Tuesday, July 29, 2014

At Andersonville, August 1864 was the apex of suffering for 32,000 desperate prisoners

A.J. Riddle took photo of prisoners in August 1864 (Library of Congress)

Like other diarists at Andersonville prison, Pvt. Samuel Melvin faithfully recorded the day’s meager food rations and the weather. These Union soldiers understood the term “death by inches” – the body’s slow descent from illness, exposure to the elements and malnutrition.

Melvin’s little-known account of his imprisonment at Camp Sumter in central Georgia takes the reader beyond the grit, grime and the gnawing hunger. His is a journey to the soul.

From daily entries during the summer of 1864:

June 4: “… It is sad to see them carry the dead by into the dead house, a continual train of them all the time. How I hope that I shall live through it and be permitted to enjoy the true fruition of my life, which I have put so much confidence in and placed such bright anticipations upon! Still, if I die here I am sure that we shall die in a good cause, although in a brutal way.”

June 25: “… Sam is in poor spirits, but I am getting as well as could be expected. But then, I am almost distracted, for things are dubious here indeed, and all we have to console us is to hope for better things. The seeming joy is great, that I have in thinking of the joy that I will have when I see the Stars & Stripes, for then I soon will see my friends. Orders came to give back the money taken from old prisoners. That is [a] good indication, but money nor anything can ever compensate us for one week's stop here.”

July 7:  “… I dreamed last night of being paroled and seeing Dow, and the disappointment when I awoke & found myself still in Hell! — I have given up all hopes of hearing from home, likewise of their hearing from me. But while there is life there is hope, and that consoles me.”

Samuel Melvin
Because of their detail and emotional nature, the words written 150 years ago by Melvin, one of three brothers to serve in the Civil War, are being featured each day this summer on Andersonville National Historic Site’s Facebook page. Officials hope virtual visitors will see the prison in a new light.

“Diaries tend to be very cursory, the variables that change, weather and food,” said Eric Leonard, acting superintendent. “They don’t often describe emotion or landscape, but once or twice. Samuel’s diary is very expressive.”

Melvin, of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, and 32,000 others were at Andersonville in August 1864, the darkest month and the apex of misery at the Confederate prison.

This weekend’s “First Saturday” program at the park will focus on prisoner desperation. Rangers and volunteers will spotlight the trials of those arriving at Camp Sumter and will take visitors on walks through the prison site and Andersonville National Cemetery, resting place for nearly 13,000 who succumbed in just 14 months at the prison.

“Relief came in only two ways that month; a storm that washed over the prison site and revealed a spring that prisoners called "providential" and rumors of liberation under General Sherman approach gave hope to the desperate men,” the park said in a press release. “While the spring water aided the prisoners, freedom was not so easily gained.”

Re-enactors portray prisoners (ANHS)

Camp Sumter’s population had skyrocketed because of Grant’s Overland Campaign in Virginia. Thousands of Union soldiers taken captive were quickly sent to Camp Sumter.

“By August, 10 percent of the Army of the Potomac is at Andersonville,” said Leonard.

Melvin, 20, was captured at Spotsylvania, Va., on May 19 and arrived at Andersonville on June 3.

More than 4,000 men had died at Camp Sumter by late July. The situation worsened in August, when the population reached an all-time high, before dropping substantially when Atlanta fell in early September and more than half of its prisoners were moved.

On Aug. 15, 120 men died. Aug. 22 saw 122 deaths and 127 succumbed the next day. There were many days that witnessed between 90 and 120 deaths.

Captive Thomas O'Dea years later sketched prison, including great storm

“Shelter is such a rare commodity,” said Leonard. “All that is being compounded by the fact you cannot escape the sun and heat.”

Some prisoners dig into the mud to escape the sun. Others dig in a desperate effort to escape.

Guards by late summer have detected 80 such attempts. While 45,000 prisoners were housed at Andersonville over its existence, only 33 successfully escaped.

“Andersonville is essentially escape-proof,” said Leonard. “And yet people are trying every day. A tunnel gives you hope, leadership, coordination and secrecy. Equally important, it is resistance.”

When caught, those few who made it outside might be put in stocks or wear a ball and chain before being thrown back in the general population. “There is nothing worse than that.”

Plaque shows prisoners using pole, sticks to reach spring water

There was no shortage of rumor and speculation among the prison population. Within a few days, Melvin learned that Atlanta had fallen. Many soldiers were kept alive by (dashed) hopes that they might be paroled or exchanged.

“The communication chains are very fast,” Leonard told the Picket. “Getting news …. Prisoners are hungry for that information.”

Prisoners were enduring a hot and wet summer. The only place that grass grew through the mud was between the stockade wall and the dead line, which prisoners could not cross without risk of being shot.

“If you are not washing yourself, you get filthy and that feeds into getting sicker,” said Leonard.

On Aug. 9, a huge storm arrives at Andersonville. Stockade Creek overflows. Walls on two ends are breached and guards fire artillery overhead in their call for general quarters.

The good news for the soldiers was that much of the excrement that has piled up over the months is washed away, at least temporarily.  

Veterans visit Providence Spring in 1897 (Georgia Archives)
Providence Spring area today (ANHS)

According to tradition, the prayers of many were answered after lightning struck the miserable compound.

A spring is exposed on the west side of prison, not far from the dead line. Prisoners attached metal containers to tent poles or sticks so that they could reach the water. That scene is depicted in a bronze tablet on the park’s Pennsylvania memorial.

“At some point a barrel head is played over the spring outlet and they channel it so you do not risk the dead line,” said Leonard, adding that there are accounts indicating 2,000 men at a time might line up to draw water.

“In a place where clean water is dream, this is clean water coming out of a hillside,” said Leonard. “It was literally a gift from God.”

Friday, July 25, 2014

See North Carolina sites by bus this fall


Hop on the bus, Gus, if you want to discuss much* about the Civil War in North Carolina.

The North Carolina Office of Archives and History is organizing a sesquicentennial bus tour Oct. 24-26 that will include several key Civil War sites: The antebellum state Capitol in Raleigh, Fort Fisher near Wilmington, The CSS Neuse ironclad in Kinston, the Bentonville battlefield and Bennett Place near Durham, site of a large Confederate surrender.

Author and historian Mark Bradley will be the lead interpreter on the bus, according to a press release.

Registration deadline is Sept. 29 and officials say spaces should fill up quickly. Through Sept. 15, the cost is $375 per person based on double occupancy and $455 per person for single occupancy. Following Sept. 15, the price is $395 per person double occupancy and $475 per person single occupancy.

"Intimate conversations and information from historians and staff of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources' Division of State Historic Sites will offer unique insights into the waning days of the Civil War, and North Carolina's role in it," said the release. "Pivotal events in North Carolina hastened the fall of the Confederacy and the end of the war in 1865." 

(*Apologies to songwriter Paul Simon)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Atlanta Cyclorama: Restoration, relocation will make it whole, highlight backstories

1886 photograph of painting showing Decatur Road.
The painting was cut to fit into its home at Grant Park in Atlanta.
Here is what the section looks like today before restoration. (Images: AHC)

If the chaos, valor and blood-letting that occurred on the afternoon of July 22, 1864, are enshrined forever by the Atlanta Cyclorama, so, too, are the fascinating backstories of what was included in the massive painting and how it has been presented over the years.

German artists created the work – which has a circumference of 358 feet – to commemorate a momentous Northern victory at the Battle of Atlanta. 

The 360-degree painting, which has been housed at the city’s Grant Park since 1921, will be restored and moved to the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead, city and museum officials announced Wednesday. Construction on a special annex at the AHC will begin in summer 2015.

Gordon L. Jones, senior military historian and curator at the Atlanta History Center, said the new home will allow visitors to see the mural hanged in the proper way, providing the visual 3-D presentation its creators had envisioned.

Unfortunately, the painting had to be trimmed to fit into the building at Grant Park and could not be properly presented. A 6-feet-wide by 50-feet-tall section of the Cyclorama that was cut out will be re-created. Experts also will create a new area of sky lost in the same process. 

Painted in Milwaukee, the Cyclorama eventually moved to the South, where it became a “living tribute to the Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, said Jones.

“This is Atlanta. This is the thing you went to see when you were kid. Now it will be able to tell some new stories.”

Preliminary sketch for what would later be painted (AHC)

Jones said there are many tidbits associated with the mural. Among them:

-- The artists created the Cyclorama in 1885-1886. While making sketches in Atlanta, they worked from a tower at Moreland and DeKalb avenues to get the proper perspective. “That is as close as to what it looked like as we will ever see,” said Jones.

-- Painters had Federal veterans show them what they wore and how they were equipped for battle.

-- The Cyclorama contains the soaring Old Abe, the eagle mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteers. Just one problem: The regiment and Old Abe were in Mississippi at the time of the battle.

-- When it was shown in Chattanooga in 1891, a promoter had a group of Confederate POWs repainted as fleeing Union soldiers. In the 1930s, Atlanta artist-historian Wilbur Kurtz put the POWs back in, but did not restore a Union soldier carrying a captured Rebel flag.


-- One of the dying soldiers (above) in the diorama in front of the painting has the face of actor Clark Gable, star of “Gone With the Wind.” Don’t worry. He and the rest of the diorama will be making the move to Buckhead. “All of Atlanta would recoil if we took Rhett Butler off the painting,” Jones told the Picket.

– As for the accuracy of the battle scene? “Not everything that happened in the painting happened all at once.” The best-recognized feature is the brick, hip-roofed Troup-Hurt house -- a little nearer in the painting than it was actually situated, according to the National Park Service. The focal point is the area around the house, with South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama troops.

-- To reproduce the preliminary drawing of the battle scene, sets of 10 photos were made of the entire length and distributed to the artists working on the painting.  "We now have seven of the ten – a great aid to restoration – but we do not have the section covering the Decatur Road – only the photo of the finished painting," said Jones.

The restoration of the Cyclorama, which will begin at its current site and continue at the Atlanta History Center, will be the beneficiary of enhanced technology over the past three decades.

A sketch of Union Maj. Gen. John A. Logan leading the charge. (AHC)

A model is the renowned cyclorama at Gettysburg National Military Park. It received a new backing and a system for stretching the fabric, properly balancing its weight. Visitors there have been impressed by the light and sound presentation. Jones said he and others are still developing plans for the Atlanta presentation.

“The cyclorama paintings were to be 3-D experiences,” said Jones. “In order to get that … the horizon is closer to the central viewing point than the top and bottom."

While the Atlanta Cyclorama is properly secured at top, it hangs like a shower curtain, putting strain on the fabric and not permitting the desired visual effect. Attempts to address that problem have not been successful.

Experts will have to smooth wrinkles and reattach the 14 sections that make up the mural.

“The painting will be on a new backing and the backing (will) be suspended from two rings, one overhead, one at the bottom. The one at the bottom has to be weighted to properly keep its shape,” said the curator. The idea is to return the original hourglass shape.

Because of humidity and other factors, the linen fabric and its mountings will have to be adjustable, even in a state-of-the-art facility.

Jones likens the popular cycloramas of the late 19th century to be the IMAX theaters of their day. Eventually, Nickelodeons virtually put them out of business.

Detail from "The Battle of Atlanta" at Grant Park

Patrons will be interested in the technology of such paintings and how the Civil War was interpreted at the time, Jones said.

Atlanta History Center officials said their facility has the infrastructure, expertise and financing to assure the painting’s long-term survival.

“To me, it speaks to the deep kind of heartfelt emotion that goes with the war,” Jones said. “The desire of the postwar generation to capture their experience and show it to everybody: ‘This is how we did it.’ It is different from a monument on battlefield. It is trying to show before the days of movies ‘here we fought and we saved the Union.’”

Four different teams of conservators so far have surveyed the painting and what needs to be done.

And while Jones is extremely familiar with the Cyclorama, there is more to learn from the craftsmanship and care of its German painters, who were living their own version of the American Dream.

“The more you look at it, the more you see.”

Atlanta Cyclorama is getting a new home: Leaving Grant Park for Buckhead

(MSTSD and R.L. Brown & Associates)

The Atlanta Cyclorama, a cultural and historic city landmark, is moving from its longtime Grant Park home to the Atlanta History Center's campus in Buckhead, according to an announcement made Wednesday after years of study and discussion.

The 19th century painting-in-the-round of the Battle of Atlanta will still belong to the city, Mayor Kasim Reed said in a joint statement, but will be restored under the stewardship of the AHC. Plans must be approved by Atlanta City Council.

The Cyclorama was last overhauled 30 years ago. Some observers have said the mural, painted in 1885-86, is deteriorating and needs significant work.

"The move, which will take two years to complete, will relocate The Battle of Atlanta painting, the locomotive Texas and other Civil War artifacts to the Atlanta History Center where they will be restored and housed in a new state-of-the-art facility," a statement from the city and Atlanta History Center said. "The existing Cyclorama building will be developed into a premier community and event space as part of upgrades by Zoo Atlanta."

Zoo Atlanta is adjacent to the Cyclorama.

"There has been overwhelming positive reaction and it is a win-win situation," Gordon L. Jones, senior military historian and curator at the AHC, told the Picket this afternoon.

Construction will begin in summer 2015 on a custom-built annex at the Atlanta AHC to house the painting. The move will take two years to complete and restoration will begin at the painting's current location. The 23,000-square foot addition is planned for the northeast corner of the AHC campus, officials said, and will connect to the current museum.

(MSTSD and R.L. Brown & Associates)

The AHC location apparently won out over the option of moving the painting to Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta.

The AHC has already committed to $32.2 million for the project. Jones said about $10 million will be spent on the new building and about $11 million for the restoration. The project will include a $10 million endowment.

"The History Center intends to restore the painting to its full size and overall height, and to re-create the 128-year-old painting’s original visual perspective – both of which have been lost for nearly 100 years," the statement says. It says the AHC will create a 3-D experience for visitors who will see the mural "as it was originally intended to be viewed in the 19th century."

A December 2011 Civil War Picket article reported on a task force set up by Reed to look into the painting's future. Attendance at the Cyclorama had flagged in recent years, though there had been a recent increase, and the city was concerned about funding and the condition of the mural and related exhibits.

Areas under consideration for a possible move were the Atlanta History Center campus, the former World of Coca-Cola site in Underground Atlanta and a stretch of popular venues at or near Centennial Olympic Park in downtown.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said the AHC moved to the front when an Atlanta couple, Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker, offered $10 million in support of a relocation to Buckhead.

Grant Park has housed the massive work of art since 1921. It covers 15,030 square feet and is 42 feet tall and 358 feet in circumference

Figures in the foreground of the Atlanta Cyclorama.
Anticipated attendance for the Cyclorama was not a part of the financial calculus, said Jones. The prime factor was ensuring the 360-degree painting's long-term care, he said.
"It is an artifact. It is not an attraction," he said. "In the 1880s it was the IMAX theater."

Still, Jones expects visitors will learn much about earlier forms of entertainment and how the Civil War was interpreted well more than a century ago.

"This is Atlanta. This is the thing you went to see when you were a kid. Now it will be able to tell some new stories."

Long before motion pictures, "The History Channel" and 3D – cycloramas were the storytelling spectacles of the time. The huge murals presented sweeping historical scenes and singular moments of intense personal bravery or sacrifice.

European artists in the late 19th century created the building-sized round paintings. The artists often traveled to the locales to ensure historical accuracy.

Most of the paintings are gone – lost to time, the elements and the evolution of mass entertainment.

Only two remain in the United States. They feature scenes from the battles of Gettysburg and Atlanta in the Civil War. 


Wednesday's announcement coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's Atlanta Campaign. Most of the reaction on the AHC's Facebook page was positive. "Wow this is great news, I can think of no better place for it. We went a year or so ago and noticed it needs work," said one commenter.

Critics of the move hoped that the city would upgrade the current site.

Jones acknowledged many will be sad to see the painting leave Grant Park. But the neighborhood and city will benefit from the boost the building will give to Zoo Atlanta, he said.

"It has been there a very long time," Jones said of the mural. "I am going to hate to see it go on that level. Nostalgia is not going to save this painting. This is one of the world's greatest artifacts."

Paul Simo, historic committee chairman with the Grant Park Neighborhood Association, said Wednesday was a "bittersweet day."

“No, we are not surprised," he told the Picket. "We are extremely sad to see the Cyclorama painting move from Grant Park."

But residents believe the Atlanta History Center is the proper steward for the painting. “We know the AHC will take good care of the resource. They are the right entity to care for it and give it the right exhibit that it deserves."

Simo said the association has a good relationship with the zoo and looks forward to the new use of the building, including an overlook area over the African savanna exhibit. "Any traffic in the neighborhood is good for our local businesses."

• The Atlanta Journal-Constitution coverage
• Details from the Atlanta History Center 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Walking tour: Wartime downtown Atlanta, in vivid words and historic photographs

Federal soldier reads near former slave market (George Barnard/LOC)
Modern view, MARTA Five Points Station

Over the course of time, I have driven or walked most of the surviving thoroughfares that ran through wartime Atlanta -- a young city with so much promise, yet destined to endure so much devastation.

Those avenues weren’t paved in 1864. Peachtree, Whitehall and Alabama, for instance, came in only two choices: Dusty or muddy.

I have witnessed downtown’s many ups and downs over the nearly 30 years in which I have worked for two employers. Hotels, conventions, concerts, sporting events and museums bring throngs of people to the area. But people also walk among panhandlers and pass many commercial and retail establishments no longer in their heyday.

Still, there is always the promise of a new day, as touted by the city’s emblem, a rising phoenix and the words “Resurgens,” or resurgence. Georgia State University, which has expanded its campus footprint in recent years, is an example of regeneration in the core district.

The Atlanta of the Civil War was a boom town, just beginning to acquire the muscles and mettle that one day would make it the behemoth of the South. In 1860, on the war’s eve, it had fewer than 10,000 residents, making it the fourth largest city in Georgia, behind Savannah, Augusta and Columbus.

Scott Peacocke, Charlie Crawford, Mary Elizabeth-Ellard

Residents of nearby Decatur thought the people of Atlanta, largely made up of laborers and carpenters, to be uncouth, said Mary-Elizabeth Ellard, a board member of the Georgia Battlefields Association. Prostitution was the 10th most common occupation.

While the war effort led to a doubling of the city’s population, it was not uncommon to see chickens pecking and cows grazing between homes. The “suburbs” weren’t that far away from the transportation, manufacturing and supply center that had been under martial law since May 1862.

With it nexus of four railroad lines, Atlanta quickly showed its importance to the Confederacy and Federal forces who finally reached its outer fortifications in July 1864.

This past Sunday, two days before the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta, which raged only a couple miles to the east, I participated in a downtown Atlanta tour led by Ellard and Charlie Crawford of the GBA. Joining us was Scott Peacocke, a friend and former colleague at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Even with umbrellas, we became nearly soaked as rain poured down during the second half of our walk. No matter, we were in our element.

Click GBA map to see wartime, modern features downtown

Peacocke and other AJC staffers have just wrapped up a superb sesquicentennial online project, “War in Our Backyards,” in conjunction with the Atlanta History Center.

As the detailed presentation points out, 40 percent of the city was in ruins when Sherman began his March to the Sea. But don’t lay all the blame solely at his feet.

“It started when Confederate military planners stripped and leveled buildings and homes on the city’s outskirts to build the extensive fortifications that Sherman found impenetrable. During the summer siege, Union artillery fire hit many of the city’s major structures, setting many afire. Miles of trenches dug by both sides scarred fields and roads. When the Confederates made their retreat, they blew up their ammunition train, damaging scores of homes, and burned the massive Atlanta Machine Works factory,” the AJC said.

Looters, arsonists and the need for material for Union forts took their toll until November 1864, when Sherman “ordered the destruction and burning of all facilities with potential military value, including ripping up rail lines and destroying Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure.” He also ordered out the remaining civil population, who were offered a one-way train ride either north or south.

Crawford near site of Episcopal church that was shelled in 1864.

Virtually nothing from wartime downtown Atlanta remains today and only a guided tour and some imagination can provide an adequate picture. I was very impressed by the GBA’s expertise and materials compiled by Crawford.

Our walk was aided by images taken by George Barnard, a contract photographer for the Federal army who arrived after the city fell on Sept. 2, 1864. The remainder of this blog post contains many Barnard photos and current views -- though some of those views can only be approximated because of buildings and the construction of bridges and viaducts that in effect changed the elevation of much of downtown. All of the Barnard photos here are in the Library of Congress collection.


We began our tour near the picturesque Candler Building, where a Confederate commissary once sat, and proceeded to Ellis and what was then Ivy, where the first Union siege shell landed on the afternoon of July 20, 1864. It was a 20-pound Parrott round fired by DeGress' Battery a couple miles away. A false story began in 1888 saying a little girl and her dog were killed, said Crawford. It is true that between 20 and 25 civilians died over the coming weeks from shelling, with about 100 injured. "As more shells fell, more people got the message." The fear of falling shells was accompanied soon by gnawing hunger as food supplies became increasingly scarce.

 

George Barnard took this panorama view (click to enlarge) from the Female Institute. In his image, the Medical College is to the far left. The home of John Boutell stood where the Budget car rental building is now. Boutell was a building designer and carpenter. We proceeded to the Calico House, which resembled fabric of that name. Near Grady Memorial Hospital stood Peck & Day, which made thousands of Joe Brown Pikes, named for the Georgia governor who ordered the manufacture of these impractical homeland defense weapons. The state government's Sloppy Floyd Building is located where Spiller & Burr made finely crafted pistols and revolvers for the Confederate government. They could not, however, be mass produced. Getting items to the front lines also was a major problem for the Southern war effort.


The passenger station served several rail lines and was a vital part of the city. After Atlanta fell on Sept. 2, it was used, too, by Federal forces before its destruction. The view above is looking northwest from Calhoun Street (Piedmont Avenue).


Most Federal troops camped outside downtown Atlanta after its fall, but a few regiments were based there. Above, tents of the 2nd Massachusetts fill the back lawn of Atlanta City Hall. Milledgeville was Georgia's capital during the Civil War. Eventually, City Hall was moved and the state Capitol was constructed on the site during the 1880s. (The current Capitol view was taken during a previous tour).


Our by-now drenched group made its way to Whitehall Street, which was lined with all kinds of businesses and offices vital to the Confederacy. Barnard's view at top is looking east along Alabama Street. Atlanta National Bank is the small white building and the Georgia Railroad Roundhouse is in the distance.

 

Barnard's photograph, taken in fall 1864, shows the Atlanta Intelligencer newspaper office. In the background is the Atlanta Hotel and Masonic Hall. Union troops are believed to be atop the boxcars at the far left. The vantage point is the corner of Whitehall and Alabama streets.


According to an Atlanta Preservation Center exhibit, Barnard's task was not easy. "He and his staff traveled dirt streets and rough roads in a covered wagon -- carrying equipment, chemicals, and, critically, chemicals ... that were made of glass."


Sherman wanted to be sure Atlanta lost its war-making capabilities. The destroyed car shed (top) is shown in November 1864. Union troops used large iron bolts to bring the foundation down before setting fire to the remains. This was a devastating loss for Atlanta.


The 111th Pennsylvania camped in front of Trout House and Masonic Hall. The Trout House was a hotel and meeting place before and during the Civil War. It was destroyed. Georgia State University now covers much of this part of downtown.

After a couple more stops, we concluded the tour back near the Candler Building.

I asked Crawford, president of the GBA, why he conducts so many tours in North Georgia and metro Atlanta.

“You don’t get to preserve land unless people think you should preserve land,” Crawford replied. 

The tours raise awareness and educate the public about a site’s importance for the future, he said.