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.

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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.

April 27, 1865 SS Sultana

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.

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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.

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This animation gives a sense of the size, of Sultana’s boilers

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.

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SS Sultana was equipped with four such boilers, mounted from side-to-side.  Massively top heavy, water would run from left to right as she lurched from side to side, water then flashing to steam and creating enormous surges in pressure

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.

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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.

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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.

Sultana Memorial at the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2010
Sultana Memorial at the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee, 2010

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.

April 26, 1859 Temporary Insanity

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.

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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.

Sickles_homicide

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.

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Sickles III Corp position, Gettysburg, day 2

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.

Sickle, leg

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.”

April 12, 1861 A Lady’s Thimble

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.

Moultrie

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.

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Fort Sumter

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.

Battle-Sumter

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.

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The Confederate flag flies over Fort Sumter, 1861

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.

Fort_Sumter_storm_flag_1861

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.

Charleston, 1861

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.

March 26, 1881 Old Abe

About a week after Confederates first fired on Fort Sumter a female bald eagle laid a clutch of eggs, somewhere in Wisconsin.

Ahgamahwegezhig

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. 

1861 quarter eagle

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”.

Old Abe

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.”

OldAbe

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.

OLD_ABE_AND_GEORGE_GILLES

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.

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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”.

101st_Airborne_Division_patch

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.

Old_Abe_Case_mascot

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”.

Abe Feathers

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.