This Anniversary Weekend

17 07 2019
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I’ll do my best to keep it together

Just a no frills reminder about this coming weekend at and near the Manassas National Battlefield Park (MNBP). On Saturday morning at 10:30 I’ll be speaking under a tent outside Ben Lomond Historic Site on McDowell’s Plan for the battle. No fee for this. Than on Saturday evening at 6:00 PM I’ll be speaking in the MNBP visitor center auditorium on Peter Conover Hains’s 1911 memoir of the battle. Again, no fee. Neither of these events require any walking on your part, other than to and from your seats.

On Sunday, at 9:00 AM I’ll be leading a bus tour of the battlefield and environs with Kevin Pawlak, who works for Prince William County and also happens to serve on the board of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation with me. The bus will leave Ben Lomond at 9:00 AM. There is a fee for this event. To book, follow the links I provided in this post.

I really hope to see you this weekend. Please come up and introduce yourself if you see me.





Gettysburg’s Leister Farm

3 07 2019


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An edited version of this article appeared as the first of a series I wrote for Civil War Times magazine, beginning in the June 2010 issue. The column was first called In Harm’s Way, and later as Collateral Damage.

The Leister House

The Leister house is best known for serving as the headquarters of Union Major General George Gordon Meade during the battle of Gettysburg – particularly as the site of the famous council of war held in its cramped interior on the evening of July 2, 1863.

The 1.5 story log house on Taneytown Rd. south of the town of Gettysburg was built no later than 1840, by Thomas Nolan. The farm at 10 acres was small for the day, as was the house at about 390 square feet plus floored attic. The main living area consisted of two rooms: a kitchen and a living/bedroom. Nolan sold the farm to Henry Bishop, Sr. in 1840, and Lydia (Study) Leister purchased it from Bishop for $900 on March 30, 1861, apparently with funds left her by her father but held in trust until her alcoholic husband’s death. Lydia and her husband James moved to the Gettysburg area from Maryland in 1850, and James died on Dec. 11, 1859, leaving behind his wife and six children, at least two of whom were living with Lydia on the farm at the time of the battle.

On July 1, 1863, Lydia and young Hannah and Matilda were advised by a mounted Union officer to leave the farm for their safety. They eventually found shelter on the Baltimore Road. The farm’s location was ideal for communications; the house and outbuildings were occupied and the grounds used as a signal station, the fields crossed frequently by troops, messengers and staff. On July 2nd and 3rd, Meade established his headquarters there. By the afternoon of the 3rd, it was being used as an aid station. Gettysburg resident Daniel Skelly visited the farmhouse on July 6th:

“In the front room of the house was a bed, the covers of it thrown back; and its condition indicated that a wounded soldier had occupied it. I was told that General Butterfield, Meade’s chief of staff, who had been wounded, had been placed upon it before being taken to a hospital.”

When Lydia and her children returned, they were greeted with devastation. In 1865 she described the scene to author John T. Trowbridge:

“I owed a little on my land yit, and thought I’d put in two lots of wheat that year, and it was all trampled down, and I didn’t get nothing from it. I had seven pieces of meat yit, and them was all took. All I had when I got back was jest a little bit of flour yit. The fences was all tore down, so that there wasn’t one standing, and the rails was burnt up. One shell came into the house and knocked a bedstead all to pices for me…The porch was all knocked down. There was seventeen dead horses on my land. They burnt five of ‘em around my best peach tree and killed it; so I ha’n’t no peaches this year. They broke down all my young apple trees for me. The dead horses sp’iled my spring, so I had to have my well dug.”

Trowbridge reflected on Leister:

“This poor woman’s entire interest in the great battle was, I found, centered in her own losses. That the country lost or gained she did not know or care, never having once thought of that side of the question.”

Lydia was eventually able to repair her house, even building a two story addition. She also expanded the farm, purchasing additional acreage from neighbor Peter Frey. She sold the bedroom table used by Meade during his stay to an Edmund Cleveland of Elisabeth, NJ (the table subsequently made its way back to the Park’s collection), and also sold for fertilizer the 750 pounds of bone from the dead horses, from which it took over 18 months for the meat to rot. She lived on the farm until 1888, when poor health caused her to move into town. At that time, the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association purchased the farm from Lydia for $3,000.

The original farm house was lived in continually by tenant farmers into the 1920’s. In 1933 the property was taken over by the National Park service, at which time it ceased to operate as a tenant farm and the buildings used for storage. In 1961, extensive excavation and reinforcement of the foundation was done, and the house was fully restored in 1966.

Upon selling her farm to the GBPA, Lydia had the two-story addition removed to a lot she purchased in town. She lived in that dwelling, which today is known as the Gettystown Inn near the Dobbin House on Steinwehr Ave., until her death at the age of 84 on Dec. 29, 1893, and is buried in Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery. Over the years Lydia Leister had filed claims against the War Department totaling just over $1,311 for damages to her farm during the battle. Settlement was made for $52.50.

[See here for some photos of the Leister house and farm. Thanks to GNMP and Ranger Troy Harmon for access to the house on a very, very cold day.]

Sources: Gettysburg National Military Park files; http://www.dobbinhouse.com; National Park Service Cultural Resources Management Bulletin Vol. 5, #4, December 1982, “The Mystery of General Meade’s Table,” Ronald Sheetz, http://crm.cr.nps.gov/archive/05-4/5-4-all.pdf; “A Strange and Blighted Land,” Gregory Coco; “A Vast Sea of Misery,” Gregory Coco; “The South: A Tour of its Battle-Fields and Ruined Cities,” John T. Trowbridge.





July 21, 2019 MNBP Schedule of Events

29 06 2019

158th Anniversary Commemoration of First Manassas

Date & Time 07/21/2019 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM

Special Program: Stone Bridge – Portici – Henry Hill Hike – 7:00 a.m.

Join a park historian for a special three-hour hike focusing on the battle’s early morning action. The program will begin with an overview of the campaign and opening combat at the Stone Bridge. Visitors are then welcome to accompany the ranger on an extended hike, both on and off trail, following in the footsteps of a detachment of the 4th South Carolina Volunteers. The tour will follow their approximate route to Portici and then to the battlefront on Henry Hill. Please meet at the Stone Bridge parking lot (Tour Stop #12).

Note: This hike includes the possible crossing of several shallow streams (water level permitting). Proper footwear is recommended. Insect repellent is also strongly encouraged. Courtesy transportation back to the Stone Bridge parking lot will be offered upon request. Total hiking distance will be approximately 3.5 miles.

Matthews Hill Walking Tour – 11:00 a.m.

Meet at Matthews Hill Parking Lot (Tour Stop #4)

Henry Hill Walking Tour – 10:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m., & 4:00 p.m.
Meet at the Henry Hill Visitor Center

Portici Walking Tour – 1:30 p.m.

Please meet at the Portici Parking Lot (Tour Stop #11)
Note: Parking is available at the back of the Strayer University lot off Battleview Parkway.

Chinn Ridge Walking Tour – 4:00 p.m.

Meet at the Chinn Ridge Parking Lot (Tour Stop #10)

Living History Demonstrations on Henry Hill

Musketry Demonstrations – 12:00 p.m. & 3:00 p.m.
Artillery Demonstrations – 12:30 p.m. & 3:30 p.m.

For more information, please call the Henry Hill Visitor Center:
(703)-361-1339 x0





Anniversary Weekend, July 20 & 21

28 06 2019

BL and MBT Joint Flyer

I have three engagements coming up in and near the Manassas National Battlefield Park over the weekend of the battle anniversary (I’ve never been one for anniversaries, and this will be the first time I’ll be down there for one. If you’re an anniversary type, note that not only is July 21st the 158th anniversary of the First Battle of Bull Run, it’s also a Sunday, and the battle was indeed fought on a Sunday.)

At 10:30 AM on Saturday, July 20, at the Ben Lomond Historic Site, I’ll be presenting McDowell’s Plan at Bull Run for the Prince William Historic Preservation Foundation. You can come hear me expound on my often-referred-to, hairbrained notions of what the General intended. It’s not what you’re used to hearing. But, it’s free! Check out the details in the flyer (which includes all the weekend events. There is also a Facebook Event Page.

Then on Saturday at 6:00 PM, I’ll be presenting “Echoes of the First Shot:” Peter Hains and the First Battle of Bull Run for the Manassas Battlefield Trust.. We’ll be taking a look at Hains’s 1911 memoir of the battle. You can find out everything and register to attend here. There is also a Facebook Event Page. There is a fee for the event that benefits the Trust. This is a free event. Donations to the Trust are appreciated.

On Sunday from 9:00 AM until about 3:00 PM, Kevin Pawlak and I will lead a bus tour of the battlefield and environs for Prince William Historic Preservation Foundation. Stops will include Blackburn’s Ford, Signal Hill, Sudley Springs Ford, and others. There is a fee that benefits the Foundation, but lunch is included. See the flyer, and the Facebook Event Page.





Recap: In the Footsteps of the 69th NYSM

12 06 2019


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At 9:00 AM on May 11, 2019, about 50 folks assembled in the parking lot at Manassas National Battlefield Park’s Stone Bridge to follow guides John Hennessy, Joseph Maghe, Damian Shiels, and me as we retraced the steps of the 69th New York State Militia during the First Battle of Bull Run.

The structure was simple: we followed the First Manassas Trail and walked along Bull Run from Stone Bridge and picked up the regiment’s route on the battlefield (west) side of Bull Run at the site of Farm Ford, where the men crossed on the morning of July 21, 1861. (Their route to the ford lies on the east side of the Run, over the grounds of the present day Winery at Bull Run.) At each stop, I contributed some framework of how we got to and what happened at that point using reports from the official records and other correspondence from participants. John Hennessy provided deeper context, again drawn from participants and from his years of research and experience on the field. Then Damian Shiels expanded our understanding of these men (and in some cases Irish soldiers of other regiments on the field as well) and their families in New York and Ireland, using the vast and poignant materials he’s gleaned from widows’ pension files. Consistent with the data set used, these accounts typically ended tragically, and Damian will forever be known as the George R. R. Martin of the First Battle of Bull Run. He drew us in with the stories of these men and women, got us to care about them, and then, well, bad things happened.

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John Hennessy discusses the advance to and crossing at Farm Ford

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After Farm Ford, we continued roughly west by north toward Matthews Hill, stopping to get some perspective and a view south to Henry Hill.

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Damian Shiels at Stop #2, a view south to Henry Hill from Sherman’s route of march toward Matthews Hill. John Hennessy and Joe Maghe, in green, look on.

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View south – MNBP Visitor Center in middle distance

The next stop was further west to the point of first contact between Sherman’s Brigade and the Confederates of Bee and – purportedly, possibly, perhaps – Wheat, and the death of Lt. Col. Haggerty. Damian continued the story of Haggerty’s widow. The ripples from pebbles tossed on that June Sunday were many and far reaching.

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Discussing the death of Haggerty

We then moved, still westerly, past the site of the Carter house “Pittsylvania” and the Carter Family cemetery.

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Carter Cemetery

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MNBP Superintendent Brandon Bies and his family joined us for the day

We took a jog south and discussed the Confederate collapse on Matthews Hill.

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View South

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View North to Confederate Line

Continuing farther west, we walked past the Stovall Monument and the site of the Matthews House to Matthews Hill where the 69th’s advance down Sudley Road toward Henry Hill was covered.

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Site of Matthews House

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View from Matthews Hill to Henry Hill

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The crew moves south to toward the Stone House and the Sudley Road/Warrenton Turnpike intersection.

After crossing the busy road (Warrenton Turnpike, today’s Lee Highway), we ascended to Henry Hill where we broke for lunch and to view Joe Maghe’s fine collection of 69th NYSM artifacts inside the reconstructed post-war Henry House (a big shout-out to MNBP for making the facility available).


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Joe Maghe fields questions from one of the dozens of folks on the tour and park visitors who stopped in the Henry House to view his collection. (Photo by Pat Young)

After lunch, but prior to setting out for the return trip to the Stone Bridge, we gathered for a group photo in front of the Henry House. A few opted not to do the return walk and are not pictured.


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After lunch, we discussed the 69th’s action on Henry Hill and the fight for Ricketts’s guns.

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John Hennessy describes the fighting on Henry Hill

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Occasionally participants contributed, in this case Pat Young of “The Immigrant’s Civil War”

We shifted base slightly down the hill, and covered the retreat.

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Here, I (green hat at center) discuss the retreat, prisoners, and the 69th’s forming of an infantry square

After that, we again picked up the First Manassas Trail, making our way along the back side of Henry Hill. Eventually we reached the site of the Van Pelt House, and wound our way down to the Stone Bridge parking lot where we started. FYI, my fit bit clocked in at right around 20,000 steps for the day.

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Guides (left to right) Damian Shiels, John Hennessy, Joe Maghe, and Harry Smeltzer

I think, all in all, the tour was a great success, and most important we all learned a good deal about these men, their families, and their circumstances before, during, and after the battle. Thanks to everyone who turned out, to our intrepid guides and exhibitor, to Debi Faber-Maghe who held down the fort in the Henry House, to the Bies kids who were super-troopers, and to my sister Patrice who really helped me out.

I’m mulling over a few really good – IMO – ideas for future First Bull Run tours (if you have any, I’m all ears), so check back here, every…single…day.





Update on Coming Attractions

22 05 2019

My apologies. I know last week I mentioned I had a lot to post “in the days ahead.” Well, those days have yet to arrive. I have two talks and one tour to recap, dozens of letters to transcribe, and this stack of books to preview:

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As always, though, life has a nasty habit of getting in the way of things. When I get my head above water, I’ll write up my recaps and previews, and will be most likely transcribing when I shuffle of this mortal coil, but right now I’ll take just a moment to thank a few people who helped make this a great May:

  • Rebecca Urban of the Peninsula Foundation, who invited me to speak at the GAR hall in Peninsula, OH. A cool joint, you should visit there for a talk or an evening of “roots” music.
  • Diane Klinefelter who invited me to speak at the Carnegie Library and Music Hall’s Civil War Symposium in Carnegie, PA. Also thank you my fellow presenters, Craig Swain and Rich Condon.
  • My good friends in the all-star guide lineup for the 4th Bull Runnings Battlefield Tour, In the Footsteps of the 69th NYSM – John Hennessy, Joseph Maghe, and Damian Shiels. You went above and beyond. As John said, we were a jam band who never before played together, but we pulled it off! Think Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and, well, me. Also a shout-out to my sister Patrice Smeltzer, who provided significant assistance.
  • Also a big thank you to everyone who attended these events. Some of you came from pretty far away (California, in two instances), and took valuable time from your busy schedules. I enjoyed meeting many of you for the first time, and renewing old acquaintances. I hope it was worth your while, and I hope to see you all again sometime soon – perhaps in Manassas for the battle anniversary weekend July 20-21 (two talks on Saturday and a bus tour on Sunday).




Coming Up in the Days Ahead

13 05 2019

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Saturday’s Bull Runnings Battlefield Tour was pretty great, with the weather holding out almost to the end. We had about 50 folks, and the round trip was about 5 miles (though my Fitbit says I walked 9.5 miles total).

It’s been a hectic month, but I will try this week to put up a post about the tour, as well as ones on my past two talks, a number of book previews, and upcoming events (I will be very busy in the Manassas area on July 20 & 21). Keep an eye out. Oh, and welcome to all the new followers.