If you’ve been following along and paying attention to my blog, you know I’m a huge history fan, especially with regards to the US Civil War. I have had the great opportunity and privilege to attend perhaps a dozen tours through the Smithsonian Associates program led by Ed Bearss. Ed is the Chief Historian Emeritus of the United States Park Service, a combat-wounded World War 2 veteran, and even today at 93 he is still leading history tours over 160 days a year. He has an inimitable speaking style, a beyond encyclopedic knowledge of US history (especially military history), and a boundless energy rarely found in people less than half his age.
The trip where I took these photos was in the early spring of this year, to visit a lesser-known early battle of the Civil War, known as Kelly’s Ford. The battlefield is just down the road from Brandy Station, where JEB Stuart faced off against a now-competitive Union cavalry, and Robert E. Lee’s son Rooney was injured in the leg.
Kelly’s Ford was a smaller engagement and marked the beginning of the rise of Union cavalry, where previously Confederate cavalry had utterly dominated the field. Despite the relative minor character of the engagement, Ed, with his signature presentation and his admonition “if you want to understand the battle, you have to walk the battlefield”, manages to make such minor events and historical footnotes compelling.
I love this last photo of Ed as it really captures his spirit and personality.
Serendipity plays a major role in my life. A couple weeks ago I took a mental health day mid-week and decided to visit some of our local history. My original intent was to take a short road trip to see some historic houses in northern Virginia, but they (the Woodlawn Plantation and the Pope-Leighy House) were still closed for the season. Instead, I thought I’d take a quick drive down Indian Head Highway into southern Maryland and visit Fort Washington, created to defend the capital city from river attack in the early days of the Republic. The current structures date from the years after the War of 1812 to the first decade of the 20th century. The main fort was designed by Pierre L’Enfant, the man who laid out the design for the streets of Washington DC.
On the drive down Indian Head Highway, after only a mile or so I saw a sign saying “Fort Foote Park”. I decided I’d detour and check it out. I really didn’t know much of anything about Fort Foote other than I presumed it was part of the Civil War-era defenses of Washington DC. My presumption about it was correct, but there’s a lot more to it than you might expect given that description. Most of the 68 defensive forts that ringed DC are now little more than some mounded dirt with a plaque commemorating what they were. They’re overgrown with trees and grass and cross-cut with walking trails, city streets, and even housing developments. Fort Stevens, the location where the only sitting United States President ever came under enemy fire, today is barely a half a square block, hidden behind a post-war church, 20th century homes and shops, and hemmed in by city streets.
Fort Foote has been spared much of that indignity. Fort Foote (named after a Union admiral who was killed in action in 1863 assaulting Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi river) too is overgrown with forest, but the earthworks remain very much in their original configuration. It owes its survival in part due to the location on a 100 foot tall bluff facing the Potomac river, too awkward a site for proper development. Two of the mighty 15 inch Columbiads (also known as Rodman guns for the man who designed them) remain in situ, and the ammunition vault’s crumbling ruins (also known as a “bombproof”) can be seen and scampered over by enterprising and nimble youth.
The Rodman gun was a major innovation in cannon technology. Due to a radical change in forging technique, they could be made much stronger and safer to be fired repeatedly without risk of the powder charge exploding the gun itself. The design was so successful that eventually the United States had nearly 450 of them providing coastal defense. The 15 inch Columbiad version could fire a 200 pound projectile some 5000 yards and penetrate ten-inch steel armor at that range. The guns at Fort Foote were never fired in anger. The smaller 12 inch and 8 inch cannons that topped the earthworks were removed by the end of the 19th century when the fort was decommissioned. Today, only a handful of the 15 inch Rodman guns remain in existence, the majority having been melted down or in some cases entombed in concrete to add support to the improved fortifications they once defended.
The notches on the back of the Rodman gun, along with the large, relatively flat “knob”, are signatures of the design, and indicative of some of the innovations. By making the “knob” large and flat, it made it much easier to hoist the cannon for moving it and loading and aiming – a common problem with smaller guns that had a much more traditional knob on the rear was that the weight of the gun, when hoisted in the air, would stress the join between the barrel and the knob and it would break, sending the extremely heavy barrel crashing to the ground, crushing anyone below, ruining the gun, and possibly discharging the shot if it were loaded.
The Rodman cannons were mounted on platforms that would enable them to be withdrawn below the earthworks to be loaded, and then raised when ready to aim and fire, reducing the exposure of the gunnery teams to enemy small arms fire. This wheel with its tubes to take wooden levers would have been used to raise and lower the gun on the pop-up mount.
Another stop on the tour I did with Ed Bearss earlier this month was the battlefield of Ball’s Bluff. Ball’s Bluff was a very significant early battle in the Civil War – while in the grand scheme of things a minor engagement with a total of three hundred or so Union casualties (including drowning deaths of soldiers trying to escape the Rebel onslaught across the Potomac River, swollen with recent rainwater), the Union loss and its aftermath (bodies of soldiers who drowned fleeing the battle washed up in Washington DC and as far south as Fort Washington, some 60 miles downriver) were shocking enough that they triggered the formation of a joint committee comprised of senators and congressmen, the Committee on the Conduct of the War. This oversight committee was empowered to investigate not only the military but the executive branch up to and including the President himself.
Today, while the cemetery itself is administered by the Veterans’ Administration and is a National Military Cemetery, the parkland surrounding it is not US Park Service property but instead is a joint program of local and regional governments and non-profits. There is a 1970s subdivision built right up against its southern edge, which you have to drive through to get to the park.
This is a view down Ball’s Bluff – some three hundred feet tall, you can see the river as a bright patch in the lower center of the image. Many of the Union casualties were chased down this cliff face by charging Rebel soldiers and plunged to their deaths. The photo doesn’t do justice to the steepness of the cliff face – that would be a truly terrifying predicament – leap or fall over the edge to break your neck if you’re lucky, or get shot.
Here is the gate to the cemetery – one of the smallest in the National Military Cemetery system. Fifty-four are buried, with twenty-five markers. Only one is known. The cemetery is closed to new burials, for rather obvious reasons. There are two markers outside the cemetery where a Union commander, Col. Edward Baker, and a Southern infantryman, Clinton Hatcher, were killed, but neither are interred in the cemetery or within the park.
The cemetery itself is a very simple design, with the headstones laid out in a semi-circle around a flagpole, enclosed by a wall of Seneca sandstone, the same stone used to build the Smithsonian Castle.
A close-up of one of the headstones for the unknown dead buried within.
This in a way closes a loop in my antique image collecting. While I don’t actively seek out Civil War soldier images, as they are highly sought after and very expensive, especially when the subject is identified, the graves of the unknown soldiers are a reminder of why so many soldiers at the time had their portraits made. Not only to send home to loved ones out of pride in their profession, but to help provide a means of identification should they be killed in battle, in a day when the dog tag had not been invented, nor DNA profiling or even dental records. Today, the unknown soldier is almost impossible, but back then, an all too frequent reality. When you were killed on the battlefield without any form of ID, and the battle lasted for several days, and your body lay in the sun as it ripened and rotted, and maybe there was no good way to get your body back to civilization at the time of the battle, you could end up not buried, or just dumped in a shallow grave for sometimes years. There are photos of burial parties at Cold Harbor where formerly enslaved black men are collecting remains for inclusion in the cemetery, and they have a cart full of skeletons.
One of the great privileges of living in Washington DC is access to cultural institutions. As part of the Smithsonian Resident Associates program, I get to take part in lectures and tours on art, politics, and history. As you can tell from my blog postings about my antique image collecting, I’m a big Civil War history fan. The Smithsonian Resident Associates program offers a wonderful series of lecture tours on the Civil War, the best of which are led by the inimitable Ed Bearss. Ed is a national treasure – he’s a combat-wounded WW II veteran, Chief Historian Emeritus of the US Park Service, responsible for raising and restoring the Union ironclad ship on display at Vicksburg, Mississippi (which he’ll say was a study in how NOT to raise a sunken ironclad), brilliant raconteur, and at 91, still leading tours 200+ days a year. And even at 91, he’s the first one off the bus and leading the charge across the field, the entire day. If you’re a Civil War fan, you probably know who Ed is – he’s one of the historians on-camera in Ken Burns’ The Civil War, and was a regular on History Channel’s “Civil War Diaries”.
This is a somewhat rare image of him on tour, as he’s got his eyes open. Often when he’s narrating the events of a battle, he’ll close his eyes. It’s not because of a vision problem – when asked, he explained that “it helps me picture the story in my head”. I feel so privileged to get to walk battlefields with Ed and listen to him tell the stories of the events as only he can, with his unique cadence and stentorian voice.
A new acquisition to the CDV collection – another Civil War soldier (definitely Union this time!) complete with sword, cap, and patriotic studio backdrop. The sword, his youth, and the overall style of his uniform suggest to me junior grade officer. Some non-commissioned officers did carry swords, particularly in the cavalry and artillery, but they would have had rank insignia on their sleeves.
This is the first soldier portrait from the period that I have which has a patriotic battle-themed background (notice the cannon to his right just above the table, along with the field tents and flag). This was a popular thing to do during the Civil War for soldiers. Many itinerant photographers had backdrops painted to depict scenes of camp life in front of which they would pose the soldiers. These backdrops served as positive propaganda back home, as it gave the soldiers’ loved ones a sense of normalcy to the life of their son/brother/husband/father. This one was done in a proper studio in Washington DC, just a few doors down the street from Matthew Brady’s parlor. I would guess based on the rather healthy looking condition of the young man that this was taken before he first marched into the field, and probably early in the war.
On a separate but not entirely unrelated note – if you observe carefully, you can see the foot of the posing stand peeking out from behind his legs. I’ve been seeing a lot of comments on Facebook lately about how some at best tragically uninformed and at worst scandalously unscrupulous people out there on Ebay and other online venues have been describing ANY photo of this period where the posing stand is visible as a post-mortem. I want to debunk this myth as strenuously and vigorously as possible. Posing stands were NOT meant to keep corpses in the upright position while they were being photographed. For that matter, most genuine post-mortems I’ve seen have shown the deceased in a prone position if an adult, sometimes sitting up or being held by a parent if a child, but even then children were not uncommonly posed in their coffins.
I would say that this young man is very definitely, obviously alive and well at the time of the taking of this photograph, wouldn’t you agree?
Over the weekend I went to the DC Antique Photo Show. Some awesome images were on display, and some equally awesome prices were associated with them. One vendor had some stereoviews of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania after the burning by McCausland’s troops in 1864. They ranged from $325-$450 apiece – these may well have been fair prices, but they’re not something you’d buy casually, nor would you just buy one of them unless you had a hole in your collection to fill. There was a really striking F.A. Rinehart portrait of a Native American brave that was unmarked so I didn’t even ask. A whole-plate daguerreotype by Mathew Brady was $3000, which was actually a relatively fair price for what it was, considering the condition (case was good, but the image was very degraded). So I ended up with a book- “Maryland’s Civil War Photographs – the Sesquicentennial Collection” by Ross Kelbaugh. I got the limited edition hardcover (#130 of 250) which Mr. Kelbaugh signed with a lovely dedication-
In appreciation for your interest in Maryland’s photographic legacy!
The book is published by the Maryland Historical Society and presents an outstanding overview of life in Maryland before, during and after the war. Notable inclusions are numerous photographs of african-americans, both free and enslaved (according to the 1860 US Census, there were roughly equal numbers of free and enslaved blacks living in Maryland – 85,000 free and 87,000 enslaved). Military participants in the war are copiously documented, on both sides of the Union/Confederate divide, as is to be expected in a volume of this nature, but also worth noting are the views of civilian life. While some images, particularly the Gardner/Brady photos of battles such as Antietam, may be familiar, most of the photographs reproduced here are rare. It makes an outstanding volume for any Maryland history buff, Civil War fan, or antique image collector as a first-rate reference tome.
Here is the skylight of Mathew Brady’s Washington studio. Today the space is occupied by the National Council of Negro Women. The studio itself today is nought but a storage room full of filing cabinets. But still being able to see the skylight Brady used to illuminate his subjects helps one imagine Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant sitting in that loft for the portraits we know them best by.
The skylight is on the top floor of the pink building at the left of the photo.