Friday, July 29, 2016

. . . And the Search for James C. Huhn (Day 1)

As it turns out, I've been wrong for a while now, not because I had bad information, but because somehow I remembered wrong and once I said it, it was stuck in my mind that way. See, I've been telling people that James Crozier Huhn, my four-times-great-grandfather, was a soldier in the Civil War. Actually, he was my three-times-great-grandfather. I know, I know, not a big difference. But it does place me once generation closer to him and the Civil War.

[It was my dad who pointed this out. I was saying "four-times-great-grandfather" as I explained a battle, and he said, "Wouldn't he be your great-great-great-grandfather?" There then ensued a recitation of names, like a third-grader still unsure about their times-tables: Charles, Harland, another Charles, and then James. For me that's my grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather, and the Civil War veteran, my great-great-great-grandfather.]

Part of James's pension file, talking about his injuries
during the war and his injuries after war,
Because I'm a bit of a Civil War buff (just a bit; there are some crazy-knowledgeable people out there), I was excited when I learned that an ancestor of mine named James C. Huhn was a soldier in the Civil War. I was even more excited when I learned there was a pension record for him in the National Archives. Bonus: I live in DC, so it was a short trip down there to take look him up. And if you don't know, pension files are a treasure trove, because applicants had to describe not only their service record but also their current occupation and state of health. Turning over the hundred-plus-year-old pages, the outlines of a life jumped out at me. Right there before me were his exact age, height, and coloring when he enlisted in the army, the dates he was in hospital sick, his job in the army (blacksmith), and how/when/where he was injured (by the horses he was shoeing). Also of interest was what happened to him after the war, because it was after the war that he lost a foot and an eye in separate accidents.

But this is something of an outline. Yes, I knew when he had joined and mustered out, when he had been injured and sick, but I didn't have a whole lot about his experience of the war. To find out a little more about that, I decided to research his regiment: the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry. The unit was organized late in 1862 in western PA, and was comprised of largely of Germans. It took part in some minor action in West Virginia in 1863, and was part of the major campaign in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 under Sigel, then Hunter, then (finally) Sheridan. This included the burning of the Virginia Military Institute, a defeat by the Confederates that allowed Jubal Early to raid into PA and harass Washington City, and (finally) a defeat of the Confederate army in the Valley late in 1864.

With this knowledge in hand, I started plotting out the places the 14th visited and the battles they took part in. Of course, I can't say precisely where James was during any given battle (except for the times he was in hospital), but I could say that at the least his buddies were there, and most likely he was there, too, shoeing horses and fixing harness.

Now, when I say I plotted it out, I mean that I got a map of Virginia and put dots where all the battles happened. It became something of a jumbled mess, since the armies pushed each other up and down the Valley many times. But the highlights of the 14th's service in the war became clearer. I conceived the idea of a trip to hit all those highlights. It was an ambitious trip at first, taking up to a week, starting in Lynchburg and moving all the way up to Winchester one tiny battlefield at a time. In the event, I only felt comfortable taking
The map I used to plot it all out. Yes, those are my toes.
two days off of work, and some friends suggested meeting up to visit Monticello on one of those days, so the week-long trip was pared down to three packed days. I have no regrets, though: I hit the highlights of the highlights, and felt I got even more out of the trip than I'd hoped.

The other advantage of a shorter trip? My dad was able to join me, and together we explored the experience of our shared ancestor during the Civil War. (What could be better for father-daughter bonding?)


So on a fine, hot, Virginia day in July, having enjoyed myself the previous day at Monticello, I drove west across the Blue Ridge to the little town of Staunton. Which, as it transpires, is pronounced like Stanton. So, apparently, I've been saying it wrong all these years, just like I've been telling people my three-times-great-grandfather was my four-times-great-grandfather.

Point one about Staunton: it is an adorable town. It's hilly and centered on the old train station at the bottom of the hill. There are houses, mostly wood-frame, clustered on the hillside, with sultry, narrow streets. It's a charming, gracious town--very "Virginia". After browsing a used bookshop and eating my lunch, I jumped in my car to cruise around and just take in the greens and blues of a sunny day, with the green mounds of the mountains hemming in the sky and earth on either side.

Point two about Staunton: It was an important railroad town during the Civil War, and both armies passed through it repeatedly. Like Wimchester to the north, it changed hands many times.

Point three about Staunton: this is where James was injured (by a horse) about June 1, 1864. According to his pension record, "while shoeing a horse at Staunton, VA, [James] was thrown and badly injured in the back, from which injury he still suffers [some twenty years later]."

Grand Caverns/Weyers Cave

My next stop was a place called Grand Caverns. I'm not quite sure how it happened, but while Googling for info about a skirmish at a place called Weyers Cave, I discovered Grand Caverns in Grottoes, VA. It seems to be the modern name for the place, and, as I poked around, I found, much to my glee, that Civil War soldiers had visited the caverns and etched their names into the rock. They featured one name on their website: a captain in the 14th PA names W.W. Miles. Now, this did get my little history-nerd juices flowing,
but I of course knew there was only a slight chance that James had signed his name in the
rock. There wasn't a list of names on the website, and I wasn't sure if they would have such a list if I visited, but I figured that it was worth seeing the place regardless, since the 14th PA Cavalry, had been there.

It was a short drive there from Staunton, though I did get literally sidetracked by historical markers that I hoped had something to do with the 14th (they didn't). If I hadn't stopped, I think the drive would have been twenty minutes grand total.

The first thing that greeted me upon my arrival (aside from suffocating heat and a lot of picnickers--the cave is in the middle of a local park) was a historical marker. It talked a bit about Stonewall Jackson's legendary campaign in the Valley in 1862, and then it talked about how the 14th PA Cavalry bivouacked nearby and how some of them toured the caverns.

I went on the tour, not so much for the geology--I have to admit, one rock looks more or less like the next to me--but to see the signature in the stone there. As the tour guide led us through the cool, drippy caverns, from a chamber used for balls in the nineteenth century to a chamber lit up in pinks and greens like a rock concert (get it? rock concert?), I was waiting, somewhat nervously, for the rock with the name on it to appear. Partway though the tour, I gave my usual reticence a good kick in the pants and went ahead and mentioned to the tour guide that my ancestor had been in the 14th PA Cavalry. She gave a "well-I'll-be-damned" kind of reaction. "Really? The 14th?" I nodded. I asked if they had a list of the names they'd discovered on the walls. I was a little surprised to learn that there was no such list. But surely, I thought, somebody has a file somewhere? They clearly took note of the names--they've "verified" some of the names. So surely they're written down somewhere by someone. (I still don't understand how they don't have a list or a file of some kind with information on the names.)

As we left the welcome cool of the caverns, the guide handed me off to someone there in the welcome center. He had a similar reaction to the tour guide: slightly taken aback, pleased, and very much well-what-do-you-know. I eagerly asked what he might know, which wasn't a whole lot. He did say that the name James Huhn kind of rang a bell, and my little heart went soaring. But of course, being the cynic I am, I quite quickly put a damper on that nonsense. It was likely that he was mistaken, and given that all seemed pretty fuzzy about "records", I wasn't convinced that there would be any follow-through even if James's name were there somewhere. In an attempt to balance my optimism and cynicism, I left my card with James's name and my non-work email address. I asked them to give me a call or send an email if ever they come across James's name on their cavern walls. Will that ever happen? Who knows? James might never have gone into the caves, or he might not have signed his name, or he might have signed it somewhere that it hasn't been found. All I know is that I had a blast, and I kind of got goosebumps when I saw the name of one of James's compatriots . . . because down in the caverns it's a steady 55 degrees or so year-round!

Battle of Piedmont

Stop number two for the day, about twenty minutes from Grand Caverns, was New Hope, VA, where the Battle of Piedmont took place on June 5, 1864 (about the time James was injured). There isn't a whole lot to mark the place. None of the land has been preserved as a park of any kind. There are two markers on the side of the road, one hidden in the bushes beside the fire station, one hidden amongst the tall corn. On the other hand, this is a small place. In the 1860's, there was just a scattering of houses. Today, there isn't much more. In some ways, the place has been preserved better than some major battlefields simply because no one has taken any interest in developing the area. As a result, it remains very much the same as it was in 1864: fields and pastures, with a few narrow roads (in the same places), all of it in the shadow of the mountains all around.

That afternoon, I met my Dad at the New Hope Post Office (closed on Sunday, of course) and hopped in his truck. Armed with a battle map that had taken some effort to find online, we drove north on VA 608 (Battlefield Rd), stopped to read the marker at the fire station, and continued on until we reached a road heading eastward. According to my map, that road
(VA 778, Patterson Mill Rd) was there in 1864, and the 14th PA came sweeping south from a ridge north, turning slightly westward to follow the path of the road, and striking at Confederate cavalrymen. Riding along in the delightfully air-conditioned truck, it's hard to fully appreciate the conditions of that day. I could imagine heat, dirt, bugs, bullets flying, horses thundering everywhere. These were "small" battles, but that's like saying a house fire is "small" compared to a forest fire. It certainly doesn't feel "small."

To be honest, I wasn't interested in piecing together the intricacies of troop movements during the battle: I was interested in seeing the landscape and seeing exactly where the 14th had fought. To try to get into much finer detail, for me at least, would have been an exercise in banality. There was no need to spend hours puzzling over maps, when what I really wanted, I already had: an impression of the place, the time, and the battle. I had an idea of where the regiment had been and how the battle unfolded: the Confederates lost, and their general, Grumble Jones, was killed. (The Union would go on to attack Lynchburg and burn VMI in Lexington, but was then pushed all the way back to West Virginia while Confederate General Early harried Washington City.)

Having gotten the lay of the land, we decided as evening set in to bring things to a close. It'd been a long day, and it was time to retreat to Harrisonburg and the safety of a Hampton Inn.

A brief epilogue: when we returned to the post office, I hopped out of the truck and heard a hissing sound. Even as I said, "What's that hissing sound?" I knew what it was: a flat tire. Somewhere in our journey of discovery, an enormous hunk of metal, like a piece broken off of a heavy metal rod about an inch in diameter, had punched right through one of the truck's tires. Dad got out the tools and the spare and got to work, while I, knowing I didn't have the skills or the strength to help, stood by and watched and tried not to get in the way. Maybe the ghosts of all those Civil War horsemen were frowning on our 21st-century mechanical beast and decided to puncture our complacency a bit by puncturing our tire.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

...and 10 Things About the Battle of the Wilderness

I got it into my head yesterday to head down to the Wilderness today. You see, I'm writing a story right now (hereafter called "Novella #2") that takes place during the days just before, during, and after the battle. I've been to the Wilderness before. It's an okay battlefield, with a kind-of-okay driving tour (it's not Gettysburg--sorry, Wilderness). The landscape is very different than during the battle, and there's a lot of development. BUT the story of the battle--its importance in the course of the war and the nightmare conditions--really interested me. In particular, it was #1 below that stoked an idea for a novella, and it was that novella that led me back there today. And that trip has led me to write this post here:

1. The Wilderness burned. "At some points the timber used in the earthworks was fired, and our men had to stand back out of the line of flame and shoot through it at the Confederates, who were fighting in front of the works. And the woods, through which we had fallen back, were set on fire, and many wounded soldiers were burned to death. . . "

"The wounded soldiers lay scattered among the trees. They groaned piteously. . . [They] were haunted with the dread of fire. . . . I saw one man, both of whose legs were broken, lying on the ground with his cocked rifle by his side and his ramrod in his hand, and his eyes set on the front. I knew he meant to kill himself in case of fire--knew it as surely as if I could read his thoughts."

That's a pretty chilling account of one of the most horrific aspects of the Battle of the Wilderness (Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac by Frank Wilkeson). The woods were thick and overgrown (see #5), and with all the guns and artillery going off (with the use of, you know, sparks), it caught fire. It hindered troop movements, but more importantly it immolated some of the wounded men who couldn't move out of the way and who weren't fortunate enough to have someone help them. This aspect of the battle is probably the most nightmarish thing you can imagine--and it's part of the reason I began plotting Novella #2.

2. Some Southerners loved Stonewall Jackson more than they loved their own family*. In the kooky world of Confederate identity, Stonewall Jackson was probably second only to Robert E. Lee. He outfoxed the Northerners at almost every turn and became a venerated figure. There's even a Stonewall Jackson shrine outside Fredericksburg.

At The Wilderness battlefield, behind Ellwood House, you'll find Stonewall Jackson's . . . arm. Or at least a marker where his arm was buried. See, in May of 1863, the Battle of Chancellorsville took place literally just down the road (see #7), and Jackson was wounded by friendly fire (see #10). His arm was amputated, and his chaplain (Beverly Tucker Lacy) took the arm to bury it in the family plot at his brother's nearby home, called Ellwood.

Maybe there are no other markers because they were taken by Federals when they used the place as headquarters, and maybe there are no markers because, as a family plot, everyone knew where everyone was buried (not something that seems to be the case with other family plots). It seems a lot more likely to me that Stonewall Jackson was the only one buried there who merited commemoration, whether that meant erecting a stone in his [arm's] honor even though the rest of the family markers had gone missing, or putting up a stone marker even though they hadn't bothered to do so for Aunt Sue and Uncle Bob. I personally think it's an indication of the kind of reverence that has been felt for figures such as Jackson, who represented a moment of bygone hope (delusion?) and promise for their vision of the future. (For the record, the marker was erected in 1903, when the Lost Cause was very strong.)

*Possibly an exaggeration.

3. The Wilderness was a tavern . . . Well, the Wilderness was an area of second-growth forest, really, but there was a Wilderness Tavern, near what is now Virginia Route 3 and Constitution Highway. (At the time, the roads were oriented slightly differently, and it was on the Orange Turnpike near the intersection with the Germanna Planck Road.) As my guide explained, the tavern was a bit like a truck stop. Places to stop and eat, sleep, buy necessities, rest your horse, etc., were far and few in between, especially in the 18th and early 19th centuries. This was one of the places along the road you could stop to refresh yourself.

4. ...which is currently under a highway. Yeah, it's sad, but whatever is left of the Wilderness tavern is now beneath Virginia Route 3. According to my guide, that road was built in the '30's or '40's, and apparently they didn't give a damn about the remains of an important, centuries-old tavern that witnessed the battle that raged right on that spot in 1864. What IS left is the ruins of one of the dependencies (outbuildings), right on the side of the highway. A photo from 1865 on the historical marker shows the tavern in ruins--battle isn't kind to structures that get in the way. The dependency burned in the 1970's, which is why there's only a chimney left.

5. What you see now isn't what they saw then . . . I mean this in terms of the landscape. As you tour the battlefield, you'll notice that a lot of the farmhouses are gone. But you'll also be (rightly) reminded by the markers and the guides that the forest you see wasn't there in 1864 during the battle. My guide noted that Virginia was much more sparsely wooded at the time than it is now; most the forests you see today date to after the Civil War. It was mostly cultivated land. The Wilderness had been timbered some 20 years earlier, according to text at Ellwood, and the result was dense, tangled, second-growth forest. That's the mess that caught fire. Today, my guide explained, there are quite a lot of non-native plant species, as well; so in addition to being more wooded and less open, the vegetation you do see differs from what tangled, sparse vegetation was there in 1864. The photo I mention above showing the ruins of the tavern also shows a wide open, treeless landscape in the background.

6. ...and it isn't very good farmland. If you look at the soil in the area, it's pretty red and clayey. The terrain is also pretty damp and boggy, so not very good for planting. A lot of the soil in the region had been exhausted by tobacco farming. Ellwood grew crops like wheat and corn which weren't exactly cash crops. The family actually owned a plantation in Louisiana, as well, which was where the real money came from.

7. There were a lot of battles very nearby. The entire swath of land between Richmond and Washington DC saw repeated fighting during the Civil War. Those cities, of course, were the two big prizes, and the armies pushed back and forth, back and forth, often retreading the same ground. The Wilderness is just a few miles from Chancellorsville, where there was a major battle in 1863, and a few more miles from Fredericksburg, the site of another major battle (in 1862). All three battlefields are even part of the same National Park Service unit. They're interconnected in many ways. For example, Stonewall Jackson was wounded during the Battle of Chancellorsville, but he was actually taken to a hospital on the site where the Battle of the Wilderness would be fought two years later.

8. This was the first battle of the Overland Campaign . . . As mentioned, there had been major battles in this area before, and they had not ended well for the Union. Repeated pushes to get to Richmond had failed (miserably). Ulysses S. Grant came east in 1864 to take overall command of the Union Army and immediately headed for Richmond with the Army of the Potomac. The Wilderness was the first battle of the campaign (called the Overland Campaign).

9. ...and it proved Grant's resolve. The battle was a bloody affair and essentially a draw. But unlike his predecessors, Grant didn't quit. He collected himself and his army and pressed on to Spotsylvania Courthouse, where there was another major battle just a few days later. The campaign came to a grinding halt later in the year with the siege of Petersburg, but ended when the siege was broken, Lee fled west, and Grant chased and captured Lee at Appomattox. The important difference was that Grant didn't relent, and he ground down Lee's army, which he understood was a much more important target than Richmond.

10. Friendly fire is a bitch. I mentioned how Stonewall Jackson was hit by friendly fire and died of his wounds during the Battle of Chancellorsville.  But during the Battle of the Wilderness, another Confederate general was hit by friendly fire: James Longstreet. With Jackson's death, Longstreet was probably the second man in the army after Lee, and probably Lee's most trusted man. Longtreet was struck in the neck and was out of commission for a long time. This proved to be a major blow to the Confederate army.

And #11, I guess, is that the Wilderness is an awesome place to visit, and they have some fantastically knowledgeable and helpful people to talk to!