The Great Locomotive Chase Steams Forth

You’ve seen it on our puzzles, calendar, and prints! You’ve asked about it, and we listened! The Great Locomotive Chase is finally on display!

If you have been to Civil War Tails since 2018 or purchased that year’s calendar, you might know this photo, showing the locomotive General on a railroad track. But where was the General in the museum? The answer was “Nowhere”; it was in storage, along with the Texas and the rest of their diorama. Ever since opening in 2015, we have wanted to bring out “The Great Locomotive Chase,” but we could not settle on a good plan of how to display them.

According to our photo record, Ruth made the diorama sometime between July 2000 and August 2001, after reading about the Great Locomotive Chase. In August 1862, James Andrews and a small band of Union raiders stole the Confederate locomotive General in Georgia and steamed northward, damaging track and telegraph wires along the way. The General’s conductor pursued them, ultimately chasing them down in the Texas, in reverse. Ruth made our locomotives and boxcar from cardboard, paper, string, and wire. The track uses toothpicks for the ties, and cardboard for the rails.

The first photo of “The Great Locomotive Chase” diorama, taken Aug. 14, 2001.

Time can be rough on dioramas, and over the years, the reindeer moss “bushes” along the tracks were banged and bumped so much that by 2015, few remained, giving the track a plain, uninspiring appearance. The General lost a wheel, and we were always a little afraid to ask how much more damage might exist. Add to that the dilemma of how to display the fragile locomotives in reach of sight but not touch, and for the last eight years, we have been at an impasse.

In mid-March, after talking with a visitor who was very interested in the General, we began seriously pondering the logistics of making it happen. As we did so, we discovered the wall near the diorama of the ironclads. We had moved a clock, and now it seemed as if the empty wall were begging for the General and Texas to come out.

When we pulled the pieces of the diorama out of their storage trunk, we discovered that the Texas and boxcar were basically ready to go! One Confederate cat on the Texas had lost an arm, and it took us a while to find a spare arm for him (and the doors for the boxcar), but other than that, they were in perfect condition. Not bad for bumping around in a trunk for over 20 years. The General needed minor repairs, but nothing major—and yes, we still had the wheel that had broken off!

But what about the uninspiring track? We added “talus,” tiny fake rocks, which involved placing nearly every rock between the ties by hand, with tweezers. To keep us from growing bored while placing and gluing rocks, we listened to an audio CD of A. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Once the tedium of the talus was over, we added new reindeer moss bushes. We also used dried flowers to represent grasses, wildflowers, and undergrowth. Looking at the result, one would never know it’s just a plain toothpick track on a flat board!

Perhaps the trickiest part, believe it or not, was figuring out where to put which locomotive. With cardboard trains and an old track, the imperfectly aligned wheels did not always line up with the wavy rails where we wanted to place the engine. But there might be another section of track where the misaligned and the wavy matched. We tried the locomotives on this end and that, added the boxcar, sorted it all out, cut the board into two (a longer piece for the Texas and boxcar, and a shorter for the General)—and then when all was finished, both locomotives decided they didn’t like their designated ends of the track! So, we spent more time, putting the Texas on one end of its board, then the other, then farther forward, farther back, etc., and then repeating the process with the General. At last, we could glue the locomotives and boxcar permanently to the track.

In the meantime, we decided to spruce up the boxcar by painting its smoke. During the raid, Andrews’ men set the boxcars on fire when they uncoupled them from the General as obstacles for the pursuers. Our boxcar does not yet show visible damage from fire on the outside, so we chose to do very little in the way of flames. We painted its fluff as smoke with a little glow of fire inside.

With the finished diorama installed on the wall, it was time to celebrate! After waiting eight years, the 22-year-old locomotives had finally found their place in Civil War Tails. And what better way to celebrate than by watching Buster Keaton’s The General, a hilarious silent movie from 1926 showing a fictionalized version of the Great Locomotive Chase!

Next time you visit Civil War Tails, check out “The Great Locomotive Chase”!

You Can Do It: Rigging a Ship

If you like making miniatures of the Civil War era or earlier, at some point you might have to rig a ship. Guess what? It’s easier than you think! In today’s Mewsing, we will show you simple ways to add rigging without losing your mind and with accuracy so that no matter how simplified, at least it’s correct!

When I (Rebecca) made our model of USS Housatonic, I was starting from scratch and had never even put together a kit of a ship. So when it came to the rigging, I thought, “Please tell me I don’t need all the rigging you see in [the movie] Master and Commander!” Spoiler alert: the answer is no, you don’t. And even with the simplified rigging that our Housatonic has, we had one visitor (who had experience on ships) comment with surprise that the rigging was correct, which he doesn’t always see on model ships.

To rig Housatonic, I looked on Google for diagrams of rigging, and learned all about standing rigging, running rigging, how to furl a sail, how to clew up a sail…. But don’t worry, we’re not going to cover that here. Our tips will be for beginners. When you want to go deeper into rigging, there are plenty of diagrams online, or model ship kits that will tell you how to rig it, or forums online to go really in-depth into tying rigging with the knots used on a ship (which is even beyond my interest at this point).

Let’s get started! We’ll introduce rigging in steps. If the thought of rigging scares you, just do Step 1 and leave it at that. It’s still better than bare masts! If you get to the end of it and think, “That wasn’t so bad!” go ahead and try Step 2.

Tip: I tie the rigging to the masts and spars, but if you don’t want to deal with trying to tie knots, you can just glue the string/thread in place.

Step 1: At the most basic level of rigging, your ship needs stays to keep the masts from falling over, either forward/backward or side-to-side. Use black string/thread because “standing rigging” (i.e. rigging that doesn’t move) is always black.

In this picture, the fore-and-aft stays are marked in red. As you can see, there are more of them on Housatonic, but I only marked the ones that I would consider essential to give the impression of rigging. You can see that on each mast, the rigging is the same. The lowest runs from the fighting top down to the deck. The next one up runs down to the fighting top of the mast in front of it. And so forth.

In the next photo, you can see the backstays that run to the sides of the ship, marked in blue. Note that they do not run from the fighting tops, however. For that, you need the shrouds, i.e. the ladder-like rigging (marked in green, in our picture). If you don’t want to tackle the grid-like rigging, I would suggest you at least run a couple strings to represent the shrouds, because otherwise it will look strange that your lower masts are unsupported side-to-side, but the upper masts are.

See? Now, that wasn’t hard, was it? Even for a beginner’s effort, you have a ship that has rigging, and the rigging is not random or a guess. Good job!

Ready for more? On to Step 2!

Step 2: This is probably the most difficult of our steps, but it should be done next. Shrouds, like stays, are black. To make them, glue (or tie) string/thread into a grid. Model ship kits usually come with a jig that makes this easier. With Housatonic, the ship is big enough that I just ran the vertical lines (shrouds) from mast to side, and then added the horizontal threads (ratlines), knotting them at each intersection. Or, you can just tie a knot at the beginning and the end, with dabs of glue at each crossing in between (see the diagram below).

With a small ship, such as our USS Cumberland ship-in-a-bottle, the shrouds are small enough to use only glue and not bother with knots. I used an old model ship kit jig, but you can make one with a piece of cardboard (just be careful that your shrouds don’t glue to the cardboard!).

To be correct, each section of each mast needs shrouds. You can see them in the photos above of Housatonic. On the upper shrouds, measure your fighting tops, etc. where the shrouds end so you can space the verticals correctly. You don’t want the base of your shrouds to be too wide!

Step 3: If you’re still reading this, you are either addicted or a glutton for punishment. On to the “running rigging” (i.e. the rigging that moves). Use white thread, because running rigging is natural, not black.

Braces are the running rigging that moves the spars to angle the sails. In the photo, the starboard (right) braces are red, the port (left) are blue. Note that on the mizzen mast, they run forward to the main mast (green lines), since there isn’t a mast behind the mizzen.

Step 4: There are a few more simple touches to add if you like. They’re a bit beyond our purview in this Mewsing, but you can see them in the photos above of Housatonic and Cumberland.

My usual mantra is, “If you feel yourself going crazy, back off on the detail or take a break.” But in this case, why not try pushing yourself? Give rigging a try!

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas 2022

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through Civil War Tails every creature was stirring, including the mice. The clay Civil War cats were taking full advantage of the fact that the humans had gone away for Christmas. Every diorama had emptied, and miniature cats swarmed everywhere—dancing at the ball under the towering 8’ Christmas tree, sipping eggnog or mulled cider around the smaller skinny tree, taking sleigh rides around the snowy white tree, and nibbling popcorn under the Civil War tree. Cavalry and artillery horses frolicked with reindeer. Infantrycats and kittens of all scales mingled on Little Round Top, skiing and sledding down slopes of whipped cream. Patrick, the only clay dog, lay snuggled in one of Kelly the Museum Dog’s blankets, a nibbled Pupperoni—almost as big as he was—by his side, and mumbling something about “…are as comfy as she says!”

In the kitchen, the real mice danced with Nana Kitty’s toy mice, enjoying some time off from worrying about the real critters; the kittens were shut away upstairs, and Kelly was off on vacation at the kennel.

The clay cats had sent a courteous email to Kelly, wishing her a Merry Christmas and asking how it was going, but all they got was an away message of “woof woof woof.” Patrick was no help—every time he read it, he just started giggling and never told the cats what it said. They had a sneaking suspicion it was something very doggy and anti-cat.

Gen. Lee stretched his paws to the heat vent and purred. “Just think, Ulysses, tomorrow we get a Christmas all to ourselves! I can’t remember ever having a Christmas where we could be ourselves.”

Gen. Grant hiccupped from the chair beside him. He had promised Julia that he wouldn’t drink too much of the famous eggnog until tomorrow, so he could avoid a Christmas Day hangover, but he’d lost count of cups around noon, and now he had had just a teensy weensy bit too much. Julia just threw her paws in the air and went off to gather some ladies to join her in making another batch of eggnog for tomorrow. “It’s such a shame we can’t let the humans in on the secret,” he said. “I mean, they know now, after watching ‘Night at the Museum.’”

“Yes, and my cats on Little Round Top let slip once. Fortunately, Reb chalked it up to miscounting and thought nothing of it. But it was a close call. We really can’t let slip like that.”

A slip of the lip might sink a ship,” Grant began caterwauling and ended up hiccupping and giggling.

“General,” Lee said stiffly, “I think you need some coffee.”

A frenzied clatter of hoofbeats interrupted Grant’s reply. It was Private Quinlan Sullivan, mounted on an artillery horse that trailed the traces from its harness. The cat saluted. “Capt. Hall begs to report, sirs. Car Jack has been sighted, coming through town.”

Both generals sat bolt upright.

“What?” Lee exclaimed.

“That’s impossible!” Grant chimed. He frowned. “It is Christmas Eve, not Christmas Observed Monday, right?”

“Yes, sir. But the signal station at the Square reported a red Ford Focus coming through.”

“There are lots of red Focuses that look like Jack.”

Quinlan gave him an “I know, general” look. “This one had reindeer antlers and a Rudolph nose. The Middle Street station reports it had Jack’s bumper stickers.”

“Oh dear,” Lee murmured.

Grant pushed himself out of his chair. “Private, get back to Little Round Top and fire a signal gun. We’ve got to get everyone’s attention!”

The artillerycat saluted, wheeled his horse, and galloped off. Moments later, the solid booms of two cannons echoed around the museum. The merry mayhem fell silent with startled apprehension.

Lee stood on the top of the barrister’s bookcase, overlooking the mess of party paraphernalia below. He took a deep breath. “We’ve just received word that the humans are on their way home. They already passed Middle Street!”

“High Street,” Grant said grimly, reading a note a winded courier from Bigelow’s battery had just handed him.

“High Street!” Lee yelped. “We only have minutes! I never thought I’d say this, but… Everyone: SCURRYFUNGE*!!!!”

9,161 pairs of ears perked straight up, and more than a few tails bushed in panic. Then the stunned silence exploded into chaos.

On the ironclads and USS Housatonic, drummers beat “to quarters” and sailors sprang into action, hefting their swabs over their shoulders and dashing for the ski slopes.

The real mice disappeared in a twinkling, leaving the fridge door open and peanut-buttery pawprints around the peanut butter jar that lay on its side on the butchers block. Housatonic sent a detail of sailors to get the kitchen ship-shape. “Mind you,” the captain called after them, “I want a clean sweep down the butcher’s block! Clear it for action!”

Ladies ran in every direction, hiding pots of eggnog and mulled cider around the dioramas so the soldiers could enjoy their libations later.

Artillery teams from Hazlett’s battery dragged the enormous chairs back into place, every horse and cat seemingly trying to pull each chair by himself.

Infantrycats from the Angle swarmed over the floor, gathering up picks and returning them to the picture frames and garlands. The cats from Devil’s Den followed close behind, sweeping up the glitter trail and running, not to the trashcan, but to their diorama with armfuls of glitter and sneaky grins. The humans insisted on stealing their glitter every January. Well, now they would have secret stashes among the caves and crannies of the boulders, and no one would ever know, except them!

“They’re at the Steinwehr traffic light!” Prof. Lowe shrieked from his observation balloon Intrepid. “Hurry!”

Lee paused in his sweeping and looked around him in dismay. “I hope that light is as long as Mom always says it is…”

Grant wiped sweat from his forehead. “Well, it’ll gain us a minute, anyway.”

Cats swarmed up the floor lamps, gathering up the tinsel that draped like Spanish moss and untangling it from candy canes. Lt. Haskell, fully engulfed in a shiny, sticky pile, shook his head and muttered, “It’s as bad as a feather dipped in molasses!”  

The sailors swabbed the whipped cream frantically. Occasionally, a kitten would sled past, get a mopful of sticky fluff in the face, and tumble off the sled, giggling.

The ambulance from Meade’s Headquarters galloped hither and thither, collecting scattered ornaments, and then circling aimlessly as its frenzied driver tried to remember which ornaments came from which tree.

Miniature rubber ducks waddled in every direction, quacking and getting in the way. Patrick channeled his inner border collie and herded them back onto the player piano. They waddled after him when he left, and after three failed attempts, he took them to Ft. Sumter’s water instead, where they remained happily paddling in quacking circles. Relieved, he darted to his diorama, curled up, and went to sleep.

The whistles of the two locomotives screamed a warning. “They’re in the driveway!” the engineer of the Texas hollered.

The scurryfunging reached a fever pitch. Glitter and tinsel flew, wooden cranberries rolled everywhere, wrapping paper crackled, and dog toys squonked.

Suddenly, silence.

A key turned in the lock.

Lee cast one last glance around the spotless museum and breathed a sigh of relief. Grant gripped his pencil and braced himself on his table, focusing on staying in his chair and looking a little green.

The door opened, Ru entered and dashed across to turn off the house alarm, and then human chatter replaced the clay cat meows and Sculpey horse neighs.

On the Angle, Lt. Haskell’s eyes suddenly widened. The limber team from Cowan’s gun was missing. Haskell gulped. But the humans were busy unloading the car, hurrying upstairs to greet the kittens, dashing to the thermostat to turn up the heat, and shoving boxes of Oram’s Donuts* into the fridge.

After the humans were finally tucked into bed and silence had fallen once more, a faint clip-clop of hooves crossed the museum and Cowan’s limber team slunk onto their proper diorama. The cats grinned sheepishly. They’d lost their heads and followed the first limber they saw and ended up on Little Round Top. By the time the galloping team had slowed to a halt, the back door had been opening and it was too late to move the gun.

Patrick texted Kelly that night, “Missed a fun woof. Wish woof were here. Merry Woofmas.”

Kelly texted back, “Grass here is woof! And so many woofs to talk woof wiff! Gotta bring you next woof! Woof woof woof! Merry Woofmas!”

*Scurryfunge – A hasty tidying of the house between the time you see the neighbor coming and the time they knock on the door.

*Oram’s Donut Shop is home to the best donuts in the world. Just saying 😉

Thanksgiving 2022: “A Joy”

When I started thinking about a theme for this year’s Thanksgiving Mewsing, what quickly came to mind was our visitors who have commented, “It’s such a joy!” Sometimes they mean the museum and sometimes the conversations with us. It has struck me, as they go on their way and I ponder their words, that it is actually a strange and wonderful reaction to have. Who would ever think that a war museum could bring joy to its visitors? So, this year, we would like to thank you for making such a reaction possible, and for sharing that reaction with us.

Making our Civil War cats and dioramas has been a hobby for 20 years and a business for 7 years. We have always enjoyed making “our guys” and creating scenes with them. I think that, being a natural packrat, dioramas are my way of holding onto a story from history that I find interesting. So, we certainly have enjoyed our dioramas and clay cats, personally.

In high school, we began showing our dioramas to other people—to fellow homeschoolers and to the residents at the retirement community where we worked. Bringing smiles to faces was the highlight of these interactions for us and planted the seed for a museum. If our friends enjoyed seeing and learning from the dioramas, maybe others would too!

In 2015, Civil War Tails Diorama Museum became a reality, and it has been a fun, wild ride for us. Bringing smiles to faces is still the highlight of our work. But it still surprised me the first time a visitor used the word “joy.” But I can say for our part, it certainly is a joy to talk with our visitors, to share our dioramas, to make history accessible for non-history folks and inspire them to want to learn more, to instill an interest in history and/or dioramas in children, and to talk about the historic details with Civil War buffs, including Licensed Battlefield Guides. It’s fun seeing which dioramas catch the visitor’s eye, hearing really good questions from very young visitors (leaving us thinking, “Wow, you’re so much smarter than we were at your age!”), and laughing with visitors over the Headless Horsecat or the construction crew on “The Boys Are Still There.”

The stories that inspired each diorama and the historical detail that works to portray each story are the foundation of our museum, but Civil War Tails will always reflect the fun that we have had over the last quarter century of making Civil War cats. We are so blessed to get to share our dioramas with you, and we thank you for bringing smiles to our faces as we see you enjoying our creations.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Adventures of the Headless Horsecat 2022

The Headless Horsecat and the Grim Reaper are back! (For other sightings, check out 2021, 2020, and 2019.)

It looks like a bit of hide-and-seek going on…

They’re both happy that Devil’s Den is reopened! Time for some fun on the rocks!

After a busy day, there’s no better way to relax than to photo-bomb your buddies’ photo!

Happy Halloween, everybody!

Civil War Ambulances

Recently, we took some time to rehab the ambulance on our diorama of Gen. Meade’s headquarters at Gettysburg. We made it at least thirteen years ago, and it has weathered the time and kids quite well, considering that it is mere cardboard and wire, but it certainly needed some attention and tender loving care. Now, after an afternoon well-spent with a glue bottle, it is back on display, looking all spruced up and much more…upright than it was! So, today we are Mewsing on ambulances.

When we think of a Civil War ambulance, we probably picture the four-wheeled variety, such as the one on the diorama. But there was also a two-wheeled version. While numerous, it was less popular with the wounded. The four-wheeled type was steadier and therefore more comfortable, relatively speaking.

Looking inside, you can see the seats for the wounded. The seats could unfold and convert into a second level. This way, wounded men who could not sit up could be put above and below, maximizing the space.

On the outside, you can see rolled up stretchers stored on the sides of the wagon bed.

By the time of Gettysburg, wounded soldiers would be treated initially at the regimental aid station, which was set up a safe distance behind the firing line. They might have a tourniquet put on a limb or be given some whiskey or opium for the pain, and then an ambulance would take them to the field hospital a few miles to the rear. There they would await their turn with a surgeon.

Ambulances served in other capacities as well. On the march into Pennsylvania, Confederate Gen. Richard Garnett needed to travel in an ambulance since he had been kicked in the lower leg or ankle by a horse and could not ride or even sit up for long periods of time. On July 1, Union staff officers transported the body of Gen. John Reynolds from Gettysburg in an ambulance. When Gen. George Meade learned that Reynolds was either badly wounded or killed, he sent Gen. Winfield S. Hancock ahead to take control of whatever situation he found on the field. Hancock started off in an ambulance so that he could spend the travel time in reviewing maps in order to get the best possible grasp of the situation and arrive prepared. But, Hancock’s chief of staff Lt. Col. Charles Morgan recalled, the ambulance could “not keep pace with the General’s anxiety,” and so finally they switched to their horses so they could travel faster.

Our ambulance portrays one mentioned by newspaper correspondent Sam Wilkeson. In describing the cannonade which preceded Pickett’s Charge, he wrote:

Through the midst of the storm of screaming and exploding shells, an ambulance, driven by its frenzied conductor at full speed, presented to all of us the marvelous spectacle of a horse going rapidly on three legs.  A hinder one had been shot off at the hock. 

Ship in a Bottle – Part 2

Today we continue our Mewsing on scratch-building USS Cumberland in a bottle. (You can find Part 1 here.)

With Cumberland rigged and painted, it was time for Rebecca to put it in the bottle. First, she dabbed blobs of Duco Cement inside where Cumberland would rest. Then she had to get the ship in place before the glue dried. How much time did she have? She had no idea. Meanwhile, Ruth had the presence of mind to take a video of the ship going into the bottle. It took six minutes to finagle the hull and masts in, but Cumberland made it, with all rigging, sails, and spars intact. And the glue hadn’t dried yet, so the hull nestled into place just fine.

Once Cumberland was securely fixed down, Rebecca inserted the sides of the hull and raised the masts. Then followed several evenings of gluing rigging into place. With a kit, the shrouds and stays are attached to the sides of the ship before it goes into the bottle. Here, Rebecca had approximately 30 strings to glue, after the insertion. And she could only do three at a time before going bonkers! After finishing the ship, she added waves made from Liquitex Gloss Super Heavy Gel, the medium we use for the water effects on our dioramas. On May 16, 2022, Cumberland was done!

The tools of the trade:

In the foreground is our “grabber-thingy,” a contraption with a button on one end that you push to extend four claws out the other end. It’s awesome for navigating inside a bottle! Rebecca was even able to align the claws precisely enough that they could grab a single thread and pull it tight.

In the middle is a piece of model railroad rail. It has a cross-section like an I-beam, and that shape allowed it to hold down threads, pull them away, etc.

In front of the bottle is a piece of coat hanger. Rebecca twisted some wire around one end into a little hook, and it was helpful in manipulating rigging. The plain end could hold threads against the hull until the glue set.

Cutting the threads took some ingenuity. Xacto knife blades rubber-banded to a stick or the railroad rail worked pretty well.

“Ghost” seam to right of side seam (top) and suction scar (ring on base) with “feathering”

A little about the bottle itself:

Judging from indications on the bottle, it dates from ~1905 to the early 1920s, but most likely 1911-1917. The suction scar on the base and the “ghost” seam on the side show it was made on a blow-and-blow Owens Automatic Bottle Machine, and the feathering on the suction scar indicates an early Owens machine. The single-letter code “O” on its base suggests it was made by the Owens experimental factory (Factory No. 1) in Toledo, Ohio, before June 1917, when they began using a different style of code. The “O” could also be to differentiate between the Owens Factory No. 1 and the Northwestern Bottle Company (code “N”) which was designated as Factory No. 2 in 1911.

The type of “lightning” stopper suggests it may have held a carbonated beverage (such as beer or soda). Our stopper, in particular, is a porcelain Hutter stopper. On the stopper is printed “E.M. Cook, Market St., Phila.” The only reference we could find online of E.M. Cook of Market St., Philadelphia, was a 1921 advertisement in the Philadelphia Inquirer which mentions them as a dealer for Imperial Cabinet whisky.

Ship in a Bottle – Part 1

This past spring, Rebecca decided to scratch-build USS Cumberland as a ship-in-a-bottle. Since some folks have expressed interest in seeing how she did it, today we embark on a 2-part Mewsing about the process. It all began in the basement of Civil War Tails…

The bottle alongside pictures of Cumberland and basic specifications of the ship.

Some time back, while cleaning up the basement, Rebecca found an old glass bottle, still with its porcelain stopper mechanism. Well, ever since successfully assembling a ship-in-a-bottle kit, any time she sees a big bottle, she immediately envisions putting a ship in it. This one, with its character and age, practically begged for a ship. On April 10, 2022, the time had come. But which ship? Rebecca finally decided on USS Cumberland, which CSS Virginia (Merrimack) rammed and sank on March 8, 1862—the day before the Confederate ironclad faced USS Monitor. Someday we hope to build a diorama of Cumberland being rammed, and this project allowed Rebecca to do the preliminary research and measurement calculations.

First, she had to figure out how big the ship could be. The bottle’s base has a diameter of a little over 4 inches, with thick glass sides, so she decided that ~3.5 inches should work. When the scale calculations were finished, Cumberland’s hull came out to be 3-3/8 inches long, with the height of the masts about the same. But the width of the hull was 3/4 inches, and the opening of the neck is only 5/8 inches in diameter. Because of the masts, dividing the hull down the middle was not an option, so she made it in three pieces: a middle and two sides.

With a kit, the model is completely assembled outside of the bottle. Then the masts fold down, the ship slides into the bottle and is glued down, and then the masts are raised by pulling on the few remaining long strings of rigging. On Cumberland, Rebecca drilled holes in the masts and made hinges out of wire, allowing the masts to fold astern. They folded every-which-way because of how the wire “hinges” were placed, but it turned out that allowed space for all the spars, sails, rigging, fighting tops, and other masts to get out of each other’s way in the narrow neck.

The masts assembled, with spars being added.

The masts are made from a bamboo skewer that was cut and shaved down to the correct sizes and dimensions. It turned out that the scrap pieces were perfect for shaping into spars. An unexpected bonus was that bamboo is somewhat flexible and forgiving, so the spars could bend without breaking as they squeezed into the bottle.

Adding the sails was next. But would all the fabric fit through the neck of the bottle? “We’ll find out!” Since everything needed to be flexible enough to fold this way and that, Rebecca had to choose which rigging to include and which to leave off, as too much would hinder the free movement of the spars. We mentioned earlier that pulling on the rigging raises the masts. In the picture, note the thread running from the top of the mizzen mast (the little mast on the stern) forward to the mainmast, then to the foremast, then to the bowsprit. Each mast has one. But those threads don’t get tied at the bowsprit. A long length is left that will reach outside the bottle. This way, tugging on them will pull on the masts and raise them. Then, a dot of glue on the bowsprit will anchor the thread, and the excess can be cut off. With Cumberland, there were quite a few stays running between masts and on to the bowsprit. That meant a lot of threads to keep track of and run out the neck of the bottle.

After finishing the rigging and sails, Rebecca did a dry run of fitting the hull into the bottle. The collapsed ship reminded her of a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. During the process, one corner of a sail pulled off the spar below, a thread of rigging nearly shredded apart under the strain, and one bit of rigging that tied the mainmast to the mizzen prevented the two masts from collapsing properly. The issues were simple to fix, and it was time to move on to the final touches.

The final details: painting the hull, making the flag, and making the anchors. (Not until after completing the ship did Rebecca realize she had not painted the hull correctly. But she wasn’t about to try and reach a paintbrush into the bottle to fix it!)

Finally, the big moment had come. But would the ship successfully make it into the bottle? Would Rebecca be able to navigate inside the bottle to finish it? Stay tuned for Part 2 to find out!

Cat 9000

This past July 2nd, we made Cat 9000 as Col. Strong Vincent on Little Round Top. He is the newest of our K-Cats. But what is a K-Cat?

Ever since late 1999, we have kept a census of our Civil War cats and, specifically, have noted which cat marks another thousand on the census at the time of his making. We don’t know who Cats 1000 and 2000 are, but we have kept track from Cat 3000 on. Since in our notes we abbreviate to “Cat 3K” or the like, these specific thousand-marker cats have become known as “K-Cats.”

Sometimes, a K-Cat is an ordinary private who just happened to mark a thousand. We still make them distinctive to remember who they are. Cat 3000 is a black cat with a white cat-mustache and tail tip. We installed him on Battery Wagner at midnight, January 1, 2000. Cat 4000 is wearing a plaid shirt, and 8000 is an artillerycat wearing a vest.

Lately, we’ve chosen to make K-Cats someone identified and significant. Cat 5000 is Gen. Will T. Martin, one of only two identified officers on “Desperation at Skull Camp Bridge.” We installed him on our 10-year anniversary, on June 25, 2005. Cats 6000 and 7000 are Col. Joshua Chamberlain, commanding the 20th Maine, and Capt. Ellis Spear, commanding its left wing, respectively.

Now, Cat 9000 is Col. Vincent. On July 2, 1863, Vincent took the responsibility to lead his brigade onto the empty hill of Little Round Top, on the left flank of the Union army at Gettysburg. By doing so, he ensured the Confederates would not take the hill and send enfilading fire down the length of the Union line.

Cat 9000 – Col. Strong Vincent

After about an hour of fighting, the third Confederate charge threatened to overlap the right flank of Vincent’s brigade, specifically the 16th Michigan. Misunderstanding an order to pull their right back to face the threat, half the regiment—including their commander and flag—retreated. Col. Vincent tried to rally the crumbling regiment, but as he did so, he fell mortally wounded. Eventually, before the Confederates could take advantage of the weakened 16th, Col. Patrick O’Rorke and the 140th New York arrived and saved the right flank.

But Col. Vincent didn’t know the outcome of the fight for Little Round Top. The last he knew, the 16th Michigan had broken. The next day, his orderly Pvt. Oliver Norton visited the wounded colonel. Vincent was in such pain that he could not speak, but Norton could read the question in his eyes: What happened? Did my men hold the hill?

Norton told him, “The boys are still there.”

The simple reply brought Vincent the relief he needed. He would die four days later on July 7, knowing his men had held the left flank of the Union army secure.

When we first read Norton’s words, we knew we had the name for our diorama. His words say it all. The boys are still there. So, it’s also fitting that Cat 9000 is Col. Vincent, who gave his life to help save the Union army on July 2, 1863.

Around Civil War Tails: Sunlight and Shadow

There’s nothing quite like walking through a sleeping museum on a sunny morning. Most of the dioramas are in shadow, but here and there, a shaft of light blazes across, highlighting a small portion of a scene. A camera hardly does it justice, but we try anyway! Enjoy today’s collection of a few “sunlight and shadow” mornings at Civil War Tails.