Man punished for removing remains from Wilsons’ Creek

From the Kansas City Star:

Springfield man admits taking bones from Civil War battlefield
Springfield man to pay $5,351 after taking battlefield bones.

By Brian Burnes

These days, it’s rare to find bones on a Civil War battlefield.

It’s rarer still when a visitor pilfers those remains.

But that’s what happened last year at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield near Springfield, authorities said Wednesday. A collector of Civil War artifacts riding a canoe down Wilson’s Creek spotted a bone jutting from an eroded creek bank and stopped for an impromptu — and illegal — dig.

On Tuesday, Coy Matthew Hamilton, 31, of Springfield, signed a diversion agreement to avoid federal prosecution. He promised to pay $5,351 in restitution and perform 60 hours of community service. He’ll work alongside National Park Service rangers at Wilson’s Creek, site of the Aug. 10, 1861, battle — a Confederate victory considered the first major engagement in the Civil War’s western theater.

Hamilton couldn’t be reached for comment. But Michelle Law, an assistant federal public defender who represented Hamilton, said he was eager to make things right.

“My client has every intention of following through with the agreement he’s made with the federal government,” she said.

Hamilton admitted to investigators that he found the remains while canoeing with a friend in February 2011.

Described in case documents as an “avid, self-taught amateur archaeologist who routinely spends his free time hunting for artifacts,” Hamilton set out in the canoe after recent heavy rains, as he “knew from experience that this could reveal archaeological artifacts.”

On the afternoon of Feb. 27, Hamilton and a companion spotted a bone sticking out of an embankment. “Hamilton excavated two femur bones and pieces of a pelvis,” according to a report.

His companion urged him to stop, “but Hamilton’s enthusiasm was too strong.”

Several days later, Hamilton sent the bones, through an intermediary, to the National Park Service, which administers the battlefield.

Investigators soon figured out who he was….

Mike Calvert, president of the Civil War Round Table of Western Missouri, has heard anecdotal stories of possible trench graves or unmarked burial sites connected to Civil War actions near the Little Blue River in eastern Jackson County.

But he’s never heard of any local incident like this.

“It definitely should not be done,” Calvert said, referring to such scavenging. “Not just because it is a National Park Service site, but there is also such a thing as the consecrated dead.

“This man should have known better.”

Mr. Hamilton indeed got off with light punishment, all things considered. He set out to find something, selecting a time when he expected things to surface. Although he later returned the remains, the fact is he removed them. Could professional archeologists have determined more if the site not been disturbed? There’s no way to tell.

There are many old taboos that are broken as routine. Disturbing the resting place of the dead shouldn’t be one of them.

Ed Bearss in town tonight!

A plug for our Civil War Roundtable, meeting tonight at the old Loudoun County Courthouse.  Our speaker this evening is Edwin C. Bearss and the topic is the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.

Yes, I know we are about a month off of the proper “sesquicentennial” schedule.  But Mr. Bearss is a busy guy (he’s not retired, just moved his office out to the field!).   Most readers recognize Bearss as a favorite (no THE favorite) on the Civil War tour and lecture circuits.  What makes this presentation a bit more interesting is Bearss connection to the battlefield.  Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield is a “centennial” site – formed in 1960.  Bearss was on the team that established that battlefield, particularly the interpretation and presentation.  Research done in that direction formed the basis for his book on the battle.

So if you are around Leesburg this evening, please stop by the old Court House (at 18 Market Street downtown).  I’d recommend you stop in early to get a seat, as this one is sure to draw a crowd!

The Guns of Wilson’s Creek Battlefield: A Virtual Tour

Last month I offered up a “tour” of the cannons on the First Manassas battlefield, with a little help from Google maps.  At first I held off doing the same for Wilson’s Creek.  Although I’ve visited the battlefield recently and have notes to work from, the problem was this line up:

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Replica Carriages and Guns at Wilson's Creek

Last September when I visited, I figured these carriages and guns were waiting placement on the field in consort with the 150th observances.  My concern is that anything posted regarding cannon placement on the field might already be out of date.

But then again, the Google maps feature allows the editor to move pin points as needed.  So if my notes are out of date, perhaps a more recent visitor could coach me through updates.  With that in mind, here’s the location of guns at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield:

Guns representing Federal batteries appear in blue; Confederate in red; and purple are those guns used for general displays.  I’ve added photos to the call outs on the map and provided links back to blog posts about the particular type of gun.  All told I located ten authentic cannons at Wilson’s Creek, along with six replica guns.

The National Register of Surviving Civil War artillery lists a 6-pdr Field Gun Model 1835 on the battlefield.  But that piece was not on display in September 2010.  I believe it was moved to another park.

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Terrible field of view from the final position of Backoff's Battery.

Most of the guns used in the battle were 6-pdr field guns and 12-pdr field howitzers.  The Park’s collection however includes a number of non-representative types.  The James rifles are the Type 1 version, which at least have the exterior appearance of a 6-pdr field gun.  But the single Napoleon in the park is definitely out of place.  I can suggest a trade to another park, but I’m not the guy making that call!

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Totten's Battery on Bloody Hill

Although the guns at Wilson’s Creek are small in number, they have an important place for the park’s interpretation program.  Overshadowed by the “memory” of close quarters infantry combat, artillery played an important role at Wilson’s Creek.  Having the cannon on the field helps visitors understand the how the artillery was used in the battle and what impact the gunners had on the events.

Wilson’s Creek, Wyeth’s Painting, and Memory

When I think of the battle of Wilson’s Creek, this image comes to mind:

"Battle of Wilson's Creek" - N.C. Wyeth

Newell Convers Wyeth completed this mural, along with a companion depicting the 1864 Battle of Westport, in 1920. Both pieces grace the Missouri State Capitol building in Jefferson City.   I’m not much of an art historian, but I do recognize the realist approach.  The art books mention Wyeth’s great influence, Howard Pyle, and the Brandywine School.  Wyeth was among the most prolific artists of the early 20th century, producing both paintings and illustrations.  But honestly, for someone who considers a Patton tank a work of art, the distinction between paintings and illustrations is lost in translation.

Working under a state contract, Wyeth considered accounts from veterans and made a visit to the battlefield while working on this painting.  But of course there is much artistic license at play.  The details of the painting don’t exactly match a specific instance in the battle or a particular location.  But the larger story of the battle comes forth.

To me this painting tells that story at the first gaze with action frozen in time.  In the center-foreground, a Missouri guardsman boldly steps into the creek to fire at the Federals while one of his comrades falls to a bullet. This is “in your face” close combat.

And that is Wilson Creek the soldier is stepping into, not Wilson’s.  After the battle nearly everyone attached the possessive to the name, and it stuck (save a few hold outs who talked about the Battle of Oak Hills).

Following the rifles, the eyes meet the Federal line on the opposite bank.  There, amid the smoke of battle, some blue coats return fire.  Some of their number falling.  While no flags or figures indicate such, the commissioners desired this painting to depict Missourians fighting Missourians.  But these troops match the US Regulars in dress.

Wounded men, with bandages around their heads, are re-engaging in the battle which rages all along the creek.  And the fallen lay at the creek’s edge.  Death is everywhere.

Looking back behind the Missouri State Guard (not Confederate mind you!) line, there’s “Old Pap” Price directing the troops.

And again there’s wounded troops returning to hold the line.  Dead Missourians lay beside a bullet scarred tree.

In what would otherwise offer a peaceful pastoral scene in the background, through the smoke are lines of infantry moving down the hill.

Captions for the painting indicate the artist depicted “Bloody Hill” in this portion of the painting.  If so, I can’t place the house on the hill top.

Wyeth proposed another version of the mural, depicting just a handful of soldiers fighting along a treeline.  The mural committee preferred the panoramic view now on display.  But a copy of that alternate depiction is preserved in the University of Missouri – Columbia’s Museum of Art and Archaeology.  Wyeth is known for other Civil War illustrations.  And he covered both Federal and Confederate subjects, but not many that depict both sides in the same frame.    Often mist or smoke cloak the figures, becoming an allusion to an unseen “enemy”.  In “The Battle of Wilson’s Creek” the smoke is all around and covering both sides.

My first introduction to the Wyeth mural was in fourth grade, where it was used in our Missouri history textbooks.  Later when we visited the state capitol, I saw the original.  In hindsight, I must say the committee selected the right version as the panoramic view fills the archway and provides a sense of depth.  If my vacation counts are correct, on that same trip my family drove to Springfield to visit the battlefield.  So there is much to link the mural to my recollections of the battle and battlefield.

From a broader perspective, regarding Wyeth’s painting there’s much to consider about collective memory of Wilson’s Creek and the Civil War in general.  Consider the time Wyeth painted this work, as the last of the Civil War generation passed and in the wake of World War I.  Absent, although perhaps out of scope, are reconciliation themes.  While deep red hues are absent, death and the other horrors of war are openly displayed.   Wyeth certainly embraced patriotic American themes in other works, yet here there is no national symbol.  Indeed the only authority in the mural is Price. But there is little in the way of glory in Wyeth’s painting.

Those points place Wyeth’s painting in contrast to an earlier depiction of the battle from the 1890s:

Battle of Wilson's Creek - Kurz and Allison

And we modern day folks are not immune to the purposing of imagery to reinforce our memory.  Consider Mort Kunstler’s 1992 painting depicting a scene from Wilson’s Creek.  Historical themed artwork might seek to expand understanding of events.  But they also speak volumes about the intended audience.

Wilson’s Creek: The First “Big” Campaign

Just before a holiday break in college, one of the Sergeant-Majors assigned to my ROTC detachment asked about my plans.  Of course I was headed home.  So he asked how far I’d drive.  I responded the time to drive from Fulton, Missouri to Kennett was just over five hours, any way you go.  “Five hours!  No way!  I can be well the other side of Kansas City in five hours!”  Yep, Missouri is a big state.

Even today with multi-lane highways, if you drive the routes used by General Nathaniel Lyon’s columns across Missouri in the summer of 1861, you’ll put a lot of miles on the tires.  From St. Louis to Springfield is just over 200 miles (trust me, I know every concrete slab on that stretch of I-44).  Springfield is 130 miles from the state capital in Jefferson City.  And 170 miles from Kansas City.

From the Confederate perspective, General Ben McCulloch’s troops moved from as far as Texas.  The main supply route from Fort Smith, Arkansas ran north about 175 miles into southwest Missouri, through the Boston Mountains which are the most rugged in the Ozarks.  All told the area of operations for the Wilson’s Creek campaign spanned an area roughly 250 miles  by 300 miles.

Heck, McDowell only had to cover 30 miles (avoiding rush hour traffic of course) from Arlington to Manassas.  McClellan’s forces covered about 130 to 150 miles through western Virginia in the summer of 1861, although over some of the most formidable mountains east of the Mississippi.

So the armies in Missouri had to cover extra ground.  What’s the big deal?  Well unlike northern Virginia, or even arguably western Virginia, Missouri lacked transportation infrastructure preferable for campaigning.  Yet from May through July 1861 the sparring forces traversed the southern half of the state (and a good portion of the northern half for good measure), ending up concentrated in the vicinity of Springfield.

And “sparring forces” is perhaps the best way to explain the arrayed body of men.  Missouri State Guard, under Sterling Price, were not technically Confederate.  And the proper Confederate force, McCulloch’s command, lacked uniformity.  Federal forces included regulars, volunteers, and home guards.  All told some 18,000 troops in the southwest corner of Missouri.   Perhaps half that on the field at Manassas, but still an impressive gathering.

Many historians question Lyon’s tactical judgement, considering his actions clouded by a personal vendetta against the secessionists.  That certainly has merit.  But I think we must give him credit for managing several columns moving across vast distances with limited resources.  Simply concentrating over 5000 men at Springfield by late July was an achievement in itself.

The politics of the border state added even more challenges to Lyon.  Just prior to launching the campaign, Lyon had driven out, practically as a coup d’etat, the elected state government (although I would offer Governor Claiborne F. Jackson was not and innocent victim as some might cast him today).   Now a large portion of Lyon’s Army of the West were Franz Sigel’s Germans, representing a voting block with political clout.  And although Lyon embarked upon his Missouri operations reporting for all practical purposes directly to the president, by late July 1861 he was under the command of General John C. Fremont.   As if that were not enough, Lyon had the pending discharge of many 90-day volunteers looming as the calender flipped to August.

McCulloch certainly acted passively during the early days of August 1861, only yielding to Price’s prodding for an offensive on August 9 (ironically).  But McCulloch faced significant logistical constraints limiting movements of the Western Army.  Even more significant were the political challenges facing McCulloch.  Price’s Missouri State Guard, while clearly allied to the Confederate cause, didn’t have to respond to McCulloch’s orders.  McCulloch’s priority mission at the time was to secure the Indian Territories and cultivate relations with the relocated tribes.  Neither of which was fully served by an offensive into Missouri.  All this above and beyond the typical squabbles over date of rank.

When Lyon’s troops began their march out of Springfield in the afternoon of this day (August 9) in 1861, they were acting out the last chapters – and bloody they were – of a long campaign.  While the number of troops engaged was significantly less than those engaged at Manassas, the geographic and political scope of the Wilson’s Creek campaign rivaled some of those conducted later in the war.  And I am grossly over-simplifying those aspects of the campaign in this meager post (for those seeking more, I’d suggest Ed Bearss’ work on the subject or the recently released book by William Piston and Richard Hatcher.)

So far more than just the first big battle in the west, Wilson’s Creek was indeed the first big campaign of the war.

On to… Wilson’s Creek?

I must admit, from my envious position here within a short drive from many of the Civil War’s major battlefields, my appreciation of what’s happening sequicentennial-wise out in the west and far-west is lacking.  And for the next major 150th event, that’s where eyes should turn.

Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield has a short listing of events scheduled for the 150th.  Aside from an anniversary ceremony on August 10, I don’t see any specific events at the park.  However, the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield Foundation hosts a 150th reenactment nearby.  A co-sponsor (from what it looks to me), the Missouri Civil War Sesquicentennial committee offers more historical background on their web site.

And since I have your attention on Wilson’s Creek, let me also point out the battlefield foundation continues to work towards a solution for the “General Sweeney Museum.”  A starting point towards a solution, the foundation advocates retaining the collection at Wilson’s Creek for display through the sesquicentennial, and at the same time expanding the facilities to accommodate more of the collection.   (Ahem…. artifacts…. preservation… identity….)

Speaking of which, I probably will work up a few posts over the next weeks about the campaign and battle – particularly about this painting:

"Wilson's Creek" - N.C. Wyeth

A powerful painting that I must say made a grand impression on at least one young mind.

The Sweeney Museum

Earlier this week I mentioned decisions concerning the closure of the “Sweeney Museum” at Wilson’s Creek Battlefield in Missouri.   Here’s a few photos of the collection, for those Easterners in the audience who are adverse to visiting those other theaters of war!

The Museum covers topics from the “Bleeding Kansas”era to the end of the war.  Among the first exhibits visitors encounter is a gallery discussing John Brown.

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In addition to an early model “slant breech” Sharps Carbine, notice the spyglass next to Brown’s portrait.

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According to the caption, Brown used the spyglass in Kansas and during the Harpers Ferry Raid.  After capture, Confederate General Edwin G. Lee used it during the Civil War.

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Separate galleries highlight most of the major actions and campaigns in the Trans-Mississippi.  Artifacts linked to the action help present the story.

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As one might expect, a substantial exhibit covers Wilson’s Creek.

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Also displayed are several colors including the one above used by the St. Louis Turner Battalion.

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Of course the museum contains a large number of small arms.

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But the artillery is not left out!  Although not displaying any field pieces, the museum contains an impressive collection of accouterments and projectiles.
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Several galleries interpret medial equipment used during the war.

My only complaints about the museum was limited of discussion of the transition from war to post-war (which was particularly complicated in Missouri) and sparse coverage of the slaves’ story.  There is one gallery noting the Kansas colored troops (but regretfully lighting prevented a good photo for display here).

Otherwise, Civil War enthusiasts, even easterners, could spend a couple hours looking through the displays at the old General Sweeney Museum.  I again mention the Wilson’s Creek Foundation for those interested in ways to ensure this museum collection remains on display.