Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Fort Pulaski took a beating from Hurricane Matthew, but worked hard to bounce back

Water poured in from flooded dike system (NPS photo)

Saturday’s Park Day – a nationwide service project organized by the Civil War Trust – comes as Fort Pulaski National Monument nears a critical point in its recovery from last October’s Hurricane Matthew. It’s transitioning from six months of recovery to fully focusing on its mission of educating visitors about this important siege early in the war. The fort is looking for volunteers to help clear a popular trail and vegetation that morning. Joel Cadoff, spokesman and chief of interpretation, this week spoke with the Picket about the $1.8 million in damage and efforts to get the park near Savannah, Ga., back on its feet.


As the hurricane approached, its exact target unknown, the staff removed items from the floor and secured facilities. “Everybody was in pure prep mode,” Cadoff said. The park, aware that the site was susceptible to flooding, had a week before sent most of the park’s collection to Fort Frederica National Monument on St. Simons Island, south of Savannah. 

Lee drawing's (NPS)
Among the items that made the trip were drawings of wildlife on Cockspur Island by a young Robert E. Lee when he was a lieutenant stationed at Fort Pulaski, and clothing belonging to Union Brig. Gen. Quincy Adams Gillmore, in charge of the 1862 victorious siege of Pulaski.


The park was closed when Matthew made landfall on Oct. 8. The staff was at first optimistic that Pulaski had weathered the storm with minimal to moderate damage. “One of the (aerial) images showed the masonry fort surrounded by water, but the inside looked dry other than one of the pecan trees having been uprooted,” said Cadoff.

But an early inspection showed two bridges crossing the moat and leading to the fort had been washed away. (One of those wooden bridges was found just last month, several hundred yards away.)

Location of washed-away bridge
(NPS photos)

The parade ground had endured up to 18 inches of water, and the ranger office and restroom in the fort were damaged by water. “Every park feature was affected one way or the other,” said Cadoff. The visitor center and maintenance shop also received water and heating and air systems were damaged.

Some 300 trees were down across the site.

Designed by Lee, a dike system outside Fort Pulaski allowed for tide control and drainage that aided in the construction before the Civil War. The system was built to handle a 12-foot tide, but Matthew pushed in several inches more – and the water had to go somewhere. “Basically you had water pouring in.”

It could have been worse – during a storm in the 1890s, lighthouse keepers had to deal with 5 feet of water inside the brick fort.

(NPS photo)


Fort Pulaski was closed for about a month as initial cleanup began. That included everything from removing muck to clearing trees and other debris. “It wasn’t safe to have visitors,” Cadoff said. A National Park Service team came in days after Matthew left and helped do triage.

When the fort reopened in November (photo, above), only guided programs were conducted. (Visitors since then have been able to wander about, as they did before Matthew.)

The staff no longer uses office space in the fort and the only restroom is at the visitor center. The facility inside the fort won’t be replaced.


(NPS photos)

The NPS’ Historic Preservation Training Center in Frederick, Md., sent in a team in early March to help repair roof damage and interior flooring.

About 90 percent of the wooden floors in the casemates were displaced by Matthew. The team reset the timbers and replaced any that had rotted over the years.


When asked to rate how much the site has bounced back to what it was pre-Matthew, Cadoff gave a figure of 85-90 percent. Visitors still notice the tree losses and some trails remain closed.

One of two teams in Saturday morning’s Park Day will focus on the popular 1.-7 mile Lighthouse Trail, which goes from the visitor center, past the fort and to near the famous Cockspur Island Lighthouse.

The park will restore living history programs in the fall. A group of authentic Civil War re-enactors plans to hold a Confederate garrison event in April 2018 to help Pulaski "get back in the saddle."


Cadoff said Hurricane Matthew is a reminder that such rare storms in Georgia can come along: “It can happen, it will happen again.” He said the staff was as ready as it could be, but “there is always room for improvement.”

Was there a positive side? Cadoff believes so. Tthere has been strong moral support from those reviewing recovery updates on the park’s social media.

Seventeen staff members, who had to deal with the storm’s impact on their own homes, put in a ton of work to clean up and move Fort Pulaski forward.

“It has brought us closer together," Cadoff said.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Learn more about Ala. town, Union POWs

Old Cahawba in Alabama is offering an April 1 walking tour of the park, looking at the impact the Civil War, including the Battle of Selma, had on Cahawba and its residents. Near the end of the war, water from the Cahaba and Alabama rivers pushed over the river bank and across the town of Cahawba, leaving more than 3,000 Union Army prisoners standing for days in knee deep water at Castle Morgan. • Article

Monday, March 20, 2017

Where eagles dare: Well-preserved Virginia site to tell story of Potomac blockade

Remains of gun batteries (Courtesy of Prince William County, Va.)

While Confederate artillery batteries erected below Washington, D.C. had more bark than bite – observers wrote of poor marksmanship and munitions -- they effectively blockaded the vital Potomac River for five months.

Among the most imposing was Cockpit Point Battery in Prince William County, Va. Sitting atop a 70-foot bluff, the fort had an air of mystery from the beginning. It was built in secret, with trees left in front to better hide the construction. Curious Federal troops on the Maryland side of the river eventually used a balloon to try to figure out how many men were at Cockpit Point and other batteries in the area.

The Rebel emplacements thrown up early in the war saw relatively little action, but the threat embarrassed the Federal government and to a degree stymied efforts to resupply the capital.

“It is something that is really unknown, even to hard-core Civil War buffs,” said Bill Backus of the county’s Historic Preservation Division.

(Courtesy of Prince William County)

Backus and colleague Rob Orrison earlier this month conducted the first public tours (above) of the property, which was donated about a year ago by the developers of Potomac Shores, a large residential and golf community just to the north of Cockpit Point.

Cockpit Point Civil War Park, a few miles east of Dumfries, is not technically open. The 113 acres are split by a busy railroad line that passes by a chemical facility and the Possum Point Power station, modern facilities that bookend the park.

County officials for now will concentrate on a 93-acre parcel of the property, with the hopes of putting in a small parking lot later this year (until then, people are not encouraged to drive to the site). That side will highlight natural resources, including a pond. The park has two bald eagle nests.

“We think it is going to be mixed use, because access of the earthworks is limited, because of the railroad,” Backus said. “Our ultimate goal is to put a trail system to both sides of the park.”

There is no timetable for putting a trail or interpretive markers on the battery side of the property. There currently is no safe (or legal) way to cross the railroad. Officials encourage visitation through special tours in the spring and November.

Federal balloon gazed down on Confederate batteries (click to enlarge)

The 20 people who took part in this month’s visit saw “some of the few batteries that remain from the blockade of the Potomac River in the first year of the war,” said Backus.

In a press release announcing the tours, Orrison, the county's historic site operations supervisor, wrote: "This property is unique as it contains some of the best preserved earthworks and forts from the Civil War in Northern Virginia. It's by far the best-preserved Civil War battery associated with the Potomac Blockade." 

'A remarkable military position'

The Texas Brigade is said to have been among the units that Brig. Gen. Isaac Trimble employed in autumn 1861 to build the four lunettes on the bluff, called Possum Nose.

Backus said the batteries probably are about 150-200 yards from the Potomac.

(Illustration appeared in Harper's Weekly)

The Confederacy rotated artillery in and out of the fort. Sometimes there were six, sometimes fewer. A 30-pounder Parrott, nicknamed “Long Tom,” was used, along with guns from the Norfolk naval station. Between 100 and 200 men were in the garrison.

The Federal government was worried by Cockpit Point and nearby Shipping Point, Freestone Point and Evansport fortifications (totaling 37 heavy guns); a pro-Unionist called the former a “remarkable military position.”

Backus and Orrison recently wrote about the blockade for Blue & Gray magazine. They stress the Federal government needed an open Potomac River for resupply and communication reasons, along with a wish to keep Maryland out of the fight.

Orrison, in the blog Emerging Civil War, wrote: “Though the batteries were constructed under the auspices of the Confederate Navy, the men manning the guns were infantry. Various units moved in and out of the area to man the guns, and their skill as gunners was obvious, as they rarely were able to hit anything that fired along the river.”

While the blockade lasted until March 1862, Cockpit Point took a beating from the Union navy in January 1862. Two vessels – the USS Yankee and USS Anacostia --  pounded the batteries from positions that couldn’t be easily hit by return fire. Shots from the USS Anacostia were accurate enough to force the Confederates to abandon one of the batteries. But the fort remained in Southern hands

(Courtesy of Prince William County)

Federal troops and batteries on the Maryland side hoped for help from Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, who could have used his massive force on the Virginia side to attack the batteries from the rear. But he apparently felt that did not fit within the larger strategy, Orrison writes.

Instead, it was Rebels who took the batteries out of action.

In early March 1862, they withdrew to build new defenses along the south bank of the Rappahannock River. An attempt was made to destroy the river positions.

John S. Salmon, in his “The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide,” wrote a Federal landing party found evidence of a hasty departure: Half-baked bread, clothes and spiked cannons.

For their part, Federal forces used Cockpit Point to launch patrols, “mainly looking for guerrillas.” They knocked the batteries down further so they would be of little or no use if the Confederates retook them.

Map of battle corps and study areas, American Battlefield Protection Program

Keeping further deterioration in check

Backus says the remnants of the lunettes are quite discernible. Trees have moved in and other natural forces have worked on the fortifications over the past 155 years. Still, the state of preservation is considered to be good and there have been few modern disturbances.

Foundations of winter huts are still in place, along with the remains of a communications trench.

A study conducted for the county said it should work to maintain surrounding forest to protect surviving earthworks and take steps to prevent vandalism.

There has been evidence of fairly recent relic hunting, and officials don’t want visitors on site. They could cause more damage to the batteries. “We are trying to keep it protected by not marking where everything is,” Backus told the Picket.

There’s no interest in reconstructing the defenses. Instead, officials want to prevent any further deterioration. One bluff is eroding and officials may step in to help stabilize it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Photo found of Federal drummer boy

A cemetery in upstate New York where a Civil War veteran known as "Albany's Little Drummer Boy" is buried has received the only image of him known to exist. A woman discovered the tintype of Pvt. Bernard “Barney” Ross while going through memorabilia collected by her late father. • Article

Saturday, March 11, 2017

CSS Georgia update: Divers, crews this summer will lift large casemate sections

Sections of CSS Georgia casemate (USACE, Savannah)

Divers this summer will be back on the wreckage of the CSS Georgia, working to remove 160 tons of the ironclad’s protective casemate from the Savannah River.

Julie Morgan, an archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Savannah office, said she expects this second recovery operation to begin in mid- to late June. It will last about 45 days.

“There will a smaller crew this time because the work site is smaller,” she told the Picket. In summer 2015, U.S. Navy divers spent weeks on the site near downtown Savannah, bringing up heavy pieces of the vessel, including several pieces of artillery.

They won’t be on site this year. Commercial divers, working with the Corps and Panamerican Consultants, will attempt to lift the remainder of the east and west casemates – with an eye on keeping the large pieces as intact as possible.

It will be no easy task. The west section, about 60 feet by 24 feet, weighs about 120 tons. The east casemate, at 40 tons, is about 20 feet by 24 feet. Divers will again work in near-zero visibility and swift currents on a vessel that’s in many pieces.

Crews in 2015 wash off railroad iron used as armor (USACE)

Nearly 30,000 artifacts – including portions of the casemate -- already been recovered from the Confederate ironclad, with thousands undergoing conservation in Texas.

The vessel, which served as a floating battery to defend entrance to the city, was set afire and scuttled in December 1864 to keep it out of the hands of Union troops closing in on Savannah.

The CSS Georgia must be moved as part of a project benefiting the Port of Savannah. With the expansion of the Panama Canal, even larger ships are traveling to and from U.S. cities. That requires deeper channels.

While the CSS Georgia is not directly in the shipping lane, it must be raised so that vessels will have more room to maneuver as they make their way to and from the Atlantic Ocean.

Divers and archaeologists had hoped to remove all of the casemate in 2015, but the weight and size of the still-intact sections provided challenges that need to be addressed with tweaked rigging and lifting techniques.

A sliced section of casemate shows railroad iron, USACE)

Officials said their hope is to bring up a “corner” of the casemate to demonstrate how the sloped pieces of wood-backed armor (in the Georgia’s case, railroad iron) were designed and fastened.

“The west casemate has a lot of potential,” said Morgan.

Following the casemate work, a clamshell device will bring up remaining smaller pieces of the CSS Georgia and artifacts. With that, you never know what you might find. So far, the river has yielded prehistoric Native American pottery and post-Civil War debris.

Officials said inner-harbor dredging is at least a year away.

Coming soon: Update on artifacts conservation