Monday, July 25, 2016

Gettysburg Daily is back in action


Gettysburg Daily, a website that posts photos on a variety of topics regarding the battlefield, returned last week with little fanfare after a four-year hiatus. “Missed us? We missed you too,” read a July 19 Facebook posting.

The independent site’s aim is to provide photos or videos and researched captions each day. Licensed Battlefield Guide and history teacher Bobby Housch, with the assistance of two sons, launched Gettysburg Daily in February 2008 and it covered the spectrum until May 2012, when the family announced it had other priorities to which it needed to attend.

(The Picket, which interviewed Housch in December 2009 attempted last week to contact him. We’ll update the blog if we hear back).

The site’s creators take several photographs of subject and include the approximate time at which the image was taken. It has a huge inventory of topics and Housch has provided his point of view on many battlefield initiatives.

Since July 17, when the site was reborn, subjects have included what’s being done with the old Cyclorama parking lot, restoration of the Thompson House and the National Park Service’s reconstruction of the Hancock Avenue Gate.

On the latter, Gettysburg Daily writes the gate has no interpretive and little commemorative value. It also questions why the NPS wants to minimize the addition of new monuments, which the website considers to be educational.

Social media fans have applauded the return of Gettysburg Daily. “Wonderful having you back,” wrote one on Facebook. “You help provide my Gettysburg therapy.”

Thursday, July 21, 2016

For a soldier, sailor or slave? Discovered Fort McAllister coffin intrigues archaeologists

(Courtesy of Historic Preservation Division, Georgia DNR)
Fort McAllister and the Ogeechee River (Library of Congress)

Rachel Black, deputy state archaeologist in Georgia, has posed a question that currently has no answer but offers a range of fascinating possibilities: Why was a coffin placed in a marsh near a Civil War fort and who put it there?

The mystery began on a spring day in 2013 when an employee at Fort McAllister State Park, south of Savannah, was on routine patrol west of the Confederate fortifications. She came across what appeared to be a coffin protruding a few inches below the surface on the marsh’s edge.

One of Black’s colleagues was called to the site near the Ogeechee River and confirmed the hexagonal box was indeed a coffin. It was missing its lid and there appeared to be no human remains. The boards had separated and were surrounded by packed sediment.

“It had become exposed because of erosion,” said Black. “It was completely intact. The nails had completely disintegrated.”

In the years since, Black – who made a poster on her research in April for a meeting of the Society for American Archaeology – has looked at a range of possibilities of why the coffin was buried or left in the marsh:

-- Did the plain, pine box hold the remains of a slave? Fort McAllister sits on Genesis Point, once home to a large rice plantation. There’s a known slave cemetery to the west near Strathy Hall, which was built in the 18th century.

-- Could this have been a burial for a Confederate soldier or sailor, or perhaps a Union soldier stationed there after the fort fell in December 1864 during Sherman’s March to the Sea?

-- Or was the coffin discarded and never used? Trevor Johnston, interpretive ranger at the park, said it may have been left after remains of soldiers from both sides were disinterred and it was not needed. There is evidence of a historic dump in the area.

“When I first started the background research I was hoping it was part of (a) slave cemetery,” Black told The Picket. “The more I researched, I am more leaning that it was more associated with the fort and it might be a soldier.”

'Very simple, very plain box'

(Hole cut into side panel of coffin, right -- Photo Georgia DNR)

Black wrote about the coffin in the May issue of “Preservation Posts,” the online journal of the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Based on the use of cut nails, the coffin likely was built prior to the 1890s, said Black. The rectangular casket became far more prevalent by the turn of the 20th century.

Archaeologists discovered a small hole on each of the side panels. “I honestly don’t know what they were for. I have never seen this,” Black said. Perhaps the holes were drilled so that a rope could be used to lower the coffin.

The box was about 68 inches long and could have accommodated a person about 5 feet, 6 inches, a common height for a man in the mid-19th century. It was oriented with the head to the west, customary in many Christian burials.

Sediment at the bottom of the coffin was fibrous, possibly remnants of a Spanish moss liner.

“It is a very simple, very plain box,” said Black. There is not much to indicate a lot of money was spent on this burial. They might have constructed one right on site.  … I think it was very well made with the materials they had.”

She sent a photo of the coffin to a palebotanist in hopes of learning more about the pine boards.

Interestingly, the bottom of the coffin was made from two pieces. One is thicker than the other, so the head plate on one was made even by the coffin maker, who likely used a hand plane tool. That’s evidence of someone who had experience in working with wood.

“The preservation of the wood is just outstanding. It was inundated by water probably for the majority of its life,” Black said. After the discovery, the coffin was immediately submerged in a protective vat of water.

War comes to rice plantations

Before the Civil War, Genesis Point and other portions of coastal Georgia were home to large rice plantations.

Research indicates a Capt. James MacKay purchased the property around what became the fort in 1748. He built nearby Strathy Hall and began rive cultivation. George Washington McAllister bought Strathy Hall and Genesis Point in 1817. After the Civil War broke out, his son, Joseph, donated land to the Confederacy for the construction of a fort named for his father.

Troops at Fort McAllister battled monotony and Union naval forces for three years, finally falling to land troops on Dec. 13, 1864.

(Courtesy of Fort McAllister State Park)

Among the Rebel units stationed at Fort McAllister, was the local Republican Blues. A member of the Blues in 1863 drew a map of the fort and showed the McAllister plantation on the western edge. It’s not clear whether that location is accurate.

Black wrote that records indicate an abundance of plantation activities were in the area of the coffin. In many cases, slave cemeteries are unmarked “and are lost over time.”

Black told The Picket she suspects there was a cemetery on Genesis Point, but she and Johnston say no evidence of one has been found.  Since only the single coffin has been found, that has led the archaeologist to believe it could be more likely associated with the Civil War fort.

In his book “Guardian of Savannah,” Roger S. Durham includes an account of a burial written by William Dixon of the Republican Blues.

“Sunday 6th [March] 1864 … The Emmett Rifles arrived here this morning … Priv Murphy of that company died on board of the boat last night. He complained yesterday of feeling unwell but nothing was thought of it and this morning he was found dead. He was buried here this afternoon.”

Red areas show Strathy Hall, for site (Fort McAllister State Park)

After the war, Joseph McAllister sold Strathy Hall and Genesis Point to a nephew who owned them until 1924. Fort McAllister fell into ruin until the 1930s, when it was restored as a site for the public through funding from auto magnate Henry Ford, who owned the land. It now belongs to the state.

Black said the banks of the Ogeechee River at Genesis Point are eroding rapidly for several reasons, including increased river traffic.

Awaits long-term conservation

The coffin may have more to tell.

Its shoulder joints -- a recess or groove cut that allows boards to be joined – were made with what is called a rabbet technique.

Black said marine archaeologists she spoke with at the April conference suggested such a style was common in shipbuilding.

“It could have been they were there on the Ogeechee. They had soldiers and supplies coming in” to Fort McAllister.

The archaeologist says she wants to do more analysis and look into the rabbeting. Until funding is secured and long-term conservation begins, the coffin remains in water.

Black hopes the public gets to see the reconstructed coffin one day. “Ideally… I would like to see it conserved  ... (and formed) back into its box shape, and see it on display at Fort McAllister, at least part time.”

Monday, July 18, 2016

Saddle up! At Brown's Mill event in Georgia, three styles used during the Civil War


Over the seven years I’ve authored this blog, I’ve rarely delved very deep into the topics of military gear and weapons. (I don’t have the expertise, but sometimes I’ve spoken with experts.)

I traveled this past weekend to Newnan, Ga., for the 152nd anniversary of the Battle of Brown’s Mill. Because it was largely a cavalry battle, the Friends group concentrated on “The Campaigner: Re-enacting the Life and Times of the Civil War Trooper.”

I spoke with a few participants who brought horses, mules and a 12-pound mountain howitzer and caisson. Those who are really serious about re-enacting turn to craftsmen and women for authentic reproductions of saddles and related gear.

Saturday’s re-enactors described some of their saddles, and I did some subsequent online research. Here’s what I came up with. My summaries barely scratch the surface. 

Grimsley saddle

Grimsley artillery driver's saddle on McClellan tree

Thornton Grimsley of St. Louis created a saddle that was adopted in 1847 for dragoons, mounted riflemen and officers and it remained popular for two decades. “The Grimsley was a vast improvement over the Ringgold saddle, which gave poor service in the war with Mexico,” according to Border States Leatherworks. “The Grimsley tree was covered in rawhide and the seat was stuffed with deer hair under the quilted seat.” A smaller version of the Grimsley was made for U.S. artillery service during the Civil War. Gens. Ulysses Grant and William T. Sherman rode on Grimsley saddles. The Society of the Military Horse says: The Grimsley is known to have been an excellent and expensive saddle. Its construction shows a product that used a substantial amount of leather and brass fixtures (increasing its weight and cost).

Hope (or Texas) saddle

One of Scott Wortham's horses

According to Glenn Pier Depot, a tack shop, the Texas-style saddle was used extensively by Southern troopers. “It was manufactured by the thousands by arsenals and civilian contractors." The Society of the Military Horse says this of the Hope saddle (named for James Hope): “This is a very specific name, associated with a particular Texas saddle maker, however the name Hope is merely one of a number of names that have been used for this style. It was much more commonly called a ‘Texas’ saddle, occasionally modified to ‘Texican.’ This Texas saddle was extremely popular and prized for its very light, strong yet inherently compromised construction. The pommel was usually made in two halves, with a wooden horn nailed to the top – covered with rawhide in the fashion of many American saddles coming from the Spanish/Mexican tradition.

McClellan saddle

Bob McLendon of Phillips' Legion

The U.S. Army in 1859 adopted a saddle designed by George B. McClellan after a tour of Europe. It was the most popular saddle used by Union troopers. It was affordable, lightweight and sturdy and gradually eclipsed the Grimsley. “Used throughout the world, the McClellan is one of the most popular and enduring military saddle designs ever created,” says the society.” Glenn Pier Depot said the saddle was more comfortable for less-robust horses. It was used by both sides during the Civil War, and many Rebel troopers opted to use it rather than the heavier Jenifer saddle. The McClellan supported a rawhide-covered open seat and a thick leather skirt. Some argue whether it was based on a European style or a Spanish tree saddle design. Either way, it proved to be very serviceable. It has been modified since the Civil War and the Army still uses it for ceremonial purposes.

• Related: Veterinary care during the Civil War

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Updates on H.L. Hunley, USS Monitor, CSS Georgia conservation ahead of symposium

Dahlgren gun recovered in 2015 from CSS Georgia (USACE)

Being involved in underwater archaeology and the conservation of artifacts isn’t for the faint of heart, or without its setbacks – but the rewards can be amazing.

Conservators working on three famous vessels – the H.L. Hunley, USS Monitor and the CSS Georgia, will give talks and take part in a panel discussion on July 30 at the “Wrecks, Recovery and Conservation” symposium open to the public at the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Ga.

The symposium comes as conservators continue to make remarkable finds and ensure the long-term survival of artifacts and components of vessels that were lost during the Civil War:

CSS Georgia: Conservation of artifacts at Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research Laboratory continues. As of early June, nearly 100% of the 15,500 artifacts recovered thus far had been inventoried. Recovery of the remaining casemate sections of the Confederate ironclad is scheduled for summer 2017.  

(Friends of the Hunley)
H.L. Hunley: The Confederate submarine that went down in February 1864 after it sank a Union vessel in Charleston Harbor, continues to yield fascinating material. Features such as the crank, flywheel and bulkheads are currently being uncovered. Rope (right) and dozens of gaskets are being conserved. Researchers still do not know why the Hunley was lost after it set off a mine and sank the USS Housatonic.

USS Monitor: By the end of this week, conservators will finish the draining of the ironclad’s signature gun turret. They have been removing layers of marine concretion loosened from the turret’s surface. Some 110 items found in the turret have been added to the collection of artifacts from the Monitor, famous for its famous battle against the CSS Virginia in March 1862. It sank in a storm on Dec. 31, 1862, off North Carolina. Its wreckage was discovered in 1973.

Concretion removal on Hunley a couple years ago (Friends of the Hunley)

At the symposium, the experts will detail the planning, logistics, teamwork and funding needs on projects that take decades to complete, said Jeff Seymour, director of history and education at the Columbus museum.

“It is a better understanding of what it takes to preserve something like this for the future,” he said. “With the (CSS) Georgia, it is the beginning part of a major project … the other two, what are things like going toward the middle or end of the project, or a lot closer to it.”

Presenters are:

-- Michael Jordan, a filmmaker who has researched the CSS Georgia’s history and early archaeology.

-- Jim Jobling, chief conservator on the CSS Georgia and research associate at Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research Laboratory.

Will Hoffman
-- Will Hoffman, conservation project manager and senior conservator with the USS Monitor Collection, based at Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Va.

-- Paul Mardikian, chief conservator for the H.L. Hunley Project, working at Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, S.C.

 “Through a series of informative lectures, symposium attendees will be briefed on the challenging, complex and costly aspect of locating shipwrecks, as well as the amount of time and effort required to actually recover them properly and record and stabilize the items found on them,” the Columbus museum says.

Here are a few more details gleaned this week by the Picket during inquiries on the status of the conservation efforts:

CSS Georgia

Russell Wicke, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Savannah district, said Jobling “will be discussing the challenges the artifacts presented and field methods developed to overcome them.”

Most of the recovered artifacts came up in 2015 during the recovery of the CSS Georgia during the current river deepening project in the Savannah River. Contract and Navy divers brought up thousands of large and small items, including artillery, from the scuttled vessel. But they had to leave a lot more down on the river bottom.

Jim Jobling with rear gun sight for cannon (USACE)

“Recovery of the remaining casemate sections is scheduled for summer 2017, Wicke said. “The team will utilize methods that will result in an intact-as-possible recovery of the sections. The plan is still being worked out, but methods will be similar to those used in 2015.”

There’s been no determination on where the signature artifacts from the CSS Georgia will be displayed, but Savannah is probably the best bet.

Seymour, of the National Civil War Naval Museum, said the venue would be interested in showcasing some items from the CSS Georgia.

“First and foremost, crew material. What is the day-to-day existence of the sailor? Second-tier stuff would be construction. How is this thing built?”

Experts are trying to learn more about construction, power train and design of the CSS Georgia, which was built in Savannah. There are no surviving blueprints.

USS Monitor

Senior conservator Will Hoffman wrote this update, which has been edited:

Starting in the first week of May, Monitor Center staff began a major documentation and conservation treatment regime on the turret. Work began with the removal of the electrolytic reduction (ER) system. An assessment of the condition of the artifact was conducted to identify how effective the electrochemical process has been in loosing corrosion products and freeing concreted artifacts. After the assessment, the staff conducted a widespread cleaning campaign on the interior and exterior of the turret. This work culminated in the removal of all remaining nut guards and associated fasteners on the interior of the turret along with several other artifacts.

Cannonball dents are evident in turret (Library of Congress)

“Since the cleaning work began, 110 new objects have been accessioned into the collection. Contemporaneously with the treatment work, Monitor Center staff coordinated gallery, lab, and turret tours to cultivate donor support and generate interest in the project. Additionally, the turret was photographed from multiple angles to create updated panoramic photos of the interior and exterior of the artifact. This information along with the other photos will be used to create a 3-D model of the turret using photogrammetry software. In addition, a company named Automated Precision completed a laser scan of the turret to also create a 3-D model. Both models will be used to aid in the structural condition assessment of the artifact as well as to be a resource to conduct an archaeological investigation of the cannonball dents in the turret's surface. 

“This week, we are installing a new electrolytic reduction system to optimize the corrosion and chloride removal process. We will get back into the tank next summer.     

“Both the Mariners' Museum and NOAA are committed to the conservation effort. In the fall, we will be conducting a major cleaning effort on the engine room bulkhead components as well as a large assortment of copper piping.

“We have at the museum almost 1/5 of the Monitor, consisting of the majority of the engine room and turret. For the engine room, we have five of the vessel's engines, including the main engine, ventilation engines and two direct-acting Worthington pumps. We also have cast diamond plate flooring, steps, railings, engine room bulkheads, gauges, the main steam line from the boilers, condenser, propeller shaft, propeller and support skeg. To our knowledge, we have one of the oldest mid-19th century engine rooms in existence.”

Most of the Monitor remains on ocean floor (NOAA)

Hoffman said at this point there are no plans to recover additional artifacts from the wreck site off Cape Hatteras, N.C. NOAA does continue to monitor its condition.


H.L. Hunley

This summary is from conservator Johanna Rivera-Diaz:

“Hunley tank: The interior deconcretion of the submarine began early this year. Features such as the crank, flywheel and bulkheads are currently being uncovered.

“This year, several rope artifacts have been conserved. The biggest rope artifact from the submarine was found in the aft compartment surrounded by sediment and around the aft section of the crank. The rope was removed in 12 sections, each of them ranging from 30 to 90 cm long. The rope has gone through and extensive cleaning to remove sediment, concretion as well chemical cleaning to remove iron corrosion products. They have also gone through consolidation in preparation for the drying process.

Paul Mardikian at work (Friends of the Hunley)

“Dozens of gaskets are currently being conserved and dry. Gaskets were found in the viewing ports, pumps and machinery from the submarine. The gaskets are made of vulcanized rubber lined with cotton. They have also gone through chemical and mechanical cleaning as well as controlled air drying in a humidity chamber.

Forward ballast pump (Friends of the Hunley)

“Recently, conservators also completed the deconcretion and disassembly of H.L. Hunley’s forward ballast tank pump. The disassembled parts include the pump body, the lower inflow housing, the outflow valve and pipe, copper alloy valves, cast iron valve lids, rubber gaskets, a cotton sealing ring from the piston, along with bolts, nuts, and washers. All parts of this artifact are currently under conservation treatment.”

“The “Wrecks, Recovery and Conservation" symposium is scheduled for Saturday, July 30, at the National Civil War Naval Museum at Port Columbus, 1002 Victory Drive, Columbus, Ga. It lasts from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Cost, including lunch, is $50 for the public, $40 for members and $25 for students. Click here for more information or call 706-327-9798. 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Back on display in N.C.: Blockade runner dioramas are rich with riveting detail

(Photos courtesy of Town of Carolina Beach, N.C. -- click to enlarge)

Endearingly old school, four dioramas depicting scenes from Civil War blockade running – a cargo auction, a daring Union raid, the boarding of a vessel and the drowning of a Confederate spy – are on display for the first time in nearly 35 years.

The museum-quality exhibits are back home in Carolina Beach, N.C., at the Town Hall. That building is on the site of the Blockade Runner Museum, where the meticulously detailed dioramas first enthralled visitors.

The museum operated from 1967 until the early 1980s. The Cape Fear Museum up the road in Wilmington acquired the exhibits and put them in long-term storage. Pressed for space, the Cape Fear Museum last year asked Fort Fisher Historic Site to take them. It, too, lacked adequate display space for the dioramas.

That’s when the nonprofit Friends of Fort Fisher stepped in.

“It was something we felt the public needed to see,” Friends executive director and CEO Paul Laird told the Picket.  “It dawned on us to talk to the Carolina Beach Town Council.” The dioramas went on display last month in the atrium.

Daring Confederate blockade runners usually made it through Union naval ships meant to prevent them from bringing vital war goods to Southern ports.


Model maker Lionel G. Forrest handcrafted numerous dioramas in his career and several were housed at John H. Foard’s Blockade Runner Museum. (According to the Wilmington Star News, the late John Railey assisted on ship models. Foard, a textile executive, opened the Blockade Runner Museum with private support.)

Laird knew Foard and recalls the museum being open when he was a college student.

“I would listen to him tell stories. It had a personal connection to me.” The museum featured other items and paintings that focused on Wilmington’s vital role in blockade running. Fort Fisher (south of Carolina Beach) was a key to the Cape Fear River defensive system and the port. It fell to Federal forces in 1865.

The Friends of Fort Fisher raised $10,000 to have five dioramas built in free-standing units featuring LED lighting.

Courtesy of John Gregory

The fifth, depicting Confederate Pvt. Christopher Columbus Bland reattaching a flag under heavy fire at Fort Fisher (above), is on loan to the North Carolina National Guard Training Center at the Fort Fisher Air Force Recreation Area.

Forrest’s dioramas capture emotions and movement in the scenes from blockade running. The four at the Town Hall show:


-- U.S. Navy Lt. William Cushing’s raid on Confederate brigade headquarters at Smithville (Southport) in February 1864. Cushing hoped to capture Brig. Gen. Louis Hebert, but bagged another officer instead after learning the general was not at home. The raiders made off with papers and got back on the USS Monticello before their trespass was discovered.


-- Renowned Rebel spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow was on a North Carolina-bound blockade runner that ran aground on Oct. 1, 1864. Fearing capture, Greenhow and five men rowed a small boat toward shore at New Inlet at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. The craft swamped and capsized, with the spy being the only occupant to die. Her body was found on the beach the next day and Greenhow was honored with a military funeral in Wilmington.


-- A generic scene of a Federal boarding party coming on to the deck of a blockade runner. Capture of such vessels proved to be an incentive through prize money. One admiral is believed to have earned more than $125,000 during the war.


-- A lively auction of scarce items brought by a blockade runner. The Confederate government eventually moved to ban the importation of luxury items and have captains instead concentrate on bringing materiel important to the war effort. The move was only partially successful. Blockade runners, offsetting the risks of business, insisted on high profits. “Anything from hat pins, to cloth, fabrics, shoes and kitchen ware,” said Laird. “Any kind of farm implements, tools. Medicine was always at a premium.” Toothbrushes were especially in demand.

The dioramas were built into the walls of the Blockade Runner Museum. Prerecorded audio messages ran on a loop.

The Cape Fear Museum covered the diorama insets with protective material during their decades in storage. Two other exhibits from the now-closed museum – including a large depiction of the Battle of Fort Fisher – did go on display at the Cape Fear Museum.

(Courtesy of John Gregory)

“Everything was in very good shape,” Laird said of the models back on display in Carolina Beach. “There was some minor cracking on some of the plaster parts that simulated the sea. All the figurines were in good shape. There was some minor touch-up work. Overall, they were in excellent condition.”

Sheila Nicholson, administrative assistant to the town manager, said visitors often stop by to see the dioramas, which include informational placards. “They sometimes ask about where they came from or who made them.”