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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Thanksgiving

2020-11-21 IMG_0596 adjust cropThis Thanksgiving, we at Civil War Tails would like to express our gratitude to and for all who have supported our museum and our town through this year. Gettysburg relies on its tourists, and this year was a reminder of just how important all of you are.

While our museum was closed for 2½ months, you supported us with notes, social media engagement, and online orders. It’s a blessing for us to hear how special our museum is to you, and we appreciate it from the bottom of our hearts.

When we reopened, we wondered how the summer would be. A big Thank You to all of you “Gettysburg faithfuls,” who had to postpone your spring trips and now showed up in summer! A big Thank You to all of you “first-timers,” who decided to make Gettysburg a destination for a day-trip or weekend escape. Against all expectations, this summer was quite good for Civil War Tails, and our fall months were, surprisingly, our best ever! Who would have thought it? We thank God for all of you, and your support of us and our wonderful town.

2019-08-15 IMG_0515This Labor Day marked 5 years of Civil War Tails, and this year marked 25 years of Civil War cats. We look forward to many to come! It has been a joy to share our dioramas with all of you, and we are happy that our cats can bring a smile to you also.

We wish you a happy, healthy Thanksgiving!

–Ruth and Rebecca and 8,825 Civil War cats …and Patrick the dog!

25 Years: A Match Made In Heaven—Or At Least in Gettysburg!

In our past 25-Years Mewsings, we’ve discussed the progression of our dioramas. But today we take a look at a unique diorama. In its humble confines, “Come On, You Wolverines” represents the full history of Civil War cats.

2020-10-10 1998 May 02 croppedCivil War cat cavalry was present long before we thought to make dioramas. In fact, if memory serves right, it was our becoming tired of having to “fix up” bridles and saddles after every battle that prompted us to set up stationary displays, instead of continuing to use our cat-soldiers as toys. Some of our early pre-diorama photos show the modest cavalries of our earliest cats—and yes, some of the horses in this photo are on “Come On, You Wolverines”!

Our oldest photo of a cavalry diorama is from January 2000, with the units’ horses color-coordinated. Incidentally, Capt. James H. Kidd recalls in his memoirs how the 6th Michigan Cavalry began with each company (troop) on matching horses. Troop A had bays, B had browns, and so forth. It didn’t last long!

Our cavalry “diorama” did not have a base, so it was always changing. In 2001, we began displaying our dioramas at the retirement community where we worked. This one-day event would continue annually until 2013, when we moved to Gettysburg. For the cavalry, this meant that we set the battle up, horse by horse, every time (plus a second time when we took them home that night!). During this time, the diorama generally represented Brandy Station (June 9, 1863).

In 2009, the cavalry finally received a base! With real grass clippings as ground cover, the clashing horses now portrayed fighting at East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg (July 3, 1863). But transportation remained a bit hazardous, since there was no way to anchor the horses to their base. So, the cavalrycats jammed their ranks between the walls of their platform and did their best to keep their horses propped up on their feet. There are advantages to galloping stirrup-to-stirrup when you’re a toy horse bouncing in the back of a pickup truck!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Finally, in fall 2017, we began revamping the cavalry battle into an intentional portrayal of a specific point in time at East Cavalry Field. We decided to use the old base of a defunct diorama that had been sitting around for years. It was a match meant to be—it just took us a while to realize it! At last the old base had a use, and at last the cavalry had a base with a surface that they could attach to! The base has a very slight topographical slope, so Rebecca made sure to visit East Cavalry Field, pinpoint where she believes this clash of cavalry took place, and orient the base accordingly.

2020-10-10 20180210_173232The revamp meant evaluating each horse and cat. Sleepy, lazy (standing) store-bought horses were retired to green pastures and removed from the census of Civil War Cat horses. Some old clay cats and horses had lost so many limbs (and/or head) that they were “put down.” If the horse’s clay was still soft enough, we made a new horse. Unfortunately for the cats, there’s just no way to resurrect old dried-out blue and gray clay! Clay cats and horses who remained more-or-less intact were cleaned up by scraping a couple decades-worth of dust off their faces, uniforms, and white markings. In the meantime, the two cavalries enlisted young whippersnapper Sculpey cats. Some supplied their own fresh mounts, while others inherited veteran cavalry horses.

IMG_0410 1st horse on!Finally, it was time to install the horses. On May 5, 2018, the first horse, a Union liver chestnut, was wired onto the base! Over three hundred horses would follow before the diorama was finally placed on display at Civil War Tails almost a year later, on Friday, May 3, 2019. 

Of the 313 horses on the diorama, only twenty are store-bought. (When you come to Civil War Tails, try to find and point out the store-bought horses—Ruth and Rebecca can tell you if you’re right!) Thirty-five clay horses remain; some of them are new, some are “middle-aged,” and some are original and date back to the late ‘90s! The remaining 258 horses are Sculpey, and 204 of them were made for this revamp. The cats share the same mix of old clay and new Sculpey, making this diorama unique. No other diorama has such a mix of generations of cats and horses. When you look at “Come On, You Wolverines,” you can see a microcosm of 25 years of Civil War cat history!

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

New: Pet Memorial Domes

LUCKY (used with permission)

If you’ve ever had a favorite pet that captured your heart, now you have a unique way to remember them. We have just added Pet Memorial Display Domes to our Merchandise page, under the “Pet Memorials” tab.

When you order, we will contact you for photos of your pet, so we can make a miniature model of him or her. By studying the supplied photos, we work to capture not only the markings, coloration, and physical appearance, but also the spirit and personality of your pet, as much as we can. For samples of some of our work, check out the Pet Memorials tab. 

These domes also make great Christmas gifts for friends and family!

25 Years: Material Developments

Today we continue our mewsings about the past 25 years of Civil War cats! But first, we would like to send out a big “Thank You” to everyone who joined us last weekend for our 5th Anniversary Scavenger Hunt. We had a great time and trust that you did too!

So far, we’ve mewsed about our progression from individual cats to our first topographical diorama. Up until designing the Angle, we had been searching for a good way to form the overall diorama—what to use as the base. After construction of the Angle, the emphasis shifted to the features on the dioramas.

Grass:

As we made the Angle, with its little green bushes on green paint, we realized that we needed a better material for portraying grass. But what to use? So began our search for a good moss or anything else that could be used as ground cover. We found one type of moss that worked well as long grass for our 2.5” cats, and used it on “At All Hazards” in 2002.

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Unfortunately, we discovered on another diorama that 1” clay cats could not handle the long strands of the moss. Their legs were too short to touch the base underneath the grass, and the soft modeling clay of their bodies could not survive the insertion of pins or wires to fasten them down. So, we abandoned that diorama. The cats were reused on the Angle, and the base was stored away. In 2018, it found its purpose when it became the base for our majorly revamped cavalry battle—“Come On, You Wolverines!”

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In 2008, we discovered “turf” and used it for ground cover on Devil’s Den (“Give Them Shell”). By then, we had also discovered Sculpey for making our cats, so the result was perfect: ¾” tall cats had no problem gluing down onto the turf!

Rocks:

“Give Them Shell” was also the first venture into hand-sculpting rocks based off of photographs of the actual boulders on the battlefield. The clay we used was quite messy—note the cheese puffs laid out on Reb’s laptop for hands-free snacking! In 2013, when making Little Round Top, we switched to DAS Air-Hardening Modeling Clay which is easy to use when shaping and painting the rocks.

Cats:

“At All Hazards” was probably the first diorama where we used Sculpey, a polymer clay that can be baked, to make some of the horses. The cats, however, were still the non-hardening modeling clay.

In 2004, we made USS Housatonic. Not only is the ship notable in that Rebecca had never made a tall ship before, not even from a kit, but this scene was the first time that we used Sculpey for our cats. Needless to say, after gluing the cats to the spars and having them not fall off, we were hooked on Sculpey cats! Life got even better in 2013 when we discovered Sculpey III comes in the various colors needed for horses and Union and Confederate uniforms, which meant we no longer had to paint our figures.

“The Boys Are Still There” is the culmination of our discoveries over the previous decade, using turf for the grass, DAS for the rocks, and Sculpey III for cats, artillery, and horses. But as always, we still look around the house for materials to use for other features. So, we use toothpicks for gun carriages, make our own trees with twigs from the backyard (buying Reindeer Moss for the leaves), and use black tea for the fallen leaf debris on the ground.

We’re constantly analyzing materials we see or objects we find and thinking, “Hey, that would be good for such-and-such” or “Would that work as this?” That’s just what happens when dioramas get in your blood. Research can give you ideas of what to use, but it is also fun to experiment and discover materials on your own!

5th Anniversary Scavenger Hunt!

CWTH scavenger hunt

Civil War Tails is celebrating 5 years! Join us this Labor Day weekend for our annual Scavenger Hunt! This year will be extra-special. With our Civil War cats celebrating 25 years, and the museum celebrating 5 years, the Scavenger Hunt will be chockful of fun CW cat history for you to discover throughout the museum. Come and see a quarter-century of Civil War cat fun, learn the history behind them, and maybe even take home a bit of Civil War Tails for yourself!

Civil War Tails will have special hours of 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Labor Day Monday. We will offer discounted admission, and prizes for completion of the scavenger hunt!

Please see our COVID-19 tab for special information regarding your visit.

25 Years: One Small Step for Dioramas, One Giant Leap for Civil War Cats

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In our 25th Anniversary Mewsings so far, we have told the story of our cats’ origin, introduced some old friends, and discussed the transition of “our guys” from everyday toys to dioramas. Today, we are mewsing about a major step forward in our diorama-making, signaling a new era in the lives of our Civil War cats.

We had had a Pickett’s Charge diorama since early on, which Rebecca constantly tweaked. By 2000, it was growing—first from one platform base to two, and then to boxes around them. Then we began “shrinking” the cats. All of this was with a view to depict the entire Confederate line but also a desire to make the diorama to-scale.

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On June 30, 2000, during a trip to Gettysburg, our dad suggested that we buy a set of topographical maps of the battlefield and he would help us build a topographical base for a new, to-scale diorama. At the time, the smallest cats we could make were 1-inch tall. So, given the floor space we had available, we were limited to making only the Angle itself and half of the Copse of Trees.

 

2020-08-15 PC 05 2001“The Fate of Gettysburg” kept us busy through college. While other students were doing whatever college students do, we sat in the dorm room and made cats for the Angle! (Well, okay, we also made at least USS Housatonic and “Desperation at Skull Camp Bridge,” if not others.)

Since the Angle was the first major diorama we had made, we did not know about ground cover. So, the “grass” was green paint, with bits of green foam added as bushes to try to make the ground more 3-dimensional.

“The Fate of Gettysburg” would have to wait until 2012 for us to discover and install “turf.” During that major overhaul, we also realized that most of Pickett’s division would be on our diorama, along the stone wall. So we needed to add 1,000 or more Confederates.

2020-08-15 PC 08We also added injured and killed horses for Cushing’s battery. Since his guns were abandoned by the point in time portrayed on the diorama, we had initially overlooked the obvious fact that the debris of Cushing’s shattered battery would remain on the field after his men and limbers had withdrawn. This adjustment meant re-reading about July 2nd and earlier on July 3rd, to count up how many limbers and caissons had exploded. This was a reminder to us to keep in mind events or episodes that happened earlier at the location portrayed on a diorama. (See “CSS Virginia (Merrimack)—Day One” for another example of including “previous day” damage.)

“The Fate of Gettysburg” Then & Now:

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2009

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25 Years: Diorama Beginnings

In 1998, we began setting up our “guys” in scenes on the floor. These early dioramas were not permanent, but they signal a shift in our focus. Early on, our armies fought our other toys (see “Meet the Cats”), but at some point Union and Confederate began fighting each other. The problem was, with all of the modeling clay and plastic store-bought horses involved, cavalry battles in particular required quite a bit of repair (“fixing up”) afterwards. When we tired of having to do this each time, we had the thought to build dioramas or stationary scenes.

 

We consider First Bull Run to be our first diorama. Originally, we set it up on a shelf—a line of Union infantry, a line of Confederates lying among the trees, and Gen. Barnard Bee’s retreating Confederates in between. Being only 14 years old, we were not concerned with scale, but we did want to tell the story—in this case, of Gen. Bee giving Gen. Jackson his nickname “Stonewall.” Later, when we began to think of scale, we moved the Confederates onto a box as a base and repurposed the Yankees elsewhere.

 

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Cat 3000

Our first real to-scale diorama is “I Want You To Prove Yourselves,” the 54th Massachusetts attacking Battery Wagner. Inspired by the movie “Glory,” we made a diorama. In October of 1999, we shrank the cats to make the diorama to-scale. Around that time, Rebecca began keeping a census of the cats. We don’t know who Cats 1000 and 2000 are, but we managed to identify Cat 3000 and place him on Battery Wagner. I say “managed” because math is not our strong suit, and Rebecca miscounted and forgot to count enough cats that for a while it seemed we might miss Cat 3000 altogether!