November 27, 1868 Goat

One of the more amusing images to emerge from this terrible chapter in American history is the notion of Custer, cinnamon-oiled hair, trademark red scarf and that broad brimmed sombrero, riding away with Wilmer McClean’s table, strapped to the backside of his horse.

Like Edgar Allen Poe and James Whistler (“Whistler’s Mother”) before him, George Armstrong Custer was a ‘Goat’.  No, that doesn’t mean ‘Greatest of all Time’. This ‘Goat” was dead last in his class, West Point, class of 1861. Like many of his fellow goats, Custer’s contributions to history were vastly out of proportion to a less than brilliant academic record.

At 23, Custer was one of the youngest General officers in the Union army. History.com calls him the youngest, but I believe that to be in error.  That honor goes to Brigadier General Galusha Pennypacker who, at twenty years of age, was the only General Officer in American history too young to vote for the President who appointed him.

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As with another goat, George Pickett, Custer’s contribution at Gettysburg came on the third day.  The Battle of Gettysburg is usually described as a contest of men on foot, that cavalry did not play much of a role. The third day, was different.

For 19th century armies, the cavalry acted as the eyes and ears of battlefield commanders. The superior mobility of men on horse allowed them to report information back on enemy troop strength and movements in a way that would have otherwise been impossible.

For the first two days at Gettysburg, “Marse’ Robert” was out of touch with cavalry commander James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart, leaving the General effectively blind. Stuart reappeared at the end of the second day.

dhm1254On the third came Longstreet’s assault, better known as “Pickett’s charge”. 13,000 Confederate soldiers came out of the tree line at Seminary Ridge, 1¼-miles distant from the Federal line.

Prior to pushing off, Lee ordered upwards of 3,400 Confederate horsemen and 13 guns around the Union right, in support of the infantry assault against the Union center.

The “High tide of the Confederacy” is marked at a point on Cemetery Ridge, between the corner of a stone wall and a copse of trees. The farthest the remnants of Pickett’s charge made it, before being broken and driven back.

But, what if Stuart’s cavalry had come crashing into the rear of the Union line? The battle and possibly the Civil War may have ended differently, if not for Custer and his “Wolverines” of the 7th Michigan Cavalry.

Historians write of the 13,000 crossing that field, bayonets flashing and pennants snapping in the breeze. Of equal importance and yet off the main stage, is the drama which played out earlier, at the “east cavalry field”. 700 horsemen collided in furious, point-blank fighting with pistol and cutlass, just as the first Confederate artillery opened against the Union line.

Let the battle be described by one of its participants:

As the two columns approached each other the pace of each increased, when suddenly a crash, like the falling of timber, betokened the crisis. So sudden and violent was the collision that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them”.

Stuart sent in reinforcements from all three of his brigades: the 9th and 13th Virginia, the 1st North Carolina, and squadrons of the 2nd Virginia. Custer himself had two horses shot out from under him, before his far smaller force was driven back. The wolverines of the 7th Michigan weren’t alone that day but, of the 254 Union casualties sustained on that part of the battlefield, 219 of them belonged to Custer’s brigade.

It was Custer’s cavalry who blocked Lee’s forces at Appomattox, and forced the white flag of surrender.  After the final capitulation, Major General Philip Sheridan helped himself to the table, and presented it to Custer as a gift to his wife, Libbie,   “Permit me to say, Madam,” Sheridan wrote, “that there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your gallant husband.”

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One of the more amusing images to emerge from this terrible chapter in American history is the notion of Custer, cinnamon-oiled hair, trademark red scarf and that broad brimmed sombrero, riding away with Wilmer McClean’s table, strapped to the backside of his horse.

Fun fact:  Custer served the duration of the Civil War, from 1st Bull Run (First Manassas), to Appomattox.  Another man who could say the same was Wilmer McClean, whose Manassas, Virginia home was taken as headquarters, by Confederate General PGT Beauregard.  McLean wanted to get away from it all and moved to the quiet town of Appomattox Courthouse.  It was in his parlor that General Grant met with General Lee, to discuss terms of surrender.  After the war, McClean would famously quip: “The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.”

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On April 9, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant sat on the chair to the right and General Robert E. Lee to the left, in the Wilmer McLean home at Appomattox Courthouse, to discuss terms of surrender. This is the table that later rode away, with George Armstrong Custer. H/T Smithsonian Museum

Custer’s later career as Indian fighter would be what he is best known for. On November 27, 1868, now-Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer led the 7th United States Cavalry on a surprise dawn attack against the Southern Cheyenne village of Peace Chief Black Kettle, in one of a series of battles which would end, for him, eight years later on a hillside, in the eastern Montana territory.

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Las Stand Hill

“What if” counterfactual scenarios can be dangerous. We can never know how a story which never happened might have played itself out. Yet I have often wondered how Gettysburg would have turned out, had 3,000 Confederate horsemen crashed into Union lines from the rear as Pickett’s, Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s men hit it from the front.

The Pennsylvania campaign was Robert E. Lee’s gamble that he could make it hurt enough, that the Federals would allow the Confederate States to go their own way.  On that third day at Gettysburg, our history could have taken a very different direction.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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November 19, 1864 Lincoln’s Avenger

Women’s groups, tent meetings and Sunday schools clamored to hear from “Lincoln’s avenger”, but his speeches were wandering and incoherent.  Nobody ever clamored to hear the man speak, a second time.  

Thomas Corbett was born in London England in 1832, immigrating with his family to the United States at age 7, and settling in Troy, New York.  There he apprenticed to a hat maker, a profession he would hold off and on for the rest of his life.

19th century hat makers used an orange colored mercury solution to treat fur, and to make felt in a process called “carroting”.  Mercury attacks the nervous system, causing drooling, hair loss, a lurching gait, difficulty in speaking, “brain fog” and a convulsive shaking called “hatter’s shakes”.

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Felt hat

There were plenty of “Mad hatters,” in Lewis Carroll’s time, long before Alice’s Wonderland.  Danbury Connecticut was once the hat making capital of the world, with 56 factories producing five million hats a year.  By the time of the Civil War, mercury poisoning had reduced countless numbers of factory workers, to physical wrecks.  Everybody knew the “Danbury shakes”.

Erethism mercurialis or “Mad hatter’s Disease”, goes a long way to understanding Thomas Corbett.

As a young man, Corbett married.  It nearly broke him to lose his young wife in childbirth.  He moved to Boston and continued to work as a hatter, but heavy drinking left him unable to keep a job for long and eventually, homeless.  One night, Corbett was confronted by a street preacher, who changed his life.

He immediately quit drinking and became fanatically, religious.  He was “the Glory to God man,” growing his hair long to emulate Jesus.  The “local eccentric’ who took up his own street ministry and changed his name to “Boston” after the city of his re-birth.

“God has called on you to preach, my son, about four blocks, that way”.

Corbett was propositioned by two prostitutes in 1858, while walking home from a church meeting. Deeply troubled by his own temptation, he returned to his boardinghouse room and took up the Gospel, according to Matthew: “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee….and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake“.  He knew what he needed to do.  He castrated himself, with a pair of scissors.  Then he ate dinner and went to a prayer meeting before seeking medical attention.

boston-c-300x208In the first months of the Civil War, Boston Corbett enlisted as a private in the 12th Regiment of the New York state militia. Eccentric behavior quickly got him into trouble. He would carry a bible with him at all times, reading passages aloud and holding unauthorized prayer meetings.  He would argue with superior officers, once reprimanding Colonel Daniel Butterfield for using profane language and using the Lord’s name, in vain. That got him a stay in the guardhouse, where he continued to argue.

Corbett decided an arbitrary date, on which his enlistment would end.  When that day arrived, he laid down his gun at midnight, and walked away.  That got him court-martialled and sentenced to be shot, but the sentence was reduced. He was discharged in August, 1863, and re-enlisted the same month.

Harper’s Weekly of May 13, 1865 described the annoying habit of adding “er” to his words, as in “O Lord-er, hear-er our prayerer.” His shrill, sharp voice would shout out “Amen,” and “Glory to God,” whenever anything pleased him. He was often thrown in the guard-house, with a knapsack full of bricks as punishment. There he would be, Testament in hand, “preaching temperance, and calling upon his wild companions to “seek the Lord.””

Boston CorbettOn June 24, 1864, fifteen members of Corbett’s company were hemmed in and captured, by Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby’s men in Culpeper Virginia.

They were sent to the notorious prison camp in Andersonville Georgia, where he escaped once, but the bloodhounds put an end to that.  Only two, ever returned.  Starved and skeletal, his body wracked with scurvy, Boston Corbett was paroled on November 19, 1864.

Following the Lincoln assassination, a twelve-day manhunt led to the farm of Richard Henry Garrett near Port Royal, Virginia. The life of John Wilkes Booth came to an end in a burning tobacco barn in the pre-dawn hours of April 26, the bullet fired through a crack in the boards and entering his spine, just below the point where his own bullet had entered the President’s head.

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Thomas “Boston” Corbett

The paralyzed, dying man was dragged from the barn, and onto the porch of the Garrett farmhouse. In his dying moments he asked that his hands be lifted where he could see them.  John Wilkes Booth uttered his last words. “Useless. Useless”.

In his report to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger recommended that Sergeant Boston Corbett be punished for disobeying orders that Booth be taken alive, stating that Corbett had fired “without order, pretext or excuse.”

Corbett was treated like a conquering hero, despite Conger’s recommendation.  He returned to making hats after the war, returning first to Boston and then to Danbury and finally, Camden New Jersey.  He could never hold a job for long.  Frequent pauses to pray for co-workers, did little to endear him to supervisors.

Women’s groups, tent meetings and Sunday schools clamored to hear from “Lincoln’s avenger”, but his speeches were wandering and incoherent.  Nobody ever clamored to hear the man speak, a second time.

Corbett became increasingly paranoid over time, convinced that important men in Washington, were out to “get him”.  Hate mail directed to Wilkes Booth’s killer, didn’t help.  At a Blue & Gray reunion in 1878, Corbett pulled a gun on several former soldiers, during an argument over whether Booth still lived.  He was hustled off before he could fire, but this was only one of several such episodes.

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Example of a dugout house, this one in New Mexico

He moved to Kansas in 1878 and built a dugout home, and tried his hand at homesteading.  That didn’t work out, either.

Corbett received an invalid’s pension in 1880 and the Grand Army of the Republic made him a doorman to the Kansas state legislature, seven years later.  The man’s mental status was questionable before the war and put beyond dispute in 1887, when he entered the legislative chamber, with two loaded revolvers.  Lawmakers dove for the exits and hid behind garbage cans and doors, as Corbett shot up the Kansas House of Representatives.  Two guns, twelve bullets.  It was a miracle that no one was hit.

The following day, a judge declared Corbett to be out of his mind, and remanded him to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane.  On May 26, 1888, Corbett was marching along a road with other inmates, when he spotted a horse, tied to a post.  Corbett dashed from the line and jumped into the saddle, and rode off into history.

Boston Corbett is believed to have died in the Great Hinckley Fire on September 1, 1894, a conflagration which killed more than 400 and destroyed over 200,000 acres of Minnesota pine forest, but there is no proof.  The fate of the man who shot the man who shot Abraham Lincoln, remains unknown.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 31, 1883 The Dress in the Closet

Major Rathbone would heal, in time, but he never came to terms with his failure to protect the President.  He was tormented, distraught with guilt, unable to understand what he could have done differently.  Surely there must have been…Something.

An historical ghost story, for your Halloween enjoyment.   But there are no such things as ghosts…Right?

Albany, New York businessman Jared Rathbone passed away in 1845, leaving a considerable fortune to his widow Pauline, and their four children.

New York Supreme Court Justice Ira Harris, himself a widower, joined his household with hers when the couple married, in 1848.  There were now eight kids.  A regular 19th-century “Brady Bunch.”

Pauline’s son Henry and Ira’s daughter Clara became close friends and later, more.  Much more.  They were step-siblings, yes, but there was no “blood” between them.  Such a relationship seems not to have been so ‘odd’ then, as it may seem, today.

With the incoming Lincoln administration, Ira Harris was elected to the United States Senate, replacing Senator William H. Seward who’d been picked to serve in the new administration.

By the time of the War between the States, Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone were engaged to be married.

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Rathbone served the Union army for the duration of the war, becoming Captain in the 12th Infantry Regiment and participating in the battles at Antietam and Fredericksburg.  By the end of the war, Rathbone had attained the rank of Major.

Meanwhile, Senator Harris’ daughter Clara had conceived a friendship with the First Lady of the United States, Mary Todd Lincoln.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, before and after photographs tell of the burdens, born by the chief executive of a nation at war with itself.  Making matters worse, the Lincolns had lost two of their four boys in childhood, by war’s end.  In April 1865, a night out must have seemed like a welcome break.  An evening at the theater.  The play, a three-act farce by English playwright Tom Taylor.  “Our American Cousin”.197030-Abraham-Lincoln-Before-And-After-Civil-War

The Lincoln’s companions for the evening were to be General Grant and his wife, Julia, but the General had other plans.  It was probably convenient, because the ladies didn’t get along.  Mary suggested her neighbor Clara Harris, of whom she was quite fond.  And besides, didn’t her fiancée cut a dashing figure, in his blue uniform.

The story of that night is familiar, the assassin creeping up from behind.  The mark of the coward.

John Wilkes Booth was himself one of the great actors of his day, and chose his moment, carefully.  Raucous laughter and applause could be expected to follow the line “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdolagizing old man-trap!

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John Wilkes Booth dagger, used to attack Rathbone

The bullet was fired at point-blank range, entering the President’s skull behind the left ear and coming to rest, behind the right eye.  Rathbone sprang to the attack but the assassin was ready, the dagger slashing the major nearly bone-deep, from shoulder to elbow.  Rathbone made one last lunge, knocking Booth off balance as he leapt to the stage, below.  Witnesses remembered that he cried out “Sic Semper Tyrannis”.  Thus always, to tyrants.  And then, he was gone.

In the President’s box, all was chaos.  The first lady was inconsolable, sobbing and shrieking, like a wildcat.  Rathbone was losing blood at a prodigious rate, a major artery slashed in the scuffle.

Clara’s new dress was soaked with the blood of her fiancee, her face splashed and clothing drenched through the layers of petticoats to the skin, beneath.  The small group was taken across the street to the Peterson house, the President laid out on a bed.  Henry Rathbone faded in and out of consciousness due to blood loss, raving in his delirium how he should have caught the assassin, his head on Clara’s lap, her handkerchief stuffed into the void where the bicep used to be.

There wasn’t even time to clean off her face.  Mary Lincoln would just begin to calm down when she’d see Clara and fall apart, wailing “My husband’s blood!”.  It wasn’t, but, no matter.  Perception is reality.  The death vigil lasted this way, for nine hours.  The 16th President of the United States passed away at 7:22 the following morning, April 15, 1865.

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Major Rathbone would heal, in time, but he never came to terms with his failure to protect the President.  He was tormented, distraught with guilt, unable to understand what he could have done differently, but, What!? Surely there must have been…Something.

Clara Harris couldn’t bring herself to wash that dress, nor to burn it.  She hung it in a guest room closet, blood and all, in the family’s vacation home in New York.

What demons afflicted the mind of Henry Rathbone can only be guessed at, as a mental illness which had no name, crept into his soul.  He was possessed with that night.  Was I not quick enough?  Or brave enough?  Or Strong enough?  It was MY fault.  A Better Man would have taken that bullet.  Or Stopped that man.  No he wouldn’t…yes he would…but…I…what, the, hell, is WRONG WITH YOU???!!!

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The dress

Washington DC was saturated with All Things Lincoln in April 1866, and Clara fled to the family home in Albany, to get away.  There in that closet hung the bloody dress.  On the anniversary of the assassination, she heard laughter, she knew she did, coming down the hall.  Lincoln’s laughter.

Others reported the same thing in the following years.  The sound of laughter.  A single gun shot.  But there are no such things as ghosts…Right?

Major Rathbone and Clara Harris were married in July 1867 and the couple had three children, Henry rising to the rank of brevet Colonel, in 1870.  That was the year he resigned from the army, but work was hard to come by, due to increasing mental instability.

Rathbone convinced himself that Clara was unfaithful, and that she planned to take the kids away.   He would fly into rages and she considered divorce, but couldn’t bear the thought, nor the stigma.

Clara went so far as to have the closet bricked up with that dress inside, like Montresor bricked up Fortunato.  It changed, nothing.  The family traveled to Europe and back in search of a cure, but Rathbone’s condition only worsened.

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US Capitol as it looked, in 1872

Despite all this or possibly because of it, President Chester A. Arthur appointed Rathbone US Consul to the Province of Hannover in Germany, in 1882.

“Trick or Treating” had yet to take hold by this time, back in the United States.  For most, October 31, 1883 passed pleasantly enough:  Fall festivals, children bobbing for apples, young women consulting mirrors or tossing nuts into fires, to see whom they would marry.  Not so, Henry Rathbone.  He had Monsters in his head.

Two months later, December 23, Henry Rathbone shot his wife, and stabbed himself, in the chest.  Six times.  He lived.  She died.

He claimed he was defending her, against an attacker.

The three children, Henry Riggs, Gerald Lawrence and Clara Pauline, went to live with relatives. Henry Reed Rathbone was convicted of their mother’s murder and committed to an asylum for the criminally insane in Hildesheim, Germany, there to spend the next twenty-eight years.

Henry Reed Rathbone died on August 14, 1911 and was buried, next to his wife.

In 1922, Henry Riggs Rathbone would be elected to the United States House of Representatives.  Twelve years earlier he unbricked that closet and burned the hated dress, the dress which had stolen his childhood, and murdered his mother, and cursed his father.  But there are no such things as ghosts…Right?

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“The modern day home where Union Army Officer Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris resided”. Hat tip, HISTORIAN’S OFFICE, TOWN OF COLONIE.

Afterward

Burial customs are different in Germany, than in the United States.  Grave plots are generally leased for a period of 20 – 30 years, with an option to renew.  In 1952, officials with the city cemetery at Hanover/Engesohde looked over visitation records, and determined that there was no further interest, in Clara Harris or Henry Rathbone.  The couple was exhumed and their remains burned, and disposed of.  Like they were never even there.

But there are no such things as ghosts.

Right?

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October 28, 1945  Town Line, NY – Last Stronghold of the Confederacy

By October 1945 there legally remained only one part of the former Confederate States of America. The little hamlet of Town Line, New York.

By the early 1830s, cotton exceeded the value of all other American exports, combined. As secession loomed over the nation, a Chicago Daily Times editorial warned that if the South left “in one single blow, our foreign commerce must be reduced to less than one half of what it is now”.

fernando_wood_(1812-1881)South Carolina seceded in December 1860, and the world waited to see who’d follow.  New York City became the next to call for secession on January 6, when Mayor Fernando Wood addressed the city’s governing body.  “When Disunion has become a fixed and certain fact”, he said, “why may not New York disrupt the bands which bind her to a venal and corrupt master…and destroyed the Confederacy of which she was the proud Empire City?”

In New York city and state alike, economic ties with the south ran deep.  40¢ of every dollar paid for southern cotton stayed in New York, in the form of insurance, shipping, warehouse fees and profits.

30 minutes’ east of Buffalo, the village of Lancaster contemplated staying with the Union.  500 miles from the nearest Confederate state, George Huber remembered the time.  “When war was declared, Lancaster seethed with the news, and many were the nights we stayed up as late as 12 o’clock to talk things out.  I was twelve years old at the time, but I remember the stern faces of the elders and the storm of passionate and angry discussion. Soon the town split into two factions, it was a very tense situation…Often the excitement ran so high that if a man in either group had made the slightest sign, neighbors would have been at each other’s throats and fists would have taken the place of words.”

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The old blacksmith shop

“Town Line”, a hamlet on the village’s eastern boundary, put it to a vote.  In the fall of 1861, residents gathered in the old schoolhouse-turned blacksmith’s shop.  By a margin of 85 to 40, Town Line voted to secede from the Union.

There was angry talk of arresting “Copperheads” for sedition, as casualty reports came back from the front.  “Seceders” became quiet, afraid to meet in public amidst angry talk of lynching.  A half-dozen or so more ardent secessionists went south to fight for the Confederacy.  Others quietly moved north, to Canada.   Outside of Lancaster, no one seemed to notice.  Taxes continued to be paid. No federal force ever arrived to enforce the loyalty of the small village.

A rumor went around in 1864, that a large Confederate army was building in Canada, poised to invade from the north.  Town Line became a dangerous place for the few southern sympathizers left.  Most of those remaining moved to Canada and, once again, Lancaster became the quiet little village in upstate New York, that nobody ever heard of.

Impatient to get on with it, Dade County “symbolically” seceded both from Georgia as well as the Union, back in 1860.  Officially, Dade County seceded with Georgia in 1861, and rejoined with the rest of the state in 1870, but the deal was sealed on July 4, 1945, when a telegram from President Harry S. Truman was read at a celebration marking Dade County’s “rejoining” the Union.

The “Confederate Gibraltar”, Vicksburg Mississippi, fell on July 4, 1863.  The city wouldn’t celebrate another Independence Day for 80 years.

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In 2011, the residents of Town Line, New York dressed up to mark the town’s sesquicentennial of secession from the Union

By October 1945 there legally remained only one part of the former Confederate States of America. The little hamlet of Town Line, New York.

Even Georgians couldn’t help themselves, from commenting. 97-year-old Confederate General T.W. Dowling said: “We been rather pleased with the results since we rejoined the Union. Town Line ought to give the United States another try“. Judge A.L. Townsend of Trenton Georgia commented “Town Line ought to give the United States a good second chance“.

Townline-the_last_conferderacy A courier express note arrived on October 7, 1945.  “There are few controversies that are not susceptible to a peace time resolution” read the note, “if examined in an atmosphere of tranquility and calm rather than strife and turmoil. I would suggest the possibility of roast veal as a vehicle of peace.  Why don’t you run down the fattest calf in Erie County, barbecue it and serve it with fixin’s in the old blacksmith shop where the ruckus started? Who can tell? The dissidents might decide to resume citizenship.”  The note was signed “Very Sincerely Yours, Harry Truman”.

Fireman’s Hall was the site of the barbecue, “The old blacksmith shop where the ruckus started” being too small for the assembled crowd.  On October 28, 1945 residents adopted a resolution suspending the 1861 ordinance of secession, by a vote of 90-23. The Stars and Bars of the Confederate States of America was lowered for the last time, outside the old blacksmith shop.

Alabama member of the United States House of Representatives John Jackson Sparkman, may have had the last word:  “As one reconstructed rebel to another, let me say that I find much comfort in the fact that you good people so far up in Yankee land have held out during the years. However, I suppose we grow soft as we grow older.”

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

September 19, 1862 Douglas the Confederate Camel

In the 1850s, then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was convinced that camels were the military super weapon of the future.

Due west of the Mississippi capital of Jackson and across the river from New Orleans lies the city of Vicksburg, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. In 1863, Vicksburg was the last major stronghold of the Confederacy, along the Mississippi River.  Surrounded and vastly outnumbered, the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy” held out for forty days against a far larger Union army, surrendering on July 4, 1863. The city would not celebrate another Independence Day, for 81 years.

The Cedar Hill Cemetery in Vicksburg contains some 5,000 stone markers in ‘the soldier’s rest‘, each placed in memory of one who died in defense of the city.  Even the one with the camel on it.

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This story begins with Jefferson Davis, in the 1840s. Today, we remember Davis as the one President of the Confederate States of America. Then, he was a United States Senator from Mississippi, with a pet project of introducing camels into the United States.

Re-introducing them might be more like it. Today, the distribution of these animals is almost the inverse of their area of origin. According to the fossil record, the earliest camelids first appeared on the North American continent, these even-toed ungulates ancestor to the Alpaca, Llama, Guanaco and Vicuña of today.

fdgfcxedgym2d7vkiryqJefferson Davis’ experiment was to be the first large-scale re-introduction of these animals on the North American continent, in geologic history.

Davis envisioned the day when every southern planter would have a stable full of camels. In the kind of pork barrel tit-for-tat spending deal beloved of Congressmen to this day, the Senator slid $30,000 into a highway appropriations bill, to get the support of a colleague from Illinois.

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The measure failed but, in the 1850s, then-Secretary of War Davis persuaded President Franklin Pierce that camels were the military super weapons of the future. Able to carry greater loads over longer distances than any other pack animal, Davis saw camels as the high tech weapon of the age. Hundreds of horses and mules were dying in the hot, dry conditions of Southwestern Cavalry outposts, when the government purchased 75 camels from Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. Several camel handlers came along in the bargain, one of them a Syrian named Haji Ali, who successfully implemented a camel breeding program. Haji Ali became quite the celebrity within the West Texas outpost. The soldiers called him “Hi Jolly”.

When Civil War broke out, Camp Verde Texas had about 60 camels. The King of Siam, (now Thailand), saw the military advantage to the Confederacy, and wrote to President Abraham Lincoln. “Here”, he wrote, “we use elephants”. The King went on to propose bringing elephants into the Northwest, to help the Union war effort. This “animal arms race” appears to have gotten no further than the King’s letter to the President, but the imagination runs wild at the idea of War Elephants at Gettysburg.

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The horse lobby did a lot to kill the camel project, and the animal’s unpleasant personality traits didn’t help. A camel will not passively accept a riding crop or a whip. They are vengeful, and can spit stinking wads of phlegm with great accuracy over considerable distances. If they’re close enough, they will rake the skin off your face with their front teeth. Camels have been known to trample people to death.

Cut loose, one of those Texas camels somehow made its way to Mississippi, where he was taken into service with the 43rd Infantry Regiment, who named him “Douglas”.

Vicksburg Post
“Two Civil War re-enactors discuss the use of camels by the U.S. Army and recall the story of ” Old Douglas,” the camel that was killed during the Siege of Vicksburg, during a visit by the Texas Camel Corps to the Vicksburg National Military Park in 2016″ H/T Vicksburg Post

Douglas wouldn’t permit himself to be tethered, but he always stuck around so he was allowed to graze on his own. Southern soldiers became accustomed to the sight of “Old Douglas”. The 43rd Mississippi became known as the “Camel Regiment,” but the horses never did get used to their new companion. On this day in 1862, Major General Sterling Price was preparing to face two Union armies at Iuka, when the sight of Old Douglas spooked the regimental horses. One horse’s panic turned into a stampede, injuring several of them and possibly killing one or two.

The 43rd Infantry was ordered to Vicksburg during General Ulysses S. Grant’s siege of the city, when Douglas was shot and killed by a Union sharpshooter. Enraged by the murder of their prized camel, the 5th Missouri’s commander Lieutenant Colonel Robert S. Bevier enlisted six of his best snipers, who stalked the killer until one of them had his revenge. Bevier later said of Douglas’ killer, “I refused to hear his name, and was rejoiced to learn that he had been severely wounded.”

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So it is that there is a camel at the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Vicksburg, Mississippi. He is not forgotten. Douglas and other camels of the era are remembered by the Texas Camel Corps, a cross between a zoo and a living history exhibit.

The organization’s website begins with: “Texas Camel Corps was established to educate the public about the historic use of camels in America in the 19th century”. I just might have to check that out.

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August 21, 1863 Bushwacker

During the “Bleeding Kansas” period, pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” and anti-slavery “Jayhawkers” crossed one another’s borders with impunity, primarily to murder each other’s civilians and burn out one another’s towns.

Lawrence, 1863
Lawrence, Kansas 1863

In the early morning hours of August 21, 1863, 300 to 400 riders converged in the darkness outside the city of Lawrence, Kansas.

These were a loose collection of independent “bushwacker groups”, pro-slavery and nominally Confederate, though subject to no structure of command and control.

This was a civilian group operating outside of any structured chain of command, more a gang of criminal outlaws than any military operation. There was Cole Younger and Frank James, the soon-to-be-famous Jesse’s older brother. There was William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson, whose men were known for tying the scalps of slain Unionists to the saddles and bridles of their horses. Leading this assemblage of ruffians was a 27-year-old former schoolteacher from Ohio: William Clarke Quantrill.

Lawrence Kansas
Lawrence Kansas

Lawrence, Kansas was mostly asleep at that hour, as several columns of riders descended on the town. It was 5:00am and pitch dark, as most of the city of 3,000 awoke to the sound of pounding hooves.

Doors were smashed in amid the sounds of gunshots and screams. Quantrill’s band went through the town, systematically shooting most of the male population.

The shooting, the looting and the burning went on for four hours. Between 160 and 190 of the men and boys of Lawrence, ages 14 to 90, were murdered. Most of them had no means of defending themselves.

06quantrill0Intending to deprive Confederate sympathizers from their base of support, General Thomas Ewing authorized General Order No. 11 four days later, ordering that most of four counties along the Kansas-Missouri border be depopulated. Tens of thousands of civilians were forced out of their homes as Union troops came through, burning buildings, torching fields and shooting livestock.

The area was so thoroughly devastated, it would forever be known as the “Burnt District”.

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Following the raid on Lawrence, Quantrill fled to Texas and was later killed in a Union ambush, near Taylorsville Kentucky.

William Clarke Quantrill
William Clarke Quantrill

Quantrill’s band broke up into several smaller groups, with some joining the Confederate army. Others such as Frank and Jesse James and the Younger brothers, went on to apply the hit and run tactics they had learned from Quantrill’s “army” to a career of bank and train robberies.

Quantrill himself explained the incursion as retribution, for the 1861 “Jayhawker” raid of Colonel Charles “Doc” Jennison and Senator James H. Lane, that left 9 dead in Osceola, Missouri, resulting in acres of so-called “Jennison Monuments”, the two story brick chimneys which were all that remained of the burned out homes of Union and Confederate sympathizer, alike.

Others blamed the raid on the collapse of a makeshift jail in Kansas City, that killed several female relatives of the raiders. It seems more likely that it was just one more in a series of homicidal raids carried out by both sides, such raids usually resulting in the death of innocents.

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Quantrill’s Guerrillas Reunion, 1920

In 1907, newspaper articles appeared in Canada reporting that Quantrill was still alive, living on northwest Vancouver Island, under the name of John Sharp.  “Quantrill” claimed to have survived that Kentucky ambush after all, despite wounds from bullet and bayonet. Sharp/Quantrill made his way south to Chile, according to the story, before drifting up north and finally become a mine caretaker at Coal Harbour at Quatsino, on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island.

The story was probably one of fiction on Mr. Sharp’s part, but the fib would prove to have unfortunate consequences. Weeks later, two men traveled north to Canada, with the apparent purpose of taking revenge.  The pair took a coastal steamer out of Quatsino Sound the following morning, the day in which Sharp was found, severely beaten.  John Sharp died several hours later, without identifying his attackers.  The crime has never been solved.

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August 2, 1864 Both Barrels

Named for one of it’s own private soldiers, the Mitchell Thunderbolts were not your standard military company. These guys were “organized strictly for home defense” and absolutely refused to take orders.  From anyone. They recognized no superior officer and the right to criticism was reserved and freely exercised from that “splendid old gentleman” Colonel John Billups, down to the lowliest private.

In 1642, Italian gun maker Antonio Petrini conceived a double barrel cannon, with tubes joined at 45° and firing solid shot joined together, by chain.  This was the year of the “Great Rebellion“, the English Civil War, when the King and Parliament raised armies to go to war – with each other.  The idea must have looked good as proposed to King Charles I of England, the weapon capable of slicing through his enemies, like grass before a scythe.

The idea was to fire both barrels simultaneously, but there was the rub.  Wild ideas occur to the imagination of imperfect combustion, and a chained ball swinging around to take out the gun crew.  The King himself was mute on the subject, and went on to lose his head, in 1649.  Petrini’s manuscript resides to this day in the tower of London.  There is no documented proof that the weapon was ever fired, save for the designer’s own description of the ‘Grandissima Ruina’ left behind, by his creation.

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Two-hundred years later the former British colonies in America, found themselves embroiled in their own Civil War.

In the early days of its independence, the Confederate Congress enacted a measure, allowing local cities and towns to form semi-military companies for the purpose of local defense. As the very flower of young southern manhood was called up and sent to the front, these “home guard” units often comprised themselves of middle-age and older gentlemen, and others for various reasons, unable to leave home and hearth.

ALHullAugustus Longstreet Hull was born 1847 in “The Classic City” of Athens Georgia, and enlisted in the Confederate Army on September 8, 1864.

After the war, Hull worked twenty-seven years as a banker, before publishing the Annals of Athens, in 1906.  In it, Mr. Hull writes with not a little biting wit, of his own home town home guard unit, Athens’ own, Mitchell Thunderbolts.

“From the name one might readily infer that it was a company made up of fierce and savage men, eager for the fray and ready at all times to ravage and slaughter; yet such was not the case, for in all their eventful career no harm was done to a human being, no property was seized and not one drop of blood stained their spotless escutcheon.

Thus from their patriotism sprang the “Thunderbolts”, a company whose deeds must live in order that history may be complete, whose fame, though not blazoned to the world in song and story, is yet of such a character as to entitle the names of its members to be inscribed alongside those “that were not born to die.”

Named for one of it’s own private soldiers, the Mitchell Thunderbolts were not your standard military company. These guys were “organized strictly for home defense” and absolutely refused to take orders.  From anyone. They recognized no superior officer and the right to criticism was reserved and freely exercised by everyone from that “splendid old gentleman” Colonel John Billups, down to the lowliest private.

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Georgia Senator Middleton Pope Barrow

General Howell Cobb sent the future United States Senator Captain Middleton Pope Barrow to Athens in 1864, to inspect the Thunderbolts. Having no intention of submitting to “inspection” by any mere stripling of a Captain, Dr. Henry Hull (Augustus’ father) “politely informed him that if he wished to inspect him, he would find him on his front porch at his home every morning at 9 o’clock“.

John Gilleland, 53, was a local dentist, builder and mechanic, and member in good standing of the Mitchell Thunderbolts.  Gilleland must have liked Petrini’s idea because he took up a collection in 1862, and raised $350 to build the Confederate States of America’s own, double-barrel cannon.

Measuring 13 inches wide by 4-feet 8½” inches and weighing in at some 1,300 pounds, this thing had two barrels diverging at 3° and equipped with three touch holes, one for each barrel and a third should you wish to fire them, together.  It was the secret “super weapon” of the age, two cannonballs connected by a chain and designed to “mow down the enemy somewhat as a scythe cuts wheat.”

As with Mr. Petrini’s invention, the insurmountable problem remained, how to fire the two, simultaneously.

The atmosphere was festive on April 22, 1862, when a crowd gathered to watch Gilleland test his creation. The weapon was aimed at two upright poles stuck into the ground, but uneven ignition and casting imperfections sent the two balls spinning wildly off to the side, where they “plowed up about an acre of ground, tore up a cornfield, mowed down saplings, and then the chain broke, the two balls going in different directions“.

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Double Barrel Cannon model, H/T ModelExpo

On its second test, two chain-connected balls shot through the air and into a stand of trees.   According to one witness, the “thicket of young pines at which it was aimed looked as if a narrow cyclone or a giant mowing machine had passed through“.

On the third firing, the chain snapped right out of the barrel.  One ball tore into a nearby cabin and destroyed the chimney, while the other spun off and killed a cow, who wasn’t bothering anyone.

Gilleland considered all three tests successful, but the only thing that was safe, seems to have been those target posts.

The dentist went straight to the Confederate States’ arsenal in Augusta where Colonel George Rains subjected his creation to extensive testing, before reporting the thing too unreliable for military use. The outraged inventor wrote angry letters to Georgia Governor Joseph “Joe” Brown and to the Confederate government in Richmond, but to no avail.

At last, the contraption was stuck in front of the Athens town hall and used as a signal gun, to warn the citizens of approaching Yankees.

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There it remained until August 2, 1864, when the gun was hauled out to the hills west of town to meet the Federal troops of Brigadier General George Stoneman.  The double-barrel cannon was positioned on a ridge near Barber’s Creek and loaded with canister shot, along with several conventional guns.  Outnumbered home guards did little real damage but the noise was horrendous, and Stoneman’s raiders withdrew to quieter pastures.

There were other skirmishes in the area, but all of them minor. In the end, Athens escaped the devastation of Sherman’s march to the sea, and the weapon was moved back to town.

Gilleland’s monstrosity was sold after the war and lost, for a time.  The thing was recovered and restored back in 1891, and returned to the Athens City Hall, where it remains to this day, a contributing property of the Downtown Athens Historic District.  Come and see it if you’re ever in Athens, right there at the corner of Hancock and College Avenue.  There you will find it, pointing north, toward the Yankees.  Just in case.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.