All Fools Day – 1864

The April 2nd issue of Harper’s Weekly carried this illustration:


The scenes depicted include some “classic” pranks to include the ever popular “sign on the back of the school teacher.”  But others are specific to situations of the war.  Gotta like “There comes the Alabama!” and the similar prank “Where is the enemy?”  Americans retained a sense of humor despite three hard years of war.


A toll too steep: The Valley Turnpike’s impact on the Gettysburg Campaign

This weekend’s trip through Gettysburg has once again detoured my blog compositions. That campaign beacons Civil War students like the Sirens of Anthemusa. And I cannot resist the call!

Over the course of this blog’s history, I’ve focused on how the Federal Army of the Potomac moved through Northern Virginia, crossed at Edwards Ferry, and proceeded into Maryland. As I like to say, the army didn’t suddenly appear at Gettysburg. The story of how the army managed to get there in the first place is very much important as the battle itself.

And to really understand how those movements in the early stages of the campaign shaped the events, we should cast the same attention to the Confederate side. Anyone who has seen those opening scenes from Gettysburg will recall the Army of Northern Virginia slipped through the Blue Ridge and into the Shenandoah Valley on their march north. That route made the Valley Turnpike the most important road in the Eastern Theater. But keep in mind, that was a toll road! And the Valley Turnpike was collecting tolls:

Page 4

This sheet details tolls collected in the period from July 1863 to March 1864. No records exist for the month of June 1863. But this at least serves to verify the company was in business despite two years of war, and was collecting tolls.

Major S.P. Marshall, quartermaster for Lieutenant-General James Longstreet’s First Corps, also confirmed the operation of the tolls in a report to his chief on June 22:

The turnpike road leading to Winchester is lined with large wagons of Ewell’s and Hill’s command. Much time is lost by teamsters having to halt and pay tolls and the transportation agents of the army not having made proper arrangements for this matter.

Marshall’s comments were likely passed up to Longstreet. In context, recall that Longstreet had just moved his command up from the Suffolk area. In the aftermath of that movement, he received some criticism for delayed and costly movements. Perhaps smarting from that, Longstreet would the next day offer the information about the turnpike to Major-General J.E.B. Stuart. The mention came as part of the “third order” sent to the cavalry commander. For those not familiar with the lore surrounding Stuart’s Ride to Gettysburg, Stuart acted under a set of orders passed from General Robert E. Lee, through Longstreet. At that point in the campaign, Longstreet exercised control over the cavalry due to Stuart’s mission of screening Longstreet’s infantry. Longstreet forwarded the first order from Lee on June 22. A second went to Stuart during the day on June 23. Then on the night of June 23, this “third order” arrived. While the first two orders are easily located in the Official Records, the third is lost to time.

Major Henry B. McClellan, Stuart’s able chief of staff, mentioned that “third order” at length when writing post-war, but could only recall its contents. He noted accompanying correspondence from Longstreet’s headquarters offering advice about the upcoming movements of the cavalry. Years after the war, McClellan recalled,

The last of the orders arrived after dark on the twenty-third. Along with General Lee’s instructions, Longstreet offered advice pertaining to our advance. He warned a backup of wagons existed on the Valley Turnpike and that a breed of “profiteers and turncoats” were turning the situation to their monetary advancement. The general advised us to seek a way to avoid the turnpike at all peril and even if such movement required more time.

This one bit of information caused a ripple effect which, arguably, decided the campaign. In order to avoid the tolls on the Valley Turnpike, Stuart turned east and around the Federal army then on the march. Although saving considerable money at the toll booths, the route cost the Confederacy dearly. With his cavalry dodging toll booths in a circuitous route through Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, Lee was deprived of badly needed scouts.

Unfairly, I contend, Stuart has received criticism from his contemporaries and historians for being late to Gettysburg. But could Stuart make Gettysburg any sooner given the issues on the pike? To best demonstrate, I offer, here on April 1, 2013, this dramatic alternative to Stuart’s infamous ride to Gettysburg:

Good thing Lee declined on the option to invade New Jersey.


Sources. Well if you made it this far, all citations are from the worlds greatest archives.

How many flags would a woodchuck steal?

… If a woodchuck wanted a flag?

Apparently the answer is 75.

A little light humor for Friday the 13th, from the CBS news website:

Woodchucks reportedly stole flags from Hudson, NY cemetery

HUDSON, N.Y. – How many flags could a woodchuck steal if a woodchuck could steal flags?

Apparently, quite a few.

When authorities in Hudson, N.Y., used cameras to try and catch a thief who reportedly stole 75 flags from Civil War-era graves around Independence Day they discovered that the culprits were woodchucks living in holes beneath the cemetery, Mayor Bill Hallenbeck told the Register-Star.

The cameras didn’t catch any critters red-handed, but according to Hallenbeck, there was enough circumstantial evidence on the tapes to declare the case solved.

Hallenbeck said he was happy to hear the thefts weren’t the work of a human resident.

“I’m glad we don’t have someone who has taken it upon themselves to desecrate the stones and the flags in front of them,” Hallenbeck told the Register-Star.

Hallenbeck said that the woodchucks, also known as groundhogs, were attracted to a substance that coats the flags. Hudson police said other municipalities have reported similar problems.

Turning now to the investigative reporters on the scene….

Hey! Check out the video capture around 40 seconds in!

This woodchuck shows no fear in the face of a battery of 24-pdr flank howitzers. Brazen and bold woodchuck!

Hopefully the woodchuck will receive a suspended sentence and be entered into the witness relocation program.

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.

My Obligatory Post on That New Civil War Series….

UPDATEMaybe HBO, maybe not.  About the only thing floating out there close to a press release is an article referencing to the band “Rascal Flatts” and an HBO series with the same name.  Who knows, maybe Andy is right…. But again, let me stress that my concern is not for success or failure of the series from a production standpoint, rather that the theme appears to play upon the same worn out paths (and the reaction to the series has also followed some rather worn out paths).

Just got off the phone with the Chairman of the Civil War Blogger’s Board, who directed me to post something about this New HBO Civil War series in the works.

No not really.

But we’ll see a batch of posts on the Civil War blogs.  Then eventually Dimitri will step down from the mount.  This goes around anytime the Civil War subject arises in the popular media in some form.  (And right now the series producer is there, looking like Les Grossman in the goodie room, saying “Yea, baby!  Free publicity!  I love it!”)

Other commentators have thus far concentrated on the obvious point of order – a lack of color in the cast.  Yes, In the producers’s defense it is early in the process.  Wesley Snipes, currently involved in other important matters and otherwise detained, is a better fit for parts in Abe Lincoln – Vampire Slayer.  Still time to recruit Kanye West for a walk-in role.  Perhaps Ice T might steal the show as Frederick Douglass.

Personally, I’m still stuck trying to reconcile General Bethlehem with General Lee.

The premise of the series is, to quote the site, “JOHN ADAMS meets BAND OF BROTHERS”.  Yes “brothers.”  I don’t have the script handy, but I’m going to take a guess here.  By “brothers” the producers are looking at that wonderful fraternity on the Hudson… I mean West Point.  After all, looking at the site, fourteen of the twenty or so mentioned characters are alumni.  Given the lack of minority students at West Point in the antebellum years, the lack of leading African-Americans in this series might be explained, while standing on a thick rug.   Sort of like HBO’s Pacific, which lacked significant portrayal of Army troops.

Sad that writers can’t make a movie script on a topic as broad as the Civil War without focusing on that single worn thread.  Seriously, wasn’t that the whole undercurrent theme in Gettysburg-Killer Angels?  And a double dose in the prequel Gods and Generals?  You know… how all these generals were really friends driven apart by the angry winds of war?  Damn those politicians who started the war, then skip out of the movies.  For the life of me I can’t understand why Hollywood doesn’t capitalize on those giant, full-color characters like Ben Butler, Edward Baker, Nathaniel Banks, Franz Sigel….

Band of Brothers?  Yes, a great series.  Loved it.  In fact that set was among the finest work ever presented by HBO in my humble, un-professional-movie-critic opinion.  Perhaps the best handling ever on film about the complex relationships between soldiers.  My wife finally understood why I would go to extremes – like driving 200 miles in blizzard conditions to help with a computer problem – for people I’d worked with for just a few scant months, so many years ago.

But are we are really going to see that in To Appomattox?  Seems like a lot of suspended disbelief to conjure up.  Not much “brotherhood” between Buckner and Grant.  Or Sherman and Longstreet.  Familiarity, civility, and perhaps respect.  But the “brotherhood” left those relationships about April or May 1861, as I recall.  Sort of hard to work up to, much less exceed, the level of Band of Brothers in that aspect, given the characters chosen for the series.

Maybe I should propose “failure of the Fellowship of the Ring” as a subtitle.

Ten Pilots I’d Pitch to the History (Channel)

Ok, time for my twisted sense of humor to show up again.

If I were in the “biz” and had an audience with the History (Channel), here’s ten shows I’d propose:

1. Hot for Civil War Books – Have Marina over at Hot for Words (no really, that link is safe for work!  I think….) review new offerings in the field of study.  Sure to draw the 16 to 30 year old male audience!

2.  Trading Commanders – Taking the visitor back in time, we switch the heads of two major armies on campaign, just to mix things up a bit.  In the pilot episode, William T. Sherman attempts to put out fires (both real and political) while leading the Army of Tennessee.  Meanwhile J.E. Johnston is confused.  He’s got complete support of his superiors and a well supplied army, with nothing close to an excuse for NOT giving battle!

3.  NED – In line with a Sasha Baron-Cohen production, follow a very nerdy and annoying post-graduate student who pesters history professors around the country.  In the pilot, we’ll have Ned confront James M. McPherson about side burns and Burnsides.

4.  The Book Pitch – Reality show following an aspiring author in his quest to publish a book.  Sort of a daily video blog walking us through the process, following the wheeling and dealing, pitching and wooing to publishers… all in the quest to get his book “Lincoln’s Privies:  Places where Lincoln Relieved Himself” published.  Hey, who says we don’t need another Lincoln book?

5. Extreme Makeover: Reenactor Edition  – Selecting the most inaccurate (“farby” is the word) reenactor at an event, the show has ultra authentics (people who would put Rob Hodge to shame) revamp the “subject”, improving his (or her) impression.  By the end of the show, the subject has to galvanize and point out “farbiness” with his old mess-mates.  SPECIAL *** season finale *** All previous contestants must attend an immersion event (that means they live in the woods like the soldiers, not that they get dunked in water), and survive in a simulated battle…. sort of a “Survivor Man” take.   Last ten minutes of the show is one whale of a skirmish!

6.  The “Internship” – Follow a team of graduate students assigned to a project involving archival research for a public history display (i.e. an interpretive kiosk, or such).  The team would gain approval from libraries and archives for use of materials and photographs;  Work with sponsoring organizations to coordinate the presentation; Deal with offended groups who oppose the presentation; and, Fight with general contractors erecting the kiosks or waysides.  At the end of the program, the work is reviewed by a board of eminent historians, chaired by Ed Bearss.  One of the team, of course, will be voted out by the board.  Close your eyes and imagine the tension in the air – “The Origins of Shu-fly Pie was the best you had?   Off you go then!”

7.   Historic Viewshed Restoration Loggers – Follow the logging team through as they clear a tree line to restore the ground to the historic look.  First episodes at Gettysburg and Manassas.  The team will build up to a massive clearing operation at Chantilly or Franklin at which special guest “Snort” the steam roller will assist with clearing office complexes!!!!

8.   Seven Degrees of Relations – Host Harry Smeltzer walks us through connections between notable Civil War era figures and teen stars of today.  In the opening episode, he’ll show how Miley Cyrus is related by marriage to Stonewall Jackson, in seven generations or less.  I hear he’s having difficulty sorting through all those East Kentucky family relations though!

9.  Desperate Generals – A docu-drama of sorts.  Follow the commanders of the Army of the Potomac through the first three years of the war.  Guaranteed to keep you glued to your recliner (snore…) with intrigue and plot twists.  Watch as catty infighting paralyzes an army in the field.

10.  History Theater 3000 – A team of crazy bloggers, shown below the screen in silhouette, are forced to watch bad Civil War portrayals in documentaries and movies, providing pithy comments and dialog.   I’ve got dibbs on the “bubble gum machine” robot!  First episode…. that terrible Gettysburg Documentary the Military Channel ran earlier this year.

I know…. I know… .don’t quit the day job!

Edwards Ferry – Wartime Photographs

I was asked via email last week about photos of Edwards Ferry and the pontoon bridges.  As best I can tell, no photos of the Edwards Ferry pontoon bridges exist.  The closest fit I’ve found are several photos of the crossing at Berlin (modern Brunswick), Maryland in the fall of 1862, after Antietam. (I would add that some sources state these photos show the bridges at the same site during the pursuit from Gettysburg, but I’ll go with the Library of Congress description until further information comes to light.)   Two of those photos offer useful visualizations for comparison.

Pontoon Bridge at Berlin, MD

The photo, likely looking across the Potomac from the high ground above the old section of Berlin (on the left).  Also just left of center are the remains of the pre-war bridge that crossed here.  The two pontoon bridges were placed close together, close enough to cause traffic issues similar to those at Edwards Ferry.  Note also the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and also a mill race running just this side of the Potomac.  I don’t see any bridges traversing the canal or mill race.  From walking that section of the canal, I would speculate the Federals used one of several existing canal crossing points over the C & O.  Furthermore, there is an “island” between the river and the mill race which could have provided ample space for the wagons moving to the bridges.

There does not appear to be much confusion or chaos at this 1862 crossing.  But then again, the photo was likely taken late in the crossing cycle during the slow motion advance of the Army of the Potomac in October 1862.  There are two sets of wagons, approaching each other, separated by a trio of unhitched wagons.  Perhaps that’s a scene which aptly summarizes the Federal pursuit after Antietam.

Another photo provides a closer view of the bridge abutments:

Abutments at Virginia End of Bridge
Abutments at Virginia End of Bridge

In this view, the old bridge piers are on the right and the town at the far side.  But not seen is the second pontoon bridge.  Was this photo taken before or after the one from the Maryland shore?  Regardless, three points to make about the abutment.

First note the gradual slope down of the last bay of the bridge to the shore.  I really wish the photographer had captured a wagon crossing, or at least some led horses, over that last pontoon.  Such would capture the increased displacement on the bridge due to traffic, and illustrate the flexibility required for the decking.

Second, three “guards” are posted to the right of the bridge.  Odds are if you arrived there with your troop, they would say something like, “dismount and lead those horses, sir!”  Or, to marching infantry, “route step!”  A small post next to those “guards” appears to have a sign.  I wonder if that sign carried a written version of that verbal warning.

The last item I’d call attention to is the road grade leading up to the bridge abutment.  The ground on the lower left of the photo appears freshly disturbed.  Perhaps that is due to the heavy traffic rutting the path.   But perhaps disturbed as the engineers built up a path up the bluffs on the Virginia side.  In fact, the entire left side looks like a “spit” of land artificially extended to support the bridge crossing.

Now I would be remiss by failing to mention a scene that did not make it into the movie Gettysburg which shows the coordination between the Army Staff and General Henry Benham.  In this clip, General Daniel Butterfield, played by Donald Sutherland (Jack Bauer’s dad to you and I) converses with General Henry Benham, portrayed by Seinfield’s Uncle Leo (Len Lesser) :

Kind of hard to follow as they are talking in code – “bank heist”, “crap game”, “big Joe”, and “little Joe.”

OK, you caught me pulling your leg again!

Actually I should pause and point out that Kelly’s Heroes, one of the most popular war movies of all time, was first released in the U.S. on June 23, 1970.  So it’s a good 39 years old, as of last Tuesday.  The movie has aged well.

Off topic a bit, still the conversation between “Oddball” and SGT Bellamy mentions a few things that are timeless with regard to bridging operations.  Bellamy is concerned about the security of his team if he accepts the chore of building the bridge.  He also indicates the need for manpower to build the bridge.  If we go back and look at the dispatches between the engineers and staff officers in June 1863, those two issues stand out in the conversation.  Also, of course, there is the friction between the “warfighter” who sees the river as an impediment to his operation which must  be crossed without delay, and the engineer who sees the bridging as an operation unto itself.

River crossings are inherintly an action where man wishes to move contrary to the wishes of nature.  Bridging operations supporting those crossings must therefore involve an abundance of resources.  Those realities have not changed in spite of technology.