Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Colt revolving rifle bullets fired by Illinois troops among hundreds of artifacts recovered at Arkansas' Prairie Grove battlefield park

Recovered round from Colt revolving rifle (Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park)
Colt revolving rifle (center) -- Hmagg, Wikipedia
Removal of underbrush at the epicenter of a ferocious battle in northwest Arkansas has allowed archaeologists to recover about 400 Civil War artifacts, including spent bullets fired from innovative Colt revolving rifles.

The Colt Model 1855 was used by two flanking companies of the 37th Illinois Infantry at the Battle of Prairie Grove on Dec. 7, 1862. The design was similar to Colt revolvers – with a rotating cylinder – and the weapon became a repeating rifle by adding a stock and barrel. 

While it had mixed success during the war, the rare rifle was largely effective at Prairie Grove and two other prominent battles.

Experts said the location of seven recently recovered Colt bullets may alter maps of the precise position where the regiment fought during a Federal charge on Confederate artillery and infantry at the Archibald Borden house. Its commander, Lt. Col. John Black, would receive a Medal of Honor for his leadership during the battle.

(Arkansas Archeological Survey)
Staff with the Fayetteville office of the Arkansas Archeological Survey conducted the survey at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park in late February and the first two weeks of March. The coronavirus pandemic has halted the work and analysis of the artifacts.

The four acres being studied in front of the Borden house are believed to never have been touched by metal detectors before. Mike Evans, station assistant with the survey, said he has worked many sites, but never with this many concentrated artifacts. “This area was wooded and fairly inaccessible. We wanted to take a look at the heart of the battle.”

“This is as central to that battle as you can get,” he told the Picket this week. The slope in front of the house, an orchard and other parts of the farm were the scene of two assaults each by Federal and Confederate troops.

The survey found numerous bullets, artillery shell fragments, friction primers, casings and canister. Interestingly, few personal items, such as buttons or insignia, were recovered.

“It is rich. It looks pretty thick,” Evans said of the artifacts, which he expects to number 1,000 when the crew eventually can return to the park to complete the survey. “And you are seeing little clusters. You are seeing a hot spot down the hill.”

(Note: Officials with the park and survey, which are partnering in the survey, emphasize that metal detecting and removal of artifacts from Prairie Grove by the public is prohibited.)

Confederate troops under Maj. Gen. Thomas Hindman squared off against the men of Union Brig. Gens. James Blunt and Francis Herron at Prairie Grove. While the fighting ended in somewhat of a draw, the Rebels withdrew from the field, giving the Union a strategic victory. Northwest Arkansas and Missouri would remain under Federal control for the rest of the conflict.

Casualties totaled about 2,700.

Park wanted terrain to look like 1862

Sampling of items from Prairie Grove (Arkansas Archeological Survey/AAS)
Bormann fuse for artillery (Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park)

The clearing of underbrush and thinning of trees below the Borden hill and along a foot trail was the impetus for the archaeological work, said Matt Mulheran, park interpreter at Prairie Grove since autumn 2018.

The growth “had not allowed anyone to get in there with a metal detector. All of those artifacts were there in pristine condition waiting to tell a story,” he said. The park for years had wanted to do the clearing project, and the interpreter got the ball rolling last year.

Official reports and soldier accounts showed the modern terrain was not accurate to the battle.

“That hillside was very open and the Borden family had taken a lot of time clearing the underbrush,” said Mulheran. “We wanted to get back to that landscape.”

Minie ball with impact damage, dropped.58-caliber and Enfield round (Prairie Grove BSP)
The Bordens lived on a large farm and were not aware of what was to come on the morning of Dec. 7, 1862. "A Confederate officer knocks on their door and tells them they have to flee.”

They rushed to a neighbor’s resident, where the families huddled in a cellar. The Bordens emerged after the fighting to find their home burned by Federal troops. Caldonia Borden Brandenburg years later spoke of the loss of livestock and stored food.

“All of the kinfolks and neighbors gave us food, clothing and bedding and household goods that they could spare, to help us get started again,” she said. “As soon as it was safe for us kids to go on the battle fields, we went and picked up clothes, canteens, blankets and anything we found to use. We had to put everything in boiling water to kill the “grey backs” [body lice] …”

Around 1870, the Borden family rebuilt the distinctive yellow home on the same site. They eventually moved west, Mulheran said, and others farmed the land until the 1940s or 1950s. The house eventually fell into disrepair. “There were trees growing out of the porch.”

Borden house in 1976 (Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park)
The property was acquired by the state in 1979 and rehabilitated.

Volunteers and a Bobcat with a mulching attachment have removed the undergrowth and the park will continue tree thinning and grooming this summer.

“It has come a long way in the time I have been here,” said Mulheran. “People can (now) see it just as the soldiers saw it.”

Some items came from filming of miniseries

Complicating the archaeological dig has been the presence of artillery and long gun components associated with Civil War reenactors who took part in events at the state park over the years.

Officials believe some of the recovered items date back to the filming of the 1982 television miniseries, “The Blue and the Gray,” which starred Stacy Keach and Gregory Peck and was based on Bruce Catton’s book.

Co-producer Harry Thomason spoke with The New York Times about why filming was done in the region.

''We are being extremely accurate in the spirit of this production,'' he told the newspaper. ''If purists want to say we should have filmed this picture exactly where the actual events happened, they have not visited many of those places lately. Some don't even exist anymore, and many have been overrun with commercialism. Most of the actual battlefields are covered with monuments and statues. We had 21 critical location scenes for this picture. We looked all over the country, and this 90-mile strip of western Arkansas met our requirements better than anywhere else.''

Evans, with the Arkansas Archeological Survey, says some of the artillery friction primers may be associated with reenactors.

But numerous items come from the period: Minie balls, grapeshot, Bormann fuses, exploded artillery, .69-caliber round balls, the tip of a bayonet scabbard and a piece of brass sash buckle, among them.

Much of the recovered debris is from Union guns fired from the valley toward Confederate artillery. “The hill was catching all that stuff,” Evans told the Picket.

Reenactors advance upon Borden home (Arkansas State Parks)
37th Illinois locked in fierce fighting

The ridge where the Borden home sat was the highest terrain on the battle and was an obvious place for the Confederates to place a large part of their artillery, as was done by Capt. William Blocher’s Arkansas battery. It provided a good view of a wide valley and Fayetteville-Cane Hill Road below. Gunners trained their weapons on a ford on the Illinois River.

Federal guns opened up below the Borden house, allowing for the Federal assaults. The 37th Illinois – the only veteran unit in the assaults -- took part in the second wave.

Lt. Col. John Black
Commanding them was Lt. Col. Black, who was still recovering from a wound he suffered in the right arm at the Battle of Pea Ridge (about 40 miles north, ninth months before). Black rode in to battle on horseback, his disabled arm in a sling, and led his men up the slope to the orchard. Gunfire wounded his left arm during the pitched struggle.

Although the regiment became surrounded, Mulheran told the Picket, their experience and the five-shot Colt revolving rifle somewhat evened the circumstances. Eventually, they were forced to withdraw to the valley, where they fought off a determined Confederate counterattack and protected artillery.

Decades later, Black received the Medal Honor for extraordinary heroism: “Lieutenant Colonel Black gallantly charged the position of the enemy at the head of his regiment, after two other regiments had been repulsed and driven down the hill, and captured a battery; was severely wounded,” read the citation.

Black and his brother, Capt. William Black (for heroism at Pea Ridge), were among the few siblings to receive the Medal of Honor.

The 37th had about 15% of its men killed or wounded at Prairie Grove.

A flawed weapon had its moments

The Colt revolving rifles did find success, and when used by experienced troops, they could result in a higher rate of fire.

Enfield bullet, blank from miniseries, fired Minie ball (AAS)
“They were a superior weapon but they did have a lot of trouble with them,” said Evans.

Carl Drexler, assistant research professor and station archeologist with the Arkansas Archeological Survey, said the 37th Illinois was issued about 200 of the revolving rifles prior to Pea Ridge (about 18,000 were manufactured until 1862).

Companies A and K had them, as did several Confederate regiments. But those Southern units went east of the Mississippi River before Prairie Grove.

Drexler provided this summary of the weapon by email:

As far as their efficacy and importance, it was a bit of a mixed bag. The idea behind them was to increase the individual firepower of a common soldier. The .56-caliber version (most often carried in the West) used a 5-shot cylinder that could be swapped out when empty, which made any unit armed with them a formidable opponent. Also, unlike other multi-shot weapons of the period, they did not use metallic cartridges, meaning they were usable by Confederates or anyone with a bullet mold. That was the good.

Jessica Kowalski at work (Ark. Archeological Survey)
“The bad was, well, pretty crippling to the use of the weapon. If you’ve ever fired a cap-and-ball revolver you know that you have to seal the chambers very well to prevent loose powder being exposed, because flash and hot gasses from one chamber firing can ignite exposed powder in other cylinders, causing what is called ‘chain fire.’ Given the orientation of the cylinder to the barrel, this means you’re basically shooting bullets into the frame of the gun, which usually destroys it. It also means that you have bits of lead and gun frame flying sideways. That’s startling if you’re holding a pistol out in front of you, but if you’re firing a long arm, you’re expected to be aiming with your left hand resting on the fore stock… in front of the cylinder. You now have lead, iron, brass, and flame flying at your left forearm and hand, and many soldiers wound up maimed for life as a result.

“I think around 5,000 such weapons were ordered by the U.S. Army for the war, and the above flaws kept them from being ordered in larger numbers and made them very unpopular with the troops. They are known to have been crucial in several situations, though. The 37th Illinois used them to good effect at Pea Ridge, and the 21st Ohio defended Horseshoe Ridge at the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia, with them in the early fall of 1864. They were an interesting and fairly logical idea (turn a functioning pistol design into a shoulder arm), but I would prefer to have had a Spencer.”

More work and research lie ahead

Mulheran and Evans say the discovery of the Colt rounds may put the regiment in a slightly different position than believed, perhaps a couple hundred yards away.

“By tracing where these bullets landed we can document the movement of this regiment,” Mulheran said.

Borden house is at right center (Arkansas State Parks)
Finds during the survey indicate a possible location for a Confederate battery.

More excavations and analysis are required for any new conclusions to be made.

A Facebook post from Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park summarizes what can be gleaned by such research.

Battlefield archaeology is an important science that allows researchers to gain a better understanding of what happened during the Battle of Prairie Grove. The evidence can provide new details on how we interpret the battle and completely change the current perception of events. We look forward to seeing the results of this survey.”
Before and after of hillside (Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Pea Ridge National Military Park will expand with 140-acre historic farm that was site of troop movements, near field hospital

Williams Hollow Farm and bordering stream (Copyright The Conservation Fund)

A 140-acre parcel that was the scene of Confederate troop movements and a hospital during the March 1862 Battle of Pea Ridge in northwest Arkansas has been bought by a coalition of conservation and historical groups, with plans to donate it to the National Park Service.

The Williams Hollow Farm is surrounded on three sides by Pea Ridge National Military Park; the acquisition in effect fills in a missing puzzle piece.

The Conservation Fund and the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust earlier this month announced the purchase. Spokeswoman Ann Simonelli with The Conservation Fund told the Picket the seller is an extended family that has owned the property since the time of the battle.

Maj. Gen. Price
“There is nothing on the land at the moment. It is currently made up of forest and degraded field. The park service aims to eventually do restoration of the field to manage it as vegetation from the 1862 time period,” Simonelli said.

While the groups did not disclose the purchase amount, it is believed to be in the hundreds of thousands. The Pea Ridge National Military Park Foundation is helping with fund-raising to cover the purchase and eventual donation of the property to the federal government.

Among those efforts is NWA (Norwest Arkansas) Gives on April 2.

The March 6-9, 1862, Battle of Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern) has been called by some historians “the Gettysburg of the West.” Forces under Union Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis defeated the men of Confederate Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, whose leadership has been faulted by historians. The Union won control of Missouri and weakened the Confederate hold in Arkansas.

“It is no exaggeration to say that the Pea Ridge campaign permanently altered the balance of power in the Trans-Mississippi. Few Civil War operations had such an impact on the course of events,” according to the National Park Service.

Kurz & Allison's fanciful depiction of battle (Library of Congress)
Jami Lockhart with the Arkansas Archeological Survey performed research on the Williams Hollow Farm and surrounding areas that played a part in the battle.

Confederate and Federal units clashed at Cross Timber Hollow and the Tanyard area north of Elkhorn Tavern. Rebel troops likely traversed the ground comprising the purchased property. Missouri State Guard troops under Maj. General Sterling Price emerged from Williams Hollow on March 7 as part of a drive on the Union right flank, according to histories.

The coalition cited other historical aspects of the area.

Lockhart wrote: “The historic Telegraph Road approaches to within 150 feet of the conservation property, and runs roughly parallel with the property along the entirety of its eastern boundary. Telegraph Road (also known as Old Wire Road) is integral to the history of the region. This road formed a portion of the route associated with the forced relocation of thousands of Native Americans, and is commonly known as the Trail of Tears. It was the route of the Butterfield Overland Mail and Stage line serving the area between St. Louis and San Francisco during the period 1858 to 1861. Telegraph Road was also the primary transportation artery in the area during the Civil War. Telegraph Road is especially well-known for its central role in the Battle of Pea Ridge.”

Sunset at Pea Ridge National Military Park (NPS)
During the night of March 7 into March 8, 1862, both armies concentrated forces on Telegraph Road. A powerful Union bombardment and assault on March 8 put Confederates into a retreat.

It’s not just the Civil War aspect of Williams Hollow Farm that is important, the groups said in their announcement.

“Once protected, the Williams Hollow Farm will secure the view shed of the Pea Ridge National Military Park and conserve mature forest habitat for migratory songbirds and rare bats, including the threatened northern long-eared bat. Keeping the property undeveloped will also help provide water quality protection of Sugar Creek within the Elk River watershed.”

Pea Ridge National Military Park Superintendent Kevin Eads told the Picket the acquisition would help protect and preserve cultural and natural resources. 

Jackie Crabtree, mayor of the town of Pea Ridge and head of the Pea Ridge National Military Park Foundation, said during the time of fundraising the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust will work with the park staff to keep the property maintained. The tract currently has a large open field surrounded by timber.

Rock formations at Williams Hollow Farm (Copyright The Conservation Fund)
Crabtree said the purchase was a rare opportunity to protect such property during a time of rapid growth in the region.

Needless to say, the Civil War is an important part of the town’s background and tourism.

“There are several families still in the area that were here during the battle,” Crabtree told the Picket. “The thing that makes Pea Ridge unique however is the naming of our streets. North/South streets are named for Union soldiers who fought in the battle. East/West streets are named for Confederate soldiers. This is set in city ordinance for developers.”

Thursday, March 26, 2020

CSS Georgia: As artifact conservation continues, public will soon be able to read detailed report on this unique Savannah ironclad

Valve assembly has dozens of parts (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Historians and archaeologists don’t know whether the builders of the CSS Georgia, an ironclad that guarded the Savannah River in the city of same name, worked from blueprints. None have been found in the years since the Civil War.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no way to describe the Confederate vessel’s propulsion, the angle and construction of protective casemate or to estimate the vessel’s width and length.

Dahlgren recovered in Sept. 2015 (USACE)
Between 2013 and 2017, machinery and divers working at the CSS Georgia’s resting place a few miles from downtown Savannah recovered thousands of artifacts. The project was necessary before a major harbor deepening project began: The boat’s remains lie in the main shipping channel.

An upcoming report from the Savannah office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will provide a general analysis about the artifacts and an overview of the project. The finds included nearly a half dozen cannon, a propeller and large pieces of the casemate, fashioned from – of all things – interlocking sections of railroad iron.

Officials believe the artifacts will answer a lot of questions about the vessel.

Divers, working in visibility that one likened to chocolate pudding, slipped beneath the surface of the Savannah River and down to the disarticulated remains of the vessel that was scuttled by its crew in December 1864 when the Yankees arrived at the seaport’s front door.

The Corps recovered a significant portion of the CSS Georgia, which served as what’s called a floating battery. In the years since, items large and small have been cleaned at Texas A&M University's Conservation Research Laboratory. (The lab's operations have been affected by the recent coronavirus pandemic.)

“Conservation continues,” says Julie Morgan, district archaeologist for the Corps. “The conservation process is slowing down considerably as the artifacts that are now in conservation are more complex -- they have more individual components and are comprised of multiple metals -- so the number of artifacts finishing completion is slowing.”

Morgan and experts brought in for the project have been especially fascinated by the ironclad’s propulsion system and engines. It’s known the one-off CSS Georgia – built not far from where it sank -- was underpowered.

Locals derisively called it the “Mud Tub” because it was unable to leave the city and attack Federal ships that had bottled up Savannah’s river entrance. But they may have gotten something better. The CSS Georgia became a strong element of extensive water defenses. It never fired upon the enemy, because the enemy decided to probe vulnerabilities elsewhere.

Julie Morgan has researched the CSS Georgia for years (USACE)
Morgan provided two examples to the Picket of the complexity of some items.

The Conservation Research Laboratory had to separate seven sections of a valve assembly. They removed rubber gaskets and about 52 nuts and bolts.

And two engine cylinders, each about 48 inches long, must be carefully moved with a forklift. And conservators must precisely cut to reach the cylinders’ interior.

It’s important to note the wreck site of the CSS Georgia was not undisturbed. 

Dredging hits and scars, along with salvage attempts not long after the Civil War, made the site a jumble of rotting wood, chunks of casemate and loose rail and machinery.

Still, the trove of artifacts, have an important story to tell of innovation when builders had access to less-than-ideal armor and technology.

The CSS Georgia belongs to the U.S. Navy, under the auspices of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Carefully packed shipment or ordnance (USACE)
“To date, the conservation lab has made two shipments of artifacts to the Naval History and Heritage Command,” said Morgan. “Packing the artifacts is very time consuming as everything must be wrapped and packed in archival quality materials.”

The items are being stored at the Washington Navy Yard, where officials are cataloging and storing them in hopes that a museum will eventually come forward with a plan to exhibit the artifacts and tell the CSS Georgia’s story.

The public will have an opportunity to read all about it in Morgan’s report.

The Corps is currently reviewing the revised draft and the final version will be printed in late April,” she said. “Once that document has been accepted by the government it will be made available to the public through the district’s website.”

Monday, March 16, 2020

Curved timber found decades ago on North Carolina beach may have belonged to a Civil War blockade runner

(NC Office of State Archaeology)
Forty years ago, someone walking North Carolina’s Kure Beach found a curved piece of timber pocked with holes and containing a piece of iron. 

Eventually, the finder tired of keeping it at home. A friend on Friday donated the “old piece of wood” -- which may have an exciting past -- to the state. 

Experts are speculating it may have been used to fashion the hull of a Civil War blockade runner. There is no way to know for sure; it's possible the timber dates to the 20th century.

Assistant state archaeologist Stephen Atkinson, who wrote about the donation in a Facebook post, tells the Picket the timber could be from a small coastal fishing and trading schooner. Such vessels were used to run the Union blockade on Southern ports.

Swift blockade runners carried a mix of war materiel and goods to the port in exchange for exported cotton and other items.

The ships carried items to and from Europe, largely via the Bahamas and Bermuda.

Enterprising owners took the risk of running the gauntlet of U.S. Navy ships trying to keep them away from vital ports, including Wilmington, which is about 15 miles north of Kure Beach. But most of the runs succeeded and it was a lucrative business.

Wilmington was ideally situated for blockade-running. Located 28 miles up the Cape Fear River, it was free from enemy bombardment as long as the forts at the mouth of the river remained in Confederate hands.

In his post, first reported by the Charlotte Observer, Atkinson detailed an initial analysis of the timber.

(NC Office of State Archaeology)
“While it may seem like just an old piece of wood, these frames can be a wealth of information by assessing a few key features. Its width, length, and curvature suggest that we have nearly the whole profile of the vessel, and the transverse holes near its base indicate where it had been fastened to a floor timber…

“The sporadic and numerous trunnel holes show that the vessel may have been planked and replanked numerous times, suggesting a long working life. Finally, the wild and tight grain appears to be live oak, which lends to the resiliency of the timber throughout time, regardless of the huge knot in it, and also could indicate local construction. All of this fits the bill of a coastal trading schooner, used in North Carolina for a lengthy span of time for activities from fishing to running blockades in the Civil War.”

(NC Office of State Archaeology)
Assistant state archaeologist Nathan Henry told the Picket such schooners were called “corn crackers” and were used to haul farm produce to Wilmington.

“During the Civil War, small schooners were occasionally used for coasting voyages to the Bahamas to acquire salt for sale in the blockaded states," Henry said. "There are numerous accounts in the ORN of schooners being caught, or nearly caught in route by the blockaders. Invariably when the Navy visited the smaller towns adjacent the inlets, small schooners were discovered.”  (ORN is an abbreviation for "Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion.")

Interestingly, few blockade runners were owned by Southern entrepreneurs.

The trade “was monopolized by English and Scottish merchants who had ships and capital to invest in this hazardous but lucrative trade,” according to NCPedia.com. “British firms dispatched both luxury items and war matériel to the West Indies in regular merchant ships for transfer to blockade-runners, which would arrive in port loaded with cotton.”

In mid-1863, the Confederacy ordered captains to carry 50 percent in war goods, such as uniforms, rifles, artillery and munitions.

The Cape Fear Shipwreck District contains the remains of 21 Civil War-era ships, 15 of which were steam-powered blockade runners, according to the state. Among the wrecks is the Agnes E. Fry, site of dives and research in recent years.

Wreck of the Agnes E. Fry (NCDNCR)
The other five wrecks are four Union military vessels and one Confederate ship.

Nowhere in the world is there a comparable concentration of vessel remains,” says the Office of State Archaeology.

(NC Office of State Archaeology)
“The majority of the blockade runners were lost when they were stranded along the beach or on inlet shoals and sank in shallow waters. Upon wrecking, a vessel became the focus of furious attempts to save it and its cargo,” according to the Office of State Archaeology.

“The Federals had the decided advantage in efforts to recover the total vessel since they could approach from the sea with tugboats. The Confederates concentrated on a wreck's cargo, which was not only more important to their specific needs but could be unloaded with ease onto the beaches which they controlled.”

Officials say the remains of these vessels help tell the story of the transition from sail to steam and from wood to iron.