Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Mr. Morris goes to Washington

On May 2-4, six RMU students travelled to Washington, D.C., with Philip Harold, assistant professor of political science, for “insider’s tour” of our nation’s capital.

The group got to see a number of interesting things in Washington, including three Smithsonian art museums and the Air and Space Museum. But they also had a number of unique experiences. They witnessed President Obama’s helicopter land on the White House lawn. They got an insider’s perspective on Washington politics with Brian Dautch, the senior political action associate for the National Association of Social Workers. They received a special tour of the Department of Justice with Nathanial Pollock, a lawyer with the Civil Rights Division. They were briefed by Anna Platt from Sen. Arlen Specter’s office, and took a VIP tour of the Capitol Building with an aide to Sen. Specter.

There were two highlights of the trip which stood out in particular. First, the students had a private half-hour meeting with Sen. Robert Casey (pictured above) on a number of issues of concern to them, including health care, immigration, LGBT issues, and the environment. The senator outlined his stances on the issues and what was being done about them in the Senate. He described what it is like to be a senator, how the Senate works, and issued a heartfelt call for the students to take public and community service seriously throughout their life. At the end of the meeting Sen. Casey quizzed the students on the life history of Robert Morris, who was the first U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania.

The other particularly notable highlight of the trip was a behind-the-scenes tour of the U.S. Supreme Court. The students visited the court on the morning of May 3, walked up the court’s 44 marble steps under the famous “Equal Justice Under Law” inscription. They were literally the last citizens to do so, ever – the Court permanently closed its iconic front entrance to the public the next day (all visitors now have to enter the building through a new entrance on the plaza level). The students attended the announcement of decisions on two cases by the Supreme Court in the courtroom, and then took a tour of the inner chambers of the court from two current Supreme Court law clerks, Marah Stith and Brian Morrissey. They were briefed on the inner workings of the Court, and given advice on going to law school and making a career in the law. The tour also included shooting some hoops on the basketball court in the building, the “highest court in the land.”

Monday, May 24, 2010

Lots of bots

(The following was provided courtesy of BotsIQ.)

It was local manufacturer F Squared who came to Highlands High School in search of a BotsIQ partner. And they found mechanical engineer‑turned‑teacher John Malobicky ready for the challenge.

John had written a curriculum for an entry‑level course in engineering, which Robert Morris University had approved for three college credits. John was teaching it at Highlands. “BotsIQ requirements were an ideal match for the capstone project for the course,” John realized. “What’s more, it offered students hands‑on application of the principles critical in meeting the course requirements: teamwork, scheduling, project management, budgeting and production control, among other engineering concepts.

Team Axiom produced its bot design with CAD at the school and then worked in RMU labs alongside college professors like Dr. Sushil Acharya and Dr. Arif Sirinterlikci to do the rapid prototype work.

John is an advocate for originality. While both Highlands teams are able to salvage parts from year to year, he wants students to gain as much engineering experience as possible. So they start from scratch each year. “It takes a lot more time, “ he concedes. And students agree. "It is the most challenging thing we have ever done,” they write in their project evaluations. But in the end, they share a collective sense of pride: “We never thought we’d get it done!” And they did – for the second year in a row!

Irish eyes keep smiling

Pictured above are alumni on the Ireland trip, with President Dell'Omo on the far right. Included in the photo are members of the RMU Board of Trustees: Frank Molinero, standing next to the president, and Welling Fruehauf, standing next to Frank. Both are alums.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The man behind the camera

Here is Jay Carson, who finally steps in front of the camera, with Pat Rooney and Jay's wife Anita.

Good friends meet again

Pictured here is Barbara Dell'Omo, Polly Dell'Omo, Pat Rooney and Greg Dell'Omo. Pat Rooney, wife of Dan Rooney -- the U.S. ambassador to Ireland and Pittsburgh Steelers owner -- is a member of the RMU Board of Trustees and a longtime supporter of the university.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Cathedral ruins at Clonmacnoise

These are some of the oldest Catholic ruins in Europe, courtesy once again of RMU's Jay Carson, traveling in Ireland.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

In the company of friends

Relaxing in the Cellar Pub in Ireland's Glenlo Abbey are RMU President Greg Dell'Omo; English Professor Jim Vincent; Diane Harrison, wife of alumnus Dale Harrison; Greg's sister, Barbara Dell'Omo; and alumna Jodi Vasilani, who was celebrating her 40th birthday.

A gray Irish morning

On the road to Kylemore Abbey with the RMU Ireland alumni trip.

In Connemara

Pictured above is Kylemore Abbey. The picture was taken by Jay Carson, vice president for Institutional Advancement at RMU, who is part of RMU's alumni trip to Ireland.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

RMU's Irish Adventure

Robert Morris University is going green – emerald green, that is.

A group of RMU administrators, including President Gregory G. Dell'Omo, and his wife, Polly, along with alumni, and friends are currently across The Pond enjoying a private, nine-day tour of Ireland, aka the Emerald Isle.

Led by their guides, James Vincent, associate professor of English Studies at RMU, and Therese Cunningham, a lecturer at the Galway/Mayo Institute of Technology, the group is enjoying unique Irish cuisine (see photos), luxury accommodations, and breathtaking sights during this very special annual trip.

Vincent, who has taught Irish literature and other courses for 32 years, has made more than 30 trips to his ancestral land, and he was instrumental in creating RMU’s exchange agreement with the University of Limerick.

Yesterday the group took a luxury coach tour through County Clare to the soaring, 700-foot-high Cliffs of Moher. Next they visited Burren, where vast stretches of limestone riven by fissures are splashed by the colors of foxgloves, rock roses, and 26 species of butterfly.

Today they made their way to Galway, aka the “City of the Tribes,” which is known for its music, festivals, horse racing, pubs, galleries, restaurants, shops, and theatres.

"We spent the day shopping and touring the city," said Jay T. Carson, vice president for Institutional Advancement at RMU. "Our guide, Therese, is very knowledgeable and has given some great background on Galway, its traditions and history. Tonight we'll be going out to dinner at Kirwin's, which should be fantastic."

Over the next few days, the RMU group will be visiting many other historic towns and sites, including Connemara, Kylemore Abbey, Dublin, Clonmacnoise, Trinity College, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Killmainham Gaol, the Hill of Tara, and Powerscourt House and Gardens.

Keep watching the RMUNews blog for photos and updates on the group’s Irish adventure…

Monday, May 17, 2010

Stranded in Slovenia – Part II

The last we heard of University Professor Fred Kohun, Ph.D., he was stranded in Slovenia thanks to the Icelandic volcano known as Eyjafjallajokull (please don’t ask us how to pronounce it).

Kohun was stuck in the city of Celje, where he had been invited by the Ministry of Education to conduct workshops for students and teachers at the International School for Social and Business Studies.

Fortunately, his friend Dr. Dušan Lesjak, who had brought him to Slovenia in the first place, introduced him to Tomaž Orešič, who is friends with the CEO of Lufthansa and was able to procure a ticket for Kohun. He finally arrived back in the States on April 26. But even that turned out to be an adventure.

“I left Frankfurt, Germany, on Sunday and got to D.C. at 1:30 p.m.,” said Kohun. “But due to storms, I didn’t leave for Pittsburgh until 4 a.m.”

As it turned out, being stranded in an eastern European country wasn’t all that bad. Lesjak tried to make Kohun’s stay as comfortable as possible and even gave him access to a Smart Car. “That was pretty cool,” said Kohun. Until, that is, he realized it had absolutely no oil in it. Apparently 8 out of 10 Slovenian cars are running on little or no oil, mainly because a liter of it runs around $15 a pop. Kohun discovered this when he stopped at the nearest gas station to purchased some. “That was another adventure,” he said. “Not only did they speak no English whatsoever, but then I ended up spilling the oil on my pants.”

During his extended stay, Kohun made a lot of connections with the locals and even helped one family knock out a wall in their home for renovations. He also learned a little bit of Slovenian and even got the chance to visit his great-grandparents’ gravesite.

The one negative of the trip was the feeling of hopelessness he encountered among many of the students, due to the unsettled state of the European economy. “That’s something I’ve never seen in any of my previous trips to Europe,” he said. “The students are just so confused as to their direction.” He added that, in comparison, the financial woes we’re experiencing here in the States are really nothing compared to what’s going on across the Atlantic.

Kohun hopes to return to Slovenia in June when he’s traveling to Italy for the InSITE 2010 Conference, where he’s receiving a best paper award for work he did with a doctoral student.

He certainly learned his lesson on this trip, though. “Next time, I’m buying insurance for sure.”

Click HERE to watch a video of Dr. Kohun’s April 14, 2010 presentation at the International School for Social and Business Studies in Slovenia.

-- Valentine J. Brkich

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Interdisciplinary Class Combines Skills of Marketing and Engineering Students

A protective plastic shell that keeps your bar of soap clean. Pepper spray that sounds an alarm when you use it. These were just a couple of the ideas considered by students in RMU’s Marketing Research and Product and Tool Design classes.

Led by Priyadarshan A. Manohar, Ph.D., assistant professor of engineering, and Cathleen S. Jones, D.Sc., assistant professor of marketing, the interdisciplinary class had students take a common problem, do surveys to gather information, and then design and build an actual working prototype of a product to address the problem.

The students were then required to reveal their findings and prototypes in a professional presentation in front of their peers. During the first round of presentations, the students also got the chance to present their ideas to Larry E. Nolph, senior financial manager for GlaxoSmithKline.

“In a class like Marketing Research, you can’t really understand the subject unless you conduct a real-world research project,” said Jones. “This course is particularly interesting because students not only conduct actual research, but then they see how their results are used to turn a concept into a working model.”

The EZOpen Trash Can, conceived by Brittany T. Herron, Jillian D. Mcconnaughy, and Jamie R. Vanslander, and built by engineering students Justin R. Laughner, Michael J. Serafin, and Donald J. Swisher, addresses the problem many people have when removing the trash bag from their kitchen container. The prototype features a large storage capacity and a front-side opening, and is stackable and lightweight yet sturdy. The front opening eliminates the need to lift the trash bag out of the can, and rubber wheels allow the can to be transported with ease.

The Erase-All Whiteboard Cleaner, conceived by Rachel E. Cavolo, Stephen B. Colella, Rebecca A. Shoup, and Amanda L. Wells, and built by engineering students Mark Geubtner, Sean McDonough, and Anthony Trunzo, is a multi-purpose, dry-erase/chalkboard cleaning tool with a versatile head and an extendable handle. The students said that they hoped the cleaner would capture what they saw was a new multi-purpose dry erase tool market and replace the out-dated rectangular whiteboard cleaners currently being used.

Other prototypes created by students:

Ice Away- a hand-held, vibrating ice scraper
Marketing students: Emily Bradford, Gregory W. Chapman, Andrew E. Muriel, Matthew J. Rusnic
Engineers: Brian Carnahan, Jason Frederick, and Mike Wood

Comfortcrutch – a more comfortable-to-use crutch
Marketing students: Jordan T. Czolba, Chad J. Betris, Mark R. Hewitt, Edward M. Rowse
Engineers: Bryan Dempsey, Nikki Rodgers, and Cleveland Savage

Friday, May 7, 2010

Day 5 – Gettysburg

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, everyone thought it would be over in a matter of months. It ended up lasting four years. By the time it was over, the lucky ones - those who had survived - had certainly seen enough war to last a lifetime. And I'm sure they were all ready to go home.

As Thursday morning dawned, the 14 Civil War Study Tour students and I were nearing the end of our own Civil War journey. We were all pretty tired and looking forward to heading back to Pittsburgh that evening. In five days, we had seen Harpers Ferry, Richmond, Cold Harbor, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Antietam. Now we were at the final stop on the tour – Gettysburg – where many say the tide of the War turned for good, although it would continue on for another bloody two years.

Our day began with a two-hour bus tour led by Bruce Rice of the National Park Service. As we picked him up at the visitor center, throngs of middle school students were everywhere. Like us, they were here to visit the battlefield just before the end of another school year. I watched them running around the parking lot, laughing and fooling around and doing what middle-schoolers do, and I wondered if they could truly comprehend what happened here 147 summers ago.

Bus driver Bruce fired up the bus and drove past Cemetery Hill, home of Gettysburg National Cemetery, the final resting place of over 3,500 Union soldiers. Here, on Nov. 19, 1863, President Lincoln delivered the address that would immortalize him.

The bus snaked through the bustling town, which the Confederates controlled during the three-day battle, and which, in 1863, was home to around 2,400 people; today, more hand 8,000 live here.

We then drove up Seminary Ridge, one of the main parts of the Confederate battle line. Turning onto Reynolds Avenue, the immenseness of the battlefield suddenly became clear, as vast fields stretched out before us.

“We are now travelling along one of the first U.S. Infantry lines of the battle,” said tour guide Bruce, as he pointed out many of the regimental monuments that were placed here in the 1880s by their surviving members.

Next, we passed Gen. Robert E. Lee’s headquarters and then the Lutheran Seminary, one of the more recognizable features of the battlefield. During the fight, it was used as a hospital for both Northern and Southern wounded.

As the bus pulled off to the side and came to a stop, we filed off and stood next to the monument for the 11th Mississippi, where Bruce spoke of the incredible impact that the battle, and the War in general, had on thousands of communities throughout the country. “Entire towns were decimated,” he said. “If you want to try to comprehend what these casualty counts would mean today, comparing the size of the population then to now, just multiply the numbers by 10.” Using that math, if Gettysburg happened in modern times, there would be over 530,000 casualties; if you take the entire War into account, there would be over 6,000,000.

Continuing the tour, we crossed over the Emmitsburg Road to the Peach Orchard, site of some of the battle’s most furious and deadly fighting. Then we drove through the infamous Wheatfield and the Devil’s Den, where casualties were high as well.

Turning left, the bus slowly climbed up the rocky hill known as Little Round Top, where Col. Joshua Chamberlain led the 20th Maine on its legendary bayonet charge on the battle’s second day, saving the Union left flank and, effectively, the entire army.

It was a perfectly clear and sunny day, and as we looked out from the top of the hill, you could literally see for miles. The entire battlefield stretched out before us. Some of the students stood atop one of the massive boulders that dotted the hillside, the same ones that Union soldiers had taken cover behind almost 15 decades earlier.

Following the proper battle line of the Northern army, we made our way across Cemetery Ridge and past the massive Pennsylvania State Monument, the largest on the field. “More than half of the entire U.S. forces were made up of men from either Pennsylvania or New York,” said Bruce.

Our final stop was the spot known simply as "The Angle," the focal point of Pickett’s Charge, which marked the climax of this three-day battle. As Bruce described the legendary attack, where some 13,000 Confederate soldiers marched three-quarters of a mile across an open field in the face of deadly Union fire, far off in the distance a group of middle-school students were retracing the steps of the Virginia Brigade. It was chilling to see them slowly approaching our position carrying a Rebel battle flag, and it made it all the more real.

In the actual battle, those few Confederates who were able to make it all the way to the stone wall at the Angle engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Union men in what must have been a terrible scene. Just ten minutes later, however, the fight was over and the Northern lines had held. In that fateful charge, Southern forces lost over 6,000 casualties.

We stood there for a few moments, looking out onto the field to let it all sink in. The students were uncharacteristically silent, which either meant they were in awe of the moment, or just really tired. Probably a little bit of both.

When the tour was over, Dr. Barr gave the students the afternoon to explore the town on their own. Elise and Matt walked right back to the battlefield to look for the monument for Matt’s re-enactor group – the 63rd Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, Company C. “We climbed over split-rail fences and hiked through knee high grass to get there,” said Elise. “It was awesome!”

Jordan, Rich, and Eric hit Lincoln Square and perused some of the town’s many Civil War relics shops. Eric purchased a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag to go with the cavalry sword he picked up in Richmond. Rich bought his own War memento – a leather-handled Confederate officer’s sword.

The rest just explored, got some lunch, or relaxed in the warmth of the spring sun.

I decided to do a little solo exploration and browsed through every shop I encountered in and around Lincoln Square. It wasn’t long, however, before I had my fill of Civil War relics and chotchkies. There’s just so many minie balls, rifles, bayonets, and sequined Confederate battle-flag vests you can look at in one day. (I’m not kidding about the vest, either. See the photo.)

As I walked around trying to find a quiet place to sit and have a cup of coffee, I realized just how loud it is in Gettysburg. No matter which way I went, I couldn’t escape the endless line of busses, trucks, motorcycles, and cars that passed through this busy terminus. In today’s Gettysburg, you don’t have to dodge bullets, but you do have to watch out for automobiles.

It was then when I thought of how ironic it is that the best thing that ever happened to Gettysburg was the terrible battle that happened here nearly 150 years ago. What would’ve become of this town, if not for the War? Would it still have thrived, or would it have faded into obscurity like so many similar small towns have?

As I sat on a bench in Lincoln Square, trying to make sense of it all, a semi slowly navigated the busy roundabout, hauling a brand-new, sand-colored tank. It’s a good thing Lee didn’t have any of those, I thought.

Just then, Jordan, Rich, and Eric, turned the corner and sat down next to me, all looking exhausted.

“All in all, I thought it was a good trip,” said Jordan. “But I’m ready to go home.”

I wonder how many of the soldiers who fought here were ready to go home, too?

After briefly walking through the David Wills House, where Lincoln stayed the night and completed writing the Gettysburg Address, the 16 of us walked the couple or so blocks back to the bus.

Our Civil War journey had ended.


The overall response about the tour was positive.

"This was by far one of the most educational experiences I've had at Robert Morris University," said Elsie. "Being able to actually see where certain points in the Civil War took place was fascinating."

"This trip was a new way for me to learn about Civil War history," said Sara. "Being able to see the battlefields and better envision what the Union and Confederate troops were doing was a great experience.

"My favorite part was probably Fredericksburg. I liked how our tour guide tied in Revolutionary War history with that of the Civil War and even western Pennsylvania."

Kristen summed it up the best.

"For me, history is like a vast jigsaw puzzle," she said. "Everyone has gaps or holes in their puzzle, where the pieces are missing. One or more missing pieces can be pivotal, and are required to make sense of a whole event. This tour helped me learn about the Southern perspective, military strategies, geography, topography, civilian life, a soldier's camp life, social customs, economics, river and canal systems, the lack of hygiene and mortuary services, and more. These are all major pieces that have fit together to form a vivid picture of the Civil War.

"It was like someone handed me a gift."

--Valentine J. Brkich

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Gettysburg, May 5, 8:30 p.m., Farnsworth House

We stood outside the Farnsworth House, which the Travel Channel called “One of the most haunted inns in America,” as we awaited our guide for our planned Gettysburg ghost hunt. This famed inn housed Confederate sharpshooters during the battle, one of whom was believed to have shot Jennie Wade, the only civilian killed during the battle. The south side of the brick house still bears the scars of over 100 bullet holes made by Union fire.

That was the extent of what we knew about the house as we awaited our guide, who would take us on a ghost hunt both inside the house and around the town.

While we waited on the sidewalk out front, I overheard Brie giving Gettysburg history lessons to anyone within earshot. After all, Gettysburg is, in her words, her “main passion.” Even before we arrived in town, as our bus drove north on Rt. 15, her excitement was obvious.

“Gettysburg 11 miles!” she called out at one point. Then, before our driver Bruce could even open the bus door at the visitor center, Brie was sprinting down the aisle to be the first one off. “I’d say I’m obsessed,” she told me. And I would have to agree.

Brie’s especially obsessed with Jennie Wade, who I’d heard her talking about since day one of our trip. “She’s one of the lesser-known stories of the battle,” she said of the battle’s only civilian casualty. “A lot of these stories are left out. And learning about what happened off the battlefield brings it closer to home.”

I asked her what her thoughts were as we got ready to go on our ghost hunt. “I’m excited to hear what the guide says and to hear some good stories,” she said. “But hopefully we won’t see a ghost.”

Erin, a senior elementary education major from Pittsburgh, was obviously anxious as well. “I’m actually kind of nervous,” she said. “I’m prepared to run, screaming.” She showed me her sneakers.

Some, like Elise, were looking forward to the hunt. “I’m super excited!” she said. “I hope we find one” – a ghost, that is.

Sara was scared, too. But for different reasons altogether. “I’m a little bit anxious,” she said, giggling. She wasn’t afraid of seeing a ghost, however. Rather, she was scared of operating the ghost-hunting equipment. “I’m afraid I’ll break it,” she said.

Finally, after more than an hour of waiting, our guide, Dave, arrived on the scene and immediately led us into the Farnsworth House, where we would begin our ghost hunt.

We entered the house through a side door and winded our way through its claustrophobic hallways. Beth and Erin clutched each other as we made our way down to the dimly lit basement, where we would learn how to operate the ghost hunting equipment. The basement door, much like the hallways, was also unusually small. “This is like ‘Alice in Wonderland’,” said Beth. I was the last one down the steps, and for some reason, I kept looking behind me as I went.

The basement décor was disturbing, to say the least. Off to the left, a wicker casket stood empty, waiting. Spooky black-and-white photos adorned the walls. A stone gargoyle sat ominously in one corner. In front of us, a black, wooden casket containing a disturbingly realistic fake corpse was the centerpiece of a macabre, 19th century funeral scene. Behind me, a large piece of slate featured a quote from Col. Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine: “In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays.”

If that wasn’t enough to give you the heebie-jeebies, Dave then went into the history of the house. During the battle, the very room we were sitting in was used for body storage, as were many of the other basements in the town. At one point, there were as many as 21 bodies piled right where we were sitting. What a pleasant thought.

Dave then spent the next 15 minutes or so explaining how to use the various pieces of ghost hunting equipment we would be using. These included an EMF detector, a digital surface thermometer, divining rods, an infrared viewfinder, a night-vision monocular, and a digital voice recorder.

After that, he started sharing stories of encounters he had had in that room over the last seven years as a ghost tour guide – some of them funny; others more disturbing. And it was one of the more disturbing ones, about an angry Confederate ghost who lived in the house and who had a particular disdain for women, which pushed Brie over the edge.

“I want out of here,” she said. And she was deadly serious. Dave led everyone but me, Brian, Matt, and Matt P. out of the basement and out onto the street. The rest of us remained to try to make contact with something, or someone.

Minutes later, Matt P. was standing in the middle of the room when he felt the temperature drop. Suddenly his knees buckled as he felt something, or someone, brush against him. “Was that you, Jeremy?” he asked, referring to the 8-year-old boy whom Dave had told us had died in this home. “If so, can you run into me again?” A moment passed and then Matt’s legs buckled again. And then again.

Right before we exited the room to join the others waiting outside, the other Matt swore he saw something resembling a ball hovering in the corner of the room. “It was like a ball or a globe,” he said. “I’m telling you, I saw it as plain as day. It just…appeared.”

It was then 10:30 or so, and Dave led us away from the house toward the middle school football field, which was built on some of the battleground from the fighting on July 2, 1863. Stopping near a copse of trees behind the field, he told us the story of the Louisiana Tigers, a group of Confederate death row inmates who had attacked the Union front line in this very spot, and most of whom had died as a result.

Dave led us into the woods, which were so dark that we could barely see where we were stepping. “Stop right here,” he said. “You are now standing where a mass grave containing 200 bodies of the Louisiana Tigers was found.”

Right then, my left side became noticeably cold. But before I could tell anyone, Matt P., told me to hold still. “It’s your left shoulder,” he said, pointing a digital thermometer at me. “There’s something there.” Other students converged on me as I felt my left side grow colder and colder. EMF readers were going off the charts. And then, as suddenly as it came, it was gone.

Next, Dave led us to the site of another mass grave that was found during the digging of the foundation for the football field’s bleachers. Here, 59 bodies were found lined up side by side. He also told us of a mysterious unknown general who had been seen many times riding his horse across the field of play – even during games.

The students fanned out and began using the ghost-hunting tools, hoping to make some kind of contact with a spirit from beyond. At one point, several of them converged on a spot that had their EMF readers flashing off the charts and their divining rods moving voluntarily. The entire time, they remained respectful of whatever and whomever was with us at that time. The joking around that I had expected never materialized; they were just way too into the moment.

Around 11:30, Dave led us back to the Farnsworth House, where we bid him adieu and started back to the hotel.

Note: You may be wondering why there aren’t any photos included in this post. Well, I took quite a few photos on my cell phone, which I was hoping to upload to the post. But when I went to do that, I saw that all of my photos had been erased somehow. Freak accident or supernatural hi-jinks? You make the call.

Tomorrow, it’s on to the Battle of Gettysburg…

-- Valentine J. Brkich

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Day 4 - Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland

What happened here?
The Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862) was fought near Sharpsburg, Md., and Antietam Creek, as part of Lee’s Maryland Campaign. It was the first major battle in the war to take place on Northern soil and the bloodiest single-day battle in American history. The Union suffered more than 12,000 casualties with over 2,000 dead. The Confederates had more than 10,000 casualties with approximately 1,500 dead.

Legacy and Aftermath
Although the Battle of Antietam had no clear-cut winner, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan claimed it as a Northern victory. President Lincoln, although disappointed in McClellan’s failure to pursue Lee’s army more vigorously and possibly end the war, seized the opportunity to announce his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which would free all slaves in the Confederacy as of Jan. 1, 1863. As a result, the battle ended the South’s hope of gaining official recognition from the British and French.


Leaving our hotel in Hagerstown, we drove south along the Sharpsburg Pike (Rt. 65) towards the Antietam National Battlefield, with the lush, rolling Maryland landscape spread out before us. Dotted with farms, cattle, and split-rail fences, it looked like nothing more than a beautiful, tranquil rural scene. Then I spotted a Civil War monument off in the distance at the top of a narrow gravel road. Immediately, I felt as if the ghosts of the War were all around us.

We arrived at the visitor center around 9:30 a.m, where we were greeted again by Bill Sagle, our guide from Harpers Ferry. It was bright, sunny day with a merciful cool breeze. As we stood in the grass just outside the center and looked out over the battlefield, hardly a sign of the 21st century could be found, except for the occasional whoosh of a car passing down the pike nearby. It wasn’t hard to imagine that it was the late summer of 1862.

Just then, it struck me how the battlefield, with all the rolling, green hills; stone walls, paved pathways, etc., sort of resembled a modern golf course country club. The visitor center even looked like your average clubhouse. Bill smiled when I told him. “Yeah,” he said. “We hear that a lot.”

Then he turned to the students and got right down to business. “I’d like to know what your impression of this guy is,” he said, holding up an 8 x 10 of Maj. Gen. George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac at Antietam. The responses were less than complimentary.

“He’s an idiot.”



Bill took in these comments and then said that he’s actually in the other camp, the side that sees the much-criticized commander as a brilliant military strategist. This took the students somewhat by surprise, as I could read from their expressions. Then he went on to explain why he felt this way. It was the first of many times throughout the morning that he would challenge the students to see things from a different perspective.

Antietam being a rather expansive battlefield, we climbed aboard the bus to travel to our first spot on the tour: Dunker Church. During the battle, this humble house of worship marked the point where a number of Union attacks against the Confederate left flank would occur.

Next we stopped at the infamous Cornfield, which saw some of the heaviest fighting of the battle, as Union and Confederate troops see-sawed back and forth in a bloody clash among the stalks. Here, Bill talked a little about the tedious process of firing a gun, which soldiers on both sides had to master while under heavy fire. He even pulled out an example of a minie ball, which became the ammunition of choice in the War, and which made rifles much more accurate and deadly.

He also wanted to strip away any misconceptions the students might have about the battle or the Civil War in general. Talking of directing soldiers during battle, he described how loud and incredibly chaotic the average fighting scene was for the common soldier. “Forget all that John Wayne, sword over the head, leading the way stuff,” he said. “That’s for the movies.”

I followed up with him a little later about the subject of battlefield noise, and he told us that number one claim of veterans following the War was deafness. “It must have been incredible trying to be heard here,” he said of Antietam. “We’re talking 500 artillery pieces all firing at the same time.” These cannon blasts would reverberate off the sides of the surrounding hills, which must have created a deafening roar. Bill had even read accounts of one particular battery of men claiming to have blood coming out of their ears during the fight.

Bill kept sharing stories that really helped bring the War into the modern day. Like the story of the Mumma family, whose farm home was intentionally burned by Confederates, and a member of which who today works with the National Park Service (NPS). Or the one about the cannonball his neighbor unearthed in his backyard, just four weeks before our visit.

Then we walked down the Sunken Road (i.e., the Bloody Lane), where, for three hours, 2,200 Confederates held off wave after wave of attacks from 10,000 Union soldiers, and where the dead were piled high following the fight. Here, Bill told us about the four skeletons the NPS found nearby in 1998, belonging to members of the 88th New York Infantry Irish Brigade, which was decimated in a failed attack on the lane.

Next, we made our way down to Burnside’s Bridge, the legendary stone span where Gen. Burnside’s men tried to cross Antietam creek for several hours in the face of deadly fire from around 500 Confederate soldiers from Georgia on the other side.

Once again, back to the golf/country club analogy, I couldn’t help but think that the bridge resembled the famous one on the 18th hole of Augusta. Bill had no response.

The students walked across the bridge and stood on the other side, where Bill shared intricate details of that part of the battle. He then pointed out an immense Sycamore next to the bridge that is one Antietam’s “witness trees” – trees that were actually alive at the time of the battle.

Walking back to the bus, Bill spoke of the difficulty of separating myth from fact in the Civil War. “Being from around here,” he said, “you really have to un-learn a lot of what you hear.”

A short time later, having lunch at the Hagerstown Cracker Barrel, I asked some of the students for their opinion of Antietam and the tour.

“Definitely my favorite so far,” said Matt, a junior secondary social studies education major from Center Township, Pa. Matt was happy to see that Antietam, much like Gettysburg, is fortunate to have a lot of the battlefield protected and preserved for future generations. “I need to be able to step inside the battle in order to really understand it and get a feel for what really happened.”

Elise, a junior business management major from the North Hills, echoed Matt’s sentiments. “Antietam has been the most interesting day so far,” she said. “I felt like I could almost see the Union and Confederate soldiers on the battlefield.

“I also think it’s interesting how each general had a different way of commanding,” she added. “For example, how one was considered a ‘lion’ because of how violently and quickly he attacked, while another actually fired the artillery himself.”

After lunch, we piled back onto the bus to head to our final destination on the Civil War tour – Gettysburg – where tonight we’ll be going on a ghost hunt in the 1810 Farnsworth House Inn.

And I'll try not to make any golf-related comments.

More later...

--Valentine J. Brkich

Day 3 – Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville

What happened here?
The region around Fredericksburg saw more fighting than in any other place during the Civil War. Four of the war’s bloodiest battles happened in or near the city: Fredericksburg (1862), Chancellorsville (1863), the Wilderness (1864), and Spotsylvania (1864). At Fredericksburg, from December 11–15, 1862, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia squared off against the Union Army of the Potomac, led by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside in one of the most lopsided battles of the war. Five months later the two armies would meet again just west of town at a crossroads known as Chancellorsville, where once again Lee was victorious but lost his most trusted general in Jackson.

Legacy and Aftermath
Over the course of the five-day Battle of Fredericksburg, the Union army suffered over 12,000 casualties, with more than 1,200 killed. The Confederates suffered far fewer casualties – approximately 5,300 – with 608 killed. For the South, it was a great victory that once again exemplified the superiority of the Confederate leadership on the battlefield. For the Federals, it was both a great defeat and a public embarrassment, further demonstrating the incompetence of their generals. The Battle of Chancellorsville exemplified Lee’s genius in battle strategy, and the victory gave his army an air of invincibility. The loss of Jackson, however, was a blow that the Confederates never truly recovered from.


I knew today was going to be a good day when the hotel replaced the usual undercooked bacon and scrambled egg-like substance with undercooked sausage patties and cheese omelets, also made with an egg-like substance. For me, anything different is good.

Today would also be different because, instead of spending the day walking, we were going to take a guided bus tour of two battles: Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Our guide was Scott Walker, tourmaster of Hallowed Ground Tours in Fredericksburg. We picked him up in front of the visitor center along Caroline Street, a charming, tree-lined street dotted with eateries, antique shops, boutiques, and more.

Scott used to be a middle school history teacher and later a high school principal, and his enthusiasm for the town’s history was palpable. “Fredericksburg is a great history lab,” he said, pointing out how the town was also the boyhood home of George Washington.

Our first stop on the tour was a landing down along the edge of the Rappahannock River, where several fishermen where casting their lines into the water. “It’s not as wide as the Allegheny, Monongahela, or that other thing they form up there in P-Burgh,” Scott said. “But it’s still a formidable stream, nonetheless.” He then showed us two pictures, taken six hours apart, showing the drastic tide changes that occur on the river. The striking visual produced a “Wow!” from the students.

Next, he showed us photos of the town after it was almost completely destroyed by artillery during the battle in December 1862. “Let’s be clear,” he was quick to point out. “The town was hit by artillery from both sides.” Not exactly what I expected from this gray-haired gentleman with a Southern drawl. His unbiased view of the battle was both surprising and refreshing.

Throughout the tour, Scott held the students’ interest by making connections between Fredericksburg’s history and that of Western Pennsylvania. Driving down Caroline Street, he pointed out the office and home of Hugh Mercer, for whom Mercer County, Pa., is named. Later, as we followed the path of Union soldiers into the town during the battle, we turned left onto Pitt Street, named for - you guessed it - William Pitt.

Scott also helped bring the War alive when he showed us a beautiful, Georgian-style home that had a clearly visible Confederate cannonball still lodged in the brick. “In Fredericksburg, you can’t escape the Civil War,” he said.

Eventually, we arrived at Chatham (see photo). This striking brick home built in 1771 sits on a 1,280-acre estate and overlooks the point on the river where Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s army built a pontoon bridge while under heavy fire from Confederates in town. Also known as the Lacy House, the home was used as a makeshift hospital during the battle. Here, Clara Barton, founder of the American chapter of the International Red Cross volunteered to help the wounded. Following the battle, the poet Walt Whitman came here looking for his wounded brother and ended up spending the rest of the war caring for wounded soldiers. It is also the only residential building that was visited by both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Inside, Scott led us first into the dining room. “Look around you,” he told the students. “You’re in a room where both Lincoln and Washington ate a meal.” We then made our way over to the parlor, where he showed the students a Beardslee telegraph machine, which was used by the Union army to send messages during the battle. “It’s basically the same as this,” he said, holding up his cell phone with the keyboard opened for texting.

Leaving Chatham, we drove out to Slaughter Pen Farm, a property recently acquired by the National Park Service (NPS) for $12 million, effectively saving it from a planned shopping development. Leading the students out in the field where much of the fighting took place, Scott went through the details of the battle (see photo). This was an especially poignant moment for Eric, a sophomore social science major from Pittsburgh, who hopes to work for the NPS one day.

“When I'm at the battlefields,” he said, “I imagine everything going on around as it was back then. To me, history is continuous. And even though the people are no longer there, they are in spirit, doing the exact same thing they were during the battle.”

Our final stop in Fredericksburg was the famous “Stone Wall” at the “Sunken Road,” where the Confederates successfully fought off wave after wave of Union soldiers in one of the bloodiest, most mindless attacks of the War (see photo). Students also viewed bullet holes from the battle still visible in the Innis House, just off the road.

After breaking for lunch, we reconvened on the bus where Scott began our tour of the Chancellorsville campaign.

Following the Union disaster at Fredericksburg, Lincoln replaced Burnside with Gen. Joseph Hooker, who the president instructed to come up with a new plan to get to at Lee, who was still camped on the heights above the town. Hooker decided to cross the river some 30 miles upriver and come in behind Lee in a sneak attack; however, Lee figured it out and sent his men out to find Hooker first. The result was the Battle of Chancellorsville.

We drove out of Fredericksburg following the Plank Road – the same route used by Lee and Jackson’s men. Along the way, Scott kept pointing out the commercial development that had taken over much of what was once battleground. At one point, we saw a forlorn Civil War monument that was lost among the multitude of fast food joints and strip malls. “There’s nothing left,” he said of the historic grounds. “We lost it all.”

I was interested in what the students thought of this ongoing struggle between the past and the present.

“I think historic preservation is extremely important,” said Erin, a senior elementary education major. “It’s an ongoing battle. I took Dr. Barr's Civil War class my junior year, and I learned a lot. But being able to physically see what the battlefields look like really drives home what we've been taught.”

Beth, a junior business management major from Sewickley, Pa., agreed. “Once it's gone it's gone,” she said. “It’s really cool to see where everything took place. It’s a different way of learning than just by a textbook. I think everyone should have the opportunity to experience this.”

Over the next hour or so, the tour followed the same roads that Jackson’s men did during their 12-mile march en route to surprising the Union’s flank. Along either side of the road, the woods were thick with tangled growth – the same type of vegetation that made the fighting here so hard-fought and unforgiving. The realism of the scene wasn’t lost on the students.

“Riding the bus along the same trail that the Confederate soldiers took made things much more vivid and clear than simply reading about it in a book,” said Tom, a senior business management major from Beaver Falls, Pa. “Seeing is much better than believing.”

Next, we stopped at a place known as the “Lee-Jackson Bivouac site.” Located at the intersection of two back roads, it’s not much to see – nothing more than a plain wooden bench and two NPS informational markers. But to many Southerners, this spot is a shrine. This spot and what happened here was the inspiration for Everett Julio’s famous painting “The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson” (1869), which the students saw during their visit to the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond.

“This is where St. Robert of Lee and St. Stonewall of Jackson met for the last time,” Scott said, producing laughs among the students. “It’s no joke. People walk around this place with heads bowed. To them, it’s sacred ground.”

Sara, a junior marketing major from St. Marys, Pa., thought the tour was an engaging educational experience. “Seeing the actual spot where Jackson and Lee last met and driving through the last marching miles of Jackson with his troops was an eye-opening experience,” she said.

Our final stop was the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitors Center, which sits near the spot where Stonewall Jackson was shot by friendly fire during the night of May 2, almost 147 years to the day of our visit. The legendary general would succumb to his wounds and pneumonia just eight days later. The students got to stand on the very spot where Jackson fell (see photo).

To end the tour, Scott took the students a short distance away to a stone obelisk erected in 1888 to commemorate that fateful moment in the Confederate cause. He pointed out that on the monument, inscribed in stone, was an inscription saying that Stonewall had been mortally wounded on that exact spot. The students had just seen the actual location of Jackson’s wounding and, therefore, knew that this statement wasn’t true. And that’s just was Scott wanted them to see.

“Use your brains,” he said. “Don’t always just believe what you read or what people tell you. Keep reading. Keep learning.”

Tomorrow, we head to Antietam, scene of the bloodiest battle in American history...

-- Valentine J. Brkich

Monday, May 3, 2010

DAY 2 – Richmond, Virginia – The Capital of the Confederacy

What happened here?
Richmond served as the Confederate capital and a main source of munitions, armament, and weapons, for the Southern armies. Here, the Tredegar Iron Works produced vital munitions during the war, including the 723 tons of armor plating that covered the ironclad C.S.S. Virginia. Union armies made several unsuccessful attempts to capture the city during the war before it finally fell to the Federals in April 1865.

Legacy and Aftermath
Five days after the fall of Richmond, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. Today, the city still embraces its Confederate legacy, as exemplified by Monument Avenue, which features statues of J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.

It took the Union armies four years to make it to Richmond; we did it in 45 minutes.

After filling up on a complimentary breakfast consisting mainly of an egg-like substance and coffee-flavored water, the RMU Civil War Study Tour participants and I loaded onto the bus and hit the road to Richmond – the one-time capital of the Confederate States of America.

“Wait ‘til we get to Richmond,” Dr. Barr told me as we rumbled down I-95. “They have an entirely different way of looking at the Civil War.”

I started to understand this as soon as we arrived at The Museum of the Confederacy and I saw the big carp out in front painted with a mural of Confederate generals Lee, Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart (see photo of RMU students around the Rebel fish). Also, in the same plaza, and somewhat more apropos, was the anchor from the C.S.S. Virginia, the legendary ironclad fought to a draw with the U.S.S. Monitor during the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862 (see photo).

Once inside, we were free to tour the three floors of the museum, which featured hundreds of paintings, photos, and artifacts from the war, including some of the actual uniforms worn by Confederate soldiers. Brie, still wearing the same flip-flops she wore to climb Maryland Heights a day earlier, asked Civil War trivia questions to the other students as we viewed the displays.

In the souvenir shop, Ashley, a freshman secondary education major from Republic, Pa., was surprised to find a miniature figure depicting a Zouave – soldiers who adopted the flamboyant, North African–inspired uniforms of the 19th century French infantry.

“You don’t see that very often,” she said.

And she would know. Last March, she took part in the “Military Through the Ages” event in Jamestown, Vir., as a reenactor with the 3rd Regular U.S. Infantry.

Ashley has been interested in the War since the 8th grade. Now she’s hoping to better understand it from a Confederate perspective. “I never really learned about the war from their point of view,” she said. “But this is definitely helping.”

The museum gift shop had everything a Confederacy enthusiast could ever want: Confederate Christmas stockings and ornaments, Confederate breath mints, and even “Johnny Reb Natural Beeswax Lip Balm,” mint julep flavor, which I just couldn’t pass up. Dr. Barr bought a wooden slingshot carved in the likeness of Robert E. Lee (see photo). They even had a Bobby Lee nutcracker.

Next, we walked over the White House of the Confederacy, which sits right beside the museum. Built in 1818, it’s a beautiful, stately home with towering pillars on the back side. Jefferson Davis, his wife Varina, and their children moved into the house in August 1861 and remained there until the evacuation of Richmond on April 2, 1865. The house then became the U.S. Army’s headquarters and remained so until 1870. It first opened as a museum in 1896.

Entering the house from the back, we were first brought into a small staging room in the basement with white brick walls, a brick floor, and two large photographs on the walls: one of Davis and one of his wife. There, our spirited tour guide for the day, Dean Knight, gave us a quick run-down of the tour and politely asked us to not take any photographs and not to touch anything.

Minutes later, he politely reprimanded me after I temporarily forgot the rules and touched the wallpaper.

Knight led us to the formal dining room, where a large painting of George Washington hung on the outer wall. “The Confederates lost no opportunity to draw parallels to what they were doing and what Washington had done nearly a century before,” said Knight. “To them, they were fighting the second Revolutionary War.”

After walking through the rest of the house, Knight took us outside for a walking tour of the town. About a block up the street, we paused near the Valentine Richmond History Center (a wonderful name, in my opinion), which once held the eclectic collection of Mann S. Valentine, Jr., the independently wealthy creator of Valentine's Meat Juice. Doesn’t that just sound yummy?

Next, we strolled over to Capitol Square, where the 60-foot-tall George Washington equestrian monument stands near the Virginia State Capitol and the Virginia Governor’s mansion (see photo).

“Washington’s my boy,” said Brian, a senior secondary ed. major from Bethel Park, with a particular interest in the Revolutionary War. “That’s my homedog,” he added.

After admiring Brian’s “homedog” for a few minutes, we walked a short distance to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where both Lee and Davis attended services during the War. Davis was here attending services on April 2, 1865 when he received a telegram from Lee that the Union army had taken Petersburg and that Richmond would be next. He immediately left and headed over to his official office in the former U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit building, which overlooks the Virginia State Capitol (see photo).

Along the way, we passed by a somewhat out of place statue of Edgar Allen Poe, which Elise, a junior business management major from the North Hills, was rather excited to see. “I was born on Poe’s birthday,” she explained, “which is also Robert E. Lee’s. I guess that’s why I like Lee so much. We’re B.F.F.’s.”

Elise believes so many Americans are still obsessed with the Civil War because of the major impact it had on our society. “It changed the history and structure of our entire country,” she said.

I asked her what she thought of the day’s tour thus far, and she said she liked hearing about Davis’s retreat from Richmond. “I didn’t know all that,” she said, “and I liked getting a different perspective of things from the tour guide’s point of view.”

A little later, eating lunch at an Irish-themed restaurant, I asked Brian what he thought of the Museum of the Confederacy. “I really liked it,” he said. “There was a display of some of the pipes that the Confederates made and used to smoke tobacco. That was cool. That’s a part of the War I never really thought about before.”

Just then, the bartender brought over a bottle of (GASP!) Hunt’s Ketchup for Brian’s fries. “This is an outrage!” he said. “Man, that’s treason.” What else would you expect from a Pittsburgher?

Following lunch, we walked about a mile or so over to the Tredegar Iron Works, the South’s main industrial center during the War, which today houses The American Civil War Center. Our guide was Mark Howell.

“Tredegar was, by far and away, the largest industrial complex in the South,” Howell explained, as we stood among the ruins (see photo). “That’s one of the main reasons the capital was moved here from Montgomery, Ala.”

Howell told us that, much like the foundries in Pittsburgh, Tredegar was built near the water to supply power and as a way to transport coal and other materials to the site. Also, before the start of the War, much of the coal used there to make iron was brought in from Western Pennsylvania for of its higher quality.

After touring the museum, we loaded back into the bus and weaved through the back neighborhoods of Richmond to Hollywood Cemetery, the final resting place of over 18,000 Confederates, including President Jefferson Davis, Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett, and Gen. J. E. B. Stuart. The cemetery also holds the remains of Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler, three children of General James Longstreet, and approximately 2,000 casualties from the Battle of Gettysburg.

The most striking memorial in the cemetery, however, is the 90-foot, granite pyramid that, in 1869, became the first memorial in Richmond to the Confederate soldiers (see photo). An imposing structure, the pyramid was constructed entirely without mortar and sits on top of a mass grave that holds the bones of thousands of unknown Confederate dead.

Our final stop of the day was the remains of the Cold Harbor battlefield. Here, between May 31 and June 12, 1864, Union forces suffered anywhere from 10,000 to 13,000 casualties, with nearly 2,000 killed; Confederate casualties numbered around 2,500. In his memoirs, Grant said that he “always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made,” and that “no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained."

As we stood between two cannon overlooking the field, Dr. Barr went through the chronology of the battle to give the students a feel for where they were standing (see photo). Then we followed the park trail, which winded through the woods where most of the fighting took place.

During the walk, students paused to read signs that pointed out the many still visible trenches where soldiers from both sides took refuge during the battle. It was a somber walk for many, who paused in silence to visualize the bloody, two-week battle that took place over this wooded landscape 146 years ago.

Next stop, Fredericksburg….

-- Valentine J. Brkich