Thursday, February 28, 2019

Update: They found a bullet last year at a Baton Rouge church ballfield. Here's what they have learned about it.

Gov. Edwards throws out first pitch (Courtesy of Sacred Heart)
Details of bullet (Courtesy of Phillip Faller)

A Picket article posted one year ago today resonated with readers curious about a Civil War bullet that was found during the renovation of a church ballfield in Baton Rouge, La.

I decided to check back to see whether there has been anything gleaned about its origin.

Author Phillip E. Faller told me Wednesday that he checked the .54-caliber, flat-base bullet last fall. It was made for Merrill rifles, which were manufactured in Baltimore, he said.

“I took one of my own Merrill bullets with me to compare and make sure,” Faller said of his visit to Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church, which sits on property that saw action during the Battle of Baton Rouge and owns the ballfield where the bullet was found.

Besides this determination, Faller reaffirmed his believe that such a rifle likely belonged to a soldier with Company H or Company K of the 21st Indiana, which fought in the August 1862 battle. The regiment was the only Federal unit at the battle believed to have been equipped with the breechloader Merrills, he said.

Field after 2018 renovation (Courtesy of Sacred Heart)

Faller, author of  “The Indiana Jackass Regiment in the Civil War," believes the bullet was fired because of a chip and other slight wear. “It very likely was fired ... but with the caveat it could have been dropped when the regiment was retreating.”

The 21st Indiana and 14th Maine had entrenched positions at what is now Sacred Heart and its ballfield. At that time, it was just woods and fields.

Confederate brigades began the push toward the Mississippi River and the fighting extended to the public cemetery (now called Magnolia Cemetery, across the street from Sacred Heart and its sports field).

“A fierce fight soon developed across the length and width of the cemetery, most of it in hand-to-hand combat. The tomb and monuments were chipped and pockmarked where Minie balls struck them, and the magnolia and cedar trees were scarred and twisted from cannon fire,” William A. Spedale wrote in his book “The Battle of Baton Rouge.”

Father Walsh blesses the field (Sacred Heart)

Several headstones at Magnolia Cemetery bear fading nicks and damage from bullets. (Faller said the uncovered bullet is not a Minie ball.)

Mary Lee Eggart, an archivist for Sacred Heart, said the renovated ballfield was blessed by pastor Fr. Miles Walsh on April 8, 2018. Gov. John Bel Edwards threw out the first pitch.

“The field has seen a lot of use for baseball and other school athletic activities in the past year. Our students and parishioners are very proud of our beautiful ballfield,” she said.

Deacon David Dawson, who spearheaded the renovation, began his studies for the priesthood at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans last August. “We miss him but are glad he is close enough to come back and visit regularly,” Eggart said.

Damaged tombstone (John Potts)
Dawson told the Picket last year about the discovery of the bullet in soil excavated for a new light pole. The staff was kicking around ideas on how to showcase the find, perhaps on a concession wall at the field, he said.

“We have no definite plans for displaying the bullet as of yet,” Eggart said this week. “We thought about a small display at the ballfield itself, but we couldn't come up with a display method that would keep it secure from environment or thievery. (We) will display it when we have church history exhibits on special occasions.”

• Read our first article about the bullet

June 2020 update: The bullet, while still in the church collection, has not gone on display.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Reward jumps to $30,000 in search for stolen gun presented to Lincoln's war secretary

(Photos: Harrisburg, Pa. police)

The owner of 1860 Henry repeating rifle stolen three years ago from a Pennsylvania museum is now offering a $30,000 reward for any information leading to its recovery.

The private collector increased the reward by $10,000, Harrisburg police announced recently. last year said the rifle is valued at between $400,000 and $500,000.

The rifle and two revolvers taken from the National Civil War Museum in February 2016 were presented to Simon Cameron, Abraham Lincoln's secretary of war from March 5, 1861, to Jan. 14, 1862.

While the revolvers were owned the city, the rifle was on loan as part of the “Guns and Lace” exhibit sponsored by the National Rifle Association. The thief used a sledgehammer to break a window and display cases.

WPMT-Fox43 said one of guns is a .44-caliber army revolver, while the other is a .36-caliber Colt 1861 Navy revolver.

Police asked that anyone with information about the rifle should call them at 717-558-6900.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Myth-busting: Reopened, restored and rebranded Atlanta Cyclorama challenges how we shape our own notions of history

The Atlanta Cyclorama during its restoration (Atlanta History Center)
Clark Gable is immortalized in the diorama (Civil War Picket)

The boss anxiously paces as he exhorts his fellow German artists to create something spectacular, to make their subjects real.

"These men are in battle, they're not in church. You must make them look ALIVE! .... Franz! I need more smoke. Bigger explosions! This scene must be accurate in every detail."

The conversation, imagined in a 12-minute film as occurring in a Milwaukee studio in 1886, is part of the complex story of the 360-degree Atlanta Cyclorama painting, which reopened to the public Friday after a relocation and exhaustive restoration

Seventeen men who created the colossal cyclorama would be pleased the massive painting is still around and presented the way they intended. Only three such works remain in North America.

The artists likely could not have anticipated how the painting would be misinterpreted and its message spun over the years. They were hired to memorialize a huge Union victory at the Battle of Atlanta during the Civil War. But within a few years, the painting had moved south and promoters instead extolled Confederate valor and pride.

The reopening at the Atlanta History Center comes at a time when Confederate monuments are being removed across the country and people are navigating difficult discussions on race, beliefs and how to view the past.

While visitors will see the same painting and diorama figures that combined to produce an exhilarating immersion into the July 22, 1864, battle, they’re being asked to think about how art creates myths and men can sometimes twist facts. The center hopes visitors check their preconceived notions about the war at the door.

“You can’t address difficult topics by ignoring them,” says Gordon Jones, the history center’s senior military historian. “People are afraid of this painting.”

(Courtesy of Atlanta History Center)

They weren't thinking about the 'Lost Cause'

The Atlanta Cyclorama has escaped simple explanation ever since the last daub of paint was placed on Belgian linen more than 130 years ago. It’s had different meanings, depending on the audience and the overall message projected at the venues.

The Gettysburg Cyclorama, which had been completed just a few years before, concentrated on soldiers who served in the East and fought in that momentous battle. 

The Battle of Atlanta painting honored the legions of Midwestern boys who fought and died in Tennessee, Georgia, the Carolina and other states while taking Atlanta, marching to the sea and crushing Southern resistance. 

The cyclorama toured a few Midwestern cities before landing in Atlanta.

Instead of focusing on the Union soldiers as an army of liberation for enslaved persons, the promoters projected stories of valiant Confederate troops engaged in a heroic struggle against a more powerful enemy – “the only Confederate victory ever painted.”

They removed a captured Confederate flag and repainted a knot of prisoners being led away, making them Union soldiers instead of Rebels (that has since been rectified).

Such changes would have surprised the artists, says Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center. “It was all about making money. They weren’t thinking about the ‘Lost Cause.’”

The “Lost Cause” was conjured in the South after the war to romanticize the Southern cause and erase slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War, replacing it with states’ rights, the center contends. “Over more than century, The Battle of Atlanta has been retouched, rebranded and reinterpreted,” the center says.

Scene from film projected over the painting (Picket photo)

The film and exhibits outside the rotunda explore other myths associated with the Civil War, which ended slavery but failed to safeguard rights for freed African-Americans ensnared by Jim Crow laws and other forms of oppression. Exhibits take on claims that Abraham Lincoln alone freed enslaved persons, that the nation was healed and the Northern victory was a panacea.

The film doesn't spend much time on details of the battle itself. Below the viewing platform are interactive screens where you can zoom in on scenes from the painting and learn more about depicted historical figures and what happened in the battle, one of four major clashes in Atlanta.

The theatrical presentation projected over 120 feet of the painting features historic and modern characters discussing what the painting shows (gunfire, explosions and hand-to-hand combat) and doesn’t (the role of women and African-Americans during the war and battle).

One scene in the presentation aptly summarizes the lingering debate over the war’s cause and legacy.

A wheelchair-bound Rebel veteran describes the scene showing the brief Rebel breakthrough along the railroad between Atlanta and Decatur. It’s the focal point of the painting. “I keep thinking that our cause was just,” he says. “Weren’t we fighting for our homes and families?”

An interactive kiosk in gallery near painting (Picket photo)

An African-American character projected on the painting counters with his recollections of carrying grievously wounded Yankees off the battlefield. While more than 200,000 African-Americans fought for the union, none were permitted to take up arms during the campaign for Atlanta. Instead, they served as stretcher bearers, cooks and wagon drivers.

“I can’t believe that anyone would deny that the Rebel slave holders were fighting for any cause other than to keep me and my brothers and sisters in bondage,” the black man says. “They were fighting for a cause. We were fighting for our lives. For freedom.”

And he rebuffs the victory assertion made by the aged Confederate.

“Funny, now I seem to recall the Rebels actually lost this battle, along with the war.”

TLC for an American artifact

Within a few years of the end of a conflict that claimed more than 700,000 lives, artists and craftsmen created monuments and paintings to remember the fallen and honor their cause.

Before nickelodeons and other attractions held sway in the early 20th century, cycloramas traversing the Unites States were the entertainment of the day. Viewers on platforms gazed at the circular paintings in wonder, soaking in dramatic scenes.

A view from the new platform (Civil War Picket)

Working from sketches in their Milwaukee studio in 1886, the 17 artists spent five months on the effort. The result was both BIG and impressive: 49 feet tall and 371 feet in circumference.

Some 6,000 figures were captured rushing to or caught up in ferocious fighting around a brick house as an onslaught of Federal reinforcements pushed Confederate troops back

Jones says the artists wanted to show a pivotal moment during the fighting. “There is no point in painting a 49-0 walkover.”

The cyclorama entertained crowds for decades until 2015, after officials announced it was moving to a new home.

The painting often got rough treatment. Sometimes, it was cut to fit into buildings, such as at its longtime Atlanta home, Grant Park. Deterioration and water leaks took some punch out of the dramatic work. Attendance gradually dropped as the public turned to other forms of entertainment.

“It’s amazing that it survived,” Jones says of the 10,000-pound painting.

The work has been cleaned at its new home, some areas repainted and colors that faded over time are now vibrant. Three missing sections were recreated and the mural went from 42 to 49 feet tall and 359 to 371 feet in circumference – adding areas that were lost over time as the Cyclorama traveled from venue to venue.

Gone is the revolving platform that was used at Grant Park; now visitors can turn around to see the entire painting.

Railroads have always been important to Atlanta (Picket photo)

Patrons will enter the large room via a tunnel that is built under the diorama. They will have a moment to view the back of the painting to see how it is rigged and weighted to ensure its hyperbolic shape.

A cyclorama is a panorama image intended to place the viewer in the middle of a scene. Often, dioramas are built in the foreground to provide additional realism. Cycloramas were an early form of virtual reality and considered by Jones to be the IMAX theaters of the day.

Atlanta’s cyclorama received its current diorama during the mid-1930s. Some 128 plaster figures of soldiers, faux artillery and other pieces and natural elements were placed before the painting, heightening the drama.

While real Georgia soil has been replaced at the history center by “artificial” dirt, the likeness of actor Clark Gable is still in the scene. His face was added to a diorama figure after he visited Atlanta in 1939 for the premiere of “Gone with the Wind.”

A change in messaging

A large building at Grant Park featured the cyclorama for more than eight decades. Time and a lack of money to maintain it took a toll. While it saw a limited restoration during the 1930s, it wasn’t until the term of Mayor Maynard Jackson that the painting got a new infusion of attention.

An emotional detail from the 1886 painting (Atlanta History Center)

“It was a battle that helped free my ancestors,” the African-American politician said. “And I’ll make sure the depiction is saved.”

After a makeover, the painting reopened to large crowds in 1982. But attendance began sliding and the city eventually looked for other locations. The Atlanta History Center agreed to become its custodian and the massive work was rolled up in early 2017 and trucked to the center in a delicate operation.

Artists worked on the painting for a year and a half, changing a few repainted figures to their original form. And they spruced up an eagle, Old Abe, soaring over the battlefield. Speaking of myths, Abe and the 8th Wisconsin regiment weren’t at the battle – the artists squeezed in this tribute at somebody’s request.

The new film at the Atlanta Cyclorama is a far cry from what patrons heard when they visited Grant Park.

A 1968 narration by Victor Jory said the painting was “not a memorial to the South but a united nation.” It concentrates on the battle itself and not the war’s legacy and its impact on women, African-Americans and other civilians. It and previous recordings spotlight the bravery of Confederate soldiers, how they fought hard but could not overcome overwhelming Federal numbers.

Gordon Jones describes an artifact in new exhibit area (Picket)

The great-great-grandfather of Hale, the history center’s CEO, fought with the 36th Alabama at the Battle of Atlanta.

Hale says the history center’s message is not of proselytizing, but provoking deeper thinking. But he wants to make one thing clear.

“If you view this as a Confederate monument … you will be surprised,” Hale said. “Because it is not one.”

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Siege of Chattanooga and Wheeler's raid

The Army of the Cumberland, trapped in Chattanooga for five harrowing weeks of near starvation in the fall of 1863, depended upon a single difficult road over mountainous terrain for survival. With new information,  Phillip R. Kemmerly will present at the Franklin (Tenn.) Civil War Round Table on Sunday March 10, accounts of men struggling to move badly needed supplies to starving troops in that critical Southern town. • Article

Monday, February 11, 2019

Postscript: They found this pike head while working on the railroad just north of Atlanta

(Sections of pike. Courtesy of National Park Service)

You may recall reading our posts about the pikes made for abolitionist John Brown, who wanted to arm enslaved persons, and those done in response by Southern governors, notably Joseph E. Brown of Georgia. The latter weapons were intended for home guard units and individuals. 

We asked museums across Georgia about any pikes in their collection. The timing of the partial government shutdown precluded details then from Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield. Park ranger Amanda Corman has since provided this interesting story about a pike in the park’s collection.

A text panel in the museum says: “The ‘Joe Brown’ pike, named for Governor Joseph E. Brown. Unable to furnish Georgia troops with enough rifles and muskets, Brown calls upon local blacksmiths to supply the soldiers with pikes. Between March 1862 and April 1863, Georgia pays five dollars apiece for over 7,000 of these clumsy weapons. They are stored in the state armory at Milledgeville and never used in combat."

The metal head of the pike was acquired in 1949. An assistant chief engineer, R.W. McCabe, of the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway donated the pike to park Superintendent B.C. Yates.

“According to the letter to the former superintendent, the artifact was found by railroad workmen some years prior. While they were cleaning out an old office, they came across the pike and not needing it themselves thought that the park may like to have it,” Corman told the Picket.

As part of the donation, a card was attached, with this legend:

"This Civil War relic thought to have been either pike or an ornamental point of banner staff was dug up on August 17, 1925, by W.J. Thompson, Foreman on the south side of Pier No. 2 of Chattahoochee River Bridge of the Western and Atlantic Railroad while excavating for the enlarging and strengthening of the pier. It was lying on the hard-san strata, the same that the timber base of the old pier rests on, about 10 ft. from the pier outside the original coffer-dam, as well as outside the new one just built, covered by the chunk rock filled around the old pier for protection and by stream deposits to a depth of 16 feet."

Saturday, February 2, 2019

She wants to tell the stories of USCT troops

For 50 years, Corene McDaniel has walked through the rows at Mound City National Cemetery in southern Illinois to visit her father. But it was only a few years ago that she noticed an abbreviation chiseled into some of the oldest white headstones: USCT. It stands for United States Colored Troops -- the name given to about 200,000 black men who fought for the Union in the Civil War. McDaniel has identified 350 USCT graves. McDaniel, of Carbondale, hopes her records can be added to the directory at the cemetery museum, allowing future visitors to more easily find the graves. She also wants to tell their stories. • Article

Friday, February 1, 2019

To pass the time, a skilled POW at Andersonville carved smoking pipes. You can see one of them at a Columbus, Ga., museum.

(Civil War Picket and courtesy of the Columbus Museum, Ga.)
We don’t know his name, or even whether he survived his ordeal. Yet a Federal POW’s handiwork lives on through three incredibly detailed smoking pipes he apparently carved while at Andersonville.

All are believed to have been fashioned from laurel root and have similar motifs, with a few variations. The name of the intended recipient rings a five-point star and two have an American shield. On the side are the words “Sumter prison” and “Andersonville, Ga.”

Cowan’s Auctions sold the three during a February 2017 sale involving the vast collection of the late E. Norman Flayderman, an author and antiques arms dealer. He bought the first pipe in the early 1950s and the last in 2001. Records indicate there may be a fourth pipe in the same style.

One pipe bears the name Henry Wirz, the infamous stockade commander at Andersonville (more on that later).

I didn’t know any of this when I recently sauntered into the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Ga. It had been a couple years since my last visit and I wanted to review the Civil War portion of a history of the Chattahoochee Valley.

(Courtesy of the Columbus Museum, Georgia)
I spied the pipe mounted in a small case on a wall with two other Andersonville-related items: An early 1880s albumen reprint of one of A.J. Riddle’s famous photographs of the stockade and prisoners taken in summer 1864, and a circa 1885 lithograph of former prisoner Thomas O’Dea’s drawing depicting the horrors of life in the Confederate prison.

Rebecca Bush, curator of history and exhibitions manager at the Columbus Museum, said the Andersonville exhibit opened in late 2017 after the roughly $4,000 purchase of the pipe. Columbus is about an hour’s drive from Andersonville National Historic Site.

“It is one of the best-known place names of the Civil War outside a battle. It felt like a missed opportunity for us not to engage with that story,” said Bush.

Cowan’s and the museum describe the pipe as folk art. Beyond the mystery of who created it, there’s another. Who is the J. Vandegrift of Philadelphia etched into the front of the pipe?

Here is a portion of Cowan’s description of the piece:

“There are two possible identifications for J. Vandegrift. The first, John P. Vandegrift, enlisted in the army as a private on March 4, 1864, and mustered into the 3rd Pennsylvania Artillery, Co. E. Under the command of Captain Hazzard, the company served with the Army of the James before Petersburg, being stationed at Bermuda Hundred, and was posted at Fort Converse, covering the pontoon bridge across the Appomattox. There is no record of Vandegrift's imprisonment, but many men in his regiment were captured and sent to Andersonville. Records state that he mustered out of the army at Fortress Monroe on November 9, 1865. The second could be John Miller Vandegrift, the father of Union soldier Thomas Hart Benton Vandegrift. John Miller Vandegrift was from Philadelphia, and Thomas was born in the city. Thomas Vandegrift was captured on June 10, 1864, and survived Andersonville. He was a corporal of Company C, 9th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.” 

(Courtesy of the Columbus Museum, Georgia)
I found a webpage about Thomas Hart Benton Vandegrift that says he was born in Philadelphia in 1840 and enlisted in August 1862.

It includes this amusing story: “Tom’s company got down to Tennessee & one day they were going south when they saw a nice apple orchard in a yard. They stopped to pick apples but the woman who owned the farm said, “When you come back you won’t have time to pick apples”. Tom said she was right as they were on the run then. In 1864 they were on a southern road & when they came to a fork in the road they took the wrong one & were captured.”

Bush said she regularly checks with Cowan’s Auctions and other sites for items that might further the museum’s interpretation of places and events.

“Especially once we acquired the O’Dea lithograph (in 2015), I identified the last piece I wanted to interpret Andersonville was a piece of POW folk art … It is definitely quite striking and I think that’s something we liked about it.”

She said the pipe combines patriotism and has a souvenir feel, “which is weird to think of in these unusual circumstances.”

A display card near the item says: "Facing harsh conditions and relentless boredom, prisoners of war have often used their creativity and available materials to create artistic objects."

(Courtesy of the Columbus Museum, Georgia)
The exhibit doesn’t have space to describe the mysteries regarding the piece, including how the wood and silver bowl cover and mounts were acquired in the prison.

“Sometimes there are historical mysteries and unless other information pops up, this seems destined to remain a mystery,” Bush said.

Two other pipes were sold at the auction. One has the name Albert A. Walker.

Cowan’s note: “Albert A. Walker enlisted as a private on August 24, 1862, and mustered into the 16th Connecticut Infantry, Co. F. He fought at the battle of Antietam and Fredericksburg. Eventually, he was promoted to commanding sergeant of Co. F on May 9, 1863. He was listed as a POW on March 20, 1864, at Plymouth, NC, and was most likely sent to Andersonville, remaining there until he was paroled on November 30, 1864.”

The third pipe – with the Wirz name -- fetched the highest price: About $10,000.

Henry Wirz
The online catalog notes: “The pipe is accompanied by a typed tag that states, Presented by Captain Wirz, commanding Andersonville Prison, to E.W. Masterson, 4th OVC, Mr. Masterson being with the ____ sent to arrest Wirz.”

Masterson’s unit was stationed in Macon, Ga., at the time Wirz was in custody, “which leads us to the conclusion that Masterson may have been part of one of Wirz's guard details and acquired the pipe while on guard duty,” the auction company wrote.

Wirz was hanged in November 1865 after his convictions of conspiracy and murder of prisoners.

That conviction remains controversial to today.