Thursday, October 9, 2014

A Visit to 1862 Battlefields and Return Trip to Cold Harbor

This past weekend I attended wedding festivities in the Richmond area. Having a little "down time" before the ceremony on Saturday, I managed to secure a "free pass" to tour some Civil War battlegrounds not far from our hotel. My father-in-law (a.k.a. "the Colonel") was nice enough to accompany me, and we were soon on our way to visit a few sites belonging to the Richmond National Battlefield Park.

As followers of my Facebook and Twitter feeds have probably seen by now, I first stopped to explore Beaver Dam Creek and Gaines' Mill. I've always been more of an early war enthusiast, so I was excited to finally tour the location of two of the Seven Days' Battles. Much of the Beaver Dam Creek field is unfortunately lost, but the National Park Service has saved a key piece of the terrain along the stream. Gaines' Mill was more extensively preserved, and I walked the loop trail with the Colonel to get a feel for the Union position and Confederate assaults, including John B. Hood's famous attack. We were really the only people out on the battlefields that morning, which provided time for quiet reflection and study.

A view across Beaver Dam Creek. At this location on June 26, 1862, Confederate troops under A.P. Hill and D.H. Hill attacked a brigade of Pennsylvania Reserves positioned on the east bank (left). The modern footbridge crosses the creek and takes visitors to the traces of the historic Cold Harbor Road and the site of the Union line near Ellerson's Mill (now gone).

The Watt House served as HQ for the Union V Corps commander, Gen. Fitz John Porter, during the Battle of Gaines' Mill on June 27, 1862.

Looking down the slope towards Boatswain's Swamp at Gaines' Mill. Late on June 27, Confederate regiments under Hood charged up this hill and helped to break the Federal line as part of a massive frontal assault by Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Looking at the position of the 5th Massachusetts Battery at Gaines' Mill. Confederate soldiers, including Hood's brigade, surged across the field from the right and overwhelmed the Union line. Overall, the Federals lost 23 guns at Gaines' Mill. A desperate charge by the 5th U.S. Cavalry failed to halt the onslaught.

Being so close, I also decided to return to the Cold Harbor battlefield, which I had visited back at the end of May for the 150th anniversary of the battle. Part of my tour this summer focused on finding the ground where my ancestor, Pvt. William Baumgarten of the 102nd Pennsylvania, fought on June 3, 1864. (For details of the 102nd's role, see my previous post.) Readers may remember that my iPhone lost power, and I was unable to snap pictures just as I was placing the 102nd Pennsylvania's position.  I also went to Cold Harbor National Cemetery back in May, but once again, couldn't take any photos. Not so this past weekend. I made sure that my phone was fully charged and set out to capture some meaningful images related to William's participation in the battle.
The 102nd Pennsylvania advanced on the Confederate line over ground to the northwest of Tour Stop 3 (courtesy of National Park Service).
Looking towards the area where the 102nd Pennsylvania likely advanced on June 3, 1864.

The Pennsylvania Monument stands guard over graves at the Cold Harbor National Cemetery. 
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania erected the monument in 1909 to honor those regiments from the Keystone State "which participated in the operations from May 31 to June 12, 1864, incident to and during the Battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia, June 1-3, 1864."

One side of the Pennsylvania Monument lists the infantry regiments that fought at Cold Harbor, including. . .
. . . the 102nd Pennsylvania.

The morning tour of three battlefields was a pleasant surprise. When I left for Richmond last Friday, I wasn't sure whether I'd have the chance to visit some of the nearby Civil War sites. In the end, not only did I get to see two 1862 battlefields for the first time, but I also had the opportunity to reconnect with my family's Civil War past at Cold Harbor way earlier than I had anticipated. Not bad for a bit of spare time before attending a wedding. Then again, such things are often possible in the Commonwealth!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Trip to Honor My Ancestor for the 150th of Third Winchester

On Saturday morning I eagerly got behind the wheel and drove an hour west to attend a special descendants' reception at the Old Court House Civil War Museum in Winchester, hosted by the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation (SVBF) on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Third Winchester. This unique Sesquicentennial event, entitled "Don't Forget That I Did My Duty," brought together individuals whose ancestors had fought on both sides of the battle.

As readers may recall, I've written several times about Pvt. William Baumgarten, who served with Co. K, 102nd Pennsylvania throughout the bloody eastern campaigns of 1864. William was part of Phil Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah and participated at Third Winchester, where he was wounded slightly in the left leg. A few days later, at Fisher's Hill, William was wounded again -- this time in the left hand.

Excerpt from the Pittsburgh Daily Gazette & Advertiser, Oct. 6, 1864, showing William Baumgarten among those soldiers of the 102nd Pennsylvania wounded at Third Winchester (courtesy of Vince of the Lancaster at War blog). William's last name is misspelled here, something with which I am all too familiar!

Before going to the reception, I decided to "retrace" the footsteps of William's unit. The 102nd Pennsylvania belonged to Frank Wheaton's brigade (1st), George Getty's division (2nd), of the VI Corps. Thanks to Craig Swain's legwork, I had a good idea of where the regiment advanced against Stephen Ramseur's Confederates. On the map below, Getty's division moved east to west across the land south of the Berryville Turnpike (VA-7), parallel to and along today's Valley Mill Rd. (CR-659).

Unfortunately, much of this part of the battlefield has been forever lost to residential development. I drove along Rt. 7 through the Berryville Canyon and turned down Greenwood Rd. (CR-656) onto Valley Mill Rd. In a general sense I followed the path of Getty's men, including the 102nd Pennsylvania, but couldn't really get much of a feel for the wartime appearance of the land. And the actual ground where the 102nd marched is likely somewhere among all those homes you see on the map. I wasn't going to risk trespass charges or dog bites to walk where William may have fought, so I had to remain satisfied with an overall tour of that area of the battlefield.

Looking south from Valley Mill Rd.  near VA-7 towards the general vicinity where the 102nd Pennsylvania and other units of Getty's division advanced. This view is one of the few that is less cluttered by modern development, although housetops are visible in the distance.
Following my battlefield "tour," I arrived at the Old Court House Civil War Museum, where I joined the growing crowd of descendants. Based on a show of hands at the start of the morning's program, Union and Confederate soldiers were represented in near equal numbers, and a few people even had ancestors who fought on both sides. Given the need to find a seat and keep it, I wasn't able to mingle as much as I wanted to. Nevertheless, I had an opportunity to meet two men whose family members had served with the 60th Virginia, as well as the descendant of a soldier from the 14th New Hampshire.

Kevin Walker, SVBF CEO, addresses descendants at the Old Court House Civil War Museum. Following the presentations, attendees were given free admittance to the museum's extensive collection of Civil War artifacts.

Kevin Walker, the CEO of the SVBF, kicked off the program. Calling us all "VIP guests," he observed that the descendants were "the closest thing we have" to the actual soldiers who participated in Third Winchester being there for the 150th. I looked around the room and was overcome by emotion. Here we were, a direct link through blood (or DNA, as one speaker put it) to those who had battled at Third Winchester. We all cared enough to take the time out of our busy lives to honor our distant family members who had sacrificed so much. And even though our ancestors may have shot at each other 150 years ago, today we all sat together in the same room, more alike than different, and all Americans.

A few other speakers also addressed the crowd. Gen. Duncan Campbell, SVBF Membership Ambassador, discussed his own family's ties to the battle. SVBF Chairman Emeritus Nicholas Picerno focused on the 29th Maine at Third Winchester. An avid collector of Civil War artifacts, he brought along some objects belonging to those who had participated in the battle. Picerno also told the story of the fight to preserve the Third Winchester battlefield. His group successfully saved the Middle Field, but developers beat them to most of the ground where the VI Corps was engaged.

Picerno had several of his artifacts on display, including this frock coat worn by Maj. William Knowlton of the 29th Maine, who was killed on the Middle Field at Third Winchester.
Following the program, the descendants posed for a formal group photograph on the Old Court House steps. We also broke into state groupings. These individuals all had ancestors who served with Virginia regiments. I had my picture taken with the Pennsylvania group, many of whom had ancestors with the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry.
All attendees received this Third Winchester Reunion ribbon, intended to replicated the ribbons worn by veterans at their reunions after the war.

My participation in the descendant reception felt like a proper way to commemorate William Baumgarten's service during the battle and the war. However, I often had a sense that something was missing. I wanted to know William -- What did he sound like? What was his personality? Why did he fight? When and how was he wounded? What did he write to the folks back home? I also wondered what William would have thought about the event that attracted so many descendants of both sides. Would he have been honored to know that I was here, 150 years later, recalling his sacrifice? In the end, I can never know. But I left the reception satisfied that I was able to represent William and remember his part fighting for the Union and freedom at Third Winchester and elsewhere.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Stinging Indictment of the Government Farms in Northern Virginia, July 1864

Earlier this summer I wrote about the state of Northern Virginia's contraband camps in Northern Virginia in June 1864. The Friends' Association for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen compiled a report on some of the camps that the Union Army had established on abandoned secessionist properties in the Old Dominion the previous year. The group took an overall positive view of developments on the government farms, although recognized the need for more improvements.

Not long afterwards, the War Department also decided to take a closer look at the farms, as well as the new contraband camp on Mason's Island and Freedman's Village on Robert E. Lee's Arlington estate. The department was footing the bill for the camps and surely wanted to assess the merits of the undertaking. On July 20, 1864, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered officers working for the Union Army's Inspector General to conduct an investigation of  Freedman's Village and "all matters pertaining to the organization and control of the Freedmen in the Dept. of Washington." (in Berlin et al. 345.)

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Majors Elisha H. Ludington and Charles E. Compton began the inspection in earnest. On July 30, 1864 they sent their final report to Col. James A. Hardie, the Army Inspector General. The report, which stood in stark contrast to the Friends' optimistic assessment, sent shock waves throughout the Union military. 

Ludington and Compton examined the five government farms in Northern Virginia, comprising some 1,270 acres under cultivation. [1] They noted that the land was "of poor, thin soil, for the most part." (340.) Moreover, "[w]hen occupied it was without fences and overgrown with bush," so that "it was necessary to clear and fence it, with heavy expenditure." (340.) The two assistant inspectors general observed some positive developments after a year of operation:
These Farms appear well, the crops are fair, the employees comfortably cared for, and in all respects the farms compare favorably with others in the vicinity. (340.)
Nevertheless, they determined that the farms exhibited "a loss to Government of an alarmingly large sum," which they calculated to be $69,000 over the course of 13 months. (340-41.) As Ludington and Compton interpreted the accounts:
The expense of the Guard alone amounts to three fourths of the whole receipts. For wages alone there is paid within 3000$ as much as all the farms yield. And yet the crop is put at the highest estimate in amount, and valued at present extraordinary prices. (341.)
The report sharply criticized the entire endeavor, concluding that "[o]nly a very wealthy government can afford such expensive toys." (341.) (emphasis added.)

Freedman's Village and Mason's Island did not fare any better in the inspectors' eyes. In fact, the inspectors found conditions so "disgraceful" on Mason's Island that they recommended that Rev. Danforth B. Nichols, Superintendent of Freedmen for the Department, be removed from his position for his alleged mismanagement of the new camp. (343.)

Even in terms of non-material benefits, Ludington and Compton had nothing positive to add about the Army's efforts:
We fail to discover any improvements in the character or conduct of the Adults. Judging from what we saw, they are of the most ignorant class of slaves. Few have knowledge of any labor above field labor, and are but little skilled even in that. Their erroneous idea that "emancipation" signifies a claim upon Government for support in idleness, has been confirmed rather than corrected. (342.)
The two inspectors singled out Lt. Col. Elias Greene's "theories" about the camps  for particular scorn. (342.) Greene, the Chief Quartermaster of the Department of Washington, was instrumental in the establishment and organization of the camps, and they were managed under his direction. The inspectors rejected outright his policy of refusing to bind out adult contrabands unless their children could accompany them:
This cannot be maintained on principles of humanity, for these people are seldom married -- have little idea of training children, and cannot hope to give them such advantages as are afforded by the Schools at the "Village." Moreover, the necessities of the times compel separations. . . . Nearly every women being burdened with children lessens the chances of her employment. (342-43.)
The inspectors' utter disregard for families seemed no better than the views held by the freedpersons' former masters.

Not surprisingly, Ludington and Compton called for an overhaul of the entire system. They recommended that most women be sent to work in "those portions of our Country where labor is greatly demanded, taking with them their children under 4 years of age." (343-44.) However, hearkening back to their views on separation of families, the inspectors advised that children from 4 to 14 should be held back, supported, and educated "out of the [government's] Contraband Fund." (344.) With respect to the government farms scattered across Northern Virginia, they urged that "all farming operations be discontinued as soon as the present crop is secured." (344.)
Col. James A. Hardie, Army Inspector General (courtesy of Wikipedia).

After landing on the Inspector General's desk, Hardie endorsed and forwarded the damning report to the Secretary of War. On August 4, Stanton sent the document to Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs. The inspectors had challenged nearly all of Greene's efforts to deal with the contraband problem around the nation's capital, and coming days would bring both controversy and change.

Up Next

Meigs rushes to the defense of his subordinate.


I am grateful to the historians of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project who compiled the primary source documents referenced here in Ira Berlin et al., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, Selected from the Holdings of the National Archives of the United States, Series I, Volume II, The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South (1993).


[1] The five contraband farms were likely Camps Beckwith, Rucker, Springdale, Todd, and Wadsworth.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lydia Atkinson Arrives in the Old Dominion to Teach at Camp Wadsworth

During the spring and summer of 1864, the Friends' Association for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen became an integral part of relief efforts in the contraband camps across Northern Virginia. One facet of the group's activities involved the appointment of teachers to educate former slaves living in the camps. The Friends' Association was appalled by reports of child labor abuses on the government farm at Camp Wadsworth and in June 1864 sought to remedy the situation by sending a teacher there. As I have written in previous posts, the Friends' Association chose 20-year-old Lydia T. Atkinson of New Jersey to serve as the teacher at the camp near Langley.

A few months ago I discovered that the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College has Atkinson's diary from the period that she was teaching in Northern Virginia. I wrote to obtain copies and received excepts a few weeks later. I wanted to share with readers some impressions that Atkinson recorded around the time that she began her charitable work in Northern Virginia.

At the end of July 1864, Atkinson's father accompanied her to Philadelphia, where she planned to take an overnight train to Washington. As Atkinson bid her dad farewell, she felt overcome by the pain of separation:
Ah, not until that last sad parting came, did I realize how great a trial it was to leave all that was dearest to me behind. It was hard to leave my home and mother yet father was with me then, but when his dear form was really lost to sight -- it seemed for a moment as though I must spring apart and implore him not to leave me! (Diary, July 24, 1864.)
Following a visit with some friends, Atkinson headed to the depot and boarded the train, which was soon "speeding away towards Washington." (Diary, July 24, 1864.)  According to the teacher, "[i]t was a magnificent night -- the full moon shone gloriously down, lending a strange witching charm to every object we passed." (Diary, July 24, 1864.) As the train continued over the miles of track, Atkinson had a hard time finding some rest:
It was long before my eyelids grew heavy with sleep, the beauty of the scene -- the novelty of my position, thoughts of dear ones at home and the new and untried life I was about to enter kept me wide awake until mid-night, after which I dozed but woke at all places of interest. (Diary, July 24, 1864.)
The teacher was well aware of Jubal Early's recent raid into Maryland:
All was quiet as we passed through the cities -- Wilmington, Havre de Grace, Baltimore, etc. Crossing the "Gunpowder" which a week before had been the scene of such intense excitement while the rebels were in Maryland. I began to realize that I was passing over ground that had been trodden by our bitter foes. (Diary, July 24, 1864.) 
Atkinson's thoughts turned to the nation at war:
When I closed my eyes for a moment to rest, I seemed to be vaguely wandering in a dreamland or among the fairies. I dreaded the day dawn which should bring me to a realization of my position. All was so beautiful and calm whispering to the awakened of the goodness and mercy of Him who created all these beauties and reigns in eternal majesty above us. I marveled can it be that man can look upon such a night and not feel toward all mankind a Christ-like love and charity. Yet at that very hour, thousands in our fair land were engaged in deadly conflict with other thousands conscious only of the bitterest hatred and undying hostility towards their foes. Such, alas, is war. The fearful result of the foul war that has so long attended our nation's glory. (Diary, July 24, 1864.)
Engraving of a freedmen's school (courtesy of Georgia Studies Images).

Atkinson arrived in the nation's capital and arranged for transportation to Virginia. On July 26 she recorded her thoughts and impressions as she headed to Virginia and arrived at Camp Wadsworth; the passage is well worth quoting at length:
At last I have reached my destination and stand on the "Sacred Soil" alone among strangers, home and friends so far away! And how do I feel? I scarcely dare attempt to define the emotions that thrill my heart -- everything is so new and strange around me. . . The wagon come for us this morning about eleven and dear Auntie Bigelow accompanied me to my new home. The country we rode through was very beautiful and at first I enjoyed it -- but as we came on and on each weary mile we passed seemed a broken link between home and dear ones and my heart grew oh so heavy! Had I been alone I should have felt almost despairing, especially when one of the numerous guards found some flaw in our pass and we were obliged to return nearly two miles to the Provost Marshall's office. Of course he had gone to dinner and we must wait nearly an hour, not knowing then but we wo'd have to return to the city. We made it all right however and we were allowed to proceed, but I felt so discouraged! At length we reached the long talked of Camp Wadsworth. Driving in, women and children crowded around the carriage, and when it was whispered the new teacher had come, there were evident signs of delight. (Diary, July 26, 1864.)
Atkinson assumed her new duties at the contraband farm, and by November, the Friends Association could report that "the children under her care had advanced rapidly in their studies, and the adults had greatly improved in housekeeping." (First Annual Rpt. 13.)

A month after Atkinson's arrival, the Friends dispatched another teacher to join her at Camp Wadsworth. Mary McLain soon arrived to work at a second school on the government farm. The Friends placed a high priority on educating the freedmen and women around the nation's capital, and Camp Wadsworth clearly stood at the front and center of their efforts.


Board of Managers, Friends' Assn. for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen, First Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Friends' Assn. for the Aid and Elevation of the Freedmen (1865); Lydia T. Atkinson, Personal Diary (1864).

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Fond Farewell to Lewinsville & Langley! Off to Farmwell!

My wife and I just closed on a house in Ashburn, Virginia this past Monday. We are very excited to get more space and to live a little farther from the chaos "inside the Beltway"! Ashburn (Farmwell and Farmwell Station during the 1860s) is situated in Loudoun County, a place steeped in Civil War history. The Battle of Ball's Bluff took place not more than 20 minutes from our doorstep. Armies also marched through the county before Antietam and Gettysburg. And don't forget that Loudoun was part of Mosby's Confederacy. In other words, Civil War buffs would find a lot to like about calling the county home. (If you enjoy wineries, there are plenty of those to explore as well!)

I hope to get more involved with the Loudoun County Civil War Roundtable. After all, I won't have to drive nearly as far to attend their monthly meetings. They tend to have a really strong line-up. I also look forward to living closer to a few of my friends with an interest in the war, including fellow blogger Craig Swain and Army of the Potomac expert extraordinaire Todd Berkoff. I trust that both will help me learn more about the area during the war! (Craig, I am counting on you to bring me up to speed on that Civil War-era road network. . . .)

As much as I am looking forward to a new home, I will also miss McLean (Lewinsville and Langley during the war). I've lived here for over five years now, and as readers know, I have spent a lot of time peeling back the layers of McLean's Civil War history. I've written and lectured about Camp Griffin and Camp Pierpont, which served as 1861-62 winter quarters for two Union divisions. I've taken a look at the "Battle of Lewinsville," a fascinating little fight that involved the likes of Isaac Stevens, J.E.B. Stuart, and John Mosby. I also got to know my Civil War-era neighbors, families such as the Mackalls, Means, and Johnstons. More recently, I've become obsessed with the contraband camps that were located in the McLean area from 1863 onward.  

Looking down from the crest of Johnston's Hill, right around the corner from my former home in McLean. Union Army units, including the Pennsylvania Reserves, held parades at the base of Johnston's Hill during the first winter of the Civil War. (See this post, where I discuss the location.)

The surviving landmarks are everywhere around me. I drive past Salona (Baldy Smith's HQ) and the Langley Ordinary (George A. McCall's HQ) on my daily commute. Benvenue, the location of Winfield Scott Hancock's brigade hospital, is an everyday sight on my early morning walks.  Although not as well known as other places like Henry Hill or Dunker Church, all of these landmarks represent a very real tie that my former community has across time to the Civil War.

You may be wondering what this all means for the future direction of the blog, if anything. I still have many stories about McLean in the pipeline and don't plan on giving them up, just because I am moving to another part of Northern Virginia. The same goes for other sites in Fairfax. The endless array of topics accumulating on my to-do list long ago outpaced my ability to keep up. Apparently four years wasn't enough time to cover it all! At the same time, I am looking forward to exploring some hidden corners of Civil War history in my new "neighborhood." So I suppose that what it comes down to is that this is a blog covering all of Northern Virginia (and sometimes DC) and will remain that way.

In the end, I will miss my former community, and my involvement with the history scene here. A special thanks goes out to the McLean Historical Society, which invited me to give lectures and to serve on the board. I've enjoyed living in McLean and learning about what our ancestors did here. Now I turn to a new chapter as I head west down State Route 267 and establish a home in another location so important to Northern Virginia's Civil War history.