Saturday, September 21, 2019

Fort Dushane: An Unprotected Civil War Fort that Once Protected the Union Army

Today's share comes as a guest post, courtesy of Michael Spencer of the Petersburg Battlefields Foundation (PBF). The folks at PBF are doing great things to help preserve the hallowed ground associated with the Petersburg Campaign. I encourage you to look into supporting their cause with a kind financial contribution or by purchasing a membership. Additional information about their efforts can be found by using underlined link above. 

Fort Dushane: An Unprotected Civil War Fort that Once Protected the Union Army 
by Michael Spencer

Just a few miles south of the City of Petersburg, within a recently developed neighborhood, stands a mostly forgotten Union fort that sits on land once hotly contested by two opposing armies. In the early Fall of 1864, this site represented the furthest point on the left flank of the Union armies operating around Petersburg. During the Petersburg Campaign of 1864 to 1865, this bastion witnessed thousands of troops march off to take part in large maneuvers against the opposing Confederate defenses. It also was visited by famous people such as Generals Grant, Meade and Warren, along with Secretary of State William H. Seward. (Campbell, A Grand Terrible Dramma) What is the story of Fort Dushane?

During the brutal four day Second Battle of the Weldon Railroad (also known as the Battle of Globe Tavern), which took place from August 18-21, 1864, forces led by the V Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac managed to take possession of and hold this Confederate supply line that ran into Petersburg. General Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, wanted to ensure that their hard fought gains would not be lost to future Confederate attacks. He ordered Federal fortifications to be extended from the Jerusalem Plank Road (modern day Crater Road) west to Fort Wadsworth along the Weldon Railroad. South of this fort and to the west of the railroad, Company B, U.S. Engineers Battalion and members of the 50th New York Engineers began work August 30th on what would become Fort Dushane. Within a month, this fortification was nearly complete and included a bombproof that could hold 600 men, with eight traverses. Iron rails from the nearby Weldon Railroad were used to help protect the magazines and traverses. (Hess, In the Trenches)
Sketch of the fort, by Charles W. Reed
All throughout these operations, attacks were expected from Confederate forces. Some skirmishing did take place during the month of September. Charles Wellington Reed, member of the 9th Massachusetts Light Artillery (and eventual Medal of Honor recipient) maintained an ongoing journal and drew many sketches during his time near Petersburg, including Fort Dushane. On September 17th, Reed wrote: “called up and prepared for action with some show of having one. [B]risk and lively skirmishing along our front and right from daylight till towards noon. [T]he rebs yelling and trying to force our skirmish line which was held”. (Campbell, A Grand Terrible Dramma)
On September 23rd, Reed noted in his diary: “our fort was named to day[.] [T]he fort is very near completion.”. This was the day that Reed learned Fort Dushane was officially given its name. Earlier in September, Generals Warren and Hancock recommended assigning names to the Union forts being established around Petersburg. Meade had his Corps commanders offer names of officers who had fallen since May 5th, 1864, which was the start of the Overland Campaign. (Hess, In the Trenches) This resulted in the naming of forts after officers such as Sedgwick and Wadsworth. Fort Dushane received its name from a fallen hero of Maryland.

Before the war, Colonel Nathan Thomas Dushane was a master builder and member of the Maryland House of Delegates. He entered the war with the 1st Maryland Regiment in June of 1861. He saw action throughout the war, including being captured at Front Royal in May of 1862. He fought with his all-Maryland brigade throughout the Overland Campaign and during the summer around Petersburg. (Hunt, Colonels in Blue) During the Second Battle of the Weldon Railroad, his brigade, part of Ayres division, took part in the initial attacks that the V Corps made to capture that rail line. Dushane and his men fought throughout all the subsequent Confederate counterattacks that took place during the operations of August 18th -21st. Unfortunately for Colonel Dushane, he would fall during the last day of this contest. As Noah Trudeau wrote, during a Confederate artillery bombardment, one “shell neatly decapitated the officer in charge of the all-Maryland brigade, Colonel Nathan Dushane.” (Trudeau, Last Citadel)

The location of Fort Dushane is just a mile or two from the spot where Colonel Dushane was killed. It was an appropriate place to be given his name, being on the extreme left of the Union line at the time and near the area where he spent his final days fighting with his men.

Fort Dushane was the staging area for troop movements against the Confederate lines to the north and west. During late September, Union infantry and cavalry moved out from this area in what eventually resulted in the actions around the Peebles Farm and the capture of Confederate Fort Archer (later renamed Fort Wheaton). Later in October, General Hancock’s II Corps, which had been encamped around Fort Dushane, launched its maneuvers that ended up in the first attacks against the Boydton Plank Road and Hatcher’s Run. (Trudeau, Last Citadel)

An interesting visit took place on September 25th. According to Reed’s account, “Gen’s Grant, Meade, Warren, Humphrey, Senator [Secretary of State] Seward, and other dignitaries visited the fort to day”. This was apparently a tour of fortifications given to Secretary Seward by General Grant and high level staff. (Campbell, A Grand Terrible Dramma)

Today, Fort Dushane still stands despite over 150 years of potential destruction. Its rich but largely forgotten history needs to be preserved for generations to come. Fort Dushane holds an important role in the Petersburg Campaign that should be remembered and highlighted.

Images of Fort Dushane today.

Campbell, Eric A. 2000. A Grand Terrible Dramma: From Gettysburg to Petersburg: The Civil War Letters of Charles Wellington Reed
Hess, Earl J. 2009. In The Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications & Confederate Defeat
Trudeau, Noah Andre, 1991. The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864-April 1865
Hunt, Roger D. 2007. Colonels in Blue: The Mid-Atlantic States

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

I've been following the progress of Kevin Levin's latest work, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth, for a few years now on his Civil War Memory blog. I'm particularly interested in learning more about the actual roles that the enslaved played in Confederate armies and how over the years those responsibilities became conflated with being arms bearing combatants. This highly anticipated study will hopefully spur additional scholarship on this topic, as it is area of Civil War studies that has been waiting for thorough historical examinations.   

The Reconstruction era seems to be receiving more general public interest than ever before. Perhaps the recent and highly regarded Henry Louis Gates's PBS documentary, "Reconstruction: America after the Civil War," and its accompanying book, Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow has something to do with it. Or perhaps the recent establishment of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park in Beaufort, South Carolina is helping create a buzz. Or maybe it has something to do with it being the sesquicentennial anniversary of the period. More likely its a combination of these things. People are finally realizing that Reconstruction is so relevant to where find ourselves today in terms of race relations. Regardless, learning about this time in our country's history is fundamental to understanding where and what we are today as a nation. Books like Virtue of Cain: From Slave to Senator, Biography of Lawrence Cain are giving us more insight than ever into the promising advances, troublesome events, and heartbreaking setbacks of Reconstruction.

Antebellum southern society seemingly offers scholars an endless supply of topics to research and write about. One that has always interested me is the happenings at popular mineral and hots springs and spas. Some of the most visited were in the hills and mountains of Virginia. Viewed as refuges from the diseases and maladies of the tidewater and low country regions, spas and springs hosted a veritable who's who among the southern elite. Ladies and Gentlemen on Display: Planter Society at the Virginia Springs, 1790-1860, promises to be an educational and enjoyable read. 

Monday, September 16, 2019


In the summer of 1864, the Confederacy was searching for manpower. With military defensive efforts in progress at Petersburg, and around Atlanta, along with other points across the South, help was in great demand. The above advertisement, which ran in the July 28, 1864, edition of the Richmond Daily Dispatch sought six African American blacksmiths. These men were desired for their skills in producing horse shoes and horse shoe nails.

Without the equine beasts of burdens, mid-19th century armies were virtually powerless. Horses and mules provided the brawn to haul army supply wagons that brought equipment, food, and ammunition to the soldiers in the field. These brutes pulled the artillery pieces, limbers, and cassions that helped defend the critical locations the Southerners were backed into. But, to keep the animals functioning properly they needed food to fuel their muscles and iron shoes to protect their hooves.

It is assumed that the six "negro" blacksmiths sought by Capt. J. S. Tucker at the Richmond Arsenal were enslaved men. It was common practice in the antebellum years for owners with slaves who had skills to rent or lease them out, particularly in urban locations where industrial skills like carpentry, brick masonry, and iron working were most often happening, and thus in highest demand. Those owners reaped the reward of their enslaved's labor. It was an unjust but pragmatic system. In wartime, slave labor became even more valuable because it ideally freed up white men to be arms-bearing soldiers.

One wonders if Capt. Tucker had any trouble filling his need for six blacksmiths. I highly doubt it. The war brought thousands of white refugees into Richmond, many of whom also brought their slaves along. With all of the manufacturing and transportation requirements of the Confederate government in Richmond, opportunities were plenty, particularly for those will marketable skills.

However, the nation built on slavery was like the house on sand. The war offered the disturbances and opportunities for thousands of enslaved people to abandon their previous lives and seek new ones that offered monetary rewards for their work. The manpower drain helped create a downward spiral that eventually helped cost the Confederacy its bid for independence.   

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Spying on the South

When I was a boy, one of my great aunts gave me a paperback copy of The Slave States before the Civil War, an abridged version of Frederick Law Olmsted's travels through the antebellum South in the 1850s. I kept that book and finally read it with great interest many years later while in graduate school. I still have that old book in my library and have referred to it on several occasions due to its excellent insights. Therefore, I was naturally happy to hear earlier this year that journalist/author/historian Tony Horwitz was publishing a book based on Olmsted's travels. The book's pre-release heralded the volume much in the spirit of one Horwitz's previous books, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. Having found Confederates in the Attic a fun yet thought-provoking read, I eagerly dove into Spying on the South: An Odyssey across the American Divide.

In this, Horwitz's latest and last book (he unfortunately passed away in May, just a couple of weeks after its release), he attempts to follow Olmstead's routes through the South. However, not only does he follow Olmsted's paths, he also attempts (when possible) to travel by means of transportation as his precursor did. Naturally, that was practically impossible for travel on conveyances such as stagecoach. But, when Olmsted traveled by a certain means, Horwitz tried to, too. For example, from Wheeling, West Virginia, Horwitz received permission to go by way of a coal barge.

Like Olmsted before, Horwitz used his travel to gather insight into a divided America. Along his routes Horwitz engages people from many different walks of life and occupations, and of course, from various socioeconomic, educational levels, and political bents. Through his travels Horwitz deftly weaves in Olmsted's experiences and writings. And whereas Olmsted commented on the primary issue dividing the country in his time (slavery), Horwitz converses with Americans from Maryland to western Texas on a host of divisive political issues including climate change, crime, gun rights, perceptions of so-called liberals and conservatives of each other, and a host of others.

At times hilarious, at others quite sad, but always provoking the reader to think, Horwitz shares his adventures of sharing quarters with the Ohio River coal barge workers, traveling on a high-line Mississippi River steamboat cruise, attending a mud bog race in Louisiana, chatting with locals in a number of local bars, sitting in on political meetings in East Texas, and crossing part of the West Texas plains by way of a challenging mule and with a crusty guide. Like Olmsted, Horwitz seems to gain a great deal of useful knowledge from his travels. Olmsted used his experiences to write pieces for what became the New York Times, which helped shape northern perceptions of the South at the time. He also incorporated many of the landscapes and plants he encountered into his later work in monumental landscape architecture projects like New York City's Central Park and Vanderbilt's Biltmore. Horwitz's experience gives us this book, Spying on the South, which challenges us to try to understand and remember that not everyone sees the world as you or I do.

Written in a way that encourages one to learn more, several in our book club at work mentioned that Spying on the South prompted them to read other books on subjects that both Olmsted and Horwitz mention. I fully concur! After concluding this book I read Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 by Andrew J. Torget.

I think that if Horwitz could learn that his book led people to read more, he would break out into his well known friendly grin. I highly recommend Spying on the South. It is fun to read, written as a true page turner, while at the same time being intellectually stimulating.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Just Finished Reading - War Stuff

It should almost go without saying that one needs stuff to wage a war. Not only is stuff needed to mobilize for warfare, but once in the field, stuff is needed to sustain a fighting force. And when one's nation state cannot supply stuff on a regular basis, or when needed stuff is more accessible locally, armies take and destroy stuff. That is War Stuff: The Struggles for Human and Environmental Resources in the American Civil War by Joan E. Cashin in a nutshell.

Part of the Cambridge Studies on the American South series, War Stuff includes chapters on some of the most important resources sought by Union and Confederate armies as they fought out the Civil War. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the antebellum South. The following three chapters focus on specific resources: people, sustenance, timber, and habitat, and examine them through incidents from 1861 to 1863 to observe how attitudes toward these resources changed with Union stances on property as expressed by orders from Maj. Gen. John Pope and General Orders 100 (the Lieber Code) written by Professor Francis Lieber. The last two chapters cover events of 1864 and 1865, as the war moved toward a more destructive level.

In discussing "People," in chapter two, Cashin explains that, "Noncombatants could either help the armies or hurt them, building on the knowledge they already possessed and the proficiencies they had developed before 1861. During the war, they could lift morale, smuggle goods, deliver letters, provide information, engage in espionage, and work for the armies. They could even serve as hostages, which turned civilians themselves into a kind of resource."

Chapter three covers probably the most significant resource (due to its necessity) of the war: sustenance. The competition for food resources during the Civil War were fierce. Southern civilians, including the enslaved, competed with both Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers for food. Early in the war the Union army's stance was to not make war on civilians, however, those rules and standards quickly changed with pinched stomachs and a lack of variety in what the army offered. Confederates were practical if nothing, too. When sustenance options appeared, common sentiments flew out the window in favor of gaining some nutrition. Southern civilians suffered from both belligerents.

Timber, the topic of chapter 4, was probably the most observable resource claimed by the opposing forces. Armies of tens of thousands of men needed wood for cooking, fuel for warmth, and sheltering winter quarter structures. Trees vanished from the Southern landscape in some locations as quickly as frost vanishing before the morning sun. In areas of sustained occupation, soldiers had to literally travel miles for timber resources. Split rail fences on plantations and farms were the most accessible wood resources and often disappeared first. Of course, losing timber resources, whether trees or rails, impacted Southern civilians deeply long beyond the fours years of the war.

Chapter five, "Habitat" looks into how houses, which before the war were viewed as an almost holy haven, no matter how crudely constructed or spartanly furnished, often became the victims to "military necessity," too. Pulled apart for their boards and beams, burned to prevent their cover for sharpshooters, or their walls graffitied by their temporary occupiers, Southern civilians notions of hearth and home were forever changed by the war experience. As mentioned above, chapters six, "Breakdown," and seven, "1865 and After," the threats to, and competition for, resources increased with a more extreme and relentless form of warfare in 1864 and 1865.

The only minor errors that I encountered were a photograph on page 34 that I highly doubt is Patrick Cleburne, and a reference on page 37, that "Kentucky allied with the United States in 1862," (they made their allegiance known in September 1861).

War Stuff provides many intriguing thinking points. Time and time gain, acknowledged articles of war were ignored by both sides commanders and enlisted men in favor of convenience and under the excuse of "military necessity" to the detriment of Southern civilians. War Stuff reminds us that the casualties of the Civil War went far beyond the battlefields of the conflict and its combatants. I recommend it.