Monday, April 14, 2014

Victory Lap and Fare-thee-well

This was a beautiful morning to take one last hike in the park.  I've been walking these trails for eight years now, usually with my camera and always on the lookout for the things that make this place so special.

You'd think that after so many years I'd have run out of special moments here, but every walk upon the battlefield brings something new - today it was the frogs singing from the Roulette pond.  Every day something new, every day another view.  I never know what to expect when I mount the steps to the observation room - the valley, Elk Ridge, and South Mountain never look the same way twice.  I'll miss giving programs in that room with visitors in front of me and that magnificent view behind me.

I've had many wonderful experiences here.

I met, proposed to, and married my wife here.

I've made lasting friendships here.

I've learned so much here.

And some day, I hope to return here.

Best wishes, from just north of Sharpsburg,

Ranger Mannie

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Moving On

Starting on April 22 I will be a park guide at Frederick Douglass National Historic Site (here)

It is with genuine sadness that I am leaving Antietam, but funding as it is, needs must.  Nonetheless I shall remain with the National Park Service and at Cedar Hill. a really exceptional holding of the Service.

I am very much looking forward to my new assignment and the opportunity to introduce visitors to a giant of a man -

                                                           Frederick Douglass

Wish me luck (commuting to DC from Boonsboro)


Saturday, March 01, 2014

Burnside Bridge in 54mm

Posted here simultaneously with my toy soldier blog an explanation of events at Burnside Bridge.

Burnside Bridge

A couple of years ago I made a 54mm model of Burnside Bridge (the beer, by the way, is non-alcoholic).  It was three weeks of delightful labor. You can see the entire process by going here:

Using the model and several hundred toy soldiers, let me illustrate the events of the morning of September 17th, 1862 in the area of Lower (Burnside) Bridge.

The crossing of the Antietam Creek south of Sharpsburg became, with the blunting of Federal efforts on the northern end of the field, the greatest hope of victory for McClellan.  To force the creek would be to get to Sharpsburg, to get to Sharpsburg would be to cut Lee’s army in half and cut Lee’s army off from its escape route.  It would be up to Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside's IX Corps to achieve this goal and attain the sought-after victory.

Defending the bridge were approximately 400 Confederates commanded by General Robert Toombs comprised of the 2nd and 20th Georgia regiments. The Georgians arrived on the western side of the creek on September 15th and had the luxury of time in which to prepare their positions. Digging rifle pits, bolstering fences, and piling rocks the men worked with a will. 

Although their numbers were few they determined to exploit to the fullest the terrain of their position.  They removed brush from both sides of the creek and felled selected trees to establish clear fields of fire.  The natural strongpoint of an abandoned rock quarry was fortified as a citadel against attack.  The quarry remains today, one hundred feet above the bridge, about five feet in depth and large enough to accommodate a company of men.  

And now the action begins.

Shortly after 9:00 a.m. two companies, A and B, of the 11th Connecticut opened the attack.  Their orders were to brush the Confederate pickets from the eastern side of the bridge, clearing the way for a comprehensive assault.  The two companies formed behind twin knolls on the Federal side of the creek opposite the bridge.  An orderly charge began with the men from Connecticut charging down the steep western slopes of the knolls and deploying on the floodplain below. 

Then the Confederates opened fire.  Upon open ground and without cover of any sort the two Connecticut companies were overwhelmed in a thunderclap of Confederate fire.  The avenue of approach from the two knolls had funneled the men of Connecticut directly into the line of fire from the Confederates.  Because of the alignment of the bridge within a crescent of high ground on the Confederate side the Federals were subjected to a killing fire from left, right, and center. 

 Utterly shattered, the Federals were forced to retire leaving the ground littered with their dead and wounded.  A dismal pattern had been established for the efforts of the IX Corps on that deadly morning.

The second assault upon the bridge was made by the entire 11th Connecticut commanded by Col. Henry Walter Kingsbury.  The Connecticut regiment advanced over the knolls and upon the floodplain to distract the Confederates from the twin flank attacks by generals Crook and Rodman who were moving upstream and down in an effort to ford the creek and threaten the Confederate's flanks.  The coordination of timing was critical.  For the strategy to be successful there had to be a clear understanding among all parties of their various roles in the effort and there needed to be good communications between each element of the attack, and it was also essential that each element knew exactly where it was going.  Given the lack of instantaneous communications of any sort coupled with the rugged and bewildering terrain of the area the flaws of the plan soon became apparent.

Kingsbury formed his lines of battle behind the protection of the twin knolls and began his advance to the floodplain below.  Predictably, as the Federal lines gained the flat, open ground the Confederates opened fire with devastating results. 

Federal losses in the initial volley were great and the attack began to stall.  Kingsbury, in an effort to restore the forward momentum plunged into the creek at the head of a small band of stalwarts. 

The men of Connecticut were pinned down on the deadly terrain of open ground.  Kingsbury, gamely leading a small group toward the Confederate side of the creek, was struck by multiple bullets and was carried from the creek, under fire, only to expire form his wounds.  

The diversionary attack by the 11th Connecticut was no more successful that the abortive attack that had preceded it, one hundred thirty nine  men, one-third, of the 11 Connecticut, were killed or wounded.  The regiment was shattered; meanwhile Crook and Rodman had yet to be heard from.

Kingsbury expected the bulk of the 11th Connecticut to follow him, but by that time they had gone to ground desperately seeking cover behind a stone wall and the meager protection of a post and rail fence. 

 Burnside devised the next plan that would entail a closely coordinated effort between the Divisions of Crook and Brig. Gen. Isaac Rodman.  Crook was to advance from the northwest to the bridge...

(Crook's Division)

while Rodman crossed the creek below the bridge to assault the flank of Toombs’ Confederates.  The plan, so clear in the mind, proved complex upon the terrain. 

The plan called for Crook’s brigade of 1,800 men to march to their jumping off point to the north east of the bridge and, covered by the diversion of the 11th Connecticut, to storm the bridge in a concerted effort.  Crook’s regiments were operating in unfamiliar territory and became disoriented in the scrubby woodland behind the twin knolls through which they proceeded. They were lost and moving 500 yards north of the bridge and far beyond their planned assembly point.  Emerging from the brush Crook realized he was out of position but improvised a new plan based upon the emerging situation.  By assaulting the bridge from the northeast he may have been able to take the Confederates unawares coming from such an unexpected angle as he was.  Ironically, had Crook had better information and had the area been better reconnoitered, he would have found a suitable ford only a short distance further north.  Had he found and exploited this crossing he would have emerged in a position on the flank of Toombs and squarely between Toombs and the only lightly defended heights outside of Sharpsburg - Lee’s weakest position.  In ignorance of the opportunity Crook attacked from the northeast.

As Crook launched his attack Rodman, to the south, had found his designated crossing point.  As the engineers had reported, the creek was shallow and easily fordable, however what the engineers failed to appreciate was the steepness of the bluff the Federals would face upon crossing.  Upon that bluff were dug-in Confederates who opened a blistering fire on the Federals of Rodman’s division who attempted a crossing.  Seeing the fruitlessness of the attempt Rodman, at the head of his column, proceeded further downstream into the great unknown looking for a more suitable crossing point.

(Rodman's division)

The forth attempt to storm the bridge was the effort of General Samuel Sturgis’ division.
Burnside ordered Sturgis to lead his division, in columns of fours as though on the march, to proceed at the double quick up the Rohersville road toward the bridge and to take it at the point of the bayonet. The time was about 10:30. Sturgis personally supervised the attack, which proved as doomed as the earlier attempts.  By advancing up the Rohersville road Sturgis’ division was exposed to a flanking fire for the entire 300 yard length of the road that ran parallel to the Confederate positions on the ground above.  Sturgis’ men were quite like targets in a shooting gallery


Under a withering enfilade fire the Federals ran the gauntlet, there was still 200 yards to the bridge and the Unions assault was melting away like candle wax.  Federals, returning fire, found the Confederates nearly invisible in their concealed positions and masked by battle smoke. 

But the Confederates too, were taking losses.

  Union artillery had found the range of the Rebel positions and the Georgians were suffering mounting casualties as their ammunition continued to dwindle.  As Sturgis ordered the withdrawal of his battered regiments the struggle entered its fourth hour with no gains made.  Sturgis, however, was not finished.

 Previously Sturgis advanced only half of his division in that ill-fated advance up the Rohersville Road toward the bridge.  He was now ready to commit the remainder of his force based upon lessons learned.  Burnside issued an unequivocal order to Sturgis to “carry the bridge at all hazards.” Sturgis selected two regiments – the 51st New York and the 51st Pennsylvania to make the assault.

Unlike the obvious and deadly approach taken by the regiments of his earlier attack Sturgis determined to use the terrain to his advantage.  He formed up the two fifty-firsts on the far side of the twin knolls on the Federal side of the creek.  Sturgis formed his line of battle with the 51st Pennsylvania on the right and the New Yorkers on the left.  At about 12:30 p.m. the order to charge rang out and the men of New York and Pennsylvania emerged from the tree line at the crest of the knolls and began a pell-mell charge forward with bayonets fixed.  Developing momentum as they raced downhill they crossed the two-hundred yard flood plain quickly. 

In what was essentially a spontaneous movement the two Federal regiments formed up in rough columns and rushed the bridge, the flags of both regiments crossing side-by-side.  The Confederates, after firing off desperate final rounds saw the handwriting upon the wall.  The men from New York and Pennsylvania, now across the bridge, were racing up the road from the bridge toward the Confederates.  The 28th Ohio had crossed upstream and the lead regiments of Rodman’s division were closing in on the Confederate right.  

As the Federals rushed the bridge, Rodman who had found a ford downstream now threatened Toombs' flank.

The rebel position became untenable and Toombs’s men, after a gallant four-hour defense were forced back into a fighting withdrawal. “The stars and stripes” reported Sturgis “were planted on the opposite bank at 1:00 p.m.” The struggle was over and the Lower Bridge had earned its new name as Burnside Bridge. The losses, compared to other areas of the field that day were light.  Casualties among the Federals were about 500 killed or wounded, the Georgians suffered about 120 to the same fates.  The number of casualties certainly did not match the effort and drama expended that midmorning, though for the Confederates those were irreplaceable losses. For as much time, blood, and ammunition was spent forcing the bridge, for Burnside and the men of the IX Corps, the really hard part was about to begin.

Its hard to believe today that such an epic and bloody struggle to place in such a tranquil setting.

Until next time...

Ranger Mannie

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

V is for Veterans (750th post)

We wonder, all of us, what lasting contributions we have made?   This post is pretty much about me and something that I did.  Now make no mistake there were many talented people who made it happen, designers, fabricators, collections curators, really wonderful people.  But this project was something that    
I had a great hand in, a place where I made my mark.

Me in foreground, museum in background. 

 I worked at the Public Museum of Grand Rapids (Michigan), in various capacities for seventeen years, the last four as the head of the education division.   I was fortunate to work with some great people and to be surrounded by some pretty fabulous artifacts.

The old museum of the 1930s was replaced by a huge glittering structure able to accommodate more artifacts, more exhibits, and more visitors.  The three-story galleria encloses the old City Hall clock, a biplane, an enormous Corliss stationary steam engine and a forty-foot long whale skeleton!

But, in 1994 when the beautiful new public museum opened,  almost immediately came the recurring refrain "Where's all the stuff?"

Surprisingly the museum was awash in great expanses of empty wall space and many, if not most, of the beloved exhibits and artifacts of previous generations had been left out of the new museum.  On opening day I actually had one visitor grab my arm in a near death-grip demanding "Where are the dolls?!" I had no good answer for her.

It took awhile for the great minds at the museum to get up to speed and really embrace what the taxpayers were upset about.  Many of the most cherished exhibits from the old museum were gone.

The disappointment of the visitors was palpable and entirely understandable.  Gone were the exhibits that they had grown up with, the exhibits they had wanted to share with their children and grandchildren.  Dolls, guns, mummies, tools, glass, clothing, musical instruments, toys, all gone, seemingly forever.  Objects that the museum had been collecting since 1854.  It was a sad thing.  It was a bad thing.

Within two years of opening, staff members came up with a way to get more of the collections back out on display, many of the old favorites, and many more that hadn't seen the light of day for fifty years or more.  Thus was born the exhibition "Collecting A to Z".  It was an inspired idea, and Marilyn, our collections manager, was its champion.

We travelled to the Minnesota History Center which had mounted a big exhibit entitled "We Collect, A to Z" and we saw the idea that we wanted.

 We took it and came up with "Collecting A to Z" 

A would be for Automobilies, T for Toys and Games, P for Pewter, D  for Dolls, and so on.

In this instance "F" is for "fossils"

   (photo from the Public Museum of Grand Rapids' facebook page which you can like here)

"V" is for "Veterans", and this was my project, I got to write it, do the preliminary designs, and I got to select the artifacts, I even mounted many of the objects.

It was the most satisfying thing that I did at the museum and was my last project before I left.

As part of the planning process each of the letters were examined for the potential of public interest as well as the ability of the collection to support the exhibit.  No use saying "C is for Coco Chanel" if there's no textile collection, if you get my drift. 

 I lobbied really hard for "veterans" as I knew that our collection was rich in objects including weapons, uniforms, medals, insignia, posters and other graphics, and above all personal connections with actual West Michigan veterans, their uniforms had been donated to us over the long (long) history of the Museum.  We had the frock coat of Grand Rapidian Steven Champlin, colonel of the 3rd Michigan Volunteer Infantry regiment in the Civil War as well as the POW uniform worn by Butch Strickland, a crewmember of the USS Pueblo which was captured by the North Koreans in 1968.

In short, we had a ton of cool stuff...

including one of George Armstrong Custer's shoulder straps and a sword-sash worn by Robert E. Lee

The ground rules for inclusion were pretty simple: it had to be cool and it had to have a West Michigan connection, in this instance Custer's shoulder strap was a gift to Victorian-era Grand Rapids resident Rebecca Richmond and Lee's sword sash was in a baggage train captured by men under General Champlin.

Every exhibit starts with a plan; goals, objectives, audience,  take-home messages, potential artifacts, etc.  The Planning for "V is for Veterans" began in 1998 and steadily, slowly but surely, inched forward.

There were varying levels of staff enthusiasm for the project; needless to say, I was the head cheerleader for "V".

The space allocated for the exhibit was a challenging one; the curved exterior wall outside of the "Anishinabek" (first peoples of West Michigan) exhibition.  That curved wall, in a linear sense, provided limited room for the exhibition of the merest fraction of the available artifacts.

I came up with an idea of how to increase the available space.

I suggested a series of triangular "pods" jutting out from that curved wall like teeth in a giant cog.

A talented designer, Paris Tennenhouse, took my sketch...

and turned it into a set of design drawings.

Each of the pods would provide glassed-in cases able to accommodate two uniforms, back-to-back as well as lots of smaller objects.  Suddenly the potential for artifact inclusion grew exponentially.

And I got to curate those artifacts.  Boy, was I in heaven.

I was also able to put my cartooning skills to use.  For many of the uniforms I made a "Read the Uniform" label showing how the various elements of the uniform can tell you a lot about the veteran 
who wore it.

Many talented people including Roger Van Till, Dennis O'Connell, Dave Denett, Marilyn Merdzinski, Tom Bantle, Mary Jane Wisnewski, Peter Cook, Ralph Hauenstein, Paris Tennenhouse and others all pitched in to bring this project to life.

When the exhibit opened it was very warmly received by the community in general and by veterans and their families in particular.  And I was very happy with the way it all turned out.

Photographic portraits of veterans were taken by artist photographer David DeJonge and appear throughout the exhibit

On the left is an Army nurse's cape.  She sewed on the insignias of numerous units, divisions, and regiments until the cape was completely covered.

Uniforms that had been in storage for a hundred years or more once again saw the light of day; beautifully lit and  showcased in all their splendor.

Under a poster of the five Sullivan brothers is the POW uniform of Butch Strickland, a former crewman of the USS Pueblo.

A poster of Joe Louis towers over an MP uniform worn by a West Michigan soldier who served on occupation duty following the Second World War.

On one of the steel pillars I made magnetic cartoon uniforms that kids could dress the "well-dressed" veteran in. 

 And some things never change...

Here I am many years later and I'm fortunate enough to still be at it, now for the National Park Service.

When we opened a new gallery in the visitor center last year I got to have a hand in it;

making exhibit furniture to mount artifacts upon...

and mounting those artifacts.

It was a very satisfying experience.  And I am privileged to have been able to 
participate in the process.

I'm proud of what I've been able to do and proud of all the people who helped me do it.

Its nice to leave a footprint.

From just north of Sharpsburg,

Ranger Mannie

p.s. Thanks to my old museum friend Gina who took many of these photos for me (what a peach).