Friday, January 30, 2015

Nothing too obscure for Civil War trivia

David Bourhenne and Robert Byrd stood toe-to-toe, trading historic broadsides of Civil War trivia. Eventually, Bourhenne triumphed in the 14th annual Civil War Quiz Bowl in North Carolina after a showdown that featured everything from bean boilers to the nationality of Arthur Fremantle to which battle gave "Stonewall" Jackson his famous nickname. • Article

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Journal of prisoner Sgt. John Clark Ely

(Courtesy of Norman Ely)
Sgt. John Clark Ely and 200 comrades in Company C, 115th Ohio Infantry were captured by Nathan Bedford Forrest’s forces on Dec. 5, 1864, near La Vergne, Tenn. After a couple weeks at a holding facility in Meridian, Miss., Ely, a schoolteacher with a family, was transported to Confederate Camp Sumter in middle Georgia on Jan. 23, 1865.

Ely kept two journals of his wartime experiences, one of which survived. The passages by the soldier, who enlisted in 1862, cover everything from food and horrible conditions to rumors of possible prisoner exchange.

The Civil War Picket is picking up his story after his arrival at Camp Sumter, and once a week will post his daily entries. The transcript is courtesy of Andersonville National Historic Site.

Jan. 28, 1865 (Saturday)
Fine morning, finished chimney, over to hospital 4 men died, bunk fell on them, pretty hard place.

Jan. 29, 1865 (Sunday)
Cloudy, not as cold, again rumors of an exchange, tis most probable a move of us to some other prison. F.H. said our officers came up and were sent on to Merritus where officers were kept

Jan. 30, 1865 (Monday)
Fine morning, white frost, not as cold as usual. Received note from Lt. Eadie, sent note to Capt. Wirz to see Eadie, received no answer.

Jan. 31, 1865 (Tuesday)
Fine morning, sent note to Eadie and again to see him, received no reply, tis reported that old Rosa occupiesMeridian. Hope it may be true.

(Courtesy of Norman Ely)

Feb. 1, 1865 (Wednesday)
Fine morning, all goes on as usual, same routine each day. P.M. 155 prisoners came in from Macon and were put in my division, making 3 hundred. News that the exchange is now put in Grant hands.

Feb. 2, 1865 (Thursday)
Lowery morning and looks like rain. Received note from Eadie.

Feb. 3, 1865 (Friday)

Rained a little in night, very cloudy this morning a little rain. P.M. all rain, man in stocks for not coming in with wood squad.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Beginning of Savannah harbor project to be marked near soon-to-be-removed ironclad

Panamerican diver James Duff prepares to go down to the CSS Georgia off Old Fort Jackson in Savannah (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

A staggering 24 million cubic yards of material will be dredged during the much-anticipated $706 million deepening of the harbor in Savannah, Ga.

But the first things to be taken from the Savannah River’s sandy bottom will be surviving pieces of the Civil War ironclad CSS Georgia.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ office in Savannah on Monday announced that the harbor project construction will officially begin Thursday morning with a media event not far from where the vessel is submerged.

Corps spokesman Russell Wicke said the removal of the CSS Georgia, necessary for the deepening, will occur in several phases and cost about $15 million.

“This is very exciting for us, for not only the historical significance on the CSS Georgia, but we are now moving forward with getting this harbor deepened -- which will have huge national benefits.”

Lacking much power, the locally built CSS Georgia was destined to become a stationary floating battery and part of the city’s defensive system during the Civil War.

It was scuttled on Dec. 21, 1864, by its Confederate crew in order to keep it out of the hands of Federal forces that took Savannah. 

Section of ironclad was removed in 2013 (USACE)

The ironclad, resting on a slope about 40 feet deep below the surface, must be removed so that an additional 5 feet of river bottom can be dredged. With the expansion of the Panama Canal, even larger ships will be able to travel to U.S. cities. That requires consistently deeper channels.

Debris includes four of the CSS Georgia’s original 10 cannons, parts of the propeller and propulsion system, a boiler and two casemates, which housed the artillery pieces. The wooden hull is believed to have largely disintegrated over the years.

The Savannah Army Corps of Engineers office, which has “soft launched” a website about the CSS Georgia recovery, said contract divers have been out at the site and are first mapping, tagging and putting a recovery grid in place. A network of ropes connects wreck site artifacts and assists divers to navigate through the mucky river floor.

They will be recovering small artifacts, such as fasteners or small personal items. “Anything you might be able to pull up by hand,” said Wicke.

The second phase, sometime this summer, will be the recovery of the large pieces. Divers, under direction of the U.S. Navy, will take special care because of the possibility of live ammunition and powder.

The third phase is mechanized recovery, “basically clearing up what is left over once the large pieces are pulled out.” The final phase is an archaeological clearance, to ensure everything has been properly removed.

Conservation will be done at Texas A&M University and will take about two years to complete. But that’s only for pieces that likely will be displayed some point at a museum. That will include the casemates, artillery pieces and other “signature” items.

Photo is believed to be of CSS Georgia (USACE)

Much of the CSS Georgia was constructed of railroad item. The majority of that will be resubmerged in another location for safekeeping, Wicke told the Picket.

Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Curtis Foltz told Savannah TV station WTOC: “We were shared some pictures yesterday of the first segment that was brought up as kind of a test, and they've identified the various particles that are still in existence on the floor of the river, and so they are well prepared to start recovering immediately.”

The initial contract for recovery of the CSS Georgia went to Dial Cordy and Associates of Jacksonville, Fla., the Corps said. Panamerican Consultants of Memphis, Tenn., will conduct field work.

Officials soon will award other contracts in the project, which is being funded by the federal government and Georgia.

Besides deepening the channel of the Savannah River from 42 feet to 47 feet, the Corps will extend the shipping lane an additional seven miles into the Atlantic Ocean off Tybee Island.

On the river-based portion, the Corps will be installing a dissolved oxygen injection system to protect marine life. That’s important because the deepening will allow more salt water to go upstream, throwing off the current equilibrium. Two plants will be installed: One on Hutchinson Island, the farther upstream near a Georgia Power facility.

Billy Birdwell, senior public affairs specialist with the Corps, said the large ships now entering the port will be less restricted once the deepening is completed: They won’t be so dependent on high tides to clear the channel bottom.

“We’re expanding the window for them,” he said. “They are getting more bang for their buck.”

One of the previously recovered guns (Courtesy of Old Fort Jackson)

Sunday, January 25, 2015

What if there had been connecting trains?

H. Roger Grant, a Clemson University historian, wonders whether a railroad linking Ohio and South Carolina — a railroad proposed in the 1830s but never built — might have helped stave off the Civil War. Not everyone is convinced. • Article

Thursday, January 22, 2015

One-act musical about SS Sultana disaster juxtaposes the past and present

(Drawing by Rick Iacovelli)

Hey you bag o’ bones we’ll be seeing better days ahead
(Yes there’s better days ahead, my friends) Hey you bag o’ bones
Hey you bag o’ bones we’ll be seeing better days ahead
(That’s right there’s better days) I’ll drink to that and shake your hand
-- “The Last Great March of the Skeleton Soldiers"

The image of gaunt and hungry soldiers, finally on their way home after enduring privation in prison camps, stuck with Jeff Stachyra while he researched the SS Sultana disaster.

Stachyra, a musician and producer in southern New York, put this little-known Civil War incident to lyrics and melody in a 2012 album that encompassed an array of musical styles, including Americana.

More recently, Stachyra and local playwright Laura Cunningham have made the tragic story of the last voyage of the Sultana the subject of a one-act musical, “Bag O’ Bones.” The production will have a free developmental reading at 2 p.m. Saturday (Jan. 24) at the Bundy Museum in Binghamton.

“I would like two things to happen,” Stachyra told the Picket this week. “I want people to come away with an understanding and curiosity of the story. So maybe they will proceed to do some of their own exploration on that and the Civil War. (The second thing) is I hope they enjoy the music. It’s what I do.”

This is a story of bravery, courage, loss and the greed of those who contributed to the disaster.

“Bag O’ Bones” features Olive, a doctoral student, who chooses the Sultana as her dissertation thesis. Her great-great-great grandfather was a paroled soldier about the vessel, heading home at the war’s end.

The 45-minute musical includes portrayals of four soldiers, “their struggles, and getting on this overloaded boat.”

The loss of the Sultana, 150 years ago this spring, is the largest U.S. maritime disaster. The mighty Mississippi River has changed course since the steamboat exploded and caught fire near Mound City, Ark., on April 27, 1865, leaving the ashes to slowly settle and be farmed over.

An estimated 1,800 men were killed. Most of the victims were released Union prisoners – many of them Andersonville survivors -- headed north.

The steamboat was traveling the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn., to St. Louis. About 2,400 passengers packed a vessel that had a capacity of fewer than 400

“In some places the guys couldn’t even lay down. It was so crowded. In some cases if they went to the bathroom or go to eat their place would be taken," Gene Salecker, author of "Disaster on the Mississippi," told the Picket a few years ago.

No one was formally held accountable for putting too many men on the Sultana and sailing despite documented concerns about the safety of one of the boat's boilers. At least one faulty boiler exploded, flinging passengers into the chilly river.

Jeff Stachyra
Cunningham, the playwright, was in Stachyra’s studio for a recording session when he gave her CDs with music about the Sultana and why he made the album.

"The account of the survivors' pleas for help when they were in the river were just so moving, it wrote the story itself," Cunningham told the Press & Sun-Bulletin newspaper.

Salecker and author Jerry Potter have written about a kickback scheme between the vessel's financially-strapped captain, J. Cass Mason, 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. Mason agreed to take the enlisted men for $3; Hatch kept the $2.

At least one other vessel was available to carry soldiers to St. Louis, relieving the passenger load on the Sultana. But the captain steamed ahead, the Sultana overcrowded and top-heavy with all of the men packed together. The load caused the vessel to rock and placed stress on the boilers.

Stachyra’s Sultana album features a song about Hatch:

Shaving off the lumber
Buy low – bill high
Grant’s investigation in Cairo
Assistant Quartermaster arrested for bribes
Hatch throws the ledger book into the Ohio
But it washed right back, back ashore

“We are trying to trick the audience into getting into a history lesson without it sounding like it,” Stachyra (pronounced stuh-hara) said of the musical.

He will play a banjo and various instruments at Saturday’s show. Other musicians will play a reed organ and marching snare drum, meant to evoke instruments of the time -- mixing old-time music with a "funky, contemporary style."

The producers hope they can take their work to history clubs and high schools and perhaps, one day, develop a full-scale musical. Saturday’s production is meant to elicit feedback from the audience.

Stachyra started writing songs about the Sultana in 2008.

(Courtesy of Jeff Stachyra)

Among the survivor accounts he’s been most interested in is that of Chester Berry of the 20th Michigan Volunteer Infantry. “He had the foresight to collect remembrances of other survivors.”

Years later, Berry had vivid memories of his comrades’ desperate bid for survival. Hundreds died only a day and a half from a prisoner exchange and freedom. Many survivors died of burns in the following weeks.

Berry wrote: “The horrors of that night will never be effaced from my memory -- such swearing, praying, shouting and crying I had never heard; and much of it from the same throat -- imprecations followed by petitions to the Almighty, denunciations by bitter weeping.”


The Picket has done extensive reporting on several angles of the disaster. Here are our previous articles:

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Cache of weapons may have been found

A huge cache of weapons dumped in a South Carolina river 150 years ago may soon be unearthed, thanks to an environmental cleanup. Historians are salivating over the prospect of finding cannonballs, bayonet scabbards and sabers seized by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's Union forces during the sacking of Columbia on Feb. 17, 1865. • Article

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Get the value on your Civil War item

The South Carolina State Museum is holding a winter session of its popular artifact appraisal day with a Civil War theme. To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the burning of Columbia, the museum is bringing together experts and appraisers on Saturday to offer informal advice on artifacts. There is a charge for the appraisal. • Article

Thursday, January 15, 2015

H.L. Hunley: Scientists peeling away crust on submarine marvel at its craftsmanship

Scientists remove concretion (Photos courtesy of Friends of the Hunley)

Scientists chiseling away decades of sand and shell from the H.L. Hunley are forging a tie to the builders of the historic submarine: A painstaking attention to detail.

Since August 2014, a team of conservators using small tools, including dental chisels and hammers, have been removing concretion coating the exterior.

They are looking for clues as to why the Hunley sank after it became the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel.

“It keeps surprising us,” said Nestor Gonzalez, assistant director of Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, S.C.

You have a very close sense of the attention to detail and the care they put into it," he said. "How the rivets are perfectly flush and the finishing is very high quality.”

Three days a week, members of the team enter the drained tank, wearing protective eyewear, gloves and masks as they slowly reveal the doomed submarine’s skin.

That work is adding to their knowledge of the craftsmanship that went into the Hunley, which was built for the Confederacy in secret in Mobile, Ala., without the use of blueprints.

Scientists have been looking for any separation of the wrought iron plates that cover the exterior. Such a discovery would indicate the Hunley may have suffered fatal damage when the torpedo it planted into the hull of the Union ship USS Housatonic went off.

“We have not seen anything like that,” Gonzalez recently told the Picket. “The guy was a very good builder.”

What the team is finding is a vessel that, while corroded, retains its structural integrity. The builders staggered the plates to strengthen their hold and carefully connected the rings that form the skeleton of the 40-foot Hunley.

“Everything had been very well thought out,” said Gonzalez.

Conservator Virginie Ternisien at work 

The stuff of legends

The Confederate government brought the Hunley to Charleston in a bid to help break the Union’s siege on the port city. The eight-member crew that set out for the Housatonic knew the risks.

Five members of the first crew died in August 1863 when it accidentally dived while its hatches apparently were open. The second crew's eight members succumbed in October when the Hunley failed to return to the surface.

On the moonlit evening of Feb. 17, 1864, the crew of the hand-cranked vessel set off a charge that sent the Federal vessel to the sandy bottom outside Charleston Harbor.

The Hunley – likened to the shape of a whale -- disappeared from view. What happened to it has become the stuff of legends and research for decades.

For a long time, one prevailing view held that a lucky shot broke the glass in one of the Hunley’s portholes, bringing in rushing water and causing the sub to sink. But research has not proven that theory.

Another scenario holds that the Hunley was swamped by or struck by another Union vessel. Or that it plunged to the sea floor to avoid detection, and never made it back up. A latch on the forward conning tower was found to be not properly locked, adding to the mystery, CNN reported in a 2014 article about the project.

In January 2013, officials announced a significant discovery.

Research showed the submarine was less than 20 feet from her 135-pound torpedo when it exploded. The effects of the blast may have sent the Hunley to the bottom, where the crew ran out of oxygen.

Ongoing efforts to solve the mystery

Conservators have been looking for any holes or bullet damage that may help explain why the Hunley sank.

“There is nothing we can see at this point, said Stephanie Crette, director of the Lasch center.

The vessel appears intact.

“We are stabilizing the items, but also working to unveil the secrets of the submarine. We are moving toward finding evidence as to why it sank,” added Gonzalez. So far, there are “no new clues.”

Removing the sediment from the Hunley is a critical component in understanding its construction and what happened.

Last May, scientists immersed the submarine in a bath of toxic sodium hydroxide to help loosen the concretion. The idea is to loosen the sediment, remove as much salt as possible from the wreckage and help protect it from further corrosion.

The scientists work from about 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays after solution is drained from the tank and the pH level is lowered, said Crette. The tank is refilled each day when their work is completed. Analysis is done on other days. (The general public can see the Hunley on weekends).

In some areas, the concretion can be up to two inches deep. The team works in a grid fashion, first exposing the rivet line and then working their way to the center of the plates.

Next up: Hunley’s interior

Scientists have completed cleaning nearly all of the exterior plates and are moving on to cast iron components – a very long and complicated process.

“Cast iron is very difficult,” said Gonzalez. “But it is also very rewarding … We are seeing absolutely outstanding surfaces.”

Builders used cast iron for the dive planes, the conning towers and for parts of the bow and stern. Conservators are excited about exploring the connection that linked the torpedo spar to the hull. “It can reveal fantastic details,” said Gonzalez.

Officials said they have found no evidence indicating a problem with forward conning tower may have had anything to do with the Hunley’s demise.

Scientists expect to begin deconcretion of the interior in about three months, with the entire process completed by the end of the year.

While the Hunley submarine is empty, there’s a possibility that an artifact may break loose during the work, Crette told the Picket. One scientist found an entire snail shell in the encrusted exterior.

Paul Mardikian works on the bow.

With the chipping away of each piece of crust, the submarine is returning to its original appearance, the conservators guided by an 1863 painting of the Hunley by Conrad Wise Chapman.

The nonprofit Friends of the Hunley provides a history of the boat and current conservation updates on its website.

“A lookout aboard the Union Navy's largest ship was tired, cold -- but restless. Talk of a Confederate secret weapon was in and out of his thoughts. Suddenly he spotted something move in the chilly waters. A porpoise? There were certainly a lot of them around. But something about this one didn't seem right."

What didn’t seem right was the Hunley, which sank the Housatonic. Five of its crew members died; 150 others were soon rescued.

The eight men on the Hunley also died. The quest continues for the manner and cause of their deaths.

(Photos courtesy of Friends of the Hunley)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Fort Fisher 150th this weekend: Battle scenarios, tours, a meeting of descendants

(Fort Fisher State Historic Site)
Between 10,000 and 15,000 spectators are expected to witness two battle scenarios this weekend and take in music, tours and more at the site of Fort Fisher, on the peninsula between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, south of Wilmington, N.C. Famed Civil War historian Ed Bearss and various authors and experts will be on hand for Saturday’s and Sunday’s programs. The Jan. 15, 1865, fall of the “Gibraltar of the South” to a land and amphibious assault cut off blockade runners and the last supply line through Wilmington to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. U.S. Colored Troops were among those taking part in the attack. The Picket spoke with John Moseley, assistant site manager at Fort Fisher State Historic Site, and Paul Laird, executive director of the Friends of Fort Fisher, about the battle and this weekend’s activities.
Disaster helped create battle’s turning point
The program for the 150th anniversary of the battle, which was the second effort to grasp control of the fort, will include the present-day U.S. Marine Corps Historical Company. Interpreters will explain to visitors the Jan. 15 Marine Corps and Navy assault on Fort Fisher’s northeast bastion. (The Army attacked from the western, river side. Heavy naval bombardment of the fort took place on Jan. 14, 1865.)
“There was confusion when the actual attack would take place,” said Moseley. “When the whistle was given (mid-afternoon), the Navy immediately jumped off. Some 2,000 to 2,200 Navy and Marine personnel ran down the beach. The Army was still getting its stuff together.”
U.S. Marine Corps Historical Company
Confederate reinforcements rushed to that bastion, inflicting about 300 casualties with rifle fire, grapeshot and canister. “They got on top of the ramparts and were shooting down on the Marines.” But the valor of the Union attackers was notable, with six Marines receiving the Medal of Honor for helping press the assault.
“That was the key. By the time they were retreating, the Army had a foothold on Shepherd’s Battery,” said Moseley. The Army with about 3,000 men was facing only about 350 Confederates, because most had rushed to the northeast bastion. They were able to pile through.
“The one disaster takes the attention away from the main attack, unexpectedly.”
(Library of Congress)
Finally, well into the evening, the Union assault carried the day, bringing about the post’s surrender. It came with a price – about 2,000 estimated casualties for both sides. The Confederates were dogged in their defense.
Comparing real soldiers and 2015 re-enactors
Normally, about 300 to 400 re-enactors attend significant anniversary events at Fort Fisher, officials, said. This year, the number of invitation-only registrations is about double that. Units expected to be on hand include the Fort Fisher garrison, Adams artillery, another artillery unit and the 11th and 18th North Carolina.
“We have never had this kind of response,” said Moseley.
He and Laird said Fort Fisher and a few remaining sesquicentennial events in Virginia and North Carolina and elsewhere in 2015 will be the last hurrah for some re-enactors.
“A lot of people have been doing this for 20 to 25 years. They are just as tired as the actual soldiers would have been in 1865,” said Moseley. “They are starting to look very authentic, with the dirt and debris over all their uniforms.”
Some may get out of the hobby or take a year’s break. “They want to get reintroduced to their families.”
(Fort Fisher State Historic Site)
A bit of history near beautiful beaches
Fort Fisher gets about 600,000 visitors a year, the most of North Carolina’s historic sites, largely because of its location near several of the state’s beaches. The big crush comes during the summer months, with visitors from all over the country and Europe. They come for the surf and serenity, or to bird watch.
Laird and Moseley said they expect many people attending this weekend will be pretty well-versed on the battle’s significance. And a good weather forecast is a bonus.
“The folks are going to be your dyed in the wool history enthusiasts who are not going to be the casual day tripper,” said Laird.
The Wilmington campaign plays a major role in the first 45 minutes of the 2012 film “Lincoln.”
“We’ve even had a couple actors come down because they did not know what the whole thing was about. What the heck is Fort Fisher?” said Moseley.
Views of the fort after it fell (Library of Congress)
Why is Fort Fisher so important?
Said Moseley: “Once the fort fell, there was nowhere for the Confederacy to go. It was a done deal. There was no way to get any supplies from overseas to help the army or civilians.”
Galveston, Texas, was just too far away for a resupply of eastern armies. He asks: Could the war ended sooner if Fisher had been taken earlier?
Laird said he hopes for a bigger takeaway.
“Ultimately, we want them to understand (that with) the sacrifices that were made 150 years ago, we would have a reunited country once again.”
North Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial
What’s on tap for this weekend?
Activities begin at about 9 a.m. Saturday and end at about 4 p.m. Sunday. Because of limited parking, a free trolley service will run from the Fort Fisher Air Force Recreation Base to the fort.
The Friends of Fort Fisher have raised about $72,000 to help with the event.
Admission is free, though there is a $10 lantern tour Saturday night and $10 “Above the Scenes” tours of the earthen fortifications both days. In the former, visitors will “encounter historical personages who will relay the battle and their role in the battle,” said Laird.
Bearss and Gov. Pat McCrory will attend the 11 a.m. opening ceremony Saturday. Battle scenarios are scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday.
Speakers include authors Rod Gragg, “Confederate Goliath,” and Chris Fonvielle, “Faces of Fort Fisher.” Children’s activities, artillery and musket demonstrations and music also are in the lineup.
(Fort Fisher State Historic Site)
Something special for descendants
The Friends of Fort Fisher on Thursday and Friday is hosting on Carolina Beach a private reunion for about 200 people who have Union of Confederate ancestors who took part in the Fort Fisher campaigns.
“They know their own ancestors’ role and affiliation and we will give them a chance to write down their stories,” said Laird, adding historians will be on hand. The descendants will receive a behind-the-scenes tour of the fortifications on Friday.
“It’s interesting how important the veterans themselves were after the war in bringing about reconciliation. This reunion is a continuation of what they started.”

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Honor and tragedy through his eyes, hand

The paintings of Red Grooms, one of Nashville's most respected artists, hang in museums and galleries worldwide. Now, Grooms' look at the Civil War is on display at the Tennessee State Museum. Civil War images haunted Grooms' life from its beginning. Long before attending Hillsboro High School, he discovered that his boyhood home sat just a stone's throw from the site of the Battle of Nashville in 1864. • Article

Monday, January 5, 2015

Calling all kin of Salisbury guards, prisoners

The Historic Salisbury Foundation is looking for descendants of Civil War soldiers who were either prisoners or guards at the Confederate prison in the North Carolina city to contribute to an exhibit that they hope will link the past and present. • Article