History of My Office, Part I: Prehistory – 1955

When I first started working for the Anne Arundel County Public Schools Facilities Department last year, almost immediately I noticed some interesting things about the building where our offices were. You could tell that there had been a lot of modifications made to it over the years: walls had been moved around, network and telephone cables are strung near the ceiling along the main hallway, a variety of windows and doors are used throughout – things like that. Clearly, this was not a building that had been designed from the outset for the purpose it was fulfilling today.

Sign at the entrance to our campus, on Fort Smallwood Road - <i>Photo by the author</i>

Sign at the entrance to our campus, on Fort Smallwood Road – Photo by the author

In that first week, a few of the guys asked me if anyone had taken me out back to see the “missile silos”. When I asked my boss about it (thinking that maybe this was some kind of initiation-of-the-new-guy thing) she confirmed that the campus we occupied had once been a military installation. Being the military history nerd that I am, I just had to look into the history surrounding our office. What I found was both interesting and surprising, so I figure: what better way to record that history than with a series of blog posts?

We’ll start at the beginning.

The area now known as Pasadena, MD has seemingly always been a peninsula, though the bodies of water surrounding it have not always been so large as they are today. The melting of Canadian glaciers over many thousands of years raised the sea levels to the point where most of the original native settlements are now suspected to be under water. It is believed that the current water levels have been consistent for probably the last 2,000 – 3,000 years.

When Captain John Smith came up the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, he didn’t encounter any native people in this area, but archaeological evidence points to habitation by the Powhatan tribe of the Algonquian people, who had a series of semi-permanent camps on the peninsula during that time. They would have fished, hunted, and done some limited farming. Arrowheads, tools, storage vessels (of both clay and gourd), as well as evidence of fabric have all been found in the area.

By the middle of the 17th century, European settlers had begun to move in, with all the land on the peninsula probably being claimed by the 1690s. This northern part of Anne Arundel County was then known as “Town Neck Hundred” and was heavily wooded. One of the first things to be done by the settlers was the clearing of those forests so that tobacco fields could be established. Tobacco was the cash crop of early colonial Maryland, and land owners (as well as their investors) wanted to generate healthy profits from its sale as quickly as possible. Land grant maps from the 1700s show the location of my office as being in a tract called “Poplar Plains”. Not much physical evidence remains on the landscape from that period except for Hancock’s Resolution, a house built in 1785 about 3 miles east of our department’s buildings.

Population remained sparse well into the 19th century. The 1850 census shows barely more than 2,000 people living on the entire peninsula, most of them farmers. The crops had changed though: tobacco was out, and corn was in. Some were also growing wheat, plums, apricots, and strawberries.

The village of Jacobsville came into existence around this time as well, centered around the present-day intersection of Mountain Road and Armiger Drive. A structure (presumably a general store) dating to the late 1850s is still visible there. Martenet’s 1860 map of Anne Arundel County shows a structure labeled “Johnson’s Store & P.O.” at that location. Between there and Rock Point (present day Fort Smallwood Park) a label for “J. Meek” marks the vicinity of our modern-day complex of buildings.

Martenet's 1860 Map of Jacobsville and Hog Neck - <i>Library of Congress</i>

Martenet’s 1860 Map of Jacobsville and Hog Neck – Library of Congress

 

During the Civil War, southern sentiment prevailed among the people here. Though it remained with the Union, Maryland was still a slave state until November of 1864, and almost 1/3 of the residents of what is now Pasadena were slaves. Only a few men from the peninsula served with northern units in the war. More men followed their convictions and left home to join Confederate units in Virginia. Others who stayed behind were later certified by a local doctor as being “unfit” for service in order to avoid the draft that was instituted. There are also stories of men who were drafted avoiding the army by sending one of their slaves to act as a substitute in their place (people could do that back then). The numerous waterways, combined with the agricultural and political character of the area led to a sizable smuggling trade, with sympathetic farmers loading up blockade-running ships full of supplies for the Confederate forces.

In the post-war years, the loss of slave labor created problems for the farmers still trying to work the land and harvest their crops. Most seem to have started transitioning away from grains to fruits and vegetables, and these “truck farms” were able to find ready markets for those products in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Labor issues were alleviated by the wave of immigration coming from eastern Europe, especially in the 1880s. The 1878 Hopkins Map of Anne Arundel County’s Third District shows the area of our offices being held by “Robt W. Chard”. Population and structures remained sparse.

Hopkins 1878 Map of Jacobsville and Hog Neck - <i>Library of Congress</i>

Hopkins 1878 Map of Jacobsville and Hog Neck – This map appears to be drawn about 45 degrees counter-clockwise – Library of Congress

Around the turn of the century, the beaches of the peninsula became a popular tourist attraction, with many people making the trip by boat from Baltimore during the warmer months. Roads were almost nonexistent here at the time, and since these visitors were arriving at, and remaining close to the shore, they made little impact on the farms in the interior of the peninsula where our complex of buildings is located. Seemingly for decades, life went on as it always had, except that the name “Pasadena” – brought along by a group of people who had immigrated from California – was now being used to describe the area.

Fruit and vegetable farming remained very productive. By 1910, Anne Arundel County was known as the strawberry capital of the United States, and it is certain that the fields surrounding Jacobsville made their contribution to that reputation. In addition to strawberries, the plot where our offices are now located also grew a distinct breed of cantaloupes and other types of fruits and berries.

But even 45 years after the abolition of slavery, there was still a darker side to all of this agricultural abundance. Our present campus was, in 1909, part of a large operation owned by Robert Bottomley, and his farm in particular became the subject of a series of photographs by Lewis Hine, documenting the reality of child labor in America at the time. These images and thousands more that Hine would create all across the country, helped to raise public awareness and lead to the institution of child labor laws in the years that followed (Hine’s original caption accompanies each photo):

"Mary, a Polish girl and her mother, picking berries on Bottomley Farm, Rock Creek, near Baltimore, Md. In the winter they go to Dunbar, La., for oyster shucking.", 1909 - Lewis Hine - <i>Library of Congress</i>

“Mary, a Polish girl and her mother, picking berries on Bottomley Farm, Rock Creek, near Baltimore, Md. In the winter they go to Dunbar, La., for oyster shucking.”, 1909 – Lewis Hine – Library of Congress

"Johnnie Yellow, a young Polish berry picker on Bottomley Farm, Rock Creek, near Baltimore, Md. Says he is 10 years old and has gone to Biloxi, Miss. for 9 years (with family) and has worked there in winter and here in summer for three years. He is stunted, being only about 39 inches high. Many of these children are stunted.", 1909 - Lewis Hine - <i>Library of Congress</i>

“Johnnie Yellow, a young Polish berry picker on Bottomley Farm, Rock Creek, near Baltimore, Md. Says he is 10 years old and has gone to Biloxi, Miss. for 9 years (with family) and has worked there in winter and here in summer for three years. He is stunted, being only about 39 inches high. Many of these children are stunted.”, 1909 – Lewis Hine – Library of Congress

"A four year old helper in the berry field, Rock Creek, near Baltimore. Mother said, 'He helps little.'", 1909 - Lewis Hine - <i>Library of Congress</i>

“A four year old helper in the berry field, Rock Creek, near Baltimore. Mother said, ‘He helps little.'”, 1909 – Lewis Hine – Library of Congress

The living conditions on the farm at the time appear to be quite primitive. Immigrant families lived transient lives, never really putting down roots anywhere, but having to follow the seasons south and north looking for whatever work they could find.

"Shanties and cooking shacks on berry farm of Bottomley's, near Baltimore. Md. At times, four families live in one shanty: three families is the rule--two rooms. (See report of July 10, 1909.)", 1909 - Lewis Hine - <i>Library of Congress</i>

“Shanties and cooking shacks on berry farm of Bottomley’s, near Baltimore. Md. At times, four families live in one shanty: three families is the rule–two rooms. (See report of July 10, 1909.)”, 1909 – Lewis Hine – Library of Congress

"No. 846-847. Name: These Children are representatives of the two families that occupy this one room in a shack on Bottomley's Farm, Baltimore, Md. There are only sliding curtains to separate families. Bunks on floor above. July 7, 1909.", 1909 - Lewis Hine - <i>Library of Congress</i>

“No. 846-847. Name: These Children are representatives of the two families that occupy this one room in a shack on Bottomley’s Farm, Baltimore, Md. There are only sliding curtains to separate families. Bunks on floor above. July 7, 1909.”, 1909 – Lewis Hine – Library of Congress

This photo shows a broader vista of Bottomley’s Farm. This is the land that would eventually become our building complex and the Compass Pointe Golf Course that surrounds us.

"A strawberry field on Rock Creek, near Baltimore. Whites and negroes, old and young, work here from 4:30 A.M. until sunset some days. A long hot day.", 1909 - Lewis Hine - <i>Library of Congress</i>

“A strawberry field on Rock Creek, near Baltimore. Whites and negroes, old and young, work here from 4:30 A.M. until sunset some days. A long hot day.”, 1909 – Lewis Hine – Library of Congress

The pace of change began to accelerate rapidly in the 20th century. In particular, 1932 brought both the electrification of the majority of the peninsula, and the completion of Fort Smallwood Road. The advent of the automobile meant that more of the area’s farmers were purchasing trucks, and as the road system improved, they were overwhelmingly choosing to ship their produce to market over land instead of on the water by the 1950s.

But the middle of the century would bring even more changes to the Pasadena area. The threat of Soviet bombers bringing nuclear destruction upon nearby Baltimore caused the Army to start looking for ways to defend against that possibility. I’ll be exploring that topic further in the next post of the series.

Army Anti-Aircraft Command Recruiting Materials, 1956

Army Anti-Aircraft Command Recruiting Materials, 1956

Here are some useful print sources that I consulted for this post, found at the Riviera Beach Community Library:

Ball’s Bluff Battlefield

On Wednesday afternoon, I was lucky enough to be in the Leesburg, VA area on a day trip with my family, and had some time to check out a field I’d never been to: Ball’s Bluff.

The battle itself was a fairly small action as Civil War battles go, but is more significant because of who was there and what happened to them. One of the men killed was Col. (and Senator) Edward D. Baker – the only U.S. Senator to be killed in combat – and his death prompted his friends in Congress to take a heavier interest in the war effort, leading directly to the creation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

The park that encompasses the battlefield (well, most of it anyway) is owned by the Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority, and is well-maintained. There is also heavy volunteer involvement, with free tours being run on the weekend during the warmer months, and plentiful maps and brochures available at the parking lot. You can tell that the local Civil War nerds take great pride in this place. It is small, but very well marked with monuments and waysides. There is a network of trails leading visitors through the phases of the battle and key terrain features. It’s really nice.

Among the commemorative features are representations of the three artillery pieces that the Union army brought to the field from across the river. Two of those three are reproductions, but there is an actual Mountain Howitzer there as well – I had never seen one in person and was pretty excited about it.

An actual Ames Manufacturing Co. Mountain Howitzer on the field at Ball’s Bluff.

The specs are as follows:

The muzzle markings on the Mountain Howitzer at Ball’s Bluff.

So clearly this weapon could not have been present for the actual battle in the fall of 1861, but it was nice to see it stand-in. Hazlett’s Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War has this serial number listed as being owned by Kennesaw Mountain NBP in Georgia, so I assume it is here on loan. Very nice of the National Park Service to do that if that’s the case.

If you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth a visit. The hiking trails are nice, and if you’re at all interested in the history, you can’t beat actually being on the field. I can tell you that I’d be pretty uncomfortable with my back against that bluff and a few regiments of Confederates bearing down on me!

Checking Back In

Well, it’s been nearly a year since I’ve last posted here, and what a year it has been.

For starters, I’ve changed jobs. In April of this year, I left the Howard County Public School System to take a job with the Facilities Division of the Anne Arundel County Public School System. My official title is “Network Data Specialist”, and I really love what I’m doing. The job is part desktop support, part server administration, part technology adviser, part phone guy – I get to have my hands in a lot of different things in a given day. While that might sound stressful, the people I’m working with and for are really great, and make serving them a joy. I really don’t see how I could be happier professionally.

My Office at AACPS

My Office at AACPS

 

And how’s this for a kicker? The building that I’m working in now has a fascinating link to military history. We’re located about 2 miles down the road from Fort Smallwood – which I thought was cool enough when I interviewed – but it turns out that our campus started it’s life as a military installation as well. In fact, it was the spiritual successor to the Endicott series fort up the road. I’ll have a post soon about Nike-Ajax Missile Site BA-43.

The other big change is that I’m back in school. I never thought I’d ever write that sentence, but it came about as a result of the job change. AACPS really does a great job of creating incentives to have higher levels of education. In addition to tuition reimbursement, there are higher-paying salary scales for people with degrees, so I finally have a concrete reason to pursue a degree. For now, I’ve re-enrolled at CCBC (where I took one math class almost a decade-and-a-half ago) working toward an Associate’s degree in Network Technology. I’m actually pretty excited about it. I’ve already completed my first class over the summer, and with the transfer credit I brought along from my UMBC days and a few industry certifications I’ve earned over the years, I’m just past the half-way point to my AAS.

As far as hobbies go, I’ve become pretty obsessed with single-board computers lately. I have a PineA64+ (2GB model), a few Raspberry Pi’s, and a CHIP. What started as a cheap way for me to have a Linux server again, has grown into a desire to learn more about electronics and “making”. I may have a few posts about those topics coming up as well.

And of course the fascination with history hasn’t stopped. Lately, I’ve been on a streak of reading about 18th and 19th century African-American history. First, the definitive biography of Benjamin Banneker (a small part of whose property I now live on). I then picked up a brief overview biography of one of my heroes, Frederick Douglass. Currently, I’m reading “The Negro’s Civil War“, a collection of letters, articles, and speeches from African-American authors documenting their thoughts and feelings about the subjects of slavery, the war itself, and reconstruction. I suppose I could probably work up a few posts worth of reviews on these in the coming weeks.

So that’s the big update. With any luck, the next one won’t be another year away. 😉

Mini-Federalist #30 – Concerning the General Power of Taxation

This is a continuation of a series of posts that are intended to be shorter, more understandable versions of the Federalist Papers. This post deals with Federalist #30, the original text of which can be read here: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fed_30.html

Originally published December 28, 1787 by “Publius” – who was in this case, Alexander Hamilton.

We already discussed how the Federal government should provide for the military including raising troops, building a navy, and anything else that might be needed for defense. Of course, this isn’t the only thing that the government should be able to collect tax money for. The Federal government needs to be able to pay off national debts, and pay for other things that have a national scope. Clearly, the proposed Constitution must give the Federal government a general power to collect taxes.

It’s obvious that any government needs money, so it follows that the government ought to be allowed to regularly collect enough of it to do its work. If mechanisms for this collection aren’t in-place, then either the people are going to be hit up for money whenever there’s a crisis, or the government will quickly go bankrupt.

As an example, think of the Ottoman Empire – the Sultan has no power to impose a tax on his citizens. Instead, the governors of the individual provinces are allowed to rob their citizens so that the Emperor has the money he needs for his own (as well as the government’s) use. We face the other problem here: our government has been allowed to whither down to almost nothing. Wouldn’t it be better for both countries to have a well-established, regular tax system?

Our current system was supposed to give the Federal government the means to collect all the funds it needed, but the design is flawed. Congress is allowed to figure out what it needs and ask the States (who are legally obliged to comply) to provide it. The States aren’t supposed to get a say in the matter – except in how they collect the necessary funds – but in practice, they drag their feet if they disagree with Congress’ demand. Things will always be like this as long as Congress is dependent upon the States for funding. Even people who don’t care about politics know that this is going on, and we’ve already talked about it at length in these papers. This is the main reason that our government is a mess, and it is a bad thing for us, and a good thing for our would-be enemies.

How can we fix this other than by changing the whole system? We can’t rely on quotas imposed on the States anymore. We have to allow the Federal government to collect its own taxes. Even smart people can disagree about this at first, but there’s no other solution to keep us from going bankrupt.

Some of our smarter opponents will admit that our solution has merit, but they suggest that we limit the Federal government to so-called “external” taxes, like duties on imported goods, while leaving the “internal” taxes – those against the citizens directly – to the States. This idea doesn’t make any sense. The Federal government would still be depended on the States for funding. We can’t possibly bring in enough money to meet our current needs with these purely “external” taxes. And that is to say nothing of our future needs! We need our government to have maximum flexibility in collecting funds.

These opponents go on to say that any lack of Federal funding can be made up by the States. On the one hand, this admits that we can’t really rely on their solution, but that we ought to for any needs we have above a certain amount. Anyone who has really thought through this problem (or read my other papers) will be horrified at the idea of entrusting our national interests to this system. This proposal would make our country weaker, and lay the groundwork for conflict between the States. What makes us think that the same problems won’t crop up just because the Federal government will theoretically be asking for less money from the States? As if there is some point at which the States could decide that the Federal government doesn’t really need any more money. How could any government operate in a state of constant neediness like this? It can’t possibly have stability or establish credit – either at home or abroad. It can’t address anything but short-term issues, and always in “crisis mode”. There can be no long-term planning to advance the greater good.

What would happen if we’re ever drawn into a war? Let’s assume for the moment that the “external” taxes are enough to handle our day-to-day needs during peacetime. How would the Federal government handle an unexpected attack against us? We already know from experience that we can’t rely on the States to provide the Federal government with money – even during a time of great danger. So the Federal government would be forced to divert funds from normal operations (like paying off our debt) to cover the cost of the military. I can’t imagine any other way. And if that happened, our credit would be ruined at a time when we may need it most. Even countries that are richer than ours need to borrow money when they get involved in a war, and if we can’t be trusted to pay our debts, the amounts and terms of the loans we’ll be able to secure will be far from ideal.

You might argue that even with the Federal government having a full power to tax as it needs to, that we may still find ourselves in a position where we have to divert funds from normal operations like debt repayment during a war. There are still two advantages to the system where the Federal government has its own tax power: 1) we know that all the resources possible will be acquired and used, and 2) it will be easier to get loans to cover any gaps.

If the Federal government has the power to tax as much as it needs to, there will be no problem getting loans from either foreign or domestic sources. But if the Federal government is fully dependent upon the whims of 13 other State governments in order to pay it’s own bills, no creditor is going to loan to it.

These may seem like small concerns to people who imagine that we are building some kind of utopia here in this country. But those of us who know the problems and crises that have been experienced by other countries don’t expect that we’ll be able to completely avoid them. These matters deserve our serious consideration.

Notes on Pickett’s Charge

Today I realized that I have yet to post anything on the blog during this calendar year, and it’s already August! Sometimes, our hobbies need to take a backseat to real life, I suppose.

Back in May, I took my annual trip to Gettysburg for my church’s men’s retreat. Once again, it was my pleasure to lead a tour of the battlefield for many of the other men in attendance. Rather than an overview of the entire battle, this year I decided to focus on the most well-known portion of the battle: the climactic Confederate assault known as Pickett’s Charge.

At least, it seems well-known. There are so many little stories that come together to form the larger story. My research in preparation for the tour led me to explore the impact of the Bliss Farm action on the charge and I’ve come to believe that this often overlooked “small unit action” had a tremendous impact on the outcome of the attack. But I plan to post more about that later.

For now, let me share some of the notes that I took during the early stages of my research. These things jumped out at me as interesting details that contributed to the overall story:

1) Longstreet and A.P. Hill Didn’t Get Along.

Earlier in the war, following the Seven Days Battles, a Richmond newspaper published a particularly glowing account of A.P. Hill‘s combat prowess at the Battle of Frayser’s Farm. This really offended Longstreet who felt that he (and his other men, I suppose) had fought just as hard as Hill in the same action. So Longstreet contacted a rival newspaper and convinced them to publish a rebuttal downplaying Hill’s role.

The conflict remained unresolved, however. Longstreet continued to hold the grudge against Hill – even going so far as to have him arrested for the relatively minor offense of not turning in an after-action report in a timely fashion a few months later. General Lee had to personally step in when Hill took the step of challenging his commander to a duel.

As Longstreet’s character notes in The Movie, of the three divisions involved in “Pickett’s Charge”, only Pickett’s belonged to Longstreet’s Corps. The other two belonged to A.P. Hill’s Corps. If Hill wasn’t going to lead the attack, you’d think that he would at least have a part in planning and implementing it. But there is no evidence of any coordination (or even communication) between Hill and Longstreet on July 3, 1863. Was this the continuation of the year-old tension between these two men? What if the upper levels of the Confederate command hadn’t been consumed by such petty differences?

2) John Gibbon Had Interesting Connections

Brig. General John Gibbon, commanding the 2nd Division of the Union II Corps at Gettysburg (even taking over command of the Corps at one point during the battle) was born in Philadelphia, but spent much of this childhood in Charlotte, NC where his father worked for the U.S. Mint and owned slaves. His wife, Fannie, was a Baltimore girl, adding to his local interest for me.

While much has been said of the close relationship between Generals Hancock and Armistead, and how tragic their meeting in battle was, they were certainly not the only men who shared such a story. General Gibbon was facing down his own family: J. Johnston Pettigrew, commanding one of the “other” Confederate divisions in the attack, was his cousin.

3) The Copse of Trees Was Quite Different

The famous target of the attack – the Copse of Trees – is not the same today as it was in the summer of 1863. For one thing, the trees themselves were much smaller; described as not being much more than 2″ in diameter.

The grove was also larger. Despite the impression left by the modern fenced-in area, the trees actually extended farther to the west – almost to the stone wall. Members of the 69th PA were able to shelter in those trees during the repulse.

4) The Effects of the Barrage Were Different

By and large, the Confederate artillery barrage caused tremendous damage and casualties among the Union artillery. The infantry units were virtually unscathed during the run-up to the assault.

Across the valley, the Confederate infantry sheltering in the tree line took a pounding from the Union counter-fire. The Confederate artillery positions hardly took any damage (though their ordinance replenishment operations ran into major problems).

5) Overall Communication / Coordination Was Horrible

While the morning was spent planning the attack, it seems like the details didn’t make it into the hands of the commanders on the ground who were to actually bring the assault into action. Pettigrew seemingly never got the order to step off. He saw Pickett’s troops moving forward and decided on his own that it must be time to go.

Even worse, his left-most brigades, under Joseph Davis, and John Brockenbrough, even missed out on Pettigrew’s order to begin. It took them at least another five minutes to get their units on the march. An already long-shot attack started with disjointed, un-coordinated lines from the very beginning.

6) There Were Lots of Medals of Honor

To date, 25 Medals of Honor have been given to Union troops and officers for actions during Pickett’s Charge (the most recent just last year on November 6, 2014).

While there were most definitely many acts of valor committed that day, the original requirements for the Medal of Honor were not what they are today. The US military had no other combat decorations, so any act that was felt to be deserving of recognition  warranted a Medal of Honor, so there were more given than modern readers may think are deserved. For example, more than half – 15 of the 25 – Medals of Honor were given for actions surrounding the capture or mere collection of a dropped Confederate flag.

In addition, it was very rare for the Medal of Honor to be given posthumously back then. Only about 3% of the 1,522 given for actions during the Civil War were given to men who were dead at the time of the award. With that, many obviously deserving acts went unrecognized – part of the reason that so many of us are relieved that 1LT Cushing finally got his due, even if it was over 151 years too late.

Family Christmas

I’ve been waiting for months to post about this, but now that Christmas is over, I finally can.

Back in February, I was doing a lot of research about my great-great-great grandfather, George R. Skillman and his career as a baker. During one of my many Google searches during that time, I stumbled on My Country Treasures – an antique shop in Preston, MD that had one of the Skillman Universal Steam Bakery’s display tins. This tin would have been used as a display in a grocery store that carried Skillman Bakery products – most likely crackers.

I had to get this piece and make sure it stayed in the family. I also thought that it would make a great gift for my father, since he shares our ancestor’s name and since he sparked my interest in genealogy and history in the first place.

Finally, the opportunity arose when my friend John invited me to stay at his family’s beach house in Delaware one weekend. I planned to stop in Preston on the way home, and if the tin hadn’t been sold, to split the cost with my brother. Luckily, it was still there and I immediately snatched it up!

Waiting out the months until Christmas was hard, but I’m glad that we did. My dad’s reaction when he figured out what we had given him was worth it.

My dad holding a piece of family history.

My dad holding a piece of family history. Photo by Sharon Skillman.

The side of the tin advertises the “Geo. R. Skillman Universal Steam Bakery”. As far as I can tell, this name was used for his business from 1887 until as late as 1900, so this “new” family heirloom is perhaps 127 years old.

The stories that we’ve been able to find about George are very nice to have. Newspaper articles I’ve discovered give a sense of the reality of our family history, too. But having an actual, tangible object from your ancestor’s past is just beyond words.

I’m so glad that everything came together to keep this history alive for us.

“A Few Appropriate Remarks…”

151 years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln delivered quite possibly the greatest speech in American history at the dedication ceremony for the Soldier’s National Cemetery at Gettysburg. He had been asked only to provide “a few appropriate remarks” during the ceremony, delivering this masterpiece in the process:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

1LT Alonzo H. Cushing

I don’t think there’s any story more fitting for Veteran’s Day 2014 than that of First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing. Last week, President Obama finally bestowed upon 1LT Cushing the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Angle during Pickett’s Charge, 151 years, 4 months, and 3 days earlier. It is the longest wait for a Medal of Honor in history, and required a special act of Congress to make it happen. I’d like to try to explain in this post why this honor is so well-deserved.

1LT Alonzo H. Cushing.

1LT Alonzo H. Cushing. Photo from Wikipedia.

Cushing was born in Delafield, WI, January 19, 1841. When he was just 6 years old, his father died, prompting his mother to move him and his siblings to Fredonia, NY to be closer to other members of the Cushing family. In 1857, he began his military career at the United States Military Academy, but he was not able to finish all his studies because of the outbreak of the Civil War in April of 1861 (in those days, West Point had a 5-year curriculum). That year, the senior class was graduated early (in order to provide a core group of young officers to the newly-expanding army) and the juniors were given accelerated military training, graduating in June of 1861. These dual classes of 1861 have caused numerous headaches for Civil War historians ever since. Cushing was part of that second, June 1861 graduating class.

He was given a commission in the artillery, and by all accounts, was a fantastic “up-and-coming” artillery officer. He was given honorary promotions (called “brevets“) on three separate occasions, eventually ending up with a brevet rank of Lt. Colonel. The problem with the artillery is that it was a fairly small branch in terms of personnel, so there were not a lot of opportunities for actual advancement. At the Battle of Gettysburg, for example, there were 120 generals present between the two armies. Only two of those generals (one on each side) was an artillery general. The place for people who wanted to get promoted was the infantry. So as good as he was, Cushing was stuck as a lowly lieutenant.

By the time of the Chancellorsville campaign in May of 1863, Cushing had been given a command of his own – Battery A of the 4th US Artillery – consisting of six 3-inch Ordnance Rifles. He remained in command of the unit during the Gettysburg campaign, and it was during that time that he was given the brevet promotion to Lt. Colonel by Maj. General Hancock on July 1, 1863 – not on July 3 as is widely assumed. We’re not sure exactly what he did to earn that honor, but obviously it was impressive enough to warrant the praise of a corps commander. The best guess is that he helped coordinate the defense of the Cemetery Hill / Culp’s Hill line that evening.

Of course the action that he is famous for (and that led to his Medal of Honor) occurred on July 3, 1863 during the climax of the Battle of Gettysburg, best known as Pickett’s Charge.

Prior to Pickett’s infantry assault, a massive artillery barrage was planned by the Confederates with the goal of softening the Union defenses at a specific point where there was a small copse of trees. All the Confederate guns concentrated their fire on that easily-recognized target. Cushing’s Battery A, 4th US Artillery was positioned right at that spot and as a result, took a pounding for several hours that morning. By the end of the day, the unit had lost 1/3 of it’s men.

Cushing himself was wounded by a shell fragment that blew through his right shoulder. Despite the painful wound, he refused to leave his post to get medical attention. It wasn’t long before another piece of shrapnel tore across his abdomen and groin, and the young 1LT was said to have been holding his own intestines in with his hand. At that point, he must have known that there was nothing that the medicine of the day could do for him – he was probably going to die from that wound.

Cushing as depicted in the Gettysburg Cyclorama. Note his left hand clutching his abdomen. 

Cushing in the Gettysburg Cyclorama. Note his left hand clutching his abdomen. Painting from Wikipedia.

In the face of all of this, he stayed with his guns – vowing to fight it out or die trying. As he lost more and more blood, he became too weak to effectively give orders in the chaotic noise of the battle, or even to stand on his own. His First Sergeant, Frederick Fuger (who would earn his own Medal of Honor that day) held him up and relayed his orders to the men. As the Confederates approached the stone wall at the Angle, Cushing ordered that his last two working guns be moved forward to the wall. As he was giving the order to fire a double load of canister at the Confederates, a bullet entered his open mouth and went out the back of his head, killing him instantly. He was just 22 years old.

Obviously, 1LT Cushing performed his duties with great bravery and devotion at Gettysburg, and other men around him – including Sgt. Fuger and the infantry commander at the Angle, Brig. General Alexander Webb – were given Medals of Honor for their part in the defense of Cemetery Ridge that day. So why has Cushing been left out in the cold for over a century and a half? There are two main reasons for this, I think.

At the outset, officers were not eligible to receive the Medal of Honor. Although this was quickly changed, not many officers were given the award early on. Just as one example, the first Medals of Honor for actions at Gettysburg were awarded in 1864 – before the war was even over – but the first officer from the battle to receive the honor wasn’t until 1869 (with most of those coming much later in the 1890s).

Second – and this is quite shocking to us today – the Medal of Honor was generally not given posthumously in the early days. Odd as it sounds, if Cushing had survived the battle, he had a much better chance of immediate recognition.

Combined with the fact that as a young, fresh-out-of West Point officer, he had not been married, and had no children. So by the time that Medals of Honor for Civil War officers had become more common, there was no one left to fight for him. His story faded into the background, known mostly just to Gettysburg buffs and tour guides.

Thanks largely to the efforts of Margaret Zerwekh, a local historian from Delafield, WI, who started a letter-writing campaign to members of Congress over 40 years ago, 1LT Cushing has, at long last, been given recognition commensurate with his service.

The full text of 1LT Alonzo Cushing’s official Medal of Honor citation is below:

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3rd, 1863, has awarded in the name of Congress the Medal of Honor to First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing, United States Army.

First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing distinguished himself by acts of bravery above and beyond the call of duty while serving as an artillery commander in Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 3rd, 1863 during the American Civil War.  

That morning, Confederate forces led by General Robert E. Lee began cannonading First Lieutenant Cushing’s position on Cemetery Ridge. Using field glasses, First Lieutenant Cushing directed fire for his own artillery battery. He refused to leave the battlefield after being struck in the shoulder by a shell fragment. As he continued to direct fire, he was struck again — this time suffering grievous damage to his abdomen.

Still refusing to abandon his command, he boldly stood tall in the face of Major General George E. Pickett’s charge and continued to direct devastating fire into oncoming forces. As the Confederate forces closed in, First Lieutenant Cushing was struck in the mouth by an enemy bullet and fell dead beside his gun.

His gallant stand and fearless leadership inflicted severe casualties upon Confederate forces and opened wide gaps in their lines, directly impacting the Union force’s ability to repel Pickett’s charge. First Lieutenant Cushing’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty at the cost of his own life are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, Army of the Potomac, and the United States Army.

An Accident

While I was looking through online newspaper archives last night, I accidentally stumbled onto an article about, well, an accident.

This story appeared in the Washington Post on February 20, 1953:

Two Anne Arundel County men were burned seriously yesterday when the gas tank of their auto caught fire after a collision on Ritchie Highway, just north of Glen Burnie.

Thomas Skillman, 31, of Harundale and Ernie W. Bermick, 40 of Severn leaped from the car with hair and clothing burning and rolled on the ground to smother the flames. Both were taken to a Baltimore hospital.

The Associated Press reported their car was struck from behind by an auto driven by Eric R. Blomquist, 31, of Takoma Park, who was charged with drunken and reckless driving.

The Thomas Skillman from the story is my grandfather. This accident occurred just a few months before my father was born.

Thomas Skillman (I)

Just a few days ago – September 8, 2014 – was the 350th anniversary of the founding of New York.

New Amsterdam as it appeared circa 1660. Painting from Wikipedia.

New Amsterdam as it appeared circa 1660. Painting from Wikipedia.

Originally a Dutch settlement called New Amsterdam, the town decided to give up without a fight in the face of an overwhelming English expedition commanded by Colonel Richard Nicholls consisting of four warships, including Nicholls’ flagship: the frigate Guinea. James, the Duke of York, with the permission of his brother King Charles II, decided to send the flotilla to take possession of the Dutch holdings in North America. At the time the two nations were jockeying for the title of most powerful naval force in the world. In fact, this event would touch off a larger war between them.

Governor Peter Stuyvesant is persuaded not to resist the English. Painting from Wikipedia.

Governor Peter Stuyvesant is persuaded not to resist the English. Painting from Wikipedia.

Once the settlement was taken, it was re-named New York at Colonel Nicholls’ suggestion in honor of the Duke himself.

Apart from being one of the pivotal moments in the colonial period, the creation of New York also means quite a bit to the Skillmans: it is the event that brought the first member of our family to the western hemisphere.

His name was Thomas Skillman. The stories about him are varied and at times somewhat sketchy, but I’d like to explore them a little bit here.

Born in Surrey, England in 1637, at some point he joined the army in time to participate in the 1664 expedition to North America. The traditional family story (backed up by most sources) is that he was serving as a musician, but I’ve also seen him referred to as “Doctor”, implying that he was a surgeon or physician instead, but I don’t find this likely.

Soon after the conquest, Colonel Nicholls became Governor Nicholls. Thomas must have felt some kind of connection or loyalty to Nicholls, because he did not return to England with the rest of the troops, instead choosing to settle on Long Island in a village called Newtown, which was in the area that is now known as the Elmhurst and Maspeth neighborhoods in Queens.

His military service continued, as he was one of 25 men sent to Esopus, NY to seek revenge against a group of Native Americans who had attacked a colonial settlement in the Hudson River Valley. Though he was offered a plot of land in that part of New York for his service, he seems to have refused it, and was discharged in 1668, even being awarded “14 oz. of plate for services at Albany under Captain Lewis.” No one seems to have any idea about what he did to earn this distinction.

Returning to Long Island, he married Sarah Pettit in 1669. Sarah was born in Boston, probably in 1634. There is some debate about who her father was, but it seems likely that he was Thomas Pettit, an early Huguenot immigrant to the Massachusetts colony. Regardless, the couple settled in Newtown and lived there the rest of their lives, and sadly we don’t know much more about their life – other than the fact that they had at least 4 children.

Thomas probably died in 1697. His property was left to his wife, who transferred a portion of it to their only son, Thomas Skillman (II). So far as we know, all the American Skillmans – three and a half centuries worth of them – are descended from these two men.