Whenever I find myself driving through Virginia on US Rt. 15 – usually on my way to visit the homes of the 3rd, 4th, or 5th Presidents – I always want to make a stop at the site of the largest cavalry battle that ever took place in the Western Hemisphere: the Battle of Brandy Station.
In addition to just being a beautiful piece of ground in the rolling hills of Virginia, this was the first battle of the Gettysburg Campaign, so it has a special place in my heart for that reason. Confederate cavalry commander Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was caught with his pants down here (perhaps even literally) by a newly-rejuvenated Federal cavalry. In total, over 20,000 mounted soldiers charged back and forth here for the better part of the day on June 9, 1863, leading to over 1,400 casualties.
The central feature on the field is Fleetwood Hill. This is where Stuart had his headquarters, and the Confederates ended up rallying on this key high ground as a defensive position. When I first started visiting the field about a decade ago, there were a few large, modern houses along the ridge, and the entire hill was private property. You would never know that today. Fleetwood Hill has since been acquired for preservation and masterfully restored with numerous wayside markers arranged along a trail that tells the story of the battle. There are other interpretive trails in the area of the St. James Church, and the Beverly Ford Road that help give a more complete picture of what took place here.
Three years ago today, I took my boys on a day trip to Northern Virginia to check out some battlefields that we’d never seen before. It turned out to be a really cool experience and set many of our road trip traditions. Let’s dive in to the battlefields!
Battle of Aldie – Civil War Battlefield #34
One of the gaping holes in my list of battlefields had been the three cavalry actions that led up to the Battle of Gettysburg, so they were the fields I wanted to see most on this trip. Aldie was the first of these small battles, and I wrote a post about it a few years ago.
Aldie is a VERY small town. There is a cool-looking mill there, though it was closed when we visited. The fighting took place west of town, and there are markers and waysides there that do a good job of explaining the action.
The town itself is quite nice. In fact, it is the kind of place where you pass polo fields on the way in. The center of town has a few boutique-type shops and restaurants. It really seems like the kind of place that you could have as a destination with your significant other.
On the downside, I couldn’t find any signs discussing the battle action. It turns out of course that I just wasn’t looking in the right place. I’ll be making a return trip to the area one of these days.
The fighting took place east of the town in a large, bowl-like area. It’s quite pretty there. The Goose Creek bridge is well-preserved and serves as the visual hallmark of the battlefield. A small park on Vineyard Hill has a wayside explaining the action and a great view.
Battle of Thoroughfare Gap – Civil War Battlefield #37
There is not much here – a few roadside markers sit beside State Route 55 near the Broad Run Post Office and across the highway from the Chapman’s Mill ruins.
Battle of Buckland Mills – Civil War Battlefield #38
Not much of the field for the Battle of Buckland Mills is accessible though the Civil War Trust bought up some land here. It appears to be in a decent state of preservation. A small portion of the mill town still exists as well.
Battle of Bristoe Station – Civil War Battlefield #39
The largest and best-preserved of the fields I saw that day was for the Battle of Bristoe Station. This was one of those forgotten battles (along with Mine Run) that took place in the autumn after Gettysburg. This offensive movement by the Confederates resulted in a small Union victory.
A park has been created out of the preserved land and it appears to be well-used by the community. There is also an audio tour that can be followed from your cell phone, and it really helps to explain Bristoe Station and the other area actions that led up to it. Since that first trip, I’ve been back to Bristoe Station a couple times and it is always nice.
Three years ago today, I took a day trip to Winchester, Virginia in order to check out some of the battlefields. My oldest son went along as well. It was the first trip there for both of us, and it remains a wonderful memory.
First and Second Battles of Kernstown – Civil War Battlefield #29, 30
There is a battlefield park that incorporates a large chunk of the field, but it is only open on the weekends during May through October, so it was closed while we were there.
Luckily, the more interesting part of the field to me – the spot where Richard Brooke Garnett and the Stonewall Brigade fought behind a wall at First Kernstown – is on the other side of Route 37, south of Cedar Creek Grade at Rose Hill Farm Park. It was cool to be there and see the terrain, even if the wall there is a reproduction. My son had had enough hiking at that point, so we didn’t go back in the woods to look for the remains of the original wall.
Second Battle of Winchester – Civil War Battlefield #31
The Second Battle of Winchester took place on the road to Gettysburg. A Confederate corps under the command of Richard Ewell attacked and completely overwhelmed the Union garrison in town under Robert Milroy. Milroy made the decision to try to sneak out of town overnight, and much of his force was captured in the process. But we’ll talk about that later.
While not an “official” battle, I tend to think of the Battle of Stephenson’s Depot as being a separate action from the Second Battle of Winchester. This is the spot where about half of Milroy’s fleeing Union command was captured by Confederate forces under Edward “Allegheny” Johnson. There are a few markers near where the railroad depot was (though when we visited, one was damaged to the point of being missing) and even a monument close by.
Third Battle of Winchester – Civil War Battlefield #32
Third Winchester was the bloodiest battle that took place in the Shenandoah Valley area, but you’d never know it if you visited the field today. I parked in the lot right off of Redbud Road and took a hike through woods, across fields, and over Redbud Run to the famed Middle Field. It made for a very pleasant 3-mile round trip. A monument to Battle’s Alabamians had just recently been erected on the field during my last visit, so that was pretty cool to see. By far though, my favorite part was this lovely tree-lined path just before the Middle Field.
All-in-all, it was a great trip. A model for many more I’d take in the years ahead.
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
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.
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.
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’sBath-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.
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.
151 years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln delivered quite possibly the greatest speech in American history at the dedication ceremony for the Soldier’s National Cemetery at Gettysburg. He had been asked only to provide “a few appropriate remarks” during the ceremony, delivering this masterpiece in the process:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
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 eachside) 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.
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.
Last weekend, my church held a men’s retreat in Gettysburg, PA. Once that location was chosen, my pastor brought me in to the planning process with the idea that I’d lead a tour of the battlefield as a free time option for the men who were attending. While I was really excited about that part, the experience turned out to be so much more.
Our speaker for the retreat, Drew Derreth, gave some fantastic insights on the struggles we face as men. In many ways, he led us in sort of an “anti-men’s retreat”. We focused not on how to be big manly, go-get-’em men, but on how to acknowledge that none of us is really capable of being as strong as we’d like to be, and that we should embrace the path of weakness, humility, and grace.
Since the entire group would not be going on my tour, it was suggested that I give a quick “5 Minutes of Civil War History” talk at the beginning of each of Drew’s sessions, so that everyone would get a sense for the history that surrounded us in Gettysburg. I threw together some Keynote slides on three topics:
The talks were well-received by the guys, and brought questions immediately after the sessions, so they worked as a nice ice-breaker for me with some of the guys I didn’t know at the church.
It was also super cool that one of the guys, Ken – a Civil War re-enactor – brought some of his artifacts along so there was some actual, tangible history in the room. That extra touch really brought it home in my opinion.
The tour took place on Saturday afternoon, and was scheduled as a 3-hour excursion during our free time. After a quick lunch at the always-awesome Tommy’s Pizza, we rolled out to the first day’s battlefield, and everyone got a hand-out with the list of stops and some maps for reference.
At the outset, I was a little nervous. This was the largest group I’d ever been with at Gettysburg, and the spotlight was entirely on me. I was the expert. But the tour went really well. It was an absolutely beautiful day, so the numerous photographers in the group had terrific conditions to capture the scenery and the monuments. Steve even got a great shot of the group at end of the tour:
As much as I love being in Gettysburg and sharing the history surrounding that little town with other people, last weekend was about so much more than that. Even though I’ve been going to Chapelgate church services for several years with my wife, and have become really close with many of the staff members there, I haven’t really felt like I was part of the “community” until last weekend. We have a great group of men who really embraced me as one of their own, and I’m very thankful for that.
Near the grave of William Goldsborough, lies a junior officer from the 1st MD battalion who was killed on the eastern slopes of Culp’s Hill on July 3, 1863 – Capt. William H. Murray.
Murray was a well-respected man among the Confederate Marylanders. An original member of the old 1st MD Infantry regiment, he stuck around in Virginia when that unit disbanded – unable either for fear of being caught, or out of a sense of duty to the Confederacy, to return home to Maryland. It was Capt. Murray who got together enough men to form the first company of what was to become a brand new Maryland regiment, but only ended up as the 1st MD battalion (as they couldn’t get together enough men to form a full regiment). His company became Company A in the new battalion, and he was elected Captain of it. This also made him the senior Captain in the battalion, and every account I’ve read talks about what a fine soldier he was – William Goldsborough writes glowingly about him in his book.
At Gettysburg, he is still the commander of Co. A, but on the morning of July 3, he has been elevated to second-in-command after Lt. Col. Herbert’s wounding the night before. When asked to lead his men in a very ill-advised assault up Culp’s Hill, he goes along the line, shaking hands with every man saying “Goodbye, it is not likely that we shall meet again.” Even General Steuart thought the attack was a suicide mission, but Capt. Murray followed his orders and did his duty. He was soon shot down, mortally wounded near the Union breastworks. Before noon that day, the 24-year old Captain would lie dead on the field.
His grave is located in the Confederate Hill section of Loudon Park Cemetery, very prominently marked by a tall obelisk:
Returning to Loudon Park Cemetery, today we look at the grave of the man who took over command of the 1st MD Battalion (which later became the 2nd MD) when Lt. Col. James Herbert was wounded on July 2 at Gettysburg: Maj. William Goldsborough.
Born in Frederick county, he worked for a time as a printer in Baltimore before heading south to join up with the Confederacy when the war started. His brother Charles made the opposite decision, serving with the 5th MD as an Assistant Surgeon. They would meet a few times during the war, but not at Gettysburg.
At Gettysburg, Maj. Goldsborough was second-in-command of the 2nd MD during the attack on Culp’s Hill. When Lt. Col. Herbert went down with his serious wounds, Maj. Goldsborough took over and led the unit in the fighting on July 3 until he too was wounded – shot through his left lung. When the Confederates were pushed back, Maj. Goldsborough became a prisoner, as well.
After recovering from his wound, he was held in the prisons at Ft. McHenry and Ft. Delaware. In late 1864, he was transferred to Morris Island where he became one of the Immortal 600. He would remain in Union prisons for the rest of the war.