Monday, August 19, 2019

'Where'll I find the Crater?': A visit to Petersburg in 1881

In 1887, six years after reporter George Morgan's Petersburg visit, 57th Massachusetts veterans
pose at The Crater.  William Mahone, the Confederate brigadier general who led counterattacks 
at The Crater on July 30, 1864 is the man with the cane and long, white beard
 in the front row. (William Tipton | Library of Congress)

Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter | Morgan's battlefield accounts

On a tour of Southern battlefields in 1881. Philadelphia Times correspondent George Morgan stopped in Petersburg, Va., where citizens weren't especially eager to talk about momentous Civil War events that occurred there. At least one of them, however, profited from the war: The farmer who owned land where the Federals famously exploded a mine under the Confederates' salient on July 30, 1864, charged visitors a quarter apiece to visit the "historic hole" created by the blast.

Correspondent George Morgan toured Civil War
battlefields in 1881-1882 and wrote about the
experiences for the Philadelphia Times.
His Petersburg story was published in the
 Times on Sept. 5, 1881.
"...he was obliged to charge a fee," Morgan wrote about Timothy R. Griffith, who owned The Crater, "as otherwise his visitors, after the reckless manner of Sunday sight-seers, would trample down his cotton and kill his corn."

The Crater was the feature Civil War attraction in Petersburg, and Morgan unsurprisingly made it one of his first stops. It looked "like an abandoned reservoir," he wrote, "of uneven banks and irregular bottom, overgrown with clumps of briars and bushes. It is one hundred and sixty feet long, sixty feet wide and twenty-five feet deep."

Morgan made no mention of soldier remains at The Crater, where a photograph taken a little more than a decade earlier showed human skulls gruesomely perched on the rim of the giant hole. In visits to forts Damnation, Davis and Rice and elsewhere in the immediate area, the 27-year-old reporter also found plentiful evidence of civil war.

"...every rain," he wrote, "washes out Minie balls and grape [shot] on all the farms between the lines."

Here's Morgan's colorful account -- which includes a caustic assessment of the Union attack at The Crater -- that was published on Page 1 of the Times on Sept. 5, 1881:

Special Correspondence of The Times

Petersburg, September 3

America's Sevastopol, which I make bold to call this place of prolonged siege, seems to me to be a sort of Richmond on a small scale. The streets and stores of this pretty little city on the Appomattox are much like those of the proud beauty on the James: the nooks and crannies of the one suggest those of the other, and there is that in the air here whereby the stranger recognizes the Virginia capital in miniature. In Richmond, however, there may be felt the snap and dash of a lively now South, while at this ancient point of trade there is a hint of Dixie, not altogether unadulterated, but still pleasantly suggestive of the land of "cinnamon seed and sandy bottom."

Though the town is surrounded by the ruins of numerous forts and though many of the people served in the trenches, I find them averse to talking about the siege. Furthermore, those of whom I asked questions apparently fail to appreciate what a big thing they have in the matter of battle-fields. Very likely it is because they have them at their doors and it is the old story of the weather prophet who is not without success save in his own country. It wouldn't be at all wonderful if St. Peter has ceased to admire the golden hinges of his big gate, and no doubt the devil fails to appreciate the interesting section over which he presides.

On the Jerusalem Plank

"Where'll I find the Crater?'' I asked, coming out from the built-up part of the town and emerging upon Jerusalem plank-road.

"Feth, an' am thinkin' yo'll be afther gettin' yer nuff av the crathur beyant there in Jimmy O'Nail's saloon," replied my interlocutor, pointing to a sign whereon "Old Rye," "XX Ale" and things of that kind blazingly figured.

"He don't mean that crater; some other crater," chimed in a small boy; "he moans the big C-r-a-t-e-r, where the Yanks busted a hole in old man Griffith's field."

"Och, bejasus, tho't yo was manin' the livin' liquid herself;" and as I drove on I left the boy telling the citizen how Burnside had wasted his tons of powder. Passing along the Jerusalem road for more than a mile I came to a road that branched off into a field of peanut plants. At the side of the gateway was the sign:


At the end of the field road, a few hundred yards from the sign, I saw a large, roundish bank of red earth topped by shrubs and small trees. Near by is a two-story frame house in which lives T. R. Griffith, the owner of the farm and the guardian of the historic hole. Mr. Griffith led me up the side of the Crater, explaining as he brushed the weeds from the path that for self-protection he was obliged to charge a fee, as otherwise his visitors, after the reckless manner of Sunday sight-seers, would trample down his cotton and kill his corn.

What the Crater looks like

Present-day view of The Crater, on outskirts of Petersburg. (Photo:Shelly Liebler | Visit her Instagram page)
Tunnel dug by 48th Pennsylvania soldiers for a mine placed under Confederate salient nearby.
(Photo: Shelly Liebler)
The land within a half mile in every direction is clear of woods and at this time is checkered by fields of corn, cotton and peanuts and patches of ground that are fallow. Looking to the north the fields slope downward, and so with the strip to the east, but passing a ravine the slope is upward to the Federal line. To the west and south is rising ground, with the city cemetery on the ridge and the city itself beyond. The crater now looks like an abandoned reservoir, of uneven banks and irregular bottom, overgrown with clumps of briars and bushes. It is one hundred and sixty feet long, sixty feet wide and twenty- five feet deep. The earth is brown, with red blotches, being clay sub-soil.

The parapet of the fort remains and serves as the rim and border of the pit. Pine, peach, apple and atlanthus trees, together with grapevines, blackberry bushes and fruitless briars, grow thickly in the hollows, which look as if a herd of wild boars with hundred-horse-power snouts had rooted them out a dozen years ago. Extending from the northeastern corner of the crater in a straight line down hill to the ravine, two hundred yards away, is a sunken, narrow, ditch-like sink in the earth. This is the surface line of the tunnel dug by Schuylkill county soldiers, who had been brought up in mines and who wormed their way from the ravine until they stored thousands of pounds of powder just under this spot. As I sit in the crotch of a peach tree and look at the points of the field, now little changed from the day when it was the scene of a wonderful episode in war, the picture comes vividly up.

How ten tons of powder spoke

Marker denoting 48th Pennsylania soldiers' role in The Crater explosion.
(Photo: Shelly Liebler)
It is not yet sunrise and the defenders are asleep among the traverses and under the guns of the fort. A match, a touch, a hissing fuse and what a thing of mould and force infernal is now let loose. It is as though a young volcano, held in nature's mystery underground, has burst its bonds. The crust is rent by the up-coming bolt and fire flashes through broken clods of earth that fly to mid-air two hundred feet above. Sand, stones, guns, men, everything within reach of the blast, are blown skyward. A brass piece that weighs a ton is sent whirling over the parapet for a hundred yards.

Young Chandler, who an instant before slept beneath the gun, is hurled so high and so far that his bruised body falls within the Union lines. Men die in the air, never knowing in what unwonted and in what sulphurous guise death has unwrapped itself. Answering to the quake that is felt as far as Richmond and that shakes the steeples at Norfolk, a hundred miles away, come the roll and roar of [Ulysses] Grant's artillery. In redan and redoubt [Robert E.] Lee's men are benumbed and shrink lest the old mole has toothed his blind path under other forts and lest instantly now other death-bolts shall start up from the depths. Lee's batteries to the right and left are deserted; the outburst has broken his line and into it a wedge that may end the war in a week can now be driven. The mine itself is a wonder. It does its work with the swift flight of an electric streak that zig-zags across a bank of clouds in summer time, rendering the thunderous acclaim of its own success.

In the death trap

Granite marker near The Crater. The Federals suffered 504 killed, 1,881 wounded, 1,413 missing 
or captured  in the battle. Many of the casualties were U.S. Colored Troops. (Photo: Shelly Liebler)
But it is in the driving of the wedge that the gain becomes loss. What thus far has been an immense success now turns to that which is worse than a failure. What is needed is that the wedge shall be driven with Grant's best sledge hammer promptly home. A mass of boasting black men, whose battle-cry of "No quarter!" comes as an echo from Fort Pillow, are sent under a leader unworthy of his uniform to accomplish what only the pick of the army could hope to do. A whole hour is given [Confederate General William] Mahone in which to throw himself into the breech. Lee's artillery is again manned and hotly begins to work.

Union troops advance toward The Crater after the explosion
of the mine. (Alfred Waud | Library of Congress)
Poor devils of black men from shouting "No quarter" now shriek wild prayers for pity. Boasting becomes beseeching. The miserable wretches are bayoneted by friends and shot down by the foe. Without head or order the entrapped victims huddle close about the gap in the ground, seeking shelter behind heaps of upturn earth and even shielding themselves vainly with the bodies of dead comrades. The crater is a death-trap. From many batteries, where lurid gleams come through shrouds of smoke, shot and shell are hailed incessantly, and what was a spot of triumph is now a slaughter-pen a place of torn earth, soaked in the blood of four thousand men.

[Read historian Kevin Levin's detailed account of the Battle of the Crater. Levin's book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, may be purchased here.] 

Forts Hell and Damnation

Monument denoting the role of Fort Stedman, a Union fortification at Petersburg. 
(Photo: Shelly Liebler)
The Crater is the main object of interest on the lines of fortifications and it is more frequently visited than Forts Steadman, Haskell and Sedgwick, which lie within sight to the north and cast. There are traces of Fort McGilver far beyond Fort Steadman and the outlines of the latter are just as distinctly marked. All the traverses have been removed and all the covered ways destroyed, for Fort Hell, as the armies nicknamed the Steadman redoubt, is now a garden wherein truck is raised for the Petersburg market. A farm house has been erected in the enclosure and O.P. Hare now peacefully dwells where Gordon and havoc once swept along. [Note: Fort Sedgwick was nicknamed "Fort Hell," not Fort Stedman.]

Fort Haskell is in better preservation than any other of the Federal redoubts. Pine trees grow in and around the enclosure and both the inner and outer works with a little use of the shovel could be made as formidable as in the days of death. Many of the oaks in the vicinity contain bullets. nor is it unusual to pick up rusty reminders of battle anywhere along the line from that point southward to Fort Sedgwick. Only half of that famous place of strength now remains. It was built across the Jerusalem road on two plantations.

The part on Mr. Griger's farm was long ago leveled and is now in corn, but the half on the east side still stands. Mahone's Fort Damnation shows many remnants. Fort Davis is in good condition, and Fort Rice has suffered little from the wear and tear of time. In this way the curious visitor might follow the lines of defense and contravallation down to Hatcher's Run and the Five Forks field. Wherever the land was cultivated before the war the works have been levolod, but where the lines passed through woods the works are very much as they were when abandoned. In the high and rolling lands the woods contain white oak, red oak, poplar and hickory, but in the light, sandy soil grow pines, ash, elm and buttonwood. At points where a link in the chain of fortifications is missing the line may be traced by the color of the sub-soil. Where the land is tilled most of the shells and bits of lead have been picked up, yet every rain washes out Minie balls and grape on all the farms between the lines.

Present-day view of Fort Stedman, better known as Fort Hell. (Photo: Shelly Liebler)

Pink blossoms and white

There is a delightful thing about Petersburg that never before has been mentioned in print. The city is bordered in its suburbs by a long bolt of peach trees which, in the spring, turn myriad white blossoms out to the sun and thus give a beautiful girdle to the place once trussed with bands of iron and cordons of steel. In that long and weary year of watchfulness the Southern soldiers were glad to get fruit and the best things that came to them from the Carolinas were peaches, whereof the pink flesh was sweeter than honey-dew. The kernels were dropped upon the battle-ground; the army tramped sorely on to Appomattox; winter came again, and then from the trenches sprang fruit trees that have flourished to this day. Down in the sunny South there is a kind of peach that shows a white bud; elsewhere the blossom is touched with pink. All other peach trees around Petersburg have the pink flower, and the battle-field peach thus keeps its mark and proud distinction. So now, starting from the river at the north, Lee's line may be traced for six miles or more by the far-reaching orchard planted in blood.


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

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Stones River's Slaughter Pen: A study in black and white

Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter

In this maze of limestone on Dec. 31, 1862, Union soldiers crouched low as bullets pinged off rocks and thudded into bodies. Wounded and dying men lay within this labyrinth of stone, natural trenches unique to a Civil War battlefield. Some of the Federals said the scene reminded them of the animal slaughter houses in Chicago. "The Slaughter Pen," they called this site in the woods on the Stones River (Tenn.) battlefield. On a hot and steamy afternoon, a lone battlefield visitor climbed among the boulders, trying to imagine the horrid scene on a frigid winter morning long ago.

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

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Where 'bleeding warrior' fell: A visit to Chancellorsville in 1881

A circa-1900 view of the old Chancellor family house, which burned down in 1927. The structure suffered
significant damage during the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863.
(Photo courtesy Pat Sullivan | Click on all images to enlarge.)
Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter | Morgan's battlefield accounts

In 1881 and 1882, George Morgan of the Philadelphia Times lived what many of us today would consider a charmed life. Traveling throughout the South, the 27-year-old reporter visited Civil War battlegrounds from Franklin in Tennessee to Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia to report a series of lengthy stories for the Philadelphia newspaper.

George Morgan's story about his Chancellorsville
battlefield visit was published on Page 1
of the Philadelphia Times on Aug. 9, 1881.
A little less than two decades after the war, the battlefields looked much as the soldiers who fought there saw them. On his excursions, Morgan examined parapets, viewed soldiers' skulls in the woods, discovered war relics and chatted with locals who lived on hallowed ground.

In the summer of 1881, accompanied by a black man named Cato, Morgan rode about 10 miles from Fredericksburg, Va., to visit the old Chancellorsville battleground, (in)famous for where Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded May 2, 1863. A pilgrimage to the Jackson wounding site, marked by a large stone, obviously made an impression on Morgan.

"The stone is as still as though the bones of the man of fame were beneath," wrote Morgan, a gifted writer, in his Page 1 story in the Philadelphia Times. "Squirrels skip over it. Bucks and does rub lazily against it and acorns dropping from the boughs above lose their cups as they crack against its brown sides."

On his Chancellorsville journey, the reporter also visited "a church full of bullets," saw the "towering pine" under which Robert E. Lee and Jackson may have sat to plot strategy and examined "shrapnel bolts" embedded in the Chancellor house, vortex of the battle. And almost in passing, Morgan wrote about a grisly discovery by a local farmer.

Here's Morgan's Philadelphia Times account about his Chancellorsville visit, published Aug. 9, 1881.

Special Correspondence of The Times

The Wilderness P. O., August 7

Coming within sight of Chancellorsville I tried to make close scrutiny of the one historic house that is the all in all of the settlement, but my own gaze, as well as the questioning stare of the driver, Cato, became fixed upon a much prettier picture in the yard. Under the shade of an elm sat a young couple who looked as though they were out for a picnic. The young woman was fair of face and of gentle manners, and the moustached youth who paid her such smiling attention evidently was something more than a brother. Both wore traveling costumes of the Northern cut and I was not surprised to learn that they hailed from Hartford, Connecticut.

''Who am dem people, Moss Oliver?" asked Cato, speaking in an undertone, as the sun browned tenant of the Chancellor House stepped out to the buggy with his hearty invitation to "light and walk in."

"Young married folkses"said Farmer Oliver.

 "On dere weddin'  skurshun, am dey ?"

"I 'low so, you 'quisitive niggah; you'd better take keer o' yo hosses," and turning to me Farmer Oliver continued: "The young lady says as how her father was killed on this heah battlefield the day she was bo'n. He was an officer with Gennul Sickles an' was killed over thah by Hazel Grove same time as Genuul Berry was. Do 'light and walk in, sir! Any marks about the old house? Well, I should say so! Come in. come in."

A church full of bullets

When reporter George Morgan visited Salem Church in 1881, wartime damage was evident. Here is an
 early post-war view of the church, today located "amongst a virtual sea of shopping malls."
(Photo courtesy Pat Sullivan)
It needed some such pleasant introduction as this to Chancellorsville, because the morning sun had been hot, the horses slow, Cato sleepy and the ride from Fredericksburg barren of interest, except at one point -- the battle-scarred surroundings of Salem Church. Leaving Marye's Heights behind, a trot of a few miles over the Orange turnpike had brought us to the church around which [John] Sedgwick fought on the days that witnessed the death-grapple of [Joseph] Hooker and [Robert E.] Lee, a little further to the north. The church, which is a small brick building, stands in the corner of dense woods somewhat to the left of the road. Its grove of oaks differs from the adjoining forest trees in that they grow several yards apart and shelter a circular plot of pasture grass. A few feet in the rear of the church is a line of breastworks, now no higher than the knees and thickly overgrown with weeds.

The church walls contain shell-holes and countless bullet marks, while the overhanging oaks show many scars. Indeed, it may be said that as many minie balls have been put into the church as there have been prayers sent from it. Moving on by a red clay road bordered by pine and oak and poor cornfields, in which were negro cabins made of logs, we had at eleven o'clock reached the Furnace road. Along this road stretched the Confederate right and under a towering pine tree, plainly in sight, it is said that Lee and Jackson sat upon their cracker boxes on the evening of May 1 when they planned their daring attack upon Hooker's Eleventh Corps. But the pine and the guide's cracker-box story had proved very dry indeed and it was with the pleasure of a thirsty man approaching a well that I drove up to the Chancellor House, with its shady yard and happy bridal party.

A famous place of one house

Another early post-war view of the old Chancellor house, visited by reporter George Morgan in 1881.
Chancellorsville is a desolate clearing on the southern edge of the Wilderness. Time was when a hundred Virginians of the first families clinked glasses in the long dining hall of the hostelrie, and many a day did Jefferson, Madison and those who came after take noontide rest under the surrounding elms. But the planks of the Plank road are gone. Coaches and four no longer shake dust from the shallow ruts of the pike and lovers no longer seek the cross roads tavern as the half way to Gretna Green.

In the old days the Chancellor House was a massive brick building, shaped like a squat T. Around it on every side were level fields that stretched for a quarter of a mile or more, while three important stage roads came together in front of the yard. Now only one-third of the building -- the northern end --  stands, and even that had to be re-erected after battle, when fire left nothing but bare walls, shot shattered and bullet-pierced. From the northern end of this poor remnant of the ruined inn stick out five pieces of shrapnel bolts that, as Mr. Oliver fears, may yet play the mischief. Above these grim things is a ragged rent in the gable end near the roof, showing where shells knocked for admission as they paused in their screaming flight eighteen years ago. The porch pillar, near which Hooker had the misfortune to stand when it was shattered by a round shot, was destroyed by the fire and in the places of the pillars are wooden columns freshly painted and without a scratch. In the yard the visitor sees the outlines of the old house marked by shrubs, weeds and stray bricks, while a dozen sweet hollyhocks growing near the porch remain as sentinels of garden beauties long since gone.

The spot where Jackson fell

THEN & NOW: Approximate site of Stonewall Jackson's wounding on May 2, 1863. He died of complications of the wound eight days later. Use slider to toggle from 1866 to present-day view.

The sun is overhead as the lazy horses, white with lather, jog along a level road between two cornfields and come once more to where trees grow thickly on either side. Thus moving in the midst of timber for somewhere near a half mile we come to a big stone planted steadfastly by the roadside. Cato is nodding and I hit him a smart crack with a soldier's skull which Farmer Oliver gave me and the points of which I had been studying since we left Hooker's shattered headquarters behind. Cato gave a grunt and a jerk and mumbling: "I'se mos' aseep," spied the stone.

Stonewall Jackson
Then it was amusing to watch the change come over the darkey's dull expanse of jaw and lip. He lifted his eyebrows, showed his teeth and said, with animation: "Bress my soul, sah, us am right heah."

 "What's ' heah ?'  What's that stone for ?"

"Doan yo kno, sah, whut dat ar' markable stone am tendin to memmorate?"

"No, what is it?"

"Dar's whar Genuul Stonewall was kilt. Moss Tucker  Lacey, do preacher up dar by Wilderness sto, he put stone dar, sah."

I remembered that Jackson clung to life for several days after he had been wounded, but by further questioning I learned that this was the spot where the bleeding warrior fell from his horse in the very hour of his crowning triumph The stone is a rough block of white flint, quarried here in the Wilderness. It stands three feet eight inches high and is two feet ten inches in breadth. Its surface shows dents and sears where from loving pilgrims have scaled bits of it as relics, and all around are smaller pieces of hard rock that have been used as hammers with which to crack it. Immediately around the stone the ground is in small undergrowth. Huckleberry bushes, chinkapins and the like, but at a few feet it is encompassed by pines and oaks of large growth.

Early post-war image of the Orange Plank Road and Mountain Road intersection.
Stonewall Jackson is believed to have been shot at the far right or farther down the road,
out of view of the camera. (Library of Congress | CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)

Bullet marks in a red oak

Between the stone and the road is a red oak of such size that it must have sprung up thirty years ago. I noticed a dozen or more bullet holes in this oak and asked Cato why they were there. His reply, that they came with the volley by which Jackson was killed, seemed to be disproved by the fresh appearance of the holes.

"How can that be?" I asked. "The holes look as though they were made within the last year."

"Easy 'nuff, sah, easy 'nuff," Cato said with a hearty he-haw of a laugh; "doan yo' see, sah, dat do volley come from do No'rf, where do rebels was? 'en doan yo' see dat do visiters heah hab bin pickin' wid dere pen-knives at dem bullet-holes lookin' fur relics?"

Then I understood: the bullet marks had been kept fresh for nearly a score of years by such of the great leader's admirers as hungered to bear away with them the fellow bits of lead of those that flew to their deadly work so long ago. And this is the place where [Stonewall] Jackson for the first time grew weak! The silent woods are around. The stone is as still as though the bones of the man of fame were beneath. Squirrels skip over it. Bucks and does rub lazily against it and acorns dropping from the boughs above lose their cups as they crack against its brown sides. But even here in the Wilderness romance may be spoiled. Nailed against the red oak is a broad board with the sign:

Willis & Grasty
Sowing Machine Agents,
Dry Goods, Shoes and Hats
Cheap for Cash

Thus within hand's reach of Stonewall's stone trade leaves its mark and enterprising dealers reap profit from the glances of the reverential passer-by. In this way sentiment is lost, and even Cato makes the droll suggestion that he let the kicking horse of his team use his hind hoofs to chip a bit of the flint as a memento for me.

Where Pleasonton took his stand

Union General Alfred Pleasonton
(Library of Congress)
Cato is asleep over by Jackson's stone as I come out upon one of the Hazel Grove clearings more than a half mile to the west. While I rest here alone among rank dock weeds that cover the ruins of a parapet, the flesh creeps to think of the mad thing that [Peter] Keenan started from this very spot to do. Daylight fades now as it did then. A red moon looks through the tree tops, and on that May evening eighteen years ago her light was no less reflective of fiery clouds down by the path of the sun.

Twelve thousand panic-stricken men are pressing down the road, through the woods and across the fields in utter rout, each eager to save himself and reckless of the fate of others. [Alfred] Pleasanton, riding wildly on a horse flecked with foam, strives to stem the tide of Howard's flight and to meet the terrific onslaught of Jackson's victorious men. He looks here and there for Keenan, and finding him says: " Major, yon must charge the enemy. Save me ten minutes, to get my guns ready; go, Keenan !" The young Philadelphian, in peace as soft-hearted as a girl, generous, chivalric, the pride of the cavalry, knows that it is certain death, but if Pleasanton is willing to sacrifice his right arm the right arm is ready, and Keenan, with a smile, says: " I will."

Riding down to death

In an early post-war image, a snake rail fence and the old Wilderness Church in the left background. 
(National Park Service via Pat Sullivan)
Then Keenan takes a grip upon his reins, says jocularly "good-by" and wheels his horse with such a touch as the beast never felt before. He nods as he passes [Pennock] Huey and a moment thereafter says: "Cavalry, charge!" and so quiet is his voice that the three hundred troopers barely hear it in the great uproar. But what terrible words to say! The men know the grit of them, and if any one of the three hundred pales at the awful thing about to be done there is no sign of it to Pleasonton, watching eagerly but in perfect confidence as they respond.

In a headlong drive the squadrons cut a swath from the mass of fugitives and come to the edge of the woods. The pause there is for a moment as then Keenan and Huey ride abreast into a narrow road and the cavalrymen follow two by two. Caps are raked off by the brushwood, faces are scratched and torn by the hanging briars, but Keenan rides fast and all come after. From the right now and then whistles up a handful of bullets and a dozen saddles are emptied, but no notice is taken of the skirmishers, and so Keenan, wheeling to the left, dashes into the plank road. And what a sight is before him!

Line upon line of Jackson's veterans -- great hosts of them -- are coming on the double quick straight up the road. Keenan throws aside his cap, shouts "Sabres!" and spurs his horse plumb into the wall of bayonets. The first battalions are blinded by one flash and another and nearly half of the three hundred fall, but Keenan. Huey, [Charles] Arrowsmith and [J. Hazelton] Haddock, backed by their comrades, gather their horses under them and strike such hot blows that they shock the oncoming line for a thousand yards on either side. It is tooth to tooth. Never before did three hundred men cast themselves with such true aim and so impetuously against twenty thousand victorious and advancing veterans. They struck the head and front of the moving mass and left it like a thunderbolt.

"And full in the midst rose Keenan, tall
in the gloom like a martyr, awaiting his fall,
While I lie circle-stroke of his sabre, swung
'round his head, like a halo there luminous hung."

Over Keenan's dead body

Major Peter Keenan of the
8th Pennsylvania was killed
at Chancellorsville
on May 3, 1863
But though Jackson recovers from the shock and pushes on over the prostrate bodies of Keenan, [Duncan] McVicar, Arrowsmith, Haddock and their comrades, ten full minutes have passed and not a moment has Pleasonton been idle. He gathers about him twenty-one guns, double-shotted, and set steadfastly to sweep the approach. He hides his time until the enemy shall appear. Here they come, fresh from the taking of Keenan's blood, wild with the news of Jackson's death wound, swarming in deep masses, waving a dozen battle-flags, keen, eager, thirsty. Pleasanton opens. Every gun speaks on the instant -- a lurid flash, a crash, a roar, live thunder voiced a hundred fold! Hooker, among the desperate fugitives of the Eleventh Corps, a mile away, hears and rejoices. A hundred and twenty thousand soldiers feel that some good is being done at last. [Hiram] Berry and [David] Birney, Sickles and [John] Geary see, from the burning sky, a new daylight spring up in the dusk and they place their legions at Pleasonton's back with the thought that once more the army is saved.

It is too dark to see the ruins of parapets, the old graveyard and the well full of war relics on Fairview crest, and I go back to Cato. That sleepy citizen puts his whip down with a meaning and we leave behind us Jackson's stone, the Dowdall clearing, the old Wilderness church, and come to the Wilderness store. In less than an hour the horses have taken us from one battle-field to another. Just down the road is the place where Lee whipped Hooker, and here in this upland forest is the place where, a year later, Lee tried so hard to throttle [Ulysses] Grant.


An early post-war image of Wilderness Church. (Central Rappahannock Heritage Center via Pat Sullivan)

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

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

A morning walk at Shiloh (Tenn.) National Cemetery

Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter

In addition to dead from the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862), Shiloh National Cemetery includes graves for Union dead from operations along the Tennessee River. In all, nearly 3,600 soldiers -- 2,359 unknown -- are buried in the cemetery on the Tennessee River bluff. A large marker denotes the site of Ulysses Grant's Shiloh headquarters within what became the cemetery grounds in 1866.

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

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Cherry Mansion: Where Shiloh 'ball' began for Ulysses Grant

Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter

On the morning of April 6, 1862, Ulysses Grant sat with a cup of coffee at the breakfast table in the Cherry Mansion in Savannah, Tenn., the nerve center of the Army of the Tennessee. The general's headquarters tent was pitched in the yard of the beautiful home on the bluff overlooking the Tennessee River. In the distance, Grant heard the boom of a cannon. "The ball is in motion," he said. The Battle of Shiloh had begun.

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

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

'Hidden' Battle of Nashville: U.S.C.T at Peach Orchard Hill

Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter

On Dec. 16, 1864, U.S. Colored Troops formed here for the assault on the extreme right flank of the Army of Tennessee's defense line atop Peach Orchard Hill. As explained in the video, this site -- like most of the Nashville battlefield -- was developed long ago. In the attack, the 13th U.S.C.T. suffered more than 200 casualties, including the loss of five color-bearers. “I never saw more heroic conduct exhibited by this body of men so recently slaves,” an Ohio officer recalled.

No marker here trumpets the valor of U.S.C.T. at Battle of Nashville. In fact, no marker anywhere in the city commemorates U.S.C.T. service during the two-day battle.

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

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Tall tale: Uncovering secrets of massive Nashville 'witness tree'

As tree trimmers Hunt Adams and Levi Norwine (right) watch, Jim Kay runs the coil of his metal detector 
over fallen Battle of Nashville "witness tree" limbs. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
Jim Kay believes the crown of the "witness tree" was shot out by artillery fire on Dec. 16, 1864, 
the second day of the Battle of Nashville.
Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter

If Nashville lawyer Jim Kay could depose the witness to violence in his neighborhood, perhaps he’d ask these questions:

Who fired the shot that caused your grievous wound?

Did you suffer when you were hit by gunfire?

An antebellum wall snakes through the 
Oak Hill neighborhood.

Where were the men with the heavy weapons positioned who were assigned to hold the ground near you?

Did the stone wall nearby provide you any protection?

How the heck have you survived for more than 250 years?

Of course, this witness won't ever be talking. But the Battle of Nashville "witness tree" -- one of perhaps five or six of its kind -- could soon reveal some of its secrets. More on that in a bit. But first a little background:

Occasionally I drive through a residential neighborhood called Oak Hill, near downtown Nashville, to admire the massive, ancient oak. The crown is missing from this wonder of nature, probably a victim of Civil War artillery fire, according to Kay, a Battle of Nashville expert. The 60-year-old lawyer has lived for decades in the upscale neighborhood, which was largely farmland behind Confederate lines on Dec. 16, 1864, Day 2 of the battle.

In Oak Hill, an antebellum stone wall -- once part of the John Lea estate -- snakes behind modern homes and older, less ostentatious houses. Evidence of the Battle of Nashville still remains buried in the neighborhood. In his own back yard, Kay has discovered with a metal detector hundreds of battle relics, from bullets to artillery fragments. In 1981, he found his first artillery shell nearby. He has even eye-balled a relic or two in Oak Hill. According to Kay, country music star Hank Williams Jr., a Civil War collector,  hauled off scores of artillery shells in the neighborhood in the 1960s.

A close-up of the missing crown of the tree, believed shot off by artillery fire.
Levi Norwine of Adams Arbor Care saws limbs that could contain Civil War lead.
A close-up of the massive tree trunk.
The girth of the Battle of Nashville "witness tree" is an impressive 209 inches.

Jim Kay recently found this fired bullet in his
Nashville neighborhood.
Victims of a storm, fallen limbs near the "witness tree" recently piqued my curiosity. I wanted to examine the marvel myself and perhaps grab a piece of history, too. And so I called Kay -- he knows the property owner, who graciously allowed us on a muggy Thursday morning to examine his witness to history.

While an arborist trimmed limbs from the oak, which remains quite healthy despite its age, Kay swept his White's MXT metal detector over the fallen limbs. A distinctive whine of the detector indicated the presence of metal in five of the large tree chunks. Could the wood hold bullets or artillery fragments? Or perhaps this long-ago war witness merely contains rusty nails. A relic hunter since 1968, Kay has never found a piece of lead in a Battle of Nashville witness tree. War lead from the tree would be a "priceless" find for the lawyer with the tremendous, near-shoulder-length hair.

With permission of the property owner, Kay will have the five large pieces hauled off to be X-rayed, the most prudent way to examine the wood. He also knows a wood worker who can create fabulous dishes from the oak.

Somehow two large pieces of the tree ended up in the trunk of my car. My knee-jerk reaction: I'll turn them into a beautiful kitchen cabinet! Then I remembered one must have the skills to make that happen. Instead, let's figure a way for this long-ago war witness to benefit Civil War battlefield preservation.

Details to come.

My haul contains no Civil War metal-- at least none that we know of.

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

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Facebook Live: Bullet-riddled outbuildings on Carter farm

Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter

If you dare, you can now follow me live on my Civil War travels. Ah, the beauty of technology. "Like" my Civil War Facebook page and you'll receive alerts when I go live for videos. All the videos will later be archived on the page for your viewing pleasure. (Or grief. Warning: Some IQs have been lowered.)  In the past few weeks, I've ventured to Lookout Mountain, Shy's Hill at Nashville and Franklin, Tenn., where we walked the grounds of the old Fountain Carter farm and examined the pockmarked outbuildings. Where will I be next? Let's just say it will be far, far out West.


Enjoy the journey.


Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Rambling: A year of listening, observing on the Civil War trail

Trapper Haskins founded a vintage baseball league -- it plays by 1864 rules -- in Middle Tennessee.
Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter

In Civil War rambling from Picacho Pass, Ariz., to Resaca, Ga., over the past year, I've focused on becoming a better listener. A better observer, too. Ah, what stories can be mined -- and what lasting connections can be made -- if you follow those two tracks.

"If you make listening and observation your occupation," a smart person once said, "you will gain much more than you can by talk."

On the 157th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh, I met Trapper Haskins at Duncan Field, scene of savage fighting in April 1862. The National Park Service granted permission for his Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball to play a doubleheader on the hallowed ground. What a day it was.

In 2007, Haskins, a custom wood worker, was in Port Huron, Mich., working on a Gloucester schooner. At the local library, he saw a flyer for a vintage baseball team seeking players. He joined and was hooked. “Just playing with those guys, celebrating the history of the game, it was special,” said Haskins, 42, who plays for the Franklin Farriers in his Tennessee league. “It’s the game reduced to its barest form.”

Here are other memorable encounters:

Along a wall at the H Clark Distillery in Thompson's Station, Tenn., site of the 1863 battle, sat a massive tub of brown liquid. Spent grain, it's called. 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,” Kim Peterson, the distillery's tour experience manager told me. "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. What a scene that must be. Read more.

At Point Park atop Lookout Mountain, Tenn., I briefly spoke with a group of Union reenactors portraying a Kentucky unit. The distinctive smell of burning firewood filled the air. Small talk led to a discussion of Civil War flags, which led to this image of Todd Watts of Nashville. The flag was a tremendous backdrop for a photo that was an exclamation point for a great day walking an awe-inspiring battlefield.

“Ladies and gentlemen, on our right is the oldest living fossil,” a fellow reenactor said in jest about 83-year-old Jere McConnell at the reenactment at Resaca, Ga., in May. Jere sat by a tent eating a hamburger, giving visitors pointers in between bites. Wearing Federal blue pants and Confederate homespun, he told me he has reenacted for 30 or so years. What a distinctive face! (Read my column about  Resaca in an upcoming issue of Civil War Times.)

And then there's 76-year-old Charles Garvin, a reenactor since 1962. He was chewing on the stubby remains of an unlit cigar at Resaca as we talked about his hobby. He made me laugh when he mentioned a reenactor who used to put moonshine in his canteen. “He put in some water," he told me, "to make it 100 proof.”

On the 2.5-mile trail at Fort Pillow (Tenn.), I met a terrific couple from Louisiana, Carolyn and Mike Goss from Bossier City. Carolyn's great-grandfather George "Washie" Johnson, who served in a Louisiana regiment, lost a leg at the Battle of Mansfield (La.) on April 8, 1864. He was probably only a teenager. After the war, "Washie" eventually turned to drinking and gambling. (He apparently had a fondness for slot machines.) Johnson also befriended a former slave named Dick Chaney, who was treated like a member of the family. When Chaney died, he was buried next to the Johnson family cemetery in Louisiana, outside the fence. Years later, Carolyn discovered the fence was extended around Chaney's grave. How cool. Read more.

No one on the planet knows more about the rich Civil War history of Culpeper County, Va., than Clark "Bud" Hall. No one is as passionate about saving hallowed ground there than the ex-FBI agent and former Marine. “Young Americans fought, bled, and died on our Civil War battlefields,” he told me, “and I profoundly believe we share a collective responsibility to secure and save these sacred fields.” Above, Hall leans against a pillar at Powhatan Robinson’s war-time home, “Struan.” It was used by Union Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren as a headquarters and by the Army of the Potomac as a hospital in the aftermath of the Battle of Morton Ford’s in early February 1864. Hall knows the 1840 house and its owner well; its expansive porch is a perfect place for a man with a full flask and an active imagination. Read more.

On Father's Day weekend, Ken Rutherford and I toured the Cross Keys, Port Republic and Piedmont battlefields in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. We talked about the Civil War, football, life and his life-altering experience: In 1993, Dr. Rutherford, now a political science professor at James Madison University, was critically injured in a landmine explosion in Somalia. His legs were amputated. At Cross Keys, Nancy Hess showed us the painstaking restoration she and her husband completed at the old Widow Pence house on the battlefield. Later, Ken and I rode in her truck with Stonewall, her 5-year-old Doberman, for a short drive to a seldom-visited part of the battlefield. On June 8, 1862, in view of the magnificent Massanutten Mountain, 8th New York soldiers were slaughtered in a sloping field. "They were used as cannon fodder," Hess said. "Bless their hearts." (Read my column about  Rutherford in an upcoming issue of Civil War Times.)

As a steady rain sent many fans scattering for shelter in the bars at the NFL draft in Nashville in late April, David McCormick watched from behind the counter at Ernest Tubbs Record Shop. The 69-year-old Tennessee native has worked at the store since 1968, owned it since 1972. Outside the Lower Broadway landmark, a large sign proclaims “Real Country Music Lives Here. Our 72nd Year.” Inside, the aisles are filled with country music albums and memorabilia. "It’s a joy for me every day to meet people from all over the world who may find something here they want," McCormick said. Oh, man, I wish I asked him one more question: "Did you know your building was used as a Civil War hospital during the Union occupation?" Read more.

Retired chimney sweep John Mack – you can call him “The Mad Hatter” -- aimed to persuade visitors at the Resaca reenactment to purchase replica coonskin caps. The 6th Alabama, the “Raccoon Roughs, used to wear them, he insisted. Years ago, Mack was passionate about the Revolutionary and French and Indian wars, leading an inquisitor to believe the caps with real raccoon tails may simply be, ah, re-purposed.

Melea Medders Tennant has lived on the Resaca (Ga.) battlefield most of her life. "I can’t tell you how many times I've been working, pulling weeds and [visitors] come by telling me about a great-great uncle or great-great granddaddy who fought here." Occasionally, Tennant gives them a bullet she found on the battlefield. Melea regrets not keeping a diary to document meetings with battlefield tourists. On a Saturday afternoon, Tennant took me to see the remains of embrasures for Captain Maximillian Van Den Corput's "Cherokee Battery" of four Napoleons (above). It used to be her family's property. Read more.

On a Sunday morning, Gary Burke and I stood on a graffiti-marred, modern overpass in South Nashville to view a seldom-seen railroad cut. It was there on Dec. 15, 1864, that Burke's ancestor and his comrades in the U.S. Colored Troops were caught “like pickles in a barrel” during the Battle of Nashville and routed by Confederates. Burke once sneaked into the cut — it’s about 10 feet deeper than it was during the war — because he wanted “to feel the fear that went through them.” Read more.

At the Resaca reenactment, Robert Miller sat at table with a pile of his books on the 129th Illinois, his great-great grandfather's regiment. He ancestor was killed at the northwestern Georgia battlefield, less than a quarter-mile from where we talked on a blazing-hot Saturday. The 78-year-old retired computer programmer from Oklahoma enjoyed telling me about Private Joseph Peters of Company F. Miller eagerly agreed to be photographed holding a copy of an image of his ancestor. We shook hands as we parted. It was one of the firmest handshakes I can remember.

In the pre-dawn darkness in Plains Ga., Mayor Lynton Earl Godwin III – almost everyone calls him “Boze” -- talked about his friend, Jimmy Carter.  He has known the former president most of his life. “He has not forgot where he comes from,” the 75-year-old told me. “He hasn’t changed one bit.” How I got to Plains in the wee hours on Super Bowl Sunday was, well, a little odd. The day before in nearby Andersonville -- site of the notorious Civil War prison camp -- I stopped in a small antiques store. "Does President Carter still teach Sunday school in Plains?" I asked the lovely woman behind the counter. "He sure does," she told me. "You should go." I had nothing to wear but a sloppy sweatshirt and black sweat pants. It's OK, she said. And so I booked a room in Americus, got up super-early the next morning and ...

... attended a Sunday school lesson  with these nice folks.


Enjoy the journey.


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