• Records show near-total eclipse in 1878

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  • Quentin Schillare | Special to the Fort Leavenworth Lamp
    On Aug. 21, the skies on Fort Leavenworth will darken as the result of a total eclipse of the sun, even if it is overcast. The moon will block out the sun for 49 seconds. The entire heavenly show will last almost three hours from start to finish. This will be not just an astronomical event but also an historical one — it will be the first total eclipse visible on post since its founding in May 1827.
    A solar eclipse occurs when the moon comes between the viewer on Earth and the sun. During a total eclipse the moon covers all but a bright ring around the circumference of the sun. An annular eclipse is similar but the moon is positioned so that more of the sun appears behind the moon. There have been at least six eclipses visible from post since 1827 — four total eclipses and two annular. In each case the view from Fort Leavenworth provided only a partial glimpse of this stunning event.
    Solar eclipses occur somewhere on Earth about every two years and have been observed for millennia. The methodology for eclipse prediction is at least 2,000 years old. By 1827, prediction methodology was well developed. Fifty years later, the Army made a special effort to record data for the total solar eclipse that was predicted to pass from Alaska to Texas on July 29, 1878. Among the reasons for detailed preparation was to demonstrate a level of scientific sophistication.
    Then as now, safety was a concern. The U.S. Naval Observatory issued a 30-page “Instructions for Observing the Total Solar Eclipse of July 29, 1878,” which was quite a bit more detailed than the recent U.S. Army Public Health Center fact sheet. In April 1878, the office of the Army’s chief signal officer published a circular directing actions required at military installations. This document stated that past meteorological observations indicated that there was a 79 percent chance of fair observing weather at Fort Leavenworth. The prediction was correct.
    Civil War veteran Maj. Blencowe E. Fryer, the post surgeon, and Signal Corps Sgt. J.R. Williams took observations of the event. Fryer reported to the Office of the Chief Signal Officer at the War Department that the moon started to move in front of the sun at 3:15 p.m. local time, the time of greatest obscuration was 4:20 p.m. and the time of last contact between the moon and the sun was at 5:18 p.m.
    During that time, because the track of the eclipse was over Colorado and southwestern-most Kansas, the moon never completely covered the sun at Fort Leavenworth. Williams observing from Leavenworth reported that the sun was about nine-10ths eclipsed and the temperature dropped from 86 degrees at 3:30 p.m. to a low of 77 degrees at 5 p.m.
    Page 2 of 2 - What was Fort Leavenworth like in that eclipse summer of 1878? The Indian campaigns still raged; it was only two years after the battle of the Little Bighorn. The post was still a frontier tactical and logistical center. It was a major supply point for installations further west. Main Parade was surrounded by barracks, stables and headquarters. The 23rd Infantry was the largest unit on post. The correctional mission was only three years old and was occupying the former depot area known today as the Old U.S. Disciplinary Barracks. The School of Application for Cavalry and Infantry was still three years in the future.
    Several locations familiar to those who observed the eclipse are recognizable today. Grant Avenue (then Garrison Avenue), Scott Avenue (then Arsenal Avenue), and Sumner Place existed. Thirty buildings from that era still stand, including Quarters No. 1, Memorial Chapel (completed that year), most of the quarters on Sumner Place, Sherman and Sheridan Halls, and all of the quarters on Riverside Avenue.
    Granting good weather and clear skies on Aug. 21, soldiers, family members, civilians, contractors and visitors on Fort Leavenworth will look into the sky at an astronomical marvel. They will notice the sky darkening, see the moon moving to block the sun, feel the temperature drop and be curious about the reactions of animals and birds to the only full total eclipse of the sun to occur over the post since its establishment in 1827. Post activities will stop and many people will move outside to watch the event — just as their predecessors did on a Monday 139 years ago.
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