February 18, 1817  Friends and Enemies

The two looked across that field as gray and butternut soldiers formed up along seminary ridge.  It’s unlikely they ever saw one another

Armistead is a prominent name in Virginia, the family going back to colonial days.  Five Armistead brothers fought in the war of 1812. Major George Armistead commanded Fort McHenry during the battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner.  Major Armistead became an uncle on this day in 1817, to Lewis Addison Armistead, the first of eight children born to General Walker Keith Armistead and Elizabeth Stanley.

 

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Lewis Addison Armistead

“Lothario” or “Lo” to his friends, Armistead followed in the family footsteps, attending the US Military Academy at West Point.  He never graduated, some say he had to resign after breaking a plate over the head of fellow cadet and future Confederate General Jubal Early.  Others say it was due to academic difficulties, particularly French class.

 

Armistead’s influential father gained him a 2nd Lieutenant’s commission nevertheless, awarded in 1839, about the same time his former classmates received theirs.  Armistead’s field combat experience reads like a time-line of his age:  cited three times for heroism in the Mexican-American War, wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec, going on to serve in the Mohave War and the Battle of the Colorado River.

Stellar though his military career was, the man’s personal life was a mess.  Armistead survived two wives and two daughters, only to lose the family farm in a fire, all while fighting a severe case of Erysipelas, a painful skin condition known in the Middle Ages as “St. Anthony’s Fire”.

It’s been said that conjugating the “Be” verb changed after the Civil War.  Before, it was the United States “are”.  Afterward, it became the United States “is”.  Not for no reason.  This was a time when Patriotic Americans felt every bit the attachment to their states, as to the nation.

Fellow Americans took sides on the eve of the Civil War.  Even brothers.   Like his fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee, Armistead wanted no part of secession, but followed his state when it became inevitable.

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Winfield Scott Hancock

Pennsylvania native Winfield Scott Hancock went the other direction, staying with the Union.  Years later, Hancock would run for the Presidency, only narrowly losing to James A. Garfield.  Noted for personal integrity in a time of rampant political corruption, President Rutherford B. Hayes said of Hancock, “… [I]f, when we make up our estimate of a public man, conspicuous both as a soldier and in civil life, we are to think first and chiefly of his manhood, his integrity, his purity, his singleness of purpose, and his unselfish devotion to duty, we can truthfully say of Hancock that he was through and through pure gold.”

Armistead and Hancock served together on the frontiers, developing a close personal friendship as early as 1844.  On their final parting on the eve of war, Armistead made Hancock the gift of a new Major’s uniform.  To Hancock’s wife he gave his own prayer book, bearing the inscription ”Trust In God And Fear Nothing”.

Three years came and went before the old friends once again faced one another, this time across the field of battle.   Robert E. Lee tried to go after the Union right on that first day at Gettysburg, looking for a soft spot in the line. On day two, he went after the left.  On the afternoon of July 3, 1863, Lee went straight up the middle.

The two looked across that field as gray and butternut soldiers formed up along seminary ridge.  It’s unlikely they ever saw one another.  The action has gone into history as “Pickett’s Charge”, though the term is a misnomer.  Major General George Pickett commanded only one of  three units taking part in the assault, under Lieutenant General James Longstreet.

The pace was almost leisurely as Pickett’s, Trimble’s and Pettigrew’s Confederate soldiers stepped over the stone wall.  13,000 crossing abreast, bayonets glinting in the sun, pennants rippling in the breeze.

longstreets-assault

You cannot escape the sense of history if you’ve ever crossed that field. Stepping off Seminary Ridge with a mile to go, you are awe struck at the mental image of thousands of blue clad soldiers, awaiting your advance.  Halfway across and just coming into small arms range, you can’t picketts_chargehelp a sense of relief as you step across a low spot and your objective, the “copse of trees”, drops out of sight.  If you can’t see them they can’t shoot at you.  Then you look to your right and realize that cannon would be firing down the length of your lines from Little Round Top, as would those on Cemetery Hill to your left. Rising out of the draw you are now in full sight of Union infantry.  You quicken your pace as your lines are torn apart from the front and sides. Fences hold in some spots along the Emmitsburg Road.  Hundreds of your comrades are shot down in the attempt to climb over.

Finally you are over and it’s a dead run.  Seeing his colors cut down, Hancock puts his hat atop his sword, holding it high and bellowing above the roar of the guns “Come on, boys, give them the cold steel! Who will follow me!”

bloody-angleThe “High tide of the Confederacy” marks the point between the corner of a stone wall and that copse of trees, the farthest the shattered remnants of Longstreet’s assault would ever get.  Lewis Armistead made it over that wall before being shot down, falling beside the wheels of a Union cannon.

I always wondered what would have happened had J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry come out of the woods to the Union rear, but that wasn’t meant to be.  The Confederate advance couldn’t hold, wilting in the face of overwhelming Federal firepower.

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Gettysburg veterans on the 50th anniversary of the battle, July 1-3, 1913

Armistead lay bleeding as he asked a nearby soldier about Hancock.  General Hancock was himself wounded by this time, the bullet striking his saddle pommel and entering his thigh, along with shards of wood and a saddle nail.  When told his best friend was also wounded, Armistead said ”Not both of us on the same day!”.  Armistead spoke to Captain Henry Bingham, Hancock’s aide, saying “Tell General Hancock, from me, that I have done him and you all a grave injustice”.

One day, the country would reunite.  The two friends never did.  Lewis Armistead died of his wounds, two days later.

February 17, 1864 Hunley

Despite two disastrous test runs, there was no shortage of volunteers.  Once again, the Hunley was fished up from the bottom

In the 1850s, the economy of the southern United States was mostly agrarian.  When civil war broke out in 1861, the Confederacy depended to a greater degree on imported manufactured goods than the more industrialized states to the north.  For the Union, there was strategic advantage in cutting off this flow of manufactured goods, and so the “Anaconda Plan” was created, to choke off traffic to southern ports and harbors.
Few in the Confederacy understood the need to keep southern ports open as well as the planter, legislator, and southern Patriot Horace Lawson Hunley.
In 1861, Hunley joined forces with James McClintock and Baxter Watson to design and hunley-interiorbuild a secret Super Weapon for the Confederacy.  A submarine.  They completed construction on their first effort, the “Pioneer”, that same year in New Orleans.  The trio went on to build two more submarines in Mobile, Alabama, the “American Diver”, and their last and most successful creation, the “Fishboat”, later renamed HL Hunley.
After a short sea trial in Mobile, the Hunley was put on a train and shipped up to Charleston, South Carolina, to help break the blockade.  Arriving on August 12, 1863, she was 40′ long by 4′ wide, displacing about 7½ tons.  She was designed for a crew of 8, with 7 operating a hand crank and the 8th steering the boat.
A test run on August 29 ended in disaster, when Skipper John A. Payne accidentally stepped on the lever controlling the diving planes with the hatches open.  Payne and two others escaped, but the other five crew members went to the bottom.
A second crew tested the submarine on October 15, this one including Horace Hunley himself.  The submarine conducted a mock attack but failed to surface afterward, this time drowning all 8 crew members.
Despite those two disastrous test runs, there was no shortage of volunteers.  Once again, the Hunley was fished up from the bottom.
hunley-warheadThe original plan was to tow a floating mine called a “torpedo”, with a contact fuse.  They would dive beneath their victim and surface on the other side, pulling the torpedo into the side of the target.
Tide and current conditions in Charleston proved to be very different from those in Mobile.  On several test runs, they found the torpedo floating out ahead of the sub.  That wouldn’t do, so they fashioned a spar and mounted it to the bow.  At the end of the spar was a 137lb waterproof cask of powder, attached to a harpoon-like device with which Hunley would ram its target.hunley-housatonic
Hunley made her first live attack run four miles outside of Charleston Harbor, on the night of February 17, 1864. Lieutenant George Dixon and a crew of seven attacked USS Housatonic, a 1,240 ton steam powered sloop of war, embedding the spar torpedo into Housatonic’s hull.  It must have been a sight to see.  The torpedo ignited a 4,000 lb store of black powder in the hull of the ship, exploding with a deafening roar and a towering column of flame that lit up the night.
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Housatonic was gone in three minutes, killing five sailors.  What happened next, is a mystery.  The first successful attack sub in history showed the signal for success, a blue lantern, to their comrades on shore.  And then it vanished.
Hunley would not be seen again for 131 years.
Author and adventurer Clive Cussler found the sub in 1995, buried in silt under 32′ of water.  A painstaking, five year effort was launched to bring Hunley to the surface, and on August 8, 2000, HL Hunley returned to the light of day.  The sub was moved to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in thehunley-in-the-lab Charleston Navy Yard, and submerged in 55,000 gallons of chilled, fresh water, where scientists and historians worked on unlocking its secrets.
There was an old rumor that Lt. Dixon left a girlfriend in Mobile, Alabama, named Queenie Bennett.  She had given him a $20 gold piece, a good luck charm and token of her affection.  Dixon was shot in the hip at Shiloh, the story goes, a wound that should have killed him.  If the bullet hadn’t struck the gold piece in his pocket. dixon-gold-coin
No one knew if the story was true, until excavation started inside the sub.  Senior Archaeologist Maria Jacobsen found the coin, next to the remains of George E. Dixon.  “Some people may think this is a stroke of luck,” she said, “but perhaps it’s something else. They tell me that Lt. Dixon was a lady’s man, perhaps he winked at us yesterday to remind us that he still is”.
On the coin, clearly showing signs of having been struck by a bullet, are inscribed these words:

Shiloh
April 6, 1862
My life Preserver
G. E. D.

 

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Facial reconstruction techniques reveal the faces of the HL Hunley commander Lt. George Dixon and crewmembers Arnold Becker, Lumkin (first name unknown), Joseph Ridgaway, Frank Collins, Miller (first name unknown), Cpl. J.F. Carlsen and James A Wicks.

 

December 30, 1863 The Confederate States of…Bermuda

“There are a great many Southern people here”, wrote the American Consul in Bermuda, in 1862, “14 came in the steamer ‘Bermuda’. They & their friends are down on me & have threatened to whip me”.

When South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860, it was the first of 11 states to do so. War broke out in April, and the Confederacy desperately needed ships for its fledgling Navy. They needed manufactured goods as well, which could no longer be obtained from the industrialized North. The answer, in both cases, was Great Britain. While remaining officially neutral, England soon became primary ship builders and trade partners for the Confederacy.

For the British military, Bermuda had already demonstrated its value. Bermuda based privateers captured 298 American ships during the war of 1812. The place served as a base for amphibious operations as well, such as the 1815 sack of Washington, DC. British Commander Sir Alexander Milne, said “If Bermuda were in the hands of any other nation, the base of our operations would be removed to the two extremes, Halifax and Jamaica, and the loss of this island as a Naval Establishment would be a National misfortune”.

President Lincoln issued a proclamation soon after taking office, threatening to blockade southern coastlines. It wasn’t long before the “Anaconda Plan” went into effect, a naval blockade extending 3,500 miles along the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico coastlines and up into the lower Mississippi River.

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Blockade runner Britannia in Wilmington harbor

Running the blockade was no small or occasional enterprise. The number of attempts to run the Federal stranglehold have been estimated at 2,500 to 2,800, of which about 2/3rds were successful. Over the course of the war, the Union Navy captured over 1,100 blockade runners. Another 355 vessels were destroyed or run aground.

Cotton would ship out of Mobile, Charleston and Wilmington as well as other ports, while weapons and other manufactured goods would come back in. Sometimes, these goods would make the whole trans-Atlantic voyage.  Often, they would stop at neutral ports in Cuba or the Bahamas.  North Carolina and Virginia had long-established trade relations with Bermuda, 600 nautical miles to the east.1blockadeusnavyhandout

The most successful blockade runners were the fast, paddle wheeled steamers, though surprisingly little is known of the ships themselves. They were usually built in secrecy, and operated at night. One notable exception is the “Nola”, a 236-foot paddle steamer that ran aground on December 30, 1863, en route from London to North Carolina. Nola ran aground on her maiden voyage, attempting to enter Bermuda to take on coal. She was wrecked near Western Blue Cut on Bermuda’s reefs, and remains a popular dive destination to this day.

President Lincoln appointed Massachusetts native Charles Maxwell Allen Consul to Bermuda in 1861, where he remained until his death in 1888. There were times when it was a great job, I’m sure, but not in the early days. “There are a great many Southern people here”, Allen wrote in 1862, “14 came in the steamer ‘Bermuda’. They & their friends are down on me & have threatened to whip me”. People were getting rich running the blockade, Allen estimated that one blockade runner alone, which sank after three voyages, generated a profit of more than £173,000.

Today, the capital of Bermuda is Hamilton, moved across the island in 1815 from the old port of St. George and leaving the former capital in a kind of time warp, where you can walk down streets that look like they did 150 years ago. Portraits of Robert E. Lee and Confederate battle flags can still be found on the walls of the old port, beside paintings showing the harbor filled with blockade runners, lying quietly at anchor.

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Confederate blockade runners at anchor in St George Harbor, Bermuda

Sheryl and I traveled to Bermuda a while back, visiting the old port at St. George. At some point we learned about the maritime history of the island, as well. Making a living at sea in the 19th century was a dangerous business, so much so that one in ten of the married women living in Bermuda at that time, were widows.

It occurred to me that all those Confederate officers and enlisted men were spending a lot of time in Bermuda, and the possibility that followed soon morphed into a probability and then a certainty. At this point I can only wonder how many English citizens there are, residents of Bermuda and loyal subjects of the Queen, who can trace their paternity back to the Confederate States of America.

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 the 11th of December, 1862, when nearly 200,000 combatants collided in the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

The 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 “Stonewall” Jackson had more than enough time to prepare their 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 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.

In 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”.  He 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 before 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, had 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.”

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 this carnage, but I’m sure that the moans and cries of agony were difficult for most 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, Second 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.

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.

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Moment of Mercy, by Felix de Weldon. 1965, Fredericksburg, VA. Photo credit Claire H. New York

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.”

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.