Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Change and Possibly More on the Way

As I approach my blog's sixth anniversary, I have started to think about how I may readjust the format and content here at All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac. My ability to keep a rigorous posting schedule has become difficult, but I don't want to discontinue writing when I have the urge, or remove the existing digital content. Many people use the blog as a resource center for research they are doing about the Civil War in these parts. They often come to me with questions concerning their Civil War ancestor, or more obscure battles around here like Vienna and Lewinsville. I sometimes feel like this has become more of a digital history project, even if not organized as such. At the same time, I haven't practiced law for nearly six years. Of course, once a lawyer, always a lawyer. Nonetheless, I have decided to remove the part of the blog's title "A DC Lawyer on the Civil War" to more accurately reflect what All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac is about. In the place of this wording, I am now saying, "The Civil War in Northern Virginia & Beyond." I am mulling additional changes here and will keep readers posted. Thanks again for stopping by!

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Interview with the Manassas Battlefield Trust

Well, if you haven't noticed, it's been a while since I last posted. Life has gotten pretty busy at home and at work. I am unsure of when I will return to a more regular schedule again, but for the time being, I thought readers might enjoy the latest edition of the Manassas Battlefield Trust newsletter. A few months ago I featured an interview with MBT Executive Director Debra Kathman. Since that time, MBT decided to launch a newsletter, and Debra asked if I would do an interview for the first issue. I believe that future issues will do similar interviews with MBT members. Check out the newsletter, including the interview, here.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Civil War Views: Log Huts for Contrabands?

Not long ago the Arlington Historical Society posted an engraving from the February 8, 1862 issue of Harper's Weekly on its Facebook page. Entitled, "WINTER-QUARTERS OF THE FOURTEENTH MASSACHUSETTS VOLUNTEERS—GARRISON OF FORTS ALBANY AND RUNYON," the illustration sparked my curiosity. Were these the same quarters used to house contrabands in the spring of 1863?

Camp of the 14th Massachusetts near Fts. Albany and Runyon, from Harper's Weekly, Feb. 8, 1862 (courtesy of
As I've chronicled at length on the blog, in May 1863, the Union Army decided to relocate freedmen and women from Washington City to abandoned secessionist properties in Northern Virginia. Here the military intended to pay the contrabands to raise crops for the Union war effort. At the start of June, the army established Camp Todd near Ft. Albany in Alexandria County (now Arlington), on the site of Gen. Silas Casey's former encampment there. As the official report on the establishment of the contraband farms states:
At Camp Todd we have used the log huts put up for the accommodation of Gen. CASEY's encampment. These houses have capacity of holding not less than one thousand people, and are in a good degree of preservation. 
Initially, 230 freedpeople were quartered in the empty cabins. So, did the Union quarter the contrabands in the same huts that are pictured in the Harper's Weekly illustration?

In the fall of 1861, the 14th Massachusetts Infantry arrived in Washington and was assigned to the defenses of Washington, including Ft. Albany. (The regiment was later designated the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery and saw heavy fighting in the Overland Campaign through Appomattox.) A regimental history takes note of the fine structures built by Company B, 14th Massachusetts:
Through the first winter, 1861-'62, the company remained at Fort Albany at regimental headquarters and built elaborate log barracks. As it was located first in the line on the way from Washington, its quarters were inspected first by the distinguished men who came from time to time, and on several occasions was honored by visits of President Lincoln, who was evidently proud to show some of the foreign officers the ingenuity displayed by his Massachusetts boys in making themselves clean, healthful and comfortable quarters. (Roe & Nutt 13.)
Presumably the log huts in Harper's Weekly show these huts, or similar ones. Various companies of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery remained at Ft. Albany until 1864. Meanwhile, in the fall of 1862, part of Silas Casey's division was assigned to protect Ft. Albany. By March 1863, his soldiers had received orders to defend other locations in Northern Virginia. Casey's division was reassigned to Gen. John J. Abercrombie in April 1863, and Casey then took charge of Provisional Brigades around Washington.

All of this history brings us back to the original question -- Could those log huts be the same ones that belonged to Camp Todd? The 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery still guarded the fort in June 1863, when the contrabands arrived, and it seems possible that the cabins were more or less in continual use until the regiment left for the front in spring 1864. Or the huts may have been dismantled for their timber and may not even have been in existence when Camp Todd was established. Casey's men probably built their own cabins to survive the winter of 1862-63, and those huts were presumably the same ones that the Union Army used to shelter the freedpeople in June 1863, since Casey's soldiers had left by that time. Only if Casey's men had taken occupancy of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery's huts, or a portion of them, could we assume that the engraving depicts some or all of those inhabited by the residents of Camp Todd.

I suppose my initial enthusiasm for the engraving was a bit misplaced! The huts in Harper's Weekly are more than likely not the same ones later used to house the freedpeople at Camp Todd. Nevertheless, the illustration gives us a good idea of what such structures may have looked like near the same site. The hunt for pictures of the contraband camps in Northern Virginia continues.


D.B. Nichols, Official Report on Superintendent Nichols Freedman's Department, South Potomac, Quartermaster for the Department of Washington, July 10, 1863, in New York Times, Aug. 9, 1863; "1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery," Civil War in the East;  Official Records, 1:21, 939; 1:25:2, 30, 182, 588; Alfred S. Roe & Charles Nutt, History of the First Regiment of Heavy Artillery, Massachusetts Volunteers, Formerly the Fourteenth Regiment of Infantry, 1861-1865 (1917).

Friday, February 19, 2016

A Few Odds and Ends, February 2016 Edition

If you are a frequent reader, you may have wondered what happened to the blog. I try to publish a post every two weeks or so. This past couple of months was the longest "dry spell" since I began the blog in 2010. Today I am finally back, and would like to wish everyone a belated Happy New Year!

So what gives? I guess you could say that I needed to disconnect in order to reconnect. The pace had been relatively intensive, particularly as I tried to balance a busy full-time job, family, and numerous activities and hobbies. I also had a bit of Sesquicentennial burn out -- not  one day passed in four years where I wasn't doing something related to the Civil War. I like to think that my recent time away (and model building with my son Jack) has reinvigorated me for the year ahead.

And now a few odds and ends as I kick off 2016:

*My blog has brought me into contact with a lot of people I may not otherwise have met and has enabled me to expand my Civil War universe outside of the blog. As noted previously, I have started to do volunteer research for the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum. I have also begun exploring ways to help the Manassas Battlefield Trust (MBT). I will keep readers posted on any upcoming activities. Meanwhile, Debra Kathman, the Executive Director of MBT, recently sent me some interview questions. (I posted a Q&A with Debra last year.) They should be up and running soon on the MBT website.

*Speaking of Manassas, I recently purchased a copy of John Hennessy's masterful book, The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence, July 18-21, 1861. John has revised his first edition and re-released it through Stackpole. I bought my own autographed copy directly from him. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book -- my first of 2016 -- and can't recommend it enough. To use an oxymoron, it is a tactical page turner! Even if you think you know First Bull Run pretty well, you are sure to discover something new, and be entertained at the same time.

*On a related note, Harry Smeltzer over at Bull Runnings published an interview with John, who offered to lead a tour of the First Manassas battlefield for Harry's blog readers. The suggestion has now come to fruition. The tour will be held at Manassas National Battlefield Park on Saturday, April 23. More information is available over at Harry's blog, and on the dedicated Facebook page for the tour. Expected attendance is growing, and a car pool caravan will be the chief mode of transport. If you plan on going, be sure to read John's book.

*Last fall Savas Beatie sent me a copy of one of the latest titles in the Emerging Civil War (ECW) series, A Want of Vigilance: The Bristoe Station Campaign, October 9-19, 1863 by Bill Backus and Rob Orrison. This book appears only a couple years or so after the publisher's detailed atlas on the Bristoe Campaign. Together, they help to fill in some gaps in the literature between Gettysburg and the Overland Campaign. Like all ECW books, A Want of Vigilance is a slim volume packed with key facts, plenty of photos and maps, and a driving tour. The authors, both old hands at the Bristoe Station Battlefield, cover all the major aspects of the campaign, from James Station to Buckland Mills. Six appendixes, including an order of battle and a chronology of battlefield preservation, round out the book. A Want of Vigilance makes for a good, fast read on a little known but important part of the war.

*I maintain a list of potential topics for future posts. My ability to add to the list has far surpassed my ability to keep up. Some of the subjects don't even seem that appealing to me any more. (Perhaps I should take a vote on what readers prefer!) As I gear up for 2016, I am thinking broadly of where I want to take the blog. Not surprisingly, more on Northern Virginia's contraband camps is in the offering. I also plan to report my findings on soldier and civilian life around Fairfax Station. I've lived in Loudoun for well over a year now -- I think it may be time to write a little more on the Civil War in my backyard. I've already mentioned my interest in the Loudoun Valley Campaign of 1862, but haven't had a chance to dig deeper. And what about those Union Army campsites down the road, or the history of some Loudoun families during the war? If anything, I can help to spread the word about the best resources on Loudoun's antebellum and Civil War history. This year I also hope to continue features such as Civil War Views, travelogues, and Q&As. Forward march!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas in Camp, Fairfax Station, December 1862

A few weeks ago I wrote about a new project that I am undertaking for the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum. As I researched tales of soldiers and civilians around the station during the Civil War, I began to think about turning my research into blog posts. The museum agreed that this would be a good idea. Writing posts will help to focus my research efforts and build content for the museum. Moreover, I hope that such posts will encourage my readers to come forward with additional information about wartime life along the Orange & Alexandria near Fairfax Station. With my annual Christmas post, I venture for the first time into this new territory for All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac, and I look forward to sharing more discoveries in the future.


As Christmas 1862 approached, soldiers of the Second Vermont Brigade were busy protecting positions along the strategic Orange & Alexandria R.R. around Fairfax Station. Two divisions of the Army of the Potomac's Twelfth Corps were also encamped in the neighborhood of the station. The corps had fought only a few months before in the bloody engagement at Antietam. Reentering Virginia in November, the men marched through Loudoun County and made their way to Fairfax Station.

Fairfax Station during the Civil War (courtesy of William Graham's War Between the States)
On December 24, Gen. Alpheus Williams held a grand review and inspection of his Twelfth Corps division. According to William Tuttle of the 107th New York, the activity was "very tiresome for the men, more than a day's march." (in Tappan 63) He returned to his campsite and "just laid down by the fire, looked into the flames and blazing coals, and thought of friends far away, of Christmas Eves and Christmas trees until I fell asleep." (in Tappan 63.)

That night, Gen. John Geary, commander of the corps' second division, sat down to write his little daughter Mary a rather sentimental letter:
On this Christmas eve I have no doubt you have been enjoying yourself, perhaps with the toys of the season, eaten your nuts and cakes, hung up your stockings in the chimney corner for old Krisk[r]inkle, when he comes along with his tiny horses "dunder and blixen" and his little wagon to fill in lots and gobs of sweet things....Well, when I was a little boy. . . I was very fond of such things myself. And when I look back, they were indeed the happiest days of my life. (in Blair & Wiley 74.)
On Christmas Day, the soldiers were blessed with mild and pleasant weather, not unlike predictions for this year's holiday. As Pvt. Henry Bayless of the 137th New York wrote to his parents, "today is clear and quite warm, so we can sit in the sun without our overcoats on with comfort." (in Creutz 73.) Capt. Robert Gould Shaw (future commander of the 54th Massachusetts) and fellow officers of the 2nd Massachusetts also sat "out of doors," eating a Christmas dinner of chicken, oysters, potatoes, and other culinary delights. (in Duncan 273).

"Christmas," L. Prang & Co., c. 1862 (courtesy of Digital Public Library of America).

Gen. Geary, like many of the Union commanders, "issued an order allowing the men of my command a recreation from all military duties, except such as could not be dispensed with." (in Blaid & Wiley 76.) He emerged from his quarters that morning to find that "the men had erected two triumphal arches of evergreens before my tent." (in Blaid & Wiley 76.) As he told his sons, "the Holly is beautiful & Green covered with berries. The whole thing was the most beautifully wreathed affair I ever saw." (in Blaid & Wiley 76.) Geary's thoughts turned to his family, and how much he wanted to be with them on this holiday. The "forsaken country" around Fairfax Station surely did little to diminish his homesickness. (in Blair & Wiley 75.)

Tuttle of the 107th New York found little to celebrate on Christmas. As he lamented in his diary:
It is not a happy Christmas day with us today. . . We have been moving our camp again. . . . This is the fourth camp we have occupied near Fairfax Station, and a great many are in the worst of humor over the perplexities and botherations which always attend a change of camp. We marched about two miles this morning, laid out our new camp ground, put up our tents and have just had our dinner, Christmas Dinner! which was no great affair today. (in Tappan 62-63.)
The men of 137th NY made do with rations of soft bread and beef. Charles Engle prepared a "hearty" Christmas breakfast of fried beef with a cup of coffee, but wished instead for "cakes and sausage and butter." (in Creutz 73.) Bayless and his messmate got more creative and fried the bread in a gravy made with bacon and beef grease. They sat on their blankets with plates on their laps and devoured the Christmas meal.

Over in the camp of the Second Vermont Brigade, the soldiers were excused from all but the most pressing duties. Pvt. Herzon Day went with a few friends to Fairfax Station "to see the country but got back in time for Christmas dinner, which consisted of beefsteak and potatoes, both excellent." (letter to parents on 16th Vermont blog.) Horace Barlow of the 12th Vermont enjoyed "[t]aking it easy in the A.M. & playing foot-ball &c in the P.M." (diary on 16th Vermont blog.)

Some officers had the privilege of leaving camp to celebrate Christmas elsewhere. In the 107th Pennsylvania, Tuttle's captain and first lieutenant headed to Alexandria to spend the holiday with friends. Tuttle was frustrated, writing in his diary: "Of course I could not go. I am not an officer." (in Tappan 63.) (He later would become a commissioned officer, so perhaps the holidays got better for him!)

Dr. James Dunn, surgeon of the 109th Pennsylvania, took four days' leave and traveled from Fairfax Station to Washington City. On Christmas morning he met a fellow physician at Willard's. The two at some point "visited around Washington where all is quiet." (in Kerr 60.) The doctor even "saw Old Abe":
He looks as if the load resting on him was too much. He is care worn and troubled. Political opposition is killing him. (in Kerr 60.)
After the holiday, Dunn returned to his regimental encampment and the drudgery of army life. For the surgeon and many others at Fairfax Station, Christmas 1862 was a day of rest and relaxation. Even if the holiday meal was a little less appetizing than many of the men would have preferred, the warm weather was certainly a welcome present from Mother Nature. The enlisted men and their commanders dreamed of Christmas among family and friends. Perhaps the new year would bring an end to war and fighting. But Christmas would come and go two more times before Christmas at home became a reality. President Lincoln had reason to feel "troubled."

On a personal note, I'd like to wish my readers Happy Holidays and a Very Merry Christmas! See you in 2016!

William L. Blair (ed.) & Bell Irvin Wiley, A Politician Goes to War: The Civil War Letters of John White Geary (1995); David Cleutz, Fields of Fame & Glory: Col. David Ireland and the 137th New York Volunteers (2010); Russell Duncan (ed.), Blue Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (1999); Letters from the 16th Vermont (blog); Lynne M. Kennedy, "GORDON'S REGULARS": The 2nd Massachusetts Infantry in the Civil War (1999); Paul B. Kerr, Civil War Surgeon -- Biography of James Langstaff Dunn, MD (2012); George Tappan (ed.), The Civil War Journal of Lt. Russell M. Tuttle, New York Volunteer Infantry (2006).

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving 1865 in Washington City

Each year during the Sesquicentennial I wrote a post focused on Thanksgiving at the corresponding time 150 years ago. I looked at holiday celebrations in camp or in the streets, hospitals, and churches of Washington and Alexandria. Now that the four-year commemoration is over, I wasn't sure what to do for this Thanksgiving. Many people are turning their attention to the aftermath of war and the start of Reconstruction so I decided to check out the Washington papers for the end of 1865, as the reunited nation prepared to observe the first Thanksgiving holiday since the end of the war.

President Andrew Johnson declared a day of national Thanksgiving for Thursday, December 7, 1865. In his Proclamation, the President reminded the American people that "it has pleased Almighty God during the year which is now coming to an end to relieve our beloved country from the fearful scourge of civil war and to permit us to secure the blessings of peace, unity, and harmony, with a great enlargement of civil liberty. . . ." He recommended that "the whole people make confession of our national sins against His infinite goodness, and with one heart and one mind implore the divine guidance in the ways of national virtue and holiness."

On December 6, the day before Thanksgiving, the Washington Daily National Republican published the following editorial:

The editorial surely reflected the thoughts of many loyal Americans about the ground the nation had traversed since the previous year and just how much the country had reason to give thanks as the end of 1865 approached. Some, however, may have disputed the characterization of President Johnson, who had just given his State of the Union address on December 4. (The speech is referenced in the article.)

Two Winslow Homer views of Thanksgiving Day, 1865 from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated:  Hanging up the Musket and The Church Porch (courtesy of streetsofsalem).

Thanksgiving in Washington City was a relatively subdued affair. As was typical in previous years, businesses were closed. The Washington Evening Star reported that "the churches were opened for divine worship, and were well attended, while the services at each were appropriate to the occasion." (Dec. 8, 1865.) The paper was also pleased to observe that "throughout the day there were fewer displays of improper conduct than usual on such festive occasions." (Dec. 8, 1865.) According to the Daily National Republican, Bostonians were nowhere near as well behaved as the "staid and proper" Washingtonians. (Dec.8, 1865.) The paper reported that during the evening in Boston, "many persons were slewed, with great carnage." (Dec. 8, 1865.) Perhaps high rates of celebratory drinking had something to do with ruining the holiday up north. In any event, whether in Washington City or elsewhere, Thanksgiving gave Americans a day of rest and relaxation as they prepared to deal with the difficult issue of reconstruction and the future of the reunited country.

On a personal note, I'd like to wish all of my readers a Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy the good times with family and friends, eat plenty of turkey and fixings, and see you next month!

Friday, November 20, 2015

An Interview with Singer/Songwriter Clark Hansbarger

Like many readers, I enjoy all types of music. When it comes to the Civil War, I tend to focus on recordings of songs from the era by the 2nd South Carolina String Band, the Federal City Brass Band, and other such groups. Then again, I have also become a fan of the contemporary Civil War songs of the 1861 Project. Last year I received an email from singer/songwriter Clark Hansbarger, who told me about his folk rock CD, Dream of a Good Death. This recording of original songs follows Confederate soldiers throughout the Civil War, from Port Royal to Petersburg and beyond. The songs are modern, but inspired by the stories of those in gray and butternut who fought and died over 150 years ago. Clark was nice enough to send me his CD and recently agreed to do an interview.

Q. Tell us a little about yourself.

A. I'm a retired educator and now work with my wife, who is an artist, so I have plenty of time to write and play music. I've done both since I was young, but for thirty years, teaching paid the mortgage. I record and perform regularly with The Bitter Liberals, a talented group of players from the Shenandoah Valley, where I live. I have two children, one of whom is making me a grandpa this month, so we are all pretty excited around home.

Q. How did you become interested in the Civil War?

A. The same way a lot of modern Americans did, I'm afraid -- through Ken Burns and Shelby Foote. I watched that classic PBS documentary and then spent a summer lost in Foote's million word account of the war. Since then...well... I've become just another middle-age American guy who visits a lot of battlefields.

Clark Hansbarger
Q. What inspired you to do Dream of a Good Death? How does this CD depart from other recordings you have done?

A. My wife and I were kayaking down the Combahee River near Beaufort, South Carolina, when I discovered the history of the rice plantations. I had no idea that rice had been the primary money crop in the Low Country since colonial times. Anyway, I dug into the history there and ended up writing a song called "Fall of the Rice Kingdom" about the Union naval conquest of Port Royal Sound.

My band liked the song, and we recorded it for our first CD. When my brother-in-law (who is a serious digger with a fine collection of Civil War artifacts) heard the song, he thought I should do an entire album, said I'd make a million bucks selling them at re-enactments. So I wrote another, and then another, and soon I had enough for a CD. I haven't made that million yet, though!

Once I finished the CD, I built an interactive website to accompany it. ( I spent as much time on this as the music and had great fun doing so. I wrote an essay for each song and then included dozens of links and pictures so that folks could explore the history behind the songs.

The musical style of this CD doesn't depart much from what I usually write, but the subject matter certainly does. None of my other songs are historical, though they tend to be narrative, based on a distinct voice telling a story. The music is modern Americana...which is really just another way of saying folk rock.

Q. Your idea for a song cycle following Confederate soldiers through the war is intriguing. In listening to the CD, it is clear that your songs teach as well as entertain. Please describe for us your creative process in composing the songs on Dream of a Good Death. What historical background research did you do? 

A. Once I decided to create the album, I tried first to include different perspectives -- Union soldiers, slaves, women. But the songs with the Confederate voices came most easily, almost wrote themselves, so I stuck with these for continuity. This has nothing to do with any sympathy for their cause -- I'm glad the Union won that war, ended slavery, and moved us forward as a nation -- but somehow the Rebel stories had this ironic quality that seemed better suited for the music I was composing.

I researched the history carefully to be sure the facts were correct for each song. However, the key to writing historical fiction is to keep the focus on the character, lightly sprinkling in the historical details to build an illusion of reality. For the fiction to work, audiences must hear the human voice above all else. I didn't want these songs to be history lessons, but stories about "real" people from the past. And I wanted the songs both to stand alone and work as one long, sad tale.

I took some poetic license here and there, changed the time of day or a bit of the geography, and I always hear about this after a performance, usually from a polite, earnest Civil War buff waiting patiently to correct the slight inaccuracy. This actually brings me some satisfaction, because it means folks are listening carefully. And I always learn something and make new friends.

Q. Would it be fair to describe you as a historian through song?

A. Oh man. That might be dangerous. Anyone who has been to a few Civil War Roundtables or read a few blogs knows that the study of Civil War history is a contact sport. If you claim to be an expert, you darn well better be, and then better be prepared to defend your points to the death. I think I'd rather be described as a musician and fiction writer with a deep love of history.

Q. If you had to pick one, what is your favorite song on the CD?   

A. My daughter Kara sang on "The Tailor from Kingsport," so this song is obviously dear to my heart. The song explores PTSD -- called soldier's heart then --  and she sings the wife's story about her husbands return from the war. Kara 's a talented gal, and she sings the song with a lovely mix of frailty and strength.

You can see a video of this from a recent performance in Winchester, Virginia, at

My favorite song to perform live is probably the title song, "Dream of a Good Death," because it features each of the band members doing some spectacular instrumental work. Listen closely to that one and you hear some stellar guitar, violin and harmony vocals. None of that's me, but these remarkable guys I play with.

Q. Who are your collaborators on Dream of a Good Death?

A. I wrote the songs alone, but arranged them with the fine musicians featured on each song, mainly my band mates in The Bitter Liberals -- Gary McGraw, Allen Kitselman, and Mike Jewell.  I brought the songs to them as skeletons, just chords and words. They filled them out with lovely instrumentation, put the meat on the bones.

We practiced the songs a few times and then recorded them in a single, long day, so what you hear on the CD is pretty much a live recording with very little over-dub. This enables us to play the songs in concert just like they appeared on the CD -- even better, actually, because of the stage energy. My co-producer was Will Shenk, engineer extraordinaire from National Media Service in Front Royal, Virginia. He really brought the sound together, creating this open, rich feel.

I also included a few other great musicians I knew from years of playing in Northern Virginia-- Rob Remington, John Friant and Joe Faber. You can read about them all in the "About" section of my website at

Q. What is your biggest source of musical inspiration?

A. I listen to all sorts of folks, but the songwriters who tell stories move me most. Richard Thompson, John Hiatt, The Band. I like simple structure and clarity, so I admire Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, also.

In terms of inspiration, my wife Ginger leads the pack. Once I started work on this, she was like an overseer, grilling me each day to see if I'd worked on my songs. I was afraid we wouldn't have supper that night if I didn't have something to play for her first! She's an artist, so she understands that creativity is work, a good bit of sweat and time.

Q. How would you describe your musical style?

A. Folk-based, acoustic story telling, though the CD includes some moments of country, and a bit of bluegrass and rock.

Q. Where have you performed songs from Dream of a Good Death? Do you have upcoming concerts?

A. We perform Dream of a Good Death as an entire evening-- sort of a TED Talk meets Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert. Basically, I introduce each song with a short lecture, projecting slides of war photos and maps on a big screen behind us. Then we play the song. Because the songs are in chronological order, we end up walking the audience through the war from the beginning to the end, presenting both sides of the story.

We've done the show in large venues, like The American Theater in Hampton, Virginia, and Loudoun's Franklin Park Arts Center, but also in smaller ones like Long Branch Plantation and the beautiful stone church in Harpers Ferry. We will be performing it this spring in a lovely old African Methodist church in Union, West Virginia. The local historical society is hosting the show, and they restored the church as a cultural center -- great acoustics and about 100 seats. We're excited with the venue and may do a live recording that night.

Q. Any new recordings on the horizon?

 A. The Bitter Liberals ( will be back in the studio soon. We are working on new songs now. It's best to play the new stuff live for a while to tighten up the arrangements before recording. This will be our third CD, not counting Dream of a Good Death.

None of the songs are about the Civil War, though one is the story of a veteran home from the war in Afghanistan. We include this song in concerts regularly now, and it's coming together well.
Here is a link to a video of the song from our recent concert at The Tally Ho theater in Leesburg:

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A New Project in the Works

A couple of months ago, I took my boys to the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum. I previously wrote about this historic treasure on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Second Manassas Campaign. The countryside surrounding the railroad station became one major field hospital following the fights at Bull Run and Chantilly in 1862. Clara Barton rushed from Washington City and helped tend to the wounded.

The current station dates from 1903 and hosts frequent model train displays. The museum also has exhibits on the history of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, particularly during the Civil War. I've taken my sons there a few times. We are all train buffs, and the place has become a real family favorite.

After my last visit, the museum contacted me via my blog Facebook page. They put me in contact with Michael Chinworth, a volunteer who serves as the Vice President of the Friends of Fairfax Station. Michael asked if I was interested in helping the museum with various activities, including research, exhibits, and programming. I jumped at the opportunity. What better way to make a contribution to local Civil War and railroad history?

The Fairfax Station Railroad Museum, a stop along the Civil War Trails in Northern Virginia

Currently I am assisting with research on the civilian population around Fairfax Station just prior to and during the Civil War. I also hope to dig into the lives of the ordinary soldiers who protected the O&A R.R. Another possible avenue of exploration is the experience of slaves and Irish immigrants who worked on the railroad in the antebellum period. We hope to use this research in drafting a comprehensive historical guide on the station. The work may also form the basis of temporary exhibits or be made available on the museum's website.

I'd like to put a call to my readers as well. If you know anything about the area during the Civil War era, please feel free to email me and we can talk. In the meantime, if things are a little slower here as of late, it is likely because I am knee deep in old records about soldiers and civilians!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Civil War History & Wine -- a Great Combination!

Living in Northern Virginia has its perks. After all, Civil War history surrounds us everywhere. As a added bonus, wineries dot the rolling countryside just beyond the inner suburbs. On Father's Day, my wife and children took me to The Winery at Bull Run, which offers the best of both worlds. Opened in 2012 by Jon and Kim Hickox. the winery sits on land adjacent to the Manassas National Battlefield Park and the famous Stone Bridge.

During the Civil War, the property was the site of Hillwood. The Weir family, who owned the estate at the time, lived at their nearby plantation known as Liberia and left the property in the hands of a tenant or caretaker. (Liberia served as Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard's headquarters around the time of First Manassas.  Gen. Irvin McDowell also did a stint there in 1862.) On July 21, 1861, soldiers under then-Colonels William T. Sherman and Erasmus Keyes marched across Hillwood on their way to ford Bull Run and join the Union attack. Capt. James Carlisle's battery of U.S. artillery also took position on the ridge line at Hillwood. During Second Manassas in August 1862, Confederate troops under A.P. Hill crossed the property en route to link up with the remainder of Stonewall Jackson's wing of the Army of Northern Virginia. As the Union forces retreated across the Stone Bridge following their defeat on August 30, they too passed by Hillwood. In other words, this land is an important piece of the story of both battles.

Following the devastation of the Civil War, the property was returned to family farming and other economic activities. The Hickox family purchased the land in 2008 and set to work on establishing their winery. Today, the winery's two vineyards are planted with Norton and Traminette varieties. The Winery at Bull Run also farms grapes on 115-acres in Rappahannock County, Virginia.

The remains of the Hillwood house (c. 1840s/50s) on the winery grounds. A fire nearly destroyed the historic structure in 1990. In 2008, Jon Hickox took down the damaged walls but preserved the foundation.

The Tasting Room represents two styles of Virginia barns. The darker wood structure built of reclaimed stone and wood is about the same size as the 19th century barn that stood at Hillwood. The white structure is typical of the 1920s dairy barns that were seen across Northern Virginia until the 1950s. 

The Tasting Room at the winery features display cases filled with relics that were found on the property and at other places nearby. Pictured above is a variety of artifacts from a field hospital that was located in front of the Hillwood house.

Additional artifacts in the Tasting Room, including artillery shells, Minie balls, and a State of New York belt buckle.

A view over the vineyard. Both Union and Confederate troops crossed this property at the time of the fighting at Manassas in July 1861 and August 1862. US-29, the Warrenton Turnpike during the war, is beyond the distant treeline.

What I believe to be a reconstructed winter cabin, similar to those used by Confederates in Centreville during the winter of 1861-62. 

One of several historical markers placed on the grounds at the winery. This one has a rather fanciful depiction of Hillwood, the Stone Bridge, and environs, during First Manassas.

The Winery at Bull Run represents a successful marriage of preservation and agricultural tourism. Large swaths of commercial and residential development have largely spoiled this part of Northern Virginia; the Hickoxes ensured that the pastoral and historic landscape of Hillwood would be preserved for generations to come. An outing to the winery is a must for any Civil War enthusiast. And the allure of wine tasting will make it easy for other family members to indulge in your love of history.

Sources & More Information
Local historian Chuck Mauro has written an interesting history of the Hillwood property and winery. The booklet is available for purchase at the winery's Tasting Room.

For more information on visiting The Winery at Bull Run, go to the vineyard's website here.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

An Interview with Debra Kathman, Executive Director of the Manassas Battlefield Trust

This past August I visited Manassas National Battlefield Park with my boys on the 153rd anniversary of Second Manassas. Living less than 30 minutes from the scene of the fighting, I consider Manassas my "local battlefield." I really enjoy exploring the ground on which both battles were fought. The close proximity means that if I want to focus on a specific part of First or Second Manassas -- for example, the fight on Chinn Ridge on August 30, 1862 -- I can do so with relative ease and little expense. (No offense to Harry, but I am more of a Second Manassas kind of guy!)

The day I visited in August, I had the pleasure of meeting Debra Kathman, the Executive Director of the Manassas Battlefield Trust, who was staffing a table there. I had heard of this group on social media, but knew little about their activities. Debra was nice to enough to answer a few questions for me about her organization. I think you'll find that the Trust has an ambitious and admirable agenda, and I hope readers will consider joining the group.

Q: What is the history of the Manassas Battlefield Trust?

A: The Trust was founded in 2013 through the efforts of then Park Superintendent Ed Clark (who is now the Superintendent of the Gettysburg National Military Park) and a core group of committed volunteers. All saw the potential for a friends group to support the Park and raise awareness and funds for projects and preservation. The group received initial support and guidance from the National Park Service, National Park Foundation, and the Civil War Trust, primarily to get the organization formed and legally up and running. The Trust was an all-volunteer effort until I was hired as the Executive Director this spring.

Q: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get interested in the Civil War and Manassas?

A. I have been fortunate to have had a varied career with jobs that have touched on many of my strengths and interests. I am a lawyer by training, and practiced law in both New York and the D.C. area for several years before moving into nonprofit and fundraising roles at several national organizations. Later, when my children were small, I decided to go back to school and pursue my interest in history. I received a Masters in History at George Mason University, and also worked as a research assistant at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at Mason during and after my time as a student. When the job at Manassas Battlefield Trust came up, it was a perfect mix of history, fundraising and program management. While my scholarly interests lie more in legal and social history, I do have a particular interest in the 19th century, and growing up history was all around me, as my father was an avid antique dealer and collector, with a special interest in guns and weaponry. Since joining MBT I have been boning up on my Civil War history, which has been great fun.

Q. What are the Trust’s goals?

A. The Trust’s main goal is to support the Manassas National Battlefield Park in the protection and preservation of the park through education, partnerships and philanthropy. While our primary purpose is to raise money to fund park needs that are unmet by federal funding sources, we also want to make the Trust and the Park a more visible and integral part of the local community.

Q. What are your main targets for preservation and conservation?

A. We work closely with the Park Superintendent, Jon James, and his staff to determine what the priorities are for park projects, taking into account what is currently funded through their budget and what are the unmet needs that we can assist in funding. Currently, we are looking to help fund new exhibits at Stone House and Brawner Farm, as well as helping with a planned redesign of the information desk at the Visitors Center. Obviously, any of these projects are dependent on fundraising and financial support.

Q. Have you or do you plan to partner with other groups, like the Civil War Trust?

A. We are always happy to partner with other organizations on projects that would benefit the Park. Our partnership with the Civil War Trust is a great example of this. Over the last two years we worked with them on both the acquisition of the Yeates Property for the Park as well as defusing a potential problem that involved the possible building of cell towers adjacent to the Park. In the case of the cell towers, MBT and the CWT were able to negotiate a settlement that was in the best interest for all involved. We also have a member of the CWT staff act as a liaison between our two groups. In addition to the CWT, I have reached out to other Civil War and preservation related groups and have found them very collegial and easy to work with.

Q. What can you tell readers about the Trust’s involvement in replacing trees that threatened the foundation of the Stone House?

A. This was a project that was before my time at the Trust, but I know that the trees were donated to the Park and replaced trees that had to be removed due to their encroachment on the foundation of the Stone House. This was one of the first projects completed by the Trust, and gave us some nice publicity.

Q. What other projects has the Trust completed at the battlefield?

A. Other than the Yeates property and tree planting mentioned above, we recently funded the creation of three traveling trunks for use by local schools and community groups. As mentioned above, we are currently working with park staff on identifying other potential projects for funding, like additional exhibits to Stone House and Brawner Farm, assisting with the remodeling of the information desk at the Visitors Center, and new waysides where needed in the park.

Q. Has the Trust taken a position on a possible battlefield bypass that would clear US-29 of congestion through Manassas NBP?

A. The Trust’s main focus is to support the protection and preservation efforts of the Park, so to that end we don’t have an official position on the bypass.

Q. The battlefield is a tremendous educational resource. What activities do you have planned for schoolchildren?

A. I agree! My first trip to Manassas NBP was on a field trip with one of my daughters, and I think all of us at the MBT understand the value of the park to the local community. When completed, the aforementioned traveling trunks will be a great resource for local schools to use while teaching students about the Civil War. We have also arranged for a collection of Civil War related books to be donated to the brand new Haymarket Library that is set to open on October 22nd. The library will also have an exhibit of artifacts from the Park on display. There are also various activities at the park for schoolchildren, including the upcoming Saturday at the Park, scheduled for October 10th. The MBT website always has information on upcoming park events:

Q. One thing I’ve noticed in multiple trips to Manassas is the absence of markers describing parts of the battle, particularly for Second Manassas. I was excited to read that you were planning to develop new interpretive waysides at the park. What can you tell us about this project?

A. I know the Park is currently replacing and updating many of the waysides throughout the park, and this is an ongoing project. There have been several areas identified (mostly for Second Manassas) that are still in need of updating, or in the case of the Stuart’s Hill and the Unfinished Railroad, adding waysides, and the Trust would love to be able to fund these….all it takes is raising the funds through our members and donors!

Q. Your website mentions a lantern event to honor the fallen. We’d be interested in learning some more about this project.

A. This is something that other National Battlefields and National Military Parks do, and we would like to start the tradition here as well. Unfortunately, this takes both time and money, but we are anxious to get a program like this on the calendar as soon as possible.

Q. Do you have any fundraisers in the works?

A. Right now our main focus is in obtaining new members. We recently revised our website and giving levels, and will be looking to add 100 new members (in honor of the National Park Service’s upcoming 100th anniversary) by the end of October. I hope you and your readers will consider joining the Trust and help us reach our goal!

Q. What other projects do you have planned?

A. I have mentioned some of the possible projects that the Trust would like to support (new waysides, exhibits at Stone House and Brawner Farm, new Visitors Center desk), but our support is dependent on gaining members and donors to support the Trust and our goals. We are also hoping to get some special tours and programs scheduled for our Trust members in 2016.

Q. What are your membership goals?

A. Long term, the sky is the limit—we would like as many members and donors as possible. In the short term, we are looking for those 100 new members by the end of October, again to celebrate the upcoming Centennial of the National Park Service.

Q. How does one become a member?

A. Becoming a member is easy, and you have several options. The easiest way is to go on line and join ( Our memberships begin at $35, but any donation amount is welcome.You can also send me an email at, or call our office at (703) 754-0791.

Q. What are some of the benefits of membership?

A. All of our members receive a 15% discount at the Park bookstore, a nifty “I Support Manassas Battlefield Trust” sticker for your car or truck, as well as invitations to upcoming special events and tours. We are also working on creating a membership pin (especially useful for all of our park volunteers who are also Trust members), and additional benefits for the higher giving levels. Stay tuned!

Q. Is there anything else you want to tell readers?

A. I hope everyone keeps in mind the importance of the Manassas National Battlefield Park. Not only is this land historically significant as the site of two major battles of the Civil War and as the location of several notable local farms and homesteads, it is also one of the last large tracks of green space in an increasingly urbanized area. As such, Manassas is a unique park that deserves local attention and preservation. I would invite all of you to join our efforts to support the park, especially as we look to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. I hope you all will #findyourpark…and make that park Manassas National Battlefield Park!