Wednesday, May 27, 2009
A couple of posts ago I mentioned my role as a volunteer with Gettysburg’s “Adopt a Position” program in keeping the site around the 18th Massachusetts’ monument on Sickles Avenue looking presentable. What I didn’t mention was that on April 17th I was one of ten volunteers from the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association who helped cut a 600 yard trial from the base of a ravine situated on River Road, at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, up a very steep slope, that rose about 50 to 60 feet above the road, and finally settled into level ground.
Our group divided into two, one working its way from the bottom and toward the top, while my group had the easier task, as we essentially worked on level ground, which extended from the top of what amounted to cliffs and wound it’s way back to open farm land. The purpose in clearing a path was to allow graduate history students from the University of West Virginia to post markers for a planned podcast, detailing the battle at various stops, that will be in place by the beginning of June. The SBPA has been very fortunate in obtaining permission from various landowners allowing access to that portion of the Shepherdstown battlefield.
Even though I had visited the site a number of times, I had never been on top of the cliffs and thus never had the opportunity to see where the First Brigade of the First Division of the Fifth Corps had climbed those same cliffs on September 20, 1862 and formed in line of battle on the farmland above. I had ventured onto the farmland from another direction in the past, although I have to admit I had done so by ignoring “No Trespassing” signs. I was told when we reached the very end of path we had cleared, that this was the area where the 118th Pennsylvania had braced itself before being routed by A.P. Hill’s brigades. “My dead guys,” the 18th Massachusetts, were further to the right, on what is, again, private property, and currently not accessible. It was humbling to be there, knowing that very few of the general public has had that opportunity over the past 146 years.
When we had completed that work, we then moved back down the ravine. When I mentioned steep, I wasn’t kidding and I couldn’t imagine a hurried, every man for themselves, lemming-like scramble to the road below. The steepness explained why men, particularly those of the 118th Pennsylvania, the last Union regiment to withdraw, lost their footing and plunged into trees or even the road below in their attempt to escape the hail of bullets raining down on them from Confederates muskets at the top of the cliffs.
Our group then moved across the road and worked to cut a 50-yard path along the Potomac, which led to the ruins of an old Cement Mill, where members of the 118th tried to take refuge and were subjected to errant fire by Union artillerists from across the river. A.P. Hill, himself, described the shelling as the most devastating he had encountered to that point in the war.
Note to self: someday I’ll find my pictures of Shepherdstown. Stupid computer. Stupid digital photography. Stupid me for forgetting which drive I have them stored on.
Keeping my spirit of volunteerism alive, this past Saturday I answered the call to help in a cleanup at Ft. Stevens in Washington. Ft. Stevens, as a quick refresher, is where Abraham Lincoln came under fire from Confederate sharpshooters during Jubal Early’s raid. Although legend has it that Lt. Oliver Wendall Holmes shouted “Get down you old fool,” according to Park Ranger Ron Harvey, there were at least nine others who also warned Lincoln. Holmes is the only one who made it into the history books, though.
This was light work in comparison to Shepherdstown. Our ten member group fanned out picking up paper, some broken glass, flattened soda cans, and twigs. I myself found a child’s shoe, while Ron deposited an abandoned pair of pants into his trash bag. We didn’t find evidence of the needles, syringes, or crack pipes that we had been warned to expect. We also made quick work of clearing debris, mostly grass clippings, from the concrete gun emplacements.
Fort Stevens is the only surviving remnant of forts and battery emplacements that once ringed Washington. Forts Reno, Du Russey, Foote, Stanton, Rickets, Dupont, Chaplin, Bunker Hill, Totton, Slocum, Davis, Greble, Mahan,Bayard, Kemble, Corcoran, and Marcy have all disappeared from the Washington landscape, most covered by houses or other buildings, while a few, which have been preserved as open urban spaces, bear no testimonial to their past aside from their names.
Fort Stevens is in little or no danger of being lost. To the contrary there is money being funneled to restore the fort closer to its original condition. The last restoration, completed in 1937 by a Work’s Progress Administration work crew, features cement retaining walls, shaped like logs, on two sides to simulate the fort’s interior walls. That same crew also rebuilt the magazine house by mounding ten feet of dirt and propping a door against the dirt to suggest the entrance. The current plan is to replace all the cement with wood.
The 145th anniversary of the battle will be commemorated on July 11th with re-enactors sweating like pigs in their wool uniforms under what historically promises to be a scorching sun. Hopefully the Fort will still look as good as when we left it on Saturday.
Wednesday, May 06, 2009
The Civil War Preservation Trust classifies endangered Civil War battlefields on four different levels from A to D. According to their criteria, sites are nominated by CWPT members and “final decisions are made with help and input from historians, preservationists and CWPT’s board of trustees. The sites included in the report are determined based on geographic location, military significance and preservation status.” Among the ten sites considered “most endangered” are Antietam, Cold Harbor, Monacacy, and Springhill.
The Wilderness, which has been getting a lot of press lately, because Wal-Mart is licking its chops over a site close by the battlefield, is considered an “At Risk” site. Included in that 15-member list, along with Harper’s Ferry, Brandy Station, Kennesaw Mountain, and South Mountain, is Shepherdstown, West Virginia. I’ll be bringing this to their attention, but CWPT, of which I’m a member, needs to correct the year the battle was fought. It was 1862 and not 1863 as listed on their Web site.
Here is what I don’t understand about their choices, though. By their own description, Antietam has “a well-deserved reputation as one of the nation’s best preserved Civil War battlefields.” What makes Antietam one of the most endangered battlefields is the possibility of a cellular phone tower being erected on the fringe of the park, which would therefore wreck the “bucolic” view. Please understand, I’m not in favor of a cellular tower, but, even in the worst case scenario, if the tower were erected, I’m not certain how that would endanger Antietam. Endangered to me means the battlefield is in either on the verge of disappearing totally or the very land itself is being encroached upon by development. In comparison to Shepherdstown, which is in danger of disappearing totally through a developer’s plan to build 140 houses, and I know this is going to sound heretical, there’s no comparison. The difference is historical significance, of course. Without doubt Antietam was a major battle, the single bloodiest day of any war in which Americans have ever fought and, in James McPherson’s opinion, the turning point of the Civil War. Shepherdstown is very small potatoes on that comparative point. Strategically unimportant, a mere firefight with less than one tenth the casualties experienced at Antietam fought just three days earlier, and a fight that ended again, in comparison, rather quickly. Still, sacrifice and a willingness to do their duty makes the men who fought at Shepherdstown no less lacking in bravery or valor than those at Antietam.
The Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association currently has about 100 members waging the good fight against the aforementioned developer. That fight has gone to the West Virginia Supreme Court, which has ruled in favor of the developer. At the same time, there’s this, which gives reason for hope:
Legislation introduced by Senator Robert C. Byrd was passed by both the United States Senate and House of Representatives and signed into law by President Obama on March 30, 2009. At a Senate hearing in 2008, representatives of the National Park Service spoke in support of Senator Byrd’s proposed legislation. Included in the “Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009” was a section that could ultimately save and preserve the site of the 1862 Battle of Shepherdstown and possibly make it part of the, ready for this, Antietam National Battlefield.
For the very latest on the efforts to save Shepherdstown, please click these links here and here.