Thursday, February 25, 2021

A lucky cannon shot killed the 'Fighting Bishop.' The officer whose battery fired it was killed by a sharpshooter days later

Rebel gun emplacements remain at memorial site (Picket photo)
He was called the “Fighting Bishop.” Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk believed fervently in the Southern cause and the almighty and was known to conduct religious services between battles. On the morning of June 14, 1864, it was, therefore, not surprising that he knelt in prayer.

The Episcopal clergyman-turned-soldier had kept his headquarters for a few days at the George Hardage home near Kennesaw, Ga.

Hardage home near Kennesaw (Picket photo)
On that morning, the 56-year-old rode with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston --commander of the Confederate army trying to defend Atlanta -- to Pine Mountain. There, the officers met up with Lt. Gen. William Hardee. They wanted to check on a division they believed may have been placed too far forward.

Capt. Simonson
It was on this ridge that Polk’s destiny would intersect with that of Capt. Peter Simonson, commander of the 5th Battery, Indiana Light Artillery, which was among the horde of Federal units below the mountain.

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman noticed the Southern generals on the ridge just 600 yards away. “How saucy they are,” he is reported to have said. The commander ordered Federal batteries to spring into action.

Simonson’s battery opened fire and after one shot went over the generals’ heads, a colonel urged them to move to the rear. Johnston and Hardee moved away, with Polk trailing.

“Two more shots came whining down in quick succession. One of these two … struck Polk in the left arm, ripped through his chest and tore his right arm before exploding against a tree,” author and historian Russell Bonds wrote in the May 2006 issue of Civil War Times. “He was blown back toward the crest of the hill, and lay with his feet toward the enemy. ‘General Polk is killed!’ the men in (Capt. Rene) Beauregard’s gun emplacement cried.”

News of Polk’s death spread quickly. The Union command intercepted wigwag messages that asked, “Why don’t you send me an ambulance for General Polk’s body?”

So it was very likely that Simonson knew that his battery could take credit, although others claimed to have fired the lucky shot. But he wouldn’t live to tell the story in old age. On June 16, Simonson, was shot and killed just a few miles away from Pine Mountain.

I recently visited the death sites for Polk (left) and Simonson in neighborhoods full of Civil War history. It was here that both sides bobbed and weaved as Sherman relentlessly marched on Atlanta. He would have a significant setback at Kennesaw Mountain two weeks after Polk died before his troops won several key battles and took Atlanta -- a huge blow to the Confederacy.

Polk’s death site features a fenced memorial erected in 1902. It is near the remnants of three Confederate gun emplacements and a couple homes. While the mountaintop had been cleared of trees at the time of the fighting, the neighborhood is now wooded. The memorial is just a short walk from Beaumont Drive. (Note: Cobb County roads are largely busy and I suggest special care when stopping to look at memorials and signs.)

A stone pillar contains some information about the general, who was extremely popular in the South but is considered by most historians to be arrogant and a mediocre general, at best.

Alfred Waud depiction of Polk's 
death (Library of Congress)
In flowery language typical of the time, the words include this passage:

“Folding his arms across his breast, He stood gazing on the scenes below, Turning himself around as if to take a farewell view. Thus standing a cannon shot from the enemy's guns crashed through his breast, and opened a wide door through which his spirit took its flight to join his comrades on the other shore.”

Interestingly, on the reverse are the words, “NORTH. Veni Vidi Vici. With 5 to 1.”

According to the American Battlefield, Polk was “loved by his men, due in large part to his geniality, commanding presence, and lax attitude towards discipline.” He felt comfortable being a warrior and a clergyman wrapped in one.

While Polk was a West Point graduate, he had no other military experience before he joined the Confederate army. In the intervening years, he had been a clergyman in Tennessee and Louisiana.

An expedition led by Polk into neutral Kentucky early in the war prompted the state to ask for Northern aid, a blow to the Confederacy. In 1862 and 1863, Polk led troops at Shiloh, Perryville, Stones River and Chickamauga. He feuded often with Gen. Braxton Bragg but had favor with President Jefferson Davis.

Over the years, the Leonidas Polk Memorial Society and Sons of Confederate Veterans have held memorial services at the site. A 2017 article in the Marietta Daily Journal provided details of one such SCV event.

“The blood of a hero baptized this mountaintop, and the baptism still resonates to this day,” one attendee said of Polk, wearing his uniform at left.

A post on the society website says Polk was a martyr who fought for liberty and freedom.

The monument does not mention that Polk, born to a wealthy family in North Carolina, owned scores of enslaved persons and was a full supporter of secession.

“Our ancestors fought and died for something they believed in, and whether we believe in it or not, we want to honor them, because they are our ancestors,” the lieutenant commander at the Leonidas Polk SCV Camp told the newspaper. “People just don’t realize what’s gone on around here and the truth about the war. I think they should come to these things that we invite everyone to. We don’t care about what race they are; we don’t condone slavery.”

A few miles from the Polk memorial (detail at right), the spot where Simonson fell is marked by a green marker in front of a home on Frank Kirk Road. The text reads:

CAPTAIN PETER SIMONSON 5th Indiana Battery

Acting chief of artillery for the 1st Division (4th Army Corps), Simonson on June 16, 1864 was busy entrenching here a 4-gun battery of artillery when he was killed by a Confederate bullet. The Confederate was perhaps a sharpshooter armed with an English made rifle with scope known as a Whitworth. The Whitworth fired a six-sided bullet that could kill a target one-half mile away. However, the two armies were within a few hundred feet of each other at this point, so it is not unreasonable to believe he could have been killed by a common Confederate rifleman.

Park ranger Lee White, in a post several years ago for Emerging Civil War, described the Whitworth.

“Whitworth Rifles were an engineering marvel, hexagonal bore with an accurate range of over one thousand yards when sporting the 14-inch Davidson scope along the side of its barrel. In the hands of a trained marksman, these were a force to be reckoned with.”

(Civil War Picket photo)
Federal soldiers soon came to fear sharpshooters and would desperately search for cover if they believed they were near.

“Simonson, who only two days before had ordered the shot that killed Leonidas Polk, and who had stopped Hood’s flank attack at Resaca, rolled a log along the ground as he crawled on his belly with some infantry skirmishers along a rise several hundred yards in front of the Confederate line,” White wrote for Emerging Civil War.

“All of the sudden, he stopped and lay with his face to the ground as a crimson patch began to expand from his head. Simonson had ventured a brief peek above his log at the Confederate line and was instantly shot through the forehead, depriving the army of one of its most talented artillerists.”

Simonson’s loss was lamented in the army. A March 1894 article in the Indianapolis News about his daughter details some of the captain’s service.

Click to enlarge (Library of Congress)
According to Bonds’ article in Civil War Times, it’s clear that Simonson’s battery fired the shot that killed Polk. A Federal map from the time (above) notes the location of Polk’s death and the Indiana battery and generals gave Simonson credit in their report.

Bonds also shoots down part of a 1932 Sherman biography that claims a battery of Ohioans commanded by former Prussian artillerist Capt. Hubert Dilger was responsible.

Polk the clergyman
“It is a compelling account -- the buckskin-clad officer clapping his hands and ordering his men to “Shust teeckle them fellers” -- but it is not true. No firsthand testimony supports this claim, and Dilger’s battery was in fact positioned far to the northeast of Pine Mountain and could not have fired the shot.”

Today, Simonson is little remembered. But Polk is, despite his death being considered by many historians as not a great loss to the Confederacy.

Pvt. Sam Watkins, who saw the general’s mangled body being carried from Pine Mountain on a litter, later wrote: “My pen and ability is inadequate to the task of doing his memory justice. Every private soldier loved him. Second to Stonewall Jackson, his loss was the greatest the South ever sustained.”

Sunday, February 14, 2021

New Vicksburg Civil War museum will have a wider perspective

Charles Pendleton hopes people who visit his Vicksburg Civil War Museum will be inspired to learn more about the conflict and its effect on not just the soldiers, but also the civilians who lived through the warPendleton is taking a different approach to telling the story of the Civil War, covering the period from 1860, before the war started, to 1870, during the period of Reconstruction. The museum in the Mississippi city will also focus on the experiences of slaves and free blacks during the period. -- Article

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

'I had a life. I lived. I loved': Photo of Fort Pulaski bricks made by enslaved persons brings to life those long forgotten

(Fort Pulaski National Monument)
Fort Pulaski National Monument’s Facebook post this week showing fingerprints embedded on bricks is a poignant reminder of the anonymity of enslaved persons who literally built much of the country.

Some 25 million bricks were shipped to Cockspur Island east of Savannah, Ga., during construction from 1829-1847. Most were made by enslaved people, officials said. A close-up photo shows two bricks – one gray and one red – located in the embrasure of Casemate 16.

“Men, women, and children spent each day laboring to make bricks for a fort built to protect the port made rich from their labor," reads the post, which has been shared more than 460 times. "Though it took eighteen years for Fort Pulaski to be completed, the names and stories of the enslaved people who made the bricks for the fort have been hidden and, in many cases, lost.

Park guide Elizabeth Smith said enslaved people played a large role in the construction and maintenance of Fort Pulaski, "though sadly very little information is known about any individuals or even what it was like."

Fort Pulaski was a US Army coastal defense fort when it began operations; it was considered invincible because of its design and construction.

Rifled shot pulverized Fort Pulaski (Picket photo)
When the Civil War broke out, local militias and Rebel troops took control. A year later, rifled Union cannons penetrated the bricks and brought about the surrender of the masonry fort on April 11, 1862. It was the end of an era for that type of construction.

According to the park’s post, the work behind making all those bricks was laborious.

“Often times while making the bricks, fingerprints and even handprints would be left behind and hardened into the brick. These fingerprints serve as a tangible reminder that while the architecture and the military history of the fort may be impressive, there is another vitally important story that sits right in front of our eyes if we only just look for it.”

A commenter on the Facebook post left this eloquent message: “These fingerprints say to us, ‘I had a life. I lived. I loved. I had human hands, and these hands touched and loved and labored, though they were enslaved. My hands were no different from your hands. I lived. I was worthy of freedom, dignity and love. Remember me.”

Smith told the Picket that the red bricks were made in Baltimore and Alexandria, Va. 

“The grey bricks, however, were made right here in Savannah on the Hermitage Plantation, hence the nickname Savannah Greys. The Hermitage relied on the enslaved men, women and children to make the bricks, which is most likely when the fingerprints were left in the bricks.”

Newspaper advertisements are often the best source for finding information for the fort's construction era, Smith says. Joseph Mansfield (right) -- the Army officer in charge of the construction of the fort for 14 of the 18 years -- regularly posted in local newspapers seeking additional workers, she says. The wages, of course, were paid to owners of the enslaved.

-- “Notice: Persons having demands for the wages of Negroes employed in the service of the U.S. at Cockspur Island, are requested to call at the city hotel this day at 9 o’clock, when they will be paid.” (From The Savannah Daily Georgian, June 8 and July 7, 1830)

Fort Pulaski, 2d. August, 1836
“The wages to be paid for prime slaves on the Fortifications at Cockspur Island from the 14th Inst. will be fixed at 14 dollars per mouth and found -- the owner to lose runaway time only, and the Government to furnish physician and medicine. Any be withdrawn from the works in one day’s notice. -- Jos. K. F. Mansfield Lt. Corps. Engs.” (From the Daily Georgian)

Smith said hardly any names of the enslaved associated with the fort's operation are known.

"Research into the story of the enslaved is ongoing … and hopefully one day we’ll be able to share a lot more of these stories …  in order to present a better rounded and full history of all the people who made Fort Pulaski. But while we don’t have names or stories themselves, we have many fingerprints throughout the fort to remind us that there is a deeper story, one that we still have to rediscover and tell."

The Casemate 16 embrasure is in Pulaski’s southeast corner, which took the most damage during the Union bombardment in April 1862. “You can still see that damage in this embrasure in the width of the window and the lack of bricks. The fingerprints and handprint in this embrasure used to be hidden beneath a layer of bricks, but the battle damage removed those bricks and exposed the fingerprints and handprint," Smith said in an email.

Embrasure where the fingerprints are located (NPS)
After it fell during the Civil War, Fort Pulaski became a place of hope for freed slaves rather than a symbol of their suppression.

Orders issued by a Union general a few days after the Confederate garrison surrendered declared slaves held in Southern states forever free. Hundreds of former slaves gained their freedom at Fort Pulaski and Cockspur Island, which became a final destination, one of the most southern points, on the vast Underground Railroad network.

Many of the men who arrived at Fort Pulaski became members of the 1st and 3rd South Carolina Volunteers in the Federal army, seeing action late in the war.

March Haynes, a man who was born into slavery and, upon gaining his freedom after the surrender of Fort Pulaski, remained in the area in order to spy for the Union army and assist other enslaved individuals in their own quests for freedom. "Many of these men, women, and children remained on Cockspur Island throughout the war and took up residency in the old construction village," says Smith.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Virginia might ban relic hunting on preserved battlefields

Nearly every day, on one of America’s Civil War battlefields, some tangible bit of history is erased. Relic hunters were at work, unearthing the metallic evidence of warfare. That’s due to legal loopholes and the fact that most battlefield acreage has not been preserved. In Virginia, though, a proposal to discourage metal detecting on battlefields owned or held in easement by a private preservation group is gaining traction in the General Assembly. -- Article

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

American Civil War Museum in Richmond has a new CEO

After a yearlong search, the American Civil War Museum has found its new CEO and president: Rob Havers. Most recently, Havers served as president and CEO of the Pritzker Military Museum and Library in Chicago.

According to the museum, Havers has extensive museum, research library, archival and not-for-profit management experience with an academic background in military history and strategic studies. -- Article

Monday, February 1, 2021

'Deafening noise' of war: Researchers find more evidence of Battle of Ruff's Mill near Atlanta, gather artifacts and soldiers' accounts

Crew member uses ground penetrating radar (The Lamar Institute)
With the help of letters, diaries and homeowners who allowed excavations in their back yards, archaeologists are beginning to fill in details of a July 4, 1864, battle that occurred just outside Atlanta.

Analysis of November 2020 field work, including artifacts recovered at the Ruff’s Mill site, is well underway.

Thus far, the project, led by the Lamar Institute, a nonprofit archaeological group based in Savannah, has been able to document Union and Confederate positions and areas of attack and defense, trenches, possible camp areas and some boundaries of the fighting.

The Battle of Ruff’s Mill (Nickajack Creek) occurred in what is now the Concord Covered Bridge Historic District near Smyrna, Ga. It was one of several brief clashes waged as Union forces under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman continued their relentless push on Atlanta after a setback at Kennesaw Mountain.

Recovered bullet at Ruff's Mill site (The Lamart Institute)
Rita Elliott, education coordinator for The Lamar Institute, told the Picket that research has yielded much about the plan of Federal attack. The project has located diaries and letters to and from soldiers in Ohio, Illinois and Indiana regiments and has communicated with descendants of men who took part in the battle. The team is trying to learn more about Confederate units, including those from Georgia, but they have fewer documents from which to work, she said.

“What continues to surprise me is the huge number of troops involved in the Battle of Ruff's Mill, both on the frontal assault and those large numbers backing them up,” Elliott wrote in an email.

“It is mind-boggling to imagine thousands of troops marching through the small hamlets and farms of Cobb County in 1864, attacking, defending, withdrawing and scavenging along the way. The deafening noise of the battle; the war zones of annihilated woods and trenched agricultural fields and pastures; the use of isolated farmhouses and other structures as sharpshooter outposts, headquarters, and hospitals; and the despoiling of livestock and possession would have resulted in the Ruff's Mill community becoming an unrecognizable area of unbelievable destruction.”

Much of the work is being funded by the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection, which awarded the Lamar Institute a $96,000 grant to document the boundaries and features of the battle. The work has included extensive research off-site.

The institute applied for the grant after local homeowner Philip Ivester contacted them and showed officials a collection of Civil War bullets and other relics he’s found on his property over the years.

Ivester told the Picket he assisted the Nov. 2-22 field work in neighborhoods that dot the battleground (click GBA map at left to see July 3-4, 1864 lines).

Not having an archaeological background, I enjoyed learning the methodical process of the field work. There are a lot of details in laying out a site for GPR (ground penetrating radar) work -- slow methodical work,” Ivester wrote in an email. “It also takes a long time to record latitude, longitude, depth, etc. for metal-detected finds but it allows you to understand who was where and what they were shooting at to get a better picture of Civil War battles.”

Officials have stressed the importance of the community’s participation in the work -- by allowing access to researchers and archaeologists. And residents and private landowners came through, providing about one third of the acreage covered.

Elliott said 10 volunteers supplemented the work of three professional archaeologists. The project has been supported by the Cobb County government, historical societies, museums and volunteers.

Documenting a metal detector find
As far as procuring new information about the battle, the team located and documented numerous trenches that were not recorded on Civil War maps, or had been noted in the wrong position, Elliott said.

Charlie Crawford, president emeritus of the Georgia Battlefields Association, says Ruff’s Mill has gotten little attention because it was a brief incident between much more notable events -- namely the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (June 27) several miles north and the crossing of the Chattahoochee River by Federal forces (July 9) to the southeast.

After his army had repulsed Sherman at Kennesaw Mountain, Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston once again had to resort to delaying tactics and a slow retreat toward Atlanta. “Johnston occupied the Smyrna Line principally to buy time for his wagons to retreat behind the Chattahoochee, and he did not intend to hold the line once that was accomplished,” said Crawford.

On July 4, 1864, Brig. Gen. John Fuller’s brigade with the 16th Corps, supported by Sweeney’s division, attacked works held by Rebels in Hood’s command at Ruff’s Mill. “The Southerners fell back and dug in. Union casualties in this action totaled 140 killed and wounded. Confederate losses are not reported,” writes historian and author Stephen Davis.

That night, Johnston withdrew troops to their next position, even closer to the river.

Elliott said the research thus far as identified dozens of regiments from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Kentucky and other states taking part in the battle.

Attack of Fuller's Ohio brigade at Ruff's Mill (Wikipedia Commons)
The team came across a letter from Confederate Cpl. Frank E. Blossman, of Company A, 6th Texas Infantry in Cleburne’s division. Blossman provided a vivid account of a Federal assault in nearby Smyrna on the same day.

“They came with the best yell I ever heard come out of Yankee throats, and at first I really thought they meant to interest us but when they came within a hundred yards our boys answered with a shout of defiance. This angered the Yanks, and the officers commenced shouting: ‘Forward, men! Forward!’ Our men answered by shouting: ‘Come on, boys! Come on!’ Just then a Dutch officer shouted to the Yanks, ‘Trow avay de knapsacks!’ and our men shouted not to throw them off, as we wanted them.”

The attack ended in a Union retreat. (Interestingly, Blossman’s letter to back home did not reach his family until decades after the war, according to the 1899 Confederate Veteran magazine. Blossman was killed about a month after the battle.)

Elliott told the Picket the project’s aims include learning more about affected by the battle, including enslaved African Americans who built defenses for the Confederate army.

Artifacts collected by Philip Ivester (Courtesy of Brian Hall Photography)
“Our upcoming research will examine slave schedules and later census records to try to identify African Americans enslaved on area plantations before and during the war, and then freedmen and women in the area following the war,” she said. “This will contribute to our understanding of who may have been pressed into the service of the military building defenses or in support roles. Having these names may also help us research any records associated with them that may actually detail their roles in the war.”

A 1904 book indicated a man told Federal officers that he and about 1,000 other enslaved persons had worked to construct several miles of Confederate defensives lines outside Atlanta.

Elliott and others on the team did conduct four GPR surveys, but most of the field work involved metal detecting.

Historic bridge on Concord Road (Courtesy of Georgia Battlefields Assn.)

Ivester says individuals not from the area should not do any metal detecting; the land is either privately owned or belongs to Cobb County.

The battlefield was the scene of Rebel and Federal artillery firing, as well as small-arms fire.

“The ... obstacle to locating the battle has been the repeated metal detecting of the area over the past eight decades. This has removed many of the artifacts which have been redistributed across the SE and around the world, with no exact locations on where they were recovered or what they were,” Elliott said. “In spite of the lower density of artifacts on these sites, we were able to locate and document the exact positions of enough battle-related artifacts to uncover key components of the story.”

The archaeological team found artifacts ranging from 1 inch to 12 inches below the surface. They are mostly bullets and artillery shell fragments. The bullets will be studied for clues to their manufacture and which side used them.

“It is the location of these artifacts that undeniably tell the story of the military strategy. A limited amount of other arms and personal items were documented that help put a human face on the battle, such as a button, a pocket watch cover, an entrenching shovel,” Elliott said.

Analysis will enable the institute to create maps showing where every artifact was recovered, identifying Confederate and Union locations. “These maps can be compared with historic maps of the battle and used to corroborate, expand, or change the historical narrative, depending on what they tell us.”

Recording finds from metal detector survey (The Lamar Institute)
Elliott and her team are grateful for the support of private landowners.

One thing we have yet to accomplish is to document a large number of artifact collections from the area,” she wrote. “If anyone has a collection from the area and can identify with certainty where their artifacts came from and would like us to document them, we would love to talk with them. We are currently in the process of documenting one extensive collection from the area. This collection is particularly important as the collector recorded the location of the finds.”

The Lamar Institute will continue its analysis and research for much of the year. After that, a draft report will be submitted to the National Park Service. The final report will include recommendations to the community on preserving sites and educating the public. A documentary film also will be made available.

Elliott said the project is thankful for all who have pitched in.

“It is an ongoing pleasure to work in a community that appreciates its historical sites and understands how archaeological documentation of its underground resources can help tell the story of our collective past -- no matter who we are.”