Preservation News: CVBT Preserves New Ground at Spotsylvania Battlefield

Our friends at the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust have been hard at work acquiring and preserving more ground on the Spotsylvania battlefield. Last March, we told you a little bit about their work preserving a tract along the Brock Road near Laurel Hill. Last week, they sent the following update to us about the property and the events it witnessed during the battle 154 years ago. As always, you can support the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust in their efforts by visiting their website, CVBT.

The CVBT’s newly acquired property along Brock Road was closely associated with the first day’s fighting on May 8, 1864, when the Union assaulted Laurel Hill at the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Several accounts by contemporaneous figures locate the property in conjunction with the fighting.

The property acquired by CVBT can best be described as roughly rectangular, with a rise (currently occupied by an abandoned house of no historical value) on the north where the property runs along Brock Road, a gradual downward slope dropping approximately forty feet over a tenth of a mile to a creek, and then rising gradually again to connect with the National Park Service land at Hancock Road where the main Union entrenchments
were later made. To understand the character of the hurried advances across the terrain, it is crucial to understand the opening stages of infantry fighting on May 8.

After several small delaying actions by Confederate cavalry, which caused a major bottleneck for the Federal army coming down Brock Road, the engagement began in earnest with the exhausted advance of first Peter Lyle’s and then Andrew Denison’s brigades across Sarah Spindle’s field. Their advances occurred east of CVBT’s property. The troops were exhausted from intermittently marching and standing since 9:00 p.m. the
previous night. On top of that, the day was rapidly heating up, with temperatures in excess of 90 degrees.

Lyle’s advance on the Spindle field would be checked by the 3rd South Carolina, which only managed to reach their key position when the Federal troops were sixty yards away. Denison’s brigade would advance under the personal command of division commander John C. Robinson. The brigade broke into a panic as some of the first ranks stopped to fire while their comrades behind them pushed through, breaking unit cohesion. Officers
lost control of their men. Robinson was shot out of the saddle 50 yards from the Confederate position, later losing his leg. Denison simultaneously was shot, later losing his arm.

Because of the bottleneck along Brock Road, the reinforcements of Joseph Bartlett’s brigade (of Griffin’s Division rather than Robinson’s) quickly formed into line of battle along the road in the vicinity of the north end of CVBT’s new property. Rather than coming up the road into the rear of the units already engaged, they aimed to come into the right of Denison. These troops were no better rested. The preceding march had been punctuated with “starts and stops” resulting in a “dilatory pace…well calculated to aggravate weariness,” as Eugene Nash of the 44th New York recorded. One of the brigade commander’s aides shouted: “Hurry up, or you won’t get a shot at them.” Initially convinced that they were up against a light force of dismounted Confederate cavalry, the brigade was quickly disabused of that notion. They came “under a galling fire of infantry and artillery” as they began their charge at approximately 9:00 a.m., shortly after leaving the southeast edge of CVBT’s property. After crossing the Spindle farm, they reportedly would get within twenty yards of the Confederate line before opening fire. Some accounts reported bayonet fighting over the Confederate works.

On the heels of Bartlett’s brigade was Romeyn Ayres’s brigade, rushing to the sound of the guns in what one soldier of the 140th New York called “mad, blind style.” The men struggled to keep up with their general as his horse outpaced them. As the brigade crossed over the land that CVBT now holds, they may have been serenaded with the “cheerful and
inspiring” music of their brass band, ordered by Ayres to try to buoy his exhausted men forward. Many of the men who walked over the property would never walk back. According to historian Gordon Rhea, of the five hundred men with the 17th U.S. Regulars, only seventy returned. Disorganized, the brigade went into the attack bit by bit. Porter Farley of the 140th New York blamed their failure on their “dribbling into the attack regiment after regiment.”

The Confederate extension of their line to the right—which threatened the Union left flank—forced Lyle and Denison’s brigades to fall back by about 9:15 a.m.; Bartlett and Ayres shortly joined them. The pulling back of the Union infantry left the Union Third Massachusetts Battery in a vulnerable position from where they had come up to offer ineffectual support to the Union advances. The six twelve-pounder Napoleons were
reportedly forced to fall back to the vicinity of CVBT’s property as Confederate advances across the Spindle field threatened to capture the guns. As Augustus Buell in his controversial account notes, “The battery fell back with them by the right-hand road, about half a mile, to a small knoll which commanded the valley of a little stream running from our right into the Po.” This description matches the northern section of CVBT’s new
property, which then became an impromptu defensive line for the rallying Union troops. NPS Historian Frank O’Reilly has concluded, “We believe this to be a reference to the knoll on the [CVBT] tract.” A Lieutenant Appleton who was on the scene remembered, “They were on the second line, in position on the right of the road to guard against an attack on our flank.” This would place the battery right at the north end of the property. While in this area, the commander of the battery, Captain A.P. Martin would be severely wounded, getting hit in the back of the neck, “grazing the spine.” The entire movement was tracked by the guns of the Confederate batteries. One eyewitness remarked, “It seemed to be every man for himself, and the devil for us all.”

As Sweitzer’s Brigade came up, they too would have been placed along the northern edge of the property. By 10:30 a.m., the ground would again become a path of advance for Gregg and Robinson’s brigades (now of Cutler’s division) as they launched a second, more coordinated but ultimately unfruitful attack against the rapidly reinforcing and dug in Confederates.

The property would continue to play an important role through May 10th and 12th as the Union army continued to use it as an organizational area just arrears of their front line. By May 14, the Union army had withdrawn from the position to reorganize on the Fredericksburg Road, leaving the 3rd Georgia Sharpshooters, Parker’s Virginia Battery, and Brigadier General Pierce M. B. Young’s cavalry brigade to reclaim the uncontested position briefly before falling back to their own lines.

Those curious to learn more would do well to consider both Gordon Rhea’s 1997 book The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864 and Gregg Mertz’s excellent 2004 article in volume 21, number 4 edition of Blue and Gray Magazine.

There is no doubt that CVBT has saved an incredibly important parcel in the 5th Corps tract. But much remains to be done: the non-historical structure requires demolition, wells
require filling, and trash and debris need to be removed. We remain dependent upon the irreplaceable support of our members and their generous contributions to help fund our work.

SC’s Secession Convention @ Institute Hall

Over the weekend, I shared photos of some historical markers in Charleston that indicated the location of the building where the state’s postwar constitutional convention met. Ironically, the site of the state’s secession convention was just a block and a half north on Meeting Street, just past the intersection with Queen Street.

Institute Hall 01

Institute Hall 02.jpg

The two-sided sign stands along the sidewalk on the east side of the street. Next to it, a plaque mounted on the side of a building also commemorates the site.

Institute Hall Plaque

The REAL “First Shot” Marker

First Shot Marker-front 02One of the coolest “off the beaten path” sites at Gettysburg is the First Shot marker, just outside of town along the Chambersburg Pike. (The American Battlefield Trust broadcast live from there yesterday on Facebook LIVE, which you can check out here.) There’s also the First Artillery Shot marker at the base of John Buford’s statue. (Kris White did a post about it in 2015, which you can read here.)

But during my visit to Charleston this week, I had the chance to visit the REAL “first shot” marker—the first shot of the entire war.

The monument, erected for the Civil War Centennial, stands at the far end of Ft. Johnson Road on James’s Island at the site of the former Ft. Johnson. Today, the Hollings Marine Laboratory occupies the site, although Civil War buffs looking for the monument are allowed on the grounds. The weeds growing around the base of the monument suggest few people visit or tend to the site.

First Shot Marker-front 01

Here’s the back of the monument:

First Shot Marker-back

The original fort—named after the governor of the Carolinas, Sir Nathaniel Johnson—was built in 1704, but the only remaining trace is the original the mossy-brick powder magazine that stands nearby.

Ft. Johnson Power Works.jpg

Subsequent forts and fortifications have occupied the site over the past 250 years. A nature/history trail winds through some of the earthworks that still remain from some of those later efforts.

Ft. Johnson Earthworks

Meanwhile, a seaside trail offers a view of Ft. Sumter, and at low tide, one can actually walk to the fort (although you do get your feet wet).

Sumter from First Shot Marker

You can read more about the history of Fort Johnson here.

The Wrongheaded Righteousness of Spray Paint

Vandalized Texan MonumentWe’ve had such a good month here at ECW that I hate to end on a sour note. However, I received an alarming note from Rob Orrison this morning about some unfortunate shenanigans in the Wilderness where, it seems, the Texans were again under attack.

Lo and behold, some aspiring Picasso chose to express his righteous indignation in spray paint on the face of the Texas monument.

In case you can’t read that, it says, “Fuck UR Rebel flag.”

The picture, Rob tells me, comes from the Bull Runnings Facebook page; he passed it on to me from there. 

Located along Plank Road, the Texas monument marks the location where the Texans arrived on the morning on May 6 at a crucial moment of the battle of the Wilderness. Lee’s Confederate army faced total collapse on the right, but the timely arrival of Longstreet’s First Corps, with the Texas Brigade in the lead, shifted the tide. “Texans always move them,” Lee said as the Lone Star soldier swept forward. He wanted to lead them into battle himself, but as the story famously goes, the soldiers began crying out “Lee to the rear!” Another monument next to the Texas monument commemorates that part of the episode.

The Texas monument, made of pink Texas granite, is one of ten identical memorials the state put up on Civil War battlefields to commemorate the Centennial: Antietam, Bentonville, Chickamauga, Fort Donelson, Gettysburg, Kennesaw Mountain, Mansfield, Pea Ridge, Shiloh, and the Wilderness.

Regardless of where you stand on the topic of Confederate monuments, there are two essential points here. First, vandalism of any sort is bad, and we should certainly hate to see it at a National Park; and second, nowhere in the swirl of controversy over Confederate monuments have I heard anyone credible seriously suggest that such monuments are in any way out of place on national battlefields.

(Of course, I also cringe at the idiotic “UR.” Apparently, “your” was too much to spell. Or else they weren’t sure whether to use “your” or “you’re,” so they just decided to avoid the problem by spelling it as though they were texting.)

It’s impossible to talk rationally to people who think vandalism is an appropriate form of First Amendment expression. In this case, someone decided to be offended by the entire notion of the Confederacy 155 years after the fact, and in their righteous indignation, chose to express their frustration by spray painting their protest over a monument in such a way that, obviously, settles the whole point.

They don’t see their own act as being offensive, nor do they see their offensiveness as being the hypocrisy it is. According to this way of thinking, if you’re offended, it’s not hypocritical to be offensive in return. After all, you’re right, right?

Of course, that sort of escalation has a long-proven track record of not solving anything, ever, but hey, it’s not about solving anything or discussing anything or understanding anything—it’s about shouting your rage and shouting down your opponent. It’s not about justice, it’s about pissing people off because you’re pissed off.

And in this case, I daresay someone is pissed off about something they probably don’t even understand. Confederate heritage and Civil War history in general are subjects that demand nuanced discussion in order to really understand them, not broad brush strokes or can sprays. Confederate heritage is especially touchy, and this kind of asshattery prevents dialogue. Spray painting monuments erases middle ground.

It also paints opponents of Confederate heritage as a bunch of hypocritical, frothing-at-the-mouth libs, which dehumanizes them and undercuts legitimate concerns about Confederate history and race relations. That doesn’t help dialogue, either.

Finally, let’s add one last component to the equation: Law enforcement has to investigate the vandalism. Restoration experts have to clean the monument. Someone’s tax dollars have to pay for all that (and by “someone’s,” I mean yours and mine).

As I’d mentioned, we’ve had a great month here at ECW: the second-best month of readership in our history. The only month to surpass this month was last August, when events in Charlottesville turned into tragedy and catapulted Confederate monuments into the national headlines. As the monument controversy reached a fever pitch, I heard people suggest that some monuments should be taken down not because they were offensive but in order to protect them from being vandalized or damaged. I admit, that perspective surprised me at first, but then didn’t as I thought about it—and now here we have a case in point.

Ironically, spray painting “Fuck UR rebel flag” as a protest against the Confederacy is a uniquely un-American act. Our whole system of government was built around the principle of respecting differences of opinion, enshrined in our two-party system. Furthermore, our whole society depends on the rule of law. A single vandal with a can of spray paint and an ax to grind flaunts both of those things.

Vandalized Texas Monument cleanedThis afternoon, I walked out to Widow Tapp field to see the monument for myself. I’m happy to say that it’s been cleaned up since the first photo was taken. My thanks to the Park Service personnel who fixed it up.

There is a meaningful discussion to be had about Confederate heritage. Spray painting obscenities on a Confederate monument is not the way to have it. That’s about as un-American as it gets.

The First Decoration Day

150 years ago today was the first Decoration Day, as proclaimed by John A. Logan and the Grand Army of the Republic. Other communities had started ceremonies of remembrance, but this became the major link in the chain that created what today in the U.S. is Memorial Day.

The text of Logan’s order is here.

 

Scenes from Vicksburg (postscript)

part of a series

After my two and a half days in Vicksburg, I’m safely ensconced back home in the heart of the Eastern Theater of the Civil War. But wow, what a time I had. I had a few extra shots I wanted to share that didn’t necessarily fit in with the rest of the collection, so I thought I’d add a quick postscript.

I also wanted to offer a huge thank-you to the American Battlefield Trust for inviting Emerging Civil War to partner with them on this fantastic Facebook LIVE excursion—with a particular shout out to the Trust’s education manager, Kris White. The Trust has been a fantastic partner to work with, and we’re so glad we’re able to help support their important preservation work. (Thanks, too, to the Trust’s Connor Townsend for all her great camera work, directing, and social media management!)

I also want to offer a big thank-you to Vicksburg National Military Park. I was honestly stunned by how many people who followed along on the Facebook broadcasts said things like, “I didn’t know that much about Vicksburg.” It’s every bit as important as Gettysburg and worth just as much close study. I also saw a lot of people say, “I’ve never been there, but I want to go now that I’ve seen this.” I assure you, it’s an impressive park that will not disappoint. If you make the trip to Vicksburg, you will not be disappointed!

Vicksburg front sign

Vicksburg Superintendent

Historian extraordinaire Parker Hills, Vicksburg NMP Superintendent Bill Justice, Vicksburg NMP Superintendent Scott Babinowich, and the Trust’s Kris White plan out the action for our Thursday shoot. Scott spent all day with us, and he really impressed me with his enthusiasm, knowledge, and smooth, polished delivery.

Cairo Bell

The ship’s bell from the USS Cairo, recovered with the ship and cleaned up, now sits on display in the Cairo museum. The artifacts on display there tell a fascinating story about the ship’s life, loss, and recovery. Our thanks to NPS Historian Ray Hamel for sharing that story with us!

Vicksburg Illinois Monument

If there’s a temple anywhere on any battlefield, it’s the Illinois Memorial near the Shirley House. It’s a highly symbolic structure: the 47 steps to get inside, for instance, represent the number of days of the siege. Lincoln, Grant, McClernand, and Logan (whose division attacked along this avenue) all had Illinois connections, and the state had more men participate in the siege than any other state. The gold eagle is NOT “Old Abe” of the 8th Wisconsin, BTW–wrong state.

Breckinridge Bust

My wife is a collateral ancestor of Confederate general John Breckinridge, so I had to stop at his monument to pay my respects.

Kentucky Monument panorama

I really love the concept of the Kentucky monument, which has a plaza-like feel between the lines, where Kentuckians of both sides squared off against each other during the battle. However, the central figures–Lincoln and Davis, both Kentucky born–have freakish proportions and look especially awkward and un-life-like. The sculptor originally wanted them shaking hands to replicate the figures in the state seal who are shaking hands (and the seal is inscribed at their feet), but Lincoln and Davis never actually met, so a handshake, no matter how much artistic license one might excuse, would’ve been too historically inaccurate.