Friday, May 27, 2011

Memorial Day: Originally Established to Honor Civil War Soldiers Who Died in Defense of Their Country

Although the practice existed in both the north and the south, following the American Civil War, of decorating graves of fallen soldiers the first “official” Memorial Day to honor and remember those who died in the military service of the nation did not occur until May 30, 1868. 

                   Antietam National Cemetery, May 27, 2011

Major General John Alexander “Blackjack” Logan a resident of Illinois, who had served with distinction in the Army of the Tennessee, is attributed with having established Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was then called, when on May 5, 1868, as national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in General Order No. 11 he made the following proclamation: 

General Orders No.11, WASHINGTON, D.C., May 5, 1868
The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit. We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, "of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion." What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.

If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us. Let us, then, at the  time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from his honor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation's gratitude, the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.

It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to lend its friendly aid in bringing to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.
Department commanders will use efforts to make this order effective. By order of

  Graves of Union Veterans, Antietam National Cemetery

New York State recognized Memorial Day as a holiday in 1873.  By 1890 it was recognized by all the northern states.  Southern states did not observe the holiday until after World War I although many continued to observe a separate decoration day to honor soldiers who fought for the Confederacy.  Now Memorial Day is celebrated across the nation the last Monday of May.  

Lets not loose sight of the reason for Memorial Day.  It is much more than a 3 day weekend with an extra paid day off work.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Arlington: The House and the Cemetery

Went on a day trip to Arlington House and Arlington National Cemetery  recently.  It was torrentially down pouring when we left the cemetery visitors center and headed to Arlington House.  Arrived there a little damp but  no worse for ware.  The house sits on a high bluff on the Virginia side of the Potomac River overlooking Washington DC.

 The view of the capital is spell binding even in a rain storm.

Arlington House has a storied history.  The house (or at least most of it) was built by George Washington Park Custis, the grandson of Martha Dandridge Custis Washington.  Upon G. W. P. Custis's death in 1857 the house was inherited by his only surviving child Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, the wife of Robert E. Lee.  Six of the seven Lee children were born there and while R. E. Lee was often gone from the estate while serving in the US Army between 1829 and April 1861 Arlington was the house he and his family called home.

On April  20, 1861 when Virginia's secession from the Union was imminent career army officer Lee paced the floor of one of the upstairs bedrooms for hours and finally descended the stairs to the main floor of the house with his resignation letter from the US Army in hand.  He left Arlington House two days later for Richmond, never to return and after a few trials with lesser appointments was placed in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862.

Union troops occupied Arlington House and the Arlington estate on May 24, 1861.  The US government bought the house and grounds for back taxes during the civil war.  Following the war George Washington Custis Lee, filed suit against the government.  He won his case in the Supreme Court and the federal government paid him $150,000 for the property.

 In May 1864 when Washington City was flooded with dead and wounded Union soldiers as a result of Lt. General U. S. Grant's Overland Campaign, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs started burying the dead soldiers on the grounds of Arlington House.  By the end of the Civil War in April 1865 about 16,000 Union soldiers had been buried in what later would become Arlington National Cemetery.

 Now the National Cemetery at Arlington is home to the graves of 320,000 American heroes.  

            Grave of Brigadier General John Gibbon

        Grave of Civil War veteran and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Tomb of the Unknowns is also at Arlintgton. This time of year the guard is changed every one-half hour. It is a touching  and solemn ceremony.

                                       Tomb of the Unknowns

                       Changing of the Guard, Tomb of the Unknowns

Monday, May 16, 2011

Napoleons: The Artillerists Favorite Weapon

As these cannons sit silently at strategic places on America’s Civil War Battlefields they provide a link for the modern tourist with events of the past.   If one is lucky enough to observe one being fired by reenactors they get a semblance of what it might have been like on the battlefield as the gun belches flame, smoke, shot and shell and deafen the ears for a moment. In my estimation however it is impossible to comprehend what it must have been like to face a battery of four or six of these workhorses of the civil war as they were loaded and fired with double canister as rapidly as the cannoneers could service the guns. 

The cannon I am referring to is officially named the Model 1857 Light 12 Pounder Gun Howitzer.  It is more often just identified as a “Napoleon” which is the nickname given to the gun after its adoption and manufacture by the US War Department starting in 1857.

The bronze 12 pounder smoothbore guns were developed in France in 1856 while Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s (a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte)  headed the French government.  The United States observed the guns in action in France and obtained a license to manufacture them. The first tube was cast by Ames Manufacturing Company of Chicopee, Massachusetts in December 1856.   Prior to the start of the civil war in April 1861 only 8 Napoleons had been cast, all by Ames.

After hostilities commenced the US government ramped up the production of Napoleons.  Ultimately there would be 5 foundries, four of which were in Massachusetts that would cast the 1,156 cannons delivered to the government during the war.  Revere Copper Company of Boston, Mass., was the largest supplier delivering 461 guns before wars end. 

The muzzle of a Napoleon manufactured by Revere Copper Company

Revere Copper Company cannons are easily identified by the markings on the muzzle of the gun.  As shown in the above photograph the muzzle at 12 o clock is stamped Revere Copper Company.  I have also seen some with only the company initials.  The weight of the tube is stamped at 3 o clock, in this case 1213 lbs.  The date of manufacture (1862) follows as you proceed clockwise around the muzzle.  Next are the inspectors initials, in this case T. J. R., for Thomas J. Rodman.  The Serial # of the gun is the last mark on the muzzle, as shown No. 53.  (Note all federal Napoleons have similar markings on the muzzle.)  

The  muzzle of a Napoleon manufactured by  Henry N Hooper & Co., of Boston, Mass.  

The muzzle of a Napoleon manufactured by Ames Manufacturing Company.  

Napoleons made for the US government all had a 4.62 inch diameter bore.  As per "Artillery Hell:  The Employment of Artillery at Antietam", "With a propellant charge of 2.5 pounds of black powder the Napoleon could fire a 12.30 lb. solid shot to a range of 1,619 yds, (4,857 ft, or 0.92 miles) at five degrees elevation.   The muzzle velocity was 1,485 f.p.s. (feet per second)."  The guns also fired shell, spherical case and canister which was deadly at close range against masses of troops in close formation.      

The confederacy also produced Napoleons designed after the Union model.  By wars end 501 cannons had been delivered with the largest producer J. R. Anderson & Company (Tredegar Iron Works)  of Richmond, Va.

 Confederate Napoleon manufactured by the Macon Arsenal in Macon, Georgia.  This gun is near the Eternal Peace Memorial at Gettysburg National Military Park.  

Muzzle of the Napoleon cast at the Macon Arsenal.  The words "Macon Arsenal" at 12 o'clock are visible but difficult to read.  

Living historians at Antietam National Battlefield firing a reproduction Napoleon, April 2011.  

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Valor Set in Stone: Monuments to the Iron Brigade at Gettysburg

Although there were several units in the Army of the Potomac that at one time or another were referred to an the “Iron Brigade” the “Iron Brigade of the West” composed of regiments from Wisconsin, Indiana and later Michigan was and is undoubtedly the most famous.  They fought bravely on many a civil war battlefield including Brawner’s Farm (August 28, 1862), South Mountain (September 14, 1862) Antietam (September 17, 1862), Fredericksburg, (December 13, 1862), Chancellorsville (May 1-3, 1863) and Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) amongst others.
According to Fox’s Regimental Losses “In proportion to its numbers this brigade sustained the heaviest loss of any in the war.  At Manassas (Brawner’s Farm), under command of General Gibbon, the first four regiments named (2nd, 6th, 7th Wisconsin & 19th Indiana) lost 148 killed, 626 wounded, and 120 missing; total, 894, out of about 2,000 engaged. At Gettysburg, General Meredith commanding, the five regiments were engaged, losing 162 killed, 724 wounded, and 267 missing; a total of 1,153 casualties, out of 1,883 engaged, or 61 per cent. Most of the missing at Gettysburg were killed or wounded. “
The brigade was organized in September 1861 when the Wisconsin and Indiana units were combined under the command of Brigadier General Rufus King as part of the Major General Irvin McDowell’s I Corp, Army of the Potomac.  In May 1862 King was replaced as commander of the brigade by Brigadier General John Gibbon and in June it was assigned to Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia.  The troops first saw the elephant at Brawner’s Farm in August 1862  and in less than 3 weeks, after being transferred back to the Army of the Potomac as the 4th Brigade, 1st Division, 1st Corps., were also heavily engaged at South Mountain (in taking Turner’s Gap) and Antietam (along the Hagerstown Pike and in the cornfield). 
In October 1862 the 24th Michigan was added to the depleted ranks of the Iron Brigade and in late November Gibbon was replaced as brigade commander by Brigadier General Solomon Meredith.  The brigade saw limited action at the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville but were heavily engaged at Gettysburg. 
At Gettysburg the Iron Brigade was attached to the I Corps. Army of the Potomac commanded by Major General John F. Reynolds.  The brigade fought on McPherson’s and Seminary Ridge on both sides of the Chambersburg Pike during July 1, 1863 when they came to the support of  Major General John Buford’s dismounted cavalry.
Today there are  five striking  monuments honoring the valor and sacrifice of the Iron Brigade at Gettysburg.  

                                7th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Monument, Meredith Ave., Reynolds Woods

                            2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Monument, Meredith Ave., Reynolds Woods

                           24th Michigan Volunteer infantry Monument, Meredith Ave., Reynolds Woods

Four of these monuments, including one to the 19th Indiana which I do not have a photograph of,  are located in Reynolds Woods and along Meredith Avenue south of the Chamberbsburg Pike in an area that is not on the main battlefield auto tour route.  It is worth the detour to get off the beaten path and see them however.   

                                            6th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Monument, North Reynolds Ave.

The 5th monument dedicated to the 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry is east of Reynolds Avenue and southeast of the railroad cut on the main auto tour route.