“I am now lacquering or varnishing the interior … of the shells.” : Parrott offers remedies for Parrott failures

From the last weeks of June 1863 right up to the fall of Charleston in February 1865, the story of the siege was dominated by the sound of heavy Parrott rifles firing bolts and shells towards the Confederates.  The performance of these heavy rifles was extreme for its day, and duly noted by observers.  Just as noteworthy, however, was the rate at which those guns failed… sometimes dramatically failed.  As some went looking for explanations,  bad light reflected upon the weapon’s inventor – Robert P. Parrott.  On June 21, 1864, Parrott sent a letter to the Commander of the Department of the South, Major-General John Foster, offering his analysis of the problem and a solution… and a novel suggestion to use the big rifled guns in yet another manner:

Office West Point Foundry,
30 Broadway, New York, June 21, 1864.

Maj. Gen. J. G. Foster-

My Dear Sir: Though I suppose most of the points of importance in regard to the service of my guns are by this time understood, there are one or two that are of such exceeding interest that I am induced to mention them. The greatest difficulty now to be encountered is in the premature explosion of shells in the bore of the gun. The charge of powder they will hold is quite large, and owing to the elongated form of the projectile or to its being driven into the groves, there seems to be a tendency of the parts of the broken shell to wedge in the bore, thus carrying away muzzle or some other part, or, at any rate, giving the gun a violent strain which is afterward and perhaps by other accidents developed into the destruction of the gun. As a means of diminishing this danger, I am now lacquering or varnishing the interior surface of the shells.  Even when freshly put in it operates favorably. A little poured in at the fuse hole and then caused to run over the sides by laying the shells down and rolling it will answer.

The reason for this seems to be that on firing the gun the powder charge of the shells is violently thrown back, and explosion is caused by the friction or attrition of the powder against the rough surface of the bottom and sides of the shell. These are made smooth by the lacquer or varnish, &c.

I have used the 100-pounders as mortars by loading them with a very small charge of powder, 3 ¼ pounds, and setting out the ring of the projectile in one place only so as to nearly fit a groove, by this means, which admits of the shell going down, merely placing the expanded portion in one of the grooves of the gun, and have got a high-curve traveling, say a range of 2,000 yards, with 20 degrees elevation. I have no doubt that when such a fire happens to be desirable it can be obtained readily with the heavy rifles. The starting out of the ring in this way causes it to take the grooves with this low charge.

With the best wishes for your health and success, most truly, yours,
R. P. Parrott.

What Parrott described here, and in other correspondence, was the “rasping” of the shell powder within the shell itself when movement initiated on firing.  More so than in a standard smoothbore shell, the rifled shell was moving violently on two different plains of action.  This friction, he felt, caused the powder to ignite prematurely.

Throughout the long months of use on Morris Island, gunners greased, flushed, and cleaned their Parrott ordnance.  Though I’ve often noted in those wartime photographs, the shells seemed haphazardly lain in the beach sand.  Now, with Parrott’s advice, the ordnance crews preparing the shells had an additional precaution of lacquering the interior.

While a sound, logical step to take, nothing could repair the damaged reputation of the guns….  And at the same time, the faith of the ordnance department remained, for the most part, unshaken by the bursting guns.  West Point Foundry continued with deliveries of large caliber Parrotts.  And the Army kept using them – for decades to come.

And since I’m discussing Parrott and West Point Foundry, let me mention again a portion of that cannon production site is set aside in a park along the Hudson River.  Furthermore, Trudie A. Grace and Mark Forlow’s book on the history of West Point Foundry is in bookstores and available on line now.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 143-4.)


Photo Analysis: The east side of Fort Putnam

In a couple of earlier posts, I used this photo as a reference for Fort Putnam:

And as mentioned earlier, this photo compares favorably to a painting by Conrad Wise Chapman.  But the real treasure of this photo lies in the details the lens captured.  I suspect the photographer took this photo when the Federals were busy converting the works from Battery Gregg into Fort Putnam.  It is among the Haas & Peale collection, which helps with dating the photo to the fall of 1863.  I’ll offer further evidence for that case in the course of discussing the details of the photo.

Let me start on the right side of the works in view.  There were a couple of Parrott rifles on siege carriages in position here.


Based on shadows and reflected light, these appear to face northward toward Fort Sumter and Sullivan’s Island.  Looking closer, my take is there is a 20-pdr Parrott closer to the camera and a 30-pdr Parrott behind.  These are two 30-pdr Parrotts on siege carriages (see comment below).


If my dating of the photo is correct, a later photograph shows this battery cleaned up a bit and ready for action:

The gun crew appeared to know they were being “captured for posterity” here.


With the distance, nothing such as hat brass or other insignia stand out, save the chevrons of the NCO on the right.

The howitzer platform is not so clean as in the later photo.  But an observer posted there appeared to consider the Confederate fortifications in the distance:


In the foreground, behind the Parrotts, are limbers of some sort. Though these don’t stand out as standard type siege limbers:


There were a few boards running lengthwise between the axles here.  So I wonder if these were used to move lumber up to the work details.  And speaking of work details, these fellows appeared to be on break:


Just sitting in the sand, waiting for the call back to work, maybe?

A dapper looking fellow stands on the mound above them.


Notice the ventilation pipes extending up from the old bombproof, constructed by Confederates but then employed by Federals.

To the left of the work crew is another gun.  But this one lay on the berm.


The long trunnions and other external forms help identify this gun as a Confederate columbiad.  Several of these were turned against their former owners starting in the fall of 1863.  This columbiad was likely removed to make room for a Parrott rifle, for which a carriage stands in place above. And there is a second Confederate columbiad in view:


Just barely, that is.  Just the breech, but enough to see the mushroom cascabel.  The view of these two columbiads and the Parrott carriage shows two of the positions used to fire on both Charleston and Fort Sumter:


This compares favorably to a photo taken later:

The Parrott was in place by the time of the later photograph, but one of the Confederate columbiads remained in place on the left.  Note the large stacks of Parrott shells on the right of that later photo.  The “start” of that stack is seen in the earlier photo:


Another detail that helps “date” the photo are all the sandbags:


These are neatly stacked, by veterans of those long days of the summer siege no doubt.  The sandbags indicate the Federals were just starting the improvements when the photo was taken. Later photos show these covered with sod to prevent erosion and cut down on the wind blown sand.  Hard to tell with the shading, but it appears the workers have added sod to the lower half of this wall.  Or perhaps just stacked sandbags over what the Confederates left for them.

More sandbags around a bombproof entrance to the left of the columbiads.  Notice the implements laid in the sand above the bombproof.


Also in this view are three poles.  Looking close there are fine lines (hard to display without over pixelation in the screen capture) of telegraph wires.

Other than the circumstantial evidence of the sandbags and state of work, there’s nothing to pinpoint the date of the photo with accuracy.  There are no unit designations or signs to aid.  There are a few marks on the barrels laying about the works.  Several appeared to have a stencil featuring a crossed something:


Perhaps a stylized anchor and crossed hammer?

Another barrel head (center of view below) has some letters.  But nothing that makes a connection.


Those barrels are among large piles of materials and debris that laid about the rear of the works (which had been the “front” for the Confederates).


The boards are sharpened and likely part of the pallisades going up around the fort.  But some of the piles are nothing short of trash, likely put to good use in campfires later.


The palisade trace around the fort covers the rear, front, and presumably the other side of the fort.  At the far right of the photo, there’s a good profile showing the angle of the palisade to good effect.


And just above the palisades in view?  That’s a Confederate work on James Island.  Battery Simkins.


To the left of Battery Simkins is a Confederate observation and signal tower.  I’ll leave you to determine if that’s an observer standing atop the platform.  Maybe this is one of the rare wartime photos showing both Federal and Confederate in the same view?


To the right of Battery Simkins, some of the outer works of Fort Johnson come into view.


With those distant landmarks in view, I submit my thoughts about the location this photo was taken (E1) and the angle of view:


Looking back on Morris Island, the beach sand of the foreground show the tracks of wheels, indicating heavy traffic as the Federals worked on the captured works.


A few patches of grass.  But not much else than beach sand.

And if you look to the lower left, we find another observer…


Ah, the pesky flies of Morris Island.

6.4-inch and 8-inch Parrotts against Fort Sumter from Battery Reno

Moving forward with the examination of the “Left Batteries” on Morris Island, the guns to the left of Battery Hays were in a series of named works.


These were Batteries Reno, Stevens, and Strong, seen here in a closer crop from the map above:


Lieutenant Peter Michie directed the construction of these works, starting after the during the last week of July. From his official report:

On the 27th of July, I was ordered by [Brigadier-General Quincy Gillmore] to construct what were afterward known as the “left breaching batteries against Fort Sumter.” Their site was a sand ridge, and general direction making an angle of about 35 degrees with the gorge of Fort Sumter, and distant about 4,200 yards from that work. ….

On the 27th of July, the interior crest of a sunken battery for five 100-pounder Parrott guns was laid out, with arrangements for one magazine to hold 200 rounds per gun, and a traverse 12 feet thick on top, between each gun and the one adjacent….

The work progressed well, despite harassing fire from James Island. By July 31, Michie reported the interior revetments were complete. But by August 8, the armament of these batteries changed to one 8-inch (200-pounder) Parrott and four 6.4-inch (100-pounder) Parrotts. And by August 12, Michie had to find a place in the line for a 10-inch (300-pounder) Parrott, the largest on Morris Island. These big Parrotts were arranged as such:

  • Battery Reno – one 8-inch Parrott and two 6.4-inch Parrotts
  • Battery Stevens – two 6.4-inch Parrotts
  • Battery Strong – one 10-inch Parrott

Michie provided a wealth of detail in his report about the layout of these works:

The batteries (except that of the 300-pounder) were full sunken. The line of each interior crest made an angle varying from 30 degrees to 37 degrees with the gorge of Fort Sumter, depending upon the nature of the ridge at the different points. The width of each gun battery was 18 feet, the traverse between being 12 feet thick at top. The interior revetments were of sand-bags laid in the usual manner of headers and stretchers, and extended below the gun platform.

While originally the batteries could only point at Fort Sumter, later the traverse increased to allow fires on James Island, Fort Johnson, Battery Gregg, and Battery Wagner. At first Michie tried rawhide over the embrasures, but with little success. In the end, he settled for gabions filled with sandbags:

The method of anchoring them was to lay a piece of 6-inch by 8-inch timber parallel to the cheek, and some 3 to 4 feet back, having two stout anchoring stakes 6 feet long driven on the inner side. Each gabion, besides being well picketed to the fascine upon which it rested, was tied to this timber by No. 10 wire, stoutly enough to withstand the blast, and yet to give way if struck by a shot, without destroying the entire embrasure.

Regarding the exterior slopes of the batteries, the only preparation was a coating of marsh mud. A layer of two inches dried into a hard crust. This reduced the sand blowing through the battery. The map of the left batteries included a profile of Battery Reno, along the line C-D:


Michie described two bombproof magazines built for Batteries Reno and Stevens:

There were two magazines, one between Nos. 2 and 3, for the service of the two right pieces, and one on the left of No. 5, for the service of the remaining three guns. The former was 10 feet by 10 feet by 6 feet high in the clear, with a filling room 4 feet by 5 feet by 6 feet high; the latter was 10 feet by 15 feet by 6 feet high, with one return gallery 4 feet by 6 feet high. The magazine frames were of 4-inch by 6-inch stuff, placed 2 feet 6 inches apart, and covered with 3-inch plank and 8 feet of sand on the line of least resistance, and for sheeting 1-inch, 1 1/4-inch or 2-inch plank was used as could be procured.

Focusing for this post on Battery Reno, the three big Parrotts there came under the command of Captain Augustus W. Colwell, 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery. Company H, 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery and a detachment of infantry manned the guns (Brigadier-General John Turner states the 178th New York was posted there, but that regiment was still in the Washington, D.C. garrison at the time.)

The range to Fort Sumter from Battery Reno was 4,320 yards. Later as the traverse increased, the range to Battery Gregg was 2,950 yards; and to Battery Wagner was 1,860 yards. All well within the maximum range of the big Parrotts.

One of Haas & Peale’s photos recorded the layout of Battery Reno. Let me again turn to the Hagley Museum and Library collection of Haas & Peale photographs for the view of Battery Reno:


Not one of the best of the set, but at least a photograph to work with. The photo confirms the 8-inch Parrott was in the middle, to the right of the magazine. On the left of the magazine, somewhat hard to see, is one of the 6.4-inch Parrotts. The other is in plain sight on the right.

Notice the construction of the works, with sandbags, barrels filled with sand, and the gabions in the embrasures. The magazine, “between Nos. 2 and 3” according to Michie’s report, matches the provided description.

In the next installment, I’ll turn to Battery Stevens and then to Battery Strong.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 336-38.)

A 10pdr Parrott Rifle from Macon? Well maybe

A couple years back when discussing the Regarded Parrott rifles, I mentioned Macon Arsenal as another source for Confederate Parrotts.  As I said then, I’ve never seen a “confirmed” Macon 10-pdr.  But every visit to Chancellorsville I give one particular gun extra scrutiny hoping it might give away some clues.

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10-pdr Parrott Rifle, possibly from Macon Arsenal

Recall Macon Arsenal was among the facilities built by the Confederate government during the war.  In that case, the nucleus of the arsenal was a rented shop.  Although Macon’s biggest production runs were 12-pdr Napoleons, the cannon foundry produced at least a dozen 10-pdr Parrotts.  Of that lot, the registry of surviving guns lists two that are around today.  One is in private hands.  The other is tentatively identified as the gun pictured above.

The Parrott rifle in question appears a closer match to early Federal 10-pdrs (2.9-inch) than the Tredegar guns.  There is a noticeable “step” in front of the trunnions, much like early Federal guns.

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Step in front of the trunnions

Notice the casting seams running dorsally down the gun.  As I’ve mentioned before, this is often seen on Confederate guns where the foundry kept machining to a minimum.

The rimbases are squared, as was the fashion with both early Federal and Tredegar Parrotts.

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Trunnions and rimbases

The trunnions themselves are badly weathered.

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Trunnion face

There’s little hope gathering markings off those trunnion faces.  Nor from the breech face.

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Breech face

Damage flattened the underside of the knob.  Certainly something to be expected from a century and a half of handling.

The band exhibits lateral lines, suggesting but welding as was done with the Tredegar Parrotts.

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Profile of the Band and Breech

However, the band is shorter than those seen on Tredegar Parrotts, by nearly two inches.  There’s no bevel at the front of the band.   However there is a raised section at the front of the band, which seems to indicate the surface under the band is likewise raised.

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Raised section under the band

The muzzle has a swell, again not unlike Federal Parrotts.

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Muzzle profile

Of course early Tredegar Parrotts had similar muzzle swells.

But what about the muzzle face?  Any markings that might suggest the origin of this piece?

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Muzzle face

I’ve looked this muzzle face over in different lighting conditions, always looking for traces or hints of stamps or markings.  The most I’ve ever seen clearly is a “2” at the top of the muzzle face.

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Number 2 on muzzle face

That photo was taken in the early morning light, with the dew providing moisture to highlight the dents, dings, and number.

Notice also the three groove rifling.  That rifling extends into the bore but is worn down.

The best I can offer is that “2” is similar in font and size to that used on Macon 12-pdr Napoleons.  For example number 28 at Gettysburg.

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Close up of “No. 28” stamp on Macon Napoleon

Of course, all that might prove is that a couple of foundries used the same type of dies when stamping the guns.

Several factors, particularly the lack of machining, point to a Confederate origin.  The “2” is the only other clue there.  Much smaller than those seen on Federal Parrotts.  Still, pending a readable marking or some paper trail on the gun, I’ll still say “maybe” from Macon.

150 years ago: Arms buildup for Vicksburg

The string of tactical defeats and strategic withdrawals for the Confederates in the Western Theater through 1862 not only conceded territory to the Federals but also translated to lost war material.  At the Iron Buffs of Columbus, Island No.10, Fort Pillow, and Memphis, the Confederates shed much needed heavy ordnance and material.  Likewise, the rebels left many small arms on the field at Fort Donelson and Shiloh.  Not to mention the loss of production facilities in Nashville, New Orleans, and Memphis.  All of which was sorely lacking at the next bastion under pressure – Vicksburg.  During the fall of 1862, as the center of gravity in the west shifted towards that particular bend of the Mississippi River, Confederates shipped large quantities of equipment to Vicksburg.

But “shipped to” does not necessarily mean “received at” when one balances the books.  In the last days of November, those in Vicksburg complained of delays.  A message sent on November 30, 1862 complained of receiving only 1,700 small arms.  In response, on December 2 Colonel Joshia Gorgas reported in detail the support offered to that point by the Confederate Ordnance Department:

  • October 29, Richmond: One thousand seven hundred small-arms.
  • October 29, Richmond: Four 4.62 rifled and banded guns, with carriages and ammunition complete; four 12-pounder bronze guns; four 24-pounder howitzers, with carriages, caissons, and ammunition complete.
  • November 9, Richmond: Four thousand rounds ammunition for 6-pounder gun and 12-pounder howitzer (three-fifths gun and two-fifths howitzer); 80 rounds 20-pounder Parrott ammunition; 200 rounds 3-pounder Parrott ammunition.
  • November 10, Charleston: Eight hundred arms to General Smith, Vicksburg.
  • November 10, Atlanta: Five hundred 3-inch rifle shot and shell.
  • November 11, Richmond: Seventy rounds 20-pounder ammunition.
  • November 18, Richmond and Lynchburg: One thousand five hundred arms and ammunition.
  • November 18, Knoxville: One thousand five hundred arms and ammunition.
  • November 18, Atlanta: Five hundred arms and ammunition.
  • November 24, Richmond: Three 10-inch columbiads.

In short about 6000 small arms forwarded from depots in Richmond, Charleston (South Carolina), Atlanta, and Knoxville to Vicksburg.  But of course the majority of those (save the first 1,700) didn’t get on a train until November and thus were likely still on the rails when Gorgas responded. (*)

But that was just the muskets and such.  The “fun” stuff we discuss on this blog is the artillery, right?  Four 4.62-inch rifled and banded guns, four 12-pdr guns (likely Napoleons), four 24-pdr howitzers, and three 10-inch Columbiads.  At least one of the 4.62-inch rifles ended up at Port Hudson and another ended up in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Because of that scattering, its hard to say for sure all three 10-inch Columbiads served at Vicksburg.  The river defenses contained at least two weapons of that caliber before hand, so mention in action reports is not proof of presence of these big triplets.

But there is a good line on when the guns left Richmond.  Tredegar often filed claims for hauling equipment and stores for the Confederacy.  A tally of the “hauling account” for November lists an entry for November 22:

On the 15th, Tredegar unloaded three 10-inch Columbiads shipped downriver from Bellona Foundry, from the wording “boat in basin,” likely using the James River Canal.  The entry also indicates one of the Columbiads went to the proving grounds.  Tredegar also loaded up two 4.62 inch rifles for shipment to Danville at that time – which may or many not be part of the set Gorgas ordered shipped on November 9.  The going rate to unload a gun from a canal boat was $5.  The rate to haul a gun to the range was $10.  Loading two guns on the railcars cost $15.

On November 22, Tredegar loaded three 10-inch Columbiads  on cars heading to Danville, and from there points west.  Since the entry mentions handling one Columbiad from the proving grounds and the other two from the basin to the depot, that covers the weapons mentioned on the 15th.  Tredegar also loaded three carriages for the Columbiads.

Notice the costs of the labor for the 22nd.  Just as on the 15th, $10 a gun to transport to the depot (either from the basin or proving range).  Counting gun and carriage, Columbiads cost $7.50 per gun to load onto rail cars.  The 4.62-inch rifles loaded on the 15th were mounted on siege carriages, so handling costs were fifty cents left.   Again, let me highlight the rather tight bookkeeping done for the Confederate government.

A look further down on the “hauling” tally indicates Tredegar handled five more of the 10-inch Columbiads a few days later:

On the 29th, Tredegar’s workers loaded three of five 10-inch Columbiads handled that day onto rail cars.  The tally does not indicate where those were sent.  Either date (the 22nd or the 29th) would fit for the day those Columbiads rolled out bound for Vicksburg.  I’m inclined to go with the 22nd since the name of the connecting destination was provided.  And again look at the handling costs – $10 to move a gun, $5 to load a gun on a railcar, and $7.50 to haul and load a carriage.

But before leaving the tally sheet, consider this entry made between the two clipped above:

Anyone care to venture a guess about those pieces and where they were used?  I’ll give you a hint.

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In late November 1862, the Confederacy rushed guns to several threatened points.


* For Gorgas’ report and the original inquiry from Vicksburg, see OR, Series I, Volume 17, Part II, Serial 25, pages 775-6.

The receipt for hauling is located in the Confederate Citizens Files for J.R. Anderson & Company.

Henry Hill’s Parrotts

No, not this Henry Hill….

Or the real Henry Hill…

Although he would have used them if he had them…

I’m talking about THIS Henry Hill:

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Parrotts on Henry Hill

Or as Harry Smeltzer prefers – Henry House Hill.

Today six Parrott Rifles represent the Federal batteries that stood on the hill in the afternoon of July 21, 1861.  Company I, 1st US Artillery (Ricketts’ Battery) and Company D, 5th US Artillery (Griffin’s Battery) became the focus of the battle, as they performed their assigned task of bombarding the Confederate lines just 300 yards distant.

These six guns provide battlefield stompers a fair representation of the gun locations – and thus a good feel for the battlefield geometry at play.  The guns also provide a convenient comparison of the four major variations in the 10-pdr Parrott Rifle family.   West Point Foundry produced the type in both 2.9-inch and 3-inch bore sizes.  Several southern foundries produced Parrott copies, but at the fore was Tredegar which followed the northern example with 2.9- and 3-inch rifles.

I have in the past discussed the differences between the early production 10-pdr/2.9-inch Parrott…

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10-pdr / 2.9-inch Parrott, Registry number 66

and the later 3-inch version.

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Breech of 3-inch Parrott

One of each type stands on Henry Hill.

I have also discussed the replica Parrott Rifles that round out the collection at Gettysburg.  Two replica Parrotts stand at Henry Hill.

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Replica Parrott Rifle

I am not certain with regard to the origin of these two guns.  Clearly they bear a family resemblance to the replica guns from Gettysburg… well because they are replicas of the same type of gun!

The other two guns at Henry Hill are decidedly “rebel.”  The first indicator of the southern origin of these guns is the bevel at the front of the breech band.

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Tredegar 2.9-inch Parrott

Like the Federal guns, aside from the very small increase in bore size, the Tredegar Parrotts exhibited several external variations.

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Tredegar 3-inch Parrott

You will not find a better sampling of Parrotts in such close proximity at any other display.  Although I would set aside the two replicas as “artist’s renditions” of Parrotts, even they are worth a cursory examination.

I’ll offer some detailed follow up posts regarding these Parrotts in days to come.  But if you do find yourself on Henry (House) Hill in the sesquicentennial season, stop for a moment and consider the variations among these Parrotts.

And yes, I have changed the header photo on my blog as we enter “Manassas” season.