Monday, August 29, 2016

. . . And the Search for James C. Huhn (Day 3)

As evidenced in two previous blog posts (here and here), last month, I took a trip into central Virginia--the Shenandoah Valley--to follow in the footsteps of my three-times-great-grandfather, James Crozier Huhn. He was a blacksmith in the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and his unit took part in most of the major engagements of the Shenandoah Campaign of 1864.

The largest of those engagements was the Third Battle of Winchester. As the name might suggest, Winchester saw a lot of action during the Civil War, including three large-scale engagements. It was in a strategic point at the north end of the Valley, pointing right towards Washington DC to the east. Important roads and railroads led from the west--particularly from the Ohio Valley--to the east and passed through or nearby Winchester. The First Battle of Winchester took place in 1862; "Stonewall" Jackson routed Union general Nathaniel Banks. In 1863, Confederate general Richard Ewell defeated a force at Winchester on his way north into Pennsylvania, where he would take part in the Battle of Gettysburg.

In 1864, Union general Philip Sheridan had only recently been placed in charge of the army in the Shenandoah. It was an important election year, and Sheridan had been told specifically that whatever he did, he must not lose a battle. With the stalemate in Petersburg and with Sherman incommunicado somewhere in Georgia, Abraham Lincoln couldn't politically sustain another military loss. And if he lost the election, then the Democrats would win, and they were promising to negotiate a peace with the Confederates. Sheridan, as ordered, was cautious. Confederate general Early took this caution as cowardice. But by September, Sherman had taken Atlanta, and Sheridan had the green light to be more aggressive.

Sheridan (third from left) in 1864. To the right of
him are Merritt and Torbert, cavalry commanders.
In September of 1864, Early split his forces, and Sheridan pounced. Just outside of Winchester, the two armies clashed. Sheridan had problems getting his (numerically superior) men deployed, which allowed Early to bring up more of his men. The infantry battle raged just east of town throughout the day. In the afternoon, two divisions of cavalry,
including the 14th PA Cavalry under its commander, Col. James M. Schoonmaker, came sweeping down from the north along the Valley Turnpike. They came upon the Rebel defenses at Star Fort, directly north of town (which had been there since 1862). The 14th PA Cavalry charged unsuccessfully twice, dismounted, and tried again, this time with more success. Col. Schoonmaker won a Medal of Honor for his bravery that day.

With a successful cavalry assault to the north and west of town (on the Confederates' left) and the Union infantry finally cracking the Confederates to the east of town (on the Confederate right), the day went to the Union. The Confederates were forced to retreat, and they beat a path for Fisher's Hill, where there would be another sizable battle just a few days later. (See my blog post about Day 2 of my trip, when I visited Fisher's Hill.) It was the beginning of the end for the Rebels in the Valley; as with Lee's army across the mountains, the Confederates in the Valley really couldn't afford the casualties they incurred (about 3,600). They would be defeated at Fisher's Hill, Tom's Brook, and finally at Cedar Creek, precipitating what was known as The Burning. Like Sherman in his famous March to the Sea in Georgia, Sheridan cut a swath of destruction through the Shenandoah Valley, burning barns and supplies that might be useful to the army. To be fair, civilian property was generally not destroyed unless it could help feed or supply the Confederate Army. It was yet another factor in the breakdown of the Confederate war effort, since the Valley was so vital in supplying Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

Now, all of that is background for my and my dad's exploration of Winchester. Mostly, we explored outside of town, though there's plenty to see in town, as well. The first thing I wanted to find was Star Fort. It looked to me like it still existed in some form. On a Civil War Trust map, it was marked as being preserved, but the map made it difficult to decipher exactly where the fort was located on the modern map. I puzzled over it a bit, trying to get Google Maps to help out. But it wasn't on Google Maps, and a satellite view didn't help. (It turns out if I'd just searched it and not used the map function, I would have had more luck, since there are sites with directions.) But I hadn't found what I wanted so far. I just knew whatever was left of the fort was somewhere along Rt. 522 where it curved westward just north of town. So, after an early continental breakfast in the hotel, my dad and I set off in his truck with one of the trusty battle maps I'd printed out. We drove past a subdivision, frowning and squinting, trying to decide whether any of the bumps or ridges were anything other than modern development. We turned and drove back the other way, doing the same thing. Dad said we ought to try the subdivision, which seemed like it was in roughly the same spot. So we pulled another u-turn and pulled into the subdivision. I didn't have a lot of hope. If there had been a fort there, it seemed like the subdivision was right on top of it and had obliterated it. (I was wrong.)

The subdivision had street names like Sentinel Drive and Caliber Court, which we had to admit seemed like a clue. We could also tell that the subdivision was placed on a high spot looking down not only on the town of Winchester but also on the train tracks below. We agreed that if they were gonna build a fort, that was a fine place to put it. But damned if we could find it.

If we'd been paying closer attention, we might have noticed that the main road through the subdivision was Fortress Drive and that we had driven past a little sign that said "Star Fort."

On our way out, we saw the sign. We stopped and hopped out. I realized on this little trip to the Valley that you can never be quite sure what to expect of a historical site. Sometimes it's a few paths mowed through an open field on a hillside, like at Fisher's Hill. Sometimes there are houses and barns and tunnels under freeways, like at New Market. Sometimes, there are acres of fields, miles of fencing, and scores of monuments like at Gettysburg. Sometimes there's a wet, grassy path off a subdivision street that passes into a woods and then opens onto a grassy clearing, like at Star Fort.

For a small park that's pretty well-hidden (no signs from the main road, only a small sign out front with the actual park well-hidden in the trees), it's a pleasant, well-interpreted
spot. What's there now is the earthworks that were once part of the fort: grassy berms roughly sketching out a circle. Beyond the earthworks are the ditches that ran along the front of the fort's walls. Today, it's just mounds of earth surrounded by trees and then houses, but in 1864, the place would have been completely devoid of trees for quite a distance. What good is a fort overlooking the town if there are trees blocking the view?

There are a several interpretive signs telling about the building of the fort and its role in
the Third Battle of Winchester, so we trudged around and looked at them all. One even told about Col Schoonmaker's Medal of Honor-winning heroics ("Hey, that was my great-great-great-granddaddy's commanding officer!").

The grass was still damp from the morning dew, and it was already getting warm, so after walking around the old earthworks for a little while, we headed back to the truck, pleased to have found the elusive--well, sort of--Star Fort.

Our next stop was the preserved battlefield park east of town. If you look at the battle map (like here), this is where the infantry part of the battle took place. Today it's a good-size park (the Civil War Trust says it has saved 447 acres), with trails and markers. My dad and I hopped on our bikes again and went for a ride along the well-tended, paved trails. It was honesty hard to get a sense of the battle from the signs and paths, but the Confederates were lined up right along the creek we rode across. (Also, I'm not great at
visualizing battle maneuvers--just not my thing.) Later in the day, the Confederates were pushed back towards town and eventually broke and retreated (as I mentioned) to Fisher's Hill.

The ground there is pretty level, but there are a few little hills, and me being me, I awkwardly tried to get my bike into low enough gear to get up the hill, but I failed and fell off. The hills were steep enough that I couldn't get going again, so I just walked my bike to the top of the hills. Clearly, I'm not going to be making the Olympic cycling team anytime soon. In my defense, the bike was a bit too big for me, and my feet didn't quite touch the ground . . .

It was a nice morning bike ride, but the sun was getting intense and the heat thick as we called it a morning and headed back to the truck. We packed up out bikes, had lunch at a right across the road from the battlefield park, and then went back to our hotel so I could pick up my car. And that was it--that was the end our three-day adventure following the trail of a Civil War blacksmith. My dad went on to do some business deeper in Virginia, and I headed home.
Chik-Fil-A, which by the way is in a shopping center

Where will my research take me next? Well, I would like to learn even more about James, if I can. I'd love to visit the soldiers' home in Eerie where he died in 1920, to see if they have any kind of records pertaining to him. I'd love to visit the historical society of Fayette County, where James (and most Huhns until my father) was born and lived most his life, and check the newspapers for any mention of him (I have an obit). So the future may hold more information on my favorite Civil War blacksmith, James C. Huhn.

A few links:

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Happy Birthday, National Park Service!

Feliz cumpleaƱos, National Park Service!

A hundred years ago, the NPS officially came into being. As Ken Burns would say, the National Parks was "America's best idea". It's a real treasure, to have all these fantastic places preserved and protected. We have a vast, varied, and beautiful natural and historical heritage, and we all have an interest in keeping that for future generations to enjoy.

One of the NPS's slogans is "Find Your Park". And I've found my park--two of them. I've been to more than a few national parks. There are a lot of them here in the DC region. The National Mall, for instance, is one, and the NPS runs Ford's Theater and Arlington House, too. You can't throw a stone without hitting a national park. I've been to other national parks, as well, like Olympia and Yellowstone. But if I had to choose which is my park, I'd have to go with . . . Gettysburg NMP and Shenandoah.

Why? Well, because this:

 And of course, there are many other parks as well:


Ford's Theater for the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's assassination.
The National Mall.
The National Mall from Arlington House.
The Wilderness Battlefield.
Washington Monument on the 4th of July.
Fort McHenry
The Old Stone House in DC.
The Old Stone House in DC.
Bull Run/Manassas.
Bull Run/Manassas.
Burnside's Bridge at Antietam.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

. . . And an Afternoon Out in DC

There are a lot of reasons to love living in Washington DC. I think most people picture DC as a marble city all-consumed with politics, where everyone runs around in pantsuits. Well, there is some of that. But it's also a city of culture and history. Yesterday, I spent the afternoon in the section of the city that probably conforms most closely to the general vision of the place: Capital Hill. But it's also a section of town that epitomizes the cultural and historical core of DC, too.

I started at the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, which is directly across from the Capitol. This is the main building of the expansive LoC complex. The Jefferson Building has a beautiful great hall, which is all white marble and gold accents, more or less just as you imagine. This is where tourists congregate. There's much more beyond that, though. I have a readers card (which, by the way, anyone can sign up to get), and I've gone behind the scenes, around the back, to where the work is done. The LoC isn't just a cool building, it's an amazing resource for all citizens. And it's not just books: the LoC has paintings, photos, maps, audio and video recordings, and artifacts of all descriptions.

On display right now is an exhibit called "America Reads". As a writer, it's an exhibit after my own heart, because many of the highlighted books have inspired me or are important to me in some way as a writer. Here's a selection:

UNCLE TOM'S CABIN: Written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in the 1850's, this is one of the most important novels in American history. It opened the eyes of many Americans to the atrocities of slavery. Although possibly apocryphal, it's said that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe, he said, "So this is the little lady who started this great war." For me, the novel is a vision of the world I write about written by people living at the time. As such, it's an important window into the 1850's.

HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain is one of my two favorite novels of all time. I listened to it on book tape many, many times as a child, and it's cadences and dialect seeped into my brain and became part of me. I think I owe a lot of my own writing style to this novel.

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS: Not everyone is interested in early American politics, but I've always found it to be far more intriguing than people have it credit for. The Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, and is basically a lengthy vindication of the Constitution. See: Hamilton, an American Musical. In this case, it represents a cornerstone of the political world my characters live in, so it's very important to at least be aware of it.

GONE WITH THE WIND: In one way or another, everyone who writes in and around the Civil War era has to reckon with Gone with the Wind and everything it represents. The movie in particular represents the image that most people have of that place and time, and that's mostly for the worse. It has left a very long shadow.

I should note before moving on that the LoC has constant exhibits, and they're always worth seeing. I also took a look at a small exhibit of World War I artwork, some of it propagandistic, some of it representing the horrors of the war.

My second stop for the afternoon was the Folger Shakespeare Library. It's right behind the LoC, and it is, as its name suggests, dedicated to Shakespeare. There is also a theater attached. It's an indoor theater, but it's mocked up to be somewhat Elizabethan (I recently saw Julius Caesar there). The Folger, like the LoC, has a beautiful great hall, where they currently have an exhibit called "Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity". Here are a few images:

This is literally self-explanatory.

Colin Firth's shirt from the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice.

Figurine of Charlotte Cushman as Romeo and her sister as Juliet.

Now, I want to talk about this last one just a bit. It probably seems a bit perplexing. Charlotte who, you might say? Porcelain figurine why? We care because what?

Okay, okay, so it all has to do with me and my writing, so I'm going to be selfish and self-indulgent. You see, one of my manuscripts, The Cotton Wars, is set in a theater c. 1830. Obviously, I needed to do some research, and my main "point of entry" into the time and place was Charlotte Cushman. Shakespearean actors like Edmund Keane may be (relatively) better-known than Charlotte Cushman, but she was a celebrity in her day. I read a biography written about her by a lady friend. From her story, I got a bevy of details about how early 19th-century theater worked. (By the way, another "point of entry" was Fanny Kemble.) I also plucked just a bit from her life story: Charlotte was an opera singer until she and her handlers mismanaged her and she lost her voice. She became a (very successful) stage actress, known for her takes on Shakespeare. That was another thing that interested me about her, because I love Shakespeare myself and I knew that Shakespeare plays would be a very important motif in The Cotton Wars.

So, it was a small surprise to see this little figurine and realize that it represented an obscure actress I actually knew quite a lot about.

Anyhow, on my way back to the nearest Metro, I snapped a photo of the Capitol:

It's looking pretty spiffy, with the Dome newly refurbished and the scaffolding finally coming down. If you don't know anything about the history of the dome, then I suggest you read this Wikipedia entry. This is the dome that was built as the Civil War raged. It stood, half-finished, behind Abraham Lincoln during his First Inaugural Address as war loomed on the horizon, and it stood behind him, finished, during his Second Inaugural Address as the war reached its end.

And here, because they're lovely, are some photos of the fountain out front of the Library of Congress:

Saturday, August 6, 2016

. . . And the Search for James C. Huhn (Day 2)

A little while ago, I started blogging about my trip to the Shenandoah Valley to walk in the footsteps of my 3-times-great-grandfather, who was a blacksmith in the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry and whose unit was up and down the Valley during the Valley campaign of 1864. On Day 1, I visited Grand Caverns and met up with my dad to roam over the ground where the Battle of Piedmont took place.

Day 2 saw us waking up in Harrisonburg. Our itinerary for the day: New Market, Fisher's Hill, and Cedar Creek, all of which have actual preserved battlefields to visit (unlike for the Battle of Piedmont). The 14th Pennsylvania (or detachments thereof) took place in all three battles.

New Market

As Civil War battles go, the Battle of New Market was a relatively small affair. About 10,000 troops took part in the battle, with about 1,400 casualties. Compare that to 50,000 casualties at Gettysburg.

But that doesn't mean the battle wasn't important in its own way. The Shenandoah was the breadbasket of the Confederacy and provided the lifeblood for General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, which was just on the other side of the Blue Ridge fighting it out with

General Grant. Grant wanted to disrupt the resources that Lee was funneling to his army from the Valley, and to force Lee to move some of his troops to the Valley to deal with the threat. Franz Sigel was in overall command in the Valley when the armies clashed at New Market on May 15, 1864. Spoiler alert: it didn't end well for Sigel, who ended up retreating back into Maryland and being replaced by David Hunter (he was in command during the Battle if Piedmont, the site we'd visited the day before).

Like the other battlefields we visited, the New Market battlefield was right along I-81 and Route 11 (the old Valley Turnpike). In this part of the world, getting off the highway plops you pretty quickly into the middle of fields and narrow, two-lane roads. Hopping off the highway, we crossed back under highway, turned right immediately, and were at the battlefield.

According to the Civil War Trust, 20 acres have been preserved here (it feels like more, since the encroachment of suburbia is modest, and even beyond the preserved land there isn't much but fields and barns to impede the view). But also there at the battlefield is the Virginia Museum of the Civil War. The museum has some nifty artifacts--my dad was interested in some of
the rifles and early machine guns on display; I liked the uniforms--and the helpful dioramas and tableaux. We were also directed to a video presented in a little theater (on something of a continuous loop). It told the story of the Virginia Military Academy (VMI) cadets who fought at the Battle of New Market, ten of whom died. There was such a focus on these young men that I started to wonder whether anyone else took part in the battle. I guess it's one of the most attention-grabbing stories of the battle: a whole corp of boys from VMI come marching up to New Market to defend Virginia, and they fight (and die) bravely. Plus . . . well, this is Virginia, so there's a natural tendency to focus on the Virginia boys, above and beyond the Southern habit of subtly (or not-so-subtly) romanticizing the Confederates.

After we'd had a good long look around the museum, Dad and I headed outside and
hopped on our bikes. It was a lovely morning as we cruised across the grass towards the old Bushong Farm, a white woodframe building with a clutch of outbuildings around it. We paused to read the signs telling us that the Confederates were arrayed roughly in a line from our left to our right, the Yankees in front of us in an opposing line. We took a bit of a walk to the canons set out on the open ground, while meanwhile a farmer was baling hay nearby. The smell of cut grass warmed in by a thick yellow sunlight mingled with the buzz of insects and the faint hum of a highway that seemed a million miles away. To the east was the all-too-evident Massanuten mountain and the gap through it: New Market Gap. It was a pretty spectacular view.

But James was not in the infantry, and this was the infantry's part of the battle. So, after taking a look around a wheelwright's and smith's shop (James was a blacksmith), we hopped on our bikes and rode through a tunnel under I-81 to the strip of land between the highway and Route 11. We rumbled down some rough terrain and back up a low hill (I came to a grinding halt thanks to my lack of leg muscles and a persnickety bike). We came to a monument to the 54th Pennsylvania Cavalry. It's a pretty standard Civil War memorial, with a pedestal bearing the unit's name and a soldier with gun in hand standing on the pedestal. It was there, along the Valley Pike, that the 14th PA, under Stahel, came sweeping down the Pike from the north . . . and
then were pushed back north as the army retreated.

But they were there. Right there. In that spot, where there's a body shop now. But so many other things are just as they were: the mountains, the fields . . .

Having ridden all over the battlefield (well, over some of it), we rode back to our vehicles, packed up our bikes, and went into town for lunch at The Southern Kitchen. It was delicious, by the way: we got some fantastic fried chicken.

Fisher's Hill

If the battle of New Market was "minor", the Battle of Fisher's Hill was more so, in some ways. The battle took place just two days after the Third Battle of Winchester (which I will talk about in another blog post). The Confederates had been defeated there and retreated to Fisher's Hill, which is actually a series of hills that stretches across the Valley not far from Winchester. The Confederates thought to take a stand here. They considered it an impregnable stronghold. But they were flanked and routed, and sent scurrying south again.

Instead of taking the Interstate from New Market to Fisher's Hill, we took old Route 11 through the string of towns between the two battlefields (they aren't far apart--maybe 30 miles). The downtowns are quaint, with the old buildings still clustering close together and close to the street. As we passed through, the sunny day began to grow cloudier. By the time we got there--down a tiny one-and-a-half-lane road that twisted past a mill and some old barns--it was looking downright stormy. We got out of our vehicles long enough to glance at the explanatory sign before big raindrops began to plop all around us. We hopped into my dad's truck, and the deluge broke loose. We sat there looking over the battle map as the rain came down steady on the windshield. Lucky for us, the rain passed fairly quickly. It was still a bit drippy as we got out and started walking.

This is an underdeveloped park. They have a nice parking area with an informative sign telling about the battle, the campaign, and some of the people involved in the battle. The big problem is that, though there are miles of paths mowed into the grassy hills that comprise the park, there's no map or indication of where the paths take you. There's no sort of orientation until you're up on the hill, looking at the signs along the path. Even then, the signs orient you to that spot; there are words and maps to help you imagine the action, but they don't show you where you are within the park.

I say this because it was a pleasant, if damp, walk, up the hill, but after tramping through the grass for about a mile, we stopped, because we weren't sure what lay ahead of us (there might have been wonderful things, but it also might have been two more miles of wet grass), and as we walked back we took a left instead of a right and ended up at a dead end. We had to backtrack. Better signage would have been appreciated!

The park lies south of Battlefield Road and cuts across where the Confederate lines were positioned. The Confederates stretched across where I-81 now lies, and off to the west, towards Little North Mountain. The line didn't stretch all the way to the mountain, though. It was "hanging", meaning it wasn't anchored on any particular geographical feature. (The Confederate army was so depleted after Third Winchester that they couldn't stretch their men that far.) That's why the Union forces were able to swing around that side of the line and surprise the Confederates.

To the west, on Back Road, was where the 14th PA Cavalry saw action. My handy-dandy battle map showed me that the 14th was slightly north of the rest of the Union line. Like in previous places we visited, they swept down the rode during the battle, from north to south, on the right flank of the Union Army. It was on this side of the battlefield that the infantry came swooping down on the Confederate flank--so even if the cavalry hung back for that, they certainly would have witnessed it.

Cedar Creek

The Confederates were beaten at Fisher's Hill, but it wasn't the end of them by any means. A month later, in October, the Confederates regrouped and moved north. There was a battle at Cedar Creek, very near Winchester. Here at Cedar Creek, it looked like the numerically inferior Confederates might send the Federals flying back to Maryland (or further) again, but just as things got hairy, General Philip Sheridan, who had commanded at Third Winchester and Fisher's Hill, came racing back from Washington, where he'd been conferring with General Grant. He arrived in the nick of time, rallying his troops and winning the battle. It was a death knell for the depleted Confederate forces, which couldn't afford the casualties. This was basically the end of the Confederates in the Valley. That meant that Washington DC was no longer in danger from Confederate forces using the Shenandoah as a "back door", and that Lee would have a lot resources on hand while he was besieged in Petersburg.

Being one of the most important battles in the Shenandoah theater of the Civil War, a large portion of the field has been preserved as a park (there's also a plantation with the park). Maybe because it isn't signed well, maybe because it was still raining, maybe because I was tired, and maybe because I'm just an idiot, I--strangely--had a lot of difficulty actually finding the damn place. I blame my GPS, which took me to a trucking facility instead of a battlefield . . . I got flustered, and I ended up turning around three times. My poor dad was following in his truck, and he was probably more confused than I was. Thank God I have a patient, loving dad who didn't get flustered at all and calmed me down. After we regrouped, we finally found the place and took a quick driving tour. I think I was looking for more than was there (I was looking for a central visitor's center or pull-off spots or something), and so I didn't really stop anywhere. Finally, we ended up back to the main road, and that was our tour of Cedar Creek! It was all very wet, and it didn't look like there was a great deal of interpretation (signs and whatnot) to look at, so it was probably best to just roll through in our cars anyway.

And so our adventure on Day 2 came to an end. We drove the short distance to our hotel in Winchester, had dinner in a restaurant across the block, showered, and went to bed.