Thursday, November 27, 2014

Visualizing Artillery on the Battlefield

I've always found this photograph fascinating.

Original LOC Caption: "Antietam, Maryland. Captain J.M. Knap's Penn. Independent Battery 'E' Light Artillery."
Photographed by Alexander Gardner. To view and zoom in on a high res version, go here.

Taken by Alexander Gardner on September 19th, 1862--just two days after the battle of Antietam--it depicts Captain Joseph M. Knap's Independent Battery E, Pennsylvania Light Artillery on the battlefield.

This is an important Civil War photograph. The exact location of this scene was first identified by William Frassanito in his book Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America's Bloodiest Day, published in 1978. With Frassanito's discovery, this photograph became a tremendous resource for historians. It presents a panoramic view of a broad expanse of the terrain over which the battle raged on the morning of September 17th, 1862. The photograph provides documentation of what the terrain looked like at the time of the battle. Behind the battery stretches the fields of David R. Miller's farm, including the bloody cornfield. In the distant background of the photograph, the North Woods loom on the horizon.

I enjoy this photograph for another reason though: it provides a visual reference for what a battery looked like on the field of battle.

When touring battlefields, I find that visualizing the action can sometimes present a challenge, especially when I am leading others with limited knowledge of the Civil War. This applies especially to to the role and appearance of artillery. At most NPS sites today, cannon dot the landscape to mark where batteries deployed. Occasionally, you will find a full compliment of caissons, guns, and limbers to mark out a battery's location. Cushing's battery at Gettysburg and the guns at Hazel Grove come to mind in particular. Yet while the guns provide helpful information in locating a battery position on the field, they don't give us an adequate idea of what a battery in action would look like.

Each gun in a battery was hooked to a limber and pulled by six horses. Each gun then had a caisson, also hooked to a limber, and also pulled by a six-horse team. Therefore, each gun in a battery had typically 12 horses. For a six-gun battery, that's 72 horses, not counting replacements and officer mounts. Each battery also had a traveling forge, a battery wagon to carry tents, supplies, and tools, and usually six more caissons carrying reserve ammunition. That all adds up to a lot of horses.

When deployed for action, regulations suggested that the nose of the lead horse of each limber would be six yards behind the trail of its gun, and the lead horse pulling the caisson should be about 11 yards behind the limber. According to Jack Coggins' wonderful book, Arms and Equipment of the Civil War, a gun, its limber, and its caisson would take up a depth of almost 50 yards. Meanwhile, artillery manuals called for 14 yards in between each gun, meaning that a six-gun battery would occupy a front of more than 80 yards.

Another great image of an artillery battery, this one attributed to army photographer Andrew Russell. This photograph was likely taken during the Chancellorsville campaign. Here's a great blog entry exploring the photograph in detail. To view and zoom in on a high res version, go here.
I find all of that difficult to imagine when I stand on a battlefield looking at a couple of guns flanking a monument. Luckily, Gardner's photographic documentation of Knap's battery at Antietam, and many other similar photographs taken during the war, can help to create an image in your mind of what a battery would look like on the field of battle.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Museum Monday - Interpreting Slavery and African American History and Culture

Last week I took particular note of two blog posts in my daily reading list. Both related to the challenges and opportunities of interpreting slavery at museums and historic sites. First, at the Engaging Places Blog, Max van Balgooy previewed his upcoming book, Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites. The book is a collection of essays published as part of the American Association for State and Local History's new "Interpreting" series. It's one that I've added to my wish list. I've also added the Engaging Places blog to my roll at the right, it's a great read if you are interested in interpretation at museums and historic sites.

Next, I noticed another great post from public historian Nick Sacco of the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis. In it, he discusses the challenge of interpreting Northern views toward slavery, and highlights the importance of encouraging guests to recognize that the historical legacies of slavery and racism are not unique to the South. I think this is an important point, and that it underscores a larger issue within historical interpretation. History is complex. We tend to want to make historical narratives fit within a nice, neat framework with good guys and bad guys, and we want our guests to leave with all their questions answered. Unfortunately, historical reality is not always that simple.

When it comes to the Civil War, we can recognize that slavery was at the heart of the conflict; that the war began over a conflict over slavery's expansion. Southerners wanted slavery to expand, Northerners wanted to contain the institution. Eventually, the war became a struggle for the very existence of slavery in the United States. Underneath this fairly straight forward surface, however, the actual beliefs and opinions of Northerners and Southerners toward slavery and toward African Americans, are complex, and cannot be effectively understood through two generalized camps of pro and anti-slavery. 

Good food for thought to start the week.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Relaunch of Sorts

You may have noticed a lack of posts lately. Really, since June.

When I started this whole enterprise, in May of 2012, I was looking to create an outlet for my interests in historical research and interpretation. At the time I decided to narrow my focus to my favorite topic and place: Gettysburg. In last two and a half years and 180+ posts, the blog has evolved from its beginnings. So has my life: I've gotten married, I've moved from Central New York to Central Virginia, and I've changed jobs. Now I find myself engaged in historical research and interpretation relating to early American history everyday at work. With all these changes, I find that I have less time now to devote to my blogging hobby.

I find blogging difficult. I often struggle to find topics and issues on which to offer a unique and interesting perspective. When I started, I found the nights and weekends I spent researching somewhat obscure events relaxing and rewarding. I still do, but I've found that I don't have as much time to offer regular posts with the deep research necessary to meet my own standards. And yet, I still enjoy blogging as an outlet, and as a way to remain connected to the historical field. With this in mind, I've spent some time thinking about how I wanted to take this blog forward. I still want to work on the historical research that I so enjoy, but recognize that these posts will likely remain infrequent given my current time constraints. To keep the ball rolling in between these long-form posts, I've decided to focus on shorter entries with scaled back ambitions - sharing topical and timely links to other blogs and articles, brief snippets of content related to artifacts, photographs, and other primary sources, and book and exhibit reviews when appropriate.

So hopefully you'll begin to see a bit more from this blog again.Thanks for reading.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Library Corner: The Last Battle of Winchester

The Last Battle of Winchester: Phil Sheridan, Jubal Early, and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, August 7-September 18,1864.
By Scott C. Patchan
Published in 2013 by Savas Beatie 

Though silent on the blog for some time now, I've maintained my activity on the reading front. Just this past week, as we commemorated the 150th anniversary of Third Winchester, I finished reading Scott C. Patchan's recent book, The Last Battle of Winchester: Phil Sheridan, Jubal Early, and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, August 7-September 18, 1864.

I must admit that I had little knowledge of the 1864 Valley Campaign prior to this book. What I knew I had I gleaned off of general Civil War overviews, biographies and memoirs of participants in the campaign, and a handful of visits to sites like New Market and Cedar Creek. Given my sparse knowledge of the topic, this book has been high on my "to read" list for quite some time. When I finally had a chance to pick it up, I wasn't disappointed.

Patchan has produced a fine campaign study, providing his readers with a blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Third Winchester. While he delves into the details of combat and evaluates the performances of key subordinates on both sides, Patchan focuses much of his book on a close analysis of the leadership qualities of the opposing commanders, Phil Sheridan and Jubal Early. He studies their successes and failures, both strategically and operationally.

In Jubal Early, Patchan sees a commander with an excellent combat record, and one who had already seen tremendous success facing long odds as an independent commander in the Valley. And yet, Patchan faults Early for misreading his enemy's intentions in advance of the September 19th battle. Early's daring decision to split his army in the face of overwhelming odds put his troops in unnecessary danger, and suggests that the Rebel commander's disdain for his enemy clouded his judgment.

On the federal side, Patchan provides an excellent analysis of the political implications of the Valley Campaign. While many historians have often portrayed Sheridan as a rash and sometimes reckless commander, Patchan finds that in the fall of 1864, Sheridan acted with commendable patience and prudence. In fact, one could say that Sheridan acted with too much caution. Understanding the charged atmosphere of election-year politics, the Lincoln Administration and Sheridan's boss, Ulysses S. Grant, worried about the ramifications of another defeat in "the Valley of Humiliation." Keenly grasping the political realities of his position, Sheridan spent much of September waiting for his counterpart to detach forces before striking. Once those forces, under command of General Richard Anderson, did leave the valley, Sheridan unleashed his offensive.

Little Phil's battle plan contained several flaws tactically. Patchan points out that the Union general did not take advantage of all the potential avenues of approach for his army on September 19th, slowing his army's advance and forcing it to attack through disadvantageous ground. He also failed to deploy cavalry in positions to effectively protect the flanks of his advancing infantry. And yet, Patchan praises Sheridan's persistence, inspirational battlefield leadership, and his willingness to use the entirety of his army. He highlights all three of these as qualities that defined the Union army's success at Third Winchester, and became a trademark of Sheridan's future successes. In fact, Patchan argues that Sheridan's dramatic ride through the front lines of his advancing army on September 19th not only spurred his soldiers on to victory, but set the stage his army's morale and inspiration at the Battle of Cedar Creek a month later.

Through Patchan's narrative of the Battle of Third Winchester, the abilities of Sheridan's subordinates also shine through. He highlights in particular the performances of George Crook, David Russell (killed on the battlefield), and Emory Upton. Federal cavalry soldiers also star in this book, in particular Wesley Merritt, George Armstrong Custer, and William Averell. Patchan describes the evolution of the cavalry under Sheridan into a powerful strike force capable of standing toe to toe with Confederate infantry. In the end, Patchan argues that the overwhelming superiority of Federal horse soldiers perhaps served as the critical component that spelled the doom of Early's Army of the Valley.

Patchan concludes his book with a strong argument for why the Third Battle of Winchester matters. It was here along the banks of Opequon Creek that the seeds of the defeat of the Confederacy were sown. This battle set the stage for Fisher's Hill and Cedar Creek, and the ultimate destruction of Early's Army. This trio of defeats went a long way toward ensuring Lincoln's reelection. They also closed off the Shenandoah Valley once and for all to the Confederacy, and allowed Sheridan's victorious army to return to the Petersburg front. The following spring, it is forces led by Sheridan, and in particular his powerful mounted strike force, that land the mortal blows to Robert E. Lee's army in March and April of 1865.

Scott Patchan's The Last Battle of Winchester is well written, contains excellent maps, and well-chosen illustrations and photographs throughout. It is well worth your time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Library Corner: A Few Battlefield Guides

As you might have guessed, my day job has kept me quite busy over the last month or two. Hence the lack of posts. Though I haven't had much time for blogging, I have squeezed in a few battlefield visits. At the end of July I spent a full day hiking at Manassas National Battlefield, while this past weekend I visited sites on the Petersburg National Battlefield and at Pamplin Park.

View looking over the Stone House and toward Buck Hill and Matthew's Hill at Manassas.

I have visited the Manassas National Battlefield before, though it's been nearly a decade and I never had much of a chance to take advantage of the park's forty-plus miles of trails. On the last weekend of July, I decided to change that. Armed with plenty of water and snacking provisions, a trail guide obtained at the Visitor Center, a copy of John Hennessy's Return to Bull Run, and the Civil War Trust's Second Manassas App on my phone, I set off on the 6.2 mile Second Manassas trail. This loop trail starts on Henry House Hill and covers most of the battlefield, including the Stone House, Buck Hill, a good portion of the Unfinished Railroad Cut, Groveton, and Chinn Ridge. I opted to hike an extra mile or two by adding on the Brawner Farm loop. All told, I was able to cover most of ground the battle was fought over - from the opening shots on the Brawner Farm on August 28th, 1862, to John Pope's attacks against the Railroad Cut on the 29th and 30th, and concluding fittingly with James Longstreet's counterattack that swept Pope's army from the field on the afternoon of the 30th.

The position of Stephen D. Lee's Confederate artillery, which was so effective
against Pope's assaults on the Railroad Cut.

When I finished my tour, I had just enough time to poke my head into the Visitor Center's bookstore. Here I picked up a nice looking guidebook for my next visit: Ethan Rafuse's Manassas: A Battlefield Guide. This book came out in 2014 as part of the University of Nebraska's This Hallowed Ground: Guide to Civil War Battlefields series. Though I wasn't able to use it on the field, I spent quite a few days after my visit perusing the guidebook, and it looks quite useful. The book contains detailed battlefield tours of both First and Second Manassas, as well as campaign excursions that guide you to sites further afield from the National Park. Each stop contains several subsection headings, including: directions, orientation, what happened, analysis, vignette, and further reading. The book also contains numerous illustrations and superb maps drawn by Erin Greb.

Monument to the 5th New York - Duryee's Zouaves. In just a short ten minutes, this regiment lost 332 men
of 525 engaged. Of these 121 were killed or mortally wounded.

I found myself pouring over the book for days after my visit. Those who cannot make it to Second Manssas will assuredly find it a useful resource, but the book is intended for use on the battlefield, and I can't wait to find an excuse to get back to Manassas with it in hand.

Just this past weekend, I took a trip down to Petersburg, another battlefield that I have not visited in nearly a decade. My wife came along for the ride - her first visit. We started our day poking around at the Eastern Front Visitor Center, and then followed the Eastern Front driving tour, getting out of car at several points to follow some of the short interpretive trails. We utilized the Civil War Trust's Petersburg App. I really cannot say enough good things about the various battlefield apps that the Civil War Trust has developed - they are incredibly useful on the battlefield.

Monument to the 1st Maine Heavy
Artillery. In their charge on June 18th,
1864, this unit suffered 604 casualties.
After following the interpretive trail around the Crater, we took a break for lunch. While we had originally planned to continue our tour by visiting the various forts of the Western Front, but the day was quite hot and humid, and we decided instead to spend our afternoon visiting Pamplin Park and the National Museum for the Civil War Soldier. I've always enjoyed the museum here, and thought it'd be a good way to beat the heat. For those have not visited, all guests receive an audio headset to guide them through the museum. As you enter each room, the audio player automatically begins to play an overview of the exhibit. Once the overview is done, you can enter numbers to learn more about any of the displays. Meanwhile, you are also assigned a particular soldier before entering the exhibit area, and as you progress through the museum special kiosks enable you to learn more about the soldier you've chosen to follow, through the soldiers own words and other primary sources. The museum hasn't changed much since my first visit ten years ago, but I still found it as enjoyable.

Outside of the museum, Pamplin Park preserves and interprets Tudor Hall Plantation and the site of the Battle of the Breakthrough on April 2nd, 1865. Tudor Hall was the home of the Boisseau family. Here they interpret not only life on an antebellum plantation, but also Tudor Hall's use as a Confederate encampment during the winter of 1864-1865. Visitors can take advantage of a number of programs and tours offered by living historians. We decided to simply use our audio guides as we traversed the plantation and the Breakthrough Trail, where we explored the Confederate earthworks that were carried by the Army of the Potomac's Sixth Corps, ending the Siege of Petersburg.

To cap off the day, I took some time once again to browse Pamplin Park's bookstore, and located another battlefield guide, this time a Guide to the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, edited by Charles R. Bowery, Jr. and Ethan Rafuse (again). This book features maps by the ubiquitous Steve Stanley.  Also published in 2014 (by the University of Kansas), this guide is a bit different from the Manassas Guide. As part of the U.S. Army War College Guides to Civil War Battles series, it is much more in-depth and designed for the serious student of military history. Clocking in at more than 400 pages, the book features two parts: part one explores the main portion of Petersburg National Battlefield, or the Eastern Front. Part two offers several excursion tours, including City Point, sites north of the James River outside of Richmond, and sites associated with Grant's westward movements and the fall of Petersburg.

At each stop, the book provides a brief overview of events, orienting the visitor and situating the combat in that particular area into the context of the overall siege. After these brief explanations, each stop then provides a series of lengthy battle accounts designed to be read while viewing the terrain. Most of these accounts are from the Official Records, and they are a mix of voices from the strategic and operational leadership of both armies. 

I've enjoyed browsing through both battlefield guides, and look forward to using them on the field.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Gettysburg's Hot Air

This past weekend my wife and I traveled back up to New York to participate in Utica's 15K Race, the Boilermaker. On our way home on Monday, we stopped in Gettysburg to stretch our legs and for a brief break from driving. We pulled into the old Cyclorama Parking Lot just as ominous storm clouds began rising up over South Mountain in the distance.

We decided to take a quick hike along Cemetery Ridge, but first I wanted to check in on the landscape rehabilitation of the old Visitor Center's parking lot.


The rehabilitation of the ground here has come quite a long way. The park has graded the terrain and green shoots of grass have begun to cover over the old lot. However, we found that something else caught our eye: a gigantic hot air balloon rising up in the background.


The Gettysburg Story Balloon, as they call it, is operated by the Gettysburg Heritage Center (the old Wax Museum, under new ownership). I have no idea how popular the attraction has become, but it certainly is noticeable for tourists along Cemetery Ridge (and probably many other locations on the battlefield as well). At least, unlike previous eye sores, the balloon is not a permanent fixture on the landscape. It is unclear if it is here to stay or not.


From the slopes of Cemetery Hill, we hiked down past the Brian Farm, and then descended the ridge toward Meade's Headquarters. As droplets of rain began to fall from the sky, and distant rumbles of thunder accompanied the approaching dark clouds, we headed back to the car to continue our journey south.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Exploring Kelly's Ford and Brandy Station

Just about a year ago last week I found myself in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania with thousands of others commemorating the 150th anniversary of the largest battle of the Civil War. I didn't make it for the battle anniversary this year, but my thoughts turned to Gettysburg, nonetheless. Last Monday, I decided to commemorate the campaign in a different manner, by taking my first trip to the site of its opening battle: Brandy Station.

Armed with driving tours put together by Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, I began my excursion with a visit to Kelly's Ford on the Rappahannock. Modern route 620 crosses the river about 300 yards upstream from the ford. Just before the bridge is a parking lot and a boat launch operated by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Rappahannock River at the Kelly's Ford Boat Launch. This is actually the site
of an old mill. The ford is 300 yards downstream.

The ford can be reached by following a well worn footpath along the river. A sign delineates its actual location.

Kelly's Ford.

Kelly's Ford served as a vital crossing during the war. In March of 1863 a small cavalry action took place here when 2,100 troopers and six cannon under the command of Brigadier General William Averell  forced their way across the river and engaged Confederate cavalry led by Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee. Interpretive signs placed by the Civil War Trust near the ford explain the significance of this small action. Kelly's Ford also served as the crossing site of David McMurtrie Gregg's column of cavalry on the morning of June 9th, 1863, on its way to Brandy Station.

After working my way down to the actual site of the ford, I retraced my steps, got in my vehicle, and followed the NPS's driving tour for the Battle of Kelly's Ford. A portion of this battlefield is preserved as part of the Phelps Wildlife Management Area, including the location of the mortal wounding of the Confederacy's young and talented horse artillerist, Major John Pelham. After completing my brief tour of the Kelly's Ford battlefield, I moved on just a few miles to the Brandy Station Battlefield Park, site of the largest cavalry battle of the war.

On the morning of June 9th, 1863, Major General Alfred Pleasonton had orders to take a force of 8,000 cavalry and 3,000 infantry, cross the upper Rappahannock River, and "disperse and destroy" the enemy's cavalry. Pleasonton's forces crossed in two columns - John Buford's right wing crossed at Beverly Ford, while David McMurtrie Gregg took his troopers across at Kelly's Ford, six miles downstream. Believing Stuart's forces to be in the vicinity of Culpeper, the federals intended to link up at Brandy Station. Instead, they ran into Confederate resistance immediately.  When Gregg's column got off to a late start, Buford found himself fighting on his own on the south side of the Rappahannock shortly after dawn.

At his headquarters on Fleetwood Hill, a tall ridge near Brandy Station that dominated the surrounding landscape, Stuart was surprised by Buford's advance. Reacting quickly, he road to the northeast and established a strong defensive position along a ridge near St. James Church. After several hours of intense fighting on this front, things for Stuart looked under control until reports arrived indicating that Gregg's command was advancing up from Brandy Station in the Confederate rear. Rebel troopers rushed back to defend Fleetwood Hill, arriving in the nick of time. The hill became a witness to wild scenes of charges and counter charges, as the two foes struggled for its possession for the next five hours.

Eventually, Pleasonton realized that he did not have a force sufficient to destroy Stuart's command and withdrew his men back across the Rappahannock. In later years the federal cavalry chief would claim that he had uncovered the important intelligence that Lee's army was invading the north, but the reality is that Pleasonton failed to discover the presence of Confederate infantry nearby. And yet, despite failing in their principle objective of dispersing and destroying Stuart, and failing to discover evidence of Lee's movements, the federal cavalry earned a significant mental victory at Brandy Station. Out-fought throughout the war up until this point by their Confederate counterparts, on this battlefield they had stood toe-to-toe with their enemy and had proven that they could match them.

Today, Brandy Station stands as a preservation success story, as this recent article from the Civil War Trust reveals. The battleground stood nearly untouched, yet unprotected into the 1980s. From the late 1980s through the early 2000s, a succession of developers threatened the battlefield. Local and national preservationists rallied to resist each attempt, including plans for an office park and plans for a Formula One racetrack. They fought off each crisis, and eventually began to buy up and protect the land, little by little. In 2003, the Civil War Trust and Brandy Station Foundation were able to open the Brandy Station Battlefield Park. Perhaps the culminating moment came last year - when the Civil War Trust was able to purchase 56 acres atop Fleetwood Hill, the critical ground at the center of the battle. Today, the central core of the battlefield (1,860 acres) has been preserved.

I began my tour of Brandy Station by pulling my car off the road on Route 685 (the old Carolina Road) at a location that provides a nice vantage point from which to view Fleetwood Hill. Here two interpretive signs related "The Race for Fleetwood Hill" and "The Struggle for Fleetwood Hill." The high ground served as Stuart's headquarters during the battle, and as the highest eminence around, it was the key terrain. With its recent acquisition, I hope that the Civil War Trust will soon open up a hiking trail here with interpretive signage, as they have done so well in other locations at Brandy Station, and on other battlefields. For the time being, there is not much more to explore in this location, at least for someone unfamiliar with the battlefield, as I was.

Leaving Fleetwood Hill, I traveled northeast and turned onto the Beverly Ford Road, modern route 676. After passing by the Culpeper Regional Airport, I turned left into the Battlefield Park and left my car to enjoy the Buford's Knoll Interpretive Trail. This two mile out-and-back hike contains four interpretive markers.


The first markers describe Buford's initial advance along the Beverly Ford Road, the Confederate response, and the death of Colonel Benjamin "Grimes" Davis as he led the Union advance that morning.



After reading these signs I followed a mowed path that connected in with a gravel road. Hiking north the trail crosses Ruffan's Run and ascends a knoll used as a command post by General Buford. Here I found the trail's final two stops. These signs described Buford's attempt to swing his forces north and west around Stuart's left flank, and Rooney Lee's skillful use of terrain to block Buford.

Looking from Buford's Knoll toward the position of Rooney Lee's Confederate troopers.

After retracing my steps I hopped back in the car, drove a short distance on the Beverly Ford Road, turned right onto the St. James Church road, and arrived at the St. James Church Walking Trail. This five stop, one mile hike interprets the fighting around the church, where Stuart set up his initial defenses against Buford on the morning of June 9th. A few stops on the trail also discuss the Army of the Potomac's occupation of Brandy Station in the Winter of 1863/1864, and its encampments there.

The ground crossed by the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry in their charge. In the distance you can just make out the
rise of ground just above the lower tree line that was occupied by Confederate artillery.

Part of this trail covers the ground crossed by the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry on the morning of June 9th, as they charged into the very teeth of sixteen pieces of rebel artillery located along a plateau near St. James Church. The 6th Pennsylvania made it to the very muzzles of the guns, but were driven back with heavy losses. The regiment suffered more casualties than any other at the battle.

In all, I spent about half a day exploring Brandy Station and Kelly's Ford, and could have spent more time had it not been for the brutal heat and humidity. The same open fields that allowed for easy maneuvering of mounted troops left little shade for me. The Brandy Station battlefield is in an excellent state of preservation. With its rolling farmland and sweeping vistas, the ground seems as if it were an amphitheater especially designed for the largest cavalry battle of the Civil War. If you find yourself in Central Virginia and looking for a lesser-known battlefield to visit, Kelly's Ford and Brandy Station are both worth exploring.