About Me

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I am a lifelong student of military history with particular interest in the Battle of Antietam. I work for the federal government in Washington DC and have two young adult children who I love very much. I currently volunteer at Antietam and devote much time to the study of this battle and the Maryland Campaign. I enjoy collecting notable contemporary quotations by and about the men of Antietam. Since 2013 I have been conducting in depth research on the regular artillery companies of the Union Army and their leaders. I hope to turn this into a book on this subject in the future. My perspective comes from a 28-year career in the U.S. Army. Travels took me to World War II battlefields in Europe and the Pacific where American valor ended the tyranny of Nazism and Empire. But our country faced its own greatest challenge 80 years earlier during the Civil War. And it was the critical late summer of 1862, when Robert E. Lee launched the Maryland Campaign. It is an incredible story of drama, carnage, bravery, and missed opportunities that culminated around the fields and woodlots of peaceful Sharpsburg MD. So join me as I make this journey South from the North Woods.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Geography Lesson

Hill 876 & Showman Farm (top left) Elk Ridge (lower right)
The signal station image that I discussed in my last post was made famous by Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner. The image is titled Signal Tower. Elk Mountain, Overlooking Battlefield of Antietam, Maryland.  The problem is that this particular station is NOT on Elk Mountain or more commonly known Elk Ridge. 

I unintentionally perpetuated this mistake in my last post about our visit to this signal station site. 

What is known as Elk Ridge begins its rise from the ground just south of Dogstreet Road.  The ridge runs generally south south west for a distance of 9.4 miles to the Potomac River. At its southern terminus overlooking the Potomac at Harpers Ferry it is known as Maryland Heights.  At its highest elevation, Elk Ridge towers at some points over 1,500 feet above sea level.

Most people don’t realize that there is another ridge to the west and assume that the Elk Ridge is a solid mass of rock that rises up just west of Keedysville.  That was the error that Gardner made when he titled the signal station image. 

This other ridge also rises south of Dogstreet Road but is about one mile west of Elk Ridge.  It is bisected about three miles to the south by Sharman’s Run, a tributary of the Antietam.  The northern half of the ridge is Red Hill.  It is about three miles in length. Porterstown Road crosses the hill at its midsection.  At its highest elevation Red Hill is about 900 feet above sea level. 

"Showmans Knoll" site of the signal station
The southern half of this ridge is really a series of hills identified on the topographical map only by their elevation. Burnside Bridge Road and Sharman Run form the northern boundary of this ridge.  Mills Road is the western boundary.  Just south of Sharmans Run on Mills Road is the Showman Farm.  Sharman in fact is a corruption of Showman.  This was the site of McClellan’s headquarters for several weeks after the battle and one of the locations that Lincoln visited.  The signal station is behind the house on one of the hills of that unnamed ridge. 

After I incorrectly referred to the signal station as being located on Elk Ridge, I had several e-mail conversations with Tom Clemens and Dennis Frye about the precise location of the signal station.  Dennis who has done a great deal of research and hiking in this area identifies Hill 876 as the location. While not an official designation, Dennis refers to the site as Showman’s Knoll. The next time you view the Gardner image of the signal station, consider again the importance of being precise when it comes to identifying geographical features and locations.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Artifact

Today we had a rare opportunity to visit a location important to Maryland Campaign history. This is a location relatively unknown to all but the truest Maryland Campaign enthusiasts.  It is a location not to difficult to find but one that would reveal some very important lessons to us on this day. 

The Artifact
On a cold brilliantly clear February afternoon Harpers Ferry Chief Historian and well known author Dennis Frye and Tom Clemens editor of Ezra Carmen’s Maryland Campaign of 1862, took a number of Antietam Battlefield Guides and NPS volunteers to the historic Showman Farm and then to the Elk Ridge Signal Station. The Showman Farm on Mills Road outside of Sharpsburg was McClellan’s headquarters for several weeks after the Battle of Antietam.  The farmhouse is south of the Burnside Bridge and fairly close to the Antietam Iron Works and the confluence of Antietam Creek and the Potomac River. We learned some very exciting things about the farm and its proximity to the location where Alexander Gardner captured the iconic images of Lincoln and McClellan.  I will not go into any further details about this part of the hike and allow Dennis Frye to fully explain his discovery concerning the true location of the iconic photographs.

That revelation was exciting enough.  However the coolest moment of the entire hike occurred an hour later.  After a rigorous ascent to the top of Elk Ridge we stood at the actual site of the signal station with the valleys spread below us in all directions.

This was private property with a SHAF negotiated historical easement.  We were not on National Park Service. At that location, Jim Buchanan (author of the Antietam blog Walkingthe West Woods) discovered something. As he listened to Dennis’s discussion, Jim happened to look down at the base of the tree he was standing next to.  Thinly covered with a layer of soil, he observed what at first appeared to be a very squared off piece of rock to manmade to be natural.  A closer look and a careful brushing off of the soil revealed an axe blade. 

You gotta love technology. (Well no you don’t have to). Jim googled civil war axe blades on his smart phone. There on remote Elk Ridge in a matter of seconds he had the exact image of the item he just found.  We believe Army of the Potomac pioneers constructed the signal station or the camp around the station and left the axe. 

Dennis Frye and Jim Buchanan
The series of photos here were taken at the exact moment of the discovery.

We were absolutely thrilled.  High on a ridge that few people have seen, much less know about, this common axe blade lay for 150 years. It was not special at all when a Federal soldier, likely an Antietam veteran, some how dropped it.   But on a beautiful winter day it became very special to a passionate group of Maryland Campaign enthusiasts.  No longer mundane it was a link to the past - a discovery that none of us privileged to be there at that moment will ever forget.

Atop Elk Ridge
All day, Dennis had challenged us to look past the main scene of an image.  He avowed that in the margins and the fuzzy hard to distinguish areas were things worth discovering.  He was right.   We did just that - on a hilltop so close and really so far away from the battlefield.  It was a terrific moment.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


Military Installations 1834
Twenty-eight years before the Battle of Antietam, eleven young lieutenants who would one day meet on that battlefield were beginning their military careers.

The most senior of them was 30-year-old First Lieutenant Joseph K. F. Mansfield (USMA 1822) of the Corps of Engineers.  Connecticut born Mansfield, an 1822 graduate of West Point was in 1834, the Superintending Engineer on the construction of Fort Pulaski a masonry fort that protected the approaches to Savannah Georgia.  He began the work in 1830 and would spend the next sixteen years more or less, on the construction though sometimes assigned to other projects.

Fellow engineers Robert E. Lee from Virginia (USMA 1829) and Rufus King from New York (USMA 1833) worked on the construction of Fort Monroe Virginia. 2LT Lee had been in the army for five years. Later in the year, he would depart for an assignment in Washington as the Assistant to the Chief Engineer.  King was a brevet Second Lieutenant, having graduated from the Academy that same year.  There were no engineer officer vacancies so he remained a brevet second lieutenant. King would also soon leave Virginia dispatched to survey the boundary line between Ohio and Michigan. 

Guarding the Atlantic coastal fortifications that the engineers designed and built were the officers and men of the artillery.  The four artillery regiments had geographical responsibilities for the coastal defenses and every few years rotated and switched assignments.  During this period, the Second Artillery was responsible for the forts guarding the southern coastline.  Two young officers from the Second Artillery Regiment were Rhode Islander First Lieutenant George S. Greene (USMA 1823), and Second Lieutenant Andrew Humphreys (USMA 1831) from Pennsylvania.  Greene an eleven-year veteran was in the middle of an assignment at Fort Sullivan Maine.  Just opposite New Brunswick Canada, this remote fort adjacent to Eastport Maine was the most northern outpost on America’s network of Atlantic coastline defenses.  Fort Sullivan kept an eye on the British who as recently as 1818 occupied the area.  I am not sure why a Second Artillery company was at the northern tip of the United States when this was First Artillery territory but Greene spent four years at this place.  1,500 miles to the south was Saint Augustine Florida.  Guarding that town was the Castillo San Marcos recently renamed Fort Marion in honor of the Swamp Fox Francis Marion. Andrew Humphreys who had a talent for drawing was stationed there.  In August of 1834 he would embark on topographical duty, making surveys in West Florida.  His drawings would form the basis of some of the maps used by military commanders when the Second Seminole War erupted a year later on. 

Before the establishment of the Topographical Engineer branch in 1838, other army officers assumed the duties of exploration, map-making, scientific observation, and surveying.  Mansfield, Lee and King performed these duties during their careers as engineers.  Line officers also performed these duties.  One such officer was Andrew Humphrey, who as we have seen was conducting surveys in Florida.  Another line officer was South Carolina born 2LT Thomas Drayton (USMA 1827) of the Sixth Infantry.  Drayton performed topographical duties for most of his regular army career from 1832-1836. At the same time, his younger brother Percival served as a midshipman aboard the frigate U.S.S. Hudson in the south Atlantic. The men’s father William had left South Carolina following the Nullification Crisis of 1832 and moved to Philadelphia.  Percival like his father William was a Unionist.  Thomas was not.

While the artillery regiments garrisoned the coastal forts, the infantry protected the western frontier in 1834. The only mounted troops then serving were the brand new United States Regiment of Dragoons that was approved by Congress a year earlier.  One of its original officers was Captain Edwin V. Sumner late of the 2nd Infantry Regiment.  It therefore fell to the seven infantry regiments in the establishment at the time to guard a string of outposts stretching from Wisconsin to Louisiana.

Near modern Green Bay Wisconsin stood Fort Howard. The post was built during the War of 1812 to protect the regional trade and travel routes between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River.  Stationed here was Brevet 2LT Randolph Marcy (USMA 1832) of the Fifth Infantry.  The future explorer from Massachusetts graduated from West Point in 1832 but would remain as a brevet second lieutenant until 1835 when an opening in the Fifth Infantry finally became available. He had seen service in the Black Hawk War but he had not been in actual combat. It is not known whether Marcy’s wife Priscilla or their four-year-old daughter Ellen and his other children accompanied him to this remote outpost.  In 1834 a military road was just then being constructed across the state linking Fort Howard in the east with Fort Winnebago in Portage and Fort Crawford to the west.  Fort Crawford was then the headquarters of the First Infantry Regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Zachary Taylor. The fort was on the Iowa border at the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers near Prairie du Chien. It was an important facility during recent the Black Hawk War. Thomas Stockton (USMA 1827) from New York, newly promoted to 1LT in the 1st Infantry was stationed there.  Having spent some time in 1832 in Washington working in the Quartermaster-General’s office, Stockton was now the Assistant Quartermaster at Ft Crawford.  Stockton spent much of his attention arranging the logistic support for the road building operation.

Perhaps the most important military installation on the western frontier in the 1830s was Fort Gibson.   Located in what is today eastern Oklahoma, Gibson lay on the Grand River just above its confluence with the Arkansas.  Fort Gibson was a staging area for moving the displaced eastern tribes from their century old homes in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia into the new Indian Territory carved out of land west of the Mississippi River.  The native Osage tribes did not necessarily take kindly to the moving of the eastern tribes into their homeland.  Gibson It was also a jumping off point for a number of expeditions that pushed even further west during this period.  In 1834 Fort Gibson was the headquarters of the Seventh Infantry Regiment.  The adjutant of the regiment was 1LT Dixon Miles (USMA 1824).  This Baltimore native had been with the regiment for the past ten years.  So slow were promotions that he was a second lieutenant for nine of those ten years.  That he was selected as the adjutant for his regiment marked him as an officer with a bright future. 

Baton Rouge was the headquarters of the Fourth Infantry Regiment.  Two years earlier, the regiment dispatched two companies to Illinois to participate in the Black Hawk War.  Accompanying them was 2LT Robert C. Buchanan (USMA 1830).  Buchanan commanded of the gunboats on the Wisconsin River during the Battle of Bad Axe River, on Aug. 2, 1832. He was now back in Louisiana following the conclusion of that war serving in Baton Rouge. Rumors at the time were that the 4th Infantry was destined for Florida where the restless Seminoles appeared to be preparing for war.

Across the far-flung republic, the graduates of West Point destined to fight one day at Antietam now performed their duties as company-grade Army officers.  One other officer was also on duty.  He was James Barnes (USMA 1829), a classmate of Robert E. Lee.  Barnes a Second Lieutenant in the 4th Artillery was in the first year of a three-year assignment back at West Point as an Assistant Instructor of Infantry Tactics.  Among his students were Second Classmen (juniors in today’s parlance) George Morell, George Meade, and Marsena Patrick. Morell ranked number three and was a cadet sergeant.  Meade was further back at a still respectable 17 out of 60.  Near the bottom of the academic ranking at 55 was Marsena Patrick like Morell a cadet sergeant.  Surprisingly of the three, Meade had racked up the most demerits in his third year with 82 to his name while Patrick had none in 1834.  Morell had 26 against him.

Further back was the plebe class. In it were seven more future leaders in the Maryland Campaign.  They ranged from 16 to 19 years of age and included E. Parker Scammon, Robert Chilton, Israel Vogdes, William French, Joseph Hooker, Jubal Early and the venerable 19 year old John Sedgwick. Old Jube, Lee’s “bad old man” was off to a bad start racking up 142 demerits.  Surprisingly, on the other end of the conduct was Joe Hooker with a miniscule nine demerits.

The decade of the 1830s was in many ways the calm before the storm.  Andrew Jackson was in his second term as President.  The nation had survived the Nullification Crisis by forceful action on his part. The Black Hawk War fought earlier in the decade was over. For now it was quiet.  Eleven lieutenants and ten cadets, the vanguard of over 200 West Pointers who would serve at Antietam were beginning their careers in the United States Army.