Saving History Saturday: Donald C. Pfanz Receives The Ralph Happel Award From Central Virginia Battlefields Trust

(Original Press Release from Central Virginia Battlefields Trust)

Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT) has selected Donald C. Pfanz as the recipient of its Ralph Happel Lifetime Achievement Award in Civil War Preservation.

In 1987, while working as a historian at Petersburg National Battlefield, Pfanz wrote a letter to several colleagues expressing concern over the destruction of battlefield lands in Chantilly, located in northern Virginia. Pfanz’s letter called for the creation of an organization “to preserve battlefield land by direct purchase”—a call that led to the creation of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites and the start of the modern Civil War battlefield preservation movement. Continue reading

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In Memory of ECW’s Friend Jon Maiellano

Jon Maiellano: “Onward!”

I heard on Wednesday that 1 in 500 Americans have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, a startling statistic that brought to mind Joseph Stalin’s infamous alleged quote, “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.” Total deaths in the U.S., at more than 662,000, are approaching the number of lives lost during the entire Civil War (follow the CDC’s Data Tracker here).

But on the same day I heard the news of this grim statistic, I heard the news of a tragedy, too—a single death that makes the ECW community a little smaller. Continue reading

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One Part Glory

A lone artillery piece stands near the Mumma Farm as the sun is about to gloriously rise on the Battle of Antietam’s 157th battle anniversary. Photo by Chris Heisey

The Summer of 1862 arguably featured the most intense fighting of the war in the Eastern Theater. The fighting began in the steamy swamps just outside Richmond as summer commenced and finished in the foggy, warmth of late summer along the meandrous banks of Antietam Creek in Western Maryland.

Antietam translates to “swift current” in Native American wording, yet in 1862, the mid-Atlantic region suffered the effects of an extended drought with little or no rain falling for weeks at a time. The Antietam Creek was not swiftly flowing on September 17 when the war’s most deadly day happened at Sharpsburg. Continue reading

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Antietam: A Tactical Union Victory

Battle of Antietam

The Battle of Antietam was a key turning point in the American Civil War and American history. In short, it turned back Robert E. Lee’s first campaign north of the Potomac River and led to the issuance of the Preliminary—and then, final—Emancipation Proclamation. However, many historians and students of the war refer to the battle fought on September 17, 1862 as a draw. Or, they throw the Army of the Potomac a bone and say while it was tactically a draw, the battle and campaign that it climaxed were a strategic Union victory, throwing back Lee’s first invasion of the North.

A drawn battle implies that, at the end of the battle, neither side held a clear advantage over the other. Instead, after the fighting concluded on September 17, 1862, the Army of the Potomac’s gains after the day’s actions severely restricted the Army of Northern Virginia’s options, giving the Federal army the upper hand in the Maryland Campaign.

Certainly, in the eyes of many visitors to Antietam National Battlefield, the belief that the Army of the Potomac and its commander, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, could have destroyed or at least damaged Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia far more than it did or destroy it does not help lift the Federals’ success above anything more than a draw. Instead, three days after the battle, McClellan wrote his wife, “Our victory was complete & the disorganized rebel army has rapidly returned to Virginia.”[1] Additionally, President Abraham Lincoln’s post-battle frustration with McClellan’s failure to move his army into Virginia until six weeks after the battle seems to indicate the President was displeased with the battle’s outcome. If Lincoln held this belief, the common perception goes, it is difficult to see how Antietam could be anything but a draw. Continue reading

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Antietam: On the Eve of Battle

The evening of September 16 always draws my mind to the Antietam battlefield. 159 years ago tonight, Union and Confederate soldiers settled down for a tense night around Sharpsburg, Maryland. In some cases, they lay within earshot of one another. After darkness ended a brief but fierce clash in the East Woods, soldiers on both sides knew what the morrow would bring–a battle with incredible implications about the future of the United and Confederate States of America.

September 17, 1862, produced battle sounds that could be heard as far as Washington, DC. Only scattered picket shots punctuated the otherwise quiet eve of battle, a stark contrast to the cacophony of sounds to be heard the next day. “Everything became terrifically quiet,” remembered Sgt. Francis Galwey of the 8th Ohio Infantry. “For the quiet that precedes a great battle has something of the terrible in it. Everyone knows that there must be fought a bloody battle tomorrow and all are therefore anxious to save their strength for the contest.” Galwey’s commander, Lt. Col. Franklin Sawyer, remembered of the night of September 16, “The night was clear and beautiful, still and awfully solemn. We thought of the morrow.”

Thoughts of tomorrow’s horror prevented many men from sleeping that evening, especially for the opposing troops in close proximity to one another west of Antietam Creek. “Picket-firing, and movements of artillery and troops, gave little chance for sleep that night,” recalled a 12th Massachusetts soldier. No matter, for a drizzling rain soaked away any comfort most of the men might have found. Continue reading

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General Custer’s Stirrup

The stirrup–in all its glory!

July 4 marked my 6th wedding anniversary, and apparently, that is to be celebrated by the exchange of iron. It is supposed to signify strength and stability. I gave my husband some irony, but he gave me an actual iron artifact–General George Custer’s stirrup!   Continue reading

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Civilians Under Siege: A Confederate Woman’s Diary of the War in the Trans-Mississippi

Sarah Katharine “Kate” Stone

I first encountered Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861–1868 in an undergraduate course on the topic of great Civil War writers. Looking at the syllabus at the start of the term, I circled the diary as a text I was not particularly excited about. To me, the story of a woman living far from the war’s Virginia epicenter held little interest. What I quickly discovered, however, is that Kate Stone’s wartime record featured an intensely relatable story of civilians living in a place ravaged by war—as well as being the tale of a young woman who was only twenty years old in 1861, and who was just as concerned with skin blemishes and the latest fashions as she was with news from the front. The diary is an indispensable record of the war in the Trans-Mississippi West as lived by civilians.

Unlike Mary Chesnut, whose voluminous diary remains the standard “women’s diary” of the war, Kate Stone did not spend the war among Confederate brass or Richmond high society. In fact, she spent much of the conflict living as a refugee after the Union assault on Vicksburg forced her family off their northern Louisiana plantation to Tyler, Texas, where Kate resented the locals who lacked, in her judgement, the refinements of Southern society. She also experienced the reality of living in a place occupied by an opposing army and witnessed, firsthand, the pressures that the Civil War placed on the institution of slavery—an institution that provided Kate’s family their wealth and subsistence. Continue reading

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Sherman in the Days Before Disunion

As the dark clouds of war gathered in early 1860, William Tecumseh Sherman’s career took yet another turn. He was called by old army friends like Braxton Bragg and P.G.T. Beauregard to become superintendent of the Louisiana Seminary of Learning and Military Academy. It was a post suited the red-head’s inclinations, but it also led to some very awkward moments.

In his new capacity as head of the academy, Sherman became a member of the Louisiana gentry. Naturally, those who occupied that social space wished to know what their new friend thought of the hot-button issue of the day. For instance, at a dinner party hosted by Louisiana Governor Moore, Sherman was asked suddenly and directly, “Give us your own views of slavery as you see it here and throughout the South.”

Put on the spot, the Ohioan did not hold back. Continue reading

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Aftermath of Battle at Gettysburg’s Spangler’s Spring

Living historians carefully and respectfully portraying very limited aspects of the aftermath of battle at Gettysburg. They gathered equipment strewn across the Spangler’s Spring fields during a special 2019 evening interpretive program “The Deadened Woods: Death on Culps Hill.”

While battles themselves are glorified and the focus of most historical coverage, every battle has an aftermath. This aftermath is a horrifying sight, and something that veterans were deeply affected by every time they experienced it. This post explores the experiences of one Union infantry unit near the southern portions of Culp’s Hill, and how their short combat was overshadowed by the hours and days of aftermath. On the morning of July 3, 1863, Union troops flung themselves across Spangler’s Spring in a near-suicidal assault on Confederate positions, and spent the hours and days after dealing with the consequences of those orders.

The order to advance was given, and though officers later debated whether it was meant as a probe of enemy lines or a full-on assault on entrenched foes, the latter happened. The 2nd Massachusetts, in a frontal position, was able to immediately step over their own works, heading for the rocks and trees directly across from them, near the modern Spangler’s Spring parking lot. The 27th Indiana got a slower start, needing to maneuver through the 13th New Jersey, getting a delayed start towards the meadow where the Indiana state monument is located. The entire assault and retreat took well under an hour to occur. The assault blunted, the regiment began to pull back to the original position. The 2nd Massachusetts, who reached the cover of some trees, remain longer but are also forced to withdraw. In contrast, the wounded stranded between enemy lines lay out there for hours. Continue reading

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Alfred Waud’s Sketchy Spotsylvania (part three)

(part three in a series)

I’ve come to believe Alfred Waud’s sketch “Advance on Spotsylvania,” dated May 9, is actually mis-dated. In the first two posts of this series, I’ve tried to lay out some of the breadcrumbs that led me to this conclusion. Today, let’s follow some of those breadcrumbs across the battlefield. We can map out what events Waud sketched during his first few days of the battle and where on the battlefield each of those events took place. We can also pinpoint when each of those events occurred.

I want to thank my colleague, Edward Alexander, for creating this map for us:

Continue reading

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