Friday, December 19, 2008

Fort Smith

When Confederate General Leonidas Polk invaded Kentucky and captured Columbus, Union General US Grant moved fast. He soon after took Paducah and Smithland, strategic spots along the Ohio River. Paducah guarded the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers while Smithland guarded the Ohio and Cumberland rivers. In February 1862 Grant would need naval access to the Cumberland River to aid his attacks on Fort Donelson.

So in my continuing efforts at visiting the rare spots of the war I went to Smithland to see what I could see. There is not much. Smithland is a small town. I think there was just a warning light in town, not a traffic light, just a flashing yellow light. But on the hill south of town are the remains of the Union Fort Smith. They are pretty well preserved, I've heard that they are the best preserved entrenchments in Kentucky but I'm not sure I'd go that far.

This is the only sign in the fort although there were two park benches. The whole place seemed creepy. Perhaps that's because its right next to the cemetery. The benches did not give me a warm cozy feeling, I almost felt like an intruder.
And of course along the river was a place to see the confluence of the Cumberland and Ohio rivers. The Cumberland enters the picture from the right and exits the left side as the Ohio.

I doubt I'll ever visit Smithland again but it was nice to see it once.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Columbus, Kentucky

The day I visited Cairo and Mound City I started my adventure at Columbus Kentucky. This is a nice state park that also doubles as a picnic area. Actually most people there were probably there for picnics. But there was a small museum (though nicely done) and a gift shop.

I was impressed at the amount of markers around the park, plus these markers offered a ton of text. I've been places that have a simple "entrenchments" sign but these markers offered much more interpretation.

There was a nice view of the Mississippi River and the lower ground of Missouri. When I was there the ferry was not operating. I'm not sure if this was a permanent or temporary decision. So I was not able to tramp the battlefield of Belmont, but it is the low ground across the river. Specifically what ground I'm not sure as the river has moved since then and I was not able to wander around Belmont. I could have gotten over there but it would have been quite the detour and from what I heard there is only a marker or two over there.

One of the more interesting things to see was a section of the chain defenses the Confederates strung across the river to prevent (or slow) the Union gunboats from passing the bluffs here. You can try to pick up a link of chain but it is very heavy.

Then of course there are the guns that made Columbus a formidable position for the Union navy. While this particular gun may not have been here during the battle it was here afterwards as the Union used Columbus as a depot for captured cannon. It would later fall in the river as the bank eroded and was found again in 1998. In any respect it is similar to guns that would have been here.

The problem with Columbus is that while it provides a strong defense against the Union navy it is easily outflanked by land. When Forts Henry and Donelson fell the Confederates had to abandon this spot. That is why when General Polk invaded Kentucky he made a fatal error by stopping at Columbus. If he had secured Paducah the invasion might have been worthwhile. Gaining Columbus was not worth opening up much of the rest of Kentucky to Union forces, who now could come in claiming that they were rescuing the state from the Confederates, never minding that both sides had been recruiting in the state since the initial neutrality proclamation. Polk invading the state ended the sham neutrality.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Stringer's Ridge

Yesterday I got an email asking for help preserving Stringer's Ridge in Chattanooga. This site on Moccasin Bend is where Eli Lilly's battery bombarded Chattanooga at the start of the Chickamauga campaign.

The Trust for Public Land is trying to preserve 92 acres on the ridge. The cost is $2.5 million and they are now just $180,000 away from the goal. But they need to hit that by January 9th. If they fail to reach it in time they can sell some of the land (5-10 acres) to a residential developer to cover the shortfall.

Eventually this land would likely become part of the National Park Service. The NPS has recently bought other land on Moccasin Bend and while the Stringer's Ridge parcel is not next to it the two pieces would be a nice addition to the sort of Chattanooga in the war.

Amazingly this parcel has not yet been developed, although from searching the Chattanooga papers online it is not from lack of trying. Many developers have proposed projects but the community has been able to derail each effort. Now we might take this target off the market forever.

To see the map of the parcel and the link to donate click here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Mound City

Located just north of Cairo, a few minute drive, is Mound City National Cemetery. When I was doing research with the Wisconsin unit rosters I often saw men listed as dying at Mound City. Obviously there was a hospital in this area, also at Cairo. During the war 1644 men were buried here. After the war other dead soldiers from places along the Mississippi and Ohio were reinterred here raising the total to 4808 soldiers. Since then other veterans have been buried here raising the total to over 9000.

One interesting feature of the monument is that it has the names of some of the men buried here. These panels are a bit worn but you can make out quite a few names. The panels were a bit too high to get a comprehensive set of pictures but here are a few so you can see that the panels are still in pretty good condition.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cairo, Illinois

Cairo is an interesting place. It is pretty small but its role in the Civil War was quite large as it served as a staging area for riverine operations in the West. Early in the war it served as Grant's headquarters and his desk is still there. Even Grant's desk shows that he was always ready for movement as there are little plastic wheels on the bottom (yes I know those are modern additions but its a tiny joke).

I went to Cairo though on a Shiloh hunt. I had read in a book that the Tigress's flagpole was in Cairo. This was the ship that Grant used to get from his headquarters at the Cherry Mansion to Pittsburg Landing for the big battle on April 6th. My book said it was downtown somewhere, I think near city hall. So I went there but instead found this cannon.

I was discouraged but kept driving around. After no luck I finally stopped in at the Chamber of Commerce. Where I learned that the locals do not pronounce the C in Cairo. I knew it wasn't pronounced like the city in Egypt but I was surprised that it sounds more like a-row. In any respect the lady there called the librarian to ask, which led them to a museum and that's where they suggested I go. Which brings up a wonderful tip. You can buy all the guidebooks in the world, do tons of preliminary research but if you ignore talking to the locals you can miss some gems. I went back to the museum and there I found the flagpole, which to me was a true gem. The flag is obviously a modern made version but the flagpole, and original wooden historical marker, are fantastic. I had the museum to myself that day and wonder how many people have ever seen this treasure. I'd wager that more people will see it here today than will see it in person today.

The desk and the flagpole are in the Cairo Custom House Museum.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Jonesboro is a rough battlefield to visit. The effort was made harder because I had not done much research prior to the visit. I knew generally where I could go but did not have a list of other areas to try my hand at. Plus visiting a battlefield in a city is even tougher because you have to fight traffic. So with our limited time in the afternoon we saw one piece of the battlefield. From what I've heard from other travelers there is a little bit more to see but not too much more.

Our visit basically encompassed the Cleburne Cemetery, named this because Cleburne's Division fought on this ground. The cemetery is interesting in that it is laid out in the shape of the battleflag. My pictures don't quite give it justice but the walkways serve as the blue cross and the red field sections are now dotted with tombstones.

Since it is in the city there are no sweeping vistas to share. The cemetery is located right next to a busy road that is on the historic roadbed from 1864. It was a main road then and it still is. It has way too much traffic for such a small road and I'm sure they will widen it someday. It will further degrade the quality of the visit but at this point there is not much that can be done to fix things.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Jefferson Davis' Capture

On one trip we were headed from Andersonville to Macon and found ourselves with some extra time, so we detoured over to Irwinville, GA, site of the capture of Jefferson Davis.

After the fall of Richmond Jefferson Davis and various cabinet members and generals planned to shift the seat of the war to the West. They had no idea where they would make their stand but in hindsight it appears their best chance would have been in Texas. Along the way some members of the party conceded that the war was over but Davis continued on with his family, a few officers and Postmaster General John Reagan of Texas (who probably stuck with Davis since Davis was headed towards his home).

Assorted Union units were searching for Davis and on the morning of May 10, 1865 they caught up to him near Irwinville. The 4th Michigan Cavalry and 1st Wisconsin Cavalry actually skirmished with each other for a few minutes as they came upon the camp from opposite directions and did not know the other regiment was nearby. There was a reward to be had and there are some stories that the commander of the 4th Michigan had his men skirmish with the 1st Wisconsin so that the rest of his regiment could make the capture, and win the $100,000 reward.

There is also quite a few stories about the gold Davis took with him when Richmond fell. Some have said that there was still quite a bit of gold with Davis near Irwinville and that those two regiments made out quite well. The park ranger said that people come there every year to try to find the gold. There probably was gold with Davis though not in large amounts. I've heard that most of the gold was distributed to a large group of recently paroled soldiers the Davis party came upon. I forgot the name of the city but believe it was near Washington, GA, or across the border in South Carolina. In any respect by the time Davis reached Irwinville there was little gold remaining. If some Union soldiers got lucky and received an early retirement gift is unknown but does not seem too unlikely.

The park has one monument, a state historical sign and a museum. The museum is pretty neat. I think the highlight of the museum was chatting with the park ranger. We were there on a slow day and he was more than willing to chat with us. He was a treasure trove of information and I hope if I'm ever back there I will find him again and have another wonderful chat. He had said that he was from Resaca so if/when Georgia makes that a staffed state park he will probably try to be transferred there.

Inside the museum was the 50th Georgia's flag. After promising not to use my flash the ranger let me take a picture of it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Britton Lane

Britton Lane battlefield is located near Denmark, TN, which is southwest of Jackson. I visited it alone in 2004 and had just about given up on finding it when I crested a low ridge and saw cannon and a state historical marker. Interpretation is just a small self guided walking tour. There are a few signs and monuments (actually for its size it has a pretty good amount of markers and monuments). There was no gift shop, no staff, nothing to let anyone know you'd been there. I'd love to take people there (my only visit was that 2004 trip) just so they could see how remote and difficult it is to find.

The battle is a pretty minor affair. On September 1, 1862 a Confederate cavalry force attacked a mixed Federal unit (all three branches represented). The goal was to prevent Grant (in the Corinth area) from sending men to Buell in Kentucky. After a four hour fight the Union withdrew. The marker says that the Confederates withdrew but to me it seems that the Union got the worst of the situation. The main Union force for much of the battle was the 20th Illinois which was routed near the end of the fight, but that is when the 30th Illinois appeared on the scene and prevented a rout. At that point both sides let the battle end. The Confederates could have pursued the Union towards Jackson but instead they broke off the fight.

Colonel Frank Armstrong, commanding the Confederate force, probably feared that the Union was wise to the raid and would soon have too many different units converging on them. The raid had accomplished as much as it could and now was the time to get back to their lines. As always casualties are tough to pin down. Armstrong (who had been a Union officer at First Bull Run) said that he captured 213 Federals and killed or wounded 75 more. His loss was roughly 100 total. Colonel Elias S. Dennis, commanding the Union force, put his losses as 8 killed, roughly 50 wounded and approximately 50 captured. Realistically its 100 casualties per side.

On the Big Black Creek Historical Association page you can see the battlefield marked by a red arrow. Unfortunately they do not have any other information about the battle on their site. There is a Britton Lane Battlefield Association website that has a bit of info and a map of the battlefield.

There are a number of these signs. I remember one being so weathered that no text was readable.

A monument to the 7th Tennessee Cavalry CSA.
And the detail of the monument.

One house stands on the battlefield but I do not remember any interpretation there. And in the bit I can find online about the battle I do not see any info about it.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Duty, Honor and Country: Captain William P. Black

Duty, Honor and Country: The Civil War Experiences of Captain William P. Black, Thirty-Seventh Illinois Infantry. Edited by Michael E. Banasik. Unwritten Chapters of the Civil War West of the River, Volume VI. Illustrated, maps, appendix, footnotes, bibliography, index, 511 pp., 2006. Camp Pope Bookshop, PO Box 2232, Iowa City, IA 52244. $24.95 plus shipping.

Through the letters of William Black we learn about the combined experiences of the Black brothers of the 36th Illinois. Both brothers initially enlisted in the 11th Indiana but after three months of service were discharged and recruited Company K of the 37rth Illinois. William’s brother John Charles (but always referred to as Charles by William) eventually rose to the rank of colonel of the regiment and was brevetted a brigadier general after the war. William spent the war as captain of Company K, although numerous times he tried to secure promotion within the regiment and a few times asked his politically connected father to try to secure a promotion in another unit.

The letters cover all aspects of William’s service during the war. There does not seem to be any topic that William does not discuss in his letters. The 37th Illinois did not see much combat, its major battles were Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove, so battle descriptions make up only a minor portion of the letters. Most of the letters focus on regimental politics as William discusses how the infighting among the higher ranking officers. While his brother was colonel the lieutenant colonel was engaged in a behind the scenes battle to discredit Colonel Black. Colonel Black spent a significant amount of time at home recuperating from a severe wound suffered at Prairie Grove. Lieutenant Colonel Frisbie did his best to portray Colonel Black’s actions at Prairie Grove as less than honorable. Eventually this lead to a court martial against Frisbie and the story of this infighting dominates a good portion of William’s letters home. Colonel Black was the victor of this bickering and in 1893 was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Prairie Grove. William was also awarded a Medal of Honor in 1893 for his actions at Pea Ridge. William and Charles are one of five sets of brothers that have won the Medal of Honor.

William also writes about the role of company commander and all the reports he must fill out. When he first finds out he has a bunch of reports and vouchers to fill out he’s been in the service quite awhile and has a hard time making out the old reports for clothing. But by the end of his service he’s well caught up and while he finds the task tedious he seems to have a good handle on it. William also writes often about women, in fact late in the war he nearly became engaged through a misunderstanding and his attempts at explaining it to his brother and mother are quite humorous. William’s internal struggle on whether or not he should reenlist or be mustered out at the end of his initial three year enlistment is quite interesting. Although these are letters to his family back home it almost reads as a diary as William struggles with his decision. At one point he decides that he will not reenlist because he thinks the war will be over soon and he also wants to return home. Then he changes his mind and decides to reenlist.

Michael Banasik has done a masterful job in editing the letters. His footnotes fill in all the gaps in the letters and provide a good amount of background detail. There are many pages that the amount of footnotes is greater than the text of the letters. Banasik also did a wonderful job with the appendices as he provides a complete regimental roster, biographies of some of the leading generals, additional supplemental letters and official reports, and some organizational charts.

I would not recommend this book as a regimental history of the 37th Illinois as there will be too many gaps, at one point William serves on detached duty as an ordnance officer. I do think this is a good book for someone wanting a personal glimpse into the life of a captain in general, and specifically into the inner workings of the high command of the 37th Illinois.
This review also appears in the December issue of Civil War News.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Hans Christian Heg

Hans Christian Heg commanded a brigade at Chickamauga after previously leading the 15th Wisconsin. Heg and the 15th Wisconsin were unique in that he was Norwegian and the regiment was primarily Norwegians, with a few Swedes and Danes. Foreign born officers and regiments primarily made up of one nationality were not too rare but the number of Norwegians was a bit more rare. We think mainly of the Irish and German regiments, not of the Norwegians. In fact I've seen sources that claim the 15th Wisconsin was the only Scandinavian regiment in the war.

At Chickamauga Heg was mortally wounded on the first day. From what I've read it seems that Heg was considered a pretty good officer and had a bright future in the army. Who knows how high he might have risen but division command by the end of the war doesn't seem that much of a stretch. In any respect we'll never know how good Heg might have been as Chickamauga was his first and last battle as brigade commander.

I had read that there was a statue of Heg on the grounds of the capitol in Madison. So one day while doing research at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum (located across the street from the capitol) I decided to go for a stroll. And I found the story to be true.

And here is Heg's mortuary monument at Chickamauga.