“This Old Patriot Stood His Ground”

In 1864, George Blessing, “Hero of Highland,” bravely battled Confederate raiders on his farm near Wolfsville, Frederick County, Maryland, but the real man and his deeds became almost unrecognizable in popular retellings.

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Still image courtesy of the History Channel.

John Caleb Leatherman (1852-1952), who was a child during the Civil War and a neighbor of the man who would earn the sobriquet “Hero of Highland,” told a Hagerstown Daily Mail reporter in 1950, ​”Boy, that ol’ George Blessing was a spunky one. Those Rebels were trying to get a hold of all the horses they could. When [my] Father heard about it, he took his horses up into Pennsylvania. Not George Blessing—he just stood pat on his own farm there.”

A barnyard shootout at Blessing’s Highland Farm took place on 9 July, 1864, the same day that the Battle of Monocacy was fought only a few miles away on the outskirts of Frederick City. At the end of that month, the Frederick Examiner ran a letter to the editor, suggesting “the raising of a sum, by the contributions of Union men … for the purpose of procuring a medal, with the appropriate device and inscription, to commemorate [Blessing’s] noble feats of that occasion.”

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Frederick Examiner, 27 July, 1864.

In the years that followed, the grandiosity of the tale and the pious nature of the hero was escalated by his niece, the writer Nellie Blessing Eyster, who published grandiose versions in both a noted ladies magazine and in her 1867 novel  Chincapin CharlieIn the latter, she called him “one of Nature’s noblemen,” wrote that he was possessed of a “strange power” from “living so close to Jesus,” and that as he was “thoroughly imbued with the spirit of ’76, loving the government for which his fathers died, next to the God whom he so devoutly worshipped … he defended his home from what he sacredly believed an unrighteous invasion.”

This holy grey warrior in his twilight, George Blessing, the son of George Johann Blessing (1764-1821) and Juliana Easterday (1765-1824), was born on 15 May, 1794, and was christened the next day at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Middletown.

Blessing was the grandson of Jacob Blessing (1736-1813), who emigrated from the Electorate of Saxony in modern Germany and wed Anna Magdalena Traut (1743-1813) of New Holland, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1761. On his mother’s side, Juliana was one of 11 children of Christian Easterday (1730-1805), who came to the Colonies from Germany in 1749—first to Philadelphia and later to nascent Frederick County, after marrying in 1750 Juliana Johanna Francisca Spiess of York County, Pennsylvania.

The Easterdays and Blessings were interconnected through multiple marriages. Kate Easterday (1826-1884), great-granddaughter of Christian, wrote in a letter to L.F.M. Easterday toward the end of her life, “There is a beautiful stream of water flowing through the entire length of our valley called the Catoctin Creek. The Easterday family graveyard is on the east side of the creek and the Blessing graveyard on the west of the creek. Both are on a hill, and not a quarter of a mile apart. There is also a graveyard where they buried their colored people.”

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An ambrotype of Nannie Tyler Page of Frederick, Maryland, with her child and her slave Laura Frazier. Both the happiness in Mrs. Page’s eyes and the resentment in Laura’s seem palpable. Courtesy Historical Society of Frederick County.

According to John Leatherman, “That George Blessing was one of the hottest Abolitionists I ever did see. The funny thing, though, was that he had some slaves on his own farm. He had married an Easterday girl from down around Jefferson and she had inherited some slaves. They weren’t treated like any other slaves in that day—they were treated like humans. And ol’ George freed them after the war started, long before the Emancipation Proclamation, and told them they could go their ways. ‘Nary a one left the place. All of those [former slaves] stayed on until the day he died, and the Blessings buried them all eventually in a corner of the St. John’s Lutheran churchyard, on Church Hill, about two miles from Myersville.”

Nellie Eyster wrote in Chincapin Charlie that one former slave was called Joe and another was a woman named Pinky. In the 1910 book, Middletown Valley in Song and Story, Thomas Chalmers Harbaugh noted that when news came of the Confederates’ imminent arrival on the farm, Pinky was ordered by Blessing to “blow the horn for assembly of the family, the Bible was taken from its shelf, and [Blessing] read the 91st Psalm,” which begins, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

Blessing had married his first cousin, Susanna Easterday, on 8 December, 1821. She either came to him with a dowery of slaves or, if Leatherman was right, she had inherited them by 1830. On the census of that year, it is enumerated that the Blessings owned three male slaves—one aged 10-23, and two under the age of 10. They also owned two female slaves—one aged 23-34 and one under the age of ten. This probably represents either a single adult mother and her children or possibly a couple—Pinky and Joe?—and their offspring.

Ten years later, in 1840, the Blessings were enumerated with three slaves—one male and one female aged 10-23, and one female aged 23-34. By the day of the 1850 Census, no slaves remained and the only black individual nearby was a laborer named Luther Rollins who was at the property of 63-year-old Catherine Delauder. In 1860, there were no African-Americans anywhere in the Blessings’ vicinity. This calls into question Leatherman’s claim that the slaves stayed with the Blessings for the rest of their lives. Either they all were dead by 1850, which seems unlikely as the slaves on the 1840 Census were all young, they had hired themselves out to other farms at a distance, or perhaps the Blessings’ tenderness did not inspire the loyalty indicated by Leatherman.

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George and Susanna Blessing had ten children: Elizabeth Ellen (1824-1908); Benjamin Lawrence (1826-1886); Catherine J. (1828-1908); Parker George (1829-1866); Susan Rebecca (1831-1913); Lauretta Ann (1835-1914); Caroline P. (1836-1868); Lewis Clay (1839-1865); Tilghman Luther (1841-1845); and Sarah Ann Penelope (1844-1921).

At Find-a-Grave, Ancestry, and other sites, two pictures (below) can be found that purport to be George and Susanna Blessing. They originated with genealogist Howard Lanham and appear by his courtesy.

On the left is a black-and-white version of an albumen carte de visite (CDV). The woman portrayed is clearly in her late 20s to early 30s. She is dressed in the fashions of the early 1860s. The picture at right shows a man who cannot be more than 45 years of age, and I would speculate closer to 38 to 40. This is also clearly a CDV and he is also dressed in the fashions the early 1860s.

CDVs, while patented abroad in 1854, were not available in the United States until the summer of 1859, and then only in New York City. By 1861, the photographic medium was flourishing all over the country. Previous to this, studio portraiture was available solely in the form of daguerreotypes and ambrotypes—both photographic processes resulted in single-copy, fragile, cased images. Neither of these CDVs shows signs of having been copied from earlier daguerreotypes or ambrotypes, and the fashions and hairstyles of the sitters further rule this possibility out.

If the subjects are Blessings, then they may be Parker George Blessing and Susan Blessing Crone, whose names and ages comport with the appearance of the sitters, although they may also be other Blessing children.

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Courtesy Howard Lanham.

In Chincapin Charlie, Eyster describes her uncle thusly: “Seventy-two winters had already passed over him, leaving no marks of their frosts upon his head save a few grey hairs sprinkled among the short and heavy locks which curled over it. His sunburned skin and hard hands bore record of the toil and exposure which had marked his life, but his face was one which for firmness, shrewdness, thoughtfulness, courage, and dignity of conscious rectitude, would have graced any of the grand old Roman fathers.” He had a “bold broad forehead” and “Laughing blue eyes sheltered under shaggy eyebrows” with “countless tiny crow’s-feet.”

This description tallies remarkably well with the photo above left, which Lanham believes to be George Blessing. Of the provenance of the three photos, he told me, “I have had these images for many years and they were printed from 35mm negatives. Someone brought the original photos … to one of the Easterday reunions during the 1970s and I asked to copy them.”

The odds are good, therefore, that this is the actual face of George Blessing.

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On 9 July 1864, Confederates were in the vicinity of Wolfsville, Maryland. Shortly before this, Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early had moved his forces along the Shenandoah Valley, crossing into Maryland at Shepherdstown. The majority of those troops were at that moment engaged in battle by the Monocacy River, but Early had sent out bands of marauders to round up horses and other livestock.

It should be noted that Blessing farm was not the only place where a skirmish occurred that day, if the Hagerstown Morning Herald of 1 July, 1955, is to be believed. “On the march from Hagerstown to Frederick through Middletown Valley, Early sent small squads of cavalry to gather supplies … from the farms. Of course, they didn’t bother to buy them. When these soldiers entered the community around Grossnickle’s Church, near Ellerton, they met resistance and trouble.

“They asked a boy [John Mahlon Bussard (1848-1915)], who later became a minister of the Church of the Brethren, where the farmers had hidden the horses. He said he did not know. However, the soldiers found them in a wooded hollow. When Levi Kesselring saw what was happening, he raised his gun to protect the horses. When one of them shot at him, he returned fire and got two of them. The others fled to Middletown on horseback taking the wounded with them. The two men died that night.”

Kesselring ought to have been lauded as a hero, too, but he did not gain the attention of national newspapers, as Blessing did. The story of the “Battle of Highland” appeared in many newspapers—some to which George Blessing himself mailed an account.

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This 1873 map shows the property of “G Blessing” at the top right, as well as denotes it as the site of “High Land Battle Field.”

For Blessing to pepper editors with his missives was not unusual, however. In the book And All Our Yesterdays: A Chronicle of Frederick County, author John M. Ashbury noted that Blessing “frequently demonstrated his sly sense of humor in letters to the editor to various newspapers throughout the county.”

For example, when the area around Middletown tried to break off into its own county in 1856, to be named Johnson after Maryland founding father Thomas Johnson, Blessing wrote to the Examiner that “I would name it Tadpole County, from the fact that comes nearest in shape to that insignificant animal. I would like to know how far $12,000 would reach to meet the current expenses of this new county, to say nothing of the inconvenience to which those citizens residing at the head and tail of Tadpole County would be subjected.”

As the embroidering of the Battle of Highland story commenced, Blessing wrote again to the Examiner, promulgating his version of the event. The newspaper published his letter on 27 July—seven days after originally running the sensationalized story.

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Hagerstown Herald of Freedom and Torchlight. 27 June, 1864.

What follows are the two most unadulterated versions of what happened that summer day at Highland Farm, the first told by Blessing himself in his letter to the Examiner, and the second by Union officer Corporal Christopher Armour Newcomer (1840-1924), who was at the farm late in the afternoon of 9 July.

On the morning of that day, a company of cavalry commanded Major Harmon and Captain Walker came in sight of my farm, where they detailed five to come and steal my horses. As they rode up, I gave my son two guns and I took six and went in the name of the Lord God of Hosts to meet them, and as they rode up in haste we fired upon them in quick time and one was mortally wounded (he died at Middletown), the other not so bad, they rode under the overshoot of the barn where we had cross-fire on them. As they were retreating, I fired, killing one on the spot, and took the other prisoner.

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Is Blessing stating that he killed two Rebels? He wrote that he shot one Rebel in the opening salvo, who later died in Middletown, as well as another killed outright as they were retreating. Frederick Examiner, 27 July, 1864.

The balance got back to the Company, which was from 40 to 60 strong, and before I had reloaded my guns they returned, nineteen in number, and had pressed in their service four of my neighbors as guides, and marched them in advance. I gave my son two guns and another young man one, but they both retreated. I then took four guns and went to a group of cherry trees; as their guides came up I halted them under pain of death if they did not stand. One of them broke off and ran. I fired on him without effect. As soon as he reached the Rebels, they opened fire upon me to their hearts’ content; the splinters from the trees and fence flew in my face while some of the [minni]balls fell at my feet. I had three guns which I held back for sure work. After firing some fifty shots they rode off, leaving their dead and wounded in my hands.

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Hawkline Farm, near Ellerton and Wolfsville, Maryland. This aerial photo shows one of several potential sites of the 9 July skirmish. There is no doubt that this farm was once owned by Blessing, but he also owned an adjacent property that may be the Highland Farm where the fighting took place.

They sent me word that they would bring up a battery and shell me. I sent word back that I had their wounded man in the barn, and if they chose to burn him up they could do so.

A little before night, Cole’s Cavalry, under command of Lieut. Colonel [George W. F.] Vernon, came into sight. I thought it was the Rebel battery, and I took the Dead Rebel’s carbine and concealed myself in the bramble bush close to the lane to make that the closing scene of that bloody day. When I saw my happy mistake, I crawled out; they gave me a hearty cheer, rode up to the house, helped bury my dead, and stayed overnight. Thus closed the most tragic scene in the history of my life.

The Rebels who came to Highland Farm were from the 47th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, whose captain was Elias M. Walker. Major William N. Harman was the commander. The Confederate casualties have been identified as Corp. James Stowers, whose military file states that he died “in a skirmish, 9 July, 1864,” and Corp. William Holt, whose arm was shattered by Blessing’s bullet. Holt survived the war. After recuperating, he was sent to Point Lookout Prison and eventually exchanged.

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Christopher Armour Newcomer

Next is the account of Christopher Newcomer. After the war, he wrote a memoir titled Cole’s Cavalry: Or Three Years in the Saddle in the Shenandoah Valley, in which he recounts his experiences during that day.

In 2008, Robert W. Black wrote in Ghost, Thunderbolt, and Wizard: Mosby, Morgan, and Forrest in the Civil War, “Cole’s Maryland cavalry were experienced troopers, many having served since 1861. They were border-state men. All knew the division of war within their community—some knew it within their family. Christopher Armour Newcomer had the experience of having family in arms against him and wrote, ‘Although connected by ties of birth and blood in the South, I loved my country and my flag better than my state or section.'”

The battle of Monocacy had been fought. Lieutenant Colonel Vernon and his small force of sixty-five men were familiar with the country. The enemy’s cavalry was overrunning Frederick County in small detachments, gathering up horses from the farmers. Our detachment had come upon several small squads of Rebel cavalrymen and either captured or dispersed them. On our arrival in the neighborhood of Middletown, we were informed by the citizens that an old gentleman, a farmer by the name of George Blessing, living several miles distant, had shot one or more Rebels, and Colonel Vernon started at once with his men for Blessing’s farm.

“As our advance was proceeding up the lane leading to the farmer’s house, they were halted by an old gray-haired man, fully sixty-five years of age, who demanded that they should go back, or he would shoot. The old gentleman was partially concealed behind a large tree, with a rifle in his hand. Colonel Vernon called him by name and informed him we were Cole’s men and had come to protect him. Mr. Blessing gave us a hearty welcome and said he had mistaken us for the Confederates whom he had exchanged shots with a number of times during the day, and had driven off the enemy, not an hour before, who threatened to return and hang him and burn his property. 

“To prove his assertion, he led the way up to his barnyard, where lay a dead Rebel and one in the barn, wounded. The old farmer had some half dozen guns of different patterns; when the roving bands of Confederates approached his house he would warn them off, they would fire upon him, and this old patriot stood his ground. He would do the shooting whilst his small grandson would load the pieces. Our command remained at the farmhouse overnight and the ‘Johnnie Rebs’ failed to put in an appearance; they would have received a warm reception If they had returned. Our men buried the dead soldier and left the wounded prisoner in the hands of his captor, who promised to have him properly taken care of. On the following morning, we made an early start in the direction of Frederick, picking up an occasional straggler.

The two stories differ in small details: Blessing said he was hiding in a bramble bush when Cole’s Cavalry arrived; Armour says he was behind a large tree. Blessing said his son and another unnamed young man were with him at first; Armour says it was his young grandson. Both agree that the Union troops spent the night and left the next morning. Blessing’s niece, however, turned that into a finale à la cinematic epic-maker Cecil B. DeMille:

“After a breakfast for which Mrs. Blessing’s larder furnished its choicest food, the sound of prayer and praise arose again from that farmhouse, but this time a hundred full throats joined in the old chorus, ‘Praise God from who all blessings flow,’ and the self-selected chaplain, Mr. Blessing, felt, as he combined their united thanks in one voice, that the God who had dealt him such a signal and wonderful deliverance, would yet answer the prayers of thousands of other loyal hearts throughout the vast Union, and in his own good time work out for this mighty country ‘an exceeding great salvation.'”

It has been reported that Blessing himself remarked of the Hero of Highland legend, “What nonsense if they mean me.” Ω

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The Examiner reported the death of George Blessing on 24 December, 1873. “The highly esteemed gentlemen died at his residence near Wolfsville, Catoctin District, in this county, on Thursday last in the 80th year of his age. Mr. Blessing was our best citizen and will be remembered as ‘Hero of Highland,’ in connection with the barnyard fight with the Rebels in 1864.” The day after his death, Blessing was buried at St. John’s Lutheran Church Cemetery, Ellerton. Photo by Becky.

 

Official Dark Boots

How the awesome power of highly caffeinated coffee may continue to shape Union soldiers’ Afterlives.

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A Union soldier with his hardtack, salted pork, gun, and coffee pot, known as a “mucket.” Courtesy Heritage Auctions.

On a chilly, drizzly day in March 2018, my lifelong boon companion Julie and her daughter, my honorary niece, joined me for a day trip to Gettysburg. My niece had never visited the town or battlefield before. In addition to seeing the historical sites, she was keen to undertake some EVP/ITC recording with her “Weird Aunt,” as I’m known to her circle. That day, we combined the driving tour and the ghost hunting, practicing what I call a “drive-by”—rolling the vehicle to a stop, lowering the window, turning on an iPad ghost box app and digital recorder, and inviting anyone present to speak.

(Electronic voice phenomenon, or EVPs, are recorded human voices that appear with no explanation across the spectrum of audiovisual technologies. The messages are often evidential, personal, and thought-provoking. Instrumental Transcommunication, or ITC, uses various forms of electronic devices, such as the so-called ghost box, to generate white noise or randomly generated phonemes from which it is theorized that spirits can shape speech.)

After purchasing an excellent driving tour CD with the marvelous Stephen Lang narrating, we set off, shortly reaching McPherson’s Ridge and the railway cut near the McPherson farmhouse, which saw heavy engagement during the first day of fighting. Before the battle, the area was excavated, but no rail tracks had been laid. This made a perfect spot for entrenchment by both sides as the battle lines shifted throughout the day.

What we captured there included the following:

Male voice one: What’s the coffee?

Male voice two: Official dark boots.

The audio file below repeats the sequence four times—twice at normal speed, once slowed, and once slowed with noise filtration.

Wait…. What?

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An unidentified ambrotype of three soldiers with a mucket, tin coffee cup, and hardtack. Collection unknown. Courtesy Heritage Auctions.

At the time we recorded this exchange, I was unaware of the primacy of highly caffeinated coffee in the day-to-day lives of military men trying to get through the next chilly morning, the next hard march along muddy and rutted roads, or the next siphoning up of courage for a battle they might not survive.

“Coffee was often the last comfort troops enjoyed before entering battle, and the first sign of safety for those who survived,” John Grinspan, curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, wrote in a July 2014 New York Times article. Union quartermasters issued each solder 36 lbs. of coffee beans per year, which the men roasted and ground themselves. Some of them used a Sharps coffee grinder carbine to do the latter, wherein the normal cartridge box built into the shoulder stock was replaced by a grinder with a detachable handle.

“Reading their diaries, one can sense the delight (and addiction) as troops gushed about a ‘delicious cup of black,’ or fumed about ‘wishy-washy coffee,'” noted Grinspan. “For much of the war, the massive Union Army of the Potomac made up the second-largest population center in the Confederacy, and each morning this sprawling city became a coffee factory. First, as [one] diarist noted, ‘little campfires, rapidly increasing to hundreds in number, would shoot up along the hills and plains.’ Then the encampment buzzed with the sound of thousands of grinders simultaneously crushing beans.”

To underscore exactly how much coffee meant to the average Union soldier, Grinspan tallied up how often the word coffee appeared in diaries and letters. The total was much higher than for words such as “war,” “mother,” and others that should have weighed on the mind of a soldier.

Confederates, on the other hand, used their ink and paper to complain that their coffee wasn’t worth a hill of Yankee beans (because it wasn’t coffee, but a grain- and vegetable-based, noncaffeinated horror show), and how annoyed they were that the enemy had the consolation of the good stuff.

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“Campaign Sketches: The Coffee Call.” Lithograph by Winslow Homer. Courtesy Library of Congress.

In 1888, Union veteran John D. Billings wrote in his book Hard Tack and Coffee about the lives of Civil War soldiers, “What a Godsend it seemed to us at times! How often after being completely jaded by a night march—and this was an experience common to thousands—have I … made and drunk my pint or so of coffee and felt as fresh and invigorated as if just arisen from a night’s sound sleep!” Other soldiers referred to the dark brew as their “nerve tonic,” and when rations ran short, fumed that “no one can soldier without coffee.”

From the sound of things, they still can’t.

My friend, my niece, and I wonder whether we recorded two Union soldiers in conversation, one referring to the coffee aptly and humorously as “Official Dark Boots” in the same way we name our coffee blends—for example, “Wake the F$%# Up,” “Feels Like Flying,” or “Fog Chaser.” The beans, received from the quartermaster, were indeed official and boiling the grounds in a mucket would result in a black brew that provided them a figurative kick in the pants and give them the will to march. Ω

Is the Past More Than Prologue?

In a cornfield by the old Pry House in Keedysville, Maryland, the walls between September 1862 and today can sometimes grow thin.

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Sean Byrne at Pry House Field Hospital Museum, Keedysville, Maryland, June 2018.

On Tuesday, 16 September, 1862, farmer Phillip Pry, Jr., and his wife Elizabeth, née Cost, found that the Civil War was standing on their doorstep. Since the summer of 1844, the couple had dwelt happily in their imposing home, high on a hill, which Phillip and his brother Samuel had built on their father’s land. The road between Boonsboro and Sharpsburg ran along the foot of the hill, and as Philip and Elizabeth could see from their front porch, it had become an artery for the Confederate war machine. Soldiers in grey, wagons, armaments, ambulances, horses—for a day and night they moved past the Prys’ house in a kaleidoscope of pending misadventure.

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Philip and Elizabeth Cost Pry, circa 1868. Courtesy Pry House Field Hospital Museum.

The next day, the road was crammed with soldiers in blue trundling along with the Union Army’s horses, vehicles, and ordnance. They were headed to attack the Confederacy at Sharpsburg—a bloodbath now known as the Battle of Antietam. Shortly, the Prys’ home would be commandeered as a headquarters and a field hospital by no less than the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer. From that moment, the Prys’ bucolic life on the hill was over.

For safety, Elizabeth Pry and her five children—all under the age of 15—were sent by army ambulance to Keedysville. When at last allowed to return, they found their farm devastated. Despite repeated attempts, the family was never compensated by the government for property damage and looted crops, domesticated animals, and stored supplies that totaled more than $60,000 in today’s money. Financially ruined, the Prys chose to start over again in Johnson County, Tennessee, but they never regained their antebellum prosperity. Before Elizabeth died in 1884, she begged her husband to take her body back to Keedysville to be buried where life was once sweet. He did as she requested. In 1900, he was laid to rest beside her.

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The Pry farm in September 1862. This photo was taken after the battle by Andrew Gardiner. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Surely no one would blame Philip or Elizabeth Pry for haunting the happy home stolen from them. Indeed, reputedly, there was a female ghost seen as she descended the staircase and also one who peered sullenly from an upstairs window when the house caught fire in the 1970s. One or either of these ghosts may be Elizabeth Pry. Lacking access to witnesses or recorded evidence, I must place these stories in the realm of lore. Not so, however, the following. The witness, actor Sean Byrne, was interviewed by me in June 2018 at the Pry farm—now a field hospital museum run by the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

In 2005, when Byrne was 12, his Boy Scout troop engaged in a service project assisting the then-executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine George Wunderlich to restore Pry House. On a warm September day, Wunderlich, the troop’s leader, was in the Prys’ kitchen washing salt pork for the boys’ Civil War-inspired dinner. Byrne says that the Scouts—about ten in number—had time for mischief. “We wanted to go to the cornfield and start chucking corn at each other,” he recalls.

The stalks and corn in the husks were dry, waiting to be harvested for feed. “The corn easily came over our heads. I’m six-foot now, so I was probably like four-foot-something then, maybe,” he says. “I was in the middle of this field—it was probably right about there. I remember grabbing an ear of corn and turning around and there was a gentleman standing there.”

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Byrne points to the site of his encounter in the cornfield, now planted with wheat.

Byrne insists that the man, who stood just a few feet away and whom he could see at full-length, was a Confederate soldier. “He was wearing a grey uniform, buttoned-up jacket; he had a hat with a turned up brim, yellow gloves tucked under his belt.” There was a lantern hooked to his belt, too. The soldier also had a blonde goatee and hair long enough to be seen beneath the brim of his hat.

The expression on the man’s face was matter-of-fact—”stoic,” Byrne describes it. “I saw him, then he put up his hand. He said, ‘Stop. Wait. Be careful,’ then turned and walked away,” states Byrne, “but he kept a very straight line; he didn’t zigzag.”

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A Confederate gray wool frock coat with black facings and gold colored buttons, sky blue trousers, black leather belt with brass “CS” belt plate; leather cartridge box; bayonet scabbard; buff slouch hat. Byrne’s soldier wore grey pants but otherwise may have been garbed quite similarly. Courtesy Smithsonian Museum of American History.

It was then, Byrne remembers, that he consciously grasped the unapparent: “He was only about 50 percent there. I could see the corn through his body. He got no more than four feet before I lost him. He just kind of went into the corn. If [a living person] was walking through the cornfield, you could see them for say eight or ten feet—see portions of his body. But you couldn’t see him that far. He just disappeared.”

Stunned, Byrne let go of the corn. “I got a good gash in my finger, because dried corn is actually very sharp, and I ran back to the house where Mr. Wunderlich was. I told him I needed first aid, but also that there was this man there. And Mr. Wunderlich told me, ‘Wait, wait, let me guess. You saw a man with a lantern?’ I said, ‘Yes! How did you know?'”

Wunderlich knew because it was not the first time he had heard a such a story. Now with the U.S. Army Medical Department Museum at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Wunderlich still remembers Byrne’s encounter in the cornfield. He was willing to speak about it and other similar instances of which he was aware.

For a number of years, he says, an academic conference on banjos was held in the barn on the Pry property to “discuss the importance of banjo music during the Civil War and things of that nature, and we had guys camping there. Doug Harding, a National Park Service employee from St. Louis, told me he got up to use the portajohn, looked out [across the property], and there was a lantern moving by itself through the cornfield.” Together, they went to the spot and determined that the light had followed the path of the old road once traveled by both the Confederacy and Union. “They moved the road away from the house many years later when they built the bypass around Keedysville,” Wunderlich states. Today, Pry House sits at the end of a long drive, perhaps a quarter mile from the modern road.

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The approach to Pry House in May 2018. The cornfield is at left, the barn to the right.

According to Wunderlich, the second encounter concerned “a Boy Scout from another troop who mentioned the same thing—a lantern walking through the corn. I pointed out to him where it had occurred and he asked, ‘How did you know?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s happened before.'”

Several years later, at another iteration of the banjo conference, two men saw the lantern traveling the same route. They told Wunderlich that a human form was visible, but only where the lantern cast its light.

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Amongst paranormal researchers, there are several schools of thought concerning ghosts and hauntings: First, ghosts can be discarnate persons who are completely or partially aware they are dead. They may have chosen to remain in a place or with loved ones they are loath to leave, stay behind because of unfinished business, or possess other motivations we cannot comprehend. The second possibility is that events are captured by wholly natural but unknown mechanisms and—when conditions are right—they replay themselves. In this latter scenario, whether or not there are human observers is irrelevant, and any persons within the replay have no more consciousness than digital images projected on a screen.

If not for the other sightings of the lantern in the cornfield, Byrne’s encounter could have been the intervention of a concerned spirit still tied to the place where he died, as it is all but certain that the Union field hospital at Pry House treated Confederate wounded. By themselves, the sightings of the lantern moving down the old road could be the replications of the past. However, in tandem with Byrne’s encounter, a lifeless replay makes no sense.

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After Byrne encountered the phantom soldier, he ran up the hill from the cornfield (right) to the white door at left. There he found his Scout leader inside the Pry House kitchen. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The Confederate soldier appeared to see Byrne within his presumably 16 September, 1862 surroundings, playing in a roadway that was actively funneling elements of Lee’s army to Sharpsburg. The soldier also recognized it as daytime, for the lantern the others saw ablaze was not lit and was hooked to his belt. Concerned for the boy’s safety, he told Byrne to stop, wait, and be careful, presumably so that the Byrne would not be injured by whatever the soldier saw happening in the 1862 road.

That day, Byrne, who is now in his mid-20s, wore a Boy Scout Class B uniform—green pants and a red troop tee-shirt. Despite what would have a seemed strange attire, the soldier did not look surprised at Byrne’s appearance; he issued his warning, turned, and was gone. Perhaps there was so much activity within the soldier’s view that he did not critically register the weird garb worn by the boy in harm’s way.

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An ambrotype of an unknown Confederate soldier dressed and coiffed similarly to the man seen in the cornfield. Collection unknown.

So, is there another explanation—one that better fits the facts of the case? Could, for example, the time-space membrane between September 1862 and September 2005 have thinned enough to rupture?

In a bowl of hypotheticals, nothing can be proven, but we may speculate that a recipe for a time rupture was fully concocted on 16 September, 1862. First added, on 14 September, was the frantic and terrifying energy produced by the nearby Battle of South Mountain, in which the two armies fought for control of multiple Blue Ridge mountain gaps. Next added was the psychic trauma of 5,000 dead, wounded, and missing, including Alabamian Drayton Pitts, of whom I wrote earlier this year. Third, stirred in on the 16th was the mounting fear of the men of both armies and the region’s citizens, who knew a larger fight than South Mountain was imminent.

The Confederate soldier may have been stationed along the old road to help facilitate movement or to supply intel after barely surviving the Battle of South Mountain two days before. His consternation, determination, exhaustion, suppressed grief over lost comrades—all of these may have been the final ingredients that ruptured time.

The Scouts had been working on the property for two days and had both stirred up and become in simpatico with the energies of the estate, Byrne posits. His brief meeting with the Confederate soldier was “very simple. It wasn’t scary. I wasn’t waiting for something. I wasn’t invoking something. It was nothing blood-curdling—just a man doing his job.”  Today’s visitors to the Pry House may yet see the soldier following his orders during the 24 hours before Antietam. Ω

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This photo taken by Alexander Gardner during the Battle of Antietam shows a Union lookout stationed near the Pry House and undeployed Union reserve artillery in the field beyond. Courtesy Library of Congress.

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Who Was Private Raisin Pitts?

My attention was drawn by the unusual name carved into one tombstone: Raisin Pitts, a Confederate private who died 26 September, 1862, now buried in a Yankee town in a Union state, far from home.

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The grave of Raisin Pitts, Mount Olivet Cemetery, Frederick, Maryland, photographed by the author on Confederate Memorial Day, 28 April, 2016.

Recently, and quite serendipitously, I visited Mount Olivet Cemetery—the preeminent burial grounds of Frederick County, Maryland. Francis Scott Key, who in 1812 wrote the poem that became the National Anthem, reposes there. Also interred at Mount Olivet are prosperous Victorians and Edwardians, Colonial and Federal-era area residents moved from their original gravesites in small family plots and cemeteries around the county, and Civil War soldiers who fought for the Confederacy but breathed their last as Union captives.

It was Confederate Memorial Day, a solemn remembrance of which I was unaware when a friend and I decided to visit the cemetery. We found Mount Olivet’s Confederate graves bedecked with flags. Reenactors laid wreaths after a small, bagpipe-led parade.

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Confederate graves at Mount Olivet. Raisin Pitts is buried in this row.

My attention was drawn by the unusual name carved on one tombstone: Raisin Pitts, a Confederate private who died 26 September, 1862, now buried in a Yankee town in a Union state, far from home. My curiosity propelled by his unusual—and unlikely—name, I decided to search for more about Private Pitts.

I have apparently not been alone in my quest. Several weeks later, during a visit to the Pry House, where some 800 wounded soldiers were treated during and after the bloody Battle of Antietam, I mentioned to staff member Katie Reichard that I was writing about an oddly named soldier buried at Mount Olivet. She immediately asked, “Is it Raisin Pitts?” Several years ago, another historian held a program about Pitts at Pry House, she said. Reichard added that he had reached my same conclusions about one soldier proposed to be Raisin Pitts but had not mooted an alternate identification.

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According to his stone, Raisin Pitts belonged to the 6th Alabama Infantry, 2nd Brigade, under command of Colonel John J. Seibels. It was established in May 1861, containing 1,400 men divided into 12 companies. The recruits were drawn from Autauga, Henry, Jackson, Lowndes, Macon, Montgomery, Russell, and Wilson counties. Company B, headed by Captain J. M. Kennedy, was known as the “Loachapoka Rifles,” as the company was accepted in Confederate service at Loachapoka, Lee County, Alabama, for a one-year term of service.

Shotgun’s Home of the Civil War provides a concise summary of the action the 6th Alabama saw up to the date of Pitts’ death: “Its first service was at Corinth. It was soon ordered to Virginia, and during the winter of 1862, was stationed far in front of the army, at Manassas Junction. Its first serious battle was at Seven Pines, May 31 to June 1, 1862, where the regiment was greatly distinguished, losing 102 officers and men killed and wounded, including Lieut.-Col. James J. Willingham, Maj. S. Perry Nesmith, and Capts. Thomas Bell, Matthew Pox, W. C. Hunt, Augustus S. Flournoy, and John B. McCarty. The Sixth served in nearly all the battles of the Army of Northern Virginia, including Mechanicsville, June 26, 1862; Cold Harbor or Gaines’ Mill, June 27th and 28th: Malvern Hill, July 1st to 5th; Boonsboro, September [14th]; Sharpsburg, September 17th.”

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One of the flags of the 6th Alabama Infantry. This flag was carried in 1863 and captured in 1864 at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History.

Returning to Private Pitts, I wondered whether “Raisin” was a nickname or whether “Raisin Pitts” was an entirely false moniker, provided to his Union captors as he lay wounded? Whilst possible, the latter is unlikely, as there is no evidence of captured soldiers hiding their identities except in extremely select cases. Providing a false name could mean that loved ones would never know the soldier’s fate—something that was understandably important to the majority of them.

What is demonstrably true, however, is that Raisin Pitts was neither of two men previously proposed (and conflated) by other researchers: Erastus J. Pitts and Erastus T. Pitts.

The Erastus J. Pitts who served with the 6th Alabama, Company B, is without doubt Erastus Jesse Pitts, born 10 January, 1836, in Macon, Bibb County, Georgia, to farmer Jesse Pitts (1812-1855) and his wife Martha Bryan (1815-1854).

After his parents’ deaths in the 1850s, Pitts relocated to Alabama and enlisted in the 6th, Company A, on 11 May, 1861, in Abbeville, Jefferson County. Later, he transferred to Company B. His unit participated in the Battle of Antietam at Sharpsburg, Maryland, and in its aftermath, Pitts was only tentatively accounted for.

Extant Confederate records note that during October, November, and December, Pitts was “sick at some unknown hospital since 25 September.” Other records show that on 18 October, he was admitted to hospital at Camp Winder, one of the largest Confederate medical facilities, located in Richmond, Virginia—quite a distance from Sharpsburg. Records show he remained at Winder until 15 December, when he was transferred to a hospital in Danville, Virginia. He remained there until 30 January, 1863, then returned to active duty. The only clue about what led to this four-month hospital stay is the word “debilitas” written by the category “complaint.” The term was used by the era’s medical practitioners to denote overall weakness and feebleness and is more of a descriptive than a diagnosis.

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Summer 1865: Confederates at Point Lookout prison during their final days before release after the war’s end.

After rejoining his unit, Pitts left further documentation of his service: He was paid and reimbursed for clothing on 3 November, 1863, and again one year later, in November 1864. He appeared on a muster roll of September 1864 and on a payroll of 1865. Erastus J. Pitts eventually ended his long Confederate military service interned at Point Lookout on the farthest tip of Southern Maryland. He was taken prisoner at Petersburg, Virginia, and arrived at the peninsular Union prison on 11 April, 1865. Several months later, he swore an oath of loyalty to the renewed United States, was released and returned to Alabama—years after Raisin Pitts was laid to rest in Mount Olivet.

On 21 September, 1867, Pitts married Samantha J. Haughton in Henry County, Alabama, and took up, or returned to, a livelihood of farming. In May 1894, through the U.S. Government’s Homestead Act, Pitts was deeded 160 acres in Houston County, Alabama. The 1900 Census places him, still farming, in Brantins, Geneva County, Alabama. Before the 1910 Census, Pitts had removed to Holmes County, Florida. He died there on 10 January, 1909, and was buried at Sandy Point Cemetery, Ponce de Leon.

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The grave of Erastus J. Pitts with its identifying CSA stone, Ponce de Leon, Florida.

The second individual associated with Raisin Pitts is Erastus T. Pitts, the son of Robert G. Pitts (1822-1850) and Adeline Nell Deshazor (1822-1890). He was born 10 July, 1848, in Shelby County, Alabama. His father died unexpectedly when he and his brother were toddlers, and the extant tangle of estate paperwork indicates his widow Adeline was left in a precarious financial state. She married again soon after, but the social status of the Pitts boys appears to have been permanently impacted. Erastus T. Pitts went on to farm in Shelby County with his first wife Emiline E. White (1840-1872), whom he wed 27 December, 1868. After her early death, he married Louisa Laura Crowson (1851-1925), who bore him eight children. Later in life, he took up carpentry and died intestate in Birmingham on 24 April, 1927. He is buried in Union Baptist Cemetery, Lipscomb, Jefferson County.

Erastus T. Pitts, who was a young teen when the 6th Alabama Infantry formed and who was technically underage during the duration of the war, left behind no record of Confederate military service.

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The tombstone of Erastus T. Pitts in Baptist Union Cemetery, Lipscomb, Alabama.

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Having determined who Raisin Pitts was not, the focus shifts to whom he might be. “Civil War headstones, especially those with errors, reflect the limitations of record-keeping of the era,” the National Park Service points out at the Andersonville (Georgia) Prison Historical Site. Andersonville’s historians freely admit that their database and military tombstones are rife with errors, and it is certain that the Union also made plentiful mistakes in the rolls and on the burial markers of their prisoners. If Raisin Pitts, with his Southern drawl, was asked his name as he lay wounded, in agony, or slipping in and out of consciousness, it may be that the Union questioner merely misheard and misrecorded the proffered response. It is also possible that a later transcription error is to blame. The result of either mistake is carved in stone at Mount Olivet today.

A search through 6th Alabama Infantry service records for soldiers with the last name Pitts led me to this man: Drayton Pitts, who enlisted as a private for a 12-month term in Company J of the 6th Alabama Infantry on 15 May, 1861, at Montgomery, Alabama.

Drayton Pitts was born to Amassa Pitts (1788-1857) and Catherine Pitts (1802-1857, daughter of Caleb Pitts and Frances Cole) in about 1833. According to the 1850 Census, his family worked a farm in with real estate valued at $4,000 in Newberry County, South Carolina. Amassa Pitts had been previously married, so Drayton’s siblings included half-brothers Michael, Giles, and Joseph, as well as full siblings Abner, Permelia, Ira, Hillery, Sandford, Rueben, Rachael, Susan Jane, Pamela, and Frances Ann.

Like Erastus J. Pitts, Drayton Pitts appears to have migrated to Alabama after the death of both his parents. By the day of the 1860 Census, he was in Russell County, Alabama, and was enumerated as “Dratin” Pitts on land farmed by the Law family.

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An ambrotype of an unidentified Confederate soldier from Alabama. Collection unknown.

A letter appeared in the 20 July, 1861 edition of the Opelika, Alabama, newspaper Southern Republic composed 5 July from Sangster’s Crossroads, Virginia, by a soldier of the 6th Alabama, who signed himself “J. M. P.” The soldier wrote, “On Friday morning, June 28th, a scouting party of eleven men from each of our four companies…were detailed under the command of Capt. [Walter H.] Weems to proceed in the direction of a place called Accotinck and find out the strength of the enemy there.” The men afterward continued on toward Union-held Alexandria.

The extended reconnaissance included hunkering down in the woods for a night and being brought a stout breakfast there by local sympathizers, hearing from a “friend” that “a tory named Gilliham had gone into Alexandria…to inform [the Union] of our whereabouts,” and eventually coming within sight of Union armaments at Alexandria while marching quietly “in our stocking feet, with boots and shoes in our haversacks.” The group was eventually spotted and the reconnaissance ended in a skirmish that included hand-to-hand fighting during which J. M. P. saw Captain Weems shoot several Union attackers.

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Southern Republic letter from J. M. B. that mentions Drayton Pitts.

Against the odds, the group made it back to the Confederate camp, where “all had given us up for lost, as General Ewelle had sent the Battalion a dispatch that we had been captured.” Only one of the Confederates had been lost. “His name was Hayes and he was from Richmond, Va. Our boys recovered his body, but could not carry it with them. We [later] learned that the ladies of Alexandria had it interred in a splendid metal casket…. Your humble correspondent was also reported dead, but I knew it was a lie as soon as I read it,” J. M. P. joked.

Among the men with Weems and J. M. P. on this mission was Drayton Pitts. The published detailed letter provides a singular window into his life as a soldier and may explain his eventual promotion to 2nd Lieutenant: He was a man willing to take risks.

During a reorganization at Orange Courthouse in March 1862, Pitts was reassigned to Company F. Afterward, he moved with the 6th Alabama Infantry in the same pattern of battles as did Erastus J. Pitts, surviving Seven Pines, Mechanicsville, Cold Harbor, and Malvern Hill. Then came South Mountain.

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Drayton Pitts survived the brutal Battle of Seven Pines, which occurred in Henrico County, Virginia, on 31 May and 1 June, 1862. The 6th lost 108 men and 283 were wounded out of 632 engaged. The battle was observed from a Union Army balloon by Professor Thaddeus Lowe. Currier & Ives; courtesy Library of Congress.

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South Mountain, part of the Blue Ridge, is a meandering behemoth, rocky and beautiful. The battle that roiled upon and around it on 14 September, 1862, was fought over control of three gaps in the mountain—Crampton’s, Turner’s, and Fox’s—that provided passage east and west. It was a resounding Union victory that set the stage for the Battle of Antietam only a few days later.

Before the battle, Henry Tisdale of the 35th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, penned his feelings, which could have easily been those of Confederate Drayton Pitts: “Prospects of our getting into action before night multiply causing a sort of feverish excitement to come over me. Help me, my heavenly Father, to do my duty in thy fear and for glory for Christ’s sake, Amen.”

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It was once believed that this photograph dated to September 1862 and showed Confederates moving through the city of Frederick in the runup to the battles of South Mountain and Antietam. The Washington Post reported in June 2018, however, that amateur researchers Paul Bolcik and Erik Davis determined it was taken 9 July, 1864, and around the corner from where it was once thought to have been made. The Confederates were actually on their way to the Battle of Monocacy. Courtesy Historical Society of Frederick County.

Tisdale was shot in the leg that day and lost a quantity of blood. Whilst retreating toward the medics, he recalled that “a wounded rebel who was sitting against a tree called me and asked me if I did not have something to eat. Exhibiting a loaf and going to him I opened my knife to cut off a slice when he placed his hands before his face exclaiming ‘Don’t kill me’ and begging me to put up the knife and not to hurt him. Assuring him I had no intention of hurting him I spoke with him a little. Found he had a family in Georgia, that he was badly wounded and was anxious to have me remain with him and help him off. But found I was growing weaker from loss of blood and that the surging to and fro the troops about us made it a dangerous place so limping and crawling was obliged to leave him and move for the rear.”

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Sharpsburg citizens help load wounded soldiers into an ambulance wagon. Courtesy Library of Congress.

That day, the Confederates forces, which numbered approximately 1,800, suffered 325 killed, 1,560 wounded, and 800 missing. One of these casualties was Drayton Pitts. The October returns for Company F reported that Pitts was “Absent. Wounded in battle Sept. 14 ’62 and captured by the enemy.” His company was at that point unaware Pitts was dead. By November, it understood his fate. The return stated that Pitts “died in October of wounds suffered at Boonsboro.”

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After the Battle of South Mountain, whilst their wounded soldiers “still lay sprawled unseen among the craggy terrain, the Confederates began their retreat from the slope,” wrote Kathleen A. Ernst in her seminal work, Too Afraid to Cry: Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign.  Drayton Pitts may have been one of those left behind on the field.

What happened to Union soldier Henry Tisdale after he was shot may mimic some of what wounded Drayton Pitts experienced. Tisdale was first treated in the garden of a nearby home then moved back to one of the many temporary military hospitals quickly assembled in places such as Middletown. Eventually, he would be sent to Frederick. Indeed, the aftermath of 14 to 17 September would see approximately 8,000 wounded from both sides trundled into the overwhelmed city on a steady flow of horse-drawn Union ambulances.

Lavinia Hooper, a girl of nine when the casualties began arriving in her town, later wrote, “I can recall standing on Market Street, which was a dirt road then, and how we used to watch the wagons bringing the wounded into Frederick for us to look after. There was so much blood dripping out the backs of the wagons and falling on the dirt road, that eventually the mud became red as the wagon wheels plowed through the streets.”

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Drayton Pitts was likely moved to Frederick, along what is the modern Route 40A, in a Union ambulance. This replica is at the Pry House Museum, Keedysville, Maryland.

At first, Union doctors must have thought Drayton Pitts could survive. It seems unlikely that under the new triage system developed by Union Medical Director Dr. Jonathan Letterman, Pitts would have been sent on the long, bumpy ride—perhaps first into Middletown and later Frederick—taking the place of a soldier with better chances. Once arrived, Pitts would have been admitted to a building commandeered as a hospital—possibly the Birely Tannery—and treated as competently as possible in the midst of the madness that only escalated as the days passed.

If the tombstone in Mount Olivet is at all correct, Pitts failed to improve, then began a steady decline that ended on 26 September. He may have succumbed to infection, gangrene, dehydration from diarrhea, or perhaps his wounds were never survivable. Whatever caused Drayton Pitts to pass from life, my hope is that he went quietly, with a kindhearted stranger by his side.

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Drayton Pitts may have died in a temporary hospital in Frederick such as that created within the Evangelical Lutheran Church, where a false floor was built atop the pews in an attempt to prevent damage. Both Union and Confederate wounded were treated and convalesced there.

Drayton Pitts’ family may not have known of his death for some months, but his siblings were definitely aware by July 1863, when a sale of their late brother’s personal property raised $399.25 in Confederate money. (The goods included a grey mare, a black-headed cow, a red cow, a red heifer, a white heifer, and a feather bed and coverings. Drayton’s younger brother and executor Rueben Pitts bought the bed for $32.) In early November, the dead man was commemorated by his elder brother Abner, whose wife Mary Goodwin Pitts gave birth to a son they named Drayton Abner (1863-1943).

For reasons unclear, settling Drayton Pitts’ estate took years. Finally, on 21 December, 1869, Rueben filed documents with the probate court attesting that all surviving family members received their share and that those to whom his late brother owed money were paid. This is the final mirror glimpse of Drayton’s short life.

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I believe that the evidence supports a conclusion that Raisin Pitts, who has lain in Mount Olivet for more than 150 years, was Second Lieutenant Drayton Pitts of Company F, 6th Alabama Infantry. But whether or not my conclusion stands the test of further research, it is clear that whoever the brave Alabamian was, his true identity deserves to be established and memorialized beneath a new headstone. Ω

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South Mountain, Frederick County, Maryland, not far from my home.

 

Remembering the Christmas Truce of 1914

During World War I, soldiers on both sides ceased dealing death for one joyous Christmas Day.

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Camaraderie outside the trenches, Christmas Day 1914. A beautifully colorized version of this photo can be found here.

It came and then was gone, but for a while death held no dominion on the battlefields of France. Soldiers on both sides were entrenched, following killing orders from generals and cousin kings. “You no shoot, we no shoot,” the signs Germans troops held up supposedly read. So, the British did not shoot. Instead, they all met in the middle—a muddy No Man’s Land. They decorated tiny Yule trees and exchanged cigarettes, cigars, tinned foods, and even helmets. They buried their dead; they sang carols and played football, too.

According to historian Gerard DeGroot, a professor at the Unversity of St. Andrews, “The truce was, first and foremost, an act of rebellion against authority. In the trenches, though peace on earth seemed a ridiculous fantasy, impromptu ceasefires had been occurring as early as December 18. The British High Command, alarmed that the holiday might inspire goodwill, issued a stern order against fraternisation. Officers were warned that yuletide benevolence might ‘destroy the offensive spirit in all ranks’. Christmas, in other words, was to be a killing time.

“The Germans, however, were stubbornly festive. In an effort to bolster morale, truckloads of Christmas trees were sent to the Kaiser’s forces. All along the line, Germans were acting in bizarrely peaceful fashion. Guns fell silent. Candles and lanterns taunted British snipers. Late on Christmas Eve, Germans singing ‘Stille Nacht’ [‘Silent Night’] echoed across no man’s land. The British, initially perplexed, soon joined in.”

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Among barbed wire strands oddly reminiscent of Christmas lights, peace prevailed for these British and German soldiers on 25 December, 1914.

In a letter home, Frederick James Davies, a private in the 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers, wrote of 25 December, “We had a good chat with the Germans on Xmas Day. They were only fifty yards away from us in the trenches. They came out and we went to meet them. We shook hands with them. We gave them cigs, jam, and corn beef. They also gave us cigars but they didn’t have much food. I think they are hard up for it. They were fed up with the war.”

Captain Bruce Bairnsfather recalled, “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything…. I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons…. I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange…. The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”

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“Reports of a Christmas Truce have returned from the front. Both sides temporarily forgot about their mutual enmity and met in No Man’s Land where they chatted and played football,” noted the Illustrated London News.

Henry Williamson, 5th Battalion, The London Rifle Brigade, City of London Regiment, Territorial Forces, wrote to his mother on 26 December, “It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes, a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?…. Our men are speaking to them now. They are landsturmers or landwehr, I think, & Saxons & Bavarians (no Prussians). Many are gentle looking men in goatee beards & spectacles, and some are very big and arrogant looking. I have some cigarettes which I shall keep, & a cigar I have smoked.”

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British officers from Northumberland Hussars and German counterparts in the Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector of the Western Front during the Christmas Truce.

Another member of Williamson’s unit, Rifleman Graham Williams, recollected, “Then suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet, which were evidently make-shift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles, which burnt steadily in the frosty air! First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful,’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words ‘Adeste Fideles.’ And I thought, well, this is a most extraordinary thing—two nations singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”

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This early January 1915 edition of the Daily Mirror featured English and German soldiers together during the Christmas Truce.

Wrote a German soldier, Josef Wenzl, “What I had still believed to be madness several hours ago I could see now with my own eyes. One Englishman, who was joined soon by another, came towards us until he was more than halfway towards our trenches—by which point some of our people had already approached them. And so Bavarians and English, until then the greatest of enemies, shook hands, talked and exchanged items. A single star stood still in the sky directly above them, and was interpreted by many as a special sign. More and more joined, and the entire line greeted each other.”

And then there was the footie—a match between the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment against Scottish troops. The 133rd’s War History, says that someone produced a ball, and that this “developed into a regulation football match with caps casually laid out as goals. The frozen ground was no great matter. Then we organized each side into teams, lining up in motley rows, the football in the center. The game ended 3-2 for Fritz.”

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By 1917, the story had become legend, described thusly, “Under the muzzle of their guns, wreathed in holly and mistletoe in honour of the Christmas festival, four Greathearts of the heavy artillery lift their voices, and their carols rise toward the stars that are shining on battlefields abroad and on peaceful fields at home.”

Why do we remember this blessed peaceful night? It was a beacon of light in a useless apocalypse that killed 18 million people and wounded 23 million more. British soldier Alfred Anderson recalled at the end of his life, “It was then we discovered that those on the ‘other’ side were not the savage barbarians we’d been told. They were like us. Why were we led to believe otherwise?” Ω