Battlefield Visits: Finishing Off West Virginia (and then some)

In April of 2019, I did something that I had never done before: I planned a multi-day battlefield stomping tour of West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, and eastern Tennessee that would take me to some of the most remote places I had visited on my own. It was scary and exciting all at the same time. I spent weeks studying Google Maps and laying out the perfect route. I booked hotel rooms. Finally, after work on the Wednesday before Easter, I started the journey west.

My plan was to be checked in to the Wingate in Bridgeport, WV that night, but I had a stop that I wanted to make along the way.

Battle of Moorefield – Civil War Battlefield #83

Deviating from my route a bit, I turned north on US Route 220, and found a wayside marker for the Battle of Moorefield. This cavalry fight took place in the gorgeous mountain valley here, and the rolling terrain would have made for some seemingly good defensive positions. The action flowed south toward the town from this spot, but I’m glad that I took the time to take in this picturesque view.

Even if you aren't interested in battlefields, the drive through the rolling valleys of Harding County, WV is absolutely lovely. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
Even if you aren’t interested in battlefields, the drive through the rolling valleys of Harding County, WV is absolutely lovely. – Photo by the Author

Day 1

After a good night’s rest, I woke up early, grabbed some breakfast in the hotel lobby, and hit the road for a great day of exploring. I knew this day would be the trickiest of the trip, as several of the stops that I had planned were up in the mountains, in the middle of the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ) – where my cell phone would definitely not work. If I ran into some kind of problem, I’d have a hard time getting help.

Battle of Philippi – Civil War Battlefield #84

Appropriately, my day started at the first land battle of the Civil War – no, it wasn’t Manassas – it was the Battle of Philippi. There is a nice park along the Tygart Valley River here with flags, markers, and monuments – some of which aren’t Civil War-related. There is also a covered bridge here, which factored in the battle, although it has clearly been modified to handle modern automotive traffic.

The view of the Tygart Valley River from Blue and Gray Park in Philippi. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The view of the Tygart Valley River from Blue and Gray Park in Philippi. – Photo by the Author

Battle of Rich Mountain – Civil War Battlefield #85

I took a bit of a winding route from Philippi so that I could approach Rich Mountain from the west, much like the Union army did during the battle. My understanding is that this road – which follows the original trace of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike – has since been paved, but at the time I visited, it was gravel all the way up to the summit. Once I was at the top, the first thing I noticed was how serene it was. Speaking as someone who has lived in suburbs all his life, it is shockingly quiet in the mountains of West Virginia.

There is something of a joke among Civil War nerds that a common question that tourists ask is something like this: “If a battle happened here, why aren’t there any bullet holes in the monuments?” (The second question is “Why do these battles always happen in National Parks?”) Well, I can tell you, at Rich Mountain nearly every marker has bullet damage in it (though I doubt it was caused in the 19th century). To be honest, I got a little nervous reading these tablets that had clearly taken rounds fired from behind where I was standing.

In West Virginia, the monuments really do have bullet holes in them! - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
In West Virginia, the monuments really do have bullet holes in them! – Photo by the Author

There is a local preservation group that seems to spearhead the acquisition and care of the battlefield land, but they have their work cut out for them given the state of the signs and markers when I visited. The American Battlefield Trust has also helped with securing land at the site.

Even with the rough condition, there are adequate waysides at the top of the mountain to understand what happened during the battle. Most notably, this is the battle that (rightly or wrongly) gave George McClellan the chance to make a name for himself, and basically catapulted him into the command of the Union army. I’d argue that William Rosecrans was actually the critical personality at this battle. Definitely worthy of a visit – this one is a hidden gem of the Civil War.

Battle of Cheat Mountain – Civil War Battlefield #86

A short drive to the southeast from Rich Mountain put me inside the NRQZ. My cell phone would be without a signal for the next 4 hours as I drove up and down the mountains.

My next stop was the Battle of Cheat Mountain, now contained within Monongahela National Forest. There was a short drive up a gravel mountain road right off of US Route 250, approaching the site of Cheat Summit Fort (also known as Fort Milroy) from the east. Even though there were 20th century strip mining operations in the area, the terrain immediately around the fort is still pretty well-preserved, and it is another amazingly quiet spot. There is an observation platform near the middle of the fort, and even some preserved earthworks. Plenty of waysides and markers tell the story. From the sound of things, this was an extremely remote and miserable place to be for the Union soldiers in the early days of the Civil War, with snowfalls occurring even in August.

Battle of Greenbrier River – Civil War Battlefield #87

Down in the valley to the east of Cheat Mountain, is the modern day town of Bartow, WV, site of the Battle of Greenbrier River in the fall of 1861. The US Forest Service ranger station on the east side of the town has a small museum with information about the local wildlife as well as some historical displays about the Battle of Greenbrier River, as well as the Battles of Cheat Mountain and Camp Allegheny, including a few artifacts. Outside, a wayside marker describes some cavalry action that took place in the area later in the war.

Some of the artifacts on display at the Greenbrier Ranger Station. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
Some of the artifacts on display at the Greenbrier Ranger Station. – Photo by the Author

Continuing along US Route 250, and crossing over the east fork of the Greenbrier River, you can find the site of the Confederate Camp Bartow a short distance to the east. A nice wayside there discusses the failed Union “reconnaissance-in-force” that attempted to dislodge the Confederates and that we now recognize as the Battle of Greenbrier River.

The Confederate Camp Bartow was on this hill. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The Confederate Camp Bartow was on this hill. – Photo by the Author

Battle of Camp Allegheny – Civil War Battlefield #88

One of the great pieces of information I got from the ranger at the Bartow Forest Service station was that the best approach to the site of the Battle of Camp Allegheny was from the east. A dirt road splits off from US Route 250 immediately before you hit the Virginia state line, and that would be the smoothest way for me to reach the top of the mountain. There is a small area to pull off right at the start of that road so that the couple of waysides and markers talking about Camp Allegheny can be viewed.

The dirt road up to the “Top of Allegheny” was rough. Probably the scariest road I’ve ever been on. It is a single lane, dirt road, twisting up the side of a mountain. It is full of massive potholes that you have to carefully avoid (especially when you’re in a 2009 Honda Civic with very low ground clearance), and absolutely nothing like guardrails. It was a bumpy and potentially dangerous ride, but I was not going to pass up the chance to visit this site!

At the top, I pulled into the small Forest Service parking area just as a slight drizzle started. I took some time to examine the wayside there and then fired up the video camera on my iPhone to capture my impressions.

The site of the historical fort is out in the field you see toward the end of the video. That is all private property today. Once again, this was an extremely peaceful and quiet place. And the fact that you have to take a single-lane dirt road to get there, and that there wasn’t a prayer that you’d get a cell signal (thanks to the NRQZ) really made it feel like you were stepping back into 1861. This one stop was definitely the emotional high point of the trip. I am SO glad I did it.

It became clear that there was no good way down the mountain to the west, so in order to head to my next stop, I’d have to retrace my steps back to Bartow.

Green Bank Observatory and Science Center – A Brief Interlude

At Bartow, I turned south, and drove along the Potomac Highlands Trail until I reached the town of Green Bank, WV.

The largest of the Green Bank radio telescopes as viewed from the museum. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The largest of the Green Bank radio telescopes as viewed from the museum. – Photo by the Author

This very unique town is host to the Green Bank Observatory and Science Center. Here, massive radio telescopes listen for signals from the distant universe – something that is only possible inside the NRQZ. Radio transmissions are extremely restricted in town. Residents aren’t allowed to run wi-fi access points, nor use microwave ovens in their homes. The radio telescopes are situated relatively far from public roads, and only diesel-engine vehicles are allowed to take visitors close enough for tours as even the radio noise from a spark plug is enough to ruin their experiments.

I grabbed lunch at the Starlight CafĂ© within the museum – seemingly the only restaurant in town – and had a chance to check out the exhibits and pick up a few souvenirs for the boys. Since there are no radio transmissions allowed in the area, I also was able to catch a photo of a rare historical artifact.

An ancient artifact from a simpler time. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
An ancient artifact from a simpler time. – Photo by the Author

Battle of Droop Mountain – Civil War Battlefield #89

Heading farther to the south and west, I was eventually able to see signal bars on my iPhone again as I approached my next stop, the Battle of Droop Mountain. A roadside marker along the way confirmed that I was on the right track.

Now a West Virginia State Park, this battlefield has been very well-preserved and has several markers and even a few monuments. Near the parking lot, I had my first artillery sighting of the trip – although it was a replica 10-pounder Parrott Rifle.

The first artillery sighting of the trip - a fake 10-pounder Parrott at Droop Mountain. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The first artillery sighting of the trip – a fake 10-pounder Parrott at Droop Mountain. – Photo by the Author

Many units have individual markers like this one to the 22nd Virginia Infantry that are placed along the main tour road. Col. George S. Patton, grandfather of the famous WWII general, commanded this particular regiment at Droop Mountain.

The grandfather of famed WWII General George Patton commanded a Virginia regiment at Droop Mountain. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The grandfather of famed WWII General George Patton commanded a Virginia regiment at Droop Mountain. – Photo by the Author

The true highlight of this field is the distinctive observation tower located on the far eastern slope of the mountain. The views up the valley toward the town of Hillsboro, WV are magnificent. Trust me when I say that the photos I took don’t do it justice.

The views alone are enough to justify a visit to Droop Mountain. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The views alone are enough to justify a visit to Droop Mountain. – Photo by the Author

Battle of Carnifex Ferry – Civil War Battlefield #90

My next leg took me deeper into West Virginia and weaving through the mountains that were clearly coal country. I passed several old industrial sites, and small towns on my way to the West Virginia State Park that preserves the Battle of Carnifex Ferry.

Like Droop Mountain, the fact that this is a state park means that it is pretty well-preserved, and there are numerous markers to explain what took place here. I think my favorite aspect of this park was the numerous warnings – on their website, as well as on signs around the park – that you should stay on marked trails because of the high risk of unexploded ordnance STILL being in the ground here after more than 150 years.

One such trail leads along the side of the mountain to stunning views of the Gauley River valley below. Once again, the images you get from a camera just can’t capture the feeling of being there yourself.

There are beautiful views of the Gauley River from the Carnifex Ferry State Park. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
There are beautiful views of the Gauley River from the Carnifex Ferry State Park. – Photo by the Author

Battle of Kessler’s Cross Lanes – Civil War Battlefield #91

Just north of Carnifex Ferry is a much smaller engagement: the Battle of Kessler’s Cross Lanes. Today, this site is little more than an intersection. There are some markers near the local volunteer fire station, as well as a wayside at the local gas station that explain more about what happened here.

The battlefield at Kessler's Cross Lanes. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The battlefield at Kessler’s Cross Lanes. – Photo by the Author

New River Gorge Bridge – Another Brief Interlude

I was done with battlefields for the day, but I still needed to make it to my hotel for the night, which was booked for Princeton, WV. I made my way to US Route 19 and headed south.

Along the way, I knew I would need to pass over the New River Gorge Bridge – one of the tallest and longest single-arch bridges in the world. Now, I am very acrophobic, but I’ve never really had a problem with bridges, so I wasn’t worried about having to drive over this thing, but I made a critical mistake: I pulled over at the NPS New River Gorge visitor’s center to get a view of this engineering marvel first.

The incredibly impressive New River Gorge Bridge. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The incredibly impressive New River Gorge Bridge. – Photo by the Author

The bridge is on a scale that I can’t even describe. It spans the gorge 867 feet above the river – high enough to fit the Washington Monument and 2 Statues of Liberty stacked on top for good measure, underneath the arch, with 20 feet to spare. I was blown away by how massive it was. This would easily be the tallest structure I had ever been on. After I collected myself, I was able to white-knuckle it across, and I swear that I felt absolutely EVERY slight sway and bump my car made along the road deck.

Obviously, I survived. 🙂

Day 2

Got an early start from the Microtel Inn in Princeton, WV. The first order of business was to check out downtown Princeton, and then see how many other sites I could hit in Tennessee and Virginia.

Battle of Princeton Court House – Civil War Battlefield #92

I parked near the court house and explored a little bit. Sadly, I could only find one wayside marker that mentioned the Battle of Princeton Court House. It talks about some fighting happening near the court house itself. There is a military museum across the square, but it wasn’t open during my visit. It is very hard to get a sense of the fighting here, as the area appears to have been built up in the years since, and I suspect that much of the terrain has been altered.

With my visit to Princeton, I have now seen every official Civil War battlefield in West Virginia, so that’s a pretty cool milestone.

Battle of Cove Mountain – Civil War Battlefield #93

Heading south on Interstate 77, I crossed into Virginia, and before long I was in the outskirts of Wytheville, VA on my way to the site of the Battle of Cove Mountain.

The terrain here is very pretty. As the name suggests, the field sits in the valley of a horseshoe-shaped mountain formation – only opening up on the western edge. The valley is full of farms among the rolling hills, and is quite pretty to drive through.

Fighting seems to have happened down the valley near the open end, but that is mostly an educated guess on my part. The few markers I was able to find are short on details. The old brick church here became a temporary hospital, and is still used on special occasions by a local congregation in Wytheville.

The Crockett's Cove Presbyterian Church is still used on special occasions by a local congregation from Wytheville, VA. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The Crockett’s Cove Presbyterian Church is still used on special occasions by a local congregation from Wytheville, VA. – Photo by the Author

After a few moments of reflection at the church, I got back in the car and decided to go southwest. There was a threat of storms, and I decided to try to maximize my trip by going to the farthest battlefield I could and then working my way back home, hitting more sites along the way. I crossed into Tennessee, and was delighted to get WDVX back on my radio once again.

Battle of Fair Garden – Civil War Battlefield #94

Almost to Knoxville, I found that the Battle of Fair Garden is yet another engagement that is very hard to picture because of the changes to the terrain that have occurred over time. There is a very good wayside on the grounds of Walters State Community College, Sevierville, but I believe that the all the “landmark” buildings of this battlefield are gone.

Battle of Dandridge – Civil War Battlefield #95

There were a few incidents of fighting in Dandridge, and there are a few markers that at least make mention of them. The official Battle of Dandridge happened on January 17, 1863. The Bradford-Hynds House – used by both Union and Confederate officers as a headquarters at different points – still stands downtown. That downtown area sits in something of a bowl-like depression geographically, and my best guess is that the fighting happened up at the rim.

The Bradford-Hynds House was used as a headquarters by officers of both sides during and after the battle. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The Bradford-Hynds House was used as a headquarters by officers of both sides during and after the battle. – Photo by the Author

Battle of Mossy Creek – Civil War Battlefield #96

At the time that I visited, the bridge over Mossy Creek was out, so I had to take a bit of a circuitous route to reach the Battle of Mossy Creek. The field has been overtaken by a baseball diamond, an industrial park, and – appropriately – a National Guard facility that has a few historical markers and waysides near its entrance. Given all the construction, I have to imagine that the terrain isn’t what it was in the 19th century.

Battle of Bean’s Station – Civil War Battlefield #97

I had gotten a tip that while the field of the Battle of Bean’s Station no longer existed, you could get a good view of the area from an overlook on Clinch Mountain along US Route 25E. There is even a marker there that mentions the fighting. It was very overcast and rainy on the day that I visited, so I didn’t get the greatest experience myself. I have since learned that there may be other markers and waysides closer to the shoreline.

Unfortunately, the battlefield no longer exists because it is underwater now. When the TVA built the Cherokee Hydroelectric Dam, they flooded the area where the action took place.

The Bean's Station battlefield is sadly now under the TVA's Cherokee Reservoir. A nearby overlook on Clinch Mountain offers a nice view of the area. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The Bean’s Station battlefield is sadly now under the TVA’s Cherokee Reservoir. A nearby overlook on Clinch Mountain offers a nice view of the area. – Photo by the Author

Battle of Bull’s Gap – Civil War Battlefield #98

Thanks to another tip, I was directed to the Bull’s Gap Railroad Museum as a source of information about the Battle of Bull’s Gap. It turned out to be great advice. I had a lovely conversation with Bill (who seems to run the museum) and his brother. They regaled me with tales of their Civil War ancestors and their actions in the area. History can have such an impact in places like this.

Bill was nice enough to direct me toward the gap, which seems to have been where the combat action was, but I couldn’t find a single marker anywhere in the area.

A view of Bull's Gap from the northwest. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
A view of Bull’s Gap from the northwest. – Photo by the Author

Battle of Blue Springs – Civil War Battlefield #99

Another place where I believe the terrain has changed, and there were a few different actions at different times in the area of the Battle of Blue Springs, so I couldn’t get a good sense of how things unfolded exactly on the ground. There is a wayside marker in the local Food Country parking lot, and another roadside one nearby.

Battle of Blountville – Civil War Battlefield #100

My 100th battlefield! What an incredible milestone in my journey!

There are many historical waysides, markers, and even a memorial describing some of the action along the main street in town. I was able to park my car and just walk along the street reading as I went. Blountville is clearly very proud of its history.

During my walk, I learned that part of the town – including the court house – burned due to artillery fire from the Battle of Blountville. One of the things that I didn’t expect to find was the original bell from the town court house, which the plaque identified as having been forged in my native Maryland.

Unexpected discovery: the original bell from the Blountville Court House was forged in my native Maryland. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
Unexpected discovery: the original bell from the Blountville Court House was forged in my native Maryland. – Photo by the Author

After I’d had enough exploring, I made my way back to the car and continued east on Interstate 81, crossing back into Virginia. I was well on my way home, but I hoped to hit just one more town before I ran out of daylight.

Second Battle of Saltville – Civil War Battlefield #101

The aptly-named Saltville, VA had a key role to play in the Civil War. This was the Confederacy’s main source of salt – especially toward the end of the war – and it was vital to keep those supplies coming as salt was used as a preservative for the food that was feeding the army. As much as the Confederates wanted to defend this place, the Union wanted to disrupt and destroy these operations. Two official battles were fought here, and because of the way I came into town, I passed by the site of the Second Battle of Saltville first.

Salt Park is along the road southwest of town, and has a very cool display of equipment that would have been used in the production of salt in the 19th century, and gives something of an idea what the salt works would have been like. In addition, they also host a couple of wayside markers that discuss the battle. The hills where the Confederates had their defensive positions set up are visible from here, and they look quite imposing.

This small park with examples of equipment that was used in the process of making salt in the 19th century is located near the site of the Second Battle of Saltville. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
This small park with examples of equipment that was used in the process of making salt in the 19th century is located near the site of the Second Battle of Saltville. – Photo by the Author

First Battle of Saltville – Civil War Battlefield #102

A short drive through town to the east took me to the site of the First Battle of Saltville.

The best place to experience this field from is a small park on the hill overlooking where Cedar Creek runs into the Holston River. The Confederate defenses were posted on this hill. A very good wayside marker tells the story here, but this is also one of those fields where you can almost see what happened as soon as you look out from this defensive position. The Union forces – mostly consisting of United States Colored Cavalry Troops – were slaughtered by the vengeful Confederate defenders.

A view of the battlefield from a small park overlooking the north branch of the Holston River.  - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
A view of the battlefield from a small park overlooking the north branch of the Holston River. – Photo by the Author

Valley Forge Day Trip – June 2019

One of my favorite things to do is have adventures with my boys. A few summers ago, we took a day trip to Valley Forge National Historical Park so that the boys could see some Revolutionary history (they both seem to have some interest there) and to give them a chance to complete yet another Junior Ranger program.

At the time we visited back in June of 2019, the Visitors Center was closed for renovations, and a series of temporary trailers were in place to allow folks to pick up maps, watch a short introductory movie, and purchase souvenirs. We especially enjoyed getting to pretend that we were General George Washington for a brief moment.

Isaac as General Washington in the makeshift visitors center. - Photo by the Author
Isaac as General Washington in the makeshift visitors center. – Photo by the Author

Once we’d oriented ourselves and got our Junior Ranger activity books, we set out on the standard auto tour route of the park. While not actually a battlefield, the encampment at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778 was a turning point for the Continental Army. Baron von Steuben developed a training program that brought the Colonials much closer to being a professional fighting force. And I really think there is something to the idea that the shared hardships forged bonds among the men that would carry them through the rest of the struggle.

Both boys were interested in exploring the reproduction huts along Muhlenberg’s brigade line. These show something of what the living quarters were like for the men that wintered here.

John and Isaac inside one of the soldiers' huts. - Photo by the Author
John and Isaac inside one of the soldiers’ huts. – Photo by the Author

Nearby, at Redoubt #2, we took our turn manning the outer defenses of the camp. With the British Army spending the winter in Philadelphia, this position had a great view of the likely approaches that would have been used if the red coats had decided to attack.

Manning a gun at Redoubt #2. - Photo by the Author
Manning a gun at Redoubt #2. – Photo by the Author

Continuing along the tour route, we came to an equestrian statue of Maj. General “Mad” Anthony Wayne – one of my favorite figures from the Continental Army. He played a prominent role at both the Battle of Paoli, and the Battle of Stony Point – both fields that I have visited and will need to write up one of these days. The Battle of Stony Point is especially cool and worth a visit for its views of the Hudson River alone.

The magnificent equestrian statue of "Mad Anthony" Wayne at Valley Forge. - Photo by the Author
The magnificent equestrian statue of “Mad Anthony” Wayne at Valley Forge. – Photo by the Author

Our next stop was at Washington’s Headquarters. The house was open on the day we visited, and it was really cool to have the ranger there explain how the house was used by General Washington and his staff. The building is in great shape and getting to see and use the original handrails that were still on the steps was a pretty awesome experience. Tangible connections to the past are always much more impactful.

The boys stand with General Washington's headquarters flag outside of the Isaac Potts House. General Washington used the structure as his headquarters that winter. - Photo by the Author
The boys stand with General Washington’s headquarters flag outside of the Isaac Potts House. General Washington used the structure as his headquarters that winter. – Photo by the Author

The visit ended with a return trip to the Visitors Center to have a ranger check our work on the Junior Ranger activities, swear in, and get our badges! We’ll definitely be going back to see the renovated Visitors Center and learn more about our country’s history together.

My Valley Forge Junior Rangers. - Photo by the Author
My Valley Forge Junior Rangers. – Photo by the Author

Battlefield Visits: Defenses of Washington

When Virginia seceded at the start of the Civil War, it put the US Capitol right on the border with the rebel forces. There were immediate efforts to secure at least some portion of the southern shore of the Potomac river, and the Federal City became one of the most highly-fortified places in the world. There are still some remnants of those wartime earthworks, but you have to know where to look. Luckily, there is an NPS unit for that: The Civil War Defenses of Washington.

A couple years ago, I took a day trip through two of the more famous ones – mostly so that I could visit the site of the only Civil War battle to take place in the District of Columbia.

Fort Washington

Directly south of the city, in Maryland, this transitional second / third system fort was meant to defend against naval attacks coming up the Potomac river.

Fort Washington looms over the Potomac river. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
Fort Washington looms over the Potomac river. – Photo by the Author

The terrain here is a little steep (like the $10 NPS entrance fee), and combined with the fort itself makes for some impressive view sheds. The grounds are in good shape, and they are interpreted fairly well, but there was never any “action” here, so there’s no really story to grab visitors’ attention. In addition to the main fort, there are a few Endicott-era batteries, too.

The view upriver from the top of the fort. Note the Endicott batteries closer to the shoreline. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The view upriver from the top of the fort. Note the Endicott batteries closer to the shoreline. – Photo by the Author

Being located within the DC suburbs, and without a clear “battle” story to tell, the fort seems to get used more as a general purpose park by locals. I noticed a few families on the grounds with picnic lunches during my visit.

Battle of Fort Stevens – Civil War Battlefield #59

The Battle of Fort Stevens is the only Civil War battle to take place in DC. In the years since the war, there has been a great expansion of the city, and what was once an open field that the Confederates attempted to attack across, is now a neighborhood with shops and even some taller buildings.

Only a small section of Fort Stevens has been preserved / reconstructed. Modern development continues. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
Only a small section of Fort Stevens has been preserved / reconstructed. Modern development continues. – Photo by the Author

What is here of the fort is largely a reconstruction with more durable materials. Where there were wooden pilings and gun platforms, there are now reproductions made of poured concrete. And because of the modern development that has taken place, only the western portion of the fort has been retained.

There are a few markers, and a pair of 30-Pounder Parrotts to represent the heavy artillery that once stood guard here, but the site doesn’t feel at all how it would have in 1864 when President Lincoln came under fire here.

Battlefield Visits: Major Fights in North Carolina

A few years ago, I traveled to the Raleigh, NC area for a work conference. Of course, I wanted to check out some of the local historical sites in my downtime. There was plenty to see!

Battle of Averasboro – Civil War Battlefield #40

I got up early on Sunday morning to start my “off” day, and was able to get on the field at the Battle of Averasboro by 8:40am. Though it’s only a mile or two west of I-95, it really feels like you’re out in the country. My guess is that not much has changed since 1865.

One of the markers near the southern end of the battlefield. The action began near here. – Photo by the Author

The field is privately owned, but definitely well cared-for, with a small museum located at the northern end. Several signs make it clear that relic hunting is forbidden and outline other things that the caretakers have in place – including video surveillance.

There are numerous markers and a few monuments, but they appear to be from different eras, and thus each has a slightly different way of explaining the action to visitors. For one thing, different markers seem to break the battle into a different number of stages, so I can see how it could be confusing to keep track of what all is going on for a novice. As it turns out, the action revolves around a pretty straight-forward defense-in-depth by the Confederates.

A faux 6-pounder on display outside the museum at Averasboro. Sadly there is no real artillery here. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
A faux 6-pounder on display outside the museum at Averasboro. Sadly there is no real artillery here. – Photo by the Author

The visitors center was closed on the early Sunday morning that I visited, so I can’t tell you any impressions of it, other than to say that they have a fake artillery piece out front. Hey – at least it’s something. The other thing I took away as I drove through the field was the complete lack of distinct terrain features. Any elevation changes that exist are minuscule. Just about the only factor in the battle was the Cape Fear River that anchored the Confederate left.

On to the next site!

Battle of Bentonville – Civil War Battlefield #41

This was the main event. The Battle of Bentonville was the largest battle to ever take place in North Carolina, and was the culmination of Sherman’s march through the south, and Johnston’s attempt at defense. For me personally, this was the first battlefield I had ever visited where General Sherman had been involved. Pretty crazy to think about.

The State of North Carolina owns several pieces of the battlefield (though in many cases just enough to have a pull-off with a few wayside markers at a tour route stop) and operates those as the Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site. Most of the field is still privately held, with modern houses occupying the bulk of that area. The spots that are preserved are quite nice, though.

Remnants of trenches built at Bentonville by Union engineers from Michigan. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
Remnants of trenches built at Bentonville by Union engineers from Michigan. – Photo by the Author

There are also numerous wayside markers that do a great job of explaining the battle action, and even a few monuments – including one of the standard Texas ones. I was able to pick up a copy of the driving tour brochure before I came, which was handy because this was another site where the visitors center was completely closed down on a Sunday morning. On the plus side, the driving tour comes with a phone-in audio narration component that really adds another dimension to the visit. All of these factors mean that you can get a very complete experience in only a couple of hours.

Like Averasboro, the terrain here was VERY flat – only a few small ravines and creek beds provided some cover for battlelines – and you can see that the lines seemed to form along them. Ground that is not composed of sand is swamp. It must have been miserable to fight here. I recall one of the waysides mentioning that there was significant difficulty in burying the dead – whenever they dug more than a foot or two down, the hole would fill with water.

North Carolina State Capitol

A monument to US Presidents from North Carolina: Andrew Johnson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Jackson (which is debatable). - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
A monument to US Presidents from North Carolina: Andrew Johnson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Jackson (which is debatable). – Photo by the Author

After checking in for my conference, I decided to walk around downtown Raleigh a little. The grounds of the North Carolina State Capitol had a few interesting monuments, and some real artillery in the form of Cyrus Alger and Co. siege mortars.

One of my favorites was a monument to US Presidents from North Carolina which included Andrew Johnson (for a Civil War connection), James K. Polk, and the debatable Andrew Jackson (who may have actually been born in South Carolina). There was also a “Lost Cause” era monument “To Our Confederate Dead” – perhaps not long for this world.

The North Carolina State monument "To Our Confederate Dead". - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The North Carolina State monument “To Our Confederate Dead”. – Photo by the Author

Oakwood Cemetery

One place in downtown Raleigh that I knew I wanted to see was the Oakwood Cemetery – final resting place of Colonel Henry King Burgwyn, who was killed at Gettysburg leading the 26th NC Infantry in their famous attack against the 24th MI. Known as “The Boy Colonel”, Burgwyn was only 21 years old at the time of his death.

The grave marker for Henry King Burgwyn. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The grave marker for Henry King Burgwyn. – Photo by the Author

Like other prominent southern cemeteries, Oakwood has a large mass grave of Gettysburg dead, removed to what was assumed to be their home State from where they had fallen on the battlefield – probably in the 1870s. The design of the marker for this section of the cemetery mirrors the North Carolina monument present at Gettysburg today.

Marker for the mass grave of Gettysburg dead. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
Marker for the mass grave of Gettysburg dead. – Photo by the Author

Though I only spent a few hours poking around the Raleigh area (and beyond), they were thoroughly satisfying. Hopefully I’ll be able to make a return trip some day.

Battlefield Visits: Small Actions in Maryland

While there were many important events happening in Maryland concerning the War of the Rebellion, the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission identified only seven “official” battlefields here in my native state. There are a few that you may know of (and that I’ve covered here already – Antietam, Monocacy, and South Mountain) but some of the smaller ones remain under-the-radar for most folks (and even for some #CivilWarNerds). Today, I’ll be writing about those.

Battle of Boonsboro – Civil War Battlefield #24

The battlefield as seen from where the wayside markers are. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The Boonsboro battlefield as seen from where the wayside marker is. – Photo by the Author

After the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederates started to pull back toward Virginia. The weather was bad, and it took a long time for them to retreat across southern Pennsylvania and through Maryland. Several small actions took place along the way – mostly involving cavalry units fighting each other. The Battle of Boonsboro was just such an action.

There is a wayside marker in the parking lot of Boonsboro Antiques and Collectibles that explains the action that took place mostly across the road. This rather messy engagement wasn’t much more than a delaying action for the Confederates.

The Washington Monument on South Mountain is just <i>barely</i> visible from the battlefield, as it would have been in 1863. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The Washington Monument on South Mountain is just barely visible from the battlefield, as it would have been in 1863. – Photo by the Author

Battle of Williamsport – Civil War Battlefield #25

Not really a single battle as much as a drawn-out series of small pokes and prods, the Battle of Williamsport was the final piece of the Confederate retreat following Gettysburg.

The bridge that carries modern-day Route 11 is roughly in the location where the Confederates crossed the Potomac in Williamsport. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The bridge that carries modern-day Route 11 is roughly in the location where the Confederates crossed the Potomac in Williamsport. – Photo by the Author

There are numerous markers surrounding Williamsport that discuss the various stages of the combat there. With no major action taking place, it is hard to direct you to any one place. I found a walk along the C&O Canal to be quite nice when I visited, as it affords an opportunity to learn about a little more than just the Civil War history of the area. One of the major visitors centers is located near the site of the Confederate crossing.

Battle of Folck’s Mill – Civil War Battlefield #57

The Battle of Folck’s Mill was a very minor action near Cumberland, Maryland. Mostly an artillery duel, it was fought by local militia protecting the city of Cumberland from a Confederate raid late in the war.

Sadly, what is left of the field is extremely difficult to access. The mill itself still exists – at least as ruins – but it is surrounded by highways and private property. You would never know it was there. There are some wayside markers located on the grounds of the Ali Ghan Shriner’s Hall that discuss the action, but the terrain has been completely changed by the modern highways and interchanges in the area. The approaches and artillery positions have been completely obliterated, so a fair amount of imagination is needed on a visit.

Battle of Hancock – Civil War Battlefield #58

Surprisingly, this is the ONLY “official” battle of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Bath-Romney Campaign in the winter of 1862. Hard to believe since there was really no combat during the Battle of Hancock. Jackson showed up on the Virginia (present-day West Virginia) side of the Potomac and hurled some artillery rounds at the Union troops in town. After a couple of days, he moved on. Simple as that.

There are markers explaining some of the action on the Maryland side of the river, along the C&O Canal. The town itself has some character, and if you’re there on a day they’re open, the Hancock Town Museum is worth a visit.

Battlefield (Re)Visits: Ball’s Bluff 158th Anniversary

I’ve visited Ball’s Bluff a few times, but this past year I had the chance to be there for the 158th anniversary of the battle. A small but loyal group of local #CivilWarNerds puts on a reenactment and even an artillery demonstration.

Artillery fires in commemoration of the 158th anniversary of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. – Video by the Author

I’ve written about my impressions of Ball’s Bluff before, so feel free to check that post out, too.

History of My Office, Part II: Nike Missile Site BA-43

In my last entry, I explored the history of the plot of land where the office I work in is located. Today, we’re going to start looking at how some of the buildings on our campus came to be. But first, because I’m a fort nerd, let’s take a look at a little bit of the history of the defenses of Baltimore.

Probably the fort that immediately springs to everyone’s mind when you talk about Baltimore is Fort McHenry – focal point of the Battle of Baltimore. Located on Whetstone Point, it was completed in 1800, and was thought at that time to be placed so that it could effectively defend Baltimore from naval attack, and clearly it did in September of 1814.

As weapon technology improved and population expanded, it was decided that the defensive line would have to be moved farther out from the city in order to provide sufficient protection. This led to the construction of an artificial island off Sparrows Point that would become Fort Carroll. Even though it was never fully completed as designed (and it was never tested by an enemy) it served for a number of decades in the middle of the 19th century.

The grand march of technology continued on. By 1886, it was known that the coastal defenses of the United States were obsolete once again. New techniques involving smaller but more numerous gun emplacements, combined with naval mine fields became the preferred approach during the Endicott Period. Baltimore’s defenses were upgraded to this new system right around the turn of the 20th century. Fort Carroll was overhauled, and new installations – Fort Armistead, Fort Howard, and Fort Smallwood (just up the road from our campus) – were constructed. All of these were abandoned as defensive measures by the 1920s because of the arrival of another technological advance: military aircraft.

At first, this new threat was countered with the installation of several anti-aircraft gun batteries at strategic points around town, but when jets – and soon thereafter supersonic jets – came on the scene, it became clear that gun crews wouldn’t be able to shoot the new faster planes down. The Army began researching a different approach, leading to the creation of the world’s first operational surface-to-air missile: the Nike Ajax.


All through the 1950s and into the early 1960s, over 200 Nike sites were established in the U.S. to protect targets of military, government, or industrial value.

The system consisted of a few elements.

The missiles themselves were 38 feet long, with a two-stage rocket motor: the first being a solid fuel booster that would get the weapon off the ground and on the way to its top speed of over twice the speed of sound. Once fully airborne, the booster would drop off and a second sustainer engine would propel the missile to its target up to 30 miles away, delivering three powerful, high-explosive fragmentation warheads.

A ground tracking and control station (called Integrated Fire Control, or IFC) used three separate radars: one to search for incoming targets and determine whether they were friend or foe, one to lock-on to and track the intended target aircraft, and one to lock-on to and track the missile. With the locations of both the weapon and the target known, a ground-based computer (usually located in a semi-portable trailer) would calculate an intercept course and send guidance signals to the in-flight missile by radio. Once the missile was close enough, the detonation signal would be sent, sending flaming shrapnel ripping through the sky toward its target.

A diagram of how the Nike Ajax radar tracking and guidance system worked.
A diagram of how the Nike Ajax radar tracking and guidance system worked.


It is also important to note that the whole idea was that bombers wouldn’t ever make it to our shores (which of course they never did). If everything went according to plan, any incoming threat would be intercepted by Air Force or Navy fighters somewhere over the Atlantic. These Army missile installations only existed to be a last resort in case anything slipped through.

I wonder a bit about what it must have been like to serve on one of these bases. They’re very small, and the work is highly technical. I get a picture in my mind of a group of nerdy guys – what with all the computers, radars, and radios involved – sitting around waiting for doomsday to show up at the door. One of the most interesting things I’ve come across is a few of the recruiting materials for the Nike program. They really play up the idea that you can join the Army and serve in the U.S. near a big city (as opposed to, say, a jungle in southeast Asia). You can go to football games, and meet girls!

A Nike Recruiting Brochure from 1973. Sadly the program ended in 1974.
A Nike Recruiting Brochure from 1973. Sadly the program ended in 1974.


It must have been stressful for the local folks, too. I can imagine that having a missile base move in to your literal backyard would be quite unnerving. Community members had lots of concerns about housing for soldiers, danger from the missiles themselves (the potential for accidents, for example), where exactly these first-stage solid rocket boosters would be landing after they drop off, and even the possibility of their neighborhoods becoming targets of attackers or saboteurs. Luckily, the Army had answers for all of these concerns, and assured the locals that having a Nike site move in next door is really no more dangerous than having a gas station around the corner.

Meanwhile, the soldiers dressed like this for the missile fueling procedure:

The missile fueling procedure. Safety first!
The missile fueling procedure. Safety first!

Baltimore was included in the list of protected areas because of its manufacturing centers, port facilities, and proximity to Washington – in fact the Baltimore / Washington area was treated in many respects as one combined zone since the cities are so close together. Anne Arundel County hosted three installations: W-26 outside Annapolis near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, W-25 near Davidsonville (both part of the Washington defenses), and our own BA-43 at Jacobsville (which was protecting Baltimore).

Our Jacobsville site came to be as the army was searching for “tactically suitable new base sites” around Baltimore, according to a January 5, 1955 article in the Baltimore Sun. By December, construction was underway on the facility that would one day become our offices.

A 1966 aerial view of our complex.
A 1966 aerial view of our complex.

The site seems quite large, but was only around 36 acres in total. Nike installations actually consisted of three sites: the IFC site, the Administration site, and the Launcher site. In the case of BA-43, the IFC and Administration sites were combined on one plot. The important thing was that the IFC and Launcher sites had to be separated by at least 1,000 yards because otherwise the missile-tracking radar wouldn’t be able to keep up with following the supersonic weapons as they launched vertically.

At this point, I should note that the grounds I’m describing here are school system property, and that they are treated as a secure facility – complete with fences, cameras, and various alarms. Please be respectful of those boundaries and don’t trespass.

Let’s have a closer look at each area. First the IFC / Admin:

The IFC / Admin area of BA-43. - <i>Annotations by the author</i>
The IFC / Admin area of BA-43. – Annotations by the author

Among the elements of the site that have remained relatively undisturbed are the concrete pads that the battery’s computer and radar trailers would have sat on:

The “brains” of the base used to rest here. – Photo by the author

On to the Launcher area:

The Launcher area of BA-43. - <i>Annotations by the author</i>
The Launcher area of BA-43. – Annotations by the author

Time has brought significant changes to both of BA-43’s sites. I’ll be detailing some of the reasoning behind that in a future post, but for now just know that these are very out-dated photos.

Unit Insignia of the 36th AA Battalion; The first to serve at BA-43.
Unit Insignia of the 36th AA Battalion; The first to serve at BA-43.

BA-43 was initially manned by the U.S. Army, Battery C of the 36th Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion from 1956 through September of 1958. A Captain, serving as the battery commander, would be the ranking officer on-site, with the full headquarters for the battalion – responsible for the Baltimore / Washington defense area – located at Fort Meade.

Unit Insignia of the 562nd ADA Regiment
Unit Insignia of the 562nd ADA Regiment.

In September of 1958 things changed in the way that the Army wanted to categorize these types of units. In the resulting re-organization, BA-43’s garrison became known as Battery C of the 1st Battalion of the 562nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment. I think this change was due to bringing more sites online, and that a battalion-sized unit may not have been able to support the number of soldiers that were now in place in some of the larger defense areas like New York, Los Angeles, or Baltimore / Washington.

Unit Insignia of the 70th ADA, Maryland National Guard; The Last Unit Stationed at BA-43
Unit Insignia of the 70th ADA, Maryland National Guard; The Last Unit Stationed at BA-43.

This arrangement remained in-place for BA-43 until 1960. The Army had started converting some of the bases to use the larger, faster, more powerful Nike Hercules missile (which sometimes even carried a nuclear payload). BA-43 didn’t make the switch to the new weapon. Instead, the Army decided to turn over the sites using the older style Nike Ajax to local National Guard units. This was done to save on some costs, as guardsmen could commute to the base and pack a lunch (removing much of the need for barracks and mess facilities). In March of 1960, BA-43 was turned over to Battery A of the 1st Battalion of the 70th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, Maryland National Guard. This unit would be in control of the site until it was shut down in December of 1962.

I’m pleased to report that the weapons of BA-43 never had to be used against an enemy. As the 1970s approached, the threat from Soviet bombers became superseded by the threat from Soviet ICBMs, and while an attempt was made to create an anti-ICBM Nike missile (the Zeus), it was ultimately decided to end the Nike program in 1974.

I started this post with a brief overview of the history of Baltimore’s defenses because I think that here we have a great illustration of the incredible progression of technological advancement in the 20th century. Fort Smallwood – just at the tip of the peninsula – was completed in 1905, and was thought at that time to be positioned to provide an adequate defense of Baltimore. By 1927, it was abandoned because it was made obsolete by new technology. Thirty years later, the land just 2 miles south of Fort Smallwood – the place where BA-43 was constructed – was only useful defensively as a last resort. Within 6 years, that purpose was even made obsolete. It’s a remarkable pace of change.

In the next post in the series, we’ll find out what became of BA-43 once the Army had abandoned the site. For now though, I’ll end this post with another video. This one is from an Army-produced film highlighting some aspects of life at the Nike site near Upper Marlboro, MD. It’s a pretty interesting piece:

Here are some useful sources that I consulted for general information in putting together this post:

Battlefield Visits #27: Ball’s Bluff

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

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

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

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

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

The specs are as follows:

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

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

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

Notes on Pickett’s Charge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) John Gibbon Had Interesting Connections

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

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

3) The Copse of Trees Was Quite Different

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

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

4) The Effects of the Barrage Were Different

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

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

5) Overall Communication / Coordination Was Horrible

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

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

6) There Were Lots of Medals of Honor

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

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

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

1LT Alonzo H. Cushing

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

1LT Alonzo H. Cushing.
1LT Alonzo H. Cushing. Photo from Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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