Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Rich Mountain Battlefield

From Rich Mountain

Rich Mountain Battlefield lies a few miles from the town of Beverly, West Virginia along the old Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. “It’s a turnpike,” I told my wife. “How bad can it be?” The old road is now used mainly by recreational vehicles. Surfaced in gravel, it snakes its way up the mountain to the site of the battle between Federal forces under William S. Rosecrans and a small Confederate detachment under Captain Julius De Lagnel. This is not one for the faint-hearted, but the site is accessible by car and is well worth the time to visit.

Rich Mountain, a minor skirmish by late war standards, loomed large in the early careers of Rosecrans and George McClellan. Of more significance, McClellan’s indecision in the face of uncertainty here foreshadowed his efforts in later campaigns. McClellan sent Rosecrans with 2000 men, guided by a local farmer’s son, to flank the rebel position at Camp Garnett at the western foot of Rich Mountain. The march was expected to take three hours. Ten hours later, Rosecrans finally reached his flanking position at the Hart House.

Lieutenant Colonel John Pegram, commanding the 1300 troops at Camp Garnett, dispatched five infantry companies (perhaps 350 men) and a six pounder under the command of Captain De Lagnel to defend an overgrown track near the Hart House at the crest of the mountain. Ironically, though De Lagnel was in the right place to intercept Rosecrans, he faced his line in the wrong direction, expecting an attack from the North. Skirmishers from both sides clashed at Rosecrans closed in on the Hart House. Though the rebels anticipated an attack from the opposite direction, the Federals labored under the false assumption that all of the Confederate defenders were at Camp Garnett..

Despite their initial confusion, De Lagnel’s troops managed to repulse the first two Federal attacks. The Confederates let out a cheer and assumed they had won the day. Rosecrans, undaunted, launched another assault and carried the position.

Meanwhile, McClellan, fretting in the absence of any communications from Rosecrans, called off his supporting attack until the following day. Pegram’s grasp of the situation was no better. Hearing the cheers of De Lagnel’s men, he assumed his forces had achieved victory, and was dismayed to learn of their defeat. Even worse, his main escape route along the turnpike was now occupied by a superior force. Determined to avoid capture, Pegram set out in an attempt to escape the trap. Two days later, exhausted, hungry, and possibly lost, he decided to surrender his command.

The battlefield today consists of a small tract at the top of Rich Mountain near the site of the Hart House. The house no longer stands and trees have encroached upon much of what open pasture there was at the time, so interpretation of the site takes a bit of imagination.

Several plaques detail the action and guide visitors to the stable yard, a key to the rebel defense. Large flat rocks cover the ground here, and several contain inscriptions left by veterans of the action. Standing at the foot of the wooded slope from which Rosecrans launched his attack, visitors can easily imagine the consternation in the rebel ranks as they reoriented their defense to repel an assault from the opposite direction.

Though I lacked the time to explore Camp Garnett further west along the turnpike, the site boasts well preserved earthworks and is certainly worth a visit. Rich Mountain Battlefield would not exist today but for the efforts of the ( See their web site for information on the campaign and battle, as well as a schedule of events.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Matter of Interpretation

While browsing the Harpers Ferry NPS site to plan a hike of Maryland Heights, I learned the park houses the Harpers Ferry Center. The center develops Long Range Interpretive Plans for other park units. One recently developed plan outlines changes for Fort Donelson National Battlefield (this is a PDF file).

I have not read the plan in its entirety, but did note several items of interest. The plan recognizes an increasing lack of historical knowledge among general visitors, a need for modernization, and a lack of interpretive resources and staff (professional and volunteer). The plan also argues that interpretation must recognize the larger impact of the battle on slaves, civilians, and women, rather than focus simply on the military aspects of the site. Couched within these arguments is the conviction that the cultural shifts change not only the questions we ask of history, but the relevance of various aspects of it.

I applaud a more comprehensive interpretive approach so long as the war and the battlefield itself are not de-emphasized to the point of insignificance in the quest for cultural relevance. I am reminded of the debate on the new museum at the Gettysburg visitors center. I am all for a comprehensive approach to interpretation that still recognizes the paramount importance of the specific site and the battlefield in question. The new Gettysburg facility does so, with one exception. I was disappointed by the decision to display such a limited portion of the artifacts available in the park’s collection, and the assumption that large displays of firearms or other artifacts are somehow not important. In light of that, I would offer this plea: in the effort to ensure that no group is marginalized by the interpretive efforts of these sites, let’s not forget the good-old-fashioned Civil War buffs who visit these places regularly year after year, and who think that the stories of these battles and the soldiers who fought them are worth telling and re-telling from generation to generation.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Quick Visit to Monocacy National Battlefield

Monocacy National Battlefield has been in the news recently because Frederick County, MD planned to build a waste to energy facility, basically an incinerator, within sight of many core areas of the battlefield. The board of supervisors recently dropped the proposal by a vote of 5-1. While this is certainly good news, we can only hope the idea never resurfaces.

I visited Monocacy briefly at the end of April. Changes in the park over the last few years are impressive and exciting. The new visitors center expands on the exhibits available in the former Gambrills Mill facility, from a more attractive display of the fiber optic map to interactive displays for younger visitors. A new tour stop now exists on the Best Farm, site of the skirmishing north of the Washington Turnpike Bridge and also of several Confederate battery positions.

With the addition of the Best Farm to the Thomas and Worthington Farms already included in the park, it now encompasses most of the corps areas of the battlefield where Early’s troops struggled against veterans of Rickett’s division of the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Sadly, with the exception of a small city park featuring several Civil War Trails markers, the Jug Bridge (northern) sector has not been preserved.

While visiting, I purchased B.Franklin Cooling’s Monocacy, The Battle that Saved Washington. Cooling’s work places the campaign in context, captures Wallace’s desperation as commander of a hastily assembled defense force, and explains the reasons for Early’s failure to seize the Washington fortifications following his victory at Monocacy. It is a serviceable account with sufficient tactical detail, though the maps are a bit lacking. I look forward to the upcoming account (2010?) by J.D. Petruzzi and Eric Wittenberg. Given their previous work, we can expect a first rate tactical account, as well as a driving/hiking tour of campaign and battle sites.

I plan to spend more time at Monocacy this summer, and will likely post on the Thomas and Worthington Farm trails, where most of the heavy fighting occurred.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Hauser's Ridge (Nicodemus Heights, Part 2)

From Hauser's Ridge Map

Their position atop Nicodemus Heights rendered ineffective by the West Woods as Federal Soldiers closed in on the Dunker Church, Pelham’s batteries limbered up and redeployed on Hauser’s Ridge to the south. The western edge of the West Woods hugs the base of the ridge, which rises steadily to its crest perhaps 200-300 yards farther west. Here, as if by design, the rebels deployed their guns directly in the path of the advance of Sedgwick’s Division of the Second Corps.

Edwin “Bull” Sumner led Sedgwick’s men forward to clear the West Woods. This accomplished, he planned a massive left wheel by the entire division to clear the northern part of the battlefield all the way to the town of Sharpsburg. Initially, the advance met with little resistance. As they emerged from the tree line, they met a storm of shot and shell from the batteries atop Hauser’s ridge. Remnants of Jackson’s Division joined in to halt the Federal advance. This was the first of several shocks that would virtually destroy Sedgwick’s Division as a fighting force for the balance of the battle.

Sedgwick’s lead brigade under Gorman faltered under a withering fire from the ridge in their. The 1st Minnesota, Gorman’s right flank regiment, suffered 118 casualties within minutes. In the center, the 15th Massachusetts regiment lost 348 men, over 50% of its strength. The commander of the 15th, Lt. Colonel John W. Kimball, reported twice driving off the batteries in his front before the left of the brigade collapsed under the weight of the flank attack by McLaws’s Division.

While the artillery fire was not the decisive factor in Sedgwick’s repulse, the rebel guns on Hauser’s ridge stalled the Federal advance and amplified the devastation of McLaws’s slashing attack from the south. Here, as on Nicodemus Heights farther north, Confederate artillerists established local superiority, providing critical support to their outnumbered infantry in tactical situations where their Federal counterparts lacked effective artillery support. Both positions were outside the range of McClellan’s large caliber rifles that so dominated the area around the Dunker Church, the “artillery hell” described by S.D. Lee, commander of the rebel artillery battalion assigned there. Pelham and other Confederate artillerists used this advantage to provide aggressive and effective support at the right place and time, materially assisting Jackson’s troops in their defensive efforts on that bloody morning.