Friday, September 29, 2017

At Washington state ceremony, Civil War veteran finally honored for his service

A retinue of re-enactors, National Guard musicians, Patriot Guard riders and volunteers who ensure military veterans receive a proper burial on Thursday honored the service of Pvt. Zachariah Stucker, who fought in numerous campaigns during the Civil War.

An interment ceremony was held at the Washington Veterans Home Cemetery in Retsil, across Puget Sound from Seattle.

Stucker – a member of the 48th Illinois Infantry -- died at the home in 1914. His cremains were never claimed by relatives (he never married) and they remained in storage at a Seattle funeral home and cemetery until last week. The Missing in America Project led the effort to find Stucker a final resting place.

(All photos courtesy of Bob Patrick, Missing in America Project)

“What is really sad is that he has been missing for 103 years," said Lourdes “Alfie” Alvadrao-Ramos, director of the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs, during the ceremony, according to the Kitsap Sun.

“That is 103 Memorial Days where nobody put a flag by his headstone. This is countless holidays, Christmases, where he didn’t get a wreath on his grave. But now, that’s over.”

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Well done, soldier, welcome home: Union veteran finally to receive burial near Seattle

Urn containing Pvt. Stucker's cremains (Courtesy of Bob Patrick)

On June 28, 1914, Zachariah M. Stucker died of heart failure at a veterans’ home near Port Orchard, Wash. The body of the 69-year-old former Union soldier was removed from his bed and sent to Seattle for cremation.

But family never came to accept his remains. Pvt. Stucker, who served throughout the Civil War with Company A, 48th Illinois Infantry, and saw at least 15 battles, had no wife or children. His unclaimed remains languished for more than a century at a funeral home and then a cemetery in Seattle.

On Thursday (Sept. 28), the rediscovered soldier finally will receive full honors during his interment at a cemetery near the state facility where he spent his last years.

“I think it will be respectful and dignified,” local historian James Dimond said of the ceremony. “He is going to be buried with his fellow veterans.”

Dimond, a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, assisted Bob Patrick and others with the Missing in America Project – a national group that arranges for proper burial of unclaimed cremated remains of veterans – on research about Stucker, who was only 16 when he enlisted in southern Illinois.

In recent years, the MIA Project and local groups have worked together to bring about such burials with honors. Often, the deceased had no family or their descendants lost track of the remains or did not pay for burial or temporary storage.

“They just got lost in the tides of history,” Dimond said.

From battlefield to farms, gold mines

Stucker enlisted on Sept. 1, 1861, in New Liberty, Ill. The blue-eyed Pope County farm boy was listed as 5 feet 4 and 1/2 inches tall. He served as a musician, at least initially.

Vicksburg monument (NPS photo)
He had to grow up quickly in the Army. The 48th Illinois endured numerous campaigns in the Western Theater, including Atlanta and in the Carolinas. They charged Confederate works at Fort Donelson and had considerable casualties at Shiloh. A monument at Vicksburg cites the regiment’s service and contains Stucker’s name.

Because there are no surviving biographies or diaries, nothing is known about Stucker’s specific service. But he served honorably and, as was the case with musicians, Stucker likely served as a stretcher bearer for wounded comrades. He mustered out a couple months after the war’s end in 1865.

According to a Findagrave profile written by Peter Braun, the MIA Project volunteer who found Stucker’s name on a list of unclaimed remains, Stucker farmed in Indiana and eventually made his way west, working as a gold miner, laborer and teamster in Oregon and Washington.

Stucker, a member of the Bremerton, Wash., chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, applied in 1910 to live at the Washington Veterans Home built on a Puget Sound inlet in Retsil (near Port Orchard). The infirm and indigent veteran died there four years later, living on a pension of $19 per month.

The profile continues: “Unfortunately, for reasons still unknown, his cremains were not returned home in a ‘timely manner’ … sitting on the shelf in community storage at Lake View Cemetery in Seattle for 103 years.”

On the shelf, rarely claimed

In 2015, Patrick gave a talk to funeral home and cemetery operators about the MIA Project. He received a list from the nonprofit Lake View Cemetery of 1,100 remains (funeral homes for years had sent unclaimed cremains to the cemetery).

Dimond and his wife, Loretta, were involved about that time in another case of a Civil War veteran awaiting burial. In a 2016 Seattle Times article, George Nemeth, manager of Lake View, said about 1,700 remains were stored in empty crypts. “It happens periodically that people who come claim them,” Nemeth said.

From the list provided by Lake View, Patrick and Braun determined about 85 veterans of all wars and spouses were eligible for interment at a national cemetery. They obtained death certificates and sent letters to presumed descendants.

Urns used by Missing in America Project (Courtesy of Bob Patrick)

That list was advertised so that any descendants could accept the remains or allow them to be interred in the area’s national cemetery.

“I mail a lot of letters to dead people because it has been so long,” said Patrick. The volunteer said that of 400 MIA Project-involved burials in the state, only two funerals drew relatives.

Patrick served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1964-1968 and has been a rider with the Patriot Guards. The retiree said doing research on these kinds of cases “is emotionally hard because I get to know the person.”

Such an effort brings up circumstances of an individual’s life and death. Despite his cremains being in limbo for more than a century, Stucker had a “fairly clean passing” – as opposed to those who are homeless or have “horrible family acrimony,” Patrick told the Picket.

After the Department of Veterans Affairs said it could not verify all of Stucker’s records to make him eligible for such a burial (Dimond and Patrick say they have numerous supporting documents), the state agreed to bury him at the cemetery in Retsil.

To this day, volunteers and officials have not heard from any living descendants of Stucker.

'Going to do right by him'

While there have been other stories about unclaimed remains of a veteran finally being placed in eternal rest, the story of Stucker is drawing headlines because he served and died so long ago.

James Dimond holds Stucker's remains (Bob Patrick)

In a press release, the Washington state Department of Veterans Affairs said Stucker “will be returned home” for final military honors and interment at its cemetery.

The Picket reached out the veterans’ home on Wednesday but did not receive a reply.

Veteran benefit specialist Cindy Muyskens told the Kitsap Sun the facility didn’t hesitate to bury Stucker after Patrick contacted officials.

The only record the home had was a card with Stucker’s name, age and branch of service.

“(The funeral home) had no family to contact, so after they cremated him they stuck him on the shelf,” she told the newspaper. “It is strange for me to fathom that he just sat there for 100 years without anyone picking him up and saying, ‘What do we do with this?’

“We’re going to do right by him, finally,” Muyskens said.

Somber moments and tears

Thursday afternoon’s interment, in a cemetery south of the veterans' home, will finally bestow the type of honors on Stucker that he likely would have received in 1914.

Part of program for Thursday includes emblem of GAR medal

Typically, members of the Grand Army of the Republic, a large fraternal organization of Federal veterans, would serve as pallbearers carrying remains from a service to the cemetery. G.A.R. rituals will be followed at the Stucker interment.

The ceremony will include speeches and music from the 133rd Army National Guard Band (including “Battle Hymn of the Republic”). Members of the 4th US Civil War Reenactors will fire a salute, followed by echo taps. An upright stone will be place on Stucker’s grave at a later date.

For Patrick and Dimond, the burial will close the latest chapter in their bids to bring dignity and closure to veterans who served their country.

Dimond said he expects the service to be very moving. He said he was in tears when he first held the box containing Stucker’s remains.
Cemetery containing graves of Civil War veterans, others

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Building cool toys for big kids: How a military miniature-diorama maker in Ohio does his exacting work

Bert Floyd customizes from similar molds (Napoleonic, Civil War)

Our May 2010 post about a NASA design engineer in Ohio who crafts military miniature figures and dioramas remains among the most popular Picket articles. We recently caught up with Bertram Floyd, 60, of Victory Miniatures, and asked him to provide more details on how he does his work. Floyd works from his home in Sheffield Village; most of his products are available online and two larger dioramas have been featured at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio. His responses have been edited for context and brevity.

Q. Who are your customers these days?
A. This is a small hobby. The newer generation coming up has played video games and is not so used to playing with toy soldiers. Most of my buyers are between 50 and 60 something. They want the quality. They want unique stuff. Everything at the (trade) events is mostly unique.

Bert Floyd (all photos courtesy of Floyd)

Q. How does your profession fit in?
A. I work at NASA’s Glenn Research center and do a lot of space communications and quantum communications. I started off in electrical engineering, which led to fiber optics. I do mainly fiber obits for the space station, mission to Mars. When you are working with fiber optics you have to have patience. Everything is real small and tiny. That translates to working with the miniatures, even though fiber optics is smaller than soldiers.

Q. What time periods and conflicts do your miniatures cover?
A. I go back to Roman period all the way up to modern times. (Floyd’s dioramas include knights, World War II, the American Revolution, French and Indian War and the Anglo-Zulu War, including the Battle of Isandlwana). My biggest selling thing is the Civil War stuff. Then next would be the Napoleonics. I try to do everything historically accurate. The cheapest dioramas go from $150, all the way $1,000 or more. Some may have one figure, some may have several. Some people buy unpainted figures. People like the Napoleonics because of the color of the uniforms. They are uniforms to die in.

Q. You have some molds and you often buy manufactured figures and customize them to a particular conflict. How does that work?
A. Most are all-metal, made of lead, tin or pewter, especially the 40 millimeters figures. The bigger figures are made of metal and resin. If there is a pose I need, I may cut legs and arms and run wire to get the pose. For hands, I put the gun on and mold the hands around it. I may change the face around, add beards, take a hat off and put a different hat on. Small figures typically sell for $35 to $65.

Q. What about the dioramas?
A. For most of the larger dioramas, I use 40 millimeter figures. They look better and are easier on the eye. You see more detail on them. The dioramas with one or two figures, they are usually 54 millimeters and up. I start off with a green blanket, put figures and roads and add terrain pieces. I populate them with trees. I use crushed foam for bushes. I talk to the individual on what their needs are and whether it is a permanent diorama. All the trees, houses and fences are handmade. I make everything from scratch.

Q. How much time do you put into this and where do you work?
A. I put in about an hour a day. In the winter time there is a lot more time I put into it and I paint. In summer months, I design what I want to do. I do the painting in the upstairs morning room. I have dioramas set up in the basement and do most of my sculpting there.

Q. Tell me about your re-enacting, thoughts on Confederate monuments
A. I am with a group 5th U.S. Colored Troops out of Cleveland, Toledo, Akron, Columbus and Youngstown, and Pittsburgh. Most events we do are living history. You have to get the history out there. Attending re-enactments is like a family reunion and picnic. As for the Confederate battle flag, the one (appropriate) place is in the museum and on the battlefield, the field of honor (re-enactments).

Q. You’ve been making miniatures since the mid-1980s. Why do you do this?
A. It’s a love that I have. When I was a kid I played with miniature toy soldiers. After I got married, I became a homebody and you go back to what you did as a little kid. I plan on doing this until I can’t do it anymore. You are never going to be compensated for your time. The hobby pays for itself.

• More photos of Floyd's work

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Tropical storm-battered Fort Pulaski mops up, aims for reopening by next weekend

Sandstone pier prepared for placement of bridge (NPS photos)

Fort Pulaski National Monument near Savannah, Ga., has again rolled with Mother Nature’s punches, this time from the mess left by Tropical Storm Irma.

The park closed on Sept. 6 as forecasters included Savannah as possibly in the path of the then-hurricane. But the path shifted, and the area had to deal more with flooding than sustained high winds.

“This is our third natural disaster in less than a year and it certainly has taken its toll on the park. Part of the reason why we may not open as quickly as people would like is … we are still dealing with after effects of (Hurricane) Matthew and the tornado (in May),” said Joel Cadoff, park spokesman and chief of interpretation.

The park hopes to reopen by September 30 in time for volunteer work and debris removal on National Public Lands Day.

Crews will pump remaining water in fort demi-bastion
The scene a day after Irma pushed through

Cockspur Island recorded a tidal surge of 12.24 feet during Irma, the second-highest on record. And while Irma caused extensive temporary flooding in the dike system of the fort, and to a lesser degree in the park maintenance shop, the famous brick fort that fell to a Federal siege in April 1862 fared much better than it did during Matthew, nearly a year ago.

“The fort actually made out quite well. The floors are in good shape. The only real visible damage is the roof of the veranda on the inside,” said Cadoff. Crews will need to pump standing water from the fort’s flooded southwest demi-bastion.

Park staff was glad that the site lost fewer trees than during the previous calamities.

A bridge was shoved against wall of visitor center

Two wooden foot bridges that lead from the visitor center to the fort interior were again washed away. But the paths they took this time showed how capricious storm surge can be.

“With the wave action and flooding, the demilune bridge wound up lodged against the visitor center steps. In Matthew, that bridge we couldn’t find for several months later until Google maps updated their satellite imagery.”

The sally port bridge, closest to the fort entrance, floated just several yards away during Matthew, lodging on an earthen mound. “This time, it floated north, escaped the clutches of the demilune and we found it almost 400 yards away, near the entrance gate to our parking area.”

Metal parts of wooden doors are treated
Lighthouse lost only a single pane of glass

Bridges have been set back into place. “We are looking at different means to try to anchor the bridges for whenever the next flooding event occurs,” said Cadoff.

The park’s visitor center has been closed since the tornado in late May. It is undergoing ceiling, roof and other repairs.

Pulaski got a bit of a break, compared to Matthew, because of a few less inches of storm surge and less rainfall. A wind gust was recorded at 70 mph, below Matthew’s top speeds.

Ahead of Irma’s arrival, staff raised items of importance from the floor of the fort and maintenance shop.

Matthew’s damage was estimated at $1.8 million. There’s no numbers yet for Irma. “We were … much more prepared this go-around,” said Cadoff.

Maintenance shop had some wall damage from high water. (NPS)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Support team: Crew finishes work that will protect Georgia textile mill ruins for decades

Wooden support shortly before it was removed near end of project
Arch now supported by ring of steel plates (Don Scarbrough photos)

Add Tropical Storm Irma to the list of hazards that the remains of the Civil War-era New Manchester textile mill have weathered.

Crews wrapping up a 10-week stabilization of the towering brick ruins at Sweetwater Creek State Park in Douglas County, Ga., were concerned by approaching high winds and the potential for flooding.

“It did fine. The park lost only a few trees,” said park interpretive ranger Don Scarbrough. While Sweetwater Creek rose, water did not flow into the mill’s interior, as it did in 2009.

Contractor Aegis Restauro recently completed a $375,000 stabilization of the New Manchester Manufacturing Co. factory, which at five stories was the tallest building in North Georgia. Thread, yarn and cloth were initially produced when the mill began operations in 1849.

It produced a variety of material for the Confederacy before it was burned in July 1864 by Federal cavalry moving on Atlanta. Nearly 100 New Manchester residents, mostly female workers and their children, were sent north by train to spend the rest of the war. Many took an oath of allegiance to the United States. You can read details of that sorrowful story here.

Graffiti includes Gilbert, a Union soldier part of unit that took mill

“There were some interesting discoveries, like more Civil War graffiti as they cleaned the walls,” Scarbrough said of the project. Some of the initials are believed to have been etched by Federal soldiers, though officials are not certain how many of the new discoveries were made by them.

Workers put in steel rods, applied specialized mortar and installed concrete caps on pillars and around windows, stabilizing the 160-year-old bricks and protecting them from moisture. Some of the bricks are still scorched from the fire that sent tons of machinery crashing to the bottom floor.

Ricky Day, an engineer with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said the slaved-made bricks were solid, but made of softer material than today’s versions.

Mill now includes capstones on top of brick (Photo by Don Scarbrough)

The project was meant to keep the ruins stable at least for several decades and “to keep it from tilting out,” said Day.

A few years ago, Scarbrough said, a group was paddling near the rapids and took a closer look. A member of the Friends of Sweetwater Creek State Park “thought a column was leaning slightly.” Engineers visited the interior in late 2014 and closed it. This summer’s work is the most significant since about 1990.

The work crew had to contend with loose bricks through the structure, including at the tops of brick columns. They used bricks strewn on the floor to make repairs. The top of the tallest wall lost a little height because the masonry was so deteriorated, Day said.

Photos by Don Scarbrough
Plate used to buttress many remaining windows, openings

For at least three decades, a wooden piece supported the arch connecting the mill race (or stream) and the giant wheel that drove the mill machinery. The piece was finally removed in the renovation, and steel plates are supporting the historic arch, making for a more authentic appearance.

Now that the project is complete, the picturesque mill interior will be available again for guided tours by park staff, weddings, photo sessions and filmmakers – all a source of revenue for the state. The mill is enclosed and locked.

While the interior is accessible to only those with a guide, you can get impressive views of the mill from several angles outside the fence.

Courtesy of Don Scarbrough

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

South Carolina re-enactment canceled

An annual Civil War-era skirmish in South Carolina, presented for about three decades at York County’s Historic Brattonsville, has been canceled because of concerns about safety and potential protests. Officials with the Culture & Heritage Museums, which oversees Historic Brattonsville and the Museum of York County, discussed their concerns about “if something did happen” after protests in other parts of the country over Confederate monuments and symbols, said one official. • Article

Thursday, September 14, 2017

First look photographs: Staff assesses Irma damage at closed Fort Sumter in Charleston

(Photos by Dawn Davis, National Park Service)

Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston Harbor remains closed after it took a beating from Hurricane Irma. Water inside the fort dropped enough for a National Park Service team to enter the grounds Wednesday and begin evaluating the interior. Dawn Davis, public affairs specialist at Fort Sumter, provided an update to the Picket. On Friday, she said there was no timetable yet for the site to reopen.

Q. Can you tell me about the status of artifacts and exhibits within Fort Sumter?

A. The physical brick fort, the cannon and museum on the island do not appear to be damaged. The cannon will need to be washed off with fresh water since the fort was flooded. The remains of the brick fort appear in good shape despite the debris and remaining water in the fort. The artifacts and museum are good, AC is on and there are no signs of any leaks. We have power in the fort.

Debris at entrance to fort interior

Q. Do you know whether Sumter in recent years has seen this level of water?

A. We have had flooding out there from (Hurricane) Matthew and the flooding event in October 2015. There is more damage with this event and there appears to be more water in the fort as well. Looks like the we had 3-4 feet of water in the fort. 

Q. Can you describe exactly what infrastructure and other damage has been seen during initial assessments? Is there much flooding within the walls?

A. We have dock railings down. Additionally, we do not have power on the dock. There appears to be damage to the accessible lift (the primary way for visitors to disembark the tour boat). The power box for the lift was pushed into the dock and covered in saltwater. We do not know if this will work since there is no power on the dock. The infrastructure for the restrooms has been damaged. We are continuing to conduct assessments on the fort and dock to determine the extent of the damage.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Hurricane Irma: Flooding swamps Sumter, snake-bit Pulaski, Fort McAllister

Hurricane Irma’s huge storm surge closed numerous Civil War sites in Florida, South Carolina and Georgia, including Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston and Fort Pulaski National Monument and Fort McAllister State Historic Park in the Savannah area.

The latest calamity is a particularly cruel blow to Fort Pulaski, built between Savannah and Tybee Island, which was swamped by Irma. Hurricane Matthew shut the federal site in fall  2016 and a tornado caused additional damage and another closure in late May.

A Cockspur Island assessment by boat on Tuesday found Irma produced a near-record 12.24 foot tide and caused a considerable amount of flooding outside the walls.

Matthew surge level top line, Irma below (NPS photo)

“The fort is still inundated by water and not yet accessible. Over the next several days more in-depth assessments of the flood damage will take place,” the Pulaski staff said on the park’s Facebook page. “Once those are complete the recovery phase will begin. Visitor safety is paramount and the park will remain closed to the public until further notice.”

One social media commenter said: “So sorry y’all have to go through this …. Again! Hang in there.”

The park said damage inside the fort, while significant, appears to be less than from Matthew.

At Fort McAllister, southwest of Savannah, staff will reopen parts of the park at noon Thursday following significant storm surge flooding.

Cottages at Fort McAllister (Georgia State Parks)

"We are pleased to announce that portions of the park will open today at noon. This includes the museum/visitor center, the fort, day use with the exception of the pier, and the campground. Areas that will still be closed are the cottages, pioneer camping, Red Bird Creek and backcountry sites, and the group shelter. If you do choose to visit, please excuse our mess."

Commenters on its Facebook page lamented the crisis so soon after Hurricane Matthew.

Old Fort Jackson in Savannah has been closed since last Friday and cleanup continued late this week.

The park grounds and visitor center at Andersonville National Historic Site were closed for a few days, though the national cemetery reopened Wednesday and the prison site and visitor center were reopened on Thursday.

Damage at Andersonville cemetery (NPS photo)

"We were lucky with the damage. A lot of trees came down blocking roadways and only one caused structural damage," Andersonville park guide Jennifer Hopkins said on Sept. 17. "A huge tree fell on our cemetery wall, which is a historic structure. All monuments and headstones remained untouched, aside from tree limbs on them. it took two days to clean up the park will all staff hands on deck. The museum remained without power for three days -- we're still assessing whether or not any water leaked into the building."

Pickett’s Mill Battlefield Historic Site, northwest of Atlanta, closed for several days. It saw heavy fighting in 1864 during the Atlanta Campaign.

Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and the Liberty Square visitor center and departure center for the fort remain closed until a more extensive assessment of damage is conducted and repairs completed, the federal site said in a press release.

“At this time, Fort Sumter remains flooded. A preliminary evaluation of the exterior of the fort revealed damage to the dock and other infrastructure. Fort Sumter and Liberty Square will re-open to the public when it is safe to do so.”

Charles Pinckney National Historic Site in Mount Pleasant and Fort Moultrie – which is near Fort Sumter – will reopen Thursday since they sustained minimal damage in the storm, officials said.

Closures in Florida Wednesday included Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park in Baker County and Fort Clinch State Park in Nassau County.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

USS Monitor conservation: 'Hiding' knife found embedded in famed ironclad's turret

(Courtesy of Mariners' Museum and Park, Newport News, Va.)

The Civil War ironclad USS Monitor continues to serve up pieces of crew cutlery as conservators chip away at sediment inside the giant turret.

A team at the USS Monitor Center at Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Va., late last month found a small knife wedged in one of the rails that form the turret’s ceiling.

“We have a collection of over 20 pieces of silverware, from various locations in the turret, that have been excavated since 2002,” conservation administrator Tina Gutshall told the Picket.

Conservators this summer worked inside the turret, which is upside down and sits on its roof. Part of their work included cleaning the electrolytic reduction system, which is aimed at removing damaging ocean salts from the iron.

“We have been steadily cleaning out the rails for years now, and small finds are always a possibility as we clear away mud and concretion,” said Gutshall. “We also have a fork that is actually trapped in a space that is not retrievable yet, because we will have to dismantle some of the roof structure to free it.”

 (Photos courtesy of Mariners' Museum and Park)
Red arrow shows knife, which lays flat in middle of photo above

In a museum blog post, assistant conservator Laurie King described the find.

The ceiling was constructed out of railroad tracks, which means there’s plenty of nooks and crevasses for concretion (marine growth) and corrosion to build up. And there’s plenty of places for objects to hide.”

Hundreds of items spilled into the inverted turret as the Federal ironclad sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in December 1862. The remains of two sailors who were among 16 to die in the sinking were found in the revolving gun turret.

The USS Monitor fought the Confederacy’s Virginia (Merrimack) several months before, at the Battle of Hampton Roads.

Knife found in rails at bottom of photo (Mariners' Museum and Park)

Will Hoffman, chief conservator at the USS Monitor Center, told the Daily Press newspaper there has always been a question about why so many eating utensils, including some made of sterling silver, have been found in the turret said it was raised from the Atlantic Ocean in 2002.

“We don’t know if it was some of the sailors trying to take advantage of the confusion and pocket them as they left the ship or if all these objects simply tumbled out of a drawer and into the turret when the ship was sinking,” Hoffman told the Daily Press this week.

The knife was excavated with small hand tools. Most of the blade and all of the wooden handle survive. The utensil will be treated and make a “fantastic addition” to the vessel’s collection, King wrote.

NC governor wants monuments at Bentonville

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper sought formal permission to move three Confederate monuments from the old Capitol grounds to a Civil War site in a nearby county. One of his Cabinet secretaries petitioned the state historical commission to authorize the relocation of a large obelisk and two smaller statues to the Bentonville battlefield, less than 50 miles from Raleigh. • Article

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Alabama's Fort Blakeley: By boat or by foot, visitors can take in miles of fortifications stormed in last days of war

Remains of Rebel fortifications at Fort Blakeley
Delta Explorer will be on the water Saturday (Courtesy Historic Blakeley SP)

Forty-nine passengers will board a giant pontoon boat this Saturday morning and glide down rivers lined by the remnants of earthen fortifications that protected eastern approaches to Mobile, Ala., during the closing months of the Civil War.

Leaving the dock on the Tensaw River and peering through shadows cast by live oaks, magnolia and gum trees, they’ll first see part of the Confederate inner lines at Fort Blakeley, scene of the largest battle in Alabama. The Delta Explorer will then pass near Rebel river batteries Fort Tracy and Fort Huger (pronounced u-chee) as it continues on the Apalachee and Blakeley rivers to Spanish Fort, site of Battery McDermott, which is now surrounded by homes. They'll turn back at the entrance to Mobile Bay.

Mike Bunn, director of operations at Historic Blakeley State Park, will give a PowerPoint presentation during the sold-out, 90-minute cruise (the park currently is taking reservations for another Civil War boat ride on Nov. 11).

John Sledge, local author of “These Rugged Days: Alabama in the Civil War,” will make an 11 a.m. lecture at the park’s Wehle Center following the cruise.

Map showing opposing lines in April 1865 (Library of Congress)

The idea is to give patrons an appreciation of why each navy wanted to control the waters and the strategic importance of the fortifications. The Confederate bastions were overrun in a combined Federal infantry and naval operation that saw Blakeley fall on the same day Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox – April 9, 1865.

Notable was the presence of numerous Federal regiments made up of black soldiers.

“We have got miles and miles of extraordinarily preserved Union and Confederate earthworks,” Bunn said of the park. The site draws history buffs, campers and nature lovers to its 2,100 acres a half dozen miles north of Spanish Fort, a bedroom community on Interstate 10 just east of Mobile.

Settlement faded away before war

About 40,000 people venture annually to the state park, drawn by its beauty and signs along Interstate 10 touting its Civil War pedigree. Bunn said some come for both.

The teeming town of Blakeley thrived in the 1810s as white settlers followed Native American habitation. It sat on a long, level piece of land. About 3,000 lived on the river, building docks to make the town a port. But yellow fever and the growth of Mobile made Blakeley’s days numbered.

“It had reached its heyday in late 1820s,” said Bunn. The ground would find a new purpose during the war.

(Courtesy of Historic Blakeley State Park)

The site features primitive group campgrounds, an RV area, trails and all those Civil War fortifications and a few monuments.  More than 90 percent of the Confederate line and most of three Union lines outside them remain in some form. Some fortifications are up to 5 feet tall.

“We’ve opened up some Union battery positions this summer that were never on tour,” said Bunn.

While a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans has helped to preserve Battery McDermott in Spanish Fort, not much else beyond a stretch of trenches remain. “The sites of the fortifications at Spanish Fort have been lost to development,” says a web page describing the Civil War Trust’s contributions to preservation of Fort Blakeley.

Spanish moss accents a tree at the park (Library of Congress)

Road to Mobile starts here

Bunn wrote an article for the Encyclopedia of Alabama about the Battle of Fort Blakeley. Although Union Adm. David Farragut bottled up Mobile in the summer of 1864, the city remained in Confederate hands and had three rings of defenses to the west. 

Brig. Gen. Liddell
The arrival of additional Federal troops in early 1865 brought about the campaign to take Fort Blakeley, Spanish Fort and other guardians east of Mobile, a vital transportation and supply center.

“There are good elevations around here,” Bunn told the Picket. “If you want to take Mobile the easiest route would be via the eastern shore … and come from the north.””

By this time, Confederate commanders used soldiers and slaves to build these earthen fortifications. Fort Blakeley was built following designs typical for a defense against a ground attack. It was commanded by Brig. Gen. St. John R. Liddell.

Click this Mobile campaign map to enlarge (Library of Congress)

Black troops played significant part

Officials say the park has some of the best-preserved fortifications remaining from the Civil War.

A self-guided tour takes visitors to the remains of nine defensive redoubts, trenches, Union gun emplacements, rifle pits and more.

Union troops laid siege of Blakeley for about a week. On the day of the assault, 16,000 blue-clad warriors quickly overwhelmed Brig. Gen. John Lindell’s 3,500 Confederates, half of whom were veteran troops.

Among the stops on the tour is a “zig zag” trench.

“This approach trench, dug under fire a short time before the final charge, served as a protected connection between the main Union line and advanced rifle pits. It is designed to protect troops from enfilade fire. As the siege proceeded, ‘zig-zag’ trenches such as this would ultimately help form new lines.’”

Redoubt #4 (Courtesy of Historic Blakeley State Park)

The campaigns for Blakeley and Spanish Fort included more than 4,000 U.S. Colored Troops, among the heaviest concentration of black soldiers in one battle.

“The siege and capture of Fort Blakeley was basically the last combined-force battle of the war. African-American forces played a major role in the successful Union assault,” the National Park Service says. Mobile fell within days.

An interesting side note: Confederates placed ineffective land mines, called "subterra shells," on the approaches to the fort.

Fierce, but brief, fighting

Maj. Gen. Canby
Maj. Gen. Edward Canby’s forces first surrounded Spanish Fort on March 27, 1865. Most of the Confederate troops escaped to Mobile or Blakeley and the fort fell on April 8. Two Union commands combined to storm Fort Blakeley the following day, unaware of Lee’s surrender in Virginia.

Sheer numbers breached the Confederate earthworks, compelling the Confederates to capitulate,” the National Park Service says.

Bunn, in his encyclopedia article, describes the scene:

A view of redoubt #6 (Courtesy of HBSP)

“Once the Union troops reached the Confederate line, fierce, close-quarters combat briefly raged. Some defenders threw down their arms and surrendered or turned and ran after the Union troops had overrun their position, but others fought on even after being surrounded. Despite their resistance, the Union attackers overwhelmed the Confederate line and the fighting was over within 30 minutes. A very small number of Confederate soldiers, perhaps a few dozen, escaped via the river.”

Fort Huger sat in this spot on river near main fort

About 75 Confederates were killed and the Union lost 150, with several hundred wounded.

“Allegations that some Confederates were shot even after they surrendered to USCT troops surfaced almost immediately after the battle and the truth of what happened in its chaotic last moments continues to be the subject of research and speculation today,” Bunn wrote. “Available evidence indicates some Union soldiers indeed may have fired on Confederates who had surrendered, but there was no large-scale massacre.”

As for the land mines?

“Some of the Union casualties occurred after the battle, as the mine-ridden battlefield continued to claim victims until captured prisoners were forced to point out their locations,” Bunn wrote.

Historic Blakeley State Park has Civil War tours several times a year and the Delta Explorer makes journeys related to nature and Mobile. A Civil War re-enactment and living history is held in late March or early April. The next Civil War cruise is set for Nov. 11. Please call 251-626-0798 to register. Tickets are $27 for adults, $15 for children ages 6 to 12.

Interpretive panels on site (Courtesy of HBSP)