Friday, April 30, 2010

Confronting thier past, passing thier future

Today at Brandy Station, April 30, 1863

The Chancellorsville Campaign has begun. Yesterday three Federal Corps of infantry crossed at Kelly's Ford. Also crossing was the Yankee cavalry under George Stoneman. They did not use the pontoons. "As [they] were monopolized by others, we cavaliers, as often we had done before, defied the flood and rose to the opposite bank. "

One of the regiments of horse soldiers was the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry, which crossed under very different circumstances six weeks earlier. That day, March 17, 1863, was the battle at Kelly's Ford.

Yesterday there was some fighting, call it sparring rather then a fight. Each side retired to the same portions of the field they held that March day. The Rebel cavalry withdrew during the night. We pick up the narrative from Fredric Denison's book, Sabres and Spurs: The First Rhode Island Cavalry in the Civil War:

"The enemy showed no pickets. Finding the grave of Lieutenant Nicolai near the center of the battle field, a stone marked N was placed at the head of it. Cautiously we moved forward to Brandy Station to Culpepper [sic] Court House. As our skirmishers entered the town, we saw the rear of the retreating foe dashing over the hill beyond. "

They found a grave of one of their own, Lieutenant Henry L. Nicolai. Nicolai was killed by solid shot from Breathed's Battery. His body was not recovered and he buried on the field, his stone marked by an N. What memories were going through the troopers mind.

What would they have thought if it were known that in a little over a month, June 9, they would be returning to these killings fields once again.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A new game

Today at Brandy Station, April 29, 1864A soldier from the 32nd Massachusetts wrote to a Captain friend from Bealeton Virginia,

“The officers have got a new game that they play every after noon. It is BaseBall. I wished you could see Colonel [George L.] Prescott run after the ball. He looks like an ostrich when he runs. All the boys laugh at him and Col [Luther] Stephenson [Jr.] plays also. He is the largest man that I ever saw to lazy to run after the ball. I think you would be amused if you could see us play."

It seems that the officers weren't allowing the enlisted men (at least in the 32nd) an opportunity to play. Other regiments played throughout the spring, including the 4th Michigan Infantry and the 1st New York Artillery Regiment (light), Battery L, who beat the Excelsior Baseball Club by a score of 71 - 23. Yes 71.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Saying Good-bye to the Cabins

Today at Brandy Station, April 27, 1864

A soldier from the 141st Pennsylvania Infantry wrote to his sister:

"Yesterday we bid goodbye to our winter quarters and moved out into the open to try the simple shelter tent, and to sleep on the ground and cook out of doors. Thee fields are green again and the flowers all returning once more. Soon will come the dusty marches and summer of toil and danger. We have the report that no mail will be permitted after once getting into a new wave. If it is for the best we must submit, but ‘twill seem hard to be deprived of our almost only enjoyment. …
Ville, I am so tired of hearing the drum, fife and bugle—seeing the white tents and white covered army wagons nearly as far as the eye can see on every side. …"

During the next few days throughout the Army of the Potomac, soldiers were ordered to vacate the cabins they had built and lived in for nearly five months. It was time to get into the habit of living in the field under canvas. So, out came the tents and down came the cabins and huts, many were burned along with the furniture that had been hand-made during the quiet of winter - by soldiers whose real talents were something other than weapons of death.

The women had left; the sutlers and business that had sprung up in and around Brandy Station had packed up and gone home; and now the cabins were to be destroyed. Even the greenest recruit knew what lay in his immediate future.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Same place - different days

Today I am going to cheat -- a little.

Today in Orange County, April 26, 1864, Confederate mapmaker extraordinaire, Jedediah Hotchkiss wrote to his wife Sara, in part: "...Grant still employs himself in reviews & changing his camps -- he has also been digging some entrenchments this side of Culpeper C. H. on Mrs. Green's land -- "

The next day (April 27) Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, aide-De-camp to Army of The Potomac Commander George Meade wrote in his diary: "General [Gouverneur K.] Warren [Fifth Corps Commander], took us to Green's House on the ridge beyond town and showed the redoubts and rifle-pits he has constructed. That active engineer never can let dirt alone..."

How interesting is it that two people, on different sides of the Rapidan, could discuss field fortifications on a farm just outside Culpeper. Both Hotchkiss and Lyman probably knew that the fortifications would never be used (but a soldier can never be too sure).

But Lyman was correct in saying that an 'engineer never can let dirt alone."

You should also ask yourself how Hotchkiss knew of the fortifications. My thought would be from the top of Clark's Mountain. Clark's is the only vantage point south of the Rapidan to view deep into Culpeper County. This is the also the location Robert E. Lee would use next week as he and his primary generals surveyed the forces arrayed against the Army of Northern Virginia.

This piece of hallowed ground also was the location of the final stages of the Battle of Culpeper on September 13, 1863, when Federal cavalry swept a portion of the Stuart Horse Artillery from Greenwood Hill, site of the Green House.

Green's House still stands today (and still owned by the Green family). It is located on the left side of the road as you depart Culpeper atop Greenwood Hill on Business 15. Unfortunately, most of the farmland is now developed property. But from what I am told, portions of the field works still exist.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Slow News Day

Today at Brandy Station: April 25, 1864

There are days when stirring events occur: great battles, grand reviews & balls, news from home or something of interest. Well, nothing like that occurred on April 25. It was a clear pleasant, quiet day in camp.

But for a soldier, this is a good thing. With the terror of combat looming in their future, a quiet day is a good day. Consider some the following:

"We returned from picket yesterday, and have been issuing ammunition and making other preparations. All well so far. " a soldier in the 9th Pennsylvania Reserve

"There is nothing new around here at present so I can’t write much news to you this time. So you will excuse me with a short note." a private in the 4oth New York wrote to his sister in New Jersey.

"Still on picket. Relieved from the line & came back to the grand reserve at 12 N. Report that the rebels are moving up the Shenandoah Valley. The time for active operations is nigh. May God give me strength to ever do my duty, for him is my trust." a private in the 86th New York wrote in his diary.

"I seat myself this fine afternoon with pleasure to let you know that my health is good and that I received yours of the 11th, the 21th and was glad to here from you and to know that you are well. I don't know as there is much news to write now,..." wrote a private in the 11th U.S. Infantry to his mother.

"I feel first rate, and my mumps are entirely gone." penned in a letter by a private in the 116th Pennsylvania to his father.

What lies ahead for these men is unknown. But for all of them (especially for those without mumps), Monday, April 25, 1864, was a good day.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Graffiti House today

Today at Brandy Station, April 24, 2010, the Graffiti House was host to members of the 17th Virginia Infantry, Company D, The Fairfax Rifles. These gentlemen and ladies are a fine group of living historians. And this year, as they have for the previous four years, came to the Graffiti House to help us support Culpeper Remembrance Days. Cupleper Remembrance Days is a celebration of the history of Culpeper, with it's eye on the future.

At the Graffiti House we hosted over 70 visitors, young and old, from the area and the country. I was proud to be there to help tell the story of the house, to interpret the graffiti for them, and tell a ghost story or two.

But there is more. We tell the story of Brandy Station during the Civil War. The fighting, camping and the people who lived here and passed through here. The Fairfax Rifles help tell that story, for the original Fairfax Rifles passed by the house and looked upon at least once, in late August 1862.

The Graffiti House is a treasure. I like to describe the Graffiti House in this way. "Many understand what a witness tree is. A witness tree was present at a significant event and remains today. There are not many left that witnessed events during the Civil War. There are many, many structures on and around Civil War battlefields that were present during the fighting. The Graffiti House is one such structure."

But with the Graffiti left by soldiers, both blue and gray, it is much, much more. The docents at the house bring the graffiti to life. Our docents tell of the soldiers that signed the walls, describe when and why drawings were made, and speak of the events and incidents that are captured by dates annotated.

The Graffiti House is a witness house. But it is also so much more. This witness house speaks, it lives.

Friday, April 23, 2010

" much tobacco as we could carry"

As I mentioned, there will be foray's into surrounding counties. Today we travel to Fauquier County. In April 1862, the 1st Maine Cavalry went on a scout to 'Warrenton Village."

Below is a portion of a letter by Charles F. Beal from Company F. Beal would not survive the war, dying from disease on February 8, 1863. There is a photo of him in the American Civil War Research Database.

April 23, 1862
“'We have been sent out on scouting excursions. Once we had orders to go down to Warrenton Village. We surrounded the place with 3 companys and made a charge through the city with the remaining 4 comps. There was five hundred Rebels Cavalry there the night before but they had got the wind of our coming and took to thare heels. We remained in the city and scoured it until 3 o’clock in the morning. The rebels are encamped in a large force about 15 miles from here on the south side of the Rappahannock River where they had a small fight 3 or 4 days ago. We heard the firing. We go out foraging all most every day after grain for our horses and food for our selvs. We went out the other day and got a wagon full of grain and killed 9 Turkeys, 5 Ducks, 11 Chickens, 2 Geese, and got a large jar of Huney and just as much tobacco as we could carry. I found a barn of it about 150 feet long 60 feet wide all strung full of it."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Great Rat Hunt

April 20, 1864

The 4th Michigan was camped in Bealeton, Virginia. This Fifth Corps units mission was to guard the Railroad against the likes of John Mosby and other partisans. While they did have some incidents with the partisans during the winter, April 20th was not a day for hunting rebels.

From the diary of Henry Seage, 4th Michigan, "Boys turned out for a "Grand Hunt" on the "Rats" among the rubbish killed about 60 rats old and young. Played ball."

One wonders just how many rats escaped, and how big was the rubbish pile? There isn't much mention of trash in the journals or diaries. I suspect that most of the time, the waste of the army was burnt. It would have been one of the extra duties assigned.

Also, Henry mentions playing ball. He was playing baseball, which had become popular among the soldiers. Famous players of the day were in the army and box scores of some of the games were published in New York newspapers. But I'll leave that discussion for another time

Monday, April 19, 2010

Boys will be boys

Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman served as Army of the Potomac Commander George Meade's aide-de-camp from September 1863 until the close of the war. His letters are fascinating; his diary is better. I highly recommend "Meade's Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman.

Lyman holds nothing back. He described George Custer as "a crazy circus rider", and Judson Kilpatrick as "spare, nervous and jerky." By the way he wrote, he never intended to have his diary published.

On April 19, he attended a review of Brig. Gen Francis C. Barlow's Division. Afterward, he stopped at the Headquarters of Brig. Gen. Gershom Mott. While waiting at Mott's Headquarters, he commented on the mind-set of former soldiers of the Third Army Corps. "They are a dirty lot...of the stamp that keep indecent photographs in their baggage. Some of these nowadays from France, are of an extraordinary depth of foulness."

I have to wonder how Lyman knew of these photos. Were they uncovered during an inspection? Or maybe the soldiers got the expected reaction when they showed Lyman their prize images....Boys will be boys.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

New Leadership for the Brandy Station Foundation

At its recent annual meeting, the Brandy Station Foundation named Clark C. 'Bud' Hall as its president. This is the second time Bud has led the organization. Along with Bud, Tony Sedita will be the Vice-President, Michael Block the Treasure and Mary Toland as the Secretary.

I have known Bud for a number of years and there is no one who knows more about the Civil War history of Brandy Station. Just as importantly, Bud is intimate with the early struggles of the Brandy Station Foundation's attempts to save the battlefield. Bud is one of the early pioneers of Civil War Preservation in Virginia.

Great things can be expected during his tenure.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Few Sunday's Left

In 1864, April 17 was a Sunday. There were very few Sunday's left for many soldiers, both blue and gray. Religion was important to many of the soldiers and services were usually well attended. Church gave the soldiers something solid to lean on to as they prepared for the horror that all knew was days or weeks away.

From a soldier in the 86th New York: "Attended muster in the chapel. Sermon by Chaplain Bradner of the 126th Regt. PM a communion was on. Also 4 of my friends were baptized by Rev. Mr. ___(chaplain) of my regt. Evening attended prayer meeting, had a good meeting."

"Sunday School and church service today as usual." jotted Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island in his diary.

Another heard a sermon by Dr. Durya of New York. "He handled the Infinite in a rather easy way, but he had a good manner & an excellent voice for singing."

Many had inspections and dress parades, a normal Sunday event. But generally most of the men stayed in their 'homes' if possible, for it was another rainy day in Culpeper.

In a short time, the chapels would be torn down, the tenting folded and returned to the Christian Commission. The Army of the Potomac would move from cabins to tents in preparation for the work ahead.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

If I live through Spring

Spring finally began to unfold in Culpeper County. the snow was melted and the rains began to subside. The of soldiers of the Army of the Potomac began to realize that their time of inactivity had begun to wane. They were drilling regularly; and reviews became more commonplace. Little did they know what was in store for them.

On April 7, 1864, William Hogan, a soldier in the 2nd Delaware Infantry wrote to his son. "Our scouts have crossed the Rapidan River this evening and I expect that we will soon follow them I expect to join my Regt to morrow but you may look for me home about the middle of August if I live through this Spring campaign which I hope and trust I shall."

Hogan survived the war, but became a prisoner during the Petersburg campaign. Hogan's letter can be found on

Monday, April 5, 2010

The North-Easter

April 4 and 5, 1864 saw what we like to call a Nor-Easter. Heavy rain, wind and if the season is right, snow. Well the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac got a little bit of it all.

From Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, of Meade's staff (From "Meade's Army", edited by David W. Lowe)
"Rain all night and today worse than ever, a perfect type of a north-easter; cold & windy & wet. Took a ride, when it let up a little, and saw the Blue Ridge covered with snow. Muddy Run was running full with red water, and the Hazel River had swept away it's bridge, though the pontoons at Welfords [ford] held fast."

Austin Fenn, of the 10Th Vermont wrote to his wife, "Today is Tuesday and I will write a few lines to you it has been raining and snowing ever since yesterday noon. It is the worst time I ever see out here to get around."

Others complained about the rain and mud and wind. But the real complaints would begin in a day or two. The Hazel River bridge was not the only one to get swept away. A number of bridges on the Orange and Alexandria Rail road were lost. And while there was plenty of food in the camps, what was lost for a number of days was just as important to the soldiers, their mail.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Big Change Near the Top

It was reported in the Boston Herald on April 2 and widely disseminated on April 4:

"It now announced, though not an official form, that General Sheridan has been assigned to the position of command of the Cavalry Corps. General Sheridan, we believe, belonged to the dragoons in the old service, but his reputation during the present war, which is a very distinguish one, has been gained as a Commander of the Division of Infantry in the Army of the Cumberland in the appointment will take the public by surprise.
The service in which most of our cavalry officers have gained what fame they have, has been in the class of expeditions called raids - a kind of operation which depends entirely on its character, whether it is of very high or absolute valueless or worse. They are apt to be effectual in nothing but destroying horses and a few such expeditions can easily use up the finest cavalry corps ever raised.
But though we appreciate that their full value well planned and vigorously executed raids, a general of cavalry should be something more than a mere raider. He should know how to bring into play this magnificent arm in the great part assigned to it on the day of battle. To lead a flying column for a hundred or two miles through an enemy's country, is one thing, and maybe a very good and valuable thing; but to maneuver cavalry on the field of battle in and bring out of it the great results it can achieve is another and much higher thing.
The Army of the Potomac has now a noble cavalry corps, and we hope its new commander will be able to develop its power, and make it the store traditions of this harm in a living reality."

Interesting commentary. It is undoubtedly a direct broadside against Judson Kilpatrick and his late raid into Richmond. Alfred Pleasonton is now gone, Kill-Cavalry will soon be reporting to a new commander.

With Sheridan, Grant has the man he wants in place, though he has never led a cavalry unit of any appreciable size. We know the final outcome, but an interesting choice, another outsider.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

"I wish it had been me."

April 3 was a Sunday in Brandy Station, usually a day of church service, a quick inspection and the rest of the day was free. It was also a day to catch up on your letter writing.

A soldier from Vermont wrote a real interesting on to his wife on April 3. I found this letter in "A War of the People: Vermont Civil War Letters," edited by Jeffery D. Marshall. In it Tabor Parcher tells his wife about three Culpeper women who succumbed to Yankees wiles.

A portion of the letter, as written:
"Wall there is three girls that is a goin to have babies that I know. Hon John Minor Botts Girl is a goin to have one. She is a nice pretty girl of about 20 years of age. The safe guard knock[ed] her up. I wish it had been me. She was one of the first girls in this vicinity before she got f***ed & it doant make a difference now. Wall another is Sarah France. She lives near the Picket line at Poney Mountain. She is about 3 ½ months along so she told me last time that I see her. & the other is Alis Poland. She lives near the right of the divisions Picket line."

Besides identifying the three ladies for us, the most fascinating line is "I wish it had been me." Remember, he is writing his WIFE, who is in Vermont. They must have had a strong, understanding relationship.

Friday, April 2, 2010

"let them pass by..."

"My dear wife you should no me better than to think for one moment that I came out here to stop bullets for I intend to let them pass by and give them all the room I can at that for there is ware the danger is if you go to stopping bullets you are sure to get hurt but if you let them pass right by then is no danger not the least so do not let that worry you?"

So wrote a soldier in the 1st New Jersey Cavalry on this day in 1864. John Pownall enlisted on October 5, 1863. Seven months later, to the day, he was dead. Killed at Todd's Tavern.
He was a husband and father. What drove Pownall to enlist? A bonus? Maybe. Love or country or wanting to take part in the greatest event in his lifetime? I doubt it. If this was the case, he would have enlisted in 1861.
I don't know. But I suspect he saw an opportunity to make some easy money, doing light service in the Cavalry. He spent the winter mostly in Fauquier County, participating in patrols and chasing guerrillas. Not what he anticipated back in October.
His Overland Campaign was brief, like so many others who spent their last days in Culpeper and Fauquier County.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A quiet April 1st for a Medal of Honor winner

April 1, 1864 was a relatively quiet day in Brandy Station. It rained, again. Many, many days of rain in the late winter and early spring. Soldiers pretty much stayed close to their cabins and tents. Soldiers were relocating camps as a result of the Army of the Potomacs restructuring. Gone were the 1st and 3rd Corps. Both had been severely reduced by fighting in 1863 and the reduction gave Meade a chance to remove some less effective generals.

Today at Brandy Station: April 1, 1864
A soldier in the 141st Pennsylvania relocated camp to a position closer to the railroad. He complained about having to do this in the rain.
Captain John. Nicholas Conye (a Medal of Honor winner for his action at the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5 1862) received a letter from a major in the 70th New York about the number of drummers in that regiment. Conye believed they were 1o short, but the major corrected him as a number of privates had reenlisted.

From Deeds of Valor:
When the enemy were overtaken at Williamsburg the Third Excelsior, of the Seventieth New York Volunteers, was in advance. It was a dark, rainy morning. A heavy vapor covered the field, and the smoke of the battle obscured the scene. As the supporting regiment approached, the enemy, who were concealed in the thick woods, sent up the cry: "Show your colors!" The color-bearer waved the flag, and, as its folds spread out and showed the stars and stripes, the rebels advanced from the woods and opened fire. The fire was returned so effectively that they were driven back. Another advance, with re-enforcements, was also repulsed by the valiant Excelsiors.
After several hours of conflict the ammunition became exhausted, and the New Yorkers were ordered to fall back by companies. Sergeant Coyne's company, which during the latter part of the battle was under his command, the captain and lieutenant having been disabled, became separated, and a number of them, missing their way, found themselves with their leader confronted by a party of the enemy surrounding their color-bearer.
"Let's capture their colors, boys!" shouted Coyne, and, with a ringing cheer, the little band made a dash for the enemy. Coyne singled out the color-bearer and rushed upon him. The rebel was too strong to be conquered by such an assault, and defended his flag bravely until a bullet, shattering his right hand, forced him to loosen his hold and enabled Coyne to drag the trophy from him. Tearing the flag from the staff and tying it around his body, he turned to offer battle to any one who should attempt to retake it but the survivors of the enemy were hurriedly leaving the field before a rescuing party sent by General Heintzelman. Of the brave band who had supported their leader but few remained standing, and Sergeant Cook, Corporal Beekman, and Privates Howard and Lynch were killed outright.
Sergeant Coyne received the commission of second lieutenant to date from the battle. He was mentioned for bravery in general orders by General Heintzelman, and was advanced to the rank of lieutenant-colonel for several other acts of gallantry during the war.