June 23, 1865 Civil War – the Final Chapter

Editorial cartoons of the era satirized “Rip van Waddell” for continuing hostilities, long after the Civil War was over.

On April 9, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia. President Lincoln was assassinated on the 14th. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured on the 10th of May.

The last fatality of the war between the states, the “war of northern aggression” to half the nation, occurred at the Battle of Palmito Ranch in Brownsville, TX over May 12–13, resulting in the death of Private John J. Williams of 34th Indiana regiment.  He was the last man killed during the Civil War.

General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the remains of three Confederate Armies to General William Tecumseh Sherman at Bennett Place on April 26.  Organized resistance came to a full stop when Confederate General E. Kirby Smith surrendered his forces to General E. R. S. Canby in New Orleans on May 26.

And yet the last hostile action of the civil War was still nearly a month away.

Both sides long practiced economic warfare against the other.  The federal “Anaconda Plan” sought to strangle the economy of the South while Confederate commerce raiders roamed the oceans of the world, destroying the other side’s merchant shipping.

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Editorial cartoon satirizing “Rip Van Waddell” still engaged in combat after everyone else thought the Civil War was over.

The Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah, Lieutenant James Iredell Waddell Commanding, was in the Bering Sea hunting prizes at this time, between the coasts of Alaska and Siberia.

On June 22, the last round of the Civil War was a warning shot, fired across the bows of a whaler off the Aleutian Islands.

It must have been a sight, to see a wooden hulled Union whaler laden with oil, burned to the waterline under starlit skies amidst the ice floes of the Bering Sea.

Waddell learned of Lee’s surrender on June 23, along with Jeff Davis’ proclamation that the “war would be carried on with re-newed vigor”.  Waddell elected to continue hostilities, capturing 21 more whalers in the waters just below the Arctic Circle.  The last 11 were captured in the space of just 7 hours.

The only Confederate ship to circumnavigate the globe, Shenandoah traversed 58,000 miles in 12 months and 17 days at sea, capturing or sinking 38 merchant vessels, mostly whaling ships.  The voyage had taken 1,000 prisoners without a single battle casualty on either side.

Waddell was on the way to attack San Francisco on August 2, when he learned in a chance meeting with the British Barque Barracouta, that the war was truly over.

Believing they would all be hanged as pirates, Captain Waddell aimed to surrender to neutral England.  He took down his battle flag and put CSS Shenandoah through a radical alteration at sea. She was dismantled as a man-of-war; her battery dismounted and struck below, her hull repainted to resemble an ordinary merchant vessel.

There followed a 9,000 mile race down the coast of Mexico, around Cape Horn and across the Atlantic, with American vessels in constant pursuit. CSS Shenandoah made it to English territorial waters outside the Mersey, when the pilot refused to take the ship into Liverpool.  He needed to know, under which flag this vessel sailed.  The crew raised the Stainless Banner, the third and last official flag of the Confederacy.

CSS Shenandoah’s “Stainless Banner” displayed on the Sesquicentennial (150 year) anniversary of her final voyage

CSS Shenandoah sailed up the River Mersey with flag aloft, spectators lining both sides of the river.  Captain Waddell surrendered to Captain James A. Paynter of HMS Donegal.  The Stainless Banner was lowered for the last time at 10:00am on November 6, 1865, in front of CSS Shenandoah’s officers and crew, and the Royal Navy detachment who had boarded her.

The last official act of the Civil War occurred later that morning, when Captain Waddell walked up the steps of Liverpool Town Hall, presenting the letter by which he surrendered his vessel to the British government.

The officers and crew were unconditionally released following investigation, as they had done nothing to justify further detention. CSS Shenandoah was returned to the United States where the Government sold her to Majid bin Said, the first Sultan of Zanzibar.  Bin Said renamed the vessel El Majidi, in honor of himself. The former CSS Shenandoah was blown ashore and wrecked in a hurricane, in 1872.

HMS Donegal survived longer than any other player in this story. Launched in 1858, she remained in service to the British Crown until 1925 when she was sold, and broken up for scrap. Some of Donegal’s timbers were used to build the front of the Prince of Wales public house in the town of Brighouse, in West Yorkshire. The place still operates to this day, as the Old Ship Inn.

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The Old Ship pub in Brighouse was built from the timbers of the decommissioned HMS Donegal in 1926

June 19, 1864 Single Combat

Tales of single combat reach back to the mists of antiquity where history fades, into legend.  Homer’s Iliad tells of the great battle when Menelaus squared off against Paris and later Achilles, met  Hector. The Hebrew Bible brings us that most unlikely of tales where David, slew Goliath.  The Islamic chronicles are filled with such stories as are the native legends of the American plains, legends of European Knights and tales of the samurai, of the Japanese home islands.  On this day in 1864 the American Civil War took to the battle in a no-holds-barred fight to the finish off the coast of Cherbourg.

  

Tales of single combat reach back to the mists of antiquity where history fades, into legend.  Homer’s Iliad tells of the great battle when Menelaus squared off against Paris and later when Achilles, met  Hector. The Hebrew Bible brings us that most unlikely of tales where David, slew Goliath.  The Islamic chronicles are filled with such stories as are legends of European Knights, tales of Japanese samurai and the aerial dogfights of a later age.

On this day in 1864 the American Civil War took to the seas in a fight to the finish off the coast of Cherbourg, between the federal steam sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge and the Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama. 

Only one would come out of this alive.

Hull #290 was launched from the John Laird & Sons shipyard in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England as the screw sloop HMS Enrica on May 15, 1862. She sailed in secret to the Terceira Island in the Azores, where she was met by Raphael Semmes, her new captain. Three days, 8 cannon and 350 tons of coal later, the Enrica was transformed into the 220′, 1,500-ton sloop of war and Confederate States of America commerce raider, CSS Alabama.

CSS Alabama
CSS Alabama

Alabama’s mission was to wage economic war on the Union, attacking commercial shipping from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, from Newfoundland to Brazil. In her two-year career as commerce raider, Alabama claimed 65 prizes valued at nearly $123 million in today’s dollars.  She was the most successful, and most notorious, commerce raider of the Civil War.

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Civil War Steam Sloop USS Kearsarge

Alabama was in sore need of a refit when she put into Cherbourg France, on the 11th of June, 1864. The Mohican-class Union steam sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge, then on patrol near Gibralter hurried to Cherbourg, arriving on the 14th.

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Captain Raphael Semmes and 1st Lieutenant John Kell aboard CSS Alabama 1863

Seeing himself blockaded, Alabama’s Captain challenged Kearsarge Captain John Winslow to a ship-to-ship duel, saying “my intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements. I hope these will not detain me more than until to-morrow or the morrow morning at farthest. I beg she will not depart until I am ready to go out. I have the honor to be your obedient servant, R. Semmes, Captain“.  That suited Winslow just fine, who took up station in international waters, and waited for Alabama to come out.

CSS Alabama steamed out of Cherbourg harbor on the morning of June 19, 1864, escorted by the French ironclad Couronne, which remained nearby to ensure that the combat remained in international waters. Kearsarge steamed further to sea as the Confederate vessel approached.  There would be no one returning to port until the issue was decided.

Captain Winslow put his ship around and headed for his adversary at 10:50am. Alabama fired first from a distance of a mile, and continued to fire as the range decreased.

Sinking_of_the_CSS_Alabama, by Andy Thomas
Sinking of the CSS Alabama, by Andy Thomas

The engagement followed a circular course at a range of a half mile; the ships steaming in opposite directions and firing at will.  One ball from Alabama lodged in Kearsarge’s sternpost, but failed to explode.  Within an hour, Kearsarge’s 11″ Dahlgren smooth bore pivot cannons reduced the most successful commerce raider in history to a sinking wreck. Alabama turned and tried to run back to port, but Kearsarge headed her off as rising water stopped her engines.

Kearsarge Stern Post
USS Kearsarge Sternpost

Semmes struck his colors and sent a boat to Kearsarge with a message of surrender and an appeal for help.

For those rescued by Kearsarge, the Civil War was over. These would spend the rest of the war as prisoners of the Federal government.  Captain Semmes escaped along with 41 others, being plucked from the water and taken to neutral ports by the British steam yacht Deerhound, and the private sail yacht Hornet.

November 19, 1864 The Man who Shot the Man who Shot, Abraham Lincoln

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

Thomas Corbett was born in London England in 1832, emigrating with his family 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 make felt from the fur of small animals, 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 toward an understanding, of Thomas Corbett.

Corbett married early in life.  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.  Corbett was confronted by a street preacher one night and the event, 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 own 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 emasculated himself, with a pair of scissors.  Then he ate dinner and he went to a prayer meeting, before seeking medical attention.

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In the early 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 the man 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 Corbett

On 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.  Starving, 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.

A bullet from the gun, of Boston Corbett.

The paralyzed, dying man was dragged from the barn and onto the porch of the Garrett farmhouse. In his dying moments, Lincoln’s assassin asked that his hands be lifted where he could see them.  John Wilkes Booth gazed at those hands as he 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.”

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Thomas “Boston” Corbett

Despite Conger’s recommendation, Corbett was treated like a conquering hero.  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 asked to hear the man speak, a second time.

Corbett became increasingly paranoid, 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. The Grand Army of the Republic appointed him a doorman to the Kansas state legislature, seven years later.  The man’s mental status was questionable even before the war and 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 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 into history.

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.  Several men stepped forward in the years that followed claiming, to be Boston Corbett. A Dallas man claimed to be Boston Corbett while an Oklahoma patent medicine salesman, filed for the man’s pension benefits. The first was committed to an insane asylum the second, to prison.

In 1958, Boy Scout Troop 31 from Concordia Kansas erected a small memorial beside a dug hole in which Boston Corbett, had once lived. What became of the man who shot the man who shot Abraham Lincoln, is a mystery.

October 28, 1945 Re-Union

It may be the greatest trivia question that ever was: “Who was last to rejoin the Union, following the Civil War?“ It wasn’t who you think…

By the early 1830s, cotton exceeded the value of all other American exports, combined. As secession loomed over the Union, one 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”.

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South Carolina was the first to leave, formally departing the Union in December 1860. The world waited to see who would be next.

Anyone can tell you it was Mississippi who actually did it but the next to openly discuss secession was New York City, when Mayor Fernando Wood addressed the city’s governing body on January 6: When Disunion has become a fixed and certain fact”, Wood began, “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?”

Economic ties with the south ran deep in New York city and New York state, alike. 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 the matter 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 the County’s “rejoining”, of 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 but one part of the former Confederate States of America. The tiny 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“.

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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 when he quipped: “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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September 19, 1862 Old Douglas, the Confederate Camel

The horse lobby did a lot to kill the camel project. The animal’s unpleasant personality traits didn’t help.

The Cedar Hill Cemetery, established by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, contains the final resting place of some 5,000 Confederate Soldiers who died in the 1863 Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Each one stands in memory of a soldier killed in the line of duty.

Even the one with the camel on it.

The story begins with Jefferson Davis, in the 1840s. We remember him today as the 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.

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Jefferson 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 bslid $30,000 into a highway appropriations bill, to get the support of a fellow senator from Illinois.

Camel Corps

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. Horses and mules were dying by the hundreds 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 was a character and became quite the celebrity in the West Texas outpost. The soldiers called the man “Hi Jolly”.

When the 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 that one letter to the President, but the imagination does run wild, doesn’t it. The idea of War Elephants, at Gettysburg….

Hi Jolly Cemetery

The horse lobby did a lot to kill the camel project. 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 even been known to trample people to death.

Douglas, the Confederate Camel, 1
Douglas, the Confederate Camel

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”.

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 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 organizations 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 might just have to check those guys out.

Tip of the hat to www.texascamelcorps.com for the sunset image, above.

August 5, 1864 Better Angels

“Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States, that by the accession of a Republican Administration, their property, and their peace, and personal security, are to be endangered.”

The election, was over. With a nation riven as never before the time was near, for the swearing-in. The 16th President-elect sat down in the back room of his brother-in-law’s store in Springfield Illinois, to write his acceptance speech.

“Fellow-citizens of the United States:
… I appear before you to address you briefly, and to take, in your presence, the oath prescribed by the Constitution of the United States…”

It was his first inaugural. The President-elect brought with him for the task of writing the address only four works, for reference: The United States Constitution. Webster’s 1830 reply to Hayne on the matter of States’ Rights. Henry Clay’s 1850 speech on Compromise and Andrew Jackson’s proclamation, against Nullification.

“Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States, that by the accession of a Republican Administration, their property, and their peace, and personal security, are to be endangered.”

The speech was secretly printed by the Illinois State Journal and entrusted to the new president’s son Robert who proceeded to lose it for a time, causing a “minor uproar before it was found”.

“Resolved…[W]e denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.”

The speech was telegraphed from New York to Kearney Nebraska and taken by Pony Express to Folsom California and again telegraphed, this time to Sacramento, for publication.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature”.

A. Lincoln, First Inaugural, March 4, 1861

Despite this appeal to the better angels of our nature the formerly United States were at war with themselves, within a month.

Within three years what was expected to be a brief police action at worst, had devolved into a Civil War which would kill more Americans than every war from the Revolution to the War on Terror, combined.

If the “better angels” of Lincoln’s 1st inaugural were to take human form one of those might resemble, General James Birdseye McPherson.

First in his class, West Point 1853, McPherson was superintending engineer constructing the defenses at Alcatraz Island at this time, in San Francisco. There he met Emily Hoffman, the daughter of a prominent Baltimore merchant who had come west, to help care for her sister’s children. The couple was soon engaged and a wedding was planned, but then came the Civil War. The wedding would have to wait.

And then there was John McAuley Palmer, a politician who was at one time a Democrat, a Free Soiler, a Republican, a Liberal Republican and a National Democrat. Whatever it takes, I guess.

Captain Mcpherson began his Civil War service in 1861 under Major General Henry Halleck, and the Corps of Engineers. He was a lieutenant colonel and chief engineer in the amy of Brigadier General Ulysses Grant during the capture of forts Henry and Donelson in February, 1862.

Major General John Palmer

Political promotions were common enough in the military of 1861. John Palmer received his first one in 1861, entering Civil War service, as a Colonel. Palmer was promoted to Brigadier that December and went on to provide effective leadership at Chickamauga, and during the Chattanooga campaign. By the Summer of 1864 he was Major General John Palmer, commanding the 14th corps under George Henry Thomas.

McPherson’s career followed the same trajectory during this time but his were no political appointments. He became a Brigadier based on his actions at Shiloh and Major General for bravery displayed, at Corinth. In March 1864 McPherson was given command of the Army of the Tennessee replacing William Tecumseh Sherman who was now Supreme Commander, in the west.

Around this time McPherson requested time to marry his sweetheart, in Baltimore. Leave was quickly granted but then rescinded. With the upcoming campaign for Atlanta, this man was indispensable. Emily Hoffman would have to wait. Again.

A series of sharp battles began that May and concluded in September. From Dalton to Chattahoochie first against the Confederate forces of General Joe Johnston and later, General John Bell Hood. Rocky Face Ridge. Marietta. Kennesaw Mountain.

The confusingly named single-day Battle of Atlanta took place on July 22, square in the middle of the Atlanta campaign. Sherman mistakenly believed that Hood’s Confederates had gathered to retreat while McPherson rightly understood. Hood was concentrating for the attack.

General Sherman Observing The Siege of Atlanta

McPherson was personally scouting the area when a line of grey-clad skirmishers emerged from the forest calling out, “HALT”! The General raised his hand as if to tip his hat and then wheeled his horse. There was no outrunning the bullets which then tore into his back. The second-highest ranking federal officer to lose his life in the Civil War, was dead. His killers asked who they had shot and McPherson’s aid replied, “You have killed the best man in the Army”.

If the warm praise of an adversary be the measure of a man then let McPherson’s West Point classmate John Bell Hood, declare his eulogy:

General John Bell Hood

“Neither the years nor the difference of sentiment that had led us to range ourselves on opposite sides in the war had lessened my friendship; indeed the attachment formed in early youth was strengthened by my admiration and gratitude for his conduct toward our people in the vicinity of Vicksburg. His considerate and kind treatment of them stood in bright contrast to the course pursued by many Federal officers”.

On hearing what had happened General Sherman, openly wept. Emily Hoffman never recovered and spent the rest of her life, in secluded mourning.

The four months-long slugfest for Atlanta moved on to the Battle of Ezra Church and then Utoy Creek and John Palmer’s singular moment, of ignominy.

Sherman believed that only a major force was capable of taking the railroad south of Atlanta and bringing this bloodbath, to a conclusion. Major General John Schofield’s XXIII corps now situated on the extreme right of the federal position, was ideally placed to do so. Sherman placed General Palmer’s XIV Corps under Schofield’s operational control, to accomplish that objective.

Originally mislabeled “Potter house”, this was the home of Ephraim Ponder, a wealthy slave dealer in Atlanta used by confederate sharpshooters during the battle of Atlanta and heavily damaged by Union shellfire. The house was never rebuilt and abandoned, after the war. Henry Ossian Flipper, son of Festus Flipper and one of Ponder’s former slaves went on to become the first American of African ancestry to graduate from West Point, class of 1877.

That’s when the stuff hit the fan. The temper tantrum. With men facing a determined adversary and literally dying in the field John Palmer had a hissy fit, over seniority. He would NOT place the XIV under a general who had received his two stars, after himself.

Technical niceties as date of seniority are swell subjects for discussion over cigars in garrison but not in the midst of kinetic battle, against a lethal adversary.

Sherman’s letter of August 4, decided the matter:

Major General John Schofield

“From the statements made by yourself and Gen. Schofield today, my decision is that he outranks you as a major general, being of the same date as present commission, by reason of his previous superior rank as brigadier general”.

William Tecumseh Sherman

Except, no. Sherman’s letter settled, nothing. With the Utoy Creek operation scheduled to begin the following day, August 5, Palmer rode out to Sherman’s headquarters to argue the case. Even entreaties that Palmer’s behavior might jeopardize his political career after the war, fell on deaf ears. In the end, Sherman suggested that Palmer needed to offer his resignation, to Schofield.

This he did, said resignation forwarded back to Sherman with the recommendation, that it be accepted. Palmer was sent back to Illinois to await further orders as XIV corps senior divisional commander Brig. Gen. Richard Johnson took his place and the war moved on.

How many ordinary soldiers were to lose their lives by this delay and the defensive advantage afforded entrenched Confederate forces, is difficult to ascertain. Ever the politician, the lesser angel that was John Palmer served out the remainder of the war as military governor of Kentucky and returned afterward to politics, serving as Illinois Governor, United States Senator and one-time Presidential candidate.

August 2, 1864 Grandissima Ruina

In an age of hand-lit sputtering fuses and hand packed (to say nothing of hand-made) powder, even a millisecond difference in ignition will give one ball a head start, to be measured in feet.

In 1642, Italian gun maker Antonio Petrini conceived a double barrel cannon with tubes joined at 45° firing solid shot joined together, by a length of chain.  This was the year of the “Great Rebellion“, the English Civil War, when King and Parliament raised armies to go to war – with each other.  Petrini’s idea must have looked good to King Charles I of England. Imagine, a weapon capable of slicing through the ranks of 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 its own 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 evidence that the weapon was ever fired, save for the designer’s own description of the ‘Grandissima Ruina’ left behind, by his own splendid creation.

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Two-hundred years later the former British colonies across the Atlantic, were themselves embroiled in Civil War.

In the early days of 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.

ALHull

Augustus 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.

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 private soldier 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 monstrosity had two barrels diverging at 3° and equipped with three touch holes, one for each barrel and a third should anyone wish to fire the two, 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.”

Yeah. As Mr. Petrini could have told them, the insurmountable problem remained. In an age of hand-lit sputtering fuses and hand packed (to say nothing of hand-made) powder, even a millisecond difference in ignition will give one ball a head start, to be measured in feet. How to simultaneously fire two conjoined weapons remained a problem, even for so elite an outfit, as the Mitchell Thunderbolts.

The atmosphere was festive on April 22, 1862, when a crowd gathered to watch Gilleland test the Great Yankee Killer. Aimed at two poles stuck in the ground, uneven ignition and casting imperfections sent assorted spectators scrambling for cover as two balls spun 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 the 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 log 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, even though the only ones truly safe that day, were those two 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. Outraged, an angry 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 citizens of approaching Yankees.

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There the thing 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, all of them minor. In the end, Athens escaped the devastation of Sherman’s march to the sea and the Confederate superweapon 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 the thing, pointing north, at all those Damned Yankees.  You know. Just in case.

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May 21, 1856 Bleeding Kansas

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 Cotton Gin

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.

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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.

Lawrence Massacre, 1863

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.

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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.

May 19, 1828 Tariff of Abominations

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.

Political cartoon depicts the north getting fat on tariffs, at the expense of the south

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

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.

May 12, 1864 A Mighty Oak

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.

Robert Frost

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”.

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Hat Tip to photographer Robert Fawcett for this image, of a mighty oak

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.

Live Oaks line the entrance to the Wormsloe Plantation, in Savannah, Georgia

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.

Arlington National Cemetery and Arboreta

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.

Overland map, May and June, 1864

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.

H/T Smithsonian, for this image of a once majestic oak tree. Felled, one bullet at a time, near a place called Spotsylvania.

Afterward

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.

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