Edward Steere – Soldier of the Great War, National Park Service Historian, Author


From Eric Mink:

During the National Park Service Centennial last year, the park staff delved into a bit of research on our own history. We looked at how our predecessors laid the groundwork, both in infrastructure and in historical research, upon which we have benefited and continue to build. The park had the advantage of a strong cadre of historians who conducted some of the first solid research on the park’s battles and resources. Ralph Happel is a name known to most who have studied the Civil War activities around Fredericksburg, but there was also T. Sutton Jett, Branch Spalding, Hubert Gurney, just to name a few. For about six years in the late 1930s, the park benefited from having as its chief of historians Edward Steere, a man whose combined knowledge and skills as a journalist, a soldier, and a historian resulted in a report that became the first in-depth battle study of the 1864 Overland Campaigns first engagement. Steere’s The Wilderness Campaign remains a popular resource for students of the battle.

Young Turks - 1935

Edward Steere (far left) and other National Park Service historians on the Wilderness Battlefield in 1935. To Edward’s left are: T. Sutton Jett, Raleigh C. Taylor, Ralph Happel, and Branch Spalding.

Born in Los Angeles, California on April 21, 1889*, Edward Steere entered a military family. His father, Captain Henry Steere, participated in the Spanish-American War with the 1st Battalion California Heavy Artillery and then in the Philippine Insurrection with the 36th United States Volunteers. Captain Steere later pursued a career in education as both professor of military tactics and commandant of cadets at the Western Reserve University of Cleveland, Ohio, and even later in a similar role at the Shenandoah Valley Military Academy in Winchester, Virginia. Edward’s older sister Ruth married three times, each to an officer in the United States Army. Her first two husbands were medical officers, while her third husband, Colonel Reginald Heber Kelley, commanded the 116th United States Infantry during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918. Edward’s younger brother John entered the United States Army and rose to the rank of colonel. Perhaps it was the military tradition, a sense of adventure, or even personal convictions about the war in Europe that led young Edward to leave the United States and enlist in the Canadian Army on September 23, 1914, at the age of 25. Steere joined “B” Battery, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery and over the following four years he served with his unit in France, presumably taking part in all of its battles. His service record notes little, other than three instances in which he ran afoul of his superiors. The first involved “altering the duration of his watch,” the second punishment came for “using insubordinate language to his superior officer,” and the final instance involved “galloping a horse on a hard road.” Dismissal at the expiration of his service came on May 31, 1919, at which time Steere returned to the United States to pursue an education for a civilian career.

Steere’s college pursuits prepared him well for his future vocation as a historian. He attended the University of Texas and received a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1924 and a master’s in history in 1929. After a stint writing for the Dallas Morning News and the Austin Statesman, Edward landed a job with the National Park Service, working out of the agency’s Washington, D.C. office. The War Department transferred its battlefields and military parks to the National Park Service in 1933, and around that time Steere joined the staff of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He arrived in Fredericksburg as an assistant historical technician, but within five years he rose to the position of “chief historian,” overseeing the park’s historical research and public programming. His largest contribution while stationed at Fredericksburg was his research on the Battle of the Wilderness. The result of that research has benefited historians for decades.

Steere - 1938c

Edward Steere – Fredericksburg Battlefield, 1938

Steere began his study of the Battle of the Wilderness shortly after arriving in Fredericksburg and finished both the research and writing of his manuscript in 1937. Steere’s “The Campaign of the Wilderness, May 2-7, 1864” was intended as an internal document to educate the park staff. Steere utilized the small park library, and with a few small exceptions, he relied entirely upon published sources, specifically the Official Records. Prior to his research, a truly analytical look at the Wilderness did not exist. Andrew Humphreys’ The Virginia Campaigns of ’64 and ’65: The Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James (1883) and Morris Schaff’s The Battle of the Wilderness (1910) both represented studies written by participants, but each lacked the distance and analysis of a historian. Steere’s familiarity with the ground and his painstaking analysis of the source material resulted in a 650-page typed manuscript. It is likely that his manuscript would have remained on the park’s library shelf and out of sight from anyone other than park staff had it not been for an inquiry from soldier and publisher Lieutenant General Edward Stackpole, Jr. two decades later.

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Civilian Conservation Corps at Chancellorsville – Camp MP-3 (NP-11)


From Eric Mink:

As has been mentioned in previous posts, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) established three camps to support development and conservation projects at the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. One camp was located on each of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and Chancellorsville battlefields. Throughout the 1930s, the companies that rotated through these camps developed the military park. The projects they undertook transformed portions of the battlefields through the construction of tour roads and trails for visitors and conservation practices that helped to preserve the natural and cultural resources of the area.

The CCC opened Camp MP-3 on the Chancellorsville Battlefield in October 1933. The selected site stood along Ely’s Ford at its intersection with the future park road Hooker Drive. The initials “MP” stood for military park and the companies stationed there supported park development and conservation projects at both the Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg battlefields. The first enrollees arrived with Company 281 on October 7, 1933, having transferred to Chancellorsville from Glacier National Park in Washington state. The men of Company 281 hailed from New York, New Jersey, as well as Virginia. Initially, the camp consisted of tents, but by the end of the year the barracks and other buildings provided more permanent quarters.

Camp MP-3 along Ely's Ford Road on the Chancellorsville Battlefield. The elongated NPS maintenance building south of Hooker Drive is still in use today.

Camp MP-3 along Ely’s Ford Road on the Chancellorsville Battlefield. The elongated NPS utility building south of Hooker Drive is still in use today.

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“A deepened pride in our nation’s history “: Crafting Exhibits in a Modern Park


From Beth Parnicza:

This post continues the story of park infrastructure expansion during the Mission 66 period, introduced here.

Two movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s captured Americans on a global and local level: the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement. As tensions mounted at home and abroad, the National Park Service prepared to turn 50 years old. As part of the NPS anniversary “Mission 66” initiative, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP seized the opportunity to craft new exhibits in the old museum space at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Museum and Administration Building (now known as the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center), and at the new Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center.

The challenge was high. The park’s small staff of historians faced the greatest expansion of interpretation since the park’s creation. Staff had to balance their understanding of the past with the conflicts and societal understandings of the present. Our past defines us and provides us with an identity, but we can only understand the past through our own experiences. In this sense, the past becomes another layer of the present that manifests in history books, exhibits, and storytelling. To help visitors connect with the war, the new exhibits needed to fit a modern generation’s understanding of the Civil War as the conflict neared its centennial anniversary.

1937 view of Fredericksburg Battlefield museum and administrative building exhibits. Two chairs, a diorama of destruction downtown, four exhibit cases, and a large map.

The exhibit space in the Fredericksburg Battlefield Museum and Administration Building in 1937, shortly after it opened. This room looked much the same 20 years later, as the park prepared for new exhibits to occupy this space.

Looking around the existing gallery space, the park’s historian staff must have been both dazzled by the possibilities and alarmed at the open-ended questions they confronted. How broad in scope should the new exhibits be? How do we fit such a vast and compelling story into a compact space? How do we teach visitors with an increasingly distant view of the war? Which stories of the Civil War should we tell? Continue reading

Morris Schaff’s Wilderness: Anticipating Future Battlefield Interpretation, 1910


from: Harrison

With the park having concluded sesquicentennial observances of the four battles within its historical bailiwick, I’d like to consider how those engaged the imagination once the guns fell silent. Readers of this blog may recall my interest in the literary aspects of early commentary on the fighting. What follows is adapted from a History at Sunset program I presented recently on supernatural imagery, used by some chroniclers of the Civil War generation in describing Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and the vast tract of woodland encompassing both. 

I drew inspiration from Union veteran Morris Schaff’s The Battle of the Wilderness, published in 1910.  It’s the most unique history I’ve read of a Civil War battle. It’s also the first book to be devoted solely to the two-day clash of May 1864, not to be supplemented in that category until Edward Steere published The Wilderness Campaign half a century after Schaff’s volume appeared.

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Houghton-Mifflin’s advertising for the serialized version of Schaff’s book, Atlantic Monthly, March 1909.

Schaff’s publisher, Houghton-Mifflin of Boston and New York, had serialized the book in their magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, beginning in June 1909. Schaff’s study was thus distributed widely and essentially twice. (The publishers seemed delighted with its reception, inviting him to write an article-length sequel and running that in Atlantic in 1911.)

Readers across the country had this first-ever, book-length encounter with the Battle of the Wilderness in a profoundly strange atmosphere. Schaff’s text swerved back and forth from the conventional to the unconventional, from straightforward terrain- and tactics analysis to supernatural interventions. In 1911, a reviewer for The Nation spent several column-inches trying to finalize his thoughts about Schaff and concluded, “We applaud the writer who, while framing a military treatise, can at the same time make it a new ‘Alice in Wonderland.’” In this blog post, let’s consider the conventional and even “cutting-edge” aspects of The Battle of the Wilderness. These highlight, through contrast, the weird aspects (next post), as strange now as in 1910.

At the battle of the Wilderness, the 23-year-old Schaff served on the staff of Fifth Corps Commander Gouveneur K. Warren. Some of Schaff’s detailed descriptions of what he saw would become popular among later historians, especially his detailed, vivid recollection of Warren meeting with other staffers in the Lacy House, “Ellwood,” and urging them to reduce the casualty return for his corps.

Ellwood and environs. For visitors to the Wilderness today, Morris Schaff is probably best known for his striking account of an episode in the Lacy house, “Ellwood,” involving a casualty tally and a brief but vivid description of one of its rooms. Virtually unknown is his ambitious effort to understand many other aspects of the battle. This entailed Schaff making at least one postwar visit, when a Mr. and Mrs. Jennings hosted him, possibly at a now-vanished postwar structure that appears on a 1930’s map.

Ellwood and environs. For visitors to the Wilderness today, Morris Schaff is probably best known for his striking account of an episode in the Lacy house, “Ellwood,” involving a casualty tally and a brief but vivid description of one of its rooms. Virtually unknown is his ambitious effort to understand many other aspects of the battle. This entailed Schaff making at least one postwar visit, when a Mr. and Mrs. Jennings hosted him, possibly at a now-vanished structure that appears on a 1930’s map.

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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

Calvin Coolidge Cruises Caroline Street and Dedicates a New Military Park, on Film


From Eric Mink:

This past week, the park was alerted to a very interesting piece of media documenting an event in Fredericksburg’s history. Bill Jenney of the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation (VDHP) contacted the park requesting information about President Calvin Coolidge’s visit to Fredericksburg in 1928. VDHP is involved in exhibit planning for the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site in Plymouth, Vermont and one of the displays might discuss the president’s keen interest in the American Civil War. During an exchange of e-mails, Bill provided us with a link to what may be the first film footage of Fredericksburg. The raw outtakes are from a newsreel made during Coolidge’s 1928 visit to dedicate the local military park.

It was appropriate for Coolidge receive an invitation to the park’s dedication, as he had signed the bill that created the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on February 14, 1927. The National Battlefield Park Association, which was comprised of influential local citizens and had been instrumental in lobbying for the park, contacted the White House. The president accepted and agreed to deliver the keynote address at the celebration on October 19, 1928.

Coolidge and his entourage arrived in Fredericksburg on a special 2:35pm train. A large crowd greeted them at the station where the Fredericksburg Elks Band played “To the Colors” and the local National Guard unit fired off a 21-gun salute with their French 75-millimeter field guns. The president and first lady climbed into a convertible Lincoln touring car, driven by manager of the Fredericksburg Motor Company Emmett R. Colbert, and made their way up Main (Caroline) Street. Preceded by state motorcycle policemen and flanked by secret servicemen, the motorcade turned onto Amelia Street and then again onto Princess Anne Street, making its way south to the Fredericksburg Country Club. Click the image below to watch the silent raw footage of President Coolidge’s visit to Fredericksburg. The first eight seconds of the footage shows the president’s car traveling through the 900 block of Main Street. Huwill Stores (919 Main Street) and John F. Scott’s hardware store (today the site of River Run Antiques) are clearly visible in the background. The film then cuts to a twelve second clip of the president’s motorcade heading south on Princess Anne Street and through the intersection with National (Lafayette) Boulevard. James T. Horton’s filling station is visible on the corner.

Clicking on this image will take you to the raw film footage of President Coolidge's 1928 visit to Fredericksburg. The footage is part of the University of South Carolina's Moving Image Research Collections and was made available through its library website.

Clicking on this image will take you to the raw film footage of President Coolidge’s 1928 visit to Fredericksburg. The footage is part of the University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collections and was made available through its library website.

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“To so develop and staff these priceless possessions of the American people”: Building a Modern Park


From Beth Parnicza:

Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center Today

The Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center stands today as the park’s best model of the wave of modernism that swept the National Park Service in preparation for its 50th anniversary in 1966.

It’s with a touch of nostalgia and a great desire to better understand previous park historians that park staff recently spent several days dismantling the last large-scale vestiges of a critical period in the park’s history: the “Mission 66” exhibits at the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center and the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. If you have set foot in the park over the last 50 years, your experience has been primarily shaped by two dramatic efforts to mold the park: the War Department and Civilian Conservation Corps period and the Mission 66 initiative. As a new park in the 1930s, much of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP’s lasting infrastructure—roads, trails, and several buildings—dates back to War Department planning and the CCC’s extensive work. With the dissolution of the CCC and the end of World War II, however, increased visitation demands and a changing society soon rendered the park’s facilities outdated, and parks across the country looked to forge themselves anew for the post-World War II, modern age.

To adapt to this changing environment, park planners confronted questions that define the NPS even today: How should a park balance access to resources and grounds with the need to preserve that ground? How can a park best educate and inspire an increasingly consumerist society? For a Civil War park, how could historians best appeal to audiences during the tumultuous era of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement? To address these conundrums, calls to fund a national movement to update park facilities for the National Park Service’s 50th anniversary in 1966 set in motion a massive overhaul aimed at modernizing parks from top to bottom, aptly called “Mission 66.”

Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center with Mission 66 sign

The Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center, shown here under construction, was Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania’s highest-profile Mission 66 project, but signs like this one could be seen in parks across the country, heralding the new age of the NPS.

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