Exploring Plum Point Bend: More than just Civil War along the river

Yesterday I posted on the Plum Point Bend battlefield for the Civil War Navy Sesqui blog. As with many Civil War sites along the Mississippi River, the passage of 150 years has changed the landscape considerably. Although, the agent for change has been, for the most part, the river itself. The map below shows the general course of the river during the war, in blue.

The pin points reference sites discussed in the post (over on the CW Navy site). So please click over there to see how this river battlefield looks today. In the post I mention activities there in the spring of 1862. 150 years ago that stretch of the river was the “front line” in the Federal advance down the Mississippi, in the form of ironclad gunboats and mortar boats. Overlooking that line were some 40 Confederate guns in Fort Pillow. And the Plum Point Bend is the site of perhaps the greatest Confederate naval victory of the war, on May 10, 1862, when a flotilla of rams sank two ironclad gunboats.

Of course, readers are probably more familiar with the massacre occurring at the fort in 1864. I’ll have to visit that topic of discussion in 2014. But the Civil War story line is but part of a rich local history.

Growing up in that area, I’ve always embraced the river history and lore. Very much analogous to Robert Moore’s attachment to the Shenandoah. The river bends around Osceola, Arkansas offer a bounty of stories. Mark Twain mentioned Plum Point by name, describing it as “famous and formidable” in Life on the Mississippi. Yet at the same time he noted changes to the river in the form of beacons, channel dikes, and other engineering features – man’s attempts to “train” the river’s behavior.

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Plum Point Bend today

What made the river from Osceola, around Plum Point, and further down to Craighead Point, so dangerous were the current shifts as the river doubled back on itself through an extended “S”. Snags and sandbars made each reach treacherous. Such obstacles led to more wrecks than can be counted, and no small loss of life. For good reason, in 1829 Captain Henry Shreve chose Plum Point Bend to demonstrate his “snagboat” to clear river obstructions.

Island No. 30 (Mississippi River islands use the most unromantic convention of numbering the islands consecutively downriver from Cairo, Illinois) lays in front of Osceola today. At the time of the Civil War it was about midway across the channel. It was also among the obstacles hindering navigation. Since that time the island has “walked” toward the Arkansas side.

One day in 1913, the steam towboat Sprague, the largest steam tow ever used on the Mississippi, was making her way around the island with a charge of coal barges. On earlier trips, Sprague set records, pushing up to 60 barges. This time, the steamer would set a new record of sorts. As it passed the island, the Sprague hit one of the dikes, then got caught in cross currents. Soon barges broke and tipped, with the coal dumped in the river. This became one of the largest non-fatal accidents on the river.

The Sprague

Islands No. 31 and 32 disappeared after the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811-12. But further downstream Island No. 33 received a rare “real name” over the years – Flour Island – due to the large number of flatboats carrying flour which came to grief there (or at least that’s the old river story). James Audubon spent a few days on the island in 1820. Yet today, the Island lays one mile east of the river channel, as a foothold of Arkansas on the Tennessee side of the river. A change in the river’s course left it there, and bypassed the 100 foot tall Chickasaw Bluffs on which Fort Pillow was built.

But not all the story line is “river” centric. Osceola sat in the hart of Lee Wilson’s Cotton Plantation. That brings up reconstruction and “the New South” in the discussion. (For those with an interest, I recommend Jeannie Whayne’s Delta Empire.) Wilson’s influence shaped not only the sociological, economic and political landscape, but also the topography as his plantation required protection from the floods.

Looking beyond the “hard history,” remarkably the area around that “S” bend of the river cultivated a large number of musicians – particularly in the blues and country genres. Calvin Frazier, Albert King, Billy Lee Riley, Harvey Scales, Reggie Young, Son Seals, and Buddy Jewell all have roots in the locality (and Johnny Cash lived not too far to the west of there in his youth).

Fascinating when you consider the layers and cross threads of history tied to one geographic location. Thankfully, the Mississippi County Historical & Genealogical Society is very active both preserving and promoting the area’s rich heritage. They are largely responsible for numerous historical markers on the Arkansas side of the river’s bends.

Preservation Wins: Civil War Trust reviews 2011 accomplishments

Yesterday Civil War Trust released a review of preservation accomplishments from 2011, the first year of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. Here’s the video version:

There’s is much to laud:

  • Protecting 2,042 acres of battlefield and other historic sites
  • Release of the Civil War 150, a book listing 150 essential “to do” activities for the sesquicentennial
  • Start of a multi-year fundraising campaign
  • Defeat of preservation threats at the Wilderness and Gettysburg
  • Continuing excellent education programs with a new curriculum guide and Regional Institutes to supplement the 10th Annual Institute
  • Enhanced interpretive programs with the addition of mobile application guides to battlefields

And along the way, the organization rebranded from “Civil War Preservation Trust” to “Civil War Trust.”

Yes the battlefield apps are “kewl.”  I’ll have to post a review here when I have the time.  But I must say the tally of acres preserved is most impressive:

In 2011, often working with regional partner groups and utilizing a variety of matching grant programs, the organization closed 39 separate transactions at 25 individual battlefields in 12 states.  The battlefields where land was preserved in 2011 are: Day’s Gap, Ala.; Natural Bridge, Fla.; Resaca, Ga.; Perryville, Ky.; Fort DeRussy, La.; Wood Lake, Minn.; Bentonville, N.C.; Cabin Creek, Okla.; Gettysburg, Pa.; Fort Donelson, Fort Sanders/Knoxville, Franklin, Parker’s Cross Roads and Shiloh, Tenn.; Chancellorsville, Cold Harbor, Gaines’ Mill, Glendale, Manassas, Petersburg, Thoroughfare Gap, Tom’s Brook, Trevilian Station and the Wilderness, Va.; and Shepherdstown, W.Va.  These successful ventures have helped the organization reach an all-time tally of more than 32,000 acres of hallowed ground saved forever.

The list of locations is diverse – from Cabin Creek, Oklahoma to Petersburg, Virginia; from Wood Lake, Minnesota to Natural Bridge, Florida.  These represent major battles alongside less well known actions.  And most impressive is the all time tally – 32,000 acres.

By any measure, a successful first year of the sesquicentennial… and a tough act to follow in 2012.

Civil War Trust Aims at 285 Acres at Gaines’ Mill

Yesterday Civil War Trust announced a campaign to acquire 285 acres of ground on the Gaines’ Mill battlefield.   The tract of land is the ground over which General James Longstreets’ division attacked on June 27, 1862.  This is a huge, important section of ground.  And due to the location within the booming greater Richmond metro-area, those acres are pricy.  The price is…

$3.2 million total, but with $1 million in grants anticipated from the Commonwealth of Virginia, plus another $1 million already committed from other donors in our capital campaign, we need to raise the final $1.2 million to save this land! Every dollar you give will be multiplied by $2.67!

So the need is $1.2 million and the deadline is July 15, 2012.  The acquisition would quadruple the currently preserved Gaines’ Mill battlefield.  If added, this tract complements smaller sections preserved by Civil War Trust and the Richmond Battlefields Association in recent years.

Thus far in the sesquicentennial, preservationists have been able to trumpet several major victories, thanks to organizations like Civil War Trust.  Although the Gaines’ Mill effort has a tall price tag, such a victory would continue the momentum.

Check out the Civil War Trust page for more details on the acreage and the effort.

Sometimes you make the best of what you get: Ox Hill Battlefield

At a busy Northern Virginia intersection, tucked between office buildings, shopping complexes, and cookie-cutter housing complexes, is a small stand of just under five acres.  That’s all that remains intact of the land over which some 26,000 men fought over on September 1, 1862 during the battle of Chantilly or Ox Hill.

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Entrance to Ox Hill Battlefield Park

The history of Ox Hill Battlefield Park goes back just short of 100 years.  In 1915, Civil War veteran John Ballard deeded a small plot of land for memorials on the site of the battle.  For many years memorials to Generals Philip Kearny and Isaac Stevens were the only visible reminders of the battle.

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Kearny and Stevens Memorials

The small plot remained as all around the battlefield the suburbs of the nation’s capital region slowly grew outward following the highways.  In the 1980s, developers had plans for even the small plot with the memorials. But as those plans came to light, the first “modern” preservation movement took root.  The Chantilly Battlefield Association successfully defended the original plot, and managed to secure additional acres.  But the larger expanse of the battlefield was fully developed starting in the late 1980s.

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Looking North up West Ox Road

West Ox Road still runs north through the battlefield area, but is now dominated by tall office buildings.   For a couple decades the 4.8 acre plot remained a woodlot.  In 2008, Fairfax County Park Authority opened a renovated Ox Hill Battlefield Park.

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Parking Area and Interpretive Kiosks

The “new” park includes interpretation to complement the older state historical markers that serviced visitors for many years.  The marker set at the battlefield today is “world class” if somewhat compressed in space.  The park authority cleared trees and even restored a corner of the cornfield that featured prominently in the battlefield.

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Corner of the Cornfield

Normally, the draw to a battlefield is to study the battle itself.  Although one must use a lot of imagination, there are enough landmarks to provide the understanding of the battle.  Perhaps more importantly, those five acres of battlefield tell us a story about preservation and preservationists.  Many of us would like to see a 100 or 200 acre Ox Hill Battlefield Park – something that encompasses the entire area on which the battle was fought.  But while possible, that level of preservation didn’t fall into place.  But preservationists made an impact, or as I like to say “fought the good fight.”  At the 2008 park dedication, Ed Wenzel called the park a “tangible reminder of our Civil War past” (video at the bottom of Civil War Trust’s page).

Sometimes preservationists must make the best of what they can get.  At the corner of West Ox Road and Memorial Drive, preservationists did more than that.

Difficult Run Made More Difficult

Earlier this month we here in DC area were hit by what felt like a week of heavy rains.  The remains of Tropical Storm Lee merged in with other storm systems.  Parts of Northern Virginia were under flash flood alerts for what seemed like a solid week.  Floods washed out several roads.  And some bridges are still closed for repairs.

At the time (while unfortunately stuck in traffic), I thought of several Civil War connections.  Often we read in wartime accounts were heavy rains made creeks impassable.  Well here’s a graphic depiction of impassable:

My friend Jim Lewis passed this video along.  The location is along the Washington & Old Dominion Rail Trail Park just east of Hunter Mill Road where the old railroad line crossed Difficult Run.

Here’s a photo of the bridge in normal (fall) weather conditions.

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Difficult Run Trail Bridge

Normally Difficult Run is a placid stream.

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Difficult Run at the W&OD Crossing

That is the same power line tower seen at about the 0:30 second mark in the video.  As you can see, the freshet forced the creek well past its banks.

The Washington Post’s weather gang posted a detailed early analysis of that week’s weather on September 9th.  The writers cited 11.97 inches of rain that week (September 5-9) in nearby Reston, Virginia.  While this “storm” was not noteworthy in the larger historical sense, I find the breakdown of the events offered in the report rather useful.  With my historian’s robe on, the analysis offers insight into what was behind those dispatch reports citing “heavy rains” and “impassable streams.” I’ve written a bit on this before regarding the creeks and the Potomac River (here and here).

Bringing the Civil War context to the front center, this particular section of the Washington & Old Dominion saw considerable activity during the war.  Just a short distance east from Difficult Run is the site where Mosby’s Rangers executed Reverend John B. Read in October 1864.  Troops on the march during 1862 and 1863, heading for the great battles of Antietam and Gettysburg, stopped to drink from Difficult Run…  but Difficult Run was not as difficult to cross when they marched through as it was on September 8, 2011.

Spanish 6-pdr, Part 2 – The Gribeauval Gun

In an earlier post I mentioned these two Spanish 6-pdr guns at Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine, Florida.

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Spanish 6-pdrs at the Castillo

As detailed in that earlier post, the gun on the left was cast in 1762 with a design dating back to the first part of the 18th century.  That gun came into American hands as a trophy from the Mexican-American War.  In this post I’ll look at the gun to the right, which is a Spanish Gribeauval 6-pdr.

That system of artillery is named for French General Jean Baptiste Gribeauval.  Established by royal decree in 1765, this was one of the first systems of artillery adopted by a major power.  And it was certainly the most influential of the 18th century.  While Gribeauval probably didn’t design the entire system himself, but rather directed the reforms.

The Gribeauval system called for lighter guns, weighing no more than fifty times the weight of the shot fired.  The system limited the length of guns to 18 calibers – or 18 times the diameter of the bore.  And Gribeauval removed most ornamentation, although retaining many rings and moldings.  The profile of a 24-pdr siege howitzer demonstrates the main components of the gun design.

24-pdr Gribeauval Siege from Napoleon III's "Studies in Artillery"

The Gribeauval system standardized French service calibers to 4-, 8-, and 12-pdrs for field use.  The system included larger calibers, such as the 24-pdr above, for siege operations and fortification garrisons.

The system also standardized the artillery carriages.  A reproduction example of one such carriage is seen below, from a display at Yorktown Battlefield. (The gun is actually an older Valliere pattern weapon.)

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French 4-pdr on Reproduction Gribeauval Carriage

Unlike the Civil War era carriages, which are more familiar to readers, the Gribeauvals mounted the gun between brackets.  For field guns, the breech lay on top of a shelf.  A hand turned screw under the shelf elevated the gun. And also note the second dip in the brackets.  When transporting the gun, the crew pulled it back to rest the trunnions there.

While successful, the Gribeauval system was not perfect.  Through the Napoleonic era, the French attempted to reform the system but never fully replaced Gribeauval’s in service.  With close family ties between the royal houses, the Spanish army adopted the French system.  However the Spanish opted to use British calibers – 6-, 9-, and 12-pdr in particular.  But the Spanish retained the exterior form.

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Spanish 6-pdr Gribeauval Gun

From muzzle swell back, the gun has a chase ring, rings for the first and second reinforce, and a raised base ring.  The reinforce rings incorporate ogees which are molded steps down on the forward edge of the ring.  Between the reinforce rings are the trunnions and dolphins.  The dolphins are simplified to squared off handles.  Notice the trunnions have rimbases, which helped center the weapon on the carriage.  These were very important where the crew had to move the gun between firing and traveling positions on the carriage.

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Muzzle and Chase of Spanish 6-pdr

Like many Spanish guns, this one has a name – “El Uenado” which I think translates to “stag” or “deer” in English.

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Breech and Inscripton on Spanish 6-pdr

The base ring on the gun contains a typical Spanish inscription set. The gun was cast at Barcelona.  I’m not an expert on the inscription styles used, but the date given appears to be December 18, 1767.  If so, this was among the earliest Spanish Gribeauvals.  The seal of King Charles III appears in front of the vent.  Notice the pierced knob, which may be a modification to fit non-Gribeauval carriages.

No plaques or trophy marks aid interpretation of this gun’s past.  A similar piece, down to the inscription and name, were reported in Cambridge, Massachusetts in a turn of the century guidebook.  Speculation at that time placed the gun as one supplied to the Americans during the Revolution. Very likely this gun served an ornamental purpose during the Civil War, if it was in the country at all.

Yet, from a Civil War artillerist’s perspective, there are a couple of reasons to mention this Spanish 6-pdr.  While few French Gribeauval guns found their way to North America, a fair number of Spanish guns ended up in the U.S. – particularly by way of Florida and Mexico.  I’ve already mentioned some 9- and 12-pdrs at the Navy Yard that saw limited employment during the Civil War.  Occasional references in wartime correspondence mentions “old Spanish guns” impressed for limited service.

The second reason to pay mind to the Spanish Gribeauval is to mention the influence of that system on American artillery design through the 19th century.  Lacking uniformity in the early days of the country, ordnance officers mimicked the French system in spirit, but not in caliber.  While using iron guns similar to British designs, the Americans opted for Gribeauval style carriages.  John Gibbon’s Artillerist Manual of 1861 gave mention to the Gribeauval system, noting modifications made by Americans to improve the carriages.  In reality, Gibbon is perhaps far too generous as the American “modifications” were more to adapt another French system, named for Sylvain Charles Valée developed in 1825-1831.   That system was heavily influenced by the British carriage designs, which Griffin dismissed in the text.

So while the two Spanish 6-pdrs highlighted here had no combat employment during the Civil War, each offers stories.  Those stories tell a bit more about the guns and the men who served them.

A Real Missouri Civil War Story: My “Bushwacker” in the Attic

Today is the 150th anniversary of the sacking of Osceola, Missouri.  On September 23, 1861, James H. Lane led a force of Kansas troops into the town.  After driving off a token guard force, Lane’s men looted the town.  The Kansans executed nine men then proceeded to burn the town practically to ashes.  No matter which angle you wish to consider, what happened in Osceola was part of the dark side of war.  The incident is often cited as an example of the bloody, bitter partisan warfare that broke out along the border area of Missouri and Kansas.

I can trace my grandmother’s paternal family lines back to the Osceola area as far back as the 1840s.  In 1860, the family patriarch, who would be my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Midian Smith (age 56) lived on a family farm near Clinton in Henry County, about 30 miles north of Osceola.  Living with Midian was wife Sarah, teenage daughter, teenage son, and three other extended family members. Midian owned real property valued at $3,000 and personal property worth $3,099 – and no slaves.

According to the 1860 census two of Midian’s sons, Sandy James (my great-great-great-grandfather) and Elisha Logan Smith, were not with the family.  Records show Sandy James (aged 31) lived in Barbour County, Kansas.  Although the census lists his occupation as “farmer,” family lore indicates he worked at nearby Fort Scott as a “herb doctor.”  However I have been frustrated in searches to find Elisha Logan, who would have been in his twenties, in any census records.

We know very little about how the Civil War affected the Smith family.  In spite of living in the middle of “bushwacker vs. jayhawker” country, the family survived the war relatively intact.  Midian remained on his farm outside Clinton in 1870.  The teenagers had grown and moved away.  His real property had increased to $12,500, while personal property decreased to $1,000.  But records are silent about how the family experienced the Civil War which raged all around.

Well save one record. The only member of the family with any documented wartime service is Elisha.  Somewhat ironic, considering the lack of information about Elisha’s pre-war employment.  Not only does his complied service record speak to service in the Confederate army, but a letter written in 1913 for his pension claim detail his service first hand.   It was confusion over Elisha’s middle name which delayed his pension award, and prompted his letter.  (He appeared at different times as E.L., E.S., and E.A. Smith.  And his tombstone shows Elisha A. Smith.)

He started the summary of his service indicating, “I enlisted in the southern cause some time in July 61 … under [General Raines]. ”  General James Raines commanded the Eighth Division of the Missouri State Guard.  Elisha fought in at least two actions, including the battle of Lexington that summer.  But when the State Guard under General Sterling Price retreated following the victory at Lexington, Elisha stayed behind for reasons not altogether clear but appears to have involved a wound.

A year later, Elisha again returned to the war.   August 1862, at Osceola, he enlisted for three years.  The service records Colonel John Tracy was the mustering officer, but Elisha mentions Colonels John Coffee and Sidney Jackman.  While these commands were formal Missouri Confederate units, they operated in conjunction with some of the irregulars – namely Quanrill’s.  Elisha fought at the battle of Lone Jack, and received a rather nasty head wound.  He was left behind (apparently returning home).  Later he was captured and exchanged.

Upon his return he was assigned to in Company G, 3rd Missouri Cavalry Battalion, at Vicksburg, Mississippi.  (What is confusing here as I trace the assignment is the presence of two different 3rd Missouri Cavalry Battalions, active on different sides of the Mississippi river.)  Elisha indicates he surrendered with his unit at Vicksburg, served in the Atlanta campaign, and received his third wound during the battle of Allatoona Pass.  At the end of the war, he received his parole in Alabama.

Granted, that’s the punch list story of Elisha’s service without any of the reminisces which might tell more about him or his experiences.  He didn’t offer any explanation for his service (of course, as he’s applying for a pension from the state government he fought against!).  He joined the ranks three separate times – first with the Missouri State Guard, second with Colonel Tracy’s command, then finally after being exchanged joining the 3rd Missouri Cavalry.  From my perspective, detached as a historian with 150 years of analysis to rely upon, I see three distinct phases of the war – transitioning from the 1861 crisis in Missouri; through the irregular warfare on the border; finally to major campaigns with the large field armies and formal surrender at the end the war.

Not only did Elisha survive the war, but he thrived.  He fathered thirteen children through two marriages.  When he died in 1925, he was remembered as a “a kind and faithful husband, father and neighbor.”  He was laid to rest in the Parks Chapel Cemetery near Leesville, Missouri.  And as noted above, his tombstone reads “Elisha A. Smith” leaving yet another riddle.

Elisha’s pension request does not name any comrades who might vouch for his service.  I’m accustomed to seeing names dropped, or perhaps attached letters of reference.  Perhaps with his varied service Elisha ended the war outside the circle of acquaintances he started with.  Or perhaps by 1913 they had all moved away or passed away.  Still the lack of references is worth noting.

But there is another lead the lack of references leaves.  Of three service aged men in the Smith family, one has a service record.  Browsing through the families of neighbors in the 1860 census, there are not many who served in either army during the Civil War.  And mind you, this is a community that sits directly between the two oft cited Federal atrocities of the border wars – Osceola and the Burnt District.  Robert Moore likes to mention the “fence sitters” in the Shenandoah and Alabama … well apparently there were a lot of those in the border counties of Missouri too.  Maybe there were many in Henry County who simply looked past the war to other things.

Elisha’s and my shared extended family continue to farm the hills of Henry and St. Clair Counties.  Few “war stories” came down through the generations, though.  The most often repeated involves his wound at Lone Jack, where he had to plug both sides of his head to prevent bleeding to death.  The Civil War never figured to great importance in the Smith family.  Even where family members married the children of Union veterans, there is scant discussion of the war.  So my parents and other family genealogists have “teased” much of the story from the paper record.

The records indicate Elisha rode the same trails as Price and Quantrill, for a short time at least.  His story does not appear to match the semi-romanticized version of the war on the Kansas-Missouri border.  The “Lost Cause” themes just don’t emerge in the narrative. Nor would he factor as a character in the “Hollywood” versions of Missouri’s Civil War.

Still great-great-great-grand-uncle Elisha is my “Bushwacker” in the attic.