Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tripping the Light Fantastic – Connecting Now and Then, Here and There

In which the blogger begins and ends with Moby (a “Moby” strip, if you will); finds (without necessarily shedding light on) an illuminating way to connect paleontology and astronomy, time and distance; retreats in the face of various conundrums; and says that fossil collecting is life affirming (talk about muddled thinking).

I've seen so much in so many places
So many heartaches, so many faces
So many dirty things
You couldn't even believe.

~ Moby, Extreme Ways

For someone who has never seen any of the Bourne movies (Identity, Supremacy, and Ultimatum), the meaning of Moby’s song Extreme Ways (appearing on his album 18) may be up for grabs. But the song is used in the closing credits of all three movies, so, for a Bourne fan (like me), the song and the Bourne experience are now inextricably linked. Moby’s lyrics have no meaning outside the context of the films. It’s a connection that, once made, is impossible to sever.

Similarly, in a deceptively simple essay, amateur astronomer and telescope maker Randall Wehler makes a fascinating connection between paleontology and astronomy, one that for me is now wholly visceral and irreversible. This posting is about Wehler’s special connection and a little coda I just stumbled on. (This all may well be humdrum, but it wasn’t for me.)


In an essay entitled Two Journeys Back in Time, Wehler describes the summer ritual he and his brother follow (Sky & Telescope magazine, December 7, 2007). Each year, they journey to Wyoming and spend a week on a cattle ranch working through rock from the Lance Formation in pursuit of fossils from the Cretaceous Period. One summer, Wehler brought along a telescope and binoculars and the brothers spent their nights scanning the skies, looking at faint objects in the brilliantly clear Wyoming night skies. It was at that juncture that Wehler has his epiphany.

As he writes,

. . . it was a deep, awakening feeling of connectedness not only with our Earth, but with realms far beyond our Milky Way as well.

The fossils that we held in our hands were 65 to 70 million years old. For galaxies about 65 to 70 million light-years distant - just beyond the Virgo Cluster, for example - the light we saw that night started for Earth when these creatures were still alive! For an instant, time seemed to become the obverse of space, and vice versa, as we pondered the vastness of both these dimensions blending in some ineffable way.

It was a serendipitous discovery and realization whereby both of my hobbies - astronomy and paleontology - became similar journeys back in time and converged. I found these thoughts in some way reassuring, and the emotional part of me sensed peace.

That realization was new to me just as it was to Wehler. In traveling that distance from beyond the Milky Way, the starlight creates a bridge across an expanse of space and a gulf of time. These are very real connections.

Light Conundrums

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Wehler’s starlight raises some serious scientific and mental hurdles, and my repeated efforts to compose this posting convinced me that I cannot get over them. I will, nevertheless, suggest some of their aspects that intrigue (and befuddle) me.

To astronomers, a light year, as in “65 to 70 million light years,” is a measure of distance, not time. It’s sloppy thinking to treat it as a gauge of time. A light year is a way to speak of astronomical distances conveniently; otherwise, we’d have to deal with huge numbers if we chose to speak of, say, miles or kilometers.

Still, in many minds (like mine), distance and time do come together. Interestingly, on this point I turn to physicists, not astronomers. As Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams (the former a physicist, the latter a philosopher of science) write in The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place In The Cosmos (2006),

When we look out into space, we look back in time. . . . Because of the fixed speed of light and the ongoing expansion of the universe, the size of our visible universe, which is a spatial quantity, is always changing depending on what we can see, which depends on time - specifically, the age of the universe. In modern cosmology space and time are more than intimate; they’re inextricable. (Emphasis in the original, p. 122-123.)

That observers of the light and emitters of the light are in motion relative to one another leads to some serious weirdness entering into the equation. Physicist Brian Greene treats the starlight phenomenon in terms that Wehler might relate to, at first. He writes of light leaving, say, the Coma cluster, some 300 million light years away, so when we look at that cluster we see it as it was then. But, when he considers that the Milky Way and the Coma cluster are in motion, he introduces special relativity into his discussion. At that juncture, things fog up for me very quickly. The nows on Earth and in the Coma cluster are not the same. I cannot pretend to understand the concepts involved, but I get a passing glimpse of the consequences of special relativity in one of Greene’s conclusions:

Observers moving relative to each other have different conceptions of what exists at a given moment, and hence they have different conceptions of reality. (The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, (2004). In the original, this sentence is italicized, p. 133-134.)

Clearly, space time bridges behave in strange ways.

Yes, this is the coward’s way out (and a sign of intellectual laziness), but I think it best to just leave Wehler’s insight about starlight at its simplest and skip the complications that are inherent in it. We are seeing light that was first emitted at the time the fossils were parts of living beings. This light links us to the fossils and to the vast reaches of the universe. Enough said.

Well, perhaps there’s a bit more that should be added to this – a little Badlands coda on seeing this ancient light.

An Incident in the Badlands

Loren Eiseley, anthropologist and writer, in his essay The Judgment of Birds (from The Immense Journey, 1957) describes an incident at the end of an autumn day spent collecting fossils in the Badlands. He recounts his growing uneasiness as the sunlight fades and he recognizes that he has to return to camp before night falls, otherwise he’ll be left stranded in the dark. He climbs a hill to orient himself in this stark dry land, this “dead planet” as he calls it.

He writes, "Fifty million years lay under my feet, fifty million years of bellowing monsters moving in a green world now gone so utterly that its very light was travelling on the farther edge of space.” Those beasts were long extinct, leaving this land with “silences as deep as those in the moon’s airless chasms."

It was then that a flock of migrating warblers sweeps across the darkening sky heading south and directly toward him.

Alone on a dead planet I watched that incredible miracle speeding past. It ran by some true compass over field and waste land. It cried its individual ecstasies into the air until the gullies rang. It swerved like a single body, it knew itself and, lonely, it bunched close in the racing darkness, its individual entities feeling about them the rising night. And so, crying to each other their identity, they passed away out of my view.

To Eiseley, that racing flock of birds is an affirmation of life in the face of the dead land, in the face of the dead and buried and fossilized beasts of fifty million years ago, and in the face of the coming night.

But, I think Eiseley paints the contrasts between the life (here and now) and death (there and then) too starkly, perhaps just for the sake of his essay. His very collecting of bones from the vanished creatures is life affirming, it’s an act to build an understanding of that past world. And, though that world is buried and parts of it fossilized, it still lives in Eiseley’s mind. How else to explain his vivid imagery of that world – “bellowing monsters” in a world where “dark, savage brains had roamed and roared their challenges into the steaming night.” These pieces of stone revive their world, if only in our minds, and offer the solace that life is robustly persistent, if not consistent.

Eiseley’s description of that fifty million year old world contains a marvelous postscript to Wehler’s insight on ancient starlight. As already quoted, Eiseley writes of “a green world now gone so utterly that its very light was travelling on the farther edge of space.”

There’s the new insight (it’s surely another commonplace observation – I just never really thought about it before) – the starlight flows both ways. [Later edit: Yeah, I'd thought of it before, just not in the specific context of Wehler's connection. That's what was new for me. Ah, still muddled, I guess.] Earth is the source of ancient light, light that emanated from our star and reflected off our planet long ago. Though Eiseley wants us to treat that light as an image of desolation and death, passing through dark empty space far beyond our ken, his imagery speaks to me of life. Not just that there was life here at the moment this light was first reflected. No, I also sense that our light is out there to be seen. And, since it takes two to tango (or trip the light fantastic), I’m favoring there being sentient beings on both sides of these space and time bridges peering across the distance into the past.

Completing the Loop – Where Did I End Up Anyway?

To complete the “Moby” strip, I’ll close with another song in which Moby describes a more fundamental and physically very real stellar connection (whether or not this is what he meant when he composed it):

People they come together,
People they fall apart,
No one can stop us now
‘cause we are all made of stars.

~Moby, We Are All Made of Stars

Notes on Sources

~ The Judgment of Birds, from Eiseley's 1957 book The Immense Journey is reprinted on p. 525-533 of The Norton Book of Nature Writing, edited by Robert Finch and John Elder (1990).

~ A copy of Wehler’s article might be found on the web, but there’s nothing official from the magazine as far as I can tell.

~ Greene also writes of the two way flow of starlight. In The Fabric of the Cosmos, he hypothesizes an astronomer today in the Coma cluster using a powerful telescope to see what is (was) going on on Earth. The light she’s viewing, of course, left our solar system 300 million years ago. So, says Greene, her view may well be of Paleozoic ferns and arthropods.

Picture Credits

~ Picture of the M81 galaxy group (part of the Virgo cluster) is from NASA at this site.
~ Coma cluster picture is from NASA at this site.
~ Badlands picture is from the National Park Service at this site.
~ The amazing trilobite picture is of a Walliserops trifurcatus from the Devonian, roughly 370 million years ago. Picture is from the Smithsonian Institution at this site.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Searching for Fossils in the Urban Wilderness

In which the blogger wanders among a city’s buildings, acts weirder than usual, learns when marble is not marble, and avoids museum security – all in pursuit of fossils.

The vistas of the urban landscape offer intriguing contrasts. The typical urban tourist steps back to admire the sweeping lines of that building, shifts her camera to capture this fountain in its entirety, carefully poses the sweating (and complaining) children and spouse in front of that obelisk. These are seekers of the macro vistas.

Lurking on the margins of these scenes is a person on his knees nearsightedly inspecting the stone steps that lead down to the reflecting pool or a person standing outside the museum nearly pressing her nose against the exterior stone wall she is scrutinizing. These are searchers of vistas on a small, very small scale. These are the urban fossil hunters, individuals for whom the quest outweighs any embarrassment stemming from being the odd characters in this environment, the ones who are the objects of furtive glances and puzzled stares and comments. “Now, there’s a weirdo.” “What can he be looking at?” “Perhaps, that just how Americans behave.” “Has to be foreign.” “Hold on tight to your purse.”

Fortunately, for those with paleontological interests, limestone, particularly Salem Limestone, also known as Indiana Limestone, is an integral part of the urban landscape in the United States. As David B. Williams writes in Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology (2009), “Other stones are older, more beautiful, and have more noble pedigrees, but no other building stone forms as much a part of the collective cultural fabric of the United States as the Salem. No other stone has contributed more to giving our cities and towns a sense of elegance and pride. No other stone deserves to be called America’s building stone.”

The American love affair with limestone has made the urban landscape a fossil hunter’s paradise because this stone, for all of the ease with which it can be worked, the carved detail it can hold, and its overall durability, is, above all, a static, rich stew of fossils. Salem Limestone is a sedimentary rock laid down during the Mississippian Period (some 355 to 320 million years ago) and, given that it is mostly a mixture of fossil shells and pieces of shells, is nearly pure calcium carbonate.

On a humid summer morning, I went in search of fossils in the urban landscape of Washington, D.C. From about a dozen sites that I initially included in my itinerary, I reached only three, thwarted in my grand intent by the typically oppressive Washington heat and, most wonderfully, by my success in finding fossils in those three stone structures. My guide for this foray was Building Stones And Geomorphology Of Washington, D.C.: The Jim O’Connor Memorial Field Trip (link here). This eclectic mix of excerpts from field notes, newspaper articles, guides, and unpublished and undated manuscripts honors the life and work of the late James V. O’Connor, geologist, teacher, and, at one time, the state geologist for Washington, D.C. Among its treasures is a listing of many buildings in the District of Columbia, identifying the stone used in construction, interesting aspects of the construction, and, most importantly for me, where one could proclaim, “Here there be fossils.”

After this hunt, I was helped by the web site that geologist Wayne G. Powell is building to support his course entitled, Earth Sciences in the NYC Urban Environment, which he teaches at Brooklyn College. Particularly welcome is the section of the site that offers superb overviews of various building stones in common use in New York City (link here). At this point, though much of it is under construction, the two sections that could best inform my Washington, D.C. foray are complete – the profiles of Indiana Limestone (used in the Empire State Building and the Flatiron Building in NYC) and Tennessee Marble (used in the JP Morgan Building and the floors of Grand Central Station). Powell walks the reader through the use of the stone for building and its geological history. But, the highlight of these profiles is his treatment of the fossils, if any, that might be found in the stone – I applaud his decision to include several pictures of those fossils since these are invertebrates, and invertebrates are nearly virgin territory for me.

Botanic Garden

The conservatory at the United States Botanic Garden is shown here.

The Botanic Garden is located just southwest of the U.S. Capitol Building, next to the Capitol Reflecting Pool. It is constructed of gray and beige Indiana limestone. Its patio is made of reddish orangey Pennsylvania sandstone. Needless to say, it was the limestone exterior walls that drew me since they held my quarry. The limestone is clearly nearly all fossil.

This first close-up photo of a small section of the wall shows a chaotic mixture of fossil bits. It all looks amazingly porous.

The fossils and the fossil pieces are small. Are these on a micro scale? There is no precise definition of the size threshold for a micro fossil. Some argue that such fossils are those that can only be viewed under a microscope, others suggest that generally fossils of say 1 or 2 mm or smaller qualify (i.e., less than .08 inches). Much of what I found this day probably met that latter threshold. Certainly, nearly all were less than 5 or 6 mm in size (less than about 2.4 inches).

One of my special finds on this hunt was this relatively large brachiopod shell enmeshed in an oblong lens of finer grains of shelly material.  Carbon Freeze in comments about this post on May 30, 2016, and on February 1, 2012 (see below) made the persuasive argument that this shell is a rhynchonellide brachiopod and not a pelecypod, as I had it originally.  Though I wondered whether this was a mold or an actual fossilized shell, Carbon Freeze asserted that it is the latter.  [Later edit:  This paragraph was rewritten on June 2, 2016, long after Carbon Freeze offered the initial correction to the original post.  I apologize to him for being asleep at the switch for so long.]

Though I like this picture for what it shows, my fascination with it comes from the hints of what lies just below the surface. Other shells are just becoming visible. The best are the “open necklaces of beads,” particularly to the right of the brachiopod. I assume these are the edges of shells emerging from the matrix. Lovely.

Capitol Reflecting Pool

The Capitol Reflecting Pool graces the foot of the hill topped by the Capitol. This picture shows the pool and includes the Botanic Garden conservatory in the background.

The pool and its steps are made of Indiana limestone. Tourists circle the pool, comment on the ducks that float on its surface, and dangle hands in the water to gain some relief from the heat. They studiously avoid me as I kneel on the steps and focus my camera on one small spot after another. “Perhaps he’s fixated on chewing gum.”

The limestone steps are awash with the ossicles from crinoids. Ossicles are the round segments that make up the stems or stalks of crinoids, so-called “sea lilies,” which are invertebrate animals, not plants at all. These little disks are typically all that remains.

The fossil tapestry of the steps includes the latticework remnants of the structures built by colonies of bryozoans, tiny invertebrates who lived in chambers within the upright branches. The structures can consist of relatively thick interconnected branches (e.g., Polypora) or fan-like sections (e.g., Fenestrellina). Above and to the left of the ossicle in the middle of the picture above is what appears to be a section of a branching bryozoan fossil. Below it are small segments of fan-like bryozoan fossils.

A better piece of fan-like bryozoan fossil is seen in the picture below, just underneath the spiral shape of what, in my ignorance, I take to be a gastropod fossil (another invertebrate, think snail).
This picture also shows an abundance of crinoid pieces. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice the little brown objects in the upper right hand corner until later when I examined the photo. I have no clue what they might be, extinct or extant.

My favorite picture from the Reflecting Pool shows what I think may be a cross section of a branching bryozoan. Then again, it may be just be one end of a crinoid ossicle. It’s the distinctive color of the fossil that I find most appealing.

National Gallery of Art (West Building)

The West Building of the National Gallery of Art was described by Jim O’Connor as “fossil heaven.” I agree, partly because of the abundance of fossils in its interior walls and floors, and partly because the building is air conditioned. The exterior stone is Tennessee marble.

Of more interest to me is that the interior floors are made of Vermont verde antique marble. According to O’Connor, the men’s and women’s bathroom walls and the panels separating the stalls in the bathrooms are black marble from the Lake Champlain area of New York. (These are the bathrooms located back toward the Constitution Avenue side of the building.)

Both of these interior “marbles” are actually limestone, otherwise there wouldn’t be any fossils to find. To explain this nomenclature confusion, Wayne Powell writes, “Geologists want to understand the Earth, its processes, and its history. Accordingly, geologists classify rocks based upon the processes by which they form: limestone is a sedimentary rock that forms by the precipitation of calcite by chemical or biochemical processes, whereas a marble is a metamorphic rock that forms when a limestone is subjected to high pressure and/or temperature.” (I would add that it’s the pressure and temperature that destroy the fossils in the limestone.) Those individuals building with stone “want to know how a rock will look and behave when incorporated into a building or monument. Accordingly, a quarrier or architect considers a marble to be any relatively soft rock that will take a polish. That includes the rocks that geologists classify as marble, along with compacted limestone, and even serpentinite.”

Let’s first consider the spoils from my search of the floors next to the elevators near the women’s and men’s bathrooms. There are many little and some not so little fossil-generated images frozen in this Vermont marble, but two stand out. And once they're spotted, it is almost impossible to imagine that these particular beauties can go unseen by the several hundred people who walk over them daily.

Outside the elevators by the bathrooms are these two wonderful fossils. One is the heart-shaped cross-section of a clam (a pelecypod, by the way) some 6.7 cm (about 2.6 inches) long. This fossil, embedded in the marble slab, was sliced during the preparation of the stone.

The other appears tantalizingly like the remnant of an Archimedes bryozoan fossil, but as Carbon Freeze pointed in his 2012 comment, it's the wrong time and shape for that.  Which means it's probably the lengthwise slice through some sort of gastropod. This fossil is 9.5 cm (about 3.7 inches) long.

And then there’s the men’s room in the National Gallery of Art. It holds many surprises . . . of the fossil variety. Unfortunately, since I have no expertise using a camera in a dark bathroom, most of the fossil treasures that decorate the walls and panels remain unrecorded. Fortunately, I did capture the outlines in one panel of what might be cross-sections of (I’m guessing here) two Maclurites, (a kind of gastropod), and, despite clicking away with my camera in this restroom, I managed to avoid museum security – not likely to condone picture taking there.


In addition to the links given above to material about building stones (and, most importantly for me, their fossils) in Washington, D.C. and New York City, there are other guides to other cities' building stone that are worthy of some paleontological attention. A not very systematic and brief search of the web turned up these, among others.

Montreal, CanadaBuilding Stones and Fossils of Montreal describes what appears to be a fine walking tour of buildings in Montreal. Lots of fossils. (Link here.)

Baltimore, MarylandA Geologic Walking Tour of Building Stones of Downtown Baltimore, Maryland from the Maryland Geological Survey is mostly about stones with a passing glance at fossils. (Link here.)

Boston, Massachusetts – David Williams wrote a great piece for the Boston Globe (May 3, 2009), identifying the stone used in various buildings in the Boston area, and giving the geological background on the stone. Fossils make an appearance. The link is to a copy of the article the Globe permitted Williams to post since it’s not on their web site. (Link here.)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Fossil Hunt in An Historical Context

Eighteen Sixty-One

Arm'd year – year of the struggle,
No dainty rhymes or sentimental love verses for you terrible
Not you as some pale poetling seated at a desk lisping cadenzas
But as a strong man erect, clothed in blue clothes, advancing,
carrying a rifle on your shoulder,
With well-gristled body and sunburnt face and hands, with a
knife in the belt at your side,
As I heard you shouting loud, your sonorous voice ringing
across the continent, . . . .
~ Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Paleontology takes us into time, deep time. But, on this occasion, it serves as a passage to recent human history, placing me amid the contrasts between then and now.

Alone on the Shore

The woods come to the edge of the drainage ditches that straddle Riverside Road, a two-lane strip of asphalt. In places, from either side of the road, the trees’ canopies join overhead, shutting out the bright hot July day, creating a dark tunnel down which I’m traveling, heading southeast in what’s known locally as “Southern Maryland,” some 60 miles from the District of Columbia.

A deer stands in the brush beside the road, tracking my swift passage with its broad black nose. To my right, the woods extend often less than a mile to the shores of the Potomac River. To my left, who knows. I come to attention when I cross Liverpool Point Road, not much more than a blur on either side of me. I’m doing the speed limit but feeling that it’s too fast for the sudden dips and rises in this narrow road. I am now looking for the small gravel parking area for Purse State Park that I know will appear all too suddenly on my left.

My car crunches to a halt, the only vehicle in the parking area. I turn off the engine. It takes a moment for my ears to clear and then I hear the precise, abrupt sounds of birds and insects, there is nothing manmade to be heard at the moment.

The hike to the Potomac shore is through the woods, down a dirt, gravel path that is punctuated by ankle twisting tree roots. There is evidence that, in the heavy rains of the late spring and early summer, water coursed swiftly down this path, scouring it of small stones and leaves. Now, the summer heat penetrates a bit through the dense trees, and, without much breeze here, the black flies make an appearance.

I pass the tree with the triangular blaze that points off to my right down a path that presumably ends up at the river. I’ve been told that the blaze represents a shark tooth and signals a short-cut to a productive stretch of the shoreline. I prefer the more well trodden path that angles to the left and ends at the ruined concrete foundation of a house. A brick chimney rises phallically from the foundation. Nature is slowly absorbing this remnant of human habitation. It’s just a matter of time. Over the years, the chimney has shed bricks from the ravages of the weather (and from the not so natural impact of bullets shot, perhaps, by bored hunters in this no-hunting area).

I work my way from the house ruins, down a steep slope, to the shoreline. It is near low tide and the shore is exposed. At high tide, there’s not much beach, the river lapping at the edges of the low-lying cliffs that line the shore to the south and to the north. The Aquia Formation bleeds fossils onto the shore for a mile or so to the south; to the immediate north, there are few fossils on the shore or in water, but, after that interruption, the cliffs resume giving up their treasures about a mile away. The Aquia Formation is Paleocene (an epoch that began 65 million years ago and ended about 56 million year ago). I head north.

The breeze from the river drives away the biting bugs and, with a western exposure, the beach is in shade for much of my morning hike. Swans appear briefly on the river, moving away at my approach. Three osprey break from the tops of trees ahead of me, swing out over the river and then fly up the river before cutting back into a marshy area far to the north. At this juncture, I realize that there is little to be gained by scanning closely the ground as I walk, this is usually barren territory.

I am rewarded by this decision as I am startled by flashes of white to my right, toward the cliffs. These resolve themselves into lush, opulent flowers, Crimson-eyed Rose-mallows; they decorate the cliff base for several hundred feet, proving irresistible to bumblebees. It’s not surprising that I am now accompanied by butterflies, large Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and what I think are small Red Admirals, the latter too anxious in their movements to be captured by my camera.

As I enter prime area for finding shark teeth, my focus shifts to the shore line. I walk in the surf, scattering minnows as I go. In this effort, concentrate, but not too much. The shoreline is broken by the long trunks of trees that have fallen from the tops of the cliffs into the river. These must be climbed over or ducked under. With my head down and eyes on the stones and sand, I walk into tree branches.

In time, I begin to find teeth from sand tigers, among them Striatolamia striata, and a tooth or two from the giant shark of this epoch, Otodus obliquus. Teeth from this shark species range up to 4 inches in length on the slant (that truly would be a crown jewel). My best find this day would be 1 1/4 inches long.

In this stage of the search, fossil hunters run the risk of missing the world that is speaking to them as they focus on their ground level quarry. But, sometimes, there is no escaping that sudden tap on the shoulder that announces, “You are not alone.”

I work my way north. Suddenly, there’s an explosive movement from the cliff base and a large, light tan snake, some three feet long, flashes down the sand toward me. I jump back and it slips into the river and disappears. A Northern Water Snake . . . I hope.

I catch my breath and wait for my heart to slow. Okay, I understand, this land and water are fecund. I am surrounded at this place by life. The rest of my hunt has an edge to it. My screening tool serves to announce my presence to any other snakes as I strike the tree trunks and branches before I scramble over them. Some downed trees I avoid by wading out into the river. Wait, isn’t that where the snake went?

When I decide to head back, I am close to Liverpool Point, a bulge in the shore, a bit to the north of me, that juts out into the Potomac toward the Virginia side. I’ve been the only person on the shoreline until now, and I will be for the return trip. A solitary sail boat tacks its way upriver.

History Intrudes

I hear the muffled thuds of detonating ordnance from, I presume, the Dahlgren Naval Surface Warfare Center which is miles to the south on the Virginia shore. A distant train whistle follows.

These two sounds remind me that this absence of human contact along this shoreline, probably not too unusual today, might actually have been a rarity a century and half ago. And the sounds of exploding shells would have resonated repeatedly over this landscape. During a six month period early in the Civil War, from the fall of 1861 through the winter of 1861-62, Union and Confederate armies eyed each other along the river here.

The shelling would have come from cannon on either side of the river. In the fall of 1861, the Confederate Army established the Cockpit Point Battery and other emplacements of cannon on the Virginia shore, and fired on Union ships coming up river, thereby trying to close the Potomac to shipping and isolate Washington. Union batteries put in place on the Maryland shore returned fire.

There would have been a surfeit of people in this area, making it unlikely that anyone could have wandered up the shoreline, as I did today, unheeded and unchallenged. An historical marker on the drive down told me that, from October 1861 to March 1862, Union General Joseph Hooker was headquartered not too far away at a little church and in command of some 12,000 soldiers encamped along the river.

Among the various brigades under Hooker’s command, the Second Brigade, of perhaps somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 soldiers, was stationed just up there ahead of me at Liverpool Point. Hard to avoid human contact with that many people around, particularly when much of today’s woods would have been open fields. The area I just hiked through was, after all, farmed land a century and a half ago. And the soldiers would have made their presence known that fall and winter. The drawing below shows members of Hooker’s division (though not the Second Brigade) in camp on the Potomac during a cold March, 1862.

Liverpool Point figured in Abraham Lincoln’s thinking as well. He pushed an idea on Major General George McClellan, who led the Army of the Potomac – build a bridge across the Potomac from the point using a flotilla of canal boats. Not a workable idea in the end. Instead, these Union troops left their encampment on the Potomac in 1862 on steamer troop ships (similar to that in the drawing below) that loaded at Liverpool Point. I imagine a river horizon crowded with smoke-belching ships and the shore dark with blue clad soldiers. They were headed down the river for a disastrous campaign against Richmond. In May, 1862, the Second Brigade would lose a quarter of its men at the Battle of Williamsburg.

I like to think that, during the fall and winter encampment, in the midst of that “terrible year,” at least one or two soldiers may have wandered down to the river’s shore and found fossils.

An Aside
The Second Brigade (so-called Excelsior Brigade) was initially raised and organized by Daniel Sickles, a Democrat who’d been a U.S. Representative from New York, serving two terms beginning in 1857. Sickles is a fascinating character, for whom the war was a godsend, though early on proved a bit of a struggle. He generated significant debts building the brigade, and found it hard to get the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate to approve his appointment to command the brigade. Not only was he a member of the opposite party who had used his New York City Democratic political ties to recruit troops, but he had an unsavory past that certainly did not endear him to Senators. Some two years earlier, in February, 1859, Sickles had learned that his wife was having an affair. Enraged and heavily armed, he chased his wife’s lover into Lafayette Park, across from the White House, and killed him. The dead lover was Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key. If that weren’t notoriety enough, Sickles was the first person in the U.S. to be acquitted by reason of temporary insanity.

Ultimately, he did get command of the brigade, though not after first being voted down by the Senate.

Sickles rose to the rank of Major General during the course of the war, losing a leg at Gettysburg. Later, following retirement from the army, he served as U.S. Ambassador to Spain.

For information on Sickles, I relied primarily on the Christopher Oates’ article “Daniel Sickles: An Unlikely Union General,” that ran in the March, 2008 issue of America’s Civil War magazine; and Civil War High Commands by David J. Eicher, 2001.

"Drawing of 8th N.J.V. Camp near Matawoman [sic] Creek on the Potomac Charles Co. Md." by Arthur Lumley, created March, 1862. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-1060 (b&w film copy neg.). Web link here.

"U.S. Transport 'Oriental'" drawing by Alfred Waud, created between 1860 and 1865. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ6-537 (b&w film copy neg.). Web link here.

"Gen. Daniel Sickles, U.S.A.," photo by Matthew Brady, created/published between 1860 and 1870. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: DIG-cwpb-05564 (digital file from original neg.). Web link here.
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