Sunday, December 27, 2020

Williamsburg battlefield land purchased for preservation

A significant portion of Williamsburg’s historic Civil War battlefield was recently purchased to be secured for preservation. The Virginia Gazette reports the American Battlefield Trust bought the 29 acres in the area of the “Bloody Ravine” from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The land was zoned for commercial used and valued at $2,743,000. Located about 1 mile from the city’s historic area and primarily within the city limits, the land is pristine and looks much as it did 158 years ago when the battle took place, according to the newspaper.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

2020's top 10 Picket posts: A treasure of artifacts hauled to surface; arson fire at museum, USS Monitor and innovative Colt revolving rifle

Recovered round from Colt revolving rifle (Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park)
Articles on arson at the National Civil War Naval Museum, an amazing trove of artifacts from a scuttled Confederate ironclad, historian Ed Bearss and battlefields in Arkansas were among the top 10 Picket posts -- by page views -- in 2020.

We’ve got a few items in the works, so we look forward to rolling those and others out in 2021. Thanks so much for your interest – and Happy New Year!

10. MYSTERY TIMBER:  Forty years ago, someone walking North Carolina’s Kure Beach found a curved piece of timber pocked with holes and containing a piece of iron. Its donation to the state earlier this year raised questions over whether it belonged to a blockade runner.  -- Read more

One of the two Dahlgrens that were cleaned (The Mariners' Museum and Park)
9. USS MONITOR’S BIG GUNS:  This February post previewed the cleaning of the famed Union ironclad’s two Dahlgren artillery pieces. “By boring the guns, we will finally have the ability to remove trapped ocean salts from the interiors of these massive artifacts; which sets the stage for us to dry and put the guns on display,” said Will Hoffman of The Mariners' Museum and Park. -- Read more

8BELOVED ED BEARSS: By the beginning of 2020, it was clear that the legendary Civil War historian, author and mesmerizing guide was no longer able to lead tours. One of his publishers encouraged fans to send Bears letters of appreciation. Bearss (left) died in September at age 97. -- Read more

7. SAVING THE STRAIN: A tabby structure that survived the federal burning of Darien, Ga., seemed destined for the wrecking ball just a year and a half ago. But an Atlanta-area couple came through, and they are restoring the Adam Strain building in the coastal town. -- Read more

6. PRAIRIE GROVE FIREPOWER: Removal of underbrush at the epicenter of a ferocious battle in northwest Arkansas has allowed archaeologists to recover about 400 Civil War artifacts, including spent bullets fired from innovative Colt revolving rifles. -- Read more

5. USS MONITOR REDUX: Earlier this year, conservators at The Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Va., removed the last concretion from inside the barrels of the two large turret guns. They used a special drill to remove the hardened mix of sediment and sea life.  --  Read more

4. PUZZLE PIECE AT PEA RIDGE: A 140-acre parcel that was the scene of Confederate troop movements and a hospital during the March 1862 battle was bought by a coalition of conservation and historical groups, with plans to donate it to the National Park Service. -- Read more

Inverted fantail of the CSS Jackson (Picket photo)

3. RARE IRONCLAD FANTAIL BURNED: A suspected arson fire roared through a boat shed where rare components of two Confederate vessels are stored at the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Ga. Among the items heavily damaged was the ironclad CSS Jackson’s fantailwhich the museum has described as “a very unique piece of naval architecture." -- Read more

2. STAGGERING HAUL OF ARTIFACTS: An estimated 13,601 artifacts brought ashore from the Confederate ironclad CSS Georgia wreck site in Savannah were trucked to Texas for conservation. What’s known about the ship’s design, construction, propulsion, armament and life aboard the "Mud Tub" are detailed in a massive report about the CSS Georgia's recovery. -- Read more 

CSS Georgia Dahlgren cannon, bayonet hilt, breast plate (USACE-Savannah)
1. ARSON INVESTIGATION CONTINUES: Investigators have been pursuing leads in a suspected arson fire that damaged rare artifacts and destroyed modern vessels in a storage area at the National Civil War Naval Museum-- Read more

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Immigrants deserve much of the credit for winning the Civil War. A Wisconsin museum's new exhibit explores why they took up arms

Exhibit on soldier David Oram (Courtesy Civil War Museum, Kenosha, WI)

Whether motivated by money, patriotism, anti-slavery sentiments or the need to prove oneself, immigrants flocked to join the Union cause during the Civil War, sometimes not long after they arrived by boat. Their contribution to victory over the Confederacy cannot be overestimated: They made up 25 percent of soldiers and 40 percent of sailors in the Federal ranks. 

The Library Company of Philadelphia
"Defending the Union: Immigrant Soldiers in the Union Army,” a new exhibit at the Civil War Museum in Kenosha, Wis., explores the service and sacrifice of these men.

Military records, photographs, memorabilia and personal narratives of veterans help tell their compelling story.

Many immigrants had fought in European conflicts and were prepared for combat. Others arrived impoverished, ripe for recruiting – drawn by a bounty (enlistment bonus) and steady military pay.

“Some had families to support, or wives and children awaiting money for passage,” the museum says in an article about the exhibit. “Many men enlisted on the spot, or within days of reaching American soil. Others went to war for draftees who paid them to take their place.”

More than 500,000 immigrants showed uncompromised bravery while fighting for the Union.

Norwegian-born Col. Hans Heg (left), commanded the 15th Wisconsin, a regiment comprising mostly Scandinavian immigrants. David Oram, who came to the United States from Dundee, Scotland, when he was about 8, joined the 24th Wisconsin.

Both were at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863. Oram was seriously wounded and spent six months recovering. Heg became the highest-ranking Wisconsin officer to die in battle.

Heg, 33, died defending the freedoms he found in the United States. “The State has sent no braver soldier, and no truer patriot to aid in this mighty struggle for national unity, than Hans Christian Heg,” the State Journal wrote Sept. 29, 1863, reporting word of his death. “The valorous blood of the old Vikings ran in his veins, united with the gentler virtues of a Christian and a gentleman.”

Early in the conflict, Heg wrote about what motivated he and other immigrants.

(Civil War Museum, Kenosha, WI)
"The government of our adopted country is in danger. That which we learned to love as freemen in our old Fatherland --our freedom -- our government -- our independence -- is threatened with destruction. 
Is it not our duty as brave and intelligent citizens to extend our hands in defense of the cause of our country and our own homes?"

The Civil War Museum largely concentrates on soldiers from seven Midwestern states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

“More than a third of Wisconsin’s population was foreign-born, giving it the second-highest proportion of immigrants of all states, says Patrick Young, who writes “The Reconstruction Era” and “Immigrants’ Civil War” blogs.

“For every one immigrant who served in the Confederate army, nine served with the Union. Many, particularly the Germans, said they did so to end slavery. Without these men, and their wives who supported their service, it is difficult to see how the Union could have been preserved,” Young tells the Picket.

A large proportion of those on the Union side were German and Irish, but Poland, Italy and many other countries were represented.

Some 369 immigrants received the Medal Honor for their heroism in the Civil War.

(Courtesy of Civil War Museum, Kenosha, WI)
“United if only by the desire to prove themselves worthy of becoming Americans, immigrants and ethnic groups often struggled to earn respect and a place in society,” the museum says.

In a video posted to the museum’s Facebook page, education coordinator Doug Dammann details the life and service of David Oram, who settled in Racine. He enlisted in August 1862.

Oram rejoined the Union army after he was wounded at Chickamauga, and mustered out in June 1865. He returned home, married and worked for a machine company. Like many Union veterans, Oram was active in the fraternal Grand Army of the Republic – in his case, the Gov. Harvey post.

Oram and his wife, Rosina, attended many events, including the 1915 encampment in Washington, DC,  marking the 50th anniversary of the war’s end.

In April 1935, a few months before Oram died at age 94, he was honored at a patriotic and military ball in Race County. Besides Chickamauga, he was a veteran of the battles at Perryville, Stones River and Franklin-Nashville.

David Oram before the Civil War
The program for the veterans council ball included this verse:

To Our Comrade David Oram

The last of Abe Lincoln’s boys,

And to his Comrades departed;

Our Boyhood Heroes

To You, We the younger veterans,

Affectionately dedicate this Program.

Ourselves, we dedicate

To Carry On the Work, so well and nobly done

By the Grand Army of the Republic

(Courtesy of Civil War Museum, Kenosha, WI)

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Dear mom: Unfiltered letters from three Massachusetts brothers about combat and camp life are featured in new book

Nearly 100 letters written by three Massachusetts brothers have been transcribed and published in a new book, “My Dear Mother: Civil War Letters to Dedham from the Lathrop Brothers.”

The correspondence by John, Joseph and Julius Lathrop to their mother and three sisters stretched from December 1861 to a postwar visit to the Antietam battlefield by John in September 1865.

“The letters tell of the fierce battles, long marches, camp life and the brothers’ dedication to the Union cause,” says a description by the Dedham Historical Society & Museum, which transcribed the material. “The letters are published as written, without corrections or sanitation, but transcribed using the language of their time.”

A letter written by Julius to his mother on Feb. 13, 1862, details the taking of Roanoke Island, N.C., several days before and describes the 24th Massachusetts Infantry’s role in the capture of more than 2,000 Confederate prisoners.

Brig. Gen. Ambrose Burnside and his troops secured a vital victory in the Union effort to put a stranglehold on Southern ports. Rebel forces surrendered after they were routed from one battery and rushed to the northern end of the island, as described in the letter.

The corporal wrote his regiment was supposed to be among the first to land early in the battle but the steamer carrying troops ran aground. “We had the mortification of watching all the other regiments pass by us as while we were left lamenting.”

The unit witnessed the bombardment of the Confederate battery and its line was eventually formed near hospital buildings. Wounded Federal soldiers cheered the regiment and its brass howitzer, he wrote.

Fanciful depiction of Union attack at Roanoke Island (Library of Congress)

Other Federal forces took the battery as the 24th moved up. Lathrop got his first look at the horrors of war, seeing dead and maimed men, some nearly cut in two by artillery shots. “I saw … a poor fellow who was shot through the head with a grape shot. He was still alive though his brains were running out of his wound.”

His letter home to Dedham, about 10 miles southwest of Boston, asked his loved ones to “excuse the dirt but, I must tell you this is Secesh paper; of course it can’t be clean.”

Between them, the Lathrop brothers saw action across the breadth of the war, from Antietam and Fredericksburg in the east to Port Hudson in the west, the historical society says.

Julius, who later in the war accepted a commission with the 38th Massachusetts, was a captain when he was mortally wounded on April 23, 1864, in a skirmish at Cane River, La.

A regimental history says Lathrop "has rode in an ambulance the day previous, unable to march; but upon the approach of an engagement, had taken command of his company, and was leading his men when he received the fatal shot." He died a few days later.

John Lathrop
John Lathrop served as a captain in the 35th Massachusetts, took part in several battles, including Antietam and South Mountain. He left service in November 1863 because of disability resulting from malarial fever. He became a lawyer and associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. He died in 1910.

Joseph Lathrop, who served in the 43rd Massachusetts Infantry and the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry before capture late in the war, also survived. He wrote only one of the letters in the book.

Michael B. Chesson, editor of “The Journal of a Civil War Surgeon (2003),” wrote an Amazon review praising the book and the range of subjects in the letters, from Army life to skulkers and the home front.

Chesson wrote: “Some of the letters describe close combat as raw and immediate as a scene from the movie version of 'Cold Mountain.' The letters span the full range of human emotions, expressed in the characteristic reserve of old time New Englanders.

A recording of Julius’ letter is on the Dedham Historical Society & Museum website. Five other recordings are being uploaded weekly. The letters were donated to the society in 1928. Volunteers began transcribing them about three years ago, according to the Dedham Patch.

The book includes photographs of the brothers and images of battlefield maps drawn by John and Julius in their letters. The volume, put out by Damianos Publishing, sells for $25 through Amazon and the publisher.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

As workers stabilize tabby building that survived burning of Darien, a scene in the movie 'Glory,' another team finds a Civil War bullet

A view of the archaeological project (Courtesy of Marion Savic)
[Updated Nov. 30]  -- Crews have worked for months to stabilize the Adam Strain building in Darien, Ga. They shored up the walls and installed steel supports, tie rods and plates – all aimed at strengthening the picturesque structure that survived the port town’s burning during the Civil War.

While most of the attention has been focused on the fragile tabby structure, Milan and Marion Savic -- who bought the Adam Strain and plan to host businesses and a museum after it is restored – recently brought in an archaeological team to see what’s under the building and buried on the bluff just behind.

Among the items found was a Civil War-era bullet -- likely an Enfield round. The team found it on a bluff that overlooks water, Marion Savic told the Picket.

The so-called Pritchett bullet was used in the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle. The Enfield was used by both sides during the conflict, and the Confederacy imported thousands from England.

Civil War bullet found during archaeological dig (Courtesy of Marion Savic)
It’s too early, of course, to surmise how the bullet came to be there, when it was deposited and to whom it belonged. 

The Adam Strain was used to store cotton prior to shipment in 1861 and 1862 before the Union naval blockade clamped down on Georgia’s coast. Darien was destroyed in 1863 by black troops, under orders from an anti-slavery white officer. The incident was recounted in the 1989 movie “Glory.” The Strain survived the fire.

The Picket first wrote in April about efforts to save the circa 1813 building after decades of deterioration. At one point in a long campaign to save the Strain, it appeared the beloved piece of history might be demolished. Made of oyster shell tabby and stucco, the oldest structure in Darien is beloved by its 2,000 residents.

Support system used during stabilization (Marion Savic)
Savic said she hopes to soon get an inventory on what was recovered during the dig; she was uncertain whether there were other Civil War-related artifacts. The archaeology was led by Dr. Nicholas Honerkamp, who has done extensive research on coastal Georgia.

"The bullet was found at the bottom of a trench that we excavated in the lower bluff, next to the road. I recall that it was identified by Dr. Carolyn Rock, who is on the crew," Honerkamp wrote in an email to the Picket. "Precious little was present in that feature, which was filled with bricks, brick bats, and tabby plaster fragments."

The crew was working near a tabby foundation of some sort. The material could have been the result of a wall or roof collapse, "which seems to be extensive at (the) Strain," the archaeologist said.

"I did see some burned plastic near the bottom. We were working in mud most of the time, and artifact IDs will be considerably enhanced when we finish cleaning the assemblages in the lab."

On a Facebook page devoted to the project on Broad Street in historic Darien, Savic wrote:

“It was an exciting two weeks and all the cool finds will go to the lab at Coastal Georgia Historical Society for further examination and cleaning. The oldest find is the Native American prehistoric pottery, likely 3000+ years old. The report and artifacts will be on display in the museum planned for the second floor of the Adam Strain.”

The Savics have big plans for the Adam Strain: a nano brewery that will serve house-brewed and other local beer, local non-alcoholic beverages and light snacks.
There will be retail space on the first floor; the second floor will feature a museum and event space.

The museum will include artifacts and information from the dig. It  will convey the Strain’s and Darien’s history -- including shrimping, timber and the story of thousands of enslaved people who were the backbone of the economy in McIntosh and neighboring counties.

The Facebook page has chronicled the journey, with locals and others interested in the project posting comments and questions.

One find during the work was the discovery of Savannah grey bricks behind the walls of a one-story building that adjoins the Strain. It had been used as a bank and law offices following the Civil War.

Savannah grey bricks (Courtesy of Marion Savic)
“These bricks date to the early 1800s and were handmade by slaves at the Hermitage plantation, once located on the Savannah River west of the city. The grey clay was rare and not suited for crops but turned out to be ideal for making bricks,” the post says.

The Savics, who have experience in operating retail businesses in metro Atlanta, have turned to an array of contracted expertise to bring back a building that was at risk of being toppled by strong winds.

The stabilization phase is nearly complete. Besides the supports, tie rods and plates, crews removed the heavy slate roof, relieving stress on the building. Interior wood framing has been erected throughout the building.

(Courtesy of Marion Savic)
“We will soon begin an interim period when the steel supports will be jacked to push against and reverse some of the deflection in the walls,” Marion Savic wrote in an email. “The installed supports and tie rods will hopefully hold the building together as this occurs. We will also be repairing the roof joists and rafters and setting those back in place.”

Restoration will begin after the building is secure and fully supported. The Strain, which was burned in the 1863 fire, was repaired and saw a rebirth for several decades before it was used for storage following World War II and then shuttered. 

The building interior will have the appearance of its immediate post-Civil War days. Crews will recover the tabby with smooth, white stucco.

“The end goal is to have a fully restored tabby building honoring its history. It will look like it did in the 1800s,” Savic wrote.

The Adam Strain before work began this year.

Friday, November 20, 2020

John H. Simpson, teen survivor of Sultana explosion, kept the memory alive to his dying day. A monument to men on the vessel is near his grave in Knoxville church cemetery

John H. Simpson (photos courtesy of Gene Salecker)

In both photographs – taken about 60 years apart – John Harrison Simpson’s gaze is steadfast, projecting confidence and resolve.

The image taken after the Tennessee boy joined the Union army at age 15 or 16 shows him gripping a revolver -- perhaps a photographer’s prop – that is wider than his torso. He wants the viewer to know he is ready for the battle.

In the later photograph, Simpson’s face is framed by a full white beard. He has led a long life, but this time he is displaying something else – a postwar Grand Army of the Republic badge affixed to his coat lapel. He is proud of having served the United States.

The intervening years in many ways defined Simpson, who was captured in battle, spent several months in a prison camp in Alabama and then survived the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history, the explosion and sinking of the Sultana at war’s end in April 1865. The vessel was carrying released prisoners back to their homes in the North at war's end.

Memorial sits atop hill at Knoxville area cemetery (Picket photos)

Upon returning to the Knoxville area, Simpson became a businessman and farmer. But his real passion was ensuring those who died or survived the Sultana disaster would be remembered – a tall task since the tragedy was largely overlooked because it occurred shortly after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Simpson helped form the local chapter of the Union veterans group the Grand Army of the Republic and by the late 1880s, according to the Knoxville History Project, was convening meetings of Sultana survivors. These veterans and others around the country lobbied long and hard for a monument in Washington or one in Memphis, Tenn., near the site of the disaster, but those never came to be.

The East Tennessee chapter, however, was particularly ambitious. On July 4, 1916 -- having given up on the federal government to come through -- members dedicated a striking Sultana memorial on a hilltop cemetery belonging to Mount Olive Baptist Church, where Simpson was a member.

(Courtesy Gene Salecker)

A 2015 article by the Knoxville History Project gave this description of the ceremony:

“Dozens assembled there … old men in then-unstylish beards and hats, but also with children, perhaps grandchildren or even great-grandchildren, with flags flying, to unveil their monument, Knoxville’s last new monument to be witnessed by actual Civil War veterans -- just as their nation tried to stay out of another war.”

The Picket has written much about the Sultana over the years, but last month brought the first opportunity to see the memorial in person.

I wanted to learn more about how it came to be, and I began researching Simpson’s story. Here’s what I have learned.

He was raring to fight in mid-teens

In 1863, the younger Simpson and his father Green enlisted in the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry (Federal), Company I. While there were divided loyalties, East Tennessee was largely pro-Union and towns across the region sent thousands to join the cause. The boy likely lied about his age so that he could join up.

Knoxstalgia blogger Mark Knox years ago wrote a couple posts about his second great-grandfather.

“I suppose no one will ever know if Green’s enlistment resulted from inspiration at John’s courageous act of patriotism, or if he simply joined to be able to keep a watchful eye on his obviously headstrong son,” he wrote.

Hundreds of names are etched on memorial (Picket photo)

The 3rd Tennessee eventually was assigned to help guard a supply rail line in northern Alabama in September 1864. Troops under Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest surrounded the Federal works at Sulphur Creek Trestle and the commander was forced to surrender. Among the 1,000 or so men taken prisoner were hundreds with the 3rd Tennessee, who had been sent to reinforce the garrison.

Knox wrote that his great uncle gave an account of what happened to John during the fighting.

“My grandfather often spoke of the tense moments spent waiting for the Confederate attack, and then suddenly hearing the awful ‘rebel yell’ and seeing the Confederate troops come charging in on their position with their sabers clashing,” the great uncle wrote. “Before he had time to react, he was overrun by one of the charging horsemen. The horse stepped down and smashed his thigh and side. He was soon after captured and removed to the Cahaba prison for Union soldiers. When I was a boy, my grandfather still bore the terrible scars on his side and leg from this occasion.”

The view toward cemetery entrance (Civil War Picket photo)

Headed home after prison ordeal in Alabama

While not as well-known as Andersonville prison camp in Georgia, Cahaba held thousands of men during it two phases of operation. It was closed for a time, and its prisoners were sent to Andersonville. The Alabama camp near Selma reopened for the final six months of the conflict.

“As Confederate-run prisoner-of-war camps go, Castle Morgan was not considered one of the hellish ones, that is, if you could suffer the central Alabama heat,” says the Knoxville History Project. “Its death rate was relatively low. Perhaps the worst they had to deal with was another flood, that February.”

The 3rd Tennessee Cavalry POWs were part of a large prisoner exchange in March 1865, only a few week before the war’s end. They had to travel to Columbus, Ohio, to muster out of service. They were sent from Cahaba westward to Vicksburg, Ms., where they would travel by boat to Ohio.

Harpers Weekly illustration of the disaster
Thousands of gaunt former prisoners from Andersonville and Cahaba, exhausted by their ordeal, were jammed onto the Sultana steamboat. Simpson, then 17, was believed to be sleeping on the third deck when the disaster occurred just north of Memphis, near Marion, Ark.

The overcrowded vessel exploded and caught fire on April 27, 1865, killing nearly 1,200 passengers and crew. Local residents, including freed slaves, helped the passengers, who found themselves swimming for shore, or thrashing about in the chilly Mississippi River, About 750 people were rescued, with 31 dying from horrible wounds or exposure. Bodies were recovered over the next several months.

According to Knoxstalgia, John Simpson ended up in Nashville, where he mustered out on June 10. His father left the cavalry a short time later. (I attempted to contact Mark Knox for this blog post, but have thus far been unable to reach him.)

They wouldn't give up on monument

The Sultana Survivors’ Association was formed about two decades later. National meetings were held in Toledo, Ohio. Many survivors were from the Buckeye State, but those in the South eventually decided to mostly gather in Knoxville, meaning there would be two main survivors groups – one in Ohio, the other in Tennessee.

1920 Knoxville reunion; Pleasant Keeble at far left, John H. Simpson
second from right (Knox County Public Library, McClung Historical Collection)

The survivors wanted a special pension and a national monument to be erected, but Congress never authorized the money, for a variety of reasons.

So the Knoxville chapter raised money to have one built in Tennessee, procuring native marble. Simpson was listed as the promoter.

“The dwindling number of gray-haired survivors -- by then, all were all pushing 70, or beyond --got together and, without waiting for government help, established a permanent memorial,” according to the Knoxville History Project. “Simpson was a member of Mount Olive Baptist Church. He picked that church’s hilltop cemetery as the site, and it was his prerogative. But it was a pretty good place anyway, a pretty, quiet spot barely within view of an important road, Maryville Pike.”

The pink marble memorial bears the names of 365 Tennesseans who were on the Sultana. Most, like Simpson, served in the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry. The centerpiece is a bas-relief of the Sultana, smoke pouring from its smokestacks and the American flag fluttering.

Patriotic dedication in July 4, 1916 (courtesy of Gene Salecker)

Gene Salecker, who is a board member of the Sultana Disaster Museum in Marion and a longtime Sultana historian and author, provided the Picket an article he wrote about the Knoxville monument, including details of dedication day.

“Present among the hundred or so people that attended the unveiling of the monument, were members of the GAR, the Daughters of America, four survivors from the Knoxville area, including “Colonel” Simpson, and a representative from the northern Sultana Survivors’ Association who gave a short speech on behalf of the aging survivors from the North who could not attend. The beautiful monument was christened by Rev. W. L. Singleton, pastor of Mt. Olive Baptist Church.”

Visitors to the memorial today will notice a column jutting from the top. It wasn’t there in 1916.

“I have been able to reach up and feel the top of the column or shaft,” Salecker told the Picket. “There is no hole -- nothing to put flowers in or put a flag pole in. We believe that it may have been put on the monument to make it look like a steamboat smokestack.”

Descendants ensure the story lives on

The Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends, which was organized in 1988, held most of first 14 annual reunions at Mount Olive Baptist Church, says founder Norman Shaw. A ceremony of some kind always took place at the memorial.

Bob Warner, son of survivor Pvt. William
Warner, at monument in 1997 (G. Salecker)

The group had the aging monument sandblasted about 20 years ago and it has been cleaned since, said Shaw, who is not a descendant.

John H. Simpson, as president of the Southern contingent of survivors, was active in affairs pertaining to the Sultana for the rest of his life. The group met at various locations and by 1921 there were just 14 Tennessee survivors.

The Knoxville History Project says Simpson and Pleasant M. Keeble, residents of Knoxville’s Vestal neighborhood, were the last two Tennessee survivors. (Keeble often served as scribe for the group.)

“The two who lived closest to their monument were the last to see it. Simpson, with the kind face and flowing white beard, died first (in 1929 at age 82). Pleasant Keeble, who wore an old-fashioned walrus mustache and still had some dark in his hair, seemed made of iron cable. He decided no further reunions need occur, that the tradition would die with him.”

(Courtesy of Kendra Kirk)

The last survivors' meeting in his city was held in April 1930, with only Keeble, 84, in attendance. The former private of Company H, 3rd Tennessee Calvary, died the following year.

His comrade, John H. Simpson, is buried at Mount Olive Cemetery, not far from the beloved Sultana monument. Next to him is his wife, Margaret Flenniken Simpson, who died just two weeks after her husband’s passing.

Pastor Kirby Ownby of Mount Olive Baptist says he is unaware of any Sultana descendants currently in the congregation.

The church does keep a  history written in 2004. "They Are Not Dead But Sleepeth: The Interments of the NM Cemetery at Mt. Olive" has details of many annual reunions. Simpson was active in all of them, and he would make appearances about the Sultana until his death. A 1901 Knoxville Sentinel article about that year's meeting noted, "the event has proven a success and one of general enjoyment to the survivors and their families there assembled to pay homage to their bravery and perseverance in the Civil War."

Kendra Kirk, a trustee with the church's cemetery committee, said they get inquiries from those curious about the memorial and will provide information. The marble was recently sandblasted, she said.

(Courtesy of Gene Salecker)

(This post was updated to correct the number of those rescued and who died later)

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Learn more about those who served in USCT during the Civil War

A free virtual presentation about Kansans who served in the US Colored Troops will be given at 3 p.m. CT Sunday, Nov. 22, by historian Wendi Bevitt. -- Details

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Raising the roof: Gettysburg National Military Park nears completion of exterior work on Warfield house; the interior comes next

Finished mortar tuckpointing is on the left wall (NPS photo)
The painstaking restoration of the James and Eliza Warfield farmhouse at Gettysburg National Military Park to its July 1863 appearance is nearing the one-year mark. In recent months, crews installed a cedar shingle roof, put in historic window openings and daubed mortar on exterior masonry walls.

James Warfield, one of many free African-Americans in Adams County, and his family fled as Confederates neared Gettysburg. They were afraid they could be sent south and enslaved. The blacksmith’s home overlooked much of the July 2-3, 1863, battlefield, including the Peach Orchard, and was in the thick of action.

The park acquired the property in the 1970s. By then, it had been modernized and heightened for postwar occupants, losing much of its character and historic footprint.

Work has included the removal of postwar additions, including aluminum siding and side buildings. The home’s height has essentially been chopped in half to its original 1.5 floors, while retaining the original stone walls.

Warfield property before modern additions were removed (NPS)
Jason Martz, a spokesman for the park, recently caught the Picket up on the National Park Service project. He summarized work done in recent months:

-- Non-historic additions to the house were removed

-- A new timber frame roof was constructed and covered with cedar shingles

-- Historic window openings were reestablished and fitted with period correct sashes

-- Unstable masonry walls were repaired and reinforced

-- House foundation was stabilized and waterproofed

-- Exterior masonry walls were tuckpointed using a mortar matching the color and texture of the historic mortar

“The final exterior wall (west wall) to be tuckpointed … is being worked on now,” Martz wrote in an email. “The interior walls in the second floor (half-story) still need final repairs. This will be done once the final exterior wall work is done.

Drawing shows what the house may have looked like during the battle (NPS)

“Once those two steps are complete, the windows will go in and the exterior will be ready for winter. At that point, the interior work can begin. However, no timeline has been established on when or what exactly will be done with the interior. The overall emphasis has been getting the exterior sealed up and made weather-tight for the winter months. 

Martz has said the home, once restoration wraps up, will help the park better tell the story of Gettysburg’s African American community. Warfield had operated two hearths on his 13 acres and “ran one of the best blacksmith stands in the county,” according to the book “African Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign.”

Staffers at Gettysburg National Military Park are chronicling the effort through an online page featuring video, photos and an overview of the project.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Gordon Watts has dived many historic shipwrecks. Here's what the archaeologist wants you to know about the CSS Georgia recovery

Possible configuration of ironclad, drawn from research over the years (USACE/Savannah

Post-Civil War salvage operations, dredging damage in more recent times and a dearth of historical records make it impossible to come up with firm conclusions on many aspects of the CSS Georgia, a floating battery that defended the entrance to Savannah’s port during the Civil War.

Archaeologists and historians pored over data that resulted from 2015 and 2017 recovery operations in the Savannah River, and from earlier dives. While they learned much about the underpowered ironclad, a report they issued earlier this year says the derisively nicknamed “Mud Tub” will continue to hold mysteries because some vital parts are missing or so disarticulated that it is impossible to come up with a complete picture of the vessel’s design and operation.

There are, however, some critical findings.

“The most specific information concerns the dimensions and construction details of the armored casemate with evidence indicating it was approximately 120 feet long by 44 feet wide,” Panamerican Consultants wrote in a report to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Three pieces of casemate were lifted during the recovery and they were studied extensively. (Other portions of the armor were in a tangle on the river bed or had been salvaged in the two decades after the war. The armored roof likely was salvaged, experts say.)

Propeller during 2015 recovery (Department of Defense)

Researchers also were stymied by the disappearance of the lower hull and the loss of much of the original machinery. The two steam cylinders, one of two propellers and other engine parts were found and have been or are being conserved by Texas A&M's Conservation Research Laboratory.

The builders and supporters of the locally built ironclad had hoped it was would be able to tangle with Union vessels should the need arise. But early trials proved the CSS Georgia couldn’t generate enough power to deal with swift currents and tides. Instead, it served as a floating battery off Fort Jackson, anchored at an angle to deliver firepower downstream. It never fired a shot in anger and was scuttled by its crew as Union forces rushed to Savannah in late 1864.

The report includes this wry passage:

“The engines did, however, serve a functional purpose, as one writer in 1862 stated, ‘Our iron floating battery is a splendid failure. She has been taken down between the forts and they are obliged to keep her engines at work the whole time to prevent her sinking, she leaks so badly’ (Swanson and Holcombe 2003:75). It is thought that the vessel’s leaking was most likely a result of building her with unseasoned wood, a common practice in Confederate vessel construction.”

Railroad iron (bottom row) used as armor in casemate (Picket photo)

The massive report provides an inventory of recovered artifacts and states that archaeologists garnered insight that does help with understanding of the CSS Georgia.

The conclusion lays out the challenge.

“Although the CSS Georgia played a critical role in the Confederate defenses of Savannah, historical documentation associated with the ship is marginal at best. Design, engineering, and construction data are virtually nonexistent. Life aboard the ‘floating battery’ was apparently so mundane that most surviving correspondence from those aboard ship relates to dispersions associated with the vessel’s speed and handling or the miserable living conditions within the casemate and hull. Many questions associated with the design, construction, and operation of the Georgia may never be answered.”

Over the years, the Picket has corresponded with underwater archaeologist Gordon P. Watts Jr. about the project. We spent some time with him in summer 2017 at the recovery site. He has been involved in dozens of shipwreck investigations, including the USS Monitor.

Watts, who has worked on the CSS Georgia site over several decades, recently answered some questions from the Picket. He was a co-author of the final report on the project. His answers have been edited for brevity:

Gordon Watts in 2017 during CSS Georgia recovery (Picket photo)

Q. What do you think should be the public’s chief takeaways on your findings regarding the CSS Georgia?

A. The design and construction CSS Georgia has always been a mystery due to the lack of historical documentation. While the CSS Georgia site was a salvage site and not a wreck (site), our investigation generated considerable information about the design and construction of the casemate and the steam machinery.  In addition, the investigation produced an extensive and valuable collection of artifacts associated with CSS Georgia's ordnance and life aboard the "Mud Tub.” Our report is the most comprehensive documentation of any archaeological record of vessel structure and life aboard a Confederate ironclad to date. While no museums have apparently expressed serious interest in exhibiting structural material or artifacts recovered from the site, a massive collection has been conserved and is being stored so public exhibit options will be available in the future.

Q. There has always been a lot of mystery about the CSS Georgia: Its length, weight, propulsion system, design, etc.  Were you able to make firm conclusions on any of those?

A. Due to the fact that the site reflected the evidence of salvage activity and not a wreck, firm conclusions about the CSS Georgia's design and construction were limited. However, information about the casemate, the only structural evidence at the site, and recovered elements of the steam machinery permitted the casemate to be reliably computer reconstructed. Based on the configuration of the casemate and recovered steam machinery, several possible hull design concepts were identified and computer-reconstructed. 

Q. The report says the ironclad had two engines and two propellers. Besides the vessel, being underpowered, do you know enough yet to determine the efficacy of the propulsion system? Were there any surprises, or signs of ingenuity? 

A. Due to funding limitations and scheduling for analysis and reporting, no comprehensive assessment of the machinery efficiency, or lack thereof, has been carried out to date.  Elements of the steam machinery, engine cylinders, frames, flywheel, a propeller and shaft and other parts provided the most comprehensive evidence of why CSS Georgia was, as historical sources confirm, seriously underpowered.

Q. Your report describes the Georgia as being unique. In what way?

Casemate was out of water briefly in 2017 (Picket photo)

A. Unique in the fact that CSS Georgia was an ironclad "floating battery" and never really functioned as a warship like other Confederate ironclads.

Q. It appears from the introduction and conclusion that the profusion of the artifacts is among the most important things about the project. The report says their discovery filled in some knowledge gaps. How so?

A. Recovered machinery filled in one of the largest gaps in knowledge about CSS Georgia.  Evidence of small arms confirmed much about the weapons, personal and military, that were in use aboard the battery. Buttons provided insight into uniforms and clothing. Tools provided insight into the operation, maintenance and repairs requiring the attention of engineers and mechanics.

Q. You have been on many wrecks. What stands out about the CSS Georgia, when it comes to the nature of its artifacts?

A. Artifacts from the CSS Georgia site reflect activities associated with the priorities of a salvage operation likely terminated prematurely.

Q.  Are there any artifacts still being conserved or analyzed that could substantially add to the vessel’s story or to add principal questions?

A. Conservation is still ongoing in the facility at TAMU. Many elements of the steam machinery remain to be cleaned, conserved and documented. Those artifacts will likely continue to enhance our knowledge of the battery and its operation.

Watts' drawings of railroad iron used for armor (Picket photo)

Q. The report says the Georgia likely had a flat barge hull. Was that surprising?

A. We are not at all sure about the configuration of the hull. A barge configuration would have been the simplest to construct and would have certainly contributed to her poor performance as a vessel. However, we have no physical evidence to confirm historical suggestions to the nature of the hull design. It is possible that wreck remains near the South Carolina shore could be associated with CSS Georgia. To date, no archaeological diver investigation of the structure at that site have been undertaken.

Q. Anything else to add about the project? Are there remaining mysteries?

A. Archaeological investigation can resolve questions. However, it is frequently the case that archaeological investigation is just as likely to identify many questions previously not even considered. With the "Mud Tub," I suspect that there will always be unsolved mysteries. Our investigation certainly confirmed both to be the case.