Monday, April 23, 2018

Masterpiece: A visit to Widow Hoffman's farm at Antietam

Circa-1840 Susan Hoffman farmhouse. Her farm was a Union hospital site during and after Antietam. 
NOTE: PRIVATE PROPERTY. DO NOT TRESPASS. | CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.
                PANORAMA: Panning from left, the barn, house, spring house and spring.
                                     (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

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On a spectacular spring morning, the old farmstead near the Antietam battlefield is a landscape painter’s dream. A circa-1840, red-brick farmhouse, magnificent inside and out, and an immaculate garden seem worthy subject matter for Claude Monet or any of the other great French impressionists.

Inside a small outbuilding, once quarters for the farm's slaves, guests gaze at the well-worn stone steps and wonder about long-ago occupants in the brick structure. At the 2 1/2-story spring house, probably the first residence of the farm’s original owner, ripples of water flow from underground while inside, a miniature Elvis — a misfit among great history— peers from his perch on a brown mantle in front of a wall painted light blue.

While two visitors admire the grounds, a graceful red hawk, buoyed by air currents and perhaps eyeing prey near an ancient corn crib below, circles high above them. On a narrow, winding country road nearby, the engine of a motorcycle, apparently muffled by the folds of land, is barely audible.

Spectacular view of countryside from the second-floor porch of the house.
Spring house, believed to be the first residence of the farm's original owner.
Elvis has not left the building: A mini-Presley stands guard on a mantle in the spring house.
Meanwhile, on a hillside overlooking the farmhouse, a massive barn, its original stone foundation intact, stands watch against a blue sky brushed with clouds. On its upper floor, huge bales of hay produce a distinctive, almost pungent, odor. A guest inspects the structure’s impressive, wooden beams marked by Roman numeral etchings, tell-tale evidence of 19th-century craftsmanship. Another visitor stoops to examine the old, handcrafted nails in the floorboards.

On the ground floor of the Pennsylvania-style bank barn, cows crowd into the dingy, confined space and nervously eye an unwelcome visitor, who admires the stonework and wonders about the tragic history of this special place.

Scores of Union wounded sheltered in this barn after the Battle of Antietam.
Cows occupy the ground floor of the barn, where hundreds of wounded were cared for in 1862.
Roman numerals etched in wooden barn beams, evidence of 19th-century craftsmanship.
Ancient wooden beams in the Hoffman farm barn.
Behind the farmhouse, the original corn crib.
On a short walk back to the farmhouse, an owner of the property tells the story of a piece of crafted metal he retrieved for his guests’ inspection. The boot scraper stirs imaginations: What soles/souls used this handiwork, probably created by a local blacksmith long ago? How many Federal soldiers scraped their boots on the ornate antique?

At least one of the guests briefly closes his eyes and imagines the scene in September and October 1862 at widow Susan Hoffman’s farm, used as a Union hospital during and after the Battle of Antietam:

Boot scraper: What Federal soldiers used it before entering
the Hoffman farmhouse?
Hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers, torn apart by chunks of metal. Blood-soaked surgeons. Amputated limbs in grotesque piles. The sickening smell of decaying flesh. Mounds of earth for freshly dug graves. A nurse, sweat pouring from her brow, tenderly consoling a grievously injured Yankee.

"On Sunday succeeding the battle," a member of the U.S. Christian Commission wrote, "we established ourselves permanently at the Hoffman House, thinking it better to concentrate our energies upon one point. In every spot here -- the barn, the stable, carriage-house, sheds, straw stacks, orchards, and indeed everywhere -- were to be seen wounded and dying men.

“For the first few days, of course, all was bustle and confusion. Nothing scarcely could be thought of but affording relief to the sufferers. Prayer only could be made at the side of one drawing near to his end, or words of Scripture whispered into the ear of the moaning patient as we dressed his wounds…"

Most of the wounded soldiers, the man recalled, were 16 to 21 years old.

After the visitors thank their gracious hosts, they drive off on the long, gravel lane. Comparing notes, they both quickly agree: It's a blessing to have the opportunity to walk among the ghosts ... and to view a  masterpiece.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


SOURCE:

- Moss, Rev. Lemuel, Annals of the U.S. Christian Commission, Philadelphia, J.P. Lippincott & Co., 1868

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Antietam Then & Now: James Gibson's Middle Bridge photo


          THEN: James Gibson, September 1862, LOC  | NOW:: John Banks, April 21, 2018.
           Hover on image to view "Now" photo. Does does not work on phones, tablets.

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After the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, James Gibson photographed the Middle Bridge, used extensively by both armies, from a steep bluff on the east bank of Antietam Creek. After securing permission from the land owner, I aimed to duplicate Gibson's long-ago image. As you can see in the "Now" photograph, the terrain has changed significantly since 1862. Not only is the hillside extensively wooded, the Middle Bridge  no longer exists. Destroyed by a flood in 1891, it has long since been replaced by a modern bridge built higher than the older span. For a re-examination of Gibson's image on my blog, go here.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Antietam video: 40-acre Cornfield, 16th Connecticut monument


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On Sept. 17, 1862, the green 16th Connecticut was routed in the 40-acre Cornfield at Antietam, suffering 43 killed among more than 200 casualties. Decades later, a veteran in the regiment described the fighting there:
“We were but a lot of green boys, many under 19 years old when we went into the Antietam fight. Only a few knew anything about guns. We had received our guns at Arlington Heights but had not had any drills in shooting of the manual of arms. As we forded the creek on the morning of the battle, we could see the Confederates. After we crossed the creek, we marched in line of battle for some time. Shells were coming our way and some men of the Eighth regiment we could see falling. A shell burst and a part of it flew up striking me on the side, and making a sore place which lasted several days. Finally we were ordered to go by the left flank and enter the corn field. We could not see any Confederates and went out in that field. The Rebels opened on us with several volleys. We did not know what to do. After a while, Captain Pasco said, 'Boys, I don’t know what orders to give but you had better disband and get out of this field.' "
-- 16th Connecticut Sergeant John Gemmill

On Sept. 17, 1915, the 53rd anniversary of Antietam, the Hartford Daily Times published
16th Connecticut veterans' recollections of the battle.  John Gemmill is at bottom left.
                                40-acre Cornfield and 16th Connecticut monument.
                                     (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

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Saturday, April 14, 2018

Photo explorer: Intriguing faces at Washington's Grand Review

In a photograph attributed to Mathew Brady, a packed reviewing stand at the Grand Review.
(Library of Congress | Click on images to enlarge.)

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In a massive exclamation point to a brutal war, more than 140,000 Union soldiers marched through the dusty streets of Washington for the Grand Review on May 23-24, 1865. The New York Times described the two-day festival as a "grand pageant," while other newspapers were equally profuse with praise of the momentous event.

A damaged view of  Grand Review grandstand. (Library of Congress)
"The spectacle just passed away has had no equal in the history of the continent," the Philadelphia Inquirer enthusiastically reported.

"Never has Washington witnessed a more august occasion or presented a more beautiful or animated spectacle," The Pittsburgh Daily Post noted. "The whole population of the city is in the streets, swollen by many thousands of strangers which have been pouring in here for days past from all points of the compass, and by every imaginable mode of conveyance."

"An Immense Concourse of People Present," a headline in the Cleveland Daily Leader blared.

The Grand Review was well-documented by photographers, including the renowned Mathew Brady, who had a studio near the White House. Of the scores of images taken, two attributed to Brady are the most intriguing to me: a photo of dignitaries in the presidential reviewing stand near the White House and a stereograph (top of post) titled "Grand review of the army. Interior view of grandstand."

As if on the photographer's cue, Grand Review attendees -- a little girl, ladies wearing bonnets, men in top hats and other ordinary citizens -- stare directly into the camera. In cropped enlargements of this remarkable photograph, available for your own inspection on the Library of Congress site,  "hidden" details emerge.


... an especially serious-looking woman wearing an impressive bonnet and a overly large bow stands out in this crowd ...


... while at the upper left, we discover a doppelganger for President Lincoln, assassinated the previous month, and an older man who apparently is amused. Check out the haunting pair of eyes on the individual below our "Lincoln." ...


... in this cropped enlargement, a small girl, perhaps no more than 8 years old, looks charming in a hat with three feathers. Standing near her, we see two soldiers, one grasping a musket with a lengthy bayonet ...


... and at upper left, we find a man with more than a hint of smile and a bespectacled gentleman, a lookalike for Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War. The real Stanton was in the presidential reviewing stand for the Grand Review ...


... while in the background, behind the grandstand, we discover parade-goers taking advantage of an elevated position on the Treasury building, probably a prime viewing spot on the magical day. The reviewing stand was at Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Northwest. (Hat tip: Andy Hall.)

What else do you see in the photograph?

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Video: Exploring J.E.B. Stuart mortal wounding monument

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On May 11, 1864, Confederate cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart (right) was mortally wounded at the Battle of Yellow Tavern, near Richmond, Va. The monument to mark where he was wounded and to honor his memory is now smack-dab in the middle of a neighborhood.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Antietam video: A walk on Joseph Poffenberger farm

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Joseph Hooker
On the morning of Sept. 17, 1862, Union artillery was positioned on a ridge behind Joseph Poffenberger's house, and his farm was used as a staging area for Yankee troops. As the battle raged nearby in David R. Miller's infamous cornfield and elsewhere, wounded and frightened Federals streamed back to the Poffenberger farm. Union general Joseph Hooker, who commanded the I Corps, slept in the Poffenberger barn the night before the battle. The house, barn and outbuildings are on National Park Service property.


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Sunday, April 01, 2018

'Flash of inspiration': Photographer's brilliant Gettysburg work

Union cavalry commander John Buford awaits the enemy on Chambersburg Pike.
Union Major General Winfield Scott Hancock projected onto a monument on Cemetery Hill.
(Images courtesy Bill Bretzger | CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
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With an iPhone8 and an online training course, almost anyone can shoot reasonably good to great  battlefield photographs. My favorite shooting gallery is Antietam, where natural light was optimal last month for these images. Bill Bretzger, whose photography skills far exceed mine, relishes shooting at Gettysburg.

Bill Bretzger
A longtime newspaper photographer, Bretzger first became interested in the Pennsylvania battlefield shortly after the movie about the battle came out in 1993. Accompanied to Gettysburg by his brother, Paul, a historian whose book on the battle recently was published, he was captivated by the field's unique topography. Over the years, his trips to Gettysburg became more frequent. Bretzger shot at the usual spots -- Cemetery Hill, Devil's Den, Little Round Top -- and the usual images of sunsets and sunrises.

"I’ve watched interest in photographing the field and the sharing of those images really explode with digital photography and social media," said Bretzger, who also shoots video for The News Journal in Wilmington, Del. "I try to be different, move beyond postcard-type scenes and communicate a story."

"Different" includes a technique in which he projects images of soldiers and others onto Gettysburg monuments, boulders, barns, farmhouses or other structures. The resulting photographs, which recently caught my eye on Facebook, are brilliant. In this Q&A, Bretzger explains the photography technique and why Gettysburg is such a remarkable canvas for his artistry:



Where did the idea come from, and is anyone else doing it?

Bretzger: I saw a story on a web site that is heavy with camera gadget and gear information about the slide/flash projector I ended up using and put the idea together -- a flash of inspiration (pun intended!), I suppose, almost right away. There is another photographer, artist Jeff Beekman, who has done a similar series, though our methods and results are fairly different. We each developed the concepts independent of each other. His approach is a little more conceptual in nature, perhaps even more "artistic." Mine is a little more specific about sites and subjects together.

People are often curious about the process I work with. I employ a pretty simple "slide projector" that uses a regular camera flash -- it’s not a constant image like in a slide show -- to beam the images into the scene. So I start with a portrait, first using a digital file to print the image at 35mm-size on a piece of transparency paper and cut it down to fit a slide mount. The slide mount goes in the light projector and I flash the image into the scene. I use a long exposure to record the battlefield image in conjunction with the short flash of light to capture the portrait, all in one frame. I suppose something similar can be produced in Photoshop, but I think shooting on-site gives the images a more real, almost organic and less-contrived feel. The projected image wraps around the subjects, and you see the shadows and ridges and light fall off in a way that would not be easy to accomplish in the computer.

President Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address appear on the Pennsylvania Monument.
Lieutenant John Emerson of the 26th North Carolina was mortally wounded during Pickett’s Charge. 
His image is projected onto the 26th North Carolina marker under the guns at The Angle.


Why the great attraction to Gettysburg?

Bretzger: Gettysburg is the closest major battlefield from my location, and has been since I started shooting there when I still lived in New Jersey. Besides being one of the greatest and most terrible battles of the war, it is also a remarkably varied field for such an otherwise ordinary area of Pennsylvania.

Photographer Bill Bretzger at Gettysburg.
Obviously the many, many monuments are an attraction to photography. It’s also a well-preserved battlefield with a diversity in landscape, from pastoral fields to rocky hills, Devil's Den and Rock Creek, Culp’s Hill… the Cemetery, so much more. It’s a complex field with three days of action overlapping. I consider myself a student of the battle and the early photography there but know only enough to know there is so much to learn. One important aspect of Gettysburg, for me, is its fairly liberal park hours. When I started taking pictures there in the 1990s, it was still open year-round until 10 pm, so that gave a good amount of time after sunset in the winter to make night images, star trails over the battlefield, etc. They’ve since scaled back the hours for the colder months, but it's helpful to have the later closing times to work with.



Of these images you have shot on the battlefield, which one is your favorite and why?

Bretzger: I haven’t a real favorite. I suppose I favor the image of Brigadier General Lewis Armistead because of how it all comes together, the guns, the setting, the color dropped right in from the night sky and some town lights. Lieutenant John Emerson and the 26th North Carolina, too. Very stark portrait, his face popped off the cover of Military Images magazine and I knew it had to have a place it would work at Gettysburg. I want to combine these faces with the places that they are closely associated with -- those two can’t get much better for a connection with the landscape. One thing about my work I try to remember as part of my process: there are a ton of nice sunset and silhouette images out there. I’ve watched interest in photographing the field and the sharing of those images really explode with digital photography and social media. I try to be different, move beyond postcard-type scenes and communicate a story.

Confederate General Lewis Armistead was mortally wounded during Pickett's Charge on July 3, 1863.
Captain John Bigelow and the 9th Massaschusetts Battery monument at the Trostle farm. The unit made
 a critical stand here on July 2, 1863.


What's the reaction been from the public and the National Park Service?

Bretzger: The projections are just one aspect of my work, I work in more traditional black and white, medium- and large-format film photography, and other night imagery of the field, usually with "light painting." But the projections have probably had the best reception, though, I suppose there is some uniqueness to the work and the way the portraits are combined with the field that hasn’t really been seen. I don’t push my work too much right now, I haven’t even a real dedicated website, I’m content with Facebook and Instagram for starters.

I’m still trying to catch up on processing and printing or scanning and good deal of work I’ve done. I was an artist-in-residence at the park for a month last year; I used the projected portraits in my application, and I think it intrigued the reviewers, which included the NPS, enough for them to have me part of the program. I’d like to highlight what a great program the A-I-R is; the National Parks Arts Foundation and the NPS work together on it at Gettysburg and other parks. They were extremely welcoming and supportive. The Gettysburg program puts a range of artists in a historic house in the middle of the battlefield for a month-long residency each. An incredible experience that I still miss!

Colonel George Willard and the advance position marker for his brigade near the Daniel Klingel house. 
On July 2, 1863, his New York men helped plug the gap in the Union line and finally repulsed
 Barksdale's Charge.  Willard was killed by an artillery shell during the assault.
Confederate Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw projected onto the Rose farmhouse. His men 
swarmed across the property on July 2, 1863.


Any place you're eager to shoot using this technique at Gettysburg ... or any other Civil War battlefield?

Bretzger: Gettysburg offers a host of what I call "canvases" for projecting portraits into the scenes. It’s really important to have something the images can be shown on. There are large, white walls of barns and houses, monuments with flat, blank surfaces, even boulders that serve as good places to receive the images. I’d love to find a good image of Abraham Bryan to use at his house on the field, and highlight the civilian side of the battle, especially that of African-Americans. I’m not sure one of Bryan exists. But that’s a location begging for a projected image -- the barn works great, too.

Unfortunately, the house is positioned in a way to make it a little tougher with light from the commercial strip shining right there. There are a lot of small challenges to this work you don’t realize until you start trying to line up the images. The portrait, "canvas" and scene have to come together. In the dark it can be a struggle.

I love visiting other battlefields, but few offer the sort of multiple opportunities for this work that Gettysburg does. I haven’t branched out anywhere else. There is a lot left at Gettysburg to work with, yet.

Private John Hayden and the 2nd Maryland CSA monument on Culp's Hill. Hayden was mortally wounded 
near here. He died as a prisoner on July 7, 1863.
Daniel Sickles' image projected onto the Trostle barn. The Union general lost a leg nearby to Rebel artillery.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Meet the wizard behind an amazing Antietam resource

Brian Downey, creator of Antietam on the Web, on the 44-acre plot on the battlefield recently 
purchased by the Save Historic Antietam Foundation and Civil War Trust.
(Photo courtesy Brian Downey)
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By the late 1980s, Brian Downey had collected so much information about the Battle of Antietam that he needed an outlet for his obsession. So when Al Gore's creation finally took off in the 1990s, Downey launched Antietam on the Web, now easily the deepest site on the Internet on the great battle.

Just skimming AoTW you'll find a lot to like -- an overview of the fighting, a blogofficial reports, a Medals of Honor list and much more. Dive deeper and it gets crazy-good: Check out this PDF of the dead of the Maryland Campaign, updated through January 2018, and a map of historical tablets on the battlefield. There's plenty on the site to satisfy the newbie as well as the nerd.

By far my favorite AoTW feature -- and Downey's, too -- is a searchable list of battle participants, now up to more than 15,000. Some of the bios on the Antietam Roster include an image of the soldier, and many provide breadcrumbs in the form of links or other info for those who seek more depth.

Home page of Antietam on the Web, recently redesigned by Brian Downey.
"For most of the years I’ve been reading about the war, visiting the fields, listening to the experts, " Downey said, "I’ve felt the participants were cardboard cutouts. At best they were stock characters with broad features (the fierce Jackson, dashing Stuart, timid McClellan), at worst, just names on lists. Most of them figures on-high, too, rarely the men on the ground. Somewhat unsatisfying.

"I think this is why I focus now on the people of 1862. I’m fascinated with their faces – trying to glimpse something of them as they were – and with learning a little about their lives. I can’t claim any deep knowledge, and this certainly is not exhaustive research, but I get a little closer to some of these men and that cataclysmic war every day."

Now retired and living in Florida, Downey served in the late 1970s and early '80s in the Navy aboard a vessel in the Western Pacific engaged in electronic warfare.  "Thankfully," the 60-year-old told me, "no one ever shot at me." Later, Downey worked as a consultant to Navy offices in Washington D.C. He learned about databases and systems development -- skills that came in handy developing AoTW -- and was project manager on many contract software projects for civilian government agencies.

In a Q&A with the blog, Downey dishes on George McClellan, the number of hours he has devoted to his obsession, his favorite spot at Antietam ... and whether he has plans to develop another AoTW-like site about a certain Pennsylvania battle. (You may be surprised.)



Downey's fascination with Antietam began with this photo of the bodies of Louisianans along
 Hagerstown Pike. (Alexander Gardner | Library of Congress)

A simple question: Why did you start the site?

Downey:  As a kid I was first fascinated by Antietam when I saw Alexander Gardner's horrifying battlefield photographs. In particular, the scene of dead Louisianans along the Hagerstown Pike. A large copy of that picture lived on my bedroom wall for years. In my teens, I read quite a bit about the War and Antietam. In my 20s, after several battlefield visits with my Dad, I started gathering more detailed information about the military units and their officers. Pretty soon I had file folders of notes and pieces of maps and bits of text. By the late 1980s, I was overwhelmed, and needed a way to make it all fit together. When the web and hypertext link technology came along in the 90s, I saw the tools I needed to make sense of it all.  I've been somewhat obsessively collecting and correlating information about the battle in digital form on the web site ever since.


The site is deep and layered, with soldier profiles, after-action reports and much, much more. How much time do you figure you have invested in this?

Downey: I wish now I'd kept a log! In some years I put in more than others, trying to balance this obsessive behavior with family and work responsibilities. Say 10 hours a week or 500 a year. A few years quite a bit more, but that's probably a good average. Maybe 10,000 hours or five person-years altogether. Wow. I've not done the math before. Now that I'm retired I'm putting in more time; I'm afraid this is only going to get worse.

Most of my effort for the site goes into finding the soldiers, researching at least the basics for them individually, hunting photographs, and getting it all into the database. I spend from 10 minutes to two hours on each person. I suppose I could move faster and just crank on lists of names, but that wouldn't be nearly as much fun. I'm up to something over 15,000 people now, but I'll obviously never get to all of them, so I just keep on keeping on.

1863 lithograph of 4th New York Private Patrick Hughes, seriously wounded at Antietam.
(Collection National Museum of Health and Medicine)
You’ve developed some pretty cool soldier stories in your research. Which ones are your favorites?

Downey: As the cliche goes, there are as many stories as soldiers. I come upon good stories almost every day, but most of them are necessarily buried in the mass that is the AotW database. There's no easy way to remedy that, except as I occasionally pop out of research mode and feature a particularly interesting person on the blog or (more recently) on the AotW Facebook page.

One soldier in particular who stands out in my memory, mostly because of the gruesome wound he survived and the available contemporary images of it, was Private Patrick Hughes, 4th New York Volunteers. He and his mates in Company K experienced their first combat when they hit the Sunken Road at Antietam on that Wednesday morning. Patrick was shot through the head and initially got little medical treatment, probably because he was expected to die. But he survived and went on to a fairly normal life after the war. In 1870 his doctor said of him:
His memory is quite good, but by no means so good as before the injury. He is rather easily bothered and confused, and more irritable than formerly. The sight of his right eye, he thinks, is poor. Whisky affects him as usual. Sexual power undiminished. He has no paralysis. The wound of entrance is marked by a slight depression in the bone, the wound of exit by a hollow two and a half by two inches, and one inch deep. No bone has closed this opening, but the scalp and hair dip down into the hollow.
Thomas Cartwright Jr.
(NY State Military Museum)
A story with a mostly happy ending. There's a feature from almost exactly 10 years ago about him on the blog.

A more recent find: 41-year-old Lieutenant Thomas W. Cartwright of the 63rd New York Infantry, Irish Brigade. I was looking at him yesterday after seeing his name on a hospital list. He was slightly wounded at Antietam, was promoted to Captain of Company D in October, and escaped unhurt from combat at Fredericksburg in December, yet he resigned his commission in February 1863. Now I think I know why.

His 20-year-old son, Thomas Jr., was a Captain in the 5th New York, but was not at Antietam. He had been wounded at Gaines Mill in June. He died at Ebbitt House, Washington, D.C., on the day after Christmas 1862 from the effect of his wounds. I think this crushed his father, who could not continue in uniform. A tiny incident in the big scheme of things, but one of so many that made the war the horror it was.



As someone who’s crafted a web site or two, I am interested if you have any horror stories to tell – a code breakdown or somesuch perhaps?

Downey: Well, no horror stories, but a couple of times in the last decade I've had to rewrite obsolete code on the site, which was difficult, but not fatal. Software doesn't sit still, for obvious reasons of security and feature creep, so old code tends to go stale. Now in my professional career there were some tough patches, but I'd rather not revisit those, thank you. Nothing like that on AotW. I don't think I can credit my personal programming skill, though. The website is of fairly simple design with a robust database behind it. Not much to go wrong at this point.



What can we expect to see in the future on the site?

Downey: I'll concentrate on adding people to the database whenever I can. I'm overdue on a few of the Campaign maps too, though I don't feel those are high priority. I've recently redesigned the site and re-written much of the PHP code, so shouldn't need to do that again for a while.

As to features, I'm thinking about providing an API (application programming interface) for other enthusiasts to get at the AotW content directly from their own applications, if there would be any demand for that, but that's about it for now.

I do have a long-term worry, though. I have no immediate plans to stop, but I'm guessing I won't still be doing this in another 22 years. So what happens to the web site then? No one in my family is as excited by the subject as I am, so no inheritors there. I'd hate for it to just go dark. I'd like to think that at the least the soldier database -- the Antietam Roster -- will live on after me.

Something for me to think about.



What’s your favorite read about Antietam, and why?

Sears' book on Antietam is an "excellent
overview," Downey notes, but "not terribly
objective" because the author "has his knives
out for George McClellan."
Downey: I hope you don't mind if I have two.

My favorite storyteller on the battle is Stephen Sears -- his Landscape Turned Red reads like a good suspense novel. Which it kind of is. Sears' style makes it easy to picture the complex activity of the Campaign, and he provides strong characters with a thrilling plot line. However, it's not terribly objective history, given that he has his knives out for George McClellan at the very start and drives his narrative to fit.

When asked for a book recommendation for someone who is just starting to learn about Antietam, I give Sears. With that caveat. It's an excellent overview and introduction.

I read non-fiction rather than fiction for fun, so that probably explains my other choice: Ezra Carman's Maryland Campaign of 1862 (manuscript). There are two editions out, by Jake Pierro and Tom Clemens. I really love Tom Clemens' excellent notes, so I use his volumes most. There's nothing like Carman, which is built in part on testimony from the veterans, for immense detail on the battle. I've read him through once and probably won't again -- it's not a breezy read -- but it is a go-to reference.



           PANORAMA: Miller Cornfield. Click at upper right for full-screen experience.

Everyone has a favorite spot on the Antietam battlefield. What’s yours, and why?

Downey: I've been on the battlefield many times, but I still get the chills every time. There are a number of spots where that happens for me: crossing the Nicodemus Farm toward the Bloody Lane, and walking in the West Woods around the Dunker Church, for example. But my favorite, most sacred, spot is just north of the Miller Cornfield, particularly at first light on a misty September morning. That was a kind of hanging or focal point - just before the battle opened and hell was unleashed -- and I can almost feel the massive weight of it when I'm there.

As you know, the Park Rangers do a spectacular job of interpreting that place and time each year on the Anniversary. A not-to-be-missed event for the early riser.



True or false: George McClellan was a good general.

Downey: That's a trick question. There's no right answer. Everyone who has studied the battle even a little bit seems to have a strong opinion on him.

If I judge McClellan against what he and his boss saw as his job in September 1862, I can credit him with doing what he was supposed to do: he got a badly disorganized Army together quickly, chased Lee down in Maryland, all while covering Washington, and stopped the threat, pushing the enemy back into Virginia.

George McClellan (Library of Congress)
For that, he gets at least a passing grade.

As to the what-ifs surrounding George McClellan and the Maryland Campaign?

McClellan wanted to restore the Union as it had been, hoping to do it with limited war. He wasn't going for the jugular. By September 1862, of course, his President knew it was too late for that. And in hindsight, so do we. Most military minds would say that any general's real mission (which he never took on) is to destroy the enemy. And there were notable opportunities for some of that in September 1862. It's notoriously difficult to destroy an army, but it is likely that a more aggressive approach would have yielded better results.

So yes, like many -- including some of his soldiers-- I am disappointed by what McClellan didn't do. But that's speculation, not history. And that's as close as I can get to whether he was a good general or not.



And, finally, if someone came to you and said we want you to do a similar site on Gettysburg, what would you tell them?

Downey: I might run, screaming.

I understand its importance, but don't have the same passion or obsession for Gettysburg -- that "other battle" up North. Thank goodness no one is asking, though, so I don't have to worry about that.


-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Antietam gallery: Supreme views from War Department tower

                          PANORAMA: Click at upper right for full-screen experience.

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To enjoy perhaps the most spectacular Civil War battlefield view, one must have a wee bit of Sherpa mountain guide in your DNA. The climb is steep to the observation deck of the 1897 War Department tower at the east end of Bloody Lane at Antietam. The old iron steps inside the stone structure can be a tad slippery, too. Wary of heights? You may wish to stay grounded; enjoy the impressive Irish Brigade monument near the tower entrance instead. For those who want to soar, go for it.

On a frigid, windy March afternoon, a visitor had the tower observation deck -- and
 this impressive view of Bloody Lane -- all to himself.
View of Bloody Lane through a portal in the tower.
Metal tablets in the tower -- which casts a long shadow -- provide distances to locales and
 prominent battlefield landmarks such as Dunker Church, also known as Dunkard Church (below).

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Facing the music: Maine officer explains Louisiana plundering

10th Maine officer John Mead Gould confiscated this music box from an abandoned  house in Louisiana.
                Listen in as 10th Maine collector Nicholas Picerno plays the music box.

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When 29th Maine Lieutenant John Mead Gould entered a house in Marksville, La., with two other men on May 15, 1864, he wasn't surprised to see it deserted and pillaged by the Union army. Men's and women's clothing, pots, kettles and chairs -- all were strewn about the place he described in his journal later that day as "not a rich man's house."

"The sight," Gould wrote, "was truly awful."

Amidst the ruins of the Red River Campaign, the 24-year-old officer found something of great interest to him: a beautiful music box.

"I was wicked enough to take [it] myself," Gould wrote, "knowing very well that if I didn't someone would, and the story I heard of the condition of the house an hour after my visit confirmed me in this idea."

Gould wrote when and where he obtained the war booty on a label affixed to the lid of the music box.
Five days later, Gould -- who was from Portland, Maine -- offered a weak defense of the great "but unavoidable" evil of pilfering by the Union army.
"There is one thing that he touched upon that I have said a good deal about and that is the plundering propensity of our army. I suppose that some things I have done in stealing sugar and music boxes and books would be questioned by the moral community of Portland and censured by the Christian community at large, but I will say this in defense that the whole property of an abandoned house when once the house is opened is sure to be destroyed by the passing army. It is better for negroes to jump onto pianos and break them to pieces than for a soldier to "confiscate" them for reimbursement to his lost property? I should not want to be engaged in such confiscation, should prefer to lose all I have, but I do not think less of a man who takes all the eatables he wants, all the raiment he needs and any memento he desires from an abandoned house that the army has commenced plundering. I have come to look upon this plundering as a great evil but an unavoidable one. When the war is ended this thing will stop and I hardly think it will before. There are thieves, scoundrels and rascals of every stamp in our expedition, and I do not think any General can prevent the scenes that we have witnessed without weakening his force very much."

Gould sent the music box back to Maine on April 5, 1865, four days before the war was effectively over.

In the video above, preeminent 10th and 29th Maine collector Nicolas Picerno briefly explains the history of the music box, which still is in remarkable working order. He acquired it from a Gould descendant.

The music box, shown next to a war-time image of John Mead Gould, still plays.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

-- Do you have 10th, 29th Maine photos, other artifacts? Contact Picerno.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Video: A walk in The Bloody Cornfield at Antietam

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On Sept. 17, 1862, some of the fiercest fighting of the Civil War occurred in the rolling cornfield of David R. Miller.  “Rifles are shot to pieces in the hands of the soldiers, canteens and haversacks are riddled by bullets, the dead and wounded go down in scores." a Federal officer said of the battle in The Bloody Cornfield. "The smoke and fog lift; and almost at our feet, concealed in a hollow behind a demolished fence, lies a rebel brigade pouring into our ranks the most deadly fire of the war."

 Follow me on a tour of this hallowed ground at Antietam.


SOURCE:

Cook, Bejamin F., History of the Twelfth Massachusetts Volunteers, Boston, Published by the Twelfth (Webster) Regiment Association, 1882.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Shooting gallery: At Antietam, it's about right angle of attack

The bodies of scores of Confederates lay in this old lane on Sept. 17, 1862.
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In war and in photography, it's wise to have a good angle of attack. On a brisk March afternoon at Antietam, one shooter's plan also included taking advantage of terrific sunlight. Click to enlarge these images, all shot at or near Bloody Lane. Remember: The "Portrait" function on your iPhone camera is your friend.

Irish Brigade commander Thomas Meagher in bas-relief on monument in Bloody Lane.
While a comrade suffers from a wound, soldiers charge into battle on the Irish Brigade monument.
A wary flag-bearer on the Irish Brigade monument.
In bas-relief, Col. Richard Oakford, KIA at Antietam, on the pedestal of the 132nd Pennsylvania monument.
Colonel Henry Zinn's image appears on a plaque on the 130th Pennsylvania monument.
132nd Pennsylvania monument stands guard at the lip of Bloody Lane,
A plaque on the 5th Maryland monument at Bloody Lane.
14th Connecticut monument in a farm field near Bloody Lane.
130th Pennsylvania monument at Bloody Lane.
On the Samuel Mumma farm, two cannon long ago put out to pasture.
These iron stairs lead to the top of the old War Department tower viewing deck.
View of Bloody Lane and General Israel Richardson mortuary cannon through a tower portal.
Constructed in 1897, the old War Department observation tower casts a long shadow.
Confederate artillery position overlooking Bloody Lane.
Sunlight bleeds through openings in the Roulette barn, a makeshift hospital during and after the battle.
Reflection of sunset and the West Woods in the windows of the Dunker Church.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.