Sunday, March 31, 2019

Wilson's Creek visitor center to expand

A $4.5 million project will make room for more Civil War-era artifacts at the site of the first major battle west of the Mississippi River. The project will add 1,873 square feet of exhibit space to the visitor center at the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield in southwest Missouri. There were an estimated 1,200 Union and 1,100 Confederate casualties at the site in August 1861. Fundraising got a major boost last week when Bass Pro Shops donated $25,000 to help jump-start a $300,000 local campaign, the Springfield News-Leader reported. • Article

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Re-enacting garrison life at Fort Monroe

As many as 175 living historians -- donning Civil War uniforms, other period attire and stances -- will set up camp on Fort Monroe in Virginia this weekend to pay tribute to the garrison life on the former military post. The National Park Service is hosting the festival called “The Garrison Life at Fort Monroe: A Gathering of Steel for the Peninsula Campaign, 1862.” The event, in its fourth year, will be staged on the parade grounds near Quarters No. 1 and other areas within the 565-acre property. • Article

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Treasured chest: Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson items, long kept at an Ohio farm, are part of new Atlanta Cyclorama exhibits

Chest and belt plate (Courtesy of Perry Adams Antiques)

The death of Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson, the only Union army commander to be killed in battle during the Civil War, wasn’t just a deep and sorrowful loss to his troops and commanders, Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. His was a young life so full of promise – with many believing he might have helped to bind the country’s wounds once the conflict ended.

Maj. Gen. McPherson
That promise died on July 22, 1864, when McPherson, 35, was shot from his saddle by a Confederate infantryman during the Battle of Atlanta.

His remains were returned to his hometown of Clyde, Ohio, amid great national mourning that extended to the White House. Many foes in the Confederate army, including West Point classmate John Bell Hood, also expressed grief.

McPherson’s 87-year-old grandmother wrote to Gen. Grant: His funeral services were attended in his mother’s orchard, where his youthful feet had often pressed the soil to gather the falling fruit; and his remains are resting in the silent grave scarce half a mile from the place of his birth. His grave is on an eminence but a few rods from where the funeral services were attended, and near the grave of his father.”

In addition to a grieving family and a fiancĂ©e, Emily Hoffman – who would never marry – McPherson left behind a number of personnel effects, including a travel (or campaign) chest, a captured Confederate canteen and the model 1851 belt plate he was said to be wearing on the day he died.

Now, nearly 155 years after those items made the sad journey to Ohio, they are back in Atlanta, exhibited with the newly restored Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama. The Atlanta History Center purchased the items late last year and the three artifacts are among the McPherson-associated artifacts on display in a gallery outside the painting rotunda.

New exhibit at the Atlanta History Center (Picket photo)

Gordon Jones, senior military historian at the history center, said McPherson was venerated across the country, including in Atlanta, where he led the Army of the Tennessee in battles that collectively spelled doom for the South’s military cause.

(Courtesy of Perry Adams Antiques)
“The first Civil War monument of any kind placed on an Atlanta battlefield was placed in his honor in 1877 by U.S. soldiers. That monument was adopted by the city of Atlanta to represent not only an iconic event, but also the unique wartime history of the city,” Jones told the Picket.

The monument to McPherson lies in the East Atlanta neighborhood, at the corner of McPherson and Monument avenues.

“Note Fort McPherson also named in his honor. Now you could say some of that was Southern bragging about killing the top U.S. general -- but a lot more of it was because of the story of his death, his friendship with Sherman, his fame and popularity, and the post-war desire in Atlanta for reconciliation between North and South.”

Exhibit includes bullet some say killed the general (Picket)

Final resting place for artifacts

The Atlanta History Center made the purchase through Perry Adams Antiques in Petersburg, Va., which detailed the fascinating postwar history of the trunk and other items on its website.

After McPherson’s death, the effects transferred to one of his brothers. Upon the latter’s death in 1877, the general’s nephew acquired them. But that man, in need of money, sold the items in 1924 to a family that lived outside Clyde. Perry Adams Antiques acquired the grouping when it attended the Ohio Civil War & Artillery Show and traveled to the family farm to view it.

“These effects are amongst the most important of Civil War artifacts we had the pleasure of offering,” the company said.

Co-owner Ben Greenbaum said the Atlanta History Center is the appropriate spot for the collection. Jones concurs: “McPherson' story almost certainly influenced the choice of this battle as the subject of a cyclorama, as opposed to all the others fought during the Atlanta Campaign.”

Detail of the Rebel canteen (Courtesy of Perry Adams Antiques)

Neither would disclose the sales price.

The small McPherson exhibit also includes the bullet that reputedly killed him and a post card with a photograph of the general, inset with a postwar scene of his death location. Those were already in the history center collection.

“We assume that McPherson had the trunk with him during the Atlanta Campaign; there is no provenance on the Confederate canteen, although it was not unusual for upper echelon officers to be presented with war souvenirs,” said Greenbaum.

Belt plate, canteen and campaign chest (Picket photo)

The trunk is similar to others in the history center’s holdings, down to the hardware and stencil lettering.

“It has obviously seen heavy use, has been repaired and has been in the family,” Jones said. “I don’t know for sure, but it probably (was) sent back to the family with his personal effects after he was killed.”

The cedar canteen, which has the original leather strap and roller buckle, features on one side the carved letters "McP.”

“That suggests to me that the general kept it as a souvenir much the same way a private soldier would,” Jones said. “On the other side of the canteen, someone has written ‘McPherson’ in pencil -- looks like a child's writing -- so I think that lettering was put there by a family member well after the war.”

Reverse side of the belt plate (Perry Adams Antiques)

Did bullet hit his belt plate?

One of the more curious items in the case is the belt plate (or buckle) that McPherson was wearing when he was killed, according to family tradition.

Slips of paper that came with the collection have handwritten notations indicating the triangular nick in the plate came from the fatal bullet.

It is known that McPherson was surprised to encounter Rebel troops as he rode to inspect the position of troops relatively early in the battle. He was said to have tipped his hat before swinging his horse around in order to make his escape.

Old note claims belt was hit by bullet (Perry Adams Antiques)

Charlie Crawford, president of the Georgia Battlefields Association, said McPherson was leaning forward on his horse when a Cpl. Robert Coleman of the 5th Confederate (Cleburne’s Division) fired a single shot. The bullet went upward and hit McPherson’s lung and heart or aorta, exiting the chest.

A placard at the Atlanta History Center says the nick did not come from the bullet.

“It may have resulted from the impact of a rock or other object when McPherson’s body hit the ground.”

Other items in the collection

The general’s hat, some papers he was carrying in his pocket and watch were believed to have been taken by Confederates.

(Perry Adams Antiques)
The collection once included a frock coat, which was sold years ago to an Ohio antiques dealer. (Greenbaum says he has no idea what became of it.)

It also has a carte de visite signed by McPherson, his mother’s wedding band and an earring, along with several postwar items.

Regarding the image of McPherson (right), Jones said that while it is not currently on exhibit, it will be rotated with the post card. “That's so we can keep the exhibit fresh but also to limit prolonged light exposure on these paper items.”

The 1886 painting only a few yards from the McPherson depicts Federal soldiers rushing to plug a gap made during a brief Confederate breakthrough. An ambulance bearing McPherson’s body slowly makes its way to Sherman’s headquarters, where he had visited with his boss in the morning on the day of his last ride.

What the nation lost

McPherson remains an example of young talent that seems snuffed out to early.

He benefited from being a protege of Halleck and Grant, which is not a bad thing, but his daily interactions with both made his talents more readily observable and more quickly rewarded then perhaps some others,” said Crawford.

(Courtesy of Perry Adams Antiques)

McPherson had performed well under Grant in the Fort Donelson, Shiloh and at Vicksburg, where he was a corps commander. By April 1864, he joined Sherman’s forces during the Atlanta Campaign. At Resaca he received some criticism for not making a vigorous attack on a smaller foe. Sherman said afterward, "Well, Mac, you've missed the chance of a lifetime." 

But he was a favorite of Sherman and Grant -- who called him one of the army's "ablest, purest and best generals" -- until the end.

Sherman cried upon hearing the news of his death. A letter he wrote to authorities about the loss included these lines:

“I, his associate and commander, fail in words adequate to express my opinion of his great worth. I feel assured that every patriot in America, on hearing this sad news, will feel a sense of personal loss, and the country generally will realize that we have lost, not only an able military leader but a man who, had he survived, was qualified to heal the national strife which has been raised by designing and ambitious men.”

Cyclorama detail shows ambulance with body (Atlanta History Center)

Monday, March 18, 2019

Flag carried by Maine regiment returns home

An American flag that a Maine regiment brought into battles in Louisiana and Texas during the Civil War has returned to its home state. The Portland Press Herald reports the torn and tattered 156-year-old flag has been delivered in a wooden frame to the Maine Military Museum in South Portland. The flag had been stored for years at the home of a Colorado woman who was married to the regiment commander's great-grandson. • Article

Saturday, March 9, 2019

They'll pay tribute to the famed 69th Infantry, Irish Brigade with cemetery ceremony


One week before it leads New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the National Guard’s 69th Infantry Regiment on Sunday morning (March 10) will honor those who fought for the famed Irish Brigade during the Civil War.

Current and past soldiers of the 1st Battalion will mark the graves of veterans who served in mostly Irish regiments with U.S. and Irish flags. The ceremony at Albany Rural Cemetery’s Soldiers’ Lot in Menands will include a wreath-laying ceremony at a Grand Army of the Republic monument.

A press release say the ceremony is meant to honor “the Irish immigrants that served in the Civil War's 69th Regiment, the Irish Brigade, and the Irish Legion to support their adopted country.

The Soldiers’ Lot was chosen because it bears the remains of several veterans, including Pvt. Bernard Trainor, who fled Ireland during the Great Famine.

He enlisted in the 69th one month before it fought at Antietam. According to the release half of the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry was killed or wounded in the battle. Trainor had a slight leg wound. He made it through Fredericksburg without injury amid high casualties.

“His luck finally ran out at Gettysburg in June 1863. By that time, the 69th was a shadow of its former self, deploying with less than one hundred soldiers. Trainor was severely wounded fighting in the notorious Wheatfield. He was discharged as a result of these wounds. He was likely sent to Albany to convalesce, where he died in 1868.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

This ironclad's fantail is an example of pure craftsmanship. The National Civil War Naval Museum wants to conserve it and the engines of another Confederate vessel

Inverted fantail of the CSS Jackson (Picket photos)

A Georgia museum is raising money to conserve the precisely built curved rear deck, or fantail, of the Confederate ironclad CSS Jackson. The section of armor and wood, which protected the vessel’s propellers and rudder, is a remarkable example of design and construction prowess.

The National Civil War Naval Museum has received the offer of a grant that will match up to $250,000 in contributions, said Jeff Seymour, director of history and collections.

Officials would like to conserve the fantail and build a replica to place near the remains of the giant hull. They also want to conserve the engines of the Rebel gunboat CSS Chattahoochee, the museum’s other star attraction.

Both ships were lost in April 1865 at war’s end -- the Jackson set afire by Federal captors and the Chattahoochee scuttled by its own crew. Neither vessel fired upon the enemy in their relatively short history.

CSS Chattahoochee engines (Picket photo)

The fantail and the Chattahoochee engine components are in an open pole barn outside the museum, where they have long been exposed to the elements and are slowly deteriorating. (Officials last year told the Ledger-Enquirer newspaper they didn’t have the money to bring them inside. The hulls of the two ships have been in the main building for nearly 20 years.)

Seymour calls the fantail “a very unique piece of naval architecture” that’s believed to be the only Civil War example currently out of the water. Because the rear deck was curved, builders had to customize the length of the armor and timber.

“All of these pieces are cut into a pie shape to make it fit,” he said.

The remnants of the Jackson’s fantail are inverted. It’s fascinating to study up close how it was put together. Near it is a long row of the ironclad’s armor and other pieces of the two ships.

Bob Holcombe, a naval historian and former director of the museum, says besides the CSS Georgia in Savannah, it may be the only piece of wood from a Confederate ironclad with iron plating still attached.

Jeff Seymour shows area where fantail was built

While some fantails were pointed and straight across, this one needed to be round. “It is so complex to build, particularly the iron plating,” Holcombe said.

The Picket spoke recently with Seymour and Holcombe about the rare artifacts and the history of the vessels.

CSS JACKSON: Locally built

Museum visitors can gaze at the hull of the flat-bottom ironclad from a viewing platform and on the floor. A section is missing, but you get a true sense of the vessel’s enormity – it was about 222 long and 57 feet across. Above the hull is ghosting framework intended to show how the warship appeared above the water line. The rudder is missing.

I discerned smoke on the day I visited. Was that the result of burned longleaf pine and more than 150 years of aging? “We cannot chemically explain it,” said Seymour. “Every once in a while you get a rich pungent river odor.”

Picket photos show stern and ghost framing above hull

The Jackson (originally named the Muscogee) was designed to protect Columbus – a critically important industrial center for the Confederacy -- from Union navy marauders and blockaders. Neither ship was intended to leave the shallow river system that continues south to Florida and Apalachicola Bay. Construction on the Jackson began in early 1863.

While some infantry generals thought the South put too much time, money and material into ironclads – or “ram fever” – they became a high priority. “The fact that Confederates had ironclads was a force in being that you have to deal with them,” said Holcombe.  “It is symbolic of what was largely an agrarian country in shifting their meager industrial resources… to build what was a pretty modern navy.”

CSS Muscogee, later dubbed Jackson (Wikipedia)

The CSS Jackson was built entirely in Columbus, on the Chattahoochee River and just below the Iron Works. The original design based on the CSS Missouri called for a central paddle wheel, but the Confederate navy determined that would not generate enough power, so it shortened the casemate, lengthened the hull and installed twin propellers. The vessel had an iron ram on the bow and an 8-foot draft.

The Jackson’s casemate had a 35-degree slope and featured nearly two feet of wood and two layers of plating, mostly manufactured at the Scofield and Markham mill in Atlanta.

The Jackson, armed with six Brooke rifles (two of which rest outside the museum), was finally launched -- after earlier unsuccessful attempts -- on Dec. 22, 1864, to local fanfare. 

“This splendid ram was successfully launched yesterday at about 11 o’clock and now sits as calmly upon the Chattahoochee as a duck upon a pond,” the Columbus Daily Enquirer reported. Eventually, the Jackson was meant to have a crew of about 200.

Sections of CSS Jackson armor (Picket)

The two engines and four boilers – manufactured in Columbus – were not operational when the city fell, and there’s a question about how well they would have performed, anyway. At best, the Jackson would have done about 5 knots, said Seymour. The ship still needed armor and was unfinished when the Federal cavalry arrived on April 16, 1865.

“The following day the nearly completed ship was set ablaze and cut loose by her captors,” a panel at the naval museum says. “After drifting downstream some 30 miles, the Jackson ground on a sandbar and burned to the waterline.”

Holcombe said the wreckage apparently smoldered for weeks.

There were some salvage and recovery attempts in the early 20th century. The engines and boiler (which no longer survive) were pulled out before World War I along with some guns.

The push for the recovery of the two ships came during increased interest going into the Civil War centennial. The wreck was found in 1960 and a variety of funding sources paid for the 1962-1963 recovery.

Seymour shows area where fantail would have been built

Crews needed to break the hull in two for the trip upriver. They used dynamite -- that’s why the CSS Jackson is missing 10 to 12 feet in the center.

“There was a massive groan when I showed a photograph of the explosion to archaeologists,” Holcombe said.

CSS CHATTAHOOCHEE: Bottled up

If the Jackson was jinxed, the Chattahoochee had a true hard-luck story, according to the museum.

The Chattahoochee was a sail and steam gunboat, said Seymour, and was constructed on the Chattahoochee River in Saffold, Ga., about 10 miles north of the Florida border. Its engines were manufactured in Columbus “without most of these guys having laid their eyes on the ship itself,” said Seymour.

After numerous construction delays, the three-mast ship – 140 feet long and featuring six guns -- was commissioned on Jan. 1, 1863. While the Confederate navy intended the Chattahoochee for river and coastal defense, “everyone in command wants to get battle and win glory for themselves,” according to Holcombe.

Some of the crew had served on the CSS Virginia (Merrimac), which famously tangled with the USS Monitor in early 1862.

The vessel was plagued by engine and other problems from the very beginning. It became apparent because of a new Confederate strategy and obstructions in the Apalachicola River, the gunboat would not be able to do any raiding in the Gulf of Mexico.

The stern of the CSS Chattahoochee (Picket photo)

The Chattahoochee’s only attempt to engage the enemy, with the aim of recapturing a blockade runner, ended in disaster on May 24, 1863, near Blountstown, Fla., as a storm approached. The boiler exploded as it was raising steam and about 18 men succumbed immediately or died from hideous scalding injuries. (Some histories say there was an argument of how much water to put into the boiler and the pipes burst when the water hit the red-hot iron)

“Thus ends this fated and useless craft,” skipper George Gift wrote.

Seymour explains the working of the gunboat engines (Picket)

The ship sank and was not raised for several months. It was towed to Columbus, where it was repaired and recommissioned in mid-1864, but the machinery was not operable and it often ran aground. Its crew made a separate failed raid using small boats on a Federal ship off Apalachicola, Fla.

The CSS Chattahoochee returned from Eufaula, Ala., to Columbus for repairs and the replacement of the boiler with one from the CSS Raleigh. But the work was not a priority, as builders were trying to finish the CSS Jackson. “She was pretty much an obsolete ship by that time,” Holcombe said of the wooden gunboat.

Model of CSS Chattahoochee at museum (Picket photo)

As Federal cavalry entered the city, its crew towed the CSS Chattahoochee 12 miles below the city.

“They probably saw the hulk of the Jackson float by. They set her afire and cut intake pipes and she sank downriver,” said Holcombe.

The remains lie on the river bottom until the early 1960s, when volunteers, governments and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tried to recover them. Cables were placed under the hull, but a 30-foot stern section broke free; that’s the part that was taken to Columbus. The forward two-thirds of the gunboat remain in the river. The bow is gone, but there are some places where 8 feet or more of the hull are intact.

The original engines were recovered. They were built to provide basic screw propulsion for the two screws. The gunboat could make about 12 knots during the short time it had a working boiler.

Stern is prepared for recovery (Photos courtesy Bob Holcombe)
A jumble of machinery inside the recovered hull 

“They are the only Confederate-made naval steam engines on display, even if they are in the shed,” said Holcombe.

The recovery yielded other artifacts and many are on display today alongside the Chattahoochee or in exhibit cases. Seymour would like to “reverse engineer” the engines to better understand how the propulsion system worked and put them on display inside.

A monument to those killed in the 1863 explosion can be seen in Chattahoochee, Fla., where memorial events are held annually.

As for the big picture

The museum has begun raising $250,000 to match the grant from the unnamed source. Seymour would like to exceed that, for a total of $750,000. Although the museum has brought in some funds, it has only begun a very challenging fund-raising journey.

Seymour and other museum officials would like to eventually see a redo of the CSS Jackson exhibit – with better lighting, 3D pop-outs, interactive kiosks and a revamped mural, among other efforts.

All of this would better engage visitors about the histories and salvage of the ships and the importance of Columbus as a Southern manufacturing center.

“We want to improve the story,” said Seymour.