March, 2008

31 Mar 2008, by


Friday also included my final visit to the decrepit old visitor’s center at Gettysburg. We made a brief stop there, and I took advantage of it to get one last look around the old dump. The place is long past its prime, crowded, dark, dingy, and obsolete. But I’ve spent a lot of time in that building, and it carries some good memories. The place may be a dump, but I will miss it.

The old VC never should have been built where it was, and it will be nice to see that portion of the battlefield restored to its 1863 appearance. The new one looks really nice–it’s quite large, and it looks like it’s going to be a state of the art facility. Time will tell.

But it won’t be the old dump.

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I thought I would provide an after-action report of the weekend’s adventures. I drove to Chambersburg on Wednesday, as the program began early on Thursday morning. I got there in time to have dinner with Al Ovies to celebrate my birthday. We made the mistake of going to a TGI Fridays for a bad meal, but it was good getting caught up with Al. Al’s a chef in Miami, and his hours at work don’t permit him to come out to play very often.

Thursday morning, Ted Alexander and I had a busload of about 26 people covering George Armstrong Custer during the retreat from Gettysburg. We covered Monterey Pass, Smithsburg, Hagerstown (the July 6 fight), Hagerstown (the July 12 fight), the fight at the Donnelly house on the Falling Waters Road, and finished up at the Cushwa Basin on the C & O Canal in Williamsport. I’d never seen the site where the July 12 fight took place, so that was interesting and fun. And then we had lots of fun by the Donnelly house. We had several folks with us who live on the Falling Waters Road, and one said, “Go ahead and pull in here. They’re my cousins. They won’t mind.” Wrong. The woman blew a gasket. It took lots of sweet talking to get her calmed down. So much for that.

That night, Al and I went to dinner, and then I had to do a talk on Custer in the Valley in 1864. I woke up with almost no voice on Thursday, so it was a struggle. I dragged poor Al up and made him do part of the talk, just to conserve my voice.

Leading toursOn Friday, I spent the day leading tours with Ed Bearss. Our first stop was near Frederick, where Farnsworth and Custer first took command of their brigades. From there, it was on to Littlestown, Hanover, Hunterstown, and the afternoon was spent on East Cavalry Field. I was perfectly content to led Ed do most of the talking, as my voice was still very craggy, and I was in charge the next day. That night, Ed did a good talk on the Little Big Horn fight, and then we had a presentation by Steve Alexander, who does a first person portrayal of George Armstrong Custer.

Leading toursSaturday was a LONG day. We left the hotel at 7:00 AM. It’s a bit more than three hours from Chambersburg to Trevilian Station. Ed and I decided that we had time to give the crowd a bonus battlefield, so we stopped and covered the October 9, 1864 Battle of Tom’s Brook. Most of the crowd–about 46–had never been to Tom’s Brook previously, and they really seemed to enjoy it. The Custer sector of the battlefield is nearly pristine, and I always like to show folks that beautiful field.

Ed on the JohnWe went on to Trevilian Station, and we had a tour that took a bit more than 5 hours. The highlight of the tour was when Ed discovered the working outhouse at the reproduction of the Netherland Tavern. The photo says all that needs to be said. We finished the tour, had dinner at a nice little Italian place in Louisa, and then headed on back to the hotel. We got back at 10:30, 15.5 hours after leaving.

Sunday morning featured lectures by Greg Urwin and Jeff Wert, and a couple of panel discussions. I then headed for home. It was a great weekend, but it was exhausting, and I’m still beat today. But it was fun.

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30 Mar 2008, by

Home Again

I’m home after a long and exhausting weekend. I will post details about it tomorrow evening, after I’ve had a chance to rest a bit.

As to anyone who was disappointed by my having to back out of the program at Liberty University, I want to apologize. Unfortunately, the decision to back out of the program was the result of an irreconcilable scheduling conflict. Over a year ago, I agreed to do a program on Custer in the Civil War for Ted Alexander’s Chambersburg Civil War Seminars series. I told Ted sure, and knew that he was planning on doing the program this year, but didn’t know when. Then came the invitation to speak at Liberty, which I accepted. And then, after I accepted the invitation from Liberty, I learned that Ted’s Custer program was to be the same weekend. I tried hard to find some way to do both programs, but it couldn’t be done.

Because I’ve done Ted’s programs for years, because it was the engagement accepted first, and because I didn’t feel that I could pass up the opportunity to lead tours with Ed Bearss, I elected to keep my commitment to Ted and to back out of the Liberty program. I deeply regretted doing so, but it could not be helped. I’ve since had a discussion with Ted about being quite certain that I am provided with the dates of programs as soon as they are selected, so as to avoid a problem like this from arising again.

So, to anyone who was disappointed by my not being there, I apologize and hope that I may be forgiven. Ethan Rafuse, I was especially looking forward to meeting you, since I’m the reason why you were invited to be part of the Liberty program. We will find another opportunity, and I hope that the program went well.

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I am at an event in Chambersburg, PA. More tomorrow.

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25 Mar 2008, by

Perryville Update

My good friend Mike Nugent passed this along:


The Perryville City Council still has to vote on this development. You can voice your opposition by calling city hall at 859-332-8361. They’re keeping a log of all calls. The City Council will vote on this Issue on April 3. Call today and urge your like minded friends to call too!

If you care about battlefield preservation, pick up that phone and make the call.

Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Mike.

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25 Mar 2008, by

The Magic Tour

For those of you who read this blog only for the Civil War content, you will probably want to skip this post, as it has absolutely nothing to do with the Civil War.

I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs in the 1970’s, so I guess it was inevitable that I would become a fan of Bruce Springsteen and his legendary E Street Band. Perhaps it was the poetry of his lyrics. “I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car,” he proclaimed in his anthem of youth, “Growing Up”. As a teenager, that particular line REALLY resonated with me.

Perhaps it was the gritty character studies that he painted:

The screen door slams
Mary’s dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again
I just can’t face myself alone again
Don’t run back inside
darling you know just what I’m here for
So you’re scared and you’re thinking
That maybe we ain’t that young anymore
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night
You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright
Oh and that’s alright with me

, as he sang in 1975’s “Thunder Road”. Perhaps it was his political rantings. Maybe it was the raucous and unique Jersey sound, featuring Clarence Clemens and his honking saxophone and Roy Bittan’s bombastic piano riffs. I don’t know what it was, but there was just something about this blue collar Italian guy from New Jersey that resonated with me–the middle class Jewish kid from the suburbs–the first time I ever heard “Born to Run” in 1975. Philadelphia, being the blue collar town that it is, proudly embraced Bruce as one of its own.

I saw my first Springsteen concert in 1978, and if there was any doubt before that, that show took care of that. I was hooked forever. Back in those days, his shows were 4 1/2 hour marathons of sheer frenetic energy and the pure, unbridled joy of rock and roll. It was easy to understand why Jon Landau said of him, “I saw the future of rock and roll and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.” Clarence and his magical sax, Bruce and his Fender Stratocaster, Steve Van Zandt and his mandolin, and if there’s a better drummer anywhere in the world than the Mighty Max Weinberg, I don’t know who that is.

Bruce eventually permitted his politics to come into play, and by 1984, he was a passionate advocate for liberal causes. In December 1980, my sophomore year in college, he hit the road after releasing my favorite of his albums, The River. I saw him on December 8, 1980, in another of those four-plus hour marathons, with his joyous version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” as one of the highlights of the show. When we got to the car to drive back to school, we learned that John Lennon had been shot and killed that night, and the joy drained out of us.

After that came Nebraska, a stark, dark, depressing solo album that sood in contrast to the honking joyousness of Born to Run. In 1984 came Born in the USA. Bruce hit the road for a world tour that spanned the globe twice. I saw him twice on that tour, about six weeks apart. In 1988, I saw the band in Cleveland on the Tunnel of Love tour, and that was it for the E Street Band for ten long years. When the band reunited in 1999, we saw them in Cleveland, and we saw them again when they toured in support of The Rising.

Last night, I attended my ninth concert by Bruce and the E Street Band. Gone are the marathons that featured long, rambling stories by Bruce. Gone are the long political rants–there was only one last night, and it was short, introducing “Living in the Future”, one of my favorite songs from Magic. The flickering Bic lighters have been replaced by the eerie glow of thousands of cell phones. The show was 2.5 tight, compact hours featuring 25 taut songs by a band that has never sounded better. The band came out and ripped right into “The Ties that Bind” from The River and didn’t stop rocking. Bruce is nearly 60 now, but he looks and sounds great. Clarence Clemens is frail and unhealthy. There’s a chair on stage for him and he needed help leaving the stage. The rest of the band is still as amazing as ever, although organist Dan Federici is not touring due to being treated for cancer.

The virtuosity of Nils Lofgren’s guitar skills never ceases to amaze me, and they were on full display last night. Nils is a great player in his own right, and he has been a front man with his own band. It amazes me that he’s been willing to be a secondary player all these years. Susan says she believes it’s a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, and I think she’s right.

The choices of songs were fascinating. He eschewed his greatest commercial hits–“Hungry Heart” from The River, “Dancing in the Dark” from Born in the USA (the song that first introduced us to Courteney Cox), and, of course, the anthemic “Born in the USA”. I guess he’s sick of those songs. Instead, he played “Incident on 57th Street” and “Rosalita” from The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, his second album. “Rosalita” was my fraternity’s theme song, so it’s always had a special meaning for me, and it was a joyous, raucous version that had 20,000 on their feet dancing and singing along. They did “Reason to Believe” from Nebraska, a stark and dark song when done solo, but presented last night as a gospel hymn in an interpretation that I had never heard before. He did “Because the Night”, a song he’s never recorded and which he wrote for Patti Smith. He did only one song from Born in the USA, “Glory Days”, which was an encore. To my surprise, they did “She’s the One” from Born to Run and “Adam Raised a Cain” from Darkness on the Edge of Town. He did several from The River, including “Sherry Darling” (which still makes me laugh every time I hear it, all these years later), and he did two from The Rising. Two of the very best from Darkness on the Edge of Town–“Promised Land” and “Badlands”–had the crowd on its feet and singing along.

Notably absent was the great anthem, “Jungleland”, from Born to Run, which spotlights Clarence’s most famous sax solo. The truth is that Clarence just doesn’t look up to it any more, which is sad. Instead, a new song was debuted. It’s called “American Land” and comes from his time working with The Seeger Sessions band. It’s a gleeful Irish jig, featuring Suzie Tyrell’s violin and spirited accordion playing by Roy Bittan and Charles Giordano, who is filling in for Dan Federici on this tour. It was great fun and a fitting conclusion to a night of temporarily recapturing my fleeting youth. I will be 47 years old tomorrow, and it was a joy to celebrate my birthday with the music that has meant so much to my life.

Once again, I come away convinced of the healing power and sheer joy of rock and roll. My life is more complete for it.

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I’m pleased to introduce a guest blogger for a forgotten cavalrymen profile. My friend Tonia J. “Teej” Smith has spent years researching the saga of the hanging of Col. Orton Williams and his cousin, Walter “Gip” Peter as spies at Fort Granger, near Franklin, Tennessee. Williams was a cousin of Mrs. Robert E. Lee, and the hanging hit the Lee family hard. Here’s Teej’s profile of forgotten cavalryman Orton Williams.

Col. William Orton Williams, P.A.C.S.

Orton Williams was born in Buffalo, New York on July 7, 1839, the son of Captain George W. Williams of the Topographical Engineers and America Peter Williams, a Georgetown socialite. Through his mother, he was a direct descendant of Martha Washington and a cousin of Mary (Mrs. Robert E.) Lee.

By the age of seven, Orton had lost both of his parents. His father was killed at the battle of Monterey in Mexico and his mother died April 25, 1842.* Mary Lee’s father, George Washington Parke Custis, became the boy’s guardian so he grew up both at Arlington and at Tudor Place, his family home in Georgetown.

Like his boyhood idol, Robert E. Lee, Orton attended the prestigious Episcopal High School in Alexandria Virginia. He hoped then to follow in his father’s footsteps and attend West Point but was prevented from doing so by a rule which prohibited brothers from attending the Academy. His brother Laurence had graduated from there in 1852. His sister Markie, however, mounted a campaign on his behalf which included shamelessly reminding everyone involved that their father had died a hero’s death. With this, she managed to secure him the coveted appointment, though curiously, he never accepted it, instead taking a job, with the Coast Survey Service in 1858.

In 1860, R.E. Lee sought a direct commission for his young protégé. On March 23, 1861, Williams was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in Lee’s own regiment, the Second Cavalry, and was assigned to Gen. Winfield Scott’s staff. Scott took an immediate liking to the young man. Within a month Orton was promoted to 1st lieutenant and became Scott’s private secretary.

His duties allowed him to spend considerable time at Arlington, much of which may be explained by his romance with Agnes Lee. Indeed, most people expected the two to marry. When Colonel Lee resigned from the army and “went South,” however, General Scott insisted that Williams cease his visits to the Lee home. Despite Scott’s order, Orton went to Arlington on May 4 to warn Mary of the impending seizure of the heights around Arlington. Upon his return to Washington, he made known his intent to resign and offer his sword to the Confederacy. Scott immediately had him arrested and incarcerated at Governor’s Island, New York. He was released several weeks later when it was deemed that any information he might have was no longer of value to the Confederates.

On June 10, 1861, Lieutenant Williams again tendered his resignation. This time it was accepted. He served briefly on Lee’s staff but when rumors began to circulate that Lee had placed him in Scott’s office to spy, Orton transferred to the staff of Gen. Leonidas Polk at Columbus, Kentucky. It would not be the last time that the word “spy” was coupled with his name.

Shortly after his arrival, he wrote to his cousin Walter “Gip” Peter and asked him to seek a transfer west. Gip was serving as one of Lige White’s scouts in the Leesburg, Virginia area. Ignoring his sister’s warning that Orton was dangerous, Gip asked for and got the transfer. It is possible that Williams wanted his cousin and friend with him because he was not well liked by his fellow officers, most of whom saw him as arrogant and condescending. Williams added to his poor reputation when he killed an enlisted man for refusing an order. His defense for what can only be called murder was “For his ignorance, I pitied him; for his insolence, I forgave him; for his insubordination, I slew him.” There is no evidence that any formal charges were ever brought against him. Nevertheless, Orton Williams became a pariah among officers and men alike. Shortly after the incident, he legally changed his name to Lawrence Williams Orton and was transferred to Gen. Braxton Bragg’s staff.

Following the battle of Shiloh in which Williams received written praise from Bragg and an engraved sabre from P.G.T. Beauregard, he was promoted to colonel and given command of Second Brigade of Maj. Gen. W.T. Martin’s Division of Cavalry. Gip became his adjutant. His cousin’s letters home that final spring indicated that Orton was doing well and anticipating a promotion to brigadier general. Two letters, one written by Robert E. Lee to Orton on April 7, and the other a few days later by JEB Stuart to an unnamed colonel who clearly was Orton, seem to verify that Williams was not only going to be promoted but was coming back to Virginia to serve under Stuart.

Orton’s change of fortune makes what happened next very puzzling. Shortly before sundown on June 8, 1863, Orton and Gip, dressed as Union officers, rode into Fort Granger, near Franklin, Tennessee and presented papers to the fort’s commander, Col. J.P Baird, which introduced them as Col. Lawrence W. Auton and his aide, Maj. Walter Dunlop, sent from Washington to inspect all the forts in the area. Baird’s subordinates were suspicious of the strangers but he accepted their story at face value, giving them the password that would insure their safe passage to Nashville and even loaning them $50.

Eventually, Baird contacted Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans at his headquarters in Murfreesboro about the pair. By the time he received word that they were imposters, they had already left the fort. He quickly dispatched Col. Louis B. Watkins, 6th Kentucky Cavalry, to bring them back. Under intense questioning, they admitted they were Confederate officers but denied that they were spies.

Upon instructions from Rosecrans’ chief of staff, Brig. Gen. James A. Garfield, Baird called a drumhead court martial. Within thirty minutes the men were found guilty and sentenced to hang the following morning. To the end, they continued to deny they were spies. In a cryptic letter to Agnes Lee, Williams spoke of marrying her in Europe within a month had not “the fate of war decided against us. I have been condemned as a spy—you know that I am not.”

Both men met death with such bravery that the entire garrison was impressed with their courage. Baird publicly expressed the view that whatever mission the men were on, it did not involve Fort Granger. All else remained a mystery to him as it does to historians to this day. A year later their families were allowed to bring their bodies back to Georgetown for burial in the family plot in Oak Hill Cemetery.

* Author has been unable to discover the cause of Orton’s mother’s death but I strongly suspect it was due to complications following childbirth.

Thanks, Teej. There’s much more to the saga, of course, and much more to the Williams family story, but I will leave it to Teej to tell that story.

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There is apparently a very significant threat to the very pristine battlefield at Perryville:

Development eyed near Kentucky’s biggest Civil War battlefield

Associated Press Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. –Homes and businesses may someday fill the landscape on a stretch of pristine property once within earshot of cannonfire from Kentucky’s bloodiest Civil War battle.

Landowner Pete Coyle envisions turning the approximately 34-acre tract on the edge of Perryville into a housing subdivision along with an assisted living center and limited commercial development.

A national Civil War preservation group is so worried by the proposed development that it placed the Perryville battlefield site on a list of the nation’s 10 most endangered Civil War battlefields.

The designation this week comes amid a rezoning proposal that would clear the way for the development.

The proposal won approval recently from a sharply divided Danville-Boyle County Planning and Zoning Commission but still must win backing from the Perryville City Council. Perryville Mayor Anne Sleet said Friday that she hasn’t made up her mind on the plan.

The development in the central Kentucky town about 85 miles southeast of Louisville would be visible from hilltops about a mile away at the battlefield, where more than 7,500 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded or missing after five hours of fighting in October 1862. A Confederate withdrawal after the battle secured Kentucky for the Union.

The Perryville battlefield – which includes nearly 670 acres that have been preserved – has long been considered a historic gem because of little or no modern encroachments. The battlefield draws about 100,000 visitors yearly and has been the site of two national Civil War re-enactments this decade.

“When you’re here, you’re in 1862,” said Chris Kolakowski, executive director of the Perryville Enhancement Project, a preservationist group. “I could take any veteran of the Battle of Perryville … out to the ground that they fought on, and they would be able to recognize where they were.”

The property wasn’t the site of fighting but was a key transportation route as troops marched toward battle and some came back bloodied and wounded to be seen at makeshift hospitals, he said.

Kolakowski said he’d prefer that the property remain undeveloped, but there’s a bigger concern – an adjoining 52-acre rural tract closer to the battlefield.

That property is also owned by Coyle, who has had talks with the state about a possible conservation easement to protect the 52 acres from development. Coyle said he hopes an agreement can be reached, but added, “anytime you’re dealing with the state with budgets, you never know.”

The talks come at a time when Kentucky lawmakers are putting together the state’s next spending plan while grappling with a nearly $900 million projected revenue shortfall over the next two years.

“We are supportive of preserving this property, and we very much want to work with the landowner on it,” said Gil Lawson, a spokesman for the state Commerce Cabinet, which includes the state parks department.

“However, with the current state budget situation, funding for parks is very limited.”

The rural property is separated from the battlefield park by a 50-acre tract owned by someone else.

Coyle envisions the subdivision becoming a haven for empty-nesters and retirees. The addition of just over 50 homes, the assisted living center and commercial development on a couple of lots would be a boon to the historic town of about 800, generating new tax revenue in a community with little growth opportunity, he said.

“There’s no other place to build in the city,” he said. “So this is kind of a salvation for the city.”

James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust, sees it differently. He said the rezoning applications threaten the “historical integrity of the area.”

It was the first time that the trust, a nonprofit battlefield preservation group, added the Perryville battlefield to its annual list of the nation’s most endangered Civil War battlefields.

Kenneth Noe, an Auburn University history professor who has written a book about the battle, said he was “floored” to see the Perryville battlefield added to the endangered list.

“I can’t think of anyone who has done a better job of preserving a battlefield than the people of Perryville and Boyle County,” he said.

He’s worried about the proposed development and even more concerned about the precedent it might set. “It could have national implications,” he said. “If it can happen at Perryville, it can happen anywhere.”

Kolakowski said it would be the first major residential development on the end of Perryville closest to the battlefield. “Do we want to see it stay agricultural? Yes,” he said. “But we’re realistic enough to know that may or may not be a possibility.”

The property includes a strip of land that was a road used by the Confederates to move soldiers to the front, haul supplies and transport wounded troops to hospitals. Coyle said he wants to see that strip turned into a hiking and biking trail that would lead from town to the battlefield.

The development would be visible from a couple of hills at the battlefield, including one where Confederate artillery was positioned and soldiers moved to attack Union lines further west, Kolakowski said.

“The way the terrain is out here, anything within about two or three miles of the park is going to be visible and is going to impact the vista and be an intrusion on the landscape,” he said.

Still, Kolakowski sounded conciliatory in discussing Coyle’s development plans, with his bigger concern being safeguarding the 52 rural acres from development.

“It’s his property,” Kolakowski said. “We’re trying to balance his desire to develop it with preservation needs. We’re trying to strike the best balance.”

Coyle said he’d like to see an outcome in which the 52 rural acres are left undeveloped.

“There was blood shed there; people being carried back from the battlefield to the hospitals,” he said. “It’s still hallowed ground.”

It is indeed hallowed ground, and I sincerely hope that this ground is preserved and left undeveloped.

By the way, for those who have never been to Perryville, it’s a Kentucky state park, not a national park, but nearly the whole battlefield is preserved, and the state has done a nice job of interpreting the field.

Ken Noe, I know you read this blog, and I see that you were quoted in the article. Is there anything you would like to add?

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Last night, in order to answer a question that someone sent via e-mail, I pulled out the H. E. Howard regimental history of the 16th Virginia Cavalry. After checking the roster to answer the question I’d been asked, I decided to have a look to see what the book might have about Monocacy, as the 16th Virginia was part of McCausland’s Brigade, which fought all day at Monocacy on July 9, 1864. There’s not much, a couple of paragraphs. However, there was a map that caught my eye.

This map indicated that there was a skirmish on July 7 between the men of McCausland’s Brigade and troopers of the 4th U.S. Cavalry at Hagerstown, after which the town was ransomed. This really puzzled me–not because the town was ransomed; I already knew that–but because I was completely unaware of there being any troopers of the 4th U. S. Cavalry still in the Eastern Theater in July 1864. So far as I knew, the entire regiment was serving in Col. Robert H. G. Minty’s brigade in the Army of the Cumberland as of that date. The histories of the other two regiments of McCausland’s brigade–the 14th and 17th Virginia Cavalry regiments–had the same map and even less detail in the narrative.

Consequently, I sent Don Caughey an e-mail asking him if he knew anything about this. Don’s done a great deal of work on the 4th U. S. Cavalry with the thought of a book project, so I figured that if anyone would know, it would be Don. Don wrote back and confirmed what I thought–the regiment was serving in the Western Theater. That, I thought, was that–another example of poor scholarship and poor fact checking in one of the H. E. Howard regimental histories.

Today, J.D. was going through some copies of some documents from the Cavalry Bureau that he’d gotten, and sure enough, he found a letter dated June 22, 1864, by a captain of the 4th U. S. Cavalry, discussing how the large detachment of dismounted cavalrymen from the Army of the Potomac that had accumulated during Grant’s Overland Campaign had been sent to Julius Stahel in the Shenandoah Valley to operate against Early.

So, I’m left with the fascinating question of just who these guys were that McCausland tangled with at Hagerstown on July 7, 1864. I suspect that this is going to be a difficult question to answer, so if any of you have any ideas, I’m more than happy to hear them. Please feel free to pass them along.

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Michael has put up a page about our baseball project, YOU STINK! Major League Baseball’s Terrible Teams and Pathetic Players. Be sure to have a look. We think it’s going to be great fun.

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