Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Civil War gave us modern Thanksgiving

From the Federalist: “The roots of our Thanksgiving celebration -- like the discipline of thanksgiving itself -- go deeper than happy feelings over food and football. Most of us know the story of the first Thanksgiving, celebrated by that tiny band of Separatists at Plymouth in 1621. However, we may not realize that our modern Thanksgiving celebration originated in our nation’s worst period of turmoil and bloodshed: the Civil War. In that story, there are lessons that can help us today." • Article

Monday, November 20, 2017

Robert Toombs house in Georgia reopens: Here lived a charismatic, volatile, unreconstructed firebrand of the Confederacy

Property before renovation (Georgia Department of Natural Resources)

The home of Robert A. Toombs – lawyer, congressman, U.S. senator, slave owner, vocal secessionist, Confederate official and general, prominent figure in 19th century Georgia politics and, perhaps most notably, an “unreconstructed” rebel -- has been repaired and renovated and reopens this week.

Beginning Tuesday, visitors can see the entire residence at Robert Toombs House State Historic Site in Washington, Ga., about 50 minutes east of Athens.

Problems with a leaky roof damaging plaster and other features closed the second floor in 2011 and the remainder was shuttered this past April. A new roof was installed and interior plaster was repaired and repainted, with work extending to the entablature at the front of the home.

Wilkes County officials are excited about the reopening, which comes right before the annual Christmas holiday tour of homes.

“In his era, the home was very elegant. He was a very wealthy man,” said Marcia Campbell, who works for Wilkes County, which took over operation of the site in 2009. The state owns the property.

(Georgia DNR)
Most visitors come mainly for the stately house itself, said Campbell. A foundation garden and camellias adorn the outside, while a walk through the daylight basement and two floors provide a window to upper-class life before and shortly after the Civil War.

Many original furniture pieces remain, including a sofa, two side chairs and an arm chair made by renowned craftsman John Belter.

The residence, described as plantation plain style with a Greek Revival front, is the crown jewel of Washington’s large inventory of antebellum homes. The local Chamber of Commerce has this tout: “Washington-Wilkes is the epitome of a Southern small town complete with charm, beauty and of course hospitality which is usually exhibited in the form of a tall glass of iced sweet tea on the veranda!”

(Library of Congress)
Those more interested in history and politics tend to focus on the legacy of the influential Toombs, celebrated during his life for his oratory and political skills and charm, but remembered also as a volatile figure who had unyielding convictions and sniped at critics. He became a key figure in the secession movement.

Toombs “had a my way or the highway” approach to the law, said Campbell, a thinking that might have applied to other matters.

The story of the controversial firebrand has no shortage of interesting anecdotes: He left the University of Georgia under a cloud, made a lot of money as a lawyer, resigned from the Confederate army after leading troops at Antietam, fled to Cuba and Europe after the war, and refused to become an American citizen once he returned to Washington. He helped craft the 1877 state constitution, which held for nearly 80 years but disenfranchised newly gained rights for African-Americans.

So there’s a lot to cover. “I don’t go deeply into anything until I know what that person is interested in,” said Campbell.

Roof work during restoration (Wilkes County)

Impressive law practice and residence

Toombs was born in Wilkes County in July 1810 to a prosperous family. “He was a native son. His father was a major in the Revolutionary Way and came to settle in Wilkes County on bounty land,” said Campbell.

At 14, he entered Franklin College (now the University of Georgia) but left when he got into trouble for indifference and conduct during a card-playing game. Toombs studied law in the North before returning to Wilkes County to begin his hometown practice.

Toombs was elected to the Georgia House when he was 27 and became an expert in fiscal matters. His political acumen and skills grew quickly.

(Library of Congress)
About that time, he purchased the home that he would own for nearly 50 years. The central core of the residence was built in 1791 by Dr. Joel Abbot. The current front of the home was constructed in 1810. Toombs installed its familiar fa├žade in 1854, and added the east and west wings in the mid-1870s.

While his true passion may have been politics, Toombs excelled in his law practice. He earned a princely $30,000 to $50,000 a year in law practice, land speculation and cotton production (the family also owned a plantation in southwest Georgia).

The Toombs house presided over about 300 acres and he owned about 30 slaves to run the plantation and home, Campbell said. “He was not a cruel slaveholder at all.”

The bulk of the estate is long gone, and the house is surrounded by Victorian era and later dwellings. The Toombs site has a few outbuildings but they are not open to the public.

The daylight basement has a lower ceiling than the rest of the house and was built in a practical English style. The family ate in this cooler area during the summer.

(Georgia DNR)

Toombs’ law office is on the first floor, along with the main hall, two parlors, the formal dining room and a guest bedroom, which was informally named for his longtime friend Alexander Stephens, another famous Georgia politician who became vice president of the Confederacy.

The second floor has three bedrooms, one for a daughter (the couple had three children) and one each for Toombs and his wife Julia.


From moderate to secessionist

Beginning in 1844, the Toombses spent much of their time in Washington, D.C., where he served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

He was a states’ rights advocate, and while he believed slavery should be allowed in newly acquired territories, he supported the Compromise of 1850. He eventually moved away from moderation and toward radicalization and Southern secession.

Toombs (right), other leaders (LOC)
"Defend yourselves, the enemy is at your door," he said on Senate floor on Jan. 24, 1860. Toombs was a captivating figure and powerful speaker, his visage topped by a shock of unruly hair.

Auburn University history department faculty member Jacob Clawson, who reviewed Mark Scroggins’ 2011 biography ofToombs, said the author “provides a rendering of both the public and private Toombs that paints the Georgian as a bullish politician whose blend of acerbic wit, fiery demeanor, and political tact aroused the full spectrum of emotions from his constituents and colleagues.”

An entry in the New Georgia Encyclopedia said the politician “helped to lead Georgia out of the Union on the eve of the Civil War … This was surprising; although Toombs was a slaveholding planter, he had dedicated the majority of his political career to preserving the Union.”

Toombs called for the move after the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln. The senator telegraphed Georgia leaders, saying secession “should be thundered forth from the ballot-box by the united voice of Georgia."

1860 secession meeting in Charleston (LOC)

Campbell, who gives tours of the home, says Toombs and other landowners believed secession was their constitutional right, a view many historians challenge.

“When he realized it was inevitable, he joined forces with the Georgia citizenry and drafted the first Constitution of this new country,” said Campbell. “In his mind, it was a new country.”

Never sought a pardon

Toombs is in center in cartoon (Library of Congress)

Toombs had dreams of becoming the Confederacy’s president, but that fell to Jefferson Davis. He served for a time as secretary of state, but he became increasingly critical of Davis.

In later life, Toombs said of his rival: “He would have been a successful magazine man, but in the practical, everyday life he was utterly lost. There was never a moment during the war when Davis actually appreciated the situation. He was as jealous as a Barbary hen, and once started to have me arrested for ridiculing him.”

Toombs soon resigned the secretary of state post and joined the Army of Northern Virginia as a brigade commander of Georgia troops. The temperamental officer’s military experience was mostly undistinguished, though he did take a bullet in his left hand in September 1862 at Antietam while holding a position near Burnside Bridge.

While popular with his men, he quarreled with his superiors and resigned in March 1863 after he was passed over for promotion. He returned to Georgia. “He stayed out of the war until near the end, and he continually criticized Davis’ leadership and Confederate policies -- especially conscription, suspension of habeas corpus, and reliance upon credit to finance the war effort,” a biography in the Encyclopedia Brittanica says.

At the end of the war, Federal troops swept through the South, arresting top Confederate leaders.

When soldiers came to Wilkes County to arrest Toombs, “there was quite a stir in town. In local folklore it was frightening. He was given word and escaped, Campbell said.

The former general flew to Cuba, then Europe, before returning to the United States in 1867. He was “unreconstructed” to the end, declining to seek a pardon from Congress that might restore his citizenship. He resumed his law practice and contributed to the Georgia Democratic political scene, including effective work on the sweeping 1877 constitution that supplanted Reconstruction policies.

That document increased the power of the Legislature, brought about state taxes and its white supremacy portions put new burdens on African-Americans by imposing separate schools and a poll tax.

(Library of Congress)
Within a few years, Toombs’ age and years of heavy drinking were catching up with him.

“The year 1883 was traumatic for Toombs,” said the New Georgia Encyclopedia. “His lifelong friend and political comrade Alexander Stephens died suddenly after serving brief as Georgia’s governor. Within a few months his wife, Julia, suffering from a prolonged illness, also died.”

A depressed Toombs sank into self-neglect and he died on Dec. 15, 1885, age 75.

House needed TLC, a little more

Toombs’ favorite niece and her descendants owned the home until the state acquired it in 1973. It was operated as a state historic site until 2009, when severe budget woes left it in peril. The county’s commission chair, Campbell said, said “it would just have been devastating to lose the Toombs house.” It’s been managed by Wilkes County since.

Campbell has obtained several grants to help make repairs and upgrades to the facility, and state money has gone to much of the work, including challenging work to build a roof on an older design.

(Georgia DNR)

“The house was in need of a new roof even when the county took it on,” she said. Water caused all kinds of problems, including cracking plaster.

Campbell said floor joists and beams beneath the Alexander Stephens guest room had become weakened over time. “You felt like you were on a trampoline.” That area has been reinforced by state contractors.

The center of the residence includes a timeline of Toombs’ life. Visitors can use a self-guided pamphlet or take a guided tour when available.

While most people don’t get into the politics and controversy regarding secession, some do ask about the slaves who ran the plantation and root causes of the Civil War. The backdrop to this is the national debate and discussion about memorializing the Confederacy and its leaders.


But most are curious about the house’s history and belongings. “They are very interested in who built what. They are interested in what their eyes are seeing,” said Campbell.

The Robert Toombs house reopens on Nov. 21. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. A holiday open house will be held from 10-4 on Dec. 9. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children 6-12, and $1 for children 3-5.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Shiloh's hallowed ground: Deteriorated brick wall in part of cemetery is being replaced

Portion of the brick cemetery wall is torn down. (NPS photos)

A contractor is replacing a deteriorated brick wall at Shiloh National Military Park’s national cemetery, the resting place of thousands of Civil War soldiers.

“There are large cracks, chunks are falling off, bricks have broken and fallen out,” park ranger Chris Mekow said of the section’s condition going into the project.

The wall, constructed in 1940, is on the cemetery’s western boundary and faces a parking lot. Extreme weather wore down the mortar, and there were no expansion joints or drainage weep holes. “Because the wall shifted… we could not shut the gate anymore. It actually moved part of the gate.”

The view before the project began last week

The 1911 gates will remain and the new wall will retain the design of the old brick structure, which was demolished late last week. Work is expected to be finished by the end of the year.

The remainder of the cemetery at the federal site in Tennessee is protected by a utilitarian wall made of concrete and stone.

Shiloh’s cemetery, established in 1866, holds about 3,600 Civil War dead, two-thirds of them unknown.

In 1867, workers built a stone wall around the cemetery. A brick wall and ornamental iron gates were added at the entrance in 1911. While the stone wall and iron gates remain, the original brick wall eventually deteriorated, and in the early 1940s was replaced with the current wall. 

A conservation team determined the best of several scenarios was to replace the brick, Mekow said. Officials thought the interior of the wall might be hollow, but that turned out not to be the case: It was solid.


Mekow said between 1,000 and 1,500 visitors annually attend a Memorial Day service within the cemetery. The plot holds about 300 veterans of other conflicts.

The two-day battle in April 1862 was the largest at that time in the western theater; the Confederate offensive, while it had successes, was finally stopped by a fierce Federal resistance. The Southerners had to leave the field, resulting in a Union victory. Casualties were staggering: 13,000 Federal troops, 10,700 Confederates.

Demolition of the wall unveiled no new artifacts, Mekow said. “We were hoping for some kind of time capsule but were disappointed,” he chuckled.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Development near Fort Negley debated

A Tennessee panel will consider a petition to protect a Nashville Civil War fort from nearby development plans. The Tennessee Historical Commission recently voted for an administrative law judge to hear Friends of Fort Negley's request to declare the fort and 21 acres nearby as protected. The commission will vote on the judge's decision. • Article

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

How does your garden grow? Chicago home yields Minie ball during search for more Camp Douglas artifacts, features

Recent dig at residence in a series of townhouses (Michael Gregory)

Archaeologists usually aren’t welcome on private property. But Michael Gregory and some colleagues proved to be the exception when a Chicago homeowner allowed them to excavate in a back yard garden late last month.

The resident had visited one of a half dozen such digs at nearby John J. Pershing Magnet School for Humanities on Calumet Avenue. He talked with Gregory and others who are looking for further evidence of a Federal military training center and prison camp known as Camp Douglas.

“’I have a garden in the back yard. You are welcome to excavate it,’” Gregory recalls the homeowner telling him. After working out details, Gregory and about a dozen others worked at the Bronzeville neighborhood residence on Oct. 29 and Oct. 30.

As we dug down to the camp deposit level, we did find a number of interesting artifacts -- gilded ceramic sherds, milk bottles, ceramic doll parts, a toy train engine, a Navy insignia clasp, a burned book, canning jar parts,” the archaeologist told the Picket. The items were most likely dumped in the early 20th century.

(Courtesy of Michael Gregory)

And there was a little pay dirt in the single rectangular hole dug into a vegetable garden: A .58-caliber Minie ball, about 75 centimeters (30 inches) down, a depth where they were expecting to find Camp Douglas materials.

The Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation and volunteers are trying to find precise locations of camp features in an urban area that has seen extensive development in the past century, and where much of history is covered by miles of pavement and buildings. 

They are stymied by the fact that nothing from the massive Union facility is still standing.

But there have been some successes. Foundation official David Keller told the Picket a couple years back that the 2012 discovery of the camp headquarters foundation was an important find.


The crew worked last week under overcast skies and in mid-40s temperatures. They were cheered and fortified by the homeowner’s hospitality: A warm fire and hot soup.

“I am hoping the Minie ball is not our only artifact,” said Gregory as he discussed plans for a return to the home in the spring to dig in three more locations. The work at the 1880s, two-story home was the first Camp Douglas excavation on private property.

One bullet, even for just two days’ work, doesn’t seem much, but it is helping the foundation in its effort to publicize the camp’s story and bring possible protection to the 60 acres by having it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The latter is a lengthy process and has rigorous requirements. The Chicago City Council passed a resolution endorsing approval of that designation.

Camp Douglas originally served as a Union training facility for about 40,000 soldiers – including African-Americans -- being rushed to the front. Much of the site was converted to a prison camp for 26,000 Confederates. About 4,000 Rebels died at the prison.

Andrew Leith, who is assisting the foundation and works for the Chicago Cultural Alliance, said the significance of Camp Douglas is on par with Andersonville National Historic Site, home to Camp Sumter, a Confederate POW camp, in central Georgia.

“Right in our back yard we have one of the most notorious prisoner-of-war camps from the Civil War,” Leith told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Confederate POWs at Camp Douglas (Library of Congress)

The prison’s 200 structures went down when the site was dismantled in December 1865. Camp Douglas largely faded into history. The rural tract soon became part of Chicago's rapid growth that drew hundreds of thousands of African-Americans during the Great Migration more than a century ago.

While the ongoing excavations  – most on the school grounds -- have largely found items produced after the Civil War, experts and volunteers have recovered Minie balls, a Union cap pin, smoking pipes, a haversack J-hook, grommets, a spread-eagle button, an 1859 penny and other Camp Douglas items.

Gregory, who formerly was an assistant professor at DePaul University, said the foundation met two goals in the recent excavation: It found materials (the bullet) from the camp and determined that the soil was “intact,” or undisturbed by significant development.

He said the discovery of dark, circular stains in the pit may be evidence of fish beds in what was once a marshy area. “We have seen these stains in other units at Pershing School, and when seen there, they certainly defined undisturbed deposits.”

Sketch of the camp (National Archives)

The team believes the home site was little disturbed beyond construction of a basement. “No one has come in there or taken a bulldozer, grader or shovels and really mucked up the lower deposit,” said Gregory. “We are seeing a fairly intact level of the camp.”

The home is just to the east of what’s believed to have been the location of Confederate barracks at Camp Douglas. While Gregory and other haves found a trench and other ground features that may be indicative of construction on a small part of the Civil War camp, they don’t know exactly where in the presumed barracks area they are digging.

Thus far, the archaeological effort in Chicago’s South Side has not found any posts that define the stockade wall. “That would be our dream,” said Gregory.

The barracks in the POW area rested on brick piers, experts believe. Gregory theorizes the buildings were carted off months after the war ended and the piers knocked down. “If we could find a pier than we can begin to understand where we are excavating.”

Previous find (Courtesy CDRF)
The Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation (CDRF) wants to show state and federal officials that enough of the site – even underground – remains to consider it worthy of recognition and a protective designation. Gregory said he has done Google overlays over old fire insurance maps, and the result shows many sites have not been disturbed in recent years.

“I suspect between 35 to 50 percent of the camp area has a moderate to high potential to reveal intact camp deposits,” he said.

Archaeology is an exacting science, and field work and analysis take time.

“It’s not as ‘Indiana Jones’ as a lot of us would like to portray it to be,” Leith told the Chicago paper. “It’s tedious and methodological.”

(M. Gregory)
The foundation hopes to return to the home next spring, and perhaps dig in grassy rights of way – areas that are not covered by concrete. Getting access to an area to excavate is challenging.

Gregory said the homeowner was pleased with the archaeological project, including cleanup that put top soil back in place.

“I think they were happy history is there and they are letting us get to it.”