When an Apple Falls Far From the Tree: Part One

The night was hot and sultry, but with a luminous Moon. George Bittle closed up shop but did not go to bed. As he had done on recent occasions, Bittle sat on his front porch, armed with a breech-loading gun, to watch over his store.

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George Waters Bittle General Store, Myersville, Maryland, circa 1905.

On 12 July, 1946, the Hagerstown (Maryland) Daily Mail printed the obituary of local notable George Waters Bittle, who died on 10 July in Frederick City Hospital, aged 79. Bittle was a long-standing board member of the Myersville Savings Bank and had operated a general merchandise store on Main Street for more than half a century. In hindsight, the newly deceased Bittle had likely enjoyed an extra 42 years of life. Against the odds, Bittle survived three bullets fired into him during an attempted burglary of his business in August 1904.

Bittle’s near murder was the byproduct of a series of break-ins in Myersville. Frankly, the town had a crime problem. The young man most likely responsible for these thieveries was the child of another notable citizen—a Civil War hero who’d won the Congressional Medal of Honor for exceptional battlefield bravery—Captain Joseph Koogle.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 fraternization. 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 a 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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