Thursday, January 30, 2014

Did Soldiers Bury Minié Balls to Leave the Battlefield?

Several days ago, I had dinner with a gentleman who told me an interesting story about soldiers burying minié balls so they could claim to be out of ammunition and leave the battlefield? The fellow claimed to have discovered unused balls in scooped out depressions on battlefields. I found the comments interesting and something that I had never heard about. I decided to post the question on LinkedIn's Civil War Sesquicentennial Network.

Comments from several contributors suggests that this practice was unlikely and that buried minié balls were from other causes.

Joyce Henry, Head Coachman and Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, offered the following explanation:

You have to remember that in battle many times cartridge boxes would be lost, either by the soldier being wounded and falling, artillery explosions, straps broken by wear, breaking during close combat, or any number of reasons. Over the course of 40 years of battlefield excavation, we have found evidence of this occurrence many times over, intact cartridge tins filled or mostly filed with minié' balls found on battlefields of particularly heavy action. Have recovered entire crates of intact ammunition found where supply wagons were mired down in mud and contents lost during muddy marches and chaotic retreats. Bullets were often dropped as well during the loading and firing process. After 150 years of erosion and deposit I would think it would be difficult to determine a "scooped out" feature in the earth, and would have to go with what we know to be a more plausible explanation. Somehow I can't picture many soldiers in the heat of battle digging a hole and burying ammo, would have been a pretty severe punishment involved compared to desertion if they were caught. So even if it were done, I don't think it was a common occurrence.

Duane Whitlock, Museum Guide at Historic St. Mary's City, commented:

Burying or dumping your ammunition would not get a soldier a free pass to the rear. The most common method early in the war would be to help a wounded comrade to a field hospital. As the war progressed the noncoms and officers put an end to this practice. Joyce [Henry] pretty much covers the reasons for finding unused minié' balls grouped together. In camp sites paper cartridges that were old, wet and damaged were strewn about the company streets and the men were issued fresh ammunition. We have identified the company streets in known campsites by the presence of these minié' and round balls. They also mark the locations of the camp kitchens by their melted condition.

Duane posted the following description of how ammunition was brought to the front. Especially interesting is Duane's comment on how the boxes were color coded to identify the different caliber of minié balls.

During an engagement, when the men started pulling the tin liners out of their cartridge boxes to get at the rounds stored in the lower compartment, it was taken as a sign by the officers to send men they trusted to the rear to bring up more ammunition. The ammo boxes weighed around 100 lbs and contained 1,000 rounds each. Because many of the men were illiterate, the boxes were color coded in 1862 so that the proper rounds to match the weapons of the companies would be supplied. Green for .57, .58 cal. [caliber] minié' balls, blue for .69 cal. minié' balls and red for buck & ball and buckshot rounds. Because of the handle design, each box could only be carried by one man. However, the men operated in teams and came up with all sorts of ingenious methods of transporting the boxes including stealing litters from the ambulance corps, making up slings and drags from whatever they could find and stealing the occasional mule.

Thanks to Duane and Joyce for sharing this information and adding to our understanding of Civil War combat. You can join the discussion by becoming a member of the Civil War Sesquicentennial Network.

For more information on the minié ball, please see Minie Ball on

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Battle of Olustee - 150 Years Later

The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Olustee in Florida will be on February 20, 2104.  The celebration will feature a reenactment which will hopefully be more peaceful than the current battle waging at Olustee. 

 Last year, the Florida chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War asked the state parks department for permission to place an obelisk to honor Union soldiers inside the three-acre Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park. The land now contains three monuments: a battle monument and two honoring Confederate officers.

State officials agreed that the park "favored the Confederate side" and began to act on the request, first by holding a public hearing and then by choosing a precise location in the park.
Unfortunately, the request enraged many in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which views the state’s decision as a betrayal of the park’s legacy. As word spread, an online call to arms was issued by the national Confederate group’s leader and State Representative Dennis Baxley, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans was drafted to assist the battle.
To descendants of the Confederates in North Florida, the proposed monument move was seen as the latest salvo against this area’s values and traditions. "The Civil War may have ended long ago, but in Florida, unlike much of the South, Yankees never stopped marching (or rolling) into the state, lured by milder weather and tax rates. Other newcomers arrived, too, slowly eroding the state’s Southern identity." 
Olustee Battle Monument
Inscription on Monument honoring both sides

In addition to the battle monument, there are two monuments for Confederate officers.

Monument to Gen. Alfred Holt Colquitt - "Hero of Olustee"

Monument to Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan
Please click on image to enlarge. For other images from the Olustee Battlefield, please see Olustee, FL.

As a state park, Florida officials have jurisdiction over the battlefield including what monuments are allowed in the park.  It should be their decision whether to add a Union monument. The control of the land that was contributed for the park depends on the terms under which the United Daughters of the Confederacy provided the land. 

The restrictions on battlefield monuments is a contentious issue in many Civil War battlefield parks.  Size restrictions and standards apply to the placement.  However, in this case it is not the park authorities who object but others who want to prohibit the monument to the Union soldiers. 

The position of the Sons of Confederate Veterans encourages animosity with the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.  One that is not useful in helping to maintain Civil War sites and their history.

What is lost in the controversy is the idea of playing tribute to those who fought and died in the battle to defend their beliefs.  The monument conflict does little to honor those men.

Perhaps a simple solution would be allow two new monuments honoring Union and Confederate soldiers to be added to the park.  Let us use re-enactments and commemorative events to honor the dead and to remind ourselves of the costs of this war, not to rekindle the flames of hatred.

(Source: Blue and Gray Still in Conflict at Battle Site, Oulustee Journal, January 16, 2014.)

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Terra Cotta Frieze on the National Building Museum

National Building Museum
The National Building Museum is one of Washington, D.C.’s most spectacular works of public architecture. It was built between 1882 and 1887 for three distinct purposes: to house the headquarters of the United States Pension Bureau, to provide a suitably grand space for Washington's social and political functions, and to commemorate the service of those who fought on the side of the Union during the Civil War.

In 1881 the U.S. Congress directed General Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster of the US Army to design a new home for the growing Pension Bureau. The agency occupied the building from the spring of 1885 until 1926. Over the next fifty years, the building was used by various government agencies, including the General Accounting Office, the Civil Service Commission, and the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

Of the 51,135 pensioners on the rolls in 1864, more than 48,000 had served in the Civil War. By 1871, new claims and new eligibility provisions added over 250,000 new pensioners to the rolls—and the numbers kept increasing.

Not only did the Civil War greatly increase the number of pensioners, the war also created a demand for federal workers and office space to administer the pensions. This tremendous growth is what prompted Congress, in 1881, to commission the Pension Building. When it was completed, the staff included approximately 1,500 clerks and officers.

In the early 1880s, less than twenty years after the war, 890,000 pension claims had been filed on behalf of those killed or wounded in the Civil War, though not all were approved. By the time the new Pension Building was completed, there were 324,968 Civil War pensioners on the rolls.

Pensions made up nearly a third of the federal budget in the 1880s and took up much of the business of the 49th Congress (1885-1887). Forty percent of the legislation introduced in the House and 55% in the Senate consisted of special pension acts.

In 1921, just before the Pension Bureau moved out of this building, there were still a half-million Civil War pensioners on the rolls. Of this number, 218,775 were “survivors and invalids,” 102 were nurses, and 281,225 were widows and other dependents.

A 1,200-foot-long terra cotta frieze on the building’s exterior honors the Union infantry, cavalry, artillery, naval, quartermaster, and medical units that fought in the Civil War. The frieze was designed by Bohemian-born sculptor Caspar Buberl. The artist is best known for his Civil War monuments, for the terra cotta relief panels on the Garfield Memorial in Cleveland, Ohio, and the frieze on the Pension Building.

Since creating a work of sculpture of that size was well out of Meigs' budget, he had Buberl create twenty eight different scenes (totaling sixty nine feet in length), which were then mixed and slightly modified to create the continuous parade that includes over 1,300 individual figures. The twenty eight sections were modified and intermixed with the same figures are repeated eighteen times. The sculpture includes infantry, navy, artillery, cavalry and medical components as well as a good deal of the supply and quartermaster functions, since Meigs was in-charge of the latter two functions during the Civil War.

The portion of the frieze above each entrance to the building is unique: the western (5th Street NW) entry is the Gate of the Quartermaster, the southern (F Street NW) entry is the Gate of the Infantry, the eastern (4th Street NW) entry is the Naval Gate, and the northern (G Street NW) entry is the Gate of the Invalids.

Because the federal government required the Pension Bureau be located in a fireproof building to protect soldiers’ records, Meigs' had the structure made out of 15,500,000 bricks. The stairs between the first three floors of the building were designed with wide treads and low risers to accommodate disabled veterans who might require crutches.  Meigs claimed that the Pension clerks moved "over a ton of documents in the course of the working hours of the day." To distribute the volume of paperwork, he designed a metal document track on which suspended baskets of papers could be moved around using a system of pulleys. Dumbwaiters in the northwest corner of the building transported the baskets between floors