Life After People…What’s Left Behind

Ok I shouldn’t have been watching (un)history on the History (channel), but I’m caught.  After my staff had retired for the night, I was channel surfing for something good to watch wile entering markers.  I stopped on one of those “the Apocalypse is here” docu-fantasies on the History Channel.  “Life After People” the series, episode two.  If you haven’t had the (dis)pleasure, the premise is what if people just disappear in the middle of the night.  I mean just flat “poof” no people left on earth.  So what would happen to all the “stuff” in our world?  The show walks through the deterioration of various buildings, structures, and such – showing how nature reclaims the world.  The show bounces around differnt localities with snapshots in time – moving out months and years then decades from the “poof”. 

What caught my eye in the episode description were the subjects.  Tonight we watched the demise of Chicago’s Wrigley Field, while Atlanta is overcome by a giant Kudzu vine.  Ok, as a life long Cardinal fan, I’ll admit that watching that scoreboard fall at the intersection of Waveland and Sheffield was a bit entertaining.  But the part where I stood up and took note was with Atlanta.  Anyone who’s done battle with Kudzu knows sooner or later it WILL win.  But the vine has one weak spot.  It is not drought tolerant.  The show speculated, after the Kudzu had blanketed Atlanta, that a long term drought would turn the city into a major fire hazard.  Of course, that provided by a thunderstorm in the graphically generated post-Apocalypse Atlanta soon started a fire to put Sherman’s bummers to shame.  The scene then shifted to Stone Mountain, with the light of the fire dancing over the faces of Jeff Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. 

At that point the narration shifted to a discussion of the mountain.  For those not familiar, Stone Mountain is a monadnock of erosion reistant granite.  With the granite surviving rather well against the elements, the narrator speculated that the artwork sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy would actually outlast the skyscrapers, highways, bridges, and other traces of mankind in the area. 

Imagine that… human-kind is cleared off the face of the earth.  Centuries later beings from another world happen along, investigating things.  Searching for artifacts, they find the “Faces on Earth” which are none other than Davis, Lee, and Jackson….

HMDB Civil War Updates – Week of 27 April

Another week, another batch of markers entered by the contributors at the Historical Marker Database.  This week, 63 new entries from the states of Arkansas, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia.  Each major theater of the war is represented!  Here’s the highlights:

– From Tybee Island, near Savannah, Georgia is what I term a “placeholder” marker discussing the Federal batteries involved with the reduction of Fort Pulaski.  A nearby informational sign shows an artist concept of a project aiming to recreate one of the batteries.

– East of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport is a cluster of markers indicate nearby points of interest.  Two relate the history of the nearby “Rough and Ready.”  Another of the set explains how civilians were evacuated out of the city of Atlanta after the Federal occupation.

Six markers around Jonesboro, Georgia discuss the August 31 – September 1, 1864 battle which helped seal the fate of Atlanta.

– From Maryland this week is the impressive Union Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in Baltimore.

– Also from Maryland, a new Civil War Trails marker placed outside the Monocacy Battlefield visitor center tells the story of the “Lost Order” from the Antietam Campaign.

– A couple of markers in Clinton, New Jersey indicate the final resting spot of General George W. Taylor.  Taylor was mortally wounded on August 27, 1862 leading his Brigade in one of the actions leading up to Second Manassas.

– Yet another impressive, if weathered,  Civil War monument stands in Delaware, Ohio.

– Our single Pennsylvania entry this week is not from Gettysburg, but rather in Bucks County north of Philadelphia.  Hiram Williams Pursell was awarded the Medal of Honor for actions at Fair Oaks, May 31, 1862.

– From the Trans-Mississippi Theater, two new marker entries support my posts on Chalk Bluff (part 1 and part 2).    One marker is on the Missouri side of the St. Francis River, where most of the fighting occurred.  The other marker, on the Arkansas side of the river, cites an action which occurred on May 15, 1862, a year before the battle.  All told four markers relate the activities at Chalk Bluff in the Civil War.

Four entries this week explain the Battle of Island No. 10 from the Tennessee shore.  One marker probably relates more about the battle than most books on the subject, and includes a map.  These complement the only marker on the Missouri side to the battle, at New Madrid.  I have a trip report in my queue.

– Just north of Aldie is a small marker for Loudoun Agricultural and Mechanical Institute, one of the first (if not the first) agricultural college.  Why is it here on our Civil War updates?  Well John S. Mosby overnighted there during the battle of Aldie.

– Ten markers this week detail Civil War activities in Powhatan County.  Three indicate Gen. R.E. Lee’s last camp site on the Appomattox Campaign  –  A Civil War Trails Marker,   A Virginia State Marker, and an SCV plaque.  “…The last night he spent under canvas….”

– Other markers in Powhatan County point to Derwent, were Lee stayed after the war until accepting an appointment to Washington College.

– In Goochland County, Virginia several markers this week relate to the Dahlgren Raid.  These include Sabot Hill, home of James Seddon, Confederate Secretary of War, where Dahlgren stopped on March 1, 1864.

– A couple of state markers (here and here) outside Suffolk discuss action in the April-May Siege of Suffolk.

– Almost on the Southeast Virginia border, a marker in Franklin, Virginia discusses the war in the Blackwater-Chowan Corridor.    This is one in a set of markers at a kiosk, which also relate the town’s importance as a supply center.  Other markers in the Franklin area mark the Blackwater Line at both Joyner’s Ford and Blackwater Bridge.

Generals George Thomas and William Mahone were born ten years and nine miles appart outside Franklin in Southhampton County, and of course fought for opposite sides in the war.

– And anytime we have a new marker for Wade Hampton’s Beefsteak raid, I’ve got to mention it!  We’ll have a set of related markers for this later.

– Lastly, eleven additions to the Manassas Battlefield Park sets.  Sorry, Harry, these are all from the 2nd Manassas field, along the Deep Cut and Brawner Farm trails.  Note the effect of tree clearing in these photos.  While criticised by many, as at Gettysburg, the clearing has opened new vistas on the battlefield.  The entire northern trail system just seems more inviting.

Closing this week, you’ll notice there were no Gettysburg entries.  The project is at a convienent pause point.  Every tablet, marker and monument I can locate on the battlefield has been entered.  (and if anyone knows of more that have escaped my camera, please do contact me.)  There are several spots further afield associated with the campaign that I need to visit in order to collect some markers.    Closer to the field, only a small number of markers in Gettysburg itself are in the database.  That will require a “street by street” trip.  And another un-represented set are the Hospital signs placed by the Historic Gettysburg – Adams County Society.  At this time I don’t know if those should be “markers” or just locations mentioned on the main marker entries.   At any rate there are still a lot of markers for other “hunters” to chase down on their visits to Gettysburg.

In the mean time, after taking this week off, I’ll start populating and refining the supporting Gettysburg marker pages on this blog.  First off is the partially completed “Battlefield by Locations” page.  Next up are sets related by order of battle.

Chalk Bluff Battlefield, Part 2

The last post looked at the Battle of Chalk Bluff in the context of Marmaduke’s Cape Girardeau Raid with the emphasis on the tactical level.  In terms of numbers involved, 13,000 by some counts, the battle was among the largest fought in Missouri.  However, as noted at the closing of yesterday’s post, likely many of those troops were never directly engaged as the casualty numbers seem rather low.  The restricted battle-space likely had much to do with this.

Moving up from the tactical level, looking at both the raid and the battle from an operational perspective, one could see the action as a side operation associated with the larger Vicksburg Campaign.  Events in that campaign matching the Marmaduke Raid’s time line include Admiral Porter’s running of the Vicksburg defenses, General McClernand’s Corps crossing the Mississippi, and, on May 1, the battle of Port Gibson.  Clearly the operations of Marmaduke did not slow Grant’s advance into Mississippi.

However, the reaction in Missouri to Marmaduke did cause enough concern to slow the transfer of troops to Tennessee.  Major General Samuel Curtis, commanding the Department of Missouri,  saw the Confederate raid as a serious threat, and delayed previously scheduled troop transfers.  Brigades which had been directed to take part in the Vicksburg operations, Rosecrans’ central Tennessee campaign, and to Southwest Missouri were detailed instead to contain Marmaduke.  This created a gap between the requirements for and the presence of the troops, not realized until the later half of the summer.  While I could not argue that Grant’s capture of Vicksburg was delayed significantly, I might make the case that the Army of the Cumberland was deprived of additional forces needed in the advance on Chattanooga. Curtis and General Halleck at Army Headquarters conversed by dispatches throughout the campaign with regard to troops destined to reinforce Rosecrans.  Curtis stressed the danger of the situation, even as late as May 4.   Curtis’ tone did not endear him to his superiors.   Curtis, who’d had a falling out with the Missouri governor, was later reassigned.

On the other side, Marmaduke’s command was certainly much worse for the wear.  It is a bit outside this blog entry’s scope, but the entire raid was mismanaged.  Marmaduke brought along several batteries of artillery and a wagon train of supplies.  And when confronting fortifications around Cape Girardeau, complete with heavy artillery, the cavalry was just not prepared for the task.  After escaping by way of Chalk Bluff, the Confederate column slogged through the Arkansas swamps for several days, perhaps losing more material and horses there than to enemy action.  Recovery and remounting took some time.  Even a couple months later, Marmaduke’s command had not fully recovered when engaged in the Battle of Helena (July 4, 1863).

Of course the actions in the West did not occur in a vacuum.   While Marmaduke was heading north and Grant turning south around Vicksburg, the Chancellorsville Campaign was underway in the East.  What I find coincidental, reading the reports, is the weather.   Considering the prevailing winds and normal course of storm fronts from west to east, it is possible the same storm systems that flooded the St. Francis those last weeks of April also delayed the start of Stoneman’s Raid in Virginia.   April showers didn’t just bring May flowers that year.

Today Chalk Bluff is partially preserved, but the landscape has seen some drastic changes since the war.  To start with, the swamps that confined movement to the ridge were drained in the early 20th century.   Levees further constrained the St. Francis to control flooding.  And military road no longer runs the ridge line.    Enough remains, however, to afford an interested battlefield stomper a few sites to consider.  For those interested, I’ll describe a tour (with map here).  The total driving distance is about 16 miles, requiring about an hour.

I suggest starting any tour of the battlefield at Campbell, Missouri (waypoint A on my map), which sits at the intersection of US Highway 62 and Missouri Highway 53.   Head north out of Campbell on Missouri 53.  About a mile from town, the road climbs Cowley’s Ridge (a noticeable incline in the otherwise table top flat surrounding countryside).  Towards the crest, notice on the left an electrical substation and take the dirt road leading beside it (waypoint B).

Four Mile
Four Mile

The town of Four Mile stood here at the time of the war.  Carter’s Texas Cavalry Brigade stopped the lead elements of McNeil’s column here on the morning of May 1.  Looking back north along Missouri 53, here Caldwell’s 1st Iowa ran into the Texans.

Crest of Crowley's Ridge
Crest of Crowley’s Ridge

I can only guess where the old Military Road passed, but following the gravel road a short distance is the Four Mile cemetery.

Four Mile Cemetery
Four Mile Cemetery

Oral tradition says Federal soldiers were buried in the cemetery.   If so, no stones mark the burials.  One alibi here also.  You’ll notice a lot of downed trees in the photos, the result of this winter’s major ice storm that hit Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky.   Also on the ridge at this point is a wartime structure known as the Taylor House or Hotel, which was used as a field hospital.  It stands on private property, and with the downed limbs I could not take a good photo from the public road.

As the gravel road only loops back to the main road, the visitor can backtrack to Campbell, taking a right on North Avenue (waypoint C).  After a few blocks, turn north (right) on Woodlawn Drive.  Woodlawn Drive turns west (left) and becomes County Route 228.  After just over a mile of ruler edge straight road, CR 228 climbs up Crowley’s Ridge and assumes the course once used for the Military Road. About another mile on CR 228, on the left (south) is Gravel Hill Cemetery, with a small parking area (waypoint D).

Gravel Hill Cemetery
Gravel Hill Cemetery

Marmaduke’s second line formed across the ridge here.  Again, local lore holds that Federals were buried here, but I’ve never seen any headstones.

Marmaduke's Second Line
Marmaduke’s Second Line

Looking east down CR 228, the Federals advanced into breastworks built across the top of the ridge.  No trace of breastworks here stand today (or at least none anyone speaks of).  Both sides sparred here until about mid-afternoon.

Continue west on CR 228 through a couple sets of elbow turns, for about a mile and a half.  At the second elbow turn, traces of Federal earthworks are said to stand north of the road.  The remains, if they are that, are on private property and not easily seen from the road.  At about two miles from Gravel Hill Cemetery, on the right, is a parking area and overlook for the St. Francis River boat ramp.  A marker and sign stand at the west edge (waypoint E).

Missouri Side Interpretation
Missouri Side Interpretation

Marmaduke’s last line formed just to the east of this parking area.   The fighting continued here from about 5 p.m. until dark.   The marker actually stands on one of the “chalky bluffs”, and in the ground below the Confederate dismounted artillery to make the river crossing.   But I’ll say up front, the Southeast Missouri version of “bluff” is not exactly a “Cliffs of Dover”:

The "Bluffs" from the River Bottom
The “Bluffs” from the River Bottom

A boat ramp at the end of the road is the only access to the river on the Missouri side close to the site of Thompson’s Bridge.  The actual crossing site was further downstream, and better viewed from the Arkansas shore.

St. Francis River from Missouri Shore
St. Francis River from Missouri Side

From the boat ramp, return east for about mile on CR 228, and turn south (right) on CR 232 (waypoint F).  After a left turn to the east for a short distance, then turn south (right) onto CR 217.  Follow CR 217 south to US 62.  At any point on CR 217 you may want to stop and look back at Crowley’s Ridge (a view seen in part 1) to appreciate the terrain.

At the intersection with US 62 (waypoint G), turn west (right) and cross the St Francis River into the town of St. Francis.  In the town turn north (right) on Church Street (waypoint H), then turn west (left) onto Cleveland Street.  At the west end of town, turn north (right) onto CR 340 (waypoint I)  and follow as it skirts the edge of the river.  After about a mile, turn north (right) again on CR 338, and follow that road through a turn west.  After a mile, turn north (right) onto CR 347 (waypoint J), which passes back up onto Crowley’s Ridge, and near the course of the Military Road.  Just over a mile, enter Chalk Bluff Battlefield Park (waypoint K).

Chalk Bluff Battlefield Park
Chalk Bluff Battlefield Park

Technically speaking, very little of the May 1-2 action occurred on the Arkansas side of the river.  But as discussed in part 1, the crossing site saw a lot of activity before the battle.  Several state historical markers detail the history of Chalk Bluff, with emphasis on the Civil War.  A trail loop, of a few hundred yards, circles out from the parking area down to the river to the crossing site.

St. Francis River from Arkansas Side
St. Francis River from Arkansas Side

From the old ferry site, the military road passed up a defile to the top of the ridge.  Marmaduke had a defensive line constructed on the ridge line to defend against any sudden Federal rush across the river.

Defensive Line on Arkansas Side
Defensive Line on Arkansas Side

As you can see from this view, the damage to the ice storm was extensive.  Several depressions have from time to time been cited as remains of wartime earthworks.  I don’t doubt some traces exist, but are not easily identified even for a frequent visitor.  A fortification stood just south of the park boundary, used by both sides from time to time.  But the area today is a cow pasture, and often visitors mistake a nearby cow pond dam for the traces of the fort.

That concludes a tour of the battlefield. While Chalk Bluff was a small, minor engagement compared to the major battles occurring at the same time in Mississippi and Virginia, it was one of the largest in Southeast Missouri.   Likewise, while the battlefield is not as well preserved as others, it is the only site even partially protected in Southeast Missouri.  As such, if you are in the area, and have some time, the short excursion is worth it.

Chalk Bluff Battlefield, Part 1

Time to step away from this Gettysburg stuff for a bit and file a few trip reports from vacation.  Let me start with Chalk Bluff, a small battlefield that straddles the St. Francis River on the Arkansas-Missouri state line.  The site witnessed much activity during the war, being an important river crossing site.  For you “Easterners” this spot was perhaps the “Kelly’s Ford” of the Trans-Mississippi theater, and was used by regular and irregular alike.

A bit of geographic and geologic background explains the activity somewhat.  The major geologic feature in the area is a long, narrow line of hills collectively known as Crowley’s Ridge.  This Ridge extends from around Cape Girardeau, Missouri in a wide arc to the south all the way to Helena, Arkansas, easily 150 miles long.  The 200 to 300 foot elevation contrasts sharply with the surrounding delta bottom land – which at the time of the war was a practically impenetrable swamp, although today, with the swamp drained, is farmland.  At first glance on the topographical map, this ridge appears to be a large spur from the Ozark Mountains to the north.  Geologists have debated the origin for some time, but one fact is clear, since the ridge is made of loess deposits, not limestone, the formation is not directly related to the Ozarks.   (Now days the loess mixture of sand and gravel is processed into cat litter, of all things!)  The St. Francis river cuts through the Ridge just west of modern day Campbell, Missouri, north of the aptly name town of St. Francis, Arkansas.  Over the centuries, the river has exposed the white loess from which the name “Chalk Bluff” is derived.  The St. Francis River is contained through the cut, but still has wide river bottom.  The channel is noticeably narrowed, and deeper as it passes down the ridge.

View of Crowley's Ridge From South of the Battlefield

Early settlers were attracted to the ridge as it offered pasture lands well above the adjacent swamps.  The loess made good pasture land.   During the “frontier” days, the army cut what was known as the “military road” down the ridge line.  Typical of settlement patterns elsewhere, communities sprang up along the ridge also.  Sort of hard to determine which came first, the road or the communities, but regardless the ridge was “settled” well before the Civil War.  And one of those communities was at Chalk Bluff.  A ferry operated at Chalk Bluff, supporting this route from the Mississippi River into Northeast Arkansas.  To the southwest was Piggot, Arkansas.  And to the northeast was the town of Four Mile, standing four miles on the Missouri side of the river.  (Insert your Mark Twainism here if you would…)

St. Francis River at Chalk Bluff

Southeast Missouri sat between two rather active theaters of war in 1863.  To the east, Gen. U.S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign used the Mississippi River as a base line of operations.  To the west Federal forces in Southwest Missouri were preparing for a campaign aimed at Little Rock, Arkansas.  Any Confederate force loose in Southeast Missouri would disrupt these important campaigns, somewhat like a mirror image of the damage done by General N.B. Forrest in west Tennessee.

That said, the local Federal commander, General John McNeil, launched a raid in March 1863, reaching as far as Piggot, Arkansas, to disperse Confederate forces.  The 2nd Missouri State Militia Cavalry (not to be confused with Merrill’s 2nd Missouri Cavalry) constituted the large part of the Federal force.  The raid included a three hour fight at Chalk Bluff on March 10.  Later on March 24, both sides clashed at the town again as the Federals made their withdrawal north.

McNeil’s gains were small and short lived.  Within weeks a large cavalry force under Brig. Gen. John S. Marmaduke assembled in Northeast Arkansas.  Marmaduke’s goal was indeed to disrupt the Federal operations.  He crossed the St. Francis at Chalk Bluff, capturing a Federal detachment there on April 18.  Marmaduke focused his wide ranging forces on Cape Girardeau, a major Federal supply base.  After a repulsed attack on April 26, Marmaduke fell back across Crowley’s Ridge toward Chalk Bluff.

Marmaduke had sturred up a hornet’s nest.  Several Federal columns began converging on his force.  Worse yet, his retreat was blocked by a rain swollen St. Francis River.  What Marmaduke needed was a little time… and a bridge.  For a bridge, he tapped Brig. Gen. M. Jeff Thompson to construct a bridge, sending him and a work detail in advance of the main body.  To gain time, Marmaduke ordered a set of defensive lines thrown across the Military Road.

Thompson’s bridge was truly a improvisational engineering masterpiece.  Using logs, ropes, vines, and what ever else they could find, Thompson’s crew built a foot bridge.  A pontoon supported the center section.  For artillery and wagons, they built a raft.

On the morning of May 1, a Federal advanced guard from McNeil’s command encountered Marmaduke’s forward line at the town of Four Mile along the Military Road.  The 1st Iowa Cavalry (Maj. Joseph Caldwell) ran into Col. George Carter’s Texas Cavalry Brigade.  Both sides developed the battle, and 3rd Missouri Cavalry (Union), under Lt. Col. Robert Carrick was fed into the fight.  Both sides had single batteries of artillery deployed and the skirmish soon became a full fledged engagement.  Around 10 a.m. Marmaduke ordered Carter to pull back toward Chalk Bluff as more Federals arrived.

Carter assumed a new position near the town of Gravel Hill, about a mile down the road from Four Mile, where Col. Colton Greene’s  and Col. Joe Shelby’s (commanded by Col. G.W. Thompson) Missouri (CS) Cavalry Brigades had constructed a line of breastworks.  Pursuing Carter’s Texans, the 1st Iowa and 3rd Missouri (US), joined by the 3rd Iowa ran directly into this line and were handily repulsed.  For the next two to three hours, both sides sparred, with the superior numbers on the Federal side blunted by the restricted battle-space.  (I’m oversimplifying the fight somewhat, as all told probably 6,000 men were involved at this time.)

Around 3 p.m. Marmaduke again ordered his line back, again to another position a mile before Chalk Bluff, which was prepared by Col. John Burbridge’s Cavalry Brigade.  By 5 p.m. the fighting along this line developed into a full fledged battle.  Eight to ten pieces of artillery on each side were engaged.  And when reports of participating regiments are matched, the number of men engaged probably reached over 8,000.  Still the terrain prevented the Federals from using their superior numbers to outflank the Confederates.  And the Confederates were able to use ravines on either side of the road to pester McNeil’s flanks.  The battle continued, with neither side gaining advantage, until nightfall.

During the night, Marmaduke finally extracted his command across Thompson’s Bridge.  Artillery pieces were actually dismounted from carriages, as the combined weight would overload the rafts.  That Thompson was able to perform this operation in such a remote location, under threat of the enemy, is noteworthy.  By morning, all save a Confederate rear guard had passed into Arkansas.  Lt. Col. William Baumer’s 1st Nebraska Cavalry pressed the Confederates back to the bridge.  When the last Confederates had crossed, the makeshift bridge was untied to drift downriver.  Now with a swollen river between him and the enemy, Marmaduke made his escape.

This effectively ended Marmaduke’s raid and the threat to the Federal supply lines supporting Grant.  Casualties figures are somewhat misleading (if not speculative).  Marmaduke reports a total of 15 killed and 85 wounded for the entire raid.  Of which only four total casualties were lost at Chalk Bluff.  On the opposite side estimates 23 killed and 45 wounded for the Federals are often cited.  But there are no definitive numbers.  Marmaduke claimed over 4,000 men in his command at the battle.  McNeil’s numbered 9,000 counting artillery batteries.  Just seems either the casualty numbers are low, or less fighting occurred than claimed in the official returns.

In part two of this discussion, I’ll put the battle in context with the other operations in theater and the scope of the war overall.  And I’ll offer up some photos and a suggested tour route should any readers wish to stomp out on the grounds.


Sources Consulted:

United States War Department. War of the Rebellion: A compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.  Series I, Volume 22, (Serial 32), pages 251-305.

Jerry Ponder.  The Battle of Chalk Bluff:  An Account of General John S. Marmaduke’s Second Missouri Raid.  Doniphan, Missouri:  Ponder Books, 1994.

Robert Sidney Douglas.  A History of Southeast Missouri.  Volume I.  New York:  The Lewis Publishing Company, 1912.

Stephen B. Oates.  Confederate Cavalry West of the River.  Austin:  University of Texas Press, 1961.

HMDB Civil War Updates – Week of 20 April

A lean week, and an indicator that many “marker hunters” are out in the field and not in front of the computer.  Only 25 new entries this week, from D.C., Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.  However small in number, there are some of interest:

– Across the street from the John Ericsson Memorial in Washington, D.C. is an interpretive wayside relating a short biography and history of the memorial.  Ericsson is best known for the U.S.S. Monitor.

– I mentioned in a trip report the “find” of Antietam War Department tablet No. 115.  It discusses the movements of the Federal Second Corps on September 15-16, 1862.  Likely it was there all the time, just hiding behind a guard rail.

– A marker in Cleveland, Ohio indicates the site of Camp Cleveland.  The marker states that nearly 5% of all Ohio troops mustered passed through the camp.

– A group of three Civil War Trails and one Virginia state marker in downtown Franklin, Virginia orient visitors to the actions and operations around the town during the war.

– A Civil War Trails marker in Suffolk, Virginia provides details about the nearby Confederate memorial and the Siege of Suffolk (May 1863).  A nearby Trails marker points out “Riddick’s Folly,” a fine example of Greek revival architecture, served as Union Major General James Peck’s headquarters during the siege.  When the occupants returned, the marker relates, only a single chair remained… damn Yankees!

– Another Civil War Trails marker in Courtland, Virginia stands in front of Mahone’s Tavern.  A young William Mahone, later Confederate Major General, lived his teen years here.  He claimed gambling winnings from gaming at the tavern helped him through Virginia Military Institute.

– A local marker and yet another Civil War Trails marker indicate the site of Thomaston, the home of Union General George H. Thomas.

– My Gettysburg project has wound down to a few entries left to complete.  Only thirteen added this week.  These additions include some monuments in the downtown area and several of the Main Street Gettysburg markers.  I’ve also included a few “missing” markers where the marker stand was visible, to allow accurate location details.  The park is cleaning up the old War Department tablets, and hopefully in a return trip I’ll have photos of the shiny, restored tablets.  I am concerned, since it stands in an out of the way location, about the Salem Virginia Artillery tablet.  The stand appeared disturbed, but without any other information I can only ask if it was vandalized.

Short working week at the Civil War category this go round.  Look for more western theater markers from my vacation next week.

Blog Evolution from My Perspective

I’ll admit that history blogging was a new trick for me about 18 months back.  Blogs, I thought, fit into three broad genres –

  • (A) techie blogs where we techies discuss the real things that make the world work (!).
  • (B) “feel good” blogs where the masses post missives about gardening, trips to the store, or other mundane things. 
  • (C) those “political” blogs for those who dress up as an “insider” to impress the world beyond. 

Who the heck would want to present any historical topics in a blog format anyway?

You see, the blogging format as we know it today evolved whist I was overseas.  Allow me to skirt around several political topics here and simply say my “office” was at times in different locations in Afghanistan and Iraq.  When I signed on to that job, the “web log” was not refined enough for the masses.  Furthermore, my customer wished for solutions based on the 1990s approaches.  What I call “I send email, therefore I am” solutions.  Policies at the time expressly forbid any service member from posting to, or to some degree even reading content from, a blog.  Needless to day, the “blog” was cast as some unconventional tool, not to be used by our customer.  Again, let me try to skirt a political point here, the customer feared that operational information might leak out via some blog source.   Already soldiers had “talked” a bit more than security allowed in a few cases, and the authorities feared the bad guys were listening.  And I can say definitively, in spite of what some sources may have implied or suggested, that was the concern of the authorities.  (I was a technical advisor when the policy was written, and saw first hand what the policy makers had on their minds.)

Of course along with the “blog” other off limits tools included instant messaging, file sharing, and the early social networking sites.  In short, web 2.0 was a no, no.  Even the use of “My Sites” in Microsoft SharePoint environments was frowned upon (probably since it sounded so much like the evil “MySpace”).  Slowly my customer came around to see these tools in the light of the neocortical, asymmetrical, unconventional environment we were facing.  Ever so slowly, the customer began to inquire about the tools.  Quite often when looking for a way to simplify a process, one of us technical advisers would mention a tool that might work.  If nothing else it kept the conversation on the art of the possible, as opposed to the restrictions of the regulations. 

The breakthrough I saw was one fine three hour meeting  were the customer kept going back to the issue of reporting major events.  Anyone who has worked with the military is familiar with various standard, formatted reports designed for quick voice communication (i.e. over the radio).  As an old Scout Platoon leader from the ancient days before digital stuff, I knew the doctrine to be short, concise, and unambiguous.  In other words, “just the facts, sir.”  Don’t use those fancy words you learned in college.  And don’t make it a term paper.   Well that last bit works fine, if you are fighting the 5th Soviet Motorized Rifle Division in Central Europe – where the enemy conveniently used doctrinal templates for his operations.  Now days, the consumer on the other end of the report is struggling to map out connections and coincidences beyond the simple report.  In short they needed the “rest of the story” to place things in better perspective.   The natural answer was, “How about a blog?” 

The blog, as a collaborative tool set, took on an air of acceptance.  Now the old dry DA form 1594s were supplemented, but not supplanted, by a medium that allowed not only verbose descriptions, but also illustrations, links to additional content, and, if our system could support, even audio/video.  I won’t say it the solution was embraced fully from the start, but it was a start.  Blog was no longer a dirty word describing an illegal tool set.  It was a force for good.   The key point was assuring the customer that the “blog” could be maintained Most importantly, a work saver.  (Well except for the fella that has to figure out how the blogs are tagged and filed… but that is another story…).

Helping with this new found acceptance was a similar trend seen at the customer’s higher echelons.  I have no insight as to when or how the shift was made.  But as my time overseas came to an end, the old blogging policy was revisited.  Not only were soldiers allowed to blog, but were actually encouraged to blog.  There were even some strategic effects seen in the use of blogging.   (The authorities even saw fit to use the once forbidden YouTube.)  From my perspective, having first been on the side which policed the blogs, then on the side encouraging the blog as a valued tool in the set, this was a dramatic shift. 

All this, of course, is more the application of the blog as a collaborative tool in the workplace.  From the personal side, I was always a bit reserved.  I often have to maintain an internal facing blog for work.  Makes good sense, as it helps with the “now, how did I do that last time?” questions.  But as useful as it may be, I was resistant to spending time on a personal blog after spending hours a week on a “work” blog.  Furthermore, who really cares that I went to the “Big Mud Hole Battlefield” last week?  However, just as part of general research I noticed more and more search queries returned Civil War related blogs. 

So the natural inclination was for me to create a blog of my own.  But with what type of focus.  As related 198 posts ago, this blog began partly out of frustration with regard my trip notes.  I found it difficult to reconcile paper notations on the margins of maps, on flyers, and on note cards taken while out on battlefield trips.  Coalescing the data when memory was a main operator in the join statement brought on bad returns…er… I was having trouble reading my own handwriting.  So my blog’s intent was, largely still is, to match what I know and have seen to the historical markers entered in the database site.   What has grown naturally from that are better trip reports and articles about the makes/models of cannon. 

My lament is the material presented here is rarely “hard history.”  More to the level of a passing interest.  But as many reading can relate to, the critical factor is time.  Geographically I’m in a great place for some good archival research – within an hour and a half from my front door are the National Archives, Gettysburg, Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania, and others.  But the day job keeps me out of the archives.  Ironically in some engagements, I’m defining the “records system” by which a few of those archives are feed new materials!   Like being a chocoholic at the Hershey plant I guess.

Because of work, I tend to be a burst poster.  Often several days in a row with posts, then a week without.  What has instilled a bit of posting dicipline is the weekly update of Civil War markers in HMDB.  Beyond that my “routine” that is not so routine includes a trip report sometime mid-week, and something about the artillery on Thursday or Friday.  I’ve got to get better at that routine.  But at the same time, not like I get any money off this blog, so if my posts lack pacing… well nobody is really missing out (and some suffering might actually be relieved in some quarters).  Usually I’ll write a post in the evenings or mornings, but let it sit until I’ve had some time to think about what I wrote.  Usually the hour long commute in to work allows for such contemplation.  Also serves as an internal distractor from the stop and go traffic frustrations.

Long story short, I’ve kept at this for a year now and am approaching 200 posts.  I’m not one to shout about some mark on the wall, but I am happy to have a habbit of posting.  My thanks to those who visit the site, be it regularly or not.  Most important, my appreciation to those whom I’ve met here in the “blogisphere” who have commented and helped along the way!

Antietam Day Trip

Taking advantage of the excellent weather yesterday, we headed up the road beyond Harpers Ferry to Antietam.  “We” in this case was just myself and my four year old assistant.  Mommy was working and we “menfolk” needed to get out of the house for a bit.  Couldn’t have picked a better day.

After a rather pleasant drive through the back roads, we arrived at the Antietam Visitor Center and checked in.  After showing my “embarrassingly frequent visitor” card (otherwise known as the season pass) to Ranger Mannie Gentile, we chatted briefly.  My son is at least familiar with Mannie by way of the “helmet videos,” and it was the first time we’ve met in person.  But with a charity walk ongoing that day, Mannie appeared much too busy for us to chat long.  My “aide” mentioned the  observation tower, which was seconded by “Ranger Mannie.”  And off we went.

A good recommendation it was, for the visibility was better than clear – no dust or thermals to blur the view.   And at that mid-morning hour, we had the tower practically to ourselves.

From the Tower Looking Southeast
From the Tower Looking Southeast
Looking Northwest with the Sunken Road on Left
Looking Northwest with the Sunken Road on Left
Looking Southwest at the Piper Farm
Looking Southwest at the Piper Farm
Looking North with the Mumma and Roulette Farms on the Left
Looking North with the Mumma and Roulette Farms on the Left

Somewhat standard views from the tower, but barely a hint of cloud in the sky.

We spent some time walking about the Sunken Road area, but did not take the full trail.  A four year old’s tolerance for long walks does limit things a bit.  But after that exertion, he was ready for an early lunch at the picnic area.

One advantage of touring with a young one is that you must slow things down to their pace and bend your itinerary to fit their requirements.  We often make the picnic area a stop on our Antietam trips (and on other battlefields) for this very reason.  In this case, the picnic area is a good spot, not only for him to sit and munch a bit, but for me to look at the battlefield from a perspective not often seen.

Antietam Picnic Area
Antietam Picnic Area

Notice through the trees in the distance is the wall around the National Cemetery.  There are  a dozen or so War Department tablets within easy walking distance of the pull off, making this a good stop for a battlefield tour anyway.  I’d say any guidebook on Antietam that overlooks this stop, probably is missing a bit of the battle.  From the picnic tables, I stepped over to the tree line and looked over the fence.  To the south is ground used by some of the Horse Artillery Batteries to fire on the Confederate line along Boonsboro Pike.

Ridge Spur South of Picnic Area
Ridge Spur South of Picnic Area

The Federal cavalry spent much of the battle under the cover of this spur, which is west of the Newcomer Farm, with a skirmish line screening forward past the picnic area’s location.  Some of the U.S. Regulars passed around the spur and advanced south of the Pike, putting pressure on the Confederate center.

Looking southwest from the same point, the Regulars advanced forward across a small draw.

US Regulars Advance South of Pike
US Regulars Advance South of Pike

As a point of reference, again the National Cemetery (where several Confederate batteries were posted during the battle) is in the distant right.  Rodman Avenue passes from the right to the left.  However, only a portion of the avenue is visible, in the distant left center, near the 50th Pennsylvania Monument (a white speck on the high ground).

Of course, true Antietam devotees will note the hill north of the picnic grounds is where Captain Tidball manhandled his guns into position.  But the better way to visit that point by way of the trail system.  Crossing the Boonsboro Pike and climbing the road embankment is difficult at best.  And you may find a bull or two guarding the position.

After our lunch, we headed east on Boonsboro Pike to check the status of a few “out of the way” tablets.  First off, the damaged tablets from last year’s auto accident were back and sporting a new coat of paint.

Tablet Cluster Replaced
Tablet Cluster Replaced

And a bit further down the road, either tablet No. 115 had been hiding in plain sight all these days, or was recently replaced.

Second Corps Tablet (No. 115)
Second Corps Tablet (No. 115)

So I photographed it and added it to the database of markers, with of course the appropriate updates to the Antietam Markers page.

We rounded out our trip on the south end of the battlefield.  The “aide” was only up for a short walk on the Final Attack Trail and we returned after only a couple of trail stops.  He found the view overlooking the Otto House along Branch Avenue entertaining.

Looking from Branch Avenue at the Otto and Sherrick Houses
Looking from Branch Avenue at the Otto and Sherrick Houses

Readers of Ranger Gentile’s blog might recall this ground was charred in the controlled burn in March.  Hard to tell here in mid-April.

At that point in our day trip, the “aide” was waving off any more hikes.  My mission’s main objective was accomplished.  He was ready for a long nap.  So home we went.  One of these days I really should wright a book – “Wear Them Out:  How to Tour a Battlefield with a Pre-schooler.”