Friday, March 03, 2017

'Spiritual': Collector takes his artifacts to hallowed ground

Bob Carlson holds Henry Ropes' revolver at the 20th Massachusetts monument on Cemetery Ridge
 at Gettysburg. Ropes, a lieutenant in the regiment, was killed nearby on July 3, 1863.

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The best way to experience a Civil War battlefield is by walking in the footsteps of the soldiers who fought there. Avid Civil War collector Bob Carlson takes that experience to an otherworldly level many of us never will know.

On visits to Fredericksburg, Antietam and Gettysburg, the retired physician has taken with him rare artifacts from his museum-quality collection to the hallowed ground where they had been carried into battle.

"It's a definite spiritual experience," said Carlson, who often is so moved on those visits that he recites these words from a speech given by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain at Gettysburg in 1889:
Lieutenant Henry Ropes of the 20th Massachusetts,
the famed "Harvard Regiment."
"In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls... "
Carlson, who has had a keen interest in the Civil War most of his life, actively started collecting in 2000. Less than five minutes into my recent visit to his Eastern Connecticut home, he placed an impressive Civil War sword from his collection in my white-gloved hands. Soon, he was showing me the "piece de resistance": a converted bedroom-turned-relic room filled with muskets, pistols, artillery shells, photos and Civil War ephemera. The room's Civil War-themed wallpaper only underscored that Carlson is a serious collector. ("Obsessed" is the word he often uses.) Later, we enjoyed dinner of Yankee pot roast with his wife while listening to Civil War-themed music.

Carlson's enthusiasm and passion for his collection are only surpassed by his detailed knowledge of almost every artifact he owns.

"I feel that the disciplines of 'collecting' artifacts and the academic studying of the history of the Civil War are closely intertwined," he said. "The arms, accoutrements, photographs and ephemera, etc. are a tangible embodiment of our proud military history rather than just inert objects."

Carlson recently answered my questions about Civil War collecting and three cherished artifacts from his collection: the Colt revolver of 20th Massachusetts Lieutenant Henry Ropes, who was killed at Gettysburg, and the field glass and Colt revolver of Andrew's Sharpshooters Captain Jack Saunders,  who was killed in the West Woods at Antietam. Carlson also shared with me photos of his battlefield visits with these beautiful pieces of history.

What was the first item you bought?

Carlson: Oddly enough, my first firearm was a converted civilian Fowler altered to percussion and equipped with a socket bayonet and the base for the front sight to accept it. I found it in my great- uncle's farmhouse attic. I only wish someone knew the identity of the individual whose initials "G.P." are incised on the left stock flat and his unit!

My first edged weapon was a "Civil War cavalry saber that wasn't." At age 10, I did not recognize it as a M1822 Chatellerault (which our M1840 "wrist breaker" was based upon), manufactured in 1878! At least it is in fine condition and only cost $5. As I became more educated, in relative terms at least, I wondered why the scabbard had only a single ring, and what on earth was all that French script on the blade back anyway?

This brings me to one of the main joys of this obsession (hobby being much too weak a term), that being the fact that one will never know it all and the quest to know more is a large part of the joy of it, as well as the fact that the other friends & colleagues who share this mutual obsession are by far the finest people I know! I heartily recommend organizations such as American Society of Arms Collectors, New England Antique Arms Society, Antique Arms Collectors of Connecticut and Massachusetts Antique Arms Collectors for their camaraderie and sharing of knowledge.

Henry Ropes' Colt Model 1851 Navy revolver.
Regarding Henry Ropes, the lieutenant in the 20th Massachusetts Regiment, tell us about his weapon and what the magnificent inscribed pistol means to you.

The inscription on the brass back strap of Ropes' revolver, 
given to him by his brother, Joseph, on Dec. 17, 1861.
Carlson: This Colt M1851 Navy revolver is inscribed on the top of the brass back strap, "J.S. Ropes to Henry Ropes, Dec 17th, 1861." In researching the history involved, I started with the assumption that perhaps this could actually be the Lieutenant Henry Ropes of the famed "Harvard Regiment" that I had read about in the past. I then thought of the storied history of the Harvard Regiment, one of the most honored regiments in the Army of the Potomac, officered mostly by Harvard men such as future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. It was in the thick of the worst fighting from Ball's Bluff, through the Peninsula Campaign, to Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and beyond. As part of Gibbon's 3rd Brigade in the II Corps under Winfield Scott Hancock, they were led to Gettysburg by Colonel Paul J. Revere, great-grandson of Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere. If only this was that Henry Ropes!

I initially assumed that J.S. probably was Henry's father, named James, John or Joseph. I soon learned that his parents were William and Mary Anne. The revolver's serial number indicated late 1861 production, and the date, "Dec 17th, 1861" on the inscription, were consistent with Henry's enlistment in September 1861. But who was J.S.?

I then learned from the history of Skull & Bones Society at Yale about Joseph S. Ropes, also son of William. Could this be Henry's brother? Finally, I learned that Henry was interred in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plains, Boston. There I confirmed Henry's identity, because one face of the obelisk listed his parents, William & Mary Anne; the next, Henry, including a riband showing the 20th Massachusetts battles from Ball's Bluff to Gettysburg, and the fact that Henry was killed on July 3 there. His brother, Joseph S. Ropes, was listed on the third side! Now I knew that this was indeed the correct Henry Ropes!

"I feel a definite spiritual experience bringing artifacts
to the hallowed grounds of battlefields," says Carlson, posing
with Henry Ropes' revolver and image at the corner
of Caroline and Hawke streets in Fredericksburg.
Further research revealed that Henry was wounded in the West Woods at Sharpsburg, as described thusly in a letter to his father on September 19, 1862: "I was bruised slightly by a spent ball in the shoulder and once by a cannon shot which passed between my legs, just grazing my knee."

In another letter he describes how the spent Minie ball "...made a hole in my coat, scraped up the skin a little, and made me lame for a day. The cannon-ball I saw distinctly. It first hit the branch of a tree, glanced, passed between my legs, slightly bruising my knee and leaving a black mark on my pants."

Truly a close call indeed!

A comrade spoke of this circumstance: "He [Ropes] took it so coolly, I laughed outright." The 20th Massachusetts lost 150 of 400 soldiers at Antietam.

On the 2nd of October 1862, Henry was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and offered a staff position, which he resolutely declined, stating: "I intend to stand by the 20th as long as we both last."

Advancing up Hawke Street from the Upper Pontoon bridge landing on the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, Henry again had a narrow escape advancing into "a withering fire." In a letter to his father on December 16, 1862, he wrote:
"I received ...a pretty severe blow from a spent ball in the groin and narrowly escaped a very serious injury. For some moments I was stunned ... I also got a bullet through my coat collar just twitching my whiskers, one through my blanket which I had strapped on top of that knapsack ... and one on the other side which cut off the small straps."
To his brother, the historian John Codman Ropes, he wrote:
"...a tremendous and deadly fire... staggered the column ... I was struck by a ball in the upper part of my groin, a very severe blow which cut completely through my trousers. I fell backward, assisted by a soldier. My leg was completely paralyzed and I almost lost consciousness, and felt sure I was shot through ... I limped to the rear, suffering considerable pain ... leaned against a fence ... and found I could move my leg. Just then the 59th (N.Y.) gave way ...and I made an effort to stop them, and after a few minutes they were rallied, and I then found I could stand, and got back immediately to my company."
A fellow officer wrote: "I showed him [Ropes] a hole in my coat made by a bullet, and he showed me three or four places where his coat and knapsack had been struck, and, laughing, said how it felt 'like fishes nibbling.' "

This was yet another instance in which Henry showed extraordinary courage under fire. If they hadn't been wearing their greatcoats, it being December, I speculate that he might have perished from a femoral artery bleed as the ball struck with enough force that it paralyzed his leg temporarily.

Carlson with Ropes' revolver at the West Woods at Antietam. Ropes survived
 a bullet wound and a close call with a cannonball during the battle on Sept. 17, 1862.
"I received ... a pretty severe blow from a spent ball in the groin" at Fredericksburg, Ropes 
noted after the battle. Here, Carlson poses at the Upper Pontoon crossing at
 Fredericksburg with Ropes' revolver and an image of the 20th Massachusetts lieutenant.

Lieutenant Henry Ropes' good fortune finally ran out on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg at 0900 on July 3, 1863. Frank Haskell, Adjutant 6th Wisconsin Infantry, recalled in his book, The Battle of Gettysburg:
"...a painful accident happened to us this morning. First Lieut. Henry Ropes, 20th Mass. in Gen'l Gibbon's Division, a most estimable gentleman and officer, intelligent, educated, refined, one of the most noble souls that came to the country's defense, while lying at his post with his regiment, in front of the batteries which fired over the infantry (Rorty's 1st NY Light Artillery), was instantly killed by a badly made shell which ... fell but a few yards in front of the muzzle of the gun ...The loss of Ropes would have pained us at any time, and in any manner, in this manner his death was doubly painful."
Another testimonial stated:
 "Lieut. Ropes was physically so strong that no exposures seemed to affect him, while no hardships could disturb the cheerfulness of his temper. Wholly devoted to his duty, thoroughly chivalrous and manly, kindly and generous, he added to it all the graces of a remarkably pure and Christian life. The officers of the regiment cannot now speak of this beloved brother without tears."
I think that I can relate to this emotion!

Another officer wrote, "Few tears are shed by soldiers over their comrades killed in action, but even while the battle of Gettysburg was still raging, officers and men alike wept over Lt. Ropes."

In this instance, I definitely found a pistol that can "speak to me," and I am proud to be the temporary caretaker of this artifact to preserve his noble memory.
Captain John Saunders (far left) with soldiers in his command in the Andrew's Sharpshooters.
Captain John Saunders' Colt Model 1860 Army revolver.
Bob Carlson with Saunders' field glass and revolver near where he was killed at Antietam.
You have another pistol associated with an officer who fought at Antietam, John "Jack" Saunders, a captain in the Massachusetts (Andrew's) Sharpshooters, who were attached to the 15th Massachusetts at Antietam. Tell us about Saunders and his pistol and field glass.

Carlson: My other favorite pieces, again due to their  historic significance, are the Colt M1860 Army revolver and field glass inscribed to Captain Jack Saunders, who formed the 1st Company Massachusetts Volunteer Sharpshooters (a.k.a. Andrew's Sharpshooters) at the behest of Governor John Andrew. He enlisted on September 3, 1861, and commanded them until he was shot through the heart and instantly killed on Sept. 17, 1862, in the West Woods at Sharpsburg while attached to the 15th Massachusetts Infantry. They received devastating fire from front, flank and rear ("friendly fire") while engaging troops of the brigades of Semmes, Early and Barksdale.

The 15th Massachusetts was under Sumner's II Corps there. It is claimed by Lieutenant Luke Emerson Bicknell in his unit history that Saunders was actually shot by an "artificer" (craftsman) who at Yorktown refused to go into line of battle after being hired only to "keep the heavies (i.e. their heavy bench-rest rifles) in working order." He was punished by Saunders by being tied to a tree for an extended period. After this punishment, he vowed that "Cpt. Saunders should die for this." Due to the withering fire being received at this juncture, I feel that this cause of his death must remain speculative.

Captain John Saunders of the
Andrew's Sharpshooters.
Under "Captain Jack" they "went to work picking off officers and artillerists in battle and siege and due to the unwieldy character of their heavies were free from drill and guard duty." Saunders stressed above all else marksmanship and training, but "had an aversion to all salutes, drills & parades. As for discipline, he was ready to shoot down the first man who disobeyed an order or showed the white feather."

At Ball's Bluff, with the Boston Tigers of the 19th Massachusetts, they proved valiant in a repulse of Confederates at Edward's Ferry. They guarded Thaddeus Lowe's balloon, Intrepid. Sanders' infamous anger was demonstrated when Lieutenant Bicknell failed to pick off Turner Ashby, whereupon Saunders "pulled out his revolver to shoot me, but was prevented ... by burly Cyrus Hatch toll until his anger cooled." One can appreciate the stern visage of Saunders in the photograph of him standing by 23 of his soldiers. (See that photo above.)

In his unit history, Bicknell described how the Andrew's Sharpshooters used "target rifles weighing 30 to 50 pounds each" (a bit of an exaggeration, I think).  The weapon had a telescope mounted on the entire length of the barrel. Each weapon had its own set of bullet molds, swedges, charges & powder flask. They required to be loaded with utmost care & precision and could be fired effectively only from a rest (unlike their depiction on the 1st Company, Massachusetts Sharpshooters monument on Cemetery Ridge showing them being fired offhand!). Eventually most of the company traded their "heavies" for Sharps rifles, more suitable for skirmishing in the field.

Carlson with John Saunders' field glass and revolver at 15th Massachusetts monument at Antietam.
Saunders' name on the 15th Massachusetts monument.
You've taken both of these pistols and the field glass to sites where each soldier carried them during the Civil War. What was that like and why do you do that?

Carlson: As I alluded to earlier, I feel a definite spiritual experience in bringing artifacts to the "hallowed ground" of the battlefields, as I know you and most folks reading this do. I often recite aloud Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's speech, given in 1889 in Gettysburg, stating:
"In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we now not of, heart drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field to ponder and dream. And lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom and the power of the vision pass into their souls." 
As my Civil War colleagues can attest, I've been known to spontaneously blurt out my favorite speech and always get somewhat emotional doing so. The addictive effect of "sacred ground" and the personal arm used there create a very moving and inspiring experience. Most of us reading this, I think, can relate to a tear or two in such circumstances.

Carlson with Henry Ropes' revolver and image at the soldier's grave in Boston.
If Ropes and Saunders were alive today, what would you ask them?

Carlson: I would ask them what their motivations really were for their sacrifice, as James McPherson asked in For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. 

Like most fishermen, every Civil War collector must have a story about "the one that got away." What's the one that got away from you?

Carlson: There is a Type I LeMat revolver that I passed up years ago, which seems to re-enter my mind frequently. Non-buyer's remorse always seems more severe than buyer's remorse!

Fill in the blank: If I had a $1 million to purchase a Civil War antique, I would buy ____________.

Carlson: Now that question is easy! A Davidson-scoped Whitworth rifle, of course, or perhaps a bronze-tubed Napoleon. A fellow can dream, right?

Carlson's Final Words:

The researching of the history of such noble patriots is indeed an honor and a "labor of love" that I am privileged to be able to engage in. I must mention the invaluable and generous support from such friends and colleagues as Ron Grimm and Beth Prindle at Boston Public Library Rare Book Section, Cathy Wright of American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Bill Adams in Connecticut, Dean Nelson of Connecticut History Museum and Library and countless other colleagues who freely offer their knowledge and assistance in this wonderful antique arms/Civil War history community!


  1. Dr. Carlson, I'm your Southern counterpart! I definitely relate to this article,

    Rusty Hicks

    1. Rusty: If you care to share some stories, send me a note :)))

  2. John- Terrific research and storytelling. Incredibly moving. Thanks for keeping the past alive.


    1. It gladdens my heart to know that there are many others who share my enthusiasm and still "hear the guns"! I always seem to be planning my next "civil war odyssey" to some hallowed ground and/or museums or antique arms shows. I feel a large debt of gratitude to the Civil War Trust (Garry Adelman in particular) and The Center for Civil War Photography for their preservation of our CW legacy.

  3. Anonymous3:54 PM

    I enjoyed this very much. I attempted the same in December 1862 with the revolver of James Corcoran of the Ninth Massachusetts Vols. He was wounded December 13, 1862 below Maryes Heights. One of the rangers did not approve of me having it on Park property. She went on to tell me that it was against the law.

    1. I believe that bringing antique arms to battlefield sites is certainly not illegal. Bringing them into "federal buildings" such as visitors' centers at such locations is "verboten", as I found when I visited Sharpsburg and desired to show my Ropes & Saunders-inscribed revolvers in to show to the superintendents there, but they were thrilled to examine these outside of the visitors' center and we had a great time discussing their historic relevance. I had initial negative experiences bringing Henry Ropes' revolver to Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plains (Boston)and bringing the sword of Capt. Elisha Smart, 10th Mass., to the small national cemetery at Seven Pines, where he died in line of battle at that very location. These initial impediments were resolved after discussing rationally my reasons for desiring to bring these artifacts respectfully into these locations, with the superintendents of each cemetery. Keep pursuing the exciting history!