July 22, 2023 was a very happy day for our family. My boys and I are blessed beyond measure.
I had heard about a special program for kids happening at Brandywine Battlefield Park, the site of the largest battle of the American Revolution, so I decided to take the boys up for the afternoon. It was a really great hands-on experience. My dad tagged along, too, since he had never visited the site.
We took a tour of both historic houses there, and the boys were engaged enough to ask questions and participate. After the tours, we formed up with some other kids in the field outside the visitors center to learn how new recruits during the American Revolution were trained. One of the museum guides in period dress taught the kids how to line up, and then walked them through the procedure for loading a mock wooden musket, and finally led them in an attack that ended with a charge! The boys had a great time getting to connect with the history in a very tangible way.
The British didn’t know what they were in for that day.
One of my favorite things to do is have adventures with my boys. A few summers ago, we took a day trip to Valley Forge National Historical Park so that the boys could see some Revolutionary history (they both seem to have some interest there) and to give them a chance to complete yet another Junior Ranger program.
At the time we visited back in June of 2019, the Visitors Center was closed for renovations, and a series of temporary trailers were in place to allow folks to pick up maps, watch a short introductory movie, and purchase souvenirs. We especially enjoyed getting to pretend that we were General George Washington for a brief moment.
Once we’d oriented ourselves and got our Junior Ranger activity books, we set out on the standard auto tour route of the park. While not actually a battlefield, the encampment at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778 was a turning point for the Continental Army. Baron von Steuben developed a training program that brought the Colonials much closer to being a professional fighting force. And I really think there is something to the idea that the shared hardships forged bonds among the men that would carry them through the rest of the struggle.
Both boys were interested in exploring the reproduction huts along Muhlenberg’s brigade line. These show something of what the living quarters were like for the men that wintered here.
Nearby, at Redoubt #2, we took our turn manning the outer defenses of the camp. With the British Army spending the winter in Philadelphia, this position had a great view of the likely approaches that would have been used if the red coats had decided to attack.
Continuing along the tour route, we came to an equestrian statue of Maj. General “Mad” Anthony Wayne – one of my favorite figures from the Continental Army. He played a prominent role at both the Battle of Paoli, and the Battle of Stony Point – both fields that I have visited and will need to write up one of these days. The Battle of Stony Point is especially cool and worth a visit for its views of the Hudson River alone.
Our next stop was at Washington’s Headquarters. The house was open on the day we visited, and it was really cool to have the ranger there explain how the house was used by General Washington and his staff. The building is in great shape and getting to see and use the original handrails that were still on the steps was a pretty awesome experience. Tangible connections to the past are always much more impactful.
The visit ended with a return trip to the Visitors Center to have a ranger check our work on the Junior Ranger activities, swear in, and get our badges! We’ll definitely be going back to see the renovated Visitors Center and learn more about our country’s history together.
During the Civil War, the Shenandoah Valley was both the breadbasket of the Confederacy, as well as a key transportation corridor used by both sides for their respective invasions. There was almost constant conflict in the region for the duration of the war, and large areas destroyed in actions like “The Burning”. A few summers ago, I toured many of the battlefields in this very important theatre of the war.
Battle of McDowell – Civil War Battlefield #60
Approaching from the east (in the Harrisonburg area), I lost cell service as soon as I hit the mountains. Such is life in the National Radio Quiet Zone. There is a cool overlook on top of one of the ridges along Rt. 250 that talks about a Confederate fort and earthworks there under Gen. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson. Very nice views and a few interpretive markers.
Just before the town of McDowell, the Civil War Trust has a small parking lot with markers showing the start of the trail they laid out on their property on Sitlington’s Hill. The signs mention a blueblaze trail, but I couldn’t find any blazes. Combined with the fact that it had just rained, was approaching dusk, and I had no cell phone service, I decided not to venture up the hill. The town was nice, though, and I was able to see the house that Stonewall Jackson used as a headquarters during the Battle of McDowell.
Battle of Cross Keys – Civil War Battlefield #61
A relatively small fight during Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign, Cross Keys is not far to the southeast from Harrisonburg. There’s a wayside marker – a series of them actually – near the cemetery on Battlefield Road. The terrain is very rolling. The Union line was more-or-less along modern Cross Keys Road, and the view to the southeast of the mountains was beautiful. The southern peak of Massanutten Mountain was clearly visible from here.
Battle of Port Republic – Civil War Battlefield #62
Initially, I had some trouble finding the battlefield itself. There is a set of markers near “The Coaling” east of town. The battle took place mainly between that spot and the town. The terrain was basically flat farm fields that are bordered on the north by the south branch of the Shenandoah River.
Battle of Piedmont – Civil War Battlefield #63
More rolling terrain at this battlefield. It is fairly difficult to get a sense for where the lines were. But there are a few markers, and one wayside in the parking lot of the local community center that includes a map.
Battle of Waynesboro – Civil War Battlefield #64
This battlefield – the site of the last fighting in the Shenandoah Valley – has been entirely overtaken by the modern development of the town. I found one marker on W. Main Street near the Masonic Lodge, but there are no waysides here, so there are no maps to orient you to where the action took place.
Battle of New Market – Civil War Battlefield #65
The VMI-run Virginia Museum of the Civil War was fairly sparse during our visit. I got the impression that they were in the midst of re-arranging the exhibits. It’s nice to see them involved at the battle where the most famous aspect is the charge of their cadets. There is a sizeable collection of small arms downstairs which is probably the main attraction. $10 admission seemed a little steep for what it is, though my son was free. He really wanted to get a hat, so I bought him a super-FARBy, cotton kepi with (*UGH*) crossed rifles in the gift shop. It’ll be a fun souvenir for him, nonetheless.
The field itself is small. There is a trail that takes you along the path of the VMI cadets’ attack, and a few reproduction artillery pieces. There’s also a spot where you can get a nice view of the north fork of the Shenandoah River.
Battle of Tom’s Brook – Civil War Battlefield #66
There’s a marker for the Battle of Tom’s Brook along Route 11 in the town where the action took place, and a nice wayside that is deep in the nearby Shenandoah County Park near a storm water pond. A large patch of woods there means that the Valley Pike can’t be viewed from the wayside, so it’s a little hard to really see and appreciate the terrain. Some imagination is required.
Battle of Fisher’s Hill – Civil War Battlefield #67
There are a few markers along Route 11, but that’s not all. A totally separate section of the battlefield – Ramseur’s Hill – has been preserved on the northwest side of I-81. There are a few waysides and a walking trail there. During my initial trip, I didn’t get out to explore too much, as my son was already pretty burned-out on battlefields for the day, but I was lucky enough to come back for a special tour that was given on the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Fisher’s Hill, and the views are amazing from the top of the hill.
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.
The specs are as follows:
- Serial Number: 109
- Weight: 223 lbs
- Manufacturer: Ames Manufacturing Company
- Inspector: Alexander Brydie Dyer (A.B.D.)
- Accepted for Service: March 31, 1863
So clearly this weapon could not have been present for the actual battle in the fall of 1861, but it was nice to see it stand-in. Hazlett’s Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War has this serial number listed as being owned by Kennesaw Mountain NBP in Georgia, so I assume it is here on loan. Very nice of the National Park Service to do that if that’s the case.
If you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth a visit. The hiking trails are nice, and if you’re at all interested in the history, you can’t beat actually being on the field. I can tell you that I’d be pretty uncomfortable with my back against that bluff and a few regiments of Confederates bearing down on me!
Well, it’s been nearly a year since I’ve last posted here, and what a year it has been.
For starters, I’ve changed jobs. In April of this year, I left the Howard County Public School System to take a job with the Facilities Division of the Anne Arundel County Public School System. My official title is “Network Data Specialist”, and I really love what I’m doing. The job is part desktop support, part server administration, part technology adviser, part phone guy – I get to have my hands in a lot of different things in a given day. While that might sound stressful, the people I’m working with and for are really great, and make serving them a joy. I really don’t see how I could be happier professionally.
And how’s this for a kicker? The building that I’m working in now has a fascinating link to military history. We’re located about 2 miles down the road from Fort Smallwood – which I thought was cool enough when I interviewed – but it turns out that our campus started it’s life as a military installation as well. In fact, it was the spiritual successor to the Endicott series fort up the road. I’ll have a post soon about Nike-Ajax Missile Site BA-43.
The other big change is that I’m back in school. I never thought I’d ever write that sentence, but it came about as a result of the job change. AACPS really does a great job of creating incentives to have higher levels of education. In addition to tuition reimbursement, there are higher-paying salary scales for people with degrees, so I finally have a concrete reason to pursue a degree. For now, I’ve re-enrolled at CCBC (where I took one math class almost a decade-and-a-half ago) working toward an Associate’s degree in Network Technology. I’m actually pretty excited about it. I’ve already completed my first class over the summer, and with the transfer credit I brought along from my UMBC days and a few industry certifications I’ve earned over the years, I’m just past the half-way point to my AAS.
As far as hobbies go, I’ve become pretty obsessed with single-board computers lately. I have a PineA64+ (2GB model), a few Raspberry Pi’s, and a CHIP. What started as a cheap way for me to have a Linux server again, has grown into a desire to learn more about electronics and “making”. I may have a few posts about those topics coming up as well.
And of course the fascination with history hasn’t stopped. Lately, I’ve been on a streak of reading about 18th and 19th century African-American history. First, the definitive biography of Benjamin Banneker (a small part of whose property I now live on). I then picked up a brief overview biography of one of my heroes, Frederick Douglass. Currently, I’m reading “The Negro’s Civil War“, a collection of letters, articles, and speeches from African-American authors documenting their thoughts and feelings about the subjects of slavery, the war itself, and reconstruction. I suppose I could probably work up a few posts worth of reviews on these in the coming weeks.
So that’s the big update. With any luck, the next one won’t be another year away. 😉
I’ve been waiting for months to post about this, but now that Christmas is over, I finally can.
Back in February, I was doing a lot of research about my great-great-great grandfather, George R. Skillman and his career as a baker. During one of my many Google searches during that time, I stumbled on My Country Treasures – an antique shop in Preston, MD that had one of the Skillman Universal Steam Bakery’s display tins. This tin would have been used as a display in a grocery store that carried Skillman Bakery products – most likely crackers.
I had to get this piece and make sure it stayed in the family. I also thought that it would make a great gift for my father, since he shares our ancestor’s name and since he sparked my interest in genealogy and history in the first place.
Finally, the opportunity arose when my friend John invited me to stay at his family’s beach house in Delaware one weekend. I planned to stop in Preston on the way home, and if the tin hadn’t been sold, to split the cost with my brother. Luckily, it was still there and I immediately snatched it up!
Waiting out the months until Christmas was hard, but I’m glad that we did. My dad’s reaction when he figured out what we had given him was worth it.
The side of the tin advertises the “Geo. R. Skillman Universal Steam Bakery”. As far as I can tell, this name was used for his business from 1887 until as late as 1900, so this “new” family heirloom is perhaps 127 years old.
The stories that we’ve been able to find about George are very nice to have. Newspaper articles I’ve discovered give a sense of the reality of our family history, too. But having an actual, tangible object from your ancestor’s past is just beyond words.
I’m so glad that everything came together to keep this history alive for us.
While I was looking through online newspaper archives last night, I accidentally stumbled onto an article about, well, an accident.
This story appeared in the Washington Post on February 20, 1953:
Two Anne Arundel County men were burned seriously yesterday when the gas tank of their auto caught fire after a collision on Ritchie Highway, just north of Glen Burnie.
Thomas Skillman, 31, of Harundale and Ernie W. Bermick, 40 of Severn leaped from the car with hair and clothing burning and rolled on the ground to smother the flames. Both were taken to a Baltimore hospital.
The Associated Press reported their car was struck from behind by an auto driven by Eric R. Blomquist, 31, of Takoma Park, who was charged with drunken and reckless driving.
The Thomas Skillman from the story is my grandfather. This accident occurred just a few months before my father was born.
Just a few days ago – September 8, 2014 – was the 350th anniversary of the founding of New York.
Originally a Dutch settlement called New Amsterdam, the town decided to give up without a fight in the face of an overwhelming English expedition commanded by Colonel Richard Nicholls consisting of four warships, including Nicholls’ flagship: the frigate Guinea. James, the Duke of York, with the permission of his brother King Charles II, decided to send the flotilla to take possession of the Dutch holdings in North America. At the time the two nations were jockeying for the title of most powerful naval force in the world. In fact, this event would touch off a larger war between them.
Once the settlement was taken, it was re-named New York at Colonel Nicholls’ suggestion in honor of the Duke himself.
Apart from being one of the pivotal moments in the colonial period, the creation of New York also means quite a bit to the Skillmans: it is the event that brought the first member of our family to the western hemisphere.
His name was Thomas Skillman. The stories about him are varied and at times somewhat sketchy, but I’d like to explore them a little bit here.
Born in Surrey, England in 1637, at some point he joined the army in time to participate in the 1664 expedition to North America. The traditional family story (backed up by most sources) is that he was serving as a musician, but I’ve also seen him referred to as “Doctor”, implying that he was a surgeon or physician instead, but I don’t find this likely.
Soon after the conquest, Colonel Nicholls became Governor Nicholls. Thomas must have felt some kind of connection or loyalty to Nicholls, because he did not return to England with the rest of the troops, instead choosing to settle on Long Island in a village called Newtown, which was in the area that is now known as the Elmhurst and Maspeth neighborhoods in Queens.
His military service continued, as he was one of 25 men sent to Esopus, NY to seek revenge against a group of Native Americans who had attacked a colonial settlement in the Hudson River Valley. Though he was offered a plot of land in that part of New York for his service, he seems to have refused it, and was discharged in 1668, even being awarded “14 oz. of plate for services at Albany under Captain Lewis.” No one seems to have any idea about what he did to earn this distinction.
Returning to Long Island, he married Sarah Pettit in 1669. Sarah was born in Boston, probably in 1634. There is some debate about who her father was, but it seems likely that he was Thomas Pettit, an early Huguenot immigrant to the Massachusetts colony. Regardless, the couple settled in Newtown and lived there the rest of their lives, and sadly we don’t know much more about their life – other than the fact that they had at least 4 children.
Thomas probably died in 1697. His property was left to his wife, who transferred a portion of it to their only son, Thomas Skillman (II). So far as we know, all the American Skillmans – three and a half centuries worth of them – are descended from these two men.
On July 2, 2014 at 6:22pm (151 years to the minute after the fighting in The Wheatfield and The Peach Orchard at Gettysburg was raging) our second son, Isaac Thomas Skillman was born. He was 8 lbs., 3 oz. and 20.75 inches at birth.
Isaac is a name that my wife suggested, mainly because it means “laughter”. We’ve had a lot of that in our relationship, and we want our son’s name to remind us to keep the fun going with our young family.
Thomas is an old Skillman family name, and the tradition and history of that is very important to me. The first Skillman in this country was Thomas, and it’s been a popular name among the American Skillmans ever since. Most recently in our line, my late grandfather was named Thomas. Isaac and his older brother John are part of the 13th generation of Skillmans in the western hemisphere.