Can anyone save some of the Civil War’s most important battlefields?

November 14, 2008

By John A. Farrell

Sunday, November 16, 2008; Page W14

 

In 1964, Michael Shaara, a frustrated writer of little-known fiction, took his wife and children on a road trip to the World’s Fair in New York. On their way home, they stopped at Gettysburg National Military Park, where a fine statue of Robert E. Lee guards the western reach of the famous battlefield.

The statue marks the area where, on July 3, 1863, Confederate Gen. George Pickett led some 13,000 men out from the shelter of the woods and up the long slope of Cemetery Ridge. Shaara and his 12-year-old son, Jeff, followed the path of Pickett’s men, across undulating ground and a fence at Emmitsburg Road. As they climbed the ridge, Michael Shaara told stories to his son. He recounted how Pennsylvanians had done what Lee did not think they’d do that day: They’d fought and died in defense of their state’s soil. He spoke of Confederate Gen. Lewis Armistead and Union Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, great friends before the war, and how they lay bleeding, yards apart, not knowing the other was near. And when the Shaaras got to the small stone monument that marks the dirt where Armistead was mortally wounded, the boy was stunned to see his father weeping.

“What happened to my father, walking the ground at Gettysburg, changed his life,” Jeff Shaara remembers. “He became obsessed with telling that story.”

It took Michael Shaara seven years to complete “The Killer Angels,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975, but not a wide audience. It was only in the wake of Ken Burns‘s wildly popular 1990 PBS documentary series, “The Civil War,” that a faithful adaptation of Shaara’s book was filmed, propelling “The Killer Angels” to the top of the bestseller lists and establishing a family franchise. Michael Shaara, who died in 1988, never knew the success that Jeff has had with a series of novels that, in the style of his father, revisit the Civil War, the American Revolution and other storied clashes.

“It is a testament to the power of that ground,” Shaara says, remembering when he climbed Cemetery Ridge with his dad. “There is no substitute for coming out by the Lee statue, looking out across that mile of open ground and then walking it yourself {lcub}hellip{rcub} And realizing it is not that Hollywood stuff where guys charge, sort of screaming and yelling and lickety-split. No. They walked. One step at a time.”
Last summer, Shaara was asked to join the board of trustees of the Civil War Preservation Trust, whose calling is to save battlegrounds from bulldozers as sprawl creeps beyond the suburbs of Washington, Richmond and other cities with historic land nearby. The trust was formed in 1999, when the two small and troubled private groups merged and chose a onetime Maryland politico — Jim Lighthizer — to serve as president.

Lighthizer has built the trust into an effective organization that is part conservation fund, part lobbying shop, part political pit bull. He is not afraid to take the tools of modern politics — polling, direct mail, media — into battle with developers, and defeat them.

When the trust asked for Shaara’s help, “I listened long and hard,” the author says, “because this is a huge time commitment.” In the end, Lighthizer won him over. “He is the energy behind this.”

Which is noteworthy, because, when I ask Lighthizer what triggered his love for Civil War battlefields, he goes back to a day in 1983 when he asked a friend to recommend a book to take on vacation. Lighthizer was skeptical of his pal’s suggestion. “I don’t read novels. I read history,” he says. But the friend persevered, and in Nags Head, N.C., that summer, Lighthizer read “The Killer Angels.”

“It lit something that can best be defined as between a passion and an obsession,” he says.

The ground had inspired a story; the story a man, to save the ground.

“When I took the job… did I say we were going to start a political organization? No,” Lighthizer says. “But as the facts presented themselves, I recognized {lcub}hellip{rcub} if we don’t get political, we are not going to be in business.”


Read the rest:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/w
p-dyn/content/article/2008/11/07
/AR2008110701937.html

Scientists have new clue to mystery of sunken sub

October 19, 2008

It’s long been a mystery why the H.L. Hunley never returned after becoming the first submarine in history to sink an enemy warship in 1864, but new research announced Friday may lend credence to one of the theories. Scientists found the eight-man crew of the hand-cranked Confederate submarine had not set the pump to remove water from the crew compartment, which might indicate it was not being flooded.

By Associated Press

That could mean crew members suffocated as they used up air, perhaps while waiting for the tide to turn and the current to help take them back to land.

The new evidence disputes the notion that the Hunley was damaged and took on water after ramming a spar with a charge of black powder into the Union blockade ship Housatonic.
USSHousatonic.jpg
Above: USS Housatonic.


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Scientists studying the sub said they’ve found its pump system was not set to remove water from the crew compartment as might be expected if it were being flooded.

The sub, located in 1995 and raised five years later, had a complex pumping system that could be switched to remove water or operate ballast tanks used to submerge and surface.

“It now really starts to point to a lack of oxygen making them unconscious,” said state Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston and the chairman of the South Carolina Hunley Commission, formed to raise, conserve and display the sub. “They may have been cranking and moving and it was a miscalculation as to how much oxygen they had.”

In excavating the sub, scientists found little intermingling of the crew remains, indicating members died at their stations. Those bones likely would have been jumbled if the crew tried to make it to the hatches in a desperate attempt to get out.

“Whatever occurred, occurred quickly and unexpectedly,” McConnell said. “It appears they were either unconscious because of the concussion (from the attack) or they were unconscious because of a lack of oxygen.”
Archaeologist Maria Jacobsen cautioned that scientists have not yet examined all the valves to see if the crew may have been trying to surface by using the pumps to jettison ballast.
“Can we definitely say they weren’t pumping like mad to get water out of the tanks? No we cannot,” she said. “I’m not really at a point where I think we should really be talking about what these guys were doing at the very end because we simply don’t know all the valve settings.”
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But she said scientists can definitely say the valve that would have been used to remove water from the crew compartment was closed.

Diary of a Civil War Marine

September 24, 2008

By John E. Carey

I have read and reported upon five or six Civil War journals and diaries over the course of the last ten years for The Washington Times and this is by far the best.

The newly released “note-book” or diary of Marine Henry O. Gusley (The Southern Journey of a Civil War Marine: The Illustrated Note-Book of Henry O. Gusley; Edited and Annotated by Edward T. Cotham Jr., Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, March 2006, 223 pp. $24.95. ISBN: 0-292-71283-9) is a wonderment for several reasons. First, Gusley proves a remarkably colorful, humorous and articulate story teller and observer of naval operations in the Gulf of Mexico in 1862-3. There are no diaries or memoirs quite as good as this.
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Second, the editor of this “note-book,” Edward T. Cotham, combines Gusley’s book with the drawings of another keen observer in the same U.S. Navy Mortar Squadron, Dr.Daniel D. T. Nestell, and Acting Assistant Surgeon in the West Gulf Blockading Squadron.

To paraphrase the editor, if Gusley supplies the sound track and very colorful narration of navy operations in the Gulf of Mexico, Dr. Nestell provides the video tape.

And then there is the wonderful contribution of the editor himself, Edward T. Cotham Jr., who gives us a terrific forward and overview with context, and then follows-up with detailed notes. If most readers are like me, they rarely read the end or footnotes. This time you will want to.

The United States Marine Corps is the forgotten service of the Civil War. More than overlooked, many Civil War historians and enthusiasts don’t even know that the Marines served.

Henry O. Gusley fully covers shipboard life; the armaments, capabilities and limitations of his vessels; the social aspects of the war including emancipation; the duties of a U.S. Marine at sea during the Civil War; and at-sea operations.

Gusley participated in so many sustained shore bombardments of Confederate forts and concentrations that he was already losing his hearing at the end of the war. Although he participated in numerous operations, including against New Orleans, Vicksburg, Mobile, and Galveston; his book gives one of the few Union Navy first-hand accounts of the terrible defeat at the hands of the Confederates at Sabine Pass, Texas, on September 8, 1863. Gusley was captured in this engagement.

Still, Gusley recorded just after the Sabine Pass engagement, “We have been in several battles since our enlistment, but never have we been in one where we saw displayed so much coolness and calm courage. From the captain to the powder boys, without exception, everyone stood by his quarters until we were compelled to strike our flag.

On July 5, 1863, just after Grant’s victory at Vicksburg and Lee’s loss at Gettysburg, while in the Gulf of Mexico and unaware of either outcome, Gusley wrote, “The ‘Glorious Fourth’ passed…We flew four flags instead of one in honor of the day: we fired a salute of twenty-one guns at noon, and all hands were dressed in white….”

After recording the Fourth of July gun salute, Gusley adds, “The rebels…did not, of course.” Later that day Gusly tells us the squadron got “the latest rebel news that ‘General Lee has taken Pennsylvania!’”

Only weeks later did the Union Navy in the gulf learn the true successes of Union forces in early July, 1863.

Among Gusley many eyewitness accounts and reflections on his duties this is included on April 1, 1863: “One of our steamers, the [USS] Diana, had been captured by the rebels….with the greater part of her crew killed….The bodies of her captain and executive officer had been recovered and were to be buried that afternoon. It being a military funeral, the marines and sailors of the [USS] Clifton …for the first time in our life we took part in a soldier’s burial. The marines acted as guard of honor. We buried them in a beautiful orange grove, close by the town. ‘May they rest in peace.’”

Gusley also tells us about the steady dwindling of diversions and distractions at sea, including the elimination of the rum ration and running out of tobacco.

“We…organized a band of minstrels, and that we have nightly serenades and impromptu dances. Such things serve to make things more pleasant,” wrote Gusley on February 26, 1863. “We love music, however rude, and although not much of a dancer we do sometimes ‘shake a leg.’”

“The Southern Journey of a Civil War Marine: The Illustrated Note-Book of Henry O. Gusley,” Edited and Annotated by Edward T. Cotham Jr., will enthrall most all Civil War enthusiasts. Its appeal transcends regions, North, South, Army and Navy.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page of the Washington Times.

Civil War Submarine Hunley; Modern Marvel of 1860s

September 22, 2008

By David Reed
Humboldt (California) Beacon

Submarines, that’s World War 2 stuff, right? Go back about 80 years earlier and you’d be closer. The sub “H.L. Hunley” sank the USS Housatonic in early 1864 during the American Civil War, becoming the first craft of its kind. Humboldt County residents will get a chance to see a replica of the historic sub at Fortuna’s Civil War Days on Sept. 20 and 21.

USSHousatonic.jpg

”She had everything on board that you would see in a modern submarine except a nuclear reactor and an electric motor,” explains John Nevins, member of the “Friends of the Hunley” and one of the curators of the traveling exhibition. Nevins explains that spectators are surprised that the ship looks so much like what they’d consider a “modern submarine” even though it was built 145 years ago.

 

”It was 100 years ahead of its time,” Nevins says of the 40 foot long, 4 foot high and 4 foot wide war ship.

Spectators at the Civil War Days event will get free access to the Hunley exhibit with their admission. Nevins says there’s a lot to learn about the historic craft and the presentation changes depending on the interests of the crowd….

It’s a multifaceted story with elements of technology, innovation, persistence, sacrifice, even love and ‘sneaky stuff,’ like spies.” Nevins lives in California and is one member of a team that brings the reproduction to events all over the country.

The reproduction was built at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston S.C., just feet from the real “Hunley.” The Hunley has resided at the conservation center since it was raised from Charleston harbor in 2000 where it had rested since sinking just after its successful first battle.

The exhibit is a working model of the original both inside and out. “ The right side of the ship comes off so even a grade school child can see inside,” Nevins adds that he and exhibit leader John Dangerfield do their presentation from inside the craft. They show how the 8 man crew worked the propulsion, navigation and unique weapon the ‘spar torpedo’.

The Hunley exhibit will be shown both days of Civil War Days in the upper portion of the event site. The reenactment and battles will take place down in the “Bowl” area behind the River Lodge Conference Center.

The Fortuna Civil War Day’s event is co-produced by the Reenactors of the American Civil War and the Rotary Club of Fortuna Sunrise with funds going to local Rotary projects and Reenactor educational events.

The reenactment is held directly west of the Kenmar exit, bordered by the Eel River and Highway 101. Free parking and the re-enactment site are just a quarter mile west of the highway.

Re-enactment organizers ask that spectators do not park at the River Lodge Conference Center either day, due to events at the lodge. Admission to the event is $8 for adults and $2 for children. For details about the 2008 Fortuna Civil War Days, go to http://www.civilwardays.com/

Link to our Civil War page on Hunley:
CSS Hunley: Submarine’s Hatch May Have Cost All Their Lives

Union Spy in Confederate Richmond: Elizabeth van Lew

September 21, 2008

By John E. Carey

Alive with spies, merchants, military men and government agents, Civil War Richmond, Virginia, the Confederacy’s capital, provided a crossroads for people of all walks of life. One of the more devious and committed was Miss Elizabeth van Lew, an unnoticed spy for the Union cause in plain sight amid the commotion.

Born the daughter of wealth and privilege, Miss Van Lew spent her childhood in a columned mansion atop exclusive Church Hill in Richmond. Family owned household slaves catered to the wishes of her family. Miss Van Lew’s father, John, a wealth hardware vendor, entertained pre-war Richmond society and sent his daughter to his wife’s home town of Philadelphia for her schooling. After Miss Van Lew’s “finishing” in Philadelphia, she returned to Richmond, but she had changed significantly. In Philadelphia, Miss Van Lew became an ardent abolitionist.

 


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Although both of Miss Van Lew’s parents were northerners, they had completely adopted, at least outwardly, the mores and ways of pre-war Richmond. But Miss Van lew secreted her abolitionist beliefs. Although she always maintained that she was a good and loyal southerner, she could not agree with slavery or the war. These feelings probably were formed in her childhood, even before her schooling in Philadelphia. “From the time I knew right from wrong, “ she wrote, “it was my sad privilege to differ in many things from the …opinions and principles of my locality.”

Elizabeth’s abolitionist beliefs were heartfelt and strong. When the Swedish novelist Fredericka Bremer, one of the first “feminists,” visited Richmond, she met Elizabeth Van Lew, who was then thirty. Bremer described Miss Van Lew as “a pleasing, pale blonde,” who “expressed so much compassion for the sufferings of the slave, that I was immediately attracted to her.”

Despite their beliefs, Miss Van Lew and her Mother continued to live within the societal rules of Richmond and did not openly or publicly advocate freeing the slaves. They even kept their own slaves in bondage. Elizabeth R. Varnon, Van Lew biographer and author of Southern Lady, Yankee Spy, wrote, “Elizabeth and her mother…did not practice overt abolitionism but rather a kind of double life – their outward conformity to social conventions masked their inner doubts about slavery.”

Though prohibited from doing so by John Van Lew’s will, Elizabeth and her mother allowed the slaves to drift further and further toward freedom. The slaves were allowed to earn salaries, travel, and generally, if eventually become free. But once free, the Van Lew’s former slaves lacked the appropriate paperwork for “freedmen” in Virginia.

Elizabeth even went so far as to pick out a young slave girl for education in the north. Mary Elizabeth Bowser would become a life-long Van Lew loyalist in return for her education. The full account of Mary Bowser is sketchy and she certainly had aliases. But if local tradition and conversation can be believed, she was an integral part of the Van Lew spy ring.When the Civil War started, Elizabeth van Lew immediately knew her loyalty and her mission belonged with the Union. When she first saw the Confederate flag flying over Richmond, she wrote, “Looking toward the capitol, I saw the flag of treason floating over it.”

Miss Van Lew arranged for Mary Elizabeth Bowser to work as a free black servant in the Jefferson davis household. She became Miss Van Lew’s eyes and ears, even the occasional collector of valuable papers, in the inner circle of the Confederacy.

By some accounts, Mary Bowser pretended to be “dull and unaware” but in fact, many after the conflict became convinced she had a photographic memory. She listened to Jefferson Davis and his visitors discussing war strategy, troop movements and other government business. She dutifully reported all to her Mistress, Miss Van Lew.

Using her own spinster plainness and merciful heart as her “cover,” Elizabeth van Lew began a regular visitation routine with the Union soldiers she called “the dear boys” held as prisoners in nearby Libby prison. At the same time, she set up ways to send information north to Federal military commanders. Fresh from the front, captured Union soldiers were a wealth of information on the Confederate military situation. They had been transported behind enemy lines and inside Richmond without blindfolds. Miss Van Lew began to send intelligence northward, explaining to the Confederates that she only communicated with the families of prisoners – an act of mercy and kindness.

By late 1863 and early 1864, in the north, people began to realize the pain and suffering of the soldiers held in Libby prison and then at Belle island. Harpers Weekly published drawings of the gaunt, emaciated and dying prisoners along with many first hand account of their privations. Some of the prisoners’ pleas for help were smuggled out of Richmond by Elizabeth van Lew and her cohorts.

At first Miss Van Lew used the mail to transmit information. Then she developed a code, used invisible ink and left messages in books and reassembled empty eggshells hidden in baskets of goodies. Most of her espionage was “hidden in plain sight.”

At a time when Union sympathizers were hanged in Richmond, Miss Van Lew managed to maintain a successful spy operation that was never discovered or even mush suspected, even though she was growing less secretive about her abolitionist beliefs.

Through the van Lew courier system, information, troop dispositions, even home grown van Lew flowers for General Grant moved northward. When the Libby prison inmates staged a tunnel breakout, Miss van Lew his many of the escapees in her Church Hill mansion.

In March, 1864, Miss Van Lew participated in the still controversial “Dahlgren Raid” on Richmond. Colonel Ulrich Dahlgren, USA, the youngest colonel in the Army at the age of 21, and son on Naval artillery expert rear Admiral John Dahlgren, engineered a daring raid on Richmond. The one-legged Union colonel marched his men around Richmond, seeking ways to penetrate the city’s defenses. He was supposed to rendezvous with some 3,000 cavalry troops led by General Judson Kilpatrick, but nothing went as planned in the raid. At Cary Road, Dahlgren’s force was confronted by three hundred armed men of the Home Guard. In the altercation that ensued, Dahlgren was killed. The Confederates mutilated Dahlgren’s body and then hastily, and ignominiously, buried him. Miss Van Lew found the buried body of Dahlgren and had it removed and reburied in a safer place.

On April 3, 1864, as Union forces reclaimed Richmond, Miss Elizabeth van Lew had the largest Union flag she could find hoisted atop Church Hill. For the first time since succession in 1861, the pre-war flag of all Americans flew above the city. But this act of respect, allegiance and defiance won Miss Van Lew no friends in old Richmond society. Tongues wagged and Elizabeth Van Lew’s loyalty became a topic for the following decades.

When General Grant arrived in the desolate, burning, beaten Richmond, Miss Van Lew hosted him to tea. Grant paid Miss Van Lew the highest compliment a wartime general could give to a citizen of a beleaguered enemy city. Grant honored Miss Van Lew with the words, “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”

After the war, Miss Van Lew continued to ignore the arbiters of proper conduct in the former Rebel capital. She found Colonel Dahlgren’s body and returned it north to his family and his nation. The people of Richmond were incensed. Newspapers in Richmond had full reports of the honors and ceremonies that greeted the young colonel: a guard of honor, laying in state, and a spectacular funeral. The papers recounted that Oliver Wendell Holmes eulogized Dahlgren while he quietly condemned Richmond. The locals in Richmond hated Miss van Lew even more after they endured this spectacle.

Miss Van Lew would spend the rest of her life shunned and alone. Nobody in “proper” Richmond society would ever again speak to her.

When Grant became president, he appointed Miss van Lew postmistress in the district of Richmond. She stayed in that post, serving admirably, for eight years. But Richmond “society” still considered her the lowest form of turncoat.

In her old age, society Richmond called miss Van Lew “Crazy Bet.” She became a penniless recluse. She died in 1900.

Northern admirers placed a granite boulder over the grave of Miss Van Lew, and paid to have these words affixed: “Elizabeth van Lew 1818-1900. She risked everything that is dear to man – friends, fortune, comfort, health, life itself, all for the one absorbing desire of her heart, that slavery might be abolished and the Union preserved.”

Miss Elizabeth van Lew, a lady of her convictions, led a valiant yet tragic life as the finest Union spy and abolitionist in the Confederacy’s capital, Richmond.
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By every rule of background, Miss Elizabeth Van Lew should have been among the Confederate women who hurried in and out of Jefferson Davis’s “Gray House” on fashionable Clay Street, knitted for the Southern boys, and wept softly to themselves as the Stars and Bars floated past the iron-balconied residences of Richmond.
       Miss Van Lew was the daughter of a prominent Richmond citizen. Their house stood on one of the city’s most commanding hills, a mansion soaring three and a half stories high. And Elizabeth in her soft Southern voice always spoke of Virginians as “our people.”
       Yet Miss Van Lew became a freak in Richmond, a woman whose existence was a protest against the beliefs of her class and region. Defying old friends, civil and military authorities, she opposed slavery and war. She poured out money and energy to assist Union soldiers, and gained the hatred of her neighbors. But Elizabeth Van Lew was more than the “fanatic” and “theorist” that most Richmonders considered her. For the four full years of war she operated as a dedicated and resourceful spy, according to several Northern generals, the best one inside the Confederate capital.
       Her reputation as a Union sympathizer, though it brought her heavy censure, served as a blind behind which she practiced espionage, directing a band of assistants of assorted ranks and occupations. Miss “Lizzie” was so foolishly and openly attached to the North that most people considered her a silly, hysterical woman. A spy would be ‘ expected to be silent or speak the opposite of what he felt. Deviousness was the last thing to be looked for in anyone like Miss Van Lew.
       Yet dissimulation, it seems clear, was actually the quality that she possessed above all others. Without it she could not have bribed farmers, used Confederate clerks and attorneys, maintained lasting contact with secret service men, and helped prisoners to escape. At times Miss Lizzie could be acid-tongued, scalding in her contempt; again she was gentle and flattering when it helped her to get what she wanted.
       Prim and angular, nervous in movement, she had once been pretty, but by her early forties she had turned into an old maid. She was the same age as her fellow Virginian, Rose Greenhow, but she had no men in her life. Tiny, blondish, with high cheekbones and a sharp nose, Miss Van Lew went about with an “almost unearthly brilliance” in her blue eyes. The opposite of the seductive lady, she accomplished her ends without the help of charm or a lush figure or a coquette’s air.
       Miss Lizzie served particularly the general whom Southerners regarded with marked dislike, U. S. Grant. After the victorious Union army arrived in Richmond, one of Grant’s first visits was to the spinster’s home. Proudly, her ringlets bobbing, she received him for tea. Nevertheless, some years later, when a little girl demurred against meeting her, a “Yankee,” Elizabeth Van Lew bridled: “I’m not a Yankee.” For she maintained at all times that she was only a good Southerner, holding to an old Virginia tradition of opposition to human bondage. She had been the loyal one, she said, they the traitors. . . .
       Some Richmonders insisted the Van Lews had not, after all, come originally from the Old Dominion. Elizabeth’s father was from Long Island, a descendant of a colonial Dutch family. Going to Richmond at twenty-six, John Van Lew cast his lot in 1816 with a member of the well-established Adams family. Their commercial firm failed, owing a debt that the daughter recalled as a hundred thousand dollars. With the sense of rectitude strong among the Van Lews, he “honorably paid” his share. Then, starting again as a hardware dealer, Mr. Van Lew prospered magnificently.
       On a trip to Philadelphia he met the daughter of that city’s late mayor, and brought her back as his bride. Of their three children, Elizabeth was, though least robust, the strongest willed. She was tutored, and given the best of academic and social training, and she soon grew proud of her family’s magnificent home on Church Hill, across from the church in which Patrick Henry called for liberty or death. The Adamses had lost the property, and the Van Lews acquired it.
       ‘Handsome as the building was, John Van Lew transformed it, adding the superb portico and other embellishments. For years the great of America and some from the Continent visited the house to admire the chandeliered parlors with their walls covered with brocaded silk, mantels of imported marble, the sixteen-foot hallway, the terraced gardens lined with boxwood, and the summerhouse at the edge of the James. Jenny Lind stopped there, when she sang her way across America, and Chief justice John Marshall, and Edgar Allan Poe, who, it has been claimed, recited in one of the parlors.
       From her earliest days Elizabeth was very close to her quiet mother. Then the girl left for school in Philadelphia, and Richmonders maintained that she “imbibed abolitionism” there. It appears, however, that she had always been a serious, introspective child. As she put it in a rather self-pitying analysis: “From the time I knew right from wrong it was my sad privilcge to differ in many things from the . . . opinions and principles of my locality.” She described herself as “uncompromising , ready to resent what seemed wrong, quick and passionate but not bad tempered or vicious. . . . This has made my life sad and earnest.”
       When his daughter was twenty-five, Mr. Van Lew died, and his son John, as energetic as he was unspectacular, took over the hardware business with success. Meanwhile the bond between Elizabeth and her mother grew stronger. In the early i850s, when Fredericka Bremer, the Swedish novelist, visited Richmond, she met Elizabeth, who was then thirty, “a pleasing, pale blonde,” who “expressed so much compassion for the sufferings of the slave, that I was immediately attracted to her.”
       As the 1850s passed, this Richmonder did more than feel compassion for her slaves. She freed all the family servants (Elizabeth dominated her mother in such matters), and most of them stayed on in their jobs. Hearing that the children or relatives of Van Lew slaves were to be sold by other owners, she bought and liberated them as well. And she set down such firm opinions as: “Slave power crushes freedom of speech and of opinion. Slave power degrades labor. Slave power is arrogant, is jealous and intrusive, is cruel, is despotic, not only over the slave but over the community, the state.”
       Surviving today is an unusual manuscript of hundreds of pages, part diary, part reminiscences, confused yet vivid in many passages. In it Miss Lizzie recalls the days just before the war: “I was a silent and sorrowing spectator of the rise and spread of the secession mania.” From the hour of John Brown’s raid, “our people were in a palpable state of war.” In the general fury, rumors spread that Northern forces were immediately marching on Richmond. “The alarm bells would be rung, the tramp of armed men . . . heard through the night.”
       About this time Miss Elizabeth started her pro-Northern activities by writing to Federal officials and telling them everything that was happening. In her recollections she pictured the Virginia Secession Convention, and quoted a number of women as asking: “Do you think the state will go out today? For if it does not, I cannot stand it any longer.” Upon this she commented: “God help us. Those were sorry days. . . .”
       On April 17, 1861, Miss Van Lew first beheld the Confederate banner over Richmond. “Alas for those with loyalty in their hearts.” Through tears she watched a torchlight procession, and fell to her knees. “Never did a feeling of more calm determination and high resolve for endurance come over me. . . .” Friends understood her general sentiments, but some of them must have thought Miss Van Lew’s attitude would change. A delegation came to ask Elizabeth if she and her mother would make shirts for the troops.
       The Van Lew ladies declined, but when they began to receive “personal threats” they agreed reluctantly to take religious books to the camps. If the people of Richmond thought the Van Lews had given in, they were wrong. An uneasy May and June passed. July brought the preparations for the first battle at Manassas. The two women saw the soldiers ride off to the applause and tossed roses of Richmond admirers. Their hearts sank when the South sent the Union Army reeling back. Through Richmond rolled wagons with dispirited Northern prisoners, and resentment against Yankees rose so high that no one dared speak to them.
       A day or two later the Van Lews heard stories of suffering in the grim warehouse that was Libby Prison. Miss Lizzie went to Lieutenant Todd, the Confederate prisonkeeper (who was also Mrs. Abraham Lincoln’s half-brother) and asked to be a hospital nurse. The lieutenant gasped. She didn’t mean she wanted to nurse those men! Why, he knew people who would be glad to “shoot the lot of them.”
       Miss Van Lew next tried Secretary of the Treasury Memminger, with whom she was acquainted. Ah, he could not hear of such a thing. A class of men like that-they were “not worthy or fit for a lady to visit.” She changed her tactics and reminded Memminger of the time he gave a beautiful discourse on religion. His face beamed; so she had liked it? “I said that love was the fulfilling of the law, and if we wished ‘our cause’ to succeed, we must begin with charity to the thankless, the unworthy.” She won her point and the Secretary gave her a note to Provost Marshal Winder.
       Once Miss Lizzie assured a friend: “Oh, I can flatter almost anything out of old Winder; his personal vanity is so great.” Now she proved it. With her gaze fixed on his white head, she smiled: “Your hair would adorn the Temple of Janus. It looks out of place here.” A few more such remarks, and she had her pass!
       From then on Miss Van Lew called regularly at the prisons, until, as one man said, she shopped as much for the prisoners as for her own family. She carried clothes, bedding, medicines. Discovering sick men, she persuaded Confederate doctors to transfer them to hospitals. Some thanked her for their lives. As one of the Union secret service chiefs ultimately declared: “By her attractive manners and full use of money she soon gained control of the rebel prisons……… But before long the Van Lews were in the limelight, when newspapers singled them out.
       Two ladies, mother and daughter, living on Church Hill, have lately attracted public notice by their assiduous attentions to the Yankee prisoners. . . . Whilst every true woman in this community has been busy making articles for our troops, or administering to our sick, these two women have been spending their opulent means in aiding and giving comfort to the miscreants who have invaded our sacred soil, bent on rapine and murder. . . . Out upon all pretexts to humanity! . . . The course of these two females, in providing them with delicacies, bringing them books, stationery and paper, cannot but be regarded as an evidence of sympathy amounting to an endorsement of the cause and conduct of these Northern vandals.
       The Van Lews did not take the hint. Instead, they expanded their activities. Learning of Lieutenant Todd’s taste for buttermilk and gingerbread, they plied him (shades of Mati Hari!) with these wholesome items. They worked similarly to gain favors from others. And Miss Lizzie’s enemies would have been even more indignant had they known she was getting military information from the Union prisoners. The day she first sent secret messages through the lines is not known, but it appears that she soon established contact with Union agents who slipped into Richmond on secret missions. The prisoners understood the meaning of Confederate troop movements, the shifting of regiments near the capital, and they and Miss Lizzie picked up hints from soldiers and guards.
       Elizabeth’s servants were ready to leave the Van Lew mansion on a minute’s notice on innocent-looking errands. The Van Lews had a small vegetable garden out of town-an excuse for the Negroes to go in and out of Richmond. Not many people would poke into the soles of muddy brogans worn by an old colored man on a horse. Few would inspect a servant’s basket of eggs, one of which was an empty shell concealing a coded message.
       The Confederate attitude toward Miss Lizzie’s prison visits varied. A commanding officer once asked her to stop bringing in special meals because it “subverted the consistency of prison rules.” Such orders inconvenienced but seldom halted her. During a tense period when she was ordered not to exchange a word with the prisoners, Elizabeth brought books. When the soldiers passed them back to her, the Confederates did not know that tiny pin pricks conveyed military data.
       The spinster also slid notes into the “double-bottom” of a dish, originally intended to hold wan-n water. Advised that a suspicious guard planned a thorough inspection of the dish, Miss Van Lew prepared for him. When he reached for it she gave it up readily; for she had been holding it for some time cradled in her shawl. He let it go with a howl; she had taken care to fill the bottom with boiling water!
       In the summer of i86i the Union seized fifteen Confederates as privateers on the vessel Savannah, and threatened to hang them. In retaliation Jefferson Davis ordered the same number of Federal soldiers held as hostages. Miss Lizzie protested and won the right to visit the endangered men, comforting them, bringing food, taking out forbidden letters. At this time the old maid developed a particular friendship for one of the condemned men, a young Colonel Paul Revere of Massachusetts. At one point she connived in his attempted escape. The danger of the mass hanging passed, and Colonel Revere eventually was exchanged, only to die later at Gettysburg.
       Each incident meant intensified Confederate bitterness against Miss Van Lew. She did not dare keep a complete journal. “Written only to be burnt was the fate of almost everything which would now be of value. Keeping one’s house in order for Government inspection with Salisbury prison in prospective, necessitated this. I always went to bed at night with anything dangerous on paper beside me, so as to be able to destroy it in a moment.” Again: “The threats, the scowls, the frowns of an infuriated community-who can write of them? I have had brave men shake their fingers in my face and say terrible things………
       Miss Lizzie once went to Jefferson Davis himself to request protection. Not many spies for one government asked the head of the opposing government for his aid! Mr. Davis’s secretary advised her to apply to the mayor, but she had a better thought, which grew out of the housing shortage. Lieutenant Todd was to have a successor as keeper of prisons-a captain with a family. The newcomer had to live somewhere, and Miss Van Lew knew just the place-her big house. While he stayed there with his “interesting family,” the Van Lews were left in peace.
       It is hard to tell when the next step occurred in her evolution as a spy. Slowly, however, she took on a new, protective coloration. Richmond had long regarded her as a trifle odd. Elizabeth began to accentuate that oddity. As she walked along the street, she mumbled and hummed to herself, head bent to one side, holding imaginary conversations. Richmonders glanced at one another and shook their heads. The prison guards gave her a new name: “Crazy Bet.” She lived up to her title, combing her curls less carefully, wearing her oldest clothes and most battered bonnets.
       Yet there was nothing crazy in the next exploit credited to Miss Van Lew. Among the slaves she had liberated was slim, intelligent Mary Elizabeth Bowser, then living outside of Richmond. Mary Elizabeth returned at Miss Lizzie’s request and became the new house servant for the Jefferson Davises. The Union now had its spy in the household of the Confederate President. The girl apparently brought back some interesting stories. . . . Mary Elizabeth and her former mistress met at intervals after dark near the Van Lew farm. For such trips the older woman varied her Crazy Bet routine and wore a huge poke bonnet, leather leggings, “belt canvas coat.” Tucking up her curls, she played the poor country woman driving around in her buggy.
       Miss Lizzie enlisted the help of a number of simpler folk, farmers, storekeepers, factory workers, united in their belief in the Union. In the words of General George Sharpe of the Army Intelligence Bureau: “Their [the Van Lews's] position, character and charities gave them a commanding influence, and many families of plain people were decided and encouraged by them to remain true to the flag, and were subsequently able during the war to receive our agents. . . . For a long, long time, she represented all that was left of the power of the United States government in the city of Richmond.”
       Other Federal spies or scouts arrived in the capital to “take her orders,” the intelligence chief added. They usually slipped into the Van Lew house at night, to stay for days in rooms at the back of the mansion. In emergencies they stopped only at the family farm. Miss Lizzie’s friends took them frequent messages. One such friend was a seamstress who stitched dispatches into her patterns. Several times the girl was halted by Confederate guards; rough fingers felt the patterns but none of the messages was discovered.
       The Union threat against Richmond became ominous in 1862. McClellan came so close that the people of the capital could hear gunfire. “We are in hourly expectation of a battle. . . . We have hatched eight chickens today and have a prospect of rearing and eating them under our ‘dear young government’; and so we go, mixing peace with war,” wrote Elizabeth.
       Miss Lizzie had the happy notion that when McClellan entered Richmond he should be their guest. Using “new matting and pretty curtains, we prepared a chamber.” Meanwhile, revealing another side of herself, she went out with friends for a ringside view of the fighting. “The rapid succession of the guns was wonderful…. No ball could be as exciting as our ride this evening. Only think of the bright rush of life; the hurry of Death on the battlefield!” Here was a sight that not many other Richmond spinsters would have enjoyed.
       McClellan never set eyes on Lizzie Van Lew’s pretty room. Robert E. Lee took charge of the Confederate defenses, and Little Mac pulled back. For the saddened Van Lews there were other misfortunes. One day Elizabeth took pity on an undernourished milliner, “friendless and alone.” Bringing this Miss McGonigle home, she helped her for months. Overnight the milliner turned on her and paid a call at Confederate headquarters to report her suspicions. Luckily Miss McGonigle knew nothing definite against the Van Lews, but Elizabeth was deeply hurt by this occurrence.
       By now the family had taken in other boarders. One such guest, who might have told far more than the milliner, received a note from “W. W. New, Detective, C.S. Police,” with a request to appear for testimony against the Van Lews. Her evidence was needed “to conclude the case.” Detective New added that if the boarder felt some hesitation in going she would not have to appear before Mrs’ Van Lew, nor would her name be mentioned in the case. The lady felt more than delicacy in the matter; she declined to say a word.
       Some of the neighbors, however, were not so loyal and the Van Lews were continually trailed by detectives. As Miss Lizzie wrote: “I have turned to speak to a friend and found a detective at my elbow. Strange faces could be seen peeping around the column and pillars of the back portico.” The grand jury investigated the old maid and her mother for “trafficking in greenbacks,” United States currency, and Elizabeth’s mother fell sick when she heard that warrants had been prepared against her.
       With the supply of army horses decreasing, few Richmonders were allowed to keep their animals. One day Elizabeth received a tip from a friendly Confederate clerk that soldiers were headed for her home to confiscate her horse. She needed him badly for spy work, so she hid the animal in the smokehouse. A few days later Confederates learned of this and, being warned again, Miss Lizzie led the horse through the house and up the stairs to the library. Straw had been spread, “and he accepted his position and behaved as though he thoroughly understood matters, never stamping loud enough to be heard nor neighing.” He was “a good, loyal horse,” Elizabeth assures us.
       Many townsmen were certain that Crazy Bet hid more than horses. In these later days, as privations increased and men in prisons turned desperate, scores escaped. The Van Lew home was searched several times without result, but people whispered stories of secret passages and hidden rooms. Miss Lizzie’s niece told eventually how she saw Aunt Elizabeth glide toward the attic with a plate of food, and tiptoed after her. As the niece peered around a corner the spinster touched a panel. It slid back, and a bearded man reached out hungrily for the food. Years afterward the girl found the concealed chamber beneath the slope of the rear roof.
       General Sharpe of the Union Intelligence credited Miss Van Lew with helping in many escapes, including the celebrated exploit in which a sixty-foot tunnel was dug under Libby Prison. The time was a chilly February day in i 864. Elizabeth had been told “there was to be an exit” in the near future, and she prepared “an off, or rather end room.” Personal problems intervened and she had left the house when some of the escaping prisoners sought refuge, and the servants turned them away. Other Union sympathizers took them in, communicated with Miss Van Lew, and she went to work to assist them on their perilous journey….
       By now she had further systematized her espionage, establishing regular contact with General Ben Butler at Fortress Monroe. Becoming more professional, she received a cipher and hid the key to it in her watch case, which she retained until her death. As an additional safeguard, her niece said, Miss Lizzie would tear cipher messages into two or three pieces and roll them into tiny balls, to be handed over in that shape. Years later the retired spy herself told a Richmond child how she hid papers by unscrewing the top of the andirons in her bedroom.
       Crazy Bet’s spy organization had also widened. The chief of Federal spies, speaking of her and her mother, said: “They had clerks in the rebel war and navy departments in their confidence.” On that point Elizabeth always remained reticent, and such helpers, traitors to the Confederacy, were apparently never exposed. Once, she noted, she did go to General Winder’s office with an emergency message from General Butler to a Union agent on the Confederate payroll. Had it fallen into Southern hands, the letter could have destroyed the man and also Crazy Bet.
       The old maid acted with cool daring. She entered Winder’s quarters, sought out the individual in question, and placed the note directly in his hands. A few feet away were the central offices of the Confederacy’s secret service. The man trembled and seemed about to break. Might he betray her, in his terror? Instead he slipped the paper into his pocket and whispered that Miss Lizzie must never come there again. Apparently she did not have to, as the next time he went to her.
       Late in January of 1864 Elizabeth Van Lew and her friends in Richmond passed on vital information about Confederate plans to move thousands of prisoners. Here was an opportunity for a sudden Northern attack which would free a great many Union soldiers and might even take Richmond. Miss Lizzie called in a few well-placed assistants and then sent a young emissary on a dangerous trip to Butler’s headquarters in Virginia. The official war records contain her dispatch, originally in cipher:

It is intended to remove to Georgia very soon, all the Federal prisoners; butchers and bakers to go at once. They are already notified and selected. Quaker knows this to be true. They are building batteries on Danville road. This from Quaker. Beware of new and rash councils. This I send to you by direction of all your friends. No attempt should be made with less than 30,000 cavalry, from 10,000 to 15,000 infantry to support them…. Forces probably could be called in from five to ten days; 25,000 mostly artillery, Stokes’s, and Kemper’s brigades go to North Carolina. Pickett’s is in or around Petersburg. Three regiments of cavalry disbanded by Lee for want of horses. . . .

       When Butler received Miss Lizzie’s message four days later, he marked it “private and immediate” and forwarded it to Secretary of War Stanton, with an explanation that it came “from a lady in Richmond with whom I am in correspondence.” The bearer had carried a token to show he could be trusted. “Now or never is the time to strike,” Butler added . , and told of his questioning of Miss Van Lew’s nervous courier.
       The boy had contributed dozens of other military facts, troop movements of which the Van Lew group had learned at the last moment, and other advice from “Quaker” and “Mr. Palmer,” two of the Union agents who concealed their identities. All pointed to the belief that “Richmond could be taken easier now than at any other time of the war.”
       This advice from civilians had its defects, to be sure; they threw figures about carelessly, and there were military factors about which they lacked information. Nevertheless, the Northern officials apparently accepted the truth of the general situation as presented, and accordingly launched a major operation. The Union War Department gave considerable time, attention, and manpower to a cavalry movement to surprise Richmond and free the prisoners. Unfortunately for the enterprise, however, the “secret” project became as confidential as a White House reception. Too many officers’ wives, and officers themselves, talked about it.
       On February 28 a body of four thousand picked troops swept toward Richmond from the left, under General Judson Kilpatrick and Colonel Ulric Dahlgren. From the right several thousand other Union soldiers would make a feint. Then young Dahlgren was to drive on the Confederate capital in one direction while Kilpatrick knifed in from the other. The blow might be one of the most brilliant of the war; his superiors expected a great deal of the twenty-two-year-old Dahlgren, son of Rear Admiral Dahlgren, and the Army’s youngest man of his rank. Having lost a leg shortly after Gettysburg, the boy used a wooden leg and crutch, but could still outride anyone in sight.
       The raid started on schedule, then rapidly went to pieces. There were unforeseen obstacles, a Negro guide who could not or would not find a ford across the James, and, not least, Confederate foreknowledge. In badly frightened Richmond, as Miss Van Lew reported: “every reliable man was called out. There was an awful quiet in the streets; the heavy silence was impressive. . . . At night we could hear the firing of the cannon. . . .” By the time Colonel Dahlgren reached a road only five miles from the city, strengthening resistance made the attack hopeless. As the Union troops retreated in darkness and rain, Yount, DahILyren himself was killed.
       Then began a macabre episode that involved the boy’s remains. The body was hastily searched by Confederates, a memorandum taken, a finger cut off for its ring, and the valuable wooden leg was removed. Casually they buried what was left of Dahlgren near a road.
       Soon afterward Southern officials made an announcement that sent a wave of fury over Richmond. Dahtgren, they said, had carried orders to burn and sack the city, and kill Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet. Whether or not the documents were authentic has never been determined. Richmond papers described the captured Union soldiers as “assassins, barbarians, thugs . . . redolent of more hellish purposes than were the Goth, the Hun or the Saracen.” Kill them all as enemies of humanity! One journal urged a public showing of the Dahlgren corpse as a “monument of infamy” to teach young Confederates to hate such men.
       Where Ulric Dahlgren lay interred, no one knew, said the newspapers. “It was a dog’s burial, without coffin, winding sheet or service. Friends and relatives in the North need inquire no further.” As a matter of fact, the remains had meanwhile been placed in a coffin and transferred to Richmond, and on orders from President Davis workmen reburied Dahlgren late at night and secretly among thousands of other Union graves. But not entirely secretly, because of Elizabeth Van Lew.
       She tells us that a Negro she knew was “in the burying ground at night . . . entirely accidentally, or rather providentially”! The man marked the spot of Dahlgren’s grave, sought her out, and she took over, managing a remarkable job of plotting, body stealing, and transfer through the Confederate lines. Needing six or seven helpers, she had no trouble enlisting them at once among her Union friends.
       Late one night, four men rode to the burial place. Digging up the rude casket, they unscrewed the lid and identified the corpse by the missing right leg. Over rutted back roads they hastened to the farm of W. C. Rowley, where Miss Lizzie waited in a seed house, and once again the boy’s remains were examined, but with “gentle hands and tearful eyes,” she said. She helped transfer the corpse to a new metal coffin, which would now be put into the earth on Robert Orrick’s farm outside town.
       First, however, they had to take the box past Confederate pickets. In the morning Farmer Rowley climbed to the seat of his wagon, the coffin on the floor behind him, covered by a dozen closely packed peach trees. Approaching the pickets, the farmer saw that they were examining everything. He was panicky until he recognized the soldier who strolled over to inspect his wagon. He reminded the man of their last meeting. Vaguely the soldier recalled the incident. “But whose trees are these?” Rowley tried to be casual: “They belong to a German in the country.” The two acquaintances talked about the unwisdom of planting peach trees at this season. Ah, well, that was the German’s worry. The uniformed man sighed: “It would be a pity to disturb those trees, when you’ve packed them so nice. Go ahead.”
       With the body safely buried, Elizabeth Van Lew promptly started a cipher report of the exploit on its way to General Butler. Dahlgren’s sorrowing father had meanwhile asked that Ulric’s remains be returned to him and Jefferson Davis issued orders to grant the request. When Confederate soldiers dug in their own burial grounds and found nothing, Richmond buzzed with a greater mystery than ever. Not until after the war was the matter cleared up.
       At least once Miss Lizzie was almost led to betray her connection with Butler. The general had requested an up-to-date report on Richmond’s defenses, and she had her cipher message ready, torn in strips and rolled in wads as usual. An expected scout had not arrived and as she walked along the street, wondering how she was going to send her report, a man beside her murmured: “I’m going through tonight,” and continued on without pausing.
       Perhaps it was the Union agent, who might have some urgent reason for approaching her this way without identifying himself. Quickening her steps, she passed the stranger, and again she heard: “I’m going through the lines tonight.” She frowned and made no acknowledgment. The risk was too great. The next day a Southern regiment marched by, and she recognized the man, now in his gray uniform. Belle Boyd had once been trapped in much this fashion; Crazy Bet was more crafty.
       From General Sharpe, we learn that as General Grant moved closer to Richmond Miss Van Lew’s communications with the Union command reached a new peak. With the distance shortened, she could forward messages almost daily. She used a system of five “stations” or points along the way, from the mansion on Church Hill, to her farm, and beyond. Grant asked repeatedly for “specific information” and she “steadily conveyed it to him,” Sharpe explains.
       So expert was her transmission belt that flowers from the Van Lew gardens often arrived fresh and dewy on Grant’s breakfast table! And Sharpe declared that “the greater portion” of the information passed to the general’s army in 1864-65 “in its collection and in a good measure in its transmission, we owed to the intelligence and devotion of Miss E. L. Van Lew.”
       But at this late date Crazy Bet faced a final threat of exposure. In February of 1865 Union officials believed they had an inspiration when they dispatched to Richmond an Englishman named Pole. Prodigious spying deeds were predicted. On his way Pole met many Union sympathizers. Careful arrangements had been made for him in the city and supposedly he was to meet Miss Lizzie. Her diary described her suspicion and anxiety, which turned to terror when Pole suddenly rushed into Confederate headquarters to sell out his employers.
       At least two Union agents went to prison. For hours Elizabeth waited in apprehension, fearing the man had discovered enough to implicate her. Then nothing more happened. She had missed disaster by a thread. Personal deliverance was not long in following. On a Sunday in early April a roar echoed in the Richmond streets; Lee’s lines had given way, the Confederates were marching out, and the town had gone mad. Fires crackled in one square and another. “Hundreds of houses had fallen victims to the spreading fire…. The constant explosion of shells, the blowing up of the gunboats and of the powder magazines seemed to jar, to shake the earth and lend a mighty language to the scene … the burning bridges, the searing flames added a wild grandeur. . . .”
       Neighbors borrowed the Van Lew wheelbarrows to save their belongings. The prisons were emptied and scores of Union soldiers were taken out of Richmond. Miss Lizzie had determined to make a grand gesture, whatever its cost. At considerable peril she had ordered a big American flag smuggled through the lines. She and her servants scrambled to the roof and set it to waving its thirty-four stars against the sky. Hers was the first Union flag to be unfurled again in the Confederate capital.
       Richmonders glared, and a howling mob gathered. God damn the old devil; burn her place down! Men shoved toward her house, trampled the garden, and Crazy Bet stepped forth to confront them. “I know you, and you. . . ” Her thin face contorted, she screamed their names and pointed them out. “General Grant will be in town in an hour. You do one thing to my home, and all of yours will be burned before noon! ” They were convinced and they backed away.
       Miss Lizzie had one last assignment for herself. She ran to the Confederate Capitol, to search among the ashes of the archives for secret documents which the Union government might find helpful. She was found there by a special guard dispatched for her protection by General Grant. He had remembered her and the danger she might face on this day….
       Soon after his arrival the general paid his formal visit. Mrs. Grant explained later that her husband said they must visit Miss Van Lew, for she had given great service to the Union. They drank tea together and talked politely on the columned porch. “Crazy Bet” was very proud; for the rest of her life she kept Grant’s calling card.

Source: “Spies For The Blue And Gray” by
Harnett T. Kane

29th Connecticut Colored Civil War Regiment Honored

September 21, 2008

NEW HAVEN, Conn.—(AP) The 29th Connecticut Colored Civil War Regiment is being honored for serving their country with distinction — more than 140 years later.

Descendants of the regiment were on hand Saturday to unveil a monument dedicated to the 900 men from 120 Connecticut towns. The monument stands in New Haven’s Crisculo Park, the site of the black regiment’s first muster.

A group of descendants started raising funds for the monument more than 10 years ago. They say the recognition is overdue.

Some dressed in period clothing for the ceremony. Festivities included living history re-enactments.

Dick Gregory, a nationally known activist and comedian, was the keynote speaker.

Meet the Modern 29th Connecticut Regiment:
http://www.thect29th.org/

 

Civil War Chaplains and Executioners

September 21, 2008

John E. Carey

Civil War diaries and letters from the front reveal a common thread about chaplains: the soldiers almost universally admired and respected the good chaplains and treated others with distain. Chaplains had many roles to fill and their duties either endeared them to the men or caused misunderstandings or unhappiness.

Civil War chaplains served in dozens of roles both traditional and unusual. Typically, and rightly, we think of chaplains holding services, preaching to the soldiers, listening, and leading the men in church songs. But chaplains worked every day; not just on Sunday. War diaries tell us that the chaplains performed many non-traditional functions such as mailman, pay collector (sending soldiers’ pay home to their relatives), correspondent (writing letters for the wounded or illiterate and to families after deaths occurred). Some chaplains became scouts, provisioners and diplomats. Almost universally, chaplains assisted doctors in the hospitals in any number of ways. Following a Court Martial, it was often the chaplain who made that last lonely walk with the condemned man on his way to meet his maker.

Summoned by military order and sometimes in writing, the chaplain would find himself face-to-face with some wretch who had been convicted of desertion, rape or some other grievous offense. This religious duty of extending God’s graces to even the most questionable of characters meant that the priest or chaplain gained a keen insight into the depths of human nature. He became, in effect, a good judge of character.

When the chaplain encountered the “executioner,” that is, the officer who convened the Court Martial or commanded the unit involved, the chaplain’s judge of character and reputation came into harsh conflict with the rigors of military discipline.

On April 24, 1864, Father William Corby of the Irish Brigade made efforts to set aside a conviction and execution of one Private Dawson. His requests moved up the chain of command without resolution. Finally, Father Corby sent this telegram to President Abraham Lincoln: “His Excellency; A. Lincoln; President of the United States — General Meade has not the official proceedings relative to the court martial of L. Dawson who is under sentence of death to take place the 25th instant therefore….Please say what might be done.”

We can only speculate as records are incomplete but it appears that Father Corby may have previously discussed the Dawson case with President Lincoln.

Corby had put Lincoln on the spot. Lincoln had been widely known in the army as a man of reason and leniency. By 1864, military leaders considered this a severe negative influence on good order and discipline. Grant had discussed the issue himself with the president, encouraging the commander in chief to stay out of the Court Martial appeal process.

On April 25, General Meade sent this telegram to the President: “I duly received your note by Mr. Corby & after examining the case of Dawson could find nothing to justify my recommending a mitigation….Unless you intervene he will be executed.”

Dawson was executed.

Even though Corby had come into conflict with General Meade, Meade understood and respected the role of the chaplain and kept him involved with the execution process.

On July 12, 1864, Father Corby was summoned to assist a convicted man with this memorandum:

“Rev’d Sir: There are two men to be executed on the 15th inst., one of whom, especially, is very anxious to secure the services of a priest. If you will be pleased to attend him, the provost-marshal at headquarters will be instructed to furnish you all the facilities necessary to discharge the functions of your sacred office.”

“By order of Maj-Gen. Meade”

Father Corby rode off immediately to fulfill his ordered “sacred office” and upon meeting the convicted immediately sensed innocence. “He was not a low, depraved person by any means, but in time of temptation he had fallen.” Father Corby went to work ministering to the condemned man.

Military justice, more often than not, dominated any attempts to set aside a conviction. Father Corby was bound to see this execution to the end. “There were, perhaps, ten thousand men present. A strong guard conducted the prisoner to the scaffold, and I rode beside him until we reached the spot…. I attended to the two men and escorted them up the scaffold. Without very much ceremony the ropes were adjusted about their necks, and, while both continued to pray for God’s mercy, a silent signal was given and both dropped dangling at the end of the ropes – dead!”

General Meade was not inclined toward leniency.

Father Constantine L. Egan, who had served with the 9th Massachusetts until the muster-out of the regiment in June of 1864, and then was attached to the Headquarters of the 5th Army Corps, recounted a very similar summons to minister to a convicted man in April, 1865. “We have a prisoner under sentence of death for desertion; the time appointed for his execution is Friday. He desires the attention of a clergyman of your denomination…”

Egan set about to have the execution put aside. He convinced Major General S. H. Crawford of the Third Division, Fifth Army Corps, to send him to General Meade with a letter of introduction and a military escort. “The carriage was made ready with seventeen troopers, and Gen Crawford, handing me the letter, we started on our journey.”

Father Egan ultimately had a hearing with General Meade but he was not as successful in his mission as he had hoped. Egan wrote, “The principle point of my argument representing the prisoner as a reckless half-fool, non compos mentis. The general remarked that that fellow was no fool, for he broke away from the guard three times.”

Ever the tough nut on military discipline, Meade only partially relented to Egan’s argument. “Well, Father,” Egan recalls Meade as saying, “I will suspend his execution for tomorrow, but you will have to get the doctors to substantiate your claim that the prisoner is non compos mentis.”

Thus Egan the advocate bought at least a little time to gather more information in the hope of saving a man’s life.

Like the chaplains, the doctors were under military commanders and the medics of the Civil War had virtually no knowledge of the concepts later known as “battle fatigue” and “post traumatic stress disorder.” Egan would have to witness an execution.

Military chaplains who served in combat throughout history faced daily tests of their courage and faith. The Civil War chaplains were no different. No test could have been tougher than taking that last walk with a condemned man when the chaplain believed in his heart that the accused was innocent.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page and The Washington Times.

****************

Civil War Hangings

By Mike Parker, The Kinston Free Press

(Oct. 11, 2004) — In the wee hours of Feb. 2, 1864, Confederate forces captured 53 men who had deserted the Stars and Bars and currently wore the uniform of those serving the Stars and Stripes. These men comprised nearly the entire roster of Company F of the Second North Carolina Volunteer Union Infantry.Within four months of capture, nearly all were dead. Many became victims of diseases after they were sent to southern prisoner of war camps.

Some were branded with a “D” for “deserter” on their hips.

However, 22 of these men were publicly hanged in Kinston.

The story of these hangings, once the stuff of local legend, entered this summer into the arena of international study thanks to the efforts of Dr. Donald Collins, a retired history professor from East Carolina University.

His account of these ill-fated men appeared in the June issue of the CHAB News. CHAB stands for the Confederate Historical Association of Belgium.

The publication is a popular Civil War magazine, similar to the Civil War Times Illustrated published in the United States.

“During the past two years, interest in the story of the Kinston hangings has expanded nationally and internationally,” Collins said. “Northerners visiting the South are often dumbfounded by the interest of Southerners in the Civil War.

“They would be more surprised at the intense interest our war has generated throughout the world.”

Germans, Austrians, Australians, Frenchmen, Belgians and other Europeans hold round-table discussions, and European re-enactor groups, fighting as both Federals and Confederates, recreate the battles of Chancellorsville, Cold Harbor and Antietam, Collins explained. The First North Carolina Cavalry has a German branch that has ridden into action for the past 12 years.

Even the Internet offers evidence of the interest people world-wide have in the American Civil War. One website’s greeting reads, “Willkommen auf des Homepages des Union and Confederate Reenactors International,” while another says, “Bienvenue sur le site du Club Confedere et Federal de France.”

Dr. Collins’ article in CHAB News, titled “General George Pickett and the Mass Execution of Deserters in Civil War Kinston, North Carolina,” is just the latest chapter in the story of this professor’s personal quest.

“I became interested in this topic many years ago while doing genealogical research on my great-grandfather, Richard Louis ‘R.L.’ Collins, who was the husband of Elsy Becton of Lenoir County. R.L. Collins owned a tailor shop next to the Pollock Hotel across from the court house before the Civil War,” Collins said.

“He lost his shop at the beginning of the war when he refused to make a Confederate flag. He even refused to sell the material to make Confederate flags.”

Collins said when he learned that his great-grandfather’s death occurred around the time of the Kinston hangings, he suspected that his Union-sympathizing ancestor was possibly one of those who ended up at the end of a rope. R.L. Collins was 31 at the time of his death.

As the professor meticulously examined documents from that historical period, he pieced together the story of the captured deserters and the Kinston hangings. Major General George Pickett was in command of Confederate forces in the Kinston and Goldsboro areas at the time of the hangings.

“I never did find out how my great-grandfather died, but being a historian, I decided to write the most detailed story of the hangings possible,” Collins explained. “After I completed the article, it took years to get it into print.”

Since the story’s first appearance in print, Collins has published an expanded version of the article in The Human Tradition in the Civil War and Reconstruction, published by Scholarly Resources, Inc.

In Jan. 2003, Collins told the story of the Kinston hangings to the Pickett Society in Richmond, Va., at the annual commemoration of Pickett’s birthday.

Professor Collins has no kind words for Gerard A. Patterson’s book, “Justice or Atrocity: General George E. Pickett and the Kinston, N.C. Hangings.”

“I have great disdain for Patterson’s book for two reasons. First, he took a subject too short for book-length treatment and padded it with Pickett’s love story,” Collins said.

“Even worse, he padded the text with statements that are just outright wrong. He makes mistakes page after page. The courts-martial did not take place at the courthouse but at Pickett’s headquarters, first in Kinston and then in Goldsboro. His claims to know the location of the hangings is incorrect because no one knows with certainty just where the hangings took place.”

Dr. Donald Collins is a retired history professor from East Carolina University. At the time of this article he was in the final stages of completed his latest book. “The Death and Resurrection of Jefferson Davis,” scheduled for release in May 2005.
*********************

Account of Civil War Executions
By Rev. Francis Springer 

On the 29th wit. A.J. Copeland, James H. Rowden, John Norwood and William Carey suffered the extreme penalty of the law for murder and the violation of the civilized rules of warfare. These men were tried by a military commission and found guilty of the above names crimes.

In April here, in company with twenty or more accomplices, they murdered eight Federal soldiers of the 1st Ark. Cav., who were herding horses near Fayetteville, Ark. They approached our men dressed in the uniform of U.S. soldiers, and pretending to belong to the 14th Kans. Cav., completely throwing them off their guard. That point gained, they suddenly and without a moment’s warning fired upon them, and killing eight out of ten.

A Union citizen, named John Brown, was also killed by the miscreants at his own house about the same time.

When the sentence of death was first read to the culprits, they first seemed to be indifferent, one of them remarking with an air of bravado, “Well, all right.” As the time of their execution drew near, however, they began somewhat to realize their awful situation, and requested the services of a spiritual adviser, and Rev. Francis Springer assumed that duty.

During the ministrations of several weeks of this reverend gentleman, they showed symptoms of considerable contrition, thought at first they seemed to be aware of scarce any consciousness of the awfulness of their crimes, which they had committed. They began to feel that they had been in their previous career the enemies of God and man, and confessed that they had been “pretty bad boys.” So callous and hardened were they at first that what they had done, they considered as first rate, too.

The condemned were all very young men, their average age not exceeding nineteen years.

Carey, the youngest, was a most desperate case, and gave his spiritual adviser a partial history of his wicked career. He is said to have killed twenty-one men. . They had all been once in the confederate army, but at the time of their capture were levying war upon their own hook, that so had become outlaws.

Early in the morning of their last day on earth the prisoners were visited by the chaplain, and impressive religious [illegible] were held. Soon after the close of this interview the irons were taken off the culprits. They were then brought forth from the prison and placed in the custody of the guard detailed for the occasion. In a few moments more they were in the wagons each one seated on his coffin. Chaplain Springer was with two of the condemned in the first wagon, and Chaplains Wilson and McAfee with the other two in the second wagon.

The solemn procession was then formed, the Provost Marshal of the District, Capt. C.O. Judson, 6th Kans. Cav., with his staff, taking the lead. Then came the music and the firing party, consisting of 64 men of the 13th Kans. Inft., the two wagons with the culprits and chaplains, and lastly the guard. A large number of citizens and soldiers lined the streets through which the procession moved.

The unfortunate but guilty man evidently tried to be firm and composed on the march, except Norwood, who repeatedly gave signs of grief by weeping and inaudible prayer. The expression of their countenances, in spite of endeavors to be self-possessed, was that of sadness and despair.

On reaching the place of execution south of town and just outside of the rifle pits, the prisoners were arraigned in a line, each one by the side of his coffin. Three sides of a hollow square of infantry had previous been formed to keep the multitude of the spectators at a proper distance, leaving the side next to the prisoners open.

The Judge Advocate of the District, Lieut. Whicher, then read to them the charges and findings of the military commission, after which the condemned kneeled down with the chaplains, and Rev. Mr. Springer offered a short and appropriate prayer. At the conclusion of it, the officers and others about the condemned shook hands with them and, bidding them a final farewell, retired except the Judge Advocate who remained til their eyes were bandaged and hands tied. By this time all of the unfortunate men showed signs of intense mental distress. Carey and Copeland prayed audibly and with great force. Norwood started a hymn, and was still singing in a low voice when the death volley sent his soul into eternity. Carey, on shaking hands with the Judge Advocate, remarked, “Judge, I hope to meet you in Heaven.” At length, as the preparations were completed, and in another moment or two forty-eight muskets were pointed at the culprits. One moment more and at the simultaneous discharge of the forty-eight guns, four lifeless bodies lay stretched on the ground.

The whole terrible scene, from beginning to end, was conducted with the propriety due to a transaction so awful but to the detail entrusted with the fatal shooting a special word is due. The entire detail, consisting of sixty-four men of the 13th Kans. Inf., was commanded by Capt. Frankhouse. Forty-eight were in line about twenty-five feet from the doomed men. One half of the guns were charged with ball and the other half with blank cartridges. The remaining sixteen men were held as a reserve in case of failure in the first discharge, but the volley of forty-eight guns was simultaneous and complete. Death ensued almost instantaneously — no lingering agony remained to torture the doomed and distress the beholders. The most painful reflection awakened by the sad ceremony was that selfish, faithless, and traitorous citizens should have stirred up a strife that precipitates into the vortex of crime, ignominy and ruin so many of the young men of our once peaceful, prosperous and happy country.


This account of the execution of four bushwhackers originally was published in the Aug. 6, 1864 edition of the Fort Smith New Era. Although the name of its author was not given in the New Era, the Rev. Francis Springer wrote the account under the name Thrifton, according to The Preacher’s Tale: The Civil War Journal of Rev. Francis Springer, Chaplain, U.S. Army of the Frontier, by Francis Springer; ed. William Furry. A copy of the account in Springer’s hand signed “Thrifton” was with his journal. Letters from each of the condemned men to their families, three of which also were written in his hand, were found among his papers. Presumably, Springer took dictation from them. For another version of the execution from Springer and text of the letters, prefer to The Preacher’s Tale.

House of good repute: Brothel pampered elite

September 21, 2008

John E. Carey

Mary Ann Hall catered to the nation’s elite in Washington as the proprietor of the capital’s best brothel during the Civil War.

Located just three blocks from the U.S. Capitol on Maryland Avenue on what now is part of the Mall, her house, a three-story structure nearly the size of a city block, included parlors, an elegant dining room and, almost assuredly, the most attractive of the city’s estimated 5,000 “soiled doves.”

Prostitution was not a crime in the 19th century, and any concentration of troops during the Civil War attracted flocks of “camp followers” who were available for a price. Women often would show up after battles and offer their services to the generals as nurses. The “nursing,” however, frequently became an open door to those less honest and caring, and when armies experienced theft, prostitution and other less traditional forms of nursing, generals sometimes rejected offers of female help.

Houses of prostitution were fairly common in America’s larger cities, and Washington had as many as 450 entertainment venues on the “wilder side.” The presence of affluent politicians, lobbyists and the hierarchy of the government departments helped make Washington a man’s home away from home.

Elected representatives in those years did not routinely bring wives and families to Washington. Service in Congress was not necessarily even a full-time job. The city was hot and steamy. Nights could be filled with drinking, smoking, gambling and frolicking with willing companions of the gentler sex, far from the eyes of the electorate at home.

Mary Ann Hall took every opportunity to provide such indulgences. The throngs of men willing and able to pay her comparatively exorbitant rates deserved the best. Imported hats, dresses and perfume enhanced her staff. Magnums of champaign added an air of dignity, gentility and grace. Fine food filled the supper tables. Her real goal as hostess, however, was to supply attractive women.

The fashion of the time was an hourglass shape – an ample bosom and tiny waist – which not all women could achieve without corsets reinforced with steel belts called busks. Busks, champagne corks, fine china and combs to hold spectacular hair creations all have been excavated from the site where Hall’s house once stood. Historians and archaeologists believe the quality of these items shows the elegance Hall brought to her entertainment trade. Several of them, including rusted busks, have been preserved by the Smithsonian Institution.

Hall insisted on certain standards of decorum, and her house, which opened around 1837, flourished until it closed in 1878. She was never raided by police, was not the subject of public disgrace or even controversy and was never discussed in newspapers. Editors in those days believed that what was private should stay private. Unless a public figure disgraced himself so thoroughly that prosecution was in order, private excesses remained unreported.

Rep. Daniel E. Sickles of New York learned the limits the hard way. Rumors abounded in the late 1850s that he maintained close personal relationships with a variety of women. Though tongues wagged, his private pleasures never merited newspaper interest. Then, when he murdered his much-younger wife’s lover, Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner”- detailed accounts of the court proceedings made newspaper sales soar.

 

The 1859 trial and associated juicy details sold newspapers and became for a time the talk of Washington and New York. Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper printed 200,000 copies as the trial opened. Demand forced a second printing of 300,000. (During the Civil War, then-Gen. Sickles’ private indiscretions returned to the realm of private matters. After the war, despite routine and well-documented misbehavior, his private life remained taboo to journalists.)

Mary Ann Hall became a wealthy woman. She died in 1886 and was buried in Congressional Cemetery beneath a carved stone statue of herself.

+++++

Ladies’ general

The slang word for prostitute, hooker, is generally thought to have originated during the Civil War. For generations, rumors claimed that Union Gen. “Fighting Joe” Hooker had inspired the nickname by his amorous relationships.


General Joe Hooker

There is, however, a recorded use of the word before the war, according to the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. The dictionary’s authors queried historian Bruce Catton, who agreed that the term came into use before the Civil War but that it became popular during the conflict. An area south of Constitution Avenue was known for its extracurricular activities and was referred to as “Hooker’s Division.” A Civil War officer, Charles Francis Adams Jr., referred to Hooker’s headquarters as “as place to which no self-respecting man likes to go, and no decent woman could go – a combination of barroom and brothel.”

Hooker should be remembered, however, for more than his moral laxities. He was wounded at Antietam and fought at Second Bull Run, and Lincoln made him commander of the Army of the Potomac after Ambrose Burnside’s disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg.

The Battle of Chancellorsville began well and ended badly for the 48-year-old West Point graduate, and just days before Gettysburg, Hooker asked to be relieved. The president appointed George Gordon Meade his successor as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page and The Washington Times.

Arlington Ridge Sees War’s Beginning, End

September 21, 2008

By John E. Carey

When did the Civil War begin and end? Most would say it began at Fort Sumter and ended at Appomattox. A less conventional view could be that the war began and ended on Arlington Ridge, in Virginia.

For the Union, the conflict existed so long as its enemy’s armies occupied national territory. The first piece of Rebel-occupied territory taken back by the Union Army was Arlington Ridge. The last encampment of the Union Army, four long years later, was on Arlington Ridge.

Although it is generally accepted that the Civil War began at Fort Sumter, it is difficult to exactly fix the start of the conflict. The insurrection didn’t happen all at once. In 1859, John Brown and a small band of followers raided and captured the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. This was a crime of individuals, not an act of statewide insurrection, and he was hanged by the state of Virginia.

On Jan. 9, 1861, Rebel gunners fired artillery rounds at the Union steamer Star of the West as she attempted to resupply Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, S.C. The ship was forced to withdraw. A state had defied the federal government. Yet no war existed.

Despite these early acts of defiance, efforts to avert war continued. In February 1861, former President Tyler played host to a peace commission to iron out the differences between the states. Twenty-one states sent representatives to the gathering, which was held in Washington’s Willard Hotel. The commission failed to find a compromise, and disbanded. War seemed imminent, but did not yet exist.

On April 12, 1861, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, commander of Rebel forces in Charleston, ordered Fort Sumter shelled. The fort’s commander, Maj. Robert Anderson, surrendered the garrison a few hours later.

Yet efforts were still made to keep the union, and the peace, intact.
Although most people would say war existed from April 12, 1861, the Union leadership still remained fairly calm. As tensions mounted between the federal government and the Southern states, it became apparent that Washington needed defenses against a turbulent Virginia, just across the Potomac River.

On May 23, 1861, Virginians voted to secede. Alexandria, within sight of Washington, was a hotbed of insurrection, though the farmers of the adjoining county, which included Arlington Ridge, largely favored staying in the Union.

Now, suddenly, the land just across the river was Rebel territory. When President Lincoln and his generals looked across the river, what did they see? Arlington Ridge. Cannons could easily be placed there to shell the Union capital.

Union troops crossed the river to seize Arlington Heights at dawn, May 24, 1861. A special detail commanded by Col. Ephraim Ellsworth of New York crossed on steamers to seize Alexandria. Once ashore, Ellsworth hurried to remove a Rebel flag flying from the Marshall House, an Alexandria inn owned and operated by James W. Jackson. Both men were killed in the fracas.

Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth

Ellsworth was the first Union officer killed in the war. Jackson was probably the first Confederate civilian slain.

On Arlington Ridge, Union Army pioneers immediately began clearing the land of trees. Union generals wanted this ground reinforced and held as the first line of Washington’s defenses. Fort construction began almost as soon as the trees were felled.

A low rise perhaps 800 feet above the adjoining terrain, Arlington Ridge ran from just above Alexandria to a position northward directly across the Potomac from Georgetown. The ridge included land later leveled for construction of the Pentagon and Shirley Highway. Geologists believe the ridge may have been the shoreline of the Potomac during flood stage thousands of years ago.

Now the ridge became the first line of defense for Washington. Calm in the capital was giving way to rumors, fear and uncertainty. The low-lying city had no natural defense except for the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. The city had no regular troops assigned to protect it.

Col. Charles P. Stone, the D.C. inspector general, summarized the state of military readiness of Washington: “The only regular troops near the capital of the country were 300 or 400 marines at the Barracks [at 8th & Eye streets], and three officers and fifty-three” Army ordnancemen at the Washington Arsenal. The old militia system had been abandoned (without being legally abolished), and Congress had passed no law establishing a new one.”

The Union leadership worked feverishly to change this. The Evening Star reported on May 24, 1861, that “a full corps of [Union] carpenters and workmen” accompanied the soldiers who crossed into Virginia. “The United States forces are now throwing up fortifications on the heights on the Virginia shore.”

A series of mutually supporting forts began to go up along Arlington Ridge. At the southern end, the fort closest to Alexandria became known as Fort Scott. At the northern end, Fort Marcy stood across the Potomac River from Georgetown.

Each fort was really a detached earthwork, which mounted heavy guns, accompanied by a small garrison and as few as 100 rounds of ammunition.

During the seven weeks following May 24, the goal was to get as many forts properly situated as practical. Each fort was only about one-half mile from its supporting position.

On July 21, 1861, the Union was again shocked when its forces suffered the humiliating defeat at Manassas, or Bull Run, as the Federals called it. Fort construction around Washington was immediately intensified. A second line of forts west of the Arlington Ridge defenses began to go up, and, for the first time, forts were planned and started to the north of the city.

In “Mr. Lincoln’s Forts,” authors Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II report, “By 1865, the defenses [of Washington] were impressive, containing 33 named fortifications, 25 batteries, and 7 blockhouses. Field works were established at intervals of 800 or 1,000 yards, with intersecting fields of fire commanding every important approach to the city.” The fortifications included 256 smoothbore cannon, 170 rifled cannon and 60 mortars.

The construction of the forts and the accompanying military roads and constant traffic devastated the once fertile fields of Arlington. Although most of the farmers in the rural sections of what is now Arlington County had voted to stay in the Union, they paid a terrible price for their state’s secession. Buildings, livestock and supplies were often seized for military use. By 1865, the area was impoverished.

At war’s end, the armies of the Union marched north to participate in the grandest military parade in the nation’s history. On May 18, a two-day spectacle, reviewed by President Andrew Johnson, flowed through the city. Every famous Union army marched or rode down Pennsylvania Avenue. Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, George Gordon Meade, George Armstrong Custer, all rode at the head of their troops. Philip Sheridan led the cavalry. Joshua Chamberlain led his men from Maine. The victorious armies were returning home.

Joshua Chamberlain
Joshua Chamberlain

Where did this mighty force bivouac while near Washington? On Arlington Ridge. The Army of the Potomac – the designation of which would be discontinued five days after the great review, as would other regionally designated armies through the summer – mingled alongside the cruder “Westerners” of Sherman’s army. The men who had sacked Atlanta and marched to the sea camped by Grant’s more spit-and-polished troops who had chased Robert E. Lee to his end at Appomattox.

The men in blue camped on Arlington Ridge.

The last official campsite for many Union men of arms was on that ridge. Mustering-out commenced almost as soon as the parade ended.

Thus, arguably, one could say the Civil War started and ended on Arlington Ridge, within sight of the still unfinished U.S. Capitol dome and the uncompleted Washington Monument.

* John E. Carey is a writer who lives at the foot of Arlington Ridge.

Salt Shortages Trouble Confederacy

September 21, 2008

By John E. Carey
(Unfinished)

“Salt is eminently contraband, because of its use in curing meats, without which armies cannot be subsisted,” Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman wrote in 1862.

Salt, the primary chemical in most meat curing processes of the time, also proved a critical element in human and animal nutrition and health, as well as leather tanning and industrial processes such as affixing dyes in uniforms. Without salt, the manufacturing of shoes was next to impossible – leading some Southern manufacturers to make wooden shoes.

Salt, and salt production facilities, consequently became valuable military targets, especially by Union troops hoping to deprive the Confederacy of all kinds of valuable assets in support of the Union Navy’s blockade.

Salt Recognized as Essential

Even before Major Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter on April 13, 1861, leaders in the future Confederacy knew salt had become a valuable, even an invaluable, commodity. On January 6, 1861, the Alabama Senate passed a law regulating the prices of “absolute necessities.” It provided that “salt, wheat, flour, bacon, lard, cotton, leather shoes, [and other unnamed commodities] shall not be sold for more than 60% over last April’s prices.”

Nearly every state of the Confederacy had some salt production. Salt was “mined” by removing rock salt from the earth, or by extracting a dirt and salt mixture from the ground, then boiling the compound in water to extract the salt from the mix. Other methods of salt production included distillation of sea water: evaporation of the non-salt bearing water from sea water, usually in salt flats near the seashore, to produce a brine called “yellow salt.” But yellow salt usually required further expensive processing making the total process cumbersome.

The Kanawha Valley, in what is now West Virginia, may have been the largest salt production center before the Civil War. In 1846 it produced 3,224,786 bushels. But a flood in 1861 and the loss of West Virginia to Union forces quickly changed everything.

At the dawn of the Civil War, nearly every southern state had or needed to immediately create some salt manufacturing.

Beginning in the late summer of 1861, Confederate Brigadier General Felix Kirk Zollicoffer started sending wagon trains of salt south from the Goose Creek Salt Works in Clay County Kentucky. On October 21, 1862, about 500 U.S. troops worked 36 hours to destroy the salt works along with about 50,000 bushels of stored salt. In November, the price of the salt used in the curing of pork rose from 50 cents to $2.00 per bushel because of the shortage caused by the Goose Creek action.


General Felix Kirk Zollicoffer

In Texas, the Confederate government ran the Richardson salt works and produced 500 pounds of salt daily. James L. McMeans, Sr., operated the Palestine salt works and sold salt to the Confederacy at the fixed price of eight dollars a sack, but customers from East Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas sometimes paid as much as $20 per hundred pounds for salt at Palestine during the war.

In 1863, when the Union Army landed at Brazos de Santiago, Texas, the first raid against the Confederate Army targeted “El Sal del Rey” to confiscate the valuable salt production facility.

Florida became a key salt producing state – resulting in numerous raids by Union Army and Navy forces. The State of Florida, recognizing the vital importance of salt workers, gave them the same protections as soldiers and exempted them from other “military” service.

In Louisiana, Union forces targeted salt works. One of the more famous salt facilities, at Avery Island, featured salt domes that actually pushed up mounds of salt through the topography. Owned by Edmund McIlhenny, the Union Army captured Avery Island soon after the fall of New Orleans. [The McIlhenny family fled, but returned after the Civil War to start the famous tobasco works.]

Salt as Currency

All through 1862 salt shortages became an impossible obstacle to meat curing and the proper provisioning of the Confederate Army. Salt became so valuable that, in many parts of the Confederacy, it was the preferred “currency” of exchange.

Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus wrote to Confederate President Jefferson Davis that “the destitution of salt is alarming.” Mississippi still had cotton, and the governor wanted to trade it for the desperately needed salt. In his letter of October 17, 1862, Pettus begged Davis to allow the exchange:
His Excellency JEFFERSON DAVIS: The importance of salt to be exchanged for cotton is regarded here as a necessity. Many have no bacon and no salt; are living on vegetables and bread without salt. I hope you will not order it stopped until you have all the facts.

J. J. PETTUS Governor, Mississippi.

Jefferson Davis rebuffed Governor Pettus. “Orders have been given to prevent cotton from being sent to any port in possession of the enemy. The penalties…are very heavy, and…are a clear expression of the legislative will.”

John Gill Shorter, Governor of Alabama, in a letter to the Secretary of War, said, “The salt famine in our land is most lamentable.” Alabama established a system of salt distribution and control, regulated by a state Salt Commissioner. No household could receive more than 25 pounds of salt unless the state approved a special purchase.

In July 1862, General Sherman captured Memphis. But he never instituted a system of passes to regulate civilians intent upon entering or leaving. The Cincinnati Commercial came after Sherman, pointing out that spies weren’t the main problem. The paper noted that Memphis’ number one product that could equate to cash was slipping away: “The whole Confederacy is in a fair way to be supplied with salt through what may be termed the Memphis sieve.”

Union Navy’s Salt Interdiction

In September, 1862, a U.S. Navy officer engaged in salt interdiction operations along the Florida coast, wrote a long letter to Harper’s Weekly.

His letter gives a typical description of attacks on Confederate salt production facilities from the Carolinas’ to Texas. “I send you a sketch. The whole coast of Florida is lined with these [salt] works ….. This one, when finished, would have been capable of making five hundred bushels a day, at $10 per bushel.”

He wrote that the ships approached the “salt-works at the town of St. Joseph, making from 100 to 150 bushels a day, and not yet completed. We sent a flag of truce, and politely informed them that they must stop, or we should destroy them….We gave them two hours to quit, and then fired a few shells into the works, which had the effect of bringing two contrabands to the beach with a salt-bag, which they waved most furiously.”

The Navy landed sailors to destroy the salt works. “You may imagine that was rather skittish work with twenty men to go into the woods out of sight of the ship; but we all drew up on the beach…. loaded muskets and fixed bayonets….started, whistling Yankee Doodle. I advanced my men in a straight to…. the works…… The main body then began their work of destruction, and in less than two hours the whole place was in flames, and the machinery broken up.”

In another engagement, on October 4, 1862, USS Somerset, commanded by Lieutenant Commander English, attacked Confederate salt works at Depot Key, Florida. Men from USS Tacoma augmented the force from Somerset and together they destroyed the salt works.

In February, 1863, Captain F. E. Porter, U.S. Navy, reported on his raid on the salt works at Wale’s Head, North Carolina. Typically, this was a follow-up raid to a previous engagement. “Pursuant to information received from you…of there being salt-works in operation on Currituck Beach, I…went with a force of 90 men on the United States steamer Halifax and succeeded in destroying the same, together with about 100 bushels of salt, without opposition. These same works are located at a place called Wale’s Head and have before been destroyed by our forces, but were rebuilt and in full operation and, I should say, were manufacturing salt at the rate of about 50 bushels per day. My expedition was a perfect success. Trusting my actions may meet your approbation, I am, captain, respectfully, your obedient servant….”

The price of salt in Georgia rose to $125 per bag. Even in Texas, where salt was plentiful, a donkey load of salt was suddenly worth $36, the equivalent of two and a quarter ounces of gold and worth approximately $1,250 on today’s market.

Desperation for Salt

By early 1964, diary entries, letters and other contemporary records indicated an almost total lack of the needed salt throughout the Confederacy. Smoke house floors were even scoured for any morsel. “Some inventive person discovered that by taking up the dirt out of the meat houses, and leaching it a — fair article of salt could be made …A piece of pork liberally smeared with it had the appearance of being wallowed in the mud,” wrote Confederate soldier Joshua Frier of the First Florida Reserves, Company B, on May 20, 1864.

The mother of a soldier from Tennessee wrote to him that “crops are an entire failure, and salt can’t be had.”

With the salt resources of West Virginia in Union hands, the salt in Texas under assault and trapped in the west after the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863, Avery Island lost to Union Troops and the coastal salt resources of the Confederacy under repeated attack by the U.S. Navy; two large salt suppliers remained: Alabama’s salt wells and the saltworks of Smyth County, Virginia.
Smyth County, home to Saltville, was serviced by the Virginia and Tennessee railroad. The railroad moved salt and lead from the mines in nearby Wythe County. Another prime area military target for the Union was the ironworks at Marion County. These collocated assets, salt, lead and iron, dictated Union military strategy in southwestern Virginia for the last two years of the war.

From July, 1863, until late 1864, Union attacks on the industrial southwest of Virginia, including the saltworks at Saltville, sharply increased in both frequency and intensity.

July 18, 1863, Union Colonel John Toland lead about 1000 cavalry and mounted infantry toward Wytheville. Toland had orders to destroy the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad tracks and bridges. If all went well, Toland hoped to also capture and destroy the salt and lead mines nearby.

Toland failed miserably as Confederate troops and irregulars in Wytheville killed Toland in the street and drove off his force.

On October 1, 1864, Union General Stephen G. Burbridge sent a combined force of infantry and cavalry toward Saltville and its crucial salt stores, brine wells, evaporating kettles and furnaces. But confederate troops delayed the Union raiders at Clinch Mountain and Laurel Gap, buying time for Rebel reinforcements. Burbridge retired after failing to gain his objective.

Afterwards, Confederate soldiers were said to have murdered the captured black soldiers left behind. The exact number of killed and wounded is still debated to this day.

In all, four major Union operations failed to capture and destroy the saltworks at Saltville.

Finally, Union General George Stoneman succeeded. The former West Point roommate of “Stonewall” Jackson left Knoxville, TN, on December 10, 1864, with 5,500 men and four artillery pieces. The troops entered Virginia at Bristol and marched toward the industrial heart of Southwest Virginia—tearing up and burning railroad trestles, rolling stock, and depots as they progressed. On December 17, Stoneman’s men destroyed the lead works at Austinville. Three days later, Stoneman’s forces captured Saltville. A two day “orgy of destruction” brought saltmaking in the south to a virtual end.

Conclusion

No historian can accurately assess the difficulties and deprivations a lack of salt alone caused the Confederacy. Losses to the Union Army of vast quantities of livestock and crops supplemented by a loss of tons of needed supplies interdicted by the Union Navy blockade made a shambles of the Confederacy’s loosely organized systems of commissary and supply. By 1865, the general lack of all foodstuffs and supplies made the lack of salt something of a footnote. But that footnote should clearly state that more than a few good men fought and died in the Civil War over salt.

“Sidebar”

Salt Through History

A treatise on pharmacology written in ancient China at about 2700 B.C. called Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu chronicled some 40 kinds of salt. The early Chinese also used coins made of salt.

Even today, in Sichuan province, home-made soya sauce is made from the Cheshire brine springs.

The ancient Egyptians used the evaporation of seawater in shallow lagoons on the Mediterranean coast to harvest salt. But sea slat was considered unclean and not used for cooking. Salt from the Siwa Oasis was served at the table.

Roman soldiers were often paid in salt. The Latin word for salt, salarium, is the root word for out “salary.” The phrase “worth his salt” comes from a Roman’s evaluation of a slave’s net worth. Romans also realized the down side of salt, using salt to permanently despoil the fields after the destruction of the Roman arch enemy, Carthage.

Homer called it a divine substance. Plato described it as especially dear to the gods.

“Holy salts” have had a role in religious celebrations for centuries. Jesus called his disciples “the salt of the earth,” a statement commemorated during Roman Catholic baptismal ceremonies for many years by placing a few grains of salt on the child’s tongue.

In the Middle East, the ancient town of Al-Salt, in what is now Jordan, was a stopover on the road between Amman and Jerusalem.

“Salami” invented in Genoa, Italy, derives its name from salt.

A tax on salt contributed to the French Revolution.

The Hopi Indian in the American Southwest had ceremonial salt mines.

“Salt; A World History,” (2003) by Mark Kurlansky explains that “Generals from George Washington to Napoleon discovered without salt…war is a desperate situation…salt was needed to treat wounds, preserve food for soldiers and for the diet of the cavalry’s horses.”
During the American Revolution the British targeted American salt assets, much as Union forces would attack Confederate salt works almost 90 years later. In October, 1778 the British destroyed saltworks on the Jersey coastline near Little Egg Harbor. Benjamin Franklin made a secret deal with Bermuda to supply salt to the American forces.
The Erie Canal was built “with a grain of salt” as a tax on salt helped fund the project. Salt also became one of the principal cargos of Erie Canal barges, due to its bulky nature when shipped. One of the main terminals of the canal was near Syracuse, NY. This city is to this day proud of its salt history and its nickname: “Salt City.” From at least the 1600s, Native American harvested salt by boiling the product of the salt springs near Syracuse.

Gandhi’s salt march in 1930 began the overthrow of British rule in India.

Salt has attained a special place in the world’s culture, traditions and folklore. Salt is intricately interwoven into many meanings, phrases and practices such as an “Old Salt,” “Salt of the Earth,” “Taken With a Grain of Salt,” and throwing salt over one’s shoulder.


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