Thursday, January 21, 2021

Rebounding after arson fire: CSS Chattahoochee engines have been conserved, are now inside National Civil War Naval Museum


[Updated Jan. 27] Months after an arson fire tore through an outside storage area at National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Ga, engine components of the gunboat CSS Chattahoochee that survived the inferno have been conserved and moved inside, where they are exhibited near the vessel’s remains.

Curator Jeff Seymour, in a video posted last month to YouTube, gave a brief description of an ongoing conservation project involving the hybrid Confederate gunboat and the large ironclad CSS Jackson.

“This is a rare example of a steam engine … that still survives from the time period,” Seymour said of the Chattahoochee’s power system, which was built in Columbus and shipped downstream to Saffold, about 10 miles north of the Florida border, where the wooden boat was built.


Remains of the Jackson and the twin-screw Chattahoochee are the star exhibits of the museum and are inside the main building. Both 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. They were recovered from the Chattahoochee River in the 1960s.

For 20 years, the Chattahoochee piston heads and the locally made Jackson’s fantail were kept in a padlocked and fenced pole barn about 100 yards from the museum, awaiting funds that would make it possible to conserve and display them. A June 1, 2020, fire destroyed modern vessels and damaged the fantail’s wood.

The Chattahoochee’s wrought iron and cast iron engines, the iron plates from the Jackson’s armor and the iron plating to the fantail survived, though they were exposed to the thermal heat.

CSS Muscogee, later dubbed Jackson (Wikipedia)
The Jackson's fantail in 2019 (Picket photo)
The fantail was the half-moon shaped rear deck of the Confederate warship, which was never fully operational. The section of armor and wood protected the vessel’s propellers and rudder and is a remarkable example of design and construction prowess. 

A $10,000 reward was offered and federal agents were brought in to assist local authorities in the investigation.

Columbus Fire Marshal Ricky Shores recently told the Picket that the investigation is closed.

“However, if new information becomes available we will evaluate the status of the case,” he wrote in an email. “In short, we just don’t have anything to (pursue) at this point …No one has been charged as of yet.”

A view of the pole barn remains in January 2021 (Picket photo)
Jackson's rust-colored armor plating in destroyed pole barn (Picket photo)
Besides Civil War artifacts, the pole barn included modern craft and replica pieces. The Civil War items were long exposed to the elements and were slowly deteriorating.

The venue has a web page  that has kept the public up on the conservation of the engines and fantail.

Museum Executive Director Holly Waits said in email, "The iron plating (and the wood) of the fantail were cleaned and conserved and are now inside the Museum.  However, because of the fire the fantail was dismantled piece by piece. We await more grant funding to build crates for the wood and recreate the iron fantail."

The most-recent web update says Terra Mare Conservators and others began their formal work in early September, documenting, cleaning and treating the engines and fantail.

CSS Chattahoochee engines in early 2019 before fire (Picket photo)
Seymour, director of history and collections at the museum, wrote: “Since the fantail was upside down, the wooden structure was the first part to receive attention. Each beam was documented and carefully removed for conservation work. Using a process called photogrammetry, the archaeologists took hundreds of images of each layer in order to better understand the structure.

“As each level emerged, we were able to see elements of this vessel that no one has seen since 1864. As each level surfaced, several questions about how the Jackson was constructed were answered, but many more questions developed. Simply, this structure is much more complex than we thought heading into this project."

Each plate of the fantail weighs nearly 400 pounds. They and Chattahoochee machinery underwent a blast cleaning using dry ice.

Remnants of the shed after the fire (Columbus Fire and EMS)
“In preparation for the engines, access panels were removed and the interior of these piston heads saw the light of day for the first time since the 1860s,” Seymour wrote. “In every cavity was Chattahoochee river mud. Many hours were spent removing mud from difficult places thanks to the help of some of our great volunteers.”

The Picket was allowed inside the padlocked and fenced shed in early 2019, with Seymour detailing the artifacts and their importance when it comes to understanding design and construction. 

“Personally, I have to pinch myself every morning as a reminder that this project is really happening,” he wrote in the late 2020 update. “We have the best people in their fields working on this complex mission. And most importantly, we’re saving a few singular artifacts that are important to the story of Columbus and the nation.”

As for the Jackson armor still stored in the pole barn, Wait said they will be conserved when funding allows.

"Visitors were understandably upset about the arson but delighted that the conservation project went ahead and that the pieces are inside," she wrote. "We await more funding to  complete the larger exhibition that ties all this together."



Sunday, January 17, 2021

New 3D experience showcases Gettysburg landmarks as you've never seen them. Virtual tours of homes are 'up-close and personal'

Virtual tour of two-room home of Lydia Leister (NPS images)
Whether Covid-19 or distance is keeping you away from Gettysburg, park officials hope you take in virtual tours of landmarks – most recently, two homes that were riddled by gunfire during the battle and another where President Abraham Lincoln put the finishing touches on his famous address.

Gettysburg National Military Park recently launched a page that features three sites related to the Civil War and the house and show barn at Eisenhower National Historic Site.

“We are thrilled to be able to bring these 3D tours to our visitors. Thanks to this new technology, these historic buildings can be experienced and enjoyed by all our visitors at any time,” Gettysburg Superintendent Steven D. Sims said in a statement. “These amazing tours put the visitor in control of an up-close and personal experience with the stories of each of these structures.” 

Each page has a virtual walk-through of the structure and a second smaller image that provides audio. Viewers can choose which floor to look at, obtain a 3D cutaway image of the entire structure and view floor plans. The tours are available for home computers, smartphones or virtual reality headsets, park officials said.

Here are details on the three homes that date to the July 1863 battle in southern Pennsylvania, as provided by the park. Click each name for a link.


Adam Brian (Bryan) farm (above):
The free black man lived on this 12-acre farm with his wife, Elizabeth, and two children. He purchased the land in 1857, grew wheat, barley and hay, and tended a small apple and peach orchard. Afraid of being captured and sold into slavery, Brian and his family left their home when Confederate troops entered Pennsylvania. Following the battle, they returned to find their home riddled with bullet holes, windows smashed, and furniture thrown about the yard. The crops and orchard were ruined, and their farm fields a graveyard for hastily buried soldiers. Brian repaired his home, replaced his fences, and farmed his land until 1869, when he moved to town and worked at a local hotel. “Stand at the southern facing window of the Abraham Brian house and ponder what it must have meant to be an African American citizen of Gettysburg on the eve of the battle," the NPS says.


Lydia Leister house (above):
Union Maj. Gen. George G. Meade made the two-room home headquarters during the battle.Late in the evening of July 2, Meade held a council of war in this house to decide if the army should stay and hold their hard-fought high ground or abandon their position.The artillery bombardment prior to Pickett's Charge on July 3 caused considerable damage to the house.

Model of wartime Gettysburg at Wills house

David Wills (left) homeThe lawyer’s residence was the center of the clean-up process after the battle and where Lincoln finalized his Gettysburg Address, the speech that transformed the battlefield from a place of death and devastation to the symbol of our nation's "new birth of freedom." The house is now a museum with six galleries.  During the battle, citizens huddled in its cellar. It became a temporary hospital.

It currently is closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Where 'Fighting Joe' Wheeler whupped 'em: A quick revisit to the Brown's Mill cavalry battlefield outside Atlanta

Scenes from Brown's Mill (All park photos by Civil War Picket)

I made a brief stop Saturday afternoon at Brown’s Mill Battlefield Historic Site in Coweta County, Ga. The park is just a few miles from Newnan, which was home to a half dozen Confederate hospitals during the Civil War.

But the area also is known for a cavalry clash that ended in a disaster for Federal forces.

I had not visited the 200-acre, county-operated site in several years. The Brown’s Mill park includes a few interpretive signs, walking and bike trails and a parade field suitable for re-enactments. (The Picket wrote about the battle and the opening of the park in these articles from  2011 and 2013.)

My focus this visit was a June 1908 monument remembering the only battle fought in Coweta County. Erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, it pays tribute to cavalrymen under the command of Lt. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler.

In recent years, I have read about how often Union Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign was stymied by the performance of his cavalry.

Notwithstanding Brig. Gen. Kenner Garrard's success during a July 1864 raid east of Atlanta, historians and others have pointed out that Sherman did not have much confidence in his top cavalry division commanders. They lacked aggressiveness and competence and often suffered from self-doubt. And, observers say, Sherman was often ineffective in using his troopers to meet objectives.

Charlie Crawford, president of the Georgia Battlefields Association, last year told me that Garrard may have been the best division chief – when compared to Edward McCook, Judson Kilpatrick and George Stoneman -- “but that’s not saying much.”

McCook (left) suffered ignominy at Brown’s Mill on July 30, 1864.

Sherman had tasked McCook and Maj. Gen. Stoneman with cutting vital railroads south of Atlanta so that he would not have to engage in a prolonged siege of Atlanta. McCook, after damaging some track at Lovejoy Station, hoped to rendezvous with Stoneman. He had nearly 3,000 men under his command.

But Stoneman had chosen to ride toward Macon, with the hope of reaching the large Confederate prison at Andersonville to the south. 

With no rendezvous, McCook hurried toward the Chattahoochee River and  Federal lines to the north. Wheeler (right), hot on the Union cavalry's trail, pursued them from Newnan and ambushed the exhausted forces at Brown's Mill. 

A report written for the park's master plan describes the dismounted fighting and this detail:

"As Major Root and the 8th Iowa formed for the charge, Wheeler renewed the assault on McCook’s right. 'Follow me! My brave men!' he commanded. A wild Rebel yell answered the little general as he led his Texans and Tennesseans back into the fight. At the same time, 'Sul' Ross’s Texas brigade came up on their right, dismounted, and joined the fight.

The attack overwhelmed McCook's flank.

“Wheeler had his best day as a soldier,” said Crawford. “This is where McCook lost control and was broken up.”  McCook held a brief council of war, suggesting the force surrender. Other officers decided to fight and McCook basically gave up command. It was every man for himself then, with separate columns attempting to break out from the trap.


Men fled toward the river and more than 1,200 were taken prisoner over the new few days (the monument mistakenly has a much lower figure). Some men, including an officer naked except for his hat, managed to swim or take a few ferries to safety.

Wheeler's force of about 1,400 riders also freed about 500 Confederate prisoners and seized supplies. It was a bloody debacle, in which there was saber-to-saber fighting, a trail of bodies and the heroic actions of a Union trooper who received the Medal of Honor.

A day later, Stoneman was defeated and captured at the Battle of Sunshine Creek.

The Union cavalry clearly failed to attain its goal in the McCook-Stoneman raid, forcing Sherman to change tactics and besiege Atlanta and use infantry at Jonesboro, wrote historian David Evans in his book “Sherman’s Horsemen."

Brown's Mill was one of few Confederate victories during the Atlanta Campaign. The fighting at Brown's Mill cost McCook about 100 killed and wounded, while Wheeler's casualties probably numbered less than 50, according to Evans.

The Coweta County park is along Millard Farmer Road hear the intersection with Old Corinth Road. It was the scene of much of the heaviest fighting. 

An interpretive panel near the monument details some of the units involved at Brown’s Mill.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Protection of portion of Civil War battlefield in Alabama will allow further study of African-American troops who helped secure victory

Colorized Harper's Weekly illustration of assault on Fort Blakeley
Capt. Louis Snaer (left) was a rarity: A member of the 73rd U.S. Colored Troops, he was among a
small number of black soldiers to win an officer’s commission during the Civil War.

On the same day Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox -- April 9, 1865 -- the 73rd and eight other USCT regiments played a major part in the overrunning and surrender of Fort Blakeley, a Rebel bastion east of Mobile, Ala.

Snaer fell with a severe wound to the foot during the fierce attack, which was over in a half hour.

He refused to sheathe his sword or to be carried off the field,” wrote Colonel Henry C. Merriam, the 73rd’s commander. “No braver officer has honored any flag.”

The combined Federal infantry and naval victory was the last such operation of the war. The courage of 5,000 African-American troops who fought at Fort Blakeley has since been the subject of articles and research.

A portion of the battlefield is in the parcel (The Conservation Fund)
Interest in their service recently received fresh impetus.

Last month, The Conservation Fund, American Battlefield Trust and the University of South Alabama (USA) announced the long-term protection of 60 acres in the battlefield. The conservation easement was funded by a National Park Service grant of $293,000.

About 40 percent of the 2,000-acre battlefield already was owned by the state, much of it within Historic Blakeley State Park, which is north of Spanish Fort.

However, what is arguably the most significant quarter of the battle site, where U.S. Colored Troops overran Confederate defenses in a raging assault, was unprotected until now,” the groups said in a statement. “The 60-acre property known as Blakeley Bluff is expected to contain valuable archaeological data related to this African American experience. The protection of this land will allow USA greater opportunities for archaeological digs, historical research and preservation of the battle site’s rich history.”

Mike Bunn, director of operations at the state park, which abuts the 60-acre parcel (shaded orange area in map at left), told the Picket that the newly protected land contains artillery positions, a portion of Confederate Redoubt 3 and part of the line between Redoubt 3 and Redoubt 2.

USCT troops were posted in an area fronting Redoubts 1 and 2 -- the northernmost Confederate fortifications along the line at Fort Blakeley -- during the weeklong siege. The 73rd planted a flag after it took Redoubt 2, one of nine such fortifications put up by Rebel troops. USCT units focused on Redoubts 1, 2 and 3 in the attack. Some of that land is now private property.

Bunn, writing last year for the Blue and Gray Education Society, said about 30 black soldiers were killed and nearly 150 wounded in the assault, a significant portion of nearly 400 casualties during the entirety of operations, which resulted in the largest Civil War battle in Alabama. White officers extolled the bravery of the regiments, comprised mostly of formerly enslaved men.

“Greater gallantry than was shown by officers and men could hardly be desired,” wrote Brig. Gen. Christopher Columbus Andrews. “The (troops) were burning with an impulse to do honor to their race, and rushed forward with intense enthusiasm, in face of a terrible fire.”

There's natural beauty in an historic area

While the state park has been the subject of archaeological digs over the years, little has been done on the 60 acres, which are owned by The Conservation Fund and will be managed by USA.

Blakely bluff as seen from the Tensaw River (The Conservation Fund)
The area is not just known for its Civil War history.

The land is part of a fragile ecosystem, featuring diverse plant life, tall bluffs, hardwood ravines and black water swamps, according to The Conservation Fund. Fort Blakeley was built along the Tensaw River, which flows south into the Apalachee River and Mobile Bay.

“The archaeological excavations and research that USA plans to do on this property has the potential to enhance what we know about the USCT that fought there,” Val Keefer of The Conservation Fund told the Picket.

Philip J. Carr, a professor of anthropology at the university, said the conservation easement “will allow for a systematic exploration of the property to better understand the cultural resources that are there, both prehistoric and historic. USA students will be involved in systematic archaeological survey of the property at some point in the future.”

Click this Mobile campaign map to enlarge (Library of Congress)

They wanted to prove themselves men

Although Union Adm. David Farragut has bottled up Mobile in the summer of 1864, it remained in Confederate hands. 

The arrival of additional Federal troops in early 1865 brought about the campaign to take Fort Blakeley, Spanish Fort and other guardians east of Mobile, a vital transportation and supply center.

“There are good elevations around here,” Bunn told the Picket in 2017. “If you want to take Mobile the easiest route would be via the eastern shore … and come from the north.”

Confederate commanders used soldiers and slaves to build the earthen fortifications. Fort Blakeley was built following designs typical for a defense against a ground attack. It was commanded by Brig. Gen. St. John R. Liddell (left).

Union troops, a third of which were USCT regiments, laid siege of Blakeley for about a week.

Remains of Rebel fortifications at Fort Blakeley (Historic Blakeley SP)

About 180,000 men, most of them former slaves but others free men of color, served in the US Colored Troops in the last few years of the conflict. While they were often relegated to guard duty, supply work or manual labor, they fought at Port Hudson, La., Petersburg, Va., and Fort Blakeley, among a few other battles.

In his Blue & Gray article, Bunn writes: “The USCT units at Blakeley marched there from Pensacola as a division of troops led by Gen. Frederick Steele. They were to join other forces under Gen. Edward S. Canby for a move against Mobile. Brig. Gen. John P. Hawkins held overall command of the division, which he organized into three brigades led by Gen. William A. Pile, Col. Hiram Scofield, and Col. Charles W. Drew. USCT units including the 47th, 48th, 50th, 51st, 68th, 73rd, 76th 82nd, and 86th Infantries comprised these brigades. The majority of these men had enlisted in Louisiana, with one unit having formed in Missouri.”

The USCT regiments held the right flank of the Union line.

The two sides exchanged artillery and gunfire during the siege. The afternoon of April 9 was chosen for a massive assault on the Rebel defenses. Nearly 16,000 blue-clad warriors were up against 3,500 Confederates, half of whom were veteran troops.

Library of Congress map showing opposing lines in April 1865. USCT units were at far
right (north end). They focused on Redoubts 1, 2, 3 (click to enlarge)

Land mines a peril for attackers

A portion of the Black regiments were engaged in reconnaissance of a Rebel position but were pinned down in a firefight until the general assault. “They were one of the first units heavily engaged that afternoon,” Bunn said.

The Iron Brigader website also offers details of the battle and reports by Federal officers. Col. Scofield provided vivid detail about the 47, 50th and 51st regiments: “The command moved with a yell through the abatis and over torpedoes (mines), several of which exploded, driving the rebels from their works and guns, and in conjunction with the regiments of the other brigades which entered the works almost simultaneously, captured a large number of prisoners.”

By then Rebel gun emplacements had been overrun, the Iron Brigader says.

Col. Hiram Scofield
“Quite a number of men were killed or wounded by the explosion of torpedoes, which were exploded by stepping upon them,” Scofield wrote. "One man, Private Josias Lewis, Company K, Forty-seventh U.S. Colored Infantry, was, while under my own observation, severely wounded, losing a leg by the explosion of one of these infernal machines while guarding prisoners to the rear after they had surrendered.”

Bunn writes for the Blue and the Gray that the attack was “a short but bitter affair, featuring a grand, open-field charge through a storm of artillery and small arms fire and isolated pockets of fighting all across the 3-mile line. By 6:15 p.m. the last shots of the battle had been fired, and Fort Blakeley lay in the possession of the victorious Union Army. During the battle, USCT units captured over 200 men and several pieces of artillery and sustained some of the heaviest casualties of any unit engaged.”

Early in the battle, USCT troops heard racial epithets uttered by Confederate troops, but they were not swayed from their intention of proving themselves. Once they reached the Rebel lines, close-quarters combat briefly raged before the surrender.

“Allegations that some Confederates were shot even after they surrendered to USCT troops surfaced almost immediately after the battle and the truth of what happened in its chaotic last moments continue to be the subject of research and speculation today,” Bunn wrote in the Encyclopedia of Alabama. “Available evidence indicates some Union soldiers indeed may have fired on Confederates who had surrendered, but there was no large-scale massacre.”

Redoubt #4 (Courtesy of Historic Blakeley State Park)

New opportunity to interpret battle

With the fall of Spanish Fort and Fort Blakely, Mobile could no longer be defended; Federal troops occupied the city on April 12. The war was essentially over by that point.

Capt. Snaer, considered a free person of color in New Orleans upon his joining the Louisiana Native Guards in 1862, spent six days in a field hospital after his wounding at Fort Blakeley. He mustered out in November 1865. After the war, he moved to California and died there in 1917, at age 75.

The bravery of Snaer and his comrades at Blakeley came before American-Americans attained full citizenship and civil rights. Now their legacy can be further explored on the protected site.

Because of the landscape’s history, farming on the old battlefields was limited and the distinctive soils held impressions for centuries,” The Conservation Fund says of the battlefield. “Trenches, gun emplacements, batteries and other marks of battle are still prominent and intact, providing opportunities for archaeological digging, data collecting and vivid interpretation of the often-untold history of these troops.”

View of the Blakeley bluff land (The Conservation Fund)

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Williamsburg battlefield land purchased for preservation

A significant portion of Williamsburg’s historic Civil War battlefield was recently purchased to be secured for preservation. The Virginia Gazette reports the American Battlefield Trust bought the 29 acres in the area of the “Bloody Ravine” from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The land was zoned for commercial used and valued at $2,743,000. Located about 1 mile from the city’s historic area and primarily within the city limits, the land is pristine and looks much as it did 158 years ago when the battle took place, according to the newspaper.