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.

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 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.

January 21, 1865 More than a Uniform

Those left behind perform a quiet kind service to the rest of us, a service shared by the whole family without so much as outside recognition.

When Civil War broke out in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln put out a call for 75,000 90-day troops, to put down the rebellion. Kentucky refused. Governor Beriah Magoffin responded that Kentucky would send no soldiers “for the wicked purpose of subduing her sister southern states.” In a letter written that September, President Lincoln described the importance of his home state to the war effort. “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game…Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us and the job on our hands is too large for us…..” The place was equally important on the Confederate side. Had Kentucky seceded, rebel troops would be positioned to strike at will toward Ohio, Indiana or Illinois.

That October, commander of Union forces in Kentucky William Tecumseh Sherman told Secretary of War Simon Cameron he needed 60,000 men to defend the territory, and 200,000 to go on the offensive. Outraged, Cameron called Sherman’s request “insane” and removed the general, from command. One Ohio newspaper opined that Sherman had lost his mind.

Humiliated, Sherman wrote to his brother, “I do think I should have committed suicide were it not for my children...”

General Ulysses Grant saw not insanity in general Sherman, but cold competence. In 1862, Grant reassigned Sherman to Paducah, Kentucky.

Later in the war, Sherman defended Grant about a (possibly unfair) accusation of being drunk on duty. “General Grant is a great general”. Sherman began. “He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now, sir, we stand by each other always.”

The story may be found in any number of books. Books about war, about soldiers, but what of the man, inside the uniform. The man called to leave his family, to do a job. And what of the family left behind and the bonds of affection forced to stretch across a nation, or an ocean. That book with so much to say about combat, has less to say about the man behind the soldier, that man’s place in the family unit and even less about the loved ones, left behind.

I’ve seen the story played out by my mother, two sisters-in-law and a daughter. The soldier, usually a “he”, leaves home in service to his country. Those left behind do their best to carry on without the help of a partner, all the while keeping their worst fears locked away in a dark closet of imagination. Those left behind perform a quiet kind of service to the rest of us, a service shared by the whole family without so much as outside recognition.

The long siege of Vicksburg was over in 1863 following the Union victory of July 4. The city of Vicksburg wouldn’t celebrate another Independence Day, for 80 years.

Making camp on the Big Black River near Bovina Mississippi, Sherman made headquarters in the home of Reverend James Fox. Thinking it would be a good time to reunite with his family, Sherman sent for his wife, Ellen and the couple’s four children: Minnie [12], Lizzie [11], Willy [9] and Tom [7].

Sherman himself had become fatherless at 9 and adopted by one Thomas Ewing of Lancaster, Ohio.

“I have a healthy camp,” Sherman wrote to Ewing, father of Sherman’s former step-sister and now-wife Eleanor “Ellen” Ewing Sherman. “I have no fear of yellow or other fevers.”

What an adventure it was for the children, especially Willy. Living in tents and hanging around with Union soldiers.

The 13th Infantry made him an honorary sergeant, teaching the boy the manual of arms and including him in guard details, drills and parades. The boy would accompany his father on inspection tours of the Army. What a lark. The experience of a lifetime.

Sherman’s confidence about yellow fever was based on that which was known, in 1863. Thirty years later, science would understand the illness to be mosquito-borne and not spread by human contact.

The family boarded the steamboat Atlantic that September, to begin the trek back home to Ohio. Willy didn’t look well. The boy was uncharacteristically quiet, his cheeks flushed. Surgeon E. O. F. Roler was summoned to examine him and came back with a dreadful diagnosis. Yellow fever.

The prognosis was grim. Fewer than 1,000 soldiers died in battle during the 8-month war Spanish American war in Cuba, in 1898. More than 5,000 died of disease, most of those from yellow fever.

Willy’s condition worsened. Arriving in Memphis, the boy was taken to the Hotel Gayoso, that October. Fading in and out of consciousness, he was given last rites on October 3. Willy told the priest he was willing to die if it was God’s will, but he didn’t want to leave his parents. With tears streaming down the cheeks of his mother and father, Willy reached and out, and touched their faces. And then he was gone.

Shattered, Ellen and her remaining children boarded a steamer to Ohio, three days later. The General went back to Mississippi. He had a war to fight.

On October 6, Sherman wrote to Ellen, from Gayoso: “I have got up early this morning to steal a short period in which to write you, but I can hardly trust myself. Sleeping, waking, every-where I see poor little Willy. … I will always deplore my want of judgement in taking my family to so fatal a climate at so critical a period of the year….To it must be traced the loss of that child on whose future I had based all the ambition I ever had.

This from a man who had written only two year earlier, “I do think I should have committed suicide were it not for my children”.

Ellen, a devout and practicing Catholic, fell back on her faith. General Sherman fell into depression, despair, and self-reproach.

So great was the General’s grief that he never forgave himself, for bringing his family to that place.

A year before his death in 1891, Sherman left detailed instructions about his last rest in that St. Louis cemetery, “alongside my faithful wife and idolized soldier boy.”

The grief, the self-reproach, it all but crushed him. Sherman wrote to Admiral David Porter:  “I lost recently my little boy by sickness incurred during his visit to my camp on Big Black. He was my pride and hope of life, and his loss has taken from me the great incentive to excel, and now I must work on purely and exclusively for love of country and professional pride.”

Some historians blame the savagery of Sherman’s attack on Meridian Mississippi, the cruelty of his assault on Atlanta and the “March to the Sea” on a form of madness, brought on by the loss of his precious boy.

In the Summer of 1864, three Union armies of the newly appointed division of the Mississippi under William Tecumseh Sherman were advancing, on Atlanta. Meanwhile back home in Lancaster, Ellen was about to give birth to another child. A baby boy, named Charley.

Let the couple’s letters tell the story and imagine if you will your own troubles, set against the backdrop of civil war.

Big Shanty, GA June 12, 1864: Dearest Ellen, I have received Phil’s dispatch announcing the birth to us, of another son. I’m glad you’re over the terrible labor, and hope it’s the last you will have to endure. Of course, I’m pleased to know the sex of the child, as he must succeed to the place left vacant, by Willy. Though I fear we will never be able to lavish on anyone, the love we bore for him. I am ever yours, W.T. Sherman

Lancaster Ohio, July 7, 1864: Dearest Cump, For the first time since I went to bed the night of the 10th of June I am able to sit up, and hold my pen.  I’d been sick all that day. About 1 o’clock I sent for the doctor.  At 20 minutes past two the baby was born with a cry, loud enough to disturb the neighborhood.  Like Tommy he was born with a caul over his face which the doctor had to remove, before his cry came forth.  I must thank God I am spared to my children, and not murmur at the trials he sends me.  As ever, Ellen

Headquarters, Military division of Mississippi, In the field near Chattahoochee, July 9, 1864:  Dearest Ellen, it is now two months since I left Chattanooga, and I think during all this time I have but one letter from you.  I fear you have been more ill than I supposed.  The enemy and the Chattahoochee lie between us, and intense heat prevails, but I think I shall succeed.  At all events you know, I never turn back.  Give my love to your father and all the young folks.  Yours ever, WT Sherman

Lancaster Ohio July 16, 1864: Dearest Cump, I have been ill indeed, in great danger of death, and left weak.  Charley thrives, grows and fattens, and is very strong and healthy.  The children dote on him, particularly Tommy and Lizzie.  Tommy asked me how long babies wore long dresses and when I told him six or eight months he begged me to put pantaloons on Charlie then.  He walks with him in his arms and watches him and plays with him and sings 20 times a day.  He is so glad the baby is not a girl.  I  have not told you how very strongly he resembles you in form, face and shape of head.  The likeness is  striking and I am delighted to see it.  All are well, and send love to dear Papa. Ever your affectionate, Ellen

Lancaster Ohio September 17, 1864: Saturday morning:  Dearest Cump, the baby has a very bad cold, settled on his lungs.  May Willy’s pure spirit be your guide to his happy home in heaven is the hourly prayer of your truly affectionate, Ellen

Cincinnati Ohio September 22, 1864: it seems as if I were never to have another letter from you, dearest Cump

Cincinnati Ohio September 25, 1864: Sunday evening:  Dearest Cump, the baby has a very bad cough and I feel so uneasy.

Lancaster Ohio, November 8, 1864: Dearest Cump, Dear Willy’s picture has just been brought, and now stands framed in my room. We need this to keep him fresh in the minds and the hearts of all the children for all must love and know and talk of their holy brother, until by God‘s grace we join him in his heavenly home. The baby has such a severe cold, which has taken such a firm hold on his lungs that I greatly fear, he will never get over it, and that it will end in consumption. Ever your truly affectionate, Ellen.

Obituary, Charles Celestine Sherman, New York Times, December 25, Christmas Day, 1864: Died at South Bend Indiana on Sunday, December 4, 1864, of pneumonia. Charles Celestine, infant son of Major General WT and Ellen E. Sherman, aged 5 months and 23 days

South Bend Indiana, December  29, 1864: Dearest Cump, long before this, you have seen in the papers the notice, of the dear baby’s death.  God grant that his prayers and Willy’s may ensure my perseverance and obtain for you the gift of faith.  Ellen E. Sherman

Military Division Mississippi in the field, January 5, 1865: Dearest Ellen I have written several times to you and the children. yesterday I got your letter of December 23 and realized the deep pain and anguish through which you have passed, and the pain and sickness of the little baby I never saw.  All spoke of him as so bright and fair that I had hoped he would be spared to us, to fill the great void in our hearts left by Willy. But it is otherwise decreed, and we must submit.  I have seen death in such quantity and in such forms that it no longer startles me.  But with you, it is different.  Yours, WT Sherman 

Two weeks after that last letter from Ellen, General Sherman was in Savannah, preparing to march north into South Carolina. It began to rain on January 17, the heaviest rainfall in 20 years. January 21 came and went with no respite. Not until the end of the month did the rain cease to fall. The misery of that camp in Savannah and of General Sherman’s mental state, can only be guessed at.

The coming assault on the seat of secession would be worse than Sherman’s march to the sea.

Margie Bearss, wife of Vicksburg Military Park historian Edwin Bearss is herself an accomplished historian, a fellow of the National Military Collectors and Historians association, author of Sherman’s Forgotten Campaign in Meridien Mississippi and known for her work in support of the Grand Gulf Military Park in Mississippi, and the USS Cairo, now in the Vicksburg military Park. Bearss once mused, “Did perhaps the death of Willy start a chain reaction of fires and desolation in Mississippi that the winds of more than a century have not entirely hidden? Did Sherman hold Mississippi ‘that sickly region’ responsible for his death? Who knows. Yet, we do know that between the end of the Vicksburg Campaign and the beginning of the Meridian Expedition, only a few months’ time, his concept of warfare changed and he began his own version of the ‘total war’ for which he became well-known.

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