Friday, March 30, 2012

Resolving a generations-old mystery

Splashes of paint or blood from a dying soldier?

The 1850s floor boards of the Harper House at Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site in Four Oaks, N.C., will soon yield their secrets after a forensic team recently took stain samples at the structure, which served as the Union army’s XIV Corps hospital during the three-day battle of Bentonville fought in March 1865.

Nearly 600 soldiers from both armies were treated in and around the home. The last major Confederate offensive of the war was launched at the battlefield. The Union prevailed.

Researchers hope that testing of numerous stains will result in the cataloguing of any potential DNA found into a database for descendents of Bentonville veterans to compare with their own DNA.

State officials expect to have results back by July.

Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.

Shiloh re-enactments this weekend

The bloody 1862 Civil War battle of Shiloh in Tennessee will be commemorated with a series of events through early April. • Article

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

They didn't truly fire blind on Ft. Jackson

Verve and a mathematical calculations enabled Union mortar boats to fire on Fort Jackson -- a guardian fort below New Orleans -- outside the Rebel line of fire. The success helped paved the way for the taking of the largest city in the Confederacy.

NOAA, in an article released Tuesday, provides details of the survey work of Coast Survey Assistant Ferdinand Gerdes, who it calls one of the unsung heroes of the Civil War.

Gerdes was employed by the U.S. Coast Survey, predecessor of NOAA.

Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip, two Confederate forts essential to New Orleans’ defense, were located on opposite sides of the Mississippi 70 miles south of the city. Commander David Dixon Porter (below) got permission to damage their guns.

"By relying on mathematical calculations — using survey coordinate points established by Coast Survey teams, rather than judging distance by sight — Gerdes would give coordinates to Union flotilla gunboats so they could aim their weapons without seeing the target," NOAA said.

Gerdes' team, under fire, established survey markers on the shore and made maps and charts. They measured a series of small triangles.

On April 18, 1862, Union boats began their attack on Fort Jackson. Over the next six days, an estimated 4,000 mortar shells rained on the fort.

"When the Confederates discovered where the shells were coming from and started firing back, the boats would have to move, which meant additional surveying — again, often under fire," according to NOAA.

WIth the help of damaging bombardments, the Union fleet, which included 6,000 troops, under Adm. David Farragut was able to get by the forts, chain barriers and a Confederate ironclad. Demoralized troops at Fort Jackson mutinied and both forts surrendered just days later. New Orleans, a key port, fell to Farragut's expedition.

Map credit: Plan of Fort Jackson, NOAA Coast Survey sketch, from the Coast Survey historical collection

Collection of Civil War maps, charts and documents

Monday, March 26, 2012

Chickamauga redoing film for visitors

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park is hoping for a record number of visitors over the next two years as it marks the 150th anniversary of campaigns in the area. Officials are redoing their film about Chattanooga's Civil War importance. "The [current] film was completed in the 1990s, so it's close to 20 years old," Superintendent Cathy Cook said. • Article

Friday, March 23, 2012

Lab tries to identify USS Monitor remains

Scientists hope the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the ironclad Monitor during the Civil War will help identity two sets of remains at a Hawaii military lab. The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam has been working to identify the remains since they were recovered in 2002. They are looking for DNA submissions. • Article (Photo courtesy Louisiana State University)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Update on Andrews Raid anniversary events

A string of cities and communities along the path of the Great Locomotive Chase in north Georgia have planned an array of events to mark the 150th anniversary. The Picket updates its December post, providing all the latest details. • Article

Monday, March 19, 2012

Tennessee man's working model captures every detail of ill-fated Sultana

Second of three parts (Read part one)

An advanced model builder must have an eye for detail, a mind sharpened by research and hands that can fashion the smallest of parts.

His most important attribute, perhaps, might be patience.

Over three years, Bill Gray of Cleveland, Tenn., built a 1/96 scale working model of the Sultana, a steamboat paddle wheeler that was rocked by a boiler explosion and caught fire on April 27, 1865, a few miles north of Memphis, Tenn.

An estimated 1,800 of its nearly 2,400 passengers died -- the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. By comparison, just over 1,500 people went down on the Titanic in April 1912.

Most of the unfortunate souls aboard the overcrowded boat were freed Union prisoners of war en route to repatriation in Ohio and, then, home. The model was built in memory of Madison Hysinger, the great-great uncle of Gray's wife. Hysinger died in the incident; his body was never recovered.

The 36-inch radio-controlled operating model is on exhibit through March 25 (Sunday) in Marion, Ark., not far from where the real vessel burned and went down in the Mississippi River. The exhibit also features a few artifacts from the Sultana, photos, reunion pins, newspaper articles and other items.

Gray, who did not use a kit, worked from plans drawn up by David Meagher.

“I made all the parts by hand," said Gray, 68. "I had to build it with tweezers.”

He utilized plywood, spruce, other woods, plastic and metal on the model, which was completed in 2009. “Detailing takes the most time.”

Gray crafted a stairway, doors, potbelly stove, windows -- everything. The padde wheels (left) alone took 12 hours each to build.

“The bell is carved out of wood and painted bronze," Gray told the Picket last week. "There is simulated fire and flames in the boiler. They are flickering lights from an HL gauge train set. You can get a lot of material from railroad train stores.”

Electric motors power the paddle wheels. The actual Sultana used a rudder, and the crew could reverse one engine and make the other go forward to make tight turns and maneuvers.

The speedy Sultana was 260 feet long and was only a few years old when it made its last fateful voyage down to New Orleans and back up to Vicksburg, Ms., where it picked up its large load of soldiers. From there, it steamed toward the Ohio River, never to complete its trip.

“It was a very nice boat," said Gray, who grew up in Chattanooga, about 30 miles southwest of Cleveland. "It was well-built.”

Gray, who owns a welding and fabrication business, has taken the model to annual meetings of the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends. It will be on display at this year's gathering April 27-28 in Cincinnati.

“I run it at a pond at my house. It’s too fragile to travel much.”

The model can notch a cruising speed of about four or five miles per hour, he said.

Gray has built several paddle wheel steamboats. He currently is constructing a 1/32 replica of the USS Chattanooga, used by the Union in the "Cracker (supply) Line" in Chattanooga.

Three of Gray's ancestors fought for the Confederacy, two dying at the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee. Many people in eastern Tennessee, however, fought for the Union.

Hysinger, who was married but had no children, was a member of the 3rd Tennesee Calvary, Company H.

“There was nine people from Bradley County we know of on board the Sultana (above), all Union soldiers, released from Cahaba and Andersonville (prisons)," according to Gray. Only one survived the catastrophe.

Gray supports plans to build a permanent museum or exhibit on the Sultana in Marion, and said the model will go to the collection after he and his wife have passed away.

He may lend the model to a couple museums during the Civil War sesquicentennial.

Historians and descendants lament the fact that few Americans know about the Sultana disaster. It occurred shortly after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston had just surrendered a large Confederate army in North Carolina and a war-weary country was trying to move on.

“I hope the younger people take an interest in it," said Gray.

Model photos courtesy of Bill Gray. Top photo is of Gray; the late Glenna Jenkins Green, daughter of Samuel Jenkins, a Sultana survivor; and Glenna's daughter, Judy Green Vaughan. Sultana photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. The Sultana exhibit runs through March 25 at the Bella Vista Commons #3, 2895 Highway 77, Marion, Ark. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays-Saturdays; 1-5 p.m. on Sundays. It's free but donations are accepted. Call 870-739-6041 for more information. The Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends will be having its 25th annual reunion in Cincinnati on April 27 (Friday) and April 28 (Saturday). For more information, contact Norman Shaw at

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Spotlight on Museum of the Confederacy

The commemoration of the Civil War's 150th anniversary is a welcome gift for the Museum of the Confederacy, bringing rare attention to a Richmond institution whose attendance has softened in the past two decades. Later this month, the museum wil opens its branch in Appomattox, site of Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender. Spokesman Sam Craghead said the museum is trying to tell the story of a phase of American history. "If you're going to learn from history, you have to know everything." • Article

Friday, March 16, 2012

Guilty plea in theft of coins

A former tour guide at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis was ordered to serve three years of probation after pleading guilty to stealing six Civil War-era coins valued at $18,844. • Article

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Booth bobblehead yanked at Gettysburg

Bobblehead dolls of the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln have been pulled from sale at the Gettysburg National Military Park visitors’ center bookstore. The dolls of John Wilkes Booth with a handgun were removed from shelves on Saturday, a day after a reporter asked about them, officials said. • Article

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Va. is for wine lovers (who like history)

A little chardonnay with your Chancellorsville?

Twenty-three Virginia wineries are taking part in a travel passport program intended to drum up interest in that industry and the state's observance of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and emancipation.

"The attractive passport is pocket-sized and has a page for each of the 23 wineries including room for tasting notes, a description of the featured wines, images of the labels and a list of nearby battlefields," according to the Virginia Tourism Corp.

A fold-out state map pinpoints 42 historic sites. Visitors carrying the passport can have them stamped at each participating winery, according to a press release issued Monday.

More details on the program

Monday, March 12, 2012

Outer Banks exhibit: Of farms, fishing, freedmen -- and the Civil War

Miles Creef’s family has plucked seafood from the brackish sounds of North Carolina’s Outer Banks for generations, scooping up oysters, shad and larger fish within sight of vacation homes. From mid-April to mid-June, fishermen net female “soft shell” Blue crabs, a delicacy often served up on sandwiches.

Creef’s great-great-grandfather, Nathaniel Shannon, made his living by farming and fishing.

Like many residents of Roanoke Island, Shannon felt a kinship with shipping centers along the East Coast.

“It was easier to sail to Baltimore than to get to Raleigh,” said Sarah Downing, assistant curator of the Outer Banks History Center, located on an island best known as the location of Sir Walter Raleigh's "Lost Colony" in the late 16th century.

The family’s quiet way of life was disturbed in February 1862, when an expedition under Union Brig. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside (below) sailed to the sparsely-populated island, beginning a bombardment (above) of a much smaller Confederate force.

Nathaniel Shannon, a widower with a boy and girl, decided to act.

“To avoid the fighting, he was forced to move out of his house. Family lore said he carried my great-grandfather (John) in his arms across the island,” said Creef, who lives in Wanchese, on the south end of Roanoke.

Creef’s ancestors are among those featured in an exhibit, “The Civil War Comes to Roanoke Island: Fishers, Fighters, & Freedmen,” which opened earlier this month at the history center in Manteo and runs through Dec. 30.

It aims to tell the stories of local watermen and farmers, sailors
and soldiers, and thousands of blacks who flocked to the island for protection during the Union occupation.

Burnside's expedition had several Confederate installations as objectives, including Roanoke.

“The Confederates were fortifying the island. They knew how important it was to control the island and waterways,” Downing told the Picket.

Burnside had about 7,500 troops at his disposal for the landing. They were pitted against forces under Brig. Gen. Henry Wise, former Virginia governor (left).

The Federals, following a bombardment, landed Feb. 7 on the southwestern side of Roanoke Island in an amphibious operation.

“The next morning, supported by gunboats, the Federals assaulted the Confederate forts on the narrow waist of the island, driving back and out-maneuvering Wise’s outnumbered command,” reads a National Park Service summary of the battle. “After losing less than 100 men, the Confederate commander on the field, Col. H.M. Shaw, surrendered about 2,500 soldiers and 32 guns. Burnside had secured an important outpost on the Atlantic Coast, tightening the blockade.”

Union losses were 37 dead, 214 wounded and 13 missing, for a total of 264. The Confederates suffered 23 dead and 58 wounded before the surrender.

Among those in the Confederate force was Creef’s great-great uncle, a member of the 8th North Carolina Infantry.

Roanoke Island, and several other islands and cities on the Outer Banks, remained under Union occupation for the balance of the war. “The Union commandeered all the housing for their officers,” said Creef.

During that time, Roanoke Island became home to thousands of blacks, both free and former slaves, who flocked to the area for protection during uncertain war times. Some of the land used for the colony was taken from local fishermen.

“Representatives of the national Freedmen’s Bureau, assisted by northern missionaries, worked at settling, educating and employing the freedmen, in one of the greatest social experiments of its time,” according to the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.

Labeling the slaves as “Contraband of War”, the Union Army emancipated them, offering a new start on the island, the park service says. As many as 4,000 former slaves lived on the island.

They assisted the Union troops in rebuilding forts on Roanoke and Hatteras Islands as well as New Bern and other strategic areas in North Carolina. They also served as cooks, woodcutters, teamsters, longshoremen, carpenters, and blacksmiths. The colony, however, never became truly self-sufficient. (National Park Service photo below of typical Freedmen's Colony school)

Descendants of many freedmen live on Roanoke Island and neighboring communities today.

Nathanial Shannon never did move back to his old home when the war ended. Years after the war, the Southern Claims Commission awarded him $100 in restitution, although Creef, 57, does not know whether it was for the home the family lost or for timber or other farm products.

Creef has spent several years studying his family’s genealogy.

“Every bit of the history intrigues me," he told the Picket.

Downing said the small exhibit includes farming artifacts and items from the Battle of Roanoke Island, including bullets, buckles and artillery rounds. It also features a film and examples of camp life.

The Outer Banks History Center, more of an archives and research center than a museum, reaches out to both tourists who flock to nearby beaches and residents.

“So many visitors had no idea any Civil War activity took place in this area," Downing said.

Bombardment illustration and map courtesy of Outer Banks History Center collections. The free exhibit is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week, 1 Festival Park Boulevard, Manteo, NC 27954.

Outer Banks History Center

Friday, March 9, 2012

Reader IDs Rebel soldier in portrait

The photograph shows a young Confederate soldier posing proudly in an elegant uniform, a pistol in his belt and a saber in his hand. But scholars at the Library of Congress, which was given the photo last year, had no idea who he was. A Washington Post reader saw the image in an LOC ad and identified him. • Article

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Cannon loaned to N.C. museum

A Confederate cannon seized during the Battle of New Bern is back in North Carolina in time for the 150th anniversary of the skirmish. Amherst College in Massachusetts loaned the cannon to the N.C. Museum of History, which will display it until June 2015. • Article

Monday, March 5, 2012

Stopping by Ulysses S. Grant Memorial

I made a quick visit this past weekend to Washington, D.C., joining the tourist hordes in the nation's capital.

These are shots of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial on the west front of the Capitol, overlooking the National Mall. Click them to enlarge. Saturday morning was a bit overcast.

Grant is astride his favorite war horse, Cincinnati. The general, an excellent horseman, rode Cincinnati to negotiate Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

Cincinnati was a large horse and a gift from an admirer.

At the base of the huge statue are panels depicting infantry.

The other two shots are of cavalary. I did not, alas, take a photo of an artillery statue to Grant's left.

Grant, in addition to his key role during the Civil War, served 18th president of the United States. The memorial was dedicated in 1922 on his birthday, April 27.

It was sculpted by Henry Merwin Shrady and designed by William Pearce Casey.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Facial reconstructions to be unveiled

When the turret of the USS Monitor was raised from the ocean bottom, two skeletons and the tattered remnants of their uniforms were discovered in the rusted hulk of the Union Civil War ironclad. Now, thanks to forensic reconstruction, the two have faces. The facial reconstructions were released in Washington in a bid to identify them. • Article

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Sultana: Exhibit this month recalls largest maritime disaster in U.S. history

First of three parts (Read part two)

When the RMS Titanic sank in the Atlantic Ocean 100 years ago, news of the horrific loss reverberated quickly around the world. Newsboys hawked updates fed by telegraphs. Americans were riveted by stories of heroism and tragedy.

The SS Sultana, which went down 47 years before, with the staggering loss of 1,800 souls, got hardly any attention.

America was weary of the Civil War and was still mourning President Abraham Lincoln, assassinated fewer than three weeks before.

“It’s not taught in the history books,” says Diane McAdoo, director of the Marion, Ark., Chamber of Commerce.

This month, the largest maritime disaster in U.S. history is the subject of an exhibit in Marion, a few miles from where the Sultana sank in the early hours of April 27, 1865.

The steamboat, packed with Union soldiers, many of them freed prisoners, was traveling the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn., to St. Louis.

The March 6-25 exhibit, sponsored by the chamber and city, includes a DVD account, a replica model of the boat, photographs, reunion ribbons, newspapers, pins and an assortment of items unique to the wreckage, including a wooden comb and a unique box made by a survivor.

The exhibit is free, but donations are requested so that a permanent home for the collection can be constructed before the wreck’s 150th anniversary.

The Sultana sank near Mound City, Ark., just a few miles north of Memphis. The Mississippi River has shifted course many times over the years and the site is actually beneath a soybean field.

About 2,400 passengers packed a vessel that had a capacity of fewer than 400. At least one faulty boiler exploded, flinging passengers into the chilly river. Many of the estimated 600 survivors died of burns in the following weeks.

Local residents assisted in the rescue efforts, but they were delayed.

“They had to actually build a raft because the Union soldiers had burned all their boats (on the river) and sank them” during the war, McAdoo told the Picket.

The exhibit includes a book written by a survivor, featuring accounts of others on board the doomed Sultana. The wooden comb was fashioned by a soldier while he was a prisoner at Andersonville, McAdoo said.

But the real talker likely will be a small, cigar box-shaped container.

According to accounts, the captain of the boat kept an alligator in the hull. After the explosion, soldier William Lugenbeal killed the alligator in order to use the crate that held it as a flotation device. Later, he made a box from the wood and etched an image of the reptile and the following words:

“Saved by a alligator.”

Exhibit photos courtesy of the Marion Chamber of Commerce. Sultana photos courtesy of Library of Congress. The exhibit runs March 6-25 at the Bella Vista Commons #3, 2895 Highway 77, Marion, Ark. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays-Saturdays; 1-5 p.m. on Sundays. It's free but donations are accepted. Call 870-739-6041 for more information. Also, the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends will be having its 25th annual reunion in Cincinnati on April 27 (Friday) and April 28 (Saturday). For more information, contact Norman Shaw at

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Medicine museum partners with businesses

A century and a half ago, many of Frederick’s downtown buildings served as hospitals to care for wounded soldiers from both sides of the Civil War. Merchants in the Maryland city were urged recently to use that connection to bring in tourists. • Article
Picket profile of Civil War medicine museum