Tuesday, April 26, 2022

36 Civil War soldiers will have headstones dedicated in Iowa cemetery

A dedication ceremony in Council Bluffs, Iowa, for military headstones for 36 Civil War veterans who have been buried in unmarked graves for a century will be taking place in May. This is being done with the help of Colonel William H. Kinsman Camp #23, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, and the Veterans Administration. -- Article

Thursday, April 21, 2022

87 died when two boats collided during the search for John Wilkes Booth. They will be remembered this weekend at Maryland museum

A maritime tragedy that occurred on the Potomac River during the intense search for Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth will be remembered this weekend by a wreath laying, free museum admission and other activities.

The annual events are planned at St. Clement’s Island Museum in St. Mary’s County, Md.

The April 23, 1865, collision of the barge Black Diamond and the steamer Massachusetts in the Lower Potomac near St. Clement’s Island killed 87 people. 

The military had contracted with the Black Diamond to help prevent Booth from escaping into Virginia. He managed to do so and was killed a few days later, overshadowing the ship tragedy off Coltons Point.

The overloaded Massachusetts -- a privately owned ship also known as JWD Pentz -- was carrying about 300 soldiers from Alexandria, Va., to return to various regiments at City Point and Fort Monroe when it struck the port side of the coal barge, manned by 11 volunteers, shortly after midnight.

Angela Wathen's depiction of collision (St. Mary's County Museum Division)
According to the newspaper accounts, the tragedy occurred within one mile of Blackistone Island (now called St. Clement’s Island) but the exact location is not known, said Karen Stone, manager of the museums division of the St. Mary’s government.

While the Black Diamond sank, the Massachusetts limped nearly 30 miles to Point Lookout, Md. Most of the dead were on the troop transport.

Stone, in an article for Historynet.com, wrote:

“It is difficult to compile a complete list of the names of the men lost on Massachusetts, as they represented several regiments. Most were recently exchanged prisoners of war, captured at Plymouth, N.C., on April 20, 1864, and sent to the Confederates’ infamous Camp Sumter prison camp in Andersonville, Ga. After being transferred from Andersonville to the Confederate prison camp in Florence, S.C., in December 1864, the men were eventually exchanged and nursed back to health by Union doctors at Camp Parole near Annapolis, Md. All were returning to their various regiments to complete their terms of service.”

Visitors can take a water taxi to nearby St. Clement's Island State Park
Here’s how this weekend will play out:


10 a.m.-5 p.m.: Visitors can enjoy free water taxi rides to a state park on nearby St. Clement's Island (the final ride will leave at 3 p.m.) and free admission to the St. Clement's Island Museum. There are special exhibits on the Black Diamond story and the Surratt House Museum (Clinton, Md). St. Clement’s Island State Park has a hiking trail and replica of Blackistone Lighthouse. A large cross marks the site of the arrival of Roman Catholic colonists in 1634.


2 p.m.: A concert on the waterfront lawn of the museum will feature the Sibling Rivalry Fiddle Band, a four-sibling ensemble playing Civil War-era music and other American folk tunes. The teen musicians are Fredericksburg, Va., natives and their instruments include the fiddle, bodhran, tin whistle and mandolin.

St. Clement's Island Museum (St. Mary's County Museum Division)

2 p.m.: Commemorative ceremony marking the Black Diamond-Massachusetts disaster. It will include a wreath laying, the reading of the names of those who died and were identified, and remarks by the commanding officer of Naval Air Station Patuxent River.

3 p.m.: Reception at St. Clement’s Island Museum following the ceremony.

Evening cruise: Sold out.

A painting of the disaster donated by artist Angela Wathen will be on display.

For more information about the weekend, contact St. Clement's Island Museum at 301-769-2222 or visit Facebook.com/SCIMuseum.

Wreath laying at previous ceremony (St. Mary's County Museum Division

Monday, April 18, 2022

A story of resilience: County park in Missouri will bear name of former slave who fought in Civil War, became a successful farmer on site

Council officials with Benjamin Oglesby descendants at recent meeting (St. Charles County)
A suburban St. Louis family is grateful and proud that a future park will be named for a former slave who fought for the Union during the Civil War and later successfully farmed on the site for 30 years.

The St. Charles County Council in Missouri last week approved the honor for Benjamin Oglesby, who fled captivity at age 39 and joined the 56th US Colored Infantry Regiment.

The 199-acre Oglesby Park, just west of Wentzville and near Interstate 70, will include playgrounds, paths and shelters, county officials said. It is expected to open in July.

“We will have signage telling his story and we may even be relocating a 1920s Black school to the property, that was operated by the church where Mr. Oglesby and his family attended and sits on the same property where Mr. Oglesby and his wife are buried,” said Ben Gall, park historian.

In a press release, County Executive Steve Ehlmann said, “The history behind landowner Benjamin Oglesby and his family is both remarkable and inspirational.”

Gall said his research showed that Oglesby was born in Bedford, Virginia, about 1825. In the mid-1830s, he came to St. Charles County with his enslaver Marshall Bird. The farm near Foristell grew corn, wheat and tobacco.

In November 1864, Oglesby enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to Benton Barracks in St. Louis for training. He was assigned to the 56th USCT, which conducted military operations in Arkansas, including fighting at the Battle of Big Creek. The regiment also fulfilled post and garrison duty (One of Oglesby's military records at left).

Oglesby was honorably discharged in November 1865, outside Helena, Arkansas, Gall said.

Records kept by the National Archives showed receipt of a $33.33 bounty when Oglesby was mustered into service at Benton Barracks. Some $66.67 was due.

Gall said Congress instituted a February 1864 draft that included Black men who lived in Border States such as Missouri. “Loyal slaveowners” would be paid bounties for slaves who were freed and brought in the Army.

While there are no definitive records in Oglesby’s case, Gall told the Picket, it seems the bounty was due to the former slave because “his file does not contain any records of Bird filling out the loyalty oath and bounty … Recently freed Black soldiers did receive the bounty payment if their owner was not considered loyal.

The park site is just a couple miles north of I-70 (St. Charles County)
More than 180,000 African-Americans served in the U.S. military during the Civil War.

After the Civil War, according to the 1870 census, Oglesby, his wife, Martha and their six children -- Medora, Samuel, Oskar, Bell, Albert and Charlie -- worked on a farm in Hickory Grove Township in Warren County, officials said. In 1871, he purchased 146 acres of land in Foristell. He financed the property through a $2,000 deed of trust and paid off the property six years later.

“When Mr. Oglesby died in 1901, the estate records indicate a nearly 50% increase in the value of his property, demonstrating him as a successful farmer,” Gall wrote in an email. “The property was still in the family through the 1960s.”

There are no known photographs of Oglesby.

Barbara Love, the soldier’s great-great-granddaughter, told St. Louis TV station KMOV that her ancestor was determined to succeed after escaping slavery.

“He wanted to do something, not just for him, but for family,” she said. “To say I’m a descendant of Benjamin Oglesby is a blessing.”

Love wrote on Facebook that her ancestor's story shows "you can be anything you want if you keep the faith."

Enlistment information for Benjamin Oglesby (click to enlarge, National Archives)
When the park property was purchased at the end of last year, Gall was tasked with conducting research on the originally proposed name for the park, which is located at 2949 West Meyer Road. 

“When looking at the 19th century maps of the property, I saw the name Benjamin Oglesby was marked as the owner of the property and decided to do a little digging just to see who he was,” Gall wrote.

“The research revealed a truly remarkable story of resilience, so I provided the name and research to my supervisors for consideration. The director of the department, who is a fellow historian, also found the story remarkable and decided to officially propose it. When we learned there were descendants still active in the community, it seemed to show this was meant to be.” 

(Courtesy of St. Charles County)

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Safety inspectors drop in on Gettysburg's three observation towers, which have been in use for more than 125 years

Inspectors take a close look at the Culp's Hill tower (NPS photos)
Engineering assessments of three observation towers at Gettysburg National Military Park have been competed, officials said.

“Although they are more than 100 years old, there are no issues with any of the towers. These assessments will help guide us with any future work,” park spokesman Jason Martz told the Civil War Picket in an email Friday.

Crews conducted standard safety inspections of the West Confederate, Culp’s Hill and Oak Ridge towers, which were built in 1895-1896. They were concluded earlier this week.

The inspections took place via vertical access (rappelling) and by hypsometric laser scanning, officials said in a news release ahead of the work.

For generations, park visitors have climbed stairs to reach the top of the metal structures.

A report during their construction said: “These are all solid and well-built structures, and, located as they are, they afford the observer a complete and satisfactory view of the entire scene of the great battle and enable him to get a consistent and accurate idea of it as a whole.”

Three other towers on the battlefield were removed years ago, for differing reasons.

-- The Ziegler's Grove tower was removed in 1961 when the Cyclorama building superseded it.

-- The Big Round Top tower was removed in 1968. It was deemed dangerous and obsolete, Martz wrote in an email.

-- Most famously, the colossal Gettysburg National Tower, which was considered an eyesore and an intrusion by many, was demolished by the park in 2000. Erected in 1974, the nearly 400 foot tower was on private land, later acquired by the government. The sound of firing by replica cannons signaled the blast that brought the tower down to cheers.

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Report: Developer backs away from residential project in Virginia

Following months of opposition, a Texas-based developer has apparently abandoned plans to build a 650-home development at a Civil War battlefield site in Varina, Virginia – potentially clearing the way for preservationists to purchase and protect the land. -- Story

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Empty coffin found at Georgia's Fort McAllister is now fully conserved. Perhaps one day the artifact will be exhibited.

Conservators in Georgia have completed treatment of an intact coffin found in 2013 on the edge of the marsh at Fort McAllister, a Confederate river outpost below Savannah, Ga.

Officials have thus far been able to solve the mystery of the empty coffin. Was it used for a Civil War burial or for an enslaved person? Or was it simply discarded at some point?

Josh Headlee, a curator/historic preservation specialist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, told the Picket recently all the pieces of wood that made up the box are fully treated and out of water used to prevent them from becoming brittle.

“It looks great,” he wrote in an email. “While each piece is slightly tacky to the touch from the treatment, overall, I can’t complain. There is no seeping-out of anything from the wood, no cracking or checking to the wood to report so we’re very pleased.”

Headlee used a chemical preserver to stabilize the wood (Note: Georgia DNR photo above shows wood before treatment). 

State archaeologist Rachel Black, who has studied the coffin for several years, and Headlee said they are unaware of any immediate plans to display the artifact at Fort McAllister. Putting it out for display will require exhibit space and funding.

“I’d love to see the coffin go on exhibit at Fort McAllister if even just temporarily. It’s not something I’ve approached the site about, though, since we just finished up the conservation,” Black said.

The coffin where it was discovered, under orange bucket (Ga. DNR)
“It can definitely be reassembled as a coffin, but I wouldn’t want to reassemble it permanently. One of the really interesting things about this situation is the disassembled coffin gives us the opportunity to better examine coffin construction techniques. I’m hoping there is a way to build bracing that would allow us to assemble and disassemble it for exhibit,” the archaeologist said in an email.

Black and Headlee have taken note of the craftsmanship that went into the coffin, which appears to have remnants of decorative motifs. The nails used to fasten the pieces were gone, as was the lid.

In 2016, when the Picket first spoke with Black, she could see square nail holes in the wood.

One of the coffin pieces during treatment (Ga. DNR)
“I also could see some faint shadows on the sideboards, rusty spots near the holes,” she said this year. There is evidence of tacks. Black believes they may have fastened deteriorated decorative ornaments shaped like diamonds. “A very poor individual could have purchased (such accoutrements) to make their coffin more decorative.”

Based on the use of cut nails, the coffin likely was built prior to 1890, said Black.

The box was about 68 inches long and could have accommodated a person about 5 feet, 6 inches, a common height for a man in the mid-19th century. It was oriented with the head to the west, customary in many Christian burials.

But no one knows how the coffin came to be there or if it was even used. Fort McAllister sits on Genesis Point, once home to a large rice plantation. There’s a known slave cemetery to the west near Strathy Hall, which was built in the 18th century. Confederate soldiers and sailors were at or near Fort McAllister and Union forces were stationed there after the fort fell in December 1864 during Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Map of plantation, at left, and the fort (Courtesy of Fort McAllister State Park)
The condition of the coffin when it was discovered along the Ogeechee River was considered outstanding. Water seeped into the wood and its being covered by soil in an anaerobic environment helped it maintain its condition. The elements were not so kind to fasteners, nails and possible decorative items.

“They most likely rusted away, especially in the wet environment,” Black said.

If the coffin was in the specific or general area of an interment, the environment likely changed over 150 years. It may have once been on high and dry land. The banks of the Ogeechee River at Genesis Point are eroding rapidly for several reasons, including increased river traffic.

Monday, April 4, 2022

Three Gettysburg battlefield observation towers, providing views for 125 years, will close this week for safety inspections

West Confederate Avenue tower (NPS) and Culp's Hill tower (Craig Swain, HMdb.org)
Three observation towers at Gettysburg National Military Park have beckoned visitors for 125 years, offering views of the hills, pastures and valleys where two armies clashed in July 1863.

Patrons climb flights of stairs to reach the top of the metal West Confederate, Culp’s Hill and Oak Ridge towers built in 1895-1896. A report during their construction said: “These are all solid and well-built structures, and, located as they are, they afford the observer a complete and satisfactory view of the entire scene of the great battle and enable him to get a consistent and accurate idea of it as a whole.

This week, structural engineers will conduct standard safety inspections of the sites. Park spokesman Jason Martz told the Picket that there have been no issues. The most recent safety checks were in 1999 and 2013.

“Visitors can continue to climb these towers today and the planned safety inspections will allow their continued use for many years to come,” Martz said.

The towers will be closed, however, during the inspections this week. They will take place via vertical access (rappelling) and by hypsometric laser scanning, officials said in a news release.

-- West Confederate Avenue Tower: April 5, 6, 7, (8 if needed) 

-- Culp’s Hill Tower: April 5, 6, 7, (8 if needed) 

-- Oak Ridge Tower (left): April 6, (8 if needed) 

April 8 is reserved for any weather interruptions. If inspections are able to be carried out with no weather interruptions, that day will not be required as a closure date. The park will update its website with opening and closing information during the work.

Three other towers on the battlefield were removed years ago, for differing reasons.

-- The Ziegler's Grove tower was removed in 1961 when the Cyclorama building superseded it.

-- The Big Round Top tower was removed in 1968. It was deemed dangerous and obsolete, Martz wrote in an email.

-- Most famously, the colossal Gettysburg National Tower, which was considered an eyesore and an intrusion by many, was demolished by the park in 2000. Erected in 1974, the nearly 400 foot tower was on private land, later acquired by the government. The sound of firing by replica cannons signaled the blast that brought the tower down to cheers (below).

Here’s a more detailed look at the three observation towers still on the battlefield.

West Confederate Avenue (75 feet)

Also called the Longstreet Tower, the structure provides views of many features, including Pitzer Woods, the Rose Farm, Wheatfield, Peach Orchard and Big Round Top and Little Round Top. Behind is Eisenhower National Historic Site.

Culp’s Hill (60 feet)

The hill was the extreme right flank of the Union army, and the object of Confederate assaults that failed to dislodge them. “Culp's Hill became a prime tourist attraction after the battle. It was close to the town and, unlike most battles in open fields, it was heavily wooded and the extreme firepower took a very visible toll on the trees, some of which were completely sheared off,” a Waymarking.com article about the tower says.

Oak Ridge tower before it was lowered, trees cut (Library of Congress)

Oak Ridge (23 feet)

This tower was more than halved in the late 1960s, ostensibly to save on maintenance costs without significantly altering the view. Located on the extreme northern part of the park and near the town, the Oak Ridge tower showcases the spot where Federal troops briefly held the line on July 1, 1863, as the Confederate roared into the area. Views include Doubleday Avenue and a string of monuments.

The site detailed the surviving towers in a 2020 Facebook post.

“The observation towers at Gettysburg National Military Park are a stark reminder of a bygone era. Many visitors are surprised to hear just how old the steel observation towers are. In fact, they were built in 1895 by the United States War Department, before the National Park Service even existed. They were designed to give horse and buggy tourists and military academy students an opportunity to get an overhead view of the battlefield.”

The man behind the towers was Emmor Cope, a Union soldier who surveyed the Gettysburg battlefield for a foundational map. He was among those who founded the park as a key member of the Gettysburg Battlefield Commission. Cope had completed designs for the towers by early February 1895.

A 1998 NPS drawing of three of the Gettysburg towers (Library of Congress)
“The five steel towers, placed at key observation points, were integral to the original design plan for the park and its avenue system. Prior to the enabling legislation the scope of the commission's work had been to design the avenue features, such as road surfaces, culverts and bridges. As soon as Gettysburg became a national park, however, Cope began to design the towers as signature features worthy of a national park,” according to Gettysburg National Military Park.

“The addition of the towers took the plan of the park beyond simply fixing the battle lines with avenues, markers, and monuments to acknowledging the greater scope and significance of the battle for veterans and for the American public. …. In a sense the towers became vertical avenues, allowing access to an understanding of the battlefield that ground level study of battle could not supply.”

Friday, April 1, 2022

Mystery along the beach: Archaeologists continue research after 2021 discovery of 194 Civil War-era cannonballs in Florida Panhandle

Shells were found Sept. 3-5 and 21-23, 20201  (Gulf Islands National Seashore)
National Park Service archaeologists are awaiting a more detailed analysis of 194 cannonballs found last year along a beach at a federal park in the Florida Panhandle. Thus far, there are more questions than answers about the artillery shells.

The ordnance was discovered by Gulf Islands National Seashore staff after Category 4 Hurricane Ida pushed through in late August. The artifacts were found in clusters and the area was closed for a time as a precaution.

It’s likely the cannonballs are associated with nearby Confederate Fort McRee, which was built on a narrow barrier island separating Florida’s Pensacola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

In November 1861, the garrison engaged in gunfire with nearby Union-held Fort Pickens and a couple warships -- and came up on the losing end. The heavily damaged brick fort, built on sand, was abandoned, only to fall into further ruin over the years.

The Picket this week reached out to the park for an update on the discovery.

Soldiers at Fort McRee, year unknown (Gulf Islands National Seashore)
“The cannonballs were spherical shot, some of which utilized Hotchkiss time fuses,” public information officer Susan Teel wrote in an email. “Fort McRee was under Confederate control during the Civil War, but the cannonballs could not be determined if they were cast by one side or the other. Due to the threat to life and health associated with live munitions, the cannonballs had to be destroyed before much specific information could be recorded.”  

Asked whether the cannonballs were discarded by the garrison or had been stored there for possible future use, Teel said: “Without the ability to safely complete excavations, the purpose behind the location is not known at this time. The density and location within the vicinity of the fort is a factor which was considered during our analysis.”

The shells weighed between 25 and 35 pounds and are believed to be of the same type, Teel said last September. “They are hollow, potentially black powder filled cannonballs considered discarded military munitions.”

Cannonballs likely were further inland during the Civil War (GUIS)
Erosion regularly occurs on these barrier islands and park officials say the ordnance was likely placed in a spot that was inland at the time.

Superintendent Darrell Echols told WEAR-TV that the artifacts appeared to have been stockpiled and did not appear to have been fired upon the island. WEAR reported the cannonballs were found about a half mile from Fort McRee.

McRee had 12 casemates and an associated water battery, which may be underwater today. Virtually nothing remains today, with the exception of part of the fort's foundation. (After the Picket posted its first article about the find on social media, a few readers commented they believe the ordnance was made for a 32-pounder cannon.)

Inaccessible by road, McRee’s main visitors are sea birds, boaters and beachgoers who come to Gulf Islands National Seashore. The park is home to McRee, Pickens and Fort Barrancas, another Civil War outpost.

Teel said the NPS’s Southeast Archeological Center documented the cannonballs before they were detonated on site by experts from the Air Force’s Hurlburt Field (right).

NPS archaeologists returned in early October to see what else may be in the area. Echols told WEAR at the time that based off the survey, there's little reason to believe more cannonballs could be in the area.

"No other cultural materials (anything made or altered by human hands) were located during the survey of the area," Teel wrote this week. "The Southeast Archeological Center did complete a comprehensive survey which included excavations around the munitions, due to the hazards associated with live ammunitions."

Teel said of the project:

“Preservation is crucial for our mission and our interest, however never as important as a person’s life. While citizens love to help preserve and protect our history, it is illegal to search for artifacts on federal property, and more importantly can be extremely dangerous.”