Saturday, May 27, 2023

Wreath is placed in Pickett's Mill ravine where a US flag finial was found. Hundreds of Union soldiers died nearby in artillery slaughter

An honor guard Saturday above a ravine where flag finial was found (Picket photo)
On a gorgeous late spring day, about 40 people and I walked single file down a trail in Paulding County, Ga. Sun pored through the trees as we made a gentle descent, a deep and breathtaking ravine to our right.

This might have been on any other morning a carefree trek away from worry and traffic congestion in metro Atlanta. But Saturday was no normal day – it was the 159th anniversary of the Civil War’s Battle of Pickett’s Mill. And hundreds of Union soldiers died in that ravine on May 27, 1864.

A few minutes earlier, at the Pickett's Mill park museum, visitors got an overview of the slaughter. We then set out for a wreath-laying ceremony at the spot where a finial, the top of a U.S. flag carried in the battle, was found in 1963 at the bottom of the ravine. The flag topper, which sits in a case in the visitor center, was the star of the program Saturday. It's the first new exhibit at the park in years, staffers said.

**Photo gallery of Saturday's events at Pickett's Mill**

John Hoomes, curator preservationist and interpretive ranger at Pickett’s Mill Battlefield, said the scene must have been horrific as canister from two Confederate artillery pieces tore into the Federal soldiers who climbed the ravine in the second futile attack. Several color bearers, who were defenseless, were shot down.

Each regiment in the Union army had two sets of colors, one the U.S. flag and the other a regimental flag. These banners were sacred -- a point of pride and a means of leading and rallying men amid the chaos of combat.

The enemy always shot at color bearers and tried to seize flags. The Pickett's Mill finial is believed to have been put on an American flag.

The finial at Pickett's Mill likely belonged to an Ohio or Indiana regiment.

“As you walk down entering the ravine, you are entering the deadliest part of the battlefield,” Hoomes said.

My photos can’t begin to show just how deep the ravine is and the height those unfortunate men in Col. William H. Gibson’s brigade had to scale. The wreath was placed near the bottom of the ravine and a creek. I felt it was too steep for my knees and ankles, so I did not venture that far down. (At right, local historian Michael Hitt points to the Federals' objective.)

After the ceremony, we walked back up to the approximate location of where two Confederate cannons rained hell down the ravine in 1864. One of them, a bronze 12-pounder howitzer that was part of Confederate Capt. Thomas Key’s battery, is on display in the visitor center (see above). The original 780-pound barrel sits on a reproduction carriage.

The howitzer was cast in Boston by Cyrus Alger & Co. in 1851 for the Arkansas Military Institute. The number 9 is stamped on its muzzle face and the cannon is marked with an eagle and globe.

Capt. Key and his Arkansas four-gun battery played a large part in the Confederate victory. Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne ordered Key to place two guns to the right oblique to enfilade a ravine.

Federal troops under Maj. Gen. William Hazen and Gibson charged uphill in their futile attempt to take the top of a ridge. Key’s howitzers were ready for them.

“They shot solid shot and canister. And that was 48 balls per (canister) round,” Stephen Briggs, then interim director at Pickett’s Mill, told me in 2016. The battery fired 182 rounds of spherical case and canister in two hours, he said.

Crew prepares to fire reproduction howitzer on Saturday (Picket photo)
The Federal army suffered 1,600 casualties at the battle, compared to 500 for the South. The advance on Atlanta was delayed about a week. 

On Saturday, a reenactor artillery crew was firing blanks. Key’s Battery, associated with the Friends of Pickett’s Mill Battlefield, drilled and fired a reproduction cannon as park visitors held fingers to their ears. Activities elsewhere in the park included musket firing and a demonstration of camp life.

Tommy Carter with the finial he pulled from the ground (Picket photo)
The finial is in the visitor center museum. An interpretive panel had not arrived by Saturday but should be put up soon. For years, the finial was on a trophy stand and used as a book weight in the park library. Until last year, it was thought to possibly be a reproduction, but experts are now saying it is genuine.

Tommy Carter (above) of New Hope, Ga., was reunited with the finial for the first time since he and a cousin dug it up in the ravine in 1963. (It’s important to note that this was private property at the time, about 10 years before the state began acquiring land for the park and later prohibited such activity.)

The original Key's Battery cannon is only a few feet away from the finial exhibit. “That could be the cannon that hit that finial three times,” said Hoomes.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Where eagles dare: Bronze bird was atop a U.S. flag during a doomed, but heroic Union assault at Georgia's Pickett's Mill. It's now on display

The bronze eagle finial now on exhibit at Pickett's Mill (Georgia DNR)
For about 25 years, a small bronze eagle sat on the library shelf at Pickett’s Mill Battlefield outside Atlanta. It was a bit of a curiosity. The bird’s feet were missing, one wing was broken and the other was turned inward. It was affixed, oddly, to a trophy stand.

Staff members and volunteers thought the weathered finial – an ornament placed on the top of a flag – might be a reproduction. But they couldn’t find a donation slip to help explain the story.

Now, after a finial expert weighed in and a park staff member began extensive research, officials and experts are saying this eagle isn’t a fake. Rather, they say, it earned its current condition while under fire at the Battle of Pickett’s Mill on May 27, 1864, when attacking Union regiments poured into a ravine and were pulverized by Confederate artillery and rifles.

The Federal finial will be formally unveiled to the public Saturday during the anniversary commemoration of the battle in Paulding County, Ga. Afterward, a wreath-laying ceremony will take place in the ravine where the flag topper was found in November 1963, just a few days before the JFK assassination. (See coverage here of Saturday's event)

“Next to the original cannon that sits in the museum, (the finial) is one of the rarest artifacts that could be found from any Civil War battlefield,” says John Hoomes, curator preservationist and interpretive ranger at Pickett’s Mill. “Especially the eagle finials. They are the rarest.”

A portion of the ravine where the finial was found at Pickett's Mill (Georgia DNR)
Pickett’s Mill is one of the best-preserved Civil War sites in the country, with its famous ravine and remains of artillery emplacements and earthworks.

Hoomes says his research on the finial over the past year has been like solving a mystery. “I was a skeptic. I didn’t think it was the real thing.”

The dedication and battle anniversary fittingly fall on the Memorial Day weekend.

“People actually fought and died there for an idea, no matter which side the dreamer was on,” says finial expert Del Thomasson. “The eagle tells a story with every crease, bend, break, that someone held it high and was willing to give their life for that dream and idea.”

It was an honorable and dangerous job

Our story begins 159 years ago as Confederate troops parried Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s army as he marched on Atlanta. Sherman learned some tough lessons when he tried to flank and push back his foe at Pickett’s Mill as he moved on Atlanta.

Troops under Union Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard clashed with those of Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne, fighting at extremely close quarters. The Federals – most Midwestern regiments -- charged down ravines and uphill against the Confederates. At least 700 of the men in blue died and the advance on Atlanta was delayed a week. The Union suffered about 1,600 total casualties in the slaughter, compared to the South's 500. 

Each regiment had two sets of colors, one the U.S. flag and the other a regimental flag. These banners were sacred -- a point of pride and a means of leading and rallying men amid the chaos of combat. The enemy always shot at color bearers and tried to seize flags. The Pickett's Mill finial is believed to have been put on an American flag.

“Carrying the colors into battle was an honor and privilege, as well as a dangerous job. Those that carried the colors needed to be courageous,” according to a page on Connecticut history. “The flags also symbolized national and regional pride for the soldiers as they went into battle.” (Sketch at left a quartermaster color bearer by Alfred Waud, Library of Congress)

Hoomes tells the Picket the location of the finial discovery in the 1960s lines up with the movement of a brigade led by Col. William H. Gibson. Among the five regiments were the 49th Ohio and the 32nd Indiana.

In his memoirs, Confederate Pvt. William J. Oliphant, who served in Granbury’s Texas brigade, recalled the charge of an Indiana unit. It’s quite possible it was the 32nd. Oliphant said the attackers almost reached their lines before being forced back.

“The color bearer of the regiment fell with his colors, instantly another siezed [sic] the flag and held it aloft only to fall dead. Again and again it was raised until six brave men yielded up their lives in trying to keep it flying. The sixth man fell with the flag in front of our company and only about ten or twelve feet from us. There it lay a prize within our grasp. I could have reached it with a single bound but thought as it was already ours, I would wait until their line had been completely driven back before picking it up. When the Indiana regiment broke and fell back for the last time, leaving their flag on the ground at our feet, one of the brave fellows turned, and seeing it was being left behind, threw down his gun, came back and picked it up. He straightened himself to his full height, gritted his teeth and flapped his flag in our faces. Instantly a half dozen rifles were leveled on him and in another moment he too would have fallen riddled with bullets, but just then one of our boys cried out "don't shoot him, he's too brave." We lowered our rifles and gave him a cheer as he carried his flag safely away.”

Postwar illustration of Pickett's Mill by famed artist Alfred Waud 
Hoomes says he believes the finial in the park’s collection was on the flag of either the 32nd Indiana or 49th Ohio. “Of all the units, they had the heaviest casualties.”

Josh Headlee, curator and historic preservation specialist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, prepared the finial for the exhibit. The accompanying interpretive text does not specify a regiment because of uncertainty.

“It was found in the area of the regiments in question and there is a high probability that it is from one of those regiments, but as you surely well know, during those heated battles projectiles, dirt, and debris were flying all over the place and it’s not inconceivable that it landed there after being blown there from further down the line,” Headlee says. “So I’d say that we are better than 90% sure, but not enough to (definitively) pin it to a particular regiment.”

'We found a bunch of stuff'

Tommy Carter grew up near Pickett’s Mill and lives in New Hope, site of another clash during the Atlanta Campaign. Carter and a cousin, Hubert Rackley, often searched for Civil War relics in the area.

Finial in 2022 when it was on a trophy stand (Del Thomasson and Georgia DNR)
He told the Picket he was 9 years old when he and Rackley, both descendants of the Malachiah Pickett family, went to the ravine in November 1963 with a minesweeper. They had permission to be there, Hoomes says.

(It’s important to note that this was private property at the time, about 10 years before the state began acquiring land for the park and later prohibited such activity. Federal and state park officials always remind visitors to not disturb cultural resources on public land; they can face charges.)

“We found a bunch of stuff that day,” says Carter. “That eagle was the main one. We found it in a creek near where the rocks were.” The artifact was lying on its side, about six inches down, he said. The feathers were caked with dirt.

Maj. Gen. William B. Hazen, who led a large brigade at Pickett’s Mill, took shelter behind a large rock about 50 yards away. Noted veteran and author Ambrose Bierce (right) was with Hazen and later wrote a caustic account of the futile Federal attack entitled “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill.”

Carter and Dennis Deal, a collector friend, believe the finial to be authentic and the same one found in 1963. Deal, also of New Hope, said Rackley showed him the artifact years ago. “I knew he found it and I (saw) it in his collection.”

Deal – who was not present at the discovery of the finial -- says he is in awe of the courage of the trapped Union soldiers and flag bearers at Pickett’s Mill. “It was really bad for the Yankees.”

Last year, Deal and Carter traveled to the ravine with park officials to discuss the finial and its location.

A book weight or perhaps a trophy

Flag topper expert Thomasson of Ringgold, Ga., was at a relic show in early 2022 when a volunteer at Pickett’s Mill came up and mentioned the finial sitting on the shelf. The volunteer, a member of the Friends of Picket’s Mill Battlefield, apparently believed the item was a reproduction and later sent photos.

Thomasson reached out to an eagle finials expert, relic collectors and, eventually, park officials.

Thomasson, who has a similar eagle in his collection, told them he believed the Pickett’s Mill item to be authentic.

“I thought it was a trophy or some kind of memorial. I did not know what it was. My boss at the time said it was like a book weight,” Hoomes says. Before it was remounted for the exhibit, the eagle was on a stand saying it was from the battle. The top line read "Federal Flag Staff Eagle."

Thomasson, the author of “Flagstaff Finials Toppers & Ferrules of the American Civil War,” paid a visit to Paulding County in March 2022. He visited the ravine and officials compared the Pickett’s Mill bird to a similar one in his collection.

Thomasson believes the Pickett’s Mill eagle to be authentic. He says it likely belonged to an Ohio regiment, but it’s possible an Indiana unit carried it.

The position of Gibson's brigade (center) as it moved to attack (Georgia DNR)
After looking at accounts and hearing from Carter, Hoomes believes the finial to be battle-damaged and was carried during the second attack wave -- men under Gibson, not Hazen.

Bierce wrote of the attack: “Our brave color-bearers were now all in the forefront of battle in the open, for the enemy had cleared a space in front of his breastworks. They held the colors erect, shook out their glories, waved them forward and back to keep them spread, for there was no wind. From where I stood, at the right of the line -- we had “halted and formed,” indeed -- I could see six of our flags at one time. Occasionally one would go down, only to be instantly lifted by other hands.”

Carter took him to the site and there was a metal stake and orange ribbon nearby, Hoomes says. Someone, not an archaeologist, marked the site, the ranger says. If an archaeologist did not record the find, it does raise a question of provenance.

“I am convinced that it is real. I am convinced it is the one that Tommy and his (cousin) dug up.”

The evidence of authenticity adds up, he says

Some of the eagle finials in Wilson's collection (Courtesy of Kyle Wilson)
For his part, Thomasson contacted Kyle Wilson, an expert and collector of eagle finials.

Finials were made of higher quality material early in the Civil War, and makers included Tiffany and Co. and Cairns & Brother, both based in New York. Wilson, who lives in Lebanon, Illinois, told the Picket he is not certain who made the Pickett’s Mill finial.

He says the artifact is made of bronze and has remnants of gold gilding. The whole item, complete with mounting, would weigh up to two pounds. It was a solid piece and strongly attached to the wooden pole.

Wilson says the Pickett’s Mill wing could have been intentionally folded by its bearer so that it would not snag on overhanging tree branches, but he is not certain. The patina, evidence of oxidation and wear indicate the finial is real and that it was in ground for decades. “You can see wear where it was carried.”

Typical components of an eagle finial (Courtesy of Kyle Wilson)
And, he says, there are no known reproductions of the eagles. The manufacturing process was complicated and some were in three pieces, held together by soldering. A ball was attached to the feet and then attached to a base on top of the flag pole.

“It probably got blown off the staff by canister or possibly by a round ball,” he says. “I am 100 percent sure it was shot right off the pole,” instead of breaking off when the color bearer fell or dropped it.

It’s possible the flag was from an Indiana regiment. But, Wilson says, “If I was a gambling man, I would have to say it was Ohio. You see a lot more in Ohio.”

Hoomes said he hoped a metallurgical analysis would have been conducted to see what kind of shot hit the finial and broke off the wing, but that was not done.

'They bore witness'

There are varying accounts on how the finial came to be in the park collection. Carter says he does not know, while Deal says he believes Rackley donated it before his death in 1998. But Hoomes says Rackley obviously would have known it was real, and he wonders how the idea of a reproduction came about. Regardless, the mystery of the donation lingers.

A finial in Del Thomasson's collection next to the Pickett's Mill eagle
The finial is displayed in a small case at the visitor center. A new interpretive panel describes the importance of flags and decorative finials, which came in a variety of shapes, including spades, spheres and globes.

“The damage sustained as flagbearers carried them into battle help tell the story of the difficulty and violence faced by soldiers, like those at Pickett’s Mill. The damage visible on the Civil War era eagle finial to your right provides clues to the experience soldiers faced beneath it and the flag it once adorned,” part of the text reads.

“What caused the bent wing of the eagle? Could this finial have been with a flag flown in battle? Are the dents a clue? What happened to the eagle’s legs, which once would have grasped a metal globe on top of the flag staff?”

Park officials and others are excited about the display.

“What we thought was just a relatively mundane piece sitting on a shelf in the library has turned out to be quite an important artifact for the site there,” says the DNR’s Headlee. Hoomes says the finial symbolizes the Federal army of the Civil War and the United States today.

And, says Wilson, the eagles stood for patriotism just as much as the flags they topped.

They bore witness to the horrible things and travesty that happened during the battle,” he says.

Saturday’s program at Pickett’s Mill will include guided and unguided tours of various stations within the battlefield. Visitors can experience a glimpse of both military and civilian life that will include home skills and crafts, cannon firings, musketry, military drills and camp life. The unveiling of the finial exhibit will be around 10 a.m. ET. A food truck will be available. Site admission is $3 - $6. Click here for more information.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Sinking of the Sultana: Will journal and Bible belonging to Ohio soldier John Clark Ely, victim of the disaster, go to a museum?

(Clockwise from top left: Pages from journal, Sgt. John Clark Ely, his Bible, chess set pieces,
and his grave in Memphis. (Photos courtesy of John M. Ely, David C. Ely and Jerry O. Potter)
Sgt. John Clark Ely of Ohio left behind a brokenhearted family when he perished in the Sultana disaster on the Mississippi River. He is emblematic of the heartbreaking stories of former Civil War prisoners who died when they were just days away from home.

Beyond stories about Ely, there are tangible reminders of his life.

John M. Ely of the Aspen, Colo., area, has his great-great-grandfather’s two chess sets and a journal (below) that survived the sinking of the steamboat on April 27, 1865, above Memphis, claiming 1,200 lives. The journal is believed to be the only one describing the days leading up to the tragedy.

John M. Ely’s second cousin, David Clark Ely of Placerville, Calif., has a Bible bestowed upon his ancestor before he went off to war.

The two men and David’s sister, Sharon Ely Pearson, are open to the idea of the heirlooms being available to the public through an exhibit or the like.

“I wish we had those items for the museum,” says Sultana expert and author Jerry O. Potter.

By museum, Potter means the Sultana Disaster Museum across from Memphis in Marion, Ark. Supporters are raising the last of the dollars and pledges needed to build a larger and permanent venue at an old high school gymnasium.

Marion was the closest town to the disaster and residents helped rescue those thrown into the river after the fire and explosion on the Sultana.

The tiny current museum in Marion, Ark. A new location is in the works.
Officials say it’s important that the little-known story of greed, fraud, valor and sacrifice be told in a bigger way than what’s covered in a tiny museum that opened in 2015.

While the journal has been excerpted in some form for years, the whereabouts of the Bible weren’t known to Potter and Gene Salecker, another renowned Sultana author.

“I have never heard of the Ely Bible, so this is something new to me,” Salecker, author of Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana,” told the Picket in an email.

I made the story of the Bible known to the museum supporters after contacting David C. Ely, who I spoke to several years ago, and John M. Ely, who I tracked down a couple months back. The Picket has written numerous articles about the Sultana and Ely, and I wanted to update readers on all the items known to be associated with him. (David C. Ely and John M. Ely have not been in touch with each other or the Marion museum.)

Sgt. Ely, 37, of Company C, 115th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, was jammed on the overcrowded steamboat with hundreds of other recently released Union prisoners. (He is at left in the photo, next to Company C comrade Sgt. Charles W. Way, who also died on the Sultana.

The Ohio schoolteacher, who was supposed to get a promotion to lieutenant at the end of the war, had been captured by Confederate forces under Nathan Bedford Forrest on Dec. 5, 1864, near LaVergne, Tenn.

Ely (pronounced ee-lee) spent time in a few prisons, most notably Andersonville, before he was paroled at war’s end near Vicksburg, Ms.

“He is my hero,” Potter, author of The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster,” told the Picket in April. “I guess I know more about Lt. Ely than just about any other soldier on the Sultana. In reading his diary, I was able to see things through his eyes and to learn of his hopes and dreams.”

Several years ago, Potter 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.”

In his journal (the only one of two belonging him to survive), Ely writes about his service, family, capture and time in prison.

On Dec. 25, 1864, Ely wrote,
“Such a day for us prisoners. Hungry, dirty, sleepy and lousy. Will another Christmas find us again among friends and loved ones?”

The soldier, born in Franklinville, N.Y., moved with his family as a child to the Cleveland area. The 1850 census shows Seth and Laura Ely and their children living in Cuyahoga County. John Clark was 21.

In the 1860 count (above, click to enlarge), Ely is described as a farmer living with his wife, Julia, and two children in Stow township in the same county.

(Ely married Julia Richmond in 1856; after his death, she received a pension and moved to Norwalk, Ct., where she died at age 42 in August 1873. Sharon Pearson told me in 2015 that Julia moved to Norwalk to be closer to her husband’s family and she is buried in Union Cemetery. “She lived in Danbury, CT, with several of the other female members of the family who were widowed or ‘spinsters.’" 

The journal, chess pieces and Bible eventually went to the fathers of the cousins. John M. Ely’s father, Norman, had the journal and chess sets, while the small Bible went to Norman’s cousin, Clifford Seth Ely Jr., father of David and Sharon.

Julia Richmond Ely's application for a Federal pension (click to enlarge)
Norman Ely told the Picket in 2012 that the cousins and their wives traveled to a reunion of Sultana descendants. They visited Andersonville in Georgia. (Andersonville National Historic Site has a transcript of Ely's journal made by Norman)

Norman Ely's mother had told him about the small diary, which captures the soldier's despair, anguish, privations -- and hope. (Norman Ely, of Glenwood Springs, Colo., died in March 2013.)

Clifford Ely, 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," said Clifford Ely. "When he got on the steamboat, he kept writing to her (Julia)." (Clifford died in October 2013.)

David Clark Ely, 64, and retired from the U.S. Coast Guard, says he wonders how the Bible survived.

“Did he leave this behind with his wife or did he take it into the Army? Did he carry it with him? At one point, it was it separated from him.”

New Testament given to John C. Ely in summer 1862 (David C. Ely)
Ely sent the Picket several photos of the Bible he pulled out from a box. One of the pages is missing, he said. A yellowed page (above) says the Bible was presented to John Clark Ely “upon the event of his going to the war in Aug. 1862.” David said he does not know the Bible's history.

Another line appeared to David and I to read the volume was from “the Church at Stone.” The last word was hard to decipher so I started checking around the internet. My query on a Facebook page for Andersonville descendants led me to learn it was “Stow” in Ohio, where the Elys were living.

The city of Stow has a page about its history, saying eight soldiers from the area were onboard the Sultana and four perished. The Picket reached out to a local historical society for more information but received no reply.

John M. Ely (left), the county attorney in Pitkin County, Colo., confesses he did not pay much attention to John Clark Ely’s story while growing up. “Why did I not listen?”

He saw the chess sets as a child and as he got older he began to express interest in filling in the gaps of what he knew.

Ely wonders why the soldier and others like him would leave spouses and children to go to combat. “To me it is a continual fascination and wonderment about this guy. What was he thinking?”

The attorney has visited Julia’s grave in Connecticut and a few years after his father passed, he and his children stopped by Memphis to see John Clark Ely’s grave.

Like David Ely, John M. Ely isn’t certain how the items survived being thrown into the river. It’s possible, with the exception of the journal, they were kept at the sergeant’s home in Stow. As for the diary, perhaps it was found among the debris in the Mississippi or its banks.

John M. Ely told the Picket he never played with the chess sets. “It seems fragile and I have never messed with them.”

He is mulling what will become of them and the journal.

If he does not give them to his children, Ely says he would be interested in an organization, foundation or museum having them so that they could care for the heirlooms and exhibit them.

His cousins have not discussed donating the Bible (right), but after talking with the Picket, David says they might be interested in seeing it exhibited as part of a larger narrative.

There is a story with it,” he says.

Time will tell whether the items will one day be displayed in Marion, telling one part of the Sultana’s compelling story.

No one was formally held accountable for putting too many men on the steamboat, despite documented concerns about the safety of one of the boat's boilers. Accounts of the tragedy were overshadowed by headlines about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Potter and Salecker have written about a kickback scheme between the vessel's financially strapped captain and an Army quartermaster, Lt. Col. Reuben B. Hatch. According to Potter, the transport fee was $5 for an enlisted man, $10 for an officer. Capt. J. Cass Mason agreed to take the enlisted men for $3; Hatch kept the $2.

But John Clark Ely knew nothing about that.

Three days before he died, their great-great grandfather was looking forward to being home. He wrote of a sunny day and boarding the Sultana in Vicksburg.

Mere hours before the explosion, John Clark Ely wrote simply: “Very fine day, still upward we go.”

Additional pages from the Sgt. Ely's journal (Courtesy of John M. Ely)
Previous Sultana coverage:

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Civil War-themed painting gifted to Kennesaw Mountain was made by a 'hidden' artist. Now Doug Brooks' creations are reaching the world

Douglas L. Brooks created this in the final year of his life, click to enlarge (KMNB)
After 10 years living on a wooded lake cove in Alabama, artist Douglas Lee Brooks returned home to Georgia and his childhood memories.

The first work the painter produced back in Cobb County, northwest of Atlanta, was a scene from the Civil War -- soldiers and horsemen clashing in a sea of color. The war was a subject dear to Brooks, who grew up in a neighborhood near Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park.

“Behind our home there was no development and the back face of Kennesaw Mountain,” says his sister Dolly Brooks. “You can imagine my brothers crossed the creek and through the woods. The back of Kennesaw Mountain was their playground.”

The powerful painting – full of light and vibrancy and exuding a childlike freedom – was donated in March to the park, 15 months after Brooks, 68, died of esophageal cancer.

The untitled work is among the last of about 1,500 paintings that Doug Brooks produced. His sister calls him a “hidden” artist, a private and contemplative person who never sold any of his creations, rather giving them to family and friends.

Painting at Rhode Island preschool (Courtesy of Douglas L. Brooks Collection)
Dolly Brooks, of Providence, R.I., lived near her brother in Marietta during the final year of his life. “When he knew he was dying, and asked me if I would accept his collection, he said, ‘You will know what to do.” 

As caretaker of 1,200 paintings, Dolly is now thoughtfully gifting them to places that reflect the causes her older brother supported, among them arts education, scholarships and organizations fighting food insecurity. Most of the works depict Southern life and culture – from street preachers and gamblers to farmers and people playing music and dancing.

Dolly approached Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in January about donating the large acrylic and canvas painting.

“I knew there was only one place I wanted the painting to be,” Dolly told the Picket. “You have to stand before it. To see it on your screen is nothing like standing before it.”

The artist made hundreds of Southern scenes (Courtesy of the Douglas L. Brooks Collection)

'Like dancing on the canvas'

The Brooks family has a real connection to the June 1864 Kennesaw battlefield. Doug and Dolly’s grandfather, Forrest, was born at Kolb Farm, scene of intense fighting. The National Park Service acquired the property years ago.

The Marietta home where the siblings grew up, St. John’s Court, blends into the woods.

Doug had a deep reverence for nature – the seasons, colors and animals – but he also had an appreciation for history, and he would often visit the Civil War park, taking in the movie and exhibits.

So it is no surprise that the artist recreated his childhood memories in the painting. Kennesaw acknowledged the gift in a Facebook post, saying the park was “always a treasured space to him.”

Forrest Clinton Brooks, born at Kolb's Farm (Courtesy of Dolly Brooks)
Park ranger Amanda Corman told the Picket the painting hangs in the visitor center vestibule.

When asked to describe the scene, Corman replied, “I cannot say that the painting depicts a specific portion of the battle; however, it is to reflect on the fighting that did take place at this location.” 

Doug moved to larger canvases later in life. While continuing use of oils on canvas, the painter began to do more with acrylics.

“I really like the large format. It’s like dancing on the canvas,” says Dolly, 67, of the painting now at the park. “He loved to play with the color and brush strokes (that) he could do.”

“It probably took him a week. “When it had the magic, he would take it off the easel.”

“The Confederate flag is muted,” she said. ““I love the horses that are coming in from the canvas on both sides. The more you look at it, the more you see.”

Tri-set depicting Civil War combat, click to enlarge (Courtesy of Douglas L. Brooks Collection)
Her brother was only able to make four paintings after returning to Georgia. “Doug often would paint through the night, if he was so inspired.”

The artist produced 15 or fewer paintings with a Civil War theme over his lifetime.

Dolly said she is touch with Corman about possibly gifting a smaller tri-set he made in the late 1980s for the park’s educational classroom.

He believed in coloring outside the lines

As collection caretaker, Dolly says her mission and charge is to bring her brother’s work to the public, and the Kennesaw Mountain gift is among the first on exhibit.

The retired teacher recently gifted two early works to the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia. (Self-portrait by Doug at left is courtesy of the Douglas L. Brooks Collection. He was about 34 at the time.)

A larger canvas is now hanging at Imagine Preschool at the Providence Center in Rhode Island. A sign near the colorful painting of a fish – made by her brother in Alabama -- says, “May children always be encouraged to color outside the lines.” (Painting is second in this post)

Doug was not a professional artist, though he took lessons as a child from local artist Forrest Jacobs. He attended the University of Georgia from 1971-1972 and was in the art program led by Lamar Dodd. The student didn’t like the environment or academics, so he left. Later, after a stint in the U.S. Navy, he worked in the family business in Cobb County.

But the bachelor’s real passion was art, and Doug also produced drawings, pottery, plates and writings over 50 years. Dolly says viewers can appreciate a Southern and regional touch in the paintings, from sharecropper shacks to fishermen and night scenes. Many are joyful and playful, she says.

Dolly describes Doug as her best friend, a deeply spiritual man who believed strongly in storytelling. About 150 of the paintings are self-portraits, the first when Doug was 29 and the last from 2020. “I believe he knew he was not well.”

A Southern scene made by the artist (Courtesy of the Douglas L. Brooks collection)
Doug did not want anyone to profit from his work and his sister is not selling it at this time. Instead, Dolly says she is making gifts of his art that will be, as her brother said, flowers for walls.

“I look at his work and I just recognize the beauty of him," Dolly says. “His art will be seen by the world as he requested.”

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Gettysburg to remember fallen from Civil War to Vietnam: Pliny White lingered a month after losing arm; Abel G. Peck fell early in battle

Pliny White (top) and Abel G. Peck are buried at the park cemetery
Some of America’s war heroes are famous, their names etched on buildings, remembered in the movies or painted on the transom of a Navy ship.

But the vast majority are lesser-known. This Memorial Day weekend, Gettysburg National Military Park and Eisenhower National Historic Site will share a few of their stories. The program at Gettysburg National Cemetery will discuss the site's creation and highlight several service members, from the Civil War through the Vietnam. They were among 6,000 men and women laid to rest in the hallowed ground between 1863 and 1971.

The free, 90-minute guided program takes place on Saturday, May 27, at 6 pm. Meet at the Taneytown Road entrance of the cemetery.

Park spokesman Jason Martz told the Picket that two Civil War soldiers will be among those featured: Sgt. Abel G. Peck of the 24th Michigan and Pvt. Pliny Fisk White of the 14th Vermont. Peck is believed to be buried at the cemetery as unknown.

Here’s more about the two soldiers:

Pvt. Pliny Fisk White, 14th Vermont, Addison County

When the war brought out in 1861, White was encouraged to stay home to take care of his widowed mother. But he decided to enlist in October 1862 for a nine-month term. After months stationed in the Washington, D.C., area, the regiment was attached to the Army of the Potomac.

While in the army, White frequently wrote home. His correspondence is excerpted from “Among the Things That Were: Letters of a Vermont Farm Family,” by Barbara Freund (2001)

White is buried in Vermont section (Gettysburg National Military Park
He wrote his sister in January 1863:

“After Virginia comes forth from her fiery trial purified it will be a good place to plant northern institutions. In looking at the devastation on every side occasioned by the war, one can but be reminded that the too long unheeded cry of oppressed is being amply avenged. As the tide of oppression commenced here & rolled southward so it may be yes must be with the merited retribution which slavery thus far has met.”

White wrote a letter to Lemira, believed to be his fiancée, on the day before his unit went to the front:

“The chances are very favorable that to-day we shall go into battle. Though it is said that we are to be held in reserve. I do not doubt but before the fight is over we shall be called. I am ready and willing to go into battle and can trust myself in the hands of Him who is our only trust. Though I do not fear, yet it may be if I go into battle this may be the last time I shall write to you. Already the firing has commenced but not briskly. I would like to see you, but as I cannot I thought just a word would be better than nothing. I love you as ever and think of you often, and if we meet no more on earth, I hope I shall be worthy to meet you where there will be no more parting words.”

On July 3, the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the 25-year-old was wounded by a shell fragment as his regiment engaged with a Florida brigade that was supporting Pickett's Charge.

“His shattered arm was amputated soon after the battle and Pliny was taken to a field hospital set up in Gettysburg's Lutheran Seminary,” the National Park Service says. “There the doctors and nurses believed Pliny would recover.”

Nearly a month after his wounding, on July 31, White wrote his sister again:

“Through the kindness of a good brother I will tell you how I am. I would not have you mourn on account of my condition for I feel reconciled to my lot, although it is hard. You know that we are taught in God’s Holy Word that ‘all things shall work together for the good of those that love God.’ I have excellent care and good nurses, who are doing all they can for me and take a deep interest in my recovery -- I have good food also. I’ve had some fever and my pulse is quite high yet.”

White did not recover and died on Aug. 5 at a field hospital set up in Gettysburg's Lutheran Seminary. He was later buried in the Vermont section of the national cemetery.

“Had he survived Gettysburg, he would have by that date been back at home with his family in Vermont, for the nine-month term of service of the 14th Vermont expired in late July and the regiment was mustered out of service,” says the NPS. (14th Vermont monument at Gettysburg, Wikipedia)

Sgt. Abel G. Peck, 24th Michigan

The 24th Michigan was organized in Detroit in August 1862 and became part of the famed Iron Brigade. The regiment had seen limited action until Gettysburg, but it had a real baptism of blood on those three July days.

At age 42, Abel Peck was an old soldier, by standards of the day. The farmer was a father of two girls and twice a widower. “There must have been something about Peck's bravery and integrity for he was soon after selected to carry the regimental flag of the 24th Michigan, a post of high and great honor in a Civil War regiment,” says the park service.

24th Michigan veterans at Gettysburg in 1889
Peck wrote his daughter Alice in August 1862, “With a heart beating high with emotion I attempt to address you. it becomes my duty to say to you that i have enrolled my self as a volunteer for our Country and its flag. pain full as it is I feel it to be my duty.

And a letter to a few months later: “ if we have to fight I expect to have to take my part and if I fal you must not morn for I think I cam dooing my duty and you must think that the honor of having a Father die in the defense of his Country will make up for the loss you will sustane ..

Peck was felled on July 1, early in the battle, as the Iron Brigade clashed with Confederate troops in pitched fighting. His commanding officer, Col. Henry Morrow, would later eulogize Peck, calling him a "brave and faithful soldier," and "a man greatly admired for his almost saintly character."

Shot through by twenty-three bullets and its staff splintered, the flag was reduced to a tatter seen here, according to the Michigan History Center. The regiment fulfilled its vow to protect the banner: the flag was never surrendered. (At left, a small piece of the flag, GNMP)

Peck was buried where he fell, but when the color bearer was reinterred at the national cemetery, his remains were not identified and he is likely marked as unknown.

The 24th Michigan’s casualties at Gettysburg were staggering: It went into action with 496 officers and men. Some 89 were killed or mortally wounded, 218 wounded and 56 captured, for a total of 363 casualties. Five color bearers were killed. But the regiment helped buy time for Union forces to occupy the vital Cemetery Ridge.