Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas in Camp, Fairfax Station, December 1862

A few weeks ago I wrote about a new project that I am undertaking for the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum. As I researched tales of soldiers and civilians around the station during the Civil War, I began to think about turning my research into blog posts. The museum agreed that this would be a good idea. Writing posts will help to focus my research efforts and build content for the museum. Moreover, I hope that such posts will encourage my readers to come forward with additional information about wartime life along the Orange & Alexandria near Fairfax Station. With my annual Christmas post, I venture for the first time into this new territory for All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac, and I look forward to sharing more discoveries in the future.


As Christmas 1862 approached, soldiers of the Second Vermont Brigade were busy protecting positions along the strategic Orange & Alexandria R.R. around Fairfax Station. Two divisions of the Army of the Potomac's Twelfth Corps were also encamped in the neighborhood of the station. The corps had fought only a few months before in the bloody engagement at Antietam. Reentering Virginia in November, the men marched through Loudoun County and made their way to Fairfax Station.

Fairfax Station during the Civil War (courtesy of William Graham's War Between the States)
On December 24, Gen. Alpheus Williams held a grand review and inspection of his Twelfth Corps division. According to William Tuttle of the 107th New York, the activity was "very tiresome for the men, more than a day's march." (in Tappan 63) He returned to his campsite and "just laid down by the fire, looked into the flames and blazing coals, and thought of friends far away, of Christmas Eves and Christmas trees until I fell asleep." (in Tappan 63.)

That night, Gen. John Geary, commander of the corps' second division, sat down to write his little daughter Mary a rather sentimental letter:
On this Christmas eve I have no doubt you have been enjoying yourself, perhaps with the toys of the season, eaten your nuts and cakes, hung up your stockings in the chimney corner for old Krisk[r]inkle, when he comes along with his tiny horses "dunder and blixen" and his little wagon to fill in lots and gobs of sweet things....Well, when I was a little boy. . . I was very fond of such things myself. And when I look back, they were indeed the happiest days of my life. (in Blair & Wiley 74.)
On Christmas Day, the soldiers were blessed with mild and pleasant weather, not unlike predictions for this year's holiday. As Pvt. Henry Bayless of the 137th New York wrote to his parents, "today is clear and quite warm, so we can sit in the sun without our overcoats on with comfort." (in Creutz 73.) Capt. Robert Gould Shaw (future commander of the 54th Massachusetts) and fellow officers of the 2nd Massachusetts also sat "out of doors," eating a Christmas dinner of chicken, oysters, potatoes, and other culinary delights. (in Duncan 273).

"Christmas," L. Prang & Co., c. 1862 (courtesy of Digital Public Library of America).

Gen. Geary, like many of the Union commanders, "issued an order allowing the men of my command a recreation from all military duties, except such as could not be dispensed with." (in Blaid & Wiley 76.) He emerged from his quarters that morning to find that "the men had erected two triumphal arches of evergreens before my tent." (in Blaid & Wiley 76.) As he told his sons, "the Holly is beautiful & Green covered with berries. The whole thing was the most beautifully wreathed affair I ever saw." (in Blaid & Wiley 76.) Geary's thoughts turned to his family, and how much he wanted to be with them on this holiday. The "forsaken country" around Fairfax Station surely did little to diminish his homesickness. (in Blair & Wiley 75.)

Tuttle of the 107th New York found little to celebrate on Christmas. As he lamented in his diary:
It is not a happy Christmas day with us today. . . We have been moving our camp again. . . . This is the fourth camp we have occupied near Fairfax Station, and a great many are in the worst of humor over the perplexities and botherations which always attend a change of camp. We marched about two miles this morning, laid out our new camp ground, put up our tents and have just had our dinner, Christmas Dinner! which was no great affair today. (in Tappan 62-63.)
The men of 137th NY made do with rations of soft bread and beef. Charles Engle prepared a "hearty" Christmas breakfast of fried beef with a cup of coffee, but wished instead for "cakes and sausage and butter." (in Creutz 73.) Bayless and his messmate got more creative and fried the bread in a gravy made with bacon and beef grease. They sat on their blankets with plates on their laps and devoured the Christmas meal.

Over in the camp of the Second Vermont Brigade, the soldiers were excused from all but the most pressing duties. Pvt. Herzon Day went with a few friends to Fairfax Station "to see the country but got back in time for Christmas dinner, which consisted of beefsteak and potatoes, both excellent." (letter to parents on 16th Vermont blog.) Horace Barlow of the 12th Vermont enjoyed "[t]aking it easy in the A.M. & playing foot-ball &c in the P.M." (diary on 16th Vermont blog.)

Some officers had the privilege of leaving camp to celebrate Christmas elsewhere. In the 107th Pennsylvania, Tuttle's captain and first lieutenant headed to Alexandria to spend the holiday with friends. Tuttle was frustrated, writing in his diary: "Of course I could not go. I am not an officer." (in Tappan 63.) (He later would become a commissioned officer, so perhaps the holidays got better for him!)

Dr. James Dunn, surgeon of the 109th Pennsylvania, took four days' leave and traveled from Fairfax Station to Washington City. On Christmas morning he met a fellow physician at Willard's. The two at some point "visited around Washington where all is quiet." (in Kerr 60.) The doctor even "saw Old Abe":
He looks as if the load resting on him was too much. He is care worn and troubled. Political opposition is killing him. (in Kerr 60.)
After the holiday, Dunn returned to his regimental encampment and the drudgery of army life. For the surgeon and many others at Fairfax Station, Christmas 1862 was a day of rest and relaxation. Even if the holiday meal was a little less appetizing than many of the men would have preferred, the warm weather was certainly a welcome present from Mother Nature. The enlisted men and their commanders dreamed of Christmas among family and friends. Perhaps the new year would bring an end to war and fighting. But Christmas would come and go two more times before Christmas at home became a reality. President Lincoln had reason to feel "troubled."

On a personal note, I'd like to wish my readers Happy Holidays and a Very Merry Christmas! See you in 2016!

William L. Blair (ed.) & Bell Irvin Wiley, A Politician Goes to War: The Civil War Letters of John White Geary (1995); David Cleutz, Fields of Fame & Glory: Col. David Ireland and the 137th New York Volunteers (2010); Russell Duncan (ed.), Blue Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (1999); Letters from the 16th Vermont (blog); Lynne M. Kennedy, "GORDON'S REGULARS": The 2nd Massachusetts Infantry in the Civil War (1999); Paul B. Kerr, Civil War Surgeon -- Biography of James Langstaff Dunn, MD (2012); George Tappan (ed.), The Civil War Journal of Lt. Russell M. Tuttle, New York Volunteer Infantry (2006).

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving 1865 in Washington City

Each year during the Sesquicentennial I wrote a post focused on Thanksgiving at the corresponding time 150 years ago. I looked at holiday celebrations in camp or in the streets, hospitals, and churches of Washington and Alexandria. Now that the four-year commemoration is over, I wasn't sure what to do for this Thanksgiving. Many people are turning their attention to the aftermath of war and the start of Reconstruction so I decided to check out the Washington papers for the end of 1865, as the reunited nation prepared to observe the first Thanksgiving holiday since the end of the war.

President Andrew Johnson declared a day of national Thanksgiving for Thursday, December 7, 1865. In his Proclamation, the President reminded the American people that "it has pleased Almighty God during the year which is now coming to an end to relieve our beloved country from the fearful scourge of civil war and to permit us to secure the blessings of peace, unity, and harmony, with a great enlargement of civil liberty. . . ." He recommended that "the whole people make confession of our national sins against His infinite goodness, and with one heart and one mind implore the divine guidance in the ways of national virtue and holiness."

On December 6, the day before Thanksgiving, the Washington Daily National Republican published the following editorial:

The editorial surely reflected the thoughts of many loyal Americans about the ground the nation had traversed since the previous year and just how much the country had reason to give thanks as the end of 1865 approached. Some, however, may have disputed the characterization of President Johnson, who had just given his State of the Union address on December 4. (The speech is referenced in the article.)

Two Winslow Homer views of Thanksgiving Day, 1865 from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated:  Hanging up the Musket and The Church Porch (courtesy of streetsofsalem).

Thanksgiving in Washington City was a relatively subdued affair. As was typical in previous years, businesses were closed. The Washington Evening Star reported that "the churches were opened for divine worship, and were well attended, while the services at each were appropriate to the occasion." (Dec. 8, 1865.) The paper was also pleased to observe that "throughout the day there were fewer displays of improper conduct than usual on such festive occasions." (Dec. 8, 1865.) According to the Daily National Republican, Bostonians were nowhere near as well behaved as the "staid and proper" Washingtonians. (Dec.8, 1865.) The paper reported that during the evening in Boston, "many persons were slewed, with great carnage." (Dec. 8, 1865.) Perhaps high rates of celebratory drinking had something to do with ruining the holiday up north. In any event, whether in Washington City or elsewhere, Thanksgiving gave Americans a day of rest and relaxation as they prepared to deal with the difficult issue of reconstruction and the future of the reunited country.

On a personal note, I'd like to wish all of my readers a Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy the good times with family and friends, eat plenty of turkey and fixings, and see you next month!

Friday, November 20, 2015

An Interview with Singer/Songwriter Clark Hansbarger

Like many readers, I enjoy all types of music. When it comes to the Civil War, I tend to focus on recordings of songs from the era by the 2nd South Carolina String Band, the Federal City Brass Band, and other such groups. Then again, I have also become a fan of the contemporary Civil War songs of the 1861 Project. Last year I received an email from singer/songwriter Clark Hansbarger, who told me about his folk rock CD, Dream of a Good Death. This recording of original songs follows Confederate soldiers throughout the Civil War, from Port Royal to Petersburg and beyond. The songs are modern, but inspired by the stories of those in gray and butternut who fought and died over 150 years ago. Clark was nice enough to send me his CD and recently agreed to do an interview.

Q. Tell us a little about yourself.

A. I'm a retired educator and now work with my wife, who is an artist, so I have plenty of time to write and play music. I've done both since I was young, but for thirty years, teaching paid the mortgage. I record and perform regularly with The Bitter Liberals, a talented group of players from the Shenandoah Valley, where I live. I have two children, one of whom is making me a grandpa this month, so we are all pretty excited around home.

Q. How did you become interested in the Civil War?

A. The same way a lot of modern Americans did, I'm afraid -- through Ken Burns and Shelby Foote. I watched that classic PBS documentary and then spent a summer lost in Foote's million word account of the war. Since then...well... I've become just another middle-age American guy who visits a lot of battlefields.

Clark Hansbarger
Q. What inspired you to do Dream of a Good Death? How does this CD depart from other recordings you have done?

A. My wife and I were kayaking down the Combahee River near Beaufort, South Carolina, when I discovered the history of the rice plantations. I had no idea that rice had been the primary money crop in the Low Country since colonial times. Anyway, I dug into the history there and ended up writing a song called "Fall of the Rice Kingdom" about the Union naval conquest of Port Royal Sound.

My band liked the song, and we recorded it for our first CD. When my brother-in-law (who is a serious digger with a fine collection of Civil War artifacts) heard the song, he thought I should do an entire album, said I'd make a million bucks selling them at re-enactments. So I wrote another, and then another, and soon I had enough for a CD. I haven't made that million yet, though!

Once I finished the CD, I built an interactive website to accompany it. ( I spent as much time on this as the music and had great fun doing so. I wrote an essay for each song and then included dozens of links and pictures so that folks could explore the history behind the songs.

The musical style of this CD doesn't depart much from what I usually write, but the subject matter certainly does. None of my other songs are historical, though they tend to be narrative, based on a distinct voice telling a story. The music is modern Americana...which is really just another way of saying folk rock.

Q. Your idea for a song cycle following Confederate soldiers through the war is intriguing. In listening to the CD, it is clear that your songs teach as well as entertain. Please describe for us your creative process in composing the songs on Dream of a Good Death. What historical background research did you do? 

A. Once I decided to create the album, I tried first to include different perspectives -- Union soldiers, slaves, women. But the songs with the Confederate voices came most easily, almost wrote themselves, so I stuck with these for continuity. This has nothing to do with any sympathy for their cause -- I'm glad the Union won that war, ended slavery, and moved us forward as a nation -- but somehow the Rebel stories had this ironic quality that seemed better suited for the music I was composing.

I researched the history carefully to be sure the facts were correct for each song. However, the key to writing historical fiction is to keep the focus on the character, lightly sprinkling in the historical details to build an illusion of reality. For the fiction to work, audiences must hear the human voice above all else. I didn't want these songs to be history lessons, but stories about "real" people from the past. And I wanted the songs both to stand alone and work as one long, sad tale.

I took some poetic license here and there, changed the time of day or a bit of the geography, and I always hear about this after a performance, usually from a polite, earnest Civil War buff waiting patiently to correct the slight inaccuracy. This actually brings me some satisfaction, because it means folks are listening carefully. And I always learn something and make new friends.

Q. Would it be fair to describe you as a historian through song?

A. Oh man. That might be dangerous. Anyone who has been to a few Civil War Roundtables or read a few blogs knows that the study of Civil War history is a contact sport. If you claim to be an expert, you darn well better be, and then better be prepared to defend your points to the death. I think I'd rather be described as a musician and fiction writer with a deep love of history.

Q. If you had to pick one, what is your favorite song on the CD?   

A. My daughter Kara sang on "The Tailor from Kingsport," so this song is obviously dear to my heart. The song explores PTSD -- called soldier's heart then --  and she sings the wife's story about her husbands return from the war. Kara 's a talented gal, and she sings the song with a lovely mix of frailty and strength.

You can see a video of this from a recent performance in Winchester, Virginia, at

My favorite song to perform live is probably the title song, "Dream of a Good Death," because it features each of the band members doing some spectacular instrumental work. Listen closely to that one and you hear some stellar guitar, violin and harmony vocals. None of that's me, but these remarkable guys I play with.

Q. Who are your collaborators on Dream of a Good Death?

A. I wrote the songs alone, but arranged them with the fine musicians featured on each song, mainly my band mates in The Bitter Liberals -- Gary McGraw, Allen Kitselman, and Mike Jewell.  I brought the songs to them as skeletons, just chords and words. They filled them out with lovely instrumentation, put the meat on the bones.

We practiced the songs a few times and then recorded them in a single, long day, so what you hear on the CD is pretty much a live recording with very little over-dub. This enables us to play the songs in concert just like they appeared on the CD -- even better, actually, because of the stage energy. My co-producer was Will Shenk, engineer extraordinaire from National Media Service in Front Royal, Virginia. He really brought the sound together, creating this open, rich feel.

I also included a few other great musicians I knew from years of playing in Northern Virginia-- Rob Remington, John Friant and Joe Faber. You can read about them all in the "About" section of my website at

Q. What is your biggest source of musical inspiration?

A. I listen to all sorts of folks, but the songwriters who tell stories move me most. Richard Thompson, John Hiatt, The Band. I like simple structure and clarity, so I admire Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, also.

In terms of inspiration, my wife Ginger leads the pack. Once I started work on this, she was like an overseer, grilling me each day to see if I'd worked on my songs. I was afraid we wouldn't have supper that night if I didn't have something to play for her first! She's an artist, so she understands that creativity is work, a good bit of sweat and time.

Q. How would you describe your musical style?

A. Folk-based, acoustic story telling, though the CD includes some moments of country, and a bit of bluegrass and rock.

Q. Where have you performed songs from Dream of a Good Death? Do you have upcoming concerts?

A. We perform Dream of a Good Death as an entire evening-- sort of a TED Talk meets Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert. Basically, I introduce each song with a short lecture, projecting slides of war photos and maps on a big screen behind us. Then we play the song. Because the songs are in chronological order, we end up walking the audience through the war from the beginning to the end, presenting both sides of the story.

We've done the show in large venues, like The American Theater in Hampton, Virginia, and Loudoun's Franklin Park Arts Center, but also in smaller ones like Long Branch Plantation and the beautiful stone church in Harpers Ferry. We will be performing it this spring in a lovely old African Methodist church in Union, West Virginia. The local historical society is hosting the show, and they restored the church as a cultural center -- great acoustics and about 100 seats. We're excited with the venue and may do a live recording that night.

Q. Any new recordings on the horizon?

 A. The Bitter Liberals ( will be back in the studio soon. We are working on new songs now. It's best to play the new stuff live for a while to tighten up the arrangements before recording. This will be our third CD, not counting Dream of a Good Death.

None of the songs are about the Civil War, though one is the story of a veteran home from the war in Afghanistan. We include this song in concerts regularly now, and it's coming together well.
Here is a link to a video of the song from our recent concert at The Tally Ho theater in Leesburg:

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A New Project in the Works

A couple of months ago, I took my boys to the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum. I previously wrote about this historic treasure on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Second Manassas Campaign. The countryside surrounding the railroad station became one major field hospital following the fights at Bull Run and Chantilly in 1862. Clara Barton rushed from Washington City and helped tend to the wounded.

The current station dates from 1903 and hosts frequent model train displays. The museum also has exhibits on the history of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, particularly during the Civil War. I've taken my sons there a few times. We are all train buffs, and the place has become a real family favorite.

After my last visit, the museum contacted me via my blog Facebook page. They put me in contact with Michael Chinworth, a volunteer who serves as the Vice President of the Friends of Fairfax Station. Michael asked if I was interested in helping the museum with various activities, including research, exhibits, and programming. I jumped at the opportunity. What better way to make a contribution to local Civil War and railroad history?

The Fairfax Station Railroad Museum, a stop along the Civil War Trails in Northern Virginia

Currently I am assisting with research on the civilian population around Fairfax Station just prior to and during the Civil War. I also hope to dig into the lives of the ordinary soldiers who protected the O&A R.R. Another possible avenue of exploration is the experience of slaves and Irish immigrants who worked on the railroad in the antebellum period. We hope to use this research in drafting a comprehensive historical guide on the station. The work may also form the basis of temporary exhibits or be made available on the museum's website.

I'd like to put a call to my readers as well. If you know anything about the area during the Civil War era, please feel free to email me and we can talk. In the meantime, if things are a little slower here as of late, it is likely because I am knee deep in old records about soldiers and civilians!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Civil War History & Wine -- a Great Combination!

Living in Northern Virginia has its perks. After all, Civil War history surrounds us everywhere. As a added bonus, wineries dot the rolling countryside just beyond the inner suburbs. On Father's Day, my wife and children took me to The Winery at Bull Run, which offers the best of both worlds. Opened in 2012 by Jon and Kim Hickox. the winery sits on land adjacent to the Manassas National Battlefield Park and the famous Stone Bridge.

During the Civil War, the property was the site of Hillwood. The Weir family, who owned the estate at the time, lived at their nearby plantation known as Liberia and left the property in the hands of a tenant or caretaker. (Liberia served as Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard's headquarters around the time of First Manassas.  Gen. Irvin McDowell also did a stint there in 1862.) On July 21, 1861, soldiers under then-Colonels William T. Sherman and Erasmus Keyes marched across Hillwood on their way to ford Bull Run and join the Union attack. Capt. James Carlisle's battery of U.S. artillery also took position on the ridge line at Hillwood. During Second Manassas in August 1862, Confederate troops under A.P. Hill crossed the property en route to link up with the remainder of Stonewall Jackson's wing of the Army of Northern Virginia. As the Union forces retreated across the Stone Bridge following their defeat on August 30, they too passed by Hillwood. In other words, this land is an important piece of the story of both battles.

Following the devastation of the Civil War, the property was returned to family farming and other economic activities. The Hickox family purchased the land in 2008 and set to work on establishing their winery. Today, the winery's two vineyards are planted with Norton and Traminette varieties. The Winery at Bull Run also farms grapes on 115-acres in Rappahannock County, Virginia.

The remains of the Hillwood house (c. 1840s/50s) on the winery grounds. A fire nearly destroyed the historic structure in 1990. In 2008, Jon Hickox took down the damaged walls but preserved the foundation.

The Tasting Room represents two styles of Virginia barns. The darker wood structure built of reclaimed stone and wood is about the same size as the 19th century barn that stood at Hillwood. The white structure is typical of the 1920s dairy barns that were seen across Northern Virginia until the 1950s. 

The Tasting Room at the winery features display cases filled with relics that were found on the property and at other places nearby. Pictured above is a variety of artifacts from a field hospital that was located in front of the Hillwood house.

Additional artifacts in the Tasting Room, including artillery shells, Minie balls, and a State of New York belt buckle.

A view over the vineyard. Both Union and Confederate troops crossed this property at the time of the fighting at Manassas in July 1861 and August 1862. US-29, the Warrenton Turnpike during the war, is beyond the distant treeline.

What I believe to be a reconstructed winter cabin, similar to those used by Confederates in Centreville during the winter of 1861-62. 

One of several historical markers placed on the grounds at the winery. This one has a rather fanciful depiction of Hillwood, the Stone Bridge, and environs, during First Manassas.

The Winery at Bull Run represents a successful marriage of preservation and agricultural tourism. Large swaths of commercial and residential development have largely spoiled this part of Northern Virginia; the Hickoxes ensured that the pastoral and historic landscape of Hillwood would be preserved for generations to come. An outing to the winery is a must for any Civil War enthusiast. And the allure of wine tasting will make it easy for other family members to indulge in your love of history.

Sources & More Information
Local historian Chuck Mauro has written an interesting history of the Hillwood property and winery. The booklet is available for purchase at the winery's Tasting Room.

For more information on visiting The Winery at Bull Run, go to the vineyard's website here.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

An Interview with Debra Kathman, Executive Director of the Manassas Battlefield Trust

This past August I visited Manassas National Battlefield Park with my boys on the 153rd anniversary of Second Manassas. Living less than 30 minutes from the scene of the fighting, I consider Manassas my "local battlefield." I really enjoy exploring the ground on which both battles were fought. The close proximity means that if I want to focus on a specific part of First or Second Manassas -- for example, the fight on Chinn Ridge on August 30, 1862 -- I can do so with relative ease and little expense. (No offense to Harry, but I am more of a Second Manassas kind of guy!)

The day I visited in August, I had the pleasure of meeting Debra Kathman, the Executive Director of the Manassas Battlefield Trust, who was staffing a table there. I had heard of this group on social media, but knew little about their activities. Debra was nice to enough to answer a few questions for me about her organization. I think you'll find that the Trust has an ambitious and admirable agenda, and I hope readers will consider joining the group.

Q: What is the history of the Manassas Battlefield Trust?

A: The Trust was founded in 2013 through the efforts of then Park Superintendent Ed Clark (who is now the Superintendent of the Gettysburg National Military Park) and a core group of committed volunteers. All saw the potential for a friends group to support the Park and raise awareness and funds for projects and preservation. The group received initial support and guidance from the National Park Service, National Park Foundation, and the Civil War Trust, primarily to get the organization formed and legally up and running. The Trust was an all-volunteer effort until I was hired as the Executive Director this spring.

Q: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get interested in the Civil War and Manassas?

A. I have been fortunate to have had a varied career with jobs that have touched on many of my strengths and interests. I am a lawyer by training, and practiced law in both New York and the D.C. area for several years before moving into nonprofit and fundraising roles at several national organizations. Later, when my children were small, I decided to go back to school and pursue my interest in history. I received a Masters in History at George Mason University, and also worked as a research assistant at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at Mason during and after my time as a student. When the job at Manassas Battlefield Trust came up, it was a perfect mix of history, fundraising and program management. While my scholarly interests lie more in legal and social history, I do have a particular interest in the 19th century, and growing up history was all around me, as my father was an avid antique dealer and collector, with a special interest in guns and weaponry. Since joining MBT I have been boning up on my Civil War history, which has been great fun.

Q. What are the Trust’s goals?

A. The Trust’s main goal is to support the Manassas National Battlefield Park in the protection and preservation of the park through education, partnerships and philanthropy. While our primary purpose is to raise money to fund park needs that are unmet by federal funding sources, we also want to make the Trust and the Park a more visible and integral part of the local community.

Q. What are your main targets for preservation and conservation?

A. We work closely with the Park Superintendent, Jon James, and his staff to determine what the priorities are for park projects, taking into account what is currently funded through their budget and what are the unmet needs that we can assist in funding. Currently, we are looking to help fund new exhibits at Stone House and Brawner Farm, as well as helping with a planned redesign of the information desk at the Visitors Center. Obviously, any of these projects are dependent on fundraising and financial support.

Q. Have you or do you plan to partner with other groups, like the Civil War Trust?

A. We are always happy to partner with other organizations on projects that would benefit the Park. Our partnership with the Civil War Trust is a great example of this. Over the last two years we worked with them on both the acquisition of the Yeates Property for the Park as well as defusing a potential problem that involved the possible building of cell towers adjacent to the Park. In the case of the cell towers, MBT and the CWT were able to negotiate a settlement that was in the best interest for all involved. We also have a member of the CWT staff act as a liaison between our two groups. In addition to the CWT, I have reached out to other Civil War and preservation related groups and have found them very collegial and easy to work with.

Q. What can you tell readers about the Trust’s involvement in replacing trees that threatened the foundation of the Stone House?

A. This was a project that was before my time at the Trust, but I know that the trees were donated to the Park and replaced trees that had to be removed due to their encroachment on the foundation of the Stone House. This was one of the first projects completed by the Trust, and gave us some nice publicity.

Q. What other projects has the Trust completed at the battlefield?

A. Other than the Yeates property and tree planting mentioned above, we recently funded the creation of three traveling trunks for use by local schools and community groups. As mentioned above, we are currently working with park staff on identifying other potential projects for funding, like additional exhibits to Stone House and Brawner Farm, assisting with the remodeling of the information desk at the Visitors Center, and new waysides where needed in the park.

Q. Has the Trust taken a position on a possible battlefield bypass that would clear US-29 of congestion through Manassas NBP?

A. The Trust’s main focus is to support the protection and preservation efforts of the Park, so to that end we don’t have an official position on the bypass.

Q. The battlefield is a tremendous educational resource. What activities do you have planned for schoolchildren?

A. I agree! My first trip to Manassas NBP was on a field trip with one of my daughters, and I think all of us at the MBT understand the value of the park to the local community. When completed, the aforementioned traveling trunks will be a great resource for local schools to use while teaching students about the Civil War. We have also arranged for a collection of Civil War related books to be donated to the brand new Haymarket Library that is set to open on October 22nd. The library will also have an exhibit of artifacts from the Park on display. There are also various activities at the park for schoolchildren, including the upcoming Saturday at the Park, scheduled for October 10th. The MBT website always has information on upcoming park events:

Q. One thing I’ve noticed in multiple trips to Manassas is the absence of markers describing parts of the battle, particularly for Second Manassas. I was excited to read that you were planning to develop new interpretive waysides at the park. What can you tell us about this project?

A. I know the Park is currently replacing and updating many of the waysides throughout the park, and this is an ongoing project. There have been several areas identified (mostly for Second Manassas) that are still in need of updating, or in the case of the Stuart’s Hill and the Unfinished Railroad, adding waysides, and the Trust would love to be able to fund these….all it takes is raising the funds through our members and donors!

Q. Your website mentions a lantern event to honor the fallen. We’d be interested in learning some more about this project.

A. This is something that other National Battlefields and National Military Parks do, and we would like to start the tradition here as well. Unfortunately, this takes both time and money, but we are anxious to get a program like this on the calendar as soon as possible.

Q. Do you have any fundraisers in the works?

A. Right now our main focus is in obtaining new members. We recently revised our website and giving levels, and will be looking to add 100 new members (in honor of the National Park Service’s upcoming 100th anniversary) by the end of October. I hope you and your readers will consider joining the Trust and help us reach our goal!

Q. What other projects do you have planned?

A. I have mentioned some of the possible projects that the Trust would like to support (new waysides, exhibits at Stone House and Brawner Farm, new Visitors Center desk), but our support is dependent on gaining members and donors to support the Trust and our goals. We are also hoping to get some special tours and programs scheduled for our Trust members in 2016.

Q. What are your membership goals?

A. Long term, the sky is the limit—we would like as many members and donors as possible. In the short term, we are looking for those 100 new members by the end of October, again to celebrate the upcoming Centennial of the National Park Service.

Q. How does one become a member?

A. Becoming a member is easy, and you have several options. The easiest way is to go on line and join ( Our memberships begin at $35, but any donation amount is welcome.You can also send me an email at, or call our office at (703) 754-0791.

Q. What are some of the benefits of membership?

A. All of our members receive a 15% discount at the Park bookstore, a nifty “I Support Manassas Battlefield Trust” sticker for your car or truck, as well as invitations to upcoming special events and tours. We are also working on creating a membership pin (especially useful for all of our park volunteers who are also Trust members), and additional benefits for the higher giving levels. Stay tuned!

Q. Is there anything else you want to tell readers?

A. I hope everyone keeps in mind the importance of the Manassas National Battlefield Park. Not only is this land historically significant as the site of two major battles of the Civil War and as the location of several notable local farms and homesteads, it is also one of the last large tracks of green space in an increasingly urbanized area. As such, Manassas is a unique park that deserves local attention and preservation. I would invite all of you to join our efforts to support the park, especially as we look to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. I hope you all will #findyourpark…and make that park Manassas National Battlefield Park!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Presentation on the Contraband Camps of Northern Virginia, Loudoun County Civil War Roundtable, Oct. 13

I am pleased to report that the Loudoun County Civil War Roundtable has invited me to speak next month about the contraband camps of Northern Virginia. During the first years of the Civil War, thousands of slaves fled to Washington in search of freedom. As the number of “contrabands” expanded, their living quarters became increasingly overcrowded and unsanitary, while the financial burden on the government continued to grow. Seeking to address these problems, the Union Army relocated freedmen and women to abandoned secessionist properties in Arlington and Fairfax during the spring of 1863. My talk will explore the history of these long-forgotten contraband camps, including economic, social, military, and political dimensions. My presentation will also offer some insights into where the camps were located in Northern Virginia. As readers know, I have devoted a lot of attention to this topic here on the blog, and I look forward to spreading story of the contraband camps to new audiences.

(courtesy of Arlington Hist. Soc.)

Below is some additional information on the event. I hope to see you there!

When: 7:30 pm, Tuesday, October 13

Where: Thomas Balch Library, 208 West Market Street, Leesburg, Virginia. Information on the location, including parking, can be found here.

Attendance is free for first-time attendees of a LCCWRT meeting.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Confirming the Relation to my Civil War Ancestor

A few weeks ago I wrote about some recent developments in the ongoing search to determine my exact relationship to Private William Baumgarten of Co. K, 102nd Pennsylvania. Most of my research has established that my Great Great Grandfather John is likely related to William. I discovered an additional clue in John's obituary, which indicates that John had extended family in Alabama at the time of his death. William had moved to Alabama at some point after the war, and died there in 1921. I was getting closer.

Looking for more answers, I wrote to the Archives and Records Center of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. I figured that church sacramental records might contain some additional information as to the relationship between John and William. I recently received a response, and my request paid huge dividends.

John's marriage record from St. Joseph in Mt. Oliver, dated January 12, 1873, indicates that John (called "Johannum" in the record) was the son of "Joseph Baumgarten." William's father was also Joseph! (Unfortunately, John's mother is not named.) Piecing together all of the evidence that I have uncovered and detailed in previous posts, I am pretty sure that this record confirms that William is John's brother (or at the very least, half-brother). This would make Private Baumgarten my Great Great Great Uncle.

St. Joseph's in Mt. Oliver, built in 1870. The church no longer stands (courtesy of Diocese of Pittsburgh).

The Diocese also forwarded some additional information of interest. The researcher, Suzanne Johnston, could not locate baptismal records for John after searching church documents from 1847 through 1852. Perhaps John was not baptized, or perhaps the records are missing. In any event, she found William's baptismal records from St. Philomena, the first German ethnic parish in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. William received the sacrament on April 20, 1845. His older brother, Reinhard, was baptized there on February 20, 1841. I also learned that the boys had a sister, Maria, who was baptized in the parish on April 21, 1844. All three baptismal records indicate a father named Joseph and a mother named Martha (Marta) Stiz (possibly Stitz or Statz). A previous record had led me to believe that William and Reinhard were paternal half-brothers, but the baptismal documentation proves that both men had the same mother as well.

Five years ago, I had no idea that a Baumgarten had set foot in the United States prior to the end of the 19th century. Now I know that the family reached America's shores long before then. Even more of a revelation is that I have a close family relation through my Great Great Grandfather to a young man who volunteered to fight for the Union. My life-long interest in the Civil War has certainly assumed a more personal and intimate meaning.

In Memoriam

This post, and my research on family history, are dedicated to my recently deceased Aunt Mary Ann and Uncle Richard, two of John's Great Grandchildren. They were thrilled to hear of my discoveries, and I'd like to think they are continuing to read from above.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

What I've Been Up To....

I recently finished Ethan Rafuse's impressive tome, McClellan's War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union. I've always found Gen. George McClellan a fascinating and complex person. Rafuse's biography challenges much of the conventional wisdom about Little Mac. He emerges as a more sympathetic character, whose devotion to Whig principles and the policy of conciliation became increasingly irrelevant as the war hardened and emancipation entered the picture. But I digress for the purposes of this post.

Rafuse dedicated an entire chapter to McClellan's last campaign, which took place in Loudoun Valley, Virginia in late October and early November 1862. Very little has been written about this period, including the cavalry battles at Philomont and Unison. Given that the 1862 Loudoun Valley Campaign largely occurred a places within 25 to 45 minutes drive from my home, I figured it might be interesting to read more about it, and to explore the ground where the marching and fighting actually occurred. As an added bonus, it is a postscript to the Antietam Campaign, which has been a focus of my studies on the war in the East.

The North Fork ford along Jeb Stuart Rd. in Philomont. On November 1, 1862, the Confederate cavalry crossed at this point and clashed with Union forces. Maj. John Pelham's Horse Artillery fired from high ground on the far side of the creek. (Be warned! Do not try to cross here in your vehicle unless you are sure of its off-road capabilities!)

Fighting occurred near the Unison United Methodist Church (1832) on November 2, 1862. Union casualties were treated in the church following the fight.

Aside from Rafuse's chapter, two resources have quickly become invaluable. In winter 1999, Blue & Gray published an issue featuring "Little Mac's Last Stand: Autumn 1862 in Loudoun Valley, Virginia" by Patrick J. Brennan. The article is accompanied by a driving tour on the campaign. More recently, the National Park Service, in conjunction with the Unison Preservation Society, published Civil War in Loudoun Valley: The Battle of Unison, November 1-3, 1862. This little book contains invaluable maps of all the fighting that took place between forces under Jeb Stuart and Alfred Pleasonton, as well as photographs of landmarks related to the battle. As far as I know, this book can only be obtained by sending a check directly to the Unison Preservation Society. It is well worth the price -- it contains detailed information that likely exists nowhere else in a secondary source.

I've already done some preliminary exploring at Unison and Philomont, and you may have seen pictures of my site visits on Facebook or Twitter. I may do a few blog posts as I dig deeper, but for now I am undecided about what direction my research will take. Sometimes it is just fun to get back to the basics and do a deep dive into a local topic that is a bit more obscure. As an added bonus, I get to tour some of the most historic and scenic countryside in the United States!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Civil War News and Views: The Advanced Confederate Line, September 1861

Now that the Sesquicentennial is over, I look forward to revisiting the earlier war period in Northern Virginia. As readers may recall, I spent a lot of time a few years ago examining the Confederate advance closer to Washington at the end of August 1861, when forces under Gen. James Longstreet occupied the high ground on Munson's Hill and Mason's Hill. Not long ago I came across the following report from the September 6, 1861 edition of the Richmond Daily Dispatch concerning the new position within sight of Washington:
Confederate States Army, Fairfax Station, Va., Sept. 1 
Last evening I returned from Mason's Hill, seven miles south of Washington, D. C. Mason's Hill derives its name from the gentleman's name (Capt. Mason, now in the Confederate service at Norfolk, Va.,) who is the proprietor. Mason's Hill is a very high and commanding position, and about two miles from Munson's Hill, both of which are now fortified and in possession of the ‘"rebels."’ 
In a straight line from Mason's Hill stands the Capitol at Washington, and which can readily be seen with the naked eye. Whilst beholding the dome of the Capitol, I feel like one looking upon the ‘"promised land,"’ where shortly, I hope, ‘"may our possessions be."’ I had the pleasure of seeing Prof. Lowe's balloon, and am sure his observations were of little account to him. The Yankee experiment of ballooning came near receiving a great ‘"pull back,"’ by the firing upon the balloon spy by the Washington Artillery. Several shots were fired at it, when it immediately ‘"went down."’ Don't suppose, however, ‘"anybody was hurt."’ But, nevertheless. somebody was scared, for the balloon suddenly disappeared and did not come up again.
Camping at Mason's Hill is interesting and exciting — not a day passing away but a few Yankee pickets ‘"bite the dust."’ Whilst I was there, in one day eight were gathered by our boys, who keep a sharp lookout for the chaps, and give them a dead shot on sight — Several prisoners have been sent to General Davis' institution at Richmond for safe keeping. By the way, we will soon have a Yankee army on hand. 
On the morning of the 30th a large Federal camp, about two miles from Alexandria, broke up and retired, thinking, probably, the ‘"rebels"’ were getting too close for comfort.--They built a large fire, the smoke of which served to cover them as they broke up their camp.
Fine views are obtained from both Munson's and Mason's Hills, of the surrounding country, and also of the Potomac. Upon the Potomac, large vessels.
There has been considerable sickness in our camp; but, with the cool weather, the health of all the men is improving, and all will be on their feet soon, with musket in hand. No news at present that I dare tell you. Pen.
N. B.--Envelopes are very scarce. The man who goes into the manufactory of envelopes in the South, will make a fortune P. (courtesy of Perseus Digital Library)
An engraving of the Confederate fortification on Munson's Hill, Illustrated London News, Oct. 5, 1861 (courtesy of Emory University).
Foreign correspondents also took an interest in the advanced Confederate line. A piece in the October 5, 1861 edition of the Illustrated London News, accompanying the above illustration, contained the following account of the Rebel position at Munson's Hill:
 This is the point in Virginia at which the Unionists and the Confederates are nearest each other, and whilst our Artist was making his sketch, crouched beneath the shelter of the foliage, within hailing distance of the enemy's pickets, a continual spattering of bullets fell round the spot. More than halfway up the road towards the hill is a barricade, from behind which a Secessionist sharpshooter is having some pot shots, and, screened by the hedges in the cornfields, others are doing the same. In the foreground are the Union advanced pickets, furnished by the Michigan Regiment, one of whom is in the act of firing at two or three men beyond the barricade. A Michigan soldier just shot lies in the road. The Confederates have some rifled cannon on the earthwork, and whenever they see a number of Federalists together they send in a dose of shells.
A New York paper thus describes the Confederate position on Munson's-hill:—"Munson's-hill is probably the highest eminence within ten miles of the Potomac, immediately opposite Washington. It is about six miles from the Capitol, the intervening space being covered with a succession of gently rolling hills, crowned principally with forest trees, although here and there dotted with churches, farmhouses, and country villages. The streams are unimportant and the roads dusty. The hill presents its most abrupt side towards the national capital, and, unlike those around, has but few trees on its summit. Many of those which originally existed have no doubt been felled while the intrenchments were in progress. At present an immense Confederate flag—the red, white, and blue stripes in which are at least five feet wide each—is the most prominent object upon the top of the eminence Two of the trees which have been allowed to remain were used as an observatory. The Confederate defences are constructed entirely of earth, fifteen feet being the highest elevation. The sloping hillside in front of the fort is clear of underbrush or trees, and is sufficiently extended to allow 3000 men to parade. The distance from the cover of the woods to the summit of the hill is not so great but that a quick movement would drive the enemy from their guns with very little loss of life. The flank defences of the fort consist of three batteries. It is believed that earthworks have been thrown up on another portion of the hill commanding the road to Fairfax Courthouse. The fort is intended more particularly to command the road leading from Alexandria to Falls Church, the road from Washington to Fairfax, just mentioned, the railroad from Alexandria to Vienna, and the position of Bailey's Cross-roads."
With little to report in the way of large-scale battles, newspapers turned their attention to the Confederate lines within view of the nation's capital. Munson's and Mason's Hills were popular topics. Add in the thrilling ascent of Lowe's balloons or the tension of the picket war, and correspondents had plenty of material to keep their readers interested and entertained. The Confederates abandoned the advanced position by the end of September 1861, and not long afterwards, both sides settled in for a long fall and winter in camp.