Wednesday, March 31, 2010

McCoull House, Spotsylvania - Then & Now

The home of Neil McCoull stood in the center of the Muleshoe Salient throughout the battle of Spotsylvania. It served as a military headquarters for Confederate Corps commander Richard Ewell. During the fighting the McCoull family cowered in the basement. The home was repeatedly struck by small arms fire and artillery rounds, but it managed to survive relatively intact. Nearby outbuildings served as makeshift hospitals for wounded men streaming toward the rear of the fighting.


At top is what’s known as a “real photo postcard’ popular in the first half of the twentieth century, and very collectable today. This particular image dates to after 1900 for it was sometime that year that the “north” chimney of the house pulled away from the structure and collapsed. The image also dates to before July 17, 1921 when the structure caught fire and was completely consumed. Here we are looking at the east face, which served as the rear of the house. Here, the south chimney stands intact and remained standing after the fire. Visible at the right end of the roof peak is a metal stove pipe that serviced after the collapse of the north chimney. It was sparks emitting from this pipe that ignited the wooden roof and led to the final demise of this landmark. In 1939, the National Park Service conducted an extensive archaeological survey of the ruins, and along with other collected data considered rebuilding the McCoull house to serve as a caretaker’s residence and control center for the Spotsylvania Park. The unfortunate start of the Second World War precluded the effort. The open fields surrounding the house site served as a Civilian Conservation Corps camp during the depression. It was known as "Camp Bloody Angle, MP-1".

Today, the cellar hole has been filled in, protecting the resource and making the site safely accessible to visitors. A pile of debris from the south chimney remains as the only surface evidence of the original building. Heavy, rectangular stones has been placed over the outline of the house foundation to give an indication of its size. The modern view was made looking west at 8:32 AM, March 31, 2010.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

First Massachusetts Heavy Artillery Monument Then & Now


On May 19, 1901, thirty-seven years after the action that brought respect to the once maligned Heavy Artillery, veterans of the 1st Massachusetts Regiment assembled on the Spotsylvania farm of Mr. Thomas H. Harris. They came to dedicate a monument commemorating their first engagement as Infantry. Accompanying them were some of the veterans of their former foe, the Army of Northern Virginia.


While in route to the Spotsylvania dedication, the Massachusetts veterans visited other fields of their past valor. On May 15th they arrived at Petersburg and were met by members of the A.P. Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans. Blue and Gray assembled together at the Confederate Veteran’s Hall and were addressed by Commander Harwood, who said in part:
"Brave men will always honor and respect brave men. Men may differ upon questions as to the constitutionality of laws, but who will doubt their fidelity to their cause, or their heroic deeds during those 'heroic days' of ’61 and ’65, when 'life was counted but a worthless thing, where honor was at stake,' of either the men who wore the Blue or the men who wore the Gray, and by their deeds showed the world the valor of true American manhood?
You gentlemen have your memories of the past; we have ours—'Memories wreathed with honor and immortal fame' –a common heritage of a brave and patriotic people."


The owner of the Spotsylvania property, Thomas Harris, had witnessed the opening engagement on what was then his father Clement’s farm. Thomas was barely ten at the time of the battle, and he and his mother and siblings watched from under a cherry tree in the garden while the Massachusetts men struggled with the approaching Confederate forces under command of General Richard Ewell. As the heat of battle seemed to get more intense, the Harris family moved from their place of observation and took shelter in the basement of their home. Thomas Harris saw it fitting to donate the parcel of land to honor the bravery he witnessed that day.
Throughout the Spotsylvania campaign the Harris home and outbuildings were used as a hospital by the Union forces.

An ancestor of my own, the Prussian born, Frederick Unger, was wounded during the fighting near the Harris farm, on the fields of their neighbor Susan Alsop, a widow. Unger served in another of the Heavy Artillery Regiments, the 7th New York. He took a bullet along the length of his forearm which impaired his abilities for the remainder of his life. His wound was treated in the field at the Harris farm by the regimental surgeon, George Newcomb.

Today, the Harris farm has been subdivided and is known as Bloomsbury, the longtime historic name of the property. The Massachusetts monument is now protected by the efforts of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The McGowan's Brigade Monument Goes Up - 2009

During the twenty hour struggle over the Bloody Angle on May 12, 1864, five regiments from South Carolina, commanded by Brigadier General Samuel McGowan, were rushed forward to reinforce the threatened salient. Their commander was wounded in the advance to this crucial position, but his men reached their goal and helped hold the line near the west angle.
One hundred and forty-five years later, the McGowan's Camp 40 of the Son's of Confederate Veterans from Laurens County, South Carolina had raised funds ($30,000) to dedicate a monument near their position in that desperate struggle. Two months before the dedication of that monument, on Wednesday March 11, 2009 the first scoop of earth was removed for the monument's foundation. The frame, seen in the foreground of the first photograph below, is made of pressure treated lumber and steel reinforcement rod. Once placed in the ground, the frame was embedded in concrete.

The next month, on April 9, 2009, the monument itself was delivered and set in place on the foundation, as seen below.



On May 9, 2009, the monument was dedicated during a large and emotional ceremony. This photograph below was taken shortly before the unveiling. Historians Gordon C. Rhea and Mac Wyckoff were among those who spoke at the dedication.


The photograph below shows the monument on May 27, 2009. The McGowan's Brigade Monument is the eighth monument to be placed on land now within the Spotsylvania unit of the National Park. The first was the Sedgwick monument dedicated in May 1887 along the Brock Road, at the location of his death by a sharpshooter's bullet on May 8, 1864.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Landram Farm – 1921. Before there was a park

Here’s a photo taken in 1921 of Edward L. Landram who was eleven years old when the battle of Spotsylvania raged over his family farm in 1864, fifty-seven years before. The photo was taken by a visiting newspaper man named Leroy T. Vernon who was a political correspondent for the Chicago Daily News and had been campaign manager for President William Howard Taft. Vernon was an avid Civil War buff and when he traveled he toured the battlefields, took photos and bought relics from the locals across the south. This image shows Mr. Landram posed by the 126th Ohio monument, placed in 1914 on his family farm near the Bloody Angle. The monument stood about seventy-four yards from the house noted in my previous post (March 10). A corn crop can be seen growing in the fields and swales all the way up to the Confederate trenches visible along the woods edge. The Battlefield Park would be established in 1927.


This and several other images from the Vernon trip to Spotsylvania will be featured in one of my upcoming books. The original prints are in my private collection.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bloody Angle 1938 – by the numbers


Taken seventy-two years ago, this photograph demonstrates how time marches on, and how even subtle differences can add up. Visitors to the scene of the “Bloody Angle” at Spotsylvania will recognize some of the numbered items as they survive today. In their absence, the items that are no longer there have helped to restore the area to its wartime appearance.

Reading left to right, number 1 points out two oak trees, one that still thrives, and the other which today appears to be in declining health. Today, they flank the path leading to a wooden bridge that brings visitors to the Federal side of the earthworks.

Number 2 is a Ranger Contact Station that was built in the early days of the park to shelter an on-site member of interpretive staff during open hours. As of this writing it is not certain when this and similar shelters around the park were dismantled, but it was most likely just prior to the Civil War Centennial’s start in 1961.

Number 3 is the postwar incarnation of the “Landram” house, built to replace the war-time residence that stood approximately 870 yards northeast at 52 degrees from the structure shown. The antebellum home was destroyed by fire around 1897. I am not certain, at this writing, when the postwar home was removed by the Park Service, but again I’d estimate just prior to the Centennial observance. It stood in the middle of the field, about 281 degree northwest of the northern side of the current bridge, near the tip of the Union leg of the angle, close to 57 yards out.

Item number 4, seen right above the number as a white square, is a long gone, stone marker that indicated the point of the “Bloody Angle” where Union and Confederate earthworks formed the obtuse angle itself. That spot is immediately to the left of the center of the bridge when facing number 5 on the Union held side of the trench.

Number 5 is the monument dedicated to the 49th New York Infantry in 1902 by veterans of that unit. It is still one of the dominant features placed on the landscape to this day.

Number 6, at the extreme right edge of the photograph, is a tree that is no longer standing but was just west of an orientation compass, currently in place. Other images of this tree show it to have had a large, gnarled trunk.

As a footnote, the orientation compass mentioned, and similar ones at other stops in the park, are destined for removal in the near future, as the National Park Service endeavors to modernize and improve the visitor’s experience.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Faux “Fredericksburg” Battle – July 1979, held at Spotsy Courthouse



Rounding off what was designed to be the largest 4th of July celebration held in the region; The Fredericksburg Heritage Festival of July 4-8, 1979 staged a re-enactment of the Battle of Fredericksburg in the field behind the American Legion Building at Spotsylvania Courthouse. Initially planned to present “several hundred” east coast re-enactors the numbers were diminished due to the gas shortage that gripped the country that year. “Union” participants from Ohio and Pennsylvania opted not to attend when the prospects of not finding enough gasoline for the return trip stood as a distinct possibility. Thus the “Confederates” would enjoy a 3-1 advantage of numbers as the opposing forces had dwindled considerably before the first shot was fired. Some of the southern troops kicked in to wear a blue coat and help even out the sides.
The Sunday, July 8 “battle” was oddly planned to depict the December 13, 1862 breakthrough by Union forces commanded by General Meade during the Battle of Fredericksburg. How portraying a moment in the actions of May 1864 was not considered more appropriate is anyone’s guess, especially since the very ground the event was being held on had contained a section of the Confederate right wing during the two weeks of fighting at Spotsylvania.
The pictures included with this post were taken by my good friend James Anderson from the spectator line during the “conflagration”. Local newspapers covered the event to great fanfare, undoubtedly inspiring some of those reading about it to get involved in the “hobby” of re-enacting. In 1986, the 125th anniversary of the Civil War began and saw an influx of participants far greater than had been realized even during the Centennial observances from 1961-1965. Currently, there has developed a decline in both participant numbers and quality at reenactment events. Hopefully the Sesquicentennial observances, 2011-2015, will see a rejuvenation that will properly and respectfully honor those who fought and died during the tragic years of 1861-1865. We shall see.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Rebuilding The Salient - 2004. Looking back six years.


     One of my most rewarding personal experiences was designing and directing the construction of a quarter mile section of reproduction trench for the 140th anniversary re-enactment of the battle of Spotsylvania in 2004. At the time I was serving on the fledgling Spotsylvania Courthouse Tourism and Special Events Commission. Up till that time Spotsylvania County had not been host to a large commemoration of the battle near the Courthouse, and the Board of Supervisors was eager to see it done right on home soil.
     In 1994 I had worked with Hanover County to put on a similar event, replete with a reconstructed section of Lee’s inverted “V” trench line on the North Anna River, also of my design.
     For Spotsylvania we had the good fortune of holding our event in connection with the fine folks of Belvedere Plantation, near the Caroline County line on Route 17, south/east of Fredericksburg.
In late February, with a drawing in hand I made during a pedestrian survey of the actual “Muleshoe Salient”, I paced out and marked the guideline the County backhoe would follow to prepare the rough ditch that would become our “Muleshoe”. Every so often along the length we would add a “traverse” trench.
     The top image in this posting was taken at 8:30 AM on February 23, 2004 as the first scoops of earth were turned. The view is looking west. The work was done by the Spotsylvania County Department of Public works, under the veteran supervision of Mr. Ed Carneal.
     Later in the day, noted re-enactor/preservation spokesman, Robert Lee Hodge arrived and posed on the earth moving equipment in full Confederate uniform, as seen below. Wide Awake Films, (of which until recently Hodge was a partner) had been hired on by the County in part to create three promotional videos the County could use for the future promotion of tourism. To this day, unfortunately, Spotsylvania County has yet to utilize to any appreciable degree, the wealth of raw footage created, nor the three video deliverables expertly produced by the Wide Awake crew.

     Over the next two months (March/April 2004), the Public Works Department labored many long days to install log revetments to provide a finished touch to the trench. Again, Ed Carneal and his men did a fantastic job.

     The picture at bottom shows a completed section, as well as a traverse. This labor of love provided an extra touch of realism for the May 7-9 event, that prior to then, had been rarely attempted. My personal experience at previous events during the 125th Anniversary cycle and beyond, provided little more than “ditch witch” channels cut across the event landscapes. In closing this posting, I must once again commend the Public Works Department and Mr. Ed Carneal for going the extra length that made the 140th Spotsylvania a special event for those who “fought” over our salient.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Winter Landscape, Spotsylvania 2010


The early morning light begins to filter through the trees near Dole’s Salient by Anderson Drive, on the Spotsylvania Battlefield. The two cannon seen here are representative of the kind that was in use here in May 1864. The closest to the camera was made at Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia. It is 2.9” Parrot rifle which was designed to emulate the piece next to it which is a 3” Army Parrott rifle, Model 1863. Both could fire 10 pound projectiles up to 2,000 yards. The tree line seen in the distance here is just 188 yards off. At this relatively short distance these Parrots could fire closer range rounds called “canister” which were not much more than tin cans filled with lead balls. They would scatter like a shotgun blast upon exiting the barrel.
This image was taken February 18, 2010 at 7:15 AM, looking north/west.