ECW welcomes guest author Robert E. Talbot, Jr.
In the archives of the Richmond National Battlefield Park are some unique photos. Many of them date to the early days of the park in the 1930s and 1940s. One in particular truly stands out. It is a black-and-white photograph showing members of the 110th Field Artillery Battery “A” Maryland National Guard on the Gaines Mill battlefield on May 13th, 1938. On the photograph’s back written in pencil is “May 13, 1938 Maryland National Guard Camped at the Watt House”. No other explanation is given as to why they are there. Behind them and through the trees you can see the famous Watt House that witnessed the battle in June 1862. The color photograph was taken in May of 2021 from roughly the same spot. As you can see the Watt House still stands.
If you are wondering what the Maryland National Guard was doing bivouacked on the Gaines Mill battlefield in 1938, you are not alone. An article in the Richmond Times Dispatch has the answer. The article states:
“The 110th Field Artillery, Maryland National Guard, commanded by Colonel Beverly Ober, arrived here yesterday for a two-day study of the defense of Richmond in 1862 during the War Between the States.”
According to the article about 125 officers and men camped near the Watt House and were given lectures and tours of the battlefield by acclaimed historian Douglas Southall Freeman. The paper went on to expound:
“The Marylanders will be assigned to various positions held by Confederate leaders and Dr. Freeman then will explain what the Confederates did and how they succeeded or failed in their maneuvers”.
Later that evening the Maryland National Guard was invited to a reception at the Country Club of Virginia. In attendance was Brigadier General J. Craig McLanahan of the 54th Brigade of which the 101st Field Artillery was attached. Also in attendance was General Frederich von Boetticher, a military attaché from the German Embassy in Washington D.C. and avid student of military history. Boetticher had met Douglas Southall Freeman and J. Ambler Johnston, Freeman’s good friend and fellow Civil War historian, in the 1930s. The three often toured the battlefields around Virginia. Boetticher was seen so often on the battlefields that after WWII many people confused him for Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Undoubtedly this is where the rumors of Rommel touring Virginia Civil War battlefields began.
Richmond National Battlefield Park Ranger Mike Gorman also relayed some extra information about the men who attended this event. At the outbreak of WWII, Boetticher returned to Germany and served at the Wehrmacht HQ. This Maryland National Guard unit would be amongst the first ashore on D-Day and fire some the first artillery rounds of the Liberation of Europe on June 6th, 1944. Mike also points out the irony that all these people, just 6 years before, were touring the Gaines Mill battlefield and are now hammering it out on the beaches of Normandy.
In October of 1961, Boetticher would return to Richmond Virginia to visit old friend and fellow military history enthusiast J. Ambler Johnston. This time it was just the two of them tramping the battlefields, as Freeman had died in 1953. A reporter from the Richmond Times Dispatch caught up with Boetticher and Johnston. Boetticher was queried on where his interest in Civil War history had derived from. He stated that Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, who he served under in WWI and when he became President of Germany, was an avid student of the war.
Boetticher also told the reporter:
“The last time I reported to him (Hindenburg) without books or maps or anything he spoke to me for an hour on the War Between the States”.
Boetticher died in 1967 and Johnston in 1974.
So it was that three friends, three Civil War historians, two of them American and one German, gathered on a late spring day at the Gaines Mill battlefield to discuss the tactics and strategy with the Maryland National Guard. I wonder if these three friends had any notion of the cataclysmic war their countries were headed toward in just a few years. If they did, maybe they just said nothing and focused on the war that was fought on those very fields 76 years before.
Robert E “Bob” Talbot Jr. is a volunteer for the Richmond National Battlefield Park. He often gives talks and tours of the park battlefields and the early days of the parks creation in the 1920s and 1930s. He has written numerous posts for the parks Facebook page and is a member of black powder artillery crew. He is also on the board of directors for the Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia. He is retired after 30 plus years in Agribusiness and is a graduate of Shepherd College. Mr. Talbot and his wife, Jackie, live near Richmond Virginia.