As the young nation expanded ever westward, attempts to “democratize” the issue of slavery instead had the effect of drawing up battle lines. Pro-slavery forces established a territorial capital in Lecompton, Kansas while “antis” set up their own government in Topeka. The resulting standoff would soon escalate to violence. Upwards of a hundred or more would be killed between 1854 – 1861, in a period called “Bleeding Kansas”.
Since the time of the Revolution, conflicts arose between those supporting a strong federal government, and those favoring greater self-determination for the states. In the South, climate conditions led to dependence on agriculture, the rural economy of the southern states producing cotton, rice, sugar, indigo and tobacco. Colder states to the north tended to develop manufacturing economies, urban centers growing up in service to hubs of transportation and the production of manufactured goods.
In the first half of the 19th century, 90% of federal government revenue came from tariffs on foreign manufactured goods. Most of this revenue was collected in the South, with the region’s greater dependence on imported goods. Much of this federal largesse was spent in the North, with the construction of roads, canals and other infrastructure.
The debate over economic issues and rights of self-determination, so-called ‘state’s rights’, grew and sharpened in 1828 with the threatened secession of South Carolina and the “nullification crisis” of 1832-33, when South Carolina declared such tariffs unconstitutional and therefore null and void within the state. Encyclopedia Britannica includes a Cartoon from the time depicting “Northern domestic manufacturers getting fat at the expense of impoverishing the South under protective tariffs.”
Chattel slavery existed from the earliest days of the colonial era, from Canada to Mexico, and around the world. Moral objections to what was really a repugnant practice could be found throughout, but economic forces had as much to do with ending the practice, as any other. The “peculiar institution” died out first in the colder regions of the US and may have done so in warmer climes as well, but for Eli Whitney’s invention of a cotton engine (‘gin’) in 1792.
It takes ten man-hours to remove the seeds to produce a single pound of cotton. By comparison, a cotton gin can process about a thousand pounds a day, at comparatively little expense.
The year of Whitney’s invention, the South exported 138,000 pounds a year to Europe and the northern colonies. Sixty years later, Britain alone was importing 600 million pounds a year, from the American south. Cotton was King, and with good reason. The stuff is easily grown, is more easily transportable, and can be stored indefinitely, compared with food crops. The southern economy turned overwhelmingly to this one crop and its need for plentiful, cheap labor. The issue of slavery had joined and become so intertwined with ideas of self-determination, as to be indistinguishable.
The first half of the 19th century was one of westward expansion in the United States, generating frequent and sharp conflicts between pro and anti-slavery factions. The Missouri compromise of 1820 was the first attempt to reconcile these factions, defining which territories would be slave states, and which would be “free”.
The short-lived “Wilmot Proviso” of 1846 sought to ban slavery in new territories, after which the Compromise of 1850 attempted to strike a balance. The Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, basically repealing the Missouri Compromise and allowing settlers to determine their own way through popular sovereignty.
This attempt to democratize the issue instead had the effect of drawing up battle lines. Pro-slavery forces established a territorial capital in Lecompton, while “antis” set up an alternative government in Topeka.
In Washington, Republicans backed the anti-slavery forces, while Democrats generally supported their opponents. The resulting standoff would soon escalate to violence. Upwards of a hundred or more would be killed between 1854 – 1861, in a period called “Bleeding Kansas”.
The town of Lawrence, Kansas was established by anti-slavery settlers in 1854, and soon became the focal point of pro-slavery violence. Emotions were at the boiling point when Douglas County Sheriff Samuel Jones was shot trying to arrest free-state settlers on April 23, 1856. Jones was driven out of town but he would return.
On this day in 1856, a posse of 800 pro-slavery forces closed around the town, led by Sheriff Jones. Cannon were positioned to cover the town and detachments of troops posted, to prevent escape. They commandeered the home of the first governor of Kansas, Charles L. Robinson, and used it as their headquarters.
The town’s two printing offices were sacked, the presses destroyed, and the type thrown into the river. The posse next set about to destroy the Free State Hotel, which they believed had been built to serve more as a fort than a hotel.
They may have been right, because it took the entire day with cannon shot, kegs of gunpowder and incendiary devices, before the hotel was finally reduced to a roofless, smoldering ruin.
There was looting and a few robberies as the men left town, burning Robinson’s home on the way out. Seven years later, a second raid on Lawrence resulted in the murder of over 150 boys and men. For now there was only one fatality: That of a slavery proponent killed, by falling masonry.
In the following days, five unarmed men will be taken from their homes and butchered with broadswords, by anti-slavery radicals John Brown, his sons and allies. Four months of partisan violence ensued when small armies formed up across eastern Kansas, clashing at places like Black Jack, Franklin, Fort Saunders, Hickory Point, Slough Creek, and Osawatomie
In Washington DC, a Senator will be beaten nearly to death on the floor of the United States Senate, by a member of the House of Representatives.
The 80-year-old nation forged inexorably onward, to a Civil War which would kill more Americans than every conflict from the American Revolution to the War on Terror, combined.
Protective tariffs worked to the advantage of the north as they tended to strengthen, the industrial economies. To the south, agricultural economies were more dependent on imported goods whether those came from the north, or from overseas.
Following the industrial revolution, Britain emerged as the economic powerhouse of Europe. As Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to throttle the British economy by shutting down exports to Europe, manufacturers across the UK sought out new trade partners. Among those were their own former colonies, in America.
In the United States, the low prices of British goods had a damaging affect on American manufacturing. Goods were flooding into the market at prices American companies, were unable to match. The tide increased after the war of 1812. Congress passed a tariff on British made goods in 1816 and upped the tax, eight years later.
Protective tariffs worked to the advantage of the north as they tended to strengthen, the industrial economies. To the south, agricultural economies were more dependent on imported goods whether those came from the north, or from overseas. The cotton states doubly resented protective tariffs as they made it more difficult, for their British trade partners to pay for exported cotton.
Today, the divide between Democrats and Republicans is a fact of life. In the 1820s, the first recognizable pieces of that system, were just falling into place. John Quincy Adams was elected in 1824 in what many described, as a “corrupt bargain”. The mid-terms of 1826 marked the first time Congress was in firm control of the President’s political opponents.
In 1828, southern and mid-Atlantic lawmakers agreed to concoct a tariff so egregious, the bill would never pass. The “Tariff of Abominations” weighed heavily on manufactured goods and therefore southern states but also on raw materials like iron, hemp (for rope) and flax, a direct shot at New England manufacturing. In so doing, future President Martin van Buren, then-Vice President John C. Calhoun and others expected to pull southern support in the final moments and thus to embarrass the President and his more conservative allies like Adams’ Secretary of State, Henry Clay.
Fun fact: Martin van Buren was born in Kinderhook New York where most of the residents, spoke Dutch. Van Buren was no exception, making the 8th President of the United States the only President to speak English, as a second language.
The plan worked nicely in the southern states, where the bill went down to defeat, 64-4. To their horror and astonishment, the thing received overwhelming support in the middle and western states. Even in New England where textile mills teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, lawmakers were swayed by the argument that, what was good for one region, was good for the nation. The tariff of abominations received 41% support, even in New England.
President Adams was well aware the measure would damage him politically but he signed it into law regardless, on this day in 1828.
The President was right. His own vice president jumped ship to join Andrew Jackson’s ticket to destroy Adams for re-election in an electoral vote, of 178 to 83. The “Era of Good Feelings” was ended. The age of the two-party system, had begun.
John C. Calhoun, (left) the only vice President to serve under two different Presidents, detested the law he had helped to create.
In December 1828, the outgoing/incoming vice President penned an anonymous pamphlet, urging nullification in his home state of South Carolina.
The South Carolina legislature printed 5,000 copies of Calhoun’s pamphlet but took none of the legislative measures, it argued for. Calhoun was out in the open in 1829, claiming the measure was unconstitutional and urging the law be declared null and void, in the sovereign state of South Carolina.
The issue created a split between Jackson and his vice President leading Calhoun to resign the vice Presidency.
Fun fact: While John C. Calhoun and Spiro T. Agnew are the only vice Presidents ever to resign, seven others have died in office, leaving the vice Presidency vacant for a total of 37 years and 290 days, about a fifth of the time, we’ve had a President.
President Jackson signed a reduced tariff into law in 1832 but, for South Carolina, it was too little, too late. The state called a convention that November and, by a vote of 136-26, voted that the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were both unconstitutional and thereby null and void, in South Carolina.
Andrew Jackson was not a man to be trifled with. At 13, Jackson received serious saber wounds at the hands of a British soldier, infuriated that the boy refused to shine his boots. In 1806, the man killed a Nashville lawyer in a duel while himself being shot, in the chest. He would carry that bullet in his body until 1831 when a navy doctor cut it out right there in the White House…without anesthesia. Another dueling opponent shot Jackson in 1813, this time, shattering his shoulder. He would carry that bullet in his body, until the day he died. As a General in the War of 1812, Jackson famously crushed an advancing British army, in the Battle of New Orleans.
As President, Jackson wasn’t about to tolerate a nullification crisis under his watch and threatened to make war, on South Carolina. Congress passed the Force Act, granting Jackson the authority to take any measure, he deemed necessary. South Carolina began military preparations for war, with the federal government.
Bloodshed was averted when Calhoun and Clay stepped in, with a compromise. Under their plan, the tariff of 1833 would begin to reduce rates over 20% by one tenth every two years until they were all back to 20%, in 1842.
South Carolina reconvened and repealed the ordnance of nullification. Lest anyone doubt their true intentions or deny the state’s right to do so, the convention then went on to nullify Congress’ Force Act.
It didn’t much matter. The “Black Tariff” of 1842 reinstated the old duties and increased dutiable imports, to 85%.
By the 1850s, westward expansion brought back the issue of “State’s Rights”, this time over the expansion, of slavery.
The next crisis was not to be averted, but by rivers of blood.
Our ancestors were still English colonists when this particular acorn first reached toward the warmth, of the sun. On this day in 1864 that sapling stood in a quiet meadow in Spotsylvania Virginia, itself a mighty oak some 22-inches, in diameter.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
According to legend, the infant Temujin was born sometime between 1155 and 1162 with a blood clot clutched in his fist, the size of a knucklebone. Mongol folklore holds such a sign to be prophetic. That one day the child would grow to be a great leader. Today we remember the young boy Temujin as the great and terrible chieftain, Genghis Khan.
Around that time some 6,500 miles to the west, an acorn sprouted from the soil in a place we now call Wyllys Hyll in Hartford, Connecticut. Through countless summers and frigid winters the sapling grew and transformed to become a mighty oak tree. Dutch explorer Adrian Block described the tree in a log, written in 1614. Twenty years later, local natives spoke with Samuel Wyllys, an early settler who had cleared the ground around it. Tribal elders spoke of this oak and its ceremonial planting, all those centuries before. They pleaded with Wyllys to preserve the great tree.
“It has been the guide of our ancestors for centuries as to the time of planting our corn; when the leaves are the size of a mouse’s ears, then is the time to put the seed into the ground”.
In 1662 Governor John Winthrop won from King Charles II a charter, legitimizing the settlements of Connecticut and establishing the colonists’ right, of self-rule. Twenty five years later, King James II wanted the New England and New York colonies integrated under central authority and sought to rescind, the charter. Sir Edmund Andros, hand selected to rule over this “Dominion of New England” marched on Hartford at the head of an armed force to seize the charter.
The next part fades into legend but the story is, that Governor Robert Treat and a group of colonists sat glaring across the table at Andros, and a group of his allies. The charter lay between them, on a table. The debate raged for hours when, somehow, the lights went out. On relighting the candles only moments later King Charles’ charter, was gone. Captain Joseph Wadsworth had snatched up the parchment and stashed it in a hollow, in that great old tree.
Fun Fact: The timber from 2,000 southern live oak trees was harvested in Georgia and used to construct the hulls of USS Constitution and five other US Navy frigates, constructed under the Naval Act of 1794. Today, “Old Ironsides” is the oldest commissioned warship on the planet, still afloat.
Despite all that the politicians folded and Andros made his appointments, but colonists never did vote to submit. With the Spring of 1689 came news of the Glorious Revolution, in England. King James had fled to France and Edmund Andros was arrested. So it is the New England colonies held and kept their independence. The “Charter Oak” depicted at the top of this page remains to this day, a part of our colonial history.
The majestic old tree blew over in a storm in 1856 when firearms manufacturer Samuel Colt sent a marching band to play funeral dirges, over its fallen timbers.
From the frigid forests of the north to the beaches of our southern coasts some 90 species of oak tree stand as part of our personal memories, and our American history. The Water Oak shading the Brown Chapel African Methodist Church in Selma Alabama, where Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “We Shall Overcome” speech before setting out on a 50-mile march, to Montgomery. The Overcup Oak beside the birthplace of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. As a child, Helen Keller once climbed the branches of a 100-year-old Water Oak.
Descendants of these trees and hundreds more stand today at our nation’s most hallowed ground at Arlington, Virginia.
Not far away, the Smithsonian owns another oak or, more accurately, the stump of a tree hewn to the ground, by gunfire.
Our ancestors were still English colonists when this particular acorn first reached toward the warmth, of the sun. On this day in 1864 that sapling stood in a quiet meadow in Spotsylvania Virginia, itself a mighty oak some 22-inches, in diameter.
The 16th President of the United States once said of general Ulysses Grant “I need this man. He fights”. A succession of Generals had failed in the eyes of Abraham Lincoln, but not Grant. You knock him down and he’ll dust off, and keep coming at you.
Following a terrible draw at the Battle of the Wilderness, Grant’s army disengaged from that of Robert E. Lee and moved southeast, hoping to draw the Confederates into battle under more favorable conditions. It was a race to the critical crossroads of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Elements of Lee’s forces won the race and began to entrench. Off and on fighting began on May 8 and lasted, through May 21.
On May 12 some 1,200 Confederate troops waited in that once quiet meadow, sheltered behind an earthwork and timber revetment shaped, like a mule’s shoe. At the center stood that majestic oak. Some 5,000 Union troops assaulted the position from the Army of the Potomac. Some of the most savage and sustained fighting of the Civil War raged on all sides, of that tree. When it was over some twenty hours later that mighty oak, was no more. The tree was felled by small arms fire at a place we remember, as the “Bloody Angle’.
Both sides declared victory at Spotsylvania Courthouse and the war moved on. To places called Yellow Tavern (May 11), Meadow Bridge (May 12), North Anna (May 23–26), and others. By late June, Lee was forced into the nightmare position of defending the Confederate Capital, at Richmond.
Taken together Grant’s “Overland Campaign” carried out over those six bloody weeks in May and June resulted in some of the highest casualties, of the Civil War. Casualties crippling to Federal troops but in the end mortal, to the cause of southern independence.
The modern mind is left only to contemplate, perhaps over the image of that tree stump. To imagine, what it all sounded like. What it all looked like. What it all smelled like.
That tree stump is all that remains of the apocalypse of May 12, of an oak tree surrounded by the cataclysm of Civil War and carried out inside a meadow, shaped like a mule’s shoe.
Many among us trace our personal ancestry, through the Civil War. For 52nd North Carolina infantry soldier James Tyner, the war came to an end in Spotsylvania Court House.
Tyner was captured and moved to the Federal prison camp in Elmira New York known as “Hellmira”.
There my own twice-great grandfather would spend the rest of the war, or most of it. James Tyner died in captivity on March 13, 1865. General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant only twenty-seven days later, at a place called Appomattox.
At 2:00am on April 27, Mason’s temporary boiler patch exploded. Two more boilers detonated a split second later. The force of the explosion hurled hundreds into the icy black water. The top decks soon gave way as hundreds tumbled into the gaping maw of the fire boxes below.
In April 1865, the Civil War was all but over. General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on the 9th. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated five days later and John Wilkes Booth run to ground and killed, on the 26th. Thousands of former POWs were being released from Confederate camps in Alabama and Georgia, and held in regional parole depots.
The sidewheel steamboat Sultana left New Orleans with about 100 passengers and a few head of livestock, pulling into Vicksburg Mississippi on the 21st to repair a damaged boiler and pick up a promised load of passengers.
With a bulging seam on her boiler, the ship’s mechanic wanted to cut it out and install a new plate, easily three day’s work. Captain J. Cass Mason declined, for fear of losing his passengers. He wanted the seam hammered back into place and covered with a patch and he wanted it done, in a day.
The passengers Mason was so afraid of losing were former prisoners of the Confederacy, and Confederate parolees, returning to their homes in Kentucky and Tennessee.
The Federal government was paying $5 each to anyone bringing enlisted troops home, and $10 apiece for officers. Lieutenant Colonel Reuben Hatch, chief quartermaster at Vicksburg and one of the sleazier characters in this story, had approached Captain Mason with a deal. Hatch would guarantee a minimum of 1,400 passengers and they’d both walk away, with a pocketful of cash.
As it was, there were other riverboats in the vicinity. Mason didn’t have time to worry about boiler repairs.
The decks creaked and sagged, as beams were installed to shore up the load. Sultana backed away from the dock on April 24 with 2,427 passengers. More than six times her legal limit of 376.
Sultana spent two days traveling upstream, fighting one of the heaviest spring floods in the history of the Mississippi River. She arrived at Memphis on the evening of the 26th, unloading 120 tons of sugar from her holds. Already massively top heavy, the riverboat now lurched from side to side with every turn.
The crew must have exceeded allowable steam pressure, pushing all that load against the current. Pressure varied wildly inside Sultana’s four giant boilers, as water sloshed from one to the next with every turn, boiling water flashing to superheated steam and back to water.
At 2:00am on April 27, Mason’s temporary boiler patch exploded. Two more boilers detonated a split second later. The force of the explosion hurled hundreds into the icy black water. The top decks soon gave way as hundreds tumbled into the gaping maw of the fire boxes below.
Within moments, the entire riverboat was ablaze. Those who weren’t incinerated outright now had to take their chances in the swift moving waters of the river. Already weakened by terms in captivity, they died by the hundreds of drowning, or hypothermia.
Seven hours later the drifting and burnt out hulk of the Sultana, sank to the bottom. The steamers Silver Spray, Jenny Lind, and Pocahontas joined the rescue effort, along with the navy tinclad Essex and the sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler. 700 were plucked from the water and taken to Memphis hospitals of whom 200 later died of burns or exposure. Bodies continued to wash ashore, for months.
History has a way of swallowing some events whole. Like they never even happened. Sultana was the worst maritime disaster in American history, though her memory was swept away in the tide of events, that April. The United States Customs Service records an official count of 1,800 killed, though the true number will never be known. Titanic went down in the North Atlantic 47 years later, taking 1,512 with her.
Despite the enormity of the disaster, no one was ever held accountable. One Union officer, Captain Frederick Speed, was found guilty of grossly overcrowding the riverboat. It was he who sent 2,100 prisoners from their parole camp into Vicksburg, but his conviction was later overturned. It seems that higher ranking officials may have tried to make him into a scapegoat, since he never so much as laid eyes on Sultana herself.
Captain Williams, the officer who actually put all those people onboard, was a West Point graduate and regular army officer. The army didn’t seem to want to go after one of its own. Captain Mason and all of his officers were killed in the disaster. Reuben Hatch, the guy who concocted the whole scheme in the first place, resigned shortly after the disaster, thereby putting himself outside the reach of a military tribunal.
The last survivor of the Sultana disaster, Private Charles M. Eldridge of the 3rd (Confederate) Tennessee Cavalry, died at his home at the age of 96 on September 8, 1941. Three months later, the air forces of Imperial Japan attacked the US Naval anchorage, at Pearl Harbor.
Think your “Representative” in Congress is a piece of work? I feel your pain. With apologies to Mr. A. Lincoln, “It is altogether fitting and proper” that the first use of the insanity defense in an American courtroom, just happened to be for the murder of a District Attorney, by a member of the United States Congress.
In case you think your own member of congress is a piece of work, he or she probably has nothing on Tammany Hall’s own, Daniel “Devil Dan” Edgar Sickles. Sickles carried on an “indiscreet affair” for years, with well-known prostitute Fanny White. No fan of Victorian era propriety, Sickles loved nothing more than to introduce Fanny to scandalized breakfast guests. As a member of the New York assembly in 1847, Sickles earned a censure from the opposition Whig party, for bringing White into the assembly chamber.
He almost certainly arranged the mortgage on White’s brothel, using the name of his friend and future father-in-law Antonio Bagioli. Sickles married Teresa Bagioli in 1852 when he was 33 and she 15 and pregnant, much to the chagrin of both families. Fanny White was so angry she followed him to a hotel room and attacked him, with a riding whip.
As personal secretary for the Ambassador to the Court of St. James and future US President James Buchanan, Sickles left his pregnant wife behind, bringing along Fanny White, instead. Meeting Queen Victoria herself at Buckingham palace, Sickles introduced the prostitute as “Miss Bennett”, using the name of the hated editor of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, Senior. Queen Victoria never got wise to the ruse but Bennett was furious, at the use of his name.
Carrying on with a known prostitute was one thing, but the Mrs. having an affair with a United States District Attorney, was quite another.
Following Teresa’s confession of her adultery with the US Attorney for the Washington District, Congressman Sickles shot and killed the man in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. The deceased was one Philip Barton Key, none other than the son of Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner”.
Sickles surrendered and went on trial for premeditated murder, obtaining the legal services of future Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. By the time the defense rested, Washington newspapers were praising Sickles for “saving all the ladies of Washington from this rogue named Key”.
In the first use of the temporary insanity defense in US legal history, Dan Sickles was acquitted on April 26, 1859.
I’ve long believed that social media has elevated us all to new heights of chicken excrement, but maybe not. Sickles’ supporters and detractors alike worked themselves into a perfect snit, more exercised over the man’s public reconciliation with his wife than his murder charges.
As a “War Democrat”, a Democrat in favor of prosecuting the war with the Confederacy, Sickles became an important political ally to Republican President Lincoln, receiving a commission as Brigadier General despite having no previous combat experience.
On the first day of the Battle at Gettysburg, July 1, General Robert E. Lee came at the Union right. On day 2 he advanced against the union left, squarely aimed at General Sickles position, at the base of little Round top. Except, Devil Dan wasn’t there. In defiance of orders, Sickles abandoned a great gap in his lines and moved his 3rd corps a mile out front, taking a position in a peach orchard.
All but alone now, III Corps was hit from left, right and center and shattered, in the Confederate assault. Sickles himself was hit by a cannon ball that mangled his right leg. With a saddle strap for a tourniquet he was toted off to III Corps hospital, grinning, propped up on an elbow and smoking a cigar.
Following Sickles’ bloodbath at the peach orchard, the frantic footrace to the undefended crest of Little Round Top and the savage hand to hand fighting that followed, was just about all that saved the Union army.
Following amputation, Sickles insisted on being transported to Washington DC where he arrived, on July 4. Gettysburg was by now a great Union victory, one for which Sickles set about immediately crafting the narrative of his own heroic contribution.
Sickles donated his leg to the newly founded Army Medical Museum in Washington, DC, along with a visiting card marked, “With the compliments of Major General D.E.S.” He visited his leg for several years thereafter, on the anniversary of the amputation.
Despite near-disastrous insubordination, Sickles was awarded the medal of honor and continued his service, through the end of the war. To his everlasting disgust he never did receive another battlefield command.
Sickles commanded several military districts during Reconstruction and served as U.S. Minister to Spain where he carried on with none other than the deposed Queen Isabella II.
Eventually returning to the United States Congress, Sickles made important legislative contributions to the preservation of the Battlefield at Gettysburg.
Virtually every senior Union commander at Gettysburg is remembered, through his own monument. All except Dan Sickles. Once asked where his monument was, Congressman Sickles replied: “The whole park is my monument.”
Robert Rhett, the rabble rousing editor of the Charleston Mercury Newspaper, offered to personally eat the bodies of all those slain in the coming conflict. Never one to be outdone, former Senator James Chesnut, Jr. said “a lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed,” promising to personally drink any that might be spilled.
South Carolina seceded from the United States on December 20, 1860, leaving state government officials to consider themselves, a sovereign nation. Six days later, United States Army Major Robert Anderson quietly moved his small garrison from the Revolution-era Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to the yet to be completed Fort Sumter, a brick fortification at the mouth of Charleston Harbor.
President James Buchanan attempted to reinforce and resupply Anderson via the unarmed merchant vessel, “Star of the West”. Shore batteries opened up on the effort on January 9, effectively trapping Anderson and his garrison inside the only federal property in the vicinity.
For the newly founded Confederate States of America, the presence of an armed federal force at the mouth of Charleston harbor could not be tolerated. Secessionists debated whether the problem was that of South Carolina or the national government, in Mobile.
Meanwhile, the Federal government refused to recognize the Confederacy, as independent states. It was a standoff. Both sides needed the support of border states, and neither wanted to be seen as the aggressor.
Political opinion was so sharply divided at that time, that brothers literally wound up fighting against brothers. By the time the war got going, every seceding state but South Carolina sent regiments to fight for the Union and even that state, contributed troops to the Union war effort. A surprising number of northern soldiers resigned commissions and fought for the south including Barre, Massachusetts native Daniel Ruggles, Ohio Quaker Bushrod Johnson and New York native Samuel Cooper, to name a few.
Fun fact: When South Carolina seceded that December the world waited to see, who would be next. With her January 9th departure from the federal union Mississippi was the next state to actually leave, though not the next to talk about it. That honor went not to a southern state but a northern city called New York on January 7, 1861. Mayor Fernando Wood addressed the Common Council, requesting New York assert its independence as a “free city” by “disrupt[ing] the bands which bind her to a venal and corrupt master” (the federal government).
Confederate Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard (I love that name) was placed in charge of Charleston in March and immediately began to strengthen the batteries surrounding the harbor.
Fort Sumter was designed for a garrison of 650 in service to 130 guns, most of them pointed outward, positioned to defend the harbor against threats from the sea. In April 1861 there were only 60 guns, too much for Major Anderson’s 85-man garrison, nearly half of whom were non-combatants, mostly workmen and musicians.
When Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, the resupply of Fort Sumter became the first crisis for the new administration. Lincoln notified South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens he was sending supply ships, resulting in Beauregard’s ultimatum: the Federal garrison was to evacuate immediately, or Confederate batteries would open fire.
Major Anderson lacking the appropriate response, shore batteries opened fire at 4:30 am on April 12, 4003 guns firing in counter-clockwise rotation. Abner Doubleday, Federal 2nd in command and the man erroneously credited with the invention of baseball, later wrote “The crashing of the shot, the bursting of the shells, the falling of the walls, and the roar of the flames, made a pandemonium of the fort.”
Two years later at Gettysburg, Norman Jonathan Hall would lose over 200 men in furious fighting at a critical breach near the ”copse of trees”. One day, a brass plaque would mark the spot as the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy. On this day, Lieutenant Hall raced through flames to rescue the colors, after a direct hit on the main flagpole knocked the flag to the ground. His eyebrows were permanently burned off of his face, but Hall and two artillerymen were able to jury-rig the pole so, once again, Old Glory flew over Fort Sumter.
Over 34 hours, thousands of shells were fired at Fort Sumter. Though vastly outgunned federal forces, fired back. For all that, the only casualty was a Confederate mule.
The only fatalities in the whole mess occurred after the federal surrender, on April 13. One gun misfired performing a 100-gun salute while lowering the flag, mortally wounding privates Daniel Hough and Edward Galloway.
The following day, Colonel Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army.
The Civil War had begun but few understood the kind of demons, now unleashed. Robert Rhett, the rabble rousing editor of the Charleston Mercury Newspaper, offered to personally eat the bodies of all those slain in the coming conflict. Never one to be outdone, former Senator James Chesnut, Jr. said “a lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed,” promising to personally drink any that might be spilled.
The war between the states would lay waste to a generation and end the lives of more Americans than the Revolution, World War 1, World War 2 and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Combined.
About a week after Confederates first fired on Fort Sumter a female bald eagle laid a clutch of eggs, somewhere in Wisconsin.
In 1861, leader of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe band O-k-ma-key-sik, “Chief Big Sky” captured an eaglet, and sold it for a bushel of corn to saloon keeper Daniel McCann of Chippewa County, Wisconsin.
Captain John Perkins, Commanding Officer of the Eau Claire “Badgers”, bought the young bald eagle from Daniel McCann.
The asking price was $2.50.
Militia members were asked to pitch in twenty-five cents as was one particular civilian: tavern-keeper S.M. Jeffers. Jeffers’ refusal earned him “three lusty groans”, to which he laughed and told them all, to keep their quarters.
Jeffers threw in a single quarter-eagle, a gold coin valued at 250¢, and that was that. From that moment onward, the militia unit called itself the Eau Claire “Eagles”.
Perkins’ Eagles entered Federal Service as Company C of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment. It wasn’t long before the entire Regiment adopted the bald eagle, calling themselves the “Eagle Regiment”, in honor of their new mascot. Much deliberation followed as to what to name him, before it was decided. The bird would be called “Old Abe”.
Old Abe accompanied the regiment as it headed south, travelling all over the western theater and witness to 37 battles. David McLain wrote “I have frequently seen Generals Grant, Sherman, McPherson, Rosecrans, Blair, Logan, and others, when they were passing our regiment, raise their hats as they passed Old Abe, which always brought a cheer from the regiment and then the eagle would spread his wings”.
Abe became an inspirational symbol to the troops, like the battle flag carried with each regiment. Colonel Rufus Dawes of the Iron Brigade recalled, “Our eagle usually accompanied us on the bloody field, and I heard [Confederate] prisoners say they would have given more to capture the eagle of the Eighth Wisconsin, than to take a whole brigade of men.”
Confederate General Sterling Price spotted Old Abe on his perch during the battle of Corinth, Mississippi. “That bird must be captured or killed at all hazards”, Price remarked. “I would rather get that eagle than capture a whole brigade or a dozen battle flags”.
Old Abe was presented to the state of Wisconsin at the end of the war. He lived 15 years in the “Eagle Department”, a two-room apartment in the basement of the Capitol, complete with custom bathtub, and a caretaker. Photographs of Old Abe were sold to help veteran’s organizations. He was a national celebrity, traveling across the country and appearing at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the 1880 Grand Army of the Republic National Convention, and dozens of fundraising events.
A small fire broke out in a Capitol basement workshop, fed by cleaning solvents and shop rags. The fire was quickly extinguished thanks to the bald eagle’s cries of alarm, but not before Old Abe inhaled a whole lot of that thick, black smoke. Abe’s health began to decline, almost immediately. Veterinarians and doctors were called, but to no avail. Bald eagles have been known to live as long as 50 years in captivity. Old Abe died in the arms of caretaker George Gilles on March 26, 1881. He was 20.
His remains were stuffed and mounted. For the next 20 years his body remained on display in the Capitol building rotunda. On the night of February 26, 1904, a gas jet ignited a newly varnished ceiling, burning the Capitol building to the ground.
Since 1915, Old Abe’s replica has watched over the Wisconsin State Assembly Chamber of the new capitol building.
In 1921, the 101st infantry division was reconstituted in the Organized Reserves with headquarters in Milwaukee. It was here that the 101st first became associated with the “Screaming Eagle”. The Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne participated in the D-Day invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, Operation Market Garden, and Bastogne and late became the basis of the HBO series “A Band of Brothers”.
After WWII, elements of the 101st Airborne were mobilized to Little Rock by President Eisenhower to protect the civil rights of the “Little Rock Nine”, a group of black students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in September 1957, as the result of the US Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the historic Brown v. Board of Education case.
For 104 years, Old Abe appeared in the trademark of the J.I. Case farm equipment company of Racine, Wisconsin.
Winston Churchill once said “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” We all know how stories change with the retelling. Some stories take on a life of their own. Ambrose Armitage, serving with Company D of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry, wrote in his diary on September 14, 1861, that Company C had a “four month old female eagle with them”. Two years later, Armitage wrote, “The passing troops have been running in as they always do to see our eagle. She is a great wonder”.
Ten years after his death, a national controversy sprang up and lasted for decades, as to whether Old Abe was, in fact, a “she”. Suffragettes claimed that “he” had laid eggs in the Wisconsin capitol. Newspapers weighed in, including the Washington Post, Detroit Free Press, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Oakland Tribune, and others.
Bald eagles are not easily sex-differentiated. There are few clues available to the non-expert, outside of the contrasts of a mated pair. It’s unlikely that even those closest to Old Abe, had a clue as to the eagle’s sex.
University of Wisconsin Biotechnology Center Sequencing Facility researchers had access to four feathers, collected during the early days at the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall. In March of 2016, samples were taken from the hollow quill portion (calamus) of each feather, and examined for the presence of two male sex chromosomes (ZZ) or both a male and female chromosome (ZW). After three months, the results were conclusive. All four samples showed the Z chromosome, none having a matching W.
After 155 years, Old Abe wasn’t about to lay any eggs.
Those left behind perform a quiet kind service to the rest of us, a service shared by the whole family without so much as outside recognition.
When Civil War broke out in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln put out a call for 75,000 90-day troops, to put down the rebellion. Kentucky refused. Governor Beriah Magoffin responded that Kentucky would send no soldiers “for the wicked purpose of subduing her sister southern states.” In a letter written that September, President Lincoln described the importance of his home state to the war effort. “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game…Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us and the job on our hands is too large for us…..” The place was equally important on the Confederate side. Had Kentucky seceded, rebel troops would be positioned to strike at will toward Ohio, Indiana or Illinois.
That October, commander of Union forces in Kentucky William Tecumseh Sherman told Secretary of War Simon Cameron he needed 60,000 men to defend the territory, and 200,000 to go on the offensive. Outraged, Cameron called Sherman’s request “insane” and removed the general, from command. One Ohio newspaper opined that Sherman had lost his mind.
Humiliated, Sherman wrote to his brother, “I do think I should have committed suicide were it not for my children...”
General Ulysses Grant saw not insanity in general Sherman, but cold competence. In 1862, Grant reassigned Sherman to Paducah, Kentucky.
Later in the war, Sherman defended Grant about a (possibly unfair) accusation of being drunk on duty. “General Grant is a great general”. Sherman began. “He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now, sir, we stand by each other always.”
The story may be found in any number of books. Books about war, about soldiers, but what of the man, inside the uniform. The man called to leave his family, to do a job. And what of the family left behind and the bonds of affection forced to stretch across a nation, or an ocean. That book with so much to say about combat, has less to say about the man behind the soldier, that man’s place in the family unit and even less about the loved ones, left behind.
I’ve seen the story played out by my mother, two sisters-in-law and a daughter. The soldier, usually a “he”, leaves home in service to his country. Those left behind do their best to carry on without the help of a partner, all the while keeping their worst fears locked away in a dark closet of imagination. Those left behind perform a quiet kind of service to the rest of us, a service shared by the whole family without so much as outside recognition.
The long siege of Vicksburg was over in 1863 following the Union victory of July 4. The city of Vicksburg wouldn’t celebrate another Independence Day, for 80 years.
Making camp on the Big Black River near Bovina Mississippi, Sherman made headquarters in the home of Reverend James Fox. Thinking it would be a good time to reunite with his family, Sherman sent for his wife, Ellen and the couple’s four children: Minnie , Lizzie , Willy  and Tom .
Sherman himself had become fatherless at 9 and adopted by one Thomas Ewing of Lancaster, Ohio.
“I have a healthy camp,” Sherman wrote to Ewing, father of Sherman’s former step-sister and now-wife Eleanor “Ellen” Ewing Sherman. “I have no fear of yellow or other fevers.”
What an adventure it was for the children, especially Willy. Living in tents and hanging around with Union soldiers.
The 13th Infantry made him an honorary sergeant, teaching the boy the manual of arms and including him in guard details, drills and parades. The boy would accompany his father on inspection tours of the Army. What a lark. The experience of a lifetime.
Sherman’s confidence about yellow fever was based on that which was known, in 1863. Thirty years later, science would understand the illness to be mosquito-borne and not spread by human contact.
The family boarded the steamboat Atlantic that September, to begin the trek back home to Ohio. Willy didn’t look well. The boy was uncharacteristically quiet, his cheeks flushed. Surgeon E. O. F. Roler was summoned to examine him and came back with a dreadful diagnosis. Yellow fever.
The prognosis was grim. Fewer than 1,000 soldiers died in battle during the 8-month war Spanish American war in Cuba, in 1898. More than 5,000 died of disease, most of those from yellow fever.
Willy’s condition worsened. Arriving in Memphis, the boy was taken to the Hotel Gayoso, that October. Fading in and out of consciousness, he was given last rites on October 3. Willy told the priest he was willing to die if it was God’s will, but he didn’t want to leave his parents. With tears streaming down the cheeks of his mother and father, Willy reached and out, and touched their faces. And then he was gone.
Shattered, Ellen and her remaining children boarded a steamer to Ohio, three days later. The General went back to Mississippi. He had a war to fight.
On October 6, Sherman wrote to Ellen, from Gayoso: “I have got up early this morning to steal a short period in which to write you, but I can hardly trust myself. Sleeping, waking, every-where I see poor little Willy. … I will always deplore my want of judgement in taking my family to so fatal a climate at so critical a period of the year….To it must be traced the loss of that child on whose future I had based all the ambition I ever had.“
This from a man who had written only two year earlier, “I do think I should have committed suicide were it not for my children”.
Ellen, a devout and practicing Catholic, fell back on her faith. General Sherman fell into depression, despair, and self-reproach.
So great was the General’s grief that he never forgave himself, for bringing his family to that place.
A year before his death in 1891, Sherman left detailed instructions about his last rest in that St. Louis cemetery, “alongside my faithful wife and idolized soldier boy.”
The grief, the self-reproach, it all but crushed him. Sherman wrote to Admiral David Porter: “I lost recently my little boy by sickness incurred during his visit to my camp on Big Black. He was my pride and hope of life, and his loss has taken from me the great incentive to excel, and now I must work on purely and exclusively for love of country and professional pride.”
Some historians blame the savagery of Sherman’s attack on Meridian Mississippi, the cruelty of his assault on Atlanta and the “March to the Sea” on a form of madness, brought on by the loss of his precious boy.
In the Summer of 1864, three Union armies of the newly appointed division of the Mississippi under William Tecumseh Sherman were advancing, on Atlanta. Meanwhile back home in Lancaster, Ellen was about to give birth to another child. A baby boy, named Charley.
Let the couple’s letters tell the story and imagine if you will your own troubles, set against the backdrop of civil war.
Big Shanty, GA June 12, 1864: Dearest Ellen, I have received Phil’s dispatch announcing the birth to us, of another son. I’m glad you’re over the terrible labor, and hope it’s the last you will have to endure. Of course, I’m pleased to know the sex of the child, as he must succeed to the place left vacant, by Willy. Though I fear we will never be able to lavish on anyone, the love we bore for him. I am ever yours, W.T. Sherman
Lancaster Ohio, July 7, 1864: Dearest Cump, For the first time since I went to bed the night of the 10th of June I am able to sit up, and hold my pen. I’d been sick all that day. About 1 o’clock I sent for the doctor. At 20 minutes past two the baby was born with a cry, loud enough to disturb the neighborhood. Like Tommy he was born with a caul over his face which the doctor had to remove, before his cry came forth. I must thank God I am spared to my children, and not murmur at the trials he sends me. As ever, Ellen
Headquarters, Military division of Mississippi, In the field near Chattahoochee, July 9, 1864: Dearest Ellen, it is now two months since I left Chattanooga, and I think during all this time I have but one letter from you. I fear you have been more ill than I supposed. The enemy and the Chattahoochee lie between us, and intense heat prevails, but I think I shall succeed. At all events you know, I never turn back. Give my love to your father and all the young folks. Yours ever, WT Sherman
Lancaster Ohio July 16, 1864: Dearest Cump, I have been ill indeed, in great danger of death, and left weak. Charley thrives, grows and fattens, and is very strong and healthy. The children dote on him, particularly Tommy and Lizzie. Tommy asked me how long babies wore long dresses and when I told him six or eight months he begged me to put pantaloons on Charlie then. He walks with him in his arms and watches him and plays with him and sings 20 times a day. He is so glad the baby is not a girl. I have not told you how very strongly he resembles you in form, face and shape of head. The likeness is striking and I am delighted to see it. All are well, and send love to dear Papa. Ever your affectionate, Ellen
Lancaster Ohio September 17, 1864: Saturday morning: Dearest Cump, the baby has a very bad cold, settled on his lungs. May Willy’s pure spirit be your guide to his happy home in heaven is the hourly prayer of your truly affectionate, Ellen
Cincinnati Ohio September 22, 1864: it seems as if I were never to have another letter from you, dearest Cump
Cincinnati Ohio September 25, 1864: Sunday evening: Dearest Cump, the baby has a very bad cough and I feel so uneasy.
Lancaster Ohio, November 8, 1864: Dearest Cump, Dear Willy’s picture has just been brought, and now stands framed in my room. We need this to keep him fresh in the minds and the hearts of all the children for all must love and know and talk of their holy brother, until by God‘s grace we join him in his heavenly home. The baby has such a severe cold, which has taken such a firm hold on his lungs that I greatly fear, he will never get over it, and that it will end in consumption. Ever your truly affectionate, Ellen.
Obituary, Charles Celestine Sherman, New York Times, December 25, Christmas Day, 1864: Died at South Bend Indiana on Sunday, December 4, 1864, of pneumonia. Charles Celestine, infant son of Major General WT and Ellen E. Sherman, aged 5 months and 23 days
South Bend Indiana, December 29, 1864: Dearest Cump, long before this, you have seen in the papers the notice, of the dear baby’s death. God grant that his prayers and Willy’s may ensure my perseverance and obtain for you the gift of faith. Ellen E. Sherman
Military Division Mississippi in the field, January 5, 1865: Dearest Ellen I have written several times to you and the children. yesterday I got your letter of December 23 and realized the deep pain and anguish through which you have passed, and the pain and sickness of the little baby I never saw. All spoke of him as so bright and fair that I had hoped he would be spared to us, to fill the great void in our hearts left by Willy. But it is otherwise decreed, and we must submit. I have seen death in such quantity and in such forms that it no longer startles me. But with you, it is different. Yours, WT Sherman
Two weeks after that last letter from Ellen, General Sherman was in Savannah, preparing to march north into South Carolina. It began to rain on January 17, the heaviest rainfall in 20 years. January 21 came and went with no respite. Not until the end of the month did the rain cease to fall. The misery of that camp in Savannah and of General Sherman’s mental state, can only be guessed at.
The coming assault on the seat of secession would be worse than Sherman’s march to the sea.
Margie Bearss, wife of Vicksburg Military Park historian Edwin Bearss is herself an accomplished historian, a fellow of the National Military Collectors and Historians association, author of Sherman’s Forgotten Campaign in Meridien Mississippi and known for her work in support of the Grand Gulf Military Park in Mississippi, and the USS Cairo, now in the Vicksburg military Park. Bearss once mused, “Did perhaps the death of Willy start a chain reaction of fires and desolation in Mississippi that the winds of more than a century have not entirely hidden? Did Sherman hold Mississippi ‘that sickly region’ responsible for his death? Who knows. Yet, we do know that between the end of the Vicksburg Campaign and the beginning of the Meridian Expedition, only a few months’ time, his concept of warfare changed and he began his own version of the ‘total war’ for which he became well-known.“
“As a consequence of the naval blockade, Bermuda — along with the Bahamas and Cuba — became a centre of Confederate commerce. A steady stream of fast-running ships from the South clandestinely skirted the Union blockade, passing through St. George’s carrying cotton from Charleston, South Carolina and Wilmington, North Carolina for English manufacturers; they made the return journeys freighted with European armaments. Bermuda was both a transhipment point where cotton was directly exchanged for British weapons warehoused here and a refuelling depot for Confederate blockade runners making transatlantic runs.” – Hat tip BerNews.com
South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860, the first of 11 states to do so. War broke out in April, and the Confederacy desperately needed ships for its fledgling Navy. The CSA needed manufactured goods as well, goods no longer available from the industrialized North. The answer, in both cases, was Great Britain. While remaining officially neutral, England soon became primary ship builders and trade partners for the Confederacy.
For the British military, Bermuda had already demonstrated its value. Bermuda based privateers captured 298 American ships during the war of 1812. The place served as a base for amphibious operations as well, such as the 1815 sack of Washington, DC. British Commander Sir Alexander Milne said “If Bermuda were in the hands of any other nation, the base of our operations would be removed to the two extremes, Halifax and Jamaica, and the loss of this island as a Naval Establishment would be a National misfortune”.
President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation soon after taking office, threatening to blockade southern coastlines. It wasn’t long before the “Anaconda Plan” went into effect, a naval blockade extending 3,500 miles along the Atlantic coastline and Gulf of Mexico, up into the lower Mississippi River.
Running the blockade was no small or occasional enterprise. The number of attempts to run the Federal stranglehold have been estimated at 2,500 to 2,800, of which about 2/3rds succeeded. Over the course of the war, the Union Navy captured over 1,100 blockade runners. Another 355 vessels were destroyed or run aground.
Cotton would ship out of Mobile, Charleston, Wilmington and other ports while weapons and other manufactured goods would come back in. Sometimes, these goods would make the whole trans-Atlantic voyage. Often, they would stop at neutral ports in Cuba or the Bahamas.
North Carolina and Virginia had long-established trade relations with Bermuda, 600 nautical miles to the east.
The most successful blockade runners were the fast, paddle wheeled steamers, though surprisingly little is known of the ships themselves. They were usually built in secrecy, and operated at night. One notable exception was the “Nola”, a 236-foot paddle steamer which ran aground on December 30, 1863, en route from London to North Carolina. Nola ran aground, attempting to escape threatening weather. She was wrecked near Western Blue Cut on Bermuda’s reefs, and remains a popular dive destination, to this day.
President Lincoln appointed Massachusetts native Charles Maxwell Allen Consul to Bermuda in 1861, where he remained until his death, in 1888. There were times when it was a great job, I’m sure, but not in the early days. “There are a great many Southern people here”, Allen wrote in 1862, “14 came in the steamer ‘Bermuda’. They & their friends are down on me & have threatened to whip me”. People were getting rich running the blockade. Allen estimated that one blockade runner alone, which sank after three voyages, generated a profit of more than £173,000.
“The British colonial government monitored both sides to try to maintain strict neutrality, but only the latent threat of the powerful Royal Navy fleet based at Bermuda kept the belligerents from open warfare within British boundaries”. – Hat tip BerNews.com
Today, the capital of Bermuda is Hamilton, moved across the island in 1815 from the old port of St. George, leaving the former capital in a kind of time warp, where you can walk down streets that look like they did 150 years ago. Portraits of Robert E. Lee and Confederate battle flags can still be found on the walls of the old port, beside paintings showing the harbor filled with blockade runners, lying quietly at anchor.
Once the office of Confederate Commercial Agent John Tory Bourne and Confederate Shipping Agent Major Norman Walker, today the Bermuda National Trust Museum tells the story of the island’s history, including Bermuda’s role in the American Civil War. The museum’s guide book explains: “The opportunities for Bermudians to profit from blockade running were boundless. Ships needed coal and provisions. Crews required lodging, food and entertainment between runs. Cargoes had to be unloaded, stored and reloaded, while crews and cargoes had to be ferried to ships lying at anchor. Bermudian pilots guided the ships through the reefs; those with skills as mates, carpenters, firemen and ordinary seamen signed on as crew. The Civil War proved to be the road to riches.”
Sheryl and I traveled to Bermuda a while back, and visited the old port at St. George. At some point we learned about the maritime history of the island. Making a living at sea in the 19th century was a dangerous business, so much so that one in ten married women living in Bermuda, were widows.
It occurred to me. All those Confederate officers and enlisted men were spending a lot of time in Bermuda. The possibility that followed soon morphed into probability and then a certainty. At this point I can only wonder how many English citizens there are, residents of Bermuda and loyal subjects of the Queen, who can trace paternity back to the Confederate States of America.
On the morning of December 14, 1862, Richard Kirkland took as many canteens as he could carry, and stepped into the no man’s land between two watching armies.
One of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War began on December 11, 1862, when some 200,000 combatants collided in the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia.
The Union crossing of the Rappahannock was intended to be a surprise, depending on pontoons coming down from Washington to meet up with General Ambrose Burnside’s Union army in Falmouth, across the river from Fredericksburg.
The army of the Potomac arrived on November 19 with no sign of pontoons. When they finally arrived, heavy snows slowed military operations for an additional week. Lt. General James Longstreet and Lt. General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson had more than enough time to prepare defenses.
Burnside’s crossing began on the morning of December 11, as engineer battalions constructed bridges in the face of determined Confederate fire. Several groups of soldiers had to row across the river, the battle then moving through the streets and buildings of Fredericksburg as Union and Confederate troops fought the first urban combat of the Civil War.
On the morning of the 13th, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces occupied a seven-mile curving line, with the five divisions of Longstreet’s Corps on the left along Marye’s Heights, west of town. Fighting began on both ends of the Confederate position, more or less simultaneously. George Meade had some early successes against Stonewall Jackson’s dug-in positions on the right, but requested reinforcements never arrived. By the end of the day, the old farmer’s term “slaughter pen”, had taken on new and heretofore unimaginable horrors.
In contrast to the swampy approaches on the Confederate right, 5,000 soldiers under James Longstreet looked out from behind the stone wall on Marye’s Heights to an open plain, crossed from left to right by a mill run, 5-feet deep, 15-feet wide and filled with 3-feet of freezing water.
Confederate artillery commander Edward Porter Alexander looked out on that field and said “a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it”. He was right. For six hours, the Union army threw one attack after another against the rebels behind that wall. Fourteen attempts.
As the sun went down on the evening of December 13, the ground below Marye’s Heights was carpeted with the mangled, dead and dying bodies of Union soldiers.
The Army of the Potomac suffered over 13,000 casualties at Fredericksburg, about two-thirds of them in front of that wall. Lee’s army, by comparison, suffered around 4,500 losses. Watching the great Confederate victory unfold from his hilltop command post, Robert E. Lee intoned, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”
Union ambulance corps had all they could do to remove their own wounded from the plains looking up on Marye’s heights but dared not enter within Confederate range of fire, in front of that wall.
All through the night of the 13-14th, the pathetic moaning of mangled and dying Union soldiers could be heard along the heights.
It’s easy to imagine that some Confederate soldiers reveled in all that carnage, but not all. The groans and the cries of agony, must have been difficult to hear. There wasn’t a man among them who didn’t understand that, but for the grace of God, he himself could be out there.
For Sergeant Richard Kirkland, Company G, 2nd South Carolina Infantry, it wasn’t enough to sit and listen. He could no longer stand to hear “those poor people crying for water”. Kirkland left his position and made his way to General Joseph Kershaw’s headquarters, to ask permission to help.
On the morning of December 14, 1862, Richard Kirkland took as many canteens as he could carry, and stepped into the no man’s land between two watching armies. No one fired. None so much as even moved. Sgt. Kirkland worked his way alone from one wounded man to the next, straightening out a shattered leg here, there spreading out an overcoat, always with a quiet word of encouragement and a drink of water.
Kirkland was out there for no less than an hour and a half. Alone in no man’s land, under the watchful eyes of two hostile armies. He never left until he had helped every fallen soldier, Federal and Confederate alike, on that part of the battlefield.
General Kershaw later gave this account: “Unharmed he reached the nearest sufferer. He knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head, rested it gently upon his own noble breast, and poured the precious life-giving fluid down the fever scorched throat. This done, he laid him tenderly down, placed his knapsack under his head, straightened out his broken limb, spread his overcoat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to another sufferer.”
Richard Kirkland would not survive the war. He met his end while leading an infantry charge the following September, at a place the Chickasaw called “house or dwelling place of the king.“ Chickamauga. There is no way to know how many lives were saved by the courage, the kindness and the tender mercy of one man, this day in 1862.
Richard Rowland Kirkland is long gone now but the memory lives on. Of that singular act of courage and compassion, of the Angel of Marye’s Heights.