The Best Homemade Christmas (Beverly Crawford’s Christmas) by Beverly J. Crawford
I told you in a previous blog about the “lightning sketches” on the parlor wall above the mantle in the Landon House in Urbana, Maryland. I promised to tell you the rest of the story, and here it is.
The Landon House was an abandoned academy at the time of the Civil War. Confederate cavalry hero J.E.B. Stuart used it to host a large dance for the local ladies on September 8, 1862. That dance became known first as the “Welcome to Maryland Ball” and later as the “Sabers and Roses Ball.” The Rebels moved on towards Antietam the next day, leaving behind some men who had been wounded in a skirmish that night.
A week later, all the Confederates had gone, and the house was occupied for at least one night by Union soldiers who had dropped out of a forced march from heat exhaustion. These men were members of the 155th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, a newly arrived unit from Pittsburgh on its first march of the war, from Washington, DC, to Frederick, MD. The men from Company E and some from Company D couldn’t make it any farther than Urbana on September 16, 1862, so they were delighted to stumble upon the Landon House to shelter them for the night.
As they made camp in the parlor, the Yankees saw that the Confederates had drawn graffiti on the walls, including pictures of J.E.B. Stuart and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. To counter this, the Union soldiers drew a large portrait of “His Excellency, Abe Lincoln” as the President was known back then, signing their names and recording who, when and why they were there. They did this the same way the Confederates had, by charring sticks in the fireplace, then quickly writing on the plaster with the resulting charcoal – hence the term “lightning sketches.”
In 1947, a family that had just purchased the Landon House was tearing down some old wallpaper when they discovered the lightning sketches and realized their historic value, wisely preserving them for future generations to appreciate. The sketches remain there to this day.
In researching the 155th PA Regiment, I found in their Regimental history a detailed account of their night at Landon, including photographs and stories about most of the men who were identified as having signed the wall. Here are a few of those stories.
Charles F. McKenna was a talented artist who made many battlefield sketches throughout the war. For his lightning sketches at the Landon House, he was given three cheers and voted Regimental artist by his comrades. He was also a courageous soldier who survived the war and lived a long life.
James P. O’Neill was at the head of his class at St. Michael’s Seminary, preparing for the priesthood, when he enlisted at age 17. He was cheerful and witty, the life of the company, and became a distinguished journalist in Pittsburgh after the war.
Thomas J. Tomer fell in battle at Gettysburg during the repulse of the Confederate assault on Little Round Top. He was seriously wounded while rallying his comrades around the flag and suffered the ill effects of his wounds for the rest of his life.
James Finnegan was an enterprising Irishman who kept busy tailoring, barbering and running a laundry service to make extra money for his family. His fellow soldiers pranked him in Fredericksburg, convincing the illiterate Finnegan that he had stumbled upon a fortune in promissory notes. Finnegan was ready to take the money and flee to Ireland when his comrades revealed that it was all a joke.
Theophilus S. Callen’s story was the saddest. This brave and beloved country boy of 18 was felled by a sharpshooter’s bullet while on guard post in Virginia. Three of his comrades risked their lives to recover his body from behind enemy lines and hurriedly buried him. McKenna sent Callen’s family a sketch of the grave, where they later came and recovered his body. His devoted sister died a year later, reportedly of a broken heart.
These men could be any soldiers, fighting in any war, and getting to know them puts a human face on the impersonal statistics of battle. This is what I think of when I look at the lightning sketches at the Landon House. I hope that if you’re ever in Maryland, you’ll come see them, too, and think of those young men facing eternity who just wanted to be remembered.