My Gettysburg 150 Experience

WARNING: This is a massive post, but I don’t feel like I can break it up. It’s going to take some time to read through.

I’ve LOVED Gettysburg since I was a kid. We went there a few times as a family and it was always cool. I have great memories of looking for monuments with my dad (especially these things called “flank markers”). I vividly remember learning what “battery” meant in an artillery context on one of those trips. There was even a time when my brother and I “found” bullets (that my dad had sneakily planted minutes before) at the Angle.

It’s a big part of the reason that I love history. Gettysburg was my first (and remains my strongest) historical love, but I’ve never REALLY experienced it. Not until this week anyway. Before last Wednesday, I had never been in Gettysburg on the anniversary of the battle. I’ve visited probably about 40 times, but never on those 3 days in July. I was always concerned about the crowds, or I had other things I had to do – there were a million excuses – but this year, for the 150th, I decided that I at least needed to go up for a day.

I agonized about which day to choose. I poured over the NPS website, and the schedule of events they had posted, looking for the most interesting collection of real-time tours and events. Much to my surprise, it looked like July 3 was going to be the winner.

I say it’s a surprise because the big event on July 3 – the big event of Gettysburg, period – is Pickett’s Charge. If Gettysburg were an album, “Pickett’s Charge” and “Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address” would be the singles. Everyone knows those. They’re always on the radio. As Gettysburg nerds (Gettysburg hipsters, perhaps?) we tend to like the B-sides: “Meredith Avenue“, “Culp’s Hill“, “The Bliss Farm“, and even the never-before-released “Neill Avenue“. We all know Pickett’s Charge and we feel like people who have that as their only impression of the fighting here are missing out on a lot. Boy am I glad I put those feelings aside for one day. But now I’m rushing ahead of myself, aren’t I?

When I decided that I did want to go for the anniversary this year, and I wanted to go on July 3, I called up my dad to see if he wanted to go with me. I told him what I wanted to see: the 10:30am East Cavalry Field walking tour, and the 3:00pm Pickett’s Charge. He was a little skeptical at first, but he put those feelings aside and worked his schedule so that he could be there.

He came down to Catonsville and picked me up that morning, and we got on the road to Gettysburg. I found out along the way that he had never been to the East Cavalry Field before, so I drove on the way up. We arrived a little before 10:00am, and it was PACKED. The tour was supposed to begin at the Michigan Monument, and since that’s closer to the Low Dutch Road, I took that route. Of course, the NPS had other ideas: the normally two-way Gregg Avenue had been converted to a one-way, and in the wrong direction for us. After snaking around the Low Dutch Road, up to Route 30 and back down, we got parked about a 1/2 mile from the Michigan Monument on Gregg Avenue and made it to the base of the monument just in time for Ranger Jared Frederick (and a steady rain) to begin.

The talk was a little more than an hour, and while full of good first-hand, personal accounts of the fighting and aftermath, I think the average visitor was left with the impression that this action was much more costly than it actually was. Not to take anything away from the men who fought there, but as Civil War battles go this wasn’t much more than a skirmish – it certainly wasn’t at the level of Pickett’s Charge in terms of bloodiness. The program also didn’t do a great job of explaining the movements and flow of the battle – a hard thing to do on the East Cavalry Field, I’ll grant – but somewhat disappointing for what was billed as a walking tour. At the same time, it was nice to see so many people (around 1,000, I’d say) out for a tour of one of the more esoteric parts of the battlefield. And the rangers did a MASTERFUL job organizing this tour and handling logistics. I should have immediately taken both of these as a good sign for things to come.

From East Cavalry, we started to head into town to find some lunch. Since we were coming in on the Hanover Road, I decided to stop off at another place my dad had never visited: Benner’s Hill. This is where the Confederate artillery that fired on Culp’s Hill and East Cemetery Hill was placed. Most visitors (like my dad) never bother to get the Confederate perspective on those actions. Doing so makes it pretty obvious why they failed.

Continuing in to town, traffic was a nightmare all the way to the diamond. We decided it would be much easier to grab a quick lunch on Route 30, so we made a few turns and grabbed some sandwiches east of town. By 1:00pm, we were back on the road and about to head down toward the visitor’s center to get parked in plenty of time for Pickett’s Charge – too early actually, as I thought about it. As we got off Route 15 at the Baltimore Pike, the rain had stopped completely and I asked my dad if he could handle a little adventure. He said, “Sure.”

I directed him to turn right onto Highland Avenue Road, and then take a left when we got to Clapsaddle Road. I didn’t tell him what we were going to see. I think the “Clapsaddle” name made him think that this was another cavalry-related site. Little did he know I was taking him to the ultimate of the Gettysburg “B-sides”.

When the road came to a dead end, I asked him to park on the left, and I grabbed my backpack full of water bottles and started looking for a trail. Now my dad got nervous. After a few moments, I found the start of the long-neglected trail (just look for the area between the “No Trespassing” signs) and led him down the hill to the southwest. Just before Rock Creek, the trail becomes much easier and takes a sharp left, heading up the northwest slope of Wolf Hill. Since you don’t see what you’re walking toward until you’re right on top of it, I was able to keep the surprise going – I was taking him to Neill Avenue.

Forget never being there – my dad had never even heard about it (how’s that for hipster, huh?). On the morning of July 3, 1863 (a little more than 150 years before our visit), Brig. General Thomas Neill led his brigade to the top of this ridge where they had a brief skirmish with members of the 2nd VA, trying to work their way around the Union right flank. Thus, Neill’s men became the right flank of the Union army at Gettysburg. Each of Neill’s regiments has a monument up there (except the 77th NY which stayed behind on Powers Hill). It’s an absolute shame that very few people visit them. By far, the coolest one is to the 7th ME Infantry:

Visiting the 7th Maine Infantry
Visiting the 7th Maine Infantry

Of course, the real treat on Neill Avenue is what’s at the top of the hill: the Right Flank Marker for the Army of the Potomac:

The Extreme Right of the Union Army. Unfortunately, the marker's seen better days.
The Extreme Right of the Union Army. Unfortunately, the marker’s seen better days.

It was really nice to be able to visit this spot on the anniversary of the event here. We didn’t see another soul for the 45 minutes we were on the trail and up at Neill Avenue. It’s a really special place for that reason – even on one of the busiest days in the history of Gettysburg National Military Park, there are still a few places where you can have a solitary moment. At the same time, these men deserve to be remembered too, and I wish there was an easier way to allow people to visit this place.

We worked our way back up the trail, and drove back to the Baltimore Pike to try to park at the visitor’s center. It was just before 2:00pm, so we had almost an hour to get in-position for Pickett’s Charge. Every lot we passed was full. Even fields that were being used as temporary parking for the event were maxed out. I was getting nervous.

As we continued up the Baltimore Pike, we noticed that there were spots along the road. There were no parking restrictions posted, and we were within easy walking distance – just a few hundred yards north of Hunt Avenue. We pulled off and parked. I grabbed my water-filled backpack and the cameras, and we started walking.

As we came around the bend in the woods along Hunt Avenue, I got my first look at Cemetery Ridge that day. It was FILLED with people, and a steady stream of visitors – 6 people or more across – was making its way up the slope between the Leister House and the Meade Monument. I’d never seen so many people anywhere at Gettysburg before.

On top of the ridge, we found thousands of on-lookers with lawn chairs. There were satellite trucks for the news organizations covering the event. Temporary stages had been erected where Rangers and LBG’s were giving interviews and commentary to TV crews. And once again, a steady stream of people were heading west, walking across the fields to join up with the “Confederate” lines already forming on Seminary Ridge.

This is why I wanted to be here. The 3:00pm Pickett’s Charge event was to be a recreation of the famous attack, put on by park visitors lined up in the formations of the 9 brigades that made the charge, 150 years ago to the minute. If I didn’t participate in this, I at least wanted to see it. When we saw the line of people crossing the Emmitsburg Road to participate, my dad and I knew we wanted to go along, too. I led us down to the Angle, where a park ranger was helping people over the wall who wanted to go all the way across.

Before we reached the Emmitsburg Road, an older man was kneeling down along the trail. Since it was a hot day, my dad became concerned that perhaps this man was having a medical issue. He reached down and asked the man if he needed help. The man explained that he was praying. He had an ancestor who had participated in the charge (I believe he said as part of the 14th VA), and this man was taking a moment to reflect on that service and to pray for our country. My dad especially (though he’s not a particularly religious man) was touched by this. Everyone who was there that day had their reason.

We made our way across and I explained some of the particulars to my dad of how the charge went down. You can’t really understand what the Confederates were up against until you get out there in the middle of that field. It looks like just a flat, wide open field a mile across, but in reality it is a series of small hills and valleys and you sometimes can’t see things until you’re right on top of them. In a smoke-filled, hot and humid battlefield – like it was on July 3, 1863 – this is even more the case.

Finding Armistead's Brigade.
Finding Armistead’s Brigade.

We made it to the other side and found our way to Armistead’s brigade. Not being true southerners ourselves, he was our closest connection to the attack. Brig. General Armistead was the nephew of the man who defended Fort McHenry in Baltimore, and both he and his uncle are buried in our hometown. Being the supporting brigade of the attack, it would also give us an excellent view. Since we were among the last to arrive, we ended up on the far, southern flank of the brigade.

At 3:00pm, the brigades in front of us (Garnett’s and Kemper’s) stepped off, while our own made a left face and started walking in what I considered to be the wrong direction (I assume this was a traffic control measure – there are only so many gaps in the fences). I wasn’t the only one who thought this – we had some living historians right behind us.

This 1LT took charge of our raged demi-brigade.
This 1LT took charge of our ragged demi-brigade.

As the men in uniform came up through our ranks, one of the visitor’s asked what we were supposed to do. The 1LT above said, “I don’t know what the plan is, but this is what we’re doing!” I don’t know how all of you feel, but if there’s a man with a drawn sword, you FOLLOW THAT MAN!

The living historian flag bearer. Sic Semper Tyrannis, indeed! That's Garnett's Brigade to our front left.
The living historian flag bearer. Sic Semper Tyrannis, indeed!
That’s Garnett’s Brigade to our front left.

While there in an unofficial capacity, these guys did a great job with our group. They kept us in line, at times stopping to try to get us reformed more properly. We also learned the proper Rebel Yell for when we got past the Emmitsburg Road.

Here’s our pictures from the charge:

Going up the slope about 1/3 of the way across. Note the hill on the right - that's Big Round Top. We can't see any of the Monuments at this point - not even the massive Pennsylvania Memorial.
Going up the slope about 1/3 of the way across.
Note the hill on the right – that’s the tip of Big Round Top. We can’t see any of the monuments at this point – not even the massive Pennsylvania Memorial.
At the top of the slope, we paused to reform our lines, and to keep from running into Kemper's guys in front of us.
At the top of the slope, we paused to reform our lines, and to keep from running into Kemper’s guys in front of us.
The 1LT trying to dress our lines to the left in preparation for the left oblique up the ridge. Remember - Listen to the man with the drawn sword, kids!
The 1LT trying to dress our lines to the left in preparation for the left oblique up the ridge.
Remember – Listen to the man with the drawn sword, kids!
Coming around the south side of the Codori Farm, the 1LT urges us forward, "We're almost to the top, boys!"
Coming around the south side of the Codori Barn, the 1LT urges us forward, “We’re almost to the top, boys!”
The Yankees (and the news crews) are waiting at the wall.
The Yankees (and the news crews) are waiting at the wall.
Eventually, we made it. The 1LT gave a speech about what we had just done, and saluted the waiting Federal troops.  We were ordered to "break ranks", and by this point, we were glad to.
Eventually, we made it. The 1LT gave a speech about what we had just done, and saluted the waiting Federal troops.
We were ordered to “break ranks”, and by this point, we were glad to.

At the end of the march, we sat down on a rock and broke out some water. People were milling around and taking in the awesome scene that we had all just been a part of. After a few moments, a Union bugler started playing “Taps”. As he finished, another picked up, and all down the line the buglers took turns – 12 in all, I think – playing a tribute to the men who fell 150 years before.

I honestly can’t describe how amazing this whole experience was. Like I said at the outset, Pickett’s Charge is the most well-known part of the Battle of Gettysburg – not exactly something that would feel like a new, amazing experience for a guy like me, but it did. Whether it was being led across by a 1LT who knew his stuff, or that there were thousands of people beside me, or thousands of people in front of me, or that my dad was there; this was a unique and memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The NPS did a FANTASTIC job with this event. If they did this every year, I’d be there.

We couldn’t leave Cemetery Ridge without getting a picture:

My Dad and I on Cemetery Ridge. You'd never know it, but we were completely surrounded by 15,000 people when this was taken.
My Dad and I on Cemetery Ridge.
You’d never know it, but we were completely surrounded by 15,000+ people when this was taken.

It was such a tremendous experience, I still can’t believe that I actually got to do it. My thanks go to my dad (for coming along), my wife (for handling things at home while I tramped around a battlefield), and the NPS for putting all this together and making it run so smoothly. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this.

Another Old Brochure

A few days ago, I posted about some old books I found among my grandpa’s things. One of those was a Ft. McHenry Visitor’s Brochure from the 1940s. It’s a really special artifact to me.

This was cool because I’m something of a collector of NPS brochures. Though I don’t have very many old ones, I always pick up a brochure when I go to a park. They always have some general overview historical information on them, and usually a map of the park with a driving tour. I have one from every park I’ve been to.

Cover of the 1961 Gettysburg NMP Brochure.
Cover of the 1961 Gettysburg NMP Brochure.

Some time ago though, I got a very special brochure: a Gettysburg one from 1961. I’m not even sure where I got it from – it may have been tucked inside a used book that I bought.

Either way, I’ve scanned it in so that we can all share in the fun.

I’m noticing something about these older brochures that I’m really liking, too – there’s TONS of text. The newer brochures focus on providing big maps and color graphics (usually photos of the people or artifacts associated with the park). It feels like the older ones were there to teach you something, not appeal to your senses. Maybe there’s something to that.

Just take a look at this one compared to what the NPS gives out at Gettysburg today. Talk about night and day, huh?

Anyway, the PDF of the 1961 brochure is here. Enjoy, fellow historical brochure fans!

Sickles’ Leg

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.

Major General Daniel E. Sickles
Major General Daniel E. Sickles

Of course, the book talked about Maj. Gen. Daniel Edgar Sickles (who I’ve mentioned before) 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.

Sickles' amputated leg
Sickles’ amputated leg

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.

Posing with General Sickles' leg
Posing with General Sickles’ leg

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.

Historical Treasures from Grandpa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for keeping this stuff around, Grandpa.

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

The Funeral

WARNING: This post is going to basically be a diary entry about my Grandfather’s funeral and the events surrounding it. While this will probably only be of interest to family members, I just wanted to record it somewhere. I’ll make some other posts about historically-interesting things soon.

As I suppose people do, our family went into planning mode when we found out very early Friday that my grandfather had passed away. The funeral was scheduled for Monday morning, and we had to make the family come together in Lewistown, PA.

My immediate family – including my wife and son, my parents, my brother and his wife, all made plans to go up Sunday and spend the day with whatever other family members were there. As it turned out, there was quite a lot of company – my Uncle Dave and Aunt Dawn had driven from Illinois. My Aunt Marty made the trip from New Jersey. Uncle Rob and Aunt Faye live in town, and of course so does Grandma.

Grandpa's Prayer Card.
Grandpa’s Prayer Card.

We all met up at Grandma’s house, and after a brief visit, went over to the funeral home for a 5:00pm private viewing for the family. I suppose the people at the funeral home want to make sure that everything is set up the way the family likes. I didn’t take any pictures at this stage, but it was very well done, as usual – both of my grandma’s parents, as well as both of my maternal grandparents, used the services of this home, so we are very familiar with their work – sad as that may be.

The whole family went back to Grandma’s house to make sandwiches and just visit for a little while. It was a really nice time. Isn’t it a shame that you never get together with family from all across the country until there’s a death? We just don’t make enough time for things like that. Since we all wanted Grandma to try and get some rest, we left around 8:00pm and went over to the hotel.

Grandpa's name listed at the funeral home.
Grandpa’s name listed at the funeral home.

In the morning, we got ready and met up in the lobby. It turns out that Aunt Holly and Cousin Kyle had made the trip down from Canada and arrived late Sunday night. The whole family left together so that we could get to the funeral home by 9:30am. Once we got there, we met up with my cousin Michele (Uncle Dave’s daughter) and her husband Tim who had driven up from the eastern shore of Maryland.

We got our cars in order for the procession to the gravesite, and then went inside for the public viewing. There were pictures of Grandpa set out, and some flowers that family members had ordered were displayed near the casket. It was as nice an atmosphere as you can have for an event like that, I suppose.

Lots of people showed up for the viewing – more than I was expecting from the way Grandma talked about it anyway. My Grandpa had quite a full life, and that was represented by the folks who came to see him. There were friends from his days in the local police force, people he knew from church, and representatives from the VFW (as my Grandpa had served on the USS Alabama during the closing days of WWII).

Family gathered for Grandpa's funeral.
Family gathered for Grandpa’s funeral.

The service itself was very nice. Rev. Robert Zorn, the pastor from my Grandparents’ church, did some readings and had some nice things to say about Grandpa. He regularly spent Monday mornings visiting with him out at the Malta Home, so he had a few stories to tell. My Uncle Dave eulogized Grandpa, and while he announced that he was nervous about his ability to get through that experience, he didn’t waiver at all. A friend of my Grandpa’s, Tom Gross, gave a lively and entertaining tribute – if a funeral can have such a thing, Tom was the life of the party.

Finally, it was time to go to the graveside. We wound through Lewistown, and out to Juniata Memorial Cemetery where the VFW representatives, and Grandpa’s flag-draped casket were waiting for us.

Grandpa's graveside service.
Grandpa’s graveside service.

Rev. Zorn said a few words and then turned it over to the VFW honor guard who performed a flag-folding ceremony. My Grandma was given his flag and a few words of kind gratitude – an all too familiar scene. There was a rifle salute (which scared little John to the point of tears), and the playing of Taps (which seemed to soothe my son).

Dismissed from the graveside, we all met back at the church for a fried chicken lunch and some time to relax and share memories. I think we’re all grateful to the church ladies for making that happen.

Eventually, we found our way back to Grandma’s house to visit some more and to start going through the things that Grandpa left behind. Grandma wants to get his old office cleared out of books and miscellaneous papers, and in the process of starting that, we stumbled onto a treasure-trove of family history that we’ll have to go back up and start to catalog. I’ll share my initial impressions of that family history in a follow-up post.

UPDATE: I’ve added a scan I made yesterday of the Lewistown Sentinels‘ Obituary for Grandpa as a PDF.

Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville with Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing my Homework

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

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

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

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

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

The Lee-Jackson Bivouac
The Lee-Jackson Bivouac

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

Guns on Hazel Grove
Guns on Hazel Grove

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

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

Trips to Gettysburg

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

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

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

First trip to Gettysburg!
First trip to Gettysburg!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe mom can come along, too.