Huintsville Times - Dig reveals Civil War past
Dig reveals Civil War past at site of Stevenson home
Union general prepared his troops here 140 years ago
By David Brewer - Huntsville Times Staff Writer
STEVENSON - Robert Perry uses a trowel to scrape and shovel dirt into a red plastic scoop held by Sue Zwilling.
They find bones.
''Probably a cat,'' Perry says, continuing to probe the dirt with the trowel. A few feet away, they find even smaller bones.
Possibly a mouse, they figure. It's not much of a find. But as Perry continues to dig, he spots something else and his eyes widen.
''I'm getting a little bit of a change over here,'' he says with excitement. ''There's something a little bit further down.''
David Brewer/Huntsville Times Carey Oakley, right, oversees the work at Little Brick in Stevenson at the Civil War dig site. Assisting, from left, are Jeff Blackwell, Sue Ann Zwilling and Robert Perry. Watching is Carey Oakley, a retired archaeologist for the University of Alabama and leader of the four-member archaeology team digging at the site of a brick home in Stevenson. The home is where Union Gen. William Rosecrans prepared his troops 140 years ago to fight Confederates in Chattanooga about 30 miles away.
Zwilling picks up a piece of crockery decorated with blue flowers and imprinted with the names Charles Meckin and England. She shows it to Oakley.
The crew does a computer search of the piece and determines it was made in the 1860s.
The Stevenson Railroad Depot Museum hired Oakley and his crew to excavate the site and determine the exact layout of the brick home, which had deteriorated to brick rubble several years ago.
The home, built in the 1850s, was Rosecrans' temporary headquarters before his troops moved to Chattanooga. His troops were defeated by Gen. James Longstreet at the Battle of Chickamauga. The loss led to Rosecrans' dismissal.
Rosecrans' men had crossed the Cumberland Plateau from Tennessee and followed the railroad to Stevenson where the Ohio native established his command on Aug. 18, 1863, in a small brick house that had become known by local residents as ''The Little Brick.'' Stevenson and nearby Bridgeport had become a staging area for the Union Army's assault on Chattanooga.
Oakley speculates Rosecrans developed many of his battle plans on the home's front porch. From here, the general planned his army's building a pontoon bridge to cross the Tennessee River nearby, telegraphed for locomotives to transport more troops and supplies and dispatched reconnaissance missions.
The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. It was here, according to historical records, that Rosecrans discussed battle plans with Gen. James A. Garfield and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who both became U.S. presidents. It is also believed that Gen. William T. Sherman may have met with Rosecrans at the home.
After the war, the home was a vacation site for honeymooners until about the mid-1900s.
The city has owned the site for several years, said John Graham, a lawyer and member of the Depot Museum's board of trustees.
The museum board has also had excavation work done on nearby Fort Harker, one of Union Army's largest earthen forts. It protected the railroad in Stevenson, a crossroads for the Nashville, Charleston and St. Louis and Southern railroad companies. There were other smaller earthen forts along the railroad in Stevenson, Graham said.
Like the other historical sites in Stevenson, the remains of the Little Brick will be used to show visitors how important the town was to both sides during the Civil War.
''It's the city's intent to identify the home's foundation and exact layout, not to rebuilt it,'' Graham said. ''Our intention is to develop it as a passive archaeological ruin so you could understand why it was important to Rosecrans.''
The building collapsed in the 1970s, Oakley said.
The double-pen, or two-room, home had a massive fireplace in its center. ''Upon entering the front door, the living area was on the left and a large kitchen on the right,'' he said.
Oakley's crew made several interesting finds during the excavation work about three weeks ago.
Before digging began, volunteers stacked the rubble of bricks a few feet away.
Oakley noted several bricks at the bottom of one of the stacks were darker red, probably because they were too close to the fire when they were baked.
Oakley also surmised that slaves built the home, which was one of the few brick structures in Stevenson during the 1850s.
The builders made the bricks on site by mixing clay and sand and pouring the mixture into wooden forms. It was then baked on a wood fire. A mule- or horse-drawn mill was used to blend the mud or mortar to cement the finished bricks together. ''It was a labor-intensive project,'' Oakley said.
He showed where some bricks had the maker's fingerprints. Other bricks had what appeared to be a pig's hoof marks. He said livestock apparently were allowed to roam around the construction site.
The crew made other discoveries.
Using a trowel, plastic scoop, whisk broom and other tools to dig, scrape, probe and sweep the earth around the fireplace, Perry poured a scoopful of the dark soil into a screen box, or shaker, that Jeff Blackwell shook vigorously until all the dirt had been sifted.
Some of artifacts caught in the shaker included square nails, mother of pearl buttons, pieces of plates and other kitchen utensils, a 1911 wheat penny and clay marbles made in the 1870s. The crew believes children may have been playing with the marbles near the fireplace when the marbles fell through cracks in the hardwood floor.
One of the most interesting items found was a piece of a dinner plate made in England in the 1860s.
''This would have held pickles, tea or milk,'' Oakley said, rotating the broken piece between his thumb and forefinger.
Oakley used a tape measure and compass to plot a diagram of the home's foundation on a drawing board mounted on a tripod. The much younger Perry used a Global Positioning System device, also mounted on a tripod, to gather the same data.
''I'm teaching him, and he's teaching me,'' Oakley said. ''That's the fun part.''
Oakley wonders why the builders constructed the home on a slope when it appears they could have moved over about 10 feet onto more level ground. He guesses there must have been other structures like stables that were in the way at the time. He also theorizes that a log cabin may have sat on the site originally.
Oakley speculates that a depression in front of the home was created by rain falling off the roof. There is also evidence that the home had a large wooden porch. He imagines that Rosecrans sat on the porch and planned his battle strategy.
''This was kind of the last stop to Chattanooga. They needed to get everything in order,'' Perry said. ''They used the railroad to move troops and supplies.''
That's why Stevenson and nearby Bridgeport, another railroad town, were so instrumental in the Union's attack on Chattanooga.
Every dig is an adventure, Oakley said. ''The fun part of this job is that I actually get to dig in the dirt,'' he said, grinning under a faded blue ball cap. ''It's a never-ending detective story.''