Sunday we visited the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. The Smithsonian is one of our most active museums; the collections keep growing and the exhibits are constantly being brought up to date. Ten years ago the displays of culture of the recent past featured M.A.S.H. and All in the Family; today lots of exhibits direct the viewer to web sites. American history, illustrated
The Realtors association had cosponsored a new display: a 250-year-old Ipswich, Massachusetts, house had been rebuilt inside the museum. The exhibit portrayed four occupants: the original colonial merchant owner, a nineteenth century abolitionist family, immigrant hosiery millworkers who were 1920's tenants, and finally the local school custodian, a woman who had survived the depression only to endure more years of deprivation during World War II.
We looked at descriptions of Presidents, First Ladies, coins, the WW II internment of Japanese-Americans, guns, Native Americans, Thomas Edison, machinery (we wondered why none of the machinery was running), and the restoration of Old Glory. When our heads were whirling with all this information we hastened to the cafeteria!
Monday we learned more about the Civil War through family history research at the National Archives. One ancestor joined, made Sergeant, was always present for muster, took one week's furlough, and was discharged - a totally bland service record. Another was a prisoner of war, and exchanged about six months later.
Two other ancestors, brothers, Privates, had enlisted in Company H of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. The records showed that the older brother was shot in the leg at Spotsylvania Court House and the younger was discharged for physical disability -- chronic diarrhea -- after having fought in that battle. Ten years later the younger brother agreed to go with his old company commander to have some adventure in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The party was ambushed and the younger brother killed. His mother applied for a pension, but it was rejected since his death was not service related.
We found a marvelous documentary record of the Civil War - over a hundred volumes - which gave us the report of the commanders of the battle at Spotsylvania Court House, and the next day we drove there to see for ourselves.
The battle of Spotsylvania lasted from May 8 to 21st, 1864. By this time the Union army greatly outnumbered the Confederate army, and Grant was slowly pushing Lee backward. There were great losses to both sides, but the Confederate troops had run out of reinforcements. (Of course the campaign was to continue another year before the surrender at Appomatox.)
Our ancestor was one of 18,399 Union troops killed, wounded, captured, or missing at Spotsylvania. No doubt they had not expected this battle; they and their heavy guns were assigned for the defense of Washington, D.C. But there was no longer a need for tens of thousands of troops in Washington, so they were added to the Army of the Potomac.
At Spotsylvania, they were near the rear, and things were peaceful for them while the rest of the Army fought desperately. Then, on the 19th -- possibly Lee had already made the decision to retreat -- Lt. Gen. Ewell endeavored a flanking attack on the Union forces, and came right against Brig. Gen. Robert O. Tyler's division of Heavy Artillery at the Harris Farm.
We took a picture of Harris Farm from the side of Court House Road; the farmhouse is still standing. The big guns were of no use against Ewell's rapidly advancing veteran troops, so the division fought as infantry. As soon as he heard of the attack Grant rushed troops to reinforce Tyler, but it was Cavalry came from behind the house mostly over by the time they got there. The division suffered 165 deaths and 886 injuries, but they held the line.
General Meade's report says, "Ewell's corps of the enemy attempted in the afternoon to turn our right and get possession of the Fredericksburg road. His attack was gallantly met by a division of heavy artillery, new troops, under Brig. Gen. R. O. Tyler, who, being re-enforced by Crawford, of the Fifth, and Birney, of the Second, promptly repulsed and drove Ewell back, inflicting heavy losses on him. Some of Ewell's forces, pushing to the rear on the Fredericksburg road, met Ferrero's division (colored troops) by whom they were checked and repulsed."
In a war filled with horrific, long battles with thousands on both sides killed and wounded, Spotsylvania stands out. It was one of those back-and-forth struggles for a small piece of land and first one side then the other claimed temporary advantage. It was also one of the last major efforts of the Confederacy, already short of men and supplies, while the Union just kept adding more troops.
Our ancestor returned to his farm in Massachusetts, continually plagued by the pain in his leg, according to his pension application. He and his wife had eight children, three of them boys to help on the farm. The other farm, in Virginia, looks peaceful today, with cows in the pasture and deer in the woods, but soldiers' blood is deep in the soil.