Tuesday, November 23, 2021

National Civil War Naval Museum wants local ironclad's fantail -- damaged by arson fire -- to be recreated by end of next year

Burned timbers and armor beneath hull of CSS Jackson (Picket photo)
A remarkable section of armor plating that protected the rudder and propellers of a Confederate ironclad is on the road to being recreated after it was heavily damaged by an arson fire at a Georgia museum.

The National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus has been raising money to rebuild the fantail for the CSS Jackson.

Remains of the Jackson and the twin-screw wooden ship CSS Chattahoochee are the star exhibits of the museum and are inside the main building. Both were lost in April 1865 at war’s end -- the Jackson set afire by Federal captors and the Chattahoochee scuttled by its own crew. They were recovered from the Chattahoochee River in the 1960s.

Some of the fantail's armor plating, with wood in backgroumd (Picket photo)
A June 2020 arson fire tore through a pole barn outside the building and severely damaged the fantail’s wood, making it impossible to use the pieces for the rebuild. The Chattahoochee’s wrought iron and cast iron engines, the iron plates from the Jackson’s armor and the iron plating to the fantail survived, though they were exposed to the thermal heat. No one has been arrested in the fire.

Museum Executive Director Holly Wait told the Picket in an email this week that work on the fantail alone will tally about $190,000. About $250,000 has been raised for related work.

Wait expects work on the fantail to be done by the end of 2022.

The inverted fan tail in 2019, before the fire (Picket photo)
Conservators completed work on the Chattahoochee engines last year and they are on display next to that vessel. They also finished conservation of the fantail iron and wood and those pieces are stacked near the Jackson’s hull, along with a box of fasteners and other iron components. (The Picket stopped by in September and most of the photos with this blog were taken then.)

Southern Custom Exhibits of Anniston, Ala., will recreate the fantail using original iron. The burned wood covered by the armor is unusable but may be displayed in some fashion, Wait said.

The museum is accepting further donations here. Two anonymous donors have supported the fantail work thus far, officials said. The museum plans to build an exhibit focusing on the ship's feature once all work is complete.

Images from video shown below CSS Jackson (Picket photos)

The fantail was the half-moon shaped rear deck of the Confederate warship, which was never fully operational. The section of armor and timber is a remarkable example of design and construction prowess. 

Each plate of the fantail weighed nearly 400 pounds.

Following the fire, Terra Mare Conservators and others documented, cleaned and treated the Chattahoochee’s engines and the Jackson’s fantail.

Jeff Seymour, director of history and collections at the museum, wrote last year about the ironclad:

“As each level emerged, we were able to see elements of this vessel that no one has seen since 1864. As each level surfaced, several questions about how the Jackson was constructed were answered, but many more questions developed. Simply, this structure is much more complex than we thought heading into this project."

In 2019, Seymour called the fantail “a very unique piece of naval architecture” that’s believed to be the only Civil War example out of the water. Because the rear deck was curved, builders had to customize the length of the armor and timber.

CSS Jackson, first known as Muscogee (Wikipedia)
“All of these pieces are cut into a pie shape to make it fit,” he said.

Robert Holcombe, a naval historian and former director of the museum, says besides the CSS Georgia in Savannah, it may be the only piece of wood from a Confederate ironclad with iron plating still attached.

Museum visitors can gaze at the hull of the flat-bottom ironclad from a viewing platform and on the floor. A section is missing, but you get a true sense of the vessel’s enormity – it was about 222 long and 57 feet across. Above the CSS Jackson’s hull is ghosting framework intended to show how the warship appeared above the water line. The rudder is missing.

The Jackson (originally named the Muscogee) was designed to protect Columbus – a critically important industrial center for the Confederacy -- from Union navy marauders and blockaders. Construction on the Jackson began in early 1863. It was built entirely in Columbus.

Fasteners and other items associated with the fantail (Picket photo)
The Jackson’s casemate had a 35-degree slope and featured nearly two feet of wood and two layers of plating, mostly manufactured at the Scofield and Markham mill in Atlanta.

The vessel, armed with six Brooke rifles (two of which rest outside the museum), was finally launched -- after earlier unsuccessful attempts -- on Dec. 22, 1864, to local fanfare. 

The two engines and four boilers – manufactured in Columbus – were not operational when the city fell, and there’s a question about how well they would have performed, anyway. At best, the Jackson would have done about 5 knots, said Seymour.

The ship still needed armor and was unfinished when the Federal cavalry arrived on April 16, 1865.

“The following day the nearly completed ship was set ablaze and cut loose by her captors,” a panel at the naval museum says. “After drifting downstream some 30 miles, the Jackson ground on a sandbar and burned to the waterline.”

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Cockspur lighthouse at Fort Pulaski emerges from scaffolding after months of preservation work. Here's what was done on beacon

(All photos are recent and from Fort Pulaski National Monument)
Fort Pulaski National Monument near Savannah, Ga., this week completed a five-month project aimed at protecting the small but resilient Cockspur Island Lighthouse from moisture and tides.

The 46-foot structure, built in 1855, has endured high tides, hurricanes, waves from ever-growing container ships, vandals and – for a deafening 30 hours – the April 1862 bombardment of nearby Fort Pulaski during the Civil War. 

The Union’s strategy was to put a chokehold on Southern commerce by controlling ports and coastal areas, including this area next to the Atlantic Ocean. Federal soldiers landed at Tybee Island and set about preparing for an attack on Pulaski, a brick guardian to the west.

Remarkably, the lighthouse suffered little or no damage. Crews manning 36 guns on 11 batteries stretching along the western end of Tybee likely used the lighthouse for sighting as they pounded away at the fort. The Confederate garrison, worried that exploding shells might reach munitions, surrendered within a day.

Louvered transoms on door, windows allow ventilation
The park over the years has undertaken work aimed at protecting the beacon. The Picket has communicated with Emily Forlenza, exhibits specialist and acting facility operations specialist at Fort Pulaski National Monument, about the project. Here are her emailed responses to questions, edited for brevity.

Q. Would you mind briefly summarizing all the work was done?

A. For this project, the masonry tower, stairs, keel, window and door openings, and interior of the Cockspur Island Lighthouse were cleaned, chiseled and repointed. These efforts were undertaken due to the damage that this structure sustained from tidal action. The mortar that was used was a match to what we believe was used historically, based on lab testing, material sampling, and test patches used in various areas. Most of the efforts for masonry repointing took place on the exterior of the structure, as that is where the most wind and water action is seen. The interior masonry also saw this repair work as well, but it was not as extensive. Additionally, the door and windows on the structure were replaced using materials and a configuration that are believed to be the configuration and material of the original fixtures. The only update to these new additions was to add a louvered transom instead of a fanlight above the door and windows. This was done to allow for passive ventilation through the structure, since it is closed most of the year due to its remote location. In total, we replaced one entry door and transom, three 6-light windows with transoms, and two porthole windows. 

Q. In October, you mentioned work “toward getting the light back on.” What do you mean?

A. Since this lighthouse is located in a major shipping channel, we want to make sure that no vessel would confuse this with an active aid to navigation (ATON.) We are planning to work closely with the Coast Guard to get the light back up in the lighthouse, facing out in the direction where ships will not be able to confuse their navigation. We are hoping this will come shortly, within the next few months. (The lighthouse was last used as a lighted beacon in 1909)

Q. Did anything require total or partial replacement?

A. The door and windows all required total replacement. We did not have a functional door at all, and what was in place for all of the openings was neither original nor historic. 

Q. What painting was done?

The cupola of the lighthouse was painted with a rust reformer and black metal paint in order to restore its appearance. The old cupola is located in front of the visitor center of Fort Pulaski, having been removed due to its state of deterioration in 1995. (See comments section below for why exterior of lighthouse was not painted)

Q. Will the lighthouse remain closed to the public?

A. This is a topic of discussion among Fort Pulaski staff, but for the foreseeable future it will remain closed.  

Q. How did the lighthouse fare during the recent super high tides? I know higher water levels have been of concern for a time.

A. The lighthouse itself held up very well, as she always does. None of our new repair work showed any sign of failure, and the new door and windows we put on look as good as they did the day we put them on.

Q. How will you regulate or manage moisture issues?

A. As stated above, the passive ventilation that is offered by the louvered transoms is our main mitigation against the stagnant damp air that would typically cause issues inside the structure. 

Q. You anticipated the project would cost about $150,000. Did that prove to be true?

A. Yes, we came in right around our anticipated budget. (Funding for the fabrication of the door and windows came from a grant given to the Friends of Cockspur Island Lighthouse by the Tybee Island Historical Society, which was matched by NPS Centennial Challenge funding.)

Q. Can you tell me about the replacement mortar being historically accurate? How so?

A. Historically, the mortar used for the lighthouse would have had a heavy makeup of natural cement due to its location being heavy impacted by the tides. During testing, it was determined that this was true. The park then did test patches to make sure that the mortar was going to hold up in this area. Even though the mortar was historically accurate, we still wanted to make sure that this would be the best fit for the structure. 

Q. What work was done by NPS staff and what was done by contractors?

A. The National Park Service provided all of the day labor and craft skills required to repoint the structure, paint the cupola, and install the door and windows. The door and windows were fabricated by Savannah Millworks, a local company here in Savannah. The scaffolding that was constructed around the structure was also contracted out, by Sunbelt Rentals. 

Q. Any hitches or pleasant surprises or finds during the work?

A. The most fascinating part of working with historic structures in these historic settings is coming up with unique ways to start these projects off. The planning process was the most interesting part initially, because we needed to figure out how we were going to get sturdy enough scaffolding around a structure that was surrounded by huge boulders (revetment, to protect the island from erosion) while at the same time ensuring that the structure would be protected during tidal surges from the scaffolding swaying or moving in any way. We had to figure out how best to get a crew of 5-6 people out to the lighthouse every day safety and efficiently, while factoring in tides that would change where we could get the crew on and off the island.

And probably the most unexpected hitch: the crew shared the lighthouse with a very disgruntled barn owl for about a month, before the owl decided it was time to find a new home. He did continue to torment the crew each day upon their arrival until he moved out. 

Q. Any other thoughts on the project?

A. This project gave us an incredible amount of information that we are going to be using to develop future projects for the preservation of this structure. 

Projects like these are essential for future project development. It is such a unique experience to be directly involved in work like this, and I am thankful that my crew and I were able to take part in preserving this structure for future generations. 

Click here for previous Picket coverage on the lighthouse

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

New Virginia historic site honors the brave service of Black soldiers who fought for the Union, including three who were executed nearby

The monument is the focal point of the site (photos Hugh Kenny, PEC)
A monument dedicated over the weekend in a rural Northern Virginia community honors three unknown soldiers of the U.S. Colored Troops who were executed in May 1864 after their capture.

The new Maddensville Historic Site in Culpeper County’s Lignum community features the granite obelisk and three Civil War Trails markers describing the significance of Madden’s Tavern, operated by a free black man, Willis Madden; a Baptist church started by Madden; and the service of 17 USCT members from Culpeper who fought for the 4th Division, 9th Corps Army of the Potomac, which marched through the area.

Keynote speaker John Hennessy, retired chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, spoke of the immense courage of those in the USCT. They faced discrimination within the U.S. Army and were not recognized as soldiers by the Confederacy, which threatened to execute or return them to slavery.

“It is impossible to overstate how profound the sight must have been as men of the United States Colored Troops marched into Culpeper County on May 5, 1864,” Hennessy said. “It was certainly profound to those men in uniform: some of them had been enslaved here; probably two-thirds of them had been enslaved somewhere. Now they fought for freedom, sensing that the freedom of others -- of all -- would transform the nation.”

While many USCT troops saw combat across the South, those in this campaign likely were guarding supply wagons or performing other duties during the Battle of the Wilderness.

The three soldiers were killed a few hundred yards from the historic site on May 8, 1864. A diary entry by a Confederate trooper is devoid of any emotion.

“We captured three Negro soldiers, the first we had seen," wrote Pvt. Byrd C. Willis of Company B, 9th Virginia Cavalry. "They were taken out on the road side and shot and their bodies left there."

Willis at the time was a 17-year-old Florida native who had attended Virginia Military Institute and enlisted just a month before. He was wounded at Spotsylvania Court House in June 1864. Willis survived the war.

The new historic site was the work of the Freedom Foundation of Virginia, supported by the Piedmont Environmental Council and Civil War Trails.

In a press release, the groups said about 200 people attended Saturday’s event, some of them descendants of USCT soldiers.

Howard Lambert, head of the Freedom Foundation, has described Culpeper County as a ground zero for the story of the USCT, with some returning to the county -- their place of enslavement -- to fight for the Federal cause.

“They could have stayed free and enjoyed all the privileges thereof, but these men decided to join the Union army and come back as proud soldiers in blue to fight to free people who were still in bondage, knowing that if they were captured, they would be given no quarter, but would be lined up and shot, which is obviously what happened here near Madden’s Tavern,” Lambert said, according to the press release.

Reenactors on Nov. 6 near Ebenezer Baptist Church (Hugh Kenny, PEC)
The Picket reached out to Lambert for comment. He told the Washington Post that reading the line from Willis' diary was chilling. "It was like a common occurrence. No ceremony, just, 'Oh, we lined 'em up and shot 'em,' " he told the Post.

More than 180,000 men served in the USCT, about 10% of all Federal soldiers. More than 40,000 died, according to Hennessy.

He wrote that some members of the USCT, in their first campaign, were stragglers and fell into Rebel hands in May 1864.

“These types of dangers were ever-present for the USCT,” Hennessey said. “That fact magnifies their achievement.  In the coming months, the USCT would see battle. They would suffer indignities at the hands of their brother soldiers and atrocities at the hands of their enemies.”

One of three Civil War Trails markers at the site (Hugh Kenny, PEC)
But, he said, they increasingly gained respect within the Union army.

“The ultimate success of the USCT was no antidote to deeply rooted racism, but it certainly marked a major step forward. The service of the USCT was essential to establishing African Americans as countrymen in the eyes of many who had long refused to see them as fellow Americans.”

Friday, November 5, 2021

Archaeologists find even more old cannons in the Savannah River. They hope to solve the mystery of their origin and history

Will Wilson and Jeffrey Pardee during Oct. 12 dive (USACE Savannah)
The Savannah River is proving to be a graveyard for military cannons.

Following the February discovery in Savannah, Ga., of three artillery pieces that may date to the mid-1700s, archaeologists last month came across more artifacts.

“We were able to confirm two additional cannon that we knew about before. We found what we believe to be another cannon -- a very small cannon. We found what may be the muzzle of another cannon,” Will Wilson, an archaeologist with Commonwealth Heritage Group, said in a video posted last week by the Savannah district of the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Corps district spokesman Billy Birdwell expects the artifacts recovery near Old Fort Jackson to conclude in the next couple weeks.

“Once the recovery efforts are completed, the cannons will be analyzed to determine more information, such as type, age, and use. All cannons are believed to predate the Civil War era,” Birdwell told the Picket in an email.

The Picket recently posted
 an article about sonar survey and dives that have occurred since the February discovery.

The most recent were on the remains of Confederate “cribs,” or obstructions, placed in the river to prevent a Federal attack during the Civil War.

So what’s the story with the cannons found this year? Were they carried on warships or dumped into the water at some point?

Some theorize the three pieces found in February may have been carried by the HMS Rose, a British warship that took part in the siege of Savannah during the Revolutionary War.

The Rose was scuttled so as to block the channel from French ships that might come to the aid of colonists trying to retake the city.

That find was in the general vicinity of where the Rebel ironclad CSS Georgia was scuttled in December 1864 during the Civil War. Most of the ironclad’s wreckage was removed a few years back as part of the Corps’ deepening of the Savannah harbor.

More than a half dozen CSS Georgia artillery pieces have been pulled up over the years, but there could be a few more still in the river. And it’s possible some of the cannons were used at Fort Jacksonwhich was constructed in the early 1800s, or elsewhere and later discarded. The CSS Georgia served as a floating battery near Fort Jackson.

The Corps and contractors will try to determine the cannons’ provenance.

Asked whether the cannons explored last month could have been carried by the CSS Georgia or another period warship, Birdwell wrote, “While I understand this is technically possible, we haven’t done anywhere near enough research to say yes or no or anything more than ‘eh, maybe. Maybe not.’”

During their dives in mid-October, archaeologists also found part of an anchor and a bar shot, a type of munition designed to destroy ship rigging. They were commonly used during the Revolutionary War. (Above, James Duff with bar shot, photo: USACE Savannah)

The video briefly describes diving in the Savannah River. Crews using sonar and other technology guide divers to potential artifacts 45 to 50 feet below. Visibility near the bottom can often be nil.

A CSS Georgia Dahlgren gun found in 2015 (USACE)
“You are basically like an astronaut,” said Commonwealth archaeologist Andy Derlikowski. “You have your hard hat on … It’s a lot of just running around the sea floor until you physically encounter something on the bottom to identify.”

Birdwell said discussions are continuing on the final disposition of the cannons and other recently recovered items.

The artifacts will be placed in temporary conservation while they are being analyzed, and decisions are still pending on potential conservation efforts,” he said.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Gettysburg home where Abraham Lincoln finished his famous address reopens ahead of anniversary events this month

The Wills residence in historic Gettysburg (Library of Congress)
After being closed for two years because of the coronavirus epidemic, a home where President Abraham Lincoln put the finishing touches on his speech will reopen just before anniversary events related to the Gettysburg Address.

Lincoln completed his speech on Nov. 18, 1863, in a second-floor bedroom of lawyer and judge David Wills’ house, which is operated today by the National Park Service. The address transformed the battlefield from a place of death and devastation to the symbol of the nation's "new birth of freedom."

Gettysburg National Military Park spokesman Jason Martz told the Picket the home was last open on Nov. 19, 2019. It then closed for the season but remain shuttered because of the pandemic.

(NPS photo)
It will be open, free of charge, this month for nine days before closing for the seaon: Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, from 1 pm to 5 pm, from Thursday, Nov. 4, through Saturday, Nov. 20. No programming is planned. Visitors must wear masks and there are a capacity limits because of Covid-19 protocols.

The residence served as a temporary hospital during the July 1863 battle and citizens huddled in its cellar. It became the center of the cleanup process after the fighting.

Lincoln was one of David (left) and Catherine Wills’ house guests the night before the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. 

According to the Gettysburg Foundation, Wills took a lead role in preparing proper burials for Federal soldiers and planning for the national cemetery that was dedicated during Lincoln's visit.

The three-story brick home at 8 Lincoln Square is now a museum with seven galleries. 

Earlier this year, Gettysburg National Military Park launched a page that features three sites -- including the Wills home -- related to the Civil War and the house and show barn at Eisenhower National Historic Site.

Each page has a virtual walk-through of the structure and a second smaller image that provides audio. Viewers can choose which floor to look at, obtain a 3D cutaway image of the entire structure and view floor plans.

The tours are available for those using home computers, smartphones or virtual reality headsets, park officials said.

Model of wartime Gettysburg at Wills house (NPS photo)
Martz said the park hopes to reopen the Wills house again in 2022, depending on current Covid protocols.

The park and community will have events Nov. 18-20 this year to observe Dedication Day. Among the activities are a parade and illumination of graves at the cemetery. The schedule can be found here.

Lincoln bedroom in the David Wills home (NPS photo)