Sunday, October 29, 2017

Meet man who documented, loved South Mountain, Antietam

In a circa-1944 photo, Fred Cross stands next to a sign at Chancellorsville. Cross loved to visit
Civil War battlefields, especially Antietam and South Mountain.
(William Christen collection)
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Fred Wilder Cross was so knowledgeable about the Civil War history of his home state of Massachusetts that a friend swore he could call the roll of many of its regiments from memory. He greatly admired the heroics of John Mosby -- Cross owned at least six books on the Confederate guerilla -- and relished walking Civil War battlefields, often with a half-dozen or so friends from Virginia and Maryland, whom he called "The Battle-field Expeditionary Force." Cross, who only stood about 5-2 or 5-3, was always the "General" of the Force, while his friends in the merry band he called "Colonel or "Major" or a lesser rank.

Jim Clifford, shown in Confederate attire in the 1980s,
  was a "major" in "The Battle-field  Expeditionary
 Force" of Fred Cross.  (Photo: William Christen collection)
In the 1940s, when he was in his 70s, Cross traveled from his Cape Cod-style house near railroad tracks in South Royalston, Mass., to his second home in Florida. He went by bus because trains didn't stop at battlefields. A first-class Civil War geek, Cross refused to stay in tourist hotels during his trips south. Instead, he preferred to sleep and eat in historic homes on battlefields, where he enjoyed talking with descendants of those who lived at the sites during the war.

"He would not sponge on any of the battlefield folks he stayed with," insisted Cross' friend, Jim Clifford, years later. And although he was a Yankee -- "one hundred percent Massachusetts" -- Cross was well-liked by his Southern hosts. "I'll say this for 'general' Cross," the man remembered, "he appreciated a good soldier and a brave man on either side and said so!"

And when you walked hallowed ground with General Cross, oh, what an experience that was.

"He never stopped talking of what happened at that spot, at that instant, and who did what to who!"  Clifford, a "major" in "The Battle-field Expeditionary Force," recalled of those excursions with Cross in the 1930s and '40s. "And [he was] waving his arms around and walking fast as he could travel! I mean, he was going a streak and you better listen to him and not interrupt the flow of facts."

Cross' resume was impressive -- he was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Williams College in 1900, a principal of Massachusetts high schools and served as a member of the Massachusetts general court from 1914-1918 and as a state senator representing South Royaltson in 1917-1918. From 1918-1938, he was the military archivist for Massachusetts, compiling during his tenure a 6,500-page history of the state's men who served during the Civil War.

But Cross' real calling, of course, was as a  "battlefield tramper."

"The Battle-field Expeditionary Force" on the steps of the famous Stone House at Manassas.
 From left:  Edward Hofer, Richard D. Steuart, Robert E. Lee Russell, Fred Cross and John Winters.
(Image courtesy Stephen Sylvia and Michael J. O'Donnell via John Winters)
Of all the battlefields Cross visited, Antietam and South Mountain were easily his favorites. His love affair with the Civil War history of western Maryland may have begun with his first visit there in July 1903, when he was 34. On summer vacation in 1919, he was accompanied to the state by his wife, Ida May, and daughters Bertha May and Dorothy. On other trips in the 1920s, he traveled to the region alone, documenting his experiences with a camera he had purchased in Fredericksburg, Va., in 1912.

"There are few places that I have visited or of which I have ever dreamed that have such a hold upon my heart as the picturesque hills and broad valleys of Western Maryland," Cross wrote in 1926. "A most beautiful and romantic country, much of it rich in agricultural resources, its low mountains not too lofty to be ascended with ease, their summits presenting to the traveler most wonderful landscapes, every hill and road and stream abounding in historic associations; there is a lure to this section, which calls me back to it again and again."

Fred Cross, who stood 5-2 or 5-3, was 
a "very nice, kind, old friendly man,"
recalled his friend, Jim Clifford.
(Image courtesy William Christen)
Eager to follow in the footsteps of Massachusetts soldiers, Cross walked Fox's Gap, Crampton's Gap, Turner's Gap, Antietam and elsewhere. He was keen to visit with the locals there, interviewing them about what happened in the area during the Civil War. Sometimes, an interview subject had first-hand knowledge of war-time events.

In Sharpsburg, a resident told of aiding the clean-up at Henry Rohrbach's farm, used as a makeshift hospital by the Union army's IX Corps. The smell of the wounds of a dying Federal Major General Isaac Rodman became so offensive in the house, the man told Cross, that he had to eat outside on the Rohrbachs' porch. "Such incidents as these are not pleasant to relate," Cross wrote, "but they represent the actual and terrible character of war."

During a visit to Antietam in 1919, Cross spoke with a man named Alexander Davis, who said he worked for the Nicodemus family at the time of the battle. "Uncle Aleck" told of burying bodies of Massachusetts soldiers in a hollow days after the battle. While digging graves alone, Davis told Cross, he was approached by a soldier who asked if he had seen the body of Jimmie Hayes, a private in the 19th Massachusetts. Just then, Davis turned over a body in a blanket to reveal Hayes, who was identified by letters that had fallen from the 18-year-old private's blouse. The soldier wept at the sight of his brother.

"Incidents, ludicrous as well as pathetic, the old gentleman often told me," Cross wrote about Davis, whose tales included the story of a stubborn battlefield bull. The night before major fighting erupted at Antietam, according to "Uncle Aleck," the "bovine majesty" refused to leave the barnyard of farmer David R. Miller, whose cornfield became site of horrific fighting on Sept. 17, 1862.  "In the morning, doubly excited and maddened by the artillery fire which began before dawn," Cross wrote, "the bull smashed through the barnyard gate, and with flaming eyes and waving tail charged along through the entire length of the cornfield which that day won its bloody name, and never stopped in his mad course until he had reached the banks of Antietam Creek."

Claimed Cross: "Some of the soldiers who were lying on their arms in the edge of the cornfield, and in the early gray of the morning saw the terrible apparition sweep past, laughed over it until their dying day."

An early 1920s image of the monument at Fox's Gap for Union General Jesse Reno, who was
 mortally wounded on Daniel Wise's farm. (Fred Wilder Cross | William Christen collection)
Another view of Jesse Reno monument by Fred Cross. (William Christen collection)
A page from Fred Cross' South Mountain report includes images he took of the monument 
for Union Major Jesse Reno and the sunken road near Fox's Gap, scene of brutal fighting.
Confederate dead were piled here.  (Fred Wilder Cross | William Christen collection)
Union veteran Uberto Burnham in Daniel Wise's field at Fox's Gap. The Reno monument appears
 in the background. (Fred Wilder Cross | William Christen collection)
Fred Cross took this photo of the Middletown, Md., house where Ohio officer Rutherford B. Hayes,
 a future president, recovered from his South Mountain wounds. (William Christen collection)
Fred Cross took this panorama of the South Mountain battlefield in September 1922.
(William Christen collection | CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
In the 1920s, Cross gathered his experiences at South Mountain and Antietam into self-published reports that included the many photographs he had taken of the battlefields. He later shared the reports with friends, including Clifford.

In his South Mountain report, Cross included a photo of Carlton Gross, whose family's house was struck by Rebel artillery during the battle. "This little house was under fire during the artillery duel that proceeded the infantry attack, and a Confederate cannonball is preserved in the house, which was fired into it on the morning of September 14, 1862," Cross wrote. "It came in at the right end of the house ... pierced the westerly wall and the open front door, and wedged itself in the wall beside the door casing. I have a section of the shattered door casing in my collection at home."

In an image taken by Fred Cross in the 1920s at South Mountain, 
Carlton Gross holds a six-pound Confederate cannonball
that passed through his family's house during the battle on 
Sept. 14, 1862.  (William Christen collection)
Labors of love, the reports included images of Union Major General Jesse Reno's monument at Fox's Gap; the Middletown house where 23rd Ohio Lt. Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, a future president, recovered from his South Mountain wounds; and a New York veteran's visit to a farmer's field where he had fought decades earlier.

In one of his reports, Cross wrote:
"I have prepared and annotated this collection of pictures because of the pleasure that I enjoy in revisiting in fancy the scenes, which hold for me such surpassing interest, and because of the feeling that, perhaps, long years to come my children may like to view again in these pages the scenes, which they once visited with me -- scenes that are so intimately and pathetically connected with our Country's history, and that have always filled and thrilled me with such absorbing interest."

After Cross' death in 1950, Jim Clifford and John Winters, a "colonel" in  "The Battle-field Expeditionary Force," traveled separately from Virginia to their friend's house near the railroad tracks in South Royalston. Cross had put his friends in his will, designating each to receive some of the many Civil War relics and books he had collected during his lifetime.

The grave of Fred Cross, 
the "one hundred 
percent Massachusetts" man.
(Find A Grave)
In wood boxes, Winters and Clifford packed up hundreds of books from Cross' collection, including the Official Records, as well as cannon balls and projectiles by the dozens. Clifford was bequeathed a large, oak bookcase that held belt plates, bottles, buttons, pieces of exploded shells -- scores of war relics Cross had collected from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania battlefields.

Later, Clifford visited Cross' grave, only 50 yards from the house where the "hundred percent Massachusetts" man was born. It says so right on his gravestone.

"His tombstone [was] erected and carved to his specifications," Clifford recalled in 1987. "It was tall -- maybe four feet and five or six inches thick, and made of pure black slate. Beautiful and solid looking. His wife͛'s, too."

Cross' heart apparently was as big as his love of battlefields. Next to his friend's grave, Clifford found a marker for a homeless Union veteran, whom Cross had befriended and aided.

"Wonderful of Mr. Cross," Clifford wrote. "This alone should get him into the kingdom of heaven."

NOTE: I thank William Christen, who generously shared photos and detailed information from his terrific collection and archives on Fred Wilder Cross.

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


-- Cross, Fred Wilder, South Mountain and Antietam, Part I, self-published 1925 and 1926, respectively.
-- Hagerstown Daily Mail, Feb. 16, 1934, March 13, 1934.
-- New York Times, March 9, 1950.
-- Jim Clifford correspondence with William Christen, Nov. 15, 1985, Dec. 3, 1985, Dec. 23, 1985,  Jan. 22, 1987, Feb. 1, 1987.


  1. Great story John. Very touching. Luckily for us you are carrying on in Fred Cross's footsteps.

  2. I live near Fox Gap at South Mountain. Have found new interest in this area after reading your blog. Thank you for your hard work in getting this information to the public.