Getting Better at Being a Civil War Tourist/Researcher

Among the pleasures of committing to retracing the steps of one’s Civil War ancestor, and his regiment, is the chance to share that passion with my family members.  My 1996 trip following the Overland Campaign with my father has already been mentioned.  My Dad was a World War II buff, his eldest brother having been killed when his plane crashed off an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.  Though my father was not so much into the Civil War, he read Gordon Rhea’s authoritative book on The Wilderness in preparation for the trip, even copying some maps for us.  Finding the burial place of Stonewall Jackson’s arm with him, behind Ellwood, the plantation home which served as 5th Corps commander General Gouverner Warren’s headquarters, is a warm memory.  We walked down the closed dirt road to Ellwood.  The small brown national park sign on the closed gate said “authorized personnel only,” but I figured since I had won a grant to follow my great great grandfather’s regiment, I was authorized.  And we even attended two minor league baseball games of the Norfolk Tides, the New York Mets AAA affiliate at the time, in Richmond.  Of course, for Mets fans in the know, the Tides lost both games to the Richmond Braves.

Ellwood (photo by author)

Spending that time with my father, in the beginning of my quest to learn more about the Chasseurs, is a lifetime memory for me.  Later on that same summer, I continued the quest with my wife, spending a weekend in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, trying to trace the route of the 65th New York as best as I could at the unpreserved battlefield of 3rd Winchester (which has since seen parts of it preserved and made much more accessible), and walking the Fisher’s Hill battlefield.  I am not sure she loved doing the driving tour of The Battle of Cedar Creek, but that gorgeous field, where 90 members of the regiment were killed, wounded, or missing, including the regimental commander Colonel Thomas Hiiginbotham killed at the head of his troops, and First Sergeant Timothy Carroll wounded, has become one of my favorites to study and visit.  It too has seen preservation efforts greatly enhance the battlefield’s status as a place to visit.

A February 2016 visit to see some former colleagues at Landon School in Bethesda, Maryland brought the chance to follow with my daughter Rachel a short part of the Chasseurs’ July 1864 route into the Valley in pursuit of General Jubal Early’s army after its invasion of Maryland and arrival outside Washington D.C., at Fort Stevens, in a famous raid.  River Road from Bethesda to Potomac, Maryland is a busy and developed thoroughfare today, but once we got out to Poolesville, Maryland, and took the chain ferry at White’s Ford, where the Chasseurs crossed into Virginia, we were on ground which was at least close to its appearance in 1864.  

The “General Jubal Early” chain ferry across the Potomac at White’s Ford (photo by Rachel Barry)

Continuing northwest towards Snicker’s Gap and thus into the Shenandoah Valley, we crossed the Shenandoah river and headed to Berryville, where the 6th Corps camped for a time after its unsuccessful pursuit of Early’s army.  Rachel, who has an interest in American history and in my own pursuit of her great-great-great grandfather Timothy Carroll, also was committed to the trip by my promise to buy her a Snicker’s candy bar after we crossed through Snicker’s Gap.  At Berryville, a nice town just southeast of Winchester, she enjoyed the fruits of my promise.  We also walked the town a bit, and we saw a church where Robert E. Lee supposedly worshiped, and a marker memorializing the hitching post where he tied up his famed horse Traveler.  We also saw the requisite courthouse with a Confederate monument outside.  Back in 2016 this still was not so much a point of controversy, but as time goes by, we do make some progress, if in fits and starts.

The author’s daughter Rachel, at Fort Stevens, Washington, D.C.  The stone monument in the background denotes where President Abraham Lincoln came under fire from the Confederates when he looked over the parapet at their force during the Battle of Fort Stevens (photo by author)

At Snicker’s Gap, on the way to Berryville, Virginia (photo by Rachel Barry)

The Berryville Courthouse and Confederate Monument (photo by Rachel Barry)

One thing I have learned over the years on these historic trips is when staying overnight, local inns and B & Bs are often no more expensive, and always much nicer, than any hotel chain in my price range.  My trips in recent years have been much improved through seeking out such places, and using AirBnB.  I meet more people, enjoy a stay at a place that might very well have existed in Civil War times, and support a local business or entrepreneur rather than a mega-corporation.

My next trip was a sort of transition to this reality in terms of where I stayed.  Two months after my trip into the Valley with Rachel, I returned to the Valley for three nights, once again reprising a 1996 trip, and visited the three battlefields of General Philip Sheridan’s 1864 Valley Campaign versus General Jubal Early’s army.  Having read a great deal about this campaign, including in the official records and in primary sources from the 65th NY regiment itself, I knew I understood much more about 3rd Winchester, Fishers Hill, and Cedar Creek than I had twenty years before.  Though my first night’s stay would be in a nondescript hotel sitting practically where the 65th New York had fought at 3rd Winchester on September 19, 1864, my second and third nights were in beautiful Strasburg, Virginia, in the former hospital known as the Hotel Strasburg.  The place had a small restaurant and bar downstairs so I could relax after all the driving I was doing, and it dated back to 1915.

The Hotel Strasburg, in December 2017 (photo by author)

Before getting to the Valley, however, I had a bit more historical accuracy to accomplish, in crossing over the Catoctin Mountains in the proper place where the Chasseurs had made the crossing over what the men dubbed “Mt. Misery” in the post-Gettysburg chase of the Army of Northern Virginia back towards the Valley.  I had failed to find the proper road when I pursued the route after Gettysburg on a 2014 trip (to be told in a later chapter), trying and failing to get over the mountain and driving in a loop on what was still a somewhat precarious road over the mountain.  A simple google map search of Hamburg, a very small settlement the men had marched by which no longer exists, had revealed Hamburg Road, which went over the mountain from Frederick and indeed was the route I should have taken on the earlier trip.  A little divergence from the direct route into the Valley from my home in New York allowed me to cross over on the winding and narrow Hamburg Road, and gave me a taste of how precarious it must have been in the pouring rain, unpaved.  Safely arrived in beautiful Middletown, Maryland, I could now leave the summer of 1863 and get back to the fall of 1864, when the men of the 65th New York and their 6th Corps comrades joined the newly formed Army of the Shenandoah. Under new commander General Phil Sheridan, their assigned job was to finish off Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley, and then destroy the rich Valley itself as a food source for General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Whatever thrill I might have felt in staying at a hotel in Winchester on the actual battlefield nearby where the Chasseurs had moved forward against the rebels was dulled by the bland development there.  However, I had been told in an email from 3rd Winchester expert Scott Patchan that the spot where General David Russell, the 65th New York’s division commander, had been killed was in the parking lot of the roller rink which was next to my hotel.  So there was that.  Much better, though, as I discovered the next day, is how much of the 3rd Winchester battlefield was now preserved, thanks to the efforts of local history buffs and preservationists including Mr. Patchan, as compared to the state of the battlefield back in 1996, the last time I had visited it.

I walked the trails of the newly preserved battlefield, and went for a morning run through the housing which now encompassed the area that the 65th NY moved through during the battle.  The Chasseurs played a key role as part of Emory Upton’s brigade, which General David Russell ordered to plug a gap in the Union line just before he was killed.  The pieces of the battlefield which have been preserved are priceless.  And yet for me, the loss of the part of the field which featured the 65th New York playing one of their biggest roles of the war is irksome.  And yet I could drive through the Berryville Canyon, on a much improved road, but a road on which I could still see how Sheridan’s men could get tangled up in a traffic jam along the narrow defile.  And I could look down on Opequon Creek from the bridge and see where the 65th New York crossed the creek, for which the Battle of Opequon (the Union name of the battle) was named.  But perhaps the most memorable part of the field for me was the Winchester National Cemetery, a place I had all to myself, and where I knew fourteen members of the regiment lay buried.  I had brought flags on this trip to decorate their graves, and walking the cemetery to find their gravesites and pay tribute to them was very moving.  By now, six years into writing No Flinching From Fire, I knew that, haughty as it may sound, I was the one more than anyone else who should pay tribute to these men’s ultimate sacrifice, as I knew as much as anyone what they had done.  Nine more men of the regiment had been killed at the Battle of Opequon; twenty-three had been wounded,

Winchester National Cemetery, with the Chasseur graves decorated with flags (photo by author)

The September 22, 1864 Battle of Fisher’s Hill is properly seen as directly related to the Battle of 3rd Winchester.  After Early’s army was routed near the end of the day at Opequon, flanked by a cavalry and infantry attack from north of Winchester, he retreated up the Valley, to the southwest, about twenty-two miles.  There he took a position with his army atop the only significant rise which went across the valley, Fishers Hill.  It was a formidable position, though Early’s now smaller army did not have the men to properly hold the whole position.  As such, General Sheridan’s friend and subordinate General George Crook proposed a move with his corps through the wooded, rocky ground to the left of the rebel position, and then an attack on the rebel left flank while the 6th Corps threatened a frontal assault up the hill.  Sheridan approved, the movement was well executed, and the rebel lines were broken once again.  Retreating further up the Valley in a rout, the remnants of Early’s army were seemingly now beaten for good.  The 65th New York served as skirmishers in front of the 6th Corps line, and they moved forward when the rest of the 6th corps moved up the hill after Crook’s flank attack had struck.  Mercifully, only Private Konrad Frank of the regiment was killed at Fishers Hill; he is buried at Winchester National Cemetery.

Fishers Hill, where the 6th Corps attacked (photo by author)

With the dual defeats of Early’s army at 3rd Winchester and Fishers Hill, Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah now concentrated on its next mission:  destroying the Shenandoah Valley as a source of food and provisions for the Confederacy.  After a march further up the Valley to Staunton (where a young Woodrow Wilson lived in his father’s parsonage for a time), Sheridan’s army reversed its course, spread out East to West, and proceeded to destroy over 2000 barns, seize pigs, cattle, sheep, and horses for the men, and leave the Valley as General Grant had ordered him to do, “so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season would have to “carry their own provender with them.”  The federal cavalry did most of the destruction, with the infantry accompanying them on the destructive march down the Valley, to the northeast.

Alfed Waud’s drawing of General Custer’s cavalry division on October 7, 1864, somewhere near Mount Jackson, wreaking destruction (Library of Congress)

The Valley today has of course recovered, though the stone foundations of some of the barns which Sheridan’s Army destroyed can still be seen in some places there.  Though development is marring some parts of the Valley landscape, particularly along the old Valley Turnpike, and Interstate 81 goes through it, severing battlefields such as 3rd Winchester and Fishers Hill, a drive along the Valley Pike still evokes connections to the armies who moved up and down the Valley in a succession of campaigns throughout the Civil War.  Historical roadside signs proliferate, though sometimes right next to a new strip mall or gas station complex.  

By mid-October General Sheridan was ready to send the 6th Corps back to rejoin the Army of the Potomac outside Petersburg, from where it had been sent to Washington back in June to help stave off General Early’s raid there.  Sheridan was summoned to meet in Washington with officials, leaving his army camped north of Cedar Creek, under the command of 6th Corps commander Horatio Wright in his absence.  Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the Union command, General Early had been reinforced and was planning a surprise attack on the resting and unsuspecting federal troops.  On October 19, 1864, in the predawn hours, while General Sheridan was staying in Winchester, on his way back to the army, Early’s Army of the Valley struck the Army of the Shenandoah on its left flank in a bold and daring attack which emerged from the foggy morning, inflicting heavy damage on two corps of the Union army camped there, and eventually driving off the 6th corps in confusion as well.  General Wright managed to cobble together a line near Middletown which was roughly West to East across the Valley and facing south, and the rebel attack petered out, controversially, either due to too many of its men falling out to plunder federal camps, or due to General Early’s “fatal pause.”  Historians continue to debate.  General Sheridan, hearing the sound of firing to the south, rode his horse Rienzi in a ride made famous by a poet, rejoined his army and greeted a bloodied General Wright, who had a slight wound of his face, and proposed a counterattack for later that day.  For his efforts, Rienzi was preserved; I have visited him twice at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Though I have twice driven the auto tour which seeks to explicate the complicated back and forth of the Battle of Cedar Creek, it was not until August of 2019, just before my book on the 65th New York was finally published after eight years of writing and twenty-five years of research, that I finally felt that I had a solid understanding of the wide-ranging ground of this beautiful battlefield.  I had followed Joseph Whitehorne’s little history booklet/auto tour with my wife in 1996, and I used it again when I returned in 2016, and with my readings on the battle I was gaining a better understanding of its landscape, but it was National Park Ranger Jeff Driscoll’s auto tour which finally opened my eyes to the whole of the battle, and in particular nailed down my understanding of the early morning position of the 65th New York Volunteers there, when they came under attack at about 6:00 AM.  Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Higginbotham, commanding the regiment, was killed at the head of his troops just as he gave the order for them to pull back from a heavy attack.  General Joseph Hamblin, the brigade commander who had long been commander of the regiment preceding his appointment to brigade command, was wounded.  He wrote home, “They hit me this time, but not badly, through the fleshy part of the right thigh.  Killed another horse for me that I paid $200 for not four days ago.”  First Sergeant Timothy Carroll was also wounded.  Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historic Park is a beautiful and special place, not least because of its horrific significance to the history of the 65th New York Volunteers.  By the end of the day, the Chasseurs had lost ninety men, including twenty-two killed, led by their commander Colonel Higginbotham.  

By my count I have visited Cedar Creek four times, and the addition of a Visitors’ Center with an electric map in Middletown has enhanced the experience.  Jeff Driscoll’s informative tour, and Joseph Whitehorne’s driving tour pamphlet have led me to see the complexities of the field, along with the beauty of the countryside there.  Though October 19, 1864 was a rough day for the Chasseurs, it turned out to be a great day for the country.

The Cedar Creek Battlefield, with the Heater House in the background (photo by author)

Continuing a 2016 filled with Civil War trips, and moving ahead with my history of the Chasseurs into the final phase of the war, it was time to return to Cold Harbor and pick up the route of the 65th NY from there, across the James, and to Petersburg.  The Chasseurs’ completion of their duty in the Shenandoah Valley, along with their 6th Corps comrades, meant a return to the increasingly intricate trench lines outside Petersburg, Virginia, in early December 1864. For me, I would follow their route from the end of the Overland Campaign and across the James River to their Petersburg lines, as well as their last moves after the April 2, 1865 “Breakthrough” through the Confederate lines, to Appomattox Courthouse.

Now fully committed to staying in inns of B & Bs rather than motels, I booked a two night stay at the beautiful Ragland Mansion in Petersburg, then two days near Jetersville, Virginia, at the Hidden Depot B & B, not far from the Sailor’s Creek battlefield, the last fight of the war for the 65th NY Volunteers.  The Ragland is a beautiful wartime structure on Sycamore Street that was a treat to stay in, particularly as I had the entire place to myself and had the run of the whole first floor.  The Hidden Depot was a farm along General Lee’s escape route, after he had abandoned Richmond, on the way to Appomattox.  And it had a bass pond.

The first impression when one drives from Cold Harbor to the James at Wilcox Landing is how amazing it is that General Grant was able to disengage the entire Army of the Potomac, sneak away from Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, and steal a march on Lee.  Crossing his entire army before Lee had any clue as to what Grant was doing, Grant should have been in a position to take the lightly defended and key railroad city of Petersburg within a day or two, thus forcing the evacuation of Richmond, as it would be cut off from its critical supply line to the south. The war may have ended months sooner than it did.  However, the initial Union attack stalled due to poor leadership from General William F. “Baldy” Smith, hesitation to attack strongly appearing entrenchments after the carnage of the Overland Campaign, and poor communication from Grant to General Hancock and his 2nd Corps to support Smith quickly.  The result was that Lee was finally persuaded by General P.G.T. Beauregard, holding the thinly defended lines at Petersburg, that Grant was south of the James River in force, and that the Army of Northern Virginia needed to be quickly sent south to the rescue.  The result was that, after some initial successes in taking a part of the Petersburg lines, with some especially heroic fighting by black troops of the Army of the James, General Meade called off any more attacks and Grant and the Army of the Potomac settled in for a long siege.  

Wilcox Landing, where the 65th NY boarded steamers to cross the James on June 16, 1864 (photo by author)

The 65th New York at first took up a position in the Petersburg trenches on the right of the line just south of the James River.  In June, along with the rest of the 6th Corps, the Chasseurs were sent to Washington to deal with Jubal Early’s raid there.  They wouldn’t return to Petersburg until December 1864, after their bloody yet triumphant service with General Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah in the Valley.  After a December and January of relative inactivity, but for some shifting of positions and some heavy shelling along the lines, especially in the vicinity of Fort Sedgwick, nicknamed “Fort Hell” by the officers and men, the Chasseurs played a role in the Hatcher’s Run offensive of February 5-7, 1865, losing two men wounded.

It would not be until late March 1865 that the 65th New York was yet again in on a key battle of the war.

Staying in a mansion within Petersburg on historic Sycamore Street as I was researching the campaign itself was a great idea, and the gorgeous living rooms (there were two) of the mansion were all mine for the two nights I stayed there.  Eating within downtown Petersburg at a local restaurant near the river and within walking distance from my inn was most appealing and relaxing. It was certainly better than eating at some chain on the fringes where the hotels were, in a place which could be called Anywhere, USA.  After five years of these trips in support of my research, I was finally figuring out this part of my travels.  Though the downtown of Petersburg featured vacant spaces among its beautiful old housing stock, and there were gaps where buildings which once existed had been torn down, there was a small but vibrant area of a few restaurants and bars within the old brick buildings which was well worth my checking out.  

Seeing entrepreneurs trying to re-establish vibrant community businesses within the historic downtowns of America’s towns and cities gives me hope. Pondering a future of the United States with active, busy, thriving downtowns, whether at a Fredericksburg bar or a Petersburg restaurant, at the Box Office microbrewery in Strasburg, Virginia or eating with friends at a microbrewery in Westminster MD instead of going to one of the assortment of chain restaurants recommended by our hotel clerk there makes me think that what Greg Brown called the “blandification of America” can be avoided.  It beats the future of Walmart, Applebie’s, and Chili’s, by a long shot in my mind.  As I go out for dinner in the downtowns of the Civil War places I visit I see the distinctiveness of localities, and local businesses reviving their towns and cities, and I am happy.

The Ragland Mansion, Petersburg, Virginia (photo by author)

Petersburg National Battlefield is unique in that it is so spread out, representing the ten month siege of the place, as well as several distinct battles there.  While the Battle of the Crater is the most famous, and infamous, of these battles, it took place while the 65th New York Volunteers were away doing service with the Army of the Shenandoah.  So, while I revisited the site of the Crater, which I first visited near the end of my trip with my father in 1996, and basically followed the route of the National Park service map of the park, I was especially focused on sites associated with the offensives and maneuvers conducted which involved the Union 6th Corps, and thus the Chasseurs.  But the park, which is basically three distinct parts, was well worth exploring in its entirety.  The separate sections representing City Point, site of  General Grant’s headquarters during the long siege, and Five Forks, representing Sheridan’s big April 1, 1865 victory which made the next day’s breakthrough possible, are well worth seeing–I had visited Five Forks in 1996 on the last part of my grant trip, Petersburg to Sailor’s Creek, which I did on my own having traveled the other two stints with my father and my wife.  City Point was new for me in 2016.  For anyone who has maybe twenty biographies of Grant on his bookshelf, as I confess I do, City Point was a must see.  A site easy to see in less than an hour, it was sparsely visited when I was there but seeing how simply Grant lived throughout the siege, and the cool artifacts there like the original door of his headquarters, along with the site of what became an enormous supply base during the long siege, was worth it.

Grant’s reconstructed headquarters at City Point (photo by author)

Petersburg National Park Map, courtesy of the National Park Service

One of my favorite things about the great National Park Service pamphlet for Petersburg (and I have found in my travels that al the National Park Service pamphlets are essential), is that it denotes the location of the historic forts which have been lost to development, but which played key roles in the siege.  As Fort Sedgwick (or Fort Hell) is a place where 65th NY Major Frederick T. Volk visited, on December 8th, 1864 according to his diary, it was one of the places whose site I needed to see.  “Kisinger and [I] went over to Fort Hell this afternoon while the Rebs were shelling it, things looked quite interesting for a while–”  The visit was disappointing, even knowing beforehand that the fort had been leveled and built over in 1966, when the Lyon family who had owned the land for thirty years and ran a museum there, sold it to a developer since visits to the site had leveled off by one-third in recent years.  The Sedgwick Apartments sign was about all that remained of the site, so I took a picture of that.

The site of Fort Sedgwick (photo by author)

Happily, other sites associated with the Chasseurs are better preserved, so I sought them out.  It took two trips, as the Poplar Grove National Cemetery, which contained the graves of several members of the regiment and was thus a site on my must-see list, was closed for refurbishment in the summer of 2016 when I first visited it.  So a return trip in December 2017 during a nasty cold snap allowed me to visit those, and a stay at the Serviam Guest House in Petersburg allowed me to experience another lovely inn in the middle of Petersburg itself.  The breakfast there was wonderful, and the living room with the complimentary brandy was welcome given how cold it was while I visited the cemetery.

Fort Fisher, an enormous fort which the Chasseurs had helped build, was a new site for me, or at least was a site whose significance to the regiment I understood much better now than I did if I drove by it in the 1996 visit.  The Apri 2, 1865 Union assault which resulted in “The Breakthrough” of the rebel lines and the end of the siege to which all the Union troops had been looking forward, saw the Chasseurs attack from nearby.  The Confederate lines which were broken, amazingly well preserved at the private Pamplin Historical Park, were also a must-see for me.  The trails, historical displays and reproduced Civil War defenses are a special feature of the park, but I was there to try to get to the spot where the Chasseurs broke through.

Fort Fisher, which the men of the 65th New York helped build (photo by author)

The remarkably well preserved Rebel trenches at Pamplin Historical Park in Petersburg, where the Chasseurs broke the lines on April 2, 1865 (photo by author)

Sites associated with the March 25, 1865 fighting which preceded the April 2nd Breakthrough attack, when Union forces including the 65th New York counter-attacked after General Lee’s last offensive fizzled out at Fort Stedman, were also a must-see for me.  The Chasseurs lost six men killed, and 26 wounded that day.  I hiked the relatively new Jones Farm trail, on land acquired adjoining Pamplin Park by the American Battlefield Trust, and had the trail to myself on this cold winter day.  The trail led across a farm field, passing picket trenches seized by the Union troops and establishing a position much closer to the rebel lines in preparation for the jump-off which would follow a week later.  Such preservation efforts are laudable, not only preserving the land but giving access to visitors to sites which had never been accessible before to curious visitors and researchers.

A visit to the new Visitor’s Center and trail at Five Forks, much improved since my 1996 visit, revealed the removal of a decrepit non-historic house which had been at the site of Five Forks.  I took some pictures for No Flinching From Fire after walking the trail, most notably of the forks themselves.  Then it was time to move west, following the route of the Chasseurs as they pushed westward on April 3, 1865 in pursuit of Lee’s fleeing Army of Northern Virginia.  The roads were increasingly rural and undeveloped, appearing much as they had in 1865 despite mostly being paved, which I appreciated.  Sailor’s Creek battlefield, where First Sergeant Timothy Carroll was seriously wounded on April 6, 1865 in the last serious fighting the Chasseurs would see during the war, was up ahead, along with Appomattox Courthouse.  Chris Calkins’ excellent guidebooks and accounts of the Appomattox campaign were in the car with me and informing my trip, and thus I was able to follow the exact march route for almost the entire trip.  And the Hidden Depot Farm B & B, owned by Ron and Jane Timma and where I would be staying for two  nights, was located in easy reach of the Sailor’s Creek Battlefield Park, one of my favorites, as well as High Bridge and other sites associated with Lee’s retreat towards Appomattox.

The Hidden Depot went beyond my expectations.  A working farm, with miles of trails which I used for a morning run, and which my host Ron Timma drove me around on his ATV as an introduction to the place after my arrival there, and a spring-fed pond full of bass and featuring kayaks and canoes for my use all made it a great find.  But Ron and Jane Timma’s very strong interest in Civil War history, and willingness to talk about my research, and to help orient me to the local sites, went above and beyond.  Ron, for example, on my 2nd morning there, led me in his truck after breakfast to the site of High Bridge, now a state park but in 1865 a key facet of the Sailor’s Creek battle. Though the 65th New York did not fight there, having read enough about it to pique my curiosity, and trying to enhance my overall understanding of the Sailor’s Creek battle, I wanted to go.  

High Bridge was a bit tricky to get to, and thus Ron’s guidance was invaluable.  The wartime description of it as “not the highest bridge, and not the longest bridge, but the highest and longest bridge” turned out to be about right.  Now used as part of a bike trail, and a great place to see wildlife, like the great blue heron I spied on a log in the middle of the Appomattox River far below, High Bridge was certainly a unique place–historic, beautiful, and a great place to exercise.

Two photos of High Bridge, with the original railroad trestles next to the current bridge, and the view of the Appomattox River far below (photos by author)

But it was Sailor’s Creek State Battlefield Park which was truly the ultimate quest of this particular trip.  I well remembered encountering this gorgeous place in the summer of 2000, while on a bus tour/graduate course with the Freedoms Foundation of Valley Forge. Our teacher, Paul Sanborn, brought us to Sailor’s Creek, a battlefield I had known little about when I first started my Civil War study, near the end of a sunny day.  Witness to the sunset over the field, still deep in the Virginia countryside and thus still very much in appearance as it would be in the mid-19th century, the place was evocative and beautiful.  I had a bias towards it already, however, knowing that my great great grandfather First Sergeant Timothy Carroll had been seriously wounded there only three days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.  I had first visited back in 1996, on the last leg of my tour, this time camping nearby and following the not always well-marked county roads on my own, without the help of my father or wife.  Meeting with a ranger and being allowed into the now closed Hillsman House, where Union wounded had been brought after the battle, and where blood stains can be seen on the original floorboards there, was a particular treat for me.  Much had changed by 2016, including the building of a beautiful new visitor’s center at the battlefield park which features a great museum and primary sources.   But another personal tour of the now much improved displays at the Hillsman House, where the bloodstains are confirmed and protected, and its role as a field hospital is depicted, was well worth my return there.

Sailor’s Creek was the last major battle between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia, fought on April 6, 1865.  Actually three distinct battles, the part which most concerned me was fought near the Hillsman House, when elements of Union cavalry and the 6th Corps of infantry overtook a part of the Confederate Army, including General Richard Ewell’s Corps.  After pausing to make a stand, while lacking any artillery for defense, large elements of the Confederate force were cut off, and several high ranking Confederate commanders, including General Ewell, General Joseph Kershaw, and General Custis Lee, had to surrender.   Lee lost perhaps 20% of his army that day, only three days before the rest of his army was surrendered.

Sailor’s Creek.  First Sergeant Timothy Carroll, 65th New York Volunteers, was seriously wounded here. (photo by author)

Walking at Sailor’s Creek for my third visit, I not only gained a letter from a 2nd Connecticut Artillery soldier brigaded with the 65th New York Volunteers, which was on display at the museum and a copy of which was shared with me by their excellent staff.  I also was able to walk in the actual footsteps of Timothy Carroll, on a trail that did not exist at the time of my 2000 visit, and towards the main Confederate position which was not cleared as it is now.  This time, I could get as close as I ever had to experiencing Carroll’s perspective, virtually on the ground where he received his third and final wound of the war.

Carroll’s pension records include several doctors’ reports.  At Sailor’s Creek, on the attack, Carroll was shot through the left shoulder, fracturing his clavicle and rendering him fifty percent diabled for his peacetime work as a plasterer.  Carroll was sent to the hospital at Warrenton, Virginia, then on to the Naval School hospital in Annapolis, Maryland later in the month.  He was sent to the St. John’s Hospital in Maryland in May, on to Baltimore in June and July, then on July 21st he was assigned to lead a squad of convalescent soldiers north.  He then finished his treatment at David’s Island, near New Rochelle, New York, and he was finally discharged on August 7th, 1865.  Appointed a 2nd Lieutenant on May 17th, 1865, with his rank dating to March 21, 1865, Carroll had been a member of the regiment since July 20, 1861.  Beginning as a private, appointed a corporal then re-enlisting as a veteran on December 26, 1863, when he was appointed a sergeant, Carroll finally received his officer’s commission after his 3rd wound of the war.  At Spotsylvania, Cedar Creek, and Sailor’s Creek, Carroll had literally bled for his country.  A survivor despite his wounds, his experiences in the war are what kindled my own research passion about the regiment.  So, standing at Sailor’s Creek for the third time in 2016, nearing the end of my own writing of the regiment’s history as I neared Appomattox, looking a blood stains on the old floor of the Hillsman House, the place held a lot of significance for me, and it felt good to be there.

Hillsman House, Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park (photo by author)

Bloodstains on the floor of the Hillsman House (photo by author)

Timothy Carroll’s war was over at Sailor’s Creek.  But the Chasseur regiment still had more work to do.  While the 6th Corps never quite made it all the way to Appomattox Courthouse, they were just outside the town when Lee surrendered his army to Grant in Wilmer McLean’s house there.  For me, making it to Appomattox after six years of traveling, studying, and writing meant my own research journey and attempt to write a book were nearing their end.  I admit to feeling a bit choked up as I walked the beautifully preserved dirt paths of Appomattox Courthouse on a warm summer day.  I was proud to have made it this far.

Wilmer McLean’s house, where Lee surrendered to Grant, April 9, 1865.  The house is reconstructed on the site. (photo by author)

But research often reveals unexpected discoveries.  I had learned somewhere along the line that the 6th Corps did not participate in the Grand Review of the armies in Washington, D.C. in late May.  But finding an article by Chris Calkins on line one day, I learned that the 6th Corps, including the 65th New York Volunteers, was sent to Danville, Virginia directly from the outskirts of Appomattox just in case it was needed to block Joseph Johnston’s army from a northward escape in North Carolina from General Sherman’s pursuing army.   As it turned out it was not needed, as Johnston surrendered to Sherman later in April.  But now I knew that the Chasseurs had endured one more march, not to mention a separate Grand Review for the 6th Corps alone in Washington on a brutally hot June 8th, 1865.  It looked like a trip to Danville loomed.  And, since I had decided that the experience of the prisoners of war from the 65th New York at the notorious Andersonville prison camp should also be told, and their graves photographed, it was only a matter of driving the Chasseurs’ march route to Danville on the way down to southwestern Georgia to experience this extra march.  My summer 2017 Civil War trip, coinciding with my completion of the draft of chapter 24 of No Flinching From Fire, the final chapter, was coming into focus.

Published by 65th NY Guy

I am a high school history teacher in my 32nd year of teaching. I have been studying the 65th NY Infantry, my great-great grandfather's regiment, since 1993. After 8 years of writing, I recently finally published my history of the regiment, "No Flinching From Fire." I also coach cross country and track and field, and I have a wife and two daughters.

2 thoughts on “Getting Better at Being a Civil War Tourist/Researcher

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