Battlefield Guide Services

Friday, April 25, 2014

Emerging Civil War Authors To Host Weekend Symposium In Spotsylvania, August 15-17, 2014

     With Friends of the Fredericksburg Area Battlefield's change of venue for this years upcoming symposium, the talented stable of authors from Emerging Civil War have partnered with Stevenson Ridge to present the First Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium.

Featured Lecturers and Tour Guides:
  • Daniel T. Davis—”More Desperate Fighting Has Not Been Witness on this Continent.”: Ulysses S. Grant and the Overland Campaign
  • Phillip Greenwalt—From “Old Bald Head” to “Lee’s Bad Old Man”: A Study of the Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia in 1864
  • Chris Kolakowski—1864: The Last Stand of the Confederate Navy
  • Chris Mackowski—An in-depth tour of the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield
  • Meg Thompson—A Bad Month for the President: Campaigning the Election of ’64
  • Kristopher White—A tour of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House Battlefields
  • Lee White—”To die like men”: Patrick Cleburne and the Tennessee Campaign of 1864
  • Eric Wittenberg—The Trevilian Station Raid
  • (Also joining us for the Friday roundtable discussion is author David A. Powell and publisher/author Theodore P. Savas.)

  • Stevenson Ridge has a number of packages for symposium participants: a two-night stay for two AND conference registration ($425); a two-night stay for four AND conference registration ($670). Please call Stevenson Ridge at (540) 582-6263 or email

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Bivouac of the Dead" A Then and Now Examination

     Nearly ten years ago, I set out to find the location of a photograph that had intrigued me for a good many years. The image shows a battle scarred tree, riddled with bullets and set upon by an ax. Nailed to it was a sign board bearing a stanza from the Theodore O'Hara poem, "Bivouac of the Dead". Visitors to our National Cemeteries will recognize the poem, originally written to honor America soldiers killed in the Mexican War. Its stanzas are usually displayed at intervals amongst the rows of stones. To make a long story short, my readers can visit a previous posting containing a podcast of a talk I gave in Charlottesville in March of 2013. Therein you will find more in-depth information on this and other images, taken under the direction of Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou in April 1866. Additionally, I wrote an article which appeared in the April 2009 issue of Civil War Times Magazine, covering much of the same material. The original glass, stereo negatives had numbers scratched into their emulsion, thus you will see, oddly placed numbers in some prints from the series.
     The purpose for this posting is as a continuation of my study, and obsession, with this collection of images. As seen below, a severely damaged landscape extends beyond the tree. In the left, middle distance, just below the treeline, is the McCoull House, one of the Spotsylvania Battlefield's noted landmarks, unfortunately destroyed by fire in the early twentieth century, but nevertheless, thoroughly photo documented before its demise. Recognizing that structure is what brought about my identification of this site, and the path Bontecou and his entourage took in creating the series. Out of 121 known images taken, only 65 percent survive in print form. None of the original negatives are known to survive today.
     Initially thought to be a piece of board siding from a nearby structure, my examinations determined that the sign was painted on a grave marker, one of undoubtedly thousands supplied by the Quartermaster's Department in the the summer of 1865 to a Union burial party searching the battlefields around Fredericksburg for northern remains. The haste with which both armies exited the region in May 1864, left numerous bodies unburied or in shallow graves. Northern homefront sentiment expressed concern that the recently defeated southerners would desecrate the remains of Union dead, thus an exhaustive effort was made to locate and gather them with legible headboards. Sadly, most would be marked, "Unknown U.S. Soldier". Marking these graves were uniformly prepared boards with arched tops and routed edges. Skilled sign painters were among those performing this task, as evidenced by the precise lettering seen in these photographs and a few surviving originals. It was from one of these relics, on loan to the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, that I obtained measurements by which I was able to create an exact-size replica of the sign on the tree. Based on these figures, it is also possible to now determine the height at which it was affixed, roughly ten feet, and the diameter of the tree, at approximately 17 inches. Based on documents found in the National Archives, I was able to determine that this image was taken on or about April 13, 1866. Knowing the location and date also allows an approximate exposure time of 8:30 a.m., Civil War time, which is 9:41 modern time, on that date, based on allowances for Daylight Savings Time and the creation of Railway Time in 1883. Shadows, and the amount of sunlight cast on surfaces, functions as a historic sundial, placing a time stamp of sorts on much of Bontecou's journey.

Based on the location and position of the McCoull House, this view looks nearly
due south, across the rear of the Confederate line, behind the Bloody Angle.
Note the sunlight, and shadow created by the tree.
Holding the replica sign, near the location of the original tree, looking south.
Taken at 9:45 a.m., on Sunday, April 13, 2014, 148 years after the original.
A close-up of my replica, near the site of the original photograph.
The original, remnant marker, on loan to F&SNMP, examined
 and measured by me on December 9, 2008, at Chancellorsville VC.
In my work space, March 21, 2013, laying the scaled template on
the prepared board. The board is of exact dimensions and was kindly
 cut and routed by my good friend, Dan Spear, of Stevenson Ridge,
from an antique board salvaged in a house restoration project.
Photograph "96" (number scratched backwards, and flipped, in emulsion
gives the incorrect appearance of "69"), looking roughly 233 degrees
southwest, from a camera position approximately 48 feet east of the tree
with the sign, seen at left center. This creates a triangulation that helped
determine the location of both images. The distant ridge is the field across which
Colonel Emory Upton made his May 10, 1864 assault on the Confederate works. 
The same site, 9:59 a.m., on Sunday, April 13, 2014, 148 years
 after the original image was taken. Note the sunlight and shadows.
Joseph Sanford's Hotel, also known as the Spotswood Inn, seen
at approximately 3:14 p.m., April 13, 1864. The photographic 
wagon is parked in front, at extreme right. This is image number 113.
The same view at 4:25 p.m., Sunday, April 13, 2014, 148 years later.
Image number 114, taken shortly after the previous image. This view
is captioned "Cash Corner" perhaps alluding to the money-making
potential of this corner, located across from Spotsylvania Court House.
The community well is at left of the wall surrounding the Court House lawn.
The same view today at 4:31 p.m., looking across Route 208. The 
wall around the Court House lawn was removed in 1900. The large,
brick house, seen in the 1866 view, burned in 1930.

     As many of my friends and associates know, there is a forthcoming book on this series of images, and the story behind them. I have a very patient publisher who took interest in October of 2004. Time to wrap it up. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The First Day of Peace - 149 Years Ago Today - 4/10/14

     We are still one year away from the Sesquicentennial observance of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse. Yesterday, the pre-one fiftieth was recognized across the internet blogosphere. I chose to sit it out until today, in quiet contemplation of the intended peace that was to come to the reunited nation after April 9, 1865. A peace that took a great deal of convincing for many, after a fitful reconstruction era. A peace that some, even to this day, view with a jaundiced eye. It is unsettling that there are those that continue to discuss the late unpleasantness with a coveted "presentism", people from both ends of the political spectrum. It is unjust to think we are capable of applying the mindset of a population five generations after they lived. No matter how we believe their emotions, loves, and hates can remain applicable to our lives, there has to be a separation. Are the sins of the father really laid upon the children? I am aware that for some these words will ring hollow. I just think it is time we see what we face today, as a nation, and unburden ourselves of perceived slights. I say these things as a nonpartisan, someone who has ancestors who fought for the north and the south. Demonization has got to go.

 The McLean House, where the signing of the surrender documents took place.
 Photograph by Timothy O'Sullivan, April 1865.
March 31, 2012. A similar view of a rebuilt McLean House.
 Site of some of the last moments of conflict in the morning hours of April 9, 1865.
 Appomattox Courthouse and village, site of the formal surrender ceremony on April 12, 1865.
The visage of Robert E. Lee, and the sword he wore to meet with Grant, on display
during opening day tours of the Appomattox branch of the Museum of the Confederacy,
March 31, 2012. The MOC is now "The American Civil War Museum". Details here.
 Visitors gather around displays at the Appomattox branch of the former MOC. March 31, 2012.
 "The Museum of the Confederacy’s mission is to serve as the preeminent world center
 for the display, study, interpretation, commemoration, and preservation of the history
 and artifacts of the Confederate States of America."
Some of the artifacts on display. Opening day, March 31, 2012.
One of the most poignant displays contains no artifacts, just a lifesize tableau.
"Their son heads off to war." A family's pride and anguish.
Other displays examine the use of the Confederate Battle Flag, in reverence and kitsch.
Members of the 23rd Regiment United States Colored Troops, and the 54th Massachusetts,
served as escort to "General Grant", prior to the museum's opening ceremony, March 31, 2012.
"Reunification of the Nation", is symbolized by the flags of all the 
former succeeded states, along with the Stars and Stripes.
There is no "Confederate" flag displayed in front of the museum building. 
Protesters from the "Virginia Flaggers", and "Mechanized Cavalry"
were on hand to object to the omission of a Confederate flag out front of the
facility, labeling the museum directors as "scalawags and carpetbaggers".
During the opening ceremony, an airplane buzzed overhead, drowning out the speakers.
Behind the plane was a flowing banner, declaring "Reunification by the Bayonet".