Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Civil War tales at Jonesboro

A storyteller will describe a more personal side of the Battle of Jonesborough (Georgia) on Saturday at the Patrick R. Cleburne Confederate Cemetery in Jonesboro. The 1864 battle was pivotal because the Confederate defeat led to the supply rail lines being cut and the fall of Atlanta. “This is not a glorification of war, but an acknowledgement of the human spirit and all its great and not so great moments," says Peter Bonner. • Article

Friday, August 23, 2013

Gatling gun heralded a new age

The Gatling gun, first patented in 1862, wasn't fully mechanical. Someone had to crank it by hand, but it was a step toward the machine gun. In an era of warfare remembered for muskets and bayonets, the Gatling gun was a terrifying leap forward. Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler purchased a dozen for his forces and used them fighting near Petersburg, Va.  • Article

Saturday, August 17, 2013

'Unsung heroes' painstakingly ensure uniforms live to tell their compelling stories

Uniform of Sgt. Alfred May before conservation (NC Museum of History)

The work is tedious and tough on the back. An individual item can take up to 200 hours to complete. But the efforts pay off, especially when a uniform can be put back in condition that, when put on display, will help tell the personal stories and cost of the Civil War. Textile conservator Paige Myers of the North Carolina Museum of History will explain her craft in a live streaming webcast on Sept. 10. Myers recently spoke with the Picket about her work.

Q. What do you do?

A. The conservator physically works with an object to arrest the deterioration and do hands-on cleaning and stabilization of the object. We don’t add anything new and don’t make it look grand new or add new parts. We add support, but we do not interfere if something is missing. Science and chemistry are involved.

The May coat after conservation. (NC Museum of History)
Q. The museum has about 100 uniforms. Can you tell us a little about them?

A. The majority came in in between 1903, when the museum was founded by Col. Fred Olds, and 1920. Most are frock coats, because those are what lasted. The majority are those belonging to prominent men, upper-grade officers. We have very few from the average soldier. We have Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew’s frock coat and sash. As you work with them, you get to know them (the wearer) by name. Col. Charles Fisher died in 1861. His coat has unusual buttons. We have a few shell jackets.

Q. Tell us about the uniforms’ condition.

Alfred May
A. Many are too fragile to put out. Col. Fred loved to put them on display. We try to rotate our textiles after six months to a year. And with some, a lot of the dyes were not color-fast: they faded pretty early. The wool uniforms are pretty stable. Sometimes the interiors can be very fragile. One was stored in tobacco leaves and did not do well. It is very rare, belonging to to Sgt. Alfred May, Company F, 61st NC Regiment.  We now have it restored after more than two years’ work.  We sent it to a conservation team in New York. They had to sew in support for whatever little bits of wool were left.

Q. Can you give us examples of good and improper storage?

A. Bad is putting a trunk in the attic. It is hot up there. The combination of the heat and the acid from the wood, the tannins, over time affects cotton and linens more than it does wool. It can affect dyes and actually stain things. People did not have closets like we do today and hangars did not come until the 20th century. A lot of these uniforms were so loved in their families that they were really taken care of. Pettigrew was wealthy and his had a yellow lining. Sometimes a trunk protected them but, today, the best place is in an acid-free box and acid-free tissue. That will keep pests away. The main thing with the wool uniforms is carpet beetles, silverfish and moths because they will eat holes in the uniforms. Mothballs do no good.

Q. What about the museum’s large flag collection?

A. Most are made of wool bunting. The majority are battle flags and, generally, they are in fairly good condition. A lot of times they are in poor condition from the battle. The majority have soot, possibly specks of shrapnel. Some of have been "souvenired" -- parts cut away by whoever captured it. We have some silk flags. They have not been as conserved as much as other battle flags. We have groups pay for some of these flags’ conservation. Some are made from women’s clothing – one from a dark blue shawl.

Q. What are some of your techniques?

A.  When we put a support on a wool patch we have to make sure everything we do is reversible. The technology is evolving and we are learning new techniques to conserve and stabilize things. Sometimes the stitching where we think it is helping it is not helping. We used to use just cotton threads. We now have very fine polyester threads that are thinner and just as strong as cotton. It makes the repair that we have done less visible. We discuss things with curators because we want to know the history of the garment to know if it is a bullet hole or original damage.

Q. How about items worn or repaired after the Civil War?

Gen. Leventhorpe
A. We get a lot of dresses that have been worn into the early 20th century. If (an earlier repair) is damaging to an object, modern stitching with sewing machine, you might take those out. The Brig. Gen. Collett Leventhorpe coat now on display – there was some debate when we looked at it. There is some stitching done by Leventhorpe after the war. It was damaging the inside of the coat. We did the repair and kept the original threads. Conservation is much like putting a puzzle together.

Q. Can you tell us about display and storage?

A. The idea is to keep everything flat. We usually have them in hanging storage with padded hangars. If they are too fragile, they are boxed. Our flags are usually rolled if not in conservation. The flat-stored objects are in baker’s-type trays. Humidity is 55%.

Q. How has the approach to conservation evolved?

A. Museum collecting in the 1960s and 1970s was not considered the science that is now. Things might have been repaired to a heavier degree than we would now. Things might have been machine-stitched and a modern patch may have been used. Anything that I do is hand sewing.

Q. Can you tell us about how uniforms were made?

A. A lot were made by tailors or by women. Certain women would make a sleeve, one would make a front part of it and they would put it together. A good tailor could make a frock coat in 16 hours and there were lots linings and pockets. These were meant to last, and soldiers would not have had more than one or two coats. It was what everybody wore -- it was the style and fashion. You can see the wear of button holes, and some are not as a worn as others. They may not have buttoned all of them, so they could have ventilation go through.

Q. Do you have any emotional reactions to the items?

A. Sometimes there can be. When you see bullet holes and the possibility they died, it can leave you with sad thoughts. With one soldier, Cox, his vest and coat were shot all to pieces and the arm of the coat was cut open by surgeon scissors to get it off of him. He was shot 11 times during the war and survived. The coat never can go on a mannequin again. The entire left sleeve is cut open.

Paige Myers works on an 1860s Quaker frock coat
Q. Were men really smaller then?

A. The cut of the uniform can be deceptive. People were skinnier in some regards. Most of these guys have a 36-inch chest. If you are between 16 and 25 there are still a lot of skinny guys now who have a 36-inch. You don’t know exactly how they wore the uniform. That is where photography and knowing a little bit about that person comes in. The majority of these uniforms are pretty consistent and most are double-breasted. Pants, many were 28-30 inches, some 34s inseams for pants, Guys wore them higher, above their belly button. Most jackets around 38. They would be your young skinny 20-something today.

Q. OK, this work can be pretty tedious, right?

A. You really have to have a level of concentration to do this and you want to get your stitches precise to not damage something further. I use a magnifying glass and do the work in stages. It is hard on your back. You don’t want to move the object -- you have to move yourself. Sometimes you have to walk away. My lab is pretty bright, but it is controlled with UV filtering.

Q. What about the colors?

A. I try to match colors, swatches. When I dye a patch, I don’t go back to the original color of the uniform. I match the aging. Sometimes, I have a gray coat or uniform with a greenish cast and my support fabric will be green. Green grays can be tricky. Even a brown is not a brown -- often it is darker. Not every (Confederate) soldier wore butternut or brown.

Q. How do you see your role at the museum?

A. Conservators and curators don’t always agree. The curator’s job is to get it out to the public; the conservator says sometimes you cannot put it display. We have to compromise. You have to be careful how long you put them out and it can take up to a year to conserve one of these uniforms or flags. We are sort of the unsung heroes. I always think I could do more for an item, but we were taught less is more. Sometimes, it is what you don’t do to an artifact, as opposed to what you do, that will help preserve it.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Richmond park acquires Glendale land

1864 engraving depicting fight over McCall's artillery
For the first time in 140 years, the public one day will be able to walk on a 251-acre section of an 1862 Virginia battle that was an opportunity for Gen. Robert E. Lee to perhaps garner a war-changing victory.

Richmond National Battlefield Park announced Monday that it received the land from the Civil War Trust. The acquisition more than doubles the park's holdings at Glendale to 394 acres. Glendale is in Henrico County, approximately 11 miles southeast of downtown Richmond.

"Although the Battle of Glendale was one the largest in Virginia, little of it had been preserved until recently, so the result of the acquisition is a virtually 'brand new' Civil War battlefield," the park said in a press release.

The three-mile swath extends from the upper end of the Glendale to the lower end of the Malvern Hill battlefield.

Known in the South as Frayser's Farm, the June 30, 1862, Battle of Glendale was the penultimate of the series of battles known as the Seven Days.

Lee designed his pursuit to cut off a Union retreat from Richmond to a new position on the James River, hoping to interdict the Union columns and win by dividing and conquering. The Confederates' attempts were unsuccessful and some historians argue that the battle at Glendale was one of Lee's best opportunities during the Civil War to win a comprehensive victory, according to the park.

The park property includes the spot where Gen. George G. Meade (later commander of the entire Union army in Virginia) was wounded.The park also owns the land where all 16 of the Union cannon were captured during the battle and where all of the hand-to-hand fighting took place.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Kids will literally connect with history

Pamplin Historical Park & The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier in Virginia has announced a family-friendly event where kids can handle real pieces of Civil War history. The Hanover Metal Detector Club will share its members' collections from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24. • Article

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Webcast will show how North Carolina conservator restores life to old uniforms

A textile conservator at the North Carolina Museum of History will explain how she prevents further damage to Civil War uniforms during an hour-long live webcast beginning at 6 p.m. on Sept. 10.

Lt. Col. Ruffin coat (NCMH)
Paige Myers will take e-mailed questions as she explains the conservation of two, perhaps three, uniforms in the museum’s collection. A curator will talk about each item’s history.

“I will be demonstrating what conservators do,” Myers told the Picket on Monday. “It seems mysterious to some people. People want to know why they (uniforms) are exhibited in the dark, why they are up only six months.”

Among the pieces is a frock coat worn by Lt. Col. Thomas Ruffin of Franklin County, mortally wounded in a Virginia battle, Auburn's Mill, on Oct. 15, 1863.

Ruffin, a congressman and attorney, served with the Ninth North Carolina (1st Cavalry) Regiment at the time of his death. Months before, in a fierce cavalry charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, he received a serious saber cut on the head, but shot and killed the Yankee officer who had inflicted it, according to NCpedia.

Blood remains on his coat, most of it visible on the inside and on the back, said Myers.

She will explain the balance conservators must play in preparing something suitable for museum display while protecting it from further harm.

The Ruffin coat needs additional work because of the concern of what the dried blood will do over time. Insects are drawn to the protein in blood and other body fluids.

“Blood is full or iron and blood can act as a rusty nail. It can eat through the fibers over time. If we want it to last another 150 years we have to minimize the risk of damage.”

So conservators may remove some, but not all, of the blood.

"We cannot remove the history,” Myers said.

Thomas Ruffin (LOC)
The museum has about 100 uniforms and 100 flags, almost all from North Carolina units. Many of the uniforms are woolen frock coats. Conservation can take up to 200 hours per item and may include repairs on previous attempts to contain damage.

Myers will discuss a different problem and remedy on the moth-eaten frock coat of Col. Dennis D. Ferebee of Camden County. He survived the war.

She also will show an acid-free box, the preferred method these days for safeguarding textile products.

This is the first webstream for Myers, who has served two stints at the museum, totaling six years, and a longer one at the Smithsonian Institution.

Officials expect Civil War re-enactors and staff members of smaller museums to be among those pre-registering for the event. They stress each uniform must be handled in a unique fashion. “These techniques should not be attempted at home,” a press release says.