Thursday, August 25, 2016

Where thousands of Civil War soldiers rest, there's a corner 'for ever England'

Headstone replacement continues at Poplar Grove (NPS photos)
British soldier died during flu pandemic

Resting among the 6,100 Union soldiers buried at Poplar Grove National Cemetery in Virginia are 50 service members who served during other wars or eras. Not all are American.

British Sgt. Maj. George M. Symons enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) in 1908, saw action early in World War I and was sent to Camp Lee in Petersburg, Va., to help train American soldiers preparing for the war. Less than two months later, on Oct. 8, 1918, he died during the influenza pandemic and was buried at Poplar Grove. Symons left no wife or children.

On Saturday, the cemetery, which is in the middle of a major rehabilitation project, will sponsor a Symons grave rededication. A niece living in Michigan (along with her daughter and grandson), a British liaison and an historian from what is now the U.S. Army’s Fort Lee will be among those attending the closed event. A new marker has corrected information about the UK soldier.

“He did not have family,” said Betsy Dinger, a park ranger at Petersburg National Battlefield, which manages the cemetery. “He does kind of have a family in the rest of us.”

With the exception of special events and public tours, such as one scheduled for this Saturday morning, Poplar Grove has been closed since November 2015. The biggest project has been the replacement of all headstones, which since the 1930s had been flat on the ground.

Nearly 4,000 upright headstones have been put in thus far, said Dinger.

Lodge walls now are violet, as they were back in 1872 (NPS)

The cemetery’s lodge is undergoing a major restoration, brick walls and other features are being repaired and sealed and the park is addressing drainage issues across the nine-acre site. Officials hope work is wrapped up this December.

“They are still working on the pointing on the brick wall,” said Dinger. “The new flagpole footing is coming along, as are the bases for the cannon which will be in the area around the flagpole.”

Poplar Grove holds the remains of several Native Americans who fought during the Civil War with Federal units, among them the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters. Members of the Menominee and the Stockbring-Munsee tribes made a visit several weeks ago.

“It was a real privilege to walk around with them and learn about their culture,” said Dinger. “I was especially moved at the prayers.  You may not know a language but your heart understands the words.”

Boundary walls are being repaired and pointed. (NPS)

Dinger has been busy preparing for Saturday’s grave rededication. She speaks fondly about Symons. “My nephew says when he comes (to visit) we have to see Uncle George.”

Dinger said a speech from a British colonel and the Fort Lee historian will reflect professional camaraderie. She expects two members of the Great War Association to wear British uniforms. “Last Post,” a UK bugle call akin to “Taps,” will be played.

Because Britain did not begin repatriation of service member remains until after World War I, Symons has stayed in Virginia.

The park ranger made reference to a stanza in “The Soldier,” written by English poet Rupert Brooke.

“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.”

Saturday tour: The third "Hard Hat tour" of Poplar Grove is set for 10 a.m.-noon this Saturday. Reservations are necessary; contact park ranger Betsy Dinger at (804) 732-3531 ext. 208.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

What new Camp Lawton dig director wants to learn about Union POWs, Rebel guards

Ryan McNutt
Ryan McNutt found that when one door closes, a really cool one opens.

The conflict archaeologist’s teaching contract at the University of Glasgow was coming to an end late last year. McNutt had earned his master’s degree and doctorate at the UK university and while in Europe had done research on the locations of battlefields from the Middle Ages. Through the school's Centre for Battlefield Archaeology, McNutt had helped excavate a World War I site (Somme in France) and others from World War II (Stalag Luft III in Poland and aircraft crash sites in Scotland).

McNutt, 33, ran across a job posting back in the States. Georgia Southern University in Statesboro was looking for an assistant professor of anthropology. Duties include overseeing the school’s Camp Lawton project.

“Lawton was the main thing that attracted me to the job,” said McNutt, who will oversee GSU research and archaeological excavations at the Confederate prison site a few miles north of Millen.

The camp broke into the news in 2010 when federal, state and campus officials announced that its location had been confirmed and it was already yielding a trove of artifacts.

But there’s been no activity on the site in more than a year. McNutt’s predecessor, Lance Greene, took a position at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, after the summer 2015 field school.

Excavation at Camp Lawton (Courtesy of Hubert Gibson)

For McNutt, who worked on projects in the U.S. Southeast before going abroad, serving as the Lawton director is an opportunity to continue Greene’s work and explore some of his own questions about the prison, which was open for only six weeks in fall 1864.

“Preservation is so bad on U.S. Civil War prison sites, especially Confederate ones,” said the Alabama native. But not at Camp Lawton. Archaeologists have been helped by the remote location of the stockade and relatively minor disturbances of the soil.

McNutt told the Picket about some of his objectives:

-- Prisoner of war camps are “excellent places to hide contraband, personal items you are not supposed to have. If you are rousted in camp, left on a train early in the morning, as they were (at Lawton) those are the kinds of things that are to be left behind.” McNutt wants to know whether some of the shelter areas include digging tools, stashes of forbidden resources or items used in trade with guards. “That leads back to what are these guys doing to cope with aspects of confinement and how are they resisting. How are they mentally resisting the fact they are stuck here in this camp.” Contraband, McNutt said, can be “a relatively powerful victory.”

-- He wants to document how the 10,000 Union soldiers divided themselves up. The men were to be grouped by regiments and companies. “That is the official standpoint of Confederacy.” But there are good indications that at nearby Andersonville (Camp Sumter), there was internal sorting by ethnicity. European coins or tokens have been found at Camp Lawton and it is known there were many prisoners of Irish descent.

Friendship ring found at Lawton (Courtesy of Georgia Southern U.)

-- McNutt wants to learn more about how prisoners used the space available to them. It was a cold, wet autumn and hundreds died. Getting the perspective from the fort (Confederate) side of the camp will allow students to ascertain places that could not be seen by guards.

Over three years, Greene and his students worked on confirming the location of the stockade walls and spent a lot of time in the prisoner area, uncovering a communal brick oven and a dwelling hut. They excavated what is believed to be a Confederate officers’ barracks, but were not able to identify other Rebel portions of the site, including where the enlisted men lived.

Greene told the Picket last summer that a big focus of the Camp Lawton project is understanding the difference in the quality of life and the relationship between prisoners and guards. McNutt concurs.

“There is no glass or ceramics in the prison area. They are having to do with tin cups,” Greene said. “The Confederacy is giving them nothing and they are getting bad cuts of meat if they get anything at all. A tin cup was used for water and to eat soup. They have nothing else. They reused items, railroad piece and metal scrap.

McNutt said he, too, will concentrate on the precise locations of Federal and Confederate structures, including the stockade. He wants to find and excavate potential corners.

Brass keg tap (Courtesy of Georgia Southern U.)

The presumed Confederate barracks “is in the gray area.” Artifacts fit the time period. “They are of a high-quality enough goods they were likely from the kind of stuff the officers would have had around them.” Accounts by Union prisoner Robert Knox Sneden indicate that the area should have been surrounded by kitchens, cookhouses and cabins.

McNutt said conflict or battle archaeology can be tough. The 1745 Battle of Prestonpans in Scotland was over in hours. But such locations, where activity occurred in a single day or over a few weeks, can provide exciting research opportunities, he said.

“It is such a short burst of activity; they are almost perfect time capsules. You get these really nice frozen moments in time. The occupation is so short you can tie this down to specific weeks. Sometimes to specific regiments. I think there is a lot of that at Camp Lawton.”

So a relatively short time capsule may demonstrate how the prisoners coped with food shortages, boredom and loneliness.

McNutt expects to meet next month with Georgia and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service archaeologists about objectives and research designs for the next phase of archaeology. (A portion of the prison is in Magnolia Springs State Park and the remainder is on the fenced site of an old federal fish hatchery.)

Barracks excavation a couple of years ago (Courtesy of Georgia Southern U.)

The Camp Lawton director would like to see the earth turned again sometime in 2017 and a campaign launched to renew public interest. “When exactly that starts is kind of up in the air.”

McNutt has written what he loves about archaeology: “Researching the past, thinking about the way people interact with each other, how we use objects, and objects use us. How we create the present from the past, and craft national and group identities from these created pasts. And how as archaeologists, we can pick these themes apart.

He’s conscious of Camp Lawton’s ties to other prison sites in Georgia, including Blackshear and Thomasville. Lawton was evacuated during Sherman’s March to the Sea and prisoners were sent elsewhere. “I see all three of those sites interlinked. They are all part of the same story. Camp Lawton can inform on them and Thomasville and Blackshear can inform back to Camp Lawton.”

McNutt also wants to restore public days at Magnolia Springs. Visitors can help in the archaeology on certain weekends and visit a Camp Lawton museum just yards away.

“I believe archaeology … should exist for education of my students and education of the public at large,” he said.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Exhibit's 'Toy Soldier' is a photographic 'delusion' of haunting Civil War portrait

Pvt. Edwin Jemison (Library of Congress)

Wait a minute – I recognize him.

I was scrolling through my personal Facebook feed recently and came across a post with the image of a young Confederate soldier.

You no doubt have seen the haunting face of Pvt. Edwin F. Jemison, a native Georgian who enlisted at 16 and died at 17 at the Battle of Malvern Hill in Virginia while serving with the 2nd Louisiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

The Facebook image I saw was of a 2003 artistic interpretation of Jemision entitled “Toy Soldier.” It was created by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, who uses what is called a playful and inventive approach in creating “photographic delusions.”

The text next to the work reads: “Struck by the profound sadness in a portrait of a child soldier during the Civil War, Muniz decided to re-create the portrait out of plastic soldiers.”

Last week, I paid a visit to the Muniz exhibit at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. I gazed at his interpretation of iconic images of pop culture: Mona Lisa in peanut butter and jelly, Che Guevara in black beans and Dracula in caviar.

But I spent most of my time studying “Toy Soldier” from a variety of perspectives. It is part of a triptych, or three panels.

The High explained Muniz’ concept: “He assembled a distorted version of the image on the floor and photographed it from an angle to correct the perspective. As a result, some toy soldiers appear vastly larger than others, though they were all the same size. The final work is presented as a triptych with depictions of a horse and an American Indian, recalling subjects common to toy figurines.”

I’ve been wrestling with the artist’s intent here, but perhaps the use of toy soldiers is an example of innocence lost – and regained.

The Civil War Trust has a video featuring a National Park Service ranger at the Malvern Hill battlefield. She details the brief service of Jemison, who enlisted within a month of Fort Sumter’s fall and served in the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. He was decapitated by Union artillery fire during a Rebel advance on July 1, 1862.

Jemison’s youthful face has graced magazine covers, books and other mediums, making him the “poster boy” of wartime innocence loss.

While there is a monument in Milledgeville, Ga., many believe his remains are among the unknown at Malvern Hill.

Muniz, the artist, is known for his interpretation of pop culture and celebrity. And it was fascinating to see what he creates out of a variety of objects.

“From a distance, the subject of each resulting photograph is discernible; up close, the work reveals a complex and surprising matrix through which it was assembled. That revelatory moment when one thing transforms into another is of deep interest to the artist.”

The Vik Muniz photography exhibit at the High Museum of Art runs through Aug. 21. Details here

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

For CSS Georgia conservator, artifact scoops in river meant having to make choices

Archaeologists wash off  railroad iron used as armor (USACE photo)

Each time a scoop of CSS Georgia artifacts landed last year on the deck of a barge in the Savannah River, Jim Jobling made a decision.

A “CRL” finding meant the item was going to Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research Laboratory for long-term conservation. Landing in the “R” pile meant that artifact from the Confederate ironclad was destined for river reburial.

“Anything that was unique and could add to our database of knowledge we kept,” said Jobling, the lead conservator during the removal of the wreck under the auspices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Nothing unique was thrown away.”

Grapple used during mechanized recovery (USACE)

Jobling spoke of time constraints and salvage archaeology at a recent symposium at the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Ga.

During the mechanized recovery phase of the CSS Georgia, two dozen archaeologists -- equipped in boots and safety helmets and using hoses and rakes -- sifted through muddy piles of metal and wood brought up by a five-finger grapple and a clamshell scoop.

The daily yield was incredible: Pieces of casemate, an 1841 percussion pistol (below), telescope tube, shoes, buttons, champagne bottles, bayonet handles and hundreds of other items, including a massive 9-inch Dahlgren, somewhat of a surprise find.

(USACE photo)

Michael Jordan, who is making a documentary about the project for the Corps, told the audience that “scooping at the end is where the honey pot is.”

He described Jobling, who works for Texas A&M, as master of a “ballet of artifacts moving around.”

Jobling used PowerPoint slides at the symposium to summarize a typical lift. In this case it was G54 -- a load brought up by the grapple in mid-September 2015.

The CRL pile in that lift included an anvil, a gear piece, chain, caulking hammers and wood from a bucket. The R pile included broken fasteners and twisted pieces built below the CSS Georgia’s railroad armor. “Bent wood won’t tell me anything,” said Jobling.

Items that were kept (top), items that were reburied

Archaeologists and conservators made a photographic record for each of 2,200 scoops and lifts.

The mechanized recovery followed large-artifact recovery, during which Navy divers brought up ordnance, guns, casemate and a propeller. For the mechanized phase, the barge crew and scientists had images that showed them exactly where to scoop or scour the river bottom about 40 feet below.

“There were always surprises,” Jobling said in a recent phone interview. “In a zero visibility environment, you don’t have a grasp on everything.”

In an ideal world, archaeologists want to keep all artifacts, he said. But with limited funding and time for the CSS Georgia recovery (it is being moved so that the vital shipping channel in Savannah can be deepened), choices had to be made.

(Interestingly, many items were pieces of Native American earthenware that may have drifted down the river and settled in the wreck site).

While 140 tons of material was shipped, nearly that much was reburied in the Savannah River.

Jobling and the others worked six days a week and long hours during the mechanized recovery. “Every day, something new was found,” he said. “We were filthy at the end of the day.”

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Three famous vessels: Conservation scorecard and biggest remaining mysteries

H.L. Hunley as exterior is cleaned (Friends of the Hunley)

Just for fun, I asked three Civil War shipwreck conservators and a historian at last weekend’s symposium in Columbus, Ga., for a scorecard on where the work stands and the biggest questions they hope research will reveal. Here are the responses, as provided at the “Wrecks, Recovery & Conservation” program at the National Civil War Naval Museum. The scale is 1-10, with 10 indicating completion:

Jim Jobling, CSS Georgia
Wreck raised:
2015 (another casemate section recovery scheduled for 2017)
Conservation: 1-2
Interpretation: 1
Biggest questions? We are an artifact dump site. I want to know how the CSS Georgia was designed and built. I don’t think we can answer that. We have the top and none of the bottom. There is no hull or engine. We have a challenge.

Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan, CSS Georgia documentary producer
Biggest questions?
I want to know more about the crew’s lives. We are looking for a sailor’s diary. There are stories to be told. Also, more about the Savannah women who raised the money to build it.

Will Hoffman, USS Monitor
Wreck raised:
Anchor in 1983, propeller in 1998, steam engine and section of hull in 2001, turret in 2002
Conservation: 5-6 (completion by 2035)
Interpretation: 8-9
Biggest questions? Why the Monitor sank while being towed to Beaufort, N.C. It may have been failure of the hull, which had a riveted V shape. It belly flopped in the waves. Also, who were the two sailors found in the turret and how should we present the artifacts (at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va.)?

USS Monitor turret (Courtesy of The Mariners' Museum and Park)

Paul Mardikian, H.L Hunley
Wreck raised: 2000
Conservation: 7 (About five more years)
Interpretation: 8-9
Biggest questions? What caused it to sink. We are going back to the materials; there were flaws in the metal. What was happening may not be one thing. I am confident we can pin it down. We want to solve the case.