Sunday, March 29, 2020

Pea Ridge National Military Park will expand with 140-acre historic farm that was site of troop movements, near field hospital

Williams Hollow Farm and bordering stream (Copyright The Conservation Fund)

A 140-acre parcel that was the scene of Confederate troop movements and a hospital during the March 1862 Battle of Pea Ridge in northwest Arkansas has been bought by a coalition of conservation and historical groups, with plans to donate it to the National Park Service.

The Williams Hollow Farm is surrounded on three sides by Pea Ridge National Military Park; the acquisition in effect fills in a missing puzzle piece.

The Conservation Fund and the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust earlier this month announced the purchase. Spokeswoman Ann Simonelli with The Conservation Fund told the Picket the seller is an extended family that has owned the property since the time of the battle.

Maj. Gen. Price
“There is nothing on the land at the moment. It is currently made up of forest and degraded field. The park service aims to eventually do restoration of the field to manage it as vegetation from the 1862 time period,” Simonelli said.

While the groups did not disclose the purchase amount, it is believed to be in the hundreds of thousands. The Pea Ridge National Military Park Foundation is helping with fund-raising to cover the purchase and eventual donation of the property to the federal government.

Among those efforts is NWA (Norwest Arkansas) Gives on April 2.

The March 6-9, 1862, Battle of Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern) has been called by some historians “the Gettysburg of the West.” Forces under Union Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis defeated the men of Confederate Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, whose leadership has been faulted by historians. The Union won control of Missouri and weakened the Confederate hold in Arkansas.

“It is no exaggeration to say that the Pea Ridge campaign permanently altered the balance of power in the Trans-Mississippi. Few Civil War operations had such an impact on the course of events,” according to the National Park Service.

Kurz & Allison's fanciful depiction of battle (Library of Congress)
Jami Lockhart with the Arkansas Archeological Survey performed research on the Williams Hollow Farm and surrounding areas that played a part in the battle.

Confederate and Federal units clashed at Cross Timber Hollow and the Tanyard area north of Elkhorn Tavern. Rebel troops likely traversed the ground comprising the purchased property. Missouri State Guard troops under Maj. General Sterling Price emerged from Williams Hollow on March 7 as part of a drive on the Union right flank, according to histories.

The coalition cited other historical aspects of the area.

Lockhart wrote: “The historic Telegraph Road approaches to within 150 feet of the conservation property, and runs roughly parallel with the property along the entirety of its eastern boundary. Telegraph Road (also known as Old Wire Road) is integral to the history of the region. This road formed a portion of the route associated with the forced relocation of thousands of Native Americans, and is commonly known as the Trail of Tears. It was the route of the Butterfield Overland Mail and Stage line serving the area between St. Louis and San Francisco during the period 1858 to 1861. Telegraph Road was also the primary transportation artery in the area during the Civil War. Telegraph Road is especially well-known for its central role in the Battle of Pea Ridge.”

Sunset at Pea Ridge National Military Park (NPS)
During the night of March 7 into March 8, 1862, both armies concentrated forces on Telegraph Road. A powerful Union bombardment and assault on March 8 put Confederates into a retreat.

It’s not just the Civil War aspect of Williams Hollow Farm that is important, the groups said in their announcement.

“Once protected, the Williams Hollow Farm will secure the view shed of the Pea Ridge National Military Park and conserve mature forest habitat for migratory songbirds and rare bats, including the threatened northern long-eared bat. Keeping the property undeveloped will also help provide water quality protection of Sugar Creek within the Elk River watershed.”

Pea Ridge National Military Park Superintendent Kevin Eads told the Picket the acquisition would help protect and preserve cultural and natural resources. 

Jackie Crabtree, mayor of the town of Pea Ridge and head of the Pea Ridge National Military Park Foundation, said during the time of fundraising the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust will work with the park staff to keep the property maintained. The tract currently has a large open field surrounded by timber.

Rock formations at Williams Hollow Farm (Copyright The Conservation Fund)
Crabtree said the purchase was a rare opportunity to protect such property during a time of rapid growth in the region.

Needless to say, the Civil War is an important part of the town’s background and tourism.

“There are several families still in the area that were here during the battle,” Crabtree told the Picket. “The thing that makes Pea Ridge unique however is the naming of our streets. North/South streets are named for Union soldiers who fought in the battle. East/West streets are named for Confederate soldiers. This is set in city ordinance for developers.”

Thursday, March 26, 2020

CSS Georgia: As artifact conservation continues, public will soon be able to read detailed report on this unique Savannah ironclad

Valve assembly has dozens of parts (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Historians and archaeologists don’t know whether the builders of the CSS Georgia, an ironclad that guarded the Savannah River in the city of same name, worked from blueprints. None have been found in the years since the Civil War.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no way to describe the Confederate vessel’s propulsion, the angle and construction of protective casemate or to estimate the vessel’s width and length.

Dahlgren recovered in Sept. 2015 (USACE)
Between 2013 and 2017, machinery and divers working at the CSS Georgia’s resting place a few miles from downtown Savannah recovered thousands of artifacts. The project was necessary before a major harbor deepening project began: The boat’s remains lie in the main shipping channel.

An upcoming report from the Savannah office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will provide a general analysis about the artifacts and an overview of the project. The finds included nearly a half dozen cannon, a propeller and large pieces of the casemate, fashioned from – of all things – interlocking sections of railroad iron.

Officials believe the artifacts will answer a lot of questions about the vessel.

Divers, working in visibility that one likened to chocolate pudding, slipped beneath the surface of the Savannah River and down to the disarticulated remains of the vessel that was scuttled by its crew in December 1864 when the Yankees arrived at the seaport’s front door.

The Corps recovered a significant portion of the CSS Georgia, which served as what’s called a floating battery. In the years since, items large and small have been cleaned at Texas A&M University's Conservation Research Laboratory. (The lab's operations have been affected by the recent coronavirus pandemic.)

“Conservation continues,” says Julie Morgan, district archaeologist for the Corps. “The conservation process is slowing down considerably as the artifacts that are now in conservation are more complex -- they have more individual components and are comprised of multiple metals -- so the number of artifacts finishing completion is slowing.”

Morgan and experts brought in for the project have been especially fascinated by the ironclad’s propulsion system and engines. It’s known the one-off CSS Georgia – built not far from where it sank -- was underpowered.

Locals derisively called it the “Mud Tub” because it was unable to leave the city and attack Federal ships that had bottled up Savannah’s river entrance. But they may have gotten something better. The CSS Georgia became a strong element of extensive water defenses. It never fired upon the enemy, because the enemy decided to probe vulnerabilities elsewhere.

Julie Morgan has researched the CSS Georgia for years (USACE)
Morgan provided two examples to the Picket of the complexity of some items.

The Conservation Research Laboratory had to separate seven sections of a valve assembly. They removed rubber gaskets and about 52 nuts and bolts.

And two engine cylinders, each about 48 inches long, must be carefully moved with a forklift. And conservators must precisely cut to reach the cylinders’ interior.

It’s important to note the wreck site of the CSS Georgia was not undisturbed. 

Dredging hits and scars, along with salvage attempts not long after the Civil War, made the site a jumble of rotting wood, chunks of casemate and loose rail and machinery.

Still, the trove of artifacts, have an important story to tell of innovation when builders had access to less-than-ideal armor and technology.

The CSS Georgia belongs to the U.S. Navy, under the auspices of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Carefully packed shipment or ordnance (USACE)
“To date, the conservation lab has made two shipments of artifacts to the Naval History and Heritage Command,” said Morgan. “Packing the artifacts is very time consuming as everything must be wrapped and packed in archival quality materials.”

The items are being stored at the Washington Navy Yard, where officials are cataloging and storing them in hopes that a museum will eventually come forward with a plan to exhibit the artifacts and tell the CSS Georgia’s story.

The public will have an opportunity to read all about it in Morgan’s report.

The Corps is currently reviewing the revised draft and the final version will be printed in late April,” she said. “Once that document has been accepted by the government it will be made available to the public through the district’s website.”

Monday, March 16, 2020

Curved timber found decades ago on North Carolina beach may have belonged to a Civil War blockade runner

(NC Office of State Archaeology)
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. 

Eventually, the finder tired of keeping it at home. A friend on Friday donated the “old piece of wood” -- which may have an exciting past -- to the state. 

Experts are speculating it may have been used to fashion the hull of a Civil War blockade runner. There is no way to know for sure; it's possible the timber dates to the 20th century.

Assistant state archaeologist Stephen Atkinson, who wrote about the donation in a Facebook post, tells the Picket the timber could be from a small coastal fishing and trading schooner. Such vessels were used to run the Union blockade on Southern ports.

Swift blockade runners carried a mix of war materiel and goods to the port in exchange for exported cotton and other items.

The ships carried items to and from Europe, largely via the Bahamas and Bermuda.

Enterprising owners took the risk of running the gauntlet of U.S. Navy ships trying to keep them away from vital ports, including Wilmington, which is about 15 miles north of Kure Beach. But most of the runs succeeded and it was a lucrative business.

Wilmington was ideally situated for blockade-running. Located 28 miles up the Cape Fear River, it was free from enemy bombardment as long as the forts at the mouth of the river remained in Confederate hands.

In his post, first reported by the Charlotte Observer, Atkinson detailed an initial analysis of the timber.

(NC Office of State Archaeology)
“While it may seem like just an old piece of wood, these frames can be a wealth of information by assessing a few key features. Its width, length, and curvature suggest that we have nearly the whole profile of the vessel, and the transverse holes near its base indicate where it had been fastened to a floor timber…

“The sporadic and numerous trunnel holes show that the vessel may have been planked and replanked numerous times, suggesting a long working life. Finally, the wild and tight grain appears to be live oak, which lends to the resiliency of the timber throughout time, regardless of the huge knot in it, and also could indicate local construction. All of this fits the bill of a coastal trading schooner, used in North Carolina for a lengthy span of time for activities from fishing to running blockades in the Civil War.”

(NC Office of State Archaeology)
Assistant state archaeologist Nathan Henry told the Picket such schooners were called “corn crackers” and were used to haul farm produce to Wilmington.

“During the Civil War, small schooners were occasionally used for coasting voyages to the Bahamas to acquire salt for sale in the blockaded states," Henry said. "There are numerous accounts in the ORN of schooners being caught, or nearly caught in route by the blockaders. Invariably when the Navy visited the smaller towns adjacent the inlets, small schooners were discovered.”  (ORN is an abbreviation for "Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion.")

Interestingly, few blockade runners were owned by Southern entrepreneurs.

The trade “was monopolized by English and Scottish merchants who had ships and capital to invest in this hazardous but lucrative trade,” according to “British firms dispatched both luxury items and war matériel to the West Indies in regular merchant ships for transfer to blockade-runners, which would arrive in port loaded with cotton.”

In mid-1863, the Confederacy ordered captains to carry 50 percent in war goods, such as uniforms, rifles, artillery and munitions.

The Cape Fear Shipwreck District contains the remains of 21 Civil War-era ships, 15 of which were steam-powered blockade runners, according to the state. Among the wrecks is the Agnes E. Fry, site of dives and research in recent years.

Wreck of the Agnes E. Fry (NCDNCR)
The other five wrecks are four Union military vessels and one Confederate ship.

Nowhere in the world is there a comparable concentration of vessel remains,” says the Office of State Archaeology.

(NC Office of State Archaeology)
“The majority of the blockade runners were lost when they were stranded along the beach or on inlet shoals and sank in shallow waters. Upon wrecking, a vessel became the focus of furious attempts to save it and its cargo,” according to the Office of State Archaeology.

“The Federals had the decided advantage in efforts to recover the total vessel since they could approach from the sea with tugboats. The Confederates concentrated on a wreck's cargo, which was not only more important to their specific needs but could be unloaded with ease onto the beaches which they controlled.”

Officials say the remains of these vessels help tell the story of the transition from sail to steam and from wood to iron.

(January 2021I asked Stephen Atkinson, assistant state archaeologist, for an update. His reply: “Seeing as the timber was/is in stable condition and an isolated/out-of-context donation, no further research is being pursued at this time as our office has since shifted to other emerging finds and donations.”)

Saturday, March 7, 2020

No meow in the mix: USS Monitor conservators don't find bones of black cat inside two massive turret guns

The last moments of the USS Monitor
A USS Monitor legend apparently has used up its nine lives: No remains of a spooky black cat were found during recent work on the turret’s two big guns.

Francis “Frank” B. Butts, a crew member who survived the famed Union ironclad’s sinking during a Dec. 31, 1862, storm wrote years later that he stuffed his coat and jacket into one of two XI-inch Dahlgren guns as he frantically bailed water from the turret.

Butts said he had a terrified furry companion.

“A black cat was sitting on the breech of one of the guns, howling one of those hoarse and solemn tunes which no one can appreciate who is not filled with the superstitions which I had been taught by the sailors, who are always afraid to kill a cat. I would almost as soon have touched a ghost, but I caught her, and placing her in another gun, replaced the wad and tampion; but I could still hear that distressing yowl.”

Butts, 18, made his frantic escape before the Monitor went beneath the waves. Sixteen of his mates perished.

Over the past two weeks, USS Monitor conservators at The Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Va., removed the last concretion from inside the barrels of the smoothbore guns. They used a special drill to remove the hardened mix of sediment and sea life.

The first gun yielded pieces of crab, seashells and coal.

The coal fell into the turret and the artillery pieces when the Monitor came to rest on the sea floor, upside down. The fact coal was found in the barrels appears to contradict Butts’ claim that he sealed one.

Earlier this week, the conservators took on the second massive gun. Could bones of a luckless kitty be somewhere in the concretion?

The museum on Friday provided a Facebook update: “Earlier this week, our conservation team tackled the second Dahlgren gun from USS Monitor. The most interesting artifact found was a square bolt! Between the two guns, we found lots of coal and lots of seashells, and a bolt, no cat 😆

Despite an abiding interest in the legend of the mascot, the finding was hardly a surprise. Most of the barrel interiors had been searched and emptied a few years after the turret recovery – with no discovery of a cat.

"It's a great story. It's one of the things we get asked the most questions about. And I'll be jumping up and down if it turns out to be true," historian Jeff Johnston of Monitor National Marine Sanctuary told the Daily Press in 2005. "But at this point, truthfully, I kind of doubt it."

Frank Butts
Johnston said Butts “made a lot of claims that may be suspect.” In an article he wrote a few years before, Johnston said the landsman was the only crew member to ever mention the cat and that he was the only person inside the turret when he claimed to have seen it. (Butts, a native of Providence, R.I., served as an artilleryman before joining the Federal navy.  He died in September 1905.)

Since the turret was raised off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in 2002, all manner of artifacts have been found jumbled inside – a coat, personal items and cutlery, among them. The remains of two unidentified sailor discovered there were buried at Arlington National Cemetery in 2013.

Once conservation is complete, the two guns will go on display. They will help tell the story of the innovative warship that tangled with the CSS Virginia in March 1862 – the first battle between two ironclads.

David Krop, former director of the Monitor Center, told the Picket that efforts by the current team at the museum mark a “significant milestone” in the treatment of the Dahlgrens. “They never would have been fully desalinated or effectively treated for long-term stability without removal of the bore contents and concreted sediment. The conservators have continued to scale-up their treatments in recent years building upon previous experiences and successes working with smaller Monitor objects.”

So has the story of the doomed cat really hit a dead end?

(The Mariners' Museum and Park)
Laurie King, an assistant conservator, told the Washington Post that she loved the account anyway.

“Even if it turns out to not be true, I really like Butts, and the fact that he had such an imagination, and felt like, ‘Oh no one’s going to know the difference,’ ” King told The Post. “I don’t think he ever would have imagined that we could bring it up a hundred and fifty years later.”

Krop, who left as center director in September 2015, says he doesn’t believe the feline legend has been put to rest.

“Francis Butts described removing his coat and boots and placing them in one Dahlgren, then scooping up his feline friend and safely stowing it in the other Dahlgren. What did we find inside the turret many years ago? Remains of a wool coat and boots, confirming two key elements of Butts’ account,” Krop said. “Perhaps the lack of evidence of Monitor’s kitty is, in some strange way, proof of its existence; some cats are simply elusive by nature. And perhaps some legends were never meant to be tamed.”

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

University of Central Arkansas names archaeological center for Jamie Brandon, who led student excavations at Pea Ridge

Dr. Jamie Brandon
The University of Central Arkansas has established a center named for the late Dr. Jamie Chad Brandon, a professor and station archaeologist whose research included Civil War battlefields.

The Department of Sociology, Criminology, and Anthropology said this week that the Jamie C. Brandon Center for Archaeological Research will “emulate his devotion to student-based opportunities in archaeological fieldwork and research.”

Brandon, 47, died in December 2018 after a battle with cancer.

He was of invaluable assistance to the Picket in our coverage of ongoing archaeological investigations at Pea Ridge National Military Park. The Arkansas Archeological Survey has sent staffers and employees to work with the National Park Service on excavations at the site of the 1862 Civil War battle.

The university said the center will assist with funding and mentor support for student research projects, costs of travel to conferences and sponsor participation in the archaeology field school.

“Prior to his untimely passing in 2018, Dr. Brandon routinely devoted his time to conducting research within a pedagogical framework as an undergraduate and graduate mentor. He regularly provided student opportunities to do fieldwork and conduct archaeological research,” the department said.

According to his obituary, Brandon’s three decades of experience covered many topics, including Caddoan cultures in Arkansas, ethnicity and race relations. He also focused on land use through time and historical memory in the pre-industrial South.