Thursday, February 14, 2013

Saturday seminar: Stonewall, old soldiers and the confounding sound of silence

As July 2, 1863, dawned at Gettysburg, Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell had an important task ahead. His troops were to make a strong show of force against the Union right as Lt. Gen James Longstreet’s men moved to take the Round Top mountains at the south end of Cemetery Ridge.

But Ewell missed the signal to commence activity. He claimed later he could not hear the barrage of Confederate artillery, and failed to move his troops in time, allowing Union commanders to shift troops to blunt Longstreet’s assault.

Longstreet's July 2 assault at Gettysburg (Library of Congress)

“The hot temperatures near the ground probably caused a dramatic upward refraction of sound waves,” Charles D. Ross wrote in 1999 newsletter of the Acoustical Society of America.

Union commander George G. Meade also claimed not to hear the sound of fighting at one point during Gettysburg, while people in Pittsburgh, 150 miles, heard the din of battle.

The phenomenon, known as “acoustic shadows,” is among the topics being covered Saturday (Feb. 16) at a daylong free seminar at Longwood University in Farmville, Va.

The 14th Annual Civil War Seminar is sponsored by the university and Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, which is 30 miles from Farmville.

Unusual acoustics due to atmospheric conditions sometimes make it difficult for commanders to hear sounds of battle that can help them deploy trees or react. Temperature inversions, terrain, absorption and wind can factor in, creating an auditory dead zone.

Professor Ross
Ross, a professor of physics at Longwood, is among the speakers focusing on 1863, “A Year of Decision.” Chancellorsville, another 1863 battle, also witnessed acoustic shadows.

Patrick Schroeder, park historian at Appomattox Court House NHP, told the Picket that organizers are hoping for a crowd of about 300.

“They are topnotch speakers for free,” he said. “We are going to get people from Civil War roundtable groups, Sons of Confederate Veterans groups. We will get a fair amount of Longwood students and local people.”

The 8:45 a.m.-4 p.m. program is being held at the 800-seat Jarman Auditorium on campus.

Other speakers are:
         --  Frank O’Reilly, National Park Service employee and author, will discuss the Battle of Chancellorsville. O’Reilly also has written extensively about Fredericksburg.

T.J. Duckett of S.C. at 1913 reunion
n       -- Historian and writer Robert K. Krick will describe the mortal wounding of Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville. Krick has written more than 20 books. For 30 years, he was chief historian of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.

n      --- Troy Harman of the NPS will discuss the fighting at Gettysburg. “He is probably going to cover how the federal troops would use the terrain to their advantage,” said Schroeder.

n     -- John Heiser will talk about Gettysburg and the “Great Reunion of 1913.” That meeting was the largest combined reunion of Civil War Veterans ever held.

Registration to attend the seminar is not required. “If you want to come in just the afternoon or morning you can just do that,” said Schroeder.

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