Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Longstreet memorial service is Jan. 10

James Longstreet
As is their custom, the Sons of Confederate Veterans #1860 (Blue Ridge Rifles) in Dahlonega, Ga., and the Longstreet Society will be remembering the life of Gen. James Longstreet at a Jan. 10 memorial service in Gainesville, Ga.

The ceremony is set for 1 p.m. at Alta Vista Cemetery, where the Confederate general was laid to rest after his Jan. 2, 1904, death at age 82. The public also is welcome to an open house that follows at the Longstreet Society's headquarters, the old Piedmont Hotel, 827 Maple St., Gainesville. Refreshments will be served. Longstreet ran the hotel for several years. 

The society defends and promotes the legacy of one of Lee's Lieutenants. Members believe he was the scapegoat for what went wrong at Gettysburg and the South's loss.

Previous Longstreet coverage:
-- Granddaughter fought to vindicate him 
-- Southern-fried Longstreet, Part 1
-- Part 2: Vilification and vindication

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Legendary Civil War locomotive Texas moved

The 1856 Texas locomotive, famous for being the pursuer in the Great Locomotive Chase during the Civil War, is on the move again. The Atlanta History Center is sending the rare locomotive to the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer, N.C., to restore it for static display. The Texas for nearly 90 years was at the Cyclorama in the city’s Grant Park. It and the namesake mural of the Battle of Atlanta are being moved. • Article

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Sultana disaster: Sister, brother recall learning of tragedy in family's long U.S. history

(Photos courtesy of Ely family)

David and Sharon Ely grew up as proud descendants of four brothers who came to the colonies only decades after the Mayflower Pilgrims landed on the shores of Massachusetts.

And while they could trace their family’s long American history to English ancestors who settled in Boston and Connecticut, it was only as young adults that they learned the full story of perhaps the most famous Ely of them all.

Sgt. John Clark Ely, an Ohio schoolteacher, was among 1,800 passengers – most of them Union soldiers released from prison camps – to die in the April 1865 explosion and fire on the steamboat Sultana above Memphis. It was the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history.

What made Ely notable, according to Sultana author Jerry Potter, is that he maintained a journal that includes entries on the journey up the Mississippi River.

Sgt. John Clark Ely
To my knowledge, his diary is the only one that is in existence,” Potter recently told the Picket. “While we have many accounts written later, his is the only one that we have that gives a day-to-day account leading up to the disaster. Plus, he is one of the few buried at the (Memphis) national cemetery with a headstone with his name. Finally, he became my hero who through his own words I got to know him.”

Sharon Ely Pearson, 60, of Norwalk, Ct.; and David Ely, 57, of Alameda, Calif.; recalled learning the details of their great-great-grandfather’s Civil War experiences.

Their late father, Clifford Seth Ely Jr., and Clifford’s cousin, Norman Ely, had some of the soldier’s belongings – including one of two journals (the other is lost) and a Bible -- and began doing research. Norman had a chess set that was carved by John Clark Ely.

Norman Ely told the Picket in 2012 that the cousins and their wives traveled to a reunion of Sultana descendants. They visited Andersonville, the prison in Georgia where John Clark Ely was held shortly after his December 1864 capture in Tennessee.

Norman Ely's mother told him about the small diary, which captures the soldier's despair, anguish, privations -- and hope. Ely said he became interested in the family's genealogy later in life.

"The fact that he went through this ordeal, the fact that he died there and left four children is very sad," he said. (Norman Ely, of Glenwood Springs, Colo., passed away in March 2013)

Pages from the diary recovered after Sultana disaster (Ely family)

Sharon Ely Pearson said she is not sure how John Clark Ely got to Ohio. He was born in Franklinville, N.Y. His widow, Julia, returned to Norwalk, where she died in 1873.

Clifford and Norman Ely pursued their interest in the Sultana while retired, and they set about writing their own memories.

Pearson was in her 20s when she heard of the diary. “My Dad didn’t share that kind of stuff.”

Pearson has since pursued an interest in genealogy and has wandered through cemeteries. “I think it’s very cool. It is not just my side. I have done on my husband’s side, too. We are New Englanders.”

(Courtesy of David Ely)

David Ely, retired from the U.S. Coast Guard, has a daily reminder of John Clark Ely’s Civil War service and sacrifice. On a wall of his home is a collage of photos of men in his family. From left:

-- John Clark Ely, Civil War

-- Clark Mead Ely, John’s son

-- Clifford Mead Ely Sr., Clark’s son and a U.S. Army veteran of World War I, European campaign

-- Clifford Seth Ely Jr., David and Sharon’s father, U.S. Navy, 1943-1946, Pacific campaign. He died in October 2013.

David and Sharon did not participate in observances this year marking the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the Sultana and are not active in the descendants group. They are busy with other matters. But nearly a decade ago, David made mention of John Clark Ely during a Memorial Day observation.

“It was Memorial Day and I brought the frame and four photographs and talked about the sacrifices our service members do. Sometimes, it is not in the heat of battle that they give their lives. But in this case, it can tell a story of men who were released from prison at end of war and on the way home to families, making that journey -- how tragedy strikes.”

Quilt made by Trinette Ely

One of last things he did with his father was to visit the Gettysburg battlefield. Clifford Ely’s late wife, Trinette, made a quilt honoring those on board the Sultana.

“It is inspiring to have that connection. The Ely came over in the 1600s from England but we don’t know much about a lot of the individuals, except for John Clark,” David Ely said. “The diary and story of Sultana is a very strong connection to the Civil War to our family …Now there is an incredible story.”

The surviving journal provides vivid details of the soldier’s transit to and time in Confederate prison camps.

Clifford Ely, who was a businessman in Norwalk, told the Picket in 2012 he was touched by his ancestor's time at Andersonville. "There was a lot of sickness around. Other people stole things from him. It was just a sad thing, day by day. People tried to escape, (but) he never did."

"He had all the great hopes. He couldn't wait to get home," Clifford Ely said. "When he got on the steamboat, he kept writing to her (Julia)."

Sgt. John Clark Ely, Company C, 115th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, boarded the overcrowded Sultana near Vicksburg, Ms. His last diary entry, written two days later, read: “Very fine day, still upward we go.”

Sharon Ely Pearson said her great-great-grandfather should have lived to see his family. Instead, he would perish in the April 27, 1865, disaster.

“It was sad and tragic, but so typical for what happened in the Civil War,” she said.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

N.C. history center collecting stories

The North Carolina Civil War History Center in Fayetteville announced plans to collect 100 family Civil War stories from each of the 100 counties of the state. Everyone who provides a story automatically becomes a founding member of the center through December 2016. • Press release

Friday, December 11, 2015

A Christmas at Appomattox: Surrender site in Virginia to show off improvements

Turkey wreath adorns a wall at Appomattox (NPS photo)

The folks at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park in southern Virginia are offering holiday cheer and punch Sunday at a free event that will show off greenery and park additions since this time last year.

“People will see the village dressed out for Christmas,” said Ernie Price, chief of education and visitor services. “We will have an ornament-making station targeting kids.”

Appomattox, of course, is the site of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865.

History buffs will have plenty to chew on at the open house, enjoying improvements made for this past April’s 150th observance of the surrender. “If you haven’t been here for a year, there are a lot of things to check out,” Price told the Picket.

Exhibit erected for sesquicentennial of surrender (NPS)

Upstairs in the visitor center – which is in the middle of the village -- is the traditional museum, featuring exhibits on Federal cavalry. Downstairs is a floor-to-ceiling trapezoidal exhibit case put in for the sesquicentennial. It includes the battle flag of the 9th Virginia Cavalry, a U.S. flag draped on President Abraham Lincoln’s coffin in Philadelphia during his funeral procession, and accoutrements belonging to Union Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan, who bottled Lee up at Appomattox.

Visitors can take in “With Malice Toward None,” a 14-minute film that debuted in March. It is an overview of the campaign, the meeting of Lee and Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, parole passes, the Confederate stacking of arms during the surrender, and the effects of the war, including the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, which were meant to ensure equality for emancipated slaves.

Wreath made of tobacco leaves

The most well-known structure at the park is the McLean House, where Lee and Grant met to discuss the surrender terms. The home’s kitchen has a tribute to U.S. Colored Troops.
“We are working toward getting something in the main museum. It is so packed right now,” said Price.

African-American soldiers in the XXV Corps were involved in the campaign, and two brigades fought at Appomattox on the morning of April 9, 1865, the day of the surrender. “There were casualties that were taken,” said Price.

Bocock-Isbell home
County jail after restoration work (NPS photos)

In the last year, work has been done on the Bocock-Isbell house and the county jail. Upcoming is restoration of the Meeks stable and the Peers house.

The Appomattox Garden Club, per tradition, has been decorating the village for Christmas by using period-correct wreaths. The open house, Price said, is a good time in particular for local residents to see the changes.

The open house is from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 13. Admission is free that day. The park is open Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 434-352-8987, ext. 226, for more information.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Project in Columbia, S.C., river thus far finds no dumped Confederate munitions

A cleanup project in Columbia, S.C., thus far has yielded no remnants of captured Confederate munitions that were believed to have been thrown into a river.

“We recently completed the first phase of the Congaree River remediation project, during which several hundred metallic objects were removed from the soil along the shoreline,” Ginny Jones, senior public affairs specialist for SCANA, parent company of utility SCE&G, said earlier this week.

Gervais Street bridge (NPS)

“None of the objects were of historical significance. Recent heavy flooding washed a significant amount of silt onto the project site, adding a layer of complexity to the challenge of remediating the soil below,” Jones told the Picket.

Since early October, the region has dealt with the effects of heavy rainfall and flooding. The search for the metallic objects began in late September.

The State newspaper has reported that sonar and metal detection have located where the weapons were likely dumped into the Congaree River near the Gervais Street bridge. But no one is certain the objects are associated with the Civil War.

Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman
, on his way to North Carolina after seizing the South Carolina capital, kept what he wanted of Confederate ordnance and threw the rest into the river in February 1865.

SCE&G is conducting a remediation project in the Congaree River because of the detected presence of tar. It says tests show it to be coal tar created by manufactured gas plants that operated throughout Columbia more than century ago.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Plucky Cockspur lighthouse at Fort Pulaski gets help in fight against newer dangers

(NPS photo)

As lighthouses go, the sentinel on Georgia’s Cockspur Island is diminutive, measuring only 46 feet from base to the top of its cupola.

But don’t underestimate this structure, which has endured high tides, hurricanes, waves from ever-growing container ships, careless individuals, vandals and – for a deafening 30 hours – the bombardment of nearby Fort Pulaski during the Civil War.

The Cockspur light’s masonry base was built in the shape of a ship’s prow to deflect the forces that have worn away at her, consuming much of the small island that serves as its foundation. And while her light was extinguished more than a century ago, the beloved beacon exudes charm for boaters and those making the trek on U.S. 80 from Savannah to Tybee Island.

“She really is a tough lady,” said Harvey Ferrelle, head of the Friends of Cockspur Island Lighthouse, a group that works with the National Park Service staff at Fort Pulaski National Monument – which manages the lighthouse -- to preserve and protect the structure.

Robert Knox Sneden map (Library of Congress)

Remarkably, the lighthouse suffered little or no damage during the April 10, 1862, Union bombardment of Fort Pulaski. Crews manning 36 guns on 11 batteries stretching along the western end of Tybee Island likely used the lighthouse for sighting as they pounded away at the fort located about 1 mile beyond.

“Not much point to aiming at the lighthouse,” said Charlie Crawford, who as president of the Georgia Battlefields Association has led tours of Civil War sites in the Savannah area. “If the Federals could capture the port, the lighthouse would be useful.”

While the lighthouse weathered the war and helped mariners for a couple more generations, age and exposure to elements have taken a toll.

A new round of maintenance and restoration is expected to begin this Monday (Dec. 7). Ferrelle said he expects professionals and volunteers to repoint and clean interior bricks, put in a new door and seal glass and other fittings. Work on weakened wrought-iron railing will take place later.

Fort Pulaski’s Joel Cadoff said the friends group raised $25,000 for lighthouse protection through a Centennial Challenge Grant and the NPS matched it. A full restoration of the lighthouse would require much more funding.

The help can’t come soon enough for the Cockspur Island Lighthouse and island, which were recently closed to the public. NPS officials cited the precarious ecological situation and increased vandalism.

Fort Pulaski is a mile beyond the lighthouse (NPS)

In 2013, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers placed boulders and rip-rap on the island to counter tides and higher shipping waves. The stabilization project also helped establish a base for oyster bed restoration, with the distribution of about three tons of oyster shells.

“If left alone, they will reproduce and the stack will form new oysters,” said Ferrelle. “People have been trampling on the oysters we left there.”

Ferrelle, who operates a boat-based tour company, said before the closure people were seen hanging over the sides or sitting on top of the cupola.

Some people who paddled up to the island at low tide disregarded signs and went inside. A fall from the top, Ferrelle said, would have a single consequence: “They won’t get hurt. They’ll get dead.”

Eventually, officials would like to see the lighthouse and island reopen to visitors. The goal, Ferrelle said, is to “maintain her as a historic place and a treasure. It’s not just a toy you go out and goof around with.”

War comes to coastal Savannah

The South Channel of the Savannah River was the prime gateway to Savannah in its early years. One brick tower, used as a landmark, was built on Cockspur Island between 1837 and 1839. A major upgrade came about a decade later when an illuminated station was built. That tower has a focal plane 25 feet above sea level, according to the NPS.

A hurricane leveled the lighthouse in 1854 and a new tower was rebuilt the next year. The dawn of the Civil War brought a temporary extinguishment of its light.

Remnants of Battery Halleck (Picket photo)

Then the war itself came to Cockspur Island, home to Fort Pulaski.

The Union’s strategy was to put a chokehold on Southern commerce by controlling ports and coastal areas, including this area next to the Atlantic Ocean. Federal soldiers landed at Tybee Island and set about preparing for an attack on Fort Pulaski, a brick guardian just a few miles to the west.

Col. Olmsted
Capt. Quincy A. Gillmore, a Federal engineer officer, began the bombardment on April 10, 1862, after Col. Charles H. Olmstead refused to surrender.

“The Federal batteries were 1,500 to 4,000 yards away from the fort,” Crawford said. “Part of Battery Halleck is still discernible on the south side of the road. Had the Federals chosen to aim at the lighthouse, the closest batteries would have been about 700 yards from it.”

The Confederate garrison at Fort Pulaski would learn first-hand about advances in technology.

“When Fort Pulaski was built (1830s, with Robert E. Lee as one of the principal engineers), the rifled gun was not around, so thick masonry walls were the best type of fortification, and the distance to Tybee Island would prevent any 1830s-era gun from getting close enough to do significant damage,” said Crawford. “By 1862, the James Rifles blasted apart the walls relatively quickly.”

Rifled shot pulverized Fort Pulaski (Picket photo)

The situation steadily grew worse.

“When the breach on the southeast bastion allowed the Federals to shoot across the parade ground and start bouncing shells off the temporary wood wall in front of the powder magazine, Olmsted knew that a potentially catastrophic explosion was likely,” said Crawford. He surrendered on April 11.

Pulaski remained in Federal hands and the city fell in December 1864 in the closing months of the conflict. About a year after the war’s end, on April 25, 1866, the beacon was relit and painted white for continued use as an navigational aid.

A storm in 1881 destroyed the keeper’s residence and the surge filled the lighthouse interior with seawater. The plucky tower remained in duty for another three decades, but the writing was on its walls.

To accommodate large freighters, the Savannah port routed vessels to the deep, more navigable North Channel. Effective June 1, 1909, the beacon light was snuffed. Its Fresnel light is long gone.

Today, an overlook trail offers Pulaski visitors the closest look at the lighthouse.

Stairs lack safety rail in lighthouse (NPS photo)

Taking it for granted

Nature’s assault on the lighthouse has continued, with officials fighting back against the effects of erosion and shipworms on wooden support timbers.

In 2008, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation put the lighthouse on its annual list of 10 "Places in Peril."

Cadoff said short-term needs include work on the exterior envelope, floor surface, stair, interior wall cleaning, repointing, and all other metal and wood work conservation. Ferrelle, of the nonprofit friends group, said he expects a new, secure door will be placed in the structure. The interior stairway has no railing, another reason officials have been concerned about safety.

Concerns about erosion extend to the wharf area north of the fort itself. A recent project brought in tons of dredged sand.

Savannah Technical College is helping in the latest lighthouse effort, and the Savannah Community Foundation assists the friends group in fund-raising.

The friends group has been in existence officially since 2008. Ferrelle, a lifelong Savannah resident, said it became apparent the Cockspur Island Lighthouse needed more than a dash of TLC.

(NPS photos)

“It is one of those things you take for granted,” he said. “It is just part of the scenery. It became a great place to go fishing.”

He said he is concerned about a trend of higher tides that hammer away at the tower’s foundation. Water comes up over the doorway a couple of times a year. A better door and sealed bricks will help fight the effects, he said.

Until deeper federal and private funding is secured, work on the lighthouse sometimes feels like triage.

“We have to do maintenance that will keep her in good state while looking out for the long term,” said Ferrelle.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Quite a find while doing some cleaning

The Maryland State Fire Marshal bomb squad reported to an address in Sharpsburg after a man said he found Civil War-era weapons in his basement. The homeowner told investigators that he was cleaning his basement when he discovered the items. The Battle of Antietam occurred nearby. • Article