Monthly Archives: August 2012

Lost Graves at Fort Ward

From the Washington Examiner:

Lost Graves Located in Alexandria Park

A two-year archeological investigation of Fort Ward Park in Alexandria yielded a total of 43 previously lost graves, only three of which were marked.

The dig, which began after descendants of those believed to be buried in the park asked city officials to locate the graves of their relatives, revealed artifacts and gravesites of Native Americans, Civil War soldiers and a post-war African-American community.

And although city archeologist Pam Cressey said there are no plans to excavate or immediately identify the newly-discovered graves, she said she’s grateful that the families of those who used to live in the area now have some closure.

“This full-scale study now allows the story of so many to be told,” Cressey said. “The findings further enrich our appreciation for the area and give credit to the many groups that once lived there.”

Alexandria acquired Fort Ward Park just prior to the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. But in the years to follow, many of the park’s cemeteries fell into disrepair until officials sought to celebrate as another major anniversary of the Civil War — this time the 150th — approached.

Those who came to the park for its commemoration told city officials they wanted to “bring to light, preserve and tell the stories” of those who had lived on the grounds of Fort Ward Park, but felt they were unable to because the grave sites of many former inhabitants were lost and even buried, Cressey said

Plans were put in place, and beginning in 2010, a team of archeologists descended upon the park with ground penetrating radars and other tools to find gravesites and artifacts spread across the more than 30 acres that make up the park.

Cressey said the City of Alexandria financed much of the dig and the trails and markers set to be installed to recognize the archeologists’ latest findings, but did not have immediate access to the exact total of the project.

Fencing will be installed to protect the newly-discovered burial areas, and each grave will be marked with a blank signpost. Over time, city archeologists do expect to identify many of the unmarked graves based on their location and those buried around them.

Now that the archaeological surveys are complete, Cressey said the teams are analyzing artifacts and making a Fort Ward Management Plan. (Full story)

A close friend of mine, and long time beltway historian, would add that Fort Ward is certainly not the only place where such graves lay unidentified.

For those unfamiliar with this park – Fort Ward by markers.

150 Years Ago Today: Back where it started at Henry House Hill

As the sun sat 150 years ago today (August 30, 1862), Federals and Confederates fought over familiar terrain just southeast of the intersection of Sudley Road and Warrenton Turnpike.  Henry House Hill, perhaps better known for the fighting there during the First Manassas, was the site of the closing actions of the battle of Second Manassas.

The Federal line held that evening.  Under the cover of darkness, General John Pope, as he had done a couple other times in the month of August, slipped his army out of the trap.

Are there similar terrain features on other battlefields which witnessed as much fighting?  Sure.  Fleetwood Hill is at the top of my list.

Are there any that witnessed action in two major engagements?  Sure.  Perhaps several dozen we could name.

Are there any assaulted twice, in two separate major battles?  A handful.  Pritchard’s Hill at Kernstown comes to mind.  Confederate attackers failed to take the hill in the spring 1862 battle, but captured the position in the summer battle of 1864.

But…. Are there any that witnessed two failed assaults in two separate major battles?  One assault by each side?

Manassas 19 July 029

Henry House Hill proved a tough position to take, for both Federal and Confederate.  I wouldn’t say it was the most formidable defensive position of the war.  But statistically speaking, it was a good place to anchor a line.

Must have been something about the water of Young’s Branch.

The Guns of Second Manassas

Artillery played an important role in the battle of Second Manassas. From the opening shots over Brawner Farm to the closing actions along Dogan and Chinn Ridges and in front of Henry Hill, the artillery was in the thick of the fight. Today at the park, fifteen guns represent over eighty batteries engaged.

As I did last year for the First Manassas side of the battlefield, I’ve setup a Google map sheet with the locations of the artillery displays for Second Manassas:

The arrangement of guns lends itself to interpreting the actions on August 30,1862. I’d argue on that day Confederate artillerists made their greatest contribution to the war in the east.  Confederate massed batteries played a very important role in the repulse of the Federals at Deep Cut.  Those guns prevented reinforcements from moving up to the penetrations along the unfinished railroad.

Cannon hunters may be a bit disappointed at the variety on the Second Manassas battlefield.  Of the guns displayed, eight are commonplace 12-pdr Napoleons.  Two of the rest are converted “false Napoleons.”  But the five iron Confederate guns at the Brawner Farm include some rare examples … have been the basis for several posts on this blog.  Although I enjoy looking at the cannons, the real draw is the view from the guns:

Manassas 11 Aug 12 070

View of Deep Cut from the Confederate batteries

You can just see the Second Bull Run Monument in the distance through the trees.  Easy to see how the Confederate gunners dominated the fields at Groveton that day.

So if you cannot join me today enjoying the fields at Second Manassas, please “stroll” through the battlefield electronically by way of the cannons.  Look for some tweets from the field.

150 Years Ago: Fighting in the Twilight at Brawner Farm

The opening shots of what became Second Manassas rang out this afternoon (August 28) 150 years ago.  Two famous brigades – the Iron and the Stonewall Brigades – squared off in a stand up infantry fight.  If you are not familiar with the Brawner Farm fight, the Robert Thompson’s “A Legend is Born at Brawner Farm” on the Civil War Trust’s battle page is a good read.   Or for those who prefer those new moving pictures, Robert reminds us of Jim Burgess’ video also from the Trust.  For those unable to visit the battlefield today, you can tour it virtually by way of markers along the Brawner Farm Loop trail (map here).

If I have a corner to add any interpretation on the first day’s action, I’d have to talk about staff work – poor, terrible staff work.  Of course we can easily turn to the Confederate side, where General Thomas J. Jackson was unable to bring his numbers to bear.  But on the Federal side, I believe, is a case example of a failed divisional staff.

General Rufus King

General Rufus King commanded the Federal division engaged at Brawner Farm. Nearly at the same time Jackson sprang his trap, King was incapacitated due to an epileptic seizure.  The division went into action without the brigade commanders knowing this.  The brigades of John Hatch, Abner Doubleday, Marsena Patrick, and John Gibbon went into action that day as brigades.  And, particularly in the case of Gibbon’s, they fought better than could be expected.  But the division, as a division, lost.

What was King to do?  Not have that seizure?

Here’s where a good staff is supposed to shine.  Commanders get lost – as in “where am I?” lost – on the battlefield.  And of course they can be lost – as in a casualty lost.  But the unit must continue to function regardless of what happens to the commander.  That is the job of the staff.

In my Army life, I spent my share of time as a staff officer.  Thankfully all for tactical units.  I’ll never forget the sage advice from a veteran brigade executive officer – “The job of the staff is to make the commander and the commanded look good.”  The staff is there as an extension of the commander’s intent.  The staff ensures subordinates understand that intent and the situation as well.  The staff fights back confusion, chaos, and rumor to orient leaders on the task at hand.  Does not matter if the commander is dying on the field or sleeping off a bender, the staff is supposed to keep the unit moving.

The general commands by way of his words – spoken and written.  But he controls by way of the staff.  Captain Robert Chandler, where are your memoirs?

Second Manassas Campaign by Virginia Historical Markers

Is it Second Manassas Campaign? Or Northern Virginia Campaign? I’m certain the proud folks in Orange and Culpeper Counties shudder at the inclusion in “Northern Virginia.”

In the 1920s, Virginia’s Conservation & Development Commission opted for the former name to title a series of markers tracing the steps of the campaign. The audience was a generation not far removed from the actual events. But, advancements in technology brought on significant changes to the way information was presented to the public. The Ford Model T was giving way to the Model A up in Detroit, with many comfort features (for that time…). Cars of that age needed safety glass, as speeds were picking up. In part that explains the large font used on those markers from the 1920s and 1930s.

Orange Co Jan 12 08 068

The text comes across with the fluidity of a Western Union telegram.

Later, with reorganizations, different agencies took charge of the state marker program.  Today the Department of Historic Resources authorizes the placement of markers.

Chantilly 30 Sept 11 181

Notice, despite the difference of about sixty-five years, the two markers have the same general outline and shape.  The numbering sequence for Virginia markers follows a highway-region pattern. But I won’t bore the non-marker hunters with that story.  But do notice the size of font is different on the marker placed in 2000.  You might, if slowed down sufficiently to block traffic, be able to read it from a passing car.  The audience must stop to fully consume this marker’s text. (Unfortunately, the agencies have retained the preference to place the markers on busy highways – faster vehicle speeds and smaller font is not a good combination for those stopping for the markers.)

Using the Historical Marker Database’s related marker feature, I’ve grouped some of these state historical markers into a set.  The set is sort of in the sequence of events, but I wrestled between chronological and geographical order making some compromises.  No doubt I missed a few that should be included.  The map view of the set illustrates the broad range of this campaign – from Orange County to the outskirts of Washington.

I’m working up a Second Manassas Battlefield by Markers page.  Should have it done before the 150th anniversary dates.

Coehorns, the lightweight mortar for close-in work

As I continue on the thread discussing Civil War mortars, the next in the queue are the lightweights – the Coehorns.  This class of mortars bears the name of Dutch Baron Menno van Coehoorn, a contemporary and adversary to the French Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, from the 17th century.

Baron van Coehoorn… gotta love the hair

Although better known in his times for refinement of fortifications, the Dutch baron also devised better siege techniques.  One particular tactical problem which Coehoorn attempted to solve was the mobility of mortars.  Often a besieging force needed high angle fire, from mortars, on targets only ranged from the advance parallel trenches.  The heavy mortars often used in the siege were simply too heavy to man-handle into those forward positions.  Coehoorn devised a light bronze mortar, of 12-pdr caliber, which a two- or four-man crew could handle with relative ease.  Other European armies followed suit with similar weapons, calling them “pack mortars” or simply light mortars.  Regardless of the name, the application was the same – a lightweight weapon, maneuvered to forward positions by a small team of men, and used to deliver shells at a high angle on enemy positions.

British gunmaker John Muller provided specifications for two calibers of light mortars in his Treatise of Artillery (various editions from the mid-1700s on).  Muller described a 5.8 inch caliber, roughly 24-pdr size, mortar, measuring 16.5 inches long and weighing about 150 pounds. He also included a 12-pdr caliber mortar with a 4.6 inch bore, measuring 13.5 inches and weighing around 80 pounds.  The British convention gave these two calibers the names “Royal” and “Coehorn” respectively.  However the inventor’s name was most closely linked with the weapon class.  Over time the exact measurements varied, some with different bore sizes than Muller’s specifications, but the general application remained the same.  These two basic types remained in British service well past the Napoleonic era to the mid-19th century.

Of course these light mortars were no strangers to the Americans.  General Oglethorpe used them against Spanish defenders at St. Augustine.  General Braddock carried some on his ill-fated campaign.  And there were plenty inherited by the Continental Army.  General Knox reported having six 5 ½ mortars in the siege train taken to Yorktown. But direct references to the light mortars fall off after independence.

It is my opinion that the young American Army continued to maintain numbers of the light mortars in the inventory.  However, given the defensive posture along the borders and the mortar’s limited value on the frontier, there was little need for new weapons of this class.  The ordnance patterns established in 1819 lacked any light mortars. Not until the 1830s did the Army return to the Coehorns.  Patterns established in 1838 included a 24-pdr Coehorn mortar.

Fort Washington 1 Mar 08 179

24-pdr Coehorn Mortar at Fort Washington, MD

Much like the siege mortars of the same vintage, the Coehorn pattern and its bed borrowed heavily from British designs.

I will discuss the Model 1838 in more detail in later posts.  But, let me close this introduction by splitting hairs a bit on the naming convention.  Many cannon historians note the change of naming convention – from “Royal” to “Coehorn” – as evidence of American disdain for the monarchies of Europe.  This may have weight, but there is no firmly documented trail on the matter.  Eventually, even the British changed the naming convention.  No doubt except for the Ministry for Redundant Nomenclature, which would have preferred the “24-pdr Royal Mortar from the Royal Mortar Foundry.”

Waterloo Bridge on the Rappahannock

Our modern day sense of geography is somewhat tainted by our reliance on motor vehicles.  Highways, while bringing convenience to our transit and freeing us somewhat from the difficulties faced by our traveling forebears, have allowed us to ignore some of the important way-points of the past.  Those traveling west of Warrenton, Virginia towards the Shenandoah most likely use “Lee Highway,” designated U.S. Highway 211 under the Federal system.  That route crosses the Rappahannock over a modern, four-lane, concrete and steel bridge.

In 1862, the closest bridge to that site was near the village of Waterloo, a little under a mile upstream from the “Lee Highway” bridge.  At the end of aptly named “Old Bridge Road,” or if you prefer the unromantic designation, State Route 622, stands a steel truss bridge at the site of Waterloo Bridge.

Waterloo Br 10 May 08 012

I should say a one lane bridge with wooden bed, reinforced with modern trusses and rails.  The bridge retains some of its rustic appearance.  Perhaps all that the Virginia Department of Transportation can allow.

Waterloo Br 10 May 08 011

A state marker on the Culpeper County side mentions some of the bridge’s connection with the Northern Virginia Campaign and events 150 years ago.  Not mentioned on the marker is that shortly after Stuart’s ride, Federals under General Franz Sigel moved up to cover the bridge.  General Thomas J. Jackson’s troops would cross further upstream at Hinson’s Mill Ford to start the grand flanking manuever towards Manassas Junction.

Waterloo Bridge 7 June 209

For those who desire to “walk in the footsteps”, side trips off the main highways are a must.