Christian Fleetwood: Medal of Honor

September 20, 2008

By John E. Carey

Medal of Honor winner Sgt. Maj. Christian A. Fleetwood, 4th U.S. Colored Troops, wrote in his diary every day during 1864. His unit participated in several engagements in the vicinity of Richmond.

What is most striking about the diary, though, is the rich texture of camp life and army routine that Fleetwood left for us.

Christian A. Fleetwood was a man of letters. His writing is clear and concise, yet much more alive than many might expect.

He used a pre-printed diary book as a journal during 1864. Only about 4 inches of blank paper appeared beneath each printed date, so Fleetwood had to be brief. He routinely organized each entry in an exact format.


First he commented upon his paperwork and posting of troops. Then he typically mentioned the most important activity of the day. As an example: “Johnny Reb attacked. Repulsed.”

For almost every day, he reported whether mail arrived, and frequently he mentioned to whom he wrote. At the bottom of each entry, on the left, Fleetwood recorded that day’s weather.

Space and time constraints made it necessary to keep the entries brief.

Yet Fleetwood artfully described some events. Showing his pride in his unit’s performance, for instance, he wrote on June 10: “Rebels handsomely repulsed.” Engagements with the enemy were reported routinely and without embellishment: “Johnny Reb woke us with a few shells. Got his answer and left. Green wounded.” On May 18, he recorded, “Fell on the enemy and drove them back a mile.”

“Ordered to move on Petersburg eve and take with bayonet,” he wrote on May 31. “Ready. Order cancelled.”

Fleetwood frequently commented on the supply situation, a subject of some importance for the unit’s sergeant major. On June 3: “Recd. Cartridges at last.” On June 4, “Fresh beef today.”

Another key part of his duties involved paperwork. April 12: “Reports in [Adjutant’s] office. Oh Lord! The details.” On May 21 he wrote, “Commenced discipline book.” Sunday entries usually record church services and slower, more restful days. “Prepared for church and attended. Good sermon.”

Another Sunday entry is: “Lay around loose all day,” and on another day of rest, “Turned in for a snooze.”

The page for Sept. 29 and 30 recounts the action for which Fleetwood would receive his Medal of Honor: “Line formed. Moved out & we charged with the 6th at daylight and got used up. Saved colors. Remnants of the two gathered and maneuvering under Col. Ames of 6th U.S.C.T. Marching in line & flank all day. Saw Gen. Grant and staff” and other “stars.” (At this point, the entry seems to reflect the events of Friday the 30th, but Fleetwood, for once, runs the two days together.) “Recd. In morning 193 recruits. Drilled a squad in morning. Rebels charged our line three times. Repulsed. Lying in ravine. One man killed. Moved in eve. Threw up entrenchments to protect flanks of position. First night’s sleep since 27th. Weather changed to the bad.”

Then, succinctly, he wrote, “Saved colors.” With those two words, Sgt. Maj. Christian Fleetwood recounted the single most memorable activity or event of his life. The simplicity is striking.

Fleetwood served his country courageously and in an unflinching, professional manner. He certainly was a hero who contributed manifestly to Lincoln’s groundbreaking decision to recruit black troops and get them into battle.

Christian A. Fleetwood’s 221-page 1864 diary is available online at the Library of Congress site ( Click on American Memory, and on that page, go to search, using Fleetwood as the keyword. The diary is the third item.

* John E. Carey is a writer and historian in Arlington, Va.


Marsena Patrick: Provost Marshal General of the Army of the Potomac

September 20, 2008

By John E. Carey

Generally unknown, unnoticed and little honored, the provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac proved his worth as an invaluable right-hand man to the commanding general.

During a myriad of sometimes messy, often ugly and usually distasteful assignments, one man acted aggressively, diligently and with integrity, plus a dash of God-fearing, Bible-thumping religion: Marsena Rudolph Patrick (1811-1888).


Before the war, Patrick worked on the Erie Canal, taught school and attended the U.S. Military Academy. He served in both the Seminole War and the Mexican War. During the 1850s, he became an expert farmer, intrigued by the science of agriculture. Ultimately, he became president of the New York State Agricultural College.

When the Civil War began, Patrick offered his services to New York, and the governor appointed him brigadier general and inspector general of the state militia. By March 1862, he was in command of James Wadsworth’s brigade in Rufus King’s division of Irvin McDowell’s 1st Corps.

He first learned the difficulties of managing both Union troops and semi-hostile civilians when appointed military governor of Fredericksburg, Va., in April 1862. Later, Patrick and his men fought at Second Manassas and Antietam. In October 1862, Gen. George McClellan appointed Patrick provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac.

On the march

Patrick’s job as provost marshal began with a marching army. Whether in advance or retreat, a force the size of the Army of the Potomac had to contend with clogged roads, narrow bridges, mud, swift rivers and a host of other situations bound to slow progress.
The provost marshal almost always had troops, both infantry and cavalry, under his direct command to assist him in his duties. Patrick had to keep the army moving while rounding up stragglers, looters or worse.

“Artillery, Packs, Ambulances, Servants, Orderlies & detached commands, with Stragglers of all kinds, began to pour in” as the army approached a narrow bridge, Patrick wrote in his diary. “I was at the Bridge & thereabouts, whip in hand, using it freely & directing the movement successfully, until every wheel & hoof had crossed the bridges.”

As battle neared, Patrick’s job evolved into helping concentrate the army. He had to round up drunks, skedaddlers, looters, stragglers and other unsavory men who were supposed to be in line against the enemy. On June 30, 1863, as the army approached Gettysburg, Patrick wrote, “I was called into town and sent for two Squadrons of Cavalry to go back to Frederick & clean out that town, which was reported full of drunken men & Stragglers.”


During battle, Patrick performed the thankless job of turning around or corralling the men who ran from the battle. He also had to deal with prisoners. During Pickett’s Charge, Patrick and his men were behind the main Federal line. “I had my hands full with those that broke to the rear, but we succeeded in checking the disorder & organized a guard of Stragglers to keep nearly 2000 Prisoners all safe.”

After the battle, Patrick saw to the dead and the mountains of government equipment left on the field. On July 6, 1863, Patrick wrote, “I was soon ordered by Gen. Meade to go into the town & make arrangements with responsible parties for the burial of the dead & Securing of the property on the battle field.”

A town pillaged

Perhaps Patrick’s most controversial action was at Fredericksburg. In November 1862, Union troops commanded by Gen. Ambrose Burnside conducted a 40-mile forced march across rural Virginia to a position on the banks of the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg.

Gen. Robert E. Lee pulled the bulk of his army out of Fredericksburg to Marye’s Heights, leaving behind sharpshooters. The 120,000-man Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and began a five-hour house-to-house engagement in the town. By the time Patrick crossed the river and entered the town, he encountered a horrifying scene, which historian Frank A. O’Reilly called “a bizarre, bacchanal carnival kind of atmosphere.”

“The Soldiery were sacking the town!” Patrick wrote, uncharacteristically using an exclamation mark in his diary. “Men with all sorts of utensils & furniture, all sorts of eatables & drinkables & wearables, were carried off. I found the town in a most deplorable state of things. Libraries, pictures, furniture, every thing destroyed & the brutal Soldiery still carrying on the work.”

Patrick described his efforts to restore order with near-melancholy: “Couch sent over for me to clear the town. This was impossible although I put in my Cavalry & 4 companies of Infy.”

Some gave Patrick credit for stopping the looting, but in the post-battle finger-pointing, Army leaders and politicians in Washington wanted Patrick’s head for the “sacking of Fredericksburg.” Messages from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton annoyed and depressed Patrick, who believed he had done his duty to the best of his ability in a miserable situation.

“I then wrote [to Stanton] saying that So far as the Pillage of [Fredericksburg] was concerned,” Patrick wrote in his diary on March 19, 1863, “I had nothing further to say, and that the Court of Inquiry would elicit the facts in the case.”

A myriad of tasks

Despite criticism, Patrick kept to the task at hand, performing any number of unusual and often unseemly, yet necessary, duties.

In camp, his “routine” was never routine. “I have been overrun with applications for Bakeries, for Agencies, for Eating Houses, for any and every thing in fact, even to holding my horse, if I pay, roundly,” the provost marshal wrote.

Often, he had to deal with cheaters, moneymaking schemes and the like. “We have made a large number of arrests today, of Soldiers selling [stolen] passes [to return home from the army].” One unusual diary entry is unexplained, but it certainly entailed malfeasance: “I drove up to the Hospital to see about some charges against the embalmers.”

Some complaints Patrick encountered give insight into the lively camp life of the Army of the Potomac. He wrote on Sept. 22, 1864: “This Evening I have had Rev. Mr. Burdick, Chaplain of the 61st New York here, for the 2nd time, in regard to a gross outrage committed upon him by Capt. & Lieut. Ames of a Battery in the 1st N.Y. Artillery, in the 2nd Corps – They tied him up to a Battery Waggon & the trial seems to be a farce.”

Newspapermen were not always treated well by the army. Negative reports from the front could mean banishment, or worse, for the offending scribe. Patrick wrote about “a Man named Cropsey of the Phil. Inquirer, who is to be sent off on account of a Libel on [Army commander George] Meade.” Patrick describes Mr. Cropsey’s punishment: “He was placed on a horse, with breast and back boards Marked ‘Libeller, of the Press’ & marched in rear of my flag, [through] the army, after which he was sent North.”

Patrick frequently interrogated the prisoners in his charge. He nicknamed the holding pen for these men the “Bull Ring”: “I went over to the Bull Ring and brought out a number of cases for examination.” He commented that many commanders found no value in Allan Pinkerton’s detectives and their intelligence. Many believed that between the interrogations of the prisoners and other information dug up by Patrick and his men, all intelligence to be had was obtained.

No alcohol, please

Practically every unwanted and difficult task, it seemed, wound up in Marsena Patrick’s hands. Just before Christmas 1863, he wrote: “I have had the Oyster business in hand, it having been referred back to me by Gen. Meade. I have, this evening, sent down an Advertisement, to appear in the Chronicle, & it has been telegraphed to the Associated Press. The bids are to be opened on Saturday the 2nd of January ’64.”

A teetotaling Presbyterian, Patrick took a stern approach to any amusement, especially involving alcohol, that made him both a pain in the neck and the perfect rule enforcer. On one St. Patrick’s Day, Patrick wrote: “In accordance with a Special request from [Gen. Joseph] Hooker, I agreed to go over & witness some of the festivities at the Head Quarters of Meagher’s Irish Brigade. We brought up in the midst of a grand steeple chase, from which the crowd soon adjourned to drink punch at Meagher’s Head Quarters – Everybody got tight & I found it was no place for me – so I came home.”

Patrick investigated his boss’s own servant for misuse of alcohol. “There has been a court Martial over at headquarters today to try Meade’s Steward, E.A. Paul for Selling Whiskey to Soldiers.” Later, Patrick enforced a “no alcohol” order by the notoriously non-teetotaling Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

Picture of honor

More than once, Patrick officiated at an execution, taking the opportunity to address the troops on the value of good conduct and discipline. On July 15, 1864, Patrick wrote: “I read the Order of the Court & Sentence – The Clergy talked with them a few moments & at their request the feet were tied, the eyes bandaged, the ropes adjusted, the tap upon the drum & the drop fell! I remounted the Scaffold & said such words of warning, of reproof & of correction as seemed proper.”

After Lee surrendered his army to Grant at Appomattox, Mathew Brady posed Grant and his staff for one final photograph in the field. On April 12, 1865, Grant, the hero of the hour, posed in a high-backed chair. All his other staff officers stood on either side. The bald, well-built Patrick, wearing a startling 6- or 7-inch white beard, draped his right arm over the left shoulder of Grant’s chair. Patrick appears calm, serene and in command of the minutiae no other general needed or wanted.

As provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac, Patrick had served Gens. McClellan, Burnside, Hooker and Meade, the enforcer of discipline, the repairman of messes, the handler of the distasteful.

He did his duty honorably and well. Every large military unit requires a man like him.

John E. Carey writes history in northern Virginia.

Henry Vinton Plummer: From Slave to U.S. Navy Sailor to Army Chaplain

September 20, 2008

By John E. Carey

Henry Vinton Plummer, slave-born, enlisted in the U.S. Navy and saw combat in the Civil War, enrolled in a seminary after the war and became an Army chaplain to the famed Buffalo Soldiers. However, he was drummed out of the Army and humiliated on what his descendants are convinced was a trumped-up charge. He continued to serve his community as a minister until his death in 1905 at age 60.

Plummer was born at Three Sisters plantation in Prince George’s County in 1844. The owners sold young Henry and his mother to residents of the District in 1851. Family records show he lived in the Meridian Hill section of the city and later at Ellicott Mills in Maryland. In 1862, Plummer escaped and made his way to Riverdale, where he hid until he could reach an aunt’s house in Washington.

Soon after (the family says in 1862; Navy records say 1864) he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He was assigned to the USS Coeur de Lion (which means “lionheart” in French), a paddle-wheel steamer of 110 tons. Officially, she was classified as a “fourth rate” – a converted lighthouse tender that the Navy had pressed into service as a warship.

Because the Coeur de Lion operated from the Washington Navy Yard, Plummer probably reported aboard immediately after his enlistment.

The vessel was 110 feet long and had a shallow draft of just over 41/2 feet. Constructed of wood and with a steam boiler, she probably could navigate rivers as fast as 6 to 10 knots. When converted to naval use, she was armed with a 30-pound Dahlgren rifle, a 12-pound rifle and one light 12-pound smoothbore.

During Plummer’s service, he certainly saw action in many engagements, as Coeur de Lion frequently engaged blockade runners and Confederate warships in the Eastern rivers, including the Potomac and the James.

Coeur de Lion burned the schooners Charily, Gazelle, and Flight in the Appomattox River on May 27, 1862.

Navy records also show she burned the schooners Sarah Alaroarof and Odd Fellow on the Coan River on June 1, 1862. Enforcing the blockade, Coeur de Lion captured the schooner Emily Murray off Machodoc Creek, Va., on Feb. 9, 1863. She also engaged the schooners Robert Knowles (Sept. 16, 1863) and Malinda (June 3, 1864) in the Potomac. During a reconnaissance up the Nansemond River, Coeur de Lion exchanged fire with enemy batteries on April 17 and 19, 1863.

Plummer was honorably discharged from the Navy just after the end of the Civil War. The next year, his family dispatched Henry to New Orleans to find his sister, Sarah, who had been sold in 1860. He found and returned with Sarah, who later started St. Paul Baptist Church in Bladensburg.

In 1872, Plummer enrolled at Wayland Seminary, where he graduated in 1876. He became the third pastor of his sister’s First Colored Baptist Church of Bladensburg. During his tenure, the church’s name was changed to St. Paul’s Baptist Church. He served five years and in 1881 became pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Washington.

He applied to become an Army chaplain in 1884. With Plummer’s war record, service to his congregation and letters of recommendation from dignitaries such as Frederick Douglass, Plummer won appointment in the U.S. Army’s Chaplain Corps. The Army assigned Plummer to minister to the famed 9th U.S. Cavalry, the Buffalo Soldiers, deployed to Kansas, Wyoming and Nebraska.

Plummer reported to Fort Riley, Kan., where he immediately made an impression as a spiritual leader and an excellent minister to the men. His commanding officer attended services and encouraged the troops to “a higher state of morality and education.”

The post correspondent to the Army-Navy Journal complimented Plummer on his fine sermons and prayers and for “doing a good work among the soldiers.” The writer also noted that Plummer could “discount any of the white Chaplains in the Service.”

Plummer’s commander at Fort Robinson, Neb., reported that he had never seen such large church attendance at a military post. He said the “efficient manner” in which Plummer carried out his work was the reason for the devotion of the men.

In 1894, Mrs. Mary Garrard, an officer’s wife and the chapel organist, wrote that Plummer was “energetic, faithful & devoted to his duties.” She noted that his influence on the troops was “decidedly good” and that she had never seen a chaplain with “such large congregations.” She also cited his “untiring efforts.” She also said that Plummer succeeded “almost entirely without help or encouragement from the officers” – officers of the regiment were white, the troopers black.

Plummer was more than a preacher, however. He supervised bakeries, monitored the quality of the food, wrote for newspapers and led an effort to stem the amount of alcohol consumed. He was the equivalent of today’s “morale, welfare and recreation officer.”

Plummer took a stand against the hard drinking at the lonely and remote Army outposts by persuading the adjutant general of the Army to halt beer sales at Fort Robinson. Naturally, this action brought him enemies. Some of the officers began to call Plummer a “disturbing element.”

As editor for the Fort Robinson Weekly Bulletin and resident manager of the Fort Robinson department of the Omaha Progress, Plummer made sure news of interest to the black troops appeared prominently. Suspicious that Plummer’s newspaper activities could undermine “the colored troops’ ” confidence in their officers, the post commander of the time wrote a confidential letter about the chaplain’s activities to the commanding general of the Department of the Platte.

One of Plummer’s initiatives was to try to persuade the adjutant general of the Army and the secretary of war to send him to central Africa with some black troops on an “exploring and missionary tour.” He wanted to introduce “American civilization and Christianization among some of the tribes” and “form a nucleus for a colony of black Americans” to go. Plummer spoke of an opportunity to “secure a slice of the African turkey, before it is gobbled up by foreign nations.” The secretary of war declined Plummer’s offer, saying there was “no law authorizing” him to detail “any officers of the Army for such an expedition.”

Unfortunately, after espousing temperance for so many years, Plummer was accused of drinking at a sergeant’s promotion party. To this day, his family believes the accusation was a fabrication. One Plummer enemy was a black sergeant who had worked under Plummer’s supervision at the Fort Riley bakery. On at least one occasion, Plummer had disciplined the sergeant. The disgruntled noncom had made an official complaint against Plummer.

Plummer was accused of “conduct unbecoming an officer,” and after an 11-day general court-martial, Henry Vinton Plummer was found guilty as charged and sentenced to be separated from military service.

After the court-martial and discharge, Plummer moved his family to Kansas City, Kan., where he again led a congregation of his own and also held office in the Kansas State Baptist Convention.

Immediately after he was separated from the service, Plummer began trying to overturn the court’s decision or to receive a pardon. His efforts and those of his descendants were not successful – until recently, when the U.S. Army Board for the Correction of Military Records agreed to review the case. This could take place within weeks, with the prospect of restoring Plummer’s good name and family pride.

John E. Carey is a historian in Arlington who has done extensive research on the chaplains and nuns of the Civil War and Old West. A version of this article appeared in the February issue of Naval Institute Proceedings.

Rebel and Yank Snowball Wars: Fighting Winter Boredom

September 20, 2008

By John E. Carey

At least four rare wintertime Civil War engagements remain footnotes in history, even though the scope and ferocity of these battles received mention in many diaries and journals of the soldier-participants.

Troops from Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia and North Carolina fought bravely. In one of the engagements, about 8,000 troops faced each other. In another, some 10,000 combatants participated.

A soldier recorded one of the battles as “one of the most memorable combats of the war.”
Gen. Patrick Cleburne found himself a prisoner of war but escaped. He was recaptured, and a soldier wrote that his foes “called for a drumhead court-martial; others demanded a sound dunking in the nearby creek. Still others, mindful of Cleburne’s reputation as a stern disciplinarian, insisted that the general be meted out his own customary punishment. The idea caught on and soon the whole brigade took up the familiar order: ‘Arrest that soldier and make him carry a fence rail!’ ”

What were these four engagements?  Snowball fights.  Snowball fights between men of the Confederate Army.
 One grand snowball fight engulfed Confederate troops near Rappahannock Academy in the vicinity of Fredericksburg, Va., on Feb. 25, 1863. Diaries show that 8 inches of snow fell on Feb. 19. Two days later, 9 more inches of snow fell. Feb. 25, 1863, brought sunny skies and milder temperatures. The snow on the ground softened until the ideal conditions for snowball-making infected the encamped soldiers. Participants say some 10,000 men were engaged.
Gen. Robert F. Hoke’s North Carolina soldiers marched toward Col. W.H. Stiles’ camp of Georgians. The attack force comprised infantry, cavalry and skirmishers. The fight began with a “severe pelting” of snowballs. Reinforcements from the commissary scurried to assist the brigade under attack.

Above: Robert F. Hoke
Hoke withdrew his beaten soldiers. Col. Stiles then held a council of war on how best to counterattack Hoke’s retreating revelers. He decided to organize his men and march directly into their camp, snowballs at the ready. But when Stile’s forces arrived in Hoke’s camp they were met by a force that had just filled its haversacks with freshly made snowballs. Hoke’s men, “without the need to reload,” beat back their attackers, taking many prisoners. The captured were “whitewashed” with snow.
Gen. Stonewall Jackson and his staff apparently witnessed the battle; but the teetotaling, Bible-thumping Jackson resisted the urge to participate in any merrymaking. One soldier remarked that he had wished Jackson and staff had joined the fight so he could have thrown a snowball at “the old faded uniforms.”

    Another grand snowball fight delighted Father James Sheeran and Confederate troops on March 23, 1864. Sheeran records this battle of some 8,000 men, probably near Orange Court House, Va. Eyewitnesses recorded the snowfall at 18 inches.
    Chaplain Sheeran recorded the battle this way: “Lines were so regularly formed, the movements so systematic, the officers displaying so much activity at the head of their commands, their men fighting so stubbornly, now advancing on their opposing column, now giving way before superior numbers. … At one time we would see a body of troops marching though an adjacent woods endeavoring to flank their enemy; soon a counter movement would be made. Now a charge and a yell and many prisoners captured. For nearly two hours this battle … lasted.”
    On March 22, 1864, near Dalton, Ga., the troops from Arkansas found 5 inches of new snow, and a spontaneous snowball fight erupted all across the camp.
The men of Cleburne’s Division from Lucius Polk’s Brigade attacked Gen. Daniel C. Govan’s Brigade. Here the famous Irish Gen. Cleburne suffered the embarrassment of capture, twice.

This Georgia battle became a total melee. One Arkansas soldier recalled, “Such pounding and thumping, and rolling over in the snow, and washing of faces and cramming snow in mouths and in ears and mixing up in great wriggling piles together.”

    When it was all over, Cleburne authorized a ration of whiskey for all the troops, who huddled around huge bonfires singing and yelling “at the top of their lungs.”

    More snow fell the next day and the snowball war continued. Rainy, snowy weather continued until March 31, when another huge engagement erupted. Commanding Gen. Joe Johnston organized an attack involving Gen. William J. Hardee’s Corps. Cleburne’s and Gen. William B. Bate’s divisions battled the troops of Gen. Benjamin Franklin Cheatham and Gen. William H.T. Walker. A small audience of ladies who had driven out from Dalton were delighted by the sheer joy of the scene.

    One veteran recorded the day: “The noise was terrific and the excitement intense, but nobody was hurt … except perhaps one of the cavalry men who was dismounted while charging a square of infantry.”

Most of Civil War camp life was neither joyous nor memorable, especially as the armies hunkered down for winter. But these snowball fights broke the monotony, increasing morale and camaraderie among the Confederate troops.

Great Snowball Fight of 1864: Dalton,GA
From: Stonewall of the West Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War

Occasionaly the unpredictable March weather broke routine of camp life and interrupted the training schedule . On rare occasions it snowed and like children released from school , the troops treated any snowfall as an occasion for play. On March 22 dawn revealed a fresh 5 inches of new snow, and a spontaneous snowball fight broke out all across the camp. The men threw themselfs into the fracas with enthusiasm. One Arkansas soldier recalled, “Such pounding and thumping, and rolling over in the snow, and washing of faces and cramming snow in mouths and in ears and mixing up in great wriggling piles together.” (Stephenson, Civil War Memoir)

In Cleburne’s Div., Lucius Polk’s Brigade attacked Govan’s Brigade, pitting Arkansas against Arkansas, and Cleburne could not resist getting involved. He placed himself at the head of his old brigade and led the attack on Govan’s campsite. The snowballs flew thick and fast , and Govans’s men were getting the worst of it when they decided to launch a counterattack. They charged forword, no doubt yelling for all they were worth and Cleburne suddenly found himseld a prisoner of war. After some tongue-in-cheek deliberation, his captors desided to parol their commander, and claburne was released.

The snowball fight contined and Claburnes once again entered the fray. Atlas he was captured a 2nd time .. and this time his captors confronted him with mock solemnity about his violation of parole. According to one veteran, “Some called for a drumead court martial; others demanded a sound dunking in the nearby creek. Still others mindfull of Cleburne’s reputation as a stern disciplinarian, insisted that the general be meted out his own customary punishment. The idea caught on and soon the whole brigade took up the familiar order: ‘Arrest that soldier and make him carry a fence rail!’ ” Cooler heads prevailed, with Claburne’s defenders arguing that after all this was the 1st occasion on which he had been known to break his word and once again his captors granted him parole. When it was all over, Cleburne authorized a ration of whiskey to the troops , and they stood around great bonfires singing and yelling “at the top of their lungs” {Steve Davis “The Great Snowbattle of 1864”! CWTI (June 1976) }

More snow fell on the 23rd of March, provoking yet another snowball fight and rain and snow continued through the rest of the month. On the 31st a more serious sham battle occurred when Joe Johnston organized a mock engagement involving Hardee’s Corps. Cleburne’s and Bates’s Div. Squared off against those of Cheatam and Walker. It was a fine weather for a charge, and the troops entered the spirit of the drill, firing off a blank cartridge each, thrilling the small audiences of ladies who had driven out from Dalton to watch. One veteran recalled, “The noise was terrific and the excitement intense, but nobody was hurt. . . except perhaps one of the cavalry men who was dismounted while charging a square of infantry.” That night, back in camp, it was peaches and cornbread again for dinner. (John S. Jackson Diary of A Confederate Soldier)

The following is an after action report of a snowball fight between the Third & Fourth Vermont and the Twenty-sixth New Jersey. Black eyes, bloody noses and all!

A snowball Battle – A soldier of one of the New Jersey regiment writes as follows:

“You are probably aware that the Second Brigade of this division consists of four Vermont regiments, besides the Twenty-sixth. During the late heavy fall of snow, the Vermonters twice made an attack on the encampment of the Twenty-sixth, sending a perfect shower of snow balls at the head of every luckless Jerseyman who made his apperance without his tent. The first attack was a complete suprise to us; but we essayed a sally from the camp, and drove the attacking party back to their reserves. Being heavily reenforced, they charged on us again, and after a desperate resistance we were driven back into camp, fighting absolutely from the shelter of our tents until darkness put an end to the contest. Our casualties were quite heavy, but those of the enemy, it is thought, exceeded ours. A few days afterwards the attack was renewed, but we took up a strong position on a hill in the rear of the camp and repulsed every assault of the foe. The snow crimsomed with blood issueing from the olfactory organs of the Vermonters, and the appearance of the battle-field indicated the fierce nature of the contest. The enemy raised a flaf of truce, an armistice of a few hours was concluded, and then ensued that novel spectacle of war – men, who but a few minutes previous were engaged in one of the most sanguinary battles of modern times, harmonizing and fraternizing with clasped hands.

“But the matter did not rest. The night of the 24th had enveloped terra firma with its dusky shades. Many a waxen nose in the camps of the Second brigade snored sonorously, happily unconscious of its ruby discoloration on the morrow. Many an eye placidly closed in slumber was to be violently closed in battle ere the approach of another nightfall. And many a phrenological bump sparsely developed on the night in question was to be suddenly brought to an age of puberty on the approaching day. The eventful morning opened. Colonel Morrison sent a challenge to Colonel Seaver of the Third Vermont to engage in the open field at three o’clock P.M. The challenge was accepted, on the condition that the Fourth Vermont should be included with the Third. This was agreed to by the Colonel. Before the appointed time some of our men were detailed on fatigue duty, and at the time of the engagement we were only able to muster some three hundred men.

“Nothing daunted by the superiority of numbers, Colonel Morrison ordered Lieutenant MeCleese of Company C (Captain Pemberton being sick) to fortify a small hill on our right, make as much ammunition as possible, and pile the snow balls in pyramids. This arduous duty was hastily performed. It was a strong position, a swollen brook at its base answering the purpose of a moat – too strong, in fact, for the Vermonters. The hills were covered with spectators, and the eagerness to witness the novel contest knew no bounds. Companies A and B were thrown out as skirmishers. Company E occupied the right, C was given the centre, and H rested on the left. The Colonel dashed over the field in all directions, encouraging the men to stand fast, amid the blue wreaths curling from a ‘brier wood’ nonchalantly held in his left hand, and the Adjutant danced about on a spirited charger, apparently impatiently awaiting the hour of contest, the light of battle dilating within his eyes, and a quid of ‘navy plug’ reposing beneath his cheek. Lieutenant Woods, of the ambulance corps, and Lieutenant __ acted as mounted aids to the Colonel, while the ‘Sergeant’ and John K. Shaw, an aspiring Newark youth of eighteen, acted as perambulating aids. The line being formed and everything in readiness for the contest, a red flag was raised as a signal, and in a breath of time a strong body of the enemy drove in our skirmishers, and fiercely attacked our centre. At the same moment another strong force advanced against our right, but only as a feint; for they suddenly wheeled to the right, and joined their comrades in a furious charge on our centre. Major Morris ordered up Compnay E from our right, but too late to be of any advantage, and they were completely cut off from the main body of our army. Although flanked and pressed in front by overwhelming numbers, our centre heroically contested the advance of the enemy. Animated by the presence of the Colonel, they fought like veterans, and the white snowballs eddied through the air like popping corn from a frying pan. But the enemy were madly surging upon us in superior force, and it was hardly within power of human endurance to stand such a perfect feu d’enfer any longer. Gradually the centre fell back inch by inch, the line then wavered to and fro, and finally the men broke in confusion and rolled down the hill followed by the victorious Vermonters. In vain the Colonel breasted the torrent; in vain the Major urged the men to stand fast; in vain the Adjutant White, the chivalric De Bayard of the Twenty-sixth, implore the gods for aid.

“The boys never rallied. Lieutenant Woods made an attempt to rally them and form them in hollow square on the fortified hill to the right, but he was mistaken by the boys for a Vermonter, and unceremoniously pelted from their midst. But the Colonel was not totally deserted by his men. The Vermonters seized his horse by the bridle, and made a desperate attempt to take him prisoner. The fight at this point was terrific beyond description. The men fought hand to hand. Colonel Seaver, the Achilles of the day, dashed through the combatants, seized Colonel Morrison by the shoulder, and called upon him to surrender. But his demand was choked by the incessant patter of snow-balls on his ‘physog.’ Around the rival chieftains the men struggled fearfully; there was the auburn-haired Hodge, alias ‘Wild Dutchmen’ fighting manfully. There was the fierce Teuton Captain of Company E, dropping the foe right and left at every swing of his amrs; but all in vain. Amid the wild excitement consequent upon the shouting, the rearing, and plunging of horses, the Colonel was drawn from his saddle and taken by the enemy. Most of his ‘staff’ followed him as prisoners. A desperate attempt was made to rescue him, but it proved of no avail. Major Morris fared no better. Adjutant White, however, made a bold attempt to retrieve the fortunes of the day. Dashing into the dense ranks of the foe, he seized the bridle of Colonel Stoughton’s Bucephalus, and gallantly attempted the impossibility of capturing the Colonel, who was the acting Brigadier of the attacking party. But the adjutant had ‘caught Tartar,’ for the Vermonters rushed around him like the waves beating upon some lone rock in the ocean, and vainly clamored for his surrender. He fought like an Ajax mounted on a ‘Black Bass’, retaining his position in the saddle by resting his knees against the pommel. This was at last observed by a shrewd Yankee, who deterously slipped between the two horses, detached the supporitng knee, and the Adjutant fell from his lofty position like a tornado-stricken oak. This fall disheartened the Twenty-sixth, and only detached parties of a dozen, scattered over the field, persisted in an obstinate resistance. The ‘Sergeant’ recieved a solid shot in the back of the head, and was borne to the rear a captive, and then

‘The bugles sang truce.’

“Thus ended the great battle of Fairview; unequalled in desperateness, and the theme of many a future poet’s cogitations. Our loss was very heavy, and we were severely defeated. The spectators, acting on the well-known principle of kicking a man when he is down, pitched into us most unmercifully when our centre was broken, and prevented us from re-forming in line of battle. The slaughter of the enemy was fearful, and the prowess of the Newark ball players and fireman was displayed on their battered visages. Colonel Stoughton was honored with a black eye, and the gallant Seaver fared but little better. The following is a fair recapitulation of the casualties on both sides:

“Bloddy noses, fifty-three; bunged peppers, eighty-one; extraodinary phrenological developments, twenty-nine; shot in the neck after the engagement, unknown.

“The Vermonters fought with the determined energy characterizing them when engaging Jeff’s myrmidons.”

p. 310-311
The Civil War in Song & Story
by Frank Moore
P. F. Collier, Publisher [1889]

Link here to see American Armies in snow, mud and rain:

Hurricane Uncovers Lost Ship, Perhaps From Civil War (With Video)

September 20, 2008

FORT MORGAN, Ala. (AP) – When the waves from Hurricane Ike receded, they left behind a mystery — a ragged shipwreck that archeologists say could be a two-masted Civil War schooner that ran aground in 1862 or another ship from some 70 years later. The wreck, about six miles from Fort Morgan, had already been partially uncovered when Hurricane Camille cleared away sand in 1969.

People look over the wreck of a wooden ship uncovered by Hurricane ...
People look over the wreck of a wooden ship uncovered by Hurricane Ike on a beach on Fort Morgan Road in Fort Morgan, Ala., Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008. Archeologists say the wreck could be that of a two-masted Civil War schooner that ran aground in 1862 or another ship from some 70 years later. The wreck had already been partially uncovered when Hurricane Camille cleared away sand in 1969. Researchers at the time identified it as the Monticello, a battleship that partially burned when it crashed trying to get past the U.S. Navy and into Mobile Bay during the Civil War.(AP Photo/Press-Register, Guy Busby)

Researchers at the time identified it as the Monticello, a battleship that partially burned when it crashed trying to get past the U.S. Navy and into Mobile Bay during the Civil War.

After examining photos of the wreck post-Ike, Museum of Mobile marine archaeologist Shea McLean agreed it is likely the Monticello, which ran aground in 1862 after sailing from Havana, according to Navy records.

“Based on what we know of ships lost in that area and what I’ve seen, the Monticello is by far the most likely candidate,” McLean said. “You can never be 100 percent certain unless you find the bell with ‘Monticello’ on it, but this definitely fits.”

Other clues indicate it could be an early 20th century schooner that ran aground on the Alabama coast in 1933.

The wrecked ship is 136.9 feet long and 25 feet wide, according to Mike Bailey, site curator at Fort Morgan, who examined it this week. The Monticello was listed in shipping records as 136 feet long, McLean told the Press-Register of Mobile.

But Bailey said a 2000 report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined the remains were the schooner Rachel, built at Moss Point, Miss., in 1919 and wrecked near Fort Morgan in 1933.

He said the wreckage appears to have components, such as steel cables, that would point to the Rachel rather than an 1860s schooner.

Glenn Forest, another archaeologist who examined the wreck, said a full identification would require an excavation.

“It’s a valuable artifact,” he said. “They need to get this thing inside before it falls apart or another storm comes along and sends it through those houses there like a bowling ball.”

Meanwhile, curious beach-goers have been drawn to the remains of the wooden hull filled with rusted iron fittings. Fort Morgan was used as Union forces attacked in 1864 during the Battle of Mobile Bay.

“It’s interesting, I can tell you that,” said Terri Williams. “I’ve lived down here most of my life and I’ve never seen anything like this, and it’s been right here.”


CSS Shenandoah: Technological Wonder

See a video:

Below: CSS Georgia. 

William “Extra Billy” Smith: Confederate General and Virginia Governor

September 1, 2008

By John E. Carey

William Smith (1797 – 1887) served five terms in the Virginia House, two terms as Governor of Virginia and he formed, trained and led the 49th Virginia Volunteers in the Civil War while over sixty years of age. He rose to the rank of Major General and for a time commanded the entire brigade made up of the 13th, 49th, 52nd, and 58th Virginia regiments.

On June 1, 1861, in a skirmish on the lawn at Fairfax Court House, Virginia, the Confederate commander of the Warrenton Rifles, Captain John Quincy Marr, fell with a mortal wound. Smith, a former Governor of Virginia (1846-1849) and guest at the nearby Josua Gunnell house, rushed to the scene to take command of the Confederate troops, which included Gunnell’s own son.
William "Extra Billy" Smith

“Extra Billy” described the scene in his memoirs: “Knowing that the men did not care for their other officers, I said to them boys, you know me, follow me. They sprang with alacrity over the fence against which they were leaning, when I, without the slightest knowledge of tactics, and guided by instinct alone, commenced rapidly to form them into two lines. Having nearly completed this duty, Col. Ewell, without hat or uniform and bleeding, having been struck in the fleshy part of the shoulder by a pistol shot as he ran across the enemy’s line of march, came up. We soon completed the little command and moved it at quick step to the turnpike; then wheeled to the left, and at a short distance, met the enemy returning from the run in a very disorderly condition. This was most fortunate for us–fenced in, both on the right and left, by high board fences and armed only with carbines, we could neither escape nor resist a dragoon charge, except with the contents of our guns. These we promptly gave them, which so staggered them that they came promptly to the ‘about face,’ and returned to the run to reform. Then Col. Ewell said to me, ‘Governor you seem to have a taste for such matters, take the men and move them forward, while I dispatch a courier to bring up some cavalry which is at Fairfax Station.’ I moved the men promptly, and on reaching a wagoner’s shop, halted them, seeing a strong post and rail fence on each side of the turnpike over which the enemy was expected to return.”

Smith subsequently participated in every major engagement involving Lee’s Army from 1861 until the end of 1863.

William Smith was Virginia born in Marengo, King George’s County, on September 6, 1797. Educated in private schools in Virginia and the Plainfield Academy in Connecticut, Smith was admitted to the bar and began practicing law in 1818.

In 1827 Smith started a passenger coach and U. S. mail delivery service between Washington, D.C. and Milledgeville, Georgia. By 1831 his coach business had spread through Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. The fees he collected for service to more remote locations earned him the nickname “Extra Billy.”

Smith had the utmost disdain for West Pointers, believing that his own courage and rapid action on the battlefield could always surpass the actions of “trained” soldiers. His 49th Virginia volunteers became known as “Extra Billy’s Boys.” The 49th Virginia Infantry regiment was made up of men from Warren, Amherst, Prince William, Fauquier, Rappahannock, and Nelson counties. The 49th served in all major battles in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. At the Battle of Seven Pines, the 49th suffered 55% casualties. By the time of Appomattox in April of 1865, there were only 54 men and two officers left to be paroled.

Of the engagement at Sharpsburg, Smith wrote: “As the enemy swept around my flank, one of my men cried out from the ranks, ‘Colonel, they are surrounding us!’ My answer was, ‘Men, you conquer or die where you stand. I will not yield the rascals an inch–but remember, everything depends upon steadiness and courage. Obey orders, and I’ll answer for the result.’

On January 1, 1863, Smith was promoted to Brigadier General, and he took command of the entire brigade made up of the 13th, 49th, 52nd, and 58th Virginia regiments. He won laurels at Gettysburg. The Governor’s actions on the third day of that battle were described by Major R. W. Hunter, CSA, “They came with a rush, the old Governor in the lead, his voice rising above the din of battle, more potent than a blast from the bugle horn of Trelawney. Taking the highest position he could find, reckless of shot and shell, with bare head and sword in hand, pointing to the enemy, he harangued each regiment, as it double-quicked past into the arena of blood and fire. I cannot recall his exact words. All that I know is that they were not in the conventional forms prescribed by Hardee, Upton or Gilham. Like Wellington, when the moment came for the death-grapple at Waterloo, the old Governor either could not recall the “orders” as laid down in the books on Tactics, or deemed them too insipid for such an emergency. Such, however, was the emphatic muscularity of his military dialect that there was never a moment’s doubt or hesitation as to what he meant. His “boys,” as he affectionately called them, knew and understood him, and off they dashed with a spirit and a vim that soon drove back the enemy.”

Major Hunter concludes: “It was done so handsomely; the old Governor’s bearing was so superbly gallant; his voice so ringing and inspiring; the reinforcement he brought so opportune, so welcome and so effective, that the troops in that quarter, rejoicing in their deliverance, in heartfelt tribute to that “good grey head that all men knew,” and with a spontaneous impulse such as only soldiers in such a plight can feel, with one accord raised the shout: ‘Hurrah for Governor Smith,’ which went along the lines like an electric current, mingling with the sullen roar of the enemy’s cannon.”

On August 30, 1863, General Lee sent the Governor on a “speaking tour” on behalf of new amnesty and furlough laws. He resigned from military service on December 31, 1863 to become Governor of Virginia until the war’s end.

Smith was paroled and returned to his estate near Warrenton after the surrender at Appomadox. At age eighty, he was once again elected to the Virginia House of Delegates for the 1877-1879 term.

William Smith died on May 18, 1887 at the age of ninety. He was widely acclaimed and mourned throughout the state. The Warrenton Index paid this tribute to him: “A State Senator of the olden times, this grand commoner, twice filling the Gubernatorial chair and five terms a seat in the halls of Congress; this untrained soldier, holding undisciplined troops to posts of duty under deadliest fire by force of his magnetic presence and sight of the snow white plume beneath his chapeau…”

Willard Hotel’s Historic Civil War Role

September 1, 2008

By John E. Carey

The last major social event in Washington before the Civil War that included Southerners was at the Willard Hotel.

A desperate conference among representatives of 21 states attempting to avoid war took place in its meeting rooms, chaired by a former president.

Abraham Lincoln, as president-elect, spent his first nine nights in Washington in the hotel, due to safety concerns.

Generals such as Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and George B. McClellan stayed here. Its public rooms, restaurants and tavern were the crossroads for generations of congressmen, as well as leaders from around the globe.

The Willard Hotel was a landmark of social elegance and grace in the heart of the capital. As war ignited and blazed across the land, Washington became a city of hotels, boarding houses, brothels and travelers.

The main facade of the Willard InterContinental

The main facade of the Willard InterContinental
Hotel today…

The city teemed with soldiers and merchants seeking lucrative contracts by day. At night, the city became the playground of revelers.

Yet the Willard maintained its stature and reputation as Washington’s premier hotel. One might go to the Willard simply “to see and be seen.” Only the best known or the fortunate could manage to obtain a room.Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in the Atlantic Monthly: “[T]he Willard Hotel has been a central gathering place for the great, the near-great, and those who aspire to greatness. … This hotel, in fact, may be much more justly called the center of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House or the State Department.”

Hawthorne added: “You exchange nods with governors of sovereign states; you elbow illustrious men, and tread on the toes of generals; you hear statesmen and orators speaking in their familiar tones. You are mixed up with office seekers, wire pullers, inventors, artists, poets, prosers until identity is lost among them.”

Located at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, just one block from the White House and a short walk (or carriage ride) to the Capitol, the War Department and other Washington centers of government and business, the Willard was, and is, a valued home away from home for travelers.

The property, originally part of the David Burnes farm, gained its first buildings in 1816 when John Tayloe erected a row of six two-story houses. By 1818, a hotel was in operation. It became known as the City Hotel and began to serve a long list of the rich and famous. Charles Dickens, for one, stayed there in 1842.

Senators and members of Congress began to use the Willard at a time when serving as an elected representative was not considered a full-time job. Office seekers and those in search of all kinds of favors flocked to the Willard in their wake. Samuel F.B. Morse frequented the hotel to explain his telegraph and seek government money to develop it.

In 1847, Benjamin Tayloe leased the structure to Henry A. Willard (1822-1909) and his brother Edwin. Edwin left the business in 1849. He didn’t see eye to eye with his younger brother.

Another brother, Joseph Clapp Willard (1820-97) became Henry’s business partner. Joseph had recently failed to find gold during the California gold rush, and he needed work.The brothers’ hotel prospered. By 1853, they had bought the entire row of houses from the Tayloe family and started the first of many renovations and reconstructions.

In 1858, they expanded again, buying the southwest corner of 14th and F streets from Col. James Kearney, where they built a six-story addition to the hotel. They bought a church on F Street and converted it into a meeting space known as Willard Hall.

The partners divided up their work and diligently tended to excellence in service and the comfort of their guests. Each morning, Henry Willard arose before 3, joined a staff member who had already prepared a horse-drawn carriage, and headed out for the daily stocking of food.They visited the Potomac waterfront for fresh fish, then the markets, bakeries and butchers of the Central Market on 8th Street. Everything from fresh milk and eggs to vintage wines and freshly cut flowers arrived at the hotel before most guests were awake.

This routine continued even through the Civil War.The quiet, business-like Joseph Willard took the role of business manager and bookkeeper. The two partners created an unsurpassed standard of excellence.In 1859, the Willard Hotel hosted a ball in honor of the departing British ambassador, Lord Napier.

Almost 2,000 attended. Washingtonians would remember this party as the last major social event before the Civil War that included Southerners. Jefferson Davis, Sam Houston and Stephen A. Douglas were among the guests.In February 1861, representatives from 21 states met at the Willard in an attempt to avert war. Former President John Tyler chaired the conference. To make the hotel hospitable to both Northerners and Southerners, the F Street entrance was reserved for Southerners. The Pennsylvania Avenue entrance served Northerners.

The day of Lincoln’s planned arrival in Washington, thousands lined Pennsylvania Avenue between the railroad station and the Willard, hoping to see the president-elect.They would be disappointed.Fearing for his safety, detective Alan Pinkerton, serving as a forerunner of the Secret Service, had spirited Lincoln into the hotel in the pre-dawn fog. Lincoln, his family, and several soon-to-be Cabinet members stayed nine days.

Lincoln’s first paycheck as president paid his Willard Hotel bill of $773.

Visitors to the hotel can see a copy of this bill today, displayed off the hotel’s lobby.

Famous guests included Julia Ward Howe, who later told of hearing Union soldiers singing “John Brown’s Body.” Howe decided a more dignified song was appropriate at such a momentous time and she penned “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at a desk in her Willard Hotel room – on Willard Hotel stationery.During the Civil War, business boomed at the Willard. It was the only hotel of stature in a city crammed with people. Often the Willard hosted as many as 1,000 guests, sometimes three or four to a bed. Still, Henry Willard maintained his standards.

The 1865 edition of “The Strangers Guide to Washington” advised visitors to avoid the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue, an area where “pickpockets, prostitutes and con men abound.”To those more inclined toward refined society, the guide advised, “To see society, go to the Willard.”After the Civil War the Willard Hotel continued as a major lodging, dining and meeting place.Many believe the word “lobbyist” originated at the Willard. According to Washingtonians, President Ulysses S. Grant favored the lobby of the Willard as an evening locale for cigar smoking and perhaps a libation.

The president used to walk over from the White House. When word got out that Grant frequented the lobby of the Willard, office seekers began to gather in hopes of “lobbying” Grant for favors.President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, in one of her many controversial (and sometimes scandalous) exploits, smoked a cigarette in the Willard’s formal dining room.

Ulysses Grant 1870-1880.jpg

Woodrow Wilson’s vice president, Thomas A. Marshall, fretting about the Willard’s high prices, coined the phrase, “What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.” He made his declaration at the hotel.

Mark Twain wrote two books at the Willard. Buffalo Bill Cody and P.T. Barnum stayed there. Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, Grant, Taft, Wilson, Coolidge and Harding all stayed at the Willard. Martin Luther King wrote the “I Have a Dream” speech at the Willard Hotel.Of course, the hotel there today is not the structure at the site during the Civil War. In a major renovation at the start of the 20th century, the building we see today went up.

The brainchild of Joseph E. Willard, designed by architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh of New York and built by George A. Fuller Co., it was declared the city’s first “skyscraper” in 1904. A 1925 expansion added 100 rooms.

By the end of World War II, the Willard had fallen on bad times. The Willard family sold the property in 1946.

The hotel closed in 1968 and remained vacant for almost two decades.

Restored to its elegance and beauty, the Willard Hotel reopened in 1986.

Newsman Villard: Eyewitness to History

August 31, 2008

By John E. Carey

Henry Villard ranks high among the many memorable newsmen of the Civil War. Insightful, energetic and an able researcher, but most of all an affable friend and companion, Villard made a living and earned his own page in American history by placing himself in the company of the most famous leaders of his time.

Henry Villard was born Ferdinand Heinrich Gustav Hilgard on April 10, 1835, in Speyer, Germany. In 1852, he paid for passage to the United States. Like many immigrants, he landed in New York with almost no money and absolutely no English-language skills. In the first years after his arrival, Villard held many jobs, several menial and some even demeaning.

He was a cooper’s apprentice, a bartender, a traveling salesman of religious books, a helper in a brickyard, a lumberman and a farm laborer. He sold encyclopedias and real estate. He learned most of his English while working as a clerk in a law office. He didn’t just learn English. He mastered the language.

When Villard decided to become a writer, he dedicated himself to becoming a leader of the profession. He wrote for several German-language papers, including the Volksblatt of Racine, Wis., and Neue Zeit and Staats Zeitung in New York.

He covered the Pikes Peak gold rush for the Cincinnati Daily Commercial and wrote a guidebook for prospectors.

Friend of Lincoln Villard met Abraham Lincoln during the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. He volunteered to become one of the first traveling campaign reporters, accompanying the future president and recording a memorable evening the two spent together, lost in conversation, in a storm-ravaged train depot.

Not only had they developed a mutual respect for each other, but Villard, on another occasion, also offered a buffalo robe as a gift to a shivering Lincoln.

Villard had obtained the hide during a trip to Pikes Peak. With that robe, along with his charm, humor and skill as a newsman and writer, Villard made the future president a friend and confidant for life.

Villard covered the Republican convention of 1860, where he witnessed Lincoln’s nomination. After the convention, he interviewed the future president and further developed their relationship. Villard remained in Illinois to continue writing dispatches on the man who would soon lead the nation.

He wrote of “the solemnity of [Lincoln’s] mission” and that the Republican was “resolved to fulfill it fearlessly and conscientiously.”

Villard even traveled as a guest aboard the train that carried Lincoln from his home in Springfield, Ill., to Washington for the inauguration. The only correspondent on the train during the leg to Cincinnati, Villard asked for and received from the president-elect a handwritten and signed copy of a speech.

Scene of action

Even before the start of hostilities, Villard distinguished himself as perhaps America’s first syndicated writer. He signed contracts with the Cincinnati Commercial, the Chicago Tribune and the New York Herald to provide them with news. When the Civil War began, Villard knew exactly what to do. He wanted to be at the scene of action: the front.

First he traveled to Washington to assess the readiness of the Union forces. He covered the Union Army’s raid into Alexandria and felt grief when Col.

Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth of the Fire Zouaves, another friend, was slain while tearing down a Confederate flag May 24, 1861.

Villard made the rounds in Washington, making friends and sources of Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, Gen. Winfield Scott, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, Gen. Irvin McDowell and many others. Upon learning that Gen. William T. Sherman made his way to the Washington office of the Associated Press each night at 9 to read the daily war news telegraphed from the front, Villard decided he had better go along to gather news.

He subsequently joined Sherman every night. Sherman told Villard he loved to read the newspapers, “but he frequently objected to what the writers ‘scribbled.’ ”

“He liked nothing better than to express his mind upon the news as it came,” Villard wrote.

Sherman became but one of Villard’s many well-connected sources during the war. Despite Sherman’s renowned hatred for most newsmen, Villard developed a warm friendship and camaraderie with the general.

The same Sherman who was castigated by many newspapermen as “insane,” the same Sherman who threatened to execute newsmen who revealed the movements of his forces later in the war spent hours discussing the war and its personalities with Villard. Sherman even became a frequent visitor to the Villard household after the war.

At the Battle at Bull Run Villard made a name for himself by carefully crafting reports from the front lines into readable, in fact memorable, essays on the personalities and events of the war. Far from the sterile prose of some others, Villard’s work was infused with emotion. Additionally, he completely understood the importance of timely, factual and exciting reporting.

He frequently traveled 100 miles or more under arduous conditions to get his story to a telegraph line or train depot for transmission to editors at home.

Villard accompanied the Union Army into the field for its first major engagement, the Battle of Bull Run. The night before the battle, Villard wrote: “Not a sound is heard except the measured tread of the sentinels. … For we are on the eve of a great battle — perhaps the battle that is to make the bloodiest picture in the Book of Time.”

During the battle, Villard came under fire for the first time. He sought out McDowell, the army commander, but a staff officer told the reporter: “You won’t find him. All is chaos in front. Our troops are breaking and running!” Villard then witnessed the disorder firsthand as he rushed back to Washington after the battle to file his report. He was appalled at the Confederate victory and the melee the soldiers in blue made as they ran from the field.

Future presidents

Traveling to the Western theater, Villard covered Gens. Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman and Don Carlos Buell and their battles there. Arriving just after the capture of Fort Donelson, Tenn., Villard wrote, “Mournful was the sight of long rows of fresh graves containing the killed on both sides.”

After the fall of Nashville, Lincoln appointed Sen. Andrew Johnson of Tennessee as the military governor of that occupied state. Villard met with and studied Johnson, concluding that he “had too violent a temper and was too much addicted to the common Southern habit of free indulgence in strong drink.” Johnson would later inhabit the White House — one of three men to rise to that position who knew Henry Villard.

While covering Gen. William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland, Villard became acquainted with James A. Garfield, the army chief of staff, who “looked like a distinguished personage.”

‘Bloody evidence’

After Shiloh, Villard wrote of his approach to the field.

“The battle was speedily raging with great violence. From one end of the line to the other, the combat lasted for hours, with hardly a lull in the deafening discharge of small arms and guns. “There was bloody evidence in every direction that the slaughter had been great,” the reporter wrote when he saw the carnage at Shiloh. “Neither the one side nor the other had removed its dead, and there they were, blue and gray, in their starkness, lying here singly and there literally in rows and heaps. I passed more than a thousand of them. It was morbid … and many lay as though they had consciously stretched themselves out to sleep. But here were also many exceptions, with features repulsively distorted by pain and hatred.”

A fatal feud Villard’s close association with the Army made him a witness to the horrors of battle. However, he also saw everyday life and experienced the agony of waiting, the boredom of camp life and other aspects of the Army on the march. His writings brought home to readers the realities of the war. Villard witnessed one of the more unusual events of the war: two Union generals engaged in a feud that ended in murder. While eating breakfast on Sept. 30, 1862, at the Galt House, the best hotel in Louisville, Ky., Villard witnessed the argument and its aftermath firsthand.

It seems Gen. William “Bull” Nelson had summarily dismissed a subordinate, Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the Confederate president). Yet Davis was returned to active duty by higher authority. On that morning, Davis encountered Nelson, demanding an apology. Nelson, a giant of a man, could be heard calling Davis an “insolent puppy” before slapping him. Davis withdrew, only to return with a pistol. Seconds later, Nelson lay wounded.

To Villard, Nelson looked like “a dying lion.” Nelson did die 10 minutes later, and the great reporter had another story.

With audacity and guile back in the east, Villard met and accompanied Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside as he led the Army of the Potomac south toward Fredericksburg. Villard never had a high regard for Burnside. He had interviewed Burnside before the First Battle of Bull Run and then encountered the fleeing, terrified general after that battle.

The Union debacle at Fredericksburg saddened and sickened Villard. He directly blamed Burnside’s inadequate leadership for the tremendous Union casualties. After the battle, as was Villard’s habit, he started toward Washington to deliver his views on the battle to the newspapers he served. However, Burnside had instructed men in the rear, including his police force under Provost Marshal General Marsena Patrick, to prevent stragglers, reporters and all other men from getting to Washington before an official Army report of the action could be made. Out of sight of Union sentries, Villard bribed fishermen and riverboat captains to get him and his story to Washington. Because of his audacity and guile, Villard became the first newsman in the nation’s capital with an eyewitness account of the battle.

Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts recognized Villard in the dining room of Willard’s Hotel and heard about the battle. He returned later to tell Villard that President Lincoln would appreciate a visit and report from his old friend. Villard felt it a duty to inform the president of what he saw and thought. He became one of the first civilians to deliver to Lincoln a report on the mess at Fredericksburg. Villard remembered the president concluding their meeting by saying, “I hope it is not as bad as all that, Henry.”

Life of accomplishment

During the Civil War, Villard contributed to numerous papers, including the New York Herald, the New York Tribune and the Chicago Tribune. He suffered from malaria and other severe ailments from about 1863. He had his first stroke at 37. Despite all this, he served valiantly as a reporter in the field, often sharing the conditions and rations of the soldiers. After the war, Villard became a famous business tycoon and entrepreneur.

He made and lost at least two fortunes while underwriting railroads, steamship companies and other ventures.

He knew Thomas Edison and invested in Edison’s electricity projects. He wooed investors as well as immigrants from Europe. He also became a philanthropist and supporter of human rights initiatives. Villard Hall at the University of Oregon still stands, and Villard’s human rights work led to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

A memorial to war correspondents stands at the top of South Mountain, not far from the field at Antietam. Henry Villard’s name is there among the names of the luminaries of Civil War journalism.

The American immigrant, business tycoon, railroad man, entrepreneur and philanthropist surely would be proud of this lasting tribute.

Carl Schurz: Civil War General and Difficult Statesman

August 31, 2008

Carl Schurz (1829-1906) came to America from his native Germany in 1852. Even before he became a naturalized U.S. citizen, his influence in American politics, especially among German-American immigrants, became so great that he was nominated for lieutenant governor of Wisconsin as a Republican.

In 1860, he led the Wisconsin state Republican delegation to the national convention. He campaigned for Lincoln who later appointed him Minister to Spain. He rose to become a Major General in the Union Army during the Civil War, was elected to the U.S. Senate from the state of Missouri, and later served as Secretary of the Interior, the highest offices ever occupied by a non-native born citizen.

Schurz biographer Hans Trefousse called him “America’s most celebrated citizen of foreign birth.”
Carl Schurz

Along the way, Lincoln allowed Schurz to read the notes which formed the basis for Lincoln’s first inaugural address — almost one month before the delivery of that oration. Schurz undoubtedly was buoyed by Lincoln’s belief that: “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.“

Schurz played Beethoven’s great works for Lincoln on a White House piano. He worked for, gave personal advice to, or opposed at least six U.S. presidents, wrote for at least six newspapers and magazines, published notable books and gave countless speeches of national significance

Carl Schurz expressed his deeply felt respect and admiration for Lincoln in his “Abraham Lincoln: An Essay,” published in 1891. Schurtz wrote, “The people knew that the man at the head of affairs, on whose haggard face the twinkle of humor so frequently changed into an expression of profoundest sadness, was more than any other deeply distressed by the suffering he witnessed; that he felt the pain of every wound that was inflicted on the battlefield, and the anguish of every woman or child who had lost husband or father; that whenever he could he was eager to alleviate sorrow, and that his mercy was never implored in vain. They looked to him as one who was with them and of them in all their hopes and fears, their joys and sorrows,— who laughed with them and wept with them; and as his heart was theirs, so their hearts turned to him. His popularity was far different from that of Washington, who was revered with awe, or that of Jackson, the unconquerable hero, for whom party enthusiasm never grew weary of shouting. To Abraham Lincoln the people became bound by a genuine sentimental attachment.”

Schurt became a dedicated supporter of the still young Republican Party and campaigned for Lincoln in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin. After the election, President Lincoln appointed him U.S. envoy to Spain. Upon the first defeats of the Union Army in the Civil War, Schurz returned to the U.S. and begged Lincoln to appoint him a Union Army general.

He won his appointment and rose to the rank of Major General, but not without significant controversy. Biographer Trefousse wrote that Schurz was “a competent officer who had risen too high, too fast.”

Schurz had no military training and his appointment was largely political payback from Lincoln and an effort to secure the continued support of German Americans. But Schurz, like Joshua Chamberlain, dedicated himself to the study of military thinking and tactics. He immersed himself in Clausewitz, Jomini and other noted military experts in an attempt to make up for his lack of military background.

His personal daring in battle remains unquestioned. But the units Schurz led did not always fare well in battle. And a certain amount of prejudice against the “Dutch” troops he usually led clouded Schurtz’s record as a military man.

In the summer of 1862 Schurz found himself in command of the Third Division in Segal’s First Corps of Pope’s Army of Virginia. Largely composed of German immigrants, the corps already had a reputation as “a band of wild, untrained and demoralized marauders.”

On August 22, 1862, at Freeman’s Ford, Schurz ordered a bayonet charge in an effort to rescue General Henry Bohlen’s brigade, including the Eighth Virginia (U.S.) and Sixty-First Ohio. Bohlen was killed in the engagement, his brigade decimated and Schurz was forced to withdraw, but his actions in battle had been deliberate and forceful.

On August 29 Schurz led his men in an eight hour engagement against Longstreet’s men and part of Jackson’s corps near Grovetown. The next day, he led his men again in battle and, at one point, tried to encourage his commander Sigel to push all his men forward. But Sigel, not known for his audacity, refused to press the attack. Schurz supervised a withdrawal again.

The New York Tribune recorded these engagements and lauded Schurz for leading “his division in the hottest fight with heroic courage and veteran skill.”

Schurz wrote of the Second Battle of Bull Run: “Stonewall Jackson, with a force of 26,000 men, had worked his way through Thoroughfare Gap to the north of us, had swooped all around Pope’s flank, having made a march of fifty miles in thirty-six hours and pounced upon Manassas Junction, where Pope’s supplies and ammunition were stored, helping himself to whatever he could use and carry off, and burning the rest. Jeb Stuart’s troopers, accompanying Jackson, had even raided Pope’s headquarters at Catlett’s Station. It was a brilliant stroke, but at the same time most hazardous, for Pope’s largely superior forces might have been rapidly concentrated against him, with Longstreet, his only support, still far away.”

Pope was relieved.

At Chancellorsville in May 1863, Schurz’s division performed poorly. When Schurz’s men were surprised by Jackson who attacked at dusk on May 2, the rout was on. of the Schurz had tried to alert his new corps commander, Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard, that the flank was poorly prepared, but to no avail. After Chansellorsville, Schurz was saddened by press criticism of the German troops and particularly his own division for their confusion and panic. Although he responded to the papers, his Germans were mistaken for Brig. Gen. Charles Devens’s First Division. Deven’s men had retreated wildly in a rout.

Schurz wrote General Howard one of his classic, stinging letters. The letter was so bitter that Howard said, “I thought I should never survive it, but I have.”

The debacle at Chansellorsville stigmatized the German troops thereafter. The rest of the Army of the Potomac called them “foreigners,” and worse: cowards. Despite Schurz’s best efforts, he was never able to completely restore the reputation of his men as fighters or himself as a military leader.


As the three day Battle of Gettysburg was about to commence, Schurz was in the XI Corps under Maj Gen. O.O. Howard. Schurz woke his men early on July 1, 1863, in Emmitsburg, some ten miles from Gettysburg. During the march toward Gettysburg, Schurz was told by dispatch rider from Howard that the First Corps was fighting west of Gettysburg. Schurz was ordered to rush his corps forward, reinforce the First Corps and assume command of the Eleventh Corps.

Schurz galloped ahead and reached Howard on Cemetery Hill about 11:30 A.M. Howard told Schurz that General Reynolds had been killed. Howard now commanded the field and Schurz was needed to position the Eleventh Corps. The First Corps needed the Eleventh Corps on the high ground on its right flank, near Oak Hill, northwest of town.

The corps arrived but the men were nearly exhausted from marching at the double quick in the summer heat. Schurz led them forward through town toward Oak Hill. But, soon after noon, Rodes’s division of Ewell’s Confederate Corps arrived on Oak Hill and attacked the right of I Corps. At 2 p.m. Heth’s division joined the attack on I Corps. At 3 p.m., the battle spread north of the town when Jubal Early’s division of Ewell’s Corps attacked down the Harrisburg Road and crushed the flank of Schurz’s outnumbered XI Corps. At about the same time, west of Gettysburg, Pender’s division relieved Heth and assaulted I Corps’ position along Seminary Ridge.

Both Eleventh Corps divisions that fought on Oak Hill retreated in disarray through Gettysburg, losing almost 50% of their men, half of them captured as they tried to run through town. It had become another humiliating rout for the Eleventh Corps.

Schurz was not blamed. Schurz’s horse was shot from under him but the general was unharmed. He stayed at the front with his men and tried to prevent the retreat. But his men, outnumbered and exhausted, had suffered another humiliating defeat.

General Buford put most of the blame on Howard, saying that there was “no directing person on the field.”

General John Buford

Schurz retained his division when the Eleventh Corps was sent to Chattanooga that fall, but resigned from the army early the next year.

Schurz returned to civilian life, working as Washington correspondent for the New York Tribune, then as editor-in-chief of the Detroit Post. Starting in l867 he served as co-editor and part owner of the German-language Westliche Post in St. Louis, Missouri.

In 1869, Schurz was elected U.S. senator by his new home state, Missouri. Only sixteen years after arriving in America as a homeless fugitive, Carl Schurz became a member of his adopted country’s highest legislative body. The former minister to Spain, war veteran, and newspaperman would now be called Senator. He was only forty years old.

Schurz only served one term in the Senate. But that was not the end of his public career. President Rutherford B. Hayes made Carl Schurz his Secretary of the Interior where he championed civil service reform and made improvements in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Carl Schurz never went “quietly into the night.” He was difficult, perhaps irascible. He never shied away from giving unsolicited advice and outspoken opinions to his seniors. Many of his letters had an insolent tone. In fact, he badgered Presidents Lincoln, Johnson and others with his vitriolic, opinion-filled letters. That Lincoln largely tolerated or ignored Shurtz’s haranguing is testimony to his forbearance. Unfortunately, others were much less patient with Schurz. Some even reprimanded him.

Because of Schurz’s deeply held convictions and strongly worded speeches, editorials and letters, he became a hero to his supporters and a lightening rod to his critics.

He moved to New York City, where he helped found the New York Evening Post. From 1892 to 1898 Schurz wrote editorials for Harper’s Weekly.

At the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Schurz told immigrants from Germany how he expected them to fit into American society. The term “melting pot” had not yet been coined, but Carl Schurz fully subscribed to the idea. “ I have always been in favor of a healthy Americanization, but that does not mean a complete disavowal of our German heritage,” Schurz told the immigrants. “Our character should take on the best of that which is American, and combine it with the best of that which is German. By doing this, we can best serve the American people and their civilization.”

During his final illness, Mark Twain was among those who called upon the old general. Carl Schurz, one of the last surviving generals of the Civil War, died May 14, 1906, in New York.

In 1929, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, Germany’s Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann summed up Schurz’s contributions: “Carl Schurz managed to combine his love for Germany with a loyalty to his American homeland in a marvelous unity reflecting the striving of his great personality which, here as well as there, was concerned with profound moral goals that are not restricted to a single nation, but apply to all mankind.”

Among the many accolades and eulogies of Schurz at the time of his death, he may have been proudest of the remarks of Theodore Roosevelt, who he had opposed. “The country has lost a statesman of Lincoln’s generation,” wrote T.R., “whose services both in peace and war at the great crisis in the Republic’s history, will not be forgotten while that history lasts.”


Mr. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil war page of The Washington Times.

James Buchanan Eads: Grant’s Ironclad Designer and Tamer of the Mississippi

August 31, 2008

By John E. Carey

When the deans of American colleges of engineering were asked in the early 20th century to name the top five engineers of all time, James Buchanan Eads was among them; the list also included Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison. He may have been the finest self-educated engineer of all time. Yet Eads also made himself a skilled fund-raiser, diver and inventor and an able leader.

The Eads family was so poor during the 1820s in St. Louis that young James, named for his mother’s cousin who would later become president, had to quit school to sell apples in the street. He then was hired as a clerk in a dry-goods store. The owner gave him access to his personal library, thus stirring the mind and imagination of a gifted young man.
HAER Eads 099443pv.jpg
Above: The Eads Bridge

Eads’ lifelong relationship with the mighty Mississippi began in 1838, when he joined the crew of a riverboat. Realizing how many boiler-driven vessels were subject to fires or explosions, Eads entered the salvage business four years later. He was not interested in salvaging ships, however. He laid claim to the valuable cargoes strewn across the floor of the great river and made himself a millionaire.

Eads pioneered a diving bell that permitted divers to walk on the bottom of the Mississippi, and he was the first to risk using his invention, a perilous undertaking. He also became an expert in Mississippi River currents, silt and sand.

In April 1861, as the Civil War began, both the Union Army and Navy scrambled to find a way to fortify the Mississippi and penetrate the Confederacy. Military leaders summoned Eads to Washington, and in August, after months of study and negotiation, he signed a contract to design and build seven ironclad gunboats.

Eads’ first four ironclads sailed downstream to Cairo, Ill., in November 1861 under the command of the U.S. Navy. He had produced a novel kind of American warship in fewer than 100 days.

In February 1862, under the command of Navy Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, Eads’ gunboats bombarded and contributed to the capture of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in a joint attack with troops led by Ulysses S. Grant, then a little-known brigadier general.

On Feb. 4 and 5, Grant landed his divisions in two locations near Fort Henry, a Confederate earthen fort on the Tennessee River with outdated guns. One division went ashore on the east bank of the Tennessee River to prevent the Confederate garrison’s escape. The second division landed on the Kentucky side to occupy the high ground, which would ensure the fort’s fall.

As Foote’s seven gunboats began bombarding the fort, Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman, commander of the garrison, realized that it would be only a matter of time before Fort Henry fell. Leaving the artillery in the fort to hold off the Union fleet, he withdrew nearly all his men to Fort Donelson, 10 miles away.

Foote slowly sailed the Eads gunboats closer and closer to Fort Henry, maintaining a tremendous barrage. Returning to the fort, Tilghman found the gunboats within 400 yards. The vessels continued lobbing shells into his fortifications, and Tilghman capitulated.

Fort Henry’s fall opened the Tennessee River to Union gunboats and shipping as far as Muscle Shoals, Ala.

Ten days later at Fort Donelson, Confederate Gen. Simon Buckner realized his force was beaten by Grant and the gunboats. He requested surrender terms. “No terms except an immediate and unconditional surrender can be accepted,” Grant famously replied.

After the fall of Donelson, the two major water routes in the Confederate west, bounded by the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, became Union highways for movement of troops and materiel. These were the first major Union victories of the war. Eads’ gunboats played a key role.

The gunboats were put to work bombarding the most crucial remaining Confederate stronghold: Vicksburg, Miss. The city fell on July 4, 1863. The combined Army-Navy operation, the first of its kind by U.S. military forces, opened the Mississippi to the sole use of Union forces.

After the war, St. Louis fell behind Chicago as a commercial center in the Midwest. Chicago enjoyed easy east and west railway service, while St. Louis was cut off by the Mississippi River. The city fathers in St. Louis decided they needed a railroad bridge spanning the river. Eads gladly created a design. As chief engineer of the St. Louis Bridge Co., he would become instrumental in building the bridge and reinvigorating the economy of St. Louis.

Eads created a design to compete with a proven method of bridge-building submitted by Brooklyn Bridge designer John Roebling. The Eads plan called for a span longer than any existing bridge, with a triple arch founded on bedrock. The design called for one arch 520 feet long and two arches of 502 feet. If built, it would become the world’s first major steel bridge.

Eads’ critics sent his plan to a board of 27 leading civil engineers for review. The group unanimously condemned it. Eads had stolen a march, so to speak, however, and already had begun construction on the west abutment, where bedrock was just 47 feet below the high-water line. Eads used compressed-air pneumatic caissons to build the west and east piers and the east abutment. He wasn’t the first American builder to use pneumatic techniques, but he would be the first to attempt such a deep penetration using compressed air.

The drawing for the east abutment called for penetration to 136 feet below high water. Unfortunately, the job produced a first – the introduction of “caisson disease,” also called “the bends.” This agony affected 80 of the crew’s 352 sandhogs, and 15 died. Eads again showed his mental acuity, however, developing slower ascent methods and limiting the men’s time at depth to lessen the effects of the bends.

To prevent obstruction of river traffic during construction, Eads developed new methods of bridge building. He used a tieback system that introduced cantilevering to American bridge construction. The bridge’s three arches each consisted of four 18-inch steel tubes composed of steel staves bound together by steel hoops. The massive structure was completed in 1874 at a cost of more than $10 million. The bridge supported two rail lines, with a 54-foot-wide pedestrian promenade above.

Even before Eads had finished his bridge in St. Louis, he became intrigued by another engineering challenge. At New Orleans, every time the “bar” – the blockage of silt and sand in the delta – made passage into and out of the Gulf of Mexico impossible, ships lay at anchor and moored to piers, filled with idle crewmen and stevedores. Commerce came to a standstill. Often, more than 60 ships sat near New Orleans for days while waiting to cross the bar. New Orleans fell to eighth on the list of most productive American port cities.

Eads said he would find a solution, but he didn’t know when he started that he would have to fight the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers every step of the way.
He went to work on one of the largest engineering challenges in the United States. He pledged that he would find a way to remove the silt from the Mississippi River delta without using clumsy and costly dredging boats. He proposed a method to use nature and the river’s own flow to “cleanse” the water.
City Class Gunboat circa 1864

Eads proposed to Congress that he would create a channel 28 feet deep and 300 feet wide through the river’s southwestern pass. He also wanted a contract to maintain the passage for 10 years. He offered to finance the work himself until his channel reached 20 feet. After that, he wanted $1 million with incremental $1 million payments for each additional foot of depth produced until the channel reached 28 feet. His maintenance fee would then be $500,000 a year for 10 years.

Eads said he could deepen the channels of the Mississippi by narrowing and restricting the flow of the water. The Corps of Engineers, led by Gen. Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, wanted no part of Eads’ scheme. The corps wanted to dredge and build a canal.

Eads had clashed with Humphreys before, over a proposal to build a canal around his bridge in St. Louis. The end of that dispute had come easily when Eads called on his old friend President Grant. The president had sided with Eads, killing Humphreys’ plan.

Eads went to work raising the money for his Mississippi delta project. He hired the Grand Republic, one of the most luxurious steamers of her day. He planned to wine and dine investors and politicians while showing them that his initial jetties were, in fact, deepening the channel. Humphreys sent his own man from the Corps of Engineers, armed with facts and figures disputing every claim Eads made. Humphreys successfully undermined Eads’ fund-raising effort.

In the end, Eads narrowed the south pass of the Mississippi in 1875 by building jetties.

The restricted flow increased the speed of the river, flushing sediment into the gulf. Within eight months, the channel at the sandbar deepened to 13 feet. By August 1876, the channel was 20 feet deep. By 1879, the South Pass Channel was 300 feet wide and 30 feet deep. The force of the river completely removed the sandbar.

The final project of Eads’ enormously productive career – a maritime link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – never came to fruition. (His audacious accomplishments are recounted in detail in John M. Barry’s fine book “Rising Tide.”) Eads had proposed not a canal, but a railway to carry oceangoing ships in cradles and huge flat cars across
Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The Mexican government endorsed the plan and, largely because of Eads’ reputation and record of success, the House voted for the idea, but the Senate defeated the bill.

Had he lived a few more years, we might today be able to see huge ships crossing the Sierra Madre del Sur by rail. We’ll never be sure whether Eads might have been successful with this wild idea. He had never failed before, though.