Tag Archives: Vicksburg

Sesquicentennial Observation: The last great surge for Civil War battlefield preservation… why?

During the last four years, as I “walked and talked” the Civil War sesquicentennial, there were many observations which I rolled about at the pace of my footsteps.  A post-sesquicentennial objective of mine is to fill some of those out and share here as blog posts.  One of those is already up.  Today I’ll continue that thread with another observation “from the field,” if you will – we are experiencing the last great opportunity for Civil War battlefield preservation.

Yes, we are witnessing the last great chance for preservation of Civil War battlefields… any additional battlefields.   I say that within the context of a comment from NPS historian John Hennessy:

For the moment, let’s focus on the 2/2 part of that tweet conversation (we’ll circle back to the first part later).  Americans have preserved MORE acres Civil War battlefield than any other nation has preserved for any other war in all of history.  An impressive statistic.  Civil War Trust lists 40,000 acres of battlefield among their accomplishments – preserved in whole or in part by that organization.  Add to that federal (small “f” as in national, not the opposite of Confederate!), state, and local parks on battlefields.  And also mention lands preserved by other means, to include the initiative of the land owners.  More land than for any other war in human history.  Let that simmer at the fore.

Why is that?

Let me offer my answer to that in “Craig Swain” fashion… as in starting with the “nuts and bolts.”  The first part to consider is how – legally and administratively – all that land went onto the “preserved” side of the sheet.  Preservation didn’t happen all at once.  It took time and came in waves.  The first great wave of preservation was by the generation which witnessed the Civil War, and driven by those veterans in the population.  Timothy B. Smith called this the “Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation.”  Very apt title, coming at the later half of the Gilded Age and conducted by veterans reaching their “golden years.”  This period produced five battlefield parks, under government management (Chickamauga-Chattanooga, Shiloh, Gettysburg, Antietam, and Vicksburg).  More important, this period provided the blueprints for additional preservation.  We talk of the “Gettysburg plan” vs. “Antietam plan” because of methods used.  And beyond that, the blueprint incorporated plans for public use.  The practical, surface use was interpretation of the battle (notably, justified as an open air classroom for military officers).  Less practical, but very much at the fore, was public use for commemoration.

The blueprint established – for both the means and uses – the next big period of preservation was also pushed from the federal level.  And it resembled that “golden age”… except for less participation of the veterans, who were passing away by that time.  Parks established from 1915 to 1938 included Richmond, Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania, Petersburg, Stones River, and Brices Cross Roads.  Also in the list of fields preserved during that period are Revolutionary War sites such as Cowpens, Moore’s Creek, and Kings Mountain.  Such indicates “federal directed” preservation had moved beyond the urgings of Civil War veterans to a broader goal embracing the wider context of American history.   Sort of a function of the period, if I may.  Though I want to steer clear of the obvious rabbit hole there, for the sake of brevity.

The preservation of these major battlefields setup the Centennial of the Civil War.  There were places for those observances to occur.  But – and let me be clear that I cannot say this from the stance of a participant – those observances seemed confined.  The Centennial period, from the perspective of preservation, comes across as entrenchment.  The focus was more toward interpretation of what was in place – those wonderful, dated guidebooks and orientation movies that have only recently been updated.   In terms of land, bookend achievements at Manassas and Monocacy epitomize the efforts of that era – small, timid efforts that appear, in hindsight, fraught with missed opportunities.

But some of those missed opportunities setup the next period of Civil War battlefield preservation.  For the first 100 years after the Civil War, major development threats to battlefields were few and far between.  Remoteness insulated many fields from disruption.  That changed in the 1970s as the vectors producing “sprawl” brought direct and indirect changes to these battlefields.  And the “uncovered” battlefield lands were often thrown into the middle of a public discussion which pitted perceived “progress” against preservation.  Typical of these episodes, Manassas battlefield faced major developments on ground which arguably should have been included in the original park’s boundaries.  Another example came from Brandy Station, where preservationists contested major development projects which would have obliterated an otherwise pristine battlefield.  While both of those sites may be listed as “successful,” other places, such as Chantilly and so many of the Atlanta Campaign sites, were not so.  This was a contentious period for preservation, to say the least.  This “contentious” period saw private individuals and advocacy groups at the fore of the dialog.  In many places, the advocates for preservation came to terms with “preserve what you can” compromises. While federal and state officials were there, it was the preservation advocates doing most of the push.  Instead of “top down” driven goals, what emerged were “grass roots” preservation advocates.

Into the 21st Century and approaching the Sesquicentennial, preservation efforts continued along the lines of the last quarter of the previous century.  Opportunities came (and still come) with the alert, “targeted ares need protection NOW before something happens.”  And these are not “the sky is falling” pleas.  The nature of the sprawling development, indicative of this age, leaves no quarter.  Such renders the old Antietam plans obsolete.  Missed opportunities from the 1960s have translated to obliterated fields.  Though at some quarters, such as at Franklin, preservationists have turned to options rehabilitating portions of the battlefield – an extreme of “preserve what you can.” The preservationists through the Sesquicentennial are faced with the question “if not now, when?”

So we see through these five periods, preservation of all that battlefield land was not governed by a single guiding strategy or movement.  Rather the preservation efforts were a function of each generation’s initiative.  However, at the same time we can say through all the periods, the efforts focused on the land for those two core reasons – interpretation and commemoration.  Interpretation, through these periods, remained somewhat rigid for its application (in terms of how we process information, the signage of the 1890s is not far removed from the smart-phone app geo-tag of today) even while the content of the message remained fluid.  On the other hand, commemoration has defied any fixed characterization over the decades, ranging from celebration to reflection to introspection.  While we all approach the battlefields from the context of history, gaining perspective from the interpretation, what we carry away from them – the commemorative aspect – varies by individual.

And there in lies the answer to the question.  The reason we have so much Civil War battlefield space preserved is because that war was a broad, almost limitless, subject from which so much defies concrete definition.  We might start the discussion around “facts” or “sources” or such. But in the end, all devolves into “opinions” based on our own perspectives.  And the best place to reach any authoritative perspective is standing with both feet planted firmly on the ground.

We have not, as a nation, come to terms with the Civil War after 150 years.  So we should not be surprised that we have such an attachment to the ground over which it was fought.  Perhaps, the country needs those acres to serve as an unhealed wound.

Richard, the Widow, and some other cannon: Named guns at Vicksburg

A few days back, I posted about Widow Blakely, a 7.5-inch rifled gun imported from England and used by the Confederates in defense of Vicksburg.  I originally used this photo to illustrate the post:

Whistling Dick, ca. 1863

The photo is often captioned as “Whistling Dick” of Vicksburg fame, which it is not.  However, as reader D. Dickens pointed out, it is not the “Widow Blakely” either!  A mistake which I should have avoided simply by referring back to my original notes on this photo!

Alas, having found myself spinning even more confusion into what is already a confusing story, I pulled the image out of the post – I’d already seen where my miss-identification was carried onto another forum.  That said, I need to clear this up!

The gun in the photo, which you see reproduced often, is a 32-pdr Navy Gun.  The same gun appears in other wartime photos:

Vicksburg32Pdr

Here, from my archive of 35mm photos, is a similar gun posted outside the Vicksburg visitor center (in the 1990s, however the gun was on a siege carriage at some point):

Vicksburg32PDRRifle

Banded and Rifled 32-pdr with trimmed muzzle at Vicksburg

Notice the loop cascabel, rear sight arrangement, band extending back to the rear sight, the front sight block over the trunnions, and the truncated muzzle.  This gun has marks indicating proofing in 1849.

In Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War, Historian Warren Ripley noted this particular gun came to the park from a Vicksburg cemetery which it had guarded since at least 1874.  Although provenance is not always enough to establish fact, three tons is a lot to move about.  I’ve never researched the full history of the gun, but believe there’s enough similarities between the wartime photos and the gun located at Vicksburg today to apply a “very likely” tag here.

There are several “sisters” to this gun, which I shall christen “Miss Identified.”  One sister is at Fort Branch, North Carolina:

NC 28 Jul 12 130

Banded and Rifled 32-pdr at Fort Branch

Another “sister” is at the Washington Navy Yard:

WNY 10 Apr 10 310

32-pdr Navy Gun of 57cwt, Banded and Rifled, from CSS Teaser

That particular gun was captured by the US Navy on board the CSS Teaser in July 1862.  And that 32-pdr is right next to the Widow Blakely’s sister…

WashNY 21 July 272

7.5-inch Blakely at the Navy Yard

…affording me a rather nice segue!

Widow Blakely Vicksburg

Widow Blakely at Vicksburg

We can say the bands on the Widow Blakely and “Miss Identify” are of two different types of construction.  The Blakely’s were done in England of course.  The 32-pdr bands were done by the Confederacy, likely Tredegar in all three cases.  In fact, there’s good reason to believe the 32-pdrs were among those guns captured at Gosport Navy Yard in April 1861.

But the muzzle of the two guns – Blakely and “Miss Identify” – which are similar enough to fool even this old cannon hunter.  Both have a few feet trimmed off to include the muzzle swell.  Because both guns were damaged at Vicksburg (or at least in the vicinity of Vicksburg), very likely the work was done by a local vendor.  If so, the odds on favorite is A.M. Paxton & Company.   I’ve mentioned that firm in connection with finishing done on Quinby & Robinson guns.  While the firm of A.B. Reading and Brothers sent most of their machinery to Georgia well before the siege of Vicksburg, Paxton apparently retained enough for work supporting the besieged garrison.

Page 80

That’s $2,000 for “Foundry work” through July 4, 1863.  Paxton’s account was not completely settled, even a year later.

I think we can establish, with little doubt, that Widow Blakely and “Miss Identify” were at Vicksburg at the time of the garrison’s surrender.  And the two guns, with only slight hesitation in regard to the 32-pdr, are at Vicksburg today.  But what about “Richard”… I mean Whistling Dick?

First, let us agree beyond a shadow of a doubt, the wartime photos captioned “Whistling Dick” are indeed NOT that famous gun.  The similarities between the gun in the photos and the surviving 32-pdar are far too close.  And we can rule out “Richard” being a 32-pdr.  In his official report of the siege, Major Samuel Lockett gave a very precise identification of the type of gun (emphasis added):

On the 29th, the usual repairs and improvements continued along the whole line: a new battery made in rear of the line left of Hall’s Ferry road; the new battery in rear of General Lee improved, and “Whistling Dick” (an 18-pounder rifled piece) put in position, and a new battery started in rear of General Moore’s center, but the working party was driven off by the enemy’s sharpshooters, and the work stopped.

While not attributing a name to the piece, Colonel Edward Higgins report indicates only one rifled 18-pdr was in the Vicksburg siege lines. That 18-pdr was temporarily disabled on May 22, at the same time the Widow Blakely suffered its burst muzzle (go figure!).  The 18-pdr was repaired and, as Lockett indicated, sent from the water batteries to reinforce the siege lines on May 28, 1863.

Do we have photos of Whistling Dick?  Not that I know of.  Lack of a post-surrender photo would lend credence to a Confederate veteran’s 1900 account.  Alfred Leach claimed the gun was dumped in the Mississippi the night before the official surrender.  Why, with over a hundred other guns in the lines, this particular gun was dumped, I cannot say.

Alternatively, I would offer that, as with so many other weapons captured at Vicksburg, the rifled 18-pdr might have remained in the city.  Federals later used the 10-inch columbiads, 32-pdr smoothbores, and other smaller pieces in the city garrison lines.  However weapons requiring non-standard projectiles – such as the Widow Blakely, Whistling Dick, and “Miss Identify” – were shunted to the side. The Widow went to West Point, was incorrectly cited as Whistling Dick, until corrected in the 1950s.  “Miss Identify,” as mentioned above, probably stayed in Vicksburg guarding a cemetery until relocated to the park in the 1960s.  But “Richard” is lost to the ages.  A famous gun, and a rare 18-pdr siege gun at that (only one cataloged survivor of the type today), discarded without a trace.

So there you have it.  My penance for an earlier mistake with the wartime photo.  Let us remove the confusion about Whistling Dick, Widow Blakely, and that “other” gun.

Sources:  See Ripley, Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War (Forth Edition), pages 30-32. Ripley cited Edwin Bearss, “The Vicksburg River Defenses and the Enigma of Whistling Dick” from The Journal of Mississippi History, Vol. XIX, No. 1, January 1957, page 21. 

Vicksburg Sesquicentennial Schedule

Let me, somewhat belatedly, mention the ongoing schedule of events for Vicksburg’s sesquicentennial. Vicksburg National Military Park has a page detailing the events, which started in April, running through July. Back on April 30, the park began “State Memorial Days” with observances for each state with soldiers participating in the campaign. These run through May 28 (with a couple doubled up).

Interpretive events on Sunday, May 19, and Wednesday, May 22, highlight the days of major assaults on the works. The Memorial Day weekend is packed with living history displays, interpretive events, and concerts. The city of Vicksburg hosts a Memorial Day program including a parade.
The listing of events concludes on July 3 with a luminary, with 20,000 candles, throughout the park.I would love to attend, at a minimum, the Memorial Day events.

But work schedules will not permit. Looking at the schedule, I find interesting the contrast to the eastern theater events from the last couple of years. And to some degree even the western theater events at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Stones River. Up to this point in the sesquicentennial, for the most part, we have looked back at individual battles – maybe strung together with campaigns, such as Seven Days or Second Manassas or Antietam – with the peak focus on a handful of days. With Vicksburg, much as we may see for the Overland Campaign, Petersburg, and Atlanta Campaign, there’s a long running “even” spanning weeks. There’s several challenges there. Not the least of which is capturing the moments without saturating the audience.