Monthly Archives: July 2010

Newtown Battlefield

Back on Memorial day, while visiting the Elmira, New York area, I made a side trip to the Newtown Battlefield State park.  While I’m situated right in the middle of the Eastern Theater of the Civil War, rarely do I get to stomp around on a Revolutionary War battlefield.  So I took full advantage.

The Battle of Newtown, fought on August 29, 1779, was the most important engagement of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign.  Among the Revolutionary War’s largest military efforts, that campaign aimed to remove the threat of Tory and British-allied Native Americans.  Newtown was the largest battle (and for the most part the only true battle) in the campaign.   Space prevents me from discussing the campaign in detail, but I would recommend the interactive maps from the Sullivan-Clinton website for a quick scan.

General John Sullivan left Fort Sullivan (present day Athens, Pennsylvania) on August  26 with around 3,500 men.   His plan was to follow the Chemung River north into the heart of Iroquois territory in the Finger Lakes district.  Tories, commanded by Colonel John Butler, and British-allied Iroquois, led by Joseph Brant,  planned to ambush the Continentals at a wide bend in the river, just north of the present day New York-Pennsylvania state line.  All told around 1,200 Tories, Native Americans, and British regulars manned the line.  The Tory-Iroquois position was formidable, using breastworks and natural features.   A nearby mountain towered over the entire position, and was manned by a group of observers.

Newtown BF Pano

View of Chemung Valley from Newtown Battlefield Park

Although the Tory-Iroquois camouflaged the works, Sullivan’s scouts detected the position thus preventing the trap from springing.  Sullivan drew up a hasty and rather complex plan to deal with the entrenched enemy.  While one force, including light cannon, would confront the breastworks, he detached two brigades to flank the position by moving over the mountain.  Recognizing this move, the Tories and Iroquois attempted to retreat.  However, they ran into the Continentals now moving down the mountain.  In the ensuing fight, the Continentals defeated a determined counter-attack.  Poor timing and communications with his subordinates prevented Sullivan from inflicting a total defeat on his enemy.

But the victory opened up the Chemung Valley and gave Sullivan a clear path ahead.  Casualties on both sides were light, likely under 100 total.  While without a complete victory, Sullivan was free to move forward into the heart of Iroquois lands.  By destroying the settlements, Sullivan drove the Iroquois to the protection of British forts along the great lakes.  The British had to provide supplies and aid to their Iroquois allies, further draining resources.  Beyond the Revolution, many of the Continentals who participated in the campaign later returned to lay claim to the fertile lands they had seen.  This was, perhaps, the longest reaching effect of the victory at Newtown – promoting the westward expansion of American settlements at the expense of the Six Nations.

Today, somewhat remarkably given the passage of time, parts of the battlefield are preserved and well-marked with interpretive signs.  Along present day Onieda Road are markers indicating important points in Sullivan’s advance.  The breastworks held by the Tory-Iroquois force have vanished with time, but the position may be traced by markers.

Atop the mountain where the forces clashed is the Newtown Battlefield State Park, which doubles as an interpretive and living history center.  Prominent in the park is a tall obelisk memorial.

Newtown BF 30 May 10 143

Newtown Battlefield Monument

Battlefield stompers will likely move straight for the overlook deck, from which I took the panoramic view (above).

Newtown BF 30 May 10 150

Newtown Battlefield Overlook

However, the exact spot where the two forces collided on the mountain is lost to time.  While likely on the down hill slopes, the location has never been pinpointed.

My visit occurred at a time when the park gate was closed as part of state-wide budget cuts.  When I arrived, several locals were enjoying a stroll up the hill.  They indicated that while the gate was closed, one could walk up the hill.  So instead of driving up the park road to the summit, I had to walk about a mile and a half up hill.  The weather had not turned unbearably hot, so I took the walk in stride, experiencing more of the hillside than I suspect most visitors do.

I’m somewhat concerned that the site is not more accessible due to the budget constraints.  I read in one of the local papers that the closure caught several tour groups by surprise, with busloads of folks disappointed.  Hopefully the issues will get worked out in the future.   But in consolation, consider that most of the outlying battle related sites are along public roads, with plenty of markers.

For those with an interest, I’ve created a “tour by markers” (map) for the battlefield on the Historical Marker Database.

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Brandy Station Preservation Effort

Many of you have already received the latest letter from the Civil War Preservation Trust regarding Brandy Station.  If not, please take some time to look at the Trust’s Brandy Station 2010 page.

At first glance, I know many will respond, “But they’ve already *saved* Brandy Station, haven’t they?”   Well I would say that while significant, and outright impressive given the circumstances, acquisitions have been made there is still much work to do at Brandy Station.  Cavalry battlefields, which Brandy Station is one of largest, are wide-ranging affairs.  The act of maneuvering large bodies of horse soldiers consumes space.  And to properly study those maneuvers, understand the tactical considerations, and consider the magnitude of the events, preserving just the spot where sabers crossed is not enough.

The two parcels of land targeted by this latest were sites of maneuvers and also some of the bitterest fighting on June 9, 1863.  But beyond that 1863 battle, the Brandy Station witnessed activity throughout the war.  You cannot drop a tin cup without it landing on the footfall of some soldier, north or south, on the campaign trail.

There is one aspect of the 2010 preservation effort that may raise eyebrows.  The Trust is not asking for money to buy land.  Not directly at least.  In this case the donations go toward securing easements on the property.   At first that sounds like a Pyrrhic victory at best.   But first consider that for $67,000, which is a very low price for real estate in that section of Virginia, future development is locked out.  And yes, development is a threat at that location.  The US 15/29 corridor is among the most attractive and fastest growing in the country.

Another way to look at the easement approach is considering the history of battlefield preservation.  Recall during the “Golden Age” of preservation, when the veterans themselves were active to secure the five original National Military Parks, one method chosen was the “Antietam Plan.”  At Antietam, the War Department (proponent for the parks at the time), opted to purchase easements and right-of-ways to facilitate passage of visiting officers and other visitors.  Of course, that is why Antietam’s memorials and markers are “stripped” along the park roads.  Perhaps by intent, or perhaps inadvertently, later generations were able to add larger tracts of land to complete the park we see today.

In the 1890s authorities saw need for single lane roads to facilitate passage throughout the battlefield.  They didn’t consider cell towers, condos, strip malls, and office complexes.  In 2010, we now must consider those things.  Today we talk about line of sight and viewsheds.  Perhaps we could buy all the land around the James Madison Highway to preserve the line of sight, but that would cost far too much and in the end, likely create more friction than the preservation community would like.  On the other hand, historical easements offer a lower cost alternative for battlefield preservation where outright land purchase is not an option.

Please visit the Trust’s web site and consider donating to the Brandy Station 2010 effort.

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HMDB Civil War Updates – Week of July 19

Light work week in the Civil War category at the Historical Marker Database this week. Only sixteen additions, ranging from Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin:

– Eighteen California volunteers and one USCT soldier are buried in the old Fort Lowell Cemetery, now on the grounds of Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

– A simple G.A.R. memorial stands in Tombstone, Arizona.

– A veterans memorial in Avon, Connecticut lists, by name, the veterans from the area, including a rather long list of those who served in the Civil War.

– The Bristol, Connecticut Civil War Memorial lists those from the community who died in the war, including the date and place of death.

– Burlington, Connecticut lists it’s Civil War veterans on a memorial shared with the World War I veterans.

– Continuing with the tour of Hartford County, Connecticut by memorials, the Farmington Veterans Memorial, incorporating a set of columns, lists the community’s Civil War veterans.

– The nearby Unionville, Connecticut Civil War Memorial breaks with the trend.  Although three statues guard the statue, no names are listed.

– A state marker at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia notes adjustments to the Confederate line made on June 19, 1864.

– The Georgia Railroad and Banking Company has never failed to pay a dividend, save for 1865.  In that year the railroad carried 100,000 Confederates home after the surrenders in the east, according to the state marker in Augusta, Georgia.

– The Tarver-Maynard House in Washington, Georgia was the college boarding home of Alexander Stephens, later Vice-President of the Confederacy.  Also in Washington,  Holly Court hosted the Davis family during their flight at the close of the war.  (One of these days I’ll collect all the “Davis’ flight” markers for presentation.  The interpretation by markers alone is very confusing, and at times contradictory!)

– The Civil War memorial in Hackettstown, New Jersey was rededicated in 2001 with a stirring poem added.

– In Athens, Pennsylvania, a statue in a rather dramatic pose tops the community’s veterans memorial.

– Curing the war over fifty Confederate soldiers were buried in the Colored Cemetery in Liberty Town, a section of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

– The old Circle Tour marker has been restored at Kernstown, Virginia.

– A stone in Madison, Wisconsin notes the location of the Harvey Hospital, later the Soldiers’ Orphans Home.

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