Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016's top 10 posts: Shipwrecks, artifacts and the mystery of the coffin in marsh

Picket readers’ abiding interest in shipwrecks and archaeology dominated the list of the 10 most popular items reported and written in 2016. Thank you so much for your support this past year. All the best to each of you in 2017!

(Picket photo)

10. ‘SO MUCH POTENTIAL’: County officials and the friends group want a newly opened park in Resaca, Ga., to be an educational, recreational and historic beacon for local residents, travelers and Civil War buffs. The park (photo above) contains significant remnants of earthworks, including an impressive length of trenches. • Read more

CSS Georgia gun (USACE)
9. HUNLEY, MONITOR, CSS GEORGIA: Ahead of a Columbus, Ga., symposium on shipwrecks, the Picket gleaned fascinating details on conservation efforts related to these famous vessels. • Read more

8.  ‘FOR EVER ENGLAND’: A ceremony this past summer at Poplar Grove National Cemetery at the Petersburg, Va., battlefield recalled the life and service of a British sergeant major who trained young Americans at nearby Fort Lee during World War I. • Read more

Courtesy of John Gregory

7. BLOCKADE RUNNER DIORAMAS: Endearingly old school, four dioramas depicting scenes from Civil War blockade running – a cargo auction, a daring Union raid, the boarding of a vessel and the drowning of a Confederate spy – are on display in a North Carolina town for the first time in nearly 35 years. Another (above) is at a nearby recreation area. • Read more

Georgia State Parks
6. VANDALIZED HOWITZER ON DISPLAY: An artillery piece is back at the Georgia battlefield where it is believed to have been used in a deadly barrage on attacking Federal troops. The restored howitzer, which was spiked and vandalized over the years, now sits on a reproduction carriage at Pickett's Mill Battlefield Historic Site near Atlanta (photo, left). • Read more 

5. ‘SCENE AT THE RAVINE’: A burn ban brought on by the summer’s drought brought postponement to candlelight tours planned at Pickett’s Mill battlefield. • Read more

Georgia DNR

4. FORT McALLISTER’s MYSTERY COFFIN: Rachel Black, deputy state archaeologist in Georgia, has posed a question that currently has no answer but offers a range of fascinating possibilities: Why was a coffin placed in a marsh near a Civil War fort and who put it there. • Read more

Jim Jobling (USACE)
3. TOUGH CHOICES: Each time a scoop of CSS Georgia artifacts landed on the deck of a barge in the Savannah River, Jim Jobling made a decision – conserve or put them back in the river. • Read more

2. CONSERVATION SCORECARD: I asked three Civil War shipwreck conservators (CSS Georgia, H.L. Hunley and USS Monitor) and a historian at a symposium in Columbus, Ga., for a scorecard on where the work stands and the biggest questions they hope additional research will reveal.  • Read more

Courtesy of Michael Gregory

1. CAMP DOUGLAS ARTIFACTS: About 4,000 Confederates died at the Chicago prison. An archaeologist and a foundation are conducting further research on a corner of the site (above) in the Bronzeville neighborhood to determine the location of key structures and learn more about prisoner life. "It has been one of the most interesting collections I have ever worked on," says archaeologist Michael Gregory. • Read more 

Friday, December 30, 2016

Bill allows major expansion at Petersburg

Virginia’s Petersburg National Battlefield, a climactic site in the collapse of the Confederacy in the Civil War, has been cleared for a huge expansion under a new law that would authorize it to become the nation’s largest protected battlefield. Although the legislation would not include any new funding, some land is already in the hands of preservation groups that plan to transfer it to the National Park Service. • Article

Friday, December 23, 2016

'Hanging our hat on the Sultana': Arkansas city weighs permanent museum about disaster

Harper's Weekly illustration of the April 1865 disaster

The story of the Sultana runs deep in the blood of Frank Fogleman, longtime mayor of Marion, Ark. His great-great-grandfather, after lashing two or three logs together, poled his way through the current of the Mississippi River and toward survivors of the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.

He plucked possibly two dozen people -- mostly Federal soldiers who were on the steamboat Sultana and heading home at the end of the Civil War -- from the chilly river.

Today, Marion is a bedroom community just a 10-minute drive from Memphis, across the Mississippi. It was the closest community to where the Sultana exploded and caught fire on April 27, 1865, killing about 1,800 passengers and crew. Accounts of the tragedy were overshadowed by headlines about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

The city of 12,500 has been navigating waters of its own in recent months as it considers whether to build a $2.8 million permanent museum featuring the singular story of the Sultana. There are lots of things under consideration: Can it draw the recommended 35,000 annual visitors? Is a $136,000 annual subsidy a wise use of city money? How and where to find people interested in coming?

Fogleman understands all these factors as the effort moves from a 10,000-square-foot preliminary design and market and financial feasibility study to an economic impact analysis.

“There are less than two dozen people with any familiarity with the inner workings of moving this along,” said the longtime mayor, noting there is not yet a groundswell of local enthusiasm. “There is a huge challenge.”

(Photos courtesy of Gene Salecker)
Gene Salecker with Sultana model

A temporary Sultana Disaster Museum is on a quiet side street. It brings in only about 100 visitors a month, although those who come provide positive feedback. A much bigger venue will require a lot more resources and marketing.

“We can’t build it and they come,” Fogleman told the Picket early last month. Officials know they will have to tap into the Memphis tourism market. And many of those 10.5 million annual visitors don’t come for history. They are more interested in food, music and the river.

But getting a slice of them could pay dividends.

The mayor, Chamber of Commerce, historians and others believe a permanent venue could be a boost to the local economy and a source of tourism.

“We are hanging our hat on the Sultana. It is unique,” Fogleman said. “There are several Titanic displays. The Sultana only sank once and it sank it outside Marion.”

Courtesy of Haizlip Studio: Concept plan of Sultana Disaster Museum, which is planned to be located in Marion, Ark. Click to enlarge

The Evening Times reported recently that a city commission voted to help fund the hiring of a museum director for the next three years to help develop the venue and guide city tourism efforts. The mayor said that employee could “breathe some life into this effort.”

Marion Chamber of Commerce President Mike Demster said the group “is supporting the museum until it comes of age and can stand on its own.”

Sultana author and lecturer Gene Salecker, who has donated many Sultana and related items to the existing location, said, “If it can be done well, it can be a great museum.”

“You start going into the museum and see the devastation of the war. These poor guys are getting out of prison. There would be the Sultana and perhaps you could walk on the deck and see the different parts. You walk around and see the devastation on the other side.”

The Sultana Disaster Museum can’t have an old-time feel, Salecker told the Picket. “It has to have the wow factor.”

Exhibits recount the tragic event

The Sultana's story currently is being told from the third location, at 104 Washington St. Volunteers showcase a handful of artifacts directly related to the disaster, a 14-foot replica of the steamboat and associated items from survivors, including reunion items from the late 19th and early 20th century. Most were collected by Salecker.

Visitors are asked for a $5 donation and take in an introductory video before walking through four small rooms.

Comb of Albert Cassel, 29th Ohio Infantry, Andersonville POW
(Courtesy of Gene Salecker)

On exhibit are a wooden comb belonging to a soldier and a unique alligator” box made by a survivor, furnace bricks found in a bean field believed to cover some of the boat’s burned remains, metal shakers plates, a passenger’s knife that ended up in Grand Army of the Republic hall in Ohio and a plaque made from wood used on the Sultana.

Salecker, who lives in Illinois, brought down a flag belonging to Albert Norris, a survivor of the Confederate prison camps at Andersonville and Cahaba and who, like many other released prisoners of war, was finally heading home.

Other items include round-bottom fire buckets of the type deployed on steamboats of that era.

“Because the soldiers needed water they used them for drinking and they were not in the rack to fight the fire” on the Sultana, Salecker said.

(Courtesy of the Sultana Disaster Museum)

One of the more curious items is a pair of elk’s antlers used to depict an aspect of Mississippi River commerce and transportation.

The captain of the Sultana, J. Cass Mason, had run the fastest route from New Orleans to St. Louis on a prior trip. Mason received the antlers as a sign of speed.

“Mason promptly had the antlers mounted on the bracing between the two smokestacks (of the Sultana),” the historical society noted. “That way, if any freight dealer or passenger was looking for a fast boat, all they had to do was look at all the boats at a landing, spot one with the elk antlers, and book passage on that steamer.”

“He was a lead foot,” Salecker said of Mason. “He raced his boats, which was not good for the engines or the boilers.”

Plan requires big boost in marketing

The museum feasibility study, conducted by Owens Economics, stated: “The Sultana story is an exceptionally strong story with multiple dimensions. It is a story about war and its aftermath; it is a story about survival and heroism; it is a story about greed and dishonesty; it is a story political wrongdoing; it is a story of the Mississippi River. Most importantly, it is a story that deserves to be told.”

Sultana a day before the disaster (Library of Congress)

In the end, no one was formally held accountable for putting too many men on the Sultana, despite documented concerns about the safety of one of the boat's boilers.

Of the temporary venue, the study said the small attendance reflects in part the scale of the museum and limited operations. The museum is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m.-4 p.m. on Sundays.

The feasibility study said: “The performance of the current Museum does not reflect the potential of a new, properly executed museum project. In spite of limited resources, the museum achieves strong, positive marks from visitors.” A large constraint, it said, is a lack of knowledge about the disaster.

Norman Vickers, president of the Sultana Historical Preservation Society, which operates the museum, said the 1,200-1,600 annual visitors come from all the United States and from other countries.

(Courtesy of Gene Salecker)
Brochures, a billboard and the West Memphis Welcome Center help get out the word. “We get more Memphis visitors than (from) locally," Vickers said.

Vickers recalls a visitor impressed by the small museum. “They knew very little about it, or never heard of us before. Someone sent them to see us. They are amazed to hear about the story.”

A closer look at the pros and cons

The feasibility study, delivered to the city in October, lays out the opportunities and challenges.


-- The strength of the Sultana Story: It much more than a story about war.
-- There are a number of tools to spread the word and generate interest among other audiences.
-- The museum will benefit from its proximity to Memphis and the Memphis visitor market.
-- The uniqueness and importance of the venue should garner support at the state level.


-- Getting the word out about Sultana; building brand awareness.
-- Lack of complementary attractions in Marion/Crittenden County.
-- Geographic distribution of the resident market with the majority of the market population on the eastern side of the river (Memphis).
-- Civil War interest peaked during the sesquicentennial. The subject of the war not popular with some demographics.

Sgt. John Clark Ely died
Owens Economics found: “While visitors numbers and visit characteristics are indicators of positive support for a museum such as the Sultana Disaster Museum, this assessment must be tempered by the fact that history and visiting attractions are not the principal reasons people visit Memphis. The most important reasons people come to Memphis are music, food and the Mississippi River.”

But it said “boosters” include possibly joining a network of tourism trails, a growing hotel inventory west of Memphis, river cruise boats and partnerships with other historical venues across Arkansas and in Memphis.

Salecker said there are opportunities to build interest. “If we can get a field trip from Memphis across the river or Little Rock a couple hours away, don’t think we can’t get a lot of the kids interested in it.”

And he points to the proposed permanent location on Highway 77, adjacent to City Hall and the library. The study said the location would provide “enhanced accessibility and visibility compared to the current, temporary museum.”

‘More engaging and interactive’

Haizlip Studio of Memphis designed the proposed new museum. The plan features 5,500 square feet for permanent exhibits plus space for changing exhibits.

Courtesy of Haizlip Studio: Concept plan of Sultana Disaster Museum

It features a large model of the steamboat, a movie and several stations, with topics ranging from Civil War prisons, the river, the building of the Sultana and bribery/overcrowding.  

(Salecker and author Jerry Potter 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. Mason agreed to take the enlisted men for $3; Hatch kept the $2.)

“The concept … envisions a change in the quality of exhibits that would increase their impact and appeal,” the study found. “They would be more engaging and interactive, and incorporate greater use of technology.”

Positive signs amid all the questions

Mayor Fogleman’s ancestors go way back in the county, perhaps as early as 1825. He’s been mayor since 1995. He touts the city’s proximity to Memphis (though he notes he’s never been to Graceland), and its local industry and businesses.

“We feel we have things people are looking for,” he said. “The amenities of Memphis, but you don’t live there.”

The city wants to build its tourism. But, as Fogleman noted, “Money is going to be the end all, be all” for the project.

Monument in Hillsdale, Mich. (Stephenie Kyser)

City officials were told while revenues would cover 75% of the budget, they would need to find $136,000 a year from other sources -- city taxes or through partnerships and grants.

According to the Evening Times, the commission that overseas collections of the 1-cent sales “hamburger” tax on prepared foods has agreed on contributing up to $400,000 to help build a permanent museum.

The economic impact study will provide data that will help leaders determine whether the $2.8 million Sultana plan is worth the effort and risk. The commission is looking at several proposals from companies that want to study the museum and a possible enclosed rodeo arena at an existing sports complex.

“If we determine it is worthwhile, we can look for funding sources. If stagnant, we don’t do it, or do a much more humble vision,” Fogleman said. Residents, he believes, want more information before getting behind an ambitious effort.

Fogleman said one informal projection suggested revenues and sales tax generated by the museum, and its economic impact, could offset or surpass the annual $136,000 city subsidy. For a leader with “my moments of questions,” that scenario “is a positive sign.”

“In my thinking, if we can fund this with grants and sources that do not impact the city annual operating budget, it will be an easier-to-defend project.”

While Fogleman and Salecker bemoan the lack of interest in history by many, they believe the Sultana continues to have a compelling story. And, as the market research indicates, “There exists a morbid fascination with death and destruction.”

“The Sultana for all the quirky reasons has never been afforded its proper place in history,” said Fogleman. “The city can use this as a tourist attraction. We can further the consciousness of the nation of the magnitude of this event.”

Previous Sultana coverage:

Saturday, December 17, 2016

At Petersburg, a 'powerful' new appearance as cemetery rehab work nears completion

Reproduction Columbiads will be set near flagpole (NPS photo)

Betsy Dinger has had a front-row seat to a one-of-a-kind rehabilitation project at a cemetery containing the remains of nearly 6,200 Civil War soldiers.

The park ranger at Petersburg National Battlefield in Virginia has witnessed and spoken with workers and craftsmen restoring dignity to the graves on the rolling grounds of Poplar Grove National Cemetery. Some 5,700 upright headstones have been installed this year, replacing worn, sometimes broken, markers that were placed on the ground in the 1930s to save on maintenance costs.
Dinger has photographed the restoration of the cemetery lodge to its Victoria appearance, repointing of bricks, drainage improvements and the installation of a new flagpole and reproduction artillery pieces, among many improvements.

Having spent so much time there, loving it as much as I do, it is very powerful,” she told the Picket this week.

Finishing touches are being put on the multimillion-dollar project. Crews are completing a “big punch list” and will try to complete them by next month. Grass will be sown and the 8-acre resting ground will be readied for a spring opening, with an April 29 rededication ceremony. Poplar Grove has been closed to visitors for more than a year.
Dinger said she has been heartened to see the markers now jutting from the ground. Most are above remains of unknown soldiers. The top of those stones have a grave registration number and indicate how many soldiers are interred in that spot.
“Even for the poor fellows whose identity was lost… you still know that that grave is properly marked, she said. “It sort of slaps you in the head. Oh, my gosh, look at this huge number of unknown soldiers.”
All but 100 headstones have been put in place. In many of those cases, the stones are broken or have errors in the inscriptions.
The ranger and others have been putting together a searchable database of the known dead buried at Poplar Grove. Many died in the fighting during the 1864-65 siege of the city.
A view from the refurbished lodge (NPS photos)

Starting in the spring, visitors will have access to a kiosk on the lodge porch. They’ll be able to enter biographical information and find the grave’s location. (Previously, they would need to send an email or get assistance from a park ranger on site or at a headquarters location.)
Dinger said a chaplain from the Army’s Fort Lee will take part in the April rededication. She hopes some of the brick masons and other workers attend. And, of course, descendants of those buried at Poplar Grove are welcome. She knows of one such individual from Washington state who plans to attend.
The National Park Service maintains 14 national cemeteries, but replacing headstones that have lain on the ground for decades is unique.

"Usually, you don’t almost redo an old cemetery from the ground up,” said Dinger.

Three unknown soldiers are buried here.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Will school named for gov. get new name?

Joseph E. Brown
The Atlanta Board of Education is considering changing the name of a middle school named after Georgia’s Civil War governor. WSB-TV reports that school board Chairman Courtney English has assembled a committee to take input from the community over possibly changing the name of Brown Middle School. Founded in 1923, the southwest Atlanta school is named after Joseph E. Brown, who owned slaves. • Article

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Union veteran finally will get military burial

Whatever the reason, urns containing the cremated remains of James and Irene Powers sat in "community storage" at a Seattle cemetery for decades until a Kent, Wash., couple with a passion for the Civil War came across them. Now, James Powers, who served in the Union Army, will get the military burial he rightfully deserves. His wife will be buried with him during a Dec. 10 service at Tahoma National Cemetery. • Article