Tails or Tales?

Sometimes people ask us if the name on our sign is a typo. Don’t we mean “Tales”? Well, no, it’s not a typo. Both “tails” and “tales” are fitting for our museum! Our cats’ main purpose is to tell the stories of the individuals they portray. But we never have enough time (or space on the diorama information panels) to tell all of the stories, which is why we’re so excited about our new book.

CoverFront_CWTails_tpc resizedCivil War Tails: 8,000 Cats Tell the Panoramic Story is more than a book about our museum. It’s a chance for us to tell many of the stories that don’t get told verbally.

Some stories are just a quick mention, such as that of Col. John Bowie Magruder during Pickett’s Charge. Rebecca always remembers him because two bullets struck him from different directions and crossed in his chest as he crossed the stone wall. We don’t know much else about him—but he is included on our diorama and now in our book. Even only a sentence or two helps us to remember that he was a real person with a life and a story, and much more than just a name.

Our book also allows us to share the context of our dioramas, giving better understanding of the importance of the events portrayed. For example, the even-handed duel between the ironclads, portrayed in our diorama, contrasted sharply with CSS Virginia’s bloody destruction of wooden ships the day before. Or, the events that led to the fighting on Little Round Top or Pickett’s Charge help us to realize that history-changing moments don’t just happen; there are always events and decisions that converge to cause them—and affect their outcome. This book allows us to share some of the “backstory” with our readers.

Civil War Tails is available for pre-order on Amazon and we will soon have copies available in our museum. We hope you enjoy our book, not only for the photos and stories of our dioramas, but also for the history of the real people behind them.

A Closer Look

Glancing through my phone recently, I discovered photos that our brother’s kids had taken of our Little Round Top diorama as part of a game where one takes a photo and the others have to find the cat soldier pictured. Sometimes a hint is allowed to narrow the search down to a single room or diorama. Sometimes not.

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We never know what we’ll notice when we play this game. A lone wounded solider stranded between the lines, perhaps, or a new view of a familiar battle line. Each of us sees something different. Even we who made and placed the figures will see something new to us.

So I thought I would share some of the pictures. On a large diorama like Little Round Top, it may be hard to find a particular soldier, but it is possible. Our cats are unique – like the men they each represent.

 

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Sgt. Murphy’s two-man charge

Sgt Murphy

Last year for St. Patrick’s Day, we Mewsed about the 69th Pennsylvania’s defense of the Angle during Pickett’s Charge. Today, we’re thinking about Sgt. Murphy of the 72nd Pennsylvania, which also fought at the Angle.

We don’t know a lot about Murphy. In fact, I’m only assuming he’s of Irish heritage because with red hair and a name like Murphy, how can he not be? Looking through Samuel Bates’ A History of Pennsylvania Volunteers and the accompanying index card files, I found only one Sgt. Murphy in the 72nd Pennsylvania, suggesting that our Murphy is Thomas Murphy of Company G. He enlisted in September of 1861 and was mustered in as a sergeant. At Gettysburg, he would have been about 24 years old.

The battle was well under way when the 72nd Pennsylvania came up from reserve and halted on the crest of Cemetery Ridge. Facing Confederates pouring over the stone wall, the Union regiment refused to advance. Their brigade commander, Gen. Alexander Webb, ordered them forward, but they would not budge. Lt. Frank Haskell, a staff officer, also urged them to charge, but the regiment was not inclined to throw themselves against three Confederate brigades. Though disorganized, the Confederates easily outnumbered the 72nd Pennsylvania, at least 4:1, and most of the Confederates were behind the protection of the stone wall.

Six color bearers fell as the regiment fought on the crest, and now Sgt. Murphy held the shattered flagstaff. At Haskell’s urging, Murphy waved the colors above his head and ran forward. One man followed him.

Halfway to the wall, the two men fell. Seeing their precious colors tumble to the ground, the entire 72nd Pennsylvania gave a tremendous yell and charged.

Murphy would survive his wounds and the war, afterwards living in Philadelphia. Thanks to his actions on July 3, 1863, as well as the similar spontaneous charge by color bearer Cpl. Henry O’Brien in the Copse of Trees, the Union counter-attack pushed the Confederates back, ending the battle of Gettysburg in the Union’s favor.

At All Hazards

Imagine hauling your car over a stone wall.

We welcome to Civil War Tails “At All Hazards,” our small diorama of the 9th Massachusetts Light Artillery at Gettysburg. On July 2, 1863, Captain John Bigelow’s battery was already cut to pieces after heavy fighting when they received the order to hold a position near the Trostle house and barn “at all hazards,” to buy precious time for infantry and artillery to plug a gaping hole in the line. Bigelow later recalled how “the enemy crowded to the very muzzles of [the guns], but were blown away by the canister . . . Sergeant after sergt. was struck down, horses were plunging and laying all around, bullets now came in on all sides . . . The air was dark with smoke.”

For half an hour, Bigelow’s six guns fired at the advancing Confederates. Rifle fire picked off men and horses. Recoil backed the left-most cannons too close to the stone wall behind them, so Bigelow ordered those two cannons to the rear. The first cannon’s team of horses galloped through a gate in the wall and turned into Trostle’s Lane, but the turn was too sharp and the cannon tipped over.

Unable to use the blocked gate, the cannoneers of the second piece eyed the stone wall. The horses could easily jump it, but could the cannon? A cannon with its limber weighed just shy of two tons! But the men had no choice but to try. They took some of the rocks out of the wall to make a gap, then galloped the horses over the wall, pulling the limber and cannon over the rocks after them—successfully!

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While watching his men work to get the cannon over the wall, Bigelow fell wounded. Not long after, he saw batteries coming into position behind him, knew his work had been accomplished, and ordered his remaining four guns to fall back. Bugler Charles Reed then helped Bigelow to the rear in an action that saved Bigelow’s life and led to the Congressional Medal of Honor for Reed . . . but that’s a story for another day.

Small But Mighty

We’ve all heard the saying, “Small, but mighty.” I thought of it the other day while looking at our diorama of the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (Merrimack). We tend to think of the fight between the ironclads as just ending in a draw and that’s it. Sure, the Monitor didn’t get fried by the Virginia, but does that make her “mighty,” or just durable?

On the night of March 8, 1862, the Union flotilla in Hampton Roads was a-shambles. The USS Cumberland had been sunk. The USS Congress was burning and would explode. The USS Minnesota was stuck aground. Union sailors had lost 256 of their friends that day from the Cumberland and the Congress alone. As they sat in the dark, waiting for dawn, they could only assume that morning would bring the Virginia back to finish what she had started. The Minnesota would be the leviathan’s lunch.

But then they noticed something on the horizon, a tiny speck of light. It was the Monitor. No one knew it, but at that moment, the odds evened out. Instead of 256 to 10 as on the 8th, the next day’s hours of fighting between the ironclads would end with only a few wounded on each ship.

The Monitor did not inspire confidence. When her commander, Lt. Worden, assured the grounded Minnesota‘s captain of his assistance, Capt. Van Brunt had his doubts as he peered down at the pygmy of a ship. When the Virginia and the Minnesota fired at each other the next morning, they fired over the Monitor! Could the Monitor-with her two guns-stand against the “horrid creation of a nightmare”?

Well, she did. And not only did she survive the pounding of the Virginia‘s guns on March 9th, but she fulfilled her mission: to save the Minnesota. No matter how the Virginia came at the Minnesota, the tiny Monitor was always there, blocking her path, like a feisty terrier.

The Monitor was small, a cheesebox on a raft, but she proved herself mighty that day. In fact, Lt. Worden and his little ironclad proved their worth so well that the Union went on to build more of the curious-looking ironclads, confident now that the size of the vessel didn’t matter.