Monday, May 28, 2012

Marking Two Years

Today All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac turns two.  Back in May 2010, I had no plans for how long I'd keep things going.  After all, twins were on the way, and life was about to get hectic!  Well, life is still busy, if not busier, than it was back then, yet I am still at it. 

This blog has been a fulfilling experience.  Although some professional historians may be skeptical of the blogosphere, I embrace its very existence.  Blogging has provided me with an outlet for researching and writing about the Civil War, just as it has for many others out there.  Years ago, it was hard to find a voice unless you published an article or a book.  The existence of blogging has changed all that.  Where else can a non-professional historian have a chance to reach such a wide audience and engage in an enriching dialogue with others who share the same passion?

Enjoying a cigar and Civil War history in Winchester this weekend.  I'll have a thing or two to say about the trip in a few upcoming posts.
I strive to offer my readers well-researched and interesting posts on a variety of Civil War topics.  As many of you know, I particularly enjoy exploring the lesser-known side of Northern Virginia and DC Civil War history.  I have plans to dig even deeper in the months ahead.   My list of planned posts just keeps on getting bigger and bigger.  Now if only I could find the time!  Right now I've been averaging about one post per week.  I'd love to do more, but it's hard even meeting my current schedule.

Finally, I'd like to thank my readers and fans out there.  I never could have dreamed when I first starting typing on my keyboard that so many of you would read my blog on a regular basis.  Your interest in what I write about is very satisfying to me.  Keep the questions and comments coming.  And I'll do my part to keep on posting!



Thursday, May 24, 2012

Manning the Defenses of Washington: The 3rd Battalion New York Artillery (Heavy)

Over the last two years, I've dedicated quite a few posts to life in the camps near Washington during the first winter of the Civil War.  My primary focus has been the soldiers living around present-day McLean, including the Pennsylvania Reserves and the Vermont Brigade.  As part of my Sesquicentennial timeline, I've even followed the men in "real" time as they combated disease, went on foraging expeditions, fought Confederates, and celebrated the holidays.  By the spring of 1862, however, most of the Union soldiers in and around Northern Virginia had left the region and moved to points farther south.

Now seems like the perfect time to shift attention to the Union soldiers who remained behind while the rest of the army was off fighting Joe Johnston on the Peninsula.  (Or waiting impatiently to do so at Fredericksburg.)  Following the Federal defeat at First Manassas, Gen. George McClellan undertook an ambitious plan to protect Washington from possible Confederate attack.   The army erected forts, batteries, and rifle trenches in a defensive ring around the city, and various regiments were assigned the unglamorous but important job of garrison duty.  I'd like to take a closer look at the men who defended Washington while the armies were battling and campaigning elsewhere.  And what better place to start than the two forts located in my neck of the woods?

Troops under Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith crossed the Potomac and began construction on Forts Marcy and Ethan Allen in September 1861.  These two forts guarded the approaches to the Chain Bridge across the river above Georgetown.  I've written about Forts Marcy and Ethan Allen on more than a few occasions.  (See here and here.)  During this time 150 years ago, the 3rd Battalion New York Artillery (Heavy) had the responsibility of manning the two forts.

The 3rd Battalion was raised in New York City in the fall of 1861.  The men signed up for a three-year term of service.  Most of the recruits were either German immigrants, or descendants of German immigrants, and the 3rd Battalion quickly acquired the nickname of the "German Heavy Artillery."  The regiment was placed under the overall command of Lt. Col. Adam Senges, a 38 year-old immigrant from Baden who had participated in the German Revolution of 1848.  The artillerymen were soon en route to the nation's capital.  On November 28, 1861, the New York Times reported on the "Departure of Col. Senges' Company of Artillery":
Tuesday evening a company of artillery numbering ninety men, left this City, by the New-Jersey railroad for Washington. On their arrival there they are to report to the commanding officer of Gen. [Louis] BLENKER's Division, and will form a part of his command. Cannon, caissons, horses, &c., will be furnished them at the Capital.*
The 3rd Battalion was assigned to garrison duty at Forts Marcy and Ethan Allen, not far from the divisional camps of George McCall and "Baldy" Smith at Langley and Lewinsville.  The men passed a long, cold, and damp winter in Northern Virginia.  The days were mostly filled with drilling and other routine duties of army life. 

Lt. Col. Adam Senges (courtesy of, from Library of Congress).** Senges served as the commander of the 3rd Battalion until May 1863.
During the summer of 1862, the 3rd Battalion sought to fill the ranks with new enlistments.  In an August 14, 1862 article entitled, "German Recruiting," the New York Times informed readers:
[The 3rd Battalion] is now stationed at Forts Ethan Allen and Marcy, in the vicinity of Washington.  It requires about 150 men to complete its maximum regimental strength, and is now receiving recruits at No. 15 Bowery. Capt. FRANZ MATTUSCHEK is the officer in charge.
The Times had no doubts that the 3rd Battalion would meet its goal:
Lieut.-Col. SENGES, the Commandant of the corps, is much esteemed by his men, and the inducements, to join his regiment are so great that the close of the present week will probably find it filled.
As the 3rd Battalion was busy recruiting in New York, Robert E. Lee's Confederates were moving towards Northern Virginia.  Gen. John G. Barnard, the newly-appointed commander of the fortifications around Washington, was worried.  Many experienced troops had already been transferred to Gen. John Pope's Army of Virginia at the front.  Upon taking command in August 1862, Barnard counted just 5,989 men in the fortifications, including 310 in the 3rd Battalion.  (Barnard 105.)  About 2,000 of the defenders were three-month recruits whose terms expired at the end of August, and an additional 2,000 were slated for the front.  (Barnard 105.)  Barnard began to reassign his men in an effort to strengthen various points in the capital's defenses.

On August 22, the 3rd Battalion was ordered to leave Forts Marcy and Ethan Allen.  Six days later, as Pope engaged Lee near Manassas, Barnard reported to Gen. McClellan:
The Third Battalion New York Artillery, about 300 strong, was distributed as follows: Fort Barnard, one company; Richardson, one platoon; Scott, one platoon; Blenker, one platoon; Ward, one company; Worth, one platoon; Ellsworth, one platoon.  (OR, 1:12:3, 711.)***
The next day, McClellan directed the 3rd Battalion to concentrate at Ft. Lyon to the west of Alexandria, with the exception of one platoon, which was retained at Ft. Ellsworth.  The immediate threat to Washington was averted when Lee's Confederates trounced Pope and headed to Maryland. 

The 3rd Battalion remained on duty at Ft. Lyon.  (OR, 1:12:3, 782, 803; 1:12:3, 1:25:2, 181.)  According to historians Benjamin Cooling and Walton Owen, during its time at Ft. Lyon, "[t]he battalion was known for its singing, lager beer, and numerous pet dogs."  (Cooling & Owen 69.)  One solider observed:
If you wish any dogs, there are plenty of them at Fort Lyon as the Dutchman have thee dogs to every man and peck of fleas in the bargain.  (in Cooling & Owen 69-70.)
On June 9, 1863, twenty-six men from the battalion were busy re-filling shells outside of Ft. Lyon's north powder magazine.  The men first had to remove powder that was caked on the inside of the shells due to moisture damage.  The lieutenant in charge grew frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the wooden spoons being used for the task and distributed priming wires to some of the men to dig out the powder.  A spark caused by a priming wire triggered a massive explosion of around 28,00 pounds of powder.  The powerful blast destroyed the north magazine and sent debris and bodies flying through the air.  As Gen. John Slough, military governor of Alexandria, reported to headquarters, "[e]verything in the vicinity is a wreck," although "[n]o serious damage was done . . . to the guns or guncarriages."  (OR, 1:27:2, 871.)  Incredibly, most of the men were huddled in the bombproof at the time of the explosion and escaped unharmed.  In all, twenty-one lost their lives, and ten were injured.  The "severely wounded" were transported to the hospital in Alexandria. (OR, 1:27:2, 871.)  The following day, President Abraham Lincoln, accompanied by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, inspected the damage. 

The 3rd Battalion underwent organizational changes in September 1863, when the men were transferred to the newly-formed 15th New York Heavy Artillery.  The 3rd Battalion comprised Companies A through E of the regiment.  The 15th New York Heavy Artillery was initially based at Ft. Lyon, and other companies joined the old 3rd Battalion there. 

The 15th New York Heavy Artillery left the defenses of Washington and headed to the field in March 1864.  The regiment fought with the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac throughout the Overland Campaign and before Petersburg.  After Appomattox, the men returned to the defenses of Washington and were mustered out of Federal service in August 1865. 

The 3rd Battalion never saw combat as a unit.  Its biggest enemies were disease and boredom.  The time spent in the defenses around Washington was generally considered "soft" duty by the hardened soldiers in the field.  However, without units like the 3rd Battalion, the forts were worthless as a deterrent.  And the terrible tragedy at Ft. Lyon in 1863 reminds us that garrison duty was not always a risk-free adventure.  The history of the 3rd Battalion also highlights the contributions that German immigrants made to the Union war effort.  Senges and others like him endured the hardships of army life and war for their adopted homeland.  Their story helps us to put a human face on the defenses of Washington.


*Some sources report that the 3rd Battalion left for Washington on December 19, 1861. It appears that a company under Senges left at the end of November 1861, and that the remainder of the 3rd Batallion may have joined them in Washington in December.

**Nearly all captions I have seen, including on the Library of Congress website, indicate that the officer pictured above is "Lt. Col. A. Senger" of the 15th New York Heavy Artillery (a later iteration of the 3rd Battalion). However, "Lt. Col. A. Senger" does not appear on the rolls of either the 3rd Battalion or the 15th New York Heavy Artillery. Moreover, a military service record for Senges on includes this photograph. I am convinced that this photograph has been misidentified in most captions, and that it actually shows Senges.

***All of these forts were located to the north and west of Alexandria, Virginia.  For a map of the defenses of Washington from the OR, see here.


John Gross Barnard, A Report on the Defenses of Washington to the Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army (1871); Benjamin Franklin Cooling III & Walton H. Owen II, Mr. Lincoln's Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington (2010 ed.); Wolfgang Hochbruck, "Forty-Eighters" in the Union Armies: A Preliminary Checklist, on RootsWeb; George B. McClellan, Report of Major-General George B. McClellan Upon the Organization of the Army of the Potomac and Its Campaigns in Virginia and Maryland (1864); Military and Naturalization Records of Adam Senges, available on (subscription service); William J. Miller, The Men of Fort Ward: Defenders of Washington (1989); National Park Service, A Historic Resources Study: The Civil War Defenses of Washington, Parts I & II (2004); New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center, 3d Battalion of Artillery (Heavy); New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center, 15th Artillery Regiment (Heavy); New York Times, Nov. 28, 1861; New York Times, Aug. 14, 1862; New York Times, June 10, 1863; Frederick Phisterer, New York in the War of the Rebellion, 1861 to 1865 (1890); Adolf Eduard Zucker, The Forty-Eighters: Political Refugees of the German Revolution of 1848 (1950).

Monday, May 14, 2012

Updates on the Battle of Lewinsville

If you are a frequent reader of this blog, then you are probably aware of my near-obsession with the "Battle of Lewinsville."  This engagement, which occurred on September 11, 1861, pitted a mixed Confederate force of infantry, cavalry, and artillery under Col. Jeb Stuart against a much larger group of Federals under the command of Col. Isaac Stevens.  Although the skirmish was tactically a draw, both sides boasted of victory.  I live down the street from the site of Lewinsville, which is now part of McLean, Virginia.  A portion of the skirmish took place on ground that today belongs to Lewinsville Park.

When I first started writing about local Civil War history, I noticed the lack of any markers in McLean commemorating what had happened at Lewinsville.  I started to think about the possibilities of getting a new marker installed.  However, in October 2010, while attending a marker dedication for Salona, I learned from Fairfax County History Commissioner Carole Herrick that a Civil War Trails marker for the Battle of Lewinsville was already in the works.  I am happy to announce that the marker is finally going to be installed at Lewinsville Park this summer.  An unveiling is planned at the park for Sunday, July 1, at 4 p.m.  The marker was paid for with county funds and is sponsored in part by the group "McLean & Great Falls Celebrate Virginia."  (Click here for a map and driving directions.)  I'll be sure to post any other information as it becomes available.  I also understand that Fairfax will be unveiling around five other Civil War Trails markers in the near future.

On a related note, the McLean Historical Society has started filming its monthly meetings and downloading the videos to Vimeo.  Herrick's February 2012 lecture on Battle of Lewinsville is now available for viewing.  Click here to access the video and see what this noted local historian has to say about this small but interesting early engagement.  As you might imagine, I am thrilled to see that the "Battle of Lewinsville" is finally getting some love!

Monday, May 7, 2012

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Turns 150

As part of my "day" job, I work with my counterparts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on a variety of agricultural trade issues.  A couple weeks ago when sitting in a conference room over at USDA's Whitten Building, I noticed a poster proclaiming the 150th anniversary of the department.  This is one of those rare times where my full-time career intersects with my interest in the Civil War era, and I felt compelled to dig a little deeper.
President Abraham Lincoln, who grew up on family farms in Kentucky and Indiana, was no stranger to agriculture.  In a speech given to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society the year before he was elected President, Lincoln called for increased productivity on small farms and extolled the virtues of agricultural technology.  He also stressed the value of education to farmers.  As Lincoln told the Society, "no other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought, as agriculture."  The Republican Party at the time favored several measures to promote agriculture, including the adoption of a homestead act to encourage the settlement and farming of western lands.  These ideas reflected the free labor and free land policies of Lincoln's party.

In his annual message to Congress on December 3, 1861, Lincoln advocated the creation of a bureau or department of agriculture within the government.  As he told Congress, with a bit of humor thrown in for good measure:
Agriculture, confessedly the largest interest of the nation, has not a department nor a bureau, but a clerkship only, assigned to it in the Government. While it is fortunate that this great interest is so independent in its nature as to not have demanded and extorted more from the Government, I respectfully ask Congress to consider whether something more can not be given voluntarily with general advantage.  (in Rasmussen.)
In response to Lincoln's call, Congress passed passed "An Act to Establish a Department of Agriculture."  Lincoln signed the bill into law on May 15, 1862.  The new department had a broad mandate "to acquire and to diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture in the most general and comprehensive sense of that word, and to procure, propagate, and distribute among the people new and valuable seeds and plants."  Congress designated a Commissioner of Agriculture to serve as the "chief executive officer" of the department.  The Commissioner was to be appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.  Lincoln selected Isaac Newton as the first Commissioner of Agriculture.

Isaac Newton, first Commissioner of Agriculture (courtesy of Abraham Lincoln's White House).  Newton, a farmer originally from New Jersey, was serving as the chief clerk of the Bureau of Agriculture in the Patent Office when Lincoln appointed him to the new post.  Newton was instrumental in establishing a national agricultural library.  
In the coming days and weeks, Congress adopted other agriculture-related legislation.  Southern states had defeated previous attempts to pass a homestead law in the 1850s out of fears that such legislation would favor western settlement by small farmers without slaves. The secession of the Southern states changed the political dynamic and paved the way for the passage of homesteading legislation by Congress.  Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862.  The law provided for the grant of 160 acres of public land to eligible heads of household or individuals who were at least 21 years of age.  The recipients could gain title after five years on the condition that they made improvements to the land.  The law also established a purchase option for those who resided on the land for six months and made improvements.  Moreover, only U.S. citizens, or intended citizens, who had "never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies" were eligible.

The Homestead Act entered into effect on January 1, 1863.  By the middle of 1864, the government had distributed over 1.2 million acres west of the Mississippi River.  (Wagner, Gallagher & Finkelman 678.)  These newly-settled lands contributed to expanded agricultural production in the North.  Unfortunately, the implementation of the act was marked by fraud and speculation, and only 80 million of 500 million acres distributed by the Federal government between 1862 and 1904 actually went to homesteaders.  ("Homestead Act (1862),"

Lincoln also signed the Morrill Land Grant College Act into law on July 2, 1862.  Sponsored by Rep. Justin Morrill of Vermont, the new law embodied the notion that higher education should be available to the masses.  Each state received a grant of 30,000 acres of federal land for each Representative and Senator.  The states were required to use the proceeds from the sale of this land to create and finance colleges for agriculture and engineering.  Section 6 provided that "[n]o State while in a condition of rebellion or insurrection against the government" could benefit from the act. 

The flurry of agriculture-related legislative activity in spring and summer of 1862 shows that even in the midst of Civil War, Lincoln and Congress carried on the normal business of government and took steps to implement their vision for the country's future.  In fact, the three acts had long-ranging consequences.  The Department of Agriculture was eventually designated as a cabinet-level department in 1889 and today has sweeping responsibilities in a large number of areas, including nutrition, food safety, plant and animal health, international trade, and assistance for farmers.  Although far from an unmitigated success, the Homestead Act helped to stimulate the continued settlement of the West.  The Morrill Act is probably one of the most important pieces of educational legislation in U.S. history.   The law led to the current-day system of state universities and colleges.  Many institutions of higher education, such as Iowa State University, Michigan State University, and Cornell University, represent the living legacy of the 1862 law.

USDA has put together a stellar collection of documents for its 150th anniversary.  The department's main gateway page can be found here, but the best resources are available on the National Agricultural Library page entitled "Abraham Lincoln and Agriculture."  This site has a remarkable collection of materials about Lincoln and his views on agriculture and farming.  Visitors to the site can find a myriad of interesting documents, including Lincoln's 1859 speech to the Wisconsin Agricultural Society and copies of yearly agricultural reports from 1862-65.


This post is in part based on the documents available at the "Abraham Lincoln and Agriculture" website, including "Lincoln's Agricultural Legacy" by Wayne D. Rasmussen.  Other useful sources include:

"Homestead Act (1862)," (on-line initiative of National History Day, National Archives, & USA Freedom Corps); "Morrill Act (1862),"; National Archives, "Teaching With Documents: The Homestead Act of 1862," National Park Service, Homestead National Monument of America, "About the Homestead Act;" USDA, Map of 1862 Land Grant Universities and Colleges; Margaret E. Wagner, Gary W. Gallagher, & Paul Finkelman (eds.), The Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference (2002).

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Living History at Ft. Ward: The Union Army's Balloon Corps

This past weekend my parents were visiting and helping me with the boys while my wife was out of town.  I was looking for a family-friendly activity to fill Saturday morning.  (Believe me, with 22 month-old twins, it's best to get out and about.)  Lucky for us, the Ft. Ward Museum and Historic Site in Alexandria was holding a "Civil War Balloon Corps Living History Event."  So we packed into the SUV and headed to one of my favorite Civil War sites in the Washington area.

The event featured a reenactor portraying Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, the head of the Union Army's Balloon Corps.  Kevin Knapp, a retired Army officer and professional balloonist, has established a name for himself as an expert on Lowe and the military use of balloons during the Civil War.  He set up a balloon on the grounds of Ft. Ward, complete with replica gas generators and a basket draped in patriotic bunting.  The balloon is actually a 1941 Navy trainer, but bears a resemblance to the type of netted gas balloons used by Lowe and other period aeronauts.  Incidentally, Knapp is the same reenactor who made a widely-publicized appearance on the the National Mall last summer as part of a reenactmet of Lowe's June 1861 balloon demonstration for President Abraham Lincoln. 

Thaddeus S.C. Lowe (Kevin Knapp) poses in front of his balloon.  Knapp, a professional balloon pilot, brings first-hand flying experience to his interpretation of Civil War aviation.

View of the balloon attached to replica gas generators on the grounds of Ft. Ward.  Knapp explained to me that the actual balloon was used by the Navy to transition pilots from light-than-air flight to airships.  The Genesee County Village & Museum in Mumford, New York is currently building an exact replica of one of Lowe's balloons and will offer rides to visitors.

Lowe inflating his balloon Intrepid at Fair Oaks, Virginia.  Note the gas generators mounted on wagons.  The event at Ft. Ward replicated a wartime scene like the one above (courtesy of Smithsonian Air & Space Museum).
Knapp could not fully inflate the balloon due in part to the airspace restrictions around the nation's capital. That's too bad, because many spectators surely had come to see the balloon floating high above the fort and museum.  On the other hand, Knapp was on the ground and available to answer questions.  I spoke with the reenactor for a few minutes and learned quite a bit about the Balloon Corps in such a short amount of time.  I am not too familiar with the subject, and Knapp whetted my appetite to learn more.  His enthusiasm for the topic was contagious.

View of a replica gas generator used to inflate balloons in the field.  Balloonists mixed sulfuric acid and iron filings to produce hydrogen gas.  The gas flowed from the generator to the balloon.  Of course, authenticity only goes so far, and Knapp uses a cold air fan to inflate his balloon.  The two replica generators at the event were somewhat smaller than the originals because Knapp built them to fit on wagons provided to him for last year's reenactment on the Mall.

The event featured a miniature replica of a Civil War balloon, which floated above the trees at Ft. Ward.  At least spectators were able to see something in the air without Knapp and museum staff drawing the ire of the Federal authorities.
The West End of Alexandria, where Ft. Ward is located, was no stranger to military ballooning during the Civil War.  In the fall of 1861, John LaMountain, one of Lowe's rivals, obtained a job with Gen. William B. Franklin's division at Cloud's Mill, not far from Ft. Ward.  Earlier in 1861, La Mountain had served with Gen. Benjamin Butler at Ft. Monroe, but a new Federal commander there had little appreciation for aerial technology and sent LaMountain to Washington. 

John LaMountain, period engraving (courtesy of U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission)
Unlike Lowe, who tethered his balloons to the ground, La Mountain believed in free flight reconnaissance.  LaMountain may have possessed an on-site gas generator, but he also filled his balloons at a lighting gas plant in Alexandria.  LaMountain ascended at least seven times while based in Alexandria.  As he floated over Northern Virginia, LaMountain was able to observe the Confederate lines around Centreville, Manassas, and other spots.  LaMountain never fully accepted Lowe's appointment as head of the Balloon Corps and incessantly criticized his rival.  Gen. George B. McClellan eventually dismissed LaMountain for insubordination in February 1862.  (I'd like to take a closer look at La Mountain's activities in future posts.)

The fact that there is a reenactor portraying Lowe, and not LaMountain, says a lot about how we've come to remember the wartime balloonists.  I discussed with Knapp why Lowe still captures the public's imagination, while other aeronauts, like LaMountain, have drifted into obscurity. (No pun intended.)  The fact that Lowe had correspondents following his every move, and that he had friends in high places may have had something to do with ensuring Lowe's place in history.  Wartime photographers also seemed obsessed with Lowe's military operations and left a remarkable visual record for future generations.  In any event, it's refreshing to see living history events aside from battle reenactments, and Knapp's impression of Lowe helps to focus public attention on an interesting aspect of the Civil War and technology. 


Timothy J. Dennee, "John LaMountain and the Alexandria Balloon Ascensions," Historic Alexandria Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 3, Fall 1997; U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, "Balloons in the American Civil War;" Brett Zongker, Associated Press, "Smithsonian Recounts Balloon Flights of Civil War," June 10, 2011.