in battle have surfaced over the years -- see here, here and here -- so Comrade Strickland's story seems believable. I wonder where his Bible is today.

After the war, Strickland served as a tax assessor in Kingston, Pa., and raised young ferrets. (In 1900, he had more than 100 of the critters.) The veteran and his wife, Sylvinic, held an annual dinner for 53rd Pennsylvania comrades at their house on Ridge Avenue. She died in 1916, leaving him "awfully lonely," according to a newspaper account. Strickland died at 84 in Illinois on July 16, 1925, 62 years after his brush with death at Chancellorsville.

Here's his bullet-blunted-by-Bible account in the Wilkes-Barre Record:

Falls on the field

Remarkable incidents happened to Civil War soldiers, both on the side of the blue and on the side of the gray. There are few that equal and none that surpass, so far as is known,  the experience of Comrade Myron Strickland, 288 Ridge street, Kingston, who. holds sacred a relic, or rather "the" relic that saved him from death on the battlefield of Chancellorsville. It is a copy of the New Testament, now turning yellow with age and binding well worn, in which there is imbedded a big rifle ball. The bullet passed through one side and emerged on the other side far enough to be seen. When the ball struck the Testament, the little volume was in Comrade Strickland's blouse pocket, covering the part of the body where the heart of the soldier beat with the fierce excitement of the fray.

The force of the shot knocked the veteran down and two of his comrades, Peter Culp of Huntsville and the late William Jackson of Pittston, kneeled beside their fallen comrade, thinking surely he had been mortally wounded. To their unutterable surprise Strickland recovered quickly from the sting and shock and the three joined in silent thanksgiving. Strickland pulled the Testament from his pocket, showed it to Culp and Jackson. They examined it, and Strickland replaced his remarkable protector in his pocket and renewed the fight.

The story of Strickland and his Testament has been told in pulpit and on platforms in various states of the Union. Requests have come from all parts of this State, from New York, New Jersey, Ohio and other points, asking for the loan of the book and for an account of the incident in which it preserved the life of a Civil War fighter.

Found Testament

Strickland came into possession of the book on Friday May 1 while marching with his company to Chancellorsville. The day was hot and the overcoats of the soldiers were burdensome. They tore the garments in strips and left them lying in the fields. Strickland, while passing by, noticed the Testament, picked it up and reverently placed it in the pocket over his heart. Little did he think that his act would save him from the list of dead after that memorable fight. Friday night, Saturday and Saturday night the firing went on and on Sunday morning, May 3, 1863, the experience related happened. The battle did not end until Tuesday.

Prisoner of War

This image of Stickland's Bible appeared
the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
on Aug. 31, 1963.
For seven months he was a prisoner of war in Libby, Salisbury and Belle Island. He underwent awful hardships from hunger and lack of sanitary living conditions while in the hands of Confederate forces.

Comrade Strickland enlisted first in Company F, 53rd Pennsylvania Volunteeers on September 1, 1861 and was honorably discharged on November 6, 1864, He re-enlisted on December 22, 1864 and served until the war clouds had passed. He was honorably discharged from his second enlistment on June 30, 1865. The record of the engagements in which he participated are as follows: Yorktown, Fair Oaks, where he was taken prisoner June 1, 1862. His regiment fought at Peach Orchard, Gaines' Mill, Savage Station, White Oak Swamp, Antietam and Fredericksburg while he was in prison.

After his release he participated in the battle of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Bristoe Station, Mine Run, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Strawberry Plains, Deep Bottom, Reams Station, Hatcher Run, South Side Railroad, Farmville and Appomattox.

Returns home

Upon his return home he settled in Kingston again and entered the employ of the D.L. & W Railroad Company. He then began work as a carpenter and has continued at the trade since. He was born seventy-four years ago in Norwalk, Ohio. When he was three years old he came to Huntsville with his parents to live. He is a member of the Conyngham Post and the Union Veteran Legion.

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-- Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Record, July 10, 1900, June 2, 1916, July 21, 1925.
-- Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Evening News, April 19, 1915.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

'Peculiarly sad': Death in the Potomac of a 'patriotic man'

St. Clements Island, formerly known as Blackistone Island, near where Cunningham Johnston drowned
in the Potomac River when the Massachusetts collided with the Black Diamond
 on the night of April 23, 1865. (PHOTO: David Broad)

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Private Cunningham Johnston survived physically unscathed in all the 118th Pennsylvania's major battles, at Shepherdstown and Fredericksburg in 1862 and Gettysburg and Chancellorsville in 1863. He endured Burnside's "Mud March" in January 1864 and, following his capture during the Overland Campaign, survived nine months in Andersonville and other Confederate prisons.

But in the waning days of the Civil War, when all the fighting was largely over, the Irish-born bricklayer from Philadelphia couldn't elude death.

 1906 illustration of St. John's College General Hospital during
 the Civil War.  Private Cunningham Johnston, a former POW,
 was a patient here in late 1864 and early 1865.
(St. John's College Digital Archives)
On April 23, 1865, Johnston and about 300 former POWs and hospital convalescents boarded the privately owned steamer Massachusetts, anchored in the Potomac River at Alexandria, Va. Recently released from St. John's College Hospital in Annapolis, Md., the 37-year-old was to re-join his regiment to complete his term of service. The war was effectively over, but the country's turmoil was not: In Maryland and Virginia, Federal authorities frantically hunted for Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

At about midnight, the Massachusetts neared Maryland's Blackistone Island, roughly 55 miles southeast of Washington. Lurking dangerously nearby was the Black Diamond, an iron hull steam propeller canal boat with men aboard aiding in the search for Booth. On the clear, moonless night, the vessel apparently had only one light on. Stunningly, the much larger Massachusetts collided with the Black Diamond, opening a yawning gap in the smaller ship's side. The vessel went under stern first in about three minutes. "Oh, the great dark hole in the water she made," recalled a soldier aboard the Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, panic ensued on the overcrowded Massachusetts, which, although still seaworthy, slipped lower into the water. In the inky blackness, frantic soldiers -- some of whom had been sleeping on deck -- leaped into the dark Potomac. In all, at least 50 men drowned; one report noted that nearly 90 perished. Among them was Cunningham Johnston, whose body, like many of those who died in this little-known accident, was never recovered.

“After all their suffering in the prisons pens, then to be drowned,” one of the survivors remembered. “It seemed bad.”

In a footnote in the 118th Pennsylvania regimental history, published decades after the war, Cunningham Johnston Jr. called his father's fate "peculiarly sad."

"He was a patriotic man," he wrote, "and patiently accepted the dangers and hardships of army life as a duty to his country."

          GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Site of orphans' home in Quakertown, Pa., where two 
                  Johnston family boys stayed after their father's death in April 1865.

19th-century view of Yellow Springs (later known as Chester Springs), an orphans' home in Chester, Pa.
Cunningham Johnston Jr. and his brother, Michael, were placed here by their mother after their
   father's death "for the purpose of their education." (Chester County Library collection)
Cunningham's death threw the Johnston family into turmoil. His wife, Elizabeth, placed  her eldest sons, Cunningham, then 12, and 10-year-old Michael in the Soldiers Orphans' Home in Quakertown, Pa., "for the purpose of their education." Later, the boys were sent to another orphans' home, Yellow Springs, in Chester, Pa.

"I have not abandoned the support of any of said children, nor permitted any of them to be adopted by any person or persons ..." Elizabeth stated in an affidavit for a widow's pension. The Johnstons' other children, 14-year-old Sallie, 5-year-old Elizabeth and 4-year-old James, remained at home with their mother.

A widow's pension file offers us a glimpse into the family's tragedy: In an affidavit, Elizabeth wrote, "I have never heard from [Cunningham] him since" the collision on the Potomac. In another, a former 118th Pennsylvania officer wrote he believed he heard of Johnston's death from an official source but wasn't sure. A document noted names and birthdates of the Johnstons' children; another, the date Cunningham and Elizabeth were married in 1847.

"I feel as well as I ever did," wrote Cunningham Johnston in a letter
to his wife on April 13, 1865. It may have been the final letter
of his life. ( via National Archives)
The most poignant words in the file are in Cunningham Johnston's own handwriting.

In a letter to Elizabeth from St. John's College Hospital on April 10, 1865, he wrote of his disappointment at not receiving any recent letters from home and of the "glorious news" of Robert E. Lee's surrender the day before. "I feel purfickly sure," he said, "that I have seen my last battle although I am in poor halth as I ever was."

"Tell Cunningham," he added, referencing his son, "to ask Mr. Boles if he thinks the ware will be over before linkin is out of the Chair."

In perhaps the final letter of his life, Cunningham rejoiced: "I have just finnished reading the most walcom letter I have ever received from you or anyone else letting me know that my Lizay was better and the rest of my family well."

He said he expected to go to Washington soon to get transportation to return to his regiment, which was present at the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse. "... I feel as well as I ever did," he wrote.

And, Cunningham closed in the letter, "I ... am your loving husband to death."

POSTSCRIPT: Elizabeth Cunningham secured a widow's pension at the standard rate of $8 a month. Beginning in July 1866, her five children also received pensions, at $2 a month. 

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-- Cunningham Johnston widow's pension file, via National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C.
-- Smith, John L., History of the Corn Exchange Regiment, 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers, from their first engagement at Antietam to Appomattox, Philadelphia, Pa., J. L. Smith, 1888, Page 402.
-- 16th Connecticut veteran William Nott 1906 journal, copy in author's collection.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

At Natchez Trace mile post 385.9, a Meriwether Lewis mystery

While cycling the Natchez Trace Parkway in Tennessee, we stopped at explorer Meriwether Lewis' grave.
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Pedaling like demons on the Natchez Trace Parkway in Tennessee, we slowly made our way up another muscle- and lung-testing hill. To our right, a spectacular, green forest; to our left, more of the same. Above us, a deep-blue sky. About halfway into a 50-mile bike ride with my brother-in-law, we were bit players and Mother Nature was the star.

On almost every stretch of the Trace, wildlife lurks. ("Look, there's a turkey." "Hey, was that a fox that just crossed the road?")
An early 19th-cenutry portrait of explorer
Meriwether Lewis by Charles Willson Peale.

(Public domain)

And history lurks, too.

Miles earlier, we passed the site of She Boss, where, in the early 1800s, a white woman operated a small inn in the sprawling wilderness with her second husband, an Indian. The man apparently spoke little English. According to legend, when travelers approached him with questions about accommodations at the inn, he would simply point to his wife and say, "She boss." Some of us truly understand this man of few (English) words.

At mile post 390.7, if you're adventrous enough, you'll find abandoned shafts from an old phosphate mine in the woods. And every so often, you'll see hints of the original trace, first blazed out of the wilderness by Indians  and eventually improved by the U.S. Army in the early 1800s. Early explorers used the Trace; so did bandits, who often terrorized those who traveled on it.

The only terror we faced on this Saturday afternon was the damn hill we needed to climb near a waterfall on our return trip. But before we did, I had to breathe in some history. And so at mile post 385.9, at the crest of another [expletive] hill, we stopped to visit the grave site/memorial for Meriwether Lewis.

You probably learned about Lewis, the great explorer, in grade school. Brief refresher: After the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson wanted to know what he got for the U.S. government's $15 million. And so Lewis and fellow explorer William Clark were sent west on a remarkable, two-year journey -- the first transcontinental expedition to the Pacific Coast by Americans. The intrepid adventurers documented their discoveries -- flora and fauna, rivers, Indian tribes and much more -- and returned with reams of information.

               PANORAMA: Meriwether Lewis gravesite on Natchez Trace in Tennessee.
                                    (Click on icon at right for full-screen experience.)

In October 1809, en route to Washington from his home in St. Louis, Lewis stopped at an inn at Grinder's Stand on the Natchez Trace. One night, two shots rang out. A badly injured Lewis, who was known to battle depression, was discovered in the inn with two gunshot wounds -- one in the head, another in his stomach. By sunrise the next day, the 35-year-old explorer was dead. Was it a suicide? (Jefferson thought so.) Or was it murder? (Lewis' descendants believe so to this day.)

In 1848, Lewis' body was exhumed, examined and eventually re-buried near where he died. A state commission's conclusion: He probably was murdered. (Oh, man, I refuse to go down this rabbit hole!) Later that year, the State of Tennessee erected a memorial atop Lewis' grave. In 1905, a magazine reporter found the granite monument abandoned -- a "dim and ghostly" visage surrounded by woods and brush.

"But the monument itself, with the forest about it, silent, gloomy, deserted represents as nothing else could the love of solitude, the melancholia, the taciturnity of the youth whose dust lies beneath it," John Swain wrote for Everybody's Magazine. "Lewis' spirit indeed seems to pervade the spot, and it is little wonder that the hill people believe it's haunted."

Forest and brush surrounded the Meriwether Lewis memorial/grave when a magazine reporter
 found it in 1905. (PHOTO: Everybody's Magazine)

We weren't spooked by the place, thankfully long ago restored. But I was confused by the Latin phrase inscribed on the memorial: "Immaturus obi; sed tu felicior annos vive meos: Bona Republica! vive tuos." Translation: "I died before my time, but thou O great and good Republic, live out my years while you live out your own."

Perhaps someone should have carved another phrase on the monument, preferable in English: Keep your paws off all that ye find here. An iron fence originally surrounded Lewis' grave, but during the Civil War, soldiers under Confederate General John Bell Hood melted it down to make horseshoes.

My brother-in-law and I had no such evil intentions. We took in the tranquil scene and read the large, cast-iron plaque near the explorer's grave. Lewis' "life of romantic endeavor and lasting achievement," it reads, in part, "came tragically and mysteriously to its close on the night of Oct. 11, 1809."

Our only mystery this afternoon: Are we really going to complete our 50-mile ride?

And so off we went, enriched by a brief experience at mile post 385.9.

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-- Killibrew, J.B. Resources of Tennessee, Nashville, Tavel, Eastman & Howell, 1874.

Friday, April 17, 2020

A mini-tour of Shy's Hill, a Battle of Nashville site

I biked to Shy's Hill recently, traveling over hallowed ground that long ago became residential neighborhoods. Before shooting this video, I met a young woman there who told me of finding a Minie ball in a brook nearby. Not surprising. There's Civil War lead and iron all over this vast battlefield. Shy's Hill -- called Compton's Hill in 1864 -- was the extreme left of the Confederate line on Dec. 16, 1864, the last day of the two-day battle.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Nashville's Fort Negley: A tale of 'paradise,' hobos and the KKK

A cropped enlargement of a war-time image of Fort Negley by George Barnard.
(Library of Congress)
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In the decades after the Civil War, Nashville's Fort Negley wasn't just a decaying relic of the past. The massive Union fortification on St. Cloud Hill was also a playground for the city's youth. They would scour its trenches, breastworks and nooks and crannies for buttons from soldiers' uniforms, ordnance and whatever else the Federals left behind during their occupation of the city from 1862-67.

"A small boy's paradise," a Nashville Tennessean columnist called it.

Fort Negley is on St. Cloud Hill, a short distance from downtown Nashville.
The place also has a sordid past: In the 19th century, a band of desperadoes, covered from view by rubble and undergrowth. reportedly occupied Fort Negley,  And beginning in the late 1860s, shortly after the Union Army left town, the fort became a favorite meeting place for the Ku Klux Klan, which spewed its hate-filled message there well into the 20th century.

"The thing that the struck terror to us children more than the Battle of Nashville," May Winston Caldwell recalled about the era immediately after the Civil War, "was the Ku Klux Klan that had its meetings in the then abandoned Fort Negley. When twilight came, or in the misty moonlight, these figures of ill-omen would sally forth.

"The appearance of the Klan caused consternation; and after seeing one, it was days before we got back to normal."

Ruins on fort's south side. Peach Orchard Hill, a key Battle of Nashville site,
 is in the middle distance.
In the 20th century, several organizations advocated for saving Fort Negley -- there were even plans to turn it into a national park. But few in Nashville were eager to memorialize a place so closely tied to the Federal occupation of the city and the disastrous Confederate defeat at the Battle of Nashville in December 1864. And so the fort deteriorated until the Works Progress Adminstration restored most of it in 1937.

But over the ensuing decades few visited Fort Negley, and the historic site once again fell into disrepair. "Winos and hobos" used it for a refuge, and the fort was closed to the public for safety reasons. "Fort Negley has grown into such a thicket," said a member of the Davidson County Civil War Centennial Committee in 1963, "that policemen don't like to go up there alone at night."

In 1964, Fort Negley was considered for a zoo, but that plan went nowhere. After decades of neglect, the fort -- built mostly with African-American labor in 1862 -- was restored by the city at a cost of $2 million and re-opened in 2004 as a city park. (A plan backed by the mayor to build a mixed-use development at the site was thankfully scrapped in 2018.)

Which brings us back to our "small boy's paradise." In 1929, Tennessean columnist Truman Hudson Alexander advocated for the creation of a Fort Negley national park. "Romance," he wrote, "clings around the old atrocity in South Nashville," where the newspaperman hunted with friends for Civil War artifacts as a boy.

Below is Alexander's column -- a remarkable window into Nashville's past -- as published in the Tennessean on Dec. 7, 1929:

            PANORAMA: View from a lower tier of the fort toward downtown Nashville.
                                   (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

It has been only a few years ago that I, in company with other ragamuffins from Vine Street, used to play on old Fort Negley. Indeed, for 65 years the old fort in South Nashville has been a small boy's paradise.

In 1929, Nashville Tennessean columnist
Truman Alexander advocated for the creation
of a Fort Negley national park
And now, if I read the public prints aright, the sixty-sixth General Assembly is asked to make a national park of the old fort, immortalizing forever the spot near where [John Bell] Hood and [George] Thomas fought, where robbers used to hide in reconstruction days, where the original K. K. K. held ghostly conclaves by night and where goats and small boys have disported in late years.

I do not agree with a venerable contributor who wrote in to the paper the other day to say that he could not see why Fort Negley should be honored, because it was a pain in the neck to Nashville from 1861 to 1865. As well, he intimated, to erect a monument to a carbuncle or to the hives.

And I do not agree because old Fort Negley is to my not too ancient memory a place of pure delight. True, of late years it has been the rendezvous mainly of billygoats who thrive on tin cans. It has resembled nothing so much as one of Mayor Howse's celebrated city dump piles but may be distinguished from the garbage mountains by the fact that the piles of garbage are in active eruption, burning fiercely and giving forth an odor reminiscent ot a Chinese stink bomb.

I am for old Fort Negley and make haste to align myself with the proponents of its salvation through federal grace because as a lad we used to find Union buttons by the peck, play soldier on its slope, play robber in the remains of the old breastworks and charge rival gangs from its summit with fixed bayonets, which were sharp sticks and powerful weapons against little colored boys who ventured "too close."

An aerial view of Fort Negley in 1936. (Battle of Nashville Trust)
A late 1930s view of the fort, which was restored in 1937 by the Works Progress Administration.
(Battle of Nashville Trust)
In fact, romance clings around the old atrocity in South Nashville. It is not as ancient as the old Spanish fort in St. Augustine nor as picturesque as the old Cabildo in New Orleans, but list to its tale:

It served tor four years as a fort during the Civil war. It was a star shaped fort on the highest hill in Nashville, which like Rome of old is guarded by seven hills. It was one of a chain of forts around the city and on the nearby battlefield where the battle of Nashville was fought the gallant Federal general, Thomas, won one of the most decisive victories of the Civil War over Hood, the Confederate general, because that victory, by crushing the Confederacy in the west and protecting Sherman's flank in the Georgia campaign, made the surrender at Appomattox a certainty a few months later.

After the war it became the meeting place of robbers. I am told by Mrs. James E. Caldwell, who first suggested the preservation of Fort Negley 18 years ago, that her father, who was a physician, never ventured out on a call during reconstruction days unless accompanied by two men from the family he was to visit. The days were too lawless and most of the outlaws seemed to gather around the old fort.

Fort Negley today is a protected area, but plans to make it a national park
never were realized.
It is tradition that the robber gangs tunneled from Fort Negley to the old City cemetery to enable them to escape officers who raided the place periodically. The end of the tunnel was in the old McNairy vault in the musty City cemetery, as an excited negro reported upon seeing a man emerge from the handsome bronze doors of the vault.

After this the old fort became the meeting place of the Ku Klux Klan, which held weird conclaves on the forbidding brow of the hill. The flickering pine torches revealed sometimes thousands of klansmen in white robes, about to set out to curb lawlessness or to drink buckets of water which went into a rubber sack over their stomachs. announcing simultaneously to the superstitions ' host that the white rider hadn't had a drink since he was killed at the Battle of Nashville on Dec. 16, 1864!

And still later the old fort became a paradise for goats and small boys. No Nashville boy has really tasted the joys of boyhood unless he has visited Fort Negley. True, he will return with the smell of billy goats on his clothing and perhaps muddy and dirty besides, but he will have lived.

Personally, my boyish legs bore me thence often and I collected a lard bucket or two of buttons from the coats of soldiers. Indeed, I am able to see why the Civil war cost so much because the daily pleasure ot the Yankee soldiers must have been in ripping off the buttons from their coats, and in scattering cannon balls around for the small boys of another generation to collect.

      PANORAMA: A view of the remains of the stockade, the fort's last area of defense.

The profusion of Union buttons, however, may be explained by an ancient wheese hereabouts which is that a prominent merchant and Confederate sympathiser on the public square shortly after the Civil war wrote North to order a hundred pounds of onion buttons. Being a poor speller it appears that it was thought he was ordering Union buttons and instead of a hundred pounds of small onion sets he received quite a large box of brass buttons with eagles on them and the letters U. S. A. These he promptly threw away and I am constrained to believe that perhaps he threw them on Fort Negley.

That's my story, anyway, and I stick to it.

That this proposal to save Fort Negley from the knawing tooth of time came from Mrs. Caldwell is, it seems to me, peculiarly fitting. Her eldest brother, Arthur Winston, was with General Hood's Confederate army when the battle of Nashville was fought nearby. As a small child she heard the distant rumble of artillery in the battle, and it is to Mrs. Caldwell that Nashville owes much of the credit for the handsome monument to the battle of Nashville which must attract and charm visitors from the south as they approach the city over the floor-like smoothness of the Franklin pike.

If Mrs. Caldwell's ideas are carried out Nashville will have another enterprise to which we may point with pride. as entrance from Eighth avenue as well as from the Franklin pike could be arranged rather easily. There should be an imposing entrance and the dedication to Grant and Lee ought to please almost everybody -- except the G. A. R. and the U. C. V.!

Of late years, I am against almost everything I find. Much of what we call progress isn't progress at all, but I am for Fort Negley's restoration and sending the bill to Washington.

A cropped enlargement of George Barnard's war-time image of the interior of Fort Negley.
(Library of Congress)

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-- Nashville Banner, Aug. 15, 1963.
-- Nashville Tennessean, Dec. 6, 1964.