Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Conservators, students working to unlock mysteries of the Rebel ironclad CSS Georgia

Large piece of CSS Georgia casemate (USACE Savannah)

It’s been about three months since cranes, barges, divers and support crew pulled away from a spot on the Savannah River where they had removed the last of the jumbled remains of the Confederate ironclad CSS Georgia.

With the final recovery of the vessel complete (there was another operation in 2015), those involved had a brief moment to catch their breaths.

“I think we are all really relieved it is over. It is bittersweet -- we have worked so many years,” said Julie Morgan-Ryan, archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which worked with contractors to recover the CSS Georgia as part of a harbor deepening project in Savannah, Ga.

Now the real work of solving the mysteries of the ironclad is underway – through student research, ongoing conservation of thousands of artifacts, and the study of those items and historical records to answer some of the nagging questions about the CSS Georgia.

For decades, archaeologists have speculated on the size and weight of the vessel, why it was so underpowered and where its components were made.

Artifacts that were not left in the river (namely the casemate) for possible future removal are undergoing conservation and analysis at the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Morgan-Ryan surveys casemate (USACE)
“We found that some pieces from a cannon or a gun carriage were made from different metals. Was it because of the blockade?” the archaeologist recently told the Picket. “I think we are going to find what restrictions the South was under.”

The conservation of three cannons, a propeller and four crates of artifacts has been completed.

“We still have two cannon that are in conservation vats right now,” said Morgan-Ryan. “We are finding ordnance shoved down them.” Officials at the lab are trying to figure out how to safely dislodge them.

It’s likely the crew of the CSS Georgia sabotaged the barrels when they were forced to scuttle the ironclad off Old Fort Jackson as Federal forces neared Savannah in December 1864.

As is customary with such projects, the Army Corps will write a report on the recovery, completing it in late 2018 or in 2019.

“We have always known Georgia was underpowered. … now we’ll be able to do some estimates on how underpowered she was, whether artifacts were manufactured strictly for the Georgia, or taken from other vessels. We are trying to figure why they used the components that they do,” Morgan-Ryan said.

Buckle recovered in 2015 (USACE Savannah)

It’s known that the CSS Georgia was salvaged by a private contractor shortly after the war’s end. Archaeologists may never answer all their questions, because they don’t know how many recovered items were melted down or reused or were dumped haphazardly back on the site in a tiff over salvage payment.

Morgan-Ryan said she and others want to know more about these previous salvage attempts.

She is excited about research that students at Texas A&M are doing, including a master’s thesis on the ironclad’s gun sights, appropriate artifact conservation technology and conservation of waterlogged textiles.

“What I am looking forward to is how much new information from beyond the vessel will we learn from this project?” Morgan-Ryan said. “What technological advantages or disadvantages did the South have?”

The Corps is continuing its outreach to the public as the U.S. Navy engages with a half dozen museums about a possible permanent home for CSS Georgia artifacts. A documentary by Michael Jordan about the vessel’s history, its use as a floating battery to defend Savannah, and dives and recovery of the CSS Georgia over the decades should be released to schools and libraries by the end of the year.

Cannons used for training back on display

A pair of rare Civil War cannons has been returned to the mansion of a wartime Rhode Island governor. Local officials and the Rhode Island National Guard are gathering Tuesday at the Sprague Mansion in Cranston to mark the return. • Article

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

#WirzTrial: Andersonville Twitter followers issue verdicts on anniversary of trial finding

Henry Wirz
Capt. Henry Wirz, put on trial for actions he took – or did not take -- as stockade commandant at the infamous prison Camp Sumter (Andersonville), learned his fate on this day in 1865.

Since Aug. 23, Twitter followers (#WirzTrial) of Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia have been following the case like courtroom observers. The “live” tweeting of the proceedings against the Confederate officer – including vivid testimony by POW survivors -- did not divulge the findings of the military commission. Today, social media followers will learn the verdict.

The park gave people the opportunity to be part of the jury.

Charge 1: Conspiracy to murder U.S. soldiers: Not guilty or guilty.

Charge 2: Murder in the violation of the laws of war: Not guilty or guilty.

Eleven people took part in the unscientific poll, with 64 percent finding Wirz not guilty of conspiracy and 62% percent finding him guilty of murder. "We've had a steady group of followers for the trial, and I think our followers got a good idea of how not so cut and dry the trial was," park guide Jennifer Hopkins told the Picket.

The park posted the 1865 trial findings at 5 p.m. today: “Henry Wirz was found guilty of conspiracy to murder U.S. soldiers and ultimately found guilty of murder in violation of the laws of war. While he was not found guilty for all of the individual murders he was charged with, it wasn’t enough to declare him innocent of the charge.

Wirz was considered a cruel, indifferent commander by some and a scapegoat by others. Nearly 13,000 soldiers and civilian captives died at Camp Sumter over 14 months -- an average of more than 30 a day in that span. 

Thousands of Union prisoners are buried at Andersonville (Picket photo)

The officer’s controversial trial was a national sensation, covered by newspapers just a couple months after the trial of accused conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Officials who decided to try the officer in a military -- rather than a civilian -- court said the country was in some ways still in a state of war. The defense considered itself at a disadvantage on the rules of evidence.

Hopkins told the Picket that she a few other staffers spent few months poring through testimony of about 140 witnesses, which included prisoners, guards, civilians and Confederate and Federal officials.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Fresno re-enactment to go on this weekend

Organizers of a re-enactment in Fresno, California, say they aren’t planning on doing anything different in the wake of a national outcry against Confederate symbols. Ruth Lang, executive director of Fresno Historical Society, which is organizing the event with the American Civil War Association, said the society is not a political organization. • Article

Monday, October 16, 2017

'Priceless' items belonging to Georgia cavalry officer to be displayed at Fort McAllister, on land he once owned and defended

Lt. Col. McAllister's personal items (Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources)

A saber, spurs, uniform vest and other items that belonged to a Confederate officer who died in the largest all-cavalry battle of the Civil War will go on display at a coastal Georgia fort named for his father and where the officer served early in the conflict.

The items, which include a photograph of Joseph Longworth McAllister, were donated by Carolyn C. Swiggart, an attorney in Greenwich, Conn., to Fort McAllister State Park outside Savannah. The cavalryman is her fourth great uncle.

McAllister grew up on the Bryan County rice plantation, a portion of which became the site of the South’s Fort McAllister. He lived in Strathy Hall, just to the west of the Ogechee River defenses.

A display case is being fashioned to contain the items, with an opening expected before the park’s annual winter muster and battle on Dec. 9.

“(Visitors) can see the face of the person who lived there,” said Swiggart. “They can see items he personally touched and used. They can see he is a wealthy man who made certain choices.”

(Georgia DNR)
McAllister, 43, died June 11, 1864, at the Battle of Trevilian Station, a Confederate victory in central Virginia. The lieutenant colonel with the 7th Georgia Cavalry fought to the last, throwing an emptied gun at Federal troops just before he was cut down by bullets.

State officials are thrilled to receive the collection, which includes a grooming kit and rank insignia.

“When you look at the value of the history of those items, those are priceless items,” said Judd Smith, a historian with Georgia State Parks. “It is rare to get something with so many items. You might get one item, a hat or some sort of a letter…(the fact you have a collection that) comes back to where it belongs, from starting out there in 1864 and finally arriving back in 2016, is amazing.”

The display will note that the items were donated in memory of Swiggart’s son, who had an interest in the family history. Navy Lt. James H. Swiggart died in the crash of a private airplane in December 2015.

Fort McAllister's interior (Picket photo)

The header for the exhibit will be “Strike for God and our native land!” – reportedly yelled by McAllister shortly before his death. His gravestone and books and writings indicate he served valiantly in Georgia and Virginia, where he died within days of arrival.

“It is my hope that the items will provide a view of Col. Joseph L. McAllister to the visitors of Fort McAllister – he’s now someone that a visitor can envision as a person, not just a name on a sign,” said Swiggart. “Yes, he was a slaveholder and he fought for the Confederacy, and those decisions cost him his life. It's history. History cannot be changed. We can -- and should -- learn from the past and become better Americans from those lessons."

The items descended through Swiggart’s great-grandfather, Dr. Thomas Savage Clay of Savannah. He was the grandson of Matilda Willis McAlliser Clay, McAllister's sister. 

(All donation photos courtesy of Georgia DNR)

This sword and scabbard – which have no engravings -- may have been carried by McAllister at the time of his death. It was returned to his family after the battle. During the first part of the Battle of Trevilian Station it appears the 7th Georgia Cavalry was mounted, according to Swiggart. She believes the officer gave his horse to a soldier before his final action. “A saber is typically a cavalry weapon most effectively employed while on horseback, and it would not have been any use to him when dismounted,” she said. It hung for decades at the Savannah home of Swiggart’s great aunt. The blade was “wrapped in aluminum foil, ostensibly to keep it from tarnishing.”

This item would have been attached to the weapon’s brass guard. It is too stiff to reattach without causing it damage, state officials told the Picket.

Since it is known that the officer was buried in his uniform, the vest is likely a spare. The item is made of blue wool; its brass buttons were manufactured in Waterbury, Conn. It bears McAllister’s insignia and, according to Swiggart, is a Confederate regulation pattern officer’s waistcoat.

McAllister wears civilian clothing in this photograph believed to be taken in 1859.

Three stars indicate the rank of a colonel. State officials say this is a bit of a mystery, because records show McAllister’s official rank was lieutenant colonel (two stars). It’s possible the patch was awarded as a posthumous promotion or was a brevet (temporary rank) patch issued when he was made regimental commander.

Swiggart said her ancestor, while an amateur soldier, inspired his troops and got the job done. A fellow officer was resentful because McAllister was promoted above him back in Georgia.

I don't think there is any question about McAllister's enthusiasm for the Confederacy.  Whether it was founded in the hope of military glory for himself, or for economic survival -- I don't know," Swiggart said.

These were among personal effects and the saber returned to the family in Georgia. Swiggart believes they were an extra pair left at camp, since McAllister’s boots, hat, uniform buttons and insignia were removed by the enemy. “The spurs were given to me when I was a child, and my mother kept the other items in a trunk. The smell of camphor was a familiar one because my grandmother and mother used it to keep moths out of the clothing trunks.” 

The late 1840s English- and Irish-made kit includes silver-topped jars featuring the engraved initials “J.L. McA.” Officials don’t believe the entire kid was carried on battle campaigns. Two items are absent: a small grooming razor and what appears to have been a nail file, items that would easily fit into a haversack.

Slaveholder ran rice plantation

McAllister came from a family that traced its American roots to Pennsylvania, with one member a hero of the American Revolution.

Research indicates a Capt. James MacKay purchased the property around what became Fort McAllister in 1748. He built nearby Strathy Hall and began rive cultivation.

George Washington McAllister, who came to Georgia to seek his fortune, bought Strathy Hall and Genesis Point in 1817. The family had one of the largest plantations in that part of Bryan County. “The McAllister family was pretty well-known,” said Swiggart, author of “Shades of Gray: The Clay and McAllister Families of Bryan County, Georgia, during thePlantation Years.”

McAllister property (left) marked in relation to fort (Georgia State Parks)

Washington McAllister’s son, Joseph, attended Amherst College, but did not graduate. He toured Europe for a long time and returned to join the family rice business. “He didn’t go the route his cousins, did, which was law. He stayed at the plantation,” said Swiggart.

The descendant points out that McAllister, who owned 271 slaves in 1860, had received them by inheritance, rather than purchase. “This is a major, major point.” Evidence shows he probably was not a harsh master and he ensured his slave’s care, she added.

Thomas S. Clay, in 1833, wrote an essay about the proper “moral improvement of negroes on plantations.” It called for proper housing, care and religious instruction of slaves.

The family was split on secession. Looking back, Swiggart wishes “they had sold the whole damn thing.” But the family believed it could not sell the plantations and the slaves, because it would destroy families and shred plantation community, she said. Thomas Butler King did that in 1859 and the sale became known as "The Weeping Time." The family believed slavery would become obsolete, that it was a burden, she said. Her great aunt said the South would have done better if Abraham Lincoln survived.

Strathy Hall and fort marked in red (Georgia State Parks)

But Joseph McAllister was prepared to fight.

After the Civil War broke out, he sold land to the Confederacy for the construction of the fort named for his father, who died in 1850.

Amateur soldier inspired troops

Soon after Confederates shelled Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, McAllister was commissioned a captain of an artillery unit at the fledgling Fort McAllister.

In April 1862, McAllister formed the Hardwick Mounted Rifles, comprised of volunteers from Bryan County. The regiment, one of several homegrown units in the Savannah area, helped guard against Federal invasion of the coast.

The Hardwick Rifles fired on sailors who were part of a significant Union attack -- made up of ironclads and mortar boats -- on Fort McAllister on March 3, 1863. The Federal fleet did little damage to the fort, and withdrew the next day. It was apparent the defenses would likely have to fall to infantry, which happened in late 1864 during Sherman’s March to the Sea.

McAllister after it fell to Union forces (Library of Congress)

After years of duty around home, the men finally got their chance to fight at the front in Virginia. McAllister and two companies from the Hardwick Mounted Rifles joined other units to form the 7th Georgia Cavalry in February 1864.

McAllister became regimental commander after the death of his predecessor, and the unit was ordered to support the Army of Northern Virginia. It left in late April and made a rugged journey from South Carolina and Virginia, lasting until early June.

McAllister wrote to his sister, Emma, about the trip and heat that killed a few horses and mules.

He writes of wanting to take part in “glorious fights.” He got along well with a conceited subordinate and recollected Virginians greeting the troops with flowers and pails of milk.

The bachelor shared a story about young women presenting the young cavaliers with bouquets, according to Swiggart’s book.

“Some funny notes attached to the bokets,” the officer wrote his sister. “They all seem to think that the matrimonial chances are daily lessening – and every note wants you to write – these as a matter of course are plain country girls just from school. Some pretty some ugly.”

But there also were moments of resolve.

“Keep up your spirits – to take care of me if I get a bullet in me – which I trust will not be the case – still we must all do our duty in this struggle and while I shall not foolishly expose myself, I will not disgrace our names.”

'Strike for God and our native land'

The 7th’s first major battle in Virginia came at Trevilian Station on June 11. Nearly 40 percent of the regiment would become casualties.

Union troops wanted to draw off Confederate cavalry so that forces could move on the James River. Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s troopers raided Louisa County, threatening to cut a Confederate railroad.

Sheridan’s troops attacked Confederate divisions led by Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee at Trevilian Station. For a while, the Rebels had to dismount and make a defensive stand.

“From this advantageous position, they beat back several determined dismounted assaults,” the National Park Service says of the battle. “Sheridan withdrew after destroying about six miles of the Virginia Central Railroad. (The) Confederate victory at Trevilian prevented Sheridan from reaching Charlottesville and cooperating with Hunter’s army in the Valley. This was one of the bloodiest cavalry battles of the war.”

McAllister’s led a counterattack on the first day’s fighting, cyring out to his men, “Strike for God and our native land!” Historian Eric Wittenberg, in Glory Enough for All: Sheridan’s Second Raid and the Battle of Trevilian Station, wrote that McAllister was surrounded and mounted when he was first hit by enemy.

McAllister threw an emptied revolver at the enemy and was shot four or five times. Many members of the 7th Georgia Cavalry were captured.

The gallant officer and Capt. John Hines, also of the 7th, are among about 85 Confederates buried in what is now called Oakland Cemetery in Louisa (below). His marker reads “Soldier. Scholar. Gentleman.” His enslaved body servant, Jack, returned his personal effects to Strathy Hall after the funeral.

Marker with McAllister reference (Photos courtesy of Ed Crebbs)
McAllister grave is to left of stone with flag

Group tries to publicize battle

The cemetery is one of several stops on the Virginia Civil War Trails driving tour in the central Virginia Community. Another group, the Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation, is restoring a house used by Brevet Lt. Col. Gen. George A. Custer during the clash. Custer captured Hampton’s divisional supply train but suffered significant losses, including having his trains and personal baggage overrun.

Ed Crebbs, secretary of the foundation, told the Picket his group also offers a driving tour that comes out of Louisa and makes several stops. He said the foundation is trying to raise awareness of the two-day battle and draw more visitors to the rural crossroads.

“It’s underappreciated and almost unknown because it didn’t have the biggest names of the Civil War,” he said. “It did not have infantry. It did not have tremendous destruction with it.”

Visitors to Oakland Cemetery can take in an interpretive panel that includes the story of McAllister and the 7th Georgia Cavalry.

Donation 'brings it all home'

As Sherman’s troops moved on Savannah from Atlanta – months after McAllister’s death -- some houses and property were destroyed by Federal troops. Strathy Hall escaped such a fate. Swiggart said that’s because Union officers knew that ancestors of McAllister had residences and connections in Newport, R.I.

But the South’s loss in the war destroyed the family financially.  After the war, Strathy Hall and Genesis Point, located near the city of Richmond Hill, were sold to a nephew of McAllister's who owned them until 1924.

Fort McAllister fell into ruin until the 1930s, when it was restored as a site for the public through funding from auto magnate Henry Ford, who owned the land. It now belongs to the state. Strathy Hall a private residence, is surrounded by a subdivision.

Strathy Hall today (Kenneth Dixon, Wikipedia)

Smith said the Friends of Fort McAllister State Park paid for the design of the exhibit. The $30,000 wooden case will be secure and provide proper lighting “where it is not going to damage the artifacts over time.” The display will include interpretive signs and sit next to an exhibit about Strathy Hall and the McAllisters.

As Swiggart said, McAllister’s personal belongings will add to the story.

“From his owning the plantation that the fort sits on and the fact that not only did he serve in the war, but served for a time right there at Fort McAllister – (it) brings it all home, said Josh Headlee of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Historic Preservation Division.

“I think Civil War artifacts are impressive in their own right, but when you have artifacts that belonged to someone that you know was there and you can relate their personal lives to it, that really makes a great and lasting impact,” the curator said.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Hero's gravestone corrected in Maine

The city of Auburn, Maine, has rededicated the corrected gravestone of a Civil War hero. Union Cpl. Moses C. Hanscom captured a Confederate flag on Oct. 14, 1863, at the Battle of Bristoe Station in Virginia, but his name was misspelled on the marker in Oak Hill Cemetery after his death in 1873. • Article

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

SC black Confederates monuments proposed

Two Upstate legislators want to erect a Confederate monument at the South Carolina Statehouse — the country's first-ever honoring black soldiers who purportedly fought for the South. Historians point out that most African-Americans in the Confederate ranks were slaves forced into the military service. "The stories about slaves in the war have been distorted to make them out to be soldiers. The myth of the lost cause allows white Southerners to reconfigure what war is about — that it's not about slavery,” said historian Kevin Levin. But one of the bill’s sponsors said some free blacks voluntarily enlisted. • Article

Thursday, October 5, 2017

NPS continues investigation of 'Stonewall' Jackson monument vandalism at Manassas

(National Park Service photo)

The National Park Service is continuing to investigate vandalism – in the form of poured and sprayed paint – on the famous Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson monument at Manassas National Battlefield Park, a spokeswoman said Thursday.

NPS spokeswoman Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles said “no more details are available for release at this time.”

The monument after it had been scrubbed (NPS)

Crews by Thursday afternoon had removed all the paint and will repolish the black granite base at a later date, the park said in a Facebook post about the vandalism that was discovered at about 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday.

White paint was poured on three of the four sides of the polished granite base. The word “Dead!!!” was written in gold spray paint. 

The monument was erected in 1940 near the Henry House. It’s where Jackson received the nickname “Stonewall,” at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21, 1861.

(NPS photos)

An NPS web page said this of the dedication, which came during World War II but before the United States entered that conflict: “Mounted atop an eight-foot base of black granite etched with Brig. Gen. Barnard Bee's immortal phrase, "There Stands Jackson Like a Stone Wall," the stalwart Jackson in the saddle projected the same strength and determination that Americans needed in the current perilous affairs.

NPS law enforcement park rangers are investigating Wednesday’s incident; anyone with information is asked to call 301-714-2235.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Civil War-style funeral held for re-enactor

Tennessee Civil War re-enactor Colonel T. Michael Cheaves has been laid to rest with a 21-gun salute as family, friends, and fellow re-enactors dressed in period costumes paid their last respects. Since he was a retired detective from the Knox County Sheriff’s Department, he received another 21-gun salute. Cheaves was known for refurbishing saddles and training horses to prepare them for the sights and sounds of battle during events. • Article