Sultana Thoughts

I’m two days late for posting, but Sunday was the anniversary of the Sultana tragedy.  While other than some short excursions into the primary accounts, I’ve never studied the incident to any great detail.  However, years back, I lived in the vicinity of the sinking and had several opportunities to discuss the episode with descendants of several witnesses of the tragedy.    Several of the farming families of Crittenden County, Arkansas still work the land there.

Lost to the general discussion of the Sultana often is the name of Frank Barton, a local resident and somewhat of a Confederate partisan of local note.  Years earlier, Barton had requested a “letter of marque” from the Confederate government with the aim of disrupting Mississippi River traffic around the Memphis area.  While he was never granted such, I think the state of war by 1863 pretty much meant such formalities were unnecessary.   Several dispatches and reports from the Official Records hint at Barton’s rather active Civil War service, but this was still a side show to the major operations in the Vicksburg and later Red River Campaigns.  The oral history recounted to me on several occasions was Mr. Barton was at home either about to turn in or in bed already.  Hearing the distinctive sound of a burst boiler, he went outside and noticed the burning ship.  Acting promptly, he and others improvised rafts and other means of floatation to assist survivors out of the river.   Barton, formerly a Confederate (or at least State) officer, did everything possible to assist the survivors, mostly Federal soldiers.

Eventually the burning hulk came to rest on the Arkansas side of the river.  As the river changed courses to the east, the spot became farmland just inside the river levees, near Dacus road.  Back in the 1980s remains of a boat were found in that area.  Personally, I’ve not heard one way or the other if definitively the wreck was found.  Oral history, again from the locals, was for years the stacks of the boat stood out in the fields before one of the farmers cleared things.  So I guess it is possible some remains are still there.

As I browse regimental histories, often I see references to members of the units who were on the fated ship.  One in particular I like to recall is the 7th Tennessee Cavalry, U.S. (yes they were in blue).  Members of the Federal 7th Tennessee Cavalry were recruited from West Tennessee and generally served as garrison soldiers, often in a dismounted capacity.  In 1864, some of the companies from this Federal regiment were guarding a supply base at Union City, Tennessee.  General Nathan B. Forrest, raiding through the area, sent an element that contained the 7th Tennessee Cavalry, C.S. to capture the depot.  Not much fighting as I recall, but in the end, the 7th Tennessee U.S. surrendered to the 7th Tennessee C.S., with the Federal prisoners then going to, among other places, Andersonville.   Like most of the repatriated prisoners, these West Tennesseans made their way to Vicksburg after the end of the war.  Some were on the Sultana when it docked at Memphis on it’s journey up stream.

I’m not certain of the formalities regarding the mustering out, but there is somewhat of a cruel irony here.  Men who were probably a few miles from their homes were required to get onto the Sultana and continue north in order to complete their service.   Thus placing them as passengers on a chain of events leading to disaster.

As for markers, since I’ve relocated from the area years ago, I don’t have good digital photographs to properly document and post the entries for HMDB.  The one entry I’d like to see some day stands in front of the City Hall in Marion, Arkansas, dedicated in 2000.  I was one of several living historians there that day to fire a salute.


The Wilderness – Gordon Flank Attack Trail

Started turning back to some pre-Antietam project notes and site trips today. My marker entries and trip notes for the Gordon Flank Attack Trail at the Wilderness had been waiting in the queue since mid-February. Those went into the database today. Not much to show and tell. The Wilderness, much as the case in 1864, lacks the scenic vistas and great overlooks. Must be why they call it the Wilderness!

The trail is roughly an hour course, threading respectfully around the remnants of earthworks.


The photo above is close to the location pictured in the period photograph on page 23 of Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee, by Earl J. Hess. My photo was taken just west of Saunders Field, about 100 yards north of Constitution Highway (Va 20).

Overall the trail is well interpreted without over doing things. However the text of the markers is set to follow a script. Hanging questions posed by some markers may confuse those taking the trail in reverse order.  And I’d still recommend the June 1995 issue of Blue & Gray Magazine for reference while walking the trail.

The trail is on a flat grade, with only one or two low crossing points. A park maintenance shop, while sited in the middle of the battlespace, is relatively un-obtrusive. The park service maintains good “green space” between the trail and neighboring subdivisions. As seen from the map view of the marker set, this section of the battlefield is under some pressure. The modern lake has covered much of the Confederate rear. All of which leaves the visitor a false impression that the Federal right flank wasn’t “in the air” quite so badly.

Missing War Department Tablets

Here’s my rundown of the missing tablets from the War Department series for Antietam Battlefield. The first five listed are from the lettered series. Four of the listed 29 are uploaded to the database, with reference numbers supplied (hence my tally yesterday of 25 “missing” tablets).

Tablet # Title Location HMDB ref Number Notes
C 1st Corps Camp North Woods N/A
E Union Line of Battle North Woods N/A Down for maintenance.
G 1st Corps, 1st Div, 2nd Bde North Woods N/A
L 1st Corps, 2nd and 3rd Div Unknown N/A Suspect location Hwy 65 North.
N 2nd and 10th US Inf East Woods N/A Location disputed.
13 Doubleday’s Division (Sept 16) Hwy 65 North N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.29.
18 Morell’s Division (Sept 16) Hwy 34 East N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.34.
22 Sykes’ Division (Sept 15-16) Hwy 34 East N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.33.
23 5th Corps, Artilery Reserve Hwy 34 East N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.36.
82 3rd US Inf (Sept 16) Hwy 34 East N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.35.
98 Bty K, 1st US Sunken Road N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.131.
115 II Corps (Sept 15-16) Hwy 34 East N/A
314 Jackson’s Command Dunker Church


Down for maintenance.
325 Anderson’s Bde (Sept 16) Hwy 34 East N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.41.
333 DH Hill’s Div, Jackson Piper Farm N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.135.
334 Jones’ Bde West Woods N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.94.
335 Winder’s Bde West Woods N/A Down for maintenance.
338 Rodes Bde, Hill’s Div Sunken Road N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.136.
344 Andersons Div, Longstreet Piper Farm N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.137.
350 Pender’s Bde Harpers F. Rd N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.181.
373 Toombs’ Bde, Jones’ Div Branch Ave. N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.173.
380 Sunder’s Artillery Battalion Piper Farm N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.139.
C.P.6 Slocum’s Division Crampton’s Gp N/A
C.P.6C Slocum’s Division (cont.) Crampton’s Gp N/A
C.P.7 Smith’s Division Crampton’s Gp N/A
C.P.7C Smith’s Division (cont.) Crampton’s Gp N/A
B.F.2 Boteler’s Ford Shepherdstown


Missing: Large & Swisher, p.192.
B.F.4 Barnes’ Brigade Shepherdstown


Missing: Large & Swisher, p.193.
B.F.5 118th Pennsylvania Shepherdstown


Missing: Large & Swisher, p.194.

My personal standard for uploading a “missing” tablet or marker is:

  1. The location of the object is known based on references (in this case I’ve used two references for baselines – Battle of Antietam: The Official History by the Antietam Battlefield Board, by George R. Large and Joe A. Swisher and the Trailhead Graphics, Inc map of the Antietam Battlefield).
  2. The text is documented. Again references are required.
  3. I have visited the location and confirmed the object is not in place.
  4. An exception for #1 of course is if during the on site visit, a pole, base or other indicator of the object location is noted. Still text must be documented with some degree of accuracy.

Based on the site visits, most likely four of these 29 are simply out for maintenance. However several of those recorded as missing have been “lost” for some time, as indicated with references to Large and Swisher in the notes. In some cases, there may well be a “rest of the story,” that needs telling. For instance, were the three missing Shepherdstown tablets victims of flood damage perhaps?

And like the story that keeps going, the tablet “status” is always subject to change. Between the time I started this project and completed the work, an “accident” occurred on the Boonsboro Pike (Highway 34 East). Seems a motorist failed to avoid a tablet cluster somehow (rumble strips, guard rails, who knows?). As seen in the before and after photos on the entry for the Second Army Corps, September 15-16 (number 35), four tablets suffered. Good news is these will be restored in time. Since the last revision of Large and Swisher’s book in 1998, at least five “missing” tablets have been restored by the park service.

Yes, one can dispute some of the battle details of the War Department Tablets. Certainly some of the misspellings are annoying. Run on sentences abound. But taken as a set these are the products of perhaps the most extensive research on the battle ever completed. The Antietam Battlefield Board was staffed by veterans, who in several cases were on the field the day of the battle. In my opinion, beyond aiding the on-site interpretation of the battlefield, these metal plates are part of the historiography of the subject.

Long Working Week

When I look up and notice I haven’t posted an entry since Sunday, it is a bad sign that the day job is overtaking my hobbies! 

It hasn’t been all work this week.  I can sort of announce victory on the Antietam Project.  After 354 marker entries, five on site visits, and probably in excess of 1000 photos, I have entered all but 25 stray missing War Department tablets into the HMDB site.  Fittingly, I saved Old Simon for last.  Most of these are browsed through the Sharpsburg geographic grouping, but some of the tablets, monuments, and markers are at South Mountain, Harpers Ferry, and Shepherdstown.  I’ve done some updates along the way to the Antietam Marker List, and should get that dressed out this weekend.  One more addition I think should be made, however, is a listing of the various markers (Civil War Trails in particular) covering the route of the campaign – from Chantilly to Shepherdstown.  I’d really like to do more with the lead up to the Battle of Antietam.  In particular my curiosity is piqued regarding the cavalry skirmishing around Sugarloaf Mountain and the Crampton’s Gap fight.  So this might be a launching board for more research beyond the markers.

I also spent some time this week in the Official Records chasing down some names.  The Antietam Battlefield Board maps, which are a near indispensable resource by the way, show several Confederate formations along the Boonsboro Pike that don’t directly match to War Department Markers.  In particular, in the morning phases a skirmish line under “Twiggs” is shown to the south of the Pike, near where the picnic area is today.  Well “Twiggs” doesn’t match with any brigade or regimental commanders.  The only reference I’ve seen is to a Captain from Evans’ Brigade.  From scant OR references it seems “Twiggs” and the U.S Regulars were having a spirited skirmish all through the morning and past noon.  Unfortunately, that’s all I have for now.  It’s like a thread hanging off the edge of the desk, I’ll just have to follow it and see where it goes. 

Lastly, I had some time to track down one of the new markers in Loudoun County.  A state marker to the Loudoun Branch, Manassas Gap Railroad was placed in a rather remote location to the west of Leesburg (actually south of Purcellville, but Leesburg for better or worse my datum point).  The subject of the marker deals with a railroad line built from the Manassas Gap main line out into Loudoun Valley.  The hope of the railroad was to continue through Snickers Gap and on to Harpers Ferry.  The interesting “what if” for this marker deals with the construction halt in 1857.  Had the Loudoun Branch been reality in 1861, this would have changed the operational geometry of the First Manassas campaign.  Instead of marching to Piedmont Station, Jackson might have rode the cars all the way.  Ol’ Jack wouldn’t have stood guard while the men rested at Ashby’s Gap.  And another side point, the rolling stock Jackson captured at Harpers Ferry, could have been quickly impressed to the Confederate cause, instead of only limited amounts being transported by alternate means to the main line at Strasburg, Va.  Just food for thought. 

Onward if not upward. 

Trail Day at Monocacy

Yesterday was a great hiking day. Moderate temperatures. Fair winds. And just enough cloud cover to keep the sun off one’s back. All told, my estimate is roughly eight miles total hiking distance with the three NPS Ranger led walks and a couple of my own personal side trips.

One highlight of the morning hikes was a walk down near Monocacy Junction. In previous trips, I was reluctant to venture too far down around the railroad, concerned about the actual park boundary. With a “uniformed guide” this time the tour skirted the edge of the park boundary and around the actual site of the junction and the location where Special Orders No. 191 was found.

In this view, the railroad spur line to Frederick runs from the junction location at the right, off to the left. The actual “station” stood on the other side of the trees to the right, in the “Y.” Based on the accounts presented in Giants in the Cornfield: The 27th Infantry, by Wilbur D. Jones, the location where the “lost order” was recovered was in this general area:

Somewhere between the tree line shadows in the field, and the higher ground, on the morning of 13 September 1862, soldiers from the 27th Indiana found the orders wrapped around some cigars. The story is well enough known, so I’ll just reference the nearby marker. Still I wonder what happened to the cigars.

Note on the far left side is the roof of the new Visitors Center. Dovetailing into my next observation, for its square footage, the new VC at Monocacy offers more interpretation and exhibits than most other facilities. I often travel with my “staff” who is working his way past “three years old.” The number of “hands on” exhibits give him something to remember. Twice now, while driving up to the VC my “staff” has exclaimed, “That’s MY visitors center!” I applaud the NPS for a good balance in exhibits to appeal to all age brackets. But the “institutional” green roof is another story….

Great hikes in the mid day and afternoon over the other half of the battlefield, covering Worthington and Thomas Farms. I collected this photo from Brooks Hill, gathering in much of this section of the battlefield:

Just to orient the reader, looking to the north, the red barn just right of center is the Thomas place. Gordon’s afternoon attacks landed Evan’s Brigade in that area. York’s and Terry’s Brigades hit the Federal lines in echelon further to the left of this view. It is hard to see the slash of I-270 in this view, which runs about half way between Brooks Hill and the Thomas Farm.

This was the fifth visit to the battlefield in the last year for me. I recall in the 1980s visiting the area during a family vacation. We stopped at the overlook rest stop on I-270, on the hill to the southeast of the battlefield. That’s pretty much all there was! Now Monocacy is a great example of what preservation efforts matched to good planning on the government side can achieve. Granted, the site is under threat from expansion of the highway, and a proposed recycling/power plant. But I think “lodgment” has been accomplished. Glenn Worthington would be proud of the battlefield today.

HMDB and Google Earth

Over on Eric Wittenberg’s site the question was asked regarding compatibility between HMDB and Google Earth. Here are the steps involved:

  1. Navigate to one of the “map” pages of HMDB: Sharpsburg Map.
  2. From the top of the page, select “Download GPX File.” File saves as HMDB.gpx. You may wish to rename it after the download if pulling several sets down.
  3. Save it to a location of preference (Desktop, My Documents, etc.)
  4. Open Google Earth, and from the file menu select “Open”.
  5. In the Open File dialog box, for Files of Type use the drop down menu to select “GPS (*.gpx, *.loc).
  6. Double click the hmdb.gpx (or renamed file).
  7. Google Earth should now import the marker locations into your temporary locations. From there you can save them as a favorite or output to a .kmz file.
  8. The interface in Google Earth provides a placemark with a tag linking the HMDB entry URL.  You do get some chaff – looks like marker names that include quotes, special characters, or special formats will carry the HTML format tag into the marker name.

Final Attack Trail – Antietam

Just a short note today.  After completing the all the Antietam War Department Tablets for the “Regulars” along Boonsboro Pike (will get the linked set published shortly), I shifted back to complete the afternoon section of the battle.  Three monuments had been missed in earlier rounds.  After a proper round of on site documentation two weeks back, I finally had a chance to upload those last night:

16th Connecticut Infantry 

11th Ohio Infantry

12th Ohio Infantry

These three are situated along the Final Attack Trail that runs the valley between the Burnside Bridge and Branch Avenue.  Most park visitors, if they notice them at all, see these monuments from a distance.  Sad, as the 16th Connecticut in particular has a relief on the front side worth noting.  Nothing very fancy in terms of art work, but if my guess is correct, this depicts General Rodman’s mortal wounding. 

The 11th Ohio stands on a retaining wall which looks out of place.  My guess, speculating again, is the wall was part of the older trail path dating to the time the park was established.  If I read the Battlefield Board maps right, that should be part of the Otto Farm lane.  Still I mark this as tentative for now. 

In other notes, the fine folks at the Virginia Department of Historical Resources unveiled a new marker in downtown Fairfax this weekend:  Birthplace of the Confederate Battle Flag

More fun…..