Thursday, March 5, 2015

Gunboat models have moment in the sun during program at Louisiana site

(Photographs by Bonnie Guidry)

Two Civil War ironclads, through their miniature descendants, repeated their watery dance of death last weekend at a state park north of Baton Rouge, La. (Click photos to enlarge)

Models of the CSS Arkansas (left, above) and the newly built USS Essex tangled Saturday at Port Hudson State Historic Site. The Picket recently wrote about the gunboats ahead of the event.

Also on display were other 1:32 models made by Robert Seal, including (left to right), the CSS Manassas, the USS Barrataria and the USS Osage. They took part in naval operations on the Mississippi River during the Civil War.

USS Essex is about 6 feet long

On hand for the event were (left to right) Robert Seal; Marvin Steinback of the park; Dwight Landreneau, assistant secretary of the Office of State Parks; and Bill Toups, who lathed the cannon.

Pat Seal, Robert's wife, quipped that the USS Essex model, while under construction, was on saw horses in the living room for months until she banished it in order to put a Christmas tree. It received the final touches on their dining room table.

Marvin Steinback is dressed for the part

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Journal of Sgt. John Clark Ely: Prison brew and Lincoln's 2nd inauguration

Confederates buying beer at prison Point Lookout (Library of Congress)

Those Andersonville prisoners industrious enough to scrape up a little money or some form of barter could avail themselves of all kinds of goods and services inside the stockade – from green corn to a haircut.

They also could imbibe on beer, although, understandably, it was not premium stuff. Some referred to it as sour. Prisoner Robert Knox Sneden wrote of the crowds on busy and noisy Market Street.

“Hundreds are yelling all day, ‘Here’s your fine cold beer; coldest in the stockade for only 5 cents a cup,’ or, ‘Who’ll swap beans for soup?’ or ‘Who’ll give a chew of tobacco for half a raw ration?’ ” he wrote.

Ohio Sgt. John Clark Ely, 150 years ago this month, made a reference in his journal to beer at Andersonville.

Sale of the suds wasn’t just about Union POW entrepreneurship. Capt. Henry Wirz, camp commandant, began the brewing of "corn beer" at the urging of his medical staff.

The concoction was given to those suffering from scurvy. The beer was made from cornmeal and whole corn scalded in hot water until it turned to mash. Some yeast was added to promote fermentation, and in a few days a sharp acid beverage was produced, according to the National Park Service.

Pvt. W.F Lyon, of the 96th Regular Massachusetts Volunteers, 40 years later wrote a book about his Andersonville experiences.

“We had a great many breweries in the prison — in fact, there were a whole lot of breweries and saloon combined, for each one sold his own product,” he wrote, according to a 2013 Washington Post article about the prison. As soon as the mixture of cornmeal and sassafras root fermented, “the proprietor would go out on the street, find a stand, seat himself behind the tub of beer and cry, ‘Who wants a glass of this nice sassafras beer; only 10 cents a glass?’ ”

Here is this week’s installment of the journal of Sgt. Ely of Company C, 115th Ohio Infantry. Entries are courtesy of Andersonville National Historic Site.

March 4, 1865 (Saturday)
Big rain early this morning, feeling pretty bad today.  Old Abe Lincoln inaugeration at Washington, maybe in a few months see the end of this war.

March 5, 1865 (Sunday)
Fine day, feeling quite sick, good news relative to exchange.  Received note from Eadie.  Three months 1 day since our capture.

March 6, 1865 (Monday)
cloudy, hazy day.  Wrote note to Eadie.

March 7, 1865 (Tuesday)
Beautiful day, feeling some better.

March 8, 1865 (Wednesday)
Rainy morning, had a sick night, pleasant p.m., all division sergeants out at headquarters receiving instructions about beer for camp.

March 9, 1865 (Thursday)
Cloudy morning, some rain a.m., very heavy p.m.

March 10, 1865 (Friday).
Clear cool morning, felt no better.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

CSS Neuse event this weekend in N.C.

Saturday, the CSS Neuse Civil War Interpretive Center in eastern North Carolina is holding a grand opening, ribbon cutting and a 150th commemorative program marking the anniversary of the Battle of Wyse Fork and the final days of the Confederate ironclad. The day will include music and a tour. • Article

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Ambitious Tennessee project wrapping up

Years of searching across the state of Tennessee for Civil War artifacts is coming to a close this summer to end the commemoration of the war's 150th anniversary. "Folks are contributing bits and pieces to an overall bigger puzzle, filling in gaps about the Civil War that perhaps had been lost," Myers Brown, the archivist overseeing the project, said. • Article

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Donated gunboat model will be star of Sat. program at Louisiana's Port Hudson site

USS Essex (Marvin Steinback, Port Hudson SHS)

The USS Essex was a great big sister. Mess with me, and you’ll have to deal with her.

The Essex was converted in stages from a steam ferry to a fully armored Federal gunboat. Along the way, the crew saw action in the Fort Henry, Vicksburg, Port Hudson and Red River campaigns. The vessel took a beating, but it helped save the garrison in Baton Rouge, La., and it contributed to eventual victory at Port Hudson.

A 1:32 scale model of the gunboat was recently donated to Louisiana’s Port Hudson State Historic Site off U.S. 61 north of Baton Rouge.

“It is one of seven remote-controlled vessels that have a relationship to Port Hudson that I have built,” said Robert Seal, a park volunteer. “It is the largest, by far, and the most complicated.”

Using foam insulation and balsa wood, Seal, 69, crafted a vessel that is nearly 7 feet long and weighs about 30 pounds. “Everything is scratch built,” Seal told the Picket this week.

USS Essex in 1862 (Library of Congress)
(Martin Steinback, Port Hudson SHS)

Local artist Bill Toups has assisted with the USS Essex model, using a lathe to make 13 guns that comprise the business end of the ironclad.

The historic site and Seal at 11 a.m. Saturday will put on a program, “The Waterfront: Vicksburg, Port Hudson and the Fight for the Mississippi.” The event will be held at a pond that seasonally holds 1:32 models of ships that took part in Mississippi River and other campaigns. (The models are kept inside the rest of the year)

Seal, who researches their design and history, built them all, including a few in his personal collection. His entire fleet will be at Saturday’s program. The USS Essex and CSS Arkansas  -- which clashed in July 1862 -- will briefly sail across the water to help educate visitors.

The Confederacy put a lot of effort and manpower into defending the vital Mississippi River in 1861-1863.

“The whole purpose was to keep the Federals from going upriver at Port Hudson, while Vicksburg was to keep them from going downriver,” said Mike Fraering, an interpretive ranger at Port Hudson. The two forts were about 175 miles apart.

The Federal army and navy early in the war realized the importance of waterways and by controlling the Mississippi River, they could cut the Confederacy in half, disrupting commercial and military traffic and communication.

Annual re-enactment at Port Hudson (Robert and Pat Seal)

The USS Essex was heavily damaged by enemy gunfire at Fort Henry in February 1862. She was fitted with stronger armor and returned to service to take part in the Vicksburg campaign that summer. The Essex later hammered the CSS Arkansas and repelled an attack on Baton Rouge. The Arkansas was scuttled by its Rebel crew.

For a time, the USS Essex was the only Federal ironclad gunboat below Vicksburg, until July 1863.

“All the other gunboats on the southern end of the Mississippi were wooden or seagoing gunboats,” said Fraering. “The Essex had guard duty and protected wooden gunboats from gunfire. ‘Here comes the Essex to the rescue.'”

The Essex took part in the 1863 siege against Port Hudson and later served in the Red River.

The garrison at Port Hudson surrendered on July 9, 1863, five days after Vicksburg fell to the Union. Exhausted, short of supplies and knowing the fall of Vicksburg left them in a hopeless situation, the Confederates laid down their weapons after 48 days – the longest true siege on U.S. soil.

But it did not come without a few tries and heavy casualties among Federal troops and sailors over several months.

In March 1863, Union Adm. David Farragut defied Port Hudson, an earthen fort built on the east bank of the river.

“What we have on the pond is an annual static fleet,” said Seal. “They are anchored in position that represented the movement of Farragut as he attempted the battery.”

The 10 models on the pond include the Kineo, Genesee, Albatross, Monongahela, Richmond and Hartford. Seal acknowledges those models are not built with great detail, given visitors see them from about 50 feet away.

Port Hudson withstood the assault, and several of Farragut’s vessels were damaged. The USS Essex – which was about 200 feet long and had a crew of 250 -- helped rescue the crew of the sinking USS Mississippi.

The post was attacked two months later by a large Union ground force, among them soldiers of the Louisiana Native Guard, the first significant use of African-American troops during the war.

They earned respect of generals and white comrades, and black soldiers would see more action elsewhere in the months ahead.

“They were repulsed. (But) they showed they were capable,” said Fraering. “Everyone else got repulsed that day.”

The siege would continue for another six weeks.

Models are in pond February into June each year (Marvin Steinback)

Seal, an LSU retiree, said he wants to help schoolchildren learn what happened in Louisiana during the Civil War. He built a diorama of the Native Guard assault and has helped with other exhibits.

He and Fraering decided the Port Hudson story needed more of the naval aspect. “We like our boats,” Seal quipped about Louisianans.

Given the fact that he puts many of them in the water and transports and handles them, Seal says he cannot build his models to detail that includes individual rivets.

“(The Essex) is not sitting like a pretty girl. They break and if I put all the rigging and stuff on, you would have a difficult time launching them.”

Still, he wants them to be of high quality and reflect his research and period photographs.

CSS Arkansas model (Robert and Pat Seal)

Here’s a description of a radio-controlled models Seal will bring Saturday. They all likely will be placed in the water during an annual re-enactment on March 28-29.

-- CSS Arkansas: After the ironclad was intentionally sunk, its crew rushed to Port Hudson to help fortify its defenses.

-- CSS Manassas: Converted vessel fitted with iron plating, the Manassas did not see direct action at Port Hudson.

- - USS Barataria: The converted sternwheeler was lost in April 1863 during Louisiana operations.

CSS Missouri (Robert and Pat Seal)

-- CSS Missouri: Confederate ironclad paddle steam deployed in the Red River.

-- USS Carondelet: The City-class ironclad was “very effective in bombardment” and was used against Vicksburg and in the Red River Expedition.

Seal occasionally lets children use the radio controls to move the models.

“It would be good for people to learn something they didn’t know about the era, ships, crew and the different actions,” he said. “It lights me up on school days. We’ll have a couple hundred kids. There might be in a class of 30 with one or two kids that really connect with the program.”

Admission to the site and Saturday’s event is $4 per person and free for children 12 and under and those 62 and older. For more information, call (888) 677-3400 toll free or (225) 654-3775.