2004 Civil War Travelogue

This page includes three articles I wrote about Civil War activities in 2004, originally in my "blog" at Sun Microsystems. My trips in 2004 were:

(I actually started traveling on Civil War topics in 2003. My first trip was to Gettysburg, without any seminars or tours involved. I took a full day tour with a licensed battlefield guide and even though it rained most of the day, I was hooked.

National Park Service Seminar, April 2004

My second Civil War trip was April 3–4, 2004, although I did not write a travelogue and do not remember any of the logistics of the trip, such as the hotel. It was to attend the National Park Service seminar, "This has been a terrible ordeal": The Gettysburg Campaign and First Day of Battle. The conference papers are available here.

CW Vacation, Summer 2004

Here's a brief report on my most recent vacation, indulging my interest in the American Civil War. The first part was the 2004 muster of the Gettysburg Discussion Group, which is an active e-mail alias and web site for a few hundred aficionados of the battle of Gettysburg. You can sign up for the group here. Every year, the discussion group has a gathering at the battlefield, which consists of tours conducted by members of the group, as well as a few social activities. About 100 of us made the trip to Gettysburg, PA, but very few flew in from remote places, as I did.

GDG muster
Scene from the Gettysburg Discussion Group muster

I realize that some readers might not have a deep interest in Civil War topics so I'll describe the tours very briefly and invite you to contact me directly if you would like to discuss or get more information. Here are the lectures or tours this year:

  • Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (conducted in the National Cemetery, where the address was given in November, 1863), how that two-minute speech altered the American political and constitutional landscape.
  • Highlights of 140 Places Every Guide Should Know, and an overview of the first day's action. (The 140 places are mostly obscure locations and objects on the battlefield, knowledge of which is recommended for those who are taking the test as Licensed Battlefield Guides. We followed the action by visiting Herbst's Woods, Oak Hill, and Barlow's Knoll.)
  • A cocktail party with the Superintendent of the Gettysburg National Military Park, focusing on plans for upgrading battlefield facilities. We are all very excited about programs under way to restore a lot of the vegetation to its state as of 1863, generally by removing or thinning trees that have grown up since then. In fact, a photograph on our muster T-shirt this year depicts the newly denuded Stony Hill.
  • A tour entitled "The Valley of Death: Where Three Battles Merged," which covered the actions in the Devil's Den, Little Round Top, and the Wheatfield,
  • A tour of Union II Corps aid stations behind Cemetery Ridge.
  • A tour that followed the actions of Stannard's Vermont Brigade during Pickett's Charge.
  • A tour in Herbst's Woods that followed the arrival and actions of the Iron Brigade on the first day.
  • A walk through the town of Gettysburg that highlighted famous civilians of the town.
  • A lecture considering a controversial alternative interpretation of Lee's plan on the third day for what is known as Pickett's Charge.
  • And there were two other social events, an Italian dinner (unfortunately, at a restaurant without a beer/wine license!) and a hot dog roast.

I had a great time at the muster, but one significant downer was the weather—about half the outdoor tours I mentioned were conducted in pouring rain and 50 degree temperatures. I seem to be a jinx because my last three visits to the battlefield have all brought rain.

After I finished with the muster, I headed south to Virginia for brief visits to a few other battlefields. Unlike Gettysburg, these battlefields do not have nearly the same interest for tourists. Gettysburg is very well preserved and you can get a good idea of the scope of the battle. And there is a large tourist infrastructure built up to give tours and other information. The Virginia battlefields are all very small plots of land interspersed with housing developments and commercial properties. So it takes a lot of imagination to picture what happened. But, just trodding on this historic, hallowed ground is interesting enough for me.

  • Signal Hill monument
    Monument to Porter Alexander's achievements on Signal Hill
    Manassas, known in the North as the battles of "Bull Run," where two battles were fought, in 1861 and 1862. While in Manassas, I also had the pleasure of seeking out Signal Hill, where a small monument honors the spot in which Edward Porter Alexander, then a captain, was the first to use signal flags to send encoded information over a long distance on a battlefield. (This code was developed by Major Albert J. Myer, who was later named the Chief Signal Officer of the U.S. Army, so it is ironic that his code was first used by the Confederates. Since I was an officer in the U.S. Army Signal Corps many years ago, I maintain in interest in this sort of thing.)
  • Fredericksburg, the site of the bloody Union catastrophe in December, 1862. (Fredericksburg is quite a nice little town, with many colonial and 19th-century buildings well preserved. I stayed in a bed and breakfast there and made it my center of operations for the Virginia battlefields.) Unfortunately, the famous slope up to Marye's Heights is completely covered in houses and streets, so it is very difficult to picture what happened. Only a section of the famous sunken road has been maintained.
  • Chancellorsville, the site of Lee's dramatic victory in May, 1863. I took a taped audio tour that led me over Stonewall Jackson's 12 mile flanking maneuver, which was pretty exciting. (I did a taped audio tour in all of these sites other than Manassas. The tapes were pretty decent, but I think someone without a good knowledge of the Civil War and the generals of the two armies would quickly become rather confused by the narration.)
  • Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse, the two opening battles in Grant's 1864 Overland Campaign. And I also visited the "Stonewall Jackson Shrine," the house where he died after Chancellorsville.

Columbus Day Weekend in Gettysburg

I spent the Columbus Day weekend in Gettysburg again. The draw was a conference and tour organized by the Civil War Society (Keith Poulter, who publishes North and South magazine). This was my third trip this year; yes, I am truly obsessed, and yes, I have a very understanding spousal unit. :-)

The great news this time was the weather, a gorgeous fall weekend. This was my first trip to the 'Burg in two years unmarred by rain.

But the program was pretty decent, too. It featured talks by Tom DesJardins, author of These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory and Stand Firm, Ye Boys of Maine; Troy Harmon, a park ranger and author of Lee's Real Plan for Gettysburg; and Mike Miller, an instructor of military history and tactics to Marine officers at Quantico, and author of The North Anna Campaign; Even to Hell Itself (Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders Series).

The tours were all day Saturday and Sunday and till noon on Monday; dinner and lectures took up Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings. The tours were not the traditional battle overviews and took us to some of the more obscure places. Here are some of the places and topics:

  • Troy and vets
    Troy Harman and two actual CW veterans in Herbst's Woods
    A bus tour that traced Meade's HQ from his assumption of command on June 28, 1863, at Prospect Hall in Frederick, MD, up through Taneytown and over to a portion of the Pipe Creek defensive line he planned.
  • Lectures about Tom's book on how memories are fixed on Gettysburg events and Troy's about how Lee's plan was always to seize Cemetery Hill, even on July 3rd. (This latter theory makes a lot of sense to me, but is quite controversial in the community. I can explain to anyone expressing interest.)
  • A walk through Herbst's Woods and down to Willoughby Run to cover actions there in the morning and afternoon of July 1st.
  • Visits to Oak Hill and near Barlow's Knoll to cover (superficially) the rest of the first day's action.
  • A visit out in the boonies south of East Cavalry Field, a beautiful valley surrounded by Culp's and Wolf's Hills, where we discussed Meade's aborted plans for offensive operations on July 2nd. (Once again, Troy has theories and data points none of us had ever heard of before. I'll be doing some research on this one.)
  • A visit to Power's Hill, which was the logistical hub of the Army of the Potomac, the reserve artillery site, and the site of John W. Geary's wrong turn on his way from Culp's Hill.
  • A walking tour of the Triangle Field on Houck's Ridge; I was a bit disappointed in our coverage of the Wheatfield, Peach Orchard, and Devil's Den actions. (We also completely bypassed Little Round Top, but that was no loss for me. We did stop at Hood's jumping-off point to discuss his division's general strategy. Mike had us position ourselves as division commanders in the fish-hook line to illustrate some strategic points and I portrayed Dan Sickles by hopping around on one leg. Hee-hee.)
  • A walking tour of East Cemetery Hill, timed to correspond to the same evening light conditions of the real twilight battle on July 2nd.
  • A walking tour of Spangler's Meadow and the swale between the upper and lower peaks of Culp's Hill.
  • We concluded with a walking tour of Pickett's Charge (although only as far as the Emmitsburg Road, due to time constraints). Unlike the Park Service designated walk that starts at the Virginia Memorial, we marched over to where Armistead's Brigade stepped off, which is considerably farther south. This was a real eye-opener for me in terms of the scale of the lines and the significant cover affored by the swales west of the road.

I really enjoyed hanging out with the two guides, Troy and Mike, and a very friendly and somewhat knowledgeable group. (I will wager that I fell in the upper third of Gettysburg and general Civil War knowledge of these folks.) One tip to Burg visitors: we stayed at the Eisenhower Inn and Conference Center, which isn't too great. Moderately comfortable, but inconveniently far south on Steinwehr Avenue. All-in-all, a great weekend and I plan to go to the next CWS event in Gettysburg, June 17-19, 2005.

Killer Angels on Stage

I recently returned from a trip to Chicago, where I was able to see one of the final performances of the Killer Angels on stage at the Lifeline Theatre.

This was an enjoyable adaptation of Michael Shaara's novel (which was the basis for Ted Turner's movie Gettysburg), and quite an unusual performance. The Lifeline Theatre is a tiny venue in northern Chicago, near Loyola University. When I say tiny, I mean a stage about the size of a living room and only about 50 people in the audience. So, the cast was tiny too—only nine people portrayed the entire battle of Gettysburg. Of course, the cast of the novel is small, too, and the play stuck very closely to it. Words and sound effects were used to enhance the action scenes, such as the defense of Little Round Top (six guys) and Pickett's Charge (four!). (Oddly enough, the biggest scene in terms of actors on stage was a poker game in Longstreet's camp.)

The set stayed constant throughout the performance and consisted only of two giant flags, Union and Confederate, a table, a couple of simulated campfires, a tall bookshelf with a ladder, and a small map of the battlefield. Cast members rushed in and out, sometimes right through the audience, and participated in a whirlwind of costume changes. Many of the cast members portrayed four or more different characters. For example, one actor portrayed both Gen. Lee and Buster Kilrain, using the appropriate accents for each. Amusingly, another actor was cast as both Lewis Armistead and Winfield Scott Hancock!

One of the nice touches was the use of music. Many of the scene changes were accompanied by Civil War songs, sung mostly a cappella or with a single guitar or banjo. In this intimate setting, it was hard not to join in!

I think the action would be a little difficult to follow if you were not familiar with the battle or the novel or movie; I know my wife was perplexed in some parts. One way they attempted to get around this was by using the map, moving unit markers around as the battle progressed. So I imagine this play will never become a Broadway hit, but I did think it was quite worthwhile and hope it moves to small theaters around the country. It would certainly be an inexpensive production for a small theater group.

After saying a number of good things about the play, now I get to make a few mildly critical remarks, with the understanding that overall I enjoyed the evening quite a lot. There were three somewhat annoying aspects to the production:

  1. They completely omitted Gen. A. P. Hill! I don't know whether this was merely an economy in casting, but they never mentioned the man's name. And, all of the early action on Day One was incorrectly attributed to Gen. Ewell, such as advancing to the "shoe factory" and beating back the Union First Corps. (I have not read the novel in quite a while and don't remember whether Shaara made the same mistake.) They also omitted Henry Heth, but mentioned J. Johnston Pettigrew at least twice in this context, denigrating him as merely an "author, not a fighter."
  2. "Gen. Lee's" performance was quite good, with one exception: the scene with Jeb Stuart was played like Gen. Patton flying off the handle, which I cannot imagine Robert E. Lee really doing. (By the way, the actor playing Gen. Longstreet did better job than Tom Berenger in the movie Gettysburg, in my humble opinion. And he had a real beard, as did most of the cast members.)
  3. Perhaps due to budgetary considerations, there were a number of wardrobe malfunctions. (Not in the Janet Jackson sense!) On the Confederate side, all of the generals wore colonels' rank insignia, so perhaps the wardrobe department looked only at a photograph of Robert E. Lee when they designed the costumes. Gen Ewell wore a Union cavalry officer hat. On the Union side, Col. Devin appeared as a captain, and Buford was promoted to Maj. Gen. And from the British Coldstream Guards, Col Fremantle wore a Confederate uniform.

All minor quibbles. As I said, I enjoyed the Killer Angels and hope others get to see it in some future performance.