Monthly Archives: November 2011

Balloons and Artillery at Dr. Gaines Farm

One of Civil War Trust’s latest preservation efforts is a large parcel of property, covering 285 acres, at Gaines Mill, Virginia.  The targeted ground is that over which General James Longstreet’s men attacked on June 27, 1862.

But like many locations in Virginia, the site was not a “one event” spot.  A month earlier, Federals occupied positions around Dr. Gaines farm.  At that time the balloonist made an appearance, as the Federals worked across Chickahominy  Creek at New Bridge.  An article on Civil War Trust’s site briefly discusses this skirmish with regard to the aeronaut activities.  Thaddeus Lowe established the “Balloon Corps” station on Gaines Farm in late May.  On May 23, batteries of the 2nd US Artillery, from the Army’s horse artillery, deployed in the same area.   Company A, 2nd US Artillery, under Captain John C. Tidball, shelled Confederate positions and received some direction from the balloonists.

In his official report on the action, Tidball wrote:

I have the honor to report that about 12 m. on the 23d instant my battery was ordered from its camp near New Bridge, over the Chickahominy River, for the purpose of shelling the ground occupied by the enemy in the vicinity of that bridge.

The pieces were placed in battery near the mansion of Dr. Gaines, and from there opened a steady and well-directed fire on the point indicated. The enemy made no reply, but, from the report of those in the balloon, fled from their position. After firing 93 rounds the battery was withdrawn, and a few minutes afterward started on its march toward Mechanicsville. A few rods after the head of the column, of which the left section of my battery constituted an advanced portion, had passed the bridge over Bell’s Creek, several cannon-shots were fired by the enemy from pieces on the eminence immediately in our front…. (OR Series I, Volume II, Part I, Serial 12, page 656).

Sort of a one-sided action, almost a routine action in many regards.  But Tidball’s mention of the balloon is worth analysis.

There are many mentions of “indirect” fire employed during the Civil War, or more specifically – “spotted” fire.  Contrary to our American pride, this style of fire control was not developed during our mid-19th century conflict, but rather dates back practically to the concept of siege weapons (in other words ancient stuff).  However the use of balloons, signal flags, telegraph, and other technologies came into play during the Civil War.

The question does arise why the combatants did not make more use of spotted fires.  Well there were some problems with technology.  The oft cited issue involved the lag in communications.  However one can imagine Lowe, a few hundred feet above Tidball’s guns, shouting down, “… a little to the left…” or “… give it one more turn of elevation….”  But at best Lowe could only offer a description of where the shot fell.  He could not aid the direction of the next shot.

You see, the real problem was not with communications, but with the guns themselves.  In order to “spot” a round, the observer and gunners must have some reasonable way to have the projectile fall in a predictable manner – in other words, consistent shot pattern.  Civil War artillery lacked recoil dampening or compensating systems.  The projectiles used rudimentary time fuses which were prone to failure.  The projectiles themselves, both rifled and smoothbore, were apt to take erratic ballistic courses.  And none of this took into account the effects of wind, weather and temperature.  Putting two successive rounds in the same spot required luck in addition to the skill of the gun crew.

Predicted fire would have to wait a few more decades until recoil systems, better projectiles and guns, advanced firing tables, and proper weather reports would enable gunners to place rounds on a target with some degree of regularity.  At that point, “spotting” was not only possible, but required!

Fire Effects Considered: The Rifle Musket and Artillery

If you’ve read even a bit about Civil War tactics, you are probably aware of the oft cited change on the battlefield ushered in by the rifle musket.  From my view-point, the discussion lands in two camps – the “traditionalists” who contend the minie ball and rifle musket changed everything; and the counter, revisionist if you want, argument featuring interpretations by assessing battlefield accounts and raw data.  I call these “quantitatives” as I don’t think their goal is to revise history, but rather make it sharper to the actual form.  (And I’ll gladly acknowledge I prefer the quantitative camp myself.)

While I’ve long played the role of skeptic in discussions about the “modernity” of the Civil War, there is some weight to the traditionalist argument.  There were new, or at least fresh, aspects to the battlespace in 1861-65.  We might argue if those aspects were indeed first seen here in America or on other fields prior to Fort Sumter.  But I think most would agree the battlefield had changed in some manner in the time after the last major American combat experience (the Mexican War), more so since the War of 1812.  But can we attribute that simply to the advent of rifle muskets?

The quantitative stance offers a wealth of combat experiences and data which suggest the impact of the rifled musket was not as great.  Perhaps I said it above, simply alluding to some change but not sweeping changes in the battlespace.  Indeed the most damming evidence presented is that battle ranges did not increase with the longer effective range of the rifle muskets.  Personally I tend to follow that logic.  On battlefield after battlefield, I’ve paced out battle lines.  The ground doesn’t lie.

Another point often refuted by the quantitative response is the notion that the casualty rates rose due to more accurate fire.  Historian Paddy Griffin offered the comparison to actions on many European fields as an example.  The “bloody” nature of Civil War fields is just as much a function of the number of men involved and the tactical formations used.  Griffin derived a statistical conclusion that some fraction of 1% of all bullets fired in the war actually hit an enemy target.  This tends to lead down the path of counting bullets – or in the case of artillery the number of projectiles from a canister round.  And we see that in venues ranging from forum message boards to works of well grounded historians.

A typical vignette I’ve seen offered when “counting bullets” would involve two brigades of infantry lined up to fight.  The narrative often notes the ammunition expenditure, time that all the regiments were involved, and then the number of casualties at the end.  The story line ends up very compact – they came, they fired, they died.  But wait, not all died.  Indeed not all were even casualties.  The “battle math” simply deducts the casualties in order to derive each unit’s combat strength come the end of the battle.  Simple numbers, no fractions.

I guess that is where I depart from the pure quantitative analysis of the data.  The targeting of an enemy, using a weapon system, is conducted with the purpose of disrupting that enemy’s plans or designs.  Yes, a subset of targeting is to inflict casualties.   But from a pure process standpoint, the casualties are but a by-product on the way to the true goal – that of hindering the enemy’s chosen course of action (be that offensive or defensive in nature).

Consider the disruption within the ranks of the receiving end, both ancillary and psychological.  If I may present this from a cold, analytical setting, those killed are a liner reduction in combat strength.  Those wounded are more progressive reductions, as some will invariably aid them (either by orders or not).    More telling is the reduction in combat strength on those completely unscathed.  How many in the ranks are stunned – be that for seconds, minutes, hours, or even days – into inaction?  The bullet does not need to hit flesh to be effective in its task.  And even that effect is but a scratch of the full impact.

The same effect is even greater when considering artillery.  While we might (unfairly) discount the artillery as ineffective in the close range, blood-letting infantry fights, we must consider the longer effective range of the big guns.  During the Civil War, field artillery could – and frequently did – engage the enemy at ranges exceeding 800 yards (the extreme for the rifle musket).  As with the infantry battle line, the desired effect of the long ranged artillery fire was to disrupt the enemy’s plans.  An artillery battery might fire all afternoon without inflicting a single blood casualty, but that does not mean it was not successful in the assigned task.

To me this says we need to avoid the pitfall of “counting bullets” in the quest to understand the dynamics of the tactical battlefield.

Sunbury’s Confederate Iron Guns

When showcasing the Confederate iron 6-pdr field guns from Tredegar I featured the guns at the Brawner Farm on the Second Manassas battlefield.  Another place to view a set of these iron smoothbores is Sunbury, Pennsylvania at the foot of the Northumberland County Civil War memorial.

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Northumberland Civil War Memorial

Because the iron fence prevents “walk around” I’ll still suggest Manassas for students who wish to examine the guns closely.  But Sunbury is a good side trip for those traveling down Highway 15 (on the way to… say… Gettysburg?).

Of the three guns, only one has visible markings to speak of.

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6-pdr Iron Field gun - Tredegar #1486

The muzzle on this gun displays the familiar Tredegar foundry number mark.  In this case #1486.

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Muzzle of Tredegar #1486

On the breech, just in front of the vent, is the weight stamp of “918”.

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Breech of #1486

Records show that Tredegar cast #1486 on April 9, 1862.  The gun is among four others sold to the Confederate Army on May 10.  The others being #1485, #1487, and #1477.  These appear on the same invoice as the 3-inch Rifled Field Gun #1464.  Certainly the smoothbore #1486 at Sunbury and the rifled #1464 at Gettysburg share the same outward appearance from the flattened knob to the straight muzzle.

However the other two 6-pdrs at Sunbury have the older style knobs and muzzle swells.  While there are no markings to confirm these as Tredegar guns, the form matches that of the earlier 6-pdr iron guns (and 3-inch rifles for that matter).  Good coats of paint hide the years of weathering.

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Shiny 6-pdr Field Gun, Presumed Tredegar

One of these has a tall, and relatively undamaged, muzzle sight post.  The neck of the knob has cut-outs similar to those seen on Tredegar rifled guns.  Another indication of the connection between 6-pdr and 3-inch iron gun patterns.

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Breech of Unmarked 6-pdr

The last of the three displays scars and scuffs under the otherwise good paint.  It also lacks any front sight fixtures.

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Unmarked 6-pdr at Sunbury, Presumed Tredegar

There are other guns at Sunbury’s monument.  Two 8-inch Siege Mortars of Model 1861 sit in between the field guns.  While stopped with tampons, the markings are easy to read.  No doubt the subjects for a future post!

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8-inch Siege Mortar Model 1861

However there is one more 6-pdr at Sunbury, also an iron gun.  But this piece was likely cast well before the Civil War.

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Unknown 6-pdr at Sunbury

The external form resembles guns cast in the first decades of the 19th century.  While this gun has rimbases for the trunnions, it also has a key-hole vent.  Certainly fodder for speculation and perhaps another post.

But as nice as these American iron cannons are, I must admit the highlight of Sunbury’s downtown display is this piece:

PA Trip 26 Nov 11 109

77mm FK16 German Field Gun

This gun, a German 77mm FK16, came home with World War I veterans and speaks to another time and another place in history.

How to Raise a 25-Ton Cannon: Elevation System for Rodman Guns

Yesterday I covered the mechanical operation of the elevating system on pre-Civil War columbiad gun carriages.  This type of elevating gear worked for columbiads, seacoast howitzers, and even a few Navy shell guns that entered service from the 1840s to the close of the 1850s.  Almost all Confederate columbiads used the system.  Even the first batches of Rodman guns used the system.

However the weight of the larger Rodman guns exceeded the practical limits of the Columbiad’s system. The chief problem was the preponderance required to keep the weighted on top of the elevating gear (specifically the pawl).  While this ensured the elevation remained true during firing, during handling the preponderance made the gun crew’s work difficult if not outright dangerous.  The 15-inch Rodmans entering service in 1861 exceeded the limits of what a reasonable gun crew could manage – 1,200 pounds.   So an alternative system came into use.

To my knowledge, no documentation details the experiments and design of this modified elevation system.  The Rodman guns arrived on the scene about the same time as wrought iron carriages for seacoast guns.  However the early diagrams of Rodman guns on iron carriages seems to show the older style elevating system.

At some point that elevating gear gave way to this:

Fort Foote 1 Mar 08 138

Breech of 15-inch Rodman at Fort Foote

The post, sometimes referred to as a ratchet post, replaced the elevating screw, elevating box, and pawl of the earlier arrangement.  Instead, the crew simply inserted the elevating bar directly into the post and against the sockets on the breech face.  With that the crew could lever the gun’s breech up or down.  Here’s how the manual of service described the action:

No. 4 [crewman] mounts upon the chassis and, embarring through the ratchet-post with the elevating-bar, raises or lowers the breech as directed by the gunner.1

Very simple.  Angle the gun appropriately.  Just as seen in this posed photo from Battery Rodgers, Alexandria, Virginia.

The bar had a squared off head to fit into the sockets on the gun’s breech.

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Close up of Sockets on 15-inch Rodman

The post sat just a few inches from the breech face, but that was all the room needed.

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Breech Clearance

What did Archimedes say about just needing a place to stand?  And notice the post does not touch the breech.  And there is no elevating screw or other point supporting the breech.

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Inside of the Post

Inside the post are several slots with the open ends towards the breech.  Presumably these engaged with pins or other fittings on the elevating bar.  The orientation would allow the bar to remain firmly seated while the crew worked.

Now how exactly was this an improvement on the older ratchet-pawl system?  Well take note of the 15-inch gun in profile.  How many points does the gun itself touch the carriage?

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15-inch Rodman - Alger #1

Give yourself a gold star if you said two points.  Only the trunnions touch the carriage (recall the spacing of the post above).  So even after 150 years, this 25 ton gun balances on the trunnions.  After the 15-inch Rodman prototype, and small batches of 8- and 10-inch models, all Rodman guns were cast “without preponderance” by moving the trunnions just a few inches back.  So instead of working against 1,200 pounds of preponderance while elevating the piece, the No. 4 man needed only to press the lever up or down.

But with that careful balance, I’ve often wondered just loading the piece would serve to drop the gun off balance.  The addition of a 450 pound solid shot might create a giant, dangerous teeter-totter.  Although the manuals do not indicate such, retaining the elevating bar in place during firing might prevent the fall of the gun.  The orientation of the slots in the post would allow such, by not allowing the bar to fly loose when the gun fired.  And at least one photo shows the bar remaining in place with the gun in position, this one again credited to Battery Rodgers.

Another photo captioned as Battery Rodgers shows a gun brought back to a stowed position.  If you look close, laying behind the elevating post is the elevating bar.

So, for these big Rodmans, the crew had a much easier job with elevation as compared to the older Columbiads.  Still, ease of use must be taken in context.  The rate of fire for a well drilled crew on a 15-inch Rodman was one round every five minutes.2 Even without preponderance on the breech, crews moved slowly around these heavy iron monsters.



  1. John C. Tidball, Manual of Heavy Artillery Service: For the Use of the Army and Militia of the United States (Washington: James J. Chapman, 1891),   Page 114.
  2. Ibid, Page 127.

How do you elevate an seven-ton columbiad?

So you have one of those 15,000 pound 10-inch columbiads or 9,000 pound 8-inch columbiads mounted (which was no small feat to begin with).  The enemy fleet is threatening to sail up the channel.  How the heck to you point that big gun on the target?

The Bellona 8-inch Columbiad at Fort Darling is a good study to answer that question.

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Bellona 8-inch Columbiad at Fort Darling

Pointing1 the gun required two variables – traverse and elevation. The gun crew positioned the gun in traverse – the horizontal direction to point the gun – by turning the carriage itself.  The Fort Darling gun sits on a center pivot barbette carriage.  Handspikes fixed to sockets on the rear of the carriage rails allowed the crew to turn the gun 360°.  For front pivot barbette carriage, the crew worked with a reduced traverse, but the concept was the same.  While the crew had to exert themselves to move the weight of gun and carriage, if well maintained, the wheels and rollers allowed free movement.  Traverse of the large columbiads differed little from the smaller seacoast guns on similar carriages.

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Lower Angle View of the Carriage showing the Rollers and Wheels

The horizontal angle, or elevation, however involved movement of the piece against the trunnions.  In the case of smaller guns, an elevating screw worked against the bottom of the breech, to raise or lower the back end of the gun.  Excess weight, or preponderance, on the back end of the gun ensured the piece laid on the head of the elevating screw.  This mechanism worked fine for weapons ranging from field artillery and seacoast guns, which were not elevated beyond 5°.  For columbiads, where elevations might reach 40°, the breech elevation screw would be too long for practical use.

So for columbiads, the Ordnance Department figured out a different, more elaborate, means to elevate the piece.  Joseph Robert’s Hand-book of Artillery explained this system in detail:

The elevating arrangement consist[s] of an elevating-screw, working into a screw-bed, which slides in a vertical box, and carries on top of it a movable pawl to fit into the notches cut in the breech of the gun, in order to give considerable elevations.  For the purpose of transferring the pawl from one notch to the next, it has a slit in it, through which the elevating bar is passed, and the gun supported by making use of the edge of the elevating-box as a fulcrum.  This arrangement is over the rear transom.2

The mechanism used four components – elevating screw, elevating box, a pawl (or finger), and an elevating bar.  Three of those four are seen below on the Fort Darling columbiad.

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View of Elevating Mechanism

The elevating screw, at the bottom of this view, worked inside the elevating box.  The box also housed the pawl, which sat on top of the elevating screw.  As the crew worked the elevating screw, the pawl moved up and down within the elevating box.

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Breech of Columbiad showing Pawl against Ratchets

The movement of the pawl would apply or relieve pressure on the breech of the columbiad.  To provide the pawl a purchase against the breech, the pawl fit into a series of notches or ratchets in the breech.  This was of course fine to elevate the gun through about 5°, but the mechanism needed more play to work the required 40°.  That’s where the handle on the back of the pawl came into play.

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Pawl and Elevating Box

When more than 5° of elevation were required, the crew placed the elevating bar (what we might call a pry bar today) against the breech.  The channel on the top of the elevating box provided a fulcrum for the elevating bar, which was also fed through the open eye in the pawl.  This allowed the crew to relieve pressure on the pawl.  One of the crew would then remove the pawl from the ratchet by using the handle (note the hinge at the base of the pawl seen inthe view above).  If needed, the elevating screw worked to reposition the pawl height.  Then the crew-man would set the pawl into the appropriate ratchet.

For operation, here’s how the Instruction for Heavy Artillery (1850) described the process for elevating a columbiad:

The gunner withdraws the priming-wire; inserts the pawl of the elevating machine in the proper notch by means of the elevating bar, and with the breech-sight gives the required elevation; No. 4 [crew-man] turning the handle of the screw according to his direction.

The moment the piece is correctly pointed he rises on the left leg, and gives the word READY, making a signal with both hands….3

The setup at Fort Darling is a bit “over elevated.”  While this allowed me to photograph the details, the arrangement is not how the mechanism would appear in action.  To better appreciate the setup, consider this wartime photo of a 10-inch Columbiad at Fort Darling.

10-inch Columbiad at Fort Darling

If you look close, there is an elevating bar to the left of the elevating box.  The pawl is set against the bottom ratchet, which is the right position for point blank firing.

So all that work would allow the gunner a view something like this:

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Aiming down the James River

Busy work for a gun crew in the heat of battle, don’t you think?  Keep in mind that for every shot, the crew would return the gun between zero and  5° elevation to facilitate reloading. Worse yet, since the columbiad elevation system still required preponderance to seat the gun against the pawl, the crew had a lot of weight to deal with.  For an 8-inch that was 635 pounds.  For a 10-inch that was 740 pounds.4  Not a trivial matter.

Early Rodman Guns used the same elevation system, with some reduction of preponderance.  For the first batches of 8-inch Rodmans, the preponderance stood at 350 pounds.  The 10-inch Rodman prototypes had a 519 pound preponderance.  However, the 15-inch Rodman prototype, the most favored anti-ship weapon in the arsenal, strained the muscles of the crew with its 1,200 pound preponderance.5 Clearly the system had reached its physical limitations.  So the Ordnance Department devised an alternative.  I’ll turn to that next.



  1. The verb “pointing” appears in most pre-war and wartime manuals.  Pointing implied the gun was oriented towards a target, as was the case with fire control practices of the time.  The verb “aiming” came into wider use for artillery towards the end of the 19th century, as gunners would use reference points to predict and direct the shot onto a target.
  2. Joseph Roberts, The Hand-book of Artillery: For the Service of the United States (Army and Militia) (New York: D.Van Nostrand, 1860), page 137.
  3. Instruction for Heavy Artillery (Washington:  Government Printing Office, 1862), pages 70-71.
  4. The Ordnance Manual for the Use of the Officers of the United States Army, edited by Theodore T. S. Laidley (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1862), page 20.
  5. The Ordnance Manual for the Use of the Officers of the United States Army, edited by Theodore T. S. Laidley (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1862), page 18.

But … Not to say there wasn’t a Confederate Rodman

In earlier posts describing the Confederate Columbiads, I drew a fine distinction with regard to nomenclature.   Guns like this one at Fort Darling should not be classified as “Confederate Rodmans.”

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Bellona 8-inch Columbiad No. 66

This gun may share some external features with the Rodman Guns, but in most other particulars differ.  The gunmakers did not use the casting techniques refined by Thomas J. Rodman, and used on Federal guns up to 20-inches in caliber.

But that is not to say there were no Confederate Rodmans.

Very late in the war, two entries in the Tredegar Gun Foundry Book note the casting of “12-inch Columbiads Cast Hollow.” The Dates given for these castings are November 14, 1864 and February 20, 1865.  The foundry numbers given are 2208 and 2252, respectively. 1

Writing after the war, General Josiah Gorgas, Confederate Chief of Ordnance, recorded,

Just before the war closed the Tredegar Works had cast its first twelve-inch gun, after the method of Rodman – cast on a hollow core with water kept flowing in and out of it to cool the castings from the inside.  This method of cooling has been found to give a marked increase of strength, and greater hardness and consequent smoothness to the finished bore.2

In his history of the Tredegar works, historian Charles Dew noted that the factory lacked the tools to complete these new Columbiads.  As such, these “Confederate Rodmans” remained unfinished at the end of the war.3 The presence of such guns, unfinished as they were, offers another “what if” of the Civil War.

Before the war, both Tredegar and Bellona foundries faced diminishing orders from the War Department.  Neither firm was willing to invest capital in equipment to facilitate the hollow-core, water-cooled casting technique.  In 1860, both foundries delivered the last of their big guns for Federal orders (and Bellona’s would sit at the foundry at the eve of war).  But what if those foundries had setup the facilities to produce the big Rodman guns?  Perhaps 15-inch or even 20-inch Confederate Rodmans?  Might have caused the Federal ironclads some problems on the James, the Mississippi for sure.   But I doubt the foundries would have produced sizable numbers prior to the early battles (such as Port Royal and New Orleans) where the Confederates desperately needed long-range guns.

The references do not provide details of the exterior forms or other particulars for the 12-inch Confederate Rodmans.   Logically Tredegar might have used the familiar “new and revised” columbiad form.  But at the same time, Tredegar cast some rather large Brooke rifles, which had a close resemblance to Dahlgren shellguns in breech profile.   As neither 12-inch gun survives, and with no diagrams to work from, I’m not betting.

So yes, there was a Confederate Rodman gun.  Two of them in fact.  But their history is not one of actions against Federal gunboats, rather that of belated  adoption of new technology.


  1. Transcribed in Confederate Cannon Foundries by Larry Daniel and Riley Gunter (Pioneer Press, Union City, Tennessee, 1977), pages 103-104.
  2. Josiah Gorgas, “Notes on the Ordnance Department”, Southern Historical Society Papers , Volume 12, January to December 1884 (Richmond: William Ellis Jones Printer, 1884), page 94.
  3. Charles B. Dew, Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph R. Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1999), pages 276-77.

Just leave the cannons alone….

From the New Jersey Newsroom:

Civil War Monument in Hightstown, N.J. the focus of Christmas decorating debate

Hightstown officials are decorating the borough’s Civil War monument with Christmas lights this year, and that decision has sparked conflict in the Mercer County town.

Seven of the nine members of Hightstown’s Historic Preservation Commission resigned in protest, while borough council members are asking people to wait and see how the lights look, according to the Times of Trenton.

Critics won’t have long to wait. The lights and garlands on the monument, in the form of a Christmas tree, will be illuminated Friday night after a Santa Claus parade as part of an event called “Lights on the Square.” The borough’s website refers to it as “a tree lighting and United States Military tribute.”

Some residents have said that decorating the monument on Stockton Street is disrespectful, and opponents were hoping the borough council would reverse its decision at Monday night’s meeting, the Times reported.

But at the meeting, no member made such a motion, and each one present expressed approval of the holiday decoration. “I suggest that those with doubts reserve judgment until they see the completed project,” Councilwoman Isabel McGinty said.

The plan was based on the recommendation of Preservation Commission member Daniel Buriak, who did not notify the council that the other commission members were opposed, the Times reported. Buriak has not resigned from the commission, did not attend the borough council meeting on Monday, and has not been available for comment, according to the Times.


Yes, putting a string or two of lights on the Civil War monument is sort of… well … Clark Griswold-ish.  But, hey, if you can pull it off, and not look tacky, more power to you.

But I do have one request.   The Hightstown memorial is surrounded by four Confederate Parrott rifles (see the photo here).  Can the decorators please leave the cannons alone.  After all, there is a limit to what can and should be decorated with Christmas lights. …..

"Decorated" Parrot in Fort Mill, SC - Photo by Michael Sean Nix, courtesy of

Yes, I am a cannon-geek.


Photo from the Fort Mill, SC Confederate Park marker entry in Historical Marker Database.