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The Union Pacific Railroad’s Oakes and Oliver Ames

When Collis P. Huntington, Eastern Agent and Vice President of the Central Pacific, found himself at a very low point in 1863 – when he could not raise funds to buy iron and other railroad hardware because the money men saw easier money to be made in war profiteering – a prior business relationship during the Gold Rush proved to be his salvation. Huntington & Hopkins Hardware had bought thousands of shovels from the Ames family’s New England factory for California gold prospectors and had always paid on time. After some consideration, Oliver Ames, Jr. agreed to make the loan on the condition that Huntington guarantee the interest payments. He also provided letters of introduction to eastern manufacturers of rails and locomotives. Huntington leveraged the loan to buy the rolling stock, rails, and other hardware the Central Pacific needed to get started.

The Ames brothers had pulled Huntington’s fat out of the fire, not as an act of charity, but because Oliver Ames could see additional demand coming from a successful railroad. Ames could not have foreseen, however, that he ultimately would become Huntington’s competitor in the race across the continent. And, in that race, the era of good feelings sometimes turned acrimonious.

Oliver and Oakes Ames had made a fortune during the California Gold Rush and added to that fortune supplying materials to the Union Army during the Civil War. With their cups running over, they made the unfortunate decision of joining Thomas Durant’s Union Pacific railroad enterprise. Republican Oakes won a seat in the House of Representatives and an all-important appointment to the House Committee on Railroads. Oliver secured a seat on the Union Pacific’s board of directors and ultimately served as president pro tempore from 1866 to 1868. He was formally elected as the company’s president in 1868 and continued in that role until 1871.

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Oliver Ames

They should have known better. But just as investors have pursued every venture related to computers and the internet in the past 25 years, investors wanted everything related to railroads in mid-19th century America. And what siren song beckoned more loudly than building the country’s first transcontinental railroad? Had the Ames brothers done their due diligence, they would have known Thomas Durant was a man from whom they should keep their distance.

Unlike the Associates of the Central Pacific, who largely cooperated in their venture and by all accounts appeared to endeavor to build a solid railroad from Sacramento to Promontory Point, company vice president Durant continuously created controversy. For him, the building of the railroad was the thing. Through his construction contracting company, Credit Mobilier, he sought to extract as much money as possible from the building of the railroad. Credit Mobilier, obstensibly an entity separate and apart from the Union Pacific but in reality a different shell with the same owners, overstated expenses. The bills were passed on to the U.S. Treasury and to Union Pacific shareholders. Of course, the entire enterprise included Oakes Ames bribing Congressmen and Senators with Credit Mobilier stock, selling to them well below market. (The Central Pacific was equally guilty of lining legislators’ pockets.) Sucked into Durant’s scheme (perhaps as much by greed as by exasperation), the Ames brothers came to regret their association with him. The New York newspaper, The Sun, broke the story during the 1872 Presidential campaign. Congress later censured Oakes Ames and one Democrat. The Union Pacific slid into bankruptcy.

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Oakes Ames

Back to that much needed loan. As the competing railroad companies crossed the Utah line, each wanted to extend its line as far as possible. This inevitably led to confrontation, with Huntington having no regard for prior good feelings. In one instance, Oakes Ames offered to split the difference between the two railroads’ progress. Huntington blared “I’ll see you damned first.” (Lavender, The Great Persuader, p. 238). Each man threatened to sue the other. Their minions in Congress leveled charges against their masters’ opponents. In the end, the threat of Congressional investigation brought both Huntington and Ames to their senses, thereby paving the way for the Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory Point. Thomas Durant certainly made the journey an interesting one.

SOURCES:

  • Bain, David Haward. Empire Express. New York, New York: Viking, 1999.
  • Lavender, David. The Great Persuader. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970.
  • American Experience, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/tcrr-ames

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The Union Pacific Railroad’s Thomas Durant: Getting the Facts Right

I have written a great deal about the men of the Central Pacific Railroad. But one cannot talk about the transcontinental railroad without talking about the Central Pacific’s eastern counterpart, the Union Pacific and Thomas Durant.

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A meeting of the board of Union Pacific Railroads in a private railway car. L-R, seated at the table Silas Seymour, consulting engineer, Sidney Dillon, Thomas Durant (1820 – 1885), and John Duff, directors. Photograph by Andrew Joseph Russell (1830-1902). (Photo by A. J. Russell /Getty Images)

The popular television show Hell on Wheels has part of it right – Thomas Durant was a stock manipulator and con man who did not hesitate to instruct his engineers to take the long way to get from Point A to Point B so as to maximize the railroad’s take at the government trough. But much of the rest of the portrayal is at odds with fact – he spent very little time on the railroad, preferring to make business deals in his luxurious New York office or entertaining clients on his yacht. Just understand that the television program is for your entertainment. (Similarly, the show puts the Central Pacific’s Collis Huntington in California. As the eastern agent for the Central, he moved to New York in 1863. He lived and worked there, with side trips to Washington, D.C. He did not return to the West until December 1868, when he wanted to see for himself the railroad’s progress. He immediately returned to New York after an absence of only 31 days.) Consult the history for the facts.

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Colm Meaney plays Thomas Durant on the AMC show “Hell on Wheels”

He was born in 1820, the son of a prosperous Massachusetts merchant – also at odds with the television show’s portrayal of him as someone who had to grovel for sustenance as a child. At 20 years old, he graduated from Albany Medical College with a specialty in ophthalmology. At 23, he cast that profession aside to join his uncle’s shipping firm as a partner.

In 1853, Durant became a partner in the contracting firm of Farnam and Durant. The firm’s first project was the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad (which later hired attorney Abraham Lincoln to represent the company in a dispute with ferryboat companies about a bridge built over the Mississippi River). Due to contract obligations having to be paid in the form of railroad securities, Farnam and Durant ultimately took control of the railroad, with Farnam as its president.

Thereafter, Farnam and Durant chartered another railroad company, the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad (“the M&M”), with their eyes set on Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska, the first set on the east bank of the Missouri and Omaha across the river on its western bank. The railroad progressed in fits and starts, with bond money from Council Bluffs, Omaha, and several Iowa counties that wanted in the game. The company had made little progress when the Panic of 1857 brought down the whole operation. With most of the bond money unaccounted for, Farnam discovered that Durant had pledged their construction company’s securities to dabble in the stock market. Durant survived the Panic unscathed while Farnam was ruined and Iowa saw very little track and grade for its investment in the railroad men.

Undeterred, Durant set his eyes on the transcontinental enterprise. Once he took control of the Union Pacific during the Civil War, he could look west and hope to complete the tracks that would connect the west coast to the east. Contrary to President Lincoln’s wishes, Durant established the eastern terminus in Omaha rather than Council Bluffs. That bridge would have to wait until after Promontory Point, when Durant had left the company. A railroad bridge over a major river is an expensive project, especially when your company can lay miles of tracks in less time over the Great Plains.

It had to test Durant’s patience and stamina, for the Union Pacific did not lay a single rail until after Appomattox. Along the way, Durant established Credit Mobilier, the construction company that secured all the contracts for the grading, the tracks, and all the bridges, trestles, and tunnels – thus guaranteeing Durant would make money in the enterprise even if the Union Pacific failed. Ultimately the Union Pacific had laid two-thirds of the track between Omaha and Sacramento when the golden spike was driven at Promontory Point on May 10, 1869. Durant cheated business partners and employees the entire journey, but in the end he received credit for an achievement that resulted as much despite his interference as because of his contributions.

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The War to End All Wars

If only Woodrow Wilson were right. The massive casualties of World War I were followed by even more horrific numbers in World War II. Americans often forget the First World War and how it affected the European and American psyches as Germany and Japan pursued aggressive measures in the 1930’s. Much of the world blinked, hoping not to replicate the tragedy triggered at Sarajevo, only to see the Second World War envelop most of the rest of humanity.

Hopefully, all of us are familiar with World War II’s narrative: Hitler’s aggression in Europe, with France and Great Britain hopeful that the annexation of Austria, Neville Chamberlain’s sacrifice of the Sudetenland, and Germany’s conquest of the rest of Czechoslovakia would curb the Nazi appetite; Japanese conquests in Asia insufficient to motivate the United States to curb the aggression until the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The First World War is harder to fathom, the product of ultranationalists in Serbia and entangling alliances among the European powers. Young men in Sarajevo plot to murder the heir apparent to the Habsburg throne in Austria-Hungary. They seek personal glory in an act they hope will lead to recreation of a mythical Pan Serbia, “regaining” lands then held by Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Each man is prepared to die by taking arsenic or shooting himself; each fails in the effort. Serbian leaders produce an unsatisfactory response to Austria’s ultimatum (which includes Austria’s participation in the investigation and prosecution of suspected Serbian conspirators). Austria declares war on Serbia. Russia comes to the aid of Serbia. Germany declares war on Russia. Treaty commitments ultimately bring Great Britain into the conflict.

Four years of war lead to 8.5 million deaths, 21 million wounded, and tens of thousands more unaccounted for as young men are obliterated beyond recognition by the weapons of war.

Let’s look at just two countries, France and Germany.

France’s 1910 population numbered 41 million. The war killed over 1.3 million soldiers and left 4.3 million men wounded. Of the men who actually served, 17 percent were killed – roughly one out of six men – and fully half were wounded.

Germany’s 1910 population numbered 78 million. Almost 1.8 million Germans soldiers died and 4.2 million men were wounded. Of the men who served, 13 percent were killed – roughly one out of eight men – another 40 percent were wounded.

Soldiers in the trenches during World War I.

Soldiers in the trenches during World War I.

While the European fighting began in August 1914, the United States did not enter the fray until April, 1917, thereby limiting American casualties (117,000 dead; 204,000 wounded – comparable to 406,000 dead and 708,000 wounded in the U.S. 2015 population).

The American sacrifice was great, but pales in comparison to French and German losses. It’s no small wonder the Europeans hoped Hitler would just leave them alone.

The numbers require some correlation to our current population. Only the Syrian conflict offers a modern-day parallel (2011 population of 23 million; 220,000 dead as of March 2015; 9 million displaced of whom 3 million have left Syria for Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq).

Conditions have only gotten worse since March. Comparable U.S. numbers in the United States would be 3.1 million dead; 125 million displaced, with 42 million leaving the country. If we put statistics in context, perhaps we can look at the victims as fellow human beings who by the accident of birth are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and deserve our sympathy and meaningful support.

And, of course, in recent months the Syrian Diaspora has spread to Europe, pulling at the world’s heartstrings as we witness a suffering but courageous population unwilling to leave the next generation of Syrians adrift in the Middle East’s increasingly dangerous waters.

SOURCES:

  • Keegan, John, The First World War. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
  • Clark, Christopher, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. HarperCollins, 2012.
  • Website: http://syrianrefugees.eu.

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YOSEMITE SUMMER: July 4 Weekend

This and several upcoming blog posts are about my recent month long visit to California and experiences in Yosemite National Park, where I served as a park volunteer.

Friday, July 3

The onslaught began long before this weekend, but Independence Day Weekend saw the dam burst. It began quietly enough. On Friday, July 3, I handled Olmsted Point. The highlights were seeing a couple from Charlotte and a UVA family (parents are UVA alumni and the children have either graduated from UVA or currently attend).

Every available parking space along Tioga Road between Olmsted Point and the Visitor Center (about 8 miles) looked occupied by 2:00. Driving down the road, one has to be prepared for a driver overwhelmed by a photo op – car doors fly open, the driver or passenger oblivious to oncoming traffic in hot pursuit of the perfect picture. Beautiful lakes and granite domes have a way of throwing the human thought process completely out of kilter.

After my shift I headed to the Tuolumne Grill with visions of a soft ice cream swirl cone dancing in my head. It was not to be. The order line extended fifteen people outside the entrance. I had laundry to do, so I opted for an ice cream bar from the general store. After polishing off “lunch,” I gathered my laundry and headed for the washers and dryers on Bug Camp Road. Both washers were available, much to my delight. It’s the small things that bring joy when you are away from the conveniences of home.

While the washing machines filled and grunted in response to the 10-day loads, I called the home front to catch up on the most recent news. That lasted a full wash cycle and half of the drying time. Soon I was back to the campground with a load of clean “outdoor scent” clothes. My laundry detergent had to stick with this summer’s overall theme.

I attended a ranger talk and performance after my ten-minute meal of ham, crackers, fruit, and cookies. The ranger is an accomplished flutist, having performed with the Santa Monica Symphony. Her love for the park and the planet shone through as members of the audience read quotes from American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts about the tremendous personal impact they experienced while viewing Earth from space. Ours is a fragile planet, with no evidence of a similar life-sustaining planet nearby. The quotes and the music should make any listener give greater thought to our good fortune and our obligation to preserve a healthy planet for the generations that follow us.

Now it’s off to bed with three free days ahead of me. I plan to hike Clouds Rest on Sunday. I hope my 63 year old bones and muscles are up to the challenge.

Saturday, July 4

View through telescope of hikers ascending steel cables on Half Dome

View through telescope of hikers ascending steel cables on Half Dome

Happy Independence Day. Well, not quite three days off. I filled in for another volunteer whose friend had come to visit. Once again, I headed to Olmsted Point.

During my previous work days at Olmsted, several visitors unsuccessfully tried taking a photograph through the telescope. Today, one young man succeeded in doing so. I seized the moment and the young man did the same for my iPhone as well as for several other visitors. It was nice to be on the receiving end of a kind gesture.

Rain was in the forecast, but was limited to threatening storm clouds and a few minutes of drizzle. The real storm came in Yosemite Valley where traffic became so overwhelming that the Rangers had to turn away any visitors who did not have lodging reservations.

Like the day before, traffic was heavy on Tioga Road. The scene at Tenaya Lake looked like Myrtle Beach during high season. I hope the tourists treated the shoreline gently, taking away their sandwich wrappers and empty soda cans.

At the Visitors Center, tourists were overwhelming the Rangers. Whenever a tourist asks how to see all of the Park’s world-famous features in the next three hours, I try to remember my first visit when I could not believe a 45-mile drive can take 90 minutes. These are mountain roads, and on a holiday weekend, very crowded mountains roads. There are no interstates with 65 miles per hour speed limits.

Upon completing my duties, I showered and did some grocery shopping at the general store. One of the volunteers had organized a pot luck dinner and my humble contribution was a container of pine nut hummus. The ladies graciously accepted the fare, but probably wondered why I could not do more. (I have not cooked a meal during my entire period of service. Meal preparation is limited to preparing sandwiches and adding lukewarm water to oatmeal.)

The potluck dinner included chips and dips, a quiche, pasta, salads, and dessert. Conversation was warm and laughter constant. The meal was followed by several friendly games. Our group has learned and accepted one another’s idiosyncrasies, and we all appreciate the talents each of us brings to the team. It was a wonderful, warm gathering, enhanced by the charm of two volunteers’ guests. One is a young French engineering student who is working in the United States for six months as part of his collegiate requirements. The other is a sweet young woman who is the lifelong friend of one of the volunteers.

It’s time to get to bed so I can rise early for a 15-mile hike to Clouds Rest. I’ll report on that experience tomorrow.

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View of section of Half Dome from Clouds Rest

Sunday, July 5

Occasionally it’s good to test your physical limits. Today I tested mine. The longest hike I had taken so far was the Mono Pass trail, a little less than eight miles. Clouds Rest, counting the distance to the trail head, is about 15 miles. On the recommendation of my colleagues, I left the hiking boots behind and used my sneakers instead, thus giving my heels a fighting chance.

For those unacquainted with hiking in the Sierra Nevada, you should not equate hiking trail distances with walking through your neighborhood or time spent on the treadmill. Grades vary and the hiker is constantly avoiding rocks and roots on the trail or sometimes using them like stair steps. I had hiked Clouds Rest twice before, most recently 10 years ago. I remembered much of the terrain but had forgotten that about 1 1/2 miles of the early section of the trail are all switchbacks and much of that section is little more than a rock-strewn gully. Average hiking time on mountain trails is 2 miles per hour. On this section of the trail, the time extends to one mile per hour.

And while Clouds Rest is 1700 feet above the elevation of the trailhead, there is a lot of up and down, making the hike seem more like a 2500 foot elevation gain.

Those are the challenges. Now for the positives. Today proved prime time for Yosemite’s wildflowers. Indian paintbrush, showy lupine, and California corn lily – just to mention a few – were in full bloom. And the views once I climbed Clouds Rest? In one direction Yosemite Valley lay out before me. In other directions, I could see all the major features of the High Sierra. Tenaya Lake, where I began my hike, looked like a tiny blue speck in the distance (And, of course, I had to return to that tiny blue speck over seven miles away to conclude my hike.).

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Wildflowers on Clouds Rest trail

That 1 1/2 mile section of trail alluded to earlier proved extremely challenging to my cartilage depleted knees, particularly the part where my size 13 feet had to handle treads meant for size sixes. Nevertheless, I finished the hike around 4:30 in the afternoon and planned to reward my achievement with fine dining at the Mobil after a hot shower. But time ran late and no one else wanted to go, so I satisfied myself with deli food. Tonight, every muscle and bone in my body aches. Those aches will disappear in a few days and I will be able to count another challenging but wonderful Yosemite memory.

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Temporary Blog Hiatus But I’m Back!

For those who follow the blog, you noticed that I haven’t been posting recently. I had the opportunity to volunteer in Yosemite National Park for over a month–which was a great experience–but as those of you who have been to national parks know, technology doesn’t always cooperate. However, I’m back and wrote blog entries while I was out in California that I think you’ll enjoy. They’re relevant to my trip and historical of course.

During my time in Yosemite, I provided trail guidance and suggestions to hikers and answered visitor questions about the park. It was a great experience but I’m glad to be back in my own bed after living in a tent for over a month.

Here are a few teaser photos from my trip and I’ll share more in the coming weeks.

My little abode for the past month.

My little abode for the past month.

Lake Tenaya, Yosemite National Park

Tenaya Lake, Yosemite National Park

Lemberg Dome sunset, Yosemite National Park

Lembert Dome sunset, Yosemite National Park

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My Author Facebook Page is Up

For those of you who have been following my blog long enough, you’ll know that I’ve written two historical fiction books titled New Garden and Trouble at Mono Pass. For more information on my most recent book, read about it in this recent blog post. To get updates on me and my two books, please “Like” my author Facebook page: www.facebook.com/writer.jedward.gray.

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Ready to Wear Clothing

Author Adrienne Morris

Looking pretty snazzy . . . Looking pretty snazzy . . .

“In the 1800s, cowboys and other manual laborers wore what was called “ready-to-wear” — second-hand clothing that had been discarded by the higher classes.

With few exceptions (such as military uniforms), new clothing was not mass produced back then. If you wanted an outfit, you went to a tailor, who measured you and custom-made the shirt, suit, trousers, coat, or whatever. If you out-grew your duds or just got tired of them, you might sell them to a second-hand (or ready-to-wear) store, where they would be bought by folks who needed inexpensive clothes for work.

That’s why you’d often see cowhands riding the range wearing a suit coat or vest and dress pants (rather than jeans). Also, many veterans continued to wear parts of their former uniforms for work.

By the way, did you ever wonder why chimney sweeps usually wore top hats and…

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Halloween WWII Style

Happy Halloween. Great post from Pacificparatrooper

Pacific Paratrooper

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This story is condensed from: EVERY VETERAN HAS A STORY_______

The other morning I woke up and looked out the window and saw pumpkins smashed and some decorations strewn.  “Ah, good,” I said to my daughters, “someone has done their research on the history of Halloween!”
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They rolled their eyes and kept reading the comics over their bowls of cereal.  After 13 years of fatherhood, I’d lost the ability to shock them…or they were hoping by their indifference to ward off the inevitable history lecture to follow.  If so — it didn’t work.
Foe much of our history, Halloween wasn’t about trick-or-treating or going around in costumes – it was about vandalism.  Halloween celebrates the dark side, the side we reject and fear – all that we try to deny.  Mischief making has historically been a part of that.  If you look at newspapers 80 or 90 years ago…

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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

When I attended law school at the University of Richmond in the 1970’s, my classmates included FFV’s (First Family of Virginia), the NY/NJ (New York/New Jersey) crowd, and the rest of us, who fell into a wide range of categories. For most of us, our social hour and dinner hour were one and the same – filling ourselves with the poor to fair offerings of the university cafeteria while discussing a wide range of topics. While young male humor accounted for most of the conversation, more interesting topics sometimes arose.

Aerial view of Monument Avenue

Aerial view of Monument Avenue (Source: Monument Avenue Wiki)

One evening, an FFV student decided to wax on and on about his Confederate ancestors and the Confederate statuary for which one of Richmond’s most prominent streets is named – Monument Avenue. (The Arthur Ashe statue would come years later.) All of the non-FFV’s found the subject matter uncomfortable. Protests to the contrary, the Civil War was about slavery. Lincoln’s Republicans wanted to preclude extension of slavery into the territories and Southern politicians wanted no bar whatsoever on the practice. So there we sat, all but the FFV student very uncomfortable.

After almost fifteen minutes of revisionist Confederate history and accolades about Monument Avenue, one NY/NJ student finally spoke up: “Oh, you’re talking about the street where they keep the second-place trophies.” The FFV student’s face turned fire engine red. The rest of us broke out in uncontrollable laughter. So ended the social hour.

I digress.

(Source: Currier & Ives, “The Great Naval Victory in Mobile Bay, Aug 5th, 1864. PR 100, Maritime History File)

(Source: Currier & Ives, “The Great Naval Victory in Mobile Bay, Aug 5th, 1864. PR 100, Maritime History File)

In August, 1864, the Union Navy won a major victory in Mobile Bay, Grant’s forces stretched the rebel line near Petersburg, and Sherman was poised to take Atlanta. But Confederates could cite their victories on other fronts.

Although his commanding officers did not use his talents to their greatest effect, Cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest remained a thorn in Sherman’s side. In the early morning hours of August 21, armed with detailed information from his home-town Memphis spies, Forrest led a small cavalry unit into Memphis, hoping to capture three Union generals, free Confederate prisoners from a Union prison, and compel Union forces to withdraw from northern Mississippi.

He accomplished only the third objective, although he did manage to take Union General Washburne’s uniform, which Washburne left behind as he rushed from his lodging to avoid capture. Forrest returned the uniform under a flag of truce. Washburne later returned the favor, by sending Forrest a uniform made by Forrest’s personal tailor. While Forrest failed to capture the generals or free the Confederate prisoners, he let the Union commanders know he was still active, seemingly able to harass them at will.

At sea, the Confederates dispatched the CSS Tallahassee to disrupt Yankee shipping. Over a 19-day period in northern waters, the Tallahassee destroyed 26 private vessels and captured seven others, which were bonded or released. (Department of the Navy, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships) The ship sailed into Halifax for a fresh supply of coal and a new main mast, before making her way back to Wilmington, North Carolina. Built in England, the ship began her life as the Atalanta, a blockade-runner, was commissioned as the Tallahassee in August 1864, was later re-named the Olustee, and finally was re-named once again, perhaps most appropriately, the Chameleon, before its commander turned the ship over to the Confederacy’s financial agent in Liverpool on April 9, 1865. The British seized the ship and turned it over to the United States government on April 26, 1866.

Thus, while August witnessed great success by the Union forces on land and sea, the Confederates demonstrated they would not go away without inflicting considerable damage.

Sources:

 

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Cold Harbor: Grant at His Worst and His Best

This article follows up on “Bloody May,” an earlier article about Union General U.S. Grant’s campaign to destroy Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

With losses considerably reduced in the second half of May when compared to the first half of the month, Grant succumbed to battlefield hubris. Lee by necessity had refused to fight Grant out in the open where he would be crushed by superior numbers and artillery. Lee’s men had become experts with the shovel, entrenching as they retreated. Lee now hoped an overly eager Grant would attempt an assault on his lines.

Battle at Cold Harbor (History.com)

Battle at Cold Harbor (History.com)

On Wednesday, June 1, General Sheridan’s cavalry, with infantry support from General Wright’s Sixth Corps and General Baldy Smith’s Eighteenth, held Cold Harbor, a place so named for an inn that offered travelers a place to rest but no hot food. Hancock’s men arrived at 6:30 the next morning, exhausted from an overnight launch.

Grant wanted to launch an attack against Lee upon the arrival of Hancock’s troops, but decided the soldiers required rest. The lull allowed Lee additional time to entrench. Along a seven-mile line, Lee’s men dug trenches and laid log and earth barriers. They stacked logs with openings at eye level every few feet, such that a soldier could stand and fire his rifle with little danger of being struck by return fire. The Federals would have to cross open fields or boggy terrain and then up a hill to reach the rebels. If Grant dared order an attack, he could expect the same fate as Pickett’s men at Gettysburg.

Grant ordered an attack, to begin the next morning at 4:30. Sixty thousand Union soldiers would charge the entrenched Confederates. While Meade had issued a circular requiring commanders to examine “the ground on their front and perfect the arrangements for the assault,” the commanding officers made no effort to reconnoiter the enemy’s position to gain information about the strength of their defenses.

The slaughter took only eight minutes. Hancock’s men caught enemy fire directly ahead and on their left. Confederates poured cannon and musket fire on Smith’s right and straight ahead. Wright’s men suffered most of all, suffering a blistering enfilade on both flanks and directly in front of them. The dead lay in windrows before the enemy. The survivors used cups, spoons, and bayonets in an effort to put earth between them and the rebels. Seventeen hundred men lay dead. Another 9,000 lay wounded on the field, expecting their commander to request a truce so they could be retrieved from the field.

Ulysses S. Grant (civilwar.org)

Ulysses S. Grant (civilwar.org)

For the next four days, the Union Army witnessed Grant at his worst. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant had never suffered an acknowledged defeat on the battlefield. He was not about to acknowledge one now. Lee had suffered few losses and all of them lay behind his defenses. Only blue uniforms lay on the open field, vulnerable to sharpshooters from the gray ranks.

Grant asked Lee for a truce, implying the battle had been a draw, so that both sides could recover their dead and wounded. Lee would have none of it. Grant persisted, asking that Lee demonstrate humanity toward the “suffering from both sides.” Finally, on Tuesday, June 7, Grant acknowledged the Union defeat and Union soldiers recovered their brethren under a flag of truce. Only two Union soldiers remained alive on the field. Any other survivors had crawled back into Union lines under cover of darkness. For many, the delay had sealed their doom or cost them an arm or a leg from prolonged exposure. For all of them, Grant’s pride had inflicted unnecessary misery.

This was Grant at his worst. He and his army would recover, however, and demonstrate Grant at his best. That is for another article.

Most of this brief account is taken from my Civil War era novel, New Garden (pages 275-276), available on line from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Dog Ear Publishing. The novel is also available in Greensboro, NC, at the Greensboro Historical Museum and Scuppernong Books.

For historical sources about Cold Harbor, I recommend the following:

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