Historical Treasures from Grandpa

After the funeral, Grandma wanted to sort through some of the things Grandpa had kept in his office for years. He had an extensive collection of books, housed on shelves he made himself. The orders from Grandma were: any books that family members didn’t want were being donated to the library. Naturally, we all took a look.

My Uncle Tom from Canada wanted the Time-Life World War II collection. My dad and I split the Baltimore-related books (more on that in a minute). Near the top of one of the shelves, I found a collection of electrical engineering textbooks that I can only assume he used during his training in the Navy. They don’t seem like they’d be very old – they’re only from the 1930s – but one of the books admits right up front that we don’t really understand a lot about electricity, but that it is probably the result of a “tension or strain” in the “ether“. My how far we’ve come, huh? I had to take those.

Grandpa's Electrical Engineering Textbooks.
Grandpa’s Electrical Engineering Textbooks.

I was also lucky enough to be given my Grandpa’s entire Time-Life Civil War collection. I had the Gettysburg one as a kid, and I really beat it up, but boy did I love that book. I haven’t dug too deep yet, but the rest of the collection looks just as good.

The Time-Life Civil War Collection.
The Time-Life Civil War Collection.

Apart from books, there were some other valuable items: ship models, hats, old liquor bottles, carved wooden masks, and lamps. Many of the gathered family members were able to find something that was meaningful to them.

My dad was looking for one thing in particular: the family records. I didn’t know what the big deal was. I have an Ancestry.com membership. Distant Cousin Bill Skillman has assembled a very complete family tree. What’s so special about these records?

I found out as soon as my Cousin Kyle found a box near the bottom of the closet with my dad’s name on it. Apparently, Grandpa knew that my dad would want to be the keeper of the records. Inside was a hand-written family tree (in pencil) on the back of Skillman Baking Company paper. I haven’t had a chance to really examine it myself yet, but it looks amazing. I have no idea who wrote it, but it has to be at least 100 years old.

Another box was labeled “Mother Skillman”. I can only assume that this refers to my Grandpa’s mom, Sophie (Jory) Skillman. This box had a ton of pictures and letters in it. I also haven’t gone through all of it – we left it with my Grandma in Lewistown. There were two things that I took from that box though, and tonight I scanned them so they can be preserved.

1940s Fort McHenry Brochure.
1940s Fort McHenry Brochure.

One is an old brochure from Ft. McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine. I’ve collected quite a few of these myself over the years, but none as old as this one. Based on the the fact that Harold L. Ickes is listed as being Secretary of the Interior, and Newton B. Drury is listed as the Director of the National Park Service, the brochure would have to have been produced between 1940 and 1946. I guess my Great-Grandmother must have gone down the avenue (she lived at 1604 Johnson Street in Baltimore) to visit the fort sometime during those years.

It’s a cool document. Admission was $0.10 back then. The cover features a 48-star U.S. flag (shouldn’t it always be a Star-Spangled Banner?). I’m amazed that both my Great-Grandmother and then my Grandpa decided to keep this brochure around for all these years. Why? Was this a memento of a special visit for them? Was it just a familiar reminder of Baltimore for my Grandpa? I’ll probably never know.

Either way, I created a high-quality PDF of the brochure to preserve and share it. Feel free to have a look for yourself. See what the past thought of the past.

The other item from the box is equally interesting. My Great-Grandmother kept a small book (it’s more like a pamphlet) of photos from the 1904 Baltimore Fire. As best as I can tell, the book itself dates from 1904. Obviously, this was a major event in her life. Looking at the photos, you can see that the devastation was almost unbelievable. This story isn’t much told – even locally in Baltimore. We should try to change that.

Cover of my Great-Grandmother's Baltimore Fire book.
Cover of my Great-Grandmother’s Baltimore Fire book.

The cover announces that there was $175,000,000 of damage. That’s over $4.4 Billion in today’s dollars.

I also made a PDF from high-resolution scans of this book, and it’s worth a look if you have any interest in Baltimore’s history.

This is just a taste – I’m sure there’s plenty more in those boxes up in Lewistown. I’m so excited to see what else is waiting up there for us to discover.

Thanks for keeping this stuff around, Grandpa.

UPDATE: I’ve replaced the PDFs with much smaller versions (filesize-wise) that my dad created from my originals.

Guns in Lewistown’s Memorial Square

While I was up in Lewistown, PA for my grandfather’s funeral, I took a ride around town with my dad to get some photos of a few of the downtown buildings. My dad got some great nighttime shots, but I turned out to be more interested in getting some daytime shots yesterday, because the dominant feature in the town square is a Civil War monument with some guns on display surrounding it. I had to get a better look at that artillery!

All the guns in the square are real weapons, but two of them may not have ever been fired in anger. We’ll start with those:

Mortars in Memorial Square
10-inch Siege Mortars in Memorial Square

On each of the “skinny” sides of the square (the northwest, and southeast fronts) there are 10-inch siege mortars on display. You can see in the picture above a protrusion from the “bottom” of the weapon with a hole through it – this was used to lift the weapon from its mounts. That being said, it should be on the top – these weapons are mounted upside-down. The stats for both weapons are below:

  • “Northwest” Mortar
    • Manufacturer – S. McM. & Co.
    • Year Built – 1865
    • Serial Number – 7
    • Weight – 1950 lbs
    • Inspector – S.C.L.
  • “Southeast” Mortar
    • Manufacturer – S. McM. & Co.
    • Year Built – 1865
    • Serial Number – 23
    • Weight – 1959 lbs
    • Inspector – S.C.L.

The manufacturer of these weapons is listed on the muzzle as “S. McM. & Co.” this stands for Seyfert, McManus & Company, which made several different models of heavy siege guns for the U.S. Army in Reading, PA about 100 miles or so east of where the guns rest today. They were inspected by “S.C.L.”, or US Army Ordinance officer, Stephen Carr Lyford. Since these weapons were made in 1865, and the war ended in April of that year, I doubt these ever saw active service – they were probably made to fulfill a contract. If either of them did make it to the field, it would probably be the #7 one.

The other weapons in the square are what I was really interested in. These were 12-pounder Napoleons that someone – for some unknown reason – decided to paint black, forever destroying their beautiful bronze patina (though some streaky green shows through a little bit). This is especially sad, I’m sure, for one of these guns.

Ames Napolean
Ames Napoleon

The first of these guns is on the southwest side of the square. Despite being painted black, its markings are still plainly visible:

Muzzle Markings on the Ames
Muzzle Markings on the Ames
  • Manufacturer – A. M. Co.
  • Year Built – 1862
  • Serial Number – 58
  • Weight – 1224 lbs
  • Inspector – A. R. D.

As you can see, this gun is exciting for me because it’s certainly possible that it was at Gettysburg. There were 244 12-pounder Napoleons at Gettysburg on both sides, and since this gun was made sometime in 1862 (the Register of Inspections shows that it was inspected and accepted into Federal service on May 31, 1862), it’s absolutely a sure thing that it would have made it to the field by the summer of 1863. The only question is whether this gun went to one of the eastern or western armies. “A. M. Co.” is an abbreviation for Ames Manufacturing Company which still exists today. In fact, you may have used their more recent products in your garden. Their cannon manufacturing operations were headquartered in Chicopee, MA just north of the US Armory at Springfield. The inspector for this piece was Alexander Brydie Dyer, who was the commander of the Springfield armory at the time.

The second Napoleon, on the northeast side, is the one that makes the black paint especially sad. That one is a Revere:

Revere Napolean
Revere Napoleon

It is gut-wrenching to see this gun painted-over. Every one of the Revere Napoleons that I’ve ever seen has the most beautiful, bright, consistent green patina. It’s the mark of extremely high-quality metals and processes being used to make them. For a reason I will never understand, the people in Lewistown decided that these guns would be better off hiding their brilliant craftsmanship and masquerading as iron weapons.

Despite the abysmally ugly black paint, the markings on the Revere Napoleon here are in great shape:

Muzzle Markings on the Revere
Muzzle Markings on the Revere
  • Manufacturer – Revere Copper Co.
  • Year Built – 1863
  • Serial Number – 226
  • Weight – 1248 lbs
  • Inspector – T. J. R.

Once again, we have a gun that could have been at Gettysburg. The Register of Inspections is unclear on this particular serial number, but given the pattern of inspections from previous months, this gun was probably accepted into Federal service sometime in February of 1863, giving it enough time to have made it to the field by that summer. We still have the east or west question just like the Ames Napoleon above, too. The inspector, Thomas J. Rodman – the inventor of the Rodman Gun, and a more efficient type of gunpowder – is one of those legendary ordinance officers in the Civil War.

I’m going to try to dig into these pieces a little further to see if I can find any definitive service history for these serial numbers, but I doubt that any such document exists. We’re left to speculate by ourselves about the work these guns might have done 150 years ago.

Eastern Shore Tour: Unionville

In my first post of this series, I talked about relying on the HMDB to help me find things to explore on my trip. If it weren’t for the HMDB app (which is well worth the $2) that I have on my iPhone, I never would have found Unionville.

Unionville, MD
Unionville, MD

The fact that I wouldn’t have found it is another of those problems that I’ve been discussing in this series.

As I learned on Saturday, Unionville was a community of free black veterans and their families that sprang up after the Civil War. The land for the town was donated by a local Quaker family: the Cowgills. In fact, the original name given to the town by the residents was a nod to those donors: “Cowgilltown”. Eventually, the “Unionville” name stuck as a tribute to the army that won them their freedom. I have to imagine that life was anything but easy for these men – aside from the fighting they saw, they lived on the eastern shore of slave-holding Maryland in the period around the Civil War. Racial tensions must have been high after the war (to say the least). Perhaps having a town of their own was helpful.

The HMDB had a listing for a marker just outside of town which piqued my interest and inspired my visit. I wanted to find that cemetery.

The Unionville Wayside Marker
The Unionville Wayside Marker

It turns out that the town is really just a row of houses on either side of Maryland Route 370 (also called Unionville Road). On the southern end of town, there is a church with a cemetery behind and a Maryland Civil War Trails sign in the parking lot – this was clearly the cemetery I was looking for.

The Veterans of Unionville Cemetery
The Veterans of Unionville Cemetery

There are 18 USCT veterans buried here (USCT stands for United States Colored Troops, but on these headstones they are marked as “U.S.C.I.” which I assume means United States Colored Infantry). Several USCT units are represented by the men at rest here – I counted the 7th, 9th, 19th, and 39th – although most of the veterans here were members of the 7th USCT which was at least partly raised on the eastern shore.

I spent a few minutes walking through the cemetery, trying to find all the veterans. Sadly, swamp land seems to be encroaching on the southeast corner – which I imagine is particularly bad for a cemetery – and made for treacherous footing near more than a few grave sites.

It’s also a shame that this site is so far off the beaten path. As Civil War historians – amateurs and pros alike – we don’t do a very good job of telling the stories of these men. Many of the veterans in this cemetery were former slaves – even some who, like Frederick Douglass, “stole themselves”. These were men who didn’t just talk about “liberty”, they actually lived it. They know what that word means – probably better than any other men in American history.

Sgt. Frederick Pipes - the highest-ranking man I found here.
Sgt. Frederick Pipes – the highest-ranking man I found here.

While there are a few markers here, and the site is included on the Maryland Civil War Trails, how many regular people actually seek out those sites and visit them (let alone the USCT ones)? How will the general public ever learn about this place and these men? What can we do to better tell the story of the USCT? As a historical community, we need to come up with answers (and no, I don’t think the movie Glory is enough).

Veterans such as these men deserve a better fate than to be buried in a swamp and nearly forgotten on a back road in rural Maryland. These men were true heroes, and a new generation of children – of all races and backgrounds – should know what they did to advance the causes of freedom and equality.

Particularly these days, we can never have too many reminders.

Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville with Family

My wife, son, in-laws and I ended up taking our trip on Sunday. It was a really nice time.

We left the Baltimore area around 10am, and made it to Fredericksburg a little before noon. Our first stop was on the near side of the river in Falmouth, at Chatham Manor – an old plantation mansion dating back to the 1770s, currently owned by the NPS. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln all visited this house, and it’s apparently the only house that can boast of having hosted each of those men as guests at one time or another. Robert E. Lee also met his wife here. There were a few very grand old trees planted in the 1810s that made for popular photo subjects for our group. There were also plenty of interesting little architectural details on the house and grounds that attracted my wife’s camera, too. I was more interested in this guy, though:

A 4.5-inch, 3300lb., Union Siege Rifle. Awesome.
A 4.5-inch, 3300lb., Union Siege Rifle. Awesome.

Here’s another shot so that you can get some context. I’m just a little under 6 feet tall:

Another shot of said Siege Rifle and me.
Another shot of said Siege Rifle and me.

Since my usual battlefield hangouts are Gettysburg and Antietam, I only ever see the smaller field pieces – these big siege guns are a treat to behold. They aren’t the only ones down there, either – the Confederate line has a few 30-pounder Parrots on display. Unfortunately, the markings on the 2 guns here at Chatham are almost totally unreadable. Either they have been worn off over time, or they’ve been painted-over a few too many times – perhaps both. It’s a shame because I’d love to know more about where these came from. Anybody have a good resource for that?

After Chatham, we crossed the Rappahannock (much more successfully than Ambrose Burnside and the Army of the Potomac did in 1862) and found our way through town to the Sunken Road section of the Fredericksburg battlefield. We walked along the stone wall, imagining the scene of brutal killing that took place a little more than 150 years ago in what is now a quiet neighborhood. Finally, we came to the original inspiration for the trip, the Kirkland Monument:

My mother-in-law, Karen at the Kirkland Monument.
My mother-in-law, Karen at the Kirkland Monument.

Reading the story of Richard R. Kirkland and seeing the monument was a touching moment for the group. A small sign of humanity in the midst of all the murderous destruction.

After the short walk back to the car, we drove down the rest of the Confederate line to the end at Prospect Hill, just so that everyone could get an idea of the scope of this battle and see the Confederate earthworks along the way.

We grabbed a quick late lunch outside of town and then went out to Chancellorsville. This time, we did a relatively quick driving tour of the field. We oriented ourselves at the visitor’s center (and saw the spot where Jackson was wounded). From there, we drove along the Confederate line to the Lee-Jackson Bivouac and Catherine’s Furnace so that I could explain the famous flank march. To get the Union perspective, we drove up to Hazel Grove (where I engaged in a little more artillery-nerdery) and then out the Plank road to the right flank of the Union line, where I explained Jackson’s surprise attack.

By then, it was getting a little late, and we had to get the baby home for bed, so we hit the road back to Baltimore. Everyone seemed to have had a good time (even John was well-behaved), and I think we all learned something and had new experiences – the hallmarks of a successful historical day trip.

The last Civil War adventure that we had with this part of the family was going out to the Antietam battlefield. Chronologically, the next battle in the east was Fredericksburg, then Chancellorsville – both of which we just covered yesterday. Now, the stage was set for Lee’s second invasion of the north. It’s pretty obvious what needs to happen now: I think when my niece and nephew come up for a visit in the summer, we’ll have to head to Gettysburg to keep the timeline going. That’s always a fun day.

Doing my Homework

I went over to my in-laws one night this week to help my father-in-law move some computer equipment around. While I was there, my mother-in-law was telling me about a conversation she had with someone she met at a conference. The guy was from Virginia (she thought Petersburg) and he was telling her about a monument to a soldier who went across the lines to render aid to some of his wounded enemies. I think they were talking about this one:

Monument to "The Angel of Marye's Heights" at Fredericksburg
Monument to “The Angel of Marye’s Heights” at Fredericksburg

I mentioned that I think that monument is at Fredericksburg, not Petersburg (there may be a similar monument at Petersburg – I’ve never been there), and with Fredericksburg being only 2 hours away, it’s easy to do as a day trip.

So on Sunday, I’ll be taking my wife, son, mother-in-law, and father-in-law down to Fredericksburg. So far as I know, it will be their first visit. I’ve only ever been once, and I went through pretty quickly as I was trying to do the entire Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park in one day. This time, I’ll not only have other people with me, but they’re people who aren’t quite as nerdy as I am about this stuff. I’d like to slow down a little. Chatham Manor is on the agenda (I skipped that side of the river last time), and I’ll probably leave out the southern end of the Fredericksburg field – as cool as I think Lee’s Hill is, I’m not sure that the group will want to make that climb. The main things will be finding cool views, seeing the sunken road, and getting a picture with that monument.

Depending on how the day goes, I might try to convince the group to go out west and see Chancellorsville. Since my big interest lies in Gettysburg, it would be nice to show the family the whole flow of that part of the war: Fredericksburg leading into Chancellorsville, and that battle setting the stage for the Gettysburg campaign. I think the biggest struggle will be the fact that none of these fields is as well-monumented as Gettysburg – there’s a bit more imagination needed to see what was going on. If we go, it’ll probably be a quick driving tour, with this (of course) being the critical stop:

The Lee-Jackson Bivouac
The Lee-Jackson Bivouac

It would also be nice to get a closer look at the artillery pieces up on Hazel Grove. I didn’t pay enough attention to the details on them last time.

Guns on Hazel Grove
Guns on Hazel Grove

I spent tonight (and will probably spend some time tomorrow night) brushing up on Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville so that I’m sure that I understand enough of the details that I can give a good overview and answer questions. I’ve focused on Gettysburg for so long, and gotten so deep there, that I really feel like I should branch out a little more.

Hopefully, everything will be smooth and we’ll all have a good time. I’ll probably write up a review once we get back.

Brandy Station Sesquicentennial Tour

I’m extremely sad that I’m going to have to miss this. Unfortunately, my son is too young to tag along, and I won’t be able to arrange childcare for that day since my wife has to work.

I’ve been to Brandy Station once with my wife for about an hour. We were coming home from spending a nice long weekend in Charlottesville, VA and I noticed that the battlefield was right along our route. Knowing what a nerd I am for the Gettysburg campaign, she allowed me to stop. Being a late afternoon in rural Virginia, we had the field all to ourselves.

It isn’t exactly what her idea of a battlefield is. There are no monuments. There are only a few informational signs placed by the Civil War Trust along a walking trail through rolling fields and on hills. Hard as it may be to believe today, this peaceful site was the setting for the largest cavalry battle to ever take place in the western hemisphere – a fitting start to the campaign that would culminate in the war’s bloodiest fight.

Reading about the battle is one thing. But to really understand what happened, you just have to see the ground for yourself. If you can make it, I highly recommend that you take part in this tour – it’s free for goodness’ sake (and send me pictures!)

Civil War Artillery: Basics

One of the things that is often over-looked (or mistreated, in my opinion) by most visitors to a battlefield is the artillery pieces that are on display. In most cases, these are actual weapons used during that period and fired in anger at the opposing force. They exist today because of careful preservation efforts and we’d like to keep them around for generations to come. This means that you probably shouldn’t let your kids treat them like playground equipment, OK?

Well, I’m not here to lecture you – at least not about your parenting. I’m here to talk about the guns themselves. Mini-rant over.

Gettysburg National Military Park has one of the best collections of Civil War-era artillery anywhere. While there are some fakes among the guns on the field (which have their own interesting history), most of the collection consists of the real thing. In this post, I’d like to focus on laying out some of the basics of Civil War artillery so that you too can become as much of a nerd for this stuff as I am!

First, let’s examine some of the different kinds of guns that were used during the Civil War.

As you may know, the Civil War marked several turning points in warfare. It was certainly a transitional period for tactics, but also for the technology employed in weapons and their manufacture. Some of these advances didn’t catch on right away, but you can see the beginnings of modern artillery in some of the pieces from this era.

The most visually-obvious advance was the use of metals other than bronze in the casting of cannons. Bronze was still in heavy use in the construction of weapons like the Model 1857 12-pounder Light Field Gun (the “Napoleon”), and in the Howitzers of the day, but iron was beginning to make an impact in weapons like the Parrott Rifle (mostly cast iron, with a wrought iron reinforce), and the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle (made entirely from wrought iron). These weapons were very strong and lighter-weight than their bronze counterparts. They were cheaper to produce (especially the Parrott design), and also did a much better job with another big innovation: rifling.

So we’re able to develop a basic identification guideline already: if a weapon is green (or greenish) it is made of bronze. If it is black, it is made of iron. The iron guns are ALL rifled (UPDATE: Well, maybe not). Very few of the bronze ones are.

Now let’s have a look at some of the basic anatomy of these weapons:

6-pounder Gun diagram. From the 1864 US Army Field Artillery Tactics manual.
6-pounder Gun diagram. From the 1864 US Army Field Artillery Tactics manual.

While this diagram specifically refers to a 6-pounder gun (which was basically obsolete by the time of the Civil War), the same terms apply to all the other weapons of the period.

The important parts to note here are the breech, the muzzle, and the trunnions. These are the places where a cannon will bear marks that will help you to identify it. Information stamped onto a piece might include it’s manufacturer, serial number, weight, year of manufacture, and inspector’s initials. No visible markings on the piece is a pretty clear indication that it is a fake.

Let’s have a look at an example from Gettysburg:

Muzzle of a "Napolean"
Muzzle of a “Napoleon”. Photo by John Dolan.

On the left, the “No. 90” refers to this weapon being serial number 90. The serial numbers were unique to each manufacturer, so there may be as many as 6 or 7 U.S. number 90s. Sometimes the serial numbers were also done by orderer. This is especially true of the Parrott rifles. There was a “No. 1” that was made for the U.S. Army, AND a “No. 1” that was made for the Pennsylvania militia. It can get rather confusing.

Below the “No. 90” marking, are the initials “T.J.R” – this is the inspector’s mark (in this case, Thomas Jefferson Rodman) who ensured that the gun was fit for service. If it was, a “U.S.” mark was applied on the top of the barrel, near the trunnions. Moving counter-clockwise, we come to the “1862” mark, referring to the year this weapon was cast. The next marking, “1247 lbs.” obviously refers to the weight of the gun tube itself (not the full weight with the carriage and all).

On this example, the manufacturer’s mark is at the top of the muzzle:

Sound familiar?
Sound familiar? Photo by John Dolan.

It says “Revere Copper Co.” for those of you who have trouble reading it. Yes, it’s THAT Revere. While we all know him for his revolutionary exploits (including a certain late-night ride), that was not his entire life story, of course. His real business was silversmithing and in the post-revolutionary period he did so well for himself that he expanded his business into copper, brass, and iron works. While not the largest supplier of artillery, there are a few examples of his company’s work at Gettysburg, and to my eye, they are the ones with the highest level of craftsmanship. They seem to always have a very bright and consistent green color and just take a look at the “U.S.” stamp on top of the tube:

Revere's fancy "U.S."
Revere’s fancy “U.S.” Photo by John Dolan.

So we can tell a lot about this particular weapon by the markings. First, it is a REAL one. Since we know it was made by Revere Copper Co. in 1862 with a “U.S.” mark, we can also deduce that it was made in Boston, MA and purchased by the U.S. Army specifically for the war effort (since the war went on from 1861-1865). It was likely actually used in battle. The weight of the piece determined the price (usually between $0.40-$0.50 per pound), so that tells us that it probably cost the government between $500-$600 at the time (between $11,500-$13,000 in 2010 dollars) to buy. The fact that it is a bright, consistent green color tells us that it used a pretty high-quality bronze. Some of the Confederate guns in particular are a dingy grayish-green color; a result of metals like iron and lead being mixed into the bronze because the south couldn’t produce or smuggle-in enough copper. Confederate guns may also have bright green dots scattered on them. These are plugs that were put in after the gun was cast to fill in imperfections in the metal.

Another important part of the artillery is the carriages that the weapons are mounted to for field use. A gun without a carriage is pretty useless. During the Civil War, these were made from wood for ease of construction and to keep them lightweight. The problem with wood carriages in a static, “museum” atmosphere is that they don’t weather very well. The carriages at Gettysburg (and on every battlefield I’ve ever been to) are reproductions made out of steel and painted to appear as they would have. All the normal pieces are present on these copies, though:

A full artillery piece (side view). Scanned from the 1864 US Army Field Artillery Tactics manual.
A full artillery piece (side view). Scanned from the 1864 US Army Field Artillery Tactics manual.
A full artillery piece (top view). Scanned from the 1864 US Army Field Artillery Tactics manual.
A full artillery piece (top view). Scanned from the 1864 US Army Field Artillery Tactics manual.

Terms like “prolonge” and “elevating screw” tend to come up in official descriptions of battle action, so it’s handy to know what parts these are referring to.

Now that the basics are out of the way, I’m planning to do a series of posts on this topic. Among the other things I want to cover are the mechanics of how these pieces were fired; how they were arranged into sections, batteries, and battalions (including command structure); and a few posts on specific weapons in the Gettysburg collection that are unique or interesting.

Stay tuned!

Trips to Gettysburg

It’s no secret that I’m a huge nerd for Gettysburg. I go up whenever I can.

I haven’t been going with my regular frequency since our son, John has been born though. You aren’t really supposed to take a newborn out too much, and it’s been kind of a lot of work to take him places. I’ve been missing it up there.

So when my friend John (not my son, John) suggested going up for the day a few weeks ago while Ruth was at work, I got excited. Little John is old enough to be out in the world now, and we recently bought a minivan so taking him places is much less of a production now. Ruth was even fine with it! We were going to Gettysburg!

First trip to Gettysburg!
First trip to Gettysburg!

Once we got into town, we hit the newly-bare and reopened Powers Hill (which none of us had ever visited), and then we went cruising around the field. At some point, the visit turned into a quest to find different pieces of artillery. We hit all the unique pieces that I knew of off the top of my head, including the only intact 6-pounder on the field (pictured above), and the little-visited Jones Ave. and Benner’s Hill. We even took a side-trip over to Hanover, PA to see 10-pounder Parrot No. 1 (which it turns out, wasn’t the first one produced).

We had such a great time doing it, that as soon as we got home, Big John and I started going through books and websites learning all we could about the guns on display at Gettysburg. As is usually the case, we found things that we missed, but REALLY wanted to see. Last Saturday, we made a return trip, this time with Big John’s girlfriend, Jess.

Daddy and his boy on McPherson's Ridge.
Daddy and his boy on McPherson’s Ridge.

We got some more artillery nerdery in (which I will post further about later), and gave Jess a basic overview of the battle. It’s always nice to go up there with a new set of eyes – it makes me question my assumptions and tighten up my story of the battle for the eventual day when I decide that I don’t really care about money and start guiding.

One a "James", the other a John. Both 14-pounders.
One a “James”, the other a John. Both 14-pounders.

These are the first of many memories that I want to make with Little John. Not just at Gettysburg, but chasing history and learning whatever we can, wherever we are. Learning is a life-long process that happens away from a school and without tests most of the time. I want John to really understand that, and I look forward to our future adventures.

Maybe mom can come along, too.

Daniel E. Sickles, Continued

This article is a continuation of my series on Union Major General Daniel E. Sickles during the Civil War. The first post can be read here.

So how did Dan Sickles end up in command of 10,000 troops at Gettysburg? Politics, that’s how.

For as much as we like to lionize Abraham Lincoln these days, we have to remember that he was a politician – and a damn good one. The Civil War was not popular among the opposition Democrats, who went so far as to describe the war as a purely political one against the south being played out by Lincoln. To them, this was “Mr. Lincoln’s Little War”.

Lincoln was a Republican President who needed the support of Democrats in Congress to continue the war. Sickles was a disgraced Democratic politician who needed to restore honor to his image. The result was inevitable. When Sickles became heavily involved in successful recruiting efforts in New York, Lincoln rewarded him with a commission as a Brigadier General.

As a result of more political maneuvering within the Army, Sickles eventually rose to the rank of Major General, and was given command of the 3rd Corps before the Battle of Chancellorsville, befriending fellow Generals Dan Butterfield and Joe Hooker (who was in command of the Army of the Potomac for the Battle of Chancellorsville) along the way. These three were kind of the frat boys of the Union Army.

General Hooker
Joe Hooker – Dan Sickles’ BFF.

At Chancellorsville, Sickles was ordered off of the best piece of ground for artillery on the field: Hazel Grove. Almost as soon as his troops left, the Confederates set up their own artillery and pounded the nearby Union line, forcing Hooker’s withdrawal.

Two months later, at Gettysburg, the memory of that last battle was fresh in Sickles’ mind. He entered the field at Gettysburg on the evening of July 1, 1863 by way of the Emmitsburg Road, next to a peach orchard that, like Hazel Grove, seemed like a great place for artillery.

By morning, Sickles was unhappy. He had been placed on the left side of the Union line, along the low rise of Cemetery Ridge. In front of him was a rocky, marshy, ugly piece of ground and a line of trees that obscured the view of his front and made artillery placement impossible. He found himself yearning to be in that peach orchard from last night. Eventually, he made his way up to Army headquarters where General Meade was much more concerned about the possibility of an attack from the right than he was about Sickles’ nonsense.

After a few unsuccessful lobbying attempts that morning, Sickles finally convinced Meade to send someone down to look over the 3rd Corps’ position with him. General Henry Hunt, who literally wrote the book on artillery prior to the war, accompanied Sickles to the southern end of the field to help him place his guns. It was clear that the position was horrible for artillery. When Sickles showed General Hunt his preferred location at the Peach Orchard, Hunt agreed that it would be more suitable, but reminded Sickles that he wasn’t authorized to order the move. Even if he were, Hunt said, it would be a good idea to scout out the woods nearby to make sure that there was no enemy force in there.

Sickles took the suggestion and sent a party of sharpshooters and a couple regiments of troops into those woods. Within minutes, they were skirmishing with hidden Confederate troops massing for an attack. Sickles felt that he had no choice – he had to move his line to the Peach Orchard – even without permission.

Sickles didn’t really care about getting Meade’s permission anyway. He didn’t like Meade: the stuffy, Old-Army officer who less than a week before had replaced his pal Hooker in command of the Army. Meade didn’t have a whole lot of respect for Sickles, either. Regular Army officers tended not to like non-professionals who were promoted into command positions with little or no training – especially when they were politicians.

From Army headquarters, Meade could see the 3rd Corps line breaking off and moving out to the exposed position at the Peach Orchard and along the Emmitsburg Road – a line nearly twice as long as they had been assigned to hold. He immediately sent to Sickles for an explanation, but heard nothing back. Meade had to go see for himself, but by the time he arrived, Sickles’ men were being attacked and it was too late to pull back. Meade sent for all available reinforcements to aid General Sickles.

The famous Peach Orchard, while good for artillery, did not prove to be very defensible, and it wasn’t long before it was being attacked from two sides. The position crumbled shortly thereafter.

Sickles' Wounding Monument
This marker on the Trostle Farm marks the spot of Sickles’ wounding.

Sickles could see all of this happening from his headquarters at the nearby Trostle Farm. As he was mounted on his horse, watching the collapse of his line, he felt something wet on his pant leg and, bending down to investigate, realized that a Confederate artillery round had flown right along-side his horse and smashed into his leg, leaving his shin bone shattered and this leg dangling lifelessly.

Some stories have him calmly requesting a stretcher and “cooly” smoking a cigar as he is carried to the rear. That’s a romantic legend that didn’t happen, though. Immediately after the wounding, Sickles was in hysterics – pleading with the officers on his staff not to leave him to be captured. He was successfully evacuated to a field hospital behind the 3rd Corps line, somewhere along the Taneytown Road. Once he was stable, he was transported to the Daniel Schaefer Farm on the Baltimore Pike to recuperate further. It was at one of these field hospitals that his right leg was amputated at the knee.

Most limbs amputated during the Civil War were simply discarded. There were piles of arms and legs outside of every field hospital. Medical techniques and training were also not very advanced. Most doctors during the Civil War had never seen the inside of a human body – operating on cadavers (even for training purposes) was illegal in most states. Since the skills and experience of the medical department was not up to snuff, the Army Medical Corps had put the word out by 1863 for people to come up with training materials and documentation on wounds and treatments.

Sickles knew about the training initiative. He used his political influence to have his newly-amputated leg saved and turned over to the Army Medical service, and it was placed (at his request) in the Army Medical Museum where you can still go visit it today (as Sickles himself did regularly for the rest of his life).

Sickles' Leg
Why not visit?

When he was well enough to be moved a greater distance, he got on the road to Washington, DC where there were larger established hospitals and politicians that Sickles could chat up about what REALLY happened in the late battle. Sickles claimed that if it weren’t for him, Meade would have retreated from Gettysburg to his preferred Pipe Creek Line, leaving the field to the Confederates who would have rightly claimed victory. He made enough noise (combined with the fact that the Confederate Army escaped relatively unharmed across the Potomac 10 days after Gettysburg) that it tarnished Meade’s reputation and led to hearings by the Committee on the Conduct of the War investigating Sickles’ accusations and Meade’s supposed lack of action.

We still argue about whether Sickles really deserves that “hero of the battle” title today. While his actions did spoil the element of surprise in the main Confederate attack on July 2, that attack was not very well executed itself, and probably only did as well as it did because the 3rd Corps was in an exposed position. Sickles hardly planned his own actions that day, too. His beef with Meade was not a disagreement about tactics or strategy, it was personal. Sickles purely wanted his old pal Hooker back in charge and used the best tool he knew in his attempt: politics.

While the battle itself was finished, Sickles’ impact on Gettysburg wasn’t over yet. But we’ll cover that in the final post….

Also – If you’re interested in learning more about Dan Sickles, may I suggest James Hessler’s outstanding book, Sickles at Gettysburg? While it focuses specifically on his involvement with Gettysburg (both during and after the war) it gives a good overview of his life in the process.