Wednesday, July 25, 2012

John Cassidy - Memento Mori

John Cassidy's Prayer Book (GMNP- NPS)
Sometimes, it is the smallest item that provides the biggest impact. Such is the case with Corporal John Cassidy's copy of The Manual of the Christian Soldier.

John Cassidy was born in Ireland in 1839, and immigrated to Philadelphia with his parents.  By 1860, he is listed living in the 2nd Ward of that city with his family, working as a painter. When the war began in 1861, Cassidy found that the pay was good and steady in the Army.  He enlisted in Company H of the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry, an Irish regiment of the Philadelphia Brigade, and fought at the battles of Glendale, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.  In January 1862, he received a copy of the Manual of the Christian Soldier from the chaplain of the 69th, Fr. Martin, and carried it with him until Antietam, when he lost it amidst the chaos of battle. 

After Cassidy, the book was also owned by William Scheiffer of the 91st Pennsylvania, who found the book on the battlefield, and later by Michael Shannon of the 25th Virginia. At some point the book found its way back to John Cassidy, who carried with him into Gettysburg.

The 69th Pennsylvania was lightly engaged on July 2nd and the next day, formed the first defense of the stone wall at The Angle, the culminating point of Pickett's Charge. John Cassidy was killed that day, shot through his prayer book that he kept in his breast pocket.

Cassidy was taken to his home in Philadelphia where he died of his wounds on July 16th and was buried in the Old Cathedral Cemetery there. Cassidy's niece later donated his "wounded" prayer book and the photograph below to Gettysburg National Military Park, all that remains of Cassidy's personal documentary record. 

Corp. John Cassidy, 69th PA (GNMP- NPS)
When I first heard of Cassidy's story, I was intrigued, and I found all I could about John Cassidy. I recently wrote a profile of Cassidy for work, and after it was done, I wanted to see one of the few tangible things left from Cassidy: his prayer book. Fortunately, it is now on display at the Gettysburg NMP Museum, and any visitor can see it. After searching the exhibits for the book, which I had only previously seen from the images above, I finally saw it, small, unassuming, and yet, very poignant. 

John Cassidy gave his last full measure of devotion to the cause of his country, and you can see a memento of that devotion bound up in his little book left behind.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Rallying with the Hearts of Lions

When Samuel Cable ran away from his owner in Brunswick, Missouri, he was exuberant. In 1863, he found himself in Massachusetts and decided to enlist in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry (a sister regiment of the famous 54th Massachusetts, notably profiled in the movie Glory). He was 21, eager to fight for the cause of freedom for other enslaved African-Americans, and especially for his wife, whom was still bound into servitude. In a eloquent letter transcribed below, he writes to his wife in the summer of 1863, and tells her why he fights for the Union:

An unidentified African-American Soldier (Library of Congress)

Dear wife i have enlisted in 
the army i am now in the state 
of Massachusetts but before this 
letter reaches you i will be in 
north carolina and though
great in the present national 
difficulties yet i look forward to 
a brighter day when i shall have
the opertunity of seeing you in 
the full enjoyment of freedom 
i would like to no if you are still
in slavery if you are it will not 
be long before we shall have crushed 
the system in that now opreses you
for in the course of three months 
you shall be at liberty. 
great is the outpouring of the 
colored people that is now rally[-]
ing with the hearts of lions against
that very curse that has separated 
you and me yet we shall meet 
again and oh what happy time 
that will be when this ungodly
rebellion shall be put down 
and the curse of our land is 
trampled under our feet i am
a soldier now and i shall use my
utmost endeavor to strike at 
the rebellion that so long has kept
us in chains. write to me just as soon 
as you get this letter tell me if you
are living in the same cabin where 
you use to live. tell eliza i send 
her my best respect, and love
ike and sully likewise i would send 
you some money but i now it is 
impossible for you to git it 
i would like to see little jenkin, now 
but i no it is impossible at present 
so no more but remain your own
afectionate husband until death

                                 Samuel Cabble

An image of the letter, included in Samuel's service record at the National Archives (NARA) is below.

The Letter from Samuel Cable's service file at NARA

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Living in the Big House

The Hampton Mansion
(Hampton NPS photo)

Several months ago, I decided to go to Baltimore and see Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shine (!!), which was really cool. They have a new visitors center there, and the interpretation is well done, and made me feel very patriotic about the Star-Spangled Banner. While there I learned about another national park site in the area that was once a large plantation, located in Towson, MD. Finding my way out there, I luckily caught the last tour of the day there, and really took to the place. By the end of the tour, I wanted to buy the park handbook and learn more*.

The large plantation was and is (in a way) called Hampton, and is now preserved by the NPS as Hampton National Historic Site. It originally was identified for preservation for the architectural quality of its main house, one of the largest examples of Georgian architecture in the area (The house is pictured above). The house and plantation were the summer and later permanent home to seven generations of the Ridgley family, one of the most prosperous and wealthy families in the region. At one time the estate held over 25,000 acres, hundreds of black slaves, and many agricultural and industrial pursuits.

Much of the home and its contents is original, and in a sense when you walk into the house, you feel like walking back in time, when the scions of society would gather in such a house and talk about politics and current events. To me, it is very interesting to see a place where so many generations of a family lived and called their own, while America changed around them. In a sense, it is a cross section of the American experience, from one family's perspective. From the building of the house in the late 1700s to the 1940s (when it was given to the NPS), the Ridgleys' world changed in many ways.

Possibly one of the most significant changes that occurred in the 19th Century at Hampton was the coming of the Civil War. Originally, the Ridgleys' prosperity was driven by a Ironworks that the owned and operated in the area. However, by the mid-1800s, their Ironworks had closed and agricultural value of the land (now only 4,500 acres) was the primary driver of wealth. With Maryland as a slave state, the primary workers of such a large farm operation were enslaved blacks. At the time of the Civil War, the master of Hampton, John Ridgley owned 61 slaves.
Some of the slave quarters at Hampton (Hampton NPS photo)
When the Civil War began, Maryland was divided. Many of the eastern counties relied, like the Ridgleys, on slave labor for Tobacco and other various crops, while in western Maryland, many yeoman farmers and recent immigrants resented the wealth and power of the large plantation owners. After the fall of Sumter, Maryland remained bitterly divided, as various areas and families identified as unionists or as confederates. As slaveowners, the Ridgleys identified with the Confederacy; Charles Ridgley, John's son, helped organize a local Confederate cavalry unit, the Baltimore County Horse Guards. Soon after the Baltimore Riot of April 1861, helped guard against Union incursions into Baltimore and sought to destroy railroad bridges leading into the city. However, union authorities began to arrest leaders of the various confederate militia companies in the area, and faced with imprisonment in Fort McHenry, Charles disbanded the cavalry company, and remained quiet for the remainder of the conflict. Some of Ridgleys' relatives, however, especially David Ridgley Howard fought with the Confederacy, including at the Battle of Gettysburg, where he lost a leg during the last day's fight.

With emancipation in Maryland in 1864, Hampton and the Ridgleys began their slow decline. In the following years, much of the original estate would be subdivided to heirs and to pay off debts. The Ridgleys lived a comfortable life for many years at Hampton, and indeed, some of the former slaves stayed on at the mansion as servants and tenant farmers. However, when John Ridgley, Jr. gave Hampton to the Park Service, only the original mansion and 63 acre tract remained. Hampton provides a cross-section into one family's American experience, warts and all.I think that through the lens of Hampton, it is easy to see the American Dream, for white and eventually black, for all of us.

Eliza Ridgely III and servant Nancy Davis in 1863
(Hampton NPS photo)

Sources:  Historic Hampton, Inc., Hampton National Historic Site Guidebook (Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Co., 2010) and Hampton National Historic Site, NPS

(*Since the bookstore was closing, I couldn't buy it then. I pretty much began a quest to find a copy of this book on the internet. After not much success, I eventually ended up buying a copy from the park bookstore over the phone, to which the kindly older woman over the phone who took my order said I was the first person to do such a thing).

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hall of Treasures

I sometimes pinch myself and remind myself that I work at Gettysburg National Military Park, a sacred ground and all around historic place, so much so, that sometimes you can feel the history (no, I'm not talking about ghosts, that's an entirely different story). The park is very lucky to have an extraordinary collection of Gettysburg and period artifacts in its collection, some of which is on display in the Park Museum, and some of which is in curatorial storage. The core of the Park Service collection came from the Rosensteel family, who operated a museum beginning in the 1920s which eventually became the NPS visitor center for the Park (which has now been replaced by a new Visitor Center, and since has been torn down). The Rosensteels donated their significant collection (and museum) to the Park, and bolstered by additional donations since.

I was able to visit the curatorial collection on a special tour several months ago, and got to see some very special treasures, including a Confederate Battle Flag used in Pickett's Charge (aka Longstreet's Assault). Of some items, the Park holds a multitude of, especially bullets (I remember a figure of at least 2,000 minie balls and etc.).

A pretty cool feature that the park has been doing recently is to record a short video called "Museum Mondays", where the park curator selects an item from the collection and explains a little bit about it. It has been going on now for several months, and I really dig it. The most recent edition is below (about a pocket revolver), but there are many more on the YouTube page, and older ones on the Park's Facebook page.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Unknown Soldiers

A month or so ago I discovered the Liljenquist Family Collection at the Library of Congress (LOC). This collection of nearly 700 or so ambrotypes and tintypes was collected over the years by the Liljenquist family and only recently was donated to "America's Library" (aka the LOC) for posterity. The LOC has digitized many of the images and set up a flickr page with many of the images. Unfortunately, many of the soldiers and individuals depicted in the images are unknown.

I began looking through many of the images on the page, looking at the differing faces of those who fought on both sides. The collection really shows the breadth and diversity of the soldiers who engaged in the Civil War.

However, I came to this picture here:

I was intrigued, to say the least, by this picture. The facial features seem very feminine, which got me thinking if this soldier was actually a woman (of which there have been numerous examples of, the most notable being Albert Cashier aka Jennie Hodgers). What do you think?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Simeon Roosa


Simeon  J. Roosa was born March 18, 1836 in Fallsburg, New York. In 1862, at the age of 26, he enlisted with the 145th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. At the time Gen. George McClellan had been pushed by from the Peninsula by Robert E. Lee in the daring Seven Days Battles, and there was an urgent need for troops.Simeon's unit, after its organization, was immediately sent to the front to serve with the Army of the Potomac, and would subsequently fight in the Battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. In a daring move in the summer of 1863, Robert E. Lee moved his army of Northern Virginia north for an invasion of Pennsylvania. George G. Meade, the newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac moved to counter Lee's move and block any advance to Baltimore or Washington, D.C. Even though neither army originally planned to fight at Gettysburg, the "spider web" of roads passing through the town made it an idea place to mass troops. 

Simeon Roosa's regiment, the 145th, found itself in the thick of the fighting in the Wheatfield late on July 2nd. This small field would be one of the most fiercely contested portions of that day's fighting.  While fighting with his unit, a bullet entered Simeon's right eye and came out his left eye, destroying both eyes, but somehow leaving his eyelids intact. Rendered unconscious by the hit, he was left for dead on the battlefield. The next morning, when members of his unit when to find and bury him, they could not find his body, but noticing that a freshly dug grave was near where they thought he fell, they declared him dead and buried. Three days later, he was discovered wandering blindly through the woods 3 miles from where he was wounded, calling for his mother. He was positively identified, taken to a hospital in Harrisburg, and reunited with his family, and discharged. However, due to his injuries, he passed away several months later in Tidioute, PA on September 30th.

Hardtack and Coffee

Working at a history-laden such as Gettysburg, PA, it's hard not to get drawn in. Those who know me know that I am a history fanatic, and since I have been working with Civil War history these last few months, I have been drawn to the stories of the common soldiers who fought here at Gettysburg, Confederate and Union. In the course of work here, I have encountered some amazing people and their stories. I am using this blog to highlight some of their stories and some other fascinating items from the era.

Soon after arriving here, I read two works by Bell I. Wiley that really laid the groundwork for myself in thinking about the common soldier (they also were groundbreaking for their time), The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank. Wiley, mainly by going through their letters, tries to find out what the common soldier was about, North and South.

Wiley once said that "History is people", and I strongly believe that myself, and will try to exhibit that history on this blog.