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Antietam gives up one of its dead

It is common for Civil War battlefields to be described as hallowed ground, but it is rare for that phrase to hit home as strongly as it did recently for John Howard, superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield. He was standing on a site near the notorious Cornfield, where archaeologists had just uncovered fragments of bones and buttons belonging to an unknown fallen soldier, whose remains were being analyzed at press time.

“The hair stood up on the back of my neck,” Howard said. “I thought, ‘These are the men we are always talking about here. This is the real deal.’”

In October, a hiker had dropped off a bag of bones found near the site of a groundhog tunnel. National Park Service officials quickly determined that the bones were human and later surmised that they came from a young man, 18 to 21 years old. Other artifacts found at the groundhog site—such as the buttons, leather fragments and a Union belt plate—led to the theory that the soldier was from a New York regiment.

The remains have been sent to the Smithsonian Institution for further analysis, and Howard expects that work to be completed by the end of March. The analysis may determine the ethnicity of the soldier and whether he was a recent immigrant or had lived in the United States for some time. “We don’t expect them to tell us that it’s ‘John Smith,’ but this could narrow down the field of who among the missing soldiers from New York regiments we could be looking for,” Howard said. “We may go from 400 people down to 50.”

Depending on the outcome, the soldier could be reburied in a cemetery in New York state (where officials have already expressed interest) or he could remain at Antietam and be buried with his comrades in the national cemetery there. The park also plans to talk about and interpret the discovery for visitors.

“Sometimes people get a little desensitized when we talk about hallowed ground,” Howard said. “This is proof that these places are worth preserving. The fields we’re walking in could very well be the resting site of one of these soldiers. It wouldn’t matter if he was from the North or South; our utmost goal is to treat this young man with the respect due a fallen hero.”

Kim A. O’Connell

Historians and preservationists fight a Wilderness Walmart

In the future, visitors standing near the site of Ulysses Grant’s headquarters during the May 1864 Battle of the Wilderness could observe not just woods and fields, but the congested parking lot of a Walmart and adjacent development.

That is the concern of historians and preservationists now urging an alternative to Walmart’s plans to build a new superstore so close to the Wilderness battlefield.

The company has proposed building a 138,000- square-foot store and parking lot across the street from the battlefield’s primary entrance at the intersection of the Germanna and Constitution highways (Virginia Routes 3 and 20). Although some commercial entities already exist there—most notably a large Sheetz gas station—the area remains relatively undeveloped, maintaining vistas that historians say are essential to understanding the battle.

The National Park Service owns just 20 percent of the battlefield as part of the Fredericks burg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. The Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT) and other groups are concerned that the construction of the Walmart would lead to additional development and further encroach on an already embattled historic landscape. In December, more than 250 historians and preservationists—including James McPherson, Ken Burns and David McCullough—signed a letter urging Wal mart to consider another location. In a recent Washington Post article, however, a Walmart spokesman countered that the proposal would fill an economic void in Orange County and that this site is “an ideal location.”

The Orange County Board of Supervisors was expected to hold a public hearing on the proposal this spring. CWPT officials have been meeting with the board and local developers to hammer out a development framework that would protect the battlefield. “We need to take steps to protect the gateway to the park,” says CWPT spokesman Jim Campi. “It makes sense to have some transition zone between the battlefield and large-scale development.”

Kim A. O’Connell

Nation’s oldest Civil War monument to be restored

The nation’s oldest Civil War monument is now under the care of conservators, who will treat the structure and return it to public view.

The 32nd Indiana Regiment, composed mostly of German immigrant soldiers, fought in the Battle of Rowlett’s Station on December 17, 1861, in Munfordsville, Ky. Within a month, Private August Bloedner had fashioned a touching memorial to 13 fallen comrades out of a natural chunk of limestone. The remains and Bloedner’s stone were moved to Cave Hill National Cemetery in Louisville in 1867.

About half of the monument’s inscription has been lost after 147 years of expo – sure to the elements and the fragile state of the limestone.

Last year, the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) arranged for the memorial to be moved to the University of Louisville, where it may stay for up to three years. Heritage Preservation, based in Washington, D.C., and Conservation Solutions of Santa Fe, N.M., are the contractors charged with moving and conserving the monument.

The NCA is working with various Civil War groups to find an appropriate indoor facility where the treated monument can be displayed. The agency is also pursuing creation of an exact replica of the monument to be placed in the Cave Hill cemetery.

Kim A. O’Connell

Ford’s Theatre gets a facelift

For 90 years following that notorious Good Friday night when John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, the fate of Ford’s Theatre hung in the balance. No one, it seemed, was quite sure what to do with the place.

The federal government assumed control of the theater shortly after Lincoln’s assassination and used it over the years as an office building and military records depository. In 1893, all three interior floors collapsed, killing 22 clerks and injuring 68. The theater was rebuilt and then served as a warehouse before being left vacant in the 1930s.

In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation calling for the theater to be restored to its Civil War appearance. It was also designated a national historic site, and in 1968 reopened to the public as a museum and working theater. It remained one of Washington, D.C.’s most popular tourist stops until August 2007, when the National Park Service closed it for refurbishment.

That refurbishment is all but complete, and on February 11, the theater hosted a private reopening celebration featuring filmmaker George Lucas. The official reopening to the public took place the following day, Lincoln’s 200th birthday.

Among the significant changes is a spacious new lobby, which provides direct access to the theater and features a Lincoln memorabilia display that includes the overcoat the president wore the night he was assassinated. In addition, the Ford’s Theatre Society has leased a building next door that now holds a new box office and gift shop. The theater itself has been fitted with more comfortable seating, and all restricted-view seats are gone. There also is an upgraded sound and light system for performances.

A new elevator allows access to the refurbished Museum of Lincolniana in the theater’s basement. Among the artifacts in the museum, which will reopen to the public in late spring, are the derringer Booth used to shoot Lincoln and the diary he kept while on the run, as well as the flag that covered Lincoln’s coffin. One new exhibit focuses on 1862, the tumultuous year in which Lincoln’s son Willie died from typhoid and the Union Army suffered a series of setbacks on the battlefield.

To celebrate the reopening and Lincoln’s bicentennial, the original play The Heavens Are Hung in Black, by James Still, will be shown until March 8. From March 27 to May 24, the theater will stage the Tony Award–nominated musical The Civil War.

A new program at the theater is the “Living Lincoln Series,” which explores Lincoln’s life and personality through lectures and other performances, featuring actors such as Sam Waterston and noted historians such as James McPherson and Harold Holzer.

—Chris Howland

Pamplin Historical Park plans to reopen

Only weeks after announcing that financial pressures had forced them to shut the doors of Pamplin Historical Park for all but preregistered guests, park officials have signaled their intent to keep the battlefield and historic site near Petersburg, Va., open on a daily basis once again.

Beginning March 1, the park was expected to be open to drop-in visitors from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. In December, park officials had announced that visitors would be required to make a reservation 48 hours in advance in order to tour the site. The park preserves the location of the April 2, 1865 “breakthrough” battle in which Union forces finally breached entrenched Confederate lines surrounding Petersburg.

Pamplin Park is a privately held site owned and operated by the Pamplin Foundation of Portland, Ore., and receives no government money. The recent economic downtown undercut the foundation’s ability to support the park at previous levels.

In the early 1990s, the park site could have become a gas station or some other development had it not been purchased by Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr., a business executive and philanthropist from Portland, Ore., whose ancestors owned the property during the war. He and his foundation quickly set about preserving the property and its intact Confederate earthworks.

The 422-acre site includes a range of historic buildings, interpreted trails, reconstructed fortifications in addition to the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier. For more information, visit

Kim A. O’Connell

Iowa reenactors fight to protect historic flags

This spring, a group of reenactors may march on the Iowa Capitol to ensure that the state’s tattered Civil War battle flags are protected.

More than 300 flags, many of which had been displayed in the Capitol rotunda in Des Moines for a century, were placed in the care of the State Historical Society of Iowa a decade ago for inventory, preservation and possible future display. The state legislature has appropriated more than $200,000 for this project, which has also received private donations and a grant from the Save America’s Treasures program.

Many flags in the collection, which includes dozens of Iowa regimental colors as well as captured Confederate flags, are severely damaged by the effects of time and pollution, inappropriate display in upright cases in the Capitol and even previous conservation attempts. Some flags have already disintegrated into shreds. Conservators may work up to 240 hours on a flag, with an average cost of $4,800 per flag, according to the historical society.

Although conservation work is ongoing and is detailed on the official project Web site (, some preservationists and reenactors are now concerned about the pace of the effort and that the flag money may be “raided” for other projects, especially given the current economic climate. Last December, about $40,000 of the flag fund had been slated for a future exhibit called “The Legacy of the Colors.” Within days, however, state officials announced the exhibit is no longer planned.

“We’re not accusing anyone of anything,” said Doug Jones, a reenactor with the 15th Iowa Volunteer Infantry, which has served as an honor guard for the flags in the Iowa Capitol. “What we’re promoting is for the appropriate body of the legislature to review how these allocations have been used.” To lobby for such an inquiry, the 15th and other units may stage a protest march at the Capitol this spring, Jones said.

According to a report in the Des Moines Register, Gordon Hendrickson, the historical society administrator, responded to the charges with a statement: “All funds appropriated to the Battle Flags Project are available for that project, and all private funds donated in support of the Battle Flags Project are available for, and exclusively used for, that project.”

For Jones and his colleagues, however, this is not just an administrative issue. “For a lot of us, these flags represent our ancestors who actually participated in the war,” Jones said. “This is family. It’s why we reenact.”

Kim A. O’Connell


Originally published in the May 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here