Category Archives: Soldiers

Appomattox Day

Screen shot 2014-04-10 at 11.02.14 AMAppomattox Day, in case you’re wondering…was yesterday, April 9th, 2014. Not many really “celebrate” this day anymore – though it is often commemorated – especially owing to its clear reconciliationist overtones. But not too terribly long ago, this day was celebrated with great joy and truimphalism by Union veterans – particularly those who fought with the Army of the Potomac – as the day the forces of the United States suppressed a domestic rebellion.

Not for nothin’ my fellow citizens – happy (belated) Appomattox Day!

With compliments,

Keith

The Geezer of Gettysburg

Screen shot 2014-04-08 at 10.20.47 AMFor the last few months I have developed something of an obsession with reading about the Battle of Gettysburg. Oh sure, I understand and can discuss most major Civil War battles with the best of them, but I have never really delved deep into the nitty-gritty of any one particular scrap. And this I have now set out to do…since Gettysburg is my favorite place to visit, discuss, write about, and analyze – I figured I would go after that one. Yeah…I have plenty of books to choose from – just to get started.

Most of us know that battles usually come with their own set of legends, and the case Gettysburg is no different. Being a memory guy, I love legends and all that comes with them. So I will start off my (sure to be many) series of posts about this battle by having a quick look at the battle’s most famous geezery civilian: John Burns.  Many who visit the battlefield today learn about Burns, who along with Jennie Wade (the only civilian killed in the battle), number among the civilian notables in what could easily be called the Gettysburg express tourist package.

I have recently read Harry Pfanz’s Gettysburg: The First Day and he included a handy index that tells the Burns story, just in case you have never had the pleasure of hearing it from a hit-and-run Gettysburg tour guide. Burns was well in to his 70s and claimed to be a veteran of the war of 1812. He was, shall we say, incensed by the Rebel invasion of his native state and decided to do something about it – he grabbed his weapon (described by various authors to be either a 1812 vintage flinklock or a more modern Enfield) and went out to meet the advancing foe.

As the story goes…around noon he arrived at the position of the 150th Pennsylvania near the McPherson farm. Burns discussed fighting alongside the Keystone regiment with the regiment’s major and colonel and was eventually given permission – although he was advised to go to the nearby McPherson Woods where he would find shelter from the sun and Rebel bullets.

There he met up with the members of the 7th Wisconsin where he impressed the regiment’s colonel by dropping a mounted Confederate with a rifle handed him by the officer. But that’s not all. From there he moved on down the line and joined the 24th Michigan – near the eastern edge of the woods. There he was wounded three times.

The Burns legend has grown over time – is it true that he fought in all the places he claimed (or that others claimed)? Did he really kill the Rebel horseman? It is hard to say with certainty – but he did fight on McPherson Ridge and he was wounded.

Burns died in 1872 and is buried next to his wife in Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery. If you are ever there – stop by a pay your respects to one ballsy Yankee. And try to remember this little anecdote. It’s stories like this that will impress your friends at parties – that is…it will if you hang out with people who are impressed by these types of things.

With compliments,

Keith

Elmer E. Ellsworth – an Unfortunate Civil War First

Screen shot 2014-04-04 at 8.44.05 AMWho has the unfortunate distinction of being the first officer killed in the Civil war – none other than Elmer E. Ellsworth.

Ellsworth was a New Yorker and an attorney in civilian life, he raised and commanded the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry (the Fire Zouaves) at the beginning of the war, and he was a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln.

Here’s how it all went down. On May 24th 1861 – the day after Virginia’s voters ratified their state’s secession, President Lincoln noticed a huge Rebel flag flying over the Marshall House Inn in Alexandria Virginia…just across the Potomac from Washington City.

Ellsworth, who had worked at Lincoln’s law firm, helped in his presidential campaign, and who had accompanied the new president to Washington, offered to go over and take care of business – which he then proceeded to do.

He led the 11th into Alexandria, deployed his men in various places around town, and took four soldiers to the inn to remove the heinous banner. Things went south (so to speak) rather quickly from this point.  When he came down the inn’s stairs with flag in hand, innkeeper and vehement Rebel James W. Jackson unloaded a shotgun into Elsworth’s chest – killing him on the spot. A Union corporal – Francis Brownell  – in turn killed Jackson. (For this act, he was later awarded the Medal of Honor).Screen shot 2014-04-04 at 8.52.17 AM

Lincoln, extremely saddened by the death of his friend, ordered an honor guard to carry him to the White House – where he lay in state in the East Room before returning to New York – where thousands came to visit his body at New York City’ s City Hall. He is buried in Mechanicville, New York.

With compliments,

Keith

Mysteries Abound – Whatever Happened to the Body of Confederate General Richard B. Garnett?

Well, it seems we have a bit of a mystery on our hands. Those of us who are captivated by the Battle of Gettysburg story know that Confederate general Richard B. Garnett was killed in the battle.

Garnett, as you probably know, was a brigade commander in George Pickett’s division…and led his troops in the ill-fated Pickett-Pettigrew Assault on July 3rd, 1863. There are a couple of eye-witness accounts of how he was killed.

Apparently, Garnett got within about twenty feet of the famous “angle” on Cemetery Ridge where he was shot in the head while waving his men forward with his hat. Soon after, his courier’s horse was also hit and fell on the dead general’s body. The courier in question, one Robert Irvine, pulled Garnett’s body from under the horse, and managed to retrieve his watch before moving on. This wasn’t shady or anything, later Irvine gave the watch to the brigade adjutant – or that’s at least how the story goes…

Now this is where things get sort of cloudy. First, there are conflicting reports as to whether or not the general’s horse made it back to the Rebel lines. Second, and more important, Garnett’s body was never recovered. More than likely, he was buried in a mass grave along with his men.

Which means we have a very probable resting place for Richard Garnett. In the early 1870s, Ladies’ Memorial Assocaitions were instrumental in reinterring the Confederate dead of Gettysburg in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. Bodies were removed from mass graves and brought south (for a fee) where they would Screen shot 2014-03-28 at 10.05.14 AMhave a proper – Confederate – burial.

So many, including military historian Robert Krick,  believe that Garnett is there. Probably, but we cannot be certain. In 1991, the Hollywood Memorial Association just flat out assumed he was there and erected a cenotaph in his honor. Nothing else has ever surfaced concerning Garnett, with one notable exception. Soon after the war, his sword turned up in a Baltimore pawn shop…where it was purchased by former Confederate general George H. Steuart.

So there you have it – mystery not (entirely) solved.

With compliments,

Keith

The Rebel Yell Revisited

Screen shot 2014-03-22 at 9.48.27 AMFor decades, we thought we knew what the Rebel yell sounded like. We figured it was somewhere between a blood-curdling scream and an extended YEEEEEEEEEHHHHHAAAAAAAA in The Dukes of Hazzard fashion.

But reports from Union soldiers who heard it in battle don’t exactly match up to the popular understanding of the infamous war cry. Federal soldier Ambrose Bierce said of the yell…”It was the ugliest sound that any mortal ever heard — even a mortal exhausted and unnerved by two days of hard fighting, without sleep, without rest, without food and without hope.” And a New York Times war correspondent remarked “..the Southern soldiers cannot cheer, and what passes muster for that jubilant sound is a shrill ringing scream with a touch of the Indian war-whoop in it.” Shelby Foote – who seems to be the master of all things Civil War, stated in Ken Burns’s The Civil War, that is was most likely some sort of “a foxhunt yip mixed up with sort of a banshee squall.”

Has the sound been lost to history? Well, thanks to the Museum of the Confederacy, maybe not. Have a quick look at these two short videos and see how the MOC pieced together what sounds haunting and just plain scary – just like the Union soldiers described.

The yips, barks and yelps generated in the studio as Waite Rawls, president of the MOC describe and the yell reproduced by Henry Kidd and the other Confederate reenactors may very well be the closest thing we have to the real deal. Sometimes I imagine myself hearing this from a thousand or more voices. Yes – I am a dork.

With compliments,
Keith