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.
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. 😉
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.
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.
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.
Just a few days ago – September 8, 2014 – was the 350th anniversary of the founding of New York.
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.
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 “14oz. 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.
On July 2, 2014 at 6:22pm (151 years to the minute after the fighting in The Wheatfield and The Peach Orchard at Gettysburg was raging) our second son, Isaac Thomas Skillman was born. He was 8 lbs., 3 oz. and 20.75 inches at birth.
Isaac is a name that my wife suggested, mainly because it means “laughter”. We’ve had a lot of that in our relationship, and we want our son’s name to remind us to keep the fun going with our young family.
Thomas is an old Skillman family name, and the tradition and history of that is very important to me. The first Skillman in this country was Thomas, and it’s been a popular name among the American Skillmans ever since. Most recently in our line, my late grandfather was named Thomas. Isaac and his older brother John are part of the 13th generation of Skillmans in the western hemisphere.
This is a very long post about a piece of Skillman family history. There’s plenty of general interest history in here as well, but I go very deep in the weeds in some places. If you’ve stumbled onto this post via a web search and think that we may be related, please drop me a line!
For a long time, that was pretty much all we knew about him: he lived in Baltimore, had some type of association with the Maryland Institute, and made a name for himself in cracker-baking. That was it.
In recent years, I’ve done some digging on Ancestry, and was able to locate some Census records and his Civil War draft registration on there, but my mission at the time was to try to get information on the whole family, not to just drill down on one or two members, so I never got that deep on his life story. That all changed with the anniversary of the Great Baltimore Fire. I wanted to find out more about who this guy was.
I collected all the data that I had from the traditional family story, to the Census records I found online, and went down to the main Enoch Pratt library, hoping that they would have some good sources. I’m happy to report that they were tremendously helpful. I was able to find some information about companies he worked for, and even some clues about a few other relatives in Pratt’s collection of books. Searching the city directories and the online archives of The Baltimore Sun (which the library subscribes to) were instrumental in putting some of the pieces together.
There are still plenty of holes – one of the Pratt librarians told me that this is probably always going to look like Swiss cheese – but here’s the story of his life that I have (so far):
George R. Skillman was born January 1, 1837 in Baltimore. His parents were F. Robert J. Skillman and Naomi Sophia (Miller) Skillman.
He was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church. His family attended services at High Street Methodist Episcopal (originally built at 230 S. High St. – now a parking lot) and later in life, at Grace Methodist Episcopal in Baltimore.
The first reference to him that I found was in The Sun on March 8, 1858. He apparently attended a meeting in Temperance Hall in Baltimore, where the attendees were discussing their support for “The President’s Plan” regarding Kansas. This is a reference to the Lecompton Plan for Kansas’ state constitution – a constitution that would have allowed slavery in the Sunflower State. From what I’ve been able to find, George was a life-long Democrat, so it isn’t surprising that he’d be supporting President Buchanan as a young man.
On April 22, 1858 he married Mary Elizabeth Pierce. The couple would go on to have 8 children, but three of them wouldn’t survive past their twenties. My particular branch of the family is descended from his 4th son, Robert G. Skillman.
He registered for the draft in 1863, listing his occupation at the time as “Clerk”. The 1864 Woods’ City Directory has him living at 90 N. Eden Street (a house that no longer exists), and shows that he’s working as a “Bookkeeper”, but on January 1, 1864, James Beatty announced in The Sun that he was entering into a copartnership with his clerk, George R. Skillman.
His name is called in the draft June 23, 1864, but he doesn’t end up going to war. By June 28, he’d found a substitute to serve in his place. You could do that back in those days, especially if you were a partner in a prominent manufacturing business.
The same city directory in 1865-1866 shows the first reference to the company that he made his name working for: James Beatty & Co. Steam Cracker, Cake, and Ship Biscuit Bakers. This firm seems to have been one of the largest commercial / industrial baking operations in Baltimore at the time. James’ grandfather was also named James Beatty (what is it with all these people having the same names?), and was the U.S. Government Naval Agent in Baltimore during the War of 1812. The Beatty’s were a prominent (and rich) family in 19th century Baltimore. Civil War nerds like me will also appreciate that “ship biscuit” is the naval term for hardtack, and from records I’ve found, the company was definitely a hardtack supplier for the Union army. The company’s address is listed as “Nos. 92, 94 & 96 Dugan’s Wharf, near Pratt Street” – what is now known as Pier 4 at the Inner Harbor.
In the 1870 Census, George lists his occupation as “Baker”, and on April 4, 1871, he’s granted U.S. Patent 113,356 for his Cracker Machine. Clearly, he was an innovative force in the industry. In an 1873 advertisement for the James Beatty Co., George is still listed as being James’ partner in the business. My feeling is that George became the brains, or the heart of the operation, and that James was providing the capital and the business side.
Sometime before 1878, George moves the family to a nicer house at what is initially listed as “329 Myrtle Ave.”, but later listings all show the property more accurately as being at 1408 Myrtle Ave (the current house at this address was built in 1920).
George joins the Board of Managers for the Maryland Institute in 1878. He would end up serving on the board for the rest of his life. Of course, it was through this association that my family first learned of him. In his first year as a board member, the institute held an exhibition (in those days, the school had a mechanical, vo-tech element to it as well as being an art school) in which the very latest technology was demonstrated. That year, the arc light, and the telephone were the big showpieces. The Baltimore Sun, describing the event 20 years later, had this to say:
On top of the tower of the building was placed one of these lights, with a reflector – a crude forerunner of the now well-known electric searchlight. An incident of this application was that when the light was thrown towards the home of Mr. George R. Skillman, on Myrtle Ave., and Mr. Skillman using the other unique exhibit, the telephone, read by it a newspaper extract to an auditor at the other end of the line.
Alexander Graham Bell had his successful test with the telephone just 2 years before. George was certainly a man who wanted to be on the cutting edge of technology.
His association with the Maryland Institute didn’t stop at serving on the board, though. An advertisement in The Sun on February 23, 1880 announces that “George R. Skillman, esq.” will be giving a lecture that evening about “Saalbec, Athens, and Pompeii”. So he’s a history buff, too.
In 1886, a book called “Half Century’s Progress of the City of Baltimore” was published. It included a one-page profile of James Beatty & Co., that mentioned how James took over the company from his father in 1858 and “some years later” added George R. Skillman as a partner. The article goes on to say that George “retired” from the firm in 1884. This isn’t entirely accurate, it seems. An announcement in The Sun on January 1, 1885 states that the partnership had been dissolved, and that James was bringing his son onboard in George’s place. It goes on to say that George had purchased another piece of property on Greene St., and would be starting his own bakery there.
On December 22, 1885, The Baltimore Sentinel published an article stating that:
Sunday afternoon, a fire destroyed the three upper floors of George R. Skillman’s cracker bakery, in Baltimore. The damage to the building is estimated at $10,000 and to stock and machinery $10-15,000.
Some “retirement”, huh?
The 1886 Woods’ City Directory lists “Skillman, George R.” under the category “Steam Bakers”, with an address at 51-57 N. Greene St. This was the location that was destroyed by the aforementioned fire. Luckily, George was fully-insured, and he rebuilt the business at a location up the street. By 1887, that new listing has appeared as “George R. Skillman Universal Steam Bakery” at 203-211 N. Greene St. (now a parking lot for the nearby University of Maryland campus).
The Sun has several text ads for the company from this period:
That last one is terrific. I have to wonder how much time was wasted by 19th century Baltimoreans in “scolding their cooks” about the low-quality bread they made. There’s also a collection of smaller ads. These are all great:
I think it’s interesting that his early ads are all about bread. In those days, most people baked their own bread at home. Even as late as 1910, only about 30% of bread was store-bought. His marketing push is based around his bread being an affordable luxury. He can make it better than you can yourself, and you might even save time and money. Rather than relying totally on local grocers carrying his bread, he also opens a full-service retail store at the bakery sometime in the 1890s.
On January 1, 1892, an advertisement in The Sun announces that my great-great-grandfather, Robert G. Skillman, has been made a partner in his father’s business. Only 26 years-old at the time, he is the eldest surviving son.
At the same time, George continues improving on the state of the art in his industry. In 1892, he’s granted U.S. Patent 487,431 for a commercial oven he’s invented.
It’s around this time though, that things look like they start going downhill a bit.
On January 27, 1891, The Sun mentions a court case, Edward A.F. Mears v. George R. Skillman. I don’t have any of the details of the case, but I know that George lost, and had to pay a sum of $45 to Mr. Mears.
Another article, entitled “Business Troubles” appears in The Sun on May 7, 1895. Guess what this is about:
George R. Skillman & Co., proprietors of the bakery at 203-211 N. Greene Street and of the restaurant at 225 N. Eutaw Street, made an assignment for the benefit of creditors yesterday to George D. Iverson, trustee. The bond was for $15,000, double the estimated value of the assets, which are said to consist mainly of special machinery. The liabilities, it is said, will aggregate about $30,000….They said the assignment was due to the low price of crackers and cakes, and to depression in the business.
So by 1895, he’s up to his eyeballs in debt, and he can’t seem to find a way out. This sounds like really bad news, except that another announcement appears in The Sun on June 21, 1895 – less than 2 months later:
George D. Iverson, Trustee of George R. Skillman & Co., bakers, under deed of trust for the benefit of creditors, yesterday reconveyed the trust property to the firm, who have settled with all their creditors. George R. & Robert G. Skillman are the members of the firm.
So it looks like George has found a way to pay-off all the people he owed money to. He must have come into some quick cash….
Fast forward to December 4, 1895 when The Sun ran an ad announcing that the Skillman Universal Steam Bakery had been purchased by the New York Biscuit Co. The ad expressed the hope that their customers would continue to support the business. George R. Skillman is listed at the bottom as the “Manager”.
In 1898, the New York Biscuit Co. (now owners of the Skillman Bakery) merged with the American Biscuit and Manufacturing Co., creating the National Biscuit Co. in the process. This conglomerate would later shorten its name to Nabisco. By 1900, they’ve consolidated their operations in Baltimore to the 203-211 N Greene St. location, and George R. Skillman is still the Manager.
But there’s still more trouble brewing.
The Sun publishes an article on July 25, 1899 entitled “To Fight the Trusts – Wholesale Grocers Declare War on Big Corporations”. In the article, its reported that the local grocers don’t want to deal with the larger suppliers, and several have agreed to only buy from smaller, local providers. One of the companies that is specifically targeted in this protest is the National Biscuit Co. that George sold-out to, and is now managing the Baltimore operations of. But there’s about to be another plot twist.
The Polk’s City Directory for 1901 lists the following under “Bakery, Wholesale”:
Skillman Bakery (National Biscuit Co.), 203-211 N. Greene St., Elmore B. Jeffery, Manager.
So when the big, national baking interests had become the bad guy, George removed himself from that situation and started up another operation of his own. And look at how he’s marketing the new venture: “biscuits” and “crackers” in 1903 are products that are made almost exclusively in large commercial bakeries. “Bread” and “pie” are still primarily products that are made at home by most people. He’s trying to make this new business at least appear to not be a big, scary company.
Other than the damage to the Maryland Institute that I talked about in an earlier post, I don’t think George is personally affected by the Great Fire in 1904. All his properties are outside of the disaster area. He suffers a very personal disaster a few weeks later, though. On February 20 his wife Mary dies.
1905 is the last year that George is listed in the city directories as being the “proprietor” of the Skillman Bread & Pie Co., so it looks like his day-to-day involvement has slowed. Elmore B. Jeffery (who replaced George at National Biscuit Co.) is brought onboard as the Manager of Skillman Bread & Pie in 1906. How about that, huh? George has also left the family home on Myrtle St., and moved to 3617 Forest Park Ave (the current house on this site was built in 1920). I have to imagine that his wife’s death had something to do with both moves.
In 1909, George sued the Skillman Manufacturing Co., claiming that they owed him $115 and that the company was insolvent. He won himself the company receivership in the case, and the managers of the firm were forced to admit that George’s claims were true. At this point, the company address is listed as being 110 S. Charles St. The old Regester St. location was sold in 1910 for $14,000 to a man who built an auto repair shop there.
Skillman Bread & Pie Co. moves again to 104-112 W. Barre St. at least by 1912, and by 1914, it has completely disappeared from the city directories. It seems like the business had run its course.
George is back in The Sun in 1912, though. An article on November 19 states that he had sold the property at 203-211 N. Greene St. (somehow, he must have re-bought the place) to the Lexington Storage and Warehouse Co., and the next year’s city directory lists him as the President of that company.
The gig doesn’t last long, it seems. While he remains involved with the Board of Managers for the Maryland Institute, and as a Board Member for The Boys’ Home on Calvert and Pleasant St., by 1915, he no longer has an occupation listed in the directories. Sometime before 1917, he’s moved in with his daughter and son-in-law, George MacCubbin, at 3803 Clifton Ave (the current house at this address was built in 1910, so this seems to be the only house he lived in that still exists).
He died in that house, October 18, 1918 at the age of 81, having led a very full life.
The best indication of what he did is found in the 1917 edition of “A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents”. This collection of Presidential remarks also includes an “encyclopedic index”, there to give background information on a number of topics that may come up in speeches and letters of the Presidents. The entry in the index for “Baking Industry” explains that it has become at least the 12th largest industry in the country, and that the growth has been incredible in recent years. It specifically states:
Some of the other bakers engaged in interstate trade in the early history of the industry and who contributed to its national importance were…Skillman, of Baltimore….
Husband, father, baker, inventor, technologist, historian, businessman, civic leader, and “contributor of national importance”. George R. Skillman, my great-great-great-grandfather, was all of these things.
UPDATE – 12/27/2014:
I was able to find a display tin from the Skillman Universal Steam Bakery in an antique shop on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. My brother and I bought it to give to my father this Christmas so that it can stay in the family.
The roots of the Skillman family in the Baltimore area go back for several generations. In a way, my immediate family may not have learned about those roots had it not been for the events surrounding the Great Baltimore Fire that I wrote about yesterday.
In those days, the Maryland Institute was kind of half art school, half vo-tech. Courses in mechanics, chemistry, and drafting were taught alongside painting, sculpture, and music. There were different schools within the school, with night classes offered so that working people could improve their skills and get better jobs.
The building itself was quite spectacular. The bottom floor was a city market and the institute used the two upstairs floors. Along with classrooms and studios, there was a large meeting hall – one of the largest in the State of Maryland at the time – that was also used for public events. In fact, both the Whigs and the Democrats used the space for their party conventions in 1852.
The structure was in continuous use from the time it opened in 1851 until the very early morning of February 8, 1904 when the Great Baltimore Fire spread east toward the Jones Falls.
Being a relatively tall building for that part of town, embers that were blowing across town in the easterly wind hit the structure, and it soon caught fire – an isolated blaze at first that quickly spread to other buildings as firefighters were now facing a two-front battle.
No one knew it at the time of course, but the inferno was still more than 12 hours away from being under even moderate control. The Maryland Institute building didn’t stand a chance. Barely a shell remained once the fires were all totally extinguished a few days later.
Obviously, the institution has survived to the present day, and has morphed into a more pure fine art and design school. It’s also nowhere near the Inner Harbor anymore – its buildings now exist in the Mount Royal / Bolton Hill area. So what happened?
In the wake of the tragedy, the State of Maryland along with some wealthy benefactors and local business leaders, started looking for a way to rebuild. The mechanical and design skills that were taught at the school were extremely valuable to the local economy – especially when you consider the amount of re-building that a large part of the city was about to go through.
A plan to split the campus was devised. One piece of land in the Bolton Hill area was donated by Michael Jenkins to use as the site of a new building. Opened in 1908, this became (and remains today) MICA’s Main Building – housing the fine arts programs and even the first art museum in Baltimore. Another market building was constructed by the city at the original downtown site, and the institute’s drafting school would remain there – at least for a while.
So now, let’s fast-forward a few decades.
In the fall of 1977, my dad – George R. Skillman – started taking classes at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He’d always had an interest in history and architecture and those two subjects came together pretty perfectly in the aftermath of the Great Baltimore Fire. He had learned that MICA had been destroyed in the fire, and that the school he was attending was on the rebuilt campus. One day, his curiosity about that history led him to examine the dedication plaque for MICA’s Main Building.
The monument tells of the people who made the new building possible. Along with the monetary contributions of the State of Maryland and Andrew Carnegie, and the donation of the plot of land by Michael Jenkins, the school’s 1905-1907 Board of Managers – the men who oversaw the rebuilding process – were listed. Imagine how shocked my dad was to discover that his own name – complete with his middle initial – was there, carved into the wall:
Of course, this was obviously not referring to my dad. In 1908, his own father was still 13 years from being born. Who was this guy who had his name?
The accidental discovery spurred my dad to take an interest in our family tree. He started talking to relatives who had done research, and started to collect family records – a task that wasn’t as easy then as it is today. I’ve definitely benefitted from the stuff he found, and have also done some work to expand on it.
It turns out that this George R. Skillman wasn’t just a relative of ours, he was an ancestor: my great-great-great-grandfather. My dad is, at least indirectly, named for him. We don’t know as much about this forefather as we’d like to, but the few things that we know are pretty cool. He was the owner of a string of bakeries, and the inventor of a machine for making crackers. We’ve visited his gravesite, and the site of his largest bakery. We have some artifacts from his life – specifically some letterhead from his company. We also know that he must have done pretty well for himself to have served on the Board of Managers for such a large institution. My guess from looking at Census records is that the Civil War helped grow his business quite a bit.
My theme lately seems to be that history is all around us. I really believe that’s true. Deeply personal discoveries are there to be made if you keep your eyes open for them. Who knows? You may even find your name carved in stone somewhere.
My brother Phil – a USMC Captain – took a trip up to Gettysburg with me last Friday. Phil’s interest in going was to see the field and analyze what happened there from the perspective of his modern Marine Corps infantry training. Of course, I thought it would be cool to see how a modern soldier goes through that process. It would be a learning experience for both of us.
It was a really great day (if not a little on the cold side). I took him through almost the whole tour. While we hit Culp’s Hill, we didn’t get to the East Cavalry or South Cavalry fields, and we tended to ignore the Confederate perspective, focusing instead on the Union defensive positions to get our views of the field.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a fan of Sickles (as youcouldmaybetell). My thoughts prior to last week were more-or-less middle-of-the-road on his actions during the battle. I can see both sides of the argument, but I tend to lean in the pro-Sickles direction if I’m pressed. Obviously, I’m OK with the over-all outcome of the battle, and I find counterfactuals to be…difficult (to say the least). Even if they are fun, they’re a sloppy way to do historical analysis.
All that said, I did my best to be even-handed. On the drive up, I reminded Phil about Sickles’ murderous history, and his path to the army by way of political considerations rather than military acumen. As the highest-ranking non-West Pointer in the Army of the Potomac, he was the very definition of “black sheep”.
My character assassination prep work was all undone as soon as Phil set foot in the Peach Orchard. Instantly, he said that this is where he’d want to be. It was the same when we got out on Houck’s Ridge. He became more adamant as I explained how Sickles came to his decision to move. Let’s go through it.
The III Corps had arrived at Gettysburg the night of July 1, 1863 by way of the Emmitsburg Road. They would have passed right over the Peach Orchard on their way to the field. Coming down off of that terrain to take the position they did to the left of the II Corps must have felt strange. By the morning of July 2, Sickles was asking headquarters to clarify his orders as to the III Corps positioning. Was Sickles playing a game here?
The orders were to extend the II Corps line to the south, and occupy the position held by Brig. General Geary‘s division the night before. Does anyone know what position Geary’s division held? Sickles sure didn’t – Geary vacated the position and moved to Culp’s Hill at about 6am, and Sickles slept in until around 9am. So where was Geary? Where was Sickles supposed to end his line? Little Round Top.
While LRT is a nice piece of real estate, take a look at the rest of this proposed position. Have you ever ridden the line from LRT up to just before the Pennsylvania Monument with a critical eye? This was Sickles’ assigned position. It’s kind of a drive-through wasteland until you get up to United States Ave. There’s hardly any regiment markers along there, and NO cannons on display. Ever wonder why?
Next time you’re in Gettysburg, drive up to the VI Corps headquarters marker. Pull over to the right side of the road and park. Now look around. Where are you going to place a line in here? The open ground to the left (west) is rocky, marshy, and low-lying – generally unfit for troop deployments. It’s also got a great view of…those woods in front of you. You won’t see the enemy approaching. Placing your line on the small, tree-covered hill to the right (east) will affect your visibility even more, and that hill isn’t big enough to cover the whole sector effectively anyway. And there’s NO WAY to use artillery anywhere around here because of all the woods.
North of United States Ave. it isn’t much better. At least you can place artillery here (and the NPS has pieces out to help your imagination), but as you look west, you can see how the ridge that the Emmitsburg Road is on (including the part that contains a certain Peach Orchard) absolutely OWNS (as Phil would say) this line. With enemy artillery placed there, and a concerted infantry effort to go along with it, any troops in this position could be dislodged. It’s NOT a very good place to be.
I think this is why Sickles was confused the morning of July 2. “This is my position? THIS? Are you for real right now?” It was such a bad placement that it couldn’t possibly be what was intended. He HAD to be confused.
Sickles would much rather be up on that Peach Orchard and along the Emmitsburg Road. It’s much higher, open ground. He’d have no problem employing his artillery effectively. It’s obvious to anyone who really looks at it that this is the better position, right?
By late morning, Sickles is up at headquarters lobbying for someone to come help him deploy his corps. General Meade was too busy to have a look. Besides, if the Confederates attacked, it would probably be from the north – where they were known to be located. General Warren, the Chief Topographical Engineer, couldn’t be spared to examine the position either. Since the main concern expressed by Sickles was related to placing his guns, General Hunt, the Chief of Artillery, was allowed to go to the left flank and advise General Sickles.
Hunt agreed that Sickles’ position was horrible for artillery. There were no good options. Sickles asks Hunt to ride out to the Peach Orchard – his preferred position – to have a look.
Immediately Hunt realized – like my brother 150 years later – that this ground was commanding. Artillery placement would be easy and effective out here. Sensing Sickles’ enthusiasm, Hunt was quick to remind the III Corps commander that, while he agreed with the assessment of the terrain, he could not authorize a troop movement. Of course, he did give a final piece of advice: If he were to make such a move, he’d want to know what’s going on in the woods over on Seminary Ridge first. Sickles agreed and sent Hiram Berdan‘s Sharpshooters on a recon mission.
Of course, Berdan finds Confederates – the right flank of Wilcox‘s brigade. This is enough evidence for Sickles to believe that an attacking force was massing on his front. He decided to make his move, and the rest is history.
The move was not without problems, though. Sickles’ small III Corps didn’t really have enough men to cover his intended line effectively. He was now trying to cover nearly twice the frontage that he had been originally assigned – from the Codori Farm down to Devil’s Den. He tried to compensate for this by using artillery to hold the gap between the Peach Orchard and Rose’s Woods. Sickles feels like he doesn’t have much of a choice though. He can’t force other units to come to his aid, and headquarters doesn’t seem too concerned with what may be happening on the left flank.
By the time General Meade starts paying attention, it’s too late. The Confederate attack has already begun, and Meade feels like his only choice is to commit resources from the V and II Corps to try and shore-up the position.
Of course, we know that this was not enough, and the failure of that line to hold is attributed by some people to Sickles’ incompetence. After all, he didn’t have enough men to cover the line. Obviously, the fact that he doesn’t have the proper resources doesn’t mean that the position is a bad one. Could he have done a better job communicating the issues he was seeing to headquarters, and more forcefully requesting reinforcements? Sure. Could Meade have not ignored the concerns of his political general, and taken a closer look at the positioning of his entire army? Absolutely.
The two military virtues that Phil really saw Sickles living out were making decentralized command decisions, and being offensive-minded.
While many people will fault Sickles for disobeying orders (or at least being loose with their interpretation), my brother argues that it’s a positive thing. Sickles knew things that Meade didn’t, and rather than wait for permission, he took initiative and did what he could to counter the threat.
In taking his action, even in a defensive posture, Sickles was thinking aggressively. He was looking for a better position for his troops. He was actively seeking out threats to his front, and looking to deprive the enemy of the elements of surprise and superior terrain.
Yes – the III Corps took about 40% casualties on July 2, but with his line placed in the horrible position it was “supposed to be in”, do we really know that things would have turned out any better? Sickles’ move definitely caused the Confederates to change their attack plan, and delayed their advance significantly.
Like I said before, it’s very hard to do counterfactuals. You can never really know the answers to all the “what ifs”, but I think that my brother is right. Being on that ground you can tell that the Emmitsburg Road / Peach Orchard / Devil’s Den line is a much better piece of terrain than the marshy mess that the III Corps began the day with. And who knows – if Meade had been involved in making the move, and provided an adequate number of troops in the first place (instead of as last-minute reinforcements thrown in almost haphazardly), could that line have held against the single wave of Confederate attacks that came against it? I think it stood a pretty good chance.
We’ll never really know, and that’s part of the fun.
Over the Christmas holiday, my brother Phil – a Captain in the USMC – and his wife will be visiting from North Carolina. We’ve wanted to do an extensive tour of Gettysburg together for a while. During this visit, we’re finally going to do it.
You may think that winter is a bad time to go touring around a battlefield, but at least in the case of Gettysburg, it’s my favorite time of year. For one thing, there are NO crowds. Even at the “touristy” parts of the field like Little Round Top, you practically have the place to yourself. If you’re doing any walking around on the field, you also don’t have insects like gnats or ticks, or the ever-oppressive sun to deal with. Further, there are clear views of the terrain since the underbrush (which would not have been present at the time of the battle) has lost all of its leaves.
It should be a good time. Apart from sharing my passion with Phil, I’m really interested to see the field through the eyes of a modern infantryman. Hopefully, he’ll come with some good questions and I can really test my knowledge of 19th century tactics and how things would be different (and similar) today.
To get ready, I’ve been reading through the U.S. Army War College guide to the battle. Their suggested tour has quite a few more stops than my normal one, but I wanted to see how they portray the events for a military audience, so that I can make sure I don’t skip over anything that may be of interest to Phil. The book itself is really dry – even for being a work of military history. It’s basically just a collection of maps and quotes from the official records.
But there was at least one thing that caught my attention. In the “How to Use This Book” section, there’s a quote from George Macauley Trevelyan that really speaks to me:
The skilled game of identifying positions on a battlefield innocent of guides, where one must make out everything for oneself – best of all if one has never done it properly before – is almost the greatest of out-door intellectual pleasures.
A few weeks ago, my mother-in-law told me about her friend Doug Batson who (like me) is a Civil War buff. Doug has gone to a little higher level though – he is a living historian who portrays Confederate Major General D.H. Hill. He even got his wife in on it, too. My mother-in-law suggested that it might be fun to go see them at an event.
If you’re not familiar, “living historians” are not the same as “reenactors”. These guys portray a specific historical figure from the Civil War and speak, act, and dress “in-character” as if they are that person. They study their man so that they know as much as can be known about them, and then either give speeches or answer questions as that man. When it’s done well, it’s very engaging.
So last Sunday, we went out to Frederick and got to see Doug do his thing. It began with an outdoor church service complete with period music. In keeping with the sesquicentennial theme of this year, Doug’s part (as Maj. General Hill) was to give a eulogy for his brother-in-law, Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. Doug did a great job with this, even getting emotional toward the end. He and his wife also wore mourning bands on their arms as was the custom.
After the service, there was a “Meet the Generals” session. A few living historians besides Doug were there to talk as the men they were portraying. It was really cool.
Being a Gettysburg nerd presented with this array of characters, I had to ask Generals Early and Lee if their relationship was strained after the Gettysburg campaign. You see, as he moved toward Gettysburg on June 25, 1863, Early’s division passed the Caledonia Furnace (owned by rabidly abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens) and took the opportunity to torch the place. This could be seen as a violation of Lee’s order not to damage civilian property, so I wanted to know if Lee was upset by the action. “General Early” sternly explained that it was a military target, and went off on a tirade about what the Union troops had done to the south. It was a beautiful thing to watch. This guy was good. “General Lee” was (as you might expect) reserved throughout this exchange.
I then turned my attention to “General Meade”, asking him how he felt on June 28th at about 3am. His two-word response, “Heart attack”, was dead-on in my opinion. He had Meade’s look, and seemed to have perfected his attitude as well.
I don’t know as much about General Thomas – I need to learn more about the western theatre of the war – but my initial impression was that this guy was fairly new to the hobby. His portrayal was a little more shy than I’d expect from a guy who became known as “The Rock of Chickamauga”.
After getting some lunch and chatting a little more with “General Lee”, we got to see Doug and his wife perform a piece as General & Mrs. Hill. They had written a dialogue based on letters that the two had written back and forth during the war, and it was pretty good. We all tell our wives about how our day went, and that perspective is an interesting one (though I’m not sure if it is more honest or less so). The “home front” side of the story is pretty compelling, too and Doug’s wife Terri did a fantastic job conveying that.
All in all, it was a wonderful day. If you ever get a chance to see living historians do their thing – especially good ones – you should grab the chance.