Tag Archive for Civil War

Modern-Day C.S.S. Virginia for Sale by GSA!

Well, this was just too cool not to repost. According to CNN, the GSA (General Services Administration) has offered up for auction one of the US Navy’s technology testing platforms from the 1980s, a vessel that look amazingly like a modern-day, stealth version of the famous Confederate ironclad gunboat, the C.S.S. Virginia.

Unfortunately, according to the article, whoever ends up placing the winning bid must agree to reduce the vessel to scrap and recycle its components. So that means no trying to (stealthily) break the Federal blockade at Hampton Roads, and no tussling with (the excavated remains of) the U.S.S. Monitor.

Visit to Harpers Ferry, WV (part 2)

Potomac River north of the site of Harpers Ferry Armory

Return to Part 1

Detail of the B & O Railroad bridge crossing the Potomac

One of the most fun things to do during a visit to Harpers Ferry is to walk across the historic B & O Railroad bridge to the Maryland side. The National Parks Service constructed a pedestrian walkway next to the railroad tracks, and the walkway is actually a part of the Appalachian Trail, which cuts through Harpers Ferry (one of very few towns bisected by the Trail). The walk provides a panoramic view of the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, the Lower Town section of Harpers Ferry, the cliffs of Maryland Heights, and fascinating ruins of an old highway bridge, now colonized by nesting birds of prey. Rafters and kayakers paddle their way around these crumbling support stanchions, mute testimony to the raw, brute power of rivers at flood stage.

Ruins of the old Bollman highway bridge crossing the Potomac, destroyed by floods in 1924 and 1936

While walking above the Potomac River, you get an eagle’s eye view of the remains of the Bollman highway bridge. This bridge was destroyed twice in a dozen years by floods – the first time in 1924, when the bridge lost three of its spans but was subsequently repaired, and again in 1936, when its destruction was so thorough that all plans of repairing it were abandoned.

Harpers Ferry railway tunnel entrance

The railway tunnel through Maryland Heights was completed in 1931. Between forty and fifty CSX freight trains pass through this tunnel daily, in addition to Amtrak passenger trains and the MARC commuter train. Wouldn’t this make a great setting for some kind of action, suspense, or espionage movie? I could imagine Alfred Hitchcock doing some great things with this setting.

Railroad tunnel on the Maryland side of the Potomac

At the base of Maryland Heights, hikers will find the now waterless Chesapeake & Ohio (C & O) Canal and its towpath, which were constructed in 1833 and which were Harpers Ferry’s first transportation connection with Washington, DC, preceding the beginning of railway service by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad by one year. Like just about everything else in the Harpers Ferry area, the C & O Canal was battered by floods. The flood of 1877 damaged the canal severely, and the flood of 1924 ended its operation for good. Today, hikers can follow the old canal for 184.5 miles, south from Cumberland, Maryland, to the Georgetown Visitors Center in Washington, DC.

Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal

Visit to Harpers Ferry, WV (part 1)

Canada geese on a shoal in the Shenandoah

A "gargoyle", part of the remains of an old mill, overlooks the Shenandoah River

Several weeks ago my family and I visited a place that should be on the destination list of any day-tripper in the Mid-Atlantic region with an interest in American history and/or spectacular scenery – Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. This nearly 250-year-old town, whose compact 0.6 square mile is split between a National Historical Park and a Historic District, is located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, where three states meet: Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. It was the site of one of two original United States Armories, of John Brown’s antislavery raid in 1859, and of a major Civil War battle which resulted in the surrender of a larger number United States troops than at any time in history, prior to the surrender on the Bataan Peninsula in 1942. The town changed hands eight times during the Civil War, which resulted in the destruction of much of its considerable industrial infrastructure. That infrastructure was subsequently almost completely obliterated by the great flood of 1870, only one of numerous ruinous floods which swept through the area during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Shells on a Shenandoah River beach

Parking in the Lower Town area of Harpers Ferry, site of the John Brown Monument, the remains of the Federal Armory and Arsenal, the Amtrak station, and restaurants and attractions, is very limited, so most visitors will want to pay the $10 admission fee to the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which boasts ample parking located a mile and a half away, beyond Virginius Island and up Bolivar Heights. Every fifteen minutes, a comfortable bus ferries visitors to a stop just outside Lower Town, near the northern tip of Virginius Island, which sits in the Shenandoah River.

No one lives on Virginius Island now. The last inhabitants fled after the record flood of 1936. What remain on Virginius Island are the ruins of numerous nineteenth century mills and factories, all of which took advantage of the power provided by the Shenandoah River. The National Parks Service is currently engaged in archeological excavations (which, ironically, suffered severe setbacks during two floods in December, 1996) to preserve the ruins and to interpret the economic, industrial, and residential life of the thirteen-acre island.

Levi, Judah, and me standing beneath an archway of an old mill

This is gorgeous spot in which to spend an hour or two of quiet contemplation (not that I was able to have too much of that, needing to keep an eye on three boys). On the far side of the Shenandoah River from the island are the Loudoun Heights of Virginia, beautiful tree-lined hills teeming with birds. Several sets of mild rapids dot the river adjacent to the island, and one doesn’t have to stand on its shore for very long before seeing kayakers or rafters. The sandy shore of the river is sprinkled with colorful clam shells, and various types of ducks and geese frequently land on the river’s shoals and small islands. The sounds of traffic from the road on the Virginia side are muted and add to, rather than detract from, one’s contemplative mood.

Firehouse that served as John Brown's "fort"

Virginius Island, the former industrial district of Harpers Ferry, is a short walk from Lower Town. Part of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Lower Town features a book store, a museum of nineteenth century industry, and reproductions of Civil War era clothing and sundries shops. It is also the site of the John Brown Memorial and the fire engine house, originally next door to the Federal Armory, which Brown and his followers took refuge in while under siege by a contingent of U.S. Marines temporarily commanded by future Confederal General Robert E. Lee (then a lieutenant colonel and, although on leave, the senior officer closest to Harpers Ferry when Brown attacked the Armory).

Lower Town section of Harpers Ferry

During the late nineteenth century, after war and floods had displaced or destroyed most of the town’s heavy industry, Harpers Ferry became a fashionable summer resort for several decades, hosting many prominent visitors from Washington, DC and Baltimore, including President Woodrow Wilson. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad operated an amusement park, called Island Park, on a piece of land that jutted out into the Potomac River. However, the Great Depression and the great flood of March 18-19, 1936, when the rivers crested at 36.5 feet at Harpers Ferry, the all-time record, ended the resort trade in the town.

The site of the old U.S. Armory and Arsenal, destroyed during the Civil War, is located between the Harpers Ferry Amtrak Station and a pair of railroad bridges, including the historic B & O Railroad Potomac River Crossing. On the far side of the Potomac from the old armory lies Maryland Heights. The Heights are pierced by a railroad tunnel, and a cliff face of naked shale still holds an early twentieth century advertisement for borated toilet powder (whatever the heck that was!).

Rocky bluff across the Potomac from Lower Town

More photos to come!

Visit to the National Navy Museum (part 2)

Levi with quad 40mm anti-aircraft mount

The National Museum of the U.S. Navy is a treasure house, both inside and out. My recent post described the artifacts, some of them gargantuan, that occupy the lawn between the museum’s building and the Anacostia River, where the USS Barry is docked. Today’s post will cover some of the equally stunning (although less large) exhibits found inside the museum hall.

Any fan of the model maker’s art simply must visit the National Navy Museum. When I was a kid, my father, also a military and naval buff, put together plastic model kits for me as birthday and Hanukkah gifts. He built me a Bismarck, a HMS Rodney, and a USS Olympia, as well as a set of Hampton Roads opponents, USS Monitor and CSS Virginia. He regularly took me to hobby shops and to the Dade County Youth Fair, where we could see other model makers’ work on display, some of it very elaborate. However, nothing – absolutely nothing – I have ever seen in the way of scale models compares with the models which awaited me when the boys and I walked inside the Navy Museum.

Armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania

Both Levi and Judah have a funny little habit they engage in whenever something really, really excites them. They jump up and down and flap their arms. Well, I very nearly jumped up and down and flapped like a Canada goose when I saw the first model that awaited us, the USS Pennsylvania, an armored cruiser which served as part of the backbone of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in the first decade or so of the twentieth century, making up part of the “Big Eight” group of armored cruisers. The Pennsylvania is best known, however, as the US Navy’s first “aircraft carrier.” A little more than a hundred years ago, in 1911, she was outfitted with a temporary wooden take-off ramp on her stern and launched seaplanes, which landed in the water and were recovered by ship-mounted cranes. The model on display shows the Pennsylvania in her 1911 state with the temporary ramp installed. This is a big model, easily six feet long, built to a scale, if I remember correctly, of about 1 foot per 100 feet, a scale standard to nearly all the museum’s models.

Monitor USS Miantonomoh

One of the most unusual attractions of the Navy Museum is its outstanding collection of models and artifacts documenting the US Steel Navy, the ships which served from the period stretching from 1890 to the world cruise of the Great White Fleet in 1907-09. One ship which straddled naval epochs, bridging the gap between the US Navy’s ironclad period during the Civil War and its Steel Navy period leading into the Spanish-American War, was the monitor USS Miantonomoh. The history of the Miantonomoh‘s building, and that of her sister ships, is actually more interesting than nearly any of their operational histories. These vessels took longer to construct than any other ships built for the US Navy, reflecting the lowest period in the Navy’s long history. Their construction was begun in 1873 under a cloud of subterfuge. An incident on the high seas nearly led to war between Spain and the United States. The Secretary of the Navy was mortified to learn that the US Navy, had it been called upon to fight the Spanish fleet, had no modern, oceangoing armored ships ready to steam. Congress approved funds for five of the most recent double-turreted monitors to be repaired and modernized; these ironclads had been commissioned in the final year of the Civil War or shortly thereafter. The original Miantonomoh, one of this group, had been the first monitor to cross the Atlantic Ocean, back in 1867. However, by 1873, the five monitors, all with wooden hulls, had deteriorated so badly that they were not worth repairing.

USS Monadnock in heavy Pacific swells

So the Secretary of the Navy used the funds appropriated for repairs to begin building five entirely new monitors, each of which would be given the same name of one of the old monitors, so as to maintain the fiction that those old ironclads were being repaired and refitted. Running out of funds, the Secretary of the Navy gave the private shipyards dozens of Civil War-era monitors and sloops to scrap for additional building money. The scheme eventually came to light, and Congress directed that work on the five monitors be halted. Several years later, however, during another diplomatic crisis, Congress changed its mind and directed that the vessels be completed in various Navy Yards. The incomplete Miantonomoh was transferred to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. However, laggard appropriations and frequent changes in design dragged out construction times for another decade. The Miantonomoh did not enter service until 1891, seventeen years after her construction had been initiated. Her sisters and partial sister, the Puritan, did not enter Navy service until 1895-96, more than twenty years after their construction had begun. Contemporaries and rough equivalents of the British ironclad HMS Devastation, which had been commissioned in the early 1870s, the Miantonomoh and her sisters were thoroughly obsolete as frontline warships by the time they entered service. The major problem with the class can be seen in this photograph of the Miantonomoh‘s sister, USS Monadnock, crossing the Pacific to join Commodore Dewey’s squadron during the Spanish-American War. She made it, but the crossing was so treacherous that she spent the rest of her career on the western side of the Pacific with the US Asiatic Fleet, never daring to cross an ocean again.

Protected cruiser USS Baltimore

The protected cruiser USS Baltimore played a role in every major US conflict from the Spanish-American War to WWII. Commissioned in 1890 as Cruiser #3 of the New Navy, her first major duty was to transport the body of famous engineer John Ericsson, inventor of the US Monitor, to be buried in his native Sweden. She was one of Commodore Dewey’s ships at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War and participated in the Philippines operations which followed that war. Prior to the US involvement in WWI, she was converted to a minelayer, and in 1918 she helped lay anti-submarine minefields between Scotland and Ireland and in the North Sea, an effective deterrent against German U-boats. Between 1922 and 1942 she was laid up as a storage hulk at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and was present during the Japanese air raid on December 7, 1941.

Broadside 8" gun turret, armored cruiser USS Brooklyn

The USS Brooklyn was the most powerful of the first group of New Navy cruisers, mounting eight 8” guns, four of them mounted in French-style en echelon broadside turrets (one of which can be seen in my photograph of the model of the Brooklyn). Commissioned in 1896, she played a key role in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba in July of 1898, where the main Spanish battle fleet was destroyed. The Brooklyn was hit twenty times by Spanish shells but suffered only one sailor killed. In 1905, she retrieved the remains of naval hero John Paul Jones from Cherbourg, France and delivered them to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where the body was reinterred. During WWI she served as the flagship of the US Asiatic Fleet and finished her lengthy career with the Pacific Fleet in 1921. The Brooklyn was the only US armored cruiser named for a city, rather than a state.

Battleship USS Kearsarge

Similarly, the USS Kearsarge was the only US battleship not named for a state; rather, she was named after the famous steam sloop of the Civil War, the vanquisher of the Confederate raider CSS Alabama (the museum also features models of the original Kearsarge and the Alabama). Commissioned in 1900, too late for service in the Spanish-American War, the Kearsarge nevertheless enjoyed a very lengthy and varied career in the US Navy. Never firing any of her guns in anger, she participated in the cruise of the Great White Fleet in 1907-09 and served as a training vessel during WW1. In 1920, she was converted to a heavy-lift crane ship. During WWII, she lifted and enabled the installation of guns, turrets, and armor plating for the battleships Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Alabama, as well as the cruisers Savanna and Chicago. She continued to serve as a heavy-lift vessel until decommissioned in 1955, five and a half decades after her first commissioning. The most notable feature of the Kearsarge’s design was her double-decker main turrets, with the turrets for her four 13” guns serving as the bases for turrets for her secondary armament of 8” guns. This arrangement caused blast interference between the 13” and 8” guns, however, and the arrangement was repeated in only one other class of US battleships (the Virginia class).

Ironclad CSS Virginia

Other outstanding models at the museum include a diorama of the CSS Virginia in drydock, completing her fitting out after her conversion from the steam frigate USS Merrimac; the USS South Carolina, the US Navy’s first all-big-gun battleship (designed before the famous HMS Dreadnought but completed several years after that history-making warship); and a tremendous model of one of the navy’s last dreadnought battleships, the USS Missouri. The model of the Missouri was built by the same technicians and craftsmen who built the actual ship; they spent an incredible 70,000 man hours working on the model, which is likely one of the finest ship models existent, anywhere.

Battle flag of USS Balao

The museum contains more than just scale models. There are numerous preserved cannons on display, the largest inside the museum being a twin 5″ gun mount from a WWII anti-aircraft cruiser. My boys enormously enjoyed sitting in the gunners’ seats of a quad 40mm anti-aircraft mount, which they were able to swivel and elevate. A display on American submarines contained fascinating models of some of the earliest US Navy submersibles, as well as two working periscopes, both of which poked out the museum’s roof and looked out onto the USS Barry. Another wonderfully appealing artifact is the battle flag of the submarine USS Balao, credited with sinking seven Japanese vessels in WWII. This memorable flag, with its cartoon mascot of a pistol-packing bumblebee riding a torpedo, was designed by a Walt Disney Studios artist in 1945 at the request of Motor Machinist’s Mate 3rd class William G. Hartley.

We’ll most definitely go back. Many times!

Visit to the National Navy Museum (part 1)

1850s experimental 15" gun

This past week, while my boys were on their winter break from school, I finally found the time to visit one of the Washington, DC-area museums I’ve been anxious to see since moving up here – the National Museum of the U.S. Navy. Located next to the Anacostia River, inside the Washington Navy Yard, the Navy Museum is a good bit smaller than its sister facility, the National Museum of the U.S. Marine Corps, located in Quantico, Virginia. However, it is densely packed with artifacts and displays, many of them one-of-a-kind, and a naval buff can easily spend an entire afternoon strolling among the outside artifacts and exploring the various exhibits inside the museum hall. Additionally, the 1950s-era destroyer USS Barry is docked adjacent to the hall as a museum ship (the boys and I ran out of time and energy before setting foot aboard the Barry, so we’ll have to save that exploration for another visit to the Navy Yard).

We visited on a cold, blustery day, but the outside artifacts were so fascinating that we spent nearly an hour braving the winds off the river. Some of the most fascinating things we saw included:

Cannons from ironclad CSS Tennessee

Four cannons removed from the ironclad USS Tennessee (formerly CSS Tennessee) prior to that ship’s scrapping in 1867: two 7” Brook rifles and two 6.4” Brook rifles (the latter seen in the photograph of the Navy Museum’s entrance); as the CSS Tennessee, the ironclad had fought valiantly against Union Admiral David Farrugut’s entire fleet, which included four ironclad monitors, before being overwhelmed by the combined gunfire of the monitors USS Manhattan, USS Chickasaw, and USS Winnebago;

6" gun from USS Maine

A 6” gun salvaged from the wreckage of the second class battleship USS Maine after she was sunk by a magazine explosion in Havana Harbor in 1898, the incident that precipitated the Spanish American War;

Post WWI 16" gun

Several very large cannons which were never used in combat, including an experimental model of a 15” muzzle-loading cannon built in the 1850s, and a 16” gun built prior to the Washington Naval Conference arms limitations talks of 1921-22, which resulted in the scrapping, cancellation, or (in the cases of the USS Lexington and USS Saratoga) conversion of big gun capital ships into aircraft carriers; battleship size was limited by the treaty to 35,000 tons, which ruled out two classes of U.S. battleships and battlecruisers than being built, most of which would have been armed with the model of 16” gun on display here;

26" thick Japanese battleship armor

Sections of battleship armor plating, including large strakes of 16″ thick waterline armor and 9″ thick upper side armor from the USS South Dakota, plus a massive 26″ thick plate intended for the battleship Yamato, recovered by the American Navy at the Japanese naval base of Kure after the war and later tested against 16″ gun armor-piercing shells (as you can see, the American battleship gunfire pierced the Japanese plate clear through, so perhaps the American Iowa class battleships would not have been so terribly outgunned by the Yamato and Musashi had the ships ever met in a gun duel, particularly given the former ships’ five knots greater speed).

Judah between two 16" shells

The most mesmerizing artifact we saw outside the museum was also the largest — a 14″ battleship gun mounted on a railcar carriage. This particular gun (identical to those being mounted on battle wagons of the Pennsylvania class) was shipped to France in the spring of 1918 in time to fire several hundred giant shells at German positions up to twenty-four miles distant. The gun was manned by U.S. Navy sailors who fired it in over a dozen campaigns on the Western Front.

14" railway gun sent to France

14" railway gun (background); Civil War cannons (foreground)

Next in Part 2: the scale model treasures found inside the museum hall

Potomac River Blockade Anniversary at Leesylvania State Park

Freestone Point today

What do you do if you’re the father of three rambunctious little boys, live in Northern Virginia, and the sesquicentennial of the Civil War has rolled around? You take them to plenty of Civil War reenactments and events, that’s what. Gets ’em out of the house, and maybe they’ll learn something.

Freestone Point Battery engaging the OSS Seminole and Jacob Bell Sept. 25, 1861

This past weekend marked the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Confederate blockade of the Potomac River following the rebel victory at the first Battle of Manassas. Confederate artillerymen mounted a small battery of four cannons at Freestone Point, meant primarily as a diversion from larger batteries which were being built upriver, closer to Washington, DC. On September 25, 1861, those four cannons exchanged fire with Federal gunboats OSS Seminole and Jacob Bell. Nobody was killed or injured on either side.

living historians at 150th anniversary of blockade of Potomac River

Leesylvania State Park, the present site of the Freestone Point Battery, marked the occasion with a living history reenactment. A woman in period dress invited my boys to enlist in the Confederate Army. First she looked at their teeth–they had to have at least one set of opposing teeth in front to join the infantry, so they’d be able to bite off the tops of cartridges of gunpowder. If they lacked opposing teeth in front, they’d have to go into the artillery. Levi and Judah got enlisted into the infantry; Asher, who’s been enjoying lots of visits from the Tooth Fairy recently, got shuffled over to the artillery. Four “soldiers” then gave the boys a demonstration of rifle drill, loading, and firing, which my sons expressed great enthusiasm for. I foresee myself buying one, maybe two Daisy air rifles sometime down the road.

modern day view from site of Freestone Point Battery

Leesylvania State Park, which hugs the Potomac River a little north of Triangle and Quantico, Virginia, is a beautiful place with a fascinating history. The land the park occupies was originally the estate of “Light Horse Harry” Lee, the Revolutionary War hero who was the father of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Freestone Point, a landmark within the park, became locally famous as a spot where sandstone could be easily quarried. Later, in 1861 and 1862, the bluff was selected as the site of a small battery of cannons mounted to enforce a Confederate blockade of Federal traffic along the Potomac River. Nearly a century later, in the late 1950s, the area became known as Freestone Point Park, a gambling and swimming resort. Landbased attractions included three swimming pools, one of them Olympic-sized, a Ferris wheel, a narrow gauge excursion railroad, restaurants, and bandstands for live music. There was also a mile’s worth of white sand beach and a pier which led to the S.S. Freestone, a gambling ship. As soon as a person stepped out onto the pier and over the Potomac’s waters, he or she left Virginia and entered Maryland, which made the activities on the gambling vessel legal. Here’s a quote from one of the park’s historical markers:

Gambling ship S.S. Freestone in the 1950s

“‘A Pacific Paradise on the Potomac,’ suggests the type of atmosphere that existed at Freestone Point in July, 1957. The S.S. Freestone, a gambling ship, was the main attraction of an exciting new recreational resort. Even though it was illegal to either gamble of sell liquor by the drink in Virginia at this time, activity on the S.S. Freestone was protected from Virginia law by mooring in Maryland waters. The S.S. Freestone featured 200 slot machines on her deck, a finely furnished restaurant on the second, and on the third deck a cocktail lounge, in Hawaiian décor, featured live music and dancing. Formerly an excursion steamer, the ship had been retrofitted as a floating casino. Special opening day ceremonies held on July 20, 1957, included events such as the live music of Johnny Long and his Orchestra, water ballet, water skiing exhibitions, raced by sailing craft, fireworks and a beauty contest to crown the Queen of Freestone Point.”

reptile and amphibian pond at Leesylvania State Park

Freestone Point Park and its gambling ship were but a memory by the mid-1960s, and the area sat fallow for a number of years before its owner donated it to the Virginia State Parks agency. Leesylvania State Park opened in 1992. One of the most imaginative and attractive reuses for an abandoned swimming pool I’ve ever seen is the park’s transformation of the old Olympic-sized pool into a reptiles and amphibians pond. The boys and I spotted bullfrogs, dozens of big tadpoles, a snapping turtle, and a red earred slider. The pond roughly retains the shape of the old, now vanished swimming pool. The old resort’s beaches, unfortunately, have mostly been eroded away by the Potomac’s tides.

A wonderful park. We’ll be going back, frequently. If only I can keep the boys from falling into the river…

My Civil War Sesquicentennial

Confederate emcampment on the grounds of the Manassas Historical Museum

This past weekend marked the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas, known as the First Battle of Bull Run to all you Yankees out there.  First Manassas was the earliest major land engagement of the Civil War following the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter.  My new hometown of Manassas celebrated its history in a big way, with a reenactment of the battle, two huge living history encampments, a parade of soldier-reenactors through Old Town Manassas, and a recreation of the 1911 Peace Jubilee headlined by President Taft (I would’ve liked to have seen who the local organizers found to portray the 300 pound-plus president, but the event conflicted with work for me).

field kitchen and wood pile

lanterns and paring knife

Several of the afternoon events had to be cancelled due to temperatures in the low triple digits.  Sweltering July temperatures in this region aren’t just a recent phenomenon, however.  Nearly a century ago, at the Great Reunion of Civil War veterans held at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania from June 29 to July 6, 1913, temperatures also soared into the hundreds. More than 53,000 Union and Confederate veterans attended the event, all of whom camped out in tents on the battlefield. Three hundred and nineteen of those vets were admitted to local hospitals for heat exhaustion. Considering that most of the vets present were between 65 and 75 years old, and only half of one percent suffered heat exhaustion, I’d say that was a pretty hardy collection of old men.

Confederate soldiers and Union civilians

I brought my boys on Saturday to the Generals’ Row set up on the big lawn in front of the Manassas Historical Museum, across Prince William Street from the Manassas train station. Actually, Generals’ Row was two rows of tents, one for Union commanders and the other for Confederate commanders. I had previously stopped by the Union side on Friday morning, prior to boarding my commuter train into Washington, DC. The reenactors hadn’t yet donned their heavy woolen uniforms or cumbersome hoop skirts; they were hanging out on chairs in front of their tents, drinking their morning coffee. I spoke with a man from Charleston, West Virginia named Barry. I told him my mother’s family had come from Charleston. I experienced a touch of cognitive dissonance, listening to his thick Southern accent and registering that he would be portraying a Union officer; but then I reminded myself that West Virginia had seceded, not from the Union, but from the rest of the State of Virginia so that its people could remain within the Union. We chatted for a while, mostly about how polluted Charleston used to be back in the late 1960s and about Carol Channing (my Grandpa Frank from West Virginia had managed Broadway road shows during the 1950s and 1960s). I told Barry I’d try to bring my boys by to meet him over the weekend.

Levi and Asher with friend

learning a new old game, the graces

On Saturday, with the high temperature climbing to about 102 Fahrenheit, I waited until almost 6 P.M. before bringing the boys out. Barry was still in uniform, but nearly all the crowds had fled. That was fine by me. My three kids were delighted with a collection of 1860s toys and games in front of one of the Union tents. A very obliging young lady named Hannah explained to them about each of the toys, and then she demonstrated how to play a game with sticks and a hoop called the graces, originally meant to help teach young women proper posture. My boys don’t care a fig about good posture, but they enjoyed flinging the hoop around.

We wandered over to the Confederate side, where I noticed the men tended to have a gnarlier mien than the reenactors had displayed over on the Union side. Asher, my middle son, thought one reenactor had “creepy eyes;” the man was definitely well grounded in his part, and his facial hair wouldn’t have been out of place on a wild goat. He noticed Asher giving him the wall-eye, then made him laugh with fright by chasing him down the row of tents with a mean-looking pistol, saying he looked “too much like a Yankee.”

a Johnnie Reb in green (with a horse's ass)

I was impressed that the man had that much energy, given the heat and his wool uniform. Another reenactor pointed out what he called the “emergency tent,” an air-conditioned tent with medical supplies, ready to receive any reenactor on the edge of heat exhaustion. He said he’d been drinking gallons of Gatorade all weekend. The danger sign, he told me, was when you stopped sweating. Then you knew you had to park yourself in that air-conditioned tent.

Union fighting men

I told him about the Great Reunion of 1913. It had been just as hot then, but not even the hospitals had had air-conditioning.

I had wanted to see the parade through Old Town Manassas or the reenactment of the battle, but it had just been too darned hot to stand around outside without shade. At least I can console myself that this weekend was merely the beginning of four years of sesquicentennial Civil War observances to come. Next year we’ll have the 150th anniversary of the Second Battle of Manassas (or Bull Run #2). Maybe the weather will be a little more moderate then?

Say, with all this interest about the Civil War, you wouldn’t think some author would happen to have a steampunk adventure novel set aboard Union and Confederate ironclads lying around on his computer’s hard drive? Any possibility of that? Nawww

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