December 14, 1862  Angel of Marye’s Heights

No one will ever know how many lives were saved by his courage, and his kindness, this day in 1862. 

One of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War began on December 11, 1862, when nearly 200,000 combatants collided in the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

rappa5The Union crossing of the Rappahannock was intended to be a surprise, depending on pontoons coming down from Washington to meet up with General Ambrose Burnside’s Union army in Falmouth, across the river from Fredericksburg.

The army of the Potomac arrived on November 19, with no sign of pontoons.  When they finally arrived, heavy snows slowed military operations for an additional week.  Lt. General James Longstreet and Lt. General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson had more than enough time to prepare defenses.

Burnside’s crossing began on the morning of December 11, as engineer battalions constructed bridges in the face of determined Confederate fire. Several groups of soldiers had to row across the river, the battle then moving through the streets and buildings of Fredericksburg as Union and Confederate troops fought the first urban combat of the Civil War.

On the morning of the 13th, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces occupied a seven-mile-long curving line, with the five divisions of Longstreet’s Corps on the left along Marye’s Heights, west of town.  Fighting began on both ends of the Confederate position, more or less simultaneously.  George Meade had some early successes against Stonewall Jackson’s dug-in positions on the right, but requested reinforcements never arrived.  By the end of the day, the old farmer’s expression “slaughter pen”, had taken on a whole new meaning.

Marye's HeightsIn contrast to the swampy approaches on the Confederate right, 5,000 soldiers under James Longstreet looked out from behind the stone wall on Marye’s Heights to an open plain, crossed from left to right by a mill run, 5′ deep, 15′ wide and filled with 3′ of freezing water.

Confederate artillery commander Edward Porter Alexander looked out on that field, and said “a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it”.  Alexander was right.  For six hours, the Union army threw one attack after another against the rebels behind the wall.  Fourteen assaults, in all.  As the sun went down on the evening of December 13, the ground below Marye’s Heights was carpeted with the mangled, dead and dying bodies of Union soldiers.

The Army of the Potomac suffered over 13,000 casualties, about two-thirds of them in front of that wall.  Lee’s army, by comparison, suffered around 4,500 losses.  Watching the great Confederate victory unfold from his hilltop command post, Robert E. Lee said “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”

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Sergeant Richard Kirkland

Union ambulance corps had all they could do to remove their wounded from the plains, but dared not enter within the Confederate’s range of fire in front of that wall.  All through the night of the 13-14th, the moans of mangled and dying Union soldiers could be heard along the heights.

I don’t doubt that some Confederate soldiers reveled in all that carnage, but I’m sure that the moans and cries of agony were difficult for most of them to hear.  There wasn’t a man among them who didn’t understand that, but for the grace of God, that could be himself.

For Sergeant Richard Kirkland, Company G, 2nd South Carolina Infantry, it wasn’t good enough to sit and listen.  He could no longer stand to hear “those poor people crying for water”.  Kirkland left his position and made his way to General Joseph Kershaw’s headquarters, asking permission to help.

On the morning of December 14, 1862, Richard Kirkland took as many canteens as he could carry, and stepped into the no man’s land between two watching armies.  No one fired, nor even moved.  Sgt. Kirkland worked his way alone from one wounded man to the next, straightening out a shattered leg here, there spreading out an overcoat, always with a quiet word of encouragement and a drink of water.

Angel of Marye's Heights

Kirkland was out there for no less than 1½ hours.  Alone in no man’s land, he never left until he had helped every fallen soldier, Federal and Confederate, on that part of the battlefield.

General Kershaw later gave this account:  “Unharmed he reached the nearest sufferer. He knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head, rested it gently upon his own noble breast, and poured the precious life-giving fluid down the fever scorched throat. This done, he laid him tenderly down, placed his knapsack under his head, straightened out his broken limb, spread his overcoat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to another sufferer.”

Richard Kirkland would not survive the war.  He met his end while leading an infantry charge the following September, at a place called Chickamauga. No one will ever know how many lives were saved by his courage, and his kindness, this day in 1862.

Richard Rowland Kirkland will forever remain, the Angel of Marye’s Heights.

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November 18, 1863 Gettysburg Address

The Chicago Times described Lincoln’s remarks as “silly, flat and dish-watery utterances”, but it all came out in the end.  Lincoln’s address went into history as one of the finest pieces of English language prose since Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, at Agincourt.  The names of the haters at the Chicago Times, are all but forgotten.

154 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln boarded a train in Washington.  He’d been asked to make “a few dedicatory remarks” on the following day, dedicating the new National Cemetery at Gettysburg where, even now, workmen labored to re-inter the dead from the carnage of July.

Lincoln was the President of a country torn by Civil War, a war so terrible that, before it was over, would kill more Americans than all the wars from the Declaration of Independence to the Global War on Terror, combined.

Lincoln had been feeling poorly the day of the train ride, telling his secretary, John Hay, that he was feeling weak.  He would feel worse over the course of that day, and Hay noted that Lincoln’s face was ‘a ghastly color’ the day of the address.  No one knew it at the time, but Lincoln was in the early stages of smallpox.

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“A rare photo of the ceremonies. A group of boys stand at the fringe of a crowd. In the distance, several men wearing sashes can be seen standing on the speakers’ platform. Analysis of an enlargement of this photo reveals the image of Lincoln sitting to the left of these men”. Tip of the hat to http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com, for this image

His was not the keynote address.  That would be a 13,607 word, two-hour oration delivered by Boston politician Edward Everett.

After Everett’s speech, photographers thought they had all the time in the world to prepare and set their glass plates.  They did not, and no photograph exists of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg address.

The 16th President of the United States stepped to the rostrum and delivered 271 words, in ten sentences.  In just over two minutes, Lincoln captured an entire vision of where the country was at that moment in time, where it had been, and where it was going.

Lincoln himself thought his speech a flop, but Everett later wrote to him, saying “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

There were haters then, as now, as always prepared to fire their little spitballs.  The Chicago Times described Lincoln’s remarks as “silly, flat and dish-watery utterances”, but it all came out in the end.  Lincoln’s address went into history as one of the finest pieces of English language prose since Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, at Agincourt.  The names of the haters at the Chicago Times, are all but forgotten.

Oddly, we do not know the precise form in which the President delivered his address.  Lincoln wrote his own speeches, lining out words and writing into margins as he developed his thought process.  That working copy is lost.

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“The only known image of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg was uncovered in 1952 at the National Archives. It was taken by photographer Mathew Brady. (Library of Congress)” H/T Smithsonian.com, for this image

There are five known copies of the Gettysburg address, written in Lincoln’s own hand, each varying slightly in wording and punctuation.  He wrote two after the address, giving them to his two personal secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay.  He sent one to Edward Everett early in 1864, and another to George Bancroft, the former Secretary of the Navy turned historian.  Lincoln wrote a fifth copy, known as the Bliss copy, for Colonel Alexander Bliss, in February, upon learning that the Bancroft version was unsuitable for publication, due to its having been written on both sides of the same page.

images (11)Lincoln signed, dated and titled the Bliss copy.  This is the version inscribed on the South wall of the Lincoln Memorial.

One of my stranger childhood notions, was the idea that sounds never went away, they just diminished as they spread outward, like ripples on a pond.  If that was true (thought my nine-year-old self), could we not somehow capture and listen to the Gettysburg address, as it was actually delivered?

It’s a funny thing how some ideas, even the goofy ones, never completely die away.

For the terminal history geek, the full text of all five copies may be discovered at www.abrahamlincolnonline.org

October 19, 1864, St. Albans Raid

The $1 million the Confederate government sunk into their Canadian office, probably did them more harm than good.  Those resources could have been put to better use.

In the late 18th century, lands granted by the governor of New Hampshire led the colonial province into conflict with the neighboring province of New York.  Conflict escalated over jurisdiction and appeals were made to the King, as the New York Supreme Court invalidated these “New Hampshire grants”.  Infuriated residents including Ethan Allen and his “Green Mountain Boys” rose up in anger.  Two natives of Westminster Vermont, then part of the New Hampshire land grants, were killed on March 13, 1775, by British Colonial officials.  Today, the event is remembered as the “Westminster Massacre”.

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The New Hampshire Grants region petitioned Congress for entry into the American union as a state independent of New York in 1776″ – H/T, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Hampshire_Grants

The battles at Lexington and Concord broke out a month later, ushering in a Revolution and eclipsing events to the north.  New York consented to admitting the “Republic of Vermont” into the union in 1790, ceding all claims on the New Hampshire land grants in exchange for a payment of $30,000.  Vermont was admitted as the 14th state on March 4, 1791, the first state so admitted following the adoption of the federal Constitution.

Organized in 1785, St. Albans forms the county seat of Franklin County, Vermont.  15 miles from the Canadian border and situated on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, it’s not the kind of place you’d expect, for a Civil War story.

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St. Albans Vermont, 1864

The Confederate States of America maintained government operations in Canada, from the earliest days of the Civil War.  Toronto was a logical relay point for communications with Great Britain, from whom the Confederate government sought unsuccessfully to gain support.

Secondly, Canada provided a safe haven for prisoners of war, escaped from Union camps.

Former member of Congress and prominent Ohio “Peace Democrat” Clement Vallandigham fled the United States to Canada in 1863, proposing to detach the states of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio from the Union, in exchange for sufficient numbers of Confederate troops to enforce the separation.  Vallandigham’s five-state “Northwestern Confederacy” would include Kentucky and Missouri, breaking the Union into three pieces.  Surely that would compel Washington to sue for peace.

ThomasHinesin1884fromHeadleyIn April 1864, President Jefferson Davis dispatched former Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson, ex-Alabama Senator Clement Clay, and veteran Confederate spy Captain Thomas Henry Hines to Toronto, with the mission of raising hell in the North.

This was no small undertaking. A sizeable minority of Peace Democrats calling themselves “Copperheads” were already in vehement opposition to the war.  So much so that General Ambrose Burnside declared in his General Order No. 38, that “The habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy will not be allowed in this” (Ohio) “department. Persons committing such offenses will be at once arrested with a view of being tried. . .or sent beyond our lines into the lines of their friends. It must be understood that treason, expressed or implied, will not be tolerated in this department“.

Hines and fellow Confederates worked closely with Copperhead organizations such as the Knights of the Golden Circle, the Order of the American Knights, and the Sons of Liberty, to foment uprisings in the upper Midwest.

In the late Spring and early Summer of 1864, residents of Maine may have noted an influx of “artists”, sketching the coastline.  No fewer than fifty in number, these nature lovers were in fact Confederate topographers, sent to map the Maine coastline.

Rebels on the great LakesThe Confederate invasion of Maine never materialized, thanks in large measure to counter-espionage efforts by Union agents.

J.Q. Howard, the U.S. Consul in St. John, New Brunswick, informed Governor Samuel Cony in July, of a Confederate party preparing to land on the Maine coast.

The invasion failed to materialize, but three men declaring themselves to be Confederates were captured on Main Street in Calais, preparing to rob a bank.

Disenchanted Rebel Francis Jones confessed to taking part in the Maine plot, revealing information leading to the capture of several Confederate weapons caches in the North, along with operatives in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio.

Captain Hines planned an early June uprising in the Northwest, timed to coincide with a raid planned by General John Hunt Morgan.  Another uprising was planned for August 29, timed with the 1864 Democratic Convention in Chicago.   It seems the conspirators’ actions didn’t quite live up to the heat of their rhetoric, and both operations fizzled.  A lot of these guys were more talk than action, yet Captain Hines continued to send enthusiastic predictions of success, back to his handlers in Richmond.

The Toronto operation tried political methods as well, supporting Democrat James Robinson’s campaign for governor of Illinois.  If elected they believed, Robinson would turn over the state’s militia and arsenal to the Sons of Liberty.  They would never know.  Robinson lost the election.

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Bennett Henderson Young

All this cost money, and lots of it.  In October 1864, the Toronto operation came to St. Albans, to make a withdrawal.

Today, St. Albans is a quiet town of 6,918.  In 1864 the town was quite wealthy, home to manufacturing and repair facilities for railroad locomotives.  Located on a busy rail line, St. Albans was also home to four banks.

Nicholasville, Kentucky native Bennett Henderson Young was a member of the Confederate 8th Kentucky Cavalry, captured during Morgan’s 1863 raid into Ohio.  By January, Young had escaped captivity and fled to Canada. On October 10, Bennett crossed the Canadian border with two others, taking a room at the Tremont House, in St. Albans.  The trio said they had come for a “sporting vacation”.

In the following days, small groups filtered into St. Albans, quietly taking rooms across the town.  There were 21 of them, former POWs and cavalrymen all, hand selected by Young for their daring and resourcefulness.

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On October 19 the group split up.  Announcing themselves to be Confederate soldiers, groups of them simultaneously robbed three of St. Albans’ four banks, while eight or nine held the townspeople at gunpoint, on the village green.  One resident was killed before it was over and another wounded. Young ordered his troops to burn the town, but the bottles of “Greek Fire” they carried for the purpose, failed to ignite.  Only one barn was burned down and the group got away with a total of $208,000, and all the horses they could find. It was the northernmost Confederate action of the Civil War.

StAlbansRaid, memoriaizedThe group was arrested on returning to Canada and held in Montreal.  The Lincoln administration sought extradition, but the Canadian court decided otherwise, ruling that the raiders were under military orders at the time, and neutral Canada could not extradite them to America.  The $88,000 found with the raiders, was returned to Vermont.

The $1 million the Confederate government sunk into their Canadian office, probably did them more harm than good.  Those resources could have been put to better use, but we have the advantage of hindsight.  Neither Captain Hines nor Jefferson Davis could know how their story would turn out.  In the end, they both fell victim to that greatest of human weaknesses, of believing what they wanted to believe.

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July 15, 1864 Great Shohola Train Wreck

When the main switch was opened, only four miles of track stood between two speeding, 30-ton steam locomotives.

The wood burning steam locomotive #171 left Jersey City, New Jersey on July 15, 1864, pulling 17 passenger and freight cars. On board were 833 Confederate Prisoners of War and 128 Union guards, heading from Point Lookout prison in Maryland, to the Union prison camp in Elmira, New York.

Engine #171 was an “extra” that day, running behind a scheduled train numbered West #23. West #23 displayed warning flags, giving the second train right of way, but #171 was running late.  First delayed while guards located missing prisoners, then there was that interminable wait for the drawbridge. By the time #171 reached Port Jervis, Pennsylvania, the train was four hours behind schedule.

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Shohola station

Telegraph operator Douglas “Duff” Kent was on duty at the Lackawaxen Junction station, near Shohola, Pennsylvania. Kent had seen West #23 pass through that morning with the “extra” flags.  His job was to hold eastbound traffic at Lackawaxen until the second train passed. Kent may have been drunk that day, but nobody’s certain. He disappeared the following day, never to be seen again.

Erie Engine #237 arrived at Lackawaxen at 2:30 pm pulling 50 coal cars, loaded for Jersey City.  Kent gave the all clear at 2:45.  The main switch was opened, and Erie #237 joined the single track heading east out of Shohola.

Only four miles of track stood between two speeding, 30-ton steam locomotives.

King and Fullers Cut
King and Fuller’s Cut, Shohola, Pennsylvania

The trains met head-on at “King and Fuller’s Cut”, a pass blasted out of solid rock and named after its prime engineering contractors.  This section of track followed a blind curve with only 50’ visibility.  Engineer Samuel Hoitt was at the throttle of #237.  Hoitt would survive, having just enough time to jump before the moment of impact.  One man in the lead car on #171 was thrown clear.  He too would live.  There would be no other survivors among the 37 men on that car.

Historian Joseph C. Boyd described what followed on the 100th anniversary of the wreck: “[T]he wooden coaches telescoped into one another, some splitting open and strewing their human contents onto the berm, where flying glass, splintered wood, and jagged metal killed or injured them as they rolled. Other occupants were hurled through windows or pitched to the track as the car floors buckled and opened. The two ruptured engine tenders towered over the wreckage, their massive floor timbers snapped like matchsticks. Driving rods were bent like wire. Wheels and axles lay broken. The troop train’s forward boxcar had been compacted and within the remaining mass were the remains of 37 men”. Witnesses saw “headless trunks, mangled between the telescoped cars” and “bodies impaled on iron rods and splintered beams.”

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“Jupiter 1864 train engine, typical of the type of engine used during the Civil War Era”. Tip of the hat to http://www.civilwaralbum.com/misc11/shohola1.htm, for this image.

Pinned by cordwood against the split boiler plate and slowly scalded to death, engineer William Ingram lived long enough to speak with would-be rescuers. Frank Evans, one of the guards, remembered: “With his last breath he warned away all who went near to try and aid him, declaring that there was danger of the boiler exploding and killing them.”

Evans describes the scene. “I hurried forward. On a curve in a deep cut we had met a heavily-laden coal train, traveling nearly as fast as we were. The trains had come together with that deadly crash. The two locomotives were raised high in air, face to face against each other, like giants grappling. The tender of our locomotive stood erect on one end. The engineer and fireman, poor fellows, were buried beneath the wood it carried. Perched on the reared-up end of the tender, high above the wreck, was one of our guards, sitting with his gun clutched in his hands, dead!. The front car of our train was jammed into a space of less than six feet. The two cars behind it were almost as badly wrecked. Several cars in the rear of those were also heaped together…Taken all in all, that wreck was a scene of horror such as few, even in the thick of battle, are ever doomed to be a witness of.”

Estimates of Confederate dead are surprisingly inexact.  Most sources indicate 51 killed on the spot or dying within the first 24 hours. Other sources put their number as high as 60 to 72.  17 Union guards were killed on the spot, or died within a day of the wreck.  5 prisoners appear to have escaped in the confusion.

Captured at Spotsylvania early in 1864, 52nd North Carolina Infantry soldier James Tyner was in the Elmira camp at this time.  Tyner’s brother William was one of the prisoners on board #171. William was badly injured in the wreck, surviving only long enough to avoid the 76′ trench in which the Confederate dead were buried. He died in Elmira three days later, never regaining consciousness.

I’ve always wondered if the brothers saw each other that one last time.  James Tyner was my twice-great Grandfather, one of four brothers who had gone to war in 1861.

We’ll never know.  James Tyner died in captivity on March 13, 1865, 27 days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Of the four brothers, Nicholas alone survived the war, laying down his arms when the man they called “Marse Robert” surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant.

Family Plot
Note the shape of the stones themselves. Union tombstones from the Civil War era have rounded tops. Those marking Confederate graves are pointed at the top. It has been said that the pointed top was adopted to prevent “Yankees” from sitting on Confederate headstones.  This photo taken in the family cemetery, in the “Sand Hills” of North Carolina.  

Afterward

Two Confederate soldiers, the brothers John and Michael Johnson, died overnight and were buried in the Congregational church yard across the Delaware river, in Barryville, New York.  The remaining POWs killed immediately or shortly thereafter were buried in a common grave that night, alongside the track.  Individual graves were dug for the 17 Union dead, and they too were laid alongside the track.

As the years went by, signs of all those graves were erased.  Hundreds of trains carried thousands of passengers up and down the Erie Railroad, ignorant of the burial ground through which they passed.

The “pumpkin flood” of 1903 scoured the rail line uncovering many of the dead, carrying away at least some of their mortal remains, along with thousands of that year’s pumpkin crop.

On June 11, 1911, the forgotten dead of Shohola we’re disinterred, and reburied in mass graves in the Woodlawn National Cemetery, in Elmira, New York.

 

Two brass plaques bear the names of the dead, mounted to opposite sides of a common stone marker.  The names of the Union dead face north.  Those of the Confederate face south.

The only instance from of the Civil War era, in which Union and Confederate share a common grave.

July 6, 1863 Sallie

By unanimous consent of the veterans, Sallie’s likeness looks out from the base of the statue, looking out for the spirits of “her boys” for all eternity. 

From contemporary descriptions and the only photograph that’s known to exist of her, Sallie was a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, brindle in color. She was four weeks old in 1861, given as a gift to 1st Lieutenant William Terry of the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, who made her the regimental mascot.   The men of the regiment were enormously fond of Sallie, as she tagged along on long marches and kept them company in their camps. She learned the drum roll announcing reveille, and loved to help wake sleeping soldiers in the morning.

If you’ve ever had a dog in your life, you know how that goes.

11th PASallie’s first battle came at Cedar Mountain, in 1862.  No one thought of sending her to the rear before things got hot, so she took up her position with the colors, barking ferociously at the adversary.   There she remained throughout the entire engagement, as she did at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Spotsylvania.  They said she only hated three things:  Rebels, Democrats, and Women.

Sallie marched with “her” soldiers in a review in the spring of 1863.  Abraham Lincoln was reviewing the army, when he spotted the dog from the center of the reviewing stand, and raised his famous top hat in salute.

At Gettysburg, Sallie was separated from her unit in the chaos of the first day’s fighting.  They found her five days later, on July 6, parched with thirst and weakened by hunger.  She was standing guard over her dead and dying comrades from July 1.

It’s been said that only a dog is capable of that kind of loyalty, yet virtue in one is capable of inspiring virtue in another.  So it was in February, 1865.  Sallie was struck in the head by a bullet at Hatcher’s Run.  She was killed instantly, when several men of the 11th PA laid down their arms and buried her right then and there, even though they were still under fire from the Confederate side.Sallie

There is a story.  I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s nice to think that it might be.   Soldiers were moving out after the battle, when they heard whining from a hollowed out tree. There they found several of Sallie’s puppies. They’d had no idea she was pregnant, or how puppies came to be in that hollowed out tree, but they gave them to local civilians so that Sallie’s bloodline could live on.

Surviving veterans of the regiment returned to Gettysburg in 1890, to dedicate a memorial to those members of the 11th Pennsylvania who lost their lives on that field of battle.  The monument shows an upright Union soldier, rifle at the ready.Sallie's Eyes

By unanimous consent of the veterans themselves, Sallie’s likeness looks out from the base of the statue, looking after the spirits of “her boys”, for all eternity.

There are only two dogs so honored on the battlefield at Gettysburg, the other is part of the Irish Brigade monument.  Of the two, Sallie is the only one to have actually participated in the battle.

Irish brigade memorial, Gettysburg“Sallie was a lady,

she was a soldier too.

She marched beside the colors,

our own red white and blue.

It was in the days of our civil war,

that she lived her life so true”.

July 1, 1863 Gettysburg

One hundred and fifty-four years ago today, the Union and the Confederacy met in the south central Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.  

After two years of civil war, Robert E. Lee wanted to take the war to his adversary. Lee intended to do enough damage to create overwhelming political pressure in the North, to end the war and let the South go its own way. Lee had his best cartographers draw up maps of the Pennsylvania countryside, all the way to Philadelphia.  And then he took his Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania.

One hundred and fifty-four years ago today, the Union and the Confederacy met in the south central Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.

Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, to whom Lee contemptuously referred as “Mr. F.J. Hooker”, wanted to attack Richmond, but Lincoln ordered him to intercept Lee’s army to protect Washington DC.  Hooker was replaced on the 28th by Major General George Gordon Meade, “that damn old goggle eyed snapping turtle” to his men, in a move that so surprised him that he thought he was being arrested over army politics, when the messenger came into his tent.

The “North” came up from the south that day, the “South” came down from the north.  No one wanted the fight to be in Gettysburg, it was more like an accidental collision. What started out as a skirmish turned into a general engagement as fighting cascaded through the town. Confederate forces held the town at the end of the day, with the two armies’ taking parallel positions along a three-mile-long “fishhook” from Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill to the north, toward two prominences known as Big and Little Round Top to the south.

Fighting would continue and prove inconclusive at Culp’s Hill on day two, as the two armies stretched their position toward the Round Tops. Dan Sickles, the Tammany Hall politician best known for murdering the nephew of Francis Scott Key (he would be the first in American legal history to plead temporary insanity), had been ordered to move his corps into position on cemetery ridge, anchored at Little Round Top. Instead he took his corps a mile forward, into a Peach Orchard where they were torn apart in the Confederate assault. Some of the most savage fighting of the Civil War took place that day, at places like Devil’s Den, the Wheat Field, and bloody run. Sickles himself lost a leg to a cannonball. There was a foot race to the top of Little Round Top, leading to as many as 15 attacks and counterattacks for control of a small prominence at the Union’s extreme left. At the end of the day, the positions of the Armies had not changed.

Picketts Charge

On day 3, the last day, Lee came up the middle. 13,000 Confederate soldiers came across 1¼ miles of open field, to attack the Union Center at a position between a small copse of trees and a corner in stone fence called the angle. Cannon fire from their left, right and center tore them apart as they pressed on. A battered remnant actually penetrated Union lines: the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. It’s anyone’s guess what would have happened, had 4,000 Confederate cavalry smashed into the Union rear at that point, as Lee seems to have intended. But a 23-year-old general named George Armstrong Custer had waded into them with his 450 Union cavalry, routing the much larger force and very possibly changing history.

Lee withdrew in the rain of the 4th, ending the largest battle of the civil war. Lincoln was convinced that the time had come to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, but Meade and his battered army did not follow. Lee and his army slipped back across the line and returned to Confederate territory. The most lethal war in American history would continue for two more years.

Years earlier, then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis had brought some 75 camels into West Texas, to try them out as pack animals. Davis’ camel experiment had been a flop, but the King of Siam, (now Thailand), didn’t know that. Seeing the military advantage to the Confederacy, the King wrote to President Abraham Lincoln, proposing to send elephants to help the Union war effort. This “animal arms race” appears to have gotten no further than the King’s letter to Lincoln but, the imagination runs wild, at the idea of War Elephants, at Gettysburg.

June 19, 1864 Ship’s Duel

Alabama’s mission was to wage economic war on the Union, attacking commercial shipping from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, from Newfoundland to Brazil.

Maryland native Raphael Semmes was a career Naval officer, having served in the United States Navy from 1826 to 1860.  There was an extended leave of absence following the Mexican-American war, in which he settled in Alabama and practiced law.  Semmes was offered a Confederate naval appointment in 1861, following the secession of his adopted home state.  He resigned his commission, the following day.

Following a fruitless assignment to purchase arms from the North, Semmes was ordered to New Orleans, to convert the steamer Habana into the commerce raider CSS Sumter.  Semmes breached the Union blockade in June of 1861, outrunning the sloop of war USS Brooklyn.  So began the most successful commerce raider, in naval history.

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Captain Raphael Semmes standing by his ship’s 110-pounder rifled cannon. His XO 1st Lieutenant John McIntosh Kell, stands by the ship’s wheel.

His was a war on the economic might of the Union.  Sumter would eliminate 18 Union merchant vessels from the Caribbean to the Atlantic, constantly eluding the Union warships sent to destroy her.  In six short months, CSS Sumter was laid up in neutral Gibralter, her boilers too spent to go on.

On May 13, 1861, Queen Victoria issued a “Proclamation of Neutrality” in the American Civil War, prohibiting the sale of ships of war. Vessels were permitted neither to alter or improve their equipment while in British waters, but were permitted to enter.

Hull #290 was launched from the John Laird & Sons shipyard in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England as the screw sloop HMS Enrica on May 15, 1862.   Enrica left Liverpool that July on a “trial run”, a party of ladies and customs officials on board to allay suspicions that the trip was anything but ‘neutral”.

The ruse was a success.  Passengers were transferred to a tug only a short distance from Liverpool and returned to port, while the ship itself continued on to the Terceira Island in the Azores.  There she met her new captain.  Raphael Semmes.

Three days, 8 cannon and 350 tons of coal later, Enrica was transformed into the 220’, 1,500 ton sloop of war and Confederate States of America commerce raider, CSS Alabama.

CSSAlabama, artist unknown
CSS Alabama, artist unknown

Alabama’s mission was to wage economic war on the Union, attacking commercial shipping from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, from Newfoundland to Brazil. In her two years as commerce raider, Alabama destroyed the Union warship USS Hatteras off the coast of Galveston, Texas, and claimed 65 prizes valued at nearly $123 million in today’s dollars.

Alabama was badly in need of a refit when she put into Cherbourg, France, on the 11th of June. The Mohican-class Union sloop of war USS Kearsarge was then on patrol near Gibraltar, making it to Cherbourg by the 14th.

Seeing that he was blockaded, Semmes challenged Kearsarge Captain John Winslow to a ship-to-ship duel.  “My intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements. I hope these will not detain me more than until to-morrow or the morrow morning at farthest. I beg she will not depart until I am ready to go out. I have the honor to be your obedient servant, R. Semmes, Captain”.

That suited Winslow just fine.  Kearsarge took up station in international waters, and waited.

USS_Kearsarge
USS Kearsarge

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

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

Heavy, overlapping rows of chain armor allowed Kearsarge to be more deliberate, and she chose her shots, carefully.

Kearsarge Stern Post
Kearsarge Stern Post

The engagement followed a circular course at a range of a half mile; the ships steaming in opposite directions and firing at will.

Alabama’s forward 7-inch Blakely pivot rifle scored an early success, lodging a 56lb shell in Kearsarge’s exposed sternpost.  With its rudder thus bound, Kearsarge’s mobility was sharply limited.  It could have been far worse for Captain Winslow, however, had that shell not failed to explode.

One of Kearsarge’s 11″ Dahlgren smooth bore pivot cannon found its mark, tearing Alabama’s hull open at the waterline and exploding her steam boiler.   Alabama turned and tried to run back to port, but Kearsarge headed her off.  Within an hour of the first shot, the most successful commerce raider in history was reduced to a sinking wreck.

sinking_alabama
“Sinking of the CSS Alabama” by Xanthus Smith (1922)

Wounded in the battle, Semmes hurled his sword overboard, denying the Union captain that symbol of surrender.  He ordered the striking of his ship’s Stainless Banner and a hand-held white flag of surrender, as Alabama went down by the stern.

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

Battle_of_Kearsarge_and_Alabama_(1892)_by_Xanthus_SmithSemmes would recover from his wounds, returning to the war ravaged South via Cuba in February, 1865.  That April, he would supervise the destruction of all Confederate warships in the vicinity, following the fall of Richmond.  Semmes’ former command fought on as “the Naval brigade”, Semmes himself appointed Brigadier General, though the appointment would never be confirmed.  The Confederate Senate had ceased to exist.

Elements of the Naval Brigade fought with Lee’s rear guard at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, before their surrender at Appomattox, only days later.  Semmes himself was surrendered with General Joseph E. Johnston’s army near Durham Station, North Carolina.

Semmes returned to Mobile after the war, where he resumed his legal career.  There were those who wanted to try the man for piracy, but it never happened.  Raphael Semmes died an untimely death in 1877, as the result of eating some bad shrimp.

His 1869 Memoirs of Service Afloat During The War Between the States has been described as one of the “most cogent but bitter defenses ever written”, about the “lost cause”, of the South.