Preservation Opportunity in the Western Theater

Our friends at the Civil War Trust sent along this announcement and opportunity to preserve more battlefield ground in the Western Theater. Continue reading for more information about this opportunity and how you can get involved.

“With the exception of Virginia, no state endured more significant Civil War battles than Tennessee. It was in Tennessee — during the war’s early stages — where Gen. Ulysses S. Grant first gained national recognition by demanding and securing the “unconditional surrender” of a Confederate army at Fort Donelson. In 1863, the nation’s gaze was again fixed upon the Volunteer State as Union and Confederate troops vied for control of Chattanooga. And it was in Tennessee that Gen. John Bell Hood launched a last-ditch effort to strike back at the Yankees, resulting in inconceivable suffering at Franklin and ultimate defeat at Nashville.

In recognition of the state’s importance during our nation’s defining conflict, you and I have already saved 3,491 acres in Tennessee, allowing future generations to walk the ground where history was made.

Today, we have the opportunity to save an additional 15 acres at three battlefields in Tennessee: Fort Donelson, Brown’s Ferry (near Chattanooga), and Franklin. We will be adding to the 639 acres we have already saved at these three battlefields—more tiles in the mosaic of Tennessee’s rich Civil War heritage. Thanks to a magnificent $21.17-to-$1 match, you and I can save this land—worth a combined total of $1.5 million—for just $73,250!

Help us build on our previous successes in Tennessee and save these three Tennessee battlefields.

’Til the Battle is Won,

Jim Lighthizer, President
Civil War Trust

P.S. Please join our efforts to save 15 acres at Fort Donelson, Brown’s Ferry, and Franklin. 

An Unusual Valentine: Elmer E. Ellsworth, Esquire

Elmer Ellsworth about 1860

Every biography or biographical article about not-yet-colonel Elmer Ellsworth says the same thing: It is not known if Ellsworth passed, or even took, the Illinois State Bar Examination. I know this is not a bombshell issue for most people, but some of us care. I care. And, I am working like a madwoman to finish up my biography of Colonel Ellsworth before the next full eclipse of the sun. So imagine my surprise when . . .

March 30, 2017–the news breaks. “Joint Secretary of State & Supreme Court Restoration Project of Illinois Attorney Oaths Complete” is the headline of the For Immediate Release memo from the desk of Jesse White, Secretary of State for the great state of Illinois. This, apparently, had been a long-term project that sought to discover, restore, and preserve the attorney oaths for the Illinois Supreme Court. “Approximately 142,000 oaths, some preceding the Civil War, have been restored,” according to White. As explained in the memo, signing the Attorney Oath is the final step a newly minted lawyer takes before practicing law in Illinois. One must pass the bar exam before signing this oath.

The project was begun in 2009 and took until last year to complete. The Illinois Supreme Court was preparing to completely restore their building and needed a place to keep the court records while this was happening. Carolyn Taft Grosboll, current clerk of the Court stated, “Among the records were these historic oaths, so we contacted the State Archives. The State Archives graciously agreed not only to store the oaths for the Court but also to restore them.”[1] Most were in good condition, but some had been affected by mold or deteriorated by water damage. The amazing archivists in Illinois were able to restore almost all the badly damaged oaths using modern techniques, including the digitalization of some of the badly eroded signatures.

Clarence Darrow

Among the oaths in the Supreme Court’s collection are those for famed attorney Clarence Darrow, former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Robinson Obama, former U.S. Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens and Arthur Goldberg, 12 U.S. Senators, 12 Illinois governors, 59 Illinois Supreme Court justices and five Chicago mayors. Oaths from attorneys licensed before the Civil War, such as Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, were incorporated into the law license itself; therefore, no separate oaths for Lincoln and Douglas are included in this collection.[2]

And whom else did they find? Yes. Elmer Ellsworth. In 1860, Ellsworth began studying law with Abraham Lincoln, although he had studied with a couple of other men in Chicago before leaving with the Chicago Zouave Cadet Tour in the summer of 1860. Lincoln asked Ellsworth personally to study in Springfield at his law office. During the time he worked there, he became friends with Lincoln secretaries George Nicolay and John Hay, Mary Lincoln, the Lincoln children, and many of the movers and shakers in the Illinois political scene. Ellsworth worked the Republican Convention in Chicago for the Lincoln supporters, he walked with Mr. Lincoln to cast his vote in the presidential election, and he celebrated with the Lincolns on the night of Lincoln’s election.

History left an Ellsworthian blank between November 6, 1860, and February 11, 1861,

Lincoln in Illinois

when Elmer Ellsworth accompanied Lincoln on the Inaugural Express train from Springfield to Washington. We know that before Ellsworth left, he presented a bill for the organization of the Illinois State Militia to the state legislature. It passed several reviews and committees, but was never brought to a vote because within weeks of Lincoln’s inauguration, Fort Sumter had been fired on, and all available militia members were being asked to go to Washington.

Now, the blank has been filled in–between November 6 and February 11 Elmer Ellsworth was passing the bar exam in Illinois, and we have proof! A letter was found from Judge Pickney Walker to the Clerk of the Supreme Court William Turney that said to create a law license for Ellsworth. On the back of the letter is a note by Turney saying that the license was sent. Elmer Ellsworth’s documentation allowing him to practice law in Illinois became official on February 14, 1861. Now we know.


John Lupton

I will be interviewing John Lupton of the Illinois Supreme Court Historical Preservation Commission in the next couple of months for Mr. Lupton worked with me to get all the right documents signed that permit me to tell this story, and it is only because people like Mr. Lupton exist that the tiny-but-strong unifying threads of the past are able to be teased out of the huge historical knot we love so well. Stay tuned!


Happy Valentine’s Day.


[2] Ibid.

Preservation Groups: The Richmond Battlefields Association

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Bernie Fisher, president of the RBA about the history and accomplishments of the local preservation organization.

The RBA was established in 2001. Julie and Bob Krick provided the spark as a small group got together to protect battlefields in the Richmond area from rapidly encroaching commercial and residential development. The original group contained members such as Claude Foster, Robert K. Krick, Hobson Goddin, William Miller, Don Pierce ad the late Brian Pohanka. An advisory committee was established and included an amazing group: Ed Bearss, Gordon Rhea, Peter Carmichael, Ernest Furgurson, Richard Sommers, Gary Gallagher and others!

The team got right to work. In 2002 they collected donations and were able to purchase 10 acres at Fort Harrison. As the RBA says on its website, this was “poetic justice,” because Douglas Southall Freeman and his friends saved the first Richmond battlefield there in the 1920’s. The pressure to save more land was growing. In the 1990’s the National Park Service owned one acre of land at Glendale, and housing developments were pressing in. In 2006 and 2007 RBA collected $257,000 and purchased a key portion of the battlefield. For this effort the CWPT (now the Civil War Trust) named them the 2007 Preservation Organization of the Year. The CWT joined in a big way and virtually the entire battlefield has now been saved. As Bob Krick said, this was unprecedented… an entire Civil War battlefield saved from scratch!

After his passing, the late Brian Pohanka’s estate donated $500,000 to the RBA, and his donation became the seed money for some great efforts. With matching funds, private donations and grants, the organization moved to Second Deep Bottom, where it has now saved 57 acres.  Once again the CWT joined in, and now 200 acres of this battlefield have been preserved. At Beaver Dam Creek a parcel over which part of A.P. Hill’s attack took place was saved. Other small pieces of land were purchased at Ware Bottom Church and at West Point.

In 2011 the RBA saved the first piece of land at Gaines’s Mill to be preserved in over 80 years. The parcel was part of the ground over which John Bell Hood and his Texas Brigade made their famous charge that helped to break the Federal lines. A monument to the brigade now stands on the site, which has since been transferred to the Richmond National Battlefield Park. Momentum began to build, and the Civil War Trust has stepped in and purchased several hundred key acres. This is another battlefield that has grown exponentially over the past few years.

The group cultivates good relations with local landowners and governments; a key to their success. In 2008 they received a call from a friend who noticed that a house was being sold on Beulah Church Road, the site of heavy action at Cold Harbor on June 1st and 3rd, 1864. The RBA was able to secure a loan from the Civil War Trust, augmented by matching funds from the Commonwealth of Virginia, and has saved 18 acres on the site. In recent years the CWT has joined in and the Cold Harbor Battlefield, like Gaines’s Mill, has grown from a small preserved area to one significantly larger, allowing for greatly enhanced interpretation.

At Fort Harrison, Glendale, Second Deep Bottom, Gaines’s Mill and Cold Harbor, the RBA has demonstrated that a small local group can be the kick-starter for spectacular preservation efforts. Like other local groups around the country, their eyes and ears are close to the ground, and with their relationships, they can spot opportunities quickly. This is absolutely essential if available lands are to be saved from development. If you are interested in learning more about the RBA, or have an interest in joining them, check out their website at You are encouraged to get involved with a local organization, no matter where you might live. Their work is important, and future generations will be grateful.

Haw’s Shop Battlefield

The picture above shows another preservation opportunity; it’s Haw’s Shop, the location of a large cavalry battle in 1864. It would great to save this land before it’s lost forever!




Preservation News: CVBT Announces Preservation Award Recipient

Our friends at the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust have recently released their Winter 2017-2018 newsletter, On the skirmish line. In this latest issue, they share the news of the recent recipient of their Dr. Michael P. Stevens Preservation Award, D.P. Newton. Keep reading below for the full story on this exciting announcement.

“The CVBT Board of Directors chose D.P. Newton to be the recipient of its Dr. Michael P. Stevens Preservation Award, which was created to recognize an individual or an organization that has made a significant and sustained contribution to our understanding of Civil War history. The recipient does not get to keep the award itself, which remains in the CVBT office, but they do get to keep a $1,000 contribution to that individual or organization.

We have said this before, but it bears repeating. The cash award does not come from CVBT member donations. Instead, it comes exclusively from the CVBT board itself, our way of honoring Dr. Mike. The recipients can use those funds in any way they see fit, although most use them to continue their respective preservation missions.

D.P. Newton is a native of Stafford County, Virginia who made his living as a waterman.
In his off-time, he explored the many places around his home that were associated with the Civil War, but he did more than just casually get out-and about with a metal detector. He has systematically and methodically recovered artifacts from thousands of hut holes in hundreds of Union winter camps, and developed maps and notes that are a significant resource for additional study. He has also explored the vast Federal supply depot at Aquia Creek Landing, as well as the shore batteries along the Potomac River that effectively blocked maritime access to Washington D.C. and which were subsequently shelled by the Union navy.

A lifetime of metal detecting provided a substantial collection of artifacts, some of them quite rare, and D.P. eventually decided to present them to the public. He worked diligently to adapt an old brick school house into a museum, whose setting is also of interest. The school house, now a museum, sits across the road from White Oak Church, a
sanctuary that dates back to Colonial days. The Union Sixth Corps had its camp in the White Oak area during the winter of 1862-63.

As for the museum itself, visitors can see the usual collection of bullets, belt buckles, projectiles, bottles, bayonets, etc., but there is so much more. As an example, D.P. has re-established a camp site, with three winter huts, in intricate detail. He displays a collection of coins and medallions that were adapted by soldiers to be identification tags. He has a section of timbers from an actual corduroy road. He found almost every piece of a 13-inch mortar round, fired from a Union naval vessel at one of the Stafford shore batteries. He built a replica cannon, in exact detail, that greets visitors at the museum entrance.

And then there are the maps and the notes. There are those relic hunters who find their metal artifacts and move on. D.P. Newton would take the extra steps to make sure that what he found in the field would be useful to other types of research. The White Oak Museum houses D.P.’s documentation of the camps he has searched and the historic sites he has explored. D.P. Newton has done a phenomenal job in establishing the means to display a lifetime of dedicated work and research. We are all the richer for his efforts and it is the CVBT’s great pleasure to recognize him with our Dr. Michael P. Stevens
Preservation Award. SL”

A Conversation with Dave Ruth, Richmond’s Retiring Superintendent (part five)

(part five of five)

We conclude today my interview with Dave Ruth, who starts 2018 as the former superintendent of Richmond National Battlefield. Dave retired at the beginning of this week after a 44-year career with the National Park Service, including the last 26 in Richmond.

“One of the things that I never figured out was how to deal with my impatience,” Dave told me early in the interview. As we get ready to wrap up, I wanted to circle back to that statement. 

CHRIS MACKOWSKI: I want to tie back to a comment you said early on: one of your own challenges is your own impatience. But this all—everything we’ve been talking about—just strikes me as an incredible “long game” that you have been playing and working and been extremely patient with. That’s amazing to me.

DAVE RUTH: Well, I think it’s not so much patience as it is persistence. One of the things I’ve learned is that because of public response and the difficulty we had initially at expanding our boundaries, we could have taken the tack of “It’s just not worth it. At this moment in time, the sentiment is so negative, there’s too much potential damage, and it’s not worth it.” We wanted instant gratification even then, but the reality was that it’s a long game.

It became clearly apparent to me that we’re in it for the “500-year game” and couldn’t just look at it as what we were going to create in the next two or three years, but we had to look at what it could be in 100 or 500 years, and that’s how we have to manage it. With persistence, we look at what we absolutely need—we don’t know when the acquisition opportunities are going to occur or even if they will, but we have to indicate our interest to buy what we can as soon as we can and then figure out how to get the sites open.

Also I don’t worry about how we can afford to maintain the new areas we do acquire. Maybe I should, but our maintenance staff works hard and they work smart. When we acquire fields that are currently farmed, we keep hem in agriculture and put the leasing revenue back into maintenance and resource protection.

CM: I think the story you’ve shared about the park’s growth has been a remarkable achievement, and an incredible testimony to great leadership and vision. As we get ready to wrap up, as you get ready to retire, do you have any regrets?

DR: Any regrets about retirement? I’ll have to figure out what to wear each morning. [laughs, indicating his Park Service uniform].

I have a lot of regrets. I have grown to love this agency more than I ever imagined I would. A lot of my colleagues feel a great amount of frustration due to dwindling budgets and the absolute nightmare of trying to hire great people—and there are many great ones looking to work for this agency. But I love the mission of the National Park Service. I will miss the interaction with the public. I think most of the things we’ve talked about today in terms of land acquisition have been wonderful.

But putting in an electronic map program at Cold Harbor, installing it and watching visitors walk in and say, “My gosh, I really now understand what happened here!”—there’s nothing more satisfying than to realize we made a momentous change in a person’s understanding of the story or in some way provided a way for them to make a personal connection or even locate where their ancestor fought and might have been wounded or even killed. We can’t underestimate the power of genealogical connections in these places. I will miss all that tremendously.

But I will relish greater opportunities for more writing projects, and maybe that will help to offset what I’ll miss in the agency and the people I work with, either indirectly or directly.

I’ve had many mentors along the way in the National Park system that have helped me in my career, and from all over the country, not just the battlefield circuit. I’ve had many friends that I’ve developed in Glacier, or Yellowstone, or Yosemite, and I’m very fortunate to be able to call them with a dilemma, a question, or a challenge, and together we work through it. One of the strengths in the agency is the kind of folks that work for NPS, extremely dedicated folks who are not in this game to get rich. The beneficiaries of this work are the American public who are richer because of the experiences and opportunities our staff provides. That may sound egotistic, but I truly believe that.

Preservation News: Cold Harbor

The Cold Harbor battlefield is the most popular of the many sites in the Richmond National Battlefield Park. This is probably due to several factors, which include the preserved earthworks (impressive) or the legend that 7,000 men were killed in 15 minutes (incorrect). In 1864, the battlefield extended roughly 7 miles. The frustrating thing for visitors and interpreters alike has been that that until recently only a small portion of the battlefield was preserved and open to the public. The Park contained a small visitor center and was positioned roughly at the center of the battlefield; however it was not the scene of the most vicious fighting that occurred on June 3, 1864. One thing the Park did have was a portion of the generally unappreciated action that took place on June 1.

The campaign that led to the slaughter at Cold Harbor encompassed many other sites in the area. As the Union army moved towards Richmond there were actions at Haw’s Shop, Enon Church, Totopotomoy Creek, Bethesda Church, Matadequin Creek and the Old Cold Harbor crossroads. All of these were outside of the Park’s jurisdiction, making effective interpretation challenging.

In the 1990’s Hanover County saved a parcel of land adjacent to and east of the Garthright House, situated along Cold Harbor Road. The County developed a park with a walking trail to commemorate the battle. The walk is recommended.

Things really began to change in 2006 when a developer, Andy Shields, and the Richmond National Battlefield Park teamed up to preserve the 18th Century Shelton House and surrounding 124 acres at Rural Plains in Hanover County.  Itself an important piece of history, the house sits on part of the Totopotomoy Creek battlefield, and it witnessed the action in the area during the end of May. On the 29th  Francis Barlow’s division arrived at the house, and Major General Winfield Scott Hancock made his headquarters under the eastern porch. On the 30th there was significant action, with the Federals suffering roughly 300 casualties. The house was hit by Confederate artillery fire approximately 50 times. Preservation efforts at the house are ongoing, but the battlefield is open to the public, and the house is open during the summer on weekends.

A short distance away is the site of the historic Pole Green Church, which was destroyed by Confederate artillery fire during the Totopotomoy Creek action. The site is preserved by a local group, and includes a small portion of the battlefield.

Around 2010, the Richmond Battlefield Association purchased a tract of land on Beulah Church Road. This was the site of action on June 1 and June 3, and was the beginning of spectacular growth near the original Cold Harbor site. Soon the Civil War Trust purchased a tract adjacent to the RBA land. The work of the RBA and CWT, combined with part of the original Park site, enables the story of the critical action on June 1 to be more clearly told. Now visitors can appreciate the significance of the actions of that day, which led directly to the more famous June 3 battle. It was also was the path of many of the VI and XVIII Corps attackers on the morning of June 3. As their comrades attacked across this field, wounded men streamed back across the blood-soaked field. This is truly sacred ground.

Earlier this year the Trust acquired a 51-acre tract that contained the fortification called Fletcher’s Redoubt. It is not yet open to the public, but when it is, the events that followed the June 3 battle will come more into focus. Visitors will better be able to understand the breadth of action at Cold Harbor. While many people previously might have only associated Cold Harbor with the June 3 battle, the armies remained in the filthy, sweltering and deadly trenches here for nearly two weeks, afraid to even raise their heads for fear of getting shot.

Now the Trust is acquiring 55 additional acres. One day in the future, visitors will be able to walk from the visitor center all the way to Beulah Church Road. They will have an enhanced appreciation for the June 1st actions and a better understanding why Grant chose to attack on June 3rd. They will be able to walk the ground of the men who attacked on June 1 and 3.

This is a great opportunity to save a critical piece of a major battlefield, and it is one we cannot afford to slip by. The story is too important not to be remembered. Please be sure to make a donation to the Trust to save this key piece of the Cold Harbor battlefield! Future generations will thank you.

Map courtesy of the Civil War Trust. Prepared by Steven Stanley.

On this map, the yellow portions indicate the parcels the Trust is attempting to acquire. You can readily understand their significance. Other tracts include the blue one at the top of the page… this is the Fletcher’s Redoubt area. The other areas in blue are all CWT land. The brown piece labeled “Marston” is the Richmond National Battlefield piece. At the bottom of the map, the brown area is the land preserved by Hanover County. To the left, the large area (“Wofford”) is the original Richmond National Battlefield Park land. This map is particularly exciting because it shows how a battlefield can be preserved, piece-by-piece. Thanks to the Civil War Trust and the Richmond Battlefields Association, sites all over the Richmond area have been preserved during the past 20 years. It has been an amazing accomplishment!