Vicksburg NMP Brings Back Black Powder

Vicksburg Black Powderby ECW Correspondent Katherine Duffek

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see and hear cannon and musket fire in real life instead of just in the movies? Well, at Vicksburg National Military Park, visitors can go to the park’s black powder program and watch historians dress up as Civil War soldiers and fire off muskets and cannons.

Years ago, the black powder program had been discontinued, but Scott Babinowich, the chief of interpretation at Vicksburg, was determined to bring the program back. 

“A black powder program is a unique tool that certain parks can use to help interpret war,” said Babinowich. “It helps visitors to begin to understand what life might have been like for a soldier—what they experienced, and most importantly, what they might have felt when in combat.”

In order to have the program, each park, due to safety reasons, must have at least one historian designated as a historic weapons Supervisor. It took Babinowich a year to make sure everyone was properly trained and that there was at least one historic weapons supervisor at the park, but it was worth it to him.

The black powder program offers both a cannon demonstration and a rifle demonstration during the summer. The cannon experience lasts about 20 minutes and is offered twice a day on weekends. The rifle experience is about 15 minutes long and is offered throughout the week.

Considering there are actual rifles and cannons used in these experiences, the National Park Service is required to make sure all demonstrations are held to the highest safety standards. Each living historian that participates in the different experiences must pass through a training process, including exams on both muskets and the cannon, Babinowich said.

“The crew drills frequently, practicing to ensure that they are staying proficient and safe,” he aded. “At all times, one of the Historic Weapons Supervisors is present to help the crew. Most of our crew are local volunteers from the area who have a passion for history, the park, and connecting with visitors.”

All of the in-park experiences are free of charge, but, according to Babinowich, “the entrance fee [into the battlefield] is $20 per car for 7 days.”

Babinowich said the public has been loving the return of Vicksburg’s black powder program so far. “During our first programs of this summer, our parking lot was full of eager visitors,” he said, “mainly local community residents helping us kick off another successful year.”

People love watching movies with cannons and guns and rifles, so why not go and experience all of that in real life? The Black Powder program at Vicksburg National Battlefield can give you an experience that no other battlefield regularly can.

(Click here to see a firing demonstration from Vicksburg National Military Park, filmed during our Facebook LIVE event with the American Battlefield Trust in May 2018. Here’s a full segment on the black powder program.)

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.

The Sentra Has Landed: A Fresh Start in Vicksburg

ECW is pleased to welcome back Andrew Miller. A historian with the National Park Service, Andrew just accepted a new position at Vicksburg National Military Park. He formerly worked at Liberty Island in New York City.

We arrived in Vicksburg, Mississippi, like a cannon shot—a whirlwind three-day drive that took us from our former front porch in New Rochelle, New York, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then snaking southwest to the Hill City.

On the way, my wife and I had the pleasure of seeing several Civil War sites including meeting the magnanimous Park Ranger and ECW author Lee White of Chickamauga/Chattanooga. (We hope to be back, Lee). 

Our weeks of vacation before entering upon my duties at Vicksburg National Military Park have been a combination of stress and relief. Living out of a suitcase at both a hotel and temporary lodging, as well as eating out almost every night, takes a toll and gets old fast.

But walking the up and down Vicksburg’s streets, observing magnificent antebellum homes, structures, and vistas, immediately helps one understand where they are: the Delta. The Warren County Courthouse alone is worth a visit to Vicksburg. Close by, the Pemberton Headquarters and Balfour houses both transport you back into the campaign to capture the city.

Peering through the windows of the Balfour house (which is a private residence, so the peering was from the street and as nonchalant as a gawking history nerd can be) stirred the events of the Christmas Eve party held by Dr. William and Emma Balfour: Confederate officers resplendent in their finest dress uniforms, beautiful southern belles stunning in every way imaginable, all dancing the night away as Union transport boats descended the Mississippi river to capture the city. This was the beginning of William T. Sherman’s failed Chickasaw Bayou expedition.

Apart from all of the history spanning pre-Columbian to modern industrial, Vicksburg has a wonderfully developing downtown, sprawling from Washington Street. Cute restaurants, a new brewery, and welcoming voices greet you, asking where “y’all from” and also curious why we’d leave New York for Vicksburg.

For those who have never had the opportunity to see the military park here at Vicksburg, they will both impressed with its grandeur and in awe of its monuments, both within the park boundaries and around the city. The fifth national military park, created in 1899 through an Act of Congress, the park roads originally contoured to the siege lines. However, in the 1960s, the city petitioned the National Park Service to transfer some land back in order to allow for development.

Thus, as you drive around Vicksburg, the south side of the original park has considerable commercial and residential development. Yet, this alone cannot diminish the magnificence of this battlefield gem. Traveling the siege lines and walking the grounds allows one to find oneself, to quote the Civil War historian Steve Phan, “soulfully lost on the battlefield.”

Civil War Medical History at Ellwood

Check out this exciting opportunity at Ellwood on the Wilderness battlefield by our friends at the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield this weekend.

Civil War Medical History at Ellwood
 
(Note: This event is in conjunction with our dinner at the Generals Quarters on June 15. There are a few tickets left so hurry and make your reservation if you have not already done so! You may RSVP on our website below.)
 
Saturday, June 16, 2018 
10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
and 
Sunday, June 17, 2018
10:00 AM – 3:00 PM
 
Special presentation at 1:00 P.M.Saturday, June 16.
(Please bring a lawn chair!)
 
Guided Walking Tours on Saturday, June 16, at 11:30 A.M. and 2:30 P.M.
 
Civil War Medical History Event at Ellwood Manor!
Please join us on Saturday and Sunday, June 16 – 17, 2018, for demonstrations by Living Historians regarding medical practices during the American Civil War.  Medicine and surgery methods are a captivating – and often misunderstood – aspect of the Civil War. Living Historians representing the 2nd Corps Hospital Unit (CSA) will be on site all day Saturday, and until 3:00 PM on Sunday, to talk with visitors about various facets of the Civil War medical and hospital procedures and address some of the common misconceptions of the care and treatment of Civil War soldiers.
Special programs will also be offered on Saturday, June 16.  Join us at 1:00 P.M. for a presentation discussing the wounding of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Civil War Medicine in general, and Ellwood as a Confederate Convalescent Hospital following the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863.  Jackson was the most famous of the thousands of wounded Confederate soldiers treated at the Wilderness Tavern and Ellwood hospital complex during and immediately after the fighting at Chancellorsville. After the vast majority of the casualties were evacuated to points further south days after the battle ended, those so badly injured that they might not survive the trip remained at Ellwood for up to several months. Please bring a comfortable lawn chair and a bottle of water to ensure your comfort at the presentation.
Guided walking tours to the Wilderness Tavern hospital site and the Wilderness Crossroads will also be offered on Saturday at 11:30 A.M. and approximately 2:30 P.M., following the 1:00 P.M. program. General Jackson’s left arm was amputated near the tavern after his wounding at Chancellorsville. The tour takes approximately an hour and fifteen minutes and begins at the small fence just behind the house.  It is approximately 1.5 miles in length over unpaved terrain. Visitors will see parts of historic road traces of the Orange Turnpike, Germanna Plank Road, and the Ellwood Carriage Road, as well as crossing over the Wilderness Run on a solid wooden footbridge.  Sturdy walking shoes and appropriate hiking clothes are recommended, as well as using sunscreen, insect repellent, and bringing along a bottle of water.
Friends of Wilderness Battlefield will be available to assist visitors with possible ancestral connections with the Battle of the Wilderness or to Ellwood, in the Heritage Program Tent on the grounds.
The historic structure Ellwood will be open from 10:00 A.M. – 5:00 P.M. and FoWB interpreters will be available to talk with visitors and answer questions.
All programs are free and open to the public.
Ellwood Manor is a circa 1790 house within Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.  The cemetery contains the grave of Confederate General  “Stonewall” Jackson’s amputated arm from the Battle of Chancellorsville, and the house was a Federal headquarters during the Battle of the Wilderness.  Ellwood Manor is owned by the National Park Service. Friends of Wilderness Battlefield is pleased to steward the property in partnership with the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. For more information or directions, please visit us at the following link:
 

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.

National Park Records Release

The National Park Service this week released decades of park records for public search and use. Their press release reads as follows:

The National Park Service (NPS) today unveils a newly launched public website: pubs.etic.nps.gov that is making more than 32,000 NPS records available to the public. Academic researchers, students, history enthusiasts, educators, and the like will discover a multitude of collections. For example, the collection contains such important documents as the original drawings of the main immigration building at Ellis Island National Monument, a  concessionaire shop in 1933 at Muir Woods National Monument, and historical documents of Alcatraz Island.

NPS created the site to accommodate the public’s need to access NPS drawings and documents in a convenient, user-friendly, digital way. Users looking to draft historical studies, project planning, or studying natural and cultural resources will now find a plethora of robust resources at their fingertips. “Our collections represent the National Park Service’s commitment to the preservation of unique places and resources held for future generations by documenting our past, present, and anticipated endeavors,” said Ray Todd, Denver Service Center Director. “The public can now easily discover a treasure trove of American history with just a few clicks on their computer keyboard or mobile device.”

The Technical Information Center (TIC) at the NPS Denver Service Center (DSC) is the oldest and largest information system in the National Park Service. TIC is the central repository for proper retention, access, and disposition of NPS records that include drawings, specifications, scientific, and technical reports. The Denver Service Center works closely with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to deposit required NPS records for preservation.

For more details, visit the public eTIC website at pubs.etic.nps.gov

I spent some time this weekend going through the site, and the search function is easy to use. A lot of old park plans are there, including several 1940 plans for the battlefields which were overtaken by the Second World War.

Over two-thirds of the national parks are historic in nature, covering the colonial period into the 21st Century. This database is an important resource and will no doubt be of much use.