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.”

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Civil war re-enactor works from tiny home

Have you ever wondered what it was like to live in another century? For Florida resident and lifelong historian Shorty Robbins, 59, this question became a mission. She built her Victorian-era tiny home as a way to connect with the past. But it also happens to be the perfect companion prop for her favorite hobby: participating in Civil War battle re-enactments, which she's been doing for nearly 20 years. • Article

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Conservators, students working to unlock mysteries of the Rebel ironclad CSS Georgia

Large piece of CSS Georgia casemate (USACE Savannah)

It’s been about three months since cranes, barges, divers and support crew pulled away from a spot on the Savannah River where they had removed the last of the jumbled remains of the Confederate ironclad CSS Georgia.

With the final recovery of the vessel complete (there was another operation in 2015), those involved had a brief moment to catch their breaths.

“I think we are all really relieved it is over. It is bittersweet -- we have worked so many years,” said Julie Morgan-Ryan, archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which worked with contractors to recover the CSS Georgia as part of a harbor deepening project in Savannah, Ga.

Now the real work of solving the mysteries of the ironclad is underway – through student research, ongoing conservation of thousands of artifacts, and the study of those items and historical records to answer some of the nagging questions about the CSS Georgia.

For decades, archaeologists have speculated on the size and weight of the vessel, why it was so underpowered and where its components were made.

Artifacts that were not left in the river (namely the casemate) for possible future removal are undergoing conservation and analysis at the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Morgan-Ryan surveys casemate (USACE)
“We found that some pieces from a cannon or a gun carriage were made from different metals. Was it because of the blockade?” the archaeologist recently told the Picket. “I think we are going to find what restrictions the South was under.”

The conservation of three cannons, a propeller and four crates of artifacts has been completed.

“We still have two cannon that are in conservation vats right now,” said Morgan-Ryan. “We are finding ordnance shoved down them.” Officials at the lab are trying to figure out how to safely dislodge them.

It’s likely the crew of the CSS Georgia sabotaged the barrels when they were forced to scuttle the ironclad off Old Fort Jackson as Federal forces neared Savannah in December 1864.

As is customary with such projects, the Army Corps will write a report on the recovery, completing it in late 2018 or in 2019.

“We have always known Georgia was underpowered. … now we’ll be able to do some estimates on how underpowered she was, whether artifacts were manufactured strictly for the Georgia, or taken from other vessels. We are trying to figure why they used the components that they do,” Morgan-Ryan said.

Buckle recovered in 2015 (USACE Savannah)

It’s known that the CSS Georgia was salvaged by a private contractor shortly after the war’s end. Archaeologists may never answer all their questions, because they don’t know how many recovered items were melted down or reused or were dumped haphazardly back on the site in a tiff over salvage payment.

Morgan-Ryan said she and others want to know more about these previous salvage attempts.

She is excited about research that students at Texas A&M are doing, including a master’s thesis on the ironclad’s gun sights, appropriate artifact conservation technology and conservation of waterlogged textiles.

“What I am looking forward to is how much new information from beyond the vessel will we learn from this project?” Morgan-Ryan said. “What technological advantages or disadvantages did the South have?”

The Corps is continuing its outreach to the public as the U.S. Navy engages with a half dozen museums about a possible permanent home for CSS Georgia artifacts. A documentary by Michael Jordan about the vessel’s history, its use as a floating battery to defend Savannah, and dives and recovery of the CSS Georgia over the decades should be released to schools and libraries by the end of the year.

Cannons used for training back on display

A pair of rare Civil War cannons has been returned to the mansion of a wartime Rhode Island governor. Local officials and the Rhode Island National Guard are gathering Tuesday at the Sprague Mansion in Cranston to mark the return. • Article

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

#WirzTrial: Andersonville Twitter followers issue verdicts on anniversary of trial finding

Henry Wirz
Capt. Henry Wirz, put on trial for actions he took – or did not take -- as stockade commandant at the infamous prison Camp Sumter (Andersonville), learned his fate on this day in 1865.

Since Aug. 23, Twitter followers (#WirzTrial) of Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia have been following the case like courtroom observers. The “live” tweeting of the proceedings against the Confederate officer – including vivid testimony by POW survivors -- did not divulge the findings of the military commission. Today, social media followers will learn the verdict.

The park gave people the opportunity to be part of the jury.

Charge 1: Conspiracy to murder U.S. soldiers: Not guilty or guilty.

Charge 2: Murder in the violation of the laws of war: Not guilty or guilty.

Eleven people took part in the unscientific poll, with 64 percent finding Wirz not guilty of conspiracy and 62% percent finding him guilty of murder. "We've had a steady group of followers for the trial, and I think our followers got a good idea of how not so cut and dry the trial was," park guide Jennifer Hopkins told the Picket.

The park posted the 1865 trial findings at 5 p.m. today: “Henry Wirz was found guilty of conspiracy to murder U.S. soldiers and ultimately found guilty of murder in violation of the laws of war. While he was not found guilty for all of the individual murders he was charged with, it wasn’t enough to declare him innocent of the charge.

Wirz was considered a cruel, indifferent commander by some and a scapegoat by others. Nearly 13,000 soldiers and civilian captives died at Camp Sumter over 14 months -- an average of more than 30 a day in that span. 

Thousands of Union prisoners are buried at Andersonville (Picket photo)

The officer’s controversial trial was a national sensation, covered by newspapers just a couple months after the trial of accused conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Officials who decided to try the officer in a military -- rather than a civilian -- court said the country was in some ways still in a state of war. The defense considered itself at a disadvantage on the rules of evidence.

Hopkins told the Picket that she a few other staffers spent few months poring through testimony of about 140 witnesses, which included prisoners, guards, civilians and Confederate and Federal officials.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Fresno re-enactment to go on this weekend

Organizers of a re-enactment in Fresno, California, say they aren’t planning on doing anything different in the wake of a national outcry against Confederate symbols. Ruth Lang, executive director of Fresno Historical Society, which is organizing the event with the American Civil War Association, said the society is not a political organization. • Article

Monday, October 16, 2017

'Priceless' items belonging to Georgia cavalry officer to be displayed at Fort McAllister, on land he once owned and defended

Lt. Col. McAllister's personal items (Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources)

A saber, spurs, uniform vest and other items that belonged to a Confederate officer who died in the largest all-cavalry battle of the Civil War will go on display at a coastal Georgia fort named for his father and where the officer served early in the conflict.

The items, which include a photograph of Joseph Longworth McAllister, were donated by Carolyn C. Swiggart, an attorney in Greenwich, Conn., to Fort McAllister State Park outside Savannah. The cavalryman is her fourth great uncle.

McAllister grew up on the Bryan County rice plantation, a portion of which became the site of the South’s Fort McAllister. He lived in Strathy Hall, just to the west of the Ogechee River defenses.

A display case is being fashioned to contain the items, with an opening expected before the park’s annual winter muster and battle on Dec. 9.

“(Visitors) can see the face of the person who lived there,” said Swiggart. “They can see items he personally touched and used. They can see he is a wealthy man who made certain choices.”

(Georgia DNR)
McAllister, 43, died June 11, 1864, at the Battle of Trevilian Station, a Confederate victory in central Virginia. The lieutenant colonel with the 7th Georgia Cavalry fought to the last, throwing an emptied gun at Federal troops just before he was cut down by bullets.

State officials are thrilled to receive the collection, which includes a grooming kit and rank insignia.

“When you look at the value of the history of those items, those are priceless items,” said Judd Smith, a historian with Georgia State Parks. “It is rare to get something with so many items. You might get one item, a hat or some sort of a letter…(the fact you have a collection that) comes back to where it belongs, from starting out there in 1864 and finally arriving back in 2016, is amazing.”

The display will note that the items were donated in memory of Swiggart’s son, who had an interest in the family history. Navy Lt. James H. Swiggart died in the crash of a private airplane in December 2015.

Fort McAllister's interior (Picket photo)

The header for the exhibit will be “Strike for God and our native land!” – reportedly yelled by McAllister shortly before his death. His gravestone and books and writings indicate he served valiantly in Georgia and Virginia, where he died within days of arrival.

“It is my hope that the items will provide a view of Col. Joseph L. McAllister to the visitors of Fort McAllister – he’s now someone that a visitor can envision as a person, not just a name on a sign,” said Swiggart. “Yes, he was a slaveholder and he fought for the Confederacy, and those decisions cost him his life. It's history. History cannot be changed. We can -- and should -- learn from the past and become better Americans from those lessons."

The items descended through Swiggart’s great-grandfather, Dr. Thomas Savage Clay of Savannah. He was the grandson of Matilda Willis McAlliser Clay, McAllister's sister. 

(All donation photos courtesy of Georgia DNR)

This sword and scabbard – which have no engravings -- may have been carried by McAllister at the time of his death. It was returned to his family after the battle. During the first part of the Battle of Trevilian Station it appears the 7th Georgia Cavalry was mounted, according to Swiggart. She believes the officer gave his horse to a soldier before his final action. “A saber is typically a cavalry weapon most effectively employed while on horseback, and it would not have been any use to him when dismounted,” she said. It hung for decades at the Savannah home of Swiggart’s great aunt. The blade was “wrapped in aluminum foil, ostensibly to keep it from tarnishing.”

This item would have been attached to the weapon’s brass guard. It is too stiff to reattach without causing it damage, state officials told the Picket.

Since it is known that the officer was buried in his uniform, the vest is likely a spare. The item is made of blue wool; its brass buttons were manufactured in Waterbury, Conn. It bears McAllister’s insignia and, according to Swiggart, is a Confederate regulation pattern officer’s waistcoat.

McAllister wears civilian clothing in this photograph believed to be taken in 1859.

Three stars indicate the rank of a colonel. State officials say this is a bit of a mystery, because records show McAllister’s official rank was lieutenant colonel (two stars). It’s possible the patch was awarded as a posthumous promotion or was a brevet (temporary rank) patch issued when he was made regimental commander.

Swiggart said her ancestor, while an amateur soldier, inspired his troops and got the job done. A fellow officer was resentful because McAllister was promoted above him back in Georgia.

I don't think there is any question about McAllister's enthusiasm for the Confederacy.  Whether it was founded in the hope of military glory for himself, or for economic survival -- I don't know," Swiggart said.

These were among personal effects and the saber returned to the family in Georgia. Swiggart believes they were an extra pair left at camp, since McAllister’s boots, hat, uniform buttons and insignia were removed by the enemy. “The spurs were given to me when I was a child, and my mother kept the other items in a trunk. The smell of camphor was a familiar one because my grandmother and mother used it to keep moths out of the clothing trunks.” 

The late 1840s English- and Irish-made kit includes silver-topped jars featuring the engraved initials “J.L. McA.” Officials don’t believe the entire kid was carried on battle campaigns. Two items are absent: a small grooming razor and what appears to have been a nail file, items that would easily fit into a haversack.

Slaveholder ran rice plantation

McAllister came from a family that traced its American roots to Pennsylvania, with one member a hero of the American Revolution.

Research indicates a Capt. James MacKay purchased the property around what became Fort McAllister in 1748. He built nearby Strathy Hall and began rive cultivation.

George Washington McAllister, who came to Georgia to seek his fortune, bought Strathy Hall and Genesis Point in 1817. The family had one of the largest plantations in that part of Bryan County. “The McAllister family was pretty well-known,” said Swiggart, author of “Shades of Gray: The Clay and McAllister Families of Bryan County, Georgia, during thePlantation Years.”

McAllister property (left) marked in relation to fort (Georgia State Parks)

Washington McAllister’s son, Joseph, attended Amherst College, but did not graduate. He toured Europe for a long time and returned to join the family rice business. “He didn’t go the route his cousins, did, which was law. He stayed at the plantation,” said Swiggart.

The descendant points out that McAllister, who owned 271 slaves in 1860, had received them by inheritance, rather than purchase. “This is a major, major point.” Evidence shows he probably was not a harsh master and he ensured his slave’s care, she added.

Thomas S. Clay, in 1833, wrote an essay about the proper “moral improvement of negroes on plantations.” It called for proper housing, care and religious instruction of slaves.

The family was split on secession. Looking back, Swiggart wishes “they had sold the whole damn thing.” But the family believed it could not sell the plantations and the slaves, because it would destroy families and shred plantation community, she said. Thomas Butler King did that in 1859 and the sale became known as "The Weeping Time." The family believed slavery would become obsolete, that it was a burden, she said. Her great aunt said the South would have done better if Abraham Lincoln survived.

Strathy Hall and fort marked in red (Georgia State Parks)

But Joseph McAllister was prepared to fight.

After the Civil War broke out, he sold land to the Confederacy for the construction of the fort named for his father, who died in 1850.

Amateur soldier inspired troops

Soon after Confederates shelled Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, McAllister was commissioned a captain of an artillery unit at the fledgling Fort McAllister.

In April 1862, McAllister formed the Hardwick Mounted Rifles, comprised of volunteers from Bryan County. The regiment, one of several homegrown units in the Savannah area, helped guard against Federal invasion of the coast.

The Hardwick Rifles fired on sailors who were part of a significant Union attack -- made up of ironclads and mortar boats -- on Fort McAllister on March 3, 1863. The Federal fleet did little damage to the fort, and withdrew the next day. It was apparent the defenses would likely have to fall to infantry, which happened in late 1864 during Sherman’s March to the Sea.

McAllister after it fell to Union forces (Library of Congress)

After years of duty around home, the men finally got their chance to fight at the front in Virginia. McAllister and two companies from the Hardwick Mounted Rifles joined other units to form the 7th Georgia Cavalry in February 1864.

McAllister became regimental commander after the death of his predecessor, and the unit was ordered to support the Army of Northern Virginia. It left in late April and made a rugged journey from South Carolina and Virginia, lasting until early June.

McAllister wrote to his sister, Emma, about the trip and heat that killed a few horses and mules.

He writes of wanting to take part in “glorious fights.” He got along well with a conceited subordinate and recollected Virginians greeting the troops with flowers and pails of milk.

The bachelor shared a story about young women presenting the young cavaliers with bouquets, according to Swiggart’s book.

“Some funny notes attached to the bokets,” the officer wrote his sister. “They all seem to think that the matrimonial chances are daily lessening – and every note wants you to write – these as a matter of course are plain country girls just from school. Some pretty some ugly.”

But there also were moments of resolve.

“Keep up your spirits – to take care of me if I get a bullet in me – which I trust will not be the case – still we must all do our duty in this struggle and while I shall not foolishly expose myself, I will not disgrace our names.”

'Strike for God and our native land'

The 7th’s first major battle in Virginia came at Trevilian Station on June 11. Nearly 40 percent of the regiment would become casualties.

Union troops wanted to draw off Confederate cavalry so that forces could move on the James River. Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s troopers raided Louisa County, threatening to cut a Confederate railroad.

Sheridan’s troops attacked Confederate divisions led by Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee at Trevilian Station. For a while, the Rebels had to dismount and make a defensive stand.

“From this advantageous position, they beat back several determined dismounted assaults,” the National Park Service says of the battle. “Sheridan withdrew after destroying about six miles of the Virginia Central Railroad. (The) Confederate victory at Trevilian prevented Sheridan from reaching Charlottesville and cooperating with Hunter’s army in the Valley. This was one of the bloodiest cavalry battles of the war.”

McAllister’s led a counterattack on the first day’s fighting, cyring out to his men, “Strike for God and our native land!” Historian Eric Wittenberg, in Glory Enough for All: Sheridan’s Second Raid and the Battle of Trevilian Station, wrote that McAllister was surrounded and mounted when he was first hit by enemy.

McAllister threw an emptied revolver at the enemy and was shot four or five times. Many members of the 7th Georgia Cavalry were captured.

The gallant officer and Capt. John Hines, also of the 7th, are among about 85 Confederates buried in what is now called Oakland Cemetery in Louisa (below). His marker reads “Soldier. Scholar. Gentleman.” His enslaved body servant, Jack, returned his personal effects to Strathy Hall after the funeral.

Marker with McAllister reference (Photos courtesy of Ed Crebbs)
McAllister grave is to left of stone with flag

Group tries to publicize battle

The cemetery is one of several stops on the Virginia Civil War Trails driving tour in the central Virginia Community. Another group, the Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation, is restoring a house used by Brevet Lt. Col. Gen. George A. Custer during the clash. Custer captured Hampton’s divisional supply train but suffered significant losses, including having his trains and personal baggage overrun.

Ed Crebbs, secretary of the foundation, told the Picket his group also offers a driving tour that comes out of Louisa and makes several stops. He said the foundation is trying to raise awareness of the two-day battle and draw more visitors to the rural crossroads.

“It’s underappreciated and almost unknown because it didn’t have the biggest names of the Civil War,” he said. “It did not have infantry. It did not have tremendous destruction with it.”

Visitors to Oakland Cemetery can take in an interpretive panel that includes the story of McAllister and the 7th Georgia Cavalry.

Donation 'brings it all home'

As Sherman’s troops moved on Savannah from Atlanta – months after McAllister’s death -- some houses and property were destroyed by Federal troops. Strathy Hall escaped such a fate. Swiggart said that’s because Union officers knew that ancestors of McAllister had residences and connections in Newport, R.I.

But the South’s loss in the war destroyed the family financially.  After the war, Strathy Hall and Genesis Point, located near the city of Richmond Hill, were sold to a nephew of McAllister's who owned them until 1924.

Fort McAllister fell into ruin until the 1930s, when it was restored as a site for the public through funding from auto magnate Henry Ford, who owned the land. It now belongs to the state. Strathy Hall a private residence, is surrounded by a subdivision.

Strathy Hall today (Kenneth Dixon, Wikipedia)

Smith said the Friends of Fort McAllister State Park paid for the design of the exhibit. The $30,000 wooden case will be secure and provide proper lighting “where it is not going to damage the artifacts over time.” The display will include interpretive signs and sit next to an exhibit about Strathy Hall and the McAllisters.

As Swiggart said, McAllister’s personal belongings will add to the story.

“From his owning the plantation that the fort sits on and the fact that not only did he serve in the war, but served for a time right there at Fort McAllister – (it) brings it all home, said Josh Headlee of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Historic Preservation Division.

“I think Civil War artifacts are impressive in their own right, but when you have artifacts that belonged to someone that you know was there and you can relate their personal lives to it, that really makes a great and lasting impact,” the curator said.