Category Archives: history

February 1865 – The War Comes Full Circle to South Carolina

The seeds of rebellion were sown in South Carolina, not in April 1861 at Fort Sumter, but a full year earlier in April 1860, at the Democratic Party’s national convention in Charleston. Not getting their way on a pro-slavery convention plank, the Fire Eaters – Southern politicians hell-bent on breaking away from the Union – walked out of Charleston’s Institute Hall after two days. Unable to nominate a Presidential candidate under the arbitrary rule that the nominee must win two thirds of the votes of all the delegates (including in that number the delegates who had walked out of the convention), the Democrats adjourned until June in Baltimore. There, the convention nominated U.S. Senator Douglas of Illinois. Infuriated, the Southern delegates held a separate convention and nominated Vice President John Breckinridge as their Presidential candidate.

Former Whigs nominated another candidate, John Bell of Tennessee, as the candidate of the Constitution Union Party. The table was set for Abraham Lincoln, whose Republican Party vowed not to allow expansion of slavery beyond the states where it already existed. One by one, the states of the Deep South seceded after Lincoln’s election.

It was with this national recollection of events that Sherman prepared to march his 60,000 soldiers into South Carolina after making Georgia howl and tendering the City of Savannah to Lincoln as a Christmas gift in 1864. Initially, Grant had considered commandeering Sherman’s troops to Virginia to aid in the destruction of Lee. But Sherman prevailed on Grant to allow his troops to march through South Carolina to take the fight out of its citizens and troops.

After a month of planning, Sherman’s troops (the Army of Tennessee under General Oliver Howard and the Army of Georgia under General Henry Slocum) began the march into South Carolina on February 1. The Confederate troops in Sherman’s way numbered only 20,000, and split their forces between Charleston, SC, and Augusta, Georgia. Sherman initially feinted Howard’s troops in the direction of Charleston and Slocum’s troops toward Augusta, thereby generating the illusion of complying with the Confederates’ expectations. But while crossing swamps and rivers during one of the state’s rainiest Februaries, the Yankees cut northwest through the state in the direction of the state capital, Columbia.

Once the Confederates grasped the truth, it was too late. They could do little more than burn cotton and tobacco in Sherman’s path, presumably to keep the North from profiting from the crops. Sherman could not have been happier. He had no intention of burdening his troops with the products, and would have burned them to keep the South from selling it to support their war effort.

By the time Sherman’s troops reached Columbia, with the state burning in its rear, the mayor and other leaders surrendered the city to Sherman in hopes that Columbia would be spared. Unfortunately for the Columbians, Confederate General Wade Hampton had filled the downtown’s streets with piles of smoldering cotton before retreating. Cotton and whiskey are a dangerous combination, especially in the windy conditions that prevailed on February 17. While the commanding officers issued orders to protect private property, the night saw many more fires lit, and by the next day one third of Columbia lay in ashes.

Sherman blamed Hampton for the fire, having left behind him “lint, cotton, and tinder.” [Foote, Red River to Appomattox, p. 795] But Sherman shed no tears over the event. The burning of Columbia was consistent with his belief that the war would only end when “the hard hand of war” destroyed the spirit of Southern soldier and civilian alike. Lieutenant Ensign H. King of the 15th Iowa probably spoke for most of Sherman’s troops:

The burning of Columbia, S.C. February 17, 1865 (Source: Wikipedia)

The burning of Columbia, S.C. February 17, 1865 (Source: Wikipedia)

South Carolina, the nation state of John C. Calhoun, the hot-bed of treason, the first state to Rebel, the most defiant aider and abettor of the Rebellion, pays this small price for her crime. To our mind, the punishment is but commensurate with the crime.

[Woodworth, Nothing but Victory, p. 624]

SOURCES:

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Boxing Day

In the 1950s, professional boxing was one of Americans’ favorite televised sports. Gillette sponsored Friday Night Fights, especially popular among hardworking men and women after putting in a five-day week. In the coal mining community of Midway, West Virginia, my father allowed his three sons to join the fun. My mother and two sisters generally avoided the entertainment.

So, I guess that explains the events of one Appalachian summer Saturday morning. My father usually worked overtime at the Slab Fork coal mines on Saturdays, but either there was too little work that Saturday or he just decided to take a well-deserved holiday.

I grew up in a modest four-room home, but the house had porches on the front and rear. The front porch stretched the width of the white clapboard house and afforded a wonderful spot for catching the mountain breezes.

Light heavyweight boxing champion, Archie Moore (Source:ProBoxingFan.com

Light heavyweight boxing champion, Archie Moore (Source:ProBoxingFan.com

This particular Saturday morning, my father’s cousin, Page, visited us. My father and Page had been good friends since their teenage years.

My father and Page sat on the porch, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and talking about God only knows what. Ralph, six years old, and I, older by 17 months, were at the other end of the porch minding our own business.

Page and Dad started talking about the prior night’s prize fight, when Page raised his voice excitedly and said, “Hey, John, let’s watch the boys box.”

“No, Page,” my father said. “They’re too young for that.”

“They’ve gotta start sometime,” Page retorted. “Besides, I’ve got some boxing gloves in my car. They can’t hurt each other too bad.”

Child-size boxing gloves. You’ve got to be kidding. He must have been planning this for months. It wasn’t enough entertainment to watch two adult men standing toe-to-toe, beating each other’s brains out. Let’s have some real fun and watch two young boys have at it.

Ingemar Johansson lies on the canvas after challenger Floyd Patterson flattened him in the fifth round at the Polo Grounds in New York on June 20, 1960. With the knockout, Patterson regained the heavyweight championship. (Source: Boxnews.com) Copyright: Associated Press

Ingemar Johansson lies on the canvas after challenger Floyd Patterson flattened him in the fifth round at the Polo Grounds in New York on June 20, 1960. With the knockout, Patterson regained the heavyweight championship. (Source: Boxnews.com) Copyright: Associated Press

I was game. After all, I had watched the professionals box. I could certainly bob and weave as well as any of those old men. Besides, I had spent much of my youth making life miserable for Ralph. When he was an infant, my mother put me in charge of swinging him in the baby swing in the backyard while she did housework. I swung him all right — I swung him harder and harder until the swing fell over. Reasoning (Do toddlers reason?) that I could no longer swing him since both the baby and the swing now lay on the ground, I ran off to play with my friends. I got a switching for that, but the punishment didn’t take. Heck, during a snowstorm just last winter, I had put Ralph in a metal tub on the sidewalk and filled the tub with water. Yes, I got a switching for that, too.

And now, at his cousin’s provocation, my father laced up my boxing gloves while Page did the same for my brother Ralph. After all the terrible things I had done to my brother, my father now gave me permission to beat the stuffing out of Ralph.

I stood there in my best Floyd Patterson or Archie Moore pose, ready to inflict one more injury on my brother, this time with the assurance that no switching would follow.

It was not to be.

I remember what happened next like it was yesterday. Just like Ralphie in the Christmas movie, my brother had had enough. I could pose like a boxer, but, unlike his older brother, Ralph could throw a punch. And I couldn’t do anything to defend myself. He backed me into the porch railing and threw punch after punch until my father pulled him off me.

That’s the day I learned to respect my younger brother. We got into other fights over the years, when we resolved any dispute with a wrestling match. He won some. I won some. But I never challenged him to a fistfight. Once was enough.

I never forgot Boxing Day.

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The Battle of Nashville – General George Thomas’s Christmas Gift to Lincoln

Battle of Nashville (Source: History.com)

General George Thomas (Source: History.com)

Just as this month marks the 150th anniversary of General Sherman’s capture of Savannah, it marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Nashville, when Virginia-born General George Thomas led his forces to a resounding victory over Confederate General John Bell Hood’s army.

I particularly admire those southern-born United States military officers who did not abandon their union loyalties to serve in the Confederate ranks. They had to prove themselves one-better than their fellow officers, as their loyalty to the Union was often called into question. And George Thomas proved himself on more than one occasion.

He built a strong record, defeating Confederate troops led by General George Crittenden at the Battle of Mill Springs in January 1862. He followed up that victory with service at Shiloh, Perryville, and Stones River. He achieved his greatest fame as “the Rock of Chickamauga” in September 1863, when he mounted a stubborn resistance to General Braxton Bragg’s assault on Horseshoe Ridge, allowing other Union troops to retreat to safety.

By the end of 1864, one would think that Thomas’s reputation was secure. While Sherman made his March to the Sea, he left Thomas to deal with John Bell Hood, who planned to march 39,000 Confederate troops north into Tennessee and beyond. In the Battles of Spring Hill and Franklin, Thomas’s forces inflicted devastating casualties on the ever-aggressive Hood, whose numbers had fallen to 26,500 men by the time Hood sought to engage the heavily fortified Union troops at Nashville.

But Lincoln and Grant grew frustrated that Thomas appeared to repeat the same pattern as other Union generals – McClellan at Antietam and Meade at Gettysburg – allowing the Confederates to lick their wounds and recover their strength rather than taking the opportunity to take a major army out of play.

Confederate General John Bell Hood (Source: Wikipedia)

Confederate General John Bell Hood (Source: Wikipedia)

Hood was not looking to retreat and Thomas was nothing like McClellan or Meade. While severe winter weather delayed his movements, Thomas used the time to rest and refit his troops, particularly the cavalry. He moved forward only when the weather cleared, and, even then, a layer of ice still covered the ground. But he had a battle plan in place, and his troops were prepared to execute it.

Even as Grant sent General John Logan to replace a general he and the President thought too reluctant to destroy the enemy, General Thomas employed one corps to pin down Hood’s right and then applied the bulk of his force on Hood’s left. The sunset on December 14 before Thomas’s men could destroy Hood’s army, but after another day of battle, Hood’s army was a mere shell of its former self.

Hood had left Atlanta with 39,000 men. After casualties and desertions, his army arrived in Tupelo, Mississippi, with less than 15,000 men – a force that could not be wholly ignored, but one that could cause little more trouble and deprived Lee of a serious counterweight to keep Union troops occupied outside Virginia. Jefferson Davis’s choice to replace Joe Johnston, John Bell Hood resigned his command. Johnston would return to lead the beleaguered force.

It was Lincoln’s last, of course, but Sherman and Thomas had made December 25, 1864, the President’s best Christmas of the Civil War. Lincoln saw genuine hope that the country’s nightmare was near its end.

Battle of Nashville Then & Now, from the Tennessean: www.tennessean.com/videos/news/local/davidson/2014/12/13/20352329/

SOURCES:

  • Catton, Bruce. Never Call Retreat. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1965 (republished by Fall River Press, New York, NY, in 2001).
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York, New York: Random House, 1958 (First Vintage Books Edition, 1986).
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Red River to Appomattox. New York, New York: Random House, 1974 (First Vintage Books Edition, 1986).

Postscript: Thomas devoted the rest of his life to the United States Army. He assumed command of the Division of the Pacific in 1869. He died of a stroke at the Presidio in 1870.

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Mono Lake

mono-lake-dec-2011

Mono Lake, California (Source: TripAdvisor)

When I traveled California Route 395 to Yosemite from Reno 14 years ago for a family vacation, I had no idea that Mono Lake and the Sierra Nevada would serve as the setting for a major segment of a future novel. My first novel, New Garden (2013), opens in the High Sierra. My second novel, a stand-alone sequel to New Garden that should be available by March 2015, includes one major section where the action takes place in the High Sierra and the Mono Basin.

But when the California State Park Ranger told my tour group about kutsavi (see October 1, 2013 article on this blog), I knew I would work it into a future story. And I did, telling how the food source allowed my protagonist, Jack Grier, to survive a winter at Mono Pass.

Cover of my book, New Garden

Cover of my book, New Garden

As part of my research, I came across Up and Down California in 1860-1864; the Journal of William H. Brewer. Mr. Brewer served on Josiah Whitney’s geological survey team during the stated time period. In his journal, Brewer describes his 1863 experience at Mono Lake:

Lake Mono

July 9 we came on about ten miles north over the plain and camped at the northwest corner of Lake Mono. This is the most remarkable lake I have ever seen. It lies in a basin at the height of 6,800 feet above the sea. Like the Dead Sea, it is without an outlet. * * * * The waters are clear and very heavy – they have a nauseous taste. When still, it looks like oil, it is so thick, and it is not easily disturbed. Although nearly twenty miles long it is often so smooth that the opposite mountains are mirrored in it as in glass. The water feels slippery to the touch and will wash grease from the hands, even when cold, more readily than common hot water and soap. I washed some woolens in it and it was easier and quicker than in any “suds” I ever saw. It washed our silk handkerchiefs, giving them a luster as if new. It spots cloths of some colors most effectually.

Arial view of Mono Lake (Source: Wikipedia.org)

Arial view of Mono Lake (Source: Wikipedia.org)

At the time, the territory east of the Sierra Nevada was chock-full of boom-and-bust mining towns. Brewer describes the region, including the bustling town (population of approximately 5,000) of Aurora:

Immense sums of money have been spent here in this region, an immense number of claims have been taken up, nearly twenty quartz mills have been erected . . .; but whether the mines will ever pay is to me a question. * * * One or two mines may pay, the majority never will.

Where Aurora is, is as yet known. We think it in California, but there is a dispute whether it be not over the line and in Nevada Territory. Most of the inhabitants wish it there, so that Uncle Sam will pay their bills of government, but like true American citizens, who will not be deprived of their rights, they vote in both places, in California and in Nevada, and their votes have thus far been accepted in both.

Aurora was ultimately determined to be three miles inside the Nevada line.

Mono Lake was a valuable resource to Aurora’s residents, because some men made a living by gathering duck eggs from Mono Lake’s islands and selling them in Aurora for $1.00 to $1.50 per dozen ($30-$45 in 2014 U.S. dollars).

Whenever I travel south on California 395, I can’t help but think of the old mining towns and the steep prices the miners paid for life’s necessities. Mostly, however, I enjoy the jaw-dropping views from Vista Point – ancient Mono Lake dead ahead; the White Mountains to the east; the Sierra Nevada to the west; the Mono Craters just beyond Mono Lake. It’s another incredible experience before driving west up Tioga Road into the stunning High Sierra.

For more information about Mono Lake, check out the following websites:

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A Long, Cool Drink

Several years ago, I was on the hunt for water bottles that would keep ice water cold for long periods of time. My search carried me to a local hiking/biking/climbing store. When I told a store clerk about my dilemma, he told me that the body better absorbs the benefits of the water if the water temperature approximates that of the human body. My jaw dropped to the floor. While he may have been right, the last thing I want during a hike is 98.6-degree water. I think most people would side with me on the question.

Ice harvesters use a horse-drawn device to mark ice for cutting in Pennsylvania in 1907. (Library of Congress) (Source: History.com)

Ice harvesters use a horse-drawn device to mark ice for cutting in Pennsylvania in 1907. (Library of Congress) (Source: History.com)

Our ancestors were no different. The ancient Chinese, Egyptians, and Romans enjoyed ice-cold beverages whenever they could get their hands on ice. Yes, I’m talking about the wealthy and powerful ancient ones.

Fast forward to 1850 America, and ice had become the United States’ second leading export, thanks in large part to the “Ice King,” Frederic Tudor of Massachusetts. The wealthy had had access to ice long before Tudor arrived on the scene. Initially, in 1806, he focused on making deliveries to the Caribbean. He continued to export ice around the world, but by 1830, he devised the infrastructure within the eastern United States to make ice available to people of modest means.

In the East, the ice was harvested in New York and New England. In the West, Californians got their ice exclusively from Alaska until the Central Pacific Railroad crossed the Sierra Nevada and added the mountain lakes as another resource.

Tudor established ice houses, which served as supply houses (analogize to gasoline tank farms that fuel gasoline delivery trucks). By the late 1800’s, many ice houses were warehouse-size.

Ice harvesters break off chunks of ice in the early 1900s. (Library of Congress) (Source: History.org)

Ice harvesters break off chunks of ice in the early 1900s. (Library of Congress) (Source: History.org)

The “ice man” drove his wagon to an ice house and loaded the ice for distribution in 25-100 pound blocks to his customers. The ice man chipped the ice to fit his customers’ ice boxes. Ice was used for many purposes other than cooling beverages and as an essential ingredient in ice cream. It also was used to preserve certain foods and medicines.

Ice was exported abroad, sometimes used as ballast in the ships making the deliveries. Saw dust was often used to insulate the ice, both on ships and in the ice houses.

Twentieth century refrigeration brought an end to the large-scale ice business. But each time we go to our “ice box” for a few cubes of ice or a cold beverage, we should realize that our ancestors did not just wait around for the invention of the refrigerator. They knew where to find the ice, and Frederic Tudor devised the means to meet the demand.

And, yes, I found water bottles that fit the bill (novara 24-ounce insulated bottles). I pack them with ice and put them in an insulated Igloo Maxcold pack, which I stuff in my backpack before heading out on an all-day hike. Even after refilling them once in a river or a creek, I always have some ice remaining at the end of the day. No, it’s not 98.6, thank goodness. And, like our ancestors, I’m not waiting around for someone to invent a power backpack to keep the water cold.

The video below is silent but shows how the ice harvesting process worked

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The Civil War Hits Home: A High Price Paid by the Guilford Grays at Bristoe Station

Battle at Bristoe Station (Source: Bristoe.org)

Battle at Bristoe Station (Source: Bristoe.org)

On the morning of October 15, 1863, General A.P. Hill rode over the battleground at Bristoe Station with General Robert E. Lee. Hill repeatedly apologized to Lee for his failure on the day before, which cost so many lives. Lee seldom spoke in harsh terms and chose not to on this occasion. “Well, well, General,” he said, “bury these poor men, and let us say no more about it.” Hill had served Lee well in earlier engagements. Lee could only hope Hill would learn from this mistake. [Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian, First Vintage Books 1986 Edition, pp. 792-794 (first published by Random House, New York: 1963); Robertson, General A.P. Hill: The Story of a Confederate Warrior, Random House (New York: 1987), p. 239.]

General A.P. Hill (Source: OldPicture.com)

General A.P. Hill (Source: OldPicture.com)

The day before, Hill had allowed two brigades to march over an open field into a Yankee trap. The Confederates marched over 800 yards of barren, open field, prepared to attack a small force that appeared to be trying to escape across Broad Run. Beyond the creek, 3,000 Union soldiers waited, safely entrenched behind a railroad embankment. Before ordering his men forward, General Heth spotted the glint of bayonets to his right front. He reported his observation to Hill and asked whether the troops should wait for reconnaissance before going forward. Hill feared the Yankees in front of Heth’s troops might escape. He ordered Heth to attack immediately. Enfilading fire on the right and artillery on the left rained down on the Confederates. The 27th North Carolina Infantry Regiment caught the worst of it. Out of 416 men engaged, 290 were captured, killed, or wounded. On the eve of the Civil War, Greensborough, North Carolina’s population numbered around 2,000, and Guilford County’s population was about 20,000. By the end of the war, approximately 1,500 Guilford County men served in the Confederate army. Among the companies Guilford County sent to war were the Guilford Grays. By 1863, the Guilford Grays had been absorbed into the 27th North Carolina. Sixty-three of them went into battle at Bristoe Station. Over forty of them were killed, captured, or wounded. Several later died of their wounds. [Sloan, Reminiscences of the Guilford Grays, pp. 72-73 (1883)] The losses at Bristoe Station had to hit the small community very hard, particularly on the heels of Gettysburg only three months earlier. In that better-known engagement, 40% of the 45th North Carolina fell at Gettysburg. The regiment included Guilford County Company C. [Foley and Whicker, The Civil War Ends – Greensboro, April 1865, Guilford County Genealogical Society (Greensboro: 2008), pp. 85-94] Battlefield lapses are a terrible thing. Commanding officers pay with tarnished reputations – Lee for ordering Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg; Grant for failing to scout the ground at Cold Harbor; Hill for his aggressiveness when not tempered by good judgment (i.e., failure to scout the ground). Soldiers who take the battlefield pay with their lives. SOURCES:

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Military Significance of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal (Source: Wikipedia.org)

The Panama Canal (Source: Wikipedia.org)

While few commentators doubt the commercial benefits of the Panama Canal, many question the canal’s continued military significance. Much of that is due to the presence of United States naval fleets around the world and the canal’s inability to accommodate the larger ships. That said, one military event served as the catalyst for America’s drive to acquire the right to build the canal.

In the early days of the Spanish-American War, the battleship Oregon was in San Francisco when the Maine’s explosion in Havana served as America’s excuse to declare war on Spain. The Oregon took more than two months to sail from San Francisco to Palm Beach, Florida. Had there been a suitable canal across the Isthmus of Panama, the Oregon’s journey would have been 4,000 miles rather than 12,000. America’s acquisition of the Philippines enhanced America’s role in the Pacific. Whether or not politicians chose to accept the label, America had become an empire that required a greater naval presence around the globe and less obstacles in the path of American warships.

During World War II, the Panama Canal served as a deterrent to Germany and Japan, as the Canal gave the United States Navy the strategic flexibility to make up for the numerical disadvantage of the United States fleet. [GlobalSecurity.org] The Canal also shortened the Army’s supply line. While the Canal allowed the United States strategic flexibility, it also posed an attractive target for the enemy.

USS Missouri passes through the Panama Canal in 1945 (Source: Wikipedia.org)

USS Missouri passes through the Panama Canal in 1945 (Source: Wikipedia.org)

The United States had implemented several measures in 1939 to protect the Canal: special equipment to detect underwater mines in the lock chambers; restriction of commercial traffic to one side of the dual locks; and inspection of all ships before they entered the Canal. Once the United States entered the war, the government reached agreements with neighboring countries to allow the United States to install or expand naval installations in the region to provide a protective ring for the Canal.

The Canal has lost much of its strategic usefulness, particularly with the Navy’s reliance on aircraft carrier-centric fleets and the construction of other ships too large to pass through the Canal. That, together with the Canal’s vulnerability to attack, allowed the Joint Chiefs of Staff to support the 1979 Carter-Torrijos treaty, which returned the Canal to Panama in 2000. [Creighton, “Panama Canal Role Fades for Military,” Chicago Tribune, April 13, 1988] For an account about the challenges the Canal poses for aircraft carriers, see “Towing the Big E,” Daily Press (July 29, 2012).

SOURCES:

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