May 12, 1864 A Mighty Oak

Our ancestors were still English colonists when this particular acorn first reached toward the warmth, of the sun. On this day in 1864 that sapling stood in a quiet meadow in Spotsylvania Virginia, itself a mighty oak some 22-inches, in diameter.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

According to legend, the infant Temujin was born sometime between 1155 and 1162 with a blood clot clutched in his fist, the size of a knucklebone. Mongol folklore holds such a sign to be prophetic. That one day the child would grow to be a great leader. Today we remember the young boy Temujin as the great and terrible chieftain, Genghis Khan.

Around that time some 6,500 miles to the west, an acorn sprouted from the soil in a place we now call Wyllys Hyll in Hartford, Connecticut. Through countless summers and frigid winters the sapling grew and transformed to become a mighty oak tree. Dutch explorer Adrian Block described the tree in a log, written in 1614. Twenty years later, local natives spoke with Samuel Wyllys, an early settler who had cleared the ground around it. Tribal elders spoke of this oak and its ceremonial planting, all those centuries before. They pleaded with Wyllys to preserve the great tree.

“It has been the guide of our ancestors for centuries as to the time of planting our corn; when the leaves are the size of a mouse’s ears, then is the time to put the seed into the ground”.

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Hat Tip to photographer Robert Fawcett for this image, of a mighty oak

In 1662 Governor John Winthrop won from King Charles II a charter, legitimizing the settlements of Connecticut and establishing the colonists’ right, of self-rule. Twenty five years later, King James II wanted the New England and New York colonies integrated under central authority and sought to rescind, the charter. Sir Edmund Andros, hand selected to rule over this “Dominion of New England” marched on Hartford at the head of an armed force to seize the charter.

The next part fades into legend but the story is, that Governor Robert Treat and a group of colonists sat glaring across the table at Andros, and a group of his allies. The charter lay between them, on a table. The debate raged for hours when, somehow, the lights went out. On relighting the candles only moments later King Charles’ charter, was gone. Captain Joseph Wadsworth had snatched up the parchment and stashed it in a hollow, in that great old tree.

Fun Fact: The timber from 2,000 southern live oak trees was harvested in Georgia and used to construct the hulls of USS Constitution and five other US Navy frigates, constructed under the Naval Act of 1794. Today, “Old Ironsides” is the oldest commissioned warship on the planet, still afloat.

Despite all that the politicians folded and Andros made his appointments, but colonists never did vote to submit. With the Spring of 1689 came news of the Glorious Revolution, in England. King James had fled to France and Edmund Andros was arrested. So it is the New England colonies held and kept their independence. The “Charter Oak” depicted at the top of this page remains to this day, a part of our colonial history.

The majestic old tree blew over in a storm in 1856 when firearms manufacturer Samuel Colt sent a marching band to play funeral dirges, over its fallen timbers.

Live Oaks line the entrance to the Wormsloe Plantation, in Savannah, Georgia

From the frigid forests of the north to the beaches of our southern coasts some 90 species of oak tree stand as part of our personal memories, and our American history. The Water Oak shading the Brown Chapel African Methodist Church in Selma Alabama, where Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “We Shall Overcome” speech before setting out on a 50-mile march, to Montgomery. The Overcup Oak beside the birthplace of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. As a child, Helen Keller once climbed the branches of a 100-year-old Water Oak.

Descendants of these trees and hundreds more stand today at our nation’s most hallowed ground at Arlington, Virginia.

Arlington National Cemetery and Arboreta

Not far away, the Smithsonian owns another oak or, more accurately, the stump of a tree hewn to the ground, by gunfire.

Our ancestors were still English colonists when this particular acorn first reached toward the warmth, of the sun. On this day in 1864 that sapling stood in a quiet meadow in Spotsylvania Virginia, itself a mighty oak some 22-inches, in diameter.

The 16th President of the United States once said of general Ulysses Grant “I need this man. He fights”. A succession of Generals had failed in the eyes of Abraham Lincoln, but not Grant. You knock him down and he’ll dust off, and keep coming at you.

Following a terrible draw at the Battle of the Wilderness, Grant’s army disengaged from that of Robert E. Lee and moved southeast, hoping to draw the Confederates into battle under more favorable conditions. It was a race to the critical crossroads of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Elements of Lee’s forces won the race and began to entrench. Off and on fighting began on May 8 and lasted, through May 21.

On May 12 some 1,200 Confederate troops waited in that once quiet meadow, sheltered behind an earthwork and timber revetment shaped, like a mule’s shoe. At the center stood that majestic oak. Some 5,000 Union troops assaulted the position from the Army of the Potomac. Some of the most savage and sustained fighting of the Civil War raged on all sides, of that tree. When it was over some twenty hours later that mighty oak, was no more. The tree was felled by small arms fire at a place we remember, as the “Bloody Angle’.

Both sides declared victory at Spotsylvania Courthouse and the war moved on. To places called Yellow Tavern (May 11), Meadow Bridge (May 12), North Anna (May 23–26), and others. By late June, Lee was forced into the nightmare position of defending the Confederate Capital, at Richmond.

Taken together Grant’s “Overland Campaign” carried out over those six bloody weeks in May and June resulted in some of the highest casualties, of the Civil War. Casualties crippling to Federal troops but in the end mortal, to the cause of southern independence.

Overland map, May and June, 1864

The modern mind is left only to contemplate, perhaps over the image of that tree stump. To imagine, what it all sounded like. What it all looked like. What it all smelled like.

That tree stump is all that remains of the apocalypse of May 12, of an oak tree surrounded by the cataclysm of Civil War and carried out inside a meadow, shaped like a mule’s shoe.

H/T Smithsonian, for this image of a once majestic oak tree. Felled, one bullet at a time, near a place called Spotsylvania.

Afterward

Many among us trace our personal ancestry, through the Civil War. For 52nd North Carolina infantry soldier James Tyner, the war came to an end in Spotsylvania Court House.

Tyner was captured and moved to the Federal prison camp in Elmira New York known as “Hellmira”.

There my own twice-great grandfather would spend the rest of the war, or most of it. James Tyner died in captivity on March 13, 1865. General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant only twenty-seven days later, at a place called Appomattox.

March 10, 1864  General Grant’s Tomb

Though his life is remembered for other things, the final chapter of Ulysses S Grant’s story is one of the finest tributes to the common Family Man, in American history.

Hiram Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio on April 27, 1822. His family called him by his middle name Ulysses, or sometimes just “Lyss”, for short.

A clerical error changed the name of the future Commander-in-Chief during his first days at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He didn’t seem to mind though, probably thinking that “US Grant” was preferable to “H.U.G.”, embroidered on his clothes. Predictably, Grant became known as “Uncle Sam” or simply “Sam.”  It was as good a name as any though, as with future President Harry S. Truman, the “S” doesn’t actually stand for anything.

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The 1862 Civil War Battle of Fort Donelson secured the name, when then-Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant received a request for terms from the fort’s commanding officer, Confederate Brigadier General Simon Bolivar Buckner. Grant’s reply was that “no terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately, upon your works.” The legend of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, was born.

70675-004-F36BC7D1Grant was a light smoker before Donelson, generally preferring a pipe, if anything. A reporter spotted him holding an unlit cigar during the battle, a gift from Admiral Foote.  Soon, ten thousand cigars were sent to him in camp. The general gave away as many as he could, but the episode started a cigar habit which became one of his trademarks, and probably led to his death of throat cancer, in 1885.

On this day in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a document promoting Ulysses S. Grant to the rank of Lieutenant General of the United States Army, officially putting then-Major General Grant in charge of all Union armies.  Lincoln preferred Henry Wagner Halleck for the promotion, at the time fearing  Grant would challenge him for the 1864 Republican Presidential nomination.  Lincoln submitted to the will of Congress only after Grant publicly dismissed the idea of running for office.

46-year-old U.S. Grant was elected the 18th President of the United States four years later, going on to serve two terms after becoming, at that time, the youngest man ever so elected.

Memoirs-of-GrantGrant bought a house in New York City in 1881 and invested his considerable fortune with the investment firm of Grant and Ward in which his son Ulysses, Jr., was a partner. The firm collapsed in 1884, investors fleeced and left penniless, by Ferdinand Ward.

Broke, humiliated and already suffering the pain destined to be diagnosed as throat cancer, Grant took pen to paper, and began his memoir.

The penning of that autobiography is a story in itself.  Gravely ill and financially destitute, Grant soon understood with certainty, he was dying of throat cancer.  The proceeds from his unwritten memoirs were his only means of supporting his family after his death.

The former President suffered constant and unbearable pain during his last year, as the cancer literally throttled the life from his body. Grant wrote at a furious pace despite his suffering, often finishing 25 to 50 pages in a day.  No re-writes, no edits. There was no time for that. Grant wrote every word with his own hand, every word of the two-volume memoir a literal race with death.

Many of his wartime contemporaries felt they received too little credit in Grant’s retelling of events.  That may be understood under the circumstances.

In June 1885, the cancer spread throughout his body, the Grant family moved to Mount MacGregor, New York to make him more comfortable. Propped up on chairs and too weak to walk, Grant worked to finish the book as friends, admirers and even former Confederate adversaries, made their way to Mount MacGregor to pay their respects.

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US Grant in 1885

Ulysses S Grant Grant was a gifted writer.  He finished the manuscript on July 18, 1885.  Five days later, he was gone. On release, the book received universal critical praise. Mark Twain, who published the memoir, compared the work to the Commentaries of Julius Caesar. Gertrude Stein admired the book, saying she could not think of Grant, without weeping. Ulysses Grant’s memoirs quickly became a best seller, his family receiving 75% of the net royalties after expenses.  The book earned $450,000, over $10 million in today’s dollars, comfortably re-establishing the Grant family fortune.

Grant’s wife Julia died on December 14, 1902, and was buried with her husband in Grant’s monumental tomb overlooking the Hudson River, in New York City.

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So, next time someone asks you who’s buried in Grant’s tomb, you can tell them.  It’s Hiram Ulysses Grant.  If you really want to show off, don’t forget to include his wife, Julia.

A Trivial Matter

In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant was arrested for speeding. In a horse-drawn carriage.