Custer’s Smoking Steeds at Cedar Creek

Today, on the anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek, we’re taking a look at Gen. George Custer’s thrilling involvement. We’ve Mewsed on his actions as a new brigade commander at Gettysburg, and today is a good opportunity to check in on him as a division commander a year and a half later.

20180910_225729Custer had been in command of the 3rd Cavalry Division of Gen. Phil Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah for less than three weeks. Even so, his men had already adopted the red neckties that his old Wolverines had adopted after Gettysburg, and called themselves “The Red Tie Boys.”

On the morning of October 19, 1864, Sheridan’s army lay peacefully sleeping on the banks of Cedar Creek, south of Middletown, VA, in the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan, returning from a meeting in Washington, was in Winchester, about twelve miles away. Around 4:00 or 4:30 a.m., firing erupted a couple miles to the west of the army as two brigades of Confederate cavalry under Gen. Tom Rosser sought to cross Cedar Creek and drive in the pickets of the 7th Michigan, some of Custer’s old Wolverines but now part of Gen. Wesley Merritt’s 1st Division. Hearing the firing, both Merritt and Custer roused their cavalrymen, but the Confederates halted and did not press the attack, content to hold the ford.

At 5:00 a.m., the Union infantry was rudely awakened as thousands of Confederates opened fire from the heavy fog that hung over the ground in the predawn darkness. Confederate major D. A. Grimsley noted that the attack “was not ushered in by a few preliminary shots, as was generally the case, but it was a prolonged roll, without cessation.” It was an ominous beginning to a disastrous morning. For the next five hours, the Union army fought, even as it ran for its life. Confederate captain Augustus Dickert recalled that “the country behind [the Union camp] was one living sea of men and horses—all fleeing for life and safety.” Union divisions fought to hold their positions but were overwhelmed, either by Confederates appearing out of the fog, or by the waves of retreating Union soldiers. It was a mix of unchecked rout and dogged delaying actions.

By 8:00 a.m., the only organized Union infantry on the field was Gen. George Getty’s division of the VI Corps. Together with their artillery and some cavalry on their left, they faced three—and soon a fourth—Confederate divisions riding the tide of wild success.

Meanwhile, the cavalry under Custer and Merritt sat motionless in their camps, mounted and ready to go but without orders. Finally, around 9:00 a.m., orders came for both divisions to head to the Union left to secure the Valley Pike. Leaving one brigade behind to keep Rosser at bay, Custer took his remaining brigade—under Col. Alexander Pennington, who had been his artillery commander at Gettysburg’s East Cavalry Field—away to the aid of Getty’s beleaguered division.

By 10:00 or so, Getty’s division formed the keystone of a semblance of a Union line. Remnants of the army’s three corps had formed on either end of his line, and the cavalry hovered on his left. Col. James Kidd, commanding the Michigan Brigade, recalled seeing his former commander Custer “chafing like a caged lion” at their inaction. The Army of the Shenandoah had been chewed to pieces, but the defeat had made them mad and determined. Now they stood awaiting the next attack.

But the Confederates did not come. Whether because of exhaustion, disorganization, or plundering the Union camps, the Confederate onslaught stalled. During that pause, the tide of battle took a sudden turn. A veteran of Getty’s division recalled, “There we stood, driven four miles already, quietly waiting for what might be further and immediate disaster, while far in the rear we heard the stragglers and hospital bummers, and the gunless artillerymen actually cheering as though a victory had been won. We could hardly believe our ears.”

Why the cheering? Sheridan had returned! His presence electrified the battered army. One of Getty’s staff officers recalled, “Hope and confidence returned at a bound. …Now we all burned to attack the enemy, to drive him back, to retrieve our honor and sleep in our old camps that night. And every man knew that Sheridan would do it.” Sheridan immediately began preparing a counterattack.

Sheridan sent Custer back to the right of the Union line. Custer found Rosser stirring, and charged the Confederate cavalry’s flank, catching the gray troopers by surprise. The line broke, but a sudden counterattack by a group of fifty halted the blue column. Rosser withdrew across Cedar Creek and, rather than pursue him and widen the gap between his cavalry and the Union line, Custer headed back to form his division alongside the XIX Corps.

It was now noon, and a lull descended for several hours. Shortly before 4:00 p.m., just as the Union army was about to begin its counterattack, Custer looked to his right and saw Rosser’s skirmishers advancing. After a day of mostly inaction, Rosser had picked a good time to be annoying. Taking some of Pennington’s brigade and a battery, Custer drove the skirmishers back. Seeing Rosser’s division beyond, he ordered Pennington to attack with his full brigade, then leave one regiment facing Rosser and rejoin Custer in the attack with the infantry. The resulting charge drove the Confederates to the creek.

Meanwhile the Union infantry began their advance, doggedly slugging away at the Confederate positions. The rightmost brigade managed to take some breastworks, only to have a Confederate brigade appear on their flank. Wheeling, the Union troops stopped them. Sheridan appeared then, telling the men, “You are doing splendidly, but don’t be in too much haste. Now lie down right where you are, and wait until you see General Custer come down over those hills, and then, by G–, I want you to push the rebels!”

Moments later, as the infantry resumed their advance, Private Herbert Hill recalled, “We caught sight for a moment of the dashing Custer, that prince of horsemen, on an opposite eminence toward the setting sun, as he started with his famous division on that fierce charge.” Custer’s cavalry came down on the Confederate skirmish line, only to find the main line already running. Between the Union infantry in front and the threat of cavalry flanking them, the weary Confederates had had enough. The line crumbled, regiments and brigades one after the other, like dominoes falling from left to right.

The Union infantry charged, driving the Confederates before them in confusion and chaos. Pvt. Hill of the 8th Vermont found his regiment “overlooking…a great, rushing, turbulent, retreating army, without line or apparent organization, hurrying and crowding on in mad retreat.” The sound of battle died away, now that the Confederate artillery was bent on escape and the infantry was too busy running to use their rifles—if they still carried them. 20191010_141642 crop zekeGen. John Gordon, struggling to stem the tide, recalled,  “As the tumult of battle died away, there came from the north side of the plain a dull, heavy, swelling sound like the roaring of a distant cyclone, the omen of additional disaster.” The Union cavalry, coming down on both flanks! At that point, “all effort at orderly retreat was abandoned.” In the 10th Vermont, the chaplain recalled, “We chased them to Cedar Creek…The infantry halted on the banks of the creek; then came the smoking steeds of Custar [sic].”

Custer’s goal was to get beyond the Confederates and take the bridge of the Valley Pike over Cedar Creek, thereby bagging the entire Army of the Valley. But the swarms of Confederates were retreating so quickly that he saw he would not make it. So, ordering the rest of his regiments to come as soon as they could, he took the 1st Vermont and the 5th New York, jumped into a ravine, and headed upstream to a ford about a quarter mile from the bridge. Crossing unseen, the two regiments formed and headed in the direction of the Pike.

Suddenly, Confederates opened fire on a squadron of the 1st Vermont from behind rough breastworks of stones and fence rails. The Union troopers could see about 5,000 Confederates trying to reform their line and knew they didn’t have much time. Col. J. W. Bennett of the 1st Vermont told Custer, “If I am to charge them it must be at once, for if they reform they will empty every saddle before I can reach them.”

“That is so,” Custer replied. “When you go, throw in every man you have, and I will take care of you.”

The Red Tie Boys charged, the 5th New York on the left and the 1st Vermont on the right. Leaping the breastworks, they slashed through the infantry and galloped on to the Pike. With Custer reaching the Pike (and Merritt’s cavalry coming down from the Union left), the pursuit of the army became, in Custer’s words, “an exciting chase after a panic-stricken, uncontrollable mob.” On the macadamized limestone pike, the pounding hooves of the galloping regiments sounded like ten thousand troopers, lending even more fear to the chaos. Only darkness ended the pursuit—although one Union artilleryman recalled hearing the shots of Custer’s cavalry until midnight.

It was around 9:00 p.m. when a jubilant Custer returned to Sheridan’s headquarters. Sheridan, known for his Irish temper and hard-headed determination, was equally ecstatic and pulled him from his horse, exclaiming, “You have done it for me this time, Custer!”

Custer grabbed his army commander around the waist, lifted him off the ground, and whirled him around and around. “By G–, Phil!” he shouted, “We’ve cleaned them out of their guns and got ours back!” His comment wasn’t far from the truth. The 1st Vermont alone had captured 161 prisoners (including a general, colonel, and lieutenant colonel), 3 flags, 23 guns, 14 caissons, 17 wagons, 6 ambulances, 83 artillery harnesses, 75 wagon harnesses, 98 horses, and 69 mules. The 5th New York captured another 22 guns.

After the spectacular victory, Sheridan recommended Getty, Merritt, and Custer for promotion.

 

The Impact of Reenactments

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The recent news that the Gettysburg reenactment would not be held in 2020 and the cancellation of this year’s “Liberation of New Oxford” WWII reenactment has us mewsing about reenactments today. Both issues appear to be temporary, so we look forward to future years for both events. However, the saying “You don’t miss something until it is gone” is very true. Today’s Mewsing is not to worry about the future of reenacting. Instead, I would like to ponder the impact that reenactments have had on us, the creators of Civil War Tails, over the years as we began and continued to study the Civil War and history in general.

I remember attending reenactments as spectators since we were kids. Even before our interest in the Civil War began, we went to a local Revolutionary War reenactment. Once we became Civil War buffs, we attended the Gettysburg and Cedar Creek (near Winchester, VA) reenactments every year. Taking us on these trips became Dad’s “thing.” Mom did the everyday homeschooling with us, so this was a win-win—Mom got a break, and we and Dad enjoyed some time together. I’ll always have fond memories of heading to Gettysburg in our green ’81 F-250, with the wind blowing the summer air through the open windows, since the truck didn’t have air conditioning. It’s funny which memories become special, but that’s what family time is all about, isn’t it?

Reenactments gave us a chance to see what we were learning about. Pickett’s Charge always meant watching Gen. Lewis Armistead lead the Confederates over the stone wall with his black hat on his sword. Sometimes, we could even pick out Lt. Alonzo Cushing commanding his battery despite receiving severe wounds during the bombardment hours earlier. The trick was to keep an eye on him because we were never quite sure when he would be shot the final time and fall into Sgt. Fuger’s arms. Sometimes, if I was really lucky, someone might even portray Gen. Richard “Dick” Garnett, one of my favorites, riding his horse Red Eye in the charge.

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Lt. Cushing commanding his guns while wounded

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Lt. Cushing falling killed

At Cedar Creek, seeing Gen. Stephen Dodson Ramseur was always exciting. He was not always portrayed, but one year we saw him fall mortally wounded while mounting his horse (his third). Of course, we always saw Gen. Phil Sheridan arrive, rally his routed troops, and then organize a counterattack that turned certain defeat into complete victory. It was always thrilling to hear the Union cheer and then watch the general ride along his lines—we knew Sheridan had arrived!

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As we grew older, other aspects of the reenactments became valuable—and not only using the idea of digging a pit for our cookout fire the way the soldiers did. Who needs a charcoal grill when you can cook over a wood fire? (That is, in our opinion, the only way to grill chicken!)

In a more historian-oriented way, reenactments enabled us not only to see history but to hear it and smell it. For example, the sounds of different types of cannons vary. A Parrott or 3-inch Ordnance rifled gun has the usual boom that you might expect. But a Napoleon smoothbore has a characteristic “spang”. I read about this sound once, and then sure enough, at the next reenactment I heard that “spang”! Distant artillery sounds like “pum,” a different sound than close artillery, but no less threatening. Now, when reading about the two cannons that fired to signal the beginning of the massive bombardment before Pickett’s Charge, I can imagine just what that must have sounded like—two solitary, distant “pums” drifting up from the area of the Peach Orchard on a lazy summer day, just moments before the air split with over a hundred cannons opening fire!

But this is talking about Civil War artillery. Having grown up watching Civil War reenactments, it was interesting to go back to the local Revolutionary War event and realize how much more smoke is created by both artillery and flintlock muskets. In contrast, WWII guns are much louder and have no smoke. Not having studied either of those wars extensively, I found it interesting to compare the three generations of artillery.

Sights, sounds, smells—these are the things that help us when we read and write about history. Reenactments help us to smell the sulphur of gunpowder. We hear the “spang” of a Napoleon or the rattling wheels of a cannon and limber over rocks and rough ground. We see a Union battle line advancing, the soldiers’ uniforms blending into a solid wall save for the moving legs, giving the impression of steady dark blue over rippling sky blue.

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Reenactments are limited in their size, scope, and portrayal, but that doesn’t matter. Books give us the information, and reenactments bring it to life. Perhaps the hobby of reenacting is shrinking, but hopefully, someone will always be there to help us see and hear and smell a glimpse of history. Then, years from now, others will think back to when they were kids on a road trip with their family, heading off to sweat and melt in the Gettysburg July heat and humidity—and loving every minute of it.

You Can Do It! Part 2: Rocks

If you look closely at the 2,600 boulders on our diorama of Little Round Top, you will see that they are not, in fact, rocks. How did Rebecca make them? How can you make your own?

Last year, we mewsed about toothpicks in the first installment of “You Can Do It,” our series on diorama-making tips for back-to-school kids (and parents—and anyone else who gets inspired, of course!). This Mewsing, we take a look at making rocks.

1. Use an air-drying clay that is easy to work with. While there are various kits and molds for making rock formations out of plaster, Rebecca prefers to use DAS, an air-drying clay. It is easy to work with and easy to get good results. No matter what brand you use, choose white clay, since you will paint it later to turn it gray. While DAS is firm, it is moist, so take note that your fingers will get a bit messy and you should work on a surface that can get messy too. Also, the clay is, of course, air-drying, so work with small chunks and keep the packaging closed up, so it doesn’t dry out before you finish using it!

2. Look at pictures. Rocks really aren’t hard to make. Pretty much any blob of clay will do. But if you want the rocks to look realistic, look at photos for ideas. This will help you see how rocks and boulders are shaped, or how rock formations pile up.

If you want to make a diorama of specific rocks, look at photos of the actual rocks. For “The Boys Are Still There,” Rebecca used hundreds of photos of the rocks on the battlefield, taken from different angles. Another useful resource is a satellite image of the area, such as from Google Maps, which will let you see what the formation or boulder looks like from the top, or how the rocks are spaced out on the ground.

Tip: if you are making rocks that will be on a slope or other unusual surface, make the rocks directly on your diorama base. For example, Rebecca had to mold the rocks over the edge of the cardboard box that she used for the base of Devil’s Den so that the rocks would fit correctly. On Little Round Top, she had to make the rocks onto the base so that they would fit into the curves and slopes of the topography.

3. Glue them down. Wherever you make your rocks, they won’t stick to that surface permanently. So, when they are fully dried, glue them in place on your diorama with white glue. If you plan to use ground cover like “Turf,” glue your rocks down first. This way your “grass” will go up to and around the bottom edge of the rock and make it look natural.

Tip: try not to get glue on the visible surface of the rock, or the paint won’t stick to it.

4. Paint them. After the glue dries, mix a little bit of black acrylic paint with a lot of water and paint this “wash” over the rocks. Start light—you can always add more black paint or do multiple layers to get a darker gray on the rock. If the wash goes on too dark, brush water over the rock to thin it down and lighten the color. It will take some trial and error and practice to figure out what shade of gray you want your rock. When you’re finished, you’ll notice that the wash settles into the cracks of the clay and gives a realistic look—this is what “makes” a rock!

Tip: If glue dried on the rock surface and your paint wash doesn’t stick there, you can scrape off the dried glue and try again.

Tip: real rocks might be very dark gray, but your rocks don’t need to be that dark. Trust your instinct; you’ll see what “feels” right and know when to stop darkening your rock.

5. Done! After the wash has dried, your rock is done! Add some turf around it, and don’t worry if some of the turf ends up on the rock. Real rocks have tree debris and lichens all over them. You can add tall grasses or little bushes around the bases of the rocks, too. After all, no one goes out to weed-whack around a boulder!

Making rocks is quite easy, but with a little extra attention, you can make very realistic rocks. As with anything, observation helps. If you look at real rocks, yours will look real. In fact, your teacher might not even realize you made them, they’ll look so good!

The Homestead is 150 years old!

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We often refer to our museum as Civil War Tails Diorama Museum, but the full name is Civil War Tails at the Homestead Diorama Museum. But what is “the Homestead”? Why is that part of our name? “The Homestead” refers to the building itself, which was built 150 years ago as part of the National Soldiers’ Orphans’ Homestead.

The National Homestead at Gettysburg opened in 1866 in response to the story of Sgt. Amos Humiston (killed during the battle) and his family. You can find their story on our “The Homestead” tab here. Originally, the orphanage was in the brick building that now houses Ghostly Images next to us. In 1869, our house was built to expand the orphanage, which approximately 70 children called home by then. Built as the girls’ dormitory, the house stood beside the original building and was set back from the street. The two buildings formed an L shape, connected by the side porch of the original building and the front porch of the new. A schoolhouse sat behind the girls’ dormitory.

When the orphanage closed in 1878, the buildings were sold. It seems that in the 1880s they were used as a boarding house. In 1903, the owners decided to make the buildings residential. The schoolhouse was demolished, and the girls’ dormitory building was moved southward and up to the street. At that time, the house was made into a two-family dwelling by widening it down the middle and adding a duplex wall. An addition added to the rear of the building allowed for kitchen space. Another plus was the addition of “the latest modern conveniences; furnaces for heat, hot and cold running water, bathrooms and closets”!

In 1915, the building became the first B&B in Gettysburg. It remained in the same family for the next century, operating primarily as lodging for tourists. In 2013, we bought the property with the intention of opening our diorama museum. Still hanging outside was the old sign for tourist lodging. It read “The Homestead—Lodging for Tourists—Former Civil War Orphanage 1869-1878.” Since we like historic houses, old wallpaper, antique light switches, and so forth, and since we met many people with fond memories of staying in this house, we decided to incorporate elements of the old sign and the house’s former use into our business name and sign. So, our diorama museum is “at the Homestead,” and we shaped our new sign in the exact outline of the old sign.

In the six years that we have owned the building, we have enjoyed keeping as much the same as possible. Some things had to change, but it has been rewarding to incorporate the older styles into our new construction. This is best seen in our styling of the handicap ramp railing to match the porch railing. We are also working to replace the modern K-gutters with half-round gutters, which are more accurate for older houses.

It is thrilling to house our museum in a building with such a rich history, tied to the battle but also full of stories in all of its 150 years. Hopefully, under our watch, the building can continue to stand strong into the next century!

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War Horses, Part I

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Today, we take a look at the personalities of some Civil War horses. Most of the horses below are unnamed, but the stories all show their individual characters. We might be surprised at how much goes on inside a horse’s head, if all we see is the animal dozing in the pasture. But as we read the stories of men and officers of the Civil War, we can see the sensitivity, courage, and personality of their horses. As with the men, the war brought out the mettle in the animals, showing the cowards and the heroes, the stoic and the sensitive.

2019-08-03 20190803_170917Horses might seem to just plod through life, wherever we lead them, but in fact they are highly sensitive and observant animals. Henry Kyd Douglas, an aide to “Stonewall” Jackson, recalled his horse’s distress while passing through the Antietam battlefield during the night, after the fighting had ended.

The dead and dying lay as thick over it as harvest sheaves.  The pitiable cries for water and appeals for help were much more horrible to listen to than the deadliest sounds of battle.… My horse trembled under me in terror, looking down at the ground, sniffing the scent of blood, stepping falteringly as a horse will over or by the side of human flesh; afraid to stand still, hesitating to go on, his animal instinct shuddering at this cruel human misery.

On the other end of the spectrum, horses could grow used to the chaos of war, giving them what seemed almost a philosophical outlook on life. Gen. John Gibbon noted such stoicism among the artillery horses of Cushing’s batteries while the bombardment raged and some 150 Confederate cannons focused on their location.

2019-08-03 20190803_160606One thing which forcibly occurred to me was the perfect quiet with which the horses stood in their places. Even when a shell, striking in the midst of a team, would knock over one or two of them or hurl one struggling in his death agonies to the ground, the rest would make no effort to struggle or escape but would stand stoicly [sic] by as if saying to themselves, “It is fate, it is useless to try to avoid it.”

But sometimes, even cool-headed horses could lose it. When the bombardment began pounding Gen. Hancock’s II Corps before Pickett’s Charge, the general decided to ride along his corps’ line, to inspire the men and give them confidence. He was mounted on his usual black horse, a horse that had carried him in battle before. This time, the magnitude of the cannonade was too much for the animal and he began acting up. Unfazed, the general dismounted and switched to an aide’s tall, white-faced, light bay. With his coat flapping open to show his signature white shirt, Hancock calmly rode along his lines. Seeing their general’s example, a staff officer recalled, Hancock’s men “found courage longer to endure the pelting of the pitiless gale.” Hancock continued using the tall bay throughout the rest of his involvement in Pickett’s Charge.

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Lt. Haskell on Dick

Lt. Frank Haskell, one of Gibbon’s aides, described his experiences during Pickett’s Charge in a letter to his brother after the battle. In it, he recalled the reaction—or lack thereof—of his horse, Dick, when the cannonade opened.

The General at the first had snatched his sword, and started on foot for the front. I called for my horse; nobody responded. I found him tied to a tree, near by, eating oats, with an air of the greatest composure, which under the circumstances, even then struck me as exceedingly ridiculous. He alone, of all beasts or men near was cool. I am not sure but that I learned a lesson then from a horse.

2019-08-03 20190803_160855 crop Dick vignetteDick remained steady throughout the following fighting. Despite a serious wound to his right thigh and three bullets in his body, Dick carried Haskell back and forth at the gallop as the lieutenant urged men forward and summoned reinforcements to repulse Pickett’s men. Not until their duty was over did Dick lie down and finally succumb to his mortal wounds. “Good conduct in men under such circumstances,” Haskell wrote, “…might result from a sense of duty—his was the result of his bravery.” Haskell finished by expressing his wish that, if there be a Heaven for horses, “in those shadowy clover fields [Dick] may nibble blossoms forever.”

Our First To-Scale Diorama–20 Years Ago

20190718_170133Today we take a look at our first to-scale diorama, “I Want You to Prove Yourselves,” which shows the 54th Massachusetts Infantry charging Battery Wagner in Charleston, SC, on July 18, 1863.

Built twenty years ago, “Wagner” remains an example of how we got started in building dioramas. We used our Ramagon plastic construction set to build the walls of the fort, and then covered the surface with clay to represent sand and sandbags. The fort was protected by a 5-foot-deep moat; we used a sheet of blue paper to portray the water.

This is actually our second version of “Wagner.” Originally, the cats were larger, but we remade the diorama with the intention of making the soldiers to-scale. To do this, we “shrank the cats” by making new 1½-inch tall cats and reusing the old 2-inch tall cats in a different diorama. But there were a couple of cats that we especially liked, so we saved them in their own little vignettes. One gazes up the imposing 30-foot wall of the fort, while the other is lying on the slope tending to his wounded leg.

Twenty years after the remake, these two cats are the only reminder that we ever had a 2-inch-cat version of Battery Wagner. In fact, Rebecca completely forgot about that earlier version!

20190718_165254 crop Cat 3KWhile some of the cats on the diorama represent identified historical officers and men, there is one cat whose importance is related to the history of Civil War Tails instead. At midnight on January 1, 2000, we installed Cat 3000. His number means that at the time he was made, we had 3,000 cats on our census. (Currently, we have 8,723.) To make him recognizable, we gave him a white feline (not human) “mustache” nose and a white tip on his tail.

Someday we hope to make a new version of “Wagner” in 1:96 scale, with updated materials and research. But this diorama will always hold a special place in our hearts and museum. For us, it is an old friend, showing the story of one of our favorite regiments. For the museum, the old “Wagner” shows how far we have come over the decades.

Finally, even an older diorama retains its value. On the one hand, it serves as an example to kids of how they can use anything they have on hand to build a diorama. On the other hand, the old modeling clay cats have a character and pathos that brings to life, as it were, the story of the difficult mission and the courage of the 54th Massachusetts. Ultimately, telling that story has always been their purpose, from the original 2-inch cat version, to the present “shrunk” version, and someday to the future 1:96 scale version.P1240605