Sunday, May 24, 2015

Photos - Fredericksburg National Cemetery Illumination

Last night, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park held it's 20th annual National Cemetery Illumination to commemorate Memorial Day. This wonderful event is a partnership involving Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and other helping hands (nearly 1,000 volunteers all told). The beautiful cemetery was lit up with more than 15,300 candles--one light for each soldier resting at peace on the heights made famous during the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. In addition to the illuminaries, NPS staff and volunteers stationed themselves at various points throughout the cemetery to share individual stories of fallen soldiers.

The United States Congress created the National Cemetery in July of 1865, just three months after the end of the Civil War. It became the resting place for more than 15,000 United States soldiers. Most of these are Union soldiers who died in camps near Fredericksburg due to disease, or in one of the four major battles and countless minor actions that took place around Fredericksburg during the war.  Roughly 100 of the graves are 20th century soldiers, and a few spouses, but the cemetery closed to new burials during the 1940s. About 12,000 of the 15,000 soldiers buried here have not been identified.

According to Fredericksubrg & Spotslyvania's twitter feed - last night's commemoration seemed on its way to an attendance record, with more than 6,600 people with an hour left to go.

The illuminaria is a fitting way to commemorate fallen soldiers on Memorial Day. The tradition harkens back to the very origins of Memorial Day, a holiday that grew out of emerging traditions of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Snowy Hike on Antietam's Three Farms Trail

This past weekend I traveled through Maryland and Pennsylvania, and on Sunday morning I spent a few hours at the Antietam National Battlefield. After nasty weather over the past several weeks, Sunday turned into a beautiful, spring-like day; perfect for a hike on Sharpsburg's snow-covered fields.

The Antietam National Battlefield has established excellent hiking trails for the intrepid battlefield tourist. The park's trail system allows a visitor with enough time and stamina to explore the entire battlefield, from the North Woods to Snavely's Ford, on foot. On previous visits, I had explored many of these trails. On Sunday, with only a few hours to spare, I decided to seek out one that I'd not previously experienced.

The Three Farms Trail does not explore areas where intense combat took place during the Battle of Antietam. However, it takes hikers to some of the quietest and most beautiful locations on the battlefield.As its name implies, the path winds its way through three farms that existed during the 1862 battle. It begins at the William Roulette farm, and passes through the secluded fields and buildings of the Joseph Parks and Joshua Newcomer farms. As you make your way south along the west side of Antietam Creek, you pass over terrain traversed and occupied by elements of the 2nd and 5th corps of the Army of the Potomac during the battle on September 17th, 1862.

A view taken from near the Visitor Center on the Dunker Church Plateau looking toward the Mumma (left) and Roulette Farms (right), and beyond to the South Mountain Range. The Mumma Farm Lane runs across the middle of the view.

You cannot access the trail head readily via car. First, you must hike a portion of the Bloody Lane Trail which begins at the Visitor Center, and visits the Mumma and Roulette Farms. More than 5,000 United States soldiers commanded by Brig. Gen. William French passed over these farms on their way to attack Confederate forces in the Sunken Road on the morning of September 17th.  

The Battle of Antietam brought a great deal of suffering to the Roulette Family. Their farm endured extensive damage as a result of the thousands of soldiers that tramped over it. During the battle the farm became a field hospital, and William Roulette later claimed that some 700 soldiers were buried on his property. The family's youngest daughter, Carrie May, later died of a disease likely brought by the armies.

A second view of the Roulette Farm House and its springhouse and kitchen.
This view was taken from the ravine through which French's division emerged onto the battlefield.

After passing these farm buildings, the Bloody Lane Trail follows the Roulette's old farm lane. The start of the Three Farms Trail is found at the location where the farm lane curves to the southwest.

The Roulette Farm Lane can be seen in the foreground. In the distance, the Bloody Lane observation tower rises up above the ridge line. Cresting that ridge, United States soldiers recoiled from a withering fire delivered by Confederates resting in a sunken road on the opposite slope.
The trail head for the Three Farms Trail leads to the northeast away from the Bloody Lane.

The Three Farms Trail connects Antietam National Battlefield's northern and southern trail networks. From the Roulette Farm, it winds its way southward, part of the way along Antietam Creek, until it connects with the Sherrick Farm Trail south of the Boonsboro Pike, modern day Route 34.

This rutted road trace remains visible on the landscape today. In 1862 it connected the
Parks, Newkirk, and Kennedy Farms to the Boonsboro Pike near the Middle Bridge over Antietam Creek.
Along the way, the recreational trail joins the deep-cut trace of an old roadway as it makes its way toward the Joseph Parks farm. In 1862 this road connected the Parks Farm with the Boonsboro Pike to the south, and the Kennedy and Newkirk Farms to the north.

The Joseph Parks Farm today. Both the barn and the home in the background date to the 1830s, though both have seen alterations over time.

Eventually, the path climbs a hill and emerges into a clearing occupied by the historic buildings of the Joseph Parks Farm. According to a Cultural Landscapes Inventory completed by the National Park Service in 2011, both the main house and barn were initially constructed around 1830, though both have undergone alterations. This land was long owned by the Mumma Family, who originally built the house and farm buildings. In 1861, the Mummas sold the farm to Phillip Pry. Pry owned another farm on the opposite side of Antietam Creek, which became Maj. Gen. George McClellan's headquarters during the battle. Pry operated this property as a tenant farm, and historians believe that the tenant at the time of the battle was Joseph Parks. On September 16th, United States Soldiers crossed the creek near the farm to protect the middle bridge. The following day, Union infantry and cavalry traversed the property, artillery batteries established positions on the farm to fire against Confederate positions on Cemetery Hill, and its likely that the homestead became a field hospital. Just five days after the Battle of Antietam--photographer James F. Gibson captured a view of the Parks farmstead in a view entitled "Antietam, Md. Another view of Antietam Bridge."

Gibson photographed the Parks Farm from heights on the eastern side of Antietam Creek,
overlooking the Middle Bridge.
A zoomed-in view of the previous photograph, focusing on the Joseph Parks Farm.
The house and the barn still stand today.

Moving on from the Parks Farmstead, I neared the Boonsboro Pike. Here the trail continues on past the Newcomer Farm, crossing the pike to eventually link with the Sherrick Farm Trail. Instead of completing the trail, I chose to turn aside here onto the Tidball Trail, which ascends a steep ridge line to the position of Captain John C. Tidball's Battery A, 2nd United States Artillery during the battle.

After crossing the Middle Bridge before noon on September 17th, Tidball's men hauled their six rifled cannon by hand up this steep ridge, where they expended some 1,200 rounds of ammunition protecting federal troops positioned near the Bloody Lane and supporting Burnside's advance to the edge of Sharpsburg that afternoon.

The views obtained from Tidball's position, I think, are some of the best you will find on the Antietam Battlefield. From this one position you get a good view of the terrain over which the 2nd Corps assaulted the Sunken Road, the ground over which Burnsides' 9th Corps advanced in late afternoon against the Confederate right, and an imposing view of the rolling, open terrain that McClellan's soldiers would have had to cross to attack the Confederate Center on the outskirts of Sharpsburg. Many--including myself--have criticized George McClellan for not crossing his reserves over the Middle Bridge on September 17th to attack Lee's center when one more push could have potentially crushed Lee's army. Viewing the terrain from this vantage point, however, I saw the tremendous obstacles to such a movement.

The Antietam Battlefield is surprisingly compact, but the rolling nature of the terrain rarely allows you such a sweeping view of the battlefield. Here are a few of the shots that I snapped in this location:

From the ridge line looking back toward the Parks Farm.
Another view of the Parks Farm. I took this picture as I ascended the ridge line toward Tidball's position.
A view from Tidball's position toward the surprisingly close Bloody Lane Observation
Tower, just four-tenths of a mile away.
A view looking southwest across the Boonsboro Pike toward Antietam National Cemetery
(marked by the evergreen trees on the hill in the right background).
A close-up view of Cemetery Hill - with the National Cemetery to the left of the road.
Lee's center rested on that ridge line on September 17th, 1862.
A zoomed-in view looking southwest toward where the final advance of Burnsides' corps was turned back by Confederate reinforcements. The distant hill in the left background marked the farthest advance of the 9th Corps.

Running short on time. I did not complete the Three Farms Trail after viewing Tidball's position. Instead, I struck out across country to the Bloody Lane, and completed my hiking circuit back to my car at the Visitor Center. After a brisk two-hour hike, I started back on my way home to Virginia. If you have the time, hiking is the only way to truly understand a battlefield like Antietam, and the Park Service has done a great job creating these trails that provide access to the under-visited locations on the field. The different views and terrain features you will observe while hiking will likely change your perspective of the battle.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Morning Fog at the Mule Shoe - Spotsylvania

Yesterday I took advantage of warmer temperatures to accomplish some hiking at Spotsylvania and Chancellorsville battlefields. Here are a few photos:

In the morning I had the Mule Shoe Salient essentially to myself, excepting a herd of deer grazing in the hollows and depressions in front of the Confederate works. It's hard to believe that some 151 years ago, this now-quiet spot was the ugliest place in America.

Monday, February 2, 2015

"A combat more persistent or heroic can scarcely be found..." - The 28th New York at Cedar Mountain

View of the Crittenden Gate on Cedar Mountain Battlefield. At this location
the Crittenden Farm Lane (off-screen to the right) joined the Culpeper Road
(marked by the fence line stretching away from the camera). This general
area marked the apex of the 28th New York's charge on August 9th, 1862.
During the Civil War, some regiments sacrificed all on pivotal battlefields, their blood shed as the price paid for victory and for glory. The Iron Brigade and the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg come readily to my mind. Yet many other units gave their last full measure of devotion on lesser-known fields, where often the results of battle hardly justified--if they ever did--the enormity of the suffering and loss. Yesterday, I explored the Cedar Mountain battlefield for the first time. This quiet, rural site some six miles south of Culpeper, Virginia remains in an excellent state of preservation. The Civil War Trust and the Friends of Cedar Mountain Battlefield have preserved and interpreted about 160 acres, complete with a 1.25 mile trail that takes you to significant sites of the August 9th, 1862 battle between Nathaniel Banks' 2nd Corps, Army of Virginia, and Stonewall Jackson's command of the Army of Northern Virginia. I had not studied this battle in any detail previously, but I was struck by the audacious, and ultimately ill-fated courage of the federal soldiers here, storming forward in the face of a superior foe with a daunting reputation for battlefield prowess. The soldiers who fought under Nathaniel P. Banks often suffer a poor reputation, primarily stemming from Banks' failures in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862. This battlefield though told a different story. In particular I came away wanting to learn more about the 28th New York Infantry, a unit I had not come across before.

The 28th New York mustered for two years of service in May of 1861. Recruited from Western New York, the regiment participated in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, and saw action at Antietam and Chancellorsville, but it was at Cedar Mountain where the regiment made its most substantial, and most costly, contribution to the war effort.

The New Yorkers had capable officers, led by Colonel Dudley Donnelly, Lieutenant Colonel Edwin F. Brown, and Major E.W. Cook. The regimental historian recalled that these field officers proved highly satisfactory to the men in the ranks of the 28th. "Colonel Donnelly was a man of military education and training," he wrote, "naturally a soldier, and fitted to command." Donnelly had served as Lieutenant Colonel of the 66th New York State Militia for years before the war. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Brown had "few superiors as an organizer and a leader," and the men regarded Major Cook as one of the best shots in the regiment. Adjutant Charles P. Sprout ably assisted these men in their duties, and had earned his own reputation as "a man of sturdy, rugged nature; a fine soldier, one who never knew fear." At Cedar Mountain, they would all have an opportunity to prove themselves against Stonewall Jackson's vaunted "foot cavalry."

On August 7th, 1862, Stonewall Jackson ordered his three divisions across the Rapidan River in the hopes of dealing a crippling blow to a portion of John Pope's Army of Virginia before it could fully concentrate around Culpeper. Two days later, at about noon on August 9th, Jackson met Nathaniel Banks' 2nd Corps disposed on a  ridge overlooking Cedar Run. With temperatures nearing or surpassing triple-digits, both sides deployed their forces and exchanged artillery fire. The duel lasted for close to two hours.

Meanwhile, Banks' arrayed his forces across the road leading from Orange Court House to Culpeper, determined to dispute Jackson's advance. On the left side of the road he stationed Christopher Augur's division, and on the right Alpheus Williams' division. Banks didn't realize it, but Jackson's forces doubled the 8,000 federal soldiers on the field. Nevertheless, he brashly chose to move forward on the attack.

The 28th New York found themselves in Williams' front line, as part of Brigadier General Samuel Crawford's brigade. For most of the cannonade, Crawford's men lay sheltered by a densely wooded ridge in their front, and suffered little. At 5 p.m. preparations began for the impending assault. The brigade rose up and moved into the densely wooded terrain. In his official report, Crawford described the landscape that spread out before him on the opposite edge of the woods:
A thick belt of woods skirted an open wheat stubble field on three sides; a road [Culpeper Road] running across formed the fourth. To the right a thick undergrowth of scrub oaks and bushes covered the space. In front of the line the field sloped generally downward toward the woods directly opposite, the point of which terminated at the road.
Realizing that his men would have to cross 300 yards of open wheatfield before reaching the far woods, and that the rebels undoubtedly held those woods in unknown strength, Crawford sent back to have a battery of napoleons brought up to shell the woods. Before receiving a response, the Assistant Adjutant General of Williams' staff arrived and urged an immediate movement, proclaiming it to be the "decisive one of the day." Crawford readied his men for combat, deployed in a line from right to left: 46th Pennsylvania, 28th New York, 5th Connecticutt, and 10th Maine. The Maine men, on the extreme left flank, were pulled some distance from the other regiments and operated independently under direct orders from Banks. The remaining three regiments, along with six companies of the 3rd Wisconsin attached to their right flank, prepared to go forward. Crawford ordered bayonets fixed.

View in the distance of Cedar Mountain. Jackson's forces during the battle covered to slopes of the mountain, and then stretched to the right of the camera's view. Crawford's brigade advanced against them, traversing the field in front of the camera from left to right.
Gazing across the open field, the 28th's color bearer, Sergeant William Lewis of Company D, recalled that he could not see a single rebel soldier. Momentarily, Crawford gave the signal for his men to move out. An eyewitness recalled that the brigade moved forward in one long line, "burst with loud cries from the woods, [and] swept like a torrent across the wheat-field." Sergeant Lewis, who moments before had seen no enemy, noted:
We had hardly struck the first edge of the wheat-field till we were made aware that the enemy were there in full force. Oh, how the bullets flew around and about us, but our boys pushed on at a double-quick across the field.
In the race across the open ground, Colonel Donnelly received a mortal wound, and was led from the field on his horse, supported by an orderly. Despite the loss of their leader, Corporal F.A. Camann of Company K recalled that it took a while for the enemy to find the range:
The missiles that were sent upon us did but little harm, as but now and then a comrade from our closed column sank wounded to the ground. The arms of the enemy did not carry far enough, or their aim was taken too low. Whizzing, the bullets turned up the ground before our feet and excited the dust.
The federal charge had caught the Confederates unprepared. The rebel left flank was poorly posted and in the air. Compounding the problem, during the artillery duel preceding the federal advance a shell ripped through the arm and side of the commander of Jackson's divison, Charles S. Winder, inflicting a mortal wound. Crawford's men began their advance in the confused aftermath of this incident. Spurred on by their officers, the 28th New York--with their Connecticut and Pennsylvania comrades at their side--paused only once to unleash a volley before reaching the far woods, driving Virginians in great confusion before them. In his official report, even Stonewall Jackson recognized the rout:
Federal infantry moved down from the wood through the corn and wheat fields, and fell with great vigor upon our extreme left, and by the force of superior numbers, bearing down all opposition, turned it and poured a destructive fire into its rear. Campbell's brigade fell back in disorder.
The federals crowded into the woods and pushed forward toward Jackson's batteries on the opposite side of the Culpeper Road. The carnage continued at close quarters, sometimes hand-to-hand. At the height of the action, and for the first and only time in the war, Jackson drew his sword, so rusted he could not remove its scabbard, and waded into the melee. Staff office Charles Blackford offered an account of the scene:
In an instant a regiment or two burst through into the open spot where I was standing, all out of order and mixed up with a great number of yankees. I could not understand it; I could not tell whether our men had captured the yankees or the yankees had broken through our line. In an instant, however, I was put at rest, for Jackson, with one or two of his staff, came dashing across the road from our right in great haste and excitement. As he got amongst the disordered troops he drew his sword, then reached over and took his battleflag from my man, Bob Isbel, who was carrying it, and dropping his reins, waved it over his head and at the same time cried out in a loud voice, "Rally men! Remember Winder! Where's my Stonewall Brigade? Forward men, forward!"
This photo looks toward the Crittenden Gate, and the woods beyond in which the 28th New York reached zenith of their charge. At left is General Winder Road, this portion following the approximate course of the Crittenden farm lane in 1862. Crawford's charge began in the right background of this view, moving through the woodline seen in the distance toward the gate, where the Crittenden Farm Lane met the Culpeper Road, which can be made out by the distant fenceline.
Despite their ferocious and sudden onset, Confederate numbers began to tell against Crawford's men. The Stonewall brigade and reinforcements from A.P. Hill's division began to crowd into Crawford's front and around his flanks. Losses began to take their toll on the 28th New York, particularly among its officers. Lieutenant Colonel Brown had his arm shattered and was taken prisoner, and Major Cook was also wounded and captured. Adjutant Sprout lay dead at the farthest point of advance, just beside a rebel gun. Several dead Confederates lay about his body. Of the eighteen officers that went into battle that afternoon, the casualty roll listed seventeen as either killed, wounded, or captured. In the whole brigade, fifty-six out of eighty-eight officers became casualties.

In his official report, General Williams wrote:
A combat more persistent or heroic can scarcely be found in the history of this war; but men of even this unequaled heroism could not withstand the overwhelming numbers of the enemy, especially when left without the encouragement and direction of their officers.
Crawford wrote dejectedly just days later in his report:
Their field officers had all been killed, wounded, or taken prisoners, the support I looked for did not arrive, and my gallant men, broken, decimated by that fearful fire, that unequal contest, fell back again across the space, leaving most of their number upon the field. The slaughter was fearful.
With the tide of battle pressing against them, the survivors of the 28th now sought to cut their way back out. Nearly surrounded, they needed to escape the woods and traverse the open wheatfield to reach safety. Color Bearer Lewis had already received a wound, but remained on his feet. As he retreated, he looked around and found only two of the eight corporals designated to protect the flag. After making it partway across the wheatfield, Lewis finally collapsed from the effects of his wound, and turned the flag over to a corporal from Company H. The flag disappeared into the smokey landscape. This second bearer fell wounded too. The last member of the guard, when wounded and cut off from escape, tore the flag from its staff--which had been twice shot in two--and tried to conceal it under his coat. A member of the 5th Virginia of the Stonewall Brigade came upon him, however, and captured the flag.

The broken and bloody remnants of the 28th New York scampered back across the wheatfield and into the woods from which they had begun their charge. Belatedly, support did arrive, but only in time to stem the rout. Banks' corps would be driven from the field that evening, retreating toward Culpeper and reinforcements. Stonewall Jackson's soldiers once again held the field. Jackson's performance was questionable, and he did not accomplish his goal of inflicting a significant defeat upon a portion of Pope's army. But after Cedar Mountain John Pope did cede the initiative to his adversary, and Robert E. Lee would take full advantage, inflicting a devastating blow against Pope's army just three weeks later at Second Manassas.

The 28th New York reached Culpeper a shattered unit. They had taken into battle on August 9th eighteen officers and 339 men. Of these, 213 became casualties. On August 15th in Culpeper, Colonel Donnelly succumbed to his wounds. When the regiment gathered to escort his body to the train for his last trip home, it could only muster sixty-four men. Three days later, Colonel Donnelly was laid to rest in Lockport, New York. The survivors of the regiment later erected a monument in the cemetery in his honor.

The veterans of the regiment never met their Colonel again, but they would reunite with the flag that he led them into battle under at Cedar Mountain. On August 10th, the night after the battle, captured members of the regiment had gathered at the train station in Orange Court House to await transport to Richmond prisons. There at the train station one of the members of the regiment discovered their flag sitting amongst other rebel trophies of the battle. Wanting a memento, the soldier cut a small square from the flag, and carried it with him through his imprisonment. After his parole, he turned over his treasure to Lieutenant Colonel Brown, and for 20 years Brown held on to this prized possession. In 1882 Brown visited the flag-room at the United States War Department, where the government stored many flags recaptured in Richmond at the end of the war. As he glanced at the host of flags before him, Brown discovered one that looked familiar. Upon investigation, he determined that it was the 28th's flag, and identified it beyond doubt by the piece that he had kept for so many long years. Brown wrote to the Secretary of War, and received permission to have the flag returned to the surviving veterans of the 28th New York.

Less than a year after the Battle of Cedar Mountain, the 28th New York mustered out of service. They did not witness the Battle of Gettysburg, the fall of Atlanta, or the surrender at Appomattox. They did not erect multiple monuments on fields visited by thousands of Americans each year. On their most memorable day of the war, they impetuously led an ill-fated charge into some of the best soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia. Nathaniel P. Banks' plan of battle at Cedar Mountain was ill-conceived and doomed to failure. 8,000 soldiers could not drive 16,000 soldiers from the field. And yet, despite the odds stacked against them, and despite the reputation of their foe - the officers and men of the 28th New York for a brief moment did hold the field. Their stunning success even upset the equilibrium of the famously taciturn Stonewall Jackson, and drew forth his sword for the first and only time in the war.

Just days after the battle, Matthew Brady photographer Timothy O'Sullivan captured the fresh aftermath.
Library of Congress.
After the battle, dead federal soldiers sat out in the broiling August sun for two days until the opposing combatants agreed to a truce to allow for federal soldiers to bury their comrades. When soldiers of the Army of Virginia returned to the battlefield, the blackened corpses were beyond recognition, and many soldiers were laid to rest unidentified in one large grave. After the war, many of the Union dead from the Cedar Mountain Battlefield were re-interred in Culpeper National Cemetery. Some 48 soldiers from the 28th New York perished in the battle or received mortal wounds there. Today, many of them--the exact number is not known--rest in Culpeper National Cemetery. In 1902, the veterans of the 28th chose the cemetery as the proper location for their only Civil War monument, where today it overlooks the graves of their fallen comrades. Next time I'm near Culpeper, I plan to stop by and pay my respects.
A Note on Sources
Looking for more information? I used the following sources in preparing this post:
Alpheus S. Williams' Official Report

Samuel Crawford's Official Report

Thomas J. Jackson's Official Report

28th New York Page - New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center.
(Always a useful start when researching New York Regiments)

C.W. Boyce, A Brief History of the 28th Regiment, New York State Volunteers (Buffalo: The Matthews-Northrup Co., 1896)
(Includes not only Boyce's account, but also several other essays and recollections written by other veterans of the regiment) 

John J. Hennessy, Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993).

Ethan S. Rafuse, Manassas: A Battlefield Guide (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014).
(An excellent guide that includes "excursion trips," including an excursion to Cedar Mountain)

James I. Robertson, Jr., Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend (New York: MacMillan, 1997).

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Remembering Harry Pfanz

Today, we learned of the passing of an eminent historian, Harry Pfanz. Mr. Pfanz served for ten years as a historian at Gettysburg National Military Park. He later served as the Superintendent of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, and as the Chief Historian of the National Park Service. His three-part tactical study of the battle of Gettysburg, in my opinion, has no equal in the scholarship of that battle. Personally, though I've never met Mr. Pfanz, his books played a pivotal role in my developing interest in the Civil War, and in setting my eventual career path.

My interest in the Civil War was kindled in 1998. That summer, while visiting my grandparents in Ocala, Florida, I picked up and read The Killer Angels. I spent long hours that week on their porch swing out front, breezing through the book. During the long, two-day car ride back north I barely put down Gods and Generals, Jeff Shaara's prequel to his father's classic. Within a few weeks, I had the first volume of Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative in hand. The Civil War quickly became my obsession.

A year later, on my 16th birthday my parents took me on my first trip to Gettysburg. It was mid-August, and by the time we arrived at the Visitor Center to arrange for a Licensed Battlefield Guide, none were available for the rest of the day. I wasn't worried. After all, I had read The Killer Angels; I knew this battle. We spent two days driving around the battlefield and the town, most of our time spent on Little Round Top, at the Angle, and on Confederate Avenue. We attended ranger programs at the Peach Orchard and at the High Water Mark. We somehow missed Devil's Den, and probably Culp's Hill too - I can't rightly remember. My parents also drove me through a college that I didn't know existed - Gettysburg College. How cool, I thought, would it be to spend four years here?

After that first trip, my passion for Civil War history grew. I picked up Longstreet's memoirs and Freemantle's Three Months in the Southern States. I read James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, Stephen Sears books, and continued to plow my way through Shelby Foote's 3,000 unsourced pages. By my junior year, I had convinced my parents that it was time to return to Gettysburg, this time on a college visit.

After two years of study, I began to realize some of the gaps in my Civil War knowledge and understanding, if not their massive extent. With Gettysburg in particular, I recognized how little I had actually seen on my first trip. For this second visit, I needed a plan. We hired a Licensed Battlefield Guide, and our whirlwind two hour tour this time included Devil's Den and Culp's Hill. We also stopped in to the Eastern National Bookstore, and I made several purchases that, looking back, signaled the beginning of my serious study of at least the battle of Gettysburg, if not the Civil War. First, I purchased Edwin Coddington's The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. I also purchased John Imhof's Gettysburg Day Two: A Study in maps. Finally, I picked up two books by Harry Pfanz, Gettysburg: The Second Day, and Gettysburg: Culp's Hill & Cemetery Hill.

I dove right into Mr. Pfanz's work, and they instantly became my favorite of all time. Anyone familiar with Mr. Pfanz knows the exacting detail, superb research, and rich prose that marked his writing style. I always loved the way he wove miniature biographies of important officers seamlessly into his battle narratives.

At the time I first read these books, I was looking at colleges and considering my career path. In addition to some great history teachers, I credit Mr. Pfanz with introducing me to many important lessons about the craft and process of history. Most importantly, perhaps, I learned that while I thought I knew everything about the battle of Gettysburg, I hadn't scratched the surface. I began to realize that the more of history you learn, the more you become aware of what you don't know. It's a humbling experience, but one that is important for all historians to learn, and one that I've learned repeated throughout my life.

On my shelf of Civil War literature, Harry Pfanz's work--including his later volume, Gettysburg: The First Day--stand out among all the rest. Most books I've read once and set back on the shelf. Some I've donated to libraries to make room for new works. Not Pfanz. I've read very few Civil War volumes more than once, but I've read all three of his Gettysburg studies multiple times. Beyond that, they have been my constant companion on the battlefield, especially when my dream of spending four years in Gettysburg became a reality. Each year in late August I had to decide which handful of Civil War books deserved a portion of my limited space in my dorm room. Pfanz's books made the cut every time. And on the occasional spring and fall afternoons where I felt caught up in my classwork, I'd throw a volume into my book bag and hike out to the battlefield, find a spot under a shaded tree or at the base of a monument, crack open the book, read, and visualize the battle. It was the best way to learn, and to understand.

This morning, when I learned of Harry Pfanz's passing. I pulled out Gettysburg: The Second Day. Its worn and beaten cover, its cracked spine, and its coffee-stained pages attest to the use I've gotten out of it. Someday, I may have to replace this volume, but I hope not. The wear and tear remind me of the time in my life when I began to make the transition from amateur Gettysburg enthusiast into a historian.

Rest in peace, Harry Pfanz.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Gettysburg National Military Park's Winter Lecture Series Takes a Look at How Veterans Viewed Gettysburg

Here's an excellent lecture delivered by Gettysburg National Military Park's Supervisory Historian Chris Gwinn. A part of the park's Winter Lecture Series, Gwinn's talk is titled "What Gettysburg Meant to its Veterans." In it, Chris examines how the personal experiences and opinions of Gettysburg veterans about the battle and the battlefield fit into a larger discussion about reunion, reconstruction, and reconciliation. It's well worth your time.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Seven Days: Turning Point?

"No military campaign had more influence on the Civil War than these Seven Days' battles." 

This proud claim greets visitors on an interpretive sign as they arrive on the Gaines' Mill Battlefield. In this post we will consider the merits of the statement.

The Watt House - located on a plateau above Boatswain's Swamp, served as Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter's headquarters during the Battle of Gaines' Mill.

I viewed the statement yesterday, as I made my first trek to the battlefields of Gaines' Mill and Malvern Hill. The Richmond National Battlefield unit of the National Park Services operates both sites, and maintains nice hiking trails with interpretive signage. Gaines' Mill - the third of the Seven Days' battles - took place on June 27th, 1862. After establishing a strong defensive position along the slopes of Turkey Hill overlooking Boatswain's Swamp, the Army of the Potomac's 5th Corps Commander Fitz John Porter beat back successive assaults against his position throughout the afternoon. Finally, in the growing dusk, Robert E. Lee unleashed more than 30,000 men in a final assault that broke the federal lines. Darkness allowed Porter to safely withdraw his forces across the Chickahominy River.

The Army of the Potomac continued its retreat toward the James River over the next several days, finally halting on July 1st to occupy a strong position on the slopes of Malvern Hill. The federal position offered excellent fields of fire for artillery, and also received support from gunboats located in the James River. Despite the strength of George B. McClellan's position, Lee launched a series of disjointed, bloody, and ultimately unsuccessful assaults. This failure brought the Seven Days' battles to an end.

The Union gun line atop Malvern Hill.

Let's return to a consideration of that interpretive sign - "No military campaign had more influence on the Civil War than these Seven Days' battles." Freeman Tilden would smile reading this lead sentence. It's a provocative statement, and as Tilden set down in his six principles, "the chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation." I've spent a good deal of time since analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the argument.

For context, let's look at the entire statement (courtesy of the Historical Marker Database):
No military campaign had more influence on the course of the Civil War than these Seven Days' battles. George B. McClellan's army of more than 100,000 Union soldiers landed at Fort Monroe in spring of 1862, and fought its way up the peninsula. By mid-May the Army of the Potomac lay on the outskirts of Richmond, hoping to capture the capital of the Confederacy and perhaps end the war. If that strategy succeeded the nation might be reunified, but without abolition of slavery. Confederate General Robert E. Lee chose not to wait for the Federal army's next move. Instead, he seized the initiative, and on June 26 advanced across the Chickahominy River with nearly 45,000 soldiers. That action opened a week-long series of battles that resulted in the Union army retreating to the banks of the James River. With Richmond secure, Lee's army moved north, defeating Union forces at Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas (Bull Run), and then marched toward Maryland and the first invasion of the North.
A historian could advance any number of campaigns as "most influential" on the course of the war, and make a compelling argument supported by evidence. Rather than engaging in such a debate, I want to look more closely at the evidence that supports Richmond National Battlefield's claim. How did the Seven Days' Campaign influence the war? The marker provides us with two primary examples: 

Altering the Military Situation: While he had held several important posts already during the war, the Seven Days' battles introduced the world to Robert E. Lee as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. In Gaines' Mill, Lee achieved his first significant victory of the war. And the results of the Seven Days' not only neutralized McClellan's threat to the Confederate capital, they also gave Lee an opening which he used to transfer the seat of war from the gates of the Confederate capital to the banks of the Potomac River, and beyond.

Emancipation: Against the backdrop of the Seven Days' battles, President Abraham Lincoln continued to grapple with the issues of slavery and emancipation. He wasn't the only one. During the first half of 1862, Congress had debated the Second Confiscation Act, which extended the power of the Union military to free Confederate slaves. The act passed on July 17th, 1862 - just a few short weeks after the battle of Malvern Hill. A few days before the act passed, Lincoln first consulted with a few members of his cabinet on issuing an Emancipation Proclamation. Secretary of State William Seward eventually convinced Lincoln to await a Union victory before issuing such a document, but Lincoln's mind on emancipation had been set.

The crest of Malvern Hill viewed in the distance from the perspective of the Confederate advance.

Glenn David Brasher's recent book The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation argues that "the contributions that African Americans had made to both armies, coupled with the failure of McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, played a role in turning many Northerners in favor of emancipation." Throughout the campaign army officers and the northern press noted, and abolitionists highlighted, the invaluable support roles that the Confederacy's enslaved labor force filled for its armed forces. An increasing awareness of how African Americans could support the Union war effort, coupled with the lack of success in securing victory in a limited war, changed many hearts.

The first half of 1862 had brought encouraging signs for the Union war effort. Victories in the west and McClellan's slow but seemingly unstoppable march to the outskirts of Richmond signaled a swift end to the rebellion. Yet by July stalled progress in the west, and McClellan's defeat changed the outlook dramatically. The end of the war appeared farther away than ever before, and support for the type of limited war favored by McClellan waned. Most importantly, the President of the United States no longer believed in the success of a limited war that reunified the nation but left slavery in tact. The aftermath of the Seven Days' battles brought a new commander to Washington - Henry Halleck. It brought a call for 300,000 more troops to swell the ranks of federal armies. And it caused the Lincoln administration to settle on a new a war policy, one that coupled victory with emancipation.

Did the Seven Days' battles have the greatest influence on the direction and outcomes of the Civil War? It's a debatable statement, but also one that has a lot of evidence to support it. What do you think?