Joe Hooker had been slow to move the army north. That much was irritating. But when he demanded to be reinforced with troops from the Harper’s Ferry garrison, that was quite enough. When the request was refused by General Halleck, Hooker sent back a message threatening to quit if he didn’t get his way. Lincoln and Halleck were only too happy to accept the resignation.
Of course, this created a new problem: who should replace him? The most capable General in the Army of the Potomac – and the one Lincoln had the most confidence in – was Major General John Reynolds, commander of the I Corps. The job was offered to him.
Reynolds was no dummy, though. He had seen what happened to the previous army commanders: one misstep and your career was finished. This would be the 7th commanding General in the eastern theatre in just over 2 years. For Reynolds, the answer was thanks, but no thanks.
His second choice was a much different man, a quieter man: George G. Meade. At about 3:00am, 150 years ago today, Major General Meade was awakened at his camp in Frederick, MD by a messenger from Washington, DC. He had no idea what was going on. His first thought was that he was being arrested for some reason. Alas, he was told that he had been promoted – and that he didn’t have a choice in the matter. Out of a sense of duty, he accepted the charge.
The situation was grim. Meade knew where his own troops were, but Hooker had kept all his subordinates in the dark about the over-all plan. The positions of the rest of the army’s corps was completely unknown to him. There was a lot of catching up to do.
Meade started thinking about his options. The orders from Washington (roughly the same ones Hooker had, though Meade was given a little more freedom) were twofold: 1) Destroy the Army of Northern Virginia; and 2) Protect Washington and Baltimore. The first required aggression, the second a conservative nature. This contradiction in orders would cause political problems for Meade when the campaign was dissected in hindsight. For now though, he continued the move north with the aggressive and capable General Reynolds in charge of the westernmost sector – the area where the rebels were most likely (and actually turned out) to be.
At the same time, he developed a defensive position – the Pipe Creek Line – that he was hoping to draw Lee into once the fighting began. Acting defensively on ground that he had scouted out and fortified was the best way Meade could see to achieve both of his objectives.
He wouldn’t have to wait long to see how it was going to play out. In just 3 days, Meade would face the biggest test of his career.
A few weeks ago, I made a trip that I’ve been meaning to make for years – ever since I was a kid reading my old, beat-up Time-Life Gettysburg book.
Of course, the book talked about Maj. Gen. Daniel Edgar Sickles (who I’vementionedbefore) and his role as commander of the III Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Gettysburg. As you may have learned from my previous posts about Sickles, he suffered a serious wound on his right leg during the battle (as happens when a 12-lb cannon ball hits one’s shin) and had to have the lower part of that leg amputated.
My childhood Time-Life book describes his wounding and tells the story of how Sickles (knowing of the Army medical service’s new training and education initiative) used his political influence to have the bones from his amputated leg sent to the newly-created Army Medical Museum to be made part of their collection. Creepy as it may seem, he became a regular visitor at the museum, and would use the opportunity to spend some quality time with his lost appendage.
The Army Medical Museum no longer exists as an institution, but it has morphed into the National Museum of Health and Medicine and moved around a few times. The current building is in Silver Spring, MD just north of Washington, D.C. About a month ago, I found out that they were going to have a living history encampment at the museum, and I thought that would be a fun day for me and little John. I ended up inviting my friend John Dolan, and my mother-in-law along, too. My wife, sadly, had to work that day.
It’s a good, if somewhat small, museum. There are a number of examples of gruesome injuries on display – mostly from the Civil War era. They also have some artifacts from Presidential deaths. Slices of U.S. Grant’s tumor are displayed on slides in one of the cases, alongside the bullet-holed spine of James Garfield. There is also a collection of artifacts from Lincoln’s autopsy including small pieces of his skull, and the bullet that killed him. All of this in a free museum! If you’re visiting the Washington, D.C. area, and have any interest at all in medical history, it’s well worth the trip.
Toward the back of the museum is what I came to see: General Sickles’ leg along with an example of the type of artillery round that caused the wound.
As far as I know, the leg has been displayed like this – semi-reassembled with the metal rods and the wooden base – for years. At least in the new museum, it doesn’t really have a flashy, special place. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d probably miss it.
Since I had heard the story of the leg since I was a kid, I couldn’t resist the chance to get a picture with it. I’m left wondering whether Sickles himself – eccentric old character that he was – ever did something similar.
Earlier this week, a friend sent me a photo that she took at Monocacy. She knows that I’m interested in Civil War battlefields, and that I have a collection of photos that my friends and I have taken over the years on my work computer that I use when my screen is locked.
It got me thinking though – I’ve never been to Monocacy. I go to Gettysburg constantly. I’ve been to Antietam and Manassas a few times. I’ve even started to branch out to the Fredericksburg / Spotsylvania battlefields. But I’ve never been to Monocacy, and it’s closer to my house than any of those other fields. Since my wife was working this weekend, and I’d have to watch John anyway, I figured that we might as well have an adventure.
I wanted to do my homework first. I went looking for information about the battle in my “new” Time-Life Civil War books. Strategically, I thought the Battle of Monocacy was part of the Overland Campaign, but there was no mention of Monocacy in the book that covers it. No mention in the book about the Petersburg siege either. It wasn’t until I checked the book about the Shenandoah Valley that I found info. While Early did travel to Maryland via the valley, I don’t think I’d consider his move a part of those campaigns. Regardless, there was a decent overview of the action, and it gave enough context that I wouldn’t be lost when I got to the field.
The basics are these: The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia has been bottled up in the defenses of Petersburg, VA following Grant’s horribly bloody Overland Campaign. In an attempt to relieve some of the pressure of the siege, Lee sends Lt. Gen. Jubal Early with 15,000 men, north to threaten Washington, DC. Since the capital’s defenses had been more-or-less cleared-out to strengthen Grant’s army, Early didn’t expect much resistance. Major Gen. Lew Wallace, commanding the Middle Department, called for help from all quarters. He was able to pull together about 6,600 troops from militia units, emergency volunteers, and even the Washington defenses, and set out toward Frederick hoping to meet the advancing Confederates. Wallace knew he didn’t have much of a chance to defeat Early’s overwhelming number of battle-hardened troops, but he hoped to do exactly what he ended up doing – delay Early’s advance long enough for the reinforcements that Grant was sending to arrive in the capital.
Armed with my basic understanding, I packed John up this morning and got on the road west to Frederick after lunch. It took less than 45 minutes to get to the visitor center.
Now this was a pretty small battle by Civil War standards – only about 20,000 troops in total were engaged, and there were less than 25 cannons present between the two armies, so I went into this experience not expecting any artillery nerdery. My arrival at the visitor center got my hopes up though:
Between the parking lot and the building itself, there’s a real, live Napoleon, and it’s a Revere. The muzzle markings are in fine shape and are as follows:
My source shows this weapon as being held by the Antietam National Battlefield a few miles down the road, so this piece must have been recently transferred. That happens from time to time. According to the Register of Inspections, this gun was accepted into service on May 20, 1862, so not only would it have been on the field in time for Gettysburg, but for Antietam, too – which is probably why they were the owners of the piece at one time. Like the other Reveres, it has the ornate “U.S.” acceptance mark on the top of the barrel between the trunnions. This was fun (and unexpected) to see.
The visitor center is on the small side – it’s comparable in size to Chancellorsville’s. There’s an information desk and gift shop on the main floor, and museum exhibits upstairs. There’s more flashy interactive stuff there than actual artifacts, but it’s very well put-together. The whole building seems very new, although I’m not really sure when it was built.
I got my park map, and started out on the auto tour. One of the other nice things that the park management has put together is a downloadable audio component to complement the tour – it’s also sold as a CD in the visitor center for less than $3. Having that audio really made for a nice experience. Each of the 5 tour stops has about a 5 minute clip associated with it. Combined with well-produced wayside markers at each stop, and the fact that the battle only lasted for 1 day and didn’t have too many moving pieces, you can easily get a good understanding of what happened here back in 1864.
I had to do an artillery-related double-take at tour stop 1, though:
From a distance, I saw a bronze-colored Napoleon. I’ve never seen this on a battlefield before (outside of a gun brought by re-enactors). This is what the guns would have actually looked like during the war – the familiar greenish patina on the bronze weapons is what happens to copper when it “rusts”. Was this an extremely well-kept Napoleon?
Sadly, no. On closer inspection, it was obvious that this was an iron weapon that had been painted a bronze color – there were areas on the gun where the paint had chipped and you could see black (or even rust) underneath. There are no markings on the trunnions, rimbases, or muzzle. These are clearly reproduction guns meant only for display. While that’s disappointing, it’s nice to see a gun presented to the public on a battlefield, looking the way it would have looked at the battle. I’m a little torn on this.
I saw one other reproduction gun like this one on the Worthington Farm (stop 3 on the tour), and no other weapons anywhere on the field. That’s a pretty accurate portrayal of the artillery at this battle so far as I can tell.
It’s a similar situation for monuments. While explanatory waysides were plentiful, I counted only 5 commemorative monuments. One of these – and certainly the grandest one – was a monument to the 14th New Jersey Infantry, which became known as the “Monocacy Regiment” because it had served in this area early in the war defending the railroads, and then returned after a stint with Grant in the Overland Campaign to defend it once again. While I haven’t established a full service history for him yet, I’ve known that a distant cousin, John B. Skillman, served with the 14th NJ at some point during the war. Since it would be a family connection to this battle, and since my infant son is named John, too, this may be one of those things that I need to research further.
There are a few walking trails on the property, and from what I can tell on the maps and from looking at the ground in person, they look like they’d be nice. Several of them go right down to the Monocacy river. The scenery is peaceful, and there’s plenty of interesting old farm buildings, too. It was oppressively hot today, and I didn’t have a good way of carrying John with me, so I didn’t attempt to walk them myself.
All-in-all, I’m glad I went to see the field. To my mind, it’s a relatively minor and simplistic engagement tactically, but it does end up buying time to bolster the defenses of Washington, DC – stifling any chance that the Confederates had of creating serious political problems for Lincoln right before the 1864 election. In this light, it is strategically important to the war, and a strategic Union victory.
It’s worth taking a couple hours to pay tribute to the men who fought here and learn a little about this part of our history.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The cover announces that there was $175,000,000 of damage. That’s over $4.4 Billion in today’s dollars.
The final stop on my tour was also inspired by an entry at the HMDB: St. Michaels, MD. I saw a marker mentioning a series of attacks on the town by the British during the War of 1812, and I just had to see what that was all about.
After finding a parking spot in town, I took a walk around. St. Michaels seems to be a weekend getaway town for the Baltimore / DC Metro area. There are a lot of bed & breakfasts, and a ton of shops and restaurants along the main drag of Maryland Route 33. With beautiful views along the river and harbor, even a scenic boat tour available, I can definitely see the appeal.
As far as history goes, the town is well-stocked. It bills itself as “The Town That Fooled the British”. Legend has it, during a nighttime bombardment by the British navy, the citizens hung lit lanterns up in trees to throw off the range of the British gunnery. This tactic was apparently successful. The militia also managed to halt two attempts by British land forces to advance up the peninsula.
The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is there, too. While I didn’t go through it myself, it did look like it had a good variety of exhibits about life on the bay. There’s a small park along the harbor near the museum where a model of the type of boat that John Smith used to do the initial explorations of the Chesapeake Bay is moored. This particular boat was built for the 400th anniversary of the event 5 years ago, and retraced Smith’s historic route in celebration.
I walked down through town toward the town square – which doesn’t seem to be much of a “square” at all, actually – in search of an artillery piece that was used in the defense of the town back in 1813. Once I got there, I stumbled on to the St. Michaels Museum which was open for the first time this season. There was an assortment of small exhibits – mostly pieces of equipment from everyday life used by people in the area. The lady working as the hostess on Saturday was extremely welcoming and knowledgeable about the area. They expect this year to be a big one for them – with the bicentennial of the battles on the horizon this summer.
Of course the other draw in the town square is the cannon used in the defense of the town back on August 10, 1813. The weapon was placed here in 1913 during the centennial celebration of the battle. It’s a 6-pounder – so by my Civil War artillery standards, it’s a pea-shooter – and in extremely rough shape as you can probably tell by the photo. That being said, it may be the oldest artillery piece I’ve ever seen. The oldest cannon on the field at Gettysburg is a howitzer that was manufactured in 1837, so this piece has my personal record beat by probably at least 30 years. There’s an almost identical one across the street from the Revolution (so presumably even older), and in just as rough a condition.
There is one more point of interest on the square, pointed out by the nice lady at the museum:
Apparently Frederick Douglass spent a little time in St. Michaels before he moved north to escape slavery. The building above, currently used by the Masons, was a church in Douglass’ day, and he attended services in the upstairs room. And with that discovery, the circle was complete on my day of historical tourism.
I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised with the amount I was able to squeeze in. There’s a lot to explore over there, and it has raised my interest in learning more about the history of slavery in Maryland. There’s certainly a rich vein there – especially on the eastern shore.
So get out there and see what you can find in your own back yard. And keep an eye out for those roadside markers – you never know what you’ll discover!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I posted earlier about the Saturday I spent roaming around the eastern shore of Maryland looking for historical sites. There was one site that I really wanted to find: the birthplace of Frederick Douglass.
As a libertarian living in Maryland, I don’t have too much to be happy or proud about. Maryland wasn’t the first to ratify the Constitution. It was a slave state. It seems to believe more in “democracy” than in “freedom” (yes, those are different things – and “democracy” is a nightmare). And the newskeepsgettingworse.
So, I’ve never been able to marshal too much pride for my home state. That all changed when I learned about Frederick Douglass. Here was a man who was born as a slave in Maryland. He was beaten. He was moved from place to place by his master. Through all of that, he taught himself to read, learned a useful trade in the shipbuilding industry, and fell in love. Eventually he became a “thief” as he “stole himself” and escaped to the north and freedom. Here is a man who truly understands liberty, and made himself into one of its most eloquent champions. Here is a man that I can be proud to share a home with!
Naturally, I want to visit as many of the sites that were important to him as I can. It’s a way that I can connect to his life and my history in a very tangible way, and it’s a way that I can honor and pay tribute to his memory. It just feels like something I should do.
It all starts at the beginning doesn’t it? I want to visit the birthplaces of heroes like Douglass. But when your hero was a slave, born in a shack in the woods on his master’s property, you can only get so close to the actual site. This task is made all the more difficult in Douglass’ case because the historical marker commemorating his birth in Talbot county, placed by the State of Maryland, is nowhere near the actual site.
For one thing, it lists “Tuckahoe” as Douglass’ birthplace. But there is no town in Maryland called Tuckahoe – that name refers to the creek along which he was born. This is partly Douglass’ own fault, because he used that name to describe his own birthplace from time to time.
Also, while the marker is along the Tuckahoe Creek, it’s about 7 miles southeast of the actual site of his birth. There is nothing about that marker that would lead you to the actual site, either. You just have to do your own research to figure out where it is. Turns out, it’s here:
When you get there, there is no marker. There isn’t even a place to pull over on the side of the road and get a proper picture, or take a few minutes to contemplate the scene. Luckily, traffic was non-existent, so I managed to get this shot:
Douglass himself pointed out the site on a visit he made to the area in 1878. When Douglass was born in 1818, this plot of woods was part of his master Aaron Anthony’s “Holme Hill” farm where Douglass’ mother and grandmother lived as slaves. In fact, it was in his grandmother’s cabin – long since gone – that he was born.
It’s a shame that this site is so inconvenient to visit (let alone to even find). Douglass was a great man and should definitely be remembered and memorialized on a grander scale.
But failing that, can’t we at least place a marker at the right spot?
My wife and I were invited to a wedding on Kent Island this past Saturday (congratulations Brian and Jane!) In fact, we were more than invited – my wife Ruth was asked to be a bridesmaid for her friend Jane.
The ceremony wasn’t until 6:30pm, but Ruth had to be on the island at 9:30am to start doing hair, makeup, dresses, and photos. I wasn’t too interested in going back home only to return a few hours later, so I decided to poke around the eastern shore for a little while looking for historically-interesting sites. I had a few things in mind that I wanted to see, and I put my faith in the HMDB and my iPhone to guide me to other ones.
I’m going to do a few posts about what I found, but I wanted to start with what I didn’t find, but was hoping to.
As I learned from Maryland, A Middle Temperament, Kent Island was the site of the first permanent English settlement in what is now Maryland in 1631. That pre-dates St. Mary’s City by about 3 years. The reason I said “what is now Maryland” above, is because the man who settled the island, William Claiborne, was actually trying to claim it for our southern rival, Virginia. After several armed interventions, and the island consequently changing hands several times, it was eventually made part of Maryland.
I was hoping that there would be something on the island to tell that story, but if there is, I couldn’t find it. There’s a single marker along route 50 (that everyone going to Ocean City drives right past), but it only gives a sentence worth of information. There is a better one just a little bit off the main road across the island. But there is no museum. There is no marker at the spot of Claiborne’s 4-gun fort (let alone a re-creation of it – which I honestly didn’t expect). It’s a little disappointing for a site that is so important to the history of our state. You’d like to be able to see that ground without having to do a bunch of research to figure out exactly where it is.
Kent Island has plenty to offer – there’s bars and restaurants, antique shops, beautiful views, and wedding venues obviously. There just wasn’t a lot of easily-accessible history for people like me who want to find it. This is a theme I discovered in my travels on Saturday. While there is plenty of rich history to be found over there, it seems like the eastern shore of Maryland is content with being a farming community that only incidentally houses gas stations and restaurants that people use as stops on the way to the beach.
Come to think of it, that’s probably more an indictment of the beach-going crowd than it is of the residents of the eastern shore.
Either way, I’ll show what I did find in a series of posts to follow.