Thursday, October 27, 2011

The “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy

The phrase “high water mark of the Confederacy” is traditionally applied to Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. It’s meaning is that before the assault there was hope for a Confederate victory and after the charge was repulsed the “tide had been turned” and the South was rolled back like the tides to their eventual capitulation. However, if we look at the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania from strictly a geographical perspective, then the “high water mark” would have to be the farthest penetration north by Confederate military forces. That point just happens to be very near my home in Mechanicsburg – Camp Hill area of Cumberland County. So, after procrastinating for some months I finally got out early on a Sunday morning to go see how these locations are remembered. For a complete history of Civil War events in Cumberland County, visit

During the Gettysburg Campaign in the summer of 1863, Confederate General Richard Ewell moved his corps north from Chambersburg through the Cumberland Valley lead by General Albert Jenkin’s cavalry brigade.   Faced with overwhelming odds, the Union forces in Carlisle withdrew to defend the approaches to Harrisburg.  On June 28, 1863, Mechanicsburg, about ten mile east of Carlisle, was the northernmost town to surrender to Confederate forces.  The Rupp House, just outside of Mechanicsburg at the time, was occupied as headquarters for General Jenkins.  A monument commemorating Jenkins and his Confederate cavalry is now located at the location (an office building at 5115 Trindle Road in Mechanicsburg).

Union forces set up defenses on the west side of the Susquehanna to protect the approaches to Harrisburg, about five miles northeast of Mechanicsburg.  Under the command of Major General Darius Couch built two earthwork forts on Washington Heights (then known as Hummel’s Heights) in today’s community of Lemoyne, overlooking Harrisburg across the Susquehanna River.  Fort Washington was the main fortification was located in an area around Cumberland Road between Walnut and Indiana Avenues.  (I found no commemoration of the fort, but it’s a nice neighborhood.)  A few blocks west was built a smaller, forward position that was dubbed Fort Couch.  Honoring Fort Couch is a large monument and remains of the earthworks set aside in a small park at 8th Street and Indiana Avenue.  This park is surrounded by residences on all sides and there is no dedicated parking.  Unfortunately with the urban growth you can’t see the approach that General Couch would have seen, but you can certainly appreciate the military significance of the positions on Hummel’s Heights.

Pennsylvania State Historic Markers commemorating the northernmost skirmishes are a little harder to spot if you are whizzing by in your car.  Two small engagements took place between Mechanicsburg and Lemoyne.  On June 28, General Jenkins sent a small force to engage Union militia units that fled Mechanicsburg as the Confederates entered the town.  The Union troops set up a battery of artillery and a hasty defense at Oyster Point, a tavern located on Market at 31st Street in Camp Hill.  The Confederates returned the next day with a larger force, but could not dislodge the Yankees.  The engagement at Oyster Point was probably a diversion to cover Jenkins reconnaissance of the river crossings to Harrisburg from Slate Hill in New Cumberland.  The state marker was hard to spot.  It was a foggy morning and the sign was hidden behind some trees.  I’ve probably driven past it at least eight times without ever noticing it before.

On June 30th two New York militia regiments supported by a battery of Pennsylvania artillery engaged two Virginia cavalry regiments around the McCormick farmhouse, just north of Mechanicsburg along the Carlisle Pike.  This engagement became known as the skirmish at Sporting Hill.  There is a state marker at the corner of Sporting Hill Road and the Carlisle Pike.  It’s a busy intersection, but you can pull into the parking lot of the “Ye Old Ale House” and walk out to the corner to read the marker.  Sporting Hill was the northernmost engagement in the Gettysburg Campaign, and as such can be called the high water mark of the Confederacy.  In fact, Pennsylvania historian Robert Grant dubbed it so in his article “Highwater 1863: The Confederate Approach to Harrisburg” in Pennsylvania History, 1963 (placed online courtesy of

Sporting Hill can be considered a Union victory, in that the Confederates left the field.  But in all fairness, their hurried departure was due to Ewell’s orders to move his corps to Gettysburg, the famous battle kicking off the next day.  The Cumberland County Visitors Bureau has produced an excellent self-guided tour brochure/map for “The Civil War on the West Shore.”  It is available in pdf for download.  Get the full feel of the Gettysburg Campaign by taking this tour.  It’s worth it. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

There You Have It

One of the reasons I named this blog “The Roving Historian” is that not only do I like to travel and live in different areas of the country, but I have an eclectic mix of historical interests as well. I enjoy military history from any era and usually buy books along those lines, but occasionally I “rove on over” to business, social, and political history as well. Though I have to admit that other than watching Ken Burns’ documentary on baseball; I have never ventured into the area of sports history before. This week that changed a little bit when I read “There You Have It: the life, legacy, and legend of Howard Cosell” by John Bloom.

I took a couple of classes from Dr. John Bloom going on five years ago, when I was going through the masters program at Shippensburg University. When I saw that he was the author of this book about sportscaster Howard Cosell, I wanted to give it a try even though I'm not a fan of sports history. I'm glad that I did. Stepping out of the comfort zone once in a while is not a bad thing. It was a really good read.

I grew up with Howard Cosell, Monday Night Football, Wide World of Sports, and Muhammed Ali. However I was not aware that behind the scenes of what, until I read this book, I considered to be simply sports entertainment programming, was a demonstration of social change at work. I was unaware that Howard Cosell was the first broadcaster to acknowledge Muhammed Ali's name change from Cassius Clay, nor did I ever stop to recognize Cosell's further support of civil rights. I was also unaware of the prejudices against Mr. Cosell's ethnicity that had to be overcome for him to rise to his position in sports broadcasting. Quite frankly, it never occurred to me that Howard Cosell was Jewish, or that it mattered. Things have certainly changed in the last forty years, and some credit can be given to Mr. Cosell.

For this work the author went to the source and interviewed members of Howard Cosell's family, and legends in the field of sportscasting like Frank Deford, Keith Jackson, Frank Gifford, and others. John Bloom has expertly weaved together a work of popular sports history with academic social analysis. The best evidence I can provide is that the book lead to a lively discussion about 70's sports around my house. If it makes you talk about it, it must be a good book.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Government Funding Is Not Always Required

I’m always impressed when I hear of people preserving history through voluntary efforts. In these times of shrinking budgets the monumental task of honoring and caring for our historical sites and records does not lessen. Just many archives, museums, and historic sites have volunteer programs and use unpaid college interns. Volunteers working under the guidance of paid history professionals have my appreciation and thanks for the donation of their time. But here I have some examples of groups and individuals who take on their chosen task without pay, training, or supervision.

The group we started in Seattle called the Friends of the Ballard Locks is still working hard. While they have points of contact with the Corps of Engineers, the operating agency for the Hiram Chittenden Locks and the Carl English Botanical Garden on the Seattle Ship Canal, there is no trained history or archive professional available to provide guidance and supervision. However, local people in the community saw the need for organizing archival materials and artifacts that have to do with the facility and have stepped up to donate their time and often their money for out of pocket expenses. When they are in need of professional opinion, they seek it through contacts at surrounding museums and archives. The FOBL does not have a budget, because they don’t need one. All they really need, and always welcome, is new volunteers. Read about how the FOBL is doing at their website and blog:

I saw an article recently in the local paper in Carlisle, Pennsylvania that the Molly Pitcher monument needed some work. Molly was a legendary figure here in the Cumberland Valley. The story goes that Molly got her nickname by carrying a pitcher of water to soldiers during the Battle of Monmouth on July 28, 1778. When her husband, who was part of a cannon crew, was wounded during heavy fighting, Molly stepped in to take his place. A statue and cannon are placed at her grave in the old Carlisle cemetery on South Street. For a number of years the Sunrise Rotary Club volunteers to landscape around the monument. And when the statue needed maintenance and the cannon needed a new coat of paint, that organization of local businessmen stepped up and raised the money to get it done.

I recently became aware of Jack Loveday’s website, Jack is a marine veteran of Headquarters Company, 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division during Vietnam (also, Jack’s dad was a veteran of the 509th PIB during WWII). Jack put together this website that has brought together, in his estimation, about a hundred veterans from his unit. That is awesome on its own, but what impressed me the most was that the site is a treasure trove of pictures, videos, and primary sources like rosters and unit logs. The website has a professional look and straightforward navigation that makes these resources easy to find. If I was researching the 9th Marines in Vietnam, I would refer to this site. Well done, Jack.

So my suggestion is this: a large amount of government funding is not always required in a history project. Don’t wish that someone would do the thing that you plainly see needs to be done. Volunteer and get others to volunteer. Remember the old saying, “If not us, who? If not now, when?”

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