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.

shohola station
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.”

“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.  


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.

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.