Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A sad day for the Park Service

This, from the Secretary of the Interior:

Over the past weekend, tragedy struck with the loss of two wildland firefighters.

Andrew Palmer, a firefighter with the Olympic National Park in Port Angeles, Washington, died Friday, July 25, 2008, while working on the Eagle Fire, Shasta-Trinity National Forest in
California. He died while being transported by air for emergency treatment of multiple injuries.

Officials on the Klamath National Forest in California confirmed the fatality of another firefighter that occurred on the Panther Fire Saturday, July 26, 2008. The firefighter was attached to
Dietrich’s California Incident Management Team 5. The firefighter’s identity is being withheld pending notification of family members.

I would like to extend my personal condolences to the families of these two fallen firefighters.

The noble men and women who serve, help, save, and protect are public servants of the highest order. Our firefighters shoulder a heavy responsibility to protect not only our lands, but also communities throughout the country–and they do their jobs with tremendous courage and commitment. Today, we honor two firefighters, including one Interior employee, who paid the
ultimate sacrifice. I also want to take this opportunity to thank all the men and women who continue to put forth remarkable efforts battling these wildfires.

In honor of Andrew Palmer, a National Park Service employee, I hereby authorize all agencies throughout the Department of the Interior to lower their flags to half-staff nation-wide beginning Tuesday, July 29, 2008, through sunset on Monday, August 4, 2008. I take this action by Presidential Proclamation No. 3044.


Sometimes, it gets lost in the shuffle of the public's awareness that  Park Rangers don't all do the same jobs. Some give tours, some save lives, some sit behind a desk and make decisions, some plant trees, some repair historic buildings, some clean and maintain the parks, some enforce the law, some do all of those things.

And sometimes they get hurt.

That's why the flag's at half-staff at your National Park.

There are some very brave Park Rangers out there.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Gettysburg Visitor Center comments

I'm hearing some negative comments from some folks regarding the new Visitor Center and museum up in Gettysburg.  They have by no means been significant in number, but uncanny in their similarity.

Complaint 1 - "They tell too much of a story, this should focus on Gettysburg, not the entire war and aftermath."

This comment invariably comes from individuals with a great deal of prior knowledge about the war and the battle, authentic campaigners, authors, actual or self-styled content experts. 

I can certainly see their point, they are, after all,  specialists with a keenly focused and abiding interest in the three day struggle at Gettysburg.

What I generally point out to those folks is that the vast majority of Gettysburg visitors have neither the background nor the expertise on the subject that the specialists do, and that for most people a trip to Gettysburg is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and perhaps the only opportunity - ever -  to lay out for them the entire story of the war from A to Z.  After all, it seems I am always hearing laments that "schools today" aren't teaching kids enough about the Civil War etc.  Well, here then we have it, a clear and complete exploration of the entire war, its causes, and outcomes for that vast majority of visitors.  Perhaps not what the specialists desire, but an educational windfall to students, teachers, and to those whose casual interest, and Gettysburg visit,  may lead them yet into a lifetime of further learning about the war.

And that's a very good thing.

Complaint 2 - "They don't have enough artifacts".  

 I think they have an incredible number of superb artifacts on display and in a context to do a first-rate job of educating the public, again for many of whom, this is their first brush with the subject matter.

Gettysburg is not a private club for connoisseurs, it's one of our Nations most prized possessions, owned by all of the people of the United States and enjoyed by people of all nations on this globe.  And nearly all of them seem very happy with the place.

And that's a very subjective thing.

Complaint 3 - "They spend too much time talking about slavery and reconstruction."

Hmmm.  I think that complaint tells me a whole lot more about the complainer than it does the content of the museum.

And that's a very chilling thing.


Sunday, July 27, 2008

As if there had been any doubt...

I'm a geek. My wife made that pronouncement this weekend. She was quoting her brother who got a load of my other blog Toy Soldiers Forever

In my defense let me just say that I have nothing to say in my defense.

I've  been staging the Sunken Road battle in my front yard for a week now taking many photos as it develops.

What must the neighbors think?

The results should be on TSF sometime next week (weather permitting)


Friday, July 25, 2008

Its getting hot in my front yard

They're so small but so noisy!

I'll keep you posted on developments.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

With a Little Help From Our Friends - SHAF

As with any  success, teamwork is involved.  At Antietam National Battlefield that teamwork occurs daily between the talented, professional, and dedicated park workers, our neighbors, enthusiastic volunteers,  and preservationist groups.  Here is such a success story:

SHAF - Save Historic Antietam Foundation, friends in deed.

The Joseph Poffenberger Farm
July 12, 2008

(an extended version of an article from the July 2008 SHAF Newsletter)
By Antietam NBP Ranger Mannie Gentile,
photos by the author

Find yourself on the Northern edge of Antietam National Battlefield.Your feet are planted on Mansfield Avenue, the saplings of the newly replanted North Woods are at your back, highway 65 is a long shout off your left shoulder, and directly in front of you is the Joseph Poffenberger Farm. Usually it’ll be just you and the cows with the occasional visitor momentarily stopping nearby while listening to the audio tour before continuing toward the east.

The Poffenberger house

The acreage of the Poffenberger Farm is some of the most charming of the battlefield, very rolling with the usual rock ledges, hills and swales dominated subtly by a commanding ridge just beyond the majestic Pennsylvania bank barn. The house is perched on high ground affording those who, long ago, lounged on its front porch a delightfully detached view of the old Hagerstown pike.

The view from that porch in the wee hours of September 17, 1862 would have been altogether different; both eerie and disconcerting.

In the predawn murkiness of first light an onlooker from that front porch would have had the impression that the ground itself was moving, slowly and lethargically at first, accompanied with occasional bursts of coughing. And as the gloom just began to barely lighten in the eastern sky the ground would seem to roil as dark spectral shapes, by the thousands, arose and began to stumble into formation as orders rang out in the early hours and the long roll was sounded on countless field drums.

This was the last morning for many of the men of Hooker’s First Corps of McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. The last evening prior to this last morning was spent by these nearly 8,600 men on the grounds of the Joseph Poffenberger farm where they passed the damp darkness in bivouac – camping without shelter or, in this instance, cooking fires. These men would be the spearhead of the Union effort on this historic day. And the silent buildings of the Poffenberger farm that remain to this day would bear witness to the passing of the First Corps.

Later that morning the farm would again play host to Union soldiers, as terrified and battered survivors of Sedgwick’s Division, fresh from the so-called “Disaster in the West Woods”, would seek shelter, succor, and solace among the gentle swales of the farmstead.

Some of those men would receive aid from a volunteer nurse from Massachusetts; that nurse would provide the last kind voice heard by many of those young men.

Joseph Hooker was there, Sedgwick was there, Meade was there,  Clara Barton was there and, this morning, I was there.


The armies have moved on, time has moved forward, but on the grounds of the Poffenberger farm it could all have happened a week ago, or a week from now.  Although today, while the buildings still stand and comprise the most intact of the original battlefield farmsteads, much work must be done to preserve them. 

Acquired by the park fairly recently, the farm is in its second year of a five-year initiative to restore it to its 1862 appearance.

This is the old farm road (soon to be restored) that once connected the Joseph Poffenberger farm to the Hagerstown Pike.

The trace is still very evident - if you know where to look.

Already the wagon shed and wash house have been stabilized and restored with rebuilt 
foundations, replaced timbers, and a fresh coat of white wash.

(The Cultural Resources crew takes a breather and patiently pause for my pestering photography)

Original fence lines are again graced with post and rail fences.

And now the effort is on to restore that magnificent barn as well as the  house.

The Barn

One of the things that makes this Pennsylvania bank barn unique from others in the region is the semi-circular stone wall that encloses the barnyard.

Although disassembled, to a large degree, in the intervening years, all of those original stones have been quietly residing in a turf covered mound on the east side of the barn, eventually to see the light of day again as that remarkable wall is again restored to its original elegant simplicity (pardon the redundancy there).

This nearly $400,000 effort, undertaken by the Park, is being actively supported by the Save Historic Antietam Foundation.  A $10,000 gift from SHAF will go toward the painting of the Poffenberger house.  Stabilized and painted, the house will provide a “scene setter” for the restored farmyard and outbuildings presided over by that incredible barn.

The Maintenance and Cultural Resources Divisions of Antietam National Battlefield are moving ahead with both care and enthusiasm on this very challenging undertaking. Craig Cartwright, head of park maintenance, is emphatic when he says that he enjoys “the challenge of restoring such a valuable and historic structure”.

The work continues apace with three highly skilled maintenance personnel detailed to the barn project, and already the progress on the site is remarkable.

Piers have been installed to take the weight of the structure as old rotted timbers have been removed and newly hewn replacements have been carefully set and pegged into place.

Wherever possible the original fabric of the structure is preserved through a skillful "marrying" of original timber to new.

And soon, thanks to SHAF the repaired and repainted Poffenberger house will also be restored to its 1862 appearance, again a welcoming beacon, though this time not to weary soldiers, but to history loving visitors.

Restoration of the house

For me, this former home is one of the most evocative on the battlefield. Signs of a prosperous and , I'd like to think, happy, life are all around.

The house itself is that, typical of the era, and quite lovely "el" shape that you see throughout the valley.

One can just imagine trying to catch cool nighttime breezes on the upper porch during sultry summer nights.

Close inspection reveals quickly some of the challenges to be met by the park through the generous SHAF donation. I selected a few camera positions to revisit after the work is finished for some before and after shots, which I imagine, will be most satisfying.

These will be the three angles I'll revisit during the process:

Insect and weather damage to the siding,

Missing and damaged elements on the front porch as well as the scraping, priming, and painting that will need to occur,

And the repairs to the roofing.

The front porch, though quite dilapidated today, was the natural welcoming point for the house. And on a morning as sunny as this one was, and from a distance, it still looks incredibly inviting for the visitor or passerby.

The closer one gets however, the more evident becomes the sagging profile, with structural and cosmetic work to be done.

The peeling paint and damaged millwork will be repaired, replaced, and repainted through the financial largess of SHAF and the elbow grease of the NPS, to restore this welcoming portico to its former cheeriness. 

Perhaps my favorite place on the entire farmstead is one of the most understated and most overlooked; the gate and walk up to that front porch. 

One can only imagine the procession of countless callers, peddlers, guests, mourners, and celebrants that traveled that path through the generations of the family dramas, joys, and tragedies that animated the house and surrounding grounds.

As I made my way through the gate and up that walk today I was very much aware of all those who had gone before me - suitors, soldiers, and bearers of a variety of tidings. 

Happily, for this house and a generation of future visitors, SHAF has insured that those tidings will be very good ones for a very long time.

Come greet a new day for the Poffenberger Farm.  I’ll meet you on that porch...

just north of Sharpsburg.

Ranger Mannie

SHAF has been preserving and protecting historic sites related to the Battle of Antietam, the Maryland Campaign, and other Civil War activity in the region since 1986. We need your help to keep it going.   You can visit the SHAF website by clicking here or by visiting:

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ferry Hill Place visit

Yesterday rangers Clayton, Maura, and I had an experience that would have been certainly unique if not impossible in previous years.  We toured the home of Shepherdstown luminary, Confederate veteran, and staff member to Stonewall Jackson; Henry Kyd Douglas.  His beautiful ancestral home Ferry hill Place, a property of the National Park Service is now open to the public on weekends.  And man, is it a cool place.

The home, now operated by the C&O Canal National Historic Park of the National Park Service, was built around 1810 by a local farmer and all-around wealthy guy; John Blackford.  Mr. Blackford made it big both in farming, at which he was very successful, and in transportation, owning the ferry that connected Sharpsburg (and Boonsboro beyond) with Shepherdstown.

When the C&O canal arrived in the area along with the packet boat traffic on the river Mr. Blackfords' interests and riches increased exponentially.  Needless to say things were going well for him financially.

Upon his death in 1839 the house was bought by son-in-law Reverend Robert Douglas in 1848.  Mr Douglas raised three children in the house including the famous author of "I Rode with Stonewall" Henry Kyd Douglas.  

Upon becoming a Ranger at Antietam the Kyd Douglas' book is one of the first I purchased. It is well written, informative, and must be taken with a large grain of salt.  Seems the very popular and erudite Henry was quite the raconteur after the war and delighted folks with his tales of rebel daring and yankee incompetence, insisting as he did, that the yankees could have crossed Antietam Creek (below) with merely "a hop, skip, and a jump". 

Hmmm. Looks to me like that'd take a heck of a skip not to mention a herculean hop and jump.

Nonetheless, young Henry distinguished himself during the war and when peace returned he became a leading citizen and practitioner of law in nearby Hagerstown.

Anyone who has crossed the Potomac at Shepherdstown has seen the magnificent house that is Ferry Hill, and yesterday was finally the opportunity for we three Antietam Rangers to go have a long-wished-for look inside.  (Clayton and Maura in the yard of the house)

Rangers Leslie and Curt were our gracious hosts (Leslie was our guide) and gave us a wonderful 45 minute tour of the home. Believe me we'd have stayed much longer if we could have.

For as spectacular as the exterior of the house is, including the view from the front yard... the interior is exquisite. 

And begins as soon as you walk through the magnificent front door.

The first thing the visitor is greeted with today, as in the 1850s is that incredible, sweeping staircase that holds court over the front hallway...

here, being ascended by C&O volunteer Mr. Beckenbaugh who is a descendant of Henry Kyd Douglas' sister's family.

Although sans furnishings, the house is filled with the grand detail that one would expect.

From beautifully cast door furniture...

and elegant mantle pieces,

to cast-iron escutcheoned plates within the fireplaces to reflect the heat,

to incredible built ins...  

The house is absolutely a haven of light and elegance (as in simple beauty) for anyone who had been privileged enough to have lived there.

The house is loaded with surprises too, not everything is as it seems:
Faux painting abounds.

From the baseboards painted to look like marble...

to the iron banister spindles with their painted wood grain...

to the very simple mortised and tenioned doors painted to simulate more expensive woods with an even higher degree of craftsmanship. Much, if not all of this work was performed by some of the nearly 25, often highly skilled, enslaved workers that were kept by the household.

Even amid this splendor comes the sobering reminder that its often too easy to forget that much of the magnificence of this country was built on the backs of the disenfranchised.

All of these elements were done extremely well by a very talented artisan. Maura reports that the Sherrick house on the Antietam battlefield has similar such faux embellishments.

Though the house is bare it seems filled with, if not the presence of those who lived and worked there, then certainly, at least, with an aura of history and great and sometimes troubled times.

Walking the hallways, one can just imagine the grand entertaining that this house had become known for.

Here is the childhood room of Henry Kyd Douglas himself, his Confederate leanings doubtless influenced by the detrimental effects of modern fluorescent lighting!

Kyd Douglas' room, though bare, is also filled with history and great character, like this worm scarred floor board:

The Kitchen dependencies and magnificent porch, we weren't able to visit as our time grew so short.

But for vacationers to the Sharpsburg /Shepherdstown area this historic home is waiting for you to come a-calling, every Saturday and Sunday from ten a.m. until four p.m. throughout the Summer months.

The beautiful Ferry Hill Place as well at the wonderful C &O canal below, are simply two more delightful ways for you to...

"Experience Your America"

Now I've got to get back to the battlefield before I start going through cannon withdrawal!

Best wishes from Washington County,

Ranger Mannie