The unique promise of Spotsylvania Battlefield

By John Hennessy: We re-post this on the eve of the Spotsylvania 150th. It originally appeared in 2011.

Ours is an imperfect park constructed on some misplaced assumptions, as we clearly indicated in a post a few months back. The four battlefields within the park are too close together to be administered separately, which in turn has limited the amount of land at each that political reality dictates can be preserved. The result is a land base that does not include key battlefield lands–hallowed ground–and a geometry of the park (more than 100 miles of boundary) that lends itself to intrusion from adjacent development.These factors have shaped the management of these landscapes for decades.

The park in 1986, after the 1974 boundary was set. Click to enlarge

But amidst the imperfection, there is a place of unique promise: the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield. It has a few things going for it:

First, its land base tends more toward round than linear, and it’s the only one of the four fields that does. Continue reading

War in human form

From John Hennessy:

[What follows is due entirely to the generosity of John Hoptak, historian at Antietam National Battlefield, who has devoted much of his life to documenting and chronicling the wartime experiences of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. Recruited from the coal regions of central Pennsylvania, the 48th was one of the Union army’s most interesting units–gaining fame as the excavators of the famous mine at Petersburg in July 1864. The regiment, part of the Union Ninth Corps, also saw heavy service elsewhere, including at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. John maintains a blog where he shares both his work and his insights. The value of his work goes beyond documenting the service of a single regiment; by doing that, he offers up one of the more compelling testaments to the human experience of war, as experienced by these men of Pennsylvania.  Check out his site here–it’s worth a regular visit.   John has shared with us–explicitly for Mysteries and Conundrums–some powerful material he has gathered about a member of that regiment who was killed on May 12, 1864. We are grateful.]

War takes its most powerful human form when it narrows from the panoramic to the personal, from broad vistas to individual faces.

Private Henry J. Ege.

Henry Ege of Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania was too young to fight when the war began.  But, the war waited for him, grinding along for three years until he turned 18. In February 1864, he enlisted in Company I of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry.  Too young to have built anything like a profession, his occupation was simply listed as a “laborer.”  Blue-eyed, 5’5″ tall, the youthful boy soon found himself in the 48th’s camp near Annapolis, Maryland.

April 13, 1864
Dear Parents
I take my pen in hand to let you know that we are all well at present time and hoping that these few lines may find you enjoying the same state of happiness. I have not much news to tell you this time. I am out of money and would like if you would send me about five dollars as soon as you receive this letter. I would not have written for some money but we don’t know when we will get paid, a person feels lost if he has no money out here. General Burnside and Gen. U.S. Grant were here today, they are very fine looking Generals. The rest of the Orwigsburg boys are all well. I have no more news for this time. I had a letter from my school master C.H. Meredith. No more at present. Excuse bad writing for I had a bad pen.
Answer Soon
From Your Son
Henry J. Ege

[I am always struck by sons who in letters home to their parents signed their full name, plus initial, as if their parents wouldn’t know them otherwise.] Continue reading

Capturing the Wilderness’s signature horror: fire

From John Hennessy. We did this post a few years ago, but it’s worth remembering this week, on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Wilderness.

On May 7, 1864, Alfred Waud recorded this simple, compelling set of sketches, entitled “Escaping from the fire in the woods–‘Wilderness.'” It shows four separate scenes, each of struggle. So far as I can tell, they were never incorporated into the images Waud did of the Battle of the Wilderness. Instead, they have been largely ignored. But look at them closely. They bespeak of the battle’s signature horror: fear associated with fire.

In the public mind, many battles are remembered for a signature moment or phenomenon. At First Manassas, it’s the civilians. At Gettysburg it’s Pickett’s Charge. At Petersburg, the Crater. At the Wilderness, it’s fire.  Over the decades many of these rather simple associations have been challenged in some form. The civilians weren’t nearly as integral to Union defeat at Manassas as many believe. Historians have revised our view of Pickett’s Charge sufficiently that its traditional name has barely survived. And the Crater, we know, is a story that goes well beyond the bold efforts of Pennsylvania miners and drunken commanders. But what of the fires in the Wilderness?

Waud’s compelling visual chronicle of the fires in the Wilderness

Beyond the anecdotal, we know little with certainty. But, some digging into what we do have leaves little room to challenge or doubt the traditional view that fire and human suffering were closely intertwined in the Wilderness in May 1864. Fire is, in the public’s mind, the signature horror of the Wilderness, and by all accounts it should be.

The Army of the Potomac’s Medical Director, Thomas McParlin, said of the fighting and fires:

The hostile lines swayed back and forth over a strip of ground from 200 yards to a mile in width on which the severely wounded of both sides were scattered. This strip of woods was on fire in many places, and some wounded, unable to escape, were thus either suffocated or burned to death. The number who thus perished is unknown, but it is supposed to have been about 200.

If McParlin’s estimate is right, then nearly 10% of Union deaths at the Wilderness resulted from fire–a staggering number.  Continue reading

The M&C Tendencies of the Wilderness-Spotsylvania 150th

From John Hennessy:

Photo by Alan Zirkle

Photo by Alan Zirkle

We are all about to plunge into the Wilderness Spotsylvania 150th.  You can find the schedule here.  The obvious highlights:  opening ceremony with Dr. Bud Robertson as keynote is Saturday morning at 10.  The culminating event is Saturday evening, May 10, at 7.30 (it will be pretty cool, I think).  And then May 12. More on that below.

Given that most of you who read this tend to take history seriously, we thought we’d offer up a few comments on the program–sort of an annotated schedule–focusing on those events that catch the spirit of Mysteries and Conundrums. We offer them in chronological order.  Bear in mind, we think EVERYTHING we’re doing will be good…. But these are things that focus on places rarely seen or stories rarely told.

Saturday May 3, 1-3 p.m.  Decisions and Consequences: Grant and the Landscape of War. This program will focus on the area between  Wilderness Tavern, the Wilderness Crossroads, Grant’s HQ, and Ellwood, and will avail the new bridge over Wilderness Run.  Beth Parnicza leads, and there is lots of new and good stuff on this tour, along with some sites you likely haven’t seen.

Monday May 5, 5-7:  Life and Death at the Crossroads.  A program focused on the May 5 fighting around the Brock Road/Plank Road intersection.  The area south of the Orange Plank Road is a vivid and, to me, haunting landscape.  Beth Parnicza and Greg Mertz lead this one.  Another program I am leading on May 6 will cover this area again.

Tuesday May 6, 6-8 a.m.  Sunrise in Tapp Field.  Frank O’Reilly, Eric Mink, and Andrea DeKoter will bring the sun up in Tapp Field, doing a real-time program that confronts Lee’s near disaster that morning.  Being on the battlefield at dawn in real time is something everyone should do.

Tuesday May 6, 9:30-Noon. Longstreet’s Flank Attack.  Greg Mertz and Eric Mink lead the first tour of this ever done by park staff.  For those of you who were at Chancellorsville, this is the equivalent of Frank’s trek following Jackson’s Flank Attach (a tour commonly referred to as the “death march” around here). It’s bushwhacking all the way, but a great walk.

Tuesday May 6, 6-8 PM. Gordon’s Flank Attack. Greg Mertz and Frank O’Reilly lead this one. Because of Route 20 and the lack of parking on the north side, we rarely get to do a public tour up in this area. This one comes in through Lake of the Woods. A rare chance to see an overlooked part of the field.

Thursday, May 8.  We have two programs (one morning, one afternoon) going at Laurel Hill–to my mind the most overlooked place on any of our battlefields.

Thursday, May 8, 4-6 p.m.  Building the Mule Shoe Salient.  Eric Mink and Beth Parnicza present a classic M&C style program, exploring the Confederate works from the base of the salient to the East Angle. This one is entirely new.

Friday May 9, 7 -8 p.m.  City of Hospitals.  If you like mood, this is your thing.  I will be doing a program on the Union wounded from Wilderness and Spotsylvania  inside the Fredericksburg Baptist Church, used as a hospital in May 1864.   Lots of images.  A very M&C sort of thing.

Saturday, May 10, 4-6.  Upton Gets His Star.  Eric Mink and Beth Parnicza follow the footsteps of Upton’s attack.  We don’t often do a program out here. A great walk.  This program precedes the culminating event.

Monday May 12.  All day. We will be on the field at the Bloody Angle and East Angle from 5 a.m. until 3 a.m. the next morning, mirroring the 22 hours of combat on May 12-13.  A wide variety of programs, a combination of interpretation, reflection, and commemoration.  This will be one of the unique days in our careers, without question.

Sunday May 11, 9 am-4 pm. Hidden Spotsylvania: A Hike.  Beth Parnicza and Peter Maugle will hike do a day-long hike focused almost entirely on rarely visited bits of the battlefield.  Don’t forget this is Mothers’ Day.

Sunday May 18:  The Battle of Lee’s Last Line. Frank O’Reilly and Greg Mertz will follow the footsteps of what may have been the least successful attack the Army of the Potomac ever launched.

There is much more than this going on. We hope to see you. And if you do come, announce yourselves. We would love to meet you.