Friday, January 30, 2015

Nothing too obscure for Civil War trivia

David Bourhenne and Robert Byrd stood toe-to-toe, trading historic broadsides of Civil War trivia. Eventually, Bourhenne triumphed in the 14th annual Civil War Quiz Bowl in North Carolina after a showdown that featured everything from bean boilers to the nationality of Arthur Fremantle to which battle gave "Stonewall" Jackson his famous nickname. • Article

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Journal of prisoner Sgt. John Clark Ely

(Courtesy of Norman Ely)
Sgt. John Clark Ely and 200 comrades in Company C, 115th Ohio Infantry were captured by Nathan Bedford Forrest’s forces on Dec. 5, 1864, near La Vergne, Tenn. After a couple weeks at a holding facility in Meridian, Miss., Ely, a schoolteacher with a family, was transported to Confederate Camp Sumter in middle Georgia on Jan. 23, 1865.

Ely kept two journals of his wartime experiences, one of which survived. The passages by the soldier, who enlisted in 1862, cover everything from food and horrible conditions to rumors of possible prisoner exchange.

The Civil War Picket is picking up his story after his arrival at Camp Sumter, and once a week will post his daily entries. The transcript is courtesy of Andersonville National Historic Site.

Jan. 28, 1865 (Saturday)
Fine morning, finished chimney, over to hospital 4 men died, bunk fell on them, pretty hard place.

Jan. 29, 1865 (Sunday)
Cloudy, not as cold, again rumors of an exchange, tis most probable a move of us to some other prison. F.H. said our officers came up and were sent on to Merritus where officers were kept

Jan. 30, 1865 (Monday)
Fine morning, white frost, not as cold as usual. Received note from Lt. Eadie, sent note to Capt. Wirz to see Eadie, received no answer.

Jan. 31, 1865 (Tuesday)
Fine morning, sent note to Eadie and again to see him, received no reply, tis reported that old Rosa occupiesMeridian. Hope it may be true.

(Courtesy of Norman Ely)

Feb. 1, 1865 (Wednesday)
Fine morning, all goes on as usual, same routine each day. P.M. 155 prisoners came in from Macon and were put in my division, making 3 hundred. News that the exchange is now put in Grant hands.

Feb. 2, 1865 (Thursday)
Lowery morning and looks like rain. Received note from Eadie.

Feb. 3, 1865 (Friday)

Rained a little in night, very cloudy this morning a littlerain. P.M. all rain, man in stocks for not coming in with wood squad.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Beginning of Savannah harbor project to be marked near soon-to-be-removed ironclad

Panamerican diver James Duff prepares to go down to the CSS Georgia off Old Fort Jackson in Savannah (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

A staggering 24 million cubic yards of material will be dredged during the much-anticipated $706 million deepening of the harbor in Savannah, Ga.

But the first things to be taken from the Savannah River’s sandy bottom will be surviving pieces of the Civil War ironclad CSS Georgia.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ office in Savannah on Monday announced that the harbor project construction will officially begin Thursday morning with a media event not far from where the vessel is submerged.

Corps spokesman Russell Wicke said the removal of the CSS Georgia, necessary for the deepening, will occur in several phases and cost about $15 million.

“This is very exciting for us, for not only the historical significance on the CSS Georgia, but we are now moving forward with getting this harbor deepened -- which will have huge national benefits.”

Lacking much power, the locally built CSS Georgia was destined to become a stationary floating battery and part of the city’s defensive system during the Civil War.

It was scuttled on Dec. 21, 1864, by its Confederate crew in order to keep it out of the hands of Federal forces that took Savannah. 

Section of ironclad was removed in 2013 (USACE)

The ironclad, resting on a slope about 40 feet deep below the surface, must be removed so that an additional 5 feet of river bottom can be dredged. With the expansion of the Panama Canal, even larger ships will be able to travel to U.S. cities. That requires consistently deeper channels.

Debris includes four of the CSS Georgia’s original 10 cannons, parts of the propeller and propulsion system, a boiler and two casemates, which housed the artillery pieces. The wooden hull is believed to have largely disintegrated over the years.

The Savannah Army Corps of Engineers office, which has “soft launched” a website about the CSS Georgia recovery, said contract divers have been out at the site and are first mapping, tagging and putting a recovery grid in place. A network of ropes connects wreck site artifacts and assists divers to navigate through the mucky river floor.

They will be recovering small artifacts, such as fasteners or small personal items. “Anything you might be able to pull up by hand,” said Wicke.

The second phase, sometime this summer, will be the recovery of the large pieces. Divers, under direction of the U.S. Navy, will take special care because of the possibility of live ammunition and powder.

The third phase is mechanized recovery, “basically clearing up what is left over once the large pieces are pulled out.” The final phase is an archaeological clearance, to ensure everything has been properly removed.

Conservation will be done at Texas A&M University and will take about two years to complete. But that’s only for pieces that likely will be displayed some point at a museum. That will include the casemates, artillery pieces and other “signature” items.

Photo is believed to be of CSS Georgia (USACE)

Much of the CSS Georgia was constructed of railroad item. The majority of that will be resubmerged in another location for safekeeping, Wicke told the Picket.

Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Curtis Foltz told Savannah TV station WTOC: “We were shared some pictures yesterday of the first segment that was brought up as kind of a test, and they've identified the various particles that are still in existence on the floor of the river, and so they are well prepared to start recovering immediately.”

The initial contract for recovery of the CSS Georgia went to Dial Cordy and Associates of Jacksonville, Fla., the Corps said. Panamerican Consultants of Memphis, Tenn., will conduct field work.

Officials soon will award other contracts in the project, which is being funded by the federal government and Georgia.

Besides deepening the channel of the Savannah River from 42 feet to 47 feet, the Corps will extend the shipping lane an additional seven miles into the Atlantic Ocean off Tybee Island.

On the river-based portion, the Corps will be installing a dissolved oxygen injection system to protect marine life. That’s important because the deepening will allow more salt water to go upstream, throwing off the current equilibrium. Two plants will be installed: One on Hutchinson Island, the farther upstream near a Georgia Power facility.

Billy Birdwell, senior public affairs specialist with the Corps, said the large ships now entering the port will be less restricted once the deepening is completed: They won’t be so dependent on high tides to clear the channel bottom.

“We’re expanding the window for them,” he said. “They are getting more bang for their buck.”

One of the previously recovered guns (Courtesy of Old Fort Jackson)

Sunday, January 25, 2015

What if there had been connecting trains?

H. Roger Grant, a Clemson University historian, wonders whether a railroad linking Ohio and South Carolina — a railroad proposed in the 1830s but never built — might have helped stave off the Civil War. Not everyone is convinced. • Article

Thursday, January 22, 2015

One-act musical about SS Sultana disaster juxtaposes the past and present

(Drawing by Rick Iacovelli)

Hey you bag o’ bones we’ll be seeing better days ahead
(Yes there’s better days ahead, my friends) Hey you bag o’ bones
Hey you bag o’ bones we’ll be seeing better days ahead
(That’s right there’s better days) I’ll drink to that and shake your hand
-- “The Last Great March of the Skeleton Soldiers"

The image of gaunt and hungry soldiers, finally on their way home after enduring privation in prison camps, stuck with Jeff Stachyra while he researched the SS Sultana disaster.

Stachyra, a musician and producer in southern New York, put this little-known Civil War incident to lyrics and melody in a 2012 album that encompassed an array of musical styles, including Americana.

More recently, Stachyra and local playwright Laura Cunningham have made the tragic story of the last voyage of the Sultana the subject of a one-act musical, “Bag O’ Bones.” The production will have a free developmental reading at 2 p.m. Saturday (Jan. 24) at the Bundy Museum in Binghamton.

“I would like two things to happen,” Stachyra told the Picket this week. “I want people to come away with an understanding and curiosity of the story. So maybe they will proceed to do some of their own exploration on that and the Civil War. (The second thing) is I hope they enjoy the music. It’s what I do.”

This is a story of bravery, courage, loss and the greed of those who contributed to the disaster.

“Bag O’ Bones” features Olive, a doctoral student, who chooses the Sultana as her dissertation thesis. Her great-great-great grandfather was a paroled soldier about the vessel, heading home at the war’s end.


The 45-minute musical includes portrayals of four soldiers, “their struggles, and getting on this overloaded boat.”

The loss of the Sultana, 150 years ago this spring, is the largest U.S. maritime disaster. The mighty Mississippi River has changed course since the steamboat exploded and caught fire near Mound City, Ark., on April 27, 1865, leaving the ashes to slowly settle and be farmed over.

An estimated 1,800 men were killed. Most of the victims were released Union prisoners – many of them Andersonville survivors -- headed north.

The steamboat was traveling the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn., to St. Louis. About 2,400 passengers packed a vessel that had a capacity of fewer than 400

“In some places the guys couldn’t even lay down. It was so crowded. In some cases if they went to the bathroom or go to eat their place would be taken," Gene Salecker, author of "Disaster on the Mississippi," told the Picket a few years ago.

No one was formally held accountable for putting too many men on the Sultana and sailing despite documented concerns about the safety of one of the boat's boilers. At least one faulty boiler exploded, flinging passengers into the chilly river.

Jeff Stachyra
Cunningham, the playwright, was in Stachyra’s studio for a recording session when he gave her CDs with music about the Sultana and why he made the album.

"The account of the survivors' pleas for help when they were in the river were just so moving, it wrote the story itself," Cunningham told the Press & Sun-Bulletin newspaper.

Salecker and author Jerry Potter have written about a kickback scheme between the vessel's financially-strapped captain, J. Cass Mason, and an Army quartermaster, Lt. Col. Reuben B. Hatch. According to Potter, the transport fee was $5 for an enlisted man, $10 for an officer. Mason agreed to take the enlisted men for $3; Hatch kept the $2.

At least one other vessel was available to carry soldiers to St. Louis, relieving the passenger load on the Sultana. But the captain steamed ahead, the Sultana overcrowded and top-heavy with all of the men packed together. The load caused the vessel to rock and placed stress on the boilers.

Stachyra’s Sultana album features a song about Hatch:

Shaving off the lumber
Buy low – bill high
Grant’s investigation in Cairo
Assistant Quartermaster arrested for bribes
Hatch throws the ledger book into the Ohio
But it washed right back, back ashore

“We are trying to trick the audience into getting into a history lesson without it sounding like it,” Stachyra (pronounced stuh-hara) said of the musical.

He will play a banjo and various instruments at Saturday’s show. Other musicians will play a reed organ and marching snare drum, meant to evoke instruments of the time -- mixing old-time music with a "funky, contemporary style."

The producers hope they can take their work to history clubs and high schools and perhaps, one day, develop a full-scale musical. Saturday’s production is meant to elicit feedback from the audience.

Stachyra started writing songs about the Sultana in 2008.

(Courtesy of Jeff Stachyra)

Among the survivor accounts he’s been most interested in is that of Chester Berry of the 20th Michigan Volunteer Infantry. “He had the foresight to collect remembrances of other survivors.”

Years later, Berry had vivid memories of his comrades’ desperate bid for survival. Hundreds died only a day and a half from a prisoner exchange and freedom. Many survivors died of burns in the following weeks.

Berry wrote: “The horrors of that night will never be effaced from my memory -- such swearing, praying, shouting and crying I had never heard; and much of it from the same throat -- imprecations followed by petitions to the Almighty, denunciations by bitter weeping.”

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The Picket has done extensive reporting on several angles of the disaster. Here are our previous articles: