Interview: Brandon Bies, Superintendent of MNBP

13 10 2017

Back in February 2017, Brandon Bies was named the new Superintendent at Manassas National Battlefield Park (read the NPS press release here). In a somewhat unusual move for the NPS, they have placed someone with a very strong Civil War background in charge of a Civil War battlefield park. Mr. Bies recently took some time to talk to Bull Runnings about himself and the future of MNBP.

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BR: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

BB: We might touch upon this more later, but for most of my life I had an interest in American military history – mostly in World War II and the Civil War. Realizing this, I entered college at the University of Delaware as a History major, though at age 19 I had no idea what exactly I would do for a career. Fairly quickly, I decided to double major in Anthropology, which is typically what you study in the United States if you are interested in archeology. I also added a minor in American Material Cultural Studies. I graduated in 2001 and went straight to grad school at the University of Maryland, earning my Masters in Applied Anthropology (with a concentration in Historical Archaeology) in 2003.

While at UMD, I got my first real taste of the National Park Service, and spent 2 ½ years as an archeologist at Monocacy National Battlefield. That is where I did my Master’s project (we didn’t call it a thesis), which was to identify and prepare a National Register of Historic Places nomination for the archeological remains of the encampment of the 14th New Jersey. But my work at Monocacy also exposed me to other time periods as well, because the archeological history at Civil War parks goes back long before the battles were fought.

By the end of grad school, I knew pretty well that I wanted to work for the NPS – I really identified with the mission, and the efforts the NPS makes to tell diverse stories. I was incredibly fortunate in that – just a half year after getting my Masters – I was able to find a permanent position as a Cultural Resource Specialist at the George Washington Memorial Parkway. I held that position until 2010, when I made the difficult decision to not get my hands dirty as often, and transition into park management. I served a brief stint as the Site Manager of Great Falls Park, and then spent four years as the Site Manager of Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial. While there, I was fortunate enough to work with the Director of the National Park Service to secure a $12.35M donation from philanthropist David Rubenstein for the rehabilitation of the entire site.

At about that time, I began to dabble in legislative affairs, and so I moved over to the NPS regional office in D.C., where I split my time handling congressional affairs for all of the parks in the National Capital Region, while also still helping to manage the extensive planning of the Arlington House project. After three years in that office, I became the Superintendent here at Manassas in March 2017.

BR: How did you get interested in history in general, and in the Civil War in particular?

BB: I’d say I have always been drawn to history – particularly to military history. Both my grandfathers were veterans of WWII, and one of them went through some pretty bad stuff with the 1st Marine Division. I was always craving for him to share his experiences (which he eventually began to do prior to passing away in 2011). So as a kid I was always fascinated by WWII and, to a lesser extent, the Civil War. I do think that the Ken Burns series – which came out when I was eleven – made an impression on me, and by the time I got to high school I was reading a good bit about both conflicts. But unlike WWII, I could actually visit Civil War battlefields, which I began to do while in Boy Scouts.

Towards the end of high school, I started going to Civil War reenactments, and I became more and more interested in the material culture of the Civil War and in the common soldier. In my freshman year of college, I took a course on the archeology of American battlefields, taught by Dr. David Orr. I was hooked. Dave was an archeologist with the National Park Service out of Philadelphia, and at the time was largely focused on the Civil War. I think that class is what refocused me, and I realized if I could be one thing, I wanted to be Civil War archeologist.

BR: Since you’ve had a little time to settle in, what do you see as the challenges facing MNBP at this time?

BB: I’d say the park is facing three major challenges: impacts from adjacent development, severe traffic congestion, and maintaining/restoring the historic landscape.

The surroundings of the park have changed drastically over the last 30 years. While the park was once surrounded by farms, it is now bounded by development or planned future developments. 15% of the lands inside the congressionally-authorized boundary of the park are not federally owned. As I type this, there are multiple housing developments being planned or constructed on private lands within the boundary of the park. That will make it very, very hard to ever acquire and preserve those lands. But it’s not just housing developments – we’re working with the Virginia Department of Transportation on minimizing the impacts of a massive expansion of I-66, which runs along the southern boundary of the park. The proposed project will almost double the size of the road, and may include lengthy flyover ramps that are visible from within the park. And of course, there are frequent proposals for new cell phone towers and power lines that have the potential to create visual impacts.

With development comes traffic. On weekdays, it is exceptionally difficult to move around the park except for in the middle of the day. Even then, hundreds of large trucks pass through the park daily, and the car traffic is still intense. This makes it challenging for visitors to experience the different parts of the park or to drive the audio tour. It doesn’t matter what we do to restore the landscape; with the constant buzzing of traffic through the park, visiting Manassas can be a very different experience than standing in the heart of, say, Antietam or Shiloh. The Department of the Interior is legislatively mandated to explore ways to divert traffic around the park, and if deemed to be in the interest of protecting the integrity of the park, construct new highways and close the major thoroughfares that bisect the park. Although planning for this did come close to reality a few years ago, rerouting the existing roads is a divisive proposal that is dependent upon considerable political and financial support to be put back on the table.

Finally, restoration of the Civil War-era landscape is a huge priority of mine, but it is also a significant challenge. Many areas of the park that are now heavily wooded were historically open fields, but (for good reason) we can’t just go in one day and remove hundreds of trees. Besides needing to go through a considerable environmental and public review process, we also need a plan on how to maintain these areas once they are cleared. A classic example is the ~130 acres adjacent to the Deep Cut that were cleared about ten years ago; between the stumps that were left behind and the rocky terrain, it has been very difficult to maintain this area using traditional mowing methods, and thus portions have grown back up considerably.

BR: On the flipside, what do you see as the opportunities for the park, in the way of programs and projects?

BB: Well, speaking of landscape restoration, we are hoping to try some new things to keep some of these open spaces cleared, including the use of controlled burns. While using fire could alarm some people, it is a widely-accepted management tool throughout the NPS, and with proper outreach to the public, I think will ultimately help us significantly. It is also a great way to clear out nasty non-native invasive species, and ultimately supports the establishment of habitat for native birds like quail.

We also have a quickly-growing friends group, the Manassas Battlefield Trust. They have a lot of energy, and I think in the next few years we are going to see some great things from then, ranging from the rehabilitation of historic structures to new educational opportunities.

Finally, I really think we have an opportunity to reach new audiences. We cannot and should not depend upon Civil War buffs like you and I to be the sole supporters of this park. We have something for everyone, whether they want to come here to bird watch, to exercise, or just to enjoy 5,000 acres of open space. Now is the time to try to reach new user groups, forge them into advocates for the park, and share some significant Civil War stories at the same time.

BR: Bull Runnings had a very successful (IMO) outing at the park in April 2016. We had over 60 folks tour the field from top to bottom, so to speak, on what started out as a rainy Saturday. Hopefully, we can arrange another such tour in the future. Many visitors to the park tend to spend their time on the Henry Hill loop, so far as First Bull Run is concerned. Are there any plans to raise the profile of the first battle on other areas of the field?

BB: As I mentioned above, I am keenly interested in continuing to restore the landscape here, and that certainly includes looking at some of the key views related to the first battle. But it’s going to be a process and not happen overnight. Your readers may be interested in learning that, beginning in mid-October, we will begin a million dollar project to rehabilitate the Stone Bridge. This will include stabilizing some of the structural elements, replacing missing stones and repointing the whole bridge, and laying down new textured and colored pavement (called a chip seal) on the bridge road surface. If all goes according to schedule, the bridge should look great by the end of the year.

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After completion of this interview, there was an incident of vandalism at Manassas National Battlefield Park. The Superintendent had this to say regarding that incident:

59d507ab2a525.imageBB: Obviously, the current debate over Confederate symbols and remembrance is something that has hit close to home recently at Manassas. On the morning of October 4th, park staff discovered that the monument to Stonewall Jackson had been vandalized. While far from the first Confederate monument to be vandalized over the last few months, to my knowledge, this was the first to be struck that was within the context of a national park or battlefield. If there is any place where monuments to the Confederacy are appropriate, it should be at the places where the fighting took place. After all, it takes two sides (at least) to tell the story of a battlefield; otherwise, it’s just a field. And, in terms of monuments being placed in their appropriate context, you really can’t get more context for a Jackson monument than it standing at the very spot where he got the name “Stonewall.”

I’d say that my reaction – and that of most of the staff – is disappointment. Our National Parks should be places for dialogue, not destruction. It’s healthy to have a debate over the causes of the Civil War, and over how we remember those who fought. But in national parks, we tell all the stories, from the combatants to the civilians to the enslaved, all of whom left their marks on these fields, and all of whom are worthy of being remembered.

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Preview: Chernow, “Grant”

11 10 2017

51SNaH1F--L I received in the mail via Amazon yesterday the highly anticipated (in some quarters) biography of Ulysses Grant by Pulitzer Prize winning author Ron Chernow, titled Grant (where does this guy get off not giving us a colon and an all-encompassing subtitle?). Let’s start off by saying this giant (but not so giant as one might think) volume falls into the category of pop history. That is, the author has no established bonafides as an expert on Grant or his times. Chernow, as everyone not living under a rock knows, is the author of the best selling Alexander Hamilton, which inspired the prize winning Broadway musical Hamilton. He has also authored biographies of George Washington, John D. Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan. Now, we can see some overlap with Washington/Hamilton and Morgan/Rockefeller, right? But on the face of it, it looks like Chernow has entered that period of American history which we like to call home a little, well, cold. So, what we have here is an established, acclaimed, fine writer (I have read Hamilton) stepping into what looks to us (you regular readers of this blog, and blogs like it) like unknown territory. But believe me, it doesn’t look like that to the other 99%, the people to whom this book is marketed. Chernow, to them, is an expert on American History. Period. So this sucker is gonna sell a lot of copies (it is already, on its release date, stacked up for sale in Costcos across the nation – at a price below the “pre-order discounted” price I got from Amazon). And it may well win Chernow another prize. But I’ve written about this phenomenon before, that is, how too much experience with one topic can “unfit” us for the carefree consumption of popular histories. Read that again here if you haven’t already. Really, go read it. I’ll wait. Then, come back to this and I’ll give you the lowdown on Grant, preview-wise.

So, just what do you get with Grant? Well, you get a lot of pages. 959 pages of narrative, to be precise. But don’t be too intimidated. The spacing isn’t too tight and the font is not too small. It will read faster than that. There are also 53 pages of tightly printed “normal” endnotes, not the abbreviated, worthless ones favored by the big publishing houses these days. And there IS a bibliography, another nice surprise in this day of cost cutting. Read any of the advance reviews on this book and you’re  likely to see references to Chernow’s  extensive research (NY Times: “Chernow likes extreme research”; USA Today: “Chernow’s exhaustive research”; Washington Post [T. J. Stiles, no less, refer to my earlier piece you were supposed to re-read]: “strong research”). OK, let’s check that out.

The bibliography is about 10.5 pages long. Six pages of published books, and 4.5 pages of published articles. No MSS sources are listed in the bibliography, but at the beginning of the notes there are abbreviations for what looks like 23 manuscript sources (you know, unpublished papers, letters, etc…) No newspaper collections are identified, but I do see newspaper articles listed in the bibliography. I gotta tell you, the fact that these sources were not listed where I expected to find them (in the bibliography) gave me a jolt.

Sometimes I have little tests. They’re my tests, and they don’t necessarily indicate anything to anyone but me. For instance, when I pick up any book about the Maryland Campaign, I go straight to the bits about S. O. 191 to see if the work cites recent scholarship (this is probably the biggest change in the interpretation of the campaign in the past 20 years, and to ignore it is folly). For Grant, I check to see if the author mentions his relationship with local Pittsburgh boy Alexander Hays (with whom by many accounts Grant had a close personal relationship). Take Ronald C. White’s American Ulysses from last year. He mentions Hays three times (White also lists his MSS sources and newspapers in the bibliography, where I think they belong). Fighting Elleck does not appear in Chernow’s index. Take that for what it’s worth, and I understand it may not be worth much. Also note that White’s book lists (in the bibliography) 48 MSS sources and 43 newspapers. What does it all mean? I don’t know. Sometimes the counting of MSS sources baffles me. One author might just note the repository, for example, while another will name each collection at that repository. I will say that I hate the endnote format of White’s book (page numbers and text snippets) and prefer that employed by Chernow.

I’ve heard some criticism of the book as synthesis. I don’t see that as a problem – that’s the process: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. If we’re going to dismiss Chernow as a synthesist, some pretty big-named CW authors will need to be dismissed as well. Different authors can draw different conclusions from the same sources (the reviews indicate that Chernow and White differ in some of their conclusions). I only have a problem with synthesis when all it synthesizes are syntheses. That’s worthless. I don’t know that that’s the case with Chernow – it may take nearly 1,000 pages to figure that out. The book seems to be fairly balanced in its wartime and post-war coverage, page-count-wise. And let’s not forget, there’s value in how a story is told, even if the story has been told before. Depending on the audience, of course. And our lot is a tough crowd.

Go ahead and read the reviews to which I linked above – I’m generously assuming the reviewers read the whole thing.





Recap: Brandy Station Foundation

30 09 2017

On this past Sunday, Sept. 24, I delivered my Kilpatrick Family Ties program to the Brandy Station Foundation down in Culpeper, Virginia. This is a pretty long (4.5 hours) drive for me, so I turned it into a weekend trip and stayed in Warrenton. So let me recap my trip, with special emphasis on items of First Bull Run interest. Click on any image for a larger one.

I got into Warrenton around 6:00 PM, checked into my room, then headed to the historic district. I’ve never visited Warrenton before, so it was all new to me. First up was what is touted as the post-war home of Col. John Singleton Mosby though, based on length of residence, it may better be described as the post-war home of General Eppa Hunton, colonel of the 8th Virginia Infantry regiment at First Bull Run (read his battle memoir here, and his after action report here). Hunton made “Brentmoor” his home from 1877 to 1902, after purchasing it from Mosby.

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In the “law complex” section I found California, the pre-war home of William “Extra Billy” Smith, who commanded the 49th Virginia battalion at First Bull Run (memoir here, official report here). After the war, this building housed Mosby’s law office. Smith was a pre-war and wartime governor of Virginia.

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A few blocks away at 194 Culpeper St. is “Mecca,” a private residence built in 1859. It served as a Confederate hospital to the wounded of First Bull Run, and later as headquarters to Union generals McDowell, Sumner, and Russell.

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The Warrenton Cemetery is the resting place for many Confederate soldiers, most famously Mosby. Also there is William Henry Fitzhugh “Billy” Payne, with Warrenton’s Black Horse Troop at First Bull Run.

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Saturday was spent touring the battlefield of Brandy Station and sites associated with the Army of the Potomac’s 1863-1864 winter encampment with two experts on both, Clark “Bud” Hall and Craig Swain of To the Sound of the Guns. I admit to knowing very little about either of topic, but was given a good foundation for further exploration. I also learned that some red pickup trucks can go absolutely anywhere, and there is good beer around Culpeper.

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L to R – Me, Bud Hall, Craig Swain

Not a whole lot of First Bull Run stuff on the field, though. But the first thing I saw when I got to Fleetwood Hill was “Beauregard,” the home in which Roberdeau Wheat of the First Louisiana Special Battalion recovered from his Bull Run wounds, first thought to be mortal. The name of the house at the time was “Bellevue.” Wheat recommended the name change, in honor of his commanding general and in recognition of the similar translation of both names.

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View of “Beauregard” from Fleetwood Hill

Sunday found me back in Culpeper at the Brandy Station Foundation where, as I said, I presented Kilpatrick Family Ties to a modest audience. I made some late changes to the program on Saturday night, adding one pertinent site from Warrenton (the Warren Green Hotel where one of the characters in the presentation lived for a year) and “Rose Hill,” the home Kilpatrick made his HQ during the winter of 1863-1864. But I did run into a couple of Bull Run items. First, the monument to John Pelham that was previously located near Kelly’s Ford on the Rappahannock River (it was in a really bad location) has been relocated to the Graffiti House, home of the Brandy Station Foundation. Pelham, if you recall, was in command of Alburtis’s Battery (Wise Artillery) at First Bull Run (personal correspondence here).

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As most of you know, the Graffiti House at Brandy Sation was occupied by both Confederate and Union soldiers during the war. Over its course, soldiers of all stripes inscribed on its walls with charcoal signatures, drawings, and sayings of an astounding quantity. These were both obscured and preserved by whitewash after the return of its exiled owners, and were rediscovered in 1993. The Brandy Station Foundation has lovingly restored and preserved much of the dwelling, and you should make the Graffiti House a bullet point on you bucket list.

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Graffiti House, Brandy Station (Culpeper), VA

I’ll end this post with a shot of the signature of a prominent First Bull Run participant on one of the second floor walls. Can you see it? Here is his official report.

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Signature of Joe Johnston’s First Bull Run cavalry chief

 





Presentation at Brandy Station Foundation

18 09 2017

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Next Sunday, September 24th, I’ll be presenting Kilpatrick Family Ties to the good folks at the Brandy Station Foundation. Follow the link and click on Seminar Series in the left hand column. The venue is The Graffiti House, 19484 Brandy Rd, Va, 22714, start time is 2 PM, and it’s all free. This will be the third go-around for this presentation, and as usual I’ve added a few things (and will probably add a few more in the next few days).

Do stop by if you have the time and inclination.

On Saturday, the plan is to meet up with some friends and do a little Kilpatrick chasing around Culpeper. I know, Kilpatrick was not a Bull Run – he’d already been seriously wounded at Big Bethel. But his is a fun story. At least, the story I found is fun. I think.





Ballou Balloon Burst?

12 09 2017
Horatio-Rogers-Jr

Horatio Rogers, Jr.

The entire Robert Grandchamp America’s Civil War magazine article, “‘O Sarah!’ Did Sullivan Ballou’s Famed Letter Come From Another’s Pen?” can be found right here.

Go here for a link to an interview with Mr. Grandchamp.

Caption to photo in America’s Civil War magazine:

Was It Rogers? Some suspect Horatio Rogers Jr., not Ballou, wrote the famous letter, perhaps as a way of eulogizing his dear friend. (The Robert Grandchamp Collection)





Preview: White, “The Republic for Which It Stands”

6 09 2017

6127ca7ZUKL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Just in from Oxford University Press is Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896. This is (quantitatively, not qualitatively) a doorstop at 872 pages of narrative. White is the author of Railroaded; The Middle Ground; and A New History of the American West.

A quick look-through is reminiscent – in layout, at least – of Walter McDougall’s Throes of Democracy. Keep in mind, this is not a history of Reconstruction, or of The Gilded Age, but rather of America during those periods, just like the post-colon title says. It’s divided into three parts: Reconstructing the Nation; The Quest of for Prosperity; The Crisis Arrives. Per Publisher’s Weekly, White’s “account’s central focus is public affairs and he foregrounds the West and its native tribes, farmers, workers, and cities; his astute examination of the ‘greater Reconstruction of the West’ works as a counterpoint to the failures of Southern Reconstruction.” That last bit is a theme that also runs through my current reading Thunder in the Mountains, a study of O. O. Howard and Nez Perce Chief Joseph.

So, you’re going to have to set aside a good bit of time if you choose to bite into this one. In the yay department, footnotes are real, bottom of the page footnotes. In the boo department, the book includes a 29 page bibliographic essay only. Wave of the future, I guess.





Something About Sullivan

2 09 2017

800px-Sullivan_BallouHere’s a little Q & A with a historian who has a take on the authenticity of the famous “Dear Sarah” letter.

I have no dog in this fight.