Monday, December 16, 2013

Who is Braxton Flannel?

A few years ago, I was doing archival research and I came across an interesting letter. The author was Lieutenant Mathias Edgar Richards, a staff officer for Colonel Joseph J. Bartlett. He wrote this letter to his sister, Sophie, who lived in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Here it is:

Hd. Qrs. 2nd Brigade

June 24, 1862

Dear Sophie,

I send enclosed another photograph picked up—

Description of Characters commencing left side of picture, where lager keg is— front row—

J. J. Bartlett—Col. 27th N. Y. Vols—Col Comdg 2d Brigade—

Genl. H. W. Slocum—Comd’g Division—

Genl. Wm. B. Franklin—Comd’g 6th Prov. Army Corps—

Genl. Barry—

Gen. Newton—Comd’g 3rd Brig of our Division

Second or back row—

Col. Jos. Howland—16th N. Y. Vols—

Capt. E. Sparrow Purdy Asst. Adjt. Genl.

“ Arnold—Inspec. Genl. & Chief of Staff

“ Phillips—aid

Lt. Baker—“

“ Jackson—“

“ Hoff—Ordnance officer—

The picture was taken at White House. The little nigger is front of Genl. Franklin is a slave of Mrs. Lee and his name is Braxton Flannel—the keg had lager beer in it—&c &c.

 . . . Your affect bro, Mat

When I read Lieutenant Richards’s description, I immediately recognized the photograph to which he referred. It is this photograph:

This is a fairly well-known image. A copy of it is kept in the Library of Congress (Call number: LC-B815- 382) and through the LOC website, it is easily accessible. The image is usually attributed to photographer James Gibson. The LOC’s description says that Gibson took it on May 14, 1862, at Cumberland Landing.
Meanwhile, here is an image of the author of the letter, Lt. Richards:

Richards offered us historians a great resource, labeling all of the officers in the photograph. He identified the general officers, although it must be said, that historians have long known their identities. They are, left to right, Colonel Joseph J. Bartlett, a brigade commander; Brigadier General Henry Warner Slocum, a division commander, later renowned for commanding an army during Sherman’s March to the Sea; Major General William Buell Franklin, commander of the 6th Corps; Brigadier General William Farquhar Barry, the Army of the Potomac’s Chief of Artillery; and Brigadier General John Newton, a corps commander at Gettysburg. Here are close-ups of the characters in the front row:
(Bartlett, front row, far left)

(Slocum, front row, second from left)

(Franklin, front row, center)

(Barry, front row, second from right)

(Newton, front row, far right)

The men in the back of the photograph have never been identified by historians. Richards thankfully provides names with faces. They are (with a few accompanying photographs):
Colonel Joseph Howland was the husband of nurse Eliza Newton Woolsey. One month after this photograph Howland received a wound at the Battle of Gaines Mill. After the war, he served as New York’s state treasurer)
(Howland, back row, far left)
Captain Erastus Sparrow Purdy was Franklin’s adjutant general. He ended the war as a lieutenant colonel.
Captain Richard Arnold was the 6th Corps’ inspector general. Later on, he rose to the rank of brigadier general and served as chief of artillery for the Army of the Gulf.
Lieutenants W. H. Philip, J. P. Baker, J. C. Jackson, were all aides-de-camp for General Franklin.
Lieutenant John Hoff was the most enigmatic man, and honestly, I have no real clue about who he was. My friend, Garry Adelman, tells me that Hoff is one of the top ten most photographed people of the Civil War. Apparently, Hoff can be found in dozens of other photographs.
(Hoff, back row, far right.)

More to the point, Lieutenant Richards's letter makes it clear that this photograph has been mislabeled by the LOC and subsequently by historians. Gibson took the image at White House Landing, not Cumberland Landing. The usual date ascribed to the photograph is possibly correct, since the 6th Corps arrived at White House Landing on May 12, 1862. However, a Union cavalryman wrote that General Slocum (one of the generals in the photograph) did not arrive at White House until May 15. Consequently, the LOC date may be off by a few days.

The story of White House Landing is well-known. White House was once the home of Martha Custis, the wife of George Washington. The property passed to Martha’s great-granddaughter, Mary Anna Custis, who eventually became the wife of Robert E. Lee.  Before the war, Mary Anna Lee turned the property over to her son, Rooney Lee.  In 1861, Mrs. Lee departed from her husband’s home in Arlington and moved into Rooney’s home, which was her former home. Before the 6th Corps arrived at White House’s doorstep, Mary Anna Lee fled. She pinned a note to the door, imploring the bluecoats to respect her property, reminding them that it had once been the home of George Washington’s wife.

This photograph, then, shows the Union officers partaking of Mrs. Lee’s unoffered hospitality. They sit in the yard. Presumably, they are drinking the Lee-family beer, and the little slave child—now free—was once the property of Mrs. Robert E. Lee. (The slave, Braxton Flannel, might have been the property of Rooney Lee, and the “Mrs. Lee” mentioned by Lieutenant Richards could have been Rooney’s wife, Charlotte. However, given the context, it seems certain that he meant Mary Anna Lee.)

Well, this leads to a series of questions: who was Braxton Flannel? Was he a slave of Mrs. Lee? If so, how old was he? Why did this bevy of illustrious Union officers want him in their picture?

Whenever I have trouble with Civil War photographs, I turn things over to Garry Adelman, who has an eye for seeing things that I cannot. In trying to figure out a little bit more about Braxton Flannel, Garry remembered something. He had seen the slave-child once before. Check out this photograph:
This photograph depicts a cluster of freed slaves. Take a look at the center of the crowd. There is Braxton Flannel, apparently wearing the same outfit. Presumably, this photograph was taken on the same day, and the building in the background is the same slave cabin at the right of the photograph depicting the 6th Corps officers. Were these men, women, and children all once owned by the Lee family? I offer yet another unanswered question.

Needless to say, this tale has yet to reach completion.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

William Pencak: Vampire Hunter

More years ago than I care to admit, I entered graduate school at the Penn State University. In my first semester there, I took a colonial history seminar with Dr. Bill Pencak, an experience I shall not soon forget. Bill was an accomplished author. He completed eight books on his own, thirty-nine peer-reviewed articles, and he co-authored or edited about twenty additional books. Moreover, he sat on the committees of at least thirty graduate students. Many of them have since graduated Penn State and have gone on to become pillars in their respective fields. Civil War buffs will best remember him for his wonderful book, Making and Remaking Pennsylvania’s Civil War, co-edited with William Blair. Bill lived an active, illustrious career, leaving this earth too soon on December 9, 2013.

Bill Pencak’s litany of accomplishments represented only one side of his colorful life. His happy, out-going personality will be remembered by all who knew him. He was gregarious, upbeat, and always generous when it came to his friends. Unlike many in his profession, he did not take life too seriously. To his students, he offered precious words of wisdom for getting through the absurdities of existence, cherished acumen that ought to have been collected and published for all to read. In short, he was an enjoyable person and a prolific historian, all in one.

And he hunted vampires! When I first arrived at Penn State, sometime in mid-September, he invited me to the debut of a student-film in which he played a minor role. Sadly, I cannot remember the title of this film—it was written, directed, filmed, and cast by undergraduates—but it involved a secret society of vampire-hunters called “The Watchers.” In this movie, Bill played the sage-leader of The Watchers. For several plot-related reasons that would take too long to narrate, Bill’s cabal of undead-hunters endured internal turmoil. One of the Watchers had turned traitor, foolishly allying himself with the vampires, the villains of the film. Bill had to star in a pivotal scene where he pontificated in anguish over the brewing division. (Bill later told me that he studied Marlon Brando’s performance in Apocalypse Now for his inspiration.) In the end, Bill’s character died in a shoot-out when the traitorous Watcher burst into the inner sanctum, gunning down his former colleagues. Here, Bill had to perform his own stunts, at one point, leaping from a chair, hitting the floor with his “death wound.” (The Penn State students who filmed this scene shot it on the 4th Floor of the Weaver Building, the headquarters of the University’s Department of History.)

It brings a smile to my face to think of my friend, Bill Pencak, as captain of the vampire slayers. It proves his generosity and light-heartedness better than any example of which I can think. I cannot imagine many tenured professors taking such a role, but Bill was no humorless academic. He loved to help his students. He loved to have fun and he never felt shame when he did it.

Bill left us Civil War historians with two priceless lessons: 1) write often and 2) indulge your students’ creativity. Let us strive to honor him by so doing.

(Making and Remaking Pennsylvania's Civil War, 2001.)
(The unforgettable Bill Pencak.)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Rooster Riddle

A few days ago, I posted a tale from the Battle of Taylor’s Ridge (or Ringgold Gap). Colonel William R. Creighton commanded the Union brigade that got savaged there. His brigade included the regiment he once commanded, the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. At Ringgold, no regiment suffered as badly as the 7th. It took 220 officers and men into the fight and it came out with only forty-five.

Anyway, most buffs know about the 7th Ohio’s nickname. The officers and men called themselves the “Roosters.” In fact, before most battles, Colonel Creighton crowed like a rooster. (Apparently, this got his men fired up.) Even more unusual, the officers and men of the 7th Ohio wore rooster pins on their uniforms. These pins are among the rarest of Civil War insignia. It is not exactly clear when the 7th Ohio adopted them, but they certainly predated the Battle of Taylor’s Ridge. Photographs of some of the officers who were later killed on November 27, 1863, show them wearing their roosters. Finally, the 7th Ohio’s postwar monument at Gettysburg contains a large bronze seal with a rooster in the center.

(Here is a photograph of Col. Creighton--the same one I showed in the previous post. You can see the Rooster pin on his jacket.)

(This image shows Lt. Col. Orrin J. Crane, who, like Creighton, was also killed in action on November 27, 1863. Note the Rooster pin at his third row of buttons.)
(Here is a close-up of Lt. Col. Crane's Rooster badge.)
(This photograph shows an enlisted man from the 7th Ohio. Again, you can see the Rooster pin on this soldier's chest, right above his corps badge.)
(I get kind of thorough when it comes to wielding evidence. Here's yet another example. This enlisted man from the 7th Ohio has a Rooster badge, a corps badge, and his regimental number on his chest.)
(This officer from the 7th Ohio also has a Rooster badge. It is hard to see. It is just above his sword belt's shoulder strap.)
(Here is a close-up of an original Rooster badge.)
(This is the seal on the 7th Ohio's monument at Gettysburg. Again, the rooster features prominently. You can find this monument on Culp's Hill.)
(Here is the front page of the 7th Ohio's unit history. Again, you can see the Rooster badge. Clearly, the rooster meant something to the soldiers of this regiment. Would you believe that the regimental history never says why?)

All right, why a rooster?  Is there something I’m not getting? If a story existed behind the nickname, the members of the 7th Ohio never left anything behind for the historians to find. Even Lawrence Wilson’s postwar regimental history says nothing about the origins of the nickname. (Wilson was a veteran of the regiment.)

Yet another complicating factor emerges. The 7th Ohio was brigaded with three other Ohio regiments: the 5th, 29th, and 66th Ohio Volunteers. One of these regiments also sported an elusive nickname. The members of the 5th Ohio called themselves the “Owls.” Now, I have never found a photograph of a soldier from the 5th Ohio wearing an owl pin, but the 5th Ohio’s two monuments at Gettysburg both sport owls. Further, the Ohio brigade monument at Antietam lists the 5th and 7th Ohio regiments side by side on the front plaque. Carved in granite below each plaque are an owl and a rooster.

(Here's the 5th Ohio's monument at Gettysburg. Can you see the owl underneath the knapsacks?)
(The 5th Ohio has a small plaque on a boulder about thirty paces behind the principal monument. Again, there is an owl on it and an enigmatic quote, "Boys, keep the colors up." There is no primary source for this quote.)
UPDATE, 12-2-13: One of my readers shared his knowledge on the origins of the quote. "Boys, keep the colors up" were the last words of Captain George B. Whitcom of Cincinnati, who died during the Battle of Kernstown, March 23, 1862. Four color-bearers had been shot while holding aloft the 5th Ohio's banner, and then Whitcom took the standard, holding it for a time, until he too fell. A bullet struck him just above the eye, killing him instantly. My reader's information led me to an 1886 article in the Marion Star which discussed the origins of the quote. The article discussed the construction of the 5th Ohio monument, also mentioning the inclusion of the owl. Yet again, it did not discuss the reason for the owl.)
(Finally, here is the Ohio brigade monument at Antietam. It lists the three regiments engaged at the battle: the 5th, 7th, and 66th Ohio. Note the owl at the lower left and the rooster at the lower right.)

Again, I’m baffled. Did one regiment fight better at night and the other better in the morning? Nothing left behind by the veterans of the 5th Ohio indicates the source of their unit’s nickname.

Some years after I first became interested in this conundrum, I read a modern-day unit history written by David Thackery entitled, A Light and Uncertain Hold (1999). This regimental profiled the 66th Ohio, one of the other regiments in the brigade. Thackery briefly mentioned the 7th Ohio’s rooster nickname this way. He said, “The two organizations [the 66th and 7th] had fought side by side since Port Republic. ([Colonel Charles] Candy had referred to them in command code as ‘bulldog’ and ‘rooster’ respectively.)”

All right, so I had an answer here—well, sort of. The members of the 66th Ohio were the “Bulldogs.” The members of the 7th Ohio were the roosters, and their brigade commander concocted the nicknames. Unfortunately, Thackery’s footnote did not take me to a source that shed any light on this weird riddle. But, if we are to believe the author, then Colonel Charles Candy, the brigade commander, named all of his Ohio regiments as animals. The 5th and 7th Ohio put their nicknames on their monuments. In addition, the 7th Ohio adopted badges for their uniforms.

But again, I ask, why? Why did Candy choose these particular animals? Why did he insist on using a code to refer to the regiments? When did he design these codes? Why did the 66th Ohio never refer to their nickname, “the bulldogs,” on their monuments? What about the final Ohio regiment in the brigade, the 29th Ohio? Did it have a nickname too? If so, why does no one seem to know it? I find myself asking more questions now than ever.

(Here is an image taken sometime during the last week of May 1864. This is all that remains of the 7th Ohio. The regiment came off the front lines after the Battle of New Hope Church. A small contingent--those who had re-enlisted for three additional years--joined the 5th Ohio. This contingent represents those who did not re-enlist. Presumably, this is the regiment's final parade, held somewhere in northwest Georgia. The survivors now awaited a train to take them home to Cleveland. All of these men knew the meaning of the Rooster. I'll bet they are all wearing rooster badges in this photograph. None of them, it seems, left anything behind to let us know what those roosters meant.)