Friday, September 17, 2021

Did this daguerreotype save a soldier's life at Antietam?

On Oct. 2, 1927, the Baltimore Sun printed this photograph of daguerreotype a
5th Maryland soldier carried into battle at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862.

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Soldiers often carried a photograph of a loved one into battle during the Civil War. Images of sweethearts, wives, or family members sometimes were discovered with the fallen by burial crews or souvenir hunters. Following Gettysburg, a carte de visite of three children clutched by a dead Union soldier led to his identificiation—Sergeant Amos Humiston of the 154th New York became one of that battle's most famous casualties. At the war's bloodiest single-day battle, a family photograph may have even saved a soldier's life.

The 5th Maryland monument near Bloody Lane
at Antietam. 
On Oct. 1, 1861, George D. Wernex enlisted in the 5th Maryland, a Union regiment. He survived the Civil War physically unscathed, mustering out as a corporal on Sept. 1, 1865. At the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, he carried with him a daguerreotype of his 25-year-old sister, Anna Mary—before he marched off to war, he promised to carry the picture of his bejweled sibling in the breast pocket of his coat. 

During that day's brutal fighting, perhaps near Bloody Lane, a bullet struck Wernex in the chest, denting the daguerreotype but apparently doing no physical damage to him. Wernex was among the lucky ones in the 5th Maryland, which suffered 39 killed and 109 wounded at Antietam.

"Returning to his home [after the war]," the Baltimore Sun reported on Oct. 2, 1927, "he presented the picture to his sister, asking her to retain it always as the charm that saved his life." After the war, George served as a Baltimore fireman—he missed only three alarms in 30 years—and ran a cigar store for 42 years. 

"His customers numbered many of those who were frequent passengers on trains leaving Camden Station, his business being located just across the street from the depot," the Sun reported after Wernex's death from Bright's disease at age 71 in 1915. "He had been a reader of the Sun ever since he had received sufficient education to be able to read."

Werner undoubtedly was pleased that his sister prized the battle-damaged photo. After she married  Charles L. Mattfeldt, the couple gave the daguerreotype a "prominent place in their home." After Anna Mary's death in 1916, the image was inherited by her son, Charles, a doctor and Baltimore County health officer. He kept the "cherished" photo, "draped with Stars and Stripes," in his office in Cantonville, Md. Dr. Mattfeldt died in 1934.

The current whereabouts of the image, however, are unknown.

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  • Baltimore Sun, July 14, 1915, Oct. 2, 1927
  • Find A Grave

Friday, September 10, 2021

Lee Harvey Oswald and me: A strange obsession of a lifetime

In the room where Lee Harvey Oswald slept, I tried to commune with his spirit.

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Twenty-four-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald lingers in the deep corners of my mind—tormenting me, mocking me, smirking at me like a madman.

As a teen growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, I pored over everything about my tormentor and JFK's assassination—Life, Time, Look and other magazines, newsletters and scores of books. TV documentaries, too. In 1975, I watched as the horrific Zapruder film was shown to the American public for the first time, on the late-night show "Good Night America," hosted by some guy named Geraldo Rivera. Then I bought a bootleg copy of the film of Kennedy's murder to study it for myself. In our basement, I watched, aghast, when Frame 313—the gruesome head-shot impact frame—melted from the heat from my family's ancient 8-millimeter projector. 

A Life magazine, a tattered assassination book, and a 
bootleg copy of the Abraham Zapruder film—
the stuff that occupied my time long ago.
Full of fury, I called into a local radio talk show to argue with U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter about his "Single-Bullet Theory." Eager to test my interrogation skills, I purchased a Dallas phone book to dial up assassination witnesses. 

I thought of "The Smirker" in the snowy woods in northwestern Pennsylvania  while peering through the scope of my dad's deer rifle and in my high school Russian class as I struggled with the Cyrillic alphabet. I studied the language, naturally, because he spoke it, too.

To uncover the "truth" about the "The Crime of the Century," I even dreamed of joining the CIA. 

As a 25-year-old, I took a job in sports at The Dallas Morning News, in part, because of you-know-who. In Dallas, I often visited Dealey Plaza after the paper was put to bed and downtown bars closed. Full of beer and bluster, I stood behind the infamous (and rickety) picket fence on the grassy knoll and then on the "X" on Elm Street that supposedly marks the spot of the president's limo when he suffered his fatal head wound. When director Oliver Stone filmed the motorcade scene in Dealey Plaza for his awful "JFK," I watched from the sixth floor of the old Texas School Book Depository, near the sniper's nest. 

The Smirker's nest.

A historical marker at 10th and Patton streets near 
where Dallas police officerJ.D. Tippit was murdered
by Lee Harvey Oswald.
When I met Marina, my tormentor's  Russian-born wife, I handed the 60ish woman photos of her family from 1963. (Don't ask.) Before we were married, I took Mrs. B to an assassination conference, attended by a mishmash of oddballs, buffs, and academics; and, years later, our 9-year-old daughter in tow, met a prominent conspiracy author at another gathering of the crazies. When I told him he was the sole reason for my attendance, the man loudly said, "No shit!" I smiled and laughed, nervously.

In the strip of ground across from the grassy knoll, I got an autograph from "The Lady in Red," assassination witness Jean Hill. The tattered card with her signature remained in my wallet for years. In Dallas' West End, I met a man so obsessed with the assassination that he became a postman in the Oak Cliff neighborhood where The Smirker killed Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit. While delivering mail there, he aimed to quiz witnesses to the crime.

I understood his obsession because it was mine, too.

The 'morgue,' a visit to his grave, and a new haunt

Holding left-wing literature and a rifle, Lee Harvey Oswald stands in the backyard
of his apartment on West Neely Street  in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas; Right, the same site today.

In the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, I stood outside the grungy apartments where my tormentor once lived with Marina, as well as at the University Park mansion where The Smirker squeezed off a rifle shot at former U.S. Army major general Edwin Walker in March 1963. The bleak corner of 10th and Patton, where he killed the Dallas cop, became an assassination destination, too. 

This "X" on Elm Street marks the approximate
location of JFK's limo when he received his fatal wound.
At The Dallas Morning News' "morgue," where the newspaper stored photos and other treasure, I examined images of his near-lifeless body on a stretcher after strip club owner Jack Ruby pumped a .38-caliber bullet from a Colt Cobra revolver into his gut in the basement of Dallas Police HQ. At The News, I even worked on the same area on the second floor where Ruby placed ads for his clubs the morning of the assassination. 

At Shannon Rose Hill Park in Fort Worth, I stared at The Smirker's gravestone—the Spanish-speaking workers there weren't supposed to tell me where he lay, so they used hand signals to direct me to his plot when the bosses weren't watching. Perhaps he weighed on their minds, too.

The gas station where Oswald tossed his jacket after
killing Dallas cop J.D. Tippit at 10th and Patton.
Still a curious journalist, I recently stopped by old assassination-related haunts in Dallas for the first time in ages—The Smirker's now-decrepit West Neely Street apartment, site of the infamous backyard photos; 10th & Patton; the gas station on Jefferson, where he tossed his jacket after killing Tippit; the Texas Theatre, where he was captured; and grimy Dealey Plaza, where contemptible tourists smile for selfies on that Elm Street "X." 

I also visited a new haunt: the Oak Cliff rooming house where The Smirker, then estranged from Marina, lived for six weeks leading up to 11/22/63. For 30 bucks, Pat Hall—granddaughter of the house's 1963 owner, Gladys Johnson—will show you around and tell you stories. It's her home now.

So, what would I find in the last residence of my tormentor's life? How would I feel communing one more time with the spirit of LHO?

The rooming house at 1026 North Beckley

Pat Hall, granddaugther of the 1963 owner of the rooming house where Oswald lived
for six weeks in the fall of 1963. Oswald watched TV and read newspapers in this room, she told me.

Red, white and blue bunting hangs from the porch at 1026 North Beckley, an 89-year-old, one-story brick house with a major 1963 vibe. The place seems small from the outside, but back then it included 18 rooms—six in the basement. Grandma Johnson rented rooms to single men—a large room cost 18 bucks a week, 12 for a mid-size. A tiny room cost the The Smirker, a thrifty man with little means of support, 8 bucks a week. 

The Dallas rooming house where Oswald lived in the
fall of 1963. You can go inside ... for 30 bucks.
In the corner of the musty living room stands an ancient Silverstone television, just like the one there on that day. Like a scene from The Twilight Zone, it plays newscasts from Nov. 22, 1963. (Uncle Walter Cronkite, we sure miss you.) Above the television now sit more than a dozen assassination books, each signed by the author. 

In the living room, The Smirker watched the 10 o'clock evening news and read Grandma Johnson's newspapers—she usually purchased four, the two Dallas dailies, one from Fort Worth, and another from New York.  

On a coffee table rest original assassination newspapers, pieces torn off some by disrespectful souvenir hunters. On a wall hangs a framed photo of Hall's father, Harlon, who bears a passing resemblance to Elvis Presley. Steps away are photos of Hall's brothers, Hal and Mike. On a small table sits a framed copy of the president's "memorial certificate," an autopsy report for those into the macabre. "Shot by a high powered rifle," it says about JFK. 

So damn surreal.

Near the doorway and a sign for the rooming house Facebook page, generous visitors can stuff donations into the slot of a wooden box. 

A copy of the president's "memorial certificate." 
Business for Hall fluctuates from two or three appointments a week to two a day.  Other visitors come with guides from three area tour companies, who give Hall a cut of their profit to supplement the 69-year-old's Social Security and to pay for work on a house that needs TLC. On the 50th anniversary of the assassination in 2013, Hall did 42 tours by herself. Capitalism can be a beautiful thing.

Visitors come from all over—Australia, Russia, "several African countries and all of Europe," says Hall. Hell, even California.

As we sit on the couch—the same one The Smirker plopped down on in 1963—I wince as Hall talks about him. "We knew him as a sweet, kind compassionate man who loved children," says Hall, who was 11 in '63. She and her family called him "Mr. Lee"—he registered in the rooming house under a pseudonym, "O.H. Lee."

In the small front yard, Hall says, "Mr. Lee" played with Hal, 10 in 1963, and Mike, then 6. Both the boys are long gone now. "Grandma didn’t want them playing in the driveway because she was afraid they’d throw the ball and hit a window. It was perfectly fine to play in the front yard and roll the ball into the street," the lifelong Oak Cliff resident tells me, chuckling. 

The Texas Theatre, where Lee Harvey Oswald was
arrested by Dallas Police on Nov. 22, 1963.
On the day of the assassination, Hall was in school at James Bowie Elementary. A TV was stationed in the hallway that Friday so teachers could watch coverage of the president's visit. After Kennedy was shot, Hall sensed the mood change dramatically. Then the principal announced the president's death on the speaker system.

Blocks away, Hall's mother, Fay Puckett—who owned a photography studio on Jefferson Boulevard, across from the Texas Theatre—was horrified as she witnessed the arrest of "Mr. Lee" there. That's the man who played with my kids at Grandma’s rooming house! At home, Puckett unplugged the TV, refusing to turn it on until Sunday morning. 

Then Ruby murdered The Smirker that day. Pat, Hal, and Mike were watching. "My brothers went crazy," says Hall. 

“That’s Mr. Lee!" they cried. "Why did they shoot Mr. Lee?!”

The Room

Oswald lived in this room, no bigger than a large walk-in closet. That's me with my foot on
 the bed—with permission of the rooming house owner, of course. The frame
is from Oswald's bed; the mattress does not date to 1963.

"Can I see The Room?" I ask politely, interrupting another of Hall's stories.

Steps from the living room, there it is, his room, no bigger than a large walk-in closet. It was Grandma Johnson's favorite-she put plants in here. After the assassination, "Mr. Lee" returned to this tiny space to grab his jacket and revolver. Law enforcement picked this room apart nearly 58 years ago.

Pat Hall shows a replica Eisenhower jacket like the one
Oswald wore on Nov. 22, 1963. He used the armoire in
which the jacket is stored.
To my right stands a small armoire, the very one The Smirker used. Inside it, wrapped in plastic, hangs an Eisenhower jacket like the one "Mr. Lee" dumped behind the gas station nearby on his mad scramble to the Texas Theatre. 

And then there's the bed. The frame dates to 1963, but the mattress does not because "that would be too creepy for me,” Hall says. The Smirker slept here. When "Mr. Lee" went to visit Marina in Irving, Hall says she did.

To show the size of the room, many visitors stretch their arms and touch opposite walls and takes pics. Hall shoots a photo using my iPhone of me doing just that, with my feet planted on The Smirker's bed in a spike-the-football moment for me.

Sadly, this might be as close as I'll ever get to communing with the spirit of my tormentor. The best I can probably do is wonder what he was thinking as he lay in this room in 1963.

Why doesn't Marina love me any more?

Do I really need curtain rods for this place?

The rooming house phone from 1963 remains.
Lee Harvey Oswald used it, Pat Hall told me.
Should I really kill Kennedy?

Will my fellow plotters pick me up and take me to Mexico like they told me? 

Should I call them on that phone steps from my bed?

Is it worth haunting John Banks the rest of his life?

Clearly sympathetic toward "Mr. Lee," Hall doesn't believe he was an assassin but concedes The Smirker may have been in on the plot to kill the president. "He could have been a CIA operative," she says.

And then Hall tells another story.

One day her brothers were wrestling in the front yard while "Mr. Lee" sat on the porch. Hal had a temper and could fly off the handle. The Smirker separated the brawlers. "Boys," he said, according to Hall, "let me tell you something: You gotta care for and love each other.”

There are no words—well, except these:

Curses to you, Lee Harvey Oswald.

"Hello? Is this hell? May I speak to Lee Harvey Oswald?" The phone I hold—and wallpaper
behind me in the rooming house—date to 1963. (CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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Friday, September 03, 2021

Nashville Then & Now: Looking south toward Redoubt No. 5

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The Battle of Nashville Trust recently acquired digitized copies of a remarkable set of images taken of the battlefield in 1899 by Albert Kern, a Dayton, Ohio, attorney and photography hobbyist. Nashville was one of many battlefield stops Kern made between 1890 and 1910. It's neat to see these photos of what the battlefield may have looked like in 1864, because pitiless developers have devoured much of it in the past 30-40 years.  

Here's info on how to join the
Battle of Nashville Trust.
(I am on the board.)

While dodging traffic and drawing incredulous looks from drivers, I shot a "Now" version of Kern's 1899 image on Hillsboro Pike looking south toward Redoubt No. 5, one of five earthen-and-log forts constructed by John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee in the countryside south of Nashville prior to the Dec. 15-16, 1864, battle. Above is a rough but representative "Then & Now" showing the significant changes at the site over the past century. (Here's a larger version on my Then & Now blog.) 

For a spot-on "Now" version, according to a fellow Battle of Nashville Trust board member, I needed to stand at the McDonald's a little farther north on Hillsboro Pike. (Ugh, I hate their Big Macs.) Urban clutter from that spot would have prevented a decent "Now" shot. Besides, I had a construction nail in my shoe and desperately wanted to avoid tetanus. 

The historical marker
on Hillsboro Pike for
Redoubt No. 5.
According to a source, remains of Redoubt No. 5 may be found behind the condos complex on the hill in the distance. (Pssst: Don't tell Mrs. B. or my insurance agent, but months ago I shot a photo of the historical marker along Hillsboro Pike denoting Redoubt No. 5 while driving my car.)
There's not much good about this section of Hillsboro Pike—well, maybe except for the Shake Shack that serves an awesome strawberry shake topped with whipped cream 😅 and a Whole Foods market that sells a lot of swell but overpriced fruit and vegetables. As you can see below in the Google Street View, an apartment complex and a church occupy ground along the pike that once was a cornfield and pasture. 


I zoomed in on the "Then" image by Kern hoping to find a stray musket or perhaps an artillery shell left over from the battle. Alas, no relics were found. But I discovered neat details: a dry-stack wall (some  survive in the Nashville area); a small bridge over Sugartree Creek; and in the field at right, a residence and outbuildings. I'll check out deed/property records from the period. 

Dry-stack walls in Nashville
along Granny White Pike, similar
to what once lined Hillsboro Pike.
According to Jim Kay of the Battle of Nashville Trust, the property to the left of the pike was the Felix Compton farm—Colonel Bill Shy of the 20th Tennessee was taken there after he was killed nearby at Compton's Hill, now known as Shy's Hill, on Day 2 of the battle. (Smart people from the University of Vanderbilt recently used ground-penetrating radar to examine that site.) 

While I head over to Shake Shack, check out my posts on visits to what remains of Redoubts 3 and 4. And here's my Rambling column in Civil War Times magazine on Nashville hallowed ground today, what I like to call a "battlefield of the mind."

As always, let's keep history—and strawberry milkshakes topped with whipped cream—alive.

A cropped enlargment of Albert Kern's 1899 Kern photo shows dry-stack walls and a bridge
 on Hillsboro Pike. The historic road looks much different today.
A residence and outbuildings appear on the right side of Hillsboro Pike in this cropped enlargement
 of Albert Kern's 1899 image. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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Friday, August 27, 2021

Will historic 'Bachelor's Rest' farmhouse walls be saved?

In early April 1865, the Union Army used Truely Vaughan's farmhouse near Deatonville, Va.,
 as a makeshift hospital. Confederate prisoners may have been cared for here, too. 
(All photos courtesy of Michael Meehan)

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In early April 1865, as the battered but still deadly Army of Northern Virginia crept toward Appomattox Court House, the U.S. Army fought Robert E. Lee's rear guard near Truely Vaughan's farm outside Deatonville, Va. To care for their wounded, the Federals' III Division, II Corps established a makeshift hospital at the bachelor farmer’s modest, four-room house.  

The farmhouse, now in disrepair, dates
to the late 18th century.

For posterity or perhaps simply because they were bored, some of the 250 to 300 wounded at Vaughan’s farm—it was known during the war as “Bachelor’s Rest”—wrote their names or initials on the homestead's walls. One of them, John Shivler of the 105th Pennsylvania, suffered from a ghastly, life-altering battle wound to his face. 

More than 155 years after the corporal left his mark in a house near Lee's final retreat route, his heart-rending story touched a Pennsylvania native with a deep interest in Civil War history and historic preservation.

“It’s almost like he has reached back in time—I really have affinity for this guy,” says Michael Meehan, who aims to preserve the scrawling in the farmhouse for future generations.

“Just walking into that room in the farmhouse and seeing that man’s name on the wall and you go, ‘Holy cow!’”  

Meehan—who grew up in Stewartstown, Pa., roughly 45 miles from Gettysburg, but now lives in Meherrin, Va.—must work fast. Victimized by nature, time, and neglect, Vaughan’s late-18th-century house has nearly deteriorated beyond repair. With the blessing of the farm’s current owner, who acquired the house and surrounding property in 2011, Meehan intends to remove the walls. But he needs the public's help, so he has established a GoFundMe Page to raise $3,500 to defray costs. Ultimately, Meehan and other local preservationists want to have the artifacts displayed in a museum.   

A view of the Virginia countryside from the farmhouse.

Besides Shivler, Meehan has identified three other soldiers who wrote on the farmhouse walls: Privates Luther Calkins and Cornelius Mahorn of Company K of the 105th Pennsylvania; and Corporal George McKechnie of Company I of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. With the aid Patrick Schroeder, the historian at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, and others, Meehan has researched the backgrounds of each soldier, with pension file documents providing rich details.

On April 6, 1865—three days before Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House—the 105th Pennsylvania fought Confederates near Deatonsville, a continuation of fighting at Saylor’s Creek. Among the regiment's 16 wounded that day were Shivler, Calkins, and Mahorn. 

Calkins suffered a wound in his left foot, between his second and third toe, with the bullet coming to rest near his ankle. “It must have been incredibly painful,” Meehan says. Less than a year earlier, he had suffered a wound in the right arm in brutal fighting at the Wilderness. After the war, he married, raised a family, and moved throughout the country. 

Meehan identified Mahorn by his initials on the wall, but the nature of the Pennsylvanian’s wounds and his background require more research. 

McKechnie, who battled dysentery in 1864, suffered a wound from a stray bullet in his left hand in support of a firing battery near Amelia Springs, Va. The bullet tore through his index finger and middle finger, exiting below the thumb. Following the war, McKechnie—who was probably in his late teens when he enlisted—returned to Maine.

Near his name, Private Luther Calkins of the 105th Pennsylvania may have drawn
 the illustration at lower left.
Severely wounded John Shivler of the 105th Pennsylvania wrote his name on the farmouse wall.

But it’s the story of Shivler, who served in the 105th Pennsylvania’s color guard, that moves Meehan most. 

After a bullet struck the corporal in the face, a 105th Pennsylvania comrade thought he was killed. As Shivler, who was 30 or 31, staggered to his feet, he was nearly trampled by a horse. Somehow, he made it to Vaughan's farmhouse, where his grievous wound was treated. Perhaps Vaughan, who remained on his farm during fighting in the area, walked through his house as Shivler and other Federal wounded lay in the cramped quarters. 

An illustration from John Shivler's pension file
depicts his April 1865 battlefield wound.
(Courtesy Michael Meehan)
In an era long before plastic surgeons,  Shivler endured with a terribly mangled face. After the war, the veteran married a widow named Maria and made a living as a tailor. But by 1902, he resided in an insane asylum in Mahoning Township, Pa. Nine years later, Shivler died at age 77 and was buried in a cemetery in South Philipsburg, Pa.

“This incident affected him forever,” says Meehan of the corporal's wounding, perhaps in a “grand charge” on earthworks near Deatonville. 

In addition to money, the removal of the  fragile walls requires expertise. Luckily for Meehan, his brother is a building contractor who will aid the effort. The plan is to cut studs from the walls, put plywood behind and Plexiglas in front of them, squeeze the Civil War treasure together “like a sandwich,” and remove the artifacts.

"I saw John Shivler wounded in the face," 105th Pennsylvania comrade Daniel Shomber
testified in an affidavit found in Shivler's pension file. "He fell and I thought was killed."
(Courtesy: Michael Meehan)

In the meantime, Meehan will continue to research the backgrounds of each of the ID’d soldiers as well as Truely Vaughan, who owned roughly 1,400 acres, 30 slaves and farmed tobacco, among other crops. Through, a genealogy site/rabbit hole, Meehan has even tracked down descendants of Calkins and McKechnie. The Maine soldier’s descendant was “absolutely stunned” when Meehan contacted her.

Meehan also will continue to research the fighting at Deatonville, the little-known scrap in the war's waning days. "We are still trying to lay out battle there because there are very sparse records on it," he says. Dozens of soldiers wounded from the battle may have been cared for on Vaughan's farm.

For Meehan, all this work is, well, a labor of love. (Forgive me, seventh-grade English teacher 😅) 

“I have been passionate about history since I went to Gettysburg when I was 6,” he tells me, "and I’ve been married to it ever since.”

John Shivler's grave in Philipsburg Cemetery in South Philipsburg, Pa.
(Find A Grave)

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Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Are there other Gettysburg stories like Amos Humiston's?

An enlargement of a CDV of 154th New York Sergeant Amos Humiston's children.
(Library of Congress)

Amos Humiston
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The heart-rending account of Amos Humiston, one of the Civil War's most famous casualties, touches many of us more than any other human-interest story from the Battle of Gettysburg. Carrying no identification, the 154th New York sergeant was found clutching an ambrotype of his three young children after suffering a mortal wound near John Kuhn’s Brick Yard, north of the town square, on July 1, 1863.

Thousands of carte-de-visites of the ambrotype were created and distributed in the hope someone would recognize the children and thus lead to the soldier’s name. The publicity campaign worked. Months after the battle, Humiston was identified by his widow, who learned of his fate after reading a detailed description of the photograph in a religious publication. (In 1999, Mark H. Dunkelman's definitive Humiston biography was published — the book was reprinted in 2020 by Gettysburg Publishing. Read a Q&A with Dunkelman on my blog here.)

In the aftermath of the three-day battle, other photographs — a torn portrait of a fiancée, a blood-spattered image in a captain’s stiff fingers, a baby’s likeness smeared with blood, and many others —were discovered among bodies, bibles, scraps of letters, clothing, and weaponry. In his book, The Lost Children of the Battlefield, G. Craig Caba details some of the photo finds.

Four years after the battle, a daguerreotype of a woman—in her early 20s with “dark hair, combed back and falling loosely over her shoulders”—was found inside a cartridge box near a soldier's remains. Presumably the image was of the soldier's wife or sweetheart. This story was originally reported Oct. 30, 1867, by the Gettysburg Star and Sentinel and subsequently picked up by other Pennsylvania newspapers (see newspaper clip in this post). 

"There was nothing to indicate the corps, division, regiment or name," the newspaper reported. "From the locality, it is presumed to be that of a Rebel soldier. The cartridge box was marked U.S., but many of these, captured during the war, were carried in the Rebel ranks."

The Star and Sentinel reported the image was in possession of M.J. Emory, a Pennsylvania College student.

What happened to the photograph? Was it ever identified? 

Do you know of similar stories involving photographs found on the battlefield?

I'm working on a story about two photographs found on the Gettysburg battlefield with fallen Confederates and could use your help. 

E-mail me at if you know more.

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Sunday, August 15, 2021

Cow pasture to housing: A visit to 'hidden' Nashville redoubt

Back end of a Hotchkiss shell and a canister ball from Redoubt No. 4.

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In December 1864, John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee constructed five redoubts -- log-and-earthen forts -- in the countryside south of Nashville. On Dec. 15 -- Day 1 of the Battle of Nashville -- the Confederates were routed and abandoned these makeshift fortifications. The beleaguered Rebels  retreated roughly three miles south as a cannon ball flies, anchoring their extreme left on Shy's Hill, near present-day Harding Place Road. (Worth a visit!) The next day, Hood's army was routed again and sent skedaddling to Alabama. (Go to the Battle of Nashville Trust site to see what remains from Redoubts 1 and 3.)

Marker at the site. (Click on image to enlarge.)
In the video, check out the remains of Redoubt No. 4, overrun in the 1980s by an upscale housing development. The massive amount of work accomplished by hand in frozen ground more than 150 years ago is plainly visible at this small, remaining portion of the redoubt, located in a cul-de-sac. The site on Foster Hill Road has been preserved by the Tennessee Historical Society, which placed a marker at the base of the north face of the earthen wall.

A reader of my Civil War Facebook page remembers this ground as cow pasture in 1969. Decades ago, he said he found in front of the works a chunk of a three-inch Hotchkiss shell, one of scores fired on this position by Federal artillery roughly a mile away. Above, from my collection, check out the back end of a Hotchkiss shell and a canister ball discovered at the site.

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Thursday, July 22, 2021

What lies beneath? A Vanderbilt team explores Shy's Hill

From left, Vanderbilt research analyst Natalie Robbins, students Jordan Rhym and Alyssa Bolster,
geospatial librarian Stacy Curry-Johnson, and professor Brandon Hulette pose with
a ground-penetrating radar machine at Shy's Hill. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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On a hazy Thursday morning at Shy's Hill in Nashville -- ugh, Oregon wildfires -- I did what comes naturally for me: Watch other people work. Military science professor Brandon Hulette, research analyst Natalie Robbins, geospatial data and systems librarian Stacy Curry-Johnson, and students Jordan Rhym and Alyssa Bolster -- all from Vanderbilt University -- manuevered a $13,000 ground-penetrating radar machine over four sites on the hallowed ground south of downtown. Robbins calls her team "spatial specialists," which sort of makes my head spin.

The ground-penetrating radar provides an "image" of 
the subsurface like this one, held by Vanderbilt
research analyst Natalie Robbins.

The specialists' mission: Use the GPR to determine what, if anything, might lie beneath the ground near the crest of Shy's Hill, unsuccessfully defended by the Army of Tennessee on Dec. 16, 1864 -- Day 2 of the Battle of Nashville. Data from the GPR will be downloaded to create "images" of the subsurface. (They remind me of sonograms.) Could the GPR reveal remains of Confederate trenches? Human remains? Perhaps a stash of 500 beer can tabs from a long-ago bash? I'll report back in this space about findings.

Much of Shy's Hill was carved up more than 60 years ago by residential developers -- the very top of the hill was sliced off in the 1950s for a water tank, making it nine or 10 feet shorter than in 1864. This opening sentence from a feature story in a 1959 edition of the Nashville Tennessean makes my heart hurt: "Today Shy's Hill has been stormed, captured and occupied by building contractors and home owners. A phalanx of bulldozers led the way, and handsome brick houses now line the streets which circle the knob, halfway to the crest."


A small section of the hill -- the extreme left of the Confederates' line on Day 2 of the battle -- is preserved and maintained by the Battle of Nashville Trust. (Full disclosure: I am a board member.) The next time you're in Nashville, put it on your must-see list, because it's worth the hike up the steep, rugged trail to the top. 

In the video below, Hulette explains the team's Shy's Hill mission: 

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

  • Nashville Tennesseean, Dec. 13, 1959.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Rebels' 'vandalism': Defacement of Andrew Jackson monument

A cropped version of a Harper's Weekly illustration from July 5, 1862, of a park monument
to Andrew Jackson in Memphis, Tenn. It was defaced by Confederate sympathizers.

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Monuments to Andrew Jackson -- a racist, ethnic cleanser, and tyrant to some; a hero to others -- literally and figuratively have taken a beating recently. In June 2020, protesters in Washington climbed atop the sculpture of the seventh U.S. president in Lafayette Square opposite the White House, tying ropes around Jackson and his horse before attempting to pull the statue from its base, which was defaced with spray paint. In July 2020, the Jackson (Miss.) city council voted to remove a bronze statue of "Old Hickory" from City Hall grounds.

This Andrew Jackson monument in Lafayette Square,
opposite the White House, was defaced in 2020.
(Wikipedia | AgnosticPreachersKid)
Jackson, who died in 1845, was a flashpoint during the Civil War, too.

In the center of Union-occupied Memphis, Tenn., in June 1862 was a beautiful park filled with trees, flowers, shrubbery, and "benches for the accommodation of loungers of both sexes." Surrounded by an iron railing, the public square -- lighted by gas at night -- was a premier gathering spot. Authorities aimed to keep it that way -- dogs were discouraged, and anyone who meddled with the shrubbery risked a $10 fine, a significant sum. (You can still visit Court Square, where scenes from The Firm, the 1993 movie starring Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman, were filmed.)

In the park's northwestern section, surrounded by a circular iron fence and "ornamented by carefully trained shrubbery," rested a large, marble bust of Jackson atop a tall pedestal. (The former president was a co-founder of Memphis.) "Honor and gratitude to those who have filled the measure of their country’s glory," read an inscription in the pedestal's south side. On the north side appeared these words:


That was a take on Jackson's famous utterance, made at an 1830 Thomas Jefferson birthday dinner, about federal law superseding authority of individual states. (Read more about the Nullification Crisis and its Civil War ramifications here.) 

A circa-1844 daguerreotype of 78-year-old
former president Andrew Jackson.
Before the Rebels high-tailed it out of Memphis in early June 1862, someone was determined to erase the words of the "Hero of New Orleans." Wrote a Chicago newspaper correspondent:

During the occupancy of Memphis by Gen. [Sterling] Price’s rebel army, a Col. Brunt rendered himself forever notorious and forever infamous by defacing and partly erasing the word federal in the above inscription. The monument still stands, however, a lasting rebuke to the rebels and a reminder of the reckless and venom minded policy of some of the men who have led its armies. The word federal has not been entirely effaced. It is yet readable, and is fast coming out of the dust of anarchy and confusion which for a twelve-month [period] have obscured it.

In addition to the word "Federal," the first two letters of "Union" were chipped by "some rampant rebel," another newspaper correspondent reported, "presenting an appearance as if a small hammer had been several times struck across the obnoxious words." 

Continued the correspondent: "It was a very feeble attempt at defacement of the words that grated harshly on treason's ear." The bust reportedly suffered the wrath of Rebel rabblerousers, too. (Damn kids!)

A Union soldier recalled a visit to the Court Square in late fall 1862. " of our company marched in, and it done me good to see them in a ring around the marble bust of General Jackson to which they showed their respects with presenting arms," wrote 30th Iowa quartermaster sergeant John Caleb Lockwood. "Upon the marble pillars upon which the bust of the general stands are cut the words, 'The Federal Union—it must be preserved.' The words 'Federal' I noticed were defaced as though it was intended to be obliterated. I thought I could see from the countenances of the citizens that we were not very welcome visitors."

An uncropped version of an illustration of the Jackson monument park in Memphis
from Harper's Weekly on July 5, 1862. (CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)

Another Northern visitor was infuriated by the damage. "Vain attempt to obliterate the noblest utterance of Tennessee's favorite son!" he wrote. "There it stands, marred but still legible, a monument of vandalism of the perpetrators, and of the still greater vandalism and infamy of the rebels, who would not only obliterate the mute words on the marble but who have employed their mightiest energies to destroy the Federal Union itself, with all its living interests."

Now I couldn't track down "Col. Brunt," whose descendants may be aghast by his alleged behavior. As for the bust of Jackson, well, you can visit it at the D’Army Bailey County Courthouse in Memphis. Be warned: "It bears ample evidence of the turbulent reaction to Jackson."   

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

  • Chicago Tribune, June 18, 1862.
  • Harper's Weekly, July 5, 1862.
  • John Caleb Lockwood letter to his wife, Nov. 7, 1862, William Griffing's Spared & Shared site (Letter 2), accessed July 20, 2021.
  • Nashville Daily Union, June 22, 1862.
  • The Presbyter, Cincinnati, Ohio, July 31, 1862.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

A 'remarkable accident': How New York soldier died in Virginia

An illustration, probably by Larkin Goldsmith Mead, of the grave of Corporal James Bryant and 
a tree upon which the soldier's name, unit and death date were etched. (Library of Congress)
Larkin Goldsmith Mead of Harper's Weekly created this illustration of a deadly lightning strike that killed 1st New York Light Artillery Corporal James Bryant in Virginia.

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When Elizabeth Bryant sent her only son to war, she probably feared he could be maimed or killed in battle or victimized by disease. But there's no way she imagined how 25-year-old James Bryant would die at the front in Virginia on an ungodly awful morning.

At roughly 2 a.m. on June 3, 1862 -- two days after the Battle of Seven Pines (Va.) -- a nearly spent thunderstorm approached the 1st New York Light Artillery's camp near Mechanicsville, seven miles northeast of Richmond. Humidity was as thick as a pot of bad coffee. Between the cannons and caissons weary soldiers placed tarps over sticks and rails for shelter. 

Corporal James Bryant's grave
in Cold Harbor (Va.) National Cemetery.
(Find A Grave)
"The sentries perceived a dark cloud sweeping from the west at a very low elevation, and as it passed over the park a terrific discharge of the electric fluid took place," wrote Larkin Goldsmith Mead, a Harper's Weekly illustrator embedded with the Army of the Potomac. "The whole battery seemed enveloped in a sheet of flame."


"The flame seemed to strike one of the guns, leaped from thence to the supports of the tent, passing downward, and stunning and burning or partially paralyzing a whole platoon of twenty men," Mead wrote. Corporal James Bryant, "an intelligent and brave young man" from Bath, N.Y., was killed instantly -- the only soldier to die in the "very remarkable accident."

"The electric fluid passed under the rubber blanket of one man, lifting him several inches from the ground," Mead wrote. "Some [soldiers] had legs and arms partially paralyzed." 

Days earlier, another lightning strike killed a 44th New York quartermaster, knocked another soldier senseless, and ignited a box of cartridges. Luckily for the 1st New York Light artillery, none of its ammunition chests were ignited.

Comrades buried Bryant nearby under two large trees -- the corporal's name, unit, and death date were carved into one of them. Mead sketched Bryant's grave and also created an illustration of the lightning strike for Harper's Weekly, although it's unknown whether he witnessed the freak accident or relied on accounts of those who did. 

"The men are unanimous in the belief that lightning," Mead wrote, "is harder to beat than the rebels."

Bryant's remains eventually were disinterred from under the large tree and re-buried nearby, in Cold Harbor (Va.) National Cemetery. Elizabeth Bryant filed paperwork to obtain a mother's pension -- the request was approved at the standard rate of $8 a month.

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

  • Harper's Weekly, July 5, 1862.
  • James Bryant's pension file, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C., transcribed by Jennifer Payne (accessed July 17, 2021).
  • Krick, Robert K, Civil War Weather in Virginia, University of Alabama Press, 2007.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

A visit with great-granddaughter of Sam Watkins of Co. Aytch

Ruth Hill McAllister at the grave of Sam Watkins, her great-grandfather.

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Confession: I have not read Company Aytch, Confederate soldier Sam Watkins’ classic memoir, which puts me in a minority among my Civil War friends, acquaintances, and hangers-on according to an informal poll. I promise to rectify that, especially now that I have a copy of the latest version, signed by Watkins' great-granddaughter.

This image of Sam Watkins hangs in Ruth Hill McAllister's
house. Watkins died in 1901.
On a steamy Tennessee afternoon, Ruth Hill McAllister and I meet in-person for the first time, at Zion Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Columbia, where the remains of her famous ancestor rest along with his wife, Jennie. Clearly, Watkins – one of the “stars” of Ken Burns’ 1990 Civil War documentary – is not forgotten. Atop the 1st Tennessee veteran’s gray-granite marker sit tokens of remembrance left by visitors: pennies, nickels, dimes – even a pen knife, which seems a bit odd. 

Behind us stands historic Zion Presbyterian Church, Watkins’ longtime place of worship built, in part, by slaves. And steps from his grave stands one of those ubiquitous (and addictive) Civil War Trails tablets. It includes this quote from Company Aytch

"America has no north, no south, no east, no west. The sun rises over the hills and sets over the mountains, the compass just points up and down, and we can laugh now at the absurd notion of there being a north and a south. We are one and undivided." 

Too bad today's America is not "one and undivided." But that’s a discussion for another day. Ruth, as sweet a lady as you’ll ever meet, invites me to her 19th-century house. There, I enjoy two slices of McAllister's freshly baked banana coffee cake with sweet tea, bond with her rambunctious but friendly dog, and chat about one of the Civil War’s more fascinating characters. 

Visitors leave tokens of remembrance on Sam Watkins' gravestone in Columbia, Tenn.
Historic Zion Presbyterian Church, which Sam Watkins attended, still holds services.

Thirty-one years ago -- yikes! -- Ruth's family was glued to the TV for Burns' mini-series, which may have shaded the truth a bit (see: "Gettysburg/Confederates shoes story") but opened the eyes of millions to America's greatest conflict. (Lord, I can't get enough of former newspaperman Charles McDowell's Watkins voiceover.)

An ancient family Bible includes a list of Watkins births.
“My parents just hoped to live long enough to see the special,” Ruth tells me. (They did.) "...we felt honored [Sam] was a part of it."

Watkins, who died in 1901, never dominated family discussions while McAllister was growing up. But her father had a habit of writing down notes from conversations with his mother -- Watkins' daughter, Ruth's grandmother -- about him on the backs of envelopes. Some of those scribblings are stuffed in the nooks and crannies of McAllister's beautiful house. (Ruth also has the ancient, Sam Watkins-signed family Bible, a neat relic to examine.)

Samuel Rush Watkins, who was promoted from private to corporal in 1864, seemed to be everywhere in the Western Theater --  battles at Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro/Stones River, Nashville, and elsewhere. But it’s his folksy, often-eloquent writing (and razor-sharp sense of humor) that leaves me slightly in awe. A few Watkins-isms: 

  • "A soldier's life is not a pleasant one. It is always, at best, one of privations and hardships. The emotions of patriotism and pleasure hardly counterbalance the toil and suffering that he has to undergo in order to enjoy his patriotism and pleasure. Dying on the field of battle and glory is about the easiest duty a soldier has to undergo."
  • A close-up of Sam Watkins' gravestone -- and metal CSA
    marker next to it -- in Zion Presbyterian Church Cemetery
    in Columbia, Tenn.
    "I always shoot at privates. It was they who did the shooting and killing, and if I could kill or wound a private, why, my chances were so much the better. I always looked upon officers as harmless personages."
  • "General [Braxton] Bragg was a disciplinarian shooter of men, and a whipper of deserters. But he was not any part of a General. As a General he was a perfect failure."
  • "The lice and the camp itch were the greatest luxuries enjoyed by the private soldier. Ah, reader, they were luxuries that were appreciated. A good scratching was ecstasy. It was bliss."
  • "The majority of Southern soldiers are today the most loyal to the Union. Many disown the Southern cause and have buried in forgetfulness all memory of the war.
Initially published in 1882, Company Aytch sold for $1.25 in hardback, 75 cents in paperback. Watkins even gave away some of the 1,500-book printing run as wedding gifts. He intended to republish the book, marking up a first edition with changes, corrections, and additions in a "sometimes indecipherable scrawl," according to McAllister. But her great-grandfather never did publish another edition.

Ruth Hill McAllister gave me a copy
of Company Aytch. Signed it, too.
That marked-up treasure remained with Ruth's Uncle Paul for decades. Immediately after his death in 1997, however, no one could find it. Her cousin Jenny eventually discovered the pencil-smudged, brittle copy in a box. Later, when Jenny asked Ruth if she were interested in buying it from her, McAllister was "delighted" and paid a "handsome price." It's now in a bank vault.

The latest edition, the only authorized one that includes Watkins' changes, corrections, and additions, was published in 2011, with Ruth's impetus. "It is my sincere hope," McAllister writes in the introduction to that edition, "that historians and other readers will find it of some interest and benefit." Before my departure, Ruth gives me a copy as a gift.

Now if you will please excuse me, I have some reading to do.

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