FAQ #1: How Do You Start a Diorama?

Today we are starting a new series in Mewsings, answering questions that visitors to our museum have asked. Eventually, we will make a tab for FAQs on our website. If you have a question that we haven’t covered, email us at info@civilwartails.com and we will consider adding it to the list!

The FAQ for this Mewsing is how do we start a diorama?

Our first step in making a diorama is picking a story. Generally speaking, as we read a book on an aspect of the Civil War, we will come across a story and think, “That would make a cool diorama,” or “Wow, we should totally make a diorama of that.” Stories that catch our interest usually involve bravery, heroism, or desperation. Sometimes a story is humorous, or sometimes we want to show a particular item of interest, such as Prof. Thaddeus Lowe’s observation balloon Intrepid (that scene is currently in storage, especially since a mouse chewed up the basket on the balloon!).

Once we have decided to make a diorama of a particular event, we look at maps in books on the subject to see exactly what the area involves. How much space does the regiment cover? Is the enemy close enough for us to include them on the diorama? What buildings or topographical features are involved (hills, woods, streams, fences, walls)?

2019-06-22 20190620_151231The next consideration is scale. For a small scene, such as “Desperation at Skull Camp Bridge,” we could use a larger scale because the scene would not involve a lot of figures. A scale of 2-inch-tall cats is okay if there are only sixty soldiers involved. But it would be impossible to use cats of that size for a to-scale diorama with 3,000 soldiers, such as “The Fate of Gettysburg,” unless you have a warehouse to fit it in!

Once we decide on the scale, we calculate the ideal size and, well, the practical size.

First, we calculate the size we would ideally want the diorama to be. Take “The Boys Are Still There” (Little Round Top), for example. We knew it would be a large diorama, rivaling “The Fate of Gettysburg” in size. But how big? This is a section of the topographical map that we use (similar to the one found here), with our planning marks drawn in pencil (the colored lines are photo-shopped in for the purposes our Mewsing).

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The red lines show initial markings that would allow us to include space for the Confederates advancing up the west slope, the entire 15th Alabama to the south, and perhaps even Company B of the 20th Maine, who ended up separated and on their own, due to a misunderstanding (red circle). Early in our calculations, we realized that this would result in an enormous diorama, so we had to trim the area down. We finally settled on the green box. This worked out to exactly 11 feet long, fitting the Signal Corps station on the north end of the hill, and the 15th Alabama to the south.

We make our dioramas in sections that can fit through doorways, so the next question was if the diorama should be 2-doorways or 3-doorways wide. With two, we could fit the Confederates on the west slope and the left wing of the 20th Maine on the east slope of the spur (the blue lines show the section breaks). Adding another section (the purple lines) would mean we could have the right end of the 15th Alabama (over 2/3 of the regiment was facing the 20th Maine’s left wing; red ovals), but it would mean a lot of blank space on the north end of the diorama, so it wasn’t really worth the extra space. So, our current diorama measures 11’ x 4’8” and fits nearly everything we wanted to portray.

Then, we take into consideration whether we are limited by the size we have available. For “The Fate of Gettysburg,” we were limited by how much floor-space we had in the room where we could set it up. So, given the space available and the scale of the cats (which was as small as we could make them at the time), we had to cut off a portion of the Copse of Trees  in order to fit the Angle of the stone wall onto the opposite side of the diorama (red markings below).

2021-06-19 Angle

After we have settled on the size and finalized what we are portraying, the planning phase is done, and it’s time to move on to making the diorama!

An Army Divided – Chancellorsville

In today’s Mewsing, we take a look at the beginning stages of the battle of Chancellorsville, fought this day in 1863. The battle was the epitome of the great working relationship between Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson. Its battle plan—splitting an outnumbered army to attack the larger enemy—was a daring one that, even today, flies in the face of common sense. And yet it was a brilliant success. Chancellorsville may very well have been the Army of Northern Virginia’s greatest victory.

During the winter of 1862-63 the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was encamped near Fredericksburg, Virginia. The Union Army of the Potomac lay facing them across the Rappahannock River. After the failure of the battle of Fredericksburg and the Mud March, President Lincoln replaced Gen. Ambrose Burnside with Gen. Joe “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Hooker was proud and known for criticizing others, but Lincoln hoped that that very pride and fighting spirit would make him a general who won battles.

Starting out on April 27, the Union army moved upriver, crossed, and passed around the Confederate left flank, forging ahead through the dense woods and undergrowth of the Wilderness. When they reached a clearing near Chancellorsville, the Chancellor’s house, they formed a battle line and settled down to await further orders. Hooker bragged that the Confederates would have to either run or fight the Union army on its own ground.

Gen. Lee was unsure where Hooker planned to attack. Some Union troops crossed the river in front of him, but they did not strike. Then Lee learned of Union troops near Chancellorsville. Lee quickly sent Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps off to find the Union army.

On May 1, the Union army hit the Confederates. But then Hooker told his men to halt and retreat to their original positions near the Chancellor house. The orders shocked and baffled his generals. They were doing well; why should they retreat? Later, Hooker explained, “For once I lost confidence in Hooker.”

20210502_160506On the evening of May 1, Lee met with Jackson. As they talked, Gen. Jeb Stuart rode up and told them the Union army’s right flank was in the air. Lee looked at Jackson. “What do you propose to do?”

On the sketched map provided by Jedediah Hotchkiss of his staff, Jackson pointed at a long road that led around the Union right flank. “Go around here.”

Lee asked what troops he would use.

Jackson calmly replied that he would use his whole corps.

Both generals knew this would leave only two divisions facing the rest of the Union army. But Lee trusted his second-in-command and hardly hesitated before saying, “Well, go on.”

At 7:00 a.m. on May 2, Jackson’s lead regiments marched past Lee’s headquarters. “Stonewall” rode up and down the lines, telling the men to “Press on! Press on!” They must march rapidly if they were to cover the 14 miles around the Union flank and still have time to attack before dark.

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Later in the day, Union lookouts saw the marching Confederates, and Hooker realized they were trying to flank him. Some of his troops attacked the gray column but were beaten back. Hooker decided the Confederates must be retreating.

At last, the Confederates reached their positions and formed into three lines of battle. At 5:15 p.m., with less than three hours left before dark, Jackson turned to Gen. Robert E. Rodes, commanding the first battle line, and asked if everything was ready. Rodes replied in the affirmative. “You can go forward, then,” Jackson said calmly.

The unsuspecting Union soldiers were preparing dinner when deer, rabbits, squirrels and all sorts of forest animals began scurrying through the camp. The soldiers laughed and joked about the animals but did not wonder at the reason. Suddenly, thousands of Confederates appeared through the trees, screaming the high-pitched Rebel Yell.

20210502_160300The gray lines swarmed over the surprised Union soldiers, some of whom were so scared they couldn’t even fire their guns before being swept away by the gray juggernaut. The Union flank crumbled. By the time darkness halted the attack, two miles of the Union line had been rolled up.

Lee and Jackson’s gamble had paid off. But this was not a time to rest on their laurels; there was more work to be done in the morning—unless a night attack could be made. “Stonewall” Jackson rode out between the opposing lines to reconnoiter and decide…but that is a Mewsing for another time.

Honor Answering Honor

2021-04-10 Honor Answering Honor - Chamberlain 02On the evening of April 9, 1865, Gen. Joshua Chamberlain received word that he would command the Union troops receiving the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Gen. Grant had been generous in his terms to Gen. Lee, but he did feel and insist that the Confederates should lay down their arms before Union troops representing the Union army. Chamberlain, feeling “this was to be a crowning incident of history,” asked his corps commander, Gen. Griffin, if he could use his old Third Brigade, who he had served with for two years and commanded after Gettysburg. “I thought these veterans deserved this recognition,” he recalled in his reminiscences. Griffin obliged, transferring Chamberlain to command of the Third instead of the First Brigade.

On the morning of April 12—a chilly, gray day—Chamberlain’s men formed along the side of the road to await the Confederates. Chamberlain, still loathe to forget the other men he had commanded during the war, received permission to have the First and Second Brigades present as well, the former behind the Third, and the latter across the road, facing them.

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From where they stood, they could see the Confederates breaking camp and then forming into column. “On they come,” Chamberlain recalled, “with the old swinging route step and swaying battle-flags.”

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Chamberlain had given thought to the “momentous meaning” of this day, and had already issued orders that would mark it with a fitting honor. Like many of the Union troops, he couldn’t help but respect the thin, worn gray soldiers who approached. “Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve.”

2021-04-10 Honor Answering Honor - GordonAt the head of the first Confederate division, Gen. John B. Gordon rode, Chamberlain recalled, “with heavy spirit and downcast face.” Suddenly, a bugle rang out and the whole Union line “from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession,” shifted their rifles from “order arms” to “carry arms”—the soldier’s salute. Gordon “catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,—honor answering honor.”

Few eyes were dry as the Confederates passed by, halted facing Chamberlain’s Third Brigade, and dressed their lines. They fixed bayonets and then stacked their rifles, and laid down their cartridge boxes and battle flags. All day long, division after division came. Many units carried bare flagpoles, having torn their flags into pieces, distributing them among the soldiers, or having buried the flags.

Gordon recalled the event in his Reminiscences: “as my men marched in front of them, the veterans in blue gave a soldierly salute to those vanquished heroes—a token of respect from Americans to Americans.” Chamberlain was also aware of the repaired unity of the nation: his men, he mused, were “men of near blood born, made nearer by blood shed. Those facing us—now, thank God! the same.”

“For Extraordinary Heroism” — Medal of Honor, Part 1

March 25 is National Medal of Honor Day. Here at Civil War Tails, we currently have 11 recipients either portrayed or mentioned on our dioramas. In today’s Mewsing, we are highlighting those recipients who were involved in repulsing Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. (Italicized quotes are from each man’s Medal of Honor citation, which can be found on the Medal of Honor Society’s website or on Wikipedia.)

Lt. Alonzo Cushing, Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, Pickett’s Charge, Gettysburg, Pa., 3 July 1863 – “First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing distinguished himself by acts of bravery above and beyond the call of duty… [During the cannonade before Pickett’s Charge,] First Lieutenant Cushing directed fire for his own artillery battery. He refused to leave the battlefield after being struck in the shoulder by a shell fragment. As he continued to direct fire, he was struck again – this time suffering grievous damage to his abdomen. Still refusing to abandon his command, he…continued to direct devastating fire into oncoming forces.… First Lieutenant Cushing’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty at the cost of his own life are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, Army of the Potomac, and the United States Army.”

Sgt. Frederick Füger, Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, Pickett’s Charge, Gettysburg, Pa., 3 July 1863 – “…for extraordinary heroism on 3 July 1863, while serving with Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, in action at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. All the officers of his battery having been killed or wounded and five of its guns disabled in Pickett’s assault, Sergeant Füger succeeded to the command and fought the remaining gun with most distinguished gallantry until the battery was ordered withdrawn.”

Gen. Alexander Webb, Philadelphia Brigade, Pickett’s Charge, Gettysburg, Pa., 3 July 1863 – Gen. Webb commanded the Philadelphia Brigade at the Angle, where Pickett’s division struck the Union line. After trying to lead the immovable 72nd Pennsylvania forward, Webb joined the 69th Pennsylvania at the stone wall where they were grappling—sometimes literally—with the Confederates. Despite being in the thick of the fighting alongside his men, Webb emerged safely, having only been grazed by a bullet. He received the Medal of Honor for “distinguished personal gallantry in leading his men forward at a critical period in the contest.”

Maj. Edmund Rice, 19th Massachusetts Infantry, Pickett’s Charge, Gettysburg, Pa., 3 July 1863 – The 19th Massachusetts was one of the regiments that piled into the Copse to plug the gap in Webb’s line and help repulse Pickett’s Charge. Maj. Rice received the Medal of Honor for “conspicuous bravery… [in] the countercharge against Pickett’s division where he fell severely wounded…”

Cpl. Henry O’Brien, 1st Minnesota Infantry, Pickett’s Charge, Gettysburg, Pa., 3 July 1863 – “for extraordinary heroism on 3 July 1863…. Taking up the colors where they had fallen, Corporal O’Brien rushed ahead of his regiment, close to the muzzles of the enemy’s guns, and engaged in the desperate struggle in which the enemy was defeated, and though severely wounded, he held the colors until wounded a second time.” Cpl. O’Brien is one of two enlisted men that we at Civil War Tails often credit with starting the Union counterattack in the Angle.

When Disaster Strikes

20210301_052922A week and a half ago, we here on Baltimore Street had some excitement—and not of the good kind. Shortly after 4:00 a.m. on March 1st, a car plowed into the buildings that housed the Blue & Gray Gift Shop and the Crystal Wand, and exploded. A 4-alarm fire engulfed both buildings and it took firefighters two hours to put out the flames. Later that day, the day that the Blue & Gray Gift Shop was supposed to open for the season, the building was razed completely. The future of the other building is still being determined. While the driver of the car lost his life, amazingly he was the only fatality, and all the tenants made it out safely.

A tragedy like this really makes us stop and think. Here are a few thoughts we have had over the last ten days.

  • Don’t take anything for granted. As fellow business owners here at Civil War Tails, we feel deeply for the owners of the Blue & Gray Gift Shop and the Crystal Wand. In a mere two hours, not only did their spring tourist season plans change, but everything was gone. We all know on some level that things can change in an instant, but this is a very tangible reminder. So, appreciate the blessings in your life, but be aware that in a split-second, they can disappear.
  • Cherish your loved ones. Somewhere, a family is hurting, because in one split-second, a life ended. And undoubtedly they never saw it coming. Make sure the people you love know that you love them—now. Tomorrow morning might be too late.
  • Remember, your decisions may affect another person’s life in a drastic way. We probably will never know why that car went off the road in the rain at 70+ mph at 4 a.m. But of all the possible reasons, some are things we can control (speed, awareness of road conditions, driving under the influence) and some are not (vehicle malfunctions, medical emergencies). Even if we think of ourselves as safe drivers, we still need the reminder: use wisdom to control what you can Lives, dreams, livelihoods, and possessions of others are at stake—not to mention your own life!
  • Be grateful for our police (first on the scene), our EMS (second on the scene), and our firefighters—and support them. As we watched from our front yard, it struck me how in a situation where I would be helpless to help, each person on the scene knew exactly what to do. No one was panicked, no scurrying here and there like on TV—just calm, cool, doing their jobs, and taking control of the situation, minute by minute, window by window, flame by flame. The Inn at Cemetery Hill stands right behind the Blue & Gray Gift Shop, and thanks to the firefighters’ skill, it—as well as other nearby buildings—remains unscathed. Support your local fire department, even if only financially. Don’t take them for granted. And remember, by supporting your department, you’re helping protect more than just your local neighbors. Crews from many area departments came in the rain and fought those flames for two hours. I’m sure our local department couldn’t have done it alone.
  • Be aware of Providence. Maybe you call it chance, but you need to consider “the little things” that show God is at work in our world today.
    • Was it just chance that a gym employee who lives just a couple buildings away was ready to head to work at the time of impact? He was on the scene immediately and because of his gym training, skill, and strength, he was able to rescue a trapped tenant. Let me just say, how many of us could do a chin-up onto a balcony? I sure can’t!
    • On Monday evening, the wind picked up into heavy gusts. Can you imagine fighting a 4-alarm fire in heavy wind? How many more buildings would have gone up? Was it just luck that 4 a.m. was calm with little or no breeze?
    • Consider even the really little things—it was a 4-alarm fire and a cat was lost inside one building. What were the odds that the cat would not only survive but safely make it back to its owner? Chance doesn’t care about you, but God cares for all of His creatures, even little furry ones.

Walking past the smoke-blackened, forlorn, empty building that housed Crystal Wand and the empty hole where the Blue & Gray Gift Shop once stood is a sobering wake-up call. Let us love our family more, loosen our hold on our possessions, and teach ourselves and our children that our decisions over things in our control affect other people, even when we are alone in the middle of the night.

New Faces at Skull Camp Bridge

“Desperation at Skull Camp Bridge” is enjoying a little extra attention these days. During this revamp, we are adding a few new horses to fill in the gaps and beef up the Union defensive line. It’s a good chance to give a home to some unused horses that we made years ago, and time to make some new ones.

We hope you enjoy taking a stroll through the snapshots of new faces. Does a particular cat or horse catch your eye or imagination? Take a screenshot or print the photo and bring it with you the next time you visit Civil War Tails. Then you can enjoy your very own mini-scavenger hunt as you look for him on the diorama!

Sometimes an old-timer just needs a little glue to make him jump higher!

 

In the thick of things!

Person or Idea?

The current events of the last year have started us mewsing about how we view people with whom we do not agree. Watching the news and social media, it is easy to see “the other side” as faces on a screen, which is, in effect, dehumanizing them. That is a dangerous slippery slope. Please take the time to read and ponder this mewsing seriously.

During the Civil War, things were no different than they are now. Both sides vilified the other in newspaper print and in political speech. Individual citizens—civilian and soldier—easily lumped people of the other side into general stereotyped beliefs, rather than recognizing real human beings. For both sides, losing the war would be the end of the world. Sound familiar? This is human nature. But the big question is, when push comes to shove, do you believe the person from “the other side” is a human or a personification of an ideology? It’s an important distinction. Either view will dictate how you interact with that person.

013 GrineWhat does it look like if you view “the other side” as a human? It means you will respect them, whether you agree with them or not. It means, when face-to-face, you will see a human, not an enemy. During the fighting on Little Round Top at Gettysburg, Pvt. Philip Grine of the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry ventured out between the fighting lines to retrieve a wounded Confederate. Later, he went out for a second enemy soldier. A third time he went out, and he was killed in the attempt to rescue yet another wounded Confederate. Why did he do it? To rescue fellow men who lay stranded and bleeding, and to see that they received medical attention at his regiment’s aid station. He didn’t care which uniform they wore, merely that they were suffering and he could do something about it, even at the risk of his own life.

But what happens when you dehumanize the other person? If we do not believe that every human being—whether we agree with them or not—is as valuable and deserving of life as we are, then we open the door to war crimes and atrocities:

At Fort Pillow during the Civil War, African-American soldiers were massacred after they had surrendered.

During WWII, German SS troops (not to be confused with the Wehrmacht, the German army) rounded up 80 prisoners who had surrendered, herded them into a barn, and then tossed in grenades and strafed them with machine gun and rifle fire.

In bushido, the code of the Japanese samurai, to lose is to lose your honor (respect). This view meant that Japanese soldiers in WWII had no respect for defeated enemy soldiers. During the Bataan Death March, Allied POWs were made to march over 80 miles, in extreme heat, without food, with little to no water, and in constant fear of random beatings or death by bullet or bayonet.

We all have beliefs that we feel strongly about. Opposing views can cause us to “see red.” But this is why the First Amendment is so important. It is the right to be able to speak my mind—and for you to speak yours, too. It does not mean we have to agree, and it does not mean that one of us has to give in to the other; it means we can discuss our beliefs and try to persuade each other, but it’s okay if we walk away from each other maintaining our original positions. Most importantly, we do not try to crush each other into submission. If we take this right away and silence those who believe differently, we dehumanize them, slipping down the slope toward the atrocities that come hand-in-hand with that. It sounds extreme, but the danger is closer than we might think. Let me ask you a question. Answer it honestly.

If you were faced with a member of “the other side” (politically, ideologically, religiously—think of anyone who “makes your blood boil”) who is in trouble, do you feel sympathy or that they “had it coming” and deserved it? What is your gut reaction?

If you really dig down deep, do you see the other person as a person or as an idea you do not agree with? If you can see past the ideology to the human being, then you will respond as Pvt. Grine did, helping the injured enemy. If you see only the ideology, well… what then? Do you want to crush the other person (by word, action, or law)? Think about what your answer says about how you truly see the other person.

One final thought. The gut reaction you felt—are you spreading this reaction (good or bad) to friends and loved ones? Think especially about your children. How you react to opposing viewpoints will impact how your children learn to view others. Talk to them about what they feel towards people who are “the other side” to them. And remember, yours is not the only voice that shapes them, and shaping the next generation is shaping the future. Dig deep, so you know what your child really believes.

There will always be other people whose viewpoints “drive us crazy,” but the important thing is to be aware of when we cross the line into seeing only the ideology and not the human being. That is when we lose the heart of Pvt. Grine and start down the slippery slope to becoming the SS.

Who would you rather be?

Taken All in All, He was Sheridan

p1240975-sheridan-close-cleanOften, as historians or armchair dabblers in history, we end up with a handful of favorite historical individuals. With some, we read everything we can find on them. With others, we recognize the name and enjoy tripping across snippets of them as we read books about broader campaigns or events. But sometimes, even our favorites can settle into a “mold.” We know the person’s appearance, character, and actions—and that’s who they are. We forget that we have never met them and never seen them in action.

In his reminiscences Riding With Custer, Maj. James Harvey Kidd of the 6th Michigan Cavalry recalls the first time he saw Gen. Phil Sheridan. Surprisingly, his description of Sheridan is not what you might expect. Sheridan is known for his Irish temper and his fiery spirit. We see that side of him as he comes riding down the pike from Winchester on his big black horse Rienzi, waving his hat to his retreating army and rallying them with the cry, “We will make coffee from Cedar Creek tonight!” Or perhaps we think of Five Forks, when he jumps Rienzi over the Confederate breastworks, carrying his battle flag. But this is not the picture that Kidd records.

The Michigan Brigade stood ready to pitch into the developing battle at Yellow Tavern on May 11, 1864. During a lull, Maj. Kidd saw a general quietly riding up from the rear with his staff and escort. As a regimental commander, he had never seen Sheridan up close, and this was his first good look at the commander of the Union cavalry. Instead of the fiery temper we might expect, Sheridan’s voice was “mild and agreeable.” His eye was “brilliant and searching and at the same time emitted flashes of kindly good nature.”

But besides the strong face and firm jaw, there was nothing about Sheridan to mark him as the brilliant cavalry commander that we know. In fact, only the fact that he rode in front of his escort and staff singled him out as the general, instead of just an ordinary staff officer. As Kidd delved deeper into his description of Sheridan in his reminiscences, he struggled to pinpoint what it was that made Sheridan Sheridan. As far as either physical or mental attributes, “There were perhaps no special, single, salient points…. In making an estimate of the man it was the ensemble of his qualities that had to be considered. He had to be taken ‘all in all.’ So taken, he was Sheridan. He was not another, or like another.”

This is not the Sheridan generated by 150 years of biographical sketches and books. This is the Sheridan of 1864, as the average soldier saw him. There is an element of complexity, with all of the pieces that made him a brilliant tactician who “had no equal, with the possible exception of ‘Stonewall’ Jackson… If he had not the spark of genius, he came very near to having it,” but there is also a simplicity about him. Kidd almost gives a literary helpless shrug as he writes, “he was Sheridan,” as if to say, and that’s all there was to it.

And that Sheridan-ness was what rallied his shattered army around him at Cedar Creek and led to victory that day, and at Five Forks destroyed five brigades and set the armies on the road to Appomattox. Of course, on May 11, that was still many months on the future. This day, the Union cavalry had had only three days fully under Sheridan. “What impressed us at this first sight of him,” Kidd recalls, “was his calm, unruffled demeanor, his freedom from excitement, his poise, his apparently absolute confidence in himself and his troops, his masterful command of the situation.… In his bearing was the assurance that he was going to accomplish what he had pledged himself to do.”

On May 8, Sheridan had gone head-to-head with Gen. Meade (two hot tempers fully clashing) over who really controlled the cavalry—the commander of the cavalry or the commander of the army. Finally, Sheridan swore, “I could whip Jeb Stuart if you would only let me!” Gen. Grant, upon hearing about the argument from Meade, said, “Did he really say that? Well, he usually knows what he’s talking about.  Let him go ahead and do it.” And so now Sheridan had the cavalry firmly under his command and was about to act on his words. It seemed a tall order to whip the general who had ridden around the Union army twice. But, Kidd writes, “there was in his face and manner no hint of doubt or inquietude. The outcome was to him a foregone conclusion.” What Grant said held true. Sheridan did know what he was talking about. By nightfall, Jeb Stuart lay mortally wounded and his Confederate cavalry was shattered and retreating.

It is easy to get wrapped up in reading the most recently published books, but it is also worthwhile to fall back on the first-hand accounts, whether written immediately after events like a diary or written years later like memoirs. These are the memories—images and first impressions seared into the mind’s eye of the men and women who were there, seeing historical figures face-to-face—and they offer fascinating glimpses into the people we know only as 200-year-old names and faces.

Source: Kidd, J. H. Riding With Custer: Recollections of a Cavalryman in the Civil War. Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska Press, 1997. (pg. 298-300.)

Saving Christmas 2020

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‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a soldier was stirring—not even the dog…

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2020-12-21 03 20201219_172836And then, as the mantel clock struck midnight, there came the faint jingling of distant sleigh bells. The guard on his perch at Andersonville pricked up his ears. He could just make out the sleigh, dashing across the snow, the moonlight glinting off the bells and buckles of the reindeer’s harnesses. Santa Claus was right on schedule! Jimmy’s mouth began to water and his whiskers twitched as he thought of the mounds of “eggs and bakey [bacon]” that he, his fellow guards, and all their prisoners would enjoy in the morning. For one day—well, two days because Santa always gave them enough for leftovers—no one would be hungry.

Suddenly, his eyes widened and he gripped his rifle tighter. A dark shadow loomed behind the sleigh.

Jimmy knew it was best if only he saw Santa tonight, but this was an emergency! He raised his rifle and took careful aim over Santa’s head. This was the quickest way to raise the alarm! He fired.

Immediately, the dioramas around him burst into noise.

“What was that?”

“Who’s firing?”

“What’s going on?”

“Do we get presents if we’re awake?”

“Who fired the shot?”

“Where’s my hat?”

“What’s going on??”

Over it all, Jimmy bellowed, “COVID ALMOST HAS SANTAAAAA!!!!!!!”

8,824 sets of cat ears, 724 sets of horse ears, and 1 set of dog ears perked bolt upright.

2020-12-21 IMG_0126“Fire!” Lt. Greene on USS Monitor ordered. “Over the sleigh, boys! Lay down cover! Fire!”

The two massive guns roared and the little ironclad rocked. CSS Virginia opened fire too.  The cats from the damaged gun on the port side gamely beat out the flames that licked at the wooden backing of the ship. They still wore their nightshirts and fuzzy slippers, but they’d do anything for Santa.

The smaller field artillery of “Kemper’s Advance” and Cowan’s lone gun opened up as well, trying to buy time for Santa.

But now a new thunder rolled behind them, low and steady, and Jimmy cheered and waved his hat. “Go on!” he shouted, caught up in the excitement of the flashing sabers and pounding hooves. “Hurrah!”

2020-12-21 06 20201219_155455 cropCol. Mosby dashed past first—his raiders were always in the saddle and ready. Sometimes Jimmy wondered if their equivalent of sleep-walking was sleep-raiding Union wagons. They were fully awake now as they galloped past, fur bristling and ears flat. They’d give COVID a run for its money before they let it catch Santa.

The reindeer were covered in snow that steamed off their sweaty bodies. Magical or not, they were beginning to lag, and all wished Rudolph, Donner, and Blitzen hadn’t picked this year to take off for a vacation to Maui. The sleigh was getting too heavy to pull at full speed for ten miles, short-handed. But maybe they could make it to the safety of Civil War Tails.

Suddenly, Santa saw Mosby and his cats come boiling over the hill to his right, their horses’ hooves kicking up a mini snowstorm as they swept around behind COVID and surrounded it.

With a sigh of relief, Santa turned back to his team—and gasped! Materializing in front of him, pounding at full charge, sabers lowered, came a looming line of Union and Confederate cavalry, unbroken to left and right, horses neighing, cats howling, and out in front, four lengths ahead and swerving to narrowly miss Dasher, was Gen. Custer yowling, “Come on, you Wolverines!” The line miraculously—or so it looked to Santa—split and flew past the reindeer and sleigh.

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Safe at last, Santa tugged on the reins, but he didn’t really have to—the reindeer of one accord had already slowed to a weary plod. Up ahead, he saw the welcome glimmering lights of the campfires and now the Christmas trees themselves, as cats hurried to throw the switches, knowing that nothing refreshed Santa and his team quite so much as Christmas tree lights and lighted garlands—and Civil War Tails had plenty to do the job!

Kemper’s infantry tramped past, followed by the cats from Little Round Top. Santa heard Tom Chamberlain shout to his brother, “Hey, Lawrence, isn’t this just like in 2017?”

Gen. Grant appeared, holding a steaming cup. “Haven’t got eggnog, but the ladies say it’ll be ready in a jiffy. But we’ve got hot chocolate!”

Santa chuckled. “I thought you fellows always have coffee on hand, ‘round the clock.”

Grant grinned. “Not always. On Black Friday, the boys in the Confederate camp change their coffee pot into a hot chocolate pot. Gives it a nice mocha touch.”

Santa raised his eyebrows as he took a sip. “It is good!”

Even the reindeer perked up at the smell of the hot chocolate.

“There’s plenty. Come on over and sit a while.”

“Thanks, but we’ve got work to do. Maybe I’ll stop by on my way out.” Santa turned the reindeer’s heads toward Andersonville. “Merry Christmas, General! Ho Ho Ho!”

As he drove away, Custer came trotting back, his face and black velvet uniform covered in snow, but wearing a broad grin. Behind him, the combined forces of his Michigan Brigade and Hampton and Fitz Lee pranced proudly. A few cavalrycats coughed or sniffed, but still grinned. Behind them, in a commandeered sleigh pulled by a couple of Mosby’s raiders, COVID wriggled and whimpered and blubbered, trussed up like a turkey. Mosby jauntily carried the grim reaper’s sickle over his shoulder.

Up on his pigeon roost, Jimmy saw the cavalry pass by and breathed a sigh of relief. Mosby caught his eye and held up the sickle with a grin, and tipped his hat in thanks for the alarm. Jimmy blushed and waved, then blushed even deeper when Mosby’s cats raised three cheers for him. But then his attention was drawn to movement by the gate and the muffled jingling of sleigh bells still packed with snow from the frenzied drive but gradually ringing clearer as the snow fell out. Drawing himself to his full 7/8-inch height, Jimmy took a deep breath and yowled over the camp below, “Wakey, wakey! Eggs and bakey!!”

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