Kid’s Day: Life of a Soldier – April 2019

I had heard about a special program for kids happening at Brandywine Battlefield Park, the site of the largest battle of the American Revolution, so I decided to take the boys up for the afternoon. It was a really great hands-on experience. My dad tagged along, too, since he had never visited the site.

We took a tour of both historic houses there, and the boys were engaged enough to ask questions and participate. After the tours, we formed up with some other kids in the field outside the visitors center to learn how new recruits during the American Revolution were trained. One of the museum guides in period dress taught the kids how to line up, and then walked them through the procedure for loading a mock wooden musket, and finally led them in an attack that ended with a charge! The boys had a great time getting to connect with the history in a very tangible way.

Our latest patriot recruits, in a ragged battleline. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
Our latest patriot recruits, in a ragged battleline. – Photo by the Author
This drill instructor had his work cut out for him. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
This drill instructor had his work cut out for him. – Photo by the Author

The British didn’t know what they were in for that day.

Battlefield Visits: Shenandoah Valley

During the Civil War, the Shenandoah Valley was both the breadbasket of the Confederacy, as well as a key transportation corridor used by both sides for their respective invasions. There was almost constant conflict in the region for the duration of the war, and large areas destroyed in actions like “The Burning”. A few summers ago, I toured many of the battlefields in this very important theatre of the war.

Battle of McDowell – Civil War Battlefield #60

Approaching from the east (in the Harrisonburg area), I lost cell service as soon as I hit the mountains. Such is life in the National Radio Quiet Zone. There is a cool overlook on top of one of the ridges along Rt. 250 that talks about a Confederate fort and earthworks there under Gen. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson. Very nice views and a few interpretive markers.

The view really is lovely from the rest stop. - Photo by the Author
The view really is lovely from the rest stop. – Photo by the Author

Just before the town of McDowell, the Civil War Trust has a small parking lot with markers showing the start of the trail they laid out on their property on Sitlington’s Hill. The signs mention a blueblaze trail, but I couldn’t find any blazes. Combined with the fact that it had just rained, was approaching dusk, and I had no cell phone service, I decided not to venture up the hill. The town was nice, though, and I was able to see the house that Stonewall Jackson used as a headquarters during the Battle of McDowell.

Battle of Cross Keys – Civil War Battlefield #61

A relatively small fight during Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign, Cross Keys is not far to the southeast from Harrisonburg. There’s a wayside marker – a series of them actually – near the cemetery on Battlefield Road. The terrain is very rolling. The Union line was more-or-less along modern Cross Keys Road, and the view to the southeast of the mountains was beautiful. The southern peak of Massanutten Mountain was clearly visible from here.

Battle of Port Republic – Civil War Battlefield #62

I love these metal map signs that can be found at several of the battlefields in the Shenandoah Valley. - Photo by the Author
I love these metal map signs that can be found at several of the battlefields in the Shenandoah Valley. – Photo by the Author

Just after the Battle of Cross Keys, the action of Jackson’s Valley Campaign moved farther to the southeast at the Battle of Port Republic. Naturally, we continued there on our tour, too.

Initially, I had some trouble finding the battlefield itself. There is a set of markers near “The Coaling” east of town. The battle took place mainly between that spot and the town. The terrain was basically flat farm fields that are bordered on the north by the south branch of the Shenandoah River.

Battle of Piedmont – Civil War Battlefield #63

More rolling terrain at this battlefield. It is fairly difficult to get a sense for where the lines were. But there are a few markers, and one wayside in the parking lot of the local community center that includes a map.

Battle of Waynesboro – Civil War Battlefield #64

This battlefield – the site of the last fighting in the Shenandoah Valley – has been entirely overtaken by the modern development of the town. I found one marker on W. Main Street near the Masonic Lodge, but there are no waysides here, so there are no maps to orient you to where the action took place.

Battle of New Market – Civil War Battlefield #65

The VMI-run Virginia Museum of the Civil War was fairly sparse during our visit. I got the impression that they were in the midst of re-arranging the exhibits. It’s nice to see them involved at the battle where the most famous aspect is the charge of their cadets. There is a sizeable collection of small arms downstairs which is probably the main attraction. $10 admission seemed a little steep for what it is, though my son was free. He really wanted to get a hat, so I bought him a super-FARBy, cotton kepi with (*UGH*) crossed rifles in the gift shop. It’ll be a fun souvenir for him, nonetheless.

The field itself is small. There is a trail that takes you along the path of the VMI cadets’ attack, and a few reproduction artillery pieces. There’s also a spot where you can get a nice view of the north fork of the Shenandoah River.

My son and I at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War. He really wanted that hat. - Photo by the Author
My son and I at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War. He really wanted that hat. – Photo by the Author

Battle of Tom’s Brook – Civil War Battlefield #66

You've gotta love a good roadside marker. - Photo by the Author
You’ve gotta love a good roadside marker. – Photo by the Author

There’s a marker for the Battle of Tom’s Brook along Route 11 in the town where the action took place, and a nice wayside that is deep in the nearby Shenandoah County Park near a storm water pond. A large patch of woods there means that the Valley Pike can’t be viewed from the wayside, so it’s a little hard to really see and appreciate the terrain. Some imagination is required.

Battle of Fisher’s Hill – Civil War Battlefield #67

There are a few markers along Route 11, but that’s not all. A totally separate section of the battlefield – Ramseur’s Hill – has been preserved on the northwest side of I-81. There are a few waysides and a walking trail there. During my initial trip, I didn’t get out to explore too much, as my son was already pretty burned-out on battlefields for the day, but I was lucky enough to come back for a special tour that was given on the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Fisher’s Hill, and the views are amazing from the top of the hill.

From the top of Ramseur's Hill looking roughly northeast. Another amazing vista. - Photo by the Author
From the top of Ramseur’s Hill looking roughly northeast. Another amazing vista. – Photo by the Author

Battlefield Visits #23: Monocacy

Keeping it close to home for me, the next battlefield on my list is Monocacy. This engagement is commonly referred to as “The Battle that Saved Washington”, and while it was a strategic victory for the Union forces, the single-day action was tactically a loss. Maj. General Lew Wallace (in command of the VIII Corps, and later the author of Ben-Hur) successfully delayed Lt. General Jubal Early‘s advance long enough for elements of the VI Corps to move from the trenches of Petersburg to reinforce the defenses of Washington.

As a bonus, this park also preserves the spot where Special Order 191 was discovered by a couple of Union soldiers during the Maryland Campaign, so there is also some Antietam interest here.

I wrote about my first visit to this battlefield in a post a few years ago.

A beautiful Revere Copper Co. Napoleon outside of the visitors center. - Photo by the author
A beautiful Revere Copper Co. Napoleon outside of the visitors center. – Photo by the author

Campaign: Early’s Washington Raid and Operations Against the B&O Railroad – This was the first battle of the campaign.

CWSAC Rating: “B” – Having a direct and decisive influence on a campaign.

How to Get There: The battlefield is located in western Maryland just south of Frederick, about an hour away from Baltimore. Modern day I-270 cuts the battlefield in half, but there is no direct access from the interstate. I use MD-355 to get there.

The Visitors Center is located at 5201 Urbana Pike, Frederick, MD 21704. There is no entrance fee, but you should stop there to pick up a brochure and get oriented. There’s a small gift shop, and a very well-done museum upstairs. The one real piece of artillery on the field is also located by the entrance – a beautiful Revere Copper Co. Napoleon. All other cannons on the field are reproductions.

For on the Field: You’re going to want to have a guide of some sort when you’re at Monocacy. There are not a lot of monuments, markers, or waysides, so having a way to interpret what you’re looking at becomes critical. Definitely get the park map / brochure for this one. Another wonderful resource that the park has put together is a freely-available audio tour of the field in mp3 format. If you’re going to use this (and you should) be sure to download it ahead of time as cell phone coverage can be spotty on the field.

What I Love: For me, Monocacy is the closest battlefield to home, so if I want to get a quick Civil War history experience, or take friends and family to something that’s a little off the beaten path, this battlefield is a good option. The field is usually pretty empty, and there are plenty of opportunities for non-historical activities. They have a few trails laid out that take the visitor along the Monocacy River, there’s a cool railroad junction and bridge that train nerds would enjoy, and some neat old farm buildings that are quite photogenic.

Some of the structures on the Best Farm. - Photo by the author
Some of the structures on the Best Farm. – Photo by the author

What I Don’t: Being such a small field, there isn’t that much to see. There are some moving pieces in the battle, so it isn’t boring to learn about, but it’s not as expansive a topic as something like Gettysburg or Antietam. As I stated above, there aren’t a lot of monuments or markers, so you’re kind of on your own while you’re out on the ground.

Final Thoughts: While Monocacy doesn’t get the attention of other nearby fields, it’s worthy of at least a quick visit. Antietam fans will appreciate the connection to Special Order 191, and Gettysburg fans will want to see the nearby place where Maj. General George Meade received the order to take command of the Army of the Potomac.

Other Resources:

Official CWSAC Battle Summary – Monocacy

American Battlefield Trust – Monocacy

Wikipedia – Battle of Monocacy

Monocacy Visit

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:

Revere Napolean#46 in front of the visitor center.
Revere Napoleon#46 in front of the visitor center.

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:

  • Manufacturer – Revere Copper Co.
  • Year Built – 1862
  • Serial Number – 46
  • Weight – 1231 lbs
  • Inspector – T. J. R.

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:

"Napolean" at the Best Farm.
“Napoleon” at the Best Farm.

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.

Monument to 14th NJ near Monocacy Junction.
Monument to 14th NJ near Monocacy Junction.

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.

Other monuments include one placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy next to a more descriptive one placed by the State of Maryland. There are also two other unit monuments: one remembering the 87th Pennsylvania, and another across the road for the 10th Vermont. None of these is easy to visit because of parking challenges, though.

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.