Civil War Battlefields: They’re Called Killing Grounds for a Reason
Does the ground where soldiers are fighting have any real bearing on the number of casualties they take? During a 10-year study of the geomorphology of Civil War battlefields, two geologists found that in some cases it did.
Analyzing the action at Sharpsburg, Md., and several other sites, Radford University’s Robert Whisonant and Judy Ehlen discovered that the shape of the land could actually put soldiers more at risk in some areas of a given battle than in others. They already knew that flat, open land was pretty much guaranteed to be hell for advancing troops and that rough, high terrain created good hiding places for infantry and artillery, but according to a story in EARTH magazine, their research showed how differences in geological composition of those areas contributed to differences in the numbers of casualties incurred in different sites.
“We’re not really contributing new historical information,” Whisonant explained. “We’re taking known history and trying to give it more context.”
Sharpsburg, also known as Antietam, was the single bloodiest one-day battle in the war, with more than 23,000 soldiers killed, wounded or missing. The troops that day had another common enemy besides bullets, however: carbonate rock. Millions of years of rain will reduce soft carbonate rock to relatively flat, open terrain. The battle’s notorious Cornfield, which is located on a deposit of almost pure limestone, is an example of how carbonate rock can become a relatively smooth surface, good for farming. Casualties there were at least three times higher than in other parts of the battlefield. When carbonate rock is mixed with harder dolomite and slate, the result of weathering is different. That is the composition of the land near Burnside Bridge, where the limestone had dissolved away, leaving an uneven terrain with hills and ridges that provided good hiding places. Casualties were consequently lower in that area.
The geologists presented their conclusions in a talk, “No Place To Run, No place To Hide,” at a meeting of the Geological Society of America, Soil Science Society of America, American Society of Agronomy and Gulf Coast Association of Geographical Societies.
Army Loans Artifacts to Kentucky Museum
The U.S. Army has become a partner in the new Battle of Richmond Visitors & History Center in Richmond, Ky. The Blue Grass Army Depot occupies a large section of the 6-by-8-mile battlefield, where fighting between Maj. Gen. William “Bull” Nelson’s Federals and Maj. Gen. E. Kirby Smith’s Confederates occurred on August 29-30, 1862. Several archaeological excavations at the post have produced an array of artifacts, including horse and mule shoes, scabbard tips, Minié balls, round shot and pieces of canister shot. An impressive collection of those artifacts, made available through a 30-year loan, is now on display in the new museum, which is located in the historic Rogers House.
Once used as the depot post commander’s quarters, the Rogers House served as a hospital following the battle. The historic structure, ownership of which was transferred to Madison County in 2005 along with three acres, has since been restored to its 1862 appearance.
The new museum, which opened on October 4, 2008, features multimedia exhibits as well as traditional displays. Visitors can also see specially designed laser topographical maps, showing the armies’ movements on the battlefield before, during and after the engagement. Center spokesperson Paul Rominger points out that the laser maps are a unique feature rarely seen at other museums.
The battle, a decisive Confederate victory, was the second largest engagement in the state, behind Perryville. Included in the Union’s 4,900-man casualty count were 4,000 soldiers taken prisoner. The Confederates suffered only 750 casualties.
The Army’s artifacts are displayed on the museum’s second floor, along with an exhibit honoring Union Brig. Gen. Mahlon D. Manson, who commanded troops on both days of the battle. Some of his papers and belongings—including his saber, pistol, china, footlocker, field desk and other furniture—were donated by the general’s great-great-granddaughter.
Since the history center cannot accommodate large crowds, visitors should call 859-624-0013 before planning a trip. Hours are from 9:30 to 4 Monday through Friday. Walking trails and a 16-mile driving tour should also be big attractions for the museum, which is within easy driving range of Lexington.
Trail Marks Site of ‘Conceity Dunce’ Nonduel
For Civil War buffs, Alton, Ill., is probably best remembered as the site of the seventh and last congressional debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Today on the spot where a crowd of more than 6,000 gathered on October 16, 1858, to hear them argue antislavery vs. states’ rights, life-size figures represent both men at Alton’s Lincoln Douglas Square. But thanks to a $65,000 grant from the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, visitors can gain an even better appreciation for the whole area’s wartime heritage—by following a newly blazed 10-stop Civil War trail.
In addition to new signage at Lincoln Douglas Square, the trail documents sites such as Smallpox Island, just upriver from Alton, where about 300 Confederate prisoners of war and civilians died while they were quarantined between August 1, 1863, and March 31, 1865. The site of Alton’s Federal Military Prison is also nearby. Opened in 1833 as the first Illinois state penitentiary, the institution closed in 1860 after a new prison was built in Joliet. But it was reopened just a year later. During the war it would hold at least 11,000 captured Confederates and an assortment of nonmilitary prisoners, including several women who had made anti-Union remarks, as well as bushwhackers and guerrillas.
Perhaps the most unusual stop is actually for a “nonevent”—a duel between Lincoln and James Shields that almost took place across the river from Alton. The conflict had its beginnings when a series of letters critical of Shields, then serving as the state auditor, appeared in the Sagamon Journal signed “Rebecca.” They were actually authored by Lincoln, who denounced Shields for deciding to require that payment of county taxes be made only in gold or silver. Lincoln referred to Shields as a fool, a liar, a hypocrite and a “conceity dunce.”
The auditor demanded a duel, and Lincoln promptly accepted—but he specified that they would use cavalry broadswords. The two men met at a clearing across the river from Alton on September 22, 1842. But before any blood was shed, an agreement was reached: Lincoln admitted writing the letters and asserted that he didn’t intend to impugn Shields’ reputation as a gentleman.
Lincoln apparently did not hold a grudge against his would-be opponent that day. In August 1861, when Shields was nominated to the rank of brigadier general in the Union Army, the president approved his promotion.
Virginia Slave Quarters Under Restoration A rare example of slave quarters constructed of stone was recently added to the Virginia Landmarks Register and nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. Located southwest of Dulles International Airport in eastern Loudoun County, the building is in the village of Arcola, named for a large plantation that dominated that area until the end of the Civil War.
The structure is believed to have housed as many as 32 slaves who worked on the James Lewis Farm in the first half of the 19th century. Some of those slaves probably helped to maintain nearby Little River Turnpike, the precursor of modern Route 50. Lewis and his brother Charles both served as officials in the Little River Turnpike Company.
Measuring 17 by 63 feet, the structure was actually constructed in two phases. The majority of the building was divided into four rooms, with two fireplaces located on interior walls. But since the structure was sited on a steep incline, similar to a bank barn, a fifth room is tucked in below the main level. The quarters may also have accommodated a blacksmith’s shop.
Recently deeded to Loudoun County by developer Buchanan Brothers, the building is now sited within the 400-acre Arcola Center project, a planned 400-acre residential and commercial development. The developer also donated the 41⁄2 acres of land surrounding the slave quarters and has promised $500,000 toward the cost of restoring the building.
Once restoration is complete, the structure will be one of only five publicly accessible stone slave quarters in the United States. Officials have said they hope it will attract tourists interested in African-American history.
Did Souvenir Hounds Stoop to New Lows?
Was it the urge to make a fast buck or just sheer cussedness that led grave robbers to desecrate the burial place of a member of the 100th Pennsylvania Volunteers, the famed “Roundhead” Regiment, this past October? Unless the perpetrators are caught, we may never really know.
For whatever reason, vandals broke into the ivy-covered mausoleum in Oak Park Cemetery in New Castle, Pa., holding the remains of Edward C. Darley, who signed on to a three-year commitment with the Union Army in 1864, at age 18. Edward was the son of a British railroad engineer who had settled in Pennsylvania. The 100th’s nickname, a reference to Western Pennsylvania’s many Scottish and English settlers, had been suggested by General Winfield Scott, in part as a compliment to Simon Cameron, President Lincoln’s first secretary of war.
Mustered out of the 100th’s Company K on July 24, 1865, as a sergeant, Darley went on to become a prominent engineer, supervising the construction of large iron and steel plants as well as blast furnaces. He died in 1901 while undergoing surgery for a throat ailment.
Cemetery Superintendent Darrell Brightshue noted that Darley’s was one of three graves disturbed the same night. “I have never seen cemetery vandalism as bad as it is now,” he said.
Find Pension Files Online
After the Civil War began, officials—using the 1838 Congressional Act, which provided pensions during the War of 1812—decided that women dependents who had lost their husbands or sons in wartime service were eligible for pensions. The pension office bureaucracy subsequently created a treasure trove of historical documents.
Now you can easily research one of the most popular collections of original documents at the National Archives and Records Administration—the Civil War Pension Files—online. Thanks to a joint project between the NARA and Web site Footnote.com, it’s possible to search for a specific soldier by name or browse a whole regiment.
Not only can you find out about a U.S. Army veteran’s term of service, you might also be able to locate his death date and locations—even if he survived the war for many years. Visit Footnote.com to find out how.