Historian Says Best Way To Save Manassas Battlefield Is To Expand Highway Through It

Manassas
Wikimedia Commons

Manassas Battlefield Park has been struggling with traffic for a long time. The site of the First and Second Battles of Manassas, also known as the battles of Bull Run, it’s rich in Civil War history. The main reason two battles were fought there was that the Warrenton Turnpike, the main road from Virginia to Washington D.C., cut right through it.

That turnpike is now Lee Highway (Route 29) and is busier than ever. The roads are clogged with traffic through much of the day, and historic preservationists have fought any expansion of the two-lane highway because it would encroach on the park. They’ve also fought off a giant strip mall and a Disney theme park.

The traffic problem, however, is only getting worse, especially at its intersection with Sudley Road (Route 234). Traffic gets seriously backed up there, making it difficult for visitors to get around the park and passersby to continue to their destination.

Now Edwin C. Bearss, a Civil War historian and tour guide, has written an op-ed in the Washington Post with a controversial solution — expand the highways and build the proposed Bi-County Parkway, which would skirt the park. He says expanding the roads would be a small price to pay for easier access through the park, and would reduce the noise pollution caused by hundreds of idling cars waiting for the light at the intersection to change.

Other supporters of the park oppose any expansion of the roads through and around the battlefield. In such a busy region, however, history may end up taking a back seat to construction.

Preservation Group Wants To Save Civil War Battlefield

Civil War
Wikimedia Commons “Cavalry Charge Near Brandy Station, Virginia,” a drawing by Edwin Forbes, 1864

A preservation group is trying to protect the site of the largest cavalry battle in North America.

The Civil War Trust has announced it has nearly reached its $3.6 million goal to preserve 56 acres of the site of the Battle of Brandy Station. The plot includes Fleetwood Hill, which was the center of the battle and the location of the Confederate headquarters.

On June 9, 1863, Union cavalry crossed the Rappahannock River and attacked the Confederate cavalry under the legendary general J.E.B. Stuart. A swirling battle of some 20,000 horsemen ensued and while the Union troops eventually retired, they had proven themselves. Before this, both sides saw the rebel cavalry as superior. The Battle of Brandy Station began to change that perception.

The Trust’s press release quotes historian Clark “Bud” Hall as saying that Fleetwood Hill is “without question the most fought over, camped upon and marched over real estate in the entire United States. This unpretentious little ridge has seen more military activity than any other piece of ground in American history.”

The Civil War Trust only needs to raise another $193,000 and they have matching funds from the American Battlefield Protection Program and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Donations can be made here. Considering the site’s historic importance, it’s certainly a better way to donate money than supporting someone’s Kickstarter vacation.

Oklahoma’s largest Civil War battlefield may become National Park

Civil War, Honey Springs
The Honey Springs Battlefield Park in Oklahoma may become a new addition to the National Park Service, the Tulsa World reports.

The U.S. Department of the Interior said in a report that there’s “potential action” for “support designation of Honey Springs as a National Battlefield Park.” Now Oklahoma history buffs are scratching their heads over just what that means. The Tulsa World couldn’t get an answer. Hopefully that government-speak translates into real action. The Battle of Honey Springs was the largest Civil War battle in Oklahoma, which was the Indian Territory back then. The battle was notable in that white soldiers were a minority on both sides.

On July 17, 1863, a Confederate army was gathering at Honey Springs in order to attack the Union position at Fort Gibson. About four or five thousand rebels had assembled, mostly Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw. More reinforcements were coming, so the Union troops at Fort Gibson, which only numbered 2,800, decided to attack before it was too late. The Union side was mostly black and Indian troops, some from the same tribes as the rebels.

After a night march, the Union army attacked the Confederate position in a pouring rain. The rain ruined much of the rebel gunpowder, and this helped decide the battle. Nonetheless there was enough powder left for the rebels to put up a hard resistance. After a few hours they were forced to retreat, having to burn part of their wagon train to keep it out of Union hands.

The Confederates lost 150 men killed, 400 wounded, and 77 taken prisoner. The Union lost only 17 killed and 60 wounded. The rebels lost control of the Indian Territory north of the Arkansas River. This helped open up Arkansas for invasion and led to a Union army capturing Little Rock that September.

Prominent in the fight on the Union side was the First Kansas Colored Volunteers, a black unit of mostly escaped slaves that was the first American black regiment to see combat when they defeated a larger force of rebel guerrillas at the Battle of Island Mound in Missouri on October 29, 1862. The victory made headlines across the country and helped dispel a widespread belief that black soldiers wouldn’t fight.

The First Kansas Colored Volunteers fought in several engagements in Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas yet they aren’t very well known. The justly famous 54th Massachusetts has inspired books, a monument, a movie, even a rap video, but the First Kansas remains largely forgotten. I’ve been sending a book proposal on the regiment around to publishers for a few years now, and despite being an established Civil War author I keep getting told there’s an “insufficient market” for the subject. Apparently the American public can only deal with one group of black heroes at a time.

Here’s hoping the Honey Springs battlefield will become a National Park and the First Kansas will get some of the recognition they deserve. Thanks to Jane Johansson over at the The Trans-Mississippian blog for bringing this to my attention. Jane blogs about all aspects of the Civil War west of the Mississippi and is worth reading.

Photo courtesy farmalldanzil via flickr.

Civil War anniversary: first escaped slave to take up arms against Confederacy

Civil WarAs the nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War over the next four years, there’ll be a lot of mentions of “firsts”. Here at Gadling we’ve already covered first land battle of the Civil War and the first significant battle of the Civil War. One lesser-known but significant anniversary is happening today.

By June of 1861 there had been very little fighting. Both sides were preparing for their first campaigns and securing important bases. One important Union foothold was Fort Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. From there it would be possible to launch a second front against the rebellious state.

The Confederates wanted to take it. At the moment they didn’t have the strength to assault the well-defended fort, so a force of 1,200 men kept a close watch on it from a few miles away at Big Bethel Church and Little Bethel Church.

Union commander Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler decided to push the Confederates back from these positions and sent 2,500 men on the night of June 9 to get in position for a predawn attack on Little Bethel. The area had already been scouted by George Scott, a runaway slave hired by the army as a guide. Butler wrote in his orders, “George Scott to have a shooting iron.” This is the first known instance of a black man being legally allowed to take up arms against the South.

A night march was not a good idea for inexperienced soldiers. One group fired on another thinking they were rebels. Two men were killed and 19 wounded. The friendly fire also alerted the Confederates at Little Bethel, who withdrew to Big Bethel where the rest of the rebel army prepared a warm reception for the Yankees. They were dug in at a strong position overlooking the bridge over Big Bethel Creek.

Despite the loss of surprise, the Union troops forged ahead and came upon the bridge early in the morning. They crossed the creek at two points but fell back under heavy fire from the entrenchments. Deciding another attempt would be fruitless, they returned to Fort Monroe. The Union side lost 18 killed, 53 wounded, and 5 missing. The Confederates lost one killed and 7 wounded.

%Gallery-126108%There’s no record of whether George Scott actually participated in the fighting, but the fact that he was legally allowed to carry a weapon was significant. It wasn’t the first time black men had done so, however. Over in Kansas, abolitionist senator Jim Lane raided Missouri farms to kill slave owners and free slaves. At least one report mentions that some armed black men rode with him. Senator Lane was acting beyond the law but didn’t care.

It would be some time before black units were formed and used in battle. Most African-Americans in the army were used for manual labor. The First Kansas Colored Volunteers was the first black unit of the American army to see battle when it defeated rebel guerrillas at Island Mound, Missouri, on 29 October 1862. At this point it was an illegal unit run by none other than Senator Jim Lane, but it eventually got recognition as a Union army regiment.

Like all too many Civil War battlefields, the site of Big Bethel is not well preserved and much of it has been built over. The Raleigh Civil War Round Table is currently trying save what’s left. Civil War Round Tables are found all over the U.S. and are often at the forefront of local research and preservation. If you want to learn more about the war in your area, joining the local Round Table is a great way to start.

The Hampton History Museum will be commemorating the battle tomorrow with the dedication of a monument to the Union soldiers who fought and died as well as a wreath laying at the monument of the Confederate soldier who died.

Thanks to the Civil War Daily Gazette for reminding me of this important anniversary. This blog gives daily coverage of the war and makes for great reading for anyone interested in this historic conflict.

[Photo courtesy of African-American Union sergeant courtesy Wikimedia Commons. This image dates from 1864 and is not of George Scott. No images of him are known to exist.]

Frank James and the Civil War Battle of the Hemp Bales

Frank James, Jesse James, Civil War
Jesse James must have been jealous of his older brother Frank. Jesse was only 13 when the Civil War started. Frank was 18, the perfect age to go off to war. Coming from a slave-owning farm family Frank naturally joined the Confederate army.

Many Missourians, especially city dwellers and the large German immigrant community, remained loyal to the North, while the majority of rural farmers supported the South. Most people actually wanted peace, but attitudes hardened as events spiraled out of control in the spring and summer of 1861. When Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the rebellion, Missouri’s governor defiantly refused. Then the Unionist General Nathaniel Lyon captured a group of state guardsmen camped near St. Louis, fearing they planned to capture the city’s federal arsenal. The capture went off without a hitch (except for Lyon being kicked in the stomach by his own horse) but when Lyon’s troops marched their prisoners back into town they got attacked by a secessionist mob. A soldier and about twenty civilians died in the ensuing riot.

The secessionist government fled, soon replaced by a loyal state government, and the Missouri State Guard under General Sterling Price declared their loyalty for the South. Lyon led his Union forces from St. Louis west along the Missouri River valley, took the state capital of Jefferson City, and defeated a small State Guard force at the Battle of Boonville, one of the first battles of the Civil War. Price retreated with the State Guard to the southwestern part of the state to organize and train his green troops.

One of his new recruits was Frank James. He arrived with a group of Clay County boys, some armed with shotguns and squirrel rifles, others with nothing. They all itched for a chance to fight the Yankees. They didn’t have to wait long. On August 10, 1861, Lyons’ Union forces attacked Price’s Confederate camp at Wilson’s Creek. The Union soldiers came in from two sides, and as cannonballs flew through the State Guard tents, Frank James and his companions marched off to face the enemy.

%Gallery-108346%He and his unit charged up a hill overlooking their camp on which Lyon had placed the bulk of his force. Almost immediately the position earned the name “Bloody Hill”. Missourians fought each other through thick underbrush, attacking and counterattacking for hours. Meanwhile the second pincer of the Union attack was being wiped out to the south of camp. The battle tipped in the rebels’ favor, Lyon fell dead from a bullet, and the Union army retreated.

The fight left more than 1,200 casualties on each side, but the rebels exulted in their victory and marched into the center of the state towards the Missouri River port of Lexington. If they could take it, they’d control the river and the most populous pro-secession region in Missouri.

Col. James Mulligan, a tough Irish-American, had 3,500 Union soldiers at Lexington. While Price’s Confederates numbered more than 12,000, Mulligan decided to fight anyway. He dug trenches and earthworks atop a hill with a commanding view of the town. A stone building that served as a Masonic College added extra protection. The rebels arrived on September 13 and immediately surrounded the position. For a week they sniped at the Union troops on the hill. Volunteers swarmed in from the countryside to join Price. An account tells of how one local, an old man, arrived every morning with an antiquated flintlock rifle and a packed lunch, spent the day blasting away at the Yankees, and went home every evening.

Inside the fort Mulligan and his men grimly held on. No help came, and after a few days the rebels cut off their water supply. They threw back several determined attacks, and when the rebels heated up their cannonballs in an attempt to set the Masonic College on fire, Mulligan sent a boy with a shovel running around inside the college building, picking up the red-hot iron balls and chucking them out the window.

Frank James must have been getting nervous by this point. It had been a week and the fort still hadn’t fallen. Sooner or later a Union relief force would show up and there’d be real trouble. Then someone hit upon a clever idea. Missouri was one of the nation’s largest hemp regions. The cannabis plant was used for rope, paper, cloth, and many other purposes besides the recreational smoking that eventually got it banned. The harvest had just been brought in and the river port was filled with heavy bales of hemp. The rebels made a wall of these bales, soaked them with water so they wouldn’t be set on fire by hot lead, and started moving this wall up the hill.

Mulligan’s Union soldiers soon discovered these bales were bulletproof. Even cannonballs only rocked them. From behind the wall of hemp Frank James and his friends were able to get better shots at the defenders and the Union casualties began to mount. The noose tightened. Cut off, low on water, and with no help in sight, the defenders finally surrendered. Marijuana had won a victory for the Confederacy.

It wouldn’t last long. General Price realized his position was too exposed and headed back south. Frank fell sick with measles, a potentially fatal illness in those day, and got left behind. He was captured, gave an oath of loyalty to the Union, and returned home. Soon he was back in the saddle, however, joining William Quantrill’s guerrillas. Later he followed one of Quantrill’s lieutenants, Bloody Bill Anderson, and his younger brother Jesse joined him.

Frank and Jesse James’ war years were the beginning of their training as America’s most famous outlaws. They learned to ride, shoot, and hide out in the woods. Fellow members of Bloody Bill’s group formed the core of their bandit gang. With these experienced warriors they’d blaze across half a dozen states and into American folklore.

Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield has a museum and tours. The Battle of Lexington State Historic Site also has a museum (with a hemp bale they had to get special permission to import) and is in the center of a fine old town with lots of historic buildings. Check them out for more information about two Civil War battles that aren’t very well known outside of Missouri.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: Jesse James’ greatest escape

[Image of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek courtesy user Americasroof via Wikimedia Commons]