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.

No comments:

Post a Comment