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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Murder in Fredericksburg: The Legacy of a Tragedy (Part 4)


From Beth Parnicza:

This post is the fourth and final in a series exploring the details of the death of German shopkeeper Charles Miller’s brother George after an exchange in Charles’ shop with four Union soldiers on their way home from war in May 1865. The previous posts can be found here: Part One, A Darkness on Commerce St.; Part 2, Suspects and Scapegoats; and Part 3, Doctor Galland Takes the Stand.

Four soldiers of the Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac, stood trial in late May and early June on charges of murdering a citizen of Fredericksburg. Beginning on June 1, 1865, a court martial convened to hear the case of Private William Irvin, Co. D, 67th Pennsylvania Volunteers and Private Amos Fielding, Co. E, 61st Pennsylvania Volunteers brought up on the charge that they did, “maliciously and unlawfully take the life of George Miller a Citizen of the City of Fredericksburg, Va.” Both pled not guilty.

The next trial convened just two days later, charging Private James Lynch, Co. A, 61st Pennsylvania Volunteers that he did, “unlawfully and maliciously aid and abet in taking the life of George Miller.” A fourth soldier, Private John Wilson, 67th Pennsylvania Volunteers, was brought to both trials, but charges were not specified against him.

A standout among the other witnesses, Doctor Galland, an African American camp servant and cook, offered pivotal testimony. His words refuted James Lynch’s testimony against John Wilson and identified Lynch as a suspicious individual along with the other men. The resulting verdict demonstrated that the courts gave validity to Galland’s testimony over Lynch’s—a remarkable decision in itself, to trust a black man’s word over a white man’s.

Modern view of tan historic building with two doors at a corner, one opening to Liberty Street and the other to William Street.

Modern view of Charles Miller’s shop at 600 Commerce Street (William Street). The brothers exited the door to the left, walked past where today stands the “Do Not Enter” sign, and continued down Commerce Street toward the river in search of a provost guard. Brick-wielding Union soldiers attacked them halfway through the next block. George Miller was found injured just 25 steps from the front door of his brother’s shop.

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Murder in Fredericksburg: Doctor Galland Takes the Stand (Part 3)


From Beth Parnicza:

This post is the third in a series exploring the details of the murder of a Fredericksburg shopkeeper’s brother, attacked on the night of May 25, 1865, by soldiers of the Army of the Potomac’s Sixth Corps on their way home from war. Part one can be found here, and part two is here.

WARNING: Graphic language from original documentation used in this post

As the court martial trial of James Lynch and William Irvin progressed, Lynch had set up fellow-soldier John Wilson as the man responsible for throwing bricks at shopkeeper Charles Milller and his brother George, fatally injuring George Miller. Wilson had not put up a convincing defense, and both the attacker and the details of that dark night’s events remained clouded in mystery, until the next witness—a source more likely to be overlooked than trusted—took the stand.

View of snow-covered Liberty Street with several men standing and a cart bearing three ladies. Some barreled goods rest at the edge of the street.

A turn of the century view of the Liberty Street side of 600 Commerce St., Charles Miller’s shop. Both the Miller brothers and their assailants exited the door at the far right and crossed Liberty Street. The attack occurred just a few yards from this location, down Commerce Street. Two doors opened to Liberty Street from Miller’s shop, and another opened on Commerce Street.

As Doctor Galland rose to testify, he must have presented both an unusual figure on the stand and a deep surprise to the soldiers on trial. Galland was an African American camp servant and cook in the employ of accused soldier Amos Fielding, and he stood in the unique position of being able to relate the words and actions of the accused in the immediate aftermath of the incident.

Like countless camp servants serving the Army of the Potomac, Galland’s background and future remain a mystery (but will hopefully manifest in enough detail for another post someday),and he held little to no status, perhaps a former slave escaping to freedom as contraband or a free man looking for work. However, as he was sworn in on June 2, 1865, Galland’s story had the power to clear a man’s name and reveal the threads of guilt among the accused soldiers. Through the words of his testimony, we perceive a man who was perhaps not well-educated but was courageous enough to speak of his experiences with clarity and determination.

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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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Confederates on the Railroad Bridge: 150 Years Later, an Identification


From Eric Mink:

This post is adapted from an article I authored for Volume 10 (2011) of Fredericksburg History & Biography, an annual publication of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust.

It is nearly impossible to open a book about Civil War Fredericksburg without seeing the photo of Confederate soldiers posing on the ruined railroad trestle along the Rappahannock River. The photo represents one of only two instances in which a Northern artist photographed as his subjects non-captive Confederate soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia in the field. (The other instance involved Confederates marching through Frederick, Maryland.) That alone makes it an unusual image, yet the ability to identify the previously anonymous soldiers makes this photo even more remarkable.

Landscape

The Union photographer captured this scene from the north bank of the Rappahannock River. The Confederate soldiers stand on the south bank with the river flowing between the artist and his subjects. They are on the literal front line of the war. This is a location that should be hostile, yet the Confederates don’t appear to pose a threat. Their casual pose and the absence of visible weapons suggest an almost friendly demeanor. We know that the site of the ruined railroad bridge was a place where the opposing pickets and outposts gathered to fraternize, exchanging newspapers as well as insults. (For an earlier discussion of this location, see John Hennessy’s post here.) When the photographer appeared at the bridge, we can assume some communication must have taken place between the cameraman and the Confederates. The relaxed gathering at the far end of the bridge suggests cooperation between the man behind the camera and his subjects.

Many of us have studied this image in great detail. We know its location. We can see in the distance the buildings, Willis Hill cemetery and defenses upon Marye’s Heights. We even know the name of the photographer – Captain Andrew J. Russell of the United States Military Railroads. (At least one historian has suggested that the photographer may have been Egbert Fowx, Russell’s mentor). What we have not known, however, are the identities of the figures on the far side of the river. We can’t help but wonder who these men are that posed so calmly for a Yankee cameraman along a boundary between the warring armies? To date, no diary or letter has been found, by either a Union or a Confederate soldier, that recalls what must have been an event worth chronicling, or at the very least worth mentioning.

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Landscaping the Rappahannock Region: Spotsylvania’s Hopewell Nurseries


From Eric Mink:

Readers of this blog have probably noticed that we frequently reference the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center (CRHC). Located in Fredericksburg, the CRHC is a non-profit repository and research facility that preserves and archives historic documents and photographs related to the Rappahannock region. It is a must for anyone conducting research in the Fredericksburg area. One of the gems in the CRHC’s collection is the subject of this post. In 2005, the CRHC received a business ledger maintained by Hopewell Nurseries, an agricultural business that operated in Spotsylvania County during the mid-19th century. The ledger contains the names of customers who did business with the nursery. The ledger also lists the date and purchases for each customer. This document proves to be a very useful tool with which to examine the antebellum landscape in the Fredericksburg area.

Robey's farm and the Hopewell Nursery as it appears on an 1867 map.

Henry R. Robey’s farm and Hopewell Nurseries. as they appear on an 1867 map.

Henry R. Robey owned and operated Hopewell Nurseries on his 700-acre farm. Robey’s farm and nursery occupied land sandwiched between the Orange Plank Road and the unfinished Fredericksburg and Gordonsville Railroad, about six miles west of Fredericksburg and roughly one-half mile south of Zoan Baptist Church. Today, the Robey land is part of the Smoketree and Red Rose Village residential subdivisions.

It’s difficult to say exactly when Robey opened his nursery business. Notices in the local newspapers show that he worked as a grocer and dry goods merchant in Fredericksburg until at least 1838. The first advertisement found for Hopewell Nurseries appeared in 1847. The advertisement boasted that the nursery had on hand 17,000 apple trees, consisting of 65 varieties. Cherries, plums, walnuts, along with flowering plants such as roses and dahlias were all mentioned as part of the available stock.

An 1855 advertisement for the Hopewell Nursery - Alexandria Gazette

An 1855 advertisement for the Hopewell Nurseries – Alexandria Gazette

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Scandal in Fredericksburg!


From Russ Smith:

I first encountered the following story while transcribing the diary of Mary Gray Caldwell of Fredericksburg.  On September 17, 1864, she recorded, “Day before yesterday, our city was astonished by the news that the son of one of our most respected citizens (Mr. Knox) had stolen $1,500 and, in company with another man who had stolen $800,000, had gone to the Yankees.”  Further information was found in the Richmond Daily Dispatch and the Richmond Enquirer. Thanks to Beth Daly of the Central Rappahannock Regional Heritage Center who is a font of information on the Knoxes through her work with the Knox Family Papers. The Knox Papers will be published this spring by the Heritage Center and Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

The Knox House at Princess Anne & Lewis Streets.

The Knox House at Princess Anne & Lewis Streets.

Thomas Stuart Knox was the second-oldest of six sons of Thomas and Virginia Soutter Knox. Earlier in the war he had enlisted in the 30th Virginia Infantry, but later found work in Richmond.

On Saturday, September 10, 1864, Captain Thomas Stuart Knox traveled north from Richmond. On his arm, wearing dark goggles, was a supposedly blind brother who Knox was escorting home to Fredericksburg. Knox had obtained the necessary passes from the Provost Marshal in Richmond, so their travel was uninterrupted. However, the pair didn’t stop at Fredericksburg, but pressed on hurriedly to Union lines!

Captain Knox and his perfectly sighted partner, George W. Butler, were absconding with a large sum of money stolen from the Confederate treasury.  Knox, in his role as Commissary at Camp Jackson hospital, and Butler, who had been a Treasury Department pay clerk, had colluded to draw some $700,000 from the Treasury.*  They had then exchanged the Confederate currency in Richmond for gold, Federal greenbacks, jewelry and just about anything else that would hold its value. (At this time, twenty-three Confederate dollars equaled one dollar in gold, so their total take was about $30,000.)

Butler had good reasons to abscond.  Continue reading