Monday, November 13, 2017

Shiloh's hallowed ground: Deteriorated brick wall in part of cemetery is being replaced

Portion of the brick cemetery wall is torn down. (NPS photos)

A contractor is replacing a deteriorated brick wall at Shiloh National Military Park’s national cemetery, the resting place of thousands of Civil War soldiers.

“There are large cracks, chunks are falling off, bricks have broken and fallen out,” park ranger Chris Mekow said of the section’s condition going into the project.

The wall, constructed in 1940, is on the cemetery’s western boundary and faces a parking lot. Extreme weather wore down the mortar, and there were no expansion joints or drainage weep holes. “Because the wall shifted… we could not shut the gate anymore. It actually moved part of the gate.”

The view before the project began last week

The 1911 gates will remain and the new wall will retain the design of the old brick structure, which was demolished late last week. Work is expected to be finished by the end of the year.

The remainder of the cemetery at the federal site in Tennessee is protected by a utilitarian wall made of concrete and stone.

Shiloh’s cemetery, established in 1866, holds about 3,600 Civil War dead, two-thirds of them unknown.

In 1867, workers built a stone wall around the cemetery. A brick wall and ornamental iron gates were added at the entrance in 1911. While the stone wall and iron gates remain, the original brick wall eventually deteriorated, and in the early 1940s was replaced with the current wall. 

A conservation team determined the best of several scenarios was to replace the brick, Mekow said. Officials thought the interior of the wall might be hollow, but that turned out not to be the case: It was solid.


Mekow said between 1,000 and 1,500 visitors annually attend a Memorial Day service within the cemetery. The plot holds about 300 veterans of other conflicts.

The two-day battle in April 1862 was the largest at that time in the western theater; the Confederate offensive, while it had successes, was finally stopped by a fierce Federal resistance. The Southerners had to leave the field, resulting in a Union victory. Casualties were staggering: 13,000 Federal troops, 10,700 Confederates.

Demolition of the wall unveiled no new artifacts, Mekow said. “We were hoping for some kind of time capsule but were disappointed,” he chuckled.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Development near Fort Negley debated

A Tennessee panel will consider a petition to protect a Nashville Civil War fort from nearby development plans. The Tennessee Historical Commission recently voted for an administrative law judge to hear Friends of Fort Negley's request to declare the fort and 21 acres nearby as protected. The commission will vote on the judge's decision. • Article

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

How does your garden grow? Chicago home yields Minie ball during search for more Camp Douglas artifacts, features

Recent dig at residence in a series of townhouses (Michael Gregory)

Archaeologists usually aren’t welcome on private property. But Michael Gregory and some colleagues proved to be the exception when a Chicago homeowner allowed them to excavate in a back yard garden late last month.

The resident had visited one of a half dozen such digs at nearby John J. Pershing Magnet School for Humanities on Calumet Avenue. He talked with Gregory and others who are looking for further evidence of a Federal military training center and prison camp known as Camp Douglas.

“’I have a garden in the back yard. You are welcome to excavate it,’” Gregory recalls the homeowner telling him. After working out details, Gregory and about a dozen others worked at the Bronzeville neighborhood residence on Oct. 29 and Oct. 30.

As we dug down to the camp deposit level, we did find a number of interesting artifacts -- gilded ceramic sherds, milk bottles, ceramic doll parts, a toy train engine, a Navy insignia clasp, a burned book, canning jar parts,” the archaeologist told the Picket. The items were most likely dumped in the early 20th century.

(Courtesy of Michael Gregory)

And there was a little pay dirt in the single rectangular hole dug into a vegetable garden: A .58-caliber Minie ball, about 75 centimeters (30 inches) down, a depth where they were expecting to find Camp Douglas materials.

The Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation and volunteers are trying to find precise locations of camp features in an urban area that has seen extensive development in the past century, and where much of history is covered by miles of pavement and buildings. 

They are stymied by the fact that nothing from the massive Union facility is still standing.

But there have been some successes. Foundation official David Keller told the Picket a couple years back that the 2012 discovery of the camp headquarters foundation was an important find.


The crew worked last week under overcast skies and in mid-40s temperatures. They were cheered and fortified by the homeowner’s hospitality: A warm fire and hot soup.

“I am hoping the Minie ball is not our only artifact,” said Gregory as he discussed plans for a return to the home in the spring to dig in three more locations. The work at the 1880s, two-story home was the first Camp Douglas excavation on private property.

One bullet, even for just two days’ work, doesn’t seem much, but it is helping the foundation in its effort to publicize the camp’s story and bring possible protection to the 60 acres by having it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The latter is a lengthy process and has rigorous requirements. The Chicago City Council passed a resolution endorsing approval of that designation.

Camp Douglas originally served as a Union training facility for about 40,000 soldiers – including African-Americans -- being rushed to the front. Much of the site was converted to a prison camp for 26,000 Confederates. About 4,000 Rebels died at the prison.

Andrew Leith, who is assisting the foundation and works for the Chicago Cultural Alliance, said the significance of Camp Douglas is on par with Andersonville National Historic Site, home to Camp Sumter, a Confederate POW camp, in central Georgia.

“Right in our back yard we have one of the most notorious prisoner-of-war camps from the Civil War,” Leith told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Confederate POWs at Camp Douglas (Library of Congress)

The prison’s 200 structures went down when the site was dismantled in December 1865. Camp Douglas largely faded into history. The rural tract soon became part of Chicago's rapid growth that drew hundreds of thousands of African-Americans during the Great Migration more than a century ago.

While the ongoing excavations  – most on the school grounds -- have largely found items produced after the Civil War, experts and volunteers have recovered Minie balls, a Union cap pin, smoking pipes, a haversack J-hook, grommets, a spread-eagle button, an 1859 penny and other Camp Douglas items.

Gregory, who formerly was an assistant professor at DePaul University, said the foundation met two goals in the recent excavation: It found materials (the bullet) from the camp and determined that the soil was “intact,” or undisturbed by significant development.

He said the discovery of dark, circular stains in the pit may be evidence of fish beds in what was once a marshy area. “We have seen these stains in other units at Pershing School, and when seen there, they certainly defined undisturbed deposits.”

Sketch of the camp (National Archives)

The team believes the home site was little disturbed beyond construction of a basement. “No one has come in there or taken a bulldozer, grader or shovels and really mucked up the lower deposit,” said Gregory. “We are seeing a fairly intact level of the camp.”

The home is just to the east of what’s believed to have been the location of Confederate barracks at Camp Douglas. While Gregory and other haves found a trench and other ground features that may be indicative of construction on a small part of the Civil War camp, they don’t know exactly where in the presumed barracks area they are digging.

Thus far, the archaeological effort in Chicago’s South Side has not found any posts that define the stockade wall. “That would be our dream,” said Gregory.

The barracks in the POW area rested on brick piers, experts believe. Gregory theorizes the buildings were carted off months after the war ended and the piers knocked down. “If we could find a pier than we can begin to understand where we are excavating.”

Previous find (Courtesy CDRF)
The Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation (CDRF) wants to show state and federal officials that enough of the site – even underground – remains to consider it worthy of recognition and a protective designation. Gregory said he has done Google overlays over old fire insurance maps, and the result shows many sites have not been disturbed in recent years.

“I suspect between 35 to 50 percent of the camp area has a moderate to high potential to reveal intact camp deposits,” he said.

Archaeology is an exacting science, and field work and analysis take time.

“It’s not as ‘Indiana Jones’ as a lot of us would like to portray it to be,” Leith told the Chicago paper. “It’s tedious and methodological.”

(M. Gregory)
The foundation hopes to return to the home next spring, and perhaps dig in grassy rights of way – areas that are not covered by concrete. Getting access to an area to excavate is challenging.

Gregory said the homeowner was pleased with the archaeological project, including cleanup that put top soil back in place.

“I think they were happy history is there and they are letting us get to it.”

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Civil war re-enactor works from tiny home

Have you ever wondered what it was like to live in another century? For Florida resident and lifelong historian Shorty Robbins, 59, this question became a mission. She built her Victorian-era tiny home as a way to connect with the past. But it also happens to be the perfect companion prop for her favorite hobby: participating in Civil War battle re-enactments, which she's been doing for nearly 20 years. • Article

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Conservators, students working to unlock mysteries of the Rebel ironclad CSS Georgia

Large piece of CSS Georgia casemate (USACE Savannah)

It’s been about three months since cranes, barges, divers and support crew pulled away from a spot on the Savannah River where they had removed the last of the jumbled remains of the Confederate ironclad CSS Georgia.

With the final recovery of the vessel complete (there was another operation in 2015), those involved had a brief moment to catch their breaths.

“I think we are all really relieved it is over. It is bittersweet -- we have worked so many years,” said Julie Morgan-Ryan, archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which worked with contractors to recover the CSS Georgia as part of a harbor deepening project in Savannah, Ga.

Now the real work of solving the mysteries of the ironclad is underway – through student research, ongoing conservation of thousands of artifacts, and the study of those items and historical records to answer some of the nagging questions about the CSS Georgia.

For decades, archaeologists have speculated on the size and weight of the vessel, why it was so underpowered and where its components were made.

Artifacts that were not left in the river (namely the casemate) for possible future removal are undergoing conservation and analysis at the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Morgan-Ryan surveys casemate (USACE)
“We found that some pieces from a cannon or a gun carriage were made from different metals. Was it because of the blockade?” the archaeologist recently told the Picket. “I think we are going to find what restrictions the South was under.”

The conservation of three cannons, a propeller and four crates of artifacts has been completed.

“We still have two cannon that are in conservation vats right now,” said Morgan-Ryan. “We are finding ordnance shoved down them.” Officials at the lab are trying to figure out how to safely dislodge them.

It’s likely the crew of the CSS Georgia sabotaged the barrels when they were forced to scuttle the ironclad off Old Fort Jackson as Federal forces neared Savannah in December 1864.

As is customary with such projects, the Army Corps will write a report on the recovery, completing it in late 2018 or in 2019.

“We have always known Georgia was underpowered. … now we’ll be able to do some estimates on how underpowered she was, whether artifacts were manufactured strictly for the Georgia, or taken from other vessels. We are trying to figure why they used the components that they do,” Morgan-Ryan said.

Buckle recovered in 2015 (USACE Savannah)

It’s known that the CSS Georgia was salvaged by a private contractor shortly after the war’s end. Archaeologists may never answer all their questions, because they don’t know how many recovered items were melted down or reused or were dumped haphazardly back on the site in a tiff over salvage payment.

Morgan-Ryan said she and others want to know more about these previous salvage attempts.

She is excited about research that students at Texas A&M are doing, including a master’s thesis on the ironclad’s gun sights, appropriate artifact conservation technology and conservation of waterlogged textiles.

“What I am looking forward to is how much new information from beyond the vessel will we learn from this project?” Morgan-Ryan said. “What technological advantages or disadvantages did the South have?”

The Corps is continuing its outreach to the public as the U.S. Navy engages with a half dozen museums about a possible permanent home for CSS Georgia artifacts. A documentary by Michael Jordan about the vessel’s history, its use as a floating battery to defend Savannah, and dives and recovery of the CSS Georgia over the decades should be released to schools and libraries by the end of the year.