Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Video: 5 minutes at Shy's Hill, a Battle of Nashville site

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Channeling my inner Sherpa mountain guide, I climbed to the crest of Shy’s Hill, where the Federals’ assault on the cold, rainy afternoon of Dec. 16, 1864, was a decisive blow to the Army of Tennessee.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Wilderness: Snapshots of death from a 'most lonely place'

1865 image of soldier remains in the Wilderness, near Cemetery No. 2. (Library of Congress)
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Faint from loss of blood, a grievously wounded young soldier lay alone near scores of Confederate dead in the Wilderness. Unable to stand, the "poor fellow," a Union soldier observed, slowly crawled across the blood-soaked ground gathering violets. He had already made a beautiful bouquet.

3rd Vermont Captain Erastus Buck, wounded on 
May 5, died in Washington on May 22, 1864. 
A thousand people attended a service for him in 
East Charleston, Vt., according to an obituary
in the Orleans Independent Standard.
"I saw him taken up tenderly and borne away wearing a brave, sweet, touching smile," the witness recalled.

The fate of the boy, like so many other wounded who suffered in the dense, wooded undergrowth of Virginia in early May 1864, is lost to history. Perhaps he survived despite his serious wound. More likely he died -- one of hundreds who perished from wounds suffered in the battle.

Then came the funerals. Scores of services were held in the North and South. Sometimes with a body of the deceased, often without. Here are snapshots of what Vermont lost in the Wilderness -- the "most lonely place I ever saw," according to a sharpshooter from the state. In the spring and summer of 1864, the Green Mountain State's newspapers were filled with death and despair.

The corpse of Lieutenant Colonel John Steele Tyler, a "mere boy of only 21 years," arrived at the train depot in Brattleboro, Vt., about 10:30 a.m. on May 24. The remains were received by officers from the 8th Vermont, who were en route to New Orleans, and a "company of invalids from the garrison" near town. Tyler's body was escorted to the town hall, where his nearly 90-year-old grandmother was among the mourners.

Wounded in the thigh at the Wilderness, Lt. Col. John Steele Tyler
died in a hotel in New York.  (John Gibson collection)
From a prominent family, Tyler, the son of a reverend, had been promoted only days before the Battle of the Wilderness. Shortly after he was shot, John realized his wound, which sliced his femoral artery, was mortal. Still, he lingered for nearly two weeks, dying in the Metropolitan Hotel in New York on May 23. A civilian doctor who examined him there believed the wound was caused by buckshot, not a bullet.

"Death, in a sudden and mysterious manner, has removed him," Vermont's governor wrote to Tyler's uncle, a judge, "and we are left to mourn the loss of a brave and worthy officer." Tyler received a posthumous promotion to colonel from the governor.

Throughout the day in Brattleboro, citizens paid their respects to Tyler, many of them placing flowers atop his coffin.

"Appropriate verses were also stuck on the bayonets of the stacks of arms at the head and foot of the coffin," a newspaper reported. One of them caught the eye of a reporter:

"How beautiful is death when earned by virtue! Who would not be that youth? What pity is it that we can die but once to save our country! Why sit this sadness on your brows, my friends? I should have blushed if Cato's house had stood Secure, and flourished in a civil war."

At 6 p.m., Tyler's remains were escorted to the Episcopal church by two fire companies, a company of the 17th Vermont, local cadets and a company of "invalids," who were stationed at a nearby military camp.  After the church service, a band played a dirge as the casket was escorted to a nearby cemetery. During the graveside service, mourners were drenched during a brief thunder shower and startled by "one very vivid stroke of lightning."

Muffled drums rolled. The casket was lowered into the ground. Three farewell shots were fired over the grave.

"Seldom have the people of Brattleboro been called on to witness a more solemn and impressive pageant," the Vermont Record reported.

             PANORAMA: Vermont Brigade monument in the woods near the intersection 
        of Brock and Orange Plank roads. (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

Captain George Randall of the 6th Vermont was shot through both legs above the knee on May 5, the first day of the fighting, and lived until about 4 p.m. that day.

"He was decently interred and the enemy never rifled his pockets or polluted his person," an officer recalled in an account published in a Vermont newspaper. "Even to the last, he would never give up, but remarked that he was not wounded very severely. He bled to death, and I doubt if medical aid had been near at first whether he would have survived."

The 21-year-old soldier's remains rest in an unknown grave in Virginia.

22-year-old William W. Wilson, a private in the 1st U.S, Sharpshooters, died in a hospital. 
He had been in 27 battles, according to his obituary in The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press on June 15, 1864.

In Calais, Vt., on June 5, a large congregation assembled to "testify to their respect to the memory" of 25-year-old William Stowe. A private in the 2nd Vermont, he was killed near the intersection of Brock and Orange Plank roads. Stowe was part of the Vermont Brigade -- five regiments of soldiers from the Green Mountain State -- which suffered 1,234 casualties making a desperate stand on May 5-6, 1864.

"Was the result commensurate to the sacrifice?" Lewis Grant, the brigade's commander, wrote weeks after the battle. "Whether it was or not, the battle once commenced had to be fought. There was safety only in success."

Stowe's death was "peculiarly distressing," according to a local newspaper. "He was the first in town to respond to his country's call for three years' men and enlisted into the Second Vermont Regiment, of which he continued a brave and honored member, beloved and respected by all his comrades."

"His term of service having nearly expired, he was fondly anticipating a speedy return home, and a happy sojourn with affectionate friends," it added. "But instead of his welcome presence came the sad intelligence that he was shot in battle in the afternoon of the first day's fighting."

Lucius Ingalls, the only son of Azel and Leafy Ingalls, died in a hospital in Washington from wounds
suffered at the Wilderness, according to a brief account in the Vermont Journal on July 9, 1864.
His right arm had been amputated. Ingalls was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

After conducting the funeral in early June for George Whitfield, a private in the 17th Vermont, a preacher made a proposal that proved prophetic.

"And I move that when this war shall have ended, and when this town shall have purchased land for its contemplated cemetery," he said, "that a separate lot be preserved expressly for our fallen brave of this war."

"And then upon our festive days, our national anniversaries and the like," he added, "let the good ole 'Stars and Stripes' be unfurled there, that their drifting shadows float above the honored dust of those who laid down their lives in their defense."

 Newton Stone was killed on May 5, 1864. A lawyer as a civilian, he had "two brothers fighting
 for the cause for which he gave his life," the St. Johnsbury (Vt.) Caledonian noted
on May 27, 1864. He was buried in Readsboro, Vt.

In early August in Cabot, Vt., a service was held for a pair of brothers, Edwin and Abel Morrill. A captain in the 11th Vermont, Edwin was mortally wounded in the bowels trying to escape after he was captured at the Battle of Weldon Railroad in Virginia. Abel, acting adjutant in the 3rd Vermont, was killed at the Wilderness. Shortly after the war, Edwin's remains were recovered and re-buried in his native state. Abel's body was never found.

"Resolutions of condolence and sympathy were adopted," the local newspaper reported about the brothers. "The exercises were largely attended by sympathizing friends from Cabot and adjoining towns."

Corporal Lucian Bingham of Morristown, Vt., died in a Washington hospital from wounds suffered
at the Wilderness. The 23-year-old was a "worthy brother" and a "brave soldier," according to this account
in the Lamoille Newsdealer on July 27, 1864. He's buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

On June 25, 1864, The Burlington (Vt.) Times reprinted a poem by George Baker, recalling the seriously wounded young man picking flowers in the Wilderness. It's a fitting tribute, perhaps, to all the soldiers who suffered there.


Mangled, uncared for, suffering thro’ the night
With heavenly patience the poor boy had lain;
Under the dreary shadows, left and right,
Groaned on the wounded, stiffened out the slain.
What faith sustained his lone,
Brave heart to make no moan,
To send no cry from that blood-sprinkled sod,
Is a close mystery with him and God.

But when the light came, and the morning dew
Glittered around him, like a golden lake,
And every dripping flower with deepened hue
Looked through its tears for very pity’s sake,
He moved his aching head
Upon his rugged bed,
And smiled as a blue violet, virgin-meek,
Laid her pure kiss upon his withered cheek.

At once there circled in his waking heart
A thousand memories of distant home;
Of how those same blue violets would start
Along his native fields, and some would roam
Down his dear humming brooks,
To hide in secret nooks,
And, shyly met, in nodding circles swing,
Like gossips murmuring at belated Spring.

And then he thought of the beloved hands
That with his own had plucked the modest flower.
The blue-eyed maiden, crowned with golden bands,
Who ruled as sovereign of that sunny hour.
She at whose soft command
He joined the mustering band,
She for whose sake he lay so firm and still,
Despite his pangs, not questioned then her will.

So, lost in thought, scarce conscious of the deed,
Culling the violets, here and there he crept
Slowly—ah! slowly,—for his wound would bleed;
And the sweet flowers themselves half smiled, half wept,
To be thus gathered in
By hands so pale and thin,
By fingers trembling as they neatly laid
Stem upon stem, and bound them in a braid.

The strangest posy ever fashioned yet
Was clasped against the bosom of the lad,
As we, the seekers for the wounded, set
His form upon our shoulders bowed and sad;
Though he but seemed to think
How violets nod and wink;
And as we cheered him, for the path was wild,
He only looked upon his flowers and smiled.

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-- Lamoille Newsdealer, Hyde Park, Vt., July 27, 1864
-- Orleans Independent Standard, Irasburgh, Vt., June 3, 1864.
-- St. Albans (Vt.) Daily Messenger, May 16, 1864.
-- St. John's (Vt.) Caledonian, May 27, 1864.
-- The Burlington (Vt.) Weekly Sentinel, June 10, 1864.
-- The Burlington (Vt.) Daily Times, June 25, 1864.
-- Vermont Journal, July 9, 1864.
-- Vermont Record, Brandon, Vt., June 3, 1864, June 24, 1864.
-- Vermont Watchman and State Journal, Aug. 19, 1864.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Video: Two minutes in 'The Slaughter Pen' at Stones River

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Four Union regiments in Miller's brigade -- soldiers from Indiana, Pennsylvania and Ohio -- were sheltered in the limestone labyrinth at the Battle of Stones River (Tenn.) on Dec. 31, 1862. It became known as "The Slaughter Pen" because of the many wounded and dead stacked here.

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Monday, December 31, 2018

In 10 images: A moving monument, cemetery at Stones River

Part of the inscription on the west face of  the Hazen Brigade monument. 
The Hazen Brigade monument, completed in October 1863, is the oldest Civil War monument still at its
original battlefield location. (Read more on National Park Service site.)

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A  Philadelphia newspaper correspondent was underwhelmed during his 1882 visit to the Hazen Brigade monument and cemetery on the Stones River (Tenn.) battlefield. "Little inspiration could be drawn from the surroundings," he wrote nearly 20 years after the battle, "... because a few dozen unkempt graves, some rough prickly pears and corners overgrown with weeds were the only marked objects near the shaft. And even had I found food for patriotic reflection there, the mood would have vanished a few moments later, as a fresh bulldog of yellow hue chased the tired sight-seer headlong through a cotton field to a waiting buggy in the road."

Thankfully, my 30-minute visit on a rainy Monday morning -- the 156th anniversary of the Western Theatre battle -- was not similarly marred. And unlike the long-ago reporter, I was inspired by the simple Union monument and small cemetery adjacent to a railroad track.

"To the memory of its soldiers who fell at Stone River, Dec. 31st, 1862," reads an inscription on the south face of the monument. "Their faces towards heaven, their feet to the foe."

On New Year's Eve 1862, 1,600 soldiers in Colonel William Hazen's Brigade held off wave after wave of attacks at the "Round Forest," a strip of woods on the extreme left of the Union line. The brigade -- men and boys from the 41st Ohio, 6th Kentucky, 9th Indiana and 110th Illinois -- suffered more than 400 casualties at Stones River. Hazen's soldiers were the only Federal unit to hold its position throughout the battle.

In October 1863, a detail of Federal soldiers completed a monument on ground defended by Hazen's Brigade, near the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad line and Nashville Pike. Made from large blocks of limestone, it was placed amidst the graves of 55 soldiers in the brigade who died from wounds or disease at Stones River.

A train chugs past the Hazen Brigade monument and cemetery on the Stones River (Tenn.) battlefield.
"Killed at Stone River Dec.31st 1862," reads an inscription on the monument.
Three stones atop a marker for an unknown soldier.
Soldiers from the 41st Ohio, 9th Indiana, 110th Illinois and 6th Kentucky are buried in the cemetery.
Fifty-five soldiers from Hazen's Brigade are buried in the small cemetery adjacent to a railroad track.
All four sides of the monument include an inscription honoring Union soldiers.
Grave of 6th Kentucky Private Casper Krebs, who died of disease.
A row of pearl-white graves in Hazen's Brigade Cemetery, which is surrounded by a stone wall.

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-- Philadelphia Times, Aug. 28, 1882
-- In 1985, workers repairing the monument discovered a time capsule inside it. Objects found included horse's teeth, bone fragments, two bullets, three artillery shells and two musket barrels.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

A Christmas story: Her name is Esther

Esther at her usual spot. (CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)
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She’s always there on a bench in downtown Nashville, blocks from the honky-tonks on Broadway, surrounded by all her worldly possessions. Two bags filled with clothes, a cart stuffed with plastic bags and who-knows-what-else, a few scraps of food, a sleeping bag.

When I saw her during the summer, I’d occasionally say hello. I bought her a Gatorade during a scorching afternoon. One morning, I gave her a bag of bagels and a water. Nothing much. “Oh, thank you,” she said in a sweet, high-pitched voice. After a 15- or 20-second conversation, I was off to my life. But I never got her name.

On Christmas Eve, my daughter Jessie and I went to a wonderful, inspiring church service in Nashville, blocks from the nameless homeless lady’s bench. The place was filled. We listened to a terrific sermon, admired the two beautifully decorated Christmas trees on the altar, offered the sign of peace to those near us. Simply tremendous. All the parishioners held small, lit candles — no, I didn’t burn down the church — while singing Silent Night. Who doesn’t love that song?

During the service, I thought of the Lady on The Bench. Would she be in her usual spot on Christmas Eve? Sure enough, she was there, alone as usual, surrounded by her meager possessions and wrapped in rags.

After I dropped off my daughter, I grabbed a few things in my apartment for the Lady on The Bench. A blanket I didn’t really need. Eight cans of SpaghettiOs I’d never eat. Some bread. Two sleeves of crackers. Nothing much.

I parked my car in a near-empty lot near The Lady on The Bench and delivered the goods. “Oh, thank you,” she said in the high-pitched voice I remembered from months earlier. “God bless you,” I said. Our eyes never met. That’s Ok. I asked for her name.

“Esther,” she told me.

What a nice name. Unforgettable, actually.

A good lesson, too: Don’t ever forget the Esthers.

Merry Christmas.

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Sunday, December 23, 2018

On Christmas Day 1862, a special feast for wounded warriors

A ward in Washington's Armory Square Hospital, where a Christmas dinner was held for patients in 1862.
(Library of Congress)
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On Dec. 25, 1862, a grateful nation showed its deep appreciation for the sacrifices of Union soldiers. In one of the more extraordinary events of the Civil War, thousands of sick and wounded were served Christmas dinners in military hospitals in and near the nation's capital.

"Nowhere else in the world than in America," a New York newspaper wrote, "could have been the sight which has made this holiday in Washington remarkable and memorable -- the banqueting of 35,000 wounded and sick soldiers upon a Christmas dinner, spread by the hands of individual benevolence."

Elizabeth Smith, wife of President Lincoln's
Secretary of the Interior, was a driving force
behind the 1862 Christmas Day dinner for soldiers.
(Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection)
Financial contributions for the massive event -- deftly organized by Elizabeth Smith, wife of the Secretary of the Interior -- poured in from private individuals, businesses and states. (Indiana contributed $700, and $2,500 was collected in Philadelphia.) "A grand Christian event," a newspaper called the dinner, greatly aided by contributions from other "noble ladies."

Food came from throughout the Union, too. Pennsylvania and Maryland shipped an "immense amount" of poultry. "Ever-generous" Albany, N.Y., provided 300 turkeys, "cooked and ready to eat." Four carloads of poultry arrived from Chicago. In total, 7,000 chickens and turkey were consumed. The feasts were served in hospital wards fittingly decorated for the holiday season with Christmas trees, evergreens, green holly, crimson berries, wreaths and red roses.

"... the whole was prepared in a style to please the most epicurean taste," a newspaper wrote about the fare served at College Hospital in Georgetown. Topped with flowers, a pyramid of seven large cakes stood near the door of the hospital near the Potomac River. Ice cream was served at at least one dinner.

Many hospitals, of course, were decorated with patriotic flourishes.

At Dumbarton Hospital, red, white and blue ribbons were displayed in "lavish profusion," and the motto "Union" was displayed prominently. At Presbyterian Church Hospital, crossed muskets on each side of the altar gave the room "somewhat of a military appearance." At the opposite end of the altar, a large American flag was "gracefully festooned." Formed in cedar twigs beneath it were the words "Union" and "Constitution." At Finley Hospital, the dining hall was decorated with mini-national flags.

President Lincoln visited military hospitals 
in Washington with his wife on Christmas Day 1862.
(Library of Congress)
Apparently with no regard for the sufferings of the soldiers, senators, congressman and members of President Lincoln's cabinet "made speeches happily fit for the occasion." Then they mingled with the soldiers. Entertainment was provided by hired or volunteer singers, who serenaded soldiers with songs of home or country. At Stone Hospital, music by a glee club of patients enlivened the dinner.

President Lincoln and his wife appeared at at least two hospitals. "In one or two the President found time to bring excitement and sunshine with him among the bandage and becrutched revelers," according to a newspaper account.  "Mrs. Secretary Smith," the event's organizer,  visited at least a half-dozen hospitals.

At Judiciary Square Hospital, where 500 patients were accommodated, the scene was especially impressive. In the dining hall, portraits of George Washington and Secretary of the Interior Caleb Blood Smith hung on the walls. "Merry Christmas" in blue letters appeared on a large banner. "The Union must and shall be preserved," read another sign near the dinner table, which was "furnished in a style of actual magnificence." Chickens and turkeys were stacked in "perfect" pyramids -- one of the gobblers reportedly weighed 25 pounds. The fare also consisted of roast beef, mutton, hams, oysters, chickens, "side dishes of all sorts" and pies.

When Lincoln was about to depart Judiciary Square Hospital, a short carriage ride from the White House, he was approached by an elderly gentleman. "Notwithstanding your extensive public duties," the old man told the president, "you managed to hold your own."

"Yes," Lincoln replied with a laugh, "but I have not got much to hold."

Volunteer waiters eagerly served wounded warriors. Soldiers who were too injured or sickly to be moved to a dinner table were usually served first. "The feasting of this army," according to an account, "was a touching sight."

Only 100 of the 280 patients were well enough to eat at the dinner tables at Douglas Hospital 
in Washington  on Christmas Day 1862. This is an undated wartime image. (U.S. Military Institute)
In two editions after Christmas, the Evening Star of Washington published richly detailed, hospital-by-hospital reports of the festivities:
  • At Trinity Church Hospital, a small Christmas tree rested on each of the four tables in the dining area. The air was fragrant with flowers and cedar, and an organist played The Star-Spangled Banner and Gloria In Excelsis, surely inspirational songs for all in attendance.
  • At Stanton Hospital, the dinner was supervised by the wives of Indiana's two senators. "They had the assistance of a large number of other ladies, whose beauty and smiles were enough to gladden the hearts of the brave men who are amongst the unfortunate of those who have volunteered to sustain the nation and its honor."
  • At Douglas Hospital, only 100 of the 280 patients were well enough to eat at the dinner table. Wounded from the Battle of Fredericksburg, fought two weeks earlier, had arrived there only recently.
  • At Emory Hospital, the 1st Michigan Cavalry band played "eloquent music," and the sick and wounded  who couldn't eat at the table were "bounteously supplied by the ladies -- those angels of mercy who ever to delight to soothe the sufferings of our honored soldiers."
  • At Camp Parole in Alexandria, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington, nearly 15,000 convalescents and paroled prisoners were served. A toast to the men and women who provided the meal was "appropriately responded to."
  • At Union Chapel Hospital, Dr. Hubbard of the National Observatory was asked to give a speech. Apparently uncomfortable as a public speaker, he refused. "Doctor," the patients shouted, "tell us about the stars!” He complied.
  • At Fourth Presbyterian Church Hospital, 50 of the 150 patients could not leave their beds. Every sick and wounded patriot, however, received a pint of ale. So, too, did each of the 500 patients at Finley Hospital. Christmas cheer, indeed. 
At Convalescent Camp, near Alexandria, Va., the Christmas Day dinner was delivered late.
(Library of Congress)
Not all the dinners went smoothly, unsurprising given the scale of the event. At Convalescent Camp, near Alexandria, soldiers did not eat until late in the evening because food was delivered late. And at Armory Square Hospital, tables in the wards were "devoid of all attractive embellishment." Worse, the meal was served first to hospital attendants and nurses, who ate off "china plates." The "invalid soldiers were obliged to wait until a long while after before they were supplied," the Evening Star reported, "and then the dinner was served to them on tin plates, and in such a manner as to convey with it no pleasing thoughts whatsoever." (Surgeons, attendants, clerks, wardmasters and others at the hospital complained the account was fake news, but the newspaper stuck by the story.)

Mary Lincoln, the president's wife,
contributed food for the dinner
at the Contraband Camp on Christmas Day.
At 2 p.m., Christmas dinner also was served at the Contraband Camp at 12th and Q streets, the temporary home of about 500 escaped slaves and other African-Americans. The feast included turkey, chicken, roast beef, boiled ham, vegetables and candy, mostly contributed by Mary Lincoln. Afterward, each child received a toy. Earlier that morning, clothing was distributed to grateful adults and children.

Soon after the Christmas dinner, soldiers and others sought contributions to buy Elizabeth Smith a "magnificent present" for her excellent work. They quickly raised several hundred dollars.

Ah, this holiday certainly was a extra-special.

Wrote a reporter for the Evening Star:

"It was a bright day for all, and which will always bring pleasing thoughts to both those who donated and those who were recipients of the dinners.  The main credit is due to Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Secretary Smith, who in a measure supplied all the hospitals; but the grateful soldiers will not forget soon the kind ladies who by their presence and smiles added sunshine to the gloomy hospital cots."

Perhaps another Washington newspaper summed it up best: "This war," the National Republican wrote, "will develop a great many manly, Christian and noble qualities in our people that the times of peace can never bring out."

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-- New York Tribune, Dec. 26, 1862.
-- The Evening Star, Washington, D.C., Dec. 26, 27, 1862.
-- The National Republican, Washington, D.C., Dec. 15 and 25, 1862.
-- The Pittsburgh Gazette, Dec. 24, 1862.
-- Washington Evening Star, Dec. 27, 1862

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Top 2018 posts: A house's death spiral to 1862 Antietam in color

Art Williamson, owner of the dilapidated house where a Massachusetts officer died.
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Six of my top-10 most popular posts in 2018 were about Antietam, a place I visited, oh, 4,333 times this year.  In 2018, we surpassed 2.7 million page views all time on the blog and topped 5,000 followers on my Civil War Facebook page.  Thanks for being part of our community. (Pageview figures through Dec. 18, 9 a.m. ET.)

1. Death spiral: A sad end for house where Antietam officer died (Views 27,420)

Time, nature and trespassers conspire to wreak havoc inside the Greek Revival-style house. Debris spills from a fireplace on the first floor -- one of five in the once-stately home. A brown doorknob, perhaps a victim of a vagrant, lies on the floor, forgotten. Boarded-up windows block a magnificent view of South Mountain. This is where Massachusetts officer Wilder Dwight died in 1862.  Read more.

2. 'Dreadfully distorted visages': How soldiers die in battle (26,257)

"Almost every death on the battle-field is different. And the manner of the death depends on the wound and on the man, whether he is cowardly or brave, whether his vitality is large or small, whether he is a man of active imagination or is dull of intellect, whether he is of nervous or lymphatic temperament. I instance deaths and wounds that I saw in Grant's last campaign." Read more.

3. Herculean task': How dead were recovered after Civil War (17,451)

In the years immediately after the war, the Federal government mobilized to locate and disinter remains of Union dead for re-burial in newly established national cemeteries. By the time the costly program was completed in 1870, nearly 300,000 remains had been recovered. Officially neglected, Confederate dead were mostly left to private organizations throughout the South to recover and re-bury.  Read more.

4. 'Secret' stash: What public doesn't see at Springfield Armory (13,338)

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

5. Journey in time: 'Stunning' 1891 Antietam images surface (12,515)

Believed lost to history, the rare photographs are among six to have recently surfaced in New Jersey -- the largest stash of John Meade Gould images yet to be discovered. A unique window into the early, post-war appearance of the battlefield, the photographs have excited Antietam historians, who are hopeful even more "Goulds" will be discovered. Read more.

6. In Franklin, Tennessee, a walk through a Confederate cemetery: (11,650)

On a frigid Saturday afternoon, I walked among the rows of graves at the McGavock Confederate Cemetery -- the largest privately owned military cemetery in the country -- shooting photographs. Nearly 1,500 Confederate dead from the Battle of Franklin are interred in a two-acre plot on the former plantation of the McGavock family. See more.

7. 'Vast cemetery': Death, destruction astonish Antietam reporter: (10,562) 

"It is not our intention to attempt a full portrayal of the horrors which, in the early part of last week, marked the battle-field of Antietam, although we doubt not a portion of our account will be considered sufficiently horrible. We were told by those who had preceded us to this scene of destruction, that we obtained a sight of the tail end only. If that be so, we have no desire to see the whole animal." Read more.

8. Antietam in 1907: 'Sacred' damage, mass grave in 'lot yondah' (10,139)

Even in the summer of 1907 -- nearly 45 years after Antietam -- effects of the battle were apparent in the village of Sharpsburg, Md., and in the immediate surrounding area. Assigned to write a feature about the battlefield that year, a Buffalo Evening News correspondent easily found artillery damage on the Dunker Church and bullet marks on Burnside Bridge.  Read more.

9. 'Romantic errand': In 1898, Rebel vet returned Antietam sword: (9,462) 

Nearly 36 years after the Battle of Antietam, a Confederate veteran traveled to Bellefonte, Pa., for an event a local newspaper called a "rather romantic errand." William M. Robbins' intentions certainly were noble: The former major in the 4th Alabama planned to return the sword of 5th Pennsylvania Reserves Lieutenant Hardman P. Petrikin to the soldier's sister. Read more. 

10. Antietam in color: Breathing life into 1862 battlefield images (9,125)

Unlike the cumbersome 19th-century process, colorization of black-and-white images is only a click away for us today. Using the Algorithmia site, I colorized Antietam images by Alexander Gardner and James Gibson, all available for your inspection in black and white in jpg. and tif formats on the fine Library of Congress web site. Crude, crass ... or captivating? See more.

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Sunday, December 16, 2018

Spirited: Church, whiskey, bourbon, gin and a little Civil War

Kim Peterson, tour experience manager at H Clark Distillery, stands next to a tub of "spent grain." 
The distillery gives the waste product from the production of spirits to a farmer, 
who feeds the slop to his cows.  It makes the animals happy. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
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Channeling my inner demon, I rush from a church service to a distillery in Thompson’s Station, Tenn., on Sunday morning. Somewhere David Allan Coe is smiling and thinking, “Damn, there’s a mighty good country music song there. All we need is a train, a pickup truck and a prison.”

Barrels of spirits in "The Shop," nerve center
of the distillery in Thompson's Station, Tenn.
My aim is to meet  H Clark Distillery owner/founder Heath Clark, an attorney, I’m told, with an above-average Civil War IQ. The 1863 Battle of Thompson’s Station was fought near the 100-year old granary where his team produces fine Tennessee bourbon, whiskey and dry gin. Clark's law office is in a small room in the four-year-old distillery, perhaps making him unique among legal practitioners in the United States. A family obligation prevents Heath from connecting with me, but I don’t leave his distillery disappointed.

Enter Kim Peterson, H. Clark's tour experience manager and a woman who obviously loves her job. “I have a blast here,” she tells me minutes into our visit.

A former hairdresser and special education teacher, Kim oozes charm and knowledge about the whiskey/bourbon/gin-making process. Ever-smiling, the 56-year-old Michigan native and Central Michigan women’s basketball fan eagerly gives me a tour.

A micro-batch distillery, H Clark focuses on quality over quantity. It produces one 53-gallon barrel of bourbon a week and a similar amount of whiskey and gin. By contrast, Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., produces thousands of barrels in the same timeframe.

The H. Clark Distillery is in a former granary in Thompson's Station, Tenn., where a Civil War battle
was fought on March 5, 1863.

The magic at H. Clark is created in “The Shop,” a room about twice the size of an average living room. As Kim and I enter the nerve center, the sweet (and tremendous) aroma of mash is apparent. She lifts the large lid on a vat of the mighty mixture of grains and water -- its creation is one of the early steps in the making of fine spirits. Tempted to dip my face into the thick, oatmeal-like mass, I instead place my nose as close as I can, careful that sunglasses tucked into my shirt don’t drop into the ooze.

"Doesn’t that smell great?” she says. Mmmmm, good.

Behind the red door, Tennessee
bourbon, whiskey and dry gin are made.
As I take notes on my church bulletin, wary of a lightning strike as I write, Kim talks in detail about the process of creating fine spirits. Think of it as symphony -- all steps must be in perfect harmony.

In The Shop, barrels of bourbon sit next to bags of corn and other grain, the key ingredients. Perhaps the most important piece of equipment  in the room is the large copper still, made in Portugal. The product is hand-bottled on the opposite side of "The Shop," a few steps away.

Near a long wall, a massive tub of brown liquid — spent grain, it’s called — sits. A local farmer takes this waste product from the alcohol-making process and feeds it to his cows, a pleasing feast for the animals.

“The cows love our bourbon mash,” Peterson says. “They come running for it. Then they just lay in the field, chilling.” She wants to shoot video of the cows enjoying the mostly alcohol-free slop someday. I take her word for it.

Of course, no visit to a distillery is complete without sampling the goods. As I sit in metal chair at the bar in the tasting room, a small sign on the mantle, near a broken Civil War bayonet, catches my eye: “Alcohol. Because no great story ever started with someone eating a salad.”


Peterson pours me two snorts of bourbon and one each of whiskey and dry gin. I sniff each, then savor the greatness. Clark’s best bourbon — bottled in bond and aged a minimum of four years — costs 100 bucks a bottle.

Euphoric, I say goodbye to Kim and step out into the sunshine. At the old railroad station across the road, I immediately see a bright red caboose.

Dang, David, about that song...

H Clark Distillery's copper still, made in Portugal. 
The final products. 

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Saturday, December 15, 2018

Nashville battlefield today: A visit to Redoubt No. 3 site

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Colonel Sylvester Hill,
killed at Nashville'
on Dec. 15, 1864.
In overrunning Redoubt No, 3 during the Battle of Nashville on Dec. 15, 1864, Union Colonel Sylvester Hill’s III Brigade swept through a playground, overturning children’s slides and ruining a garden at the Calvary United Methodist Church. (Sarcasm alert.) Once countryside south of Nashville, the battlefield long ago was lost to urban development. The church was built in the late 1940s.

Of the five redoubts constructed by John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee in the countryside south of Nashville, only traces of Nos. 1, 3 and 4 survive. A marker along Hillsboro Pike once noted the site of Redoubt No. 3, but it was damaged when it was struck by a car several years ago and never replaced.

No marker here notes the fate of the 44-year-old Hill, a married father of two children. The colonel was killed in his brigade's attack near the  modern-day United Methodist Church and across from the long-ago obliterated Redoubt No. 2 site.

Every so often, Calvary United Methodist parishioners receive a reminder of the significance of the land their church was built upon. “We have had sermons about how a battlefield was turned into a church,” church archivist Dave Nichols told me. “This is a place where people were killed that has been turned into a place of peace.”

A war-time illustration of the attack at Redoubt No. 3 during the Battle of Nashville depicts the moment
 Colonel Sylvester Hill (on horse) was wounded. (CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

'Gone for nothing!': Those who died storming Marye's Heights

The Stone Wall at the base of Marye's Heights, the objective of Union soldiers on Dec. 13, 1862.
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After the armies agreed to a truce, the horrifying work of burying dead from the Battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862, began in earnest. On the plain below Marye's Heights, Union burial crews found bloated and blackened bodies of comrades, some stripped of uniforms -- even of their  undergarments. Remains often could not be identified.

Granite markers for Union unknown buried in
Fredericksburg National Cemetery.
"As we approached the battle field," wrote a Federal soldier of the plain in front of the Stone Wall on Mayre's Heights, "the sight reminded me of a flock of sheep reposing in the field. But as we approached nearer, who can describe my feelings when I found them to be the dead bodies of our brave men, which had been stripped of their clothing."

More than 600 Yankee dead were buried in a 100-yard trench, a makeshift Union defensive position during the battle. Twenty-three were placed in another trench; 123 more were tossed into another.

Word of the fate of Union soldiers on the plain outside Fredericksburg soon filtered to Northern newspapers, Many publications expressed outrage over treatment of the dead.

"Persons who visited the battlefield of Fredericksburg with our burial parties," a Pennsylvania newspaper reported, "state the dead were all stripped of coats, pants, shoes, stockings, and in some instances drawers. The old garments of the rebels were strewed all over the battlefield. Evidently as they stripped our dead they took off their old 'duds' and put on the garments of the dead.

"Could anything exceed this in disgusting cruelty?"

Wrote a 7th Rhode Island soldier: "They are making a complete burying ground of Virginia. I cannot describe the scene."

Who were these Union dead, most of whom probably rest today in the national cemetery in Fredericksburg? Based largely on pension file documents, here are snapshots of soldiers who died storming Marye's Heights:


While Jesse Banker's pregnant wife agonized over his fate, Bennett Banker searched for his brother's body.

On Dec. 13, Bennett was by his 24-year-old brother's side when Company I of the 51st New York was ordered on the double quick into the fight for the heights. In the awful chaos, 19-year-old Bennett lost track of his brother. Before a 51st New York lieutenant left the battlefield, however. he saw Jesse fall, apparently from a bullet through the lungs.

During a truce, one of Banker's comrades found Jesse's cap on the plain -- Bennett was certain it was his brother's because part of his name as well as his regimental and company designations appeared inside it. Jesse was presumed dead, killed the day after his third wedding anniversary.

Based on a tell-tale scar on a body's knee, a soldier in Company I who was part of the burial detail believed he may have found Jesse's remains. The dead man was "naked," the hair on the head was gone and the body was "nearly rotten."  Many decomposing dead, their clothes stripped off, had gruesomely turned black, making certain identification almost impossible.

By the time Mary Banker's widow's pension application was winding its way through government bureaucracy, the Company I soldier who was part of that Fredericksburg burial crew could not be deposed -- he had died in a Confederate prison.

On June 5, 1863, Mary gave birth to a son. She named the boy Jesse.


John A. Kerr's promotion certificate to second lieutenant, found in his mother's pension file.
(National Archives via
Evidently impressing his superiors, Kerr was given a promotion from sergeant to second lieutenant in the fall of 1862. He was never mustered in at the higher rank.

 "His failure ... was not through neglect or refusal on his part," 53rd Pennsylvania Colonel George Anderson wrote, "but because he was killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Va., on the 13th day of December, and his commission did not reach the Head Quarters of said Regt. until two days after he was killed."

When she sought an increase in her pension in 1866, John's mother included the promotion document in paperwork. During the war, Kerr sent home to Latrobe, Pa., part of his wages to support his parents -- it amounted to at least $80 within a year's period, according to his mother's neighbors.


No Union soldier reached the Stone Wall at the base of Marye's Heights on Dec. 13, 1862.
Danger lurked around every corner as Cole, Ratcliffe, Kenyon and the rest of their 7th Rhode Island comrades formed up in the streets of Fredericksburg for an attack on the heights. A shell exploded on a side street at the feet of Nicholas Matteson of Company F, "cutting off one foot at the instep as with a cleaver and mangling the other at the ankle," a soldier in the regiment recalled. He bled to death at a makeshift hospital nearby. Another Rhode Island private was struck by a bullet in the right temple, leaving a ragged hole and turning his face a gruesome shade of purple. He somehow survived.

"...the shot and shell from the enemy were falling around us" before the regiment moved out into the open, recalled Ethan Jenks, a 2nd lieutenant. "Men of the regiment were killed then & there."

By the time the 7th Rhode Island had crossed a railroad cut and advanced toward the Stone Wall, Jenks had lost track of Cole, a 33-year-old farmer and a close friend. "I never heard anything more of him," he recalled, "though I made a very diligent inquiry for him because of my long intimacy with him. He was a good soldier. From my long acquaintance with him & his general good character, I feel confident that he could not have have deserted but must have been killed that day ..."

Probably stripped of his clothing, as were many Union dead, Cole's body would have been impossible to identify, Captain George Durfee noted. In a post-battle report, he was simply listed as "missing." Cole left behind a widow,  Frances, and two children, Minnie, 7, and Georgianna, 4.

No one in the regiment knew what became of Ratcliffe or Kenyon either.

Perhaps Ratcliffe, an immigrant from England, was blown to atoms by artillery -- the fate of some other soldiers that awful Saturday.  "I testify that his name appears in the records of the regiment as missing after action & supposed to have been instantly killed during the progress of the battle of Fredericksburg," 7th Rhode Island Surgeon James Harris wrote nearly a year after the private's death. In her widow's pension claim, Ratcliffe's wife included a copy of the couple's 1849 marriage certificate. Married in England, Sarah and Richard had no children.

A farmer, Kenyon was "struck by a shell and both legs were shot off," Captain Rowland Rodman recalled of the married father of a 4-year-old son. "I saw him after he was struck & left him on the field. I have no doubt that he died that day from said wound."

1849 marriage certificate for "bachelor" Richard Ratcliffe and "spinster" Sarah Turner.
(National Archives via


In the heat of battle, James McAneny was just a few steps from James Kennedy, a fellow private in the Irish Brigade regiment. Then a bullet crashed into Kennedy. "He did not move but once after he was struck," McAneny recalled, "and that was very soon after he fell." Presumed dead by comrades, Kennedy fell into the hands of the enemy; the 19-year-old soldier's body apparently was not recovered.

For Kennedy's mother Margaret, his death was another awful blow. A widow in her 50s, she had for years earned a meager living as a peddler of chinaware in Boston. In the two years before he enlisted in January 1862, James earned about $4-$5 weekly selling dishes and such for his mother. He gave half his earnings to Margaret, two close friends of the family recalled, and kept the remainder to buy himself clothing and other goods.

In poor health, Margaret could only work during the summer months. Neighbors claimed she had little use of her limbs for nearly two decades. Mrs. Kennedy's two daughters weren't old enough to help in the family business.


1851 marriage certificate for Charles and Abby Knowles.
(National Archives via
Killed by a bullet through the neck, Knowles was found rolled up in a blanket -- an ignominious end for the wheelwright from South Kingstown. Knowles was among the 150 casualties, including 38 killed, in the regiment of about 550 soldiers.

Born in Rhode Island on March 10, 1826, Charles was the eldest son of James and Ann Knowles. When he was 25, he married Abby Snow Baker on Sept. 21, 1851 -- she used the couple's marriage certificate as proof of their union when she filed for a widow's pension. The Knowles had five children: Kate, 9;  James, 7; twins Ella and Alice, 7; and Maggie, 1.

Charles' brother, John, a 2nd lieutenant in the 4th Rhode Island, was killed at the Battle of the Crater, near Petersburg, Va., on July 30, 1864. The gravesites of the brothers are unknown.


Reilly's death was a staggering emotional blow for his family in Chelsea, near Boston. A significant financial hardship, too.

Before his enlistment in January 1862, Patrick worked odd jobs to help support his Irish-born mother, Catharine. A local storekeeper said Patrick, whom he described as "very steady," bought his mother groceries, often with his own money. After he joined the army, the 19-year-old soldier regularly sent home part of his pay, a major assist to a family that made do without paternal support.

"My husband is still living," Catharine noted in an affidavit for a mother's pension on Jan. 9 1863, "but he has not supported me for five years. During that time he has been confined in the house of correction as many as five times."

Friends of the family were scathing in their assessment of Phillip Reilly, whom Catharine had married in Ireland in the early 1840s. He was a "worthless character," two of them noted in January 1863 in a pension affidavit. A "common drunkard," another one called him.

Catharine's pension request eventually was approved at the standard $8 a month.


In a field beyond the Stone Wall, Warner Valentine was buried by comrades.
Before the war, Valentine was a college student at the Free Academy in New York, where the children of immigrants and the poor could get a good education. Because his father could provide sufficiently for the family at the time, Warner wasn't required to work. But sometime after the war started, Valentine's father suffered from paralysis and became bed-ridden. To support his Dutch-born parents, Warner sent home a portion of his army wages -- according to his mother Anna's acquaintances, he provided at least $150.

It's unknown whether Valentine was wounded during the 57th New York's storming of Marye's Heights or during the regiment's escape from the plain the night of Dec. 13. According to a 57th New York officer, artillery and gunfire from behind the Stone Wall was "so tremendous that before we knew it our momentum was gone, and the charge a failure."

"Within one hundred yards of the base of the hill we dropped down, and then flat on our bellies, opened fire while line after line of fresh troops, like ocean waves, followed each other in rapid succession," 57th New York Lieutenant Josiah M. Favill recalled, "but none of them succeeded in reaching the enemy's works."

After the battle, no one in the 57th New York saw Valentine. The 20-year-old soldier was presumed dead. Bodies of the regiment's fallen remained on the field for "two or three days,"  Sergeant John McConnell recalled, until a burial crew took care of the remains. A member of the detail -- a soldier in Valentine's Company D -- believed he saw Warner's corpse, but the remains were in such rough shape that he wasn't sure.


Marriage certificate of Owen and Margaret Gallagher, dated Sept. 4, 1859.
(National Archives via
A 24-year-old factory worker from South Kingstown, the Irish-born Gallagher died from a head wound. Married to Margaret Fagan in 1859, the couple had two sons, Francis, 2, and Owen Jr., born 22 days before his father's death. Apparently illiterate, Margaret signed a widow's pension affidavit simply with an "X."

A day or two after the battle, a 7th Rhode Island soldier wrote a searing account of the carnage he witnessed at Fredericksburg. Perhaps he summed up the feelings of other soldiers who stormed Marye's Heights:
"We were burdened with the thought that the glory of the starry flag was departing; that the Union, which had stood forth like the sun in heaven, was passing away with dishonor. During our brief absence at the firing line a terrible change had come over the city. The windows had been broken out or removed, the doors were utilized for stretchers, while parlor and cellar, corridor and garret, court-yard and garden were filled with the wounded and dying.
"The harrowing industry of the surgeons was conspicuous. Men with every degree of mutilation were lying around on bare boards with only a haversack or a canteen under their head, seldom a blanket. Most were suffering keenly, some were dying. The floors were stained with pools of blood. One of the saddest sights the author witnessed was that of a soldier whose leg had been amputated close to his body. Almost choking with grief he exclaimed, noting the compassionate look of the stranger, 'I should not care for this if we had been put in where we had the least chance. I would not have cared for my leg so much if we'd had any show. It's gone for nothing!' "

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-- Favill, Josiah Marshall, The Diary of a Young Officer Serving with the Armies of the United States During the War of the Rebellion, Chicago, R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 1909
-- Hopkins, William Palmer and Peck, George Bacheler, The Seventh Regiment Rhode Island Volunteers in the Civil War, 1862-1865, Providence, R.I., Snow & Farnham, Printers, 1903.
-- Jesse Banker, Owen Gallagher, James Kennedy, John Kenyon, John A. Kerr, Charles Knowles, Richard Ratcliffe, Patrick Reilly, Warner Valentine pension files, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., via
-- The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg (Va.), Sept. 22, 2001.
-- 7th Rhode Island Private William "Henry" Jordan letter to his parents, Dec. 28, 1862, accessed on eBay, Dec. 6, 2017.
-- Raftsman Journal, Clearfield, Pa., Jan. 21, 1863.