This prelude to the Battle of Antietam was fought in three mountain gaps along South Mountain in Maryland. Confederate forces were able to delay approaching Union units long enough for Lee to concentrate his army and set up a defense around Sharpsburg.
Campaign:Maryland Campaign – This battle took place just before Antietam, the major battle of the campaign.
CWSAC Rating: “B” – Having a direct and decisive influence on a campaign.
How to Get There: Since the fighting took place in multiple unconnected mountain gaps, there is no one place to go to see the battlefield. Driving along Alt. US 40 between Middletown, MD and Boonsboro, MD will take you through Turner’s Gap – the northernmost section of the battlefield.
For on the Field: For the newbie, download the American Battlefield Trust’s Antietam Battle App. It will really enhance your tour experience. Folks who want serious military history should pick up the US Army War College’sGuide to Antietam. I can’t recommend this book highly enough for its excellent tour of the field.
What I Love: There are a few things that make South Mountain unique. Fox’s Gap is probably my favorite section, with the Reno and North Carolina monuments. The War Correspondents Memorial is a major landmark as well. While you may encounter the occasional AT hiker, or family picnic, it’s generally a pretty peaceful field.
What I Don’t: While it is a fairly small field in terms of total acreage, it is spread out as small pockets over a wide area, so it takes some time to explore.
Final Thoughts: South Mountain is one of those hidden treasures among Civil War battlefields. It is integral to the Antietam campaign, and fairly well-preserved and well-monumented, but it doesn’t get a lot of visitation outside of AT hikers and the occasional family picnic. It’s a nice spot for serene contemplation.
Keeping it close to home for me, the next battlefield on my list is Monocacy. This engagement is commonly referred to as “The Battle that Saved Washington”, and while it was a strategic victory for the Union forces, the single-day action was tactically a loss. Maj. General Lew Wallace (in command of the VIII Corps, and later the author of Ben-Hur) successfully delayed Lt. General Jubal Early‘s advance long enough for elements of the VI Corps to move from the trenches of Petersburg to reinforce the defenses of Washington.
CWSAC Rating: “B” – Having a direct and decisive influence on a campaign.
How to Get There: The battlefield is located in western Maryland just south of Frederick, about an hour away from Baltimore. Modern day I-270 cuts the battlefield in half, but there is no direct access from the interstate. I use MD-355 to get there.
The Visitors Center is located at 5201 Urbana Pike, Frederick, MD 21704. There is no entrance fee, but you should stop there to pick up a brochure and get oriented. There’s a small gift shop, and a very well-done museum upstairs. The one real piece of artillery on the field is also located by the entrance – a beautiful Revere Copper Co. Napoleon. All other cannons on the field are reproductions.
For on the Field: You’re going to want to have a guide of some sort when you’re at Monocacy. There are not a lot of monuments, markers, or waysides, so having a way to interpret what you’re looking at becomes critical. Definitely get the park map / brochure for this one. Another wonderful resource that the park has put together is a freely-available audio tour of the field in mp3 format. If you’re going to use this (and you should) be sure to download it ahead of time as cell phone coverage can be spotty on the field.
What I Love: For me, Monocacy is the closest battlefield to home, so if I want to get a quick Civil War history experience, or take friends and family to something that’s a little off the beaten path, this battlefield is a good option. The field is usually pretty empty, and there are plenty of opportunities for non-historical activities. They have a few trails laid out that take the visitor along the Monocacy River, there’s a cool railroad junction and bridge that train nerds would enjoy, and some neat old farm buildings that are quite photogenic.
What I Don’t: Being such a small field, there isn’t that much to see. There are some moving pieces in the battle, so it isn’t boring to learn about, but it’s not as expansive a topic as something like Gettysburg or Antietam. As I stated above, there aren’t a lot of monuments or markers, so you’re kind of on your own while you’re out on the ground.
Final Thoughts: While Monocacy doesn’t get the attention of other nearby fields, it’s worthy of at least a quick visit. Antietam fans will appreciate the connection to Special Order 191, and Gettysburg fans will want to see the nearby place where Maj. General George Meade received the order to take command of the Army of the Potomac.
Antietam is another battlefield that is close to home for me. My family went there a few times when I was a child, but it didn’t leave the impact that Gettysburg did. There are many monuments dotting the field, and I feel like the battle is easier to understand than Gettysburg. For starters, the field is smaller than Gettysburg, and the action basically moves from one side of the field to the other as the battle progresses. This is also a single-day battle (albeit the bloodiest single day in American history). I’ve been to Antietam probably about a dozen times.
CWSAC Rating: “A” – Having a decisive influence on a campaign and a direct impact on the course of the war.
How to Get There: The battlefield is located in western Maryland just outside of Sharpsburg. It’s about 90 minutes from Baltimore. I usually arrive on the field by way of MD-34 through Boonsboro (which will also have an entry in this series).
What I Love: Like Gettysburg, this battlefield is close to home for me. It is fairly well marked with monuments, and is small enough that one can get a feel for the action pretty quickly.
Thanks to organizations like the American Battlefield Trust, who have been working to buy-up land in recent years, more of the battlefield is publicly-accessible than ever before. Even as recently as 15 years ago, the NPS hardly owned any of the battlefield itself – they mostly just held the roads running through the battlefield. Just as one example, it is now possible to walk across the field that the II Corps divisions of French and Richardson traversed to assault the Bloody Lane.
The observation tower on the Bloody Lane is very cool, and the other major landmark – the Burnside Bridge – is serenely beautiful. It’s never seemed very crowded on the field when I’ve gone, though the exception to this seems to be their annual Memorial Illumination (which I’ve not yet had the chance to attend).
What I Don’t: Probably the only downside to Antietam is the entrance fee. Currently, it’s $5/person or $10/car, but it’s been on the rise in the last few years. If you have an NPS annual or lifetime pass, they will accept those.
Final Thoughts: While the battle was indecisive tactically, it was close enough to a Union victory to allow Lincoln to feel like he had the freedom to announce the Emancipation Proclamation. September 17, 1862 was also the bloodiest single day in American history. Both of these facts come together to net Antietam an “A” level priority in the CWSAC survey, and make it a must-see for any Civil War enthusiast.
I have to start this series with the battlefield that started it all for me – Gettysburg. It’s my first historical love, in a very real way.
Numerous volumes have been written about the battle. Absolutely everyone who was involved (at least on the Union side) wanted to have a monument there – even units who never made it to town. It is THE battle of the Civil War in the popular mind. All of these things come together to make a visit to Gettysburg a MUST for any Civil War buff. As of this writing, I have been to Gettysburg 57 times.
CWSAC Rating: “A” – Having a decisive influence on a campaign and a direct impact on the course of the war.
How to Get There: Gettysburg is located in south central Pennsylvania. It’s about 90 minutes from Baltimore. When I go, I usually either take MD-97 through Westminster and Littlestown, or US-15 to the Emmitsburg Road. The view as you enter the battlefield from the south along the Emmitsburg Road is breath-taking. As students of the battle know, 10 roads converge in Gettysburg – the key reason the battle was fought there – so there are plenty of ways to go.
What I Love: As I stated, Gettysburg was the place that sparked my interest in history. I have a special connection with it for that reason. The new visitor’s center is beautiful. It’s very easy to find information on the battle – from the thousands of monuments on the field, to the countless books, articles, blog posts, documentaries, and even movies – you can develop as full a picture of the fighting as you have time for. The smaller places that make up the field are also legendary: The Railroad Cut, The Devil’s Den, The Wheatfield, The Peach Orchard, Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill, and on and on.
What I Don’t: There’s not a lot to get upset about, honestly. It can get crowded in the summertime. And the “tourists” – especially the ghost tour crowd – can make the more serious buffs roll our eyes.
Final Thoughts: Everyone should go to Gettysburg. For the real Civil War nerds, this should not even be a question.
In my last post, I kicked off a new series and talked about my goal of visiting all the CWSAC Battlefields.
One of the first things I did to help me accomplish this was to create a custom Google Map of all the places that I needed to visit (I am a computer and map nerd, you know). I’m embedding a copy of that map here in case it is useful for someone else. This is what the principal battles of the Civil War looked like, geographically:
I’m pretty good about updating the map as I go on trips. Sites marked in green have been visited at least once, while sites in red are on the to-do list.
Full disclosure: I created this map myself based on a best guess of where several of these battlefields are located after looking at the CWSAC reports and various other resources on the web and in books. There may be inaccuracies on sites I haven’t visited yet. No warranty, and your mileage may vary. 😉
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.
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!
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.