Monday, February 21, 2011

Earthwork Preservation and Protection: Lessons of the past in consideration of the future.

The Civil War Roundtable of Franklin, Virginia, on November 12, 1957, stand posed directly on the Bloody Angle, at the point where the Union line is conjoined with the Confederate parapet. To the left of the group is NPS historian, Ralph Happel, who had served as their guide at the adjacent contact station, not visible in this image. The view is looking east, along the face of the Salient. Note the large cedar tree looming immediately to their backs at right. This photograph is from the archives of the F&SNMP.
The same spot, fifty-four years later. The Bloody Angle is protected  from most intrusive pedestrian incursions by virtue of this wooden bridge, due to be removed at some point in the very near future. Previous posts on this blog, here, here, and here, have covered the construction of a new bridge futher down the line. Note the stump of the large cedar tree at right middle, immediately to this side of the bridge. The cedar was removed a few years ago to help restore the unobscured vista of the Bloody Angle, to that which the soldiers would have experienced. The cedar tree had been planted in the early days of the park as an ill-conceived landscaping measure, one of the conflicts of "battlefield park" versus "natural park" philosophies.
Sparingly placed, so as to to be themselves non intrusive, signs such as these are designed to instill a discipline within the visitor to be mindful of the resource's delicate condition. Sadly, this does escape the consciousness of many, and on a daily basis a casual observer will witness numerous, shocking examples.
The question for the future must now be, "Will the park visitor dutifully follow the new trail system, or will they feel unflinchingly compelled to veer from the path and walk on the earthworks?" The future will tell.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

23rd USCT Re-forming for Sesquicentennial Commemorations in Spotsylvania

Gathering for the organizational meeting of the 23rd USCT
are left to right: Rev. Hashmel Turner, Col. Horace McCaskill Jr. USA, (Ret),
Steward Henderson, Roger Braxton, and John F. Cummings III

Over the past decade there has been some intense interest focused on the Spotsylvania experience of the 23rd United States Colored Troops, a regiment comprised of former slaves, many from the County and surrounding area. Prior to May 15, 1864, USCT's attached to the Army of the Potomac were routinely assigned to non combat roles, primarily guarding supply wagon trains. Organised at Camp Casey, near the modern day site of the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, the 23rd was assigned to the 4th Division of the 9th Corps, led by Brigadier General Edward Ferrero, a well known dance instructor in pre-war civilian life.

On the morning of May 15, Confederate cavalry was probing along the back roads far north of the prior week's concentration of fighting. Their goal was to harass Union hospital sites and supply lines, with the intent of liberating as much as they could with minimal casualties. Riding hard along the Catharpin Road towards the Old Plank Road intersection, the southern horsemen came upon the 2nd Ohio Cavalry Regiment who were resting near Piney Branch Church. Panicked and outnumbered, the Ohio troopers took off pell-mell toward the Alrich farm, a good mile and a third away. From there some of the terror stricken Union horsemen proceeded north to alert the closest possible reinforcements. Near the Chancellor House ruins, the 23rd USCT, sprang to the call and proceeding south, encountered the approaching Confederates in what would be their very first exchange of fire with the Army of Northern Virginia. The southerners fell back, suddenly outnumbered, with the 23rd holding the intersection.

This historic encounter has until recently gone unappreciated as a major landmark on the road to the end of slavery in America. However, plans are now in development to commemorate this contest by placing an interpretive marker near the place the Ohio troops were first surprised. The intersection where the 23rd USCT actually fired upon the Confederate Cavalry has been deemed too dangerous to place a safe pulloff area.

In anticipation of the opportunities during the Sesquicentennial to tell the story of the 23rd, I began to talk with friend Steward Henderson about assembling a representative unit as re-enactors. Thus far there has been substantial interest in making such a portrayal available over the next four years. Additional interest has been expressed by the John J. Wright Educational & Cultural Center Museum who will partner with us in our efforts


National Park Service Historian, Eric Mink, has spent numerous hours delving into the service and pension files of Spotsylvania men who had served in the 23rd USCT. His work has been invaluable toward assembling the story of these men's lives. Some of his findings have been posted on another blog, here and here.

National Park Service Historian, Noel Harrison has also written a blog posting here, detailing the location of the skirmish and the encounter that brought it about.


Brigadier General Ferrero is seated at lower left with members of his staff,
near Petersburg, Virginia in the summer of 1864. An armed sentry, possibly a
member of the 23rd, stands at his post to the right of the white officers.


Monday, February 7, 2011

Manassas - Another Project nears completion

Those who know me are aware that I have been working several book projects in tandem. One regarding local photography is close to seven years in the mix. However, in the next few weeks, I anticipate sending another finished manuscript to the publisher, this time focusing on the Manassas Battlefields.

Before moving to Spotsylvania, I lived in Northern Virginia, in Fairfax County, for thirty-nine years. Growing up within ten miles of Manassas/Bull Run, enabled me to nurture my early interest in Civil War history, and I visited the battlefield there countless times, both as a child with my parents and even more frequently as a young adult. There has always been something strangely alluring about the Manassas Battlefield for me, something incorporeal.  Logically, all the battlefields should manifest these same conditions, but with every return trip I make to the "Plains of Manassas", I am reinforced with these strange emotions.

My Manassas project is heavily built on "then & now" comparrison photographs. Oftentimes in doing this comparrison work, one finds the landscape has changed over a century and half to such an extent that true side by side alignment is difficult to impossible, particularly when the subject matter sits within a wooded area.

Last week (February 2), I took the opportunity to revisit one last time before finishing, an area that normally is obscurred by heavy foliage within trees. My goal there was to use a recent snow fall to provide a better ground contrast against the trees and background sky. I was delighted with the results since prior attempts were at other times of the year, and failed to show the terrain features needed for a true "then & now" match up.

The black and white image below is the original wartime photograph taken in March 1862, showing two boys knealing in front of a row of water logged soldier burials. The site is on a small, flat, bottom area in front of the west face of the ridge that Sudley Church sits on. The church can be seen through the trees at upper left. After the Battle of First Bull Run, in July 1861, this area was used for a field hospital, along with the church building. As is typical in such situations, soldiers who did not survive the ordeal were buried hastily in shallow graves nearby. 

Although the church building has been rebuilt since the Civil War, my modern, color photograph demonstrates the surrounding landscape has retained the same characteristics it displayed in 1862, especially the thin trees, albiet now entangled in thorny undergrowth. Fortunately, the property is still owned by the church and one can not anticipate an encroachment to destroy this hallowed ground.

My goal is to have this book in print by July, in time for the 150th Anniversary of First Manassas.

March 1862, by George N. Barnard
February 2011, by John F. Cummings III

Official Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Vodcast



Much of the dramatic footage seen in the above video is compiled from the combined talents of John Hennessy, Chief Historian of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, and Media Magic Productions of Lansing, Michigan. The material was shot over several years locally, with many extras culled from the community, to produce three documentary films exhibited and sold at the Battlefield Park, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free. John Hennessy wrote the script for the films and provided on-site consultation during the filming and post-production. A fourth film, on the Wilderness and Spotsylvania is in the formative stages.

John has also played a significant role in orchestrating the regional preparations for the Civil War Sesquicentennial. An indefatigable worker, possessed by an indomitable spirit, John personifies the term "multitasking". We can expect many great things over the next four years from John and the entire staff of the F&SNMP.

John Hennessy is seen above, lecturing on the local civilian experience
 during the Civil War, at the 145th Anniversary Re-enactment
 of the Battle of Chancellorsville, May 2008. Photo by Julie Bell.

A NEW YEAR IS HERE, and the Sesquicentennial too


It has been a few months since I have posted on here. There had been some distractions that took precedence over devoting time to blog, the most pressing of which had been family medical necessity. Just a few days before Christmas, my wife had hip replacement surgery, and I am happy to say she has recovered wonderfully. The Lord has really blessed us. After two and a half years of increasing pain and decreasing mobility, she has come back renewed, and looking forward to once again hiking the battlefields and enjoying our research projects together.

The other major item that consumed my time was the completion of my second book's manuscript and delivering it to the publisher. It is an illustrated history of Spotsylvania County that focuses on the impact of the Civil War, the establishment of the battlefield park, and the continual struggle to preserve significant lands along with the development of a tourism ethic in the County government. The last chapter in the book is devoted to the period of 1999 to 2010, where a mixed bag of preservation victories and placating rhetoric from the Board of Supervisors, defined Spotsylvania County as one of the most endangered battlefield regions in the east. The current release date from the publisher is June 27, 2011. I will keep everyone updated on here as we get closer.

Additionally, I have begun to provide a bi-weekly Civil War column for an on-line news magazine called Fredericksburg Patch. Outside of one deliberate reworking of an early post from this blog, the goal will be to supply fresh material that compliments what I post here. Essentially I have doubled my blog-like workload, but I will go at it with spirit and hope everyone checks in over there and enjoys what the site has to offer the region. I find the Patch to be a refreshing source of local news with the promise of a online community feel.

Now we are into the first year of the Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the Civil War, 2011-2015. I am expecting some exciting events and educational opportunities over the next four years in the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania area.

My goal on this blog will continue to be an ongoing source of interesting perspectives of the Civil War and its cultural legacy.