Refreshing furlough… Now a return to work

No posts for the last week of July.  Instead of “on the road” posts as offered during vacations in the past, I opted to just let the grass grow here on the blog.  During our trip, we added a number of Civil War related sites into our itinerary.

Several stops in Tennessee, including a lengthy tour at Johnsonville, Tennessee… or rather what was Johnsonville.


During the second half of the Civil War, the site was a major Federal depot supporting operations through middle Tennessee and deeper into Georgia.  Students of the western campaigns know this site for the action on November 3-4, 1864, in which Major-General Nathan Bedford Forrest used his “navy” to capture and destroy the depot. Today the site is partly submerged by Kentucky Lake.  Though substantial earthworks remain on the high ground.


The Johnsonville State Park includes an excellent museum, which covers many aspects of the depot’s and town’s history.


And the trail system is well interpreted.


The Johnsonville State Park on the east side of the river/lake matches up with the Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park (which… who knows… might get renamed in the future) on the west side.  I’ll have more on Johnsonville in future posts.

After some time spent at my old family “homestead” in Missouri, we headed through St. Louis.  There are many Civil War related sites in and around the city, and most are familiar to me.  But our short stay precluded a full tour.  Besides, the Aide-de-Camp had some other objectives in mind!  On our way to the Arch, we took in the Old St. Louis Courthouse.  The St. Louis Circuit Court met in that courthouse through the mid 19th century right up into the 20th century.  Perhaps the most famous case heard in the courthouse was that of Dread Scott v. Sandford.  The National Park Service has arranged the courtrooms to the appearance of that time period.


It was in one of these courtrooms that Dread Scott eventually received his freedom, in May 1857, as result of manumission.

Before leaving St. Louis, we toured Jefferson Barracks.   This base, which has supported military operations from 1826 right up to the present (as a National Guard base), saw significant activity in several wars.  During the Civil War it was a garrison, depot, and hospital.  Today, the Missouri Civil War Museum occupies one of the early 20-th century buildings of the old post.  I will have more on this museum in a trip report post. Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery contains the remains of over 8,500 Federal and 1,000 Confederate soldiers.  Those include many remains originally buried at other places across Missouri, indicative of the widespread wartime activity in the state.

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And as you can see from this photo, a number of those graves are simply “unknown.”

From there, we visited family in the Indianapolis area.  Our stops included the Indiana State Museum, which has a modest Civil War display.  Among the artifacts is the Medal of Honor awarded to Corporal Andrew J. Smith, 55th Massachusetts Infantry, for actions at Honey Hill, November 30, 1864.

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And there will be a follow up post on that subject.  Interesting how the Charleston-Savannah theater of war keeps circling back into my line of sight!

The rest of our tour was a detour off the Civil War subjects (with the exception of dinner with a friend, fellow blogger, and Civil War historian of note).  The Aide-de-Camp enjoyed this sort of stuff:

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However, you Civil War-types are perhaps less enthusiastic…. Plenty of blog posts should I start a new blog entitled “To the Sound of Pratt & Whitney”.

While relaxing, the trip also gave me time to consider future blog posts for “To the Sound of the Guns.”  As mentioned above there are several “trip reports” and other topics for posts.  But more importantly, I had the opportunity to consider which threads to follow as I evolve this blog into the post-sesquicentennial.  Not saying there will be changes, but rather the promise that there will continue to be content in the weeks and months (and hopefully years) ahead.


Sunset at Dogan Ridge: An infrequently visited corner of Manassas battlefield

Yesterday afternoon I headed over to the Second Manassas battlefield to hike some of the spots we didn’t visit on last weekend’s Civil War Roundtable tour.  Although I’ve been to the locations before, it is always good to refresh the photo archives and see what I might have missed on the earlier trips.

But the real reason I’d headed over to Manassas was to attend the latest installment of Manassas National Battlefield Park’s “History at Sunset” program.  Ranger/historian Hank Elliot led us from Deep Cut to Dogan Ridge through some of the least visited portions of the battlefield.  Hank focused on the actions, and well… inaction…, along the unfinished railroad during the late afternoon phases of the fighting on August 30, 1862.  Over the years many historians have focused, no doubt due to in part to the ongoing squabbles between former Confederate commanders, on the delays with Longstreet’s attack that day.  Yet little consideration is given to the delays on the left side of that assault.  Or to the delays with Jackson’s force coming out from behind the railroad bed to apply pressure.

Over the span of an hour-and-a-half, as we watched the sun set, Hank provided us with a detailed examination of troop movements and command interactions.  We walked over the very ground on which these activities took place in the falling light.  Most excellent perspective.

As Hank pointed out, the failure to provide pressure in this sector of the battle in those critical phases of August 30 allowed the Federals to shift forces to the south, aiding the delaying action on Chinn Ridge.

Throughout this year, I’ve been blessed with some memorable sunsets.  Yesterday was no exception.

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These views look west from Dogan Ridge, in the direction of the Confederate attacking forces.

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So was Jackson’s delay justified?

Interpreting the Lincoln Presidency: Ford’s Theater

Earlier this year I posted about my trip through Ford’s Theater on the day of the great Virginia earthquake.  At the time I lamented my visit was without camera.  A couple weeks back I was able to stop by there on the way home, with camera in hand this time. So allow me to update that post with a few photos of the exhibits.

In past visits, before renovations were complete, the museum displays seemed focused on the assassination of President Lincoln.  Indeed, I’ve got some old 35mm photos from over twenty years back that show a rather austere, by today’s standards, set of displays.  Now the museum actually provides a rather well rounded look at the Lincoln Presidency.  Of course the war receives considerable coverage among the interpretive displays.

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Revolving Door of Union Generals

And the interpretation is, in my opinion, at the proper level – not too heavily laced with the story of great battles but rather with how the Union effort evolved and proceeded at the strategic level.

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The Improvised War

Within the displays are figures (or are these mannequins?) positioned to attract the visitor’s attention.  Lifelike poses add to the narrative.  Hands on displays attract the younger visitors.

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A Swarm of Office Seekers

Not lost in the interpretation is the real focus of the war.  I lost count of the number of times slavery was mentioned.

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Freedom Road

The time line of the exhibits walks the visitor through the last years of the war, bringing the visitor to focus on 1864.

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A Year of Decisions

After explaining events of the election year, then bringing the visitor through the first months of 1865, the interpretation narrows down to the details of the assassination.

Figures depict the conspirators among exhibits explaining how they planned and plotted.

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The Conspriators

Foremost in the figures is John Wilkes Booth.

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Figure of John Wilkes Booth

And the gun he used to shoot Lincoln.

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The Gun that Shot Lincoln

Exiting the main exhibit area, the visitor walks through a hall of interpretive panels.  These trace activities of Booth (on the left) and Lincoln (on the right) on April 14, 1865.

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Events of April 14, 1865

The time line concludes with the sound of a ticking clock, and the visitor exits to the main theater.

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The President's Box

Let me say again…. even if you have visited Ford’s Theater in the past, if you have not visited since 2009 put it back on your bucket list.

Off the Beaten Path DC: National Guard Memorial Museum

The National Guard Memorial Museum isn’t one of the big museums in Washington, D.C.

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Entrace to the National Guard Memorial Museum

It practically hides in plain sight at the corner of North Capitol Street and Massachusetts Avenue, a few blocks away from Union Station.    The museum presents the story of the National Guard from its colonial militia roots…

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First Muster - Massachusetts Colony in 1636

to the Global War on Terror….

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Post 9/11 Homeland Security Display

Of this long, storied history, the Civil War is but a chapter.  The Guard that we know today traces its heritage to the volunteer militia of 1861 (on both sides of the war).  But laws which changed the role of the Guard, along with organizational modifications, transformed those militias in the 20th century into a “national” guard force.  Rightly so, the museum puts much focus on the National Guard’s role in the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam.

But that’s not to say the museum sidesteps the Civil War.

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Civil War Colors

Hanging over the main entrance hall are a collection of reproduction colors, two from each side of the Civil War:  The “National” (US) Color of the 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment;  Confederate flag from 5th Battery, Washington Light Artillery, of New Orleans, Louisiana; Color of the 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia Regiment; and Battleflag of the 2nd Maryland Infantry Regiment, Confederate.  In the center is the drum of the 1st Regiment Grey Reserves of Philadelphia.

Further into the museum a collection of photos and artifacts support a audio presentation discussing the volunteer militia in the Civil War.

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Civil War Display

The audio presentation placed emphasis on General Joshua L. Chamberlain.  Artifacts include a Burnside carbine, an artillery saber, and officer’s sash.

And there are cannons at the museum.

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6-pdr Gun from the Massachusetts State Artillery

The two guns displayed served with the Massachusetts State Artillery around 1800.  Although not “Civil War” pieces, these are good examples of non-regulation artillery used by militia units prior to the Civil War.  These guns are linked to Revere Copper, which provided field guns during the Civil War.  I’ll have to examine them in detail later.

Although small in floorspace, the exhibits are remarkably well done.   The museum provides ample documentation, reinforcing the audio presentations in each major section.

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Minuteman Answering the Call

The National Guard Educational Foundation maintains the museum, which is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays (excepting holidays).   I’d recommend allocating 30 to 45 minutes to take in all the exhibits.  Visitors will step away with an appreciation for the role of the volunteer citizen soldiers who have defended America over the centuries.

Guns, Lots of Guns: The National Firearms Museum

I live in the land of museums.  The Washington, D.C. area must have the highest number of museums per capita of any locality in the world.  Indeed I pasted four of these museums on a six block walk to a mid-day meeting today.  Unfortunately with the “big name” museums (such as the Smithsonian system), many tourists miss out on some of the smaller gems the area has to offer.

One such lesser known museum is the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia.  Well, maybe not lesser known if you are a member of the National Rifle Association, which runs the museum.  Overall the museum displays 2700 firearms ranging from ancient times to the present. The displays are focused, with a lot of pride, on American firearms.  And for a student of American history, these artifacts speak to every chapter of our nation’s story.

The Civil War section contains five cases in three galleries.  The Federal side of things is represented by a “typical northern gun factory” display.

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Rack of Federal Firearms

The Confederate story comes forward in a more genteel setting.

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Confederate Parlor Display

With a couple of dueling pistol sets.

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More of the Confederate Section

Another set includes cavalry weapons that armed both sides.

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"Window" into the Cavalry Section

As you can tell, these exhibits are behind glass for security and preservation.  This does make it hard to photograph the guns.  But on the other hand, the museum’s website has a remarkable tool allowing you to view the guns in fine detail, from the comfort of your computer desk.  Take Case 36 with all the carbines.  You can use the navigation options to look over Sharps Carbine number 11721, one of seventy-five which were entered into the Congressional Record, and used by John Brown’s men on the Harpers Ferry Raid.

Other Civil War era weapons appear in the other galleries in the museum.  I was particularly fond of the Gatling guns.

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Gatling Gun at the National Firearms Museum

Not all the Civil War related displays date to the Civil War.  There is an entire gallery featuring movie weapons and other trappings.  They have Captain Nathan Brittles’ (a.k.a. John Wayne) coat from “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”

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Movie Guns and Momentos

And for the Confederate side, there’s the Outlaw Josie Wales’ pistols.

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Outlaw Josie Wales

I cold probably go on for pages discussing the pre- and post-Civil War displays.  A substantial portion of the museum features guns of the World Wars.  I’ll probably save those photos for Bring the Heat, where the audience loves such subjects.

The National Firearms Museum is absolutely free for visitors.  Even parking, which usually is the overlooked overhead for tourists, is free. Docents provide informative tours, or you can just browse through at your leisure.  I’d plan at two hours if you have even a passing interest in firearms.

The museum is open daily from 9:30 AM to 5 PM (but closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Day, Easter, and Independence Day).  It is located at 11250 Waples Mill Road, in Fairfax (just off Interstate 66).  The website provides detailed directions from most access points. I’d point out for Civil War tourists, the museum is located about half way between downtown Washington, D.C. and the Manassas battlefield.  Oh, and not far from the Chantilly battlefield.

So if you are planning a trip to the D.C. area in the future, you should consider a stop at the National Firearms Museum.

Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center

Time to update my standard “travel advice” for Fort Sumter.

Most visitors to Fort Sumter will use the Spirit Line Cruise ferry.  Back in the 1990s when I first visited the fort, the ferry ran from two spots.  I preferred to depart from the City Marina on the Ashley River side.  On more recent trips I’ve taken, my departures were from Patriot’s Point on the other side of the harbor from Charleston.  For our August vacation, I booked our seats in advance and held to my preference for Patriot’s Point.  My aide-de-camp approved that choice, noting the USS Yorktown and other attractions in the area.  But we also planned a stop at the South Carolina Aquarium.  Much to my pleasure, I found the old harbor area completely renovated.  Located next to the aquarium is this structure:

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Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center

The Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center is, in my revised opinion, a better place to start the visit to Fort Sumter.   The building houses a small, but educational set of exhibits.

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Fort Sumter Garrison Flag replica

While the Patriot’s Point site offers some exhibits related to the Civil War, these are not as well constructed as the National Park Service center.

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North Side of the Center

The architecture of the building recalls the arched casemates of Fort Sumter.

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Spirit Line Cruise Ferry Departing for Fort Sumter

So if you pressed me for a one-day itinerary for Charleston, I’d suggest a tour of Fort Sumter departing from the visitor education center.  Better still, I’d suggest at least two days in order to better “scratch the surface” of the history and heritage at practically every corner of Charleston.

Civil War Exhibits: Virginia War Museum

Earlier this summer, while visiting Virginia’s tidewater, I made a stop at the Virginia War Museum in Newport News. The museum boasts a collection of military artifacts, uniforms, weapons, and equipment dating from colonial times to the present day.  Although the bulk of exhibits relate to 20th century events, there are several display cases devoted to the Civil War.

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Confederate Uniform Display

Since Virginia was a Confederate state, the Civil War section starts with a display of Confederate uniforms and accouterments.

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Federal Cavalry Display

The Federal cavalry display includes both a Gallagher and a Sharps carbine.

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Artillery Projectiles

A collection of recovered artillery projectiles includes some rather interesting examples worth closer examination.

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Navy Sharps & Hawkins Carbine

A display showing naval artifacts includes a Sharps & Hawkins Carbine.

A little further into the museum is this well preserved field piece:

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German 15cm Model 1893 Howitzer


Well at first glance *looks* like something that *could* have been used in the Civil War.  This is actually a 15cm German howitzer of World War I vintage.  Notice the lack of modern recoil system or even sighting optics.  The Great War was sort of a cross-roads in field artillery, with some anachronistic throw-backs used alongside more modern weapons. This howitzer is one of the former.

As mentioned, most of the museum’s floorspace is dedicated to 20th century exhibits.

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FT-17 Light Tank of World War I Vintage
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German 88mm FLAK 36
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Vietnam War Weapons

Outside the museum is a remarkable arrangement of armored fighting vehicles and cannons, of course most dating to the 20th century.

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M42 Duster Anti-Aircraft System
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20th Century Field Artillery

Some of which are not just rare, but practically “one of a kind.”

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240mm T1 Gun

While the Civil War section is limited, I would still recommend  a visit to the museum if you are in the Hampton-Newport News area – particularly for those interested in military history from a broad context.  There are plenty of Civil War related sites nearby (Let me plug the Mariners’ Museum for example) that delve into that period of history, so I think the Virginia War Museum offers a good balance without competing with those venues.

The Virginia War Museum is open daily.  Admission is $6 for adults.  See the museum web page for more details.