Sunday, June 19, 2016

'Horror of the melee': Stroll at Spotsylvania's Mule Shoe conjures epic scenes

(National Park Service map)

You likely have heard of the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania Court House. But did you know that scene of vicious combat was just one part of the Mule Shoe Salient, a bulge in the Confederate fortifications at the Virginia battlefield?

A few members of my family recently took a brief driving tour of the May 1864 site and I spent a few minutes walking paths at the Bloody Angle. It was a pretty, late-spring day and I worked up a bit of a sweat.

Line of earthworks near route of Upton advance

We got a quick orientation at the exhibit shelter on the beginning of the driving tour. The next stop recalled the May 9 innovative charge of Col. Emory Upton’s Union troops, a day after a failed attempt to dislodge Confederates from Laurel Hill. Upton’s fast-moving column breached the Rebel line briefly, but Lee’s troops began digging in.

Soon, thousands of men faced off around the Mule Shoe, which provided a tempting target for Federal commanders.

The photo above shows the area where Lee mistakenly removed artillery pieces when he thought Grant’s Yankees were withdrawing. It was a big mistake. Winfield Hancock’s Federals burst through on May 12 and Confederate columns rushed to hold the salient.

According to the Civil War Trust: “After the initial breakthrough … Lee shifted reinforcements into the salient just as Grant hurled more troops at the Confederate works. Fighting devolved into a point-blank slugfest – amid a torrential downpour – which lasted for 22 hours.”

Monument to 126th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

The 24-hour stubborn Rebel defense of the Bloody Angle, a 200-yard western stretch of the salient, bought time for Lee's engineers to construct a new line of earthworks to the rear. The exhausted men left the salient to their new positions, leaving a scene of unparalleled carnage.

Grant left the field a few days when an effort to move on this new position was rebuffed by massed artillery, according to the trust’s summary.

Spotsylvania, which followed the Wilderness, was the third bloodiest battle of the war, with a staggering 30,000 casualties (18,000 Union). It lasted nearly two weeks (May 8-21) and saw vicious hand-to-hand combat at times.

Look closely and you can make out raised fortification

The National Park Service, which maintains the site, calls this part of the Overland Campaign inconclusive. Grant continued his efforts to flank Lee’s army.

South Carolina and New Jersey monuments
Confederate troops rushed toward background to reinforce

Friday, June 17, 2016

Church site of famous Grant council of war ministers to 'changing and evolving' world

Ulysses Grant leans over George Meade's shoulder (Library of Congress)
Grant stood near shrubbery area in this modern view

I’ve long been fascinated by a rare series of Civil War photographs showing a council of war – outside a Virginia church on a late spring day in 1864. The images are simply remarkable.

On May 21, 1864, Timothy O’Sullivan, traveling with the Federal Army of the Potomac, set up his heavy camera at a window on the balcony of Massaponax Church and photographed Generals Ulysses Grant and George Meade and others as they relaxed on church pews, wrote orders and surveyed a map after the bloody fighting at Spotsylvania Court House.

In one candid view, Grant leans over Meade’s shoulder to study a map as they plot the next phase of the Overland Campaign -- a move toward the North Anna River. In another, Grant sits with a cigar clenched in his teeth. Also present is Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana and staff officers. Wagons of the Federal V Corps rumble by in the background.

Grant (seated between two trees) enjoys a cigar (Library of Congress)
Best modern angle I could do without being on the balcony

My parents and I paid a quick visit to Massaponax Baptist Church a few weeks ago after visiting part of the Spotsylvania battlefield earlier in the afternoon. The church is at the corner of a very busy U.S. 1 (then called Telegraph Road) and Massaponax Church Road. Unfortunately, the sanctuary was closed. Still, it was interesting to walk around where these giants of the Union plotted strategy.

Today, the church has one foot in history and the other very much in the 21st century, meeting the needs of those near and far.

On a video posted on Facebook this week, incoming pastor Dusty Carson encouraged the congregation to pray for the Orlando massacre victims and their families. “We are called to love. The greatest act of love we can do is pray for them.” He said that Jesus Christ will help heal the battered community.

Shirley Wilson, a deacon at the church, answered the phone when I called to ask about the Southern Baptist church’s ministries today.

The congregation’s diverse 100 members – many of whom commute to work in the Washington, D.C, metro area -- sponsor a food pantry that serves 150 to 200 families. They also provide school supplies for homeless and low-income children and take part in the Samaritan’s Purse ministry, an international relief effort.

“The world is changing and evolving,” Wilson told me.

Another Timothy O'Sullivan, before council of war (Library of Congress)
(Picket photo)

There are two Sunday services: 9:15 a.m. is traditional and the 10:30 a.m. service, which draws more worshippers, is considered contemporary.

Being in a heavy traffic zone can be a plus, Wilson said. “Lot of good things happen because of that.” People who drive by and see the food pantry operation sometimes send money.

I asked whether many people interested in the Civil War and the O’Sullivan photographs stop by. “All the time,” she said. “We think it is a fantastic thing.” Graffiti left by Federal troops is protected and visible on the balcony, although much of it has faded over time. “We tried to save most of it.”

The church was established in 1788. The current brick sanctuary was erected in 1859. Pastor Joseph Billingsley was famous for preaching long sermons of about two and a half hours.

“This did not sit well with the congregation,” the church website says. “On one occasion, it is said that they wedged the door to exclude him, but he preached his sermon in the church yard.”

Fuller views of Grant consulting and writing order (Library of Congress)

In 1863, during the middle of the conflict, Massaponax gave letters of dismissal to black members and they formed smaller churches. Confederate and Union forces alternately used the church as a stable, hospital and meeting place during various campaigns.

For a time, the graffiti was covered by whitewash that covered “unsightly marks and the sad stories were forgotten.”

Back to that day in 1864: Grant realized on May 21 that Confederates remained in strong positions at Spotsylvania and he decided to move to the southeast to try to get them out in the open.

John Cummings, in his Spotsylvania Civil War Blog, has written about the morning that Grant and his subordinates stopped by the church.

According to Cummings, Grant wrote one dispatch from Massaponax, to Gen. Ambrose Burnside. One of the O’Sullivan photographs shows Grant scribbling on a paper pad.
GENERAL: You may move as soon as practicable upon the receipt of this order, taking the direct ridge road to where it intersects the Telegraph road, thence by the latter road to Thornburg Cross-Roads. If the enemy occupy the crossing of the Po in such force as to prevent your using it, then you will hold the north side at Stanard's Mill until your column is passed, and move to Guiney's Bridge. General Wright will follow you and will cover the crossing of the Po for his own corps. At Guiney's Bridge you will receive further directions if you are forced to take that road. If successful in crossing at Stanard's your march will end at Thornburg.
U. S. Grant,

The Metropolitan Museum in New York, which has a copy of one of the photographs (which are stored at the Library of Congress), says of that day:

“The chaotic study is one of the most daring made by any Union photographer. … Evidence suggests that it had been a disastrous day for the Union troops, as the losses were heavy and no strategic advantage had been gained. In the background are rows of horse-drawn baggage wagons and ambulances transporting supplies for the next day’s engagement and the wounded to field hospitals.

A soldier in one of the photographs went on to receive the Medal of Honor for postwar gallantry. You can read about that here.

View of busy U.S. 1 (Jefferson Davis Highway)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

'Breathing on Dry Bones': Iowa county, descendants dedicate Littleton monument

(All photos courtesy of Will Thomson)

Will Thomson, designer of a monument that honors the six Littleton brothers of Iowa who served and died during the Civil War, wrote the following about the dedication on Tuesday afternoon. We thank him for the contribution.

The dedication of the Littleton Bothers Monument took place at Toolesboro, Iowa, yesterday, June 14, at 4 pm under sunny skies with Gov. Terry Branstad and about 250 guests in attendance. Company A, 49th Reg. Iowa Veteran Volunteer Infantry -- “The Governor’s Own Iowa Rifles” provided color guard and flag ceremony and Ms. Elaine Pacha played “To the Colors” and Taps during the ceremonies.

The Wapello High School band performed "The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” Gov. Branstad spoke and the keynote address was given by Dr. Tom Morain, history professor at Graceland University.  The “Governor’s Own Iowa Rifles” presented award certificates to Project Chair Tom Woodruff and Ed Bayne, who together had rediscovered the tragic history of this Iowa family’s sacrifice to freedom.

Almost two dozen Littleton family descendants (above) were present at the ceremony, and (historian) John Busbee served as master of ceremonies.  A reception followed at the Wapello site of the Louisa County Historical Museum.

The ceremony itself was an admixture of pride, celebration and somber contemplation. The assembled guests and speakers were at various points choked up by the emotions of the day, and much reference was made to the rediscovery of the story and the acknowledgment of the saga of the bravery and loyalty of the brothers for a cause that still resonates today. Dr. Morain’s speech was entitled “Breathing on Dry Bones,” a reference to the valley of dry bones seen to be restored to life in the Book of Ezekiel.

Gov. Terry Branstad with color guard member

Over 202 individuals and businesses contributed to create the 32,000-pound monument, which is surrounded by a hexagonal plaza and ringed by six new oak trees, one for each brother named and marked with a large granite stone.

Monday, June 13, 2016

On Flag Day, Iowa community will honor 6 brothers who died during the Civil War

(Courtesy of Will Thomson)

Gov. Terry Branstad will be among the dignitaries attending Tuesday’s afternoon dedication in Louisa County of a monument to six Iowa brothers who died during the Civil War.

The Littleton siblings – George, John, Kendall, Noah, Thomas and William – will forever be memorialized in Toolesboro, the small farm community where they grew up after their parents moved from Maryland and Ohio.

Final preparations in the past weeks for the 4 p.m. ceremony include the planting of six memorial trees and the installation of benches near the 11-foot monument, made of Mesabi Black granite.

Tom Woodruff, who has been instrumental in the project, told the Picket that the effort has restored his faith in people. “People from our community in Iowa who came together to make it possible. But overriding all that is to know these very ordinary young brothers were given their place in history."

Janie Blankenship, associate editor of VFW Magazine, told the Picket in 2014 that it is believed that with six deaths, the Littleton family had the most sons to die during an American war.

Des Moines historian John Busbee told Radio Iowa the monument will symbolize ordinary soldiers who were the foundation of the Federal army. “It wasn’t the officers. It was the boots-on-the-ground front line people that so many families with their descendants connected to the Civil War can identify with.”

Buses at the Louisa County Historical Society Museum in Wapello will transport those interested to the monument site Tuesday. A reception will follow at the museum.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Remembering the day green troops fought

When two Virginia historians began looking for ways to commemorate the site of the landmark June 10, 1861, Battle of Big Bethel – an early clash of the Civil War -- they knew they faced some problems. But nearly a decade after they started, the site has been so transformed it will be dedicated at 10 a.m. Saturday as a walking park in Hampton. • Article