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.

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

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 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.




June 7, 1866 Fenian Raids on Canada

They were a state within a state. To this day, the Fenian Brotherhood remains the only organization to have publicly armed and drilled, on this scale, in United States history.

The Fenian Brotherhood was founded in the US in 1858, based on the idea that Ireland should be free of English rule to become an independent, self-governing Republic. The Brotherhood traced its lineage back to 1758. By 1866, much if not most of the membership were battle hardened veterans of the Civil War, ended only a year earlier.

Fenian 1Fenians invaded Canada no fewer than five times between 1866 and 1871. The idea was to bring pressure on Britain to withdraw from Ireland, so these attacks were directed toward British army forts, customs posts and other targets in Canada.

Irish Canadian Catholics were divided by the raids, with many feeling torn between loyalty to their new home and sympathy for the Fenians’ objectives. Canadian-Irish Protestants and French Catholics were generally loyal to the crown, and many took up arms against the raiders.

700 Fenians headed north to Campobello Island, New Brunswick in April 1866, intending to seize the island. The war party became discouraged and dispersed after a show of force by the British Navy at Passamaquoddy Bay, but they would be back.

Next, a group of 1,000 to 1,300 Fenians sabotaged the US Navy side-wheeler gunboat USS Michigan, and slipped across the Canadian border at the Niagara River on June 1. A Fenian ambush west of Ft. Erie led to the Battle of Ridgeway, in which 13 Canadian Militia were killed. 94 were wounded or incapacitated by disease.

Further fighting took place the following day, in which the Canadian Militia’s inexperience led to battlefield confusion. A number were taken prisoner. Realizing that they couldn’t hold their position, the Fenians released their prisoners and withdrew to Buffalo on the 3rd, but again they would be back.

Fenian Independence

This seems to have been the high water mark of the Fenian uprising. President Andrew Johnson began to crack down, dispatching Generals Ulysses Grant and George Meade to Buffalo to assess the situation. Their orders on the 7th of June were to arrest anyone who even looked like a Fenian.

The Fenian “army of liberation” may have had little effect on Irish Independence, but it served to fire up Canadian Nationalism.  Canada was more properly called “British North America” in those days.   It seems that the Fenian raids tipped many of the more reluctant votes toward the security of nationhood, particularly in the Maritime provinces.   Historians will tell you that Ridgeway is “the battle that made Canada.”  The Canadian Confederation was formed in 1867, uniting Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec into one Dominion of Canada.

There would be several more Fenians raids in the years that followed, from Pigeon Hill and Mississquoi County in modern day Quebec, to the 1870 Pembina raid in the Dakota territory. Fenian 2

US authorities ultimately arrested the men and confiscated their arms, but many felt that the government had turned a blind eye to the invasions, seeing them as payback for British assistance to the Confederacy during the late Civil War.

The Fenian Brotherhood was a nation within a nation, organized for the purpose of winning Irish independence by force. A member of the British House of Commons rightly called them “a new Irish nation on the other side of the Atlantic, recast in the mould of Democracy, watching for an opportunity to strike a blow at the heart of the British Empire.”

In modern times, scores of self-styled ‘Militia’ have adopted the use of military style drill in this country, from the far-left Los Macheteros and Black Panthers, to Posse Comitatus and the far-right militia units of the nineties.  Yet, I believe it is accurate to say,  the Fenian Brotherhood remains the only organization in United States history, to have publicly armed and drilled on this scale.

“We are the Fenian Brotherhood, skilled in the arts of war,

And we’re going to fight for Ireland, the land we adore,

Many battles we have won, along with the boys in blue,

And we’ll go and capture Canada, for we’ve nothing else to do”.

Fenian soldier’s song

May 24, 1856 – Pottawatomie Massacre

There had been 8 killings to date in the Kansas Territory; Brown and his party had just murdered five in a single night. The massacre lit a powder keg of violence in the days that followed. Twenty-nine people died on both sides in the next three months alone.

John Brown Sr. came to the Kansas Territory as a result of violence, sparked by the expansion of slavery into the Kansas-Nebraska territories between 1854 and 1861, a period known as “Bleeding Kansas”.  To some, the man was a hero.  To others he was a kook, the devil incarnate.  A radical abolitionist and unwavering opponent of the “peculiar institution” of slavery, John Brown believed that armed confrontation was the only way to bring it to an end.

John Brown

Brown and four of his sons: Frederick, Owen, Salmon, and Oliver, along with Thomas Weiner and James Townsley, set out on what they called a “secret expedition”, on May 23, 1856. The group camped between two deep ravines off the road that night, remaining in hiding until sometime after dark on the 24th. Late that night, they stopped at the house of James P. Doyle, ordering him and his two adult sons, William and Drury, to go with them as prisoners. Doyle’s wife pleaded for the life of her 16 year old son John, whom the Brown party left behind. The other three, all former slave catchers, were led into the darkness.  Owen Brown and one of his brothers murdered the brothers with broadswords. John Brown, Sr. didn’t participate in the stabbing, it was he who fired a shot into James Doyle’s head, to ensure that he was dead.

The group went on to the house of Allen Wilkinson, where he too was brought out into the darkness and murdered with broadswords. Sometime after midnight, they forced their way into the cabin of James Harris. His two house guests were spared after interrogation by the group, but Wilkinson was led to the banks of Pottawatomie Creek where he too was slaughtered.

There had been 8 killings to date in the Kansas Territory; Brown and his party had just murdered five in a single night. The massacre lit a powder keg of violence in the days that followed.  Twenty-nine people died on both sides in the next three months alone.

Harper's FerryBrown would go on to participate in the Battle of Black Jack and the Battle of Osawatomie in the Kansas Territory.  He would be hanged in 1859 after leading a group to the armory in Harper’s Ferry Virginia, in a hare brained scheme to capture the weapons it contained and trigger a slave revolt. The raid was ended by a US Army force under Colonel Robert E. Lee, and a young Army lieutenant named James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart.

Brown supporters blamed the 1856 massacre on everything from defending the honor of the Brown family women, to self defense, to a response to threats of violence from pro slavery forces. Free Stater and future Kansas Governor Charles Robinson may have had the last word when he said, “Had all men been killed in Kansas who indulged in such threats, there would have been none left to bury the dead.”

May 22, 1856 A Caning in the Senate

Senator Stephen A. Douglas, he of the later Lincoln-Douglas debates, was in the audience at the time, and said “this damn fool Sumner is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool”.

For the earliest European settlers in this country, massive amounts of labor would be required to carve a living out of the North American wilderness.

A system of indentured servitude began as early as 1607, where individuals paid for their passage to the new world with terms of labor.

The first Africans arrived in 1619 and at first, they too were given terms of indenture. Slave laws were soon passed however, Massachusetts in 1641 and Virginia twenty years later, as permanent bondage replaced temporary indenture in the lives of an increasing number of blacks.

The “peculiar institution” of slavery proved most economically feasible in large, labor intensive farm operations such as tobacco producers. By the end of the Revolution, it had proven to be unworkable in the colder climates.

Slavery may have withered in the south as well, but for the invention of the cotton gin (short for “engine”) by Massachusetts native Eli Whitney in 1792. The machine could do the work of ten men and the world’s appetite for American cotton seemed endless.


There were just over a million slaves in the US in 1805, worth about $300 million. On the eve of the Civil War 55 years later, their number had quadrupled while their value as “property” had increased tenfold. In the eleven states which eventually joined the Confederacy, four out of ten people were slaves by 1860, doing over half of the agricultural labor. It wasn’t limited to the “South” either, the census of that year counted some 92,500 slaves in the “Northern” states of Maryland and Delaware, and another 2,000 in Washington DC.

The “Missouri Compromise” of 1820 simultaneously carved Maine out of Massachusetts and added Missouri to the Union, attempting to preserve the balance of “Slave” vs “Free” states at 12 each. Both sides hated it, one for its acquiescence in the face of slavery, the other because of the precedent that Congress could limit it.Sumner Speech

In the 1850s, a series of confrontations between anti-slavery “Free-Staters” and pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” took place in the Kansas Territory. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 intended to democratize slavery, allowing local elections on the issue. Instead, it further pitted the sides against one another in a period of violence known as “Bleeding Kansas”.

Massive amounts of cotton money flowed through the financial centers of New York City. 40% of every dollar that Europeans paid for Southern cotton stayed in New York, in the form of insurance, shipping, warehouse fees and profits.

When South Carolina seceded in December 1860, the world waited to see who would next call for secession. It was New York City, when Mayor Fernando Wood addressed that city’s governing body on January 7.  Two days later Mississippi called for secession, the second of the cotton states to do so.

Charles Sumner

Into this morass comes Charles Sumner, Senator from Massachusetts. A powerful speaker, Sumner was an adamant opponent of slavery, and a leader of the Radical wing of the Republican Party. One of a handful of “hotheads” on both sides of the slavery issue, he could be so confrontational that even his fellow Republicans sometimes asked him to tone it down.

Charles Sumner took to the floor of the Senate on May 20, 1856, and denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the harshest of terms, even for him. He attacked the measure’s sponsors Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois (he of the later Lincoln-Douglas debates), and Andrew Butler of South Carolina, by name, accusing the pair of “consorting with the harlot, slavery”.  Douglas was in the audience at the time, and said “this damn fool Sumner is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool”.

Senator Andrew Pickens Butler

Senator Butler’s nephew, Preston Brooks, was a member of the House of Representatives from South Carolina. He was an inflexible proponent of slavery, believing that any restriction was an attack on the southern state’s right of self-determination and the social structure of the south.

Brooks was furious when he heard of the speech, and wanted to challenge Sumner to a duel. He discussed it with fellow South Carolina Democrat, Representative Laurence M. Keitt, who explained that dueling was for gentlemen of equal social standing. Sumner was no gentleman, he said, no better than a drunkard.

Brooks had been shot in a duel years earlier, and walked with a heavy cane. Resolved to publicly thrash Sumner, he entered the Senate building on May 22, in the company of Keitt and Virginia Democrat Representative Henry A. Edmundson.

Preston Brooks
Preston Brooks

The trio approached Sumner, who was sitting at his desk writing letters. “Mr. Sumner”, Brooks said, “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”

Sumner’s desk was bolted to the floor.  He never had a chance. He began to rise when Brooks brought the cane down on his head. Over and over the cane smashed down on Sumner’s head while Keitt brandished a pistol, telling onlookers to “let them be”. Blinded by his own blood, Sumner tore the desk from the floor in his struggle to escape, losing consciousness as he attempted to crawl away. Brooks rained down blows the entire time, even after the body lay motionless, until finally, the cane broke apart.

Reaction to the attack split along regional lines. Newspapers in the south applauded this upholding of family honor before a social inferior. Southern Senators made rings from broken pieces of the cane, while Northern Senators took to carrying knives to defend themselves. Newspapers said that national debate had been replaced by the bowie knife and the club.Caning of Charles Sumner

Sumner’s fellow Massachusetts Republican Representative Anson Burlingame denounced Brooks as a coward on the floor of the House, earning him a challenge to a duel from Brooks, who appears to have been surprised by Burlingame’s eager acceptance. As the challenged party, Burlingame had the right to choose weapons, and he specified rifles on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls as the site. Knowing Burlingame to be an expert shot, Brooks declined the duel, objecting to unspecified risks to his safety if he was to cross “hostile country” to reach Canada. He would be mocked as a coward by Northerners for the rest of his life.

It was three years before Charles Sumner was able to resume his duties in the Senate, his colleagues keeping his seat vacant for the entire time: a reminder of the country’s political division. The nation would be plunged into Civil War five years later, almost to the day.

May 14, 1856 The Red Ghost

A potential animal arms race got no further than that single letter from the King of Siam, but it makes the imagination run wild. What would War Elephants have looked like, at Gettysburg?

Long before Jefferson Davis became President of the Confederate States of America, he was a young Army Officer who was approached with the idea of using camels as pack animals. To Davis, the beast’s ability to survive in the desert, its massive strength and great stamina, made him wonder if this wasn’t the weapon of the future.

Twenty years later, then-US Secretary of War Jefferson Davis ordered the creation of the First United States Camel Corps. Major Henry Wayne was sent to Turkey to acquire 62 of the beasts, along with trainers who could teach US soldiers how to properly handle and care for camels.Camel Corps

The camels arrived on May 14, 1856, and set out for the newly established Camp Verde in Kerr County Texas, with elements of the US Cavalry and 7 Turkish & Arab handlers.

Major Wayne became an enthusiastic salesman for the camel program, putting on demonstrations for cavalry groups. He’d order what seemed an impossible load to be placed on a kneeling camel, and then step back and frown, “concerned” that he might have overdone it. Mule drivers would smirk and jab each other with their elbows – now he’s done it – and then he would step forward and pile on more weight. On command, the camel would stand up and stroll away, entirely unconcerned.us_camel_corp_1

One of the Turks, a man named Hadji Ali, (“Hi Jolly” to the soldiers), established a successful breeding program while stationed at Camp Verde, but the program was not without problems. Camels don’t play well with other pack animals, and they don’t accept the whips and prods that were used to drive horses and mules. They tend to retaliate. A cranky camel will spit in your face or rake your skin off with their teeth if given the chance, and they can turn and charge in a manner that’s terrifying.

Camp Verde had about 60 camels when Civil War broke out in 1861. The King of Siam seems to have been the only man who grasped the military advantage to the Confederacy. Seeing a business opportunity, he wrote to President Abraham Lincoln, saying “here, we use elephants”. It seems that Lincoln never responded to the King’s overture.  A potential animal arms race got no further than this single letter, but it makes the imagination run wild.  What would War Elephants have looked like, at Gettysburg?

Douglas, the Confederate CamelSome of Camp Verde’s camels were sold off, one was pushed over a cliff by frustrated cavalrymen. Most were simply turned loose to fend for themselves. Their fates are mostly unknown, except for one who made his way to Mississippi in 1863, where he was taken into service with the 43rd Infantry Regiment. “Douglas the Confederate Camel” was a common sight throughout the siege of Vicksburg, until being shot and killed by a Union sharpshooter. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bevier of the 5th Regiment, Missouri Confederate Infantry was furious, enlisting six of his best snipers to rain down hell on Douglas’ killer. Bevier later said of the Federal soldier “I refused to hear his name, and was rejoiced to learn that he had been severely wounded.”

The Apache wars were drawing to a close in 1883, but southeastern Arizona could still be a dangerous place. Renegade bands of Apache were on the move, and isolated ranches were in a constant state of siege.

Two men rode out to check on their livestock one day, leaving their wives at the ranch with the kids. One of the women went down to the spring for a bucket of water while the other remained in the house with the children. Suddenly there was a terrifying scream, and the dogs began to bark. The woman inside saw what she described as a huge, reddish beast, being ridden by a devil.

She barricaded herself inside the house and hysterically prayed while waiting for the red-ghostmen to return. The pair returned that night and found the body of the other woman by the stream. She’d been trampled almost flat, with huge, cloven hoof prints in the mud around her body and a few red hairs in the brush.

Gold prospectors awakened in the night a few days later, as their tent crashed down around them to the sound of thundering hoofs. They clawed their way out of the mess and saw a huge beast, much larger than a horse, run off into the moonlight. The next day, they too found red hairs in the brush.

The stories became more fantastic and more terrifying with each telling, one man claiming that he personally saw the beast kill and eat a grizzly. Another claimed that he had chased the “Red Ghost”, only to have it vanish before his eyes.

A few months later, a Salt River rancher named Cyrus Hamblin spotted the animal while rounding up cows. It was a camel, and Hamblin saw that it had something that looked like the skeleton of a man tied to its back. Nobody believed his story, but a group of prospectors fired on the animal several weeks later. Though their shots missed, they saw the animal bolt and run, and a human skull with some parts of flesh and hair still attached fell to the ground.

Camel_from_Harpers_WeeklyThere were further incidents over the next year, mostly at prospector camps. A cowboy near Phoenix came upon the Red Ghost while eating grass in a corral. Cowboys seem to think they can rope anything with hair on it, and this guy was no exception. He lashed the rope onto the pommel of his saddle, and tossed it over the camel’s head. The angry beast turned and charged, knocking horse and rider to the ground. As the camel galloped off, the astonished cowboy could clearly see the skeletal remains of a man lashed to its back.

The beast last appeared nine years later in the garden of a rancher. He aimed his Winchester and fired, dropping the animal with one shot. On the back of the poor, tormented beast was the body of a man, tied down with heavy rawhide straps that cruelly scarred the animal’s flesh. The story of the Red Ghost ends here. How the body of a man came to be tied to its back, remains a cruel mystery.

Hi Jolly Cemetery
Hadji Ali burial place

March 26, 1881 Old Abe

It wasn’t long before the entire Regiment adopted the bald eagle, calling themselves the “Eagle Regiment”, in honor of their new mascot. Much deliberation followed as to what to name him, before it was decided. He would be called “Old Abe”.


In 1861, leader of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe band Ahgamahwegezhig, or “Chief Big Sky”, captured an eaglet, and sold it for a bushel of corn to the McCann family of Chippewa County, Wisconsin. Captain John Perkins, Commanding Officer of the Eau Claire “Badgers”, bought the young bald eagle from Daniel McCann.

The asking price was $2.50.  Militia members were asked to pitch in twenty-five cents, as was one civilian:  tavern-keeper S.M. Jeffers.  Jeffers’ refusal earned him “three lusty groans”, causing him to laugh and tell them to keep their quarters.  Jeffers threw in a single quarter-eagle, a gold coin valued at 250¢, and that was that.   From that moment onward, the militia unit called itself the Eau Claire “Eagles”.1861 quarter eagle

Perkins’ Eagles entered Federal Service as Company C of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment.  It wasn’t long before the entire Regiment adopted the bald eagle, calling themselves the “Eagle Regiment”, in honor of their new mascot.  Much deliberation followed as to what to name him, before it was decided.  He would be called “Old Abe”.

Old Abe accompanied the regiment as it headed south, travelling all over the western theater and witness to 37 battles. David McLain wrote “I have frequently seen Generals Grant, Sherman, McPherson, Rosecrans, Blair, Logan, and others, when they were passing our regiment, raise their hats as they passed Old Abe, which always brought a cheer from the regiment and then the eagle would spread his wings”.

Old AbeAbe became an inspirational symbol to the troops, like the battle flag carried with each regiment. Colonel Rufus Dawes of the Iron Brigade recalled, “Our eagle usually accompanied us on the bloody field, and I heard [Confederate] prisoners say they would have given more to capture the eagle of the Eighth Wisconsin, than to take a whole brigade of men.”

Confederate General Sterling Price spotted Old Abe on his perch during the battle of Corinth, Mississippi.  “That bird must be captured or killed at all hazards”, Price remarked. “I would rather get that eagle than capture a whole brigade or a dozen battle flags”.OldAbe

Old Abe was presented to the state of Wisconsin at the end of the war. He lived 15 years in the “Eagle Department”, a two-room apartment in the basement of the Capitol, complete with custom bathtub, and a caretaker.  Photographs of Old Abe were sold to help veteran’s organizations. He was a national celebrity, traveling across the country and appearing at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the 1880 Grand Army of the Republic National Convention, and dozens of fundraising events.

Old Abe & caretaker George Gilles

A small fire broke out in a Capitol basement workshop, fed by cleaning solvents and shop rags.  The fire was quickly extinguished thanks to the bald eagle’s cries of alarm, but not before Old Abe inhaled a whole lot of that thick, black smoke.  Abe’s health began to decline, almost immediately.  Veterinarians and doctors were called, but to no avail.  Bald eagles have been known to live as long as 50 years in captivity. Old Abe died in the arms of caretaker George Gilles on March 26, 1881.  He was 20.

His remains were stuffed and mounted.  For the next 20 years his body remained on display in the Capitol building rotunda. On the night of February 26, 1904, a gas jet ignited a newly varnished ceiling, burning the Capitol building to the ground.

Since 1915, Old Abe’s replica has watched over the Wisconsin State Assembly Chamber of the new capitol building.Old_abe_capitol

In 1921, the 101st infantry division was reconstituted in the Organized Reserves with headquarters in Milwaukee.  It was here that the 101st first became associated with the “Screaming Eagle”.  The Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne participated in the D-Day invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, Operation Market Garden, and Bastogne, becoming the basis of the HBO series “A Band of Brothers”.

101st_Airborne_Division_patchAfter WWII, elements of the 101st Airborne were mobilized to Little Rock by President Eisenhower to protect the civil rights of the “Little Rock Nine”, a group of black students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in September 1957, as the result of the US Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the historic Brown v. Board of Education case.

For 104 years, Old Abe appeared in the trademark of the J.I. Case farm equipment company of Racine, Wisconsin.Old_Abe_Case_mascot

Winston Churchill once said “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”  We all know how stories change with the retelling.  Some stories take on a life of their own.  Ambrose Armitage, serving with Company D of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry, wrote in his diary on September 14, 1861, that Company C had a “four month old female eagle with them”.   Two years later, Armitage wrote, “The passing troops have been running in as they always do to see our eagle. She is a great wonder”.

Ten years after his death, a national controversy sprang up and lasted for decades, as to whether Old Abe was, in fact, a “she”.  Suffragettes claimed that “he” had laid eggs in the Wisconsin capitol.  Newspapers weighed in, including the Washington Post, Detroit Free Press, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Oakland Tribune, and others.Abe Feathers

Bald eagles are not easily sex-differentiated, there are few clues available to the non-expert, outside of the contrasts of a mated pair.  It’s unlikely that even those closest to Old Abe, had a clue as to the eagle’s sex.

University of Wisconsin Biotechnology Center Sequencing Facility researchers had access to four feathers, collected during the early days at the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall.  In March of 2016, samples were taken from the hollow quill portion (calamus) of each feather, and examined for the the presence of two male sex chromosomes (ZZ) or both a male and female chromosome (ZW). After three months, the results were conclusive.  All four samples showed the Z chromosome, none having a matching W.  After 155 years, Old Abe could keep his name.


March 8, 1863 The Gray Ghost

Entering the chamber where the General slept, Mosby lifted his nightshirt and slapped his bare backside with a sword

John Singleton Mosby was a Virginia lawyer, when Civil War broke out in 1861.  Like fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee, Mosby opposed secession. When it came, he left the Union along with his home state of Virginia. Small and frail as a boy, Mosby was often the target of much larger bullies. He’d write in his memoirs that he never won a fight. It seems that he never backed down from one, either.

MosbyMosby participated in the 1st Battle of Manassas (1st Bull Run) as a member of the Virginia Volunteers Mounted Rifles, later joining James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart as a Cavalry Scout. A natural horseman and gifted tactician, information gathered by Mosby aided Stuart in his humiliating ride around McLellan’s Army of the Potomac in June, 1862.

In 1863, Stuart authorized Mosby to form and take command of the 43rd Battalion of the Virginia Cavalry, a regiment sized unit operating out of north central Virginia. These “Partisan Rangers”, 1,900 of whom served between January 1863 and April 1865, were under the authority of Stuart and Lee and subject to their commands, but they were not a traditional army unit. Mosby’s Rangers shared in the spoils of war, they had no camp duties, and lived scattered among civilian populations.

Mosby himself would often reconnoiter a target himself, in disguise.  Known for lightning raids of the Virginia countryside, Mosby’s 43rd Cavalry would be called together to strike a specific target, dispersing afterward and making themselves next to impossible to run to ground.  He was the “Gray Ghost”, so successful were his Rangers, that parts of Virginia’s Piedmont region are known as “Mosby’s Confederacy”, to this day.

Late on the night of March 8, 1863, Mosby’s Rangers formed up for a raid on Fairfax Mosbys-Rangers750Courthouse, Virginia. Union Brigadier General Edwin H. Stoughton was sleeping in his headquarters there, some sources say he was “sleeping it off”. The Gray Ghost entered the Union General’s headquarters in the small hours of March 9, his rangers quickly overpowering a handful of sleepy guards.

Entering the chamber where the General slept, Mosby lifted his nightshirt and slapped his bare backside with a sword. The general sputtered awake, demanding “What is the meaning of this”. “General, did you ever hear of Mosby”, came the question. Stoughton replied, “Yes, have you caught him?” “I AM Mosby,” said the Gray Ghost, “and I have caught you. Stuart’s cavalry has possession of the Courthouse; be quick and dress.”

John Singleton Mosby and 29 Rangers had captured a Union General, two Captains, 30 enlisted men and 58 horses, without firing a shot. On hearing the story the next day, Lincoln lamented. “I can make another Brigadier in 5 minutes, but I can’t replace those horses”.

Mosby 3rd Reunion 7-1-1896
Mosby’s Rangers, Third Reunion, 1896