Upcoming event: Big Gun Expedition to Bull Run

I have a couple of events, or should I say appearances, to announce. The first of these, as Harry Smeltzer posted last week, is an artillery-focused tour of First Bull Run. Here’s Harry’s pitch:

If big guns are your bag, you won’t want to miss a day at Manassas National Battlefield Park retracing the steps of the Union and Confederate artillerists during the First Battle of Bull Run with widely regarded expert Craig Swain and your humble host, me. Same game plan – no fees, everything is on your own (food, lodging, transportation). We’ll meet up at 9 AM on October 20, 2018 and head out onto the field. Dress appropriately – tour is rain or shine.

Expect to discuss all aspects of artillery: gun manufacture and capabilities, tactics of the day, and the action. We’ll also discuss some of the personalities involved.

This will be the FIRST artillery tour of First Bull Run since Henry Hunt led a staff ride over the field in March of 1864….

NO… I’m making that up.

But I would say the artillerymen have been given less attention than deserved for their actions at First Bull Run.  Much attention is focused on the employment of batteries on Henry House Hill which proved a crucial turn in the battle.  And much has been heaped – wrongly in my opinion – over the notion of “flying batteries” or “artillery charges.”   Though little has been mentioned of the other ten Federal in the campaign… or the more than a dozen Confederate batteries on the field.

When Harry first proposed this tour subject, he promised  a “no holds barred” concept.  Mostly, we’ll consider the nuances of drill and tactics as employed in this “early war” setting.  But be prepared for discussions of the “metallurgical art of cannon making” along with some “practice of battery command” topics.  I promise not to break out the trigonometry tables, however, as we won’t actually be shooting off anything!

If you are interested, Harry has setup a Facebook event page.  Please let us know if you plan to attend, so we can best factor logistics.

Bull Runnings Research Assignment: Why Were Ricketts and Griffin on Henry Hill?

The other day, Harry Smeltzer and I were bantering back and forth about the Civil War.  And if you know Harry, then you know he’s a “one battle” guy, sorta…. that being First Manassas or First Bull Run, depending on how you button your shirt.  Well that spawned a question to ponder.

The question in mind is exactly what were Captains James Ricketts and Charles Griffin supposed to do with their batteries upon reaching Henry Hill?  As Harry says:

This move has often been criticized over the years, sometimes even described as a turning point of the battle. But, why exactly did McDowell send his artillery there? What was he thinking? How did he want to uses them, as flying artillery, in place of infantry, as what?

Indeed, we often read about how bad the deployment was.  And furthermore how when the Confederates overran the guns, the Federal line just collapsed.  But let us back that up just a bit.  What was McDowell sending those batteries forward to accoplish?  What was their mission?

Mission…  In the modern context, Field Artillery’s mission on the battlefield, as defined in FM3-09.22 is:

The mission of the Field Artillery is to provide responsive lethal and nonlethal fires and to integrate and synchronize the effects of fires to achieve the supported commander’s intent.

I’m not going to say this applied blindly, totally to the Civil War.  But I submit in the sense there are natural rules and practices (what I like to call the “Water flows down hill” rules of military science).  And with that, field artillery’s mission is relatively constant through the ages.  I need to queue up XBradTC here for a proper “military science” comparison of the mission and roles – comparing that of the Civil War to modern employments.

But that is “mission” in the sense of “why does the army have all these cannons in the first place?”  At the tactical level, the derivative of that over-arching mission is an instruction as to what the guns should accomplish with their projectiles.  For instance:  “Drive off the enemy’s guns”; “Drive off the enemy’s infantry”; “Prevent the enemy from attacking the hill”; or “Support the attack of our infantry.”  In short, the commander normally details where he wants the battery commander to stick that shot, shell, and canister.

What we are looking at with regard to Henry Hill is what exactly did McDowell charge Griffin and Ricketts to accomplish with their guns?  Was it simply to occupy the hill?  If so, was that a “mission” that fell within that broader mission sense, cited above?   Or was it in fact an infantry mission, just assigned to the artillery?  Or, was there a traditional artillery mission in mind?

And keep in mind that “employing them as Flying Artillery” is not a mission.  That’s a tactic.  And it is a dubious tactic to apply to the Civil War?  Why do I say that?  Well go back to the manuals of the day…. The Instructions for Field Artillery (1861 edition), John Gibbon’s Artillerist’s Manual, or even across the “pond” to the Royal Army’s Major F.A. Griffinths’ Artillerist’s Manual, for example… none of them mention “flying artillery,” as a tactic, much less define it.

Allow me to over-simplify something that properly requires a full set of posts – The notion of a flying artillery tactic was derived from Napoleonic forms of employment, adapted to American situations… then determined to be simply another way of saying the same thing that already had a name!   You see, the notion of flying artillery was just the use of mounted artillery as mounted artillery was supposed to be used.  The label was simply a way of conveying the jargon of artillery tactics to those smaller minded folks in the infantry.

And even if we allow for “flying artillery” to be a tactic which McDowell might have had on his mind, that is still just a “tactic.”  So if allowing for such usage, it would have been the “how” and not the “what” that we seek here. So let us not get wrapped around this label of flying artillery.

Stick to the target – what was the target – the mission – given to Ricketts and Griffin?  If you have a mind to that question… click over to Harry’s place and drop a comment.

Once again… the old Unexploded Civil War Shell problem

For those who are just getting caught up from the sesquicentennial, the Civil War ended 150 years ago… give or take a few weeks.  But that is not to say that we’ve heard the last of the Civil War.  In fact, we might still hear – if someone is unlucky, unwise, or both – explosions from the war.   And if that same someone is unlucky, unwise, and/or both, they might get the grim designation of being the last casualty of the Civil War.

Recall the story of Sam White, relic collector and one who disarmed shells.  From all sources, White was experienced at disarming shells and had done such for years.  But on February 18, 2008, White did something that triggered a shell (an XI-inch Dahlgren by some accounts I’ve seen).  Some have said White was “cutting corners” in his process.  I don’t know that for sure.  Regardless, a projectile designed to sink a ship went off.  White lost his life.   As I’ve said many times before, I hope that the legacy of Sam White is that people take the proper precautions and do not become lazy about safety with regard to live Civil War ammunition that is encountered.

And the story of Sam White needs to be recalled from time to time.  Particularly since stories of unexploded shells appear frequently enough.  On Saturday (May 23), a shell found on the Manassas Battlefield prompted an evacuation.  And yesterday, a bomb disposal team destroyed a James rifle projectile found on the Prairie Grove Battlefield.  So I don’t think this is a subject we can just relegate to the history books.

As I look over social media today, not naming names just yet, I see some rather disconcerting comments made.  Many are upset that a historical artifact was destroyed.  They have complained that the means and effort to disarm the shell were simple and could have been done with little risk.  That, I think, is a bad response.  While the loss of the historical artifact is bad, what is worse is that people are offering “advice” that will (not may, but WILL) lead to another accident.  It is as if Sam White’s accident is forgotten.

Let’s be perfectly clear here.  Black powder is an unstable compound.  That’s what gives it an explosive effect.  While black powder, like most munitions, has predictable traits, that does not diminish the danger. Black powder is sensitive to heat, flash, friction, or compression.  A lot of little things can set off black powder.  Recall some of those incidents on Morris Island with shells exploding prematurely due to “rasping” of the powder in the shell?  Yes, more than flame and hammers can set off black powder.

Same could be said for C4 explosives that the military uses today.  There were times in my Army days that I carried C4 or other explosives.  But I listened to my trainers and observed the precautions necessary.  I’ve carried black powder in my cartridge box and stored it with my reenacting kit. But I’ve always respected it.   And so we all should.

Something from the news story from Arkansas bears noting.  Jessee Cox, superintendent of the Prairie Grove Battlefield Park indicated that he had no chance to consult with other parks or other sources as to what should be done to preserve the shell… safely.  THAT, my friends, is where the problem is.  As Cox said, “There’s no 800 number to call and get those answers.”

There are plenty of people out there who could have provided those answers.  I go back to my military training in that the unexploded ordnance teams (UXO) are very knowledgeable on these matters.  There are programs in place to protect and preserve historic artifacts when found (i.e., that used by the team at Andrews Air Force Base).   Indeed, the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal units based out of Charleston and Norfolk did much to determine the best way to handle these historic artifacts and render them safe.   My point is there are specific guidelines and practices to be observed when disarming black powder-era ordnance.   No offense to the back-yard relic hunters out there, but we don’t need “now watch this” to turn into a disaster.  Expert advice should be offered to the authorities who confront these situations. Not hearsay.

Now I don’t fault the Bentonville Bomb Squad for doing their job here.  They were doing exactly what their training called them to do.  My beef is with the training.  There should be a protocol to consult when historic artifacts are encountered.  That protocol should include contact information to subject matter experts on black powder-era ordnance.  That would ensure safety in the first place – for the general public and the teams handling the items.  The disarming of the old ordnance requires types of equipment that may not be on hand.  So that protocol should also include how such equipment may be requisitioned, loaned, or otherwise acquired if needed.  In short, a solution to the problem… not just a “blow it in place” response.

But above all… those of us Civil War enthusiasts must stop downplaying the danger and risk involved.  These are weapons designed to kill and maim.  Those weapons didn’t lose that potential by simply sitting in the ground or on some shelf or on some monument (!) for several decades (scroll to the bottom on that link).  So those weapons should be respected for what they potentially still can… and sometimes will… do.

We took Fleetwood Hill. Brandy Station win!

I had the pleasure of attending Governor Bob McDonnell’s press conference today announcing some $2.25 million from the Virginia Civil War Sites Preservation Fund applied to battlefield acquisitions.


The grants applied to preserve some 1,265 total acres on twelve battlefields – Appomattox Court House, Ball’s Bluff, Beaver Dam Creek (Mechanicsville), Cedar Creek, Chancellorsville, Deep Bottom, Kelly’s Ford, Malvern Hill, Rappahannock Station, Second Manassas, Sailor’s Creek, and as my friend Eric Wittenberg announced earlier, Brandy Station.

An article from Leesburg Today offers details about the governor’s speech (and part of the speech is posted to YouTube).  The governor cited what he called the “Three E’s of Preservation” – education, environment, and economy.  We have ample examples of those here in Virginia, especially in the middle of the sesquicentennial.   The 1,265 acres added this year by way of the state program raises the total to 4,587 acres all time.

But the big news, as far as I am concerned, was that one recipient of grant money under this program was Central Virginia Battlefields Trust.  And that money was applied to the purchase of Fleetwood Hill at Brandy Station.

Over a year ago, I was among those calling to take advantage of the property’s listing on the market.  The price seemed high, almost out of reach.  But the Civil War Trust worked to secure grants, and several individuals worked behind the scenes to secure large donations.  All the pieces came together.   That ground, which has been called the most fought over hilltop in Virginia, if not the Civil War…


… is now on the list of lands set aside for preservation.  Soon, we’ll be able to walk that high ground to appreciate what those 150 years ago contested.  There’s a little work to do, not the least of which will be dealing with the modern structures, but all in time.

Brandy Station 2013 is a win!

Update on the Northern Virginia North-South Corridor

The proposed North-South Corridor came up in local news again this week. I’ve mentioned this in the past and how it could impact the Manassas battlefield. This proposal essentially replaced the stalled Tri-County Parkway. In short, this would provide a high speed corridor, with multi-lane highways and no at-grade crossings, from I-95 through the Manassas area and Loudoun County to Virginia 7 outside Leesburg. The Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment offered this graphic to show the changes proposed, with a focus on the changes proposed for Loudoun County (courtesy Leesburg Today):


The Leesburg town council held a public hearing on the proposed corridor on Tuesday, July 23. From Leesburg Today:

Leesburg Council Goes On Record Against North-South Corridor


The Leesburg Town Council Tuesday night adopted a resolution formally opposing plans to develop a limited access highway, in the form of the state designated North-South Corridor, through Prince William and Loudoun counties.

The vote was 5-2 and followed an hour-long pubic comment period during which activists working to combat climate change and several Prince William County residents urged the council to oppose the project.


The final version of the council’s resolution differed significantly from one proposed by Mayor Kristen Umstattd in June. Amendments were made following Monday night’s briefing by the VDOT project manager involved with the reccently completed study on how to develop a new link between I-95 and Rt. 7. VDOT’s Tom Fahrney said the Commonwealth Transportation Board earlier this year accepted, but did not endorse, a consultant’s recommendations of a high-capacity highway including HOV and toll lanes in the corridor. Fahrney said the consultant’s recommendations don’t match plans adopted by the localities and would likely remain on the shelf unless conditions change.

The final resolution deleted referenced to truck traffic, which Fahrney said was not expected to increase significantly in the area, and to threats to the Manassas National Battlefield, after Fahrney said construction of the Bi-County Parkway could not proceed without approval of the National Parks Service and other agencies. The resolution continues to voice objection to the possibility that transportation funds could be allocated to the North-South Corridor project ahead of more pressing regional needs, including construction that would improve east-west commuter movements. The council’s resolution also restates the need for funding for interchange construction on the Leesburg Bypass and Rt. 7 in Leesburg, as well as continued support for the county’s local bus system.

(Read more at Leesburg Today)

I think this was the right move, and applaud the council’s resolution, particularly the amendments. In the past the corridor, like the Tri-County Parkway before, has been offered as a relief for Northern Virginia’s traffic woes. After many years a commuter in said traffic, I consider myself an expert on that subject (earned after 1,000 hours stuck in said traffic!). The traffic problem is east to west, not north to south. And until a new bridge is in place across the Potomac, all the North-South Corridor would do is dump more traffic into Loudoun with no place for it to run.

However, there is one good point within the North-South Corridor which, I think, should be acted upon separately. The proposal includes a plan to close off through traffic on the Manassas battlefield (US 29 and VA 234). In my opinion, we need to first enact some means of redirecting that traffic – and not necessarily the option proposed as part of the North-South Corridor, but some arrangement that protects the battlefield in the best possible manner. Once that is complete, and we have time to reassess traffic patterns, can we start thinking about additional North-South Corridor options.

Deal in the works to move traffic around Manassas Battlefield

From the Washington Post:

Manassas battlefield deal is close to shift traffic out of Va. park

The National Park Service and Virginia authorities are close to signing a major Civil War battlefield preservation deal that eventually would close two congested roads that currently slice through the twice-hallowed ground at Manassas.

The agreement, which could be signed by the summer, would provide for routes 234 and 29 to be shut down inside Manassas National Battlefield Park. That would happen when new highways are built along the western and northern edges of the battlefield and serve as bypasses.

“We’re down to the wire here. It looks good,” said Ed Clark, the park superintendent, a key architect of the pact. “It puts the goal of removing all the traffic from the battlefield within sight.”

There are downsides, of course. It could be more than 20 years before both highways, sometimes called the Bi-County Parkway and the Battlefield Bypass, are completed. Local residents and environmental groups said they would destroy the rural character that drew them to western Prince William County. Some accuse the Park Service, which previously has resisted new roads and development, of selling them out.

On the bright side, however, shutting the roads inside the park would be one of the biggest achievements ever to restore the authenticity and improve the visitors’ experience at the premier Civil War battlefield closest to Washington.


The Park Service and preservationists have long been unhappy principally with the steadily rising traffic inside the battlefield. On a typical workday, more than 50,000 vehicles pass through the intersection of 234 and 29 in the center of the park.

Congestion is so bad that it’s often impossible to complete the driving tour that traces the highlights of Second Manassas.

“What we’ve been saying for more than a decade is the biggest threat to this park is the commuter and industrial traffic that goes through it every day,” said Jim Campi, spokesman for the Civil War Trust.

Campi’s group hasn’t yet formally endorsed the deal, known as a Section 106 programmatic agreement under federal historic preservation law. His group wants to be sure the final form guarantees that both roads, and not just one, will eventually be closed. That’s important because current plans provide for the closures to be in two phases.

In the first phase, when the north-south, Bi-County Parkway is completed west of the park, then 234 would be closed inside it. State and local authorities are keen to push that ahead quickly. Local residents who stand to lose property, and other groups, are agitating to block it.

The park would have to give up four acres of land for the Bi-County Parkway and allow a noisy, four-lane highway to be built nearby. Clark, the park superintendent, doesn’t like that but says it’s worth it to eliminate a road that’s also pretty noisy and cuts right through his battlefield.

“We’re giving some on the periphery to get an awful lot in the core, in the center of the park,” Clark said.

In the second phase, possibly as late as 2035, the so-called Battlefield Bypass would be built north of the park. Only then would 29 be closed within it.

Clark said that, as part of the deal, he insisted that the Virginia Department of Transportation pledge firmly to close both roads once the new highways are built. His nightmare would be that he agrees to new highways just outside his park, only to see the state renege on its promise to shut the roads within.

“They would have to double-cross us to do that,” Clark said. “We have to operate in good faith here that they’re going to stick to their word.”

(Full story here.)

I mentioned this deal in the works in a post last year. I’m still on the fence with this one. On the positive side, if the proposed by-pass is completed, this would re-route thousands of drivers who would rather not be on the battlefield while on their way to and from work.

On the other side, I’m just wary of VDOT projects of late. Particularly where “bundled” into larger plans to revive the impractical beltway around the beltway. What’s really bad here are the long time line projections. We won’t need the 2013 solution by 2035. That long running project timeline could well introduce the “double-cross” that Ed Clark mentions.

This will be interesting as the details are worked out.

National Public Lands Day: Other facets to battlefield use

At least once on every visit a “cannonball” park, I’ll encounter someone who’s out on the field for something other than touring the battlefield. Most often, such as at Manassas, the person is jogging or walking. But a good number of non-battlefield oriented visitors are just taking in the greenspace and enjoying nature. While not true “dual-use” this does indicate some visitors use the park’s resources for something other than that covered by the primary mission of the park.

For example, since I brought up nature and Manassas, that park is debuting its Stone Bridge Nature trail today. Timed for National Public Lands Day. From the Park’s Facebook page:

Just in time for National Public Lands Day, Manassas National Battlefield Park is proud to announce that we have a new natural resource cell phone tour along the park’s Stone Bridge Trail to go along with our current historical Henry Hill cell phone tour. To take the tour just pick up a rack card at the park visitor center, or at the head of the Stone Bridge Trail, enter the telephone number provided; (your cell phone minutes plan applies) then enter the trail stop number. New signs have been placed along the trail to direct visitors from stop to stop. You can stay connected while walking to the next stop or end the call and call back. This new cell phone tour highlights how the setting and climate has changed and provides other information on natural resources within the park. There is a tour for adults and another for children. These tours are currently offered English with a Spanish version coming soon.

National Public Lands Day (NPLD)?

Yes, I must confess, that is new to me. Apparently it’s been around since the 1990s. According to the day’s website, the National Environmental Education Foundation uses this day to promote popular enjoyment and volunteer conservation, in the spirit of the old Civilian Conservation Corps. The program is not just exclusive to national parks, or even just federal lands, but across a broad range of public lands.

The nature trail at Manassas and NPLD bring to the fore an interesting angle of visitor perspective to the preserved battlefields. While we battlefield stompers look across that bottom land near Stone Bridge and think about troop movements, other people will draw as much, if not more, enjoyment considering the natural setting. Of course there are times, such as when a doe and her fawns step out of the trees to munch on the grass, that all of us are nature lovers.

Regardless, that land is not there exclusively for a single group or class of users. And that is not to say there is contention or conflict over the use of battlefield lands. Quite the opposite. At places such as Manassas, preservationists and conservationists have more often than not worked in consort (although sometimes there is contention). There’s some common ground there – both metaphoric and physical.