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Cover of Spring - Summer 2003 Issue

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Photo of Chris Calkins, '81, using a map in his office to explain troop movements in the battle of Five Forks to Chuck Ross
Chris Calkins, '81, uses a map in his office to explain troop movements in the battle of Five Forks to Chuck Ross.
The attack by Union cavalry and infantry under General Philip Sheridan forced Lee to flee Petersburg the next night, and the following day Richmond fell. "Five Forks was referred to by one Confederate general as the 'Waterloo of the Confederacy,'" says Chris Calkins, a Longwood alumnus ('81) who is the historian at Petersburg National Battlefield, which includes Five Forks.

An authority on the last year of the War in Virginia, Calkins also has worked at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park and Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. His career began in the summer of 1971 when, as a bank employee in his native Detroit, he worked as a volunteer for a week at Appomattox, which he'd first visited in a tour of Civil War battlefields with two friends the previous summer. He was told he could work there for the rest of the summer, which he did after going home and telling his boss. After resuming his bank job that fall, the superintendent at Appomattox told Calkins about a permanent opening, which he began in January 1972. He has written several books, including Thirty six Hours Before Appomattox and From Petersburg to Appomattox, April 2-9, 1865; was a consultant for the Time-Life Books series; wrote and designed a 26-stop audio driving tour for the "Route of Lee's Retreat" in 1995. The Lee's Retreat driving tour attracted a spate of publicity that year, including a six-page article in Life magazine and a story in USA Today.

Calkins's wife, the former Sarah Brown, whom he met while working at Appomattox, attended Longwood for two years in the mid-1970s. She is a registered nurse who works at the Appomattox Dialysis Center in Petersburg. They recently moved into the Stewart-Hinton House, the oldest (1795) brick dwelling in Petersburg - every piece of furniture they own, excluding appliances, is pre-1865, and most pieces date from the 1820s to the 1860s. Calkins hopes to run a bed & breakfast after retiring.

The Petersburg home of Chris and Sarah Calkins will be featured this fall in the If Walls Could Talk program on the cable channel Home and Garden Television (HGTV). Their home is one of four houses in Virginia to be featured in a segment on artifacts found during the restoration of homes; buttons from both Union and Confederate uniforms have been found in the Calkins's "English basement." The show's producer and her camera person, from Colorado, spent several hours interviewing and filming Chris and his wife in late March.

Acoustic shadows, probably caused by hot weather, also played a role at Gettysburg. "On the second day, General Ewell was ordered by Lee to begin a 'demonstration' (a feigned assault) on Cemetery Hill, on one flank, when he heard the sounds of the artillery barrage of General Longstreet's attack on the Round Tops, on the other flank," Ross says. "He didn't hear it, and General Meade (Union commander) reinforced his southern flank at the Round Tops. People 10 miles away couldn't hear the battle at times, but it could be heard in Pittsburgh 150 miles away.
"Similarly, the battle of Gaines' Mill, near Richmond, couldn't be heard nearby in Hanover County, but people heard it in Staunton and at the Peaks of Otter, both 100 miles away. Cases of long-range audibility have been noted in many other instances throughout history. Queen Victoria's funeral in London in 1901 featured a huge artillery barrage that couldn't be heard over most of England, but it was heard clearly in Scotland. I've found instances of unusual audibility at long range as far back as the 1600s."

News media interest in Ross's research began after a presentation in October 1998 to a meeting in Norfolk of the Acoustical Society of America when a story by a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was distributed widely by United Press International. A similar story was featured in ScienceNOW, a daily, online version of Science magazine. Publicity "snowballed" after U.S.News & World Report devoted a full page to Ross's research in its Oct. 26, 1998 issue.

Article also have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and the journals Discover, Science News, and Applied Acoustics. He has been interviewed on Sounds Like Science, a nationwide program of National Public Radio, the statewide With Good Reason NPR program, and radio programs in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Gettysburg, Pa. He has given presentations to the American Physical Society and an audience of the Richmond Civil War Roundtable that included J.E.B. Stuart IV, the great-grandson of the legendary Confederate cavalry leader.

"People even brought me newspaper clippings from European newspapers and magazines, including Germany, Austria and Italy," Ross says. "A production company in England recently contacted me. They want me to help them write a proposal to produce a BBC documentary about Civil War acoustics."

In the midst of the media onslaught in the fall of 1998, he said with a laugh, "They say everyone has 15 minutes of fame; this must be mine. It's been exhausting. I'll be glad when it's over."

Why has this research sparked such interest? "It's sort of intrinsically interesting and news. It's a break from the highly technical talks; it involves a little simple physics, a little simple Civil War. I bring it into the classroom, and my students seem to like it. Physics and history can sometimes be sterile. This puts a human face on it, enlivens it. It's not so sophisticated that freshmen can't understand it."

His book, being sold by Barnes & Noble and other major book chains, is "scholarly, but written for the general reader," he says. "It's the kind of book I'd like to read. It deals with individual creativity in the Civil War - for example, the Petersburg mine, the dams on the Red River in Texas for U.S. Navy ships, and the Augusta Powder Works - and the intersection of emerging technologies with the Civil War, including submarines, hot-air balloons and the telegraph."

Ross's familiarity with unusual atmospheric acoustics led to his serving as a consultant last fall for the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI in connection with the unsolved homicide of a Los Angeles police officer. At the request of law enforcement officials, who had read about his research, he did an acoustical analysis of the 1987 murder and provided his results to them.

After getting his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia and teaching at a private high school in Baltimore for four years, Ross, a Northern Virginia native, came in 1992 to Longwood, where he also directs the pre-engineering programs. His wife, Paige Guilliams Ross, is a Longwood alumna (B.S. '95, M.S. '98) who taught biology here and now teaches at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

"After the U.S.News & World Report story, I received e-mails not only from students I taught in Baltimore, but also from people all over the world, most of whom I'd never met," Ross says. "Most of the people were interested in my research - again, because it's something new - and wanted me to send them more information. It's been a great experience for me personally, and I think it has raised the College's visibility across the country and the world."