We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France

Touring Brandy Station on the 150th

Yesterday, I was able to walk parts of the Brandy Station battlefield with Clark “Bud” Hall, Eric Wittenburg, Craig Swain and 150 of my closest friends. The Loudon County Civil Roundtable arranged the tour.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there is no better way to understand a battle than to walk the ground. Sam Elliot, who played John Buford in “The Movie” (as we called it in the Gettysburg Discussion Group) understood this and knew walking the ground would help him get into character. When we stood on Buford’s Knoll with Bud Hall, he related the story of guiding Sam Elliot on the battlefield. Elliot asked where Buford stood during the battle and so, Bud pointed around them and said that Buford had been on the knoll. Sam wanted something more specific, so, Bud tells us, he picked a spot and Sam went and stood there. For a few minutes, they stood in silence, Sam examined the ground and getting into character as Buford. It was as though he was commanding the battle silently, watching his orders unfold. I need to re-watch Gettysburg to see Sam Elliot talking about the ground and the troops marching. I think he truly felt it, for Bud says he turned to him after standing on that spot and said, simply, “Hot damn.”

The folks from Civil War Trust were there, and, often during the day, we talked about their ongoing efforts for battlefield preservation.

Sadly, I had to head back to Washington early and missed being on Fleetwood Hill and an evening of conversation with my friends and fellow historians. It was a good day, but too short due to my prior commitments.


Airborne Cavalryman in Normandy

I really enjoyed the scene in Band of Brothers when a paratrooper rides up to Easy Company on a white horse. If memory serves, the soldier’s name is Farnsworth, linking in my mind with Brigadier General Elon J. Farnsworth who died at Gettysburg. Turns out that they may have been channeling Mario Patruno of F Company, 3/506th. Patruno visited the Military Museum of North Florida in February to pose with his own mounted likeness. There’s another, more extensive article on Patruno that was published in 2011 in the Mayport Mirror, which starts, “Army Pfc. Mario Patruno was 23, tough and fit. He’d fought in the ring as a youth boxer, and in the streets of Holyoke, Mass., with a brawling gang called the Bond Street Rovers.” Those paratroopers are an interesting bunch!

Of note, one of the other attendees was “C.C. Sprinkle, 91, who was the co-pilot of a B-26 Marauder during World War II and took part in Operation Dragoon, the invasion of South France in August 1944.” Hopefully, we’ll be able to get C.C. up to Washington for the Operation Dragoon Commemoration and Seminar in August.

Midshipmen in Gettysburg
25 April 2012, 23:08
Filed under: Gettysburg, Marines, Navy, Understanding Battles | Tags:

Spot on. Great to see midshipmen actually on battlefields….

Is nothing sacred?
28 October 2011, 19:33
Filed under: Bizory monument, Gettysburg | Tags: , ,

The Royal British Legion had put up a bronze statue of a soldier in memory of all those from Tidworth who had fought and died in World War II. Unfortunately, with metal prices soaring, two men spent 40 minutes removing the statue one night, putting it in their car, likely to sell off as scrap metal.

I’ve written about Mark Patterson’s vandalism of the Bizory monument before. There is some good news there: when I asked another visitor to check for the vandalism, they couldn’t find it, so it may either have been repaired or been worn down to unnoticeable levels after 18 months. Mark’s was at least trying to make a point with what he had done. This act makes that seem miniscule, but the problem is that when even those dedicated to preserving the memory of WWII feel free to disrespect the monuments, how can we expect the average person to hold them sacred?

I worry for Gettysburg, where there are so many monuments and a history of damage and theft.

Hat tip to Paul Woodadge for posting about it on Facebook.

Understanding Battles: Multiple Sources
13 March 2011, 16:49
Filed under: Gettysburg, Tours, Understanding Battles

I remember when I was a teenager, going to the library and they would have various activities to keep kids busy. One time, we were sitting, listening to someone give a talk when suddenly someone burst into the room, ran to the front, shot a squirt gun at the speaker and ran out. Then, they had us recount what we thought happened. Of course, everyone saw something slightly different, remembering different details, or even inventing new ones. As more people contributed, people’s stories also changed somewhat, to meet the group consensus. It was a great lesson in understanding perspectives.

History is no different than that crime scene witness exercise. Every witness has a different story and it’s by reviewing all of the perspectives that you have an opportunity to understand what really happened.

When I was last in Normandy, I was thinking about this. Touring with Allan, Dale and Paul, especially when visiting the German cemetery at La Cambe, you definitely realize that the common perspective we have doesn’t usually include anything about the German soldier’s experience.

I had never realized that when studying the American Civil War just how blessed we are to be able to see many perspectives. When you stand on Little Round Top near General Warren’s statue, you can look out and see where the Confederates were spotted advancing toward the high ground. If you’re lucky, Tom Desjardin, who wrote Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign will be around to tell a humorous story that varies marketly from Warren’s account of seeing the sun glint off Confederate bayonets. Reading the accounts of a variety of officers and men who were present, you can weigh what each man wrote, evaluating the accounts based on where the author was at the time, what information he’d have been privy to at the time, when the account was writing, what motives the author had (like Warren wanting to make himself look brilliant instead of stubborn and foolish) and a variety of other factors. Oh, and that’s just the primary sources….

If you read Eric Wittenburg’s or David Powell’s blogs, you get to see a lot of evaluations of sources. Recently, Eric wrote about the four cannons firing at Brinkerhoff’s Ridge at the start of Stuart’s visit to the East Cavalry Field that provides a good example of this kind of evaluation. Dave performs a similar task at Chickamauga in this post.

In much of my reading and touring of the Normandy battlefields, while we sometimes are able to discuss a variety of Allied accounts of the action, the Germans often have no voice. So, I picked up a few new books written from the German perspective. When I’m back in Normandy in the fall, I might see if any of our three intrepid guides has been able to put together a “German Highlights Tour” or maybe I’ll ask if they have a day where we could get together and discuss that, to add it to their separate repertoires.

Understanding Battles: Walking the ground
12 February 2011, 13:10
Filed under: Gettysburg, Normandy, Tours, Understanding Battles

The other day, I was driving out to Camp Highroad for a Boy Scout event and I smiled, because my drive was taking me through the Aldie battlefield. The Battle of Aldie was a rather smallish affair, with just two cavalry brigades involved (2000 Union and 1500 Confederate soldiers). Having been to the battlefield a few times now, it makes more sense how the charges up the Snickersville Turnpike could both be so deadly and be repeated. The twists and turns of the road, the tightness of the walls and the suddenness of the elevation changes all generated confusion and created opportunities for ambushes.

When one reads about battles without visiting them, it is very easy to misunderstand what happened and why. Many times, I’ve been out on a battlefield and looked around, feeling the light bulb inside my head flick on as the movements suddenly made sense. Until I walked the ground and saw what they saw, the actions of the various commanders and soldiers didn’t always make sense. Often, it’s about what can be seen and not seen. Sometimes, it explains why an advance was either easy or difficult.

A fine example is on the first day’s battlefield at Gettysburg. I’d been on the battlefield dozens of times from the early 1990s until 2007, when I organized a training hike for my Philmont crew. I’d never walked the Confederate approach from Chambersburg to GeneralBuford’s lines on McPherson Ridge. I’d driven it dozens of times, but since my Scouts needed some training on ground that was a little “bumpy”, we hiked from the first shot marker eastward. As we cleared Willoughby Run and began hiking up the slight incline, with light packs on our backs, I realized that the slight incline felt a whole lot steeper than “slight”. I’d only looked at it from the top of the ridge (from Union lines) and it never seemed that steep. However, carrying gear and walking up it while imagining musket and cannon fire cleared up a great deal about how Buford’s troops were able to hold the Confederates off that morning.

Similarly, when I was on Omaha Beach in Normandy, it was an eye-opener. Standing on that wide beach, with a perfect curve to it, I realized what a killing field that they landed on. Going to the extreme right of the German line, up on the heights at the east end of the beach, you can visit (if you get the right guides, like Paul, Dale and Allan) WN60 – the German resistance net up on those heights. When you look down across that vast expanse, it’s a wonder the invasion didn’t fail right there.

There is no substitute for walking the ground. Looking at maps or even sampling Google Earth’s views might give you some ideas, but nothing like the stunning effect of standing where the men who fought did. As General Buford said in the movie, it was lovely ground.

Boys and Men, Explained
22 November 2010, 19:00
Filed under: Gettysburg | Tags:

Eric Wittenburg, is not only a great writer, but also a man who clearly recognizes good writing when he sees it. He posted some battlefield reflections from his friend, Dave Lingenfelter, which are definitely worth reading.

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