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History Briefs 2011 - 2012
By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2011, All Rights Reserved

Editor's Note: Since 2007, each Roundtable meeting has opened with a 'History Brief' presented by the Roundtable Historian, each 'brief' providing a small glimpse into a less-explored corner of the story of the Civil War. This page collects the History Briefs from this particular Roundtable season.
Past Briefs:
2007-2008 2008-2009 2009-2010
2010-2011 2011-2012 2012-2013
2013-2014 2014-2015 2015-2016
2016-2017 . .

May…

The Pemberton Who Succeeded

Raise a glass of the bubbly to toast the bubbly. I'm not talking about champagne. I'm talking about America's beverage: Coca-Cola, which was invented and first sold 126 years ago this month. Another reason to toast Coca-Cola tonight is because there are a couple of connections between Coca-Cola and the city of Vicksburg, which is the topic of tonight's presentation by our esteemed speaker.

One of those connections is the inventor of Coca-Cola, John Pemberton. No, not that John Pemberton, the other John Pemberton. Coca-Cola was not invented by John C. (for Clifford) Pemberton, the Confederate general who led the army that defended Vicksburg against Ulysses S. Grant and his army. Coca-Cola was invented by John S. (for Stith) Pemberton, although this Pemberton also served in the Confederate army, and John S. Pemberton was the nephew of John C. Pemberton. Maybe knowing that Coke was invented by a Confederate will motivate Northerners to drink Pepsi, but in a way I can understand John S. Pemberton's serving with the Confederacy more so than his uncle. At least John S. Pemberton was a Southerner, but John C. Pemberton was a Northerner who served with the Confederacy.

John S. Pemberton was born in Knoxville, Georgia on July 8, 1831. When Pemberton was a young child, his family moved to Rome, Georgia, where he grew up. He was educated in medicine and pharmacy, and in 1850, when he was 19, he was licensed to practice a type of medicine that was based on herbal remedies. Pemberton and his wife moved to Columbus, Georgia in 1855, where Pemberton established a drug business and practiced as a druggist. Eventually he received a degree in pharmacy. In 1862, Pemberton enlisted in the Confederate army as a first lieutenant and organized a cavalry unit which operated primarily in the protection of the locale around Columbus. He was almost killed in April 1865 during fighting around Columbus. Had he died, his death prior to inventing Coca-Cola most likely would have had a future beneficial effect on sales of Pepsi-Cola.

After the Civil War Pemberton returned to his profession in pharmacy and to the analytical and manufacturing company that he had founded in 1860. His laboratories were considered state of the art. For example, Pemberton developed a laboratory for the testing of soil and crop chemicals, and this facility still operates as part of the Georgia Department of Agriculture. But Pemberton's obsession was to invent a tonic for use in the home, since such concoctions were in high demand at that time. Initially he developed Pemberton's French Wine Coca, which was a plagiarism of Vin Mariani. Vin Mariani was developed by French chemist Angelo Mariani and was in essence coca leaves extracted in wine. The ethanol in the wine extracted the cocaine from the coca leaves, and the user consumed a mixture of alcohol and cocaine. Pemberton acknowledged that Mariani's recipe was likewise his formulation and indicated that his formulation also included an extract of kola nuts.

In 1869 Pemberton moved his company from Columbus to Atlanta, and this was instrumental in the invention of Coca-Cola, because Atlanta introduced prohibition in 1886. This meant that Pemberton's French Wine Coca became illegal, not because of the cocaine, but because of the alcohol. Because of this, Pemberton set about developing a new concoction that lacked alcohol. After numerous attempts that were either too bitter or too sweet, Pemberton arrived at a formulation that met his satisfaction. In May 1886 he sent a batch to Jacobs' Pharmacy where Willis Venable, who manned the soda fountain, added carbonated water to the syrup and served it to some customers, who pronounced it excellent. It is an urban legend that the addition of carbonated water was an accident. From the beginning the plan was to mix the syrup with cold carbonated water to make the concoction more flavorful. The syrup was sent to the soda fountain because there was no carbonated water in Pemberton's laboratory. Pemberton's bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, suggested the name Coca-Cola to reflect the two main ingredients in the concoction: coca leaves and kola nuts. Robinson also designed the eminently familiar flowing script logo. Eventually the beverage was sold in soda fountains across the U.S. In the summer of 1894 Coca-Cola was first bottled by Joe Biedenharn in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

The year after his invention of Coca-Cola, Pemberton was forced to sell two-thirds interest in his company and later that year sold his formula to druggist Asa Candler for $2,300, although the conditions by which Candler obtained controlling interest are murky. It was Candler who oversaw the explosion in popularity of the beverage, and when Candler sold the company in 1919 it was valued at $25 million. Pemberton died on August 16, 1888. At the time of his death, he was immensely loved and respected in Atlanta, but he was also broke. Pemberton's only child, son Charles, died in 1893 at the age of 34 of a morphine overdose. Despite the vast fortunes that were made from Pemberton's invention, his wife Ann died a pauper in 1909.

John S. Pemberton's life certainly took a tragic turn, but his achievement is undeniable. Through relentless perseverance and focused ingenuity, he created the invention that he sought, although he and his family did not profit from it. His legacy exists throughout the world, although few realize that it is his legacy. His place in history is assured, but hardly known. So raise a glass of the bubbly to John S. Pemberton, the Pemberton who succeeded In his task.

 

 

John Stith Pemberton
John Clifford Pemberton
 

April…

Man, Not Myth

Because the topic of tonight's presentation (the CCWRT April meeting) involves Robert E. Lee, I brought a page from the August 24, 1861 issue of Harper's Weekly, which came into my possession. I had John Vacha of the Western Reserve Historical Society take a look at this page, and he verified that it is authentic and not a reproduction. I brought this page because it contains a short note about Robert E. Lee. The note gives a brief description of Lee's military career in the U.S. Army and then concludes with this:

"After filling this honorable and agreeable post in the military service of his country for several years, he crowned his career by deserting his flag at the moment of his country's sorest need. When the Richmond politicians passed what they called an Ordnance of Secession, Robert E. Lee threw up his commission and accepted the rank of General in the rebel army."

Before all of you Unionists shout your huzzahs, you should know that on the same page Harper's Weekly has a note about Ambrose Burnside in which Burnside is described as "gallant," "a remarkably handsome man," and "very winning in his ways," so I think that the credibility of Harper's Weekly to judge military leaders is called into serious question. Be that as it may, if tonight's speaker is correct, then Harper's Weekly should have thanked Lee for siding with the South, since this was, according to tonight's speaker, the major factor in the Confederacy's defeat.

I for one do not believe that Lee was responsible for the Confederacy's loss, not when Lee's Confederate colleagues included Braxton Bragg, Joseph E. Johnston, John C. Pemberton, and John Bell Hood. But maybe an hour from now my opinion will be different. If nothing else, I'm intrigued to hear a case presented for the point of view that Lee was the reason for the Confederacy's defeat, if only because making Lee appear fallible provides an examination of Lee that does not mythologize him like so many such examinations do. Because Lee truly fits the description of a larger than life figure, it is easy to forget that he had a life.

To make this point, I cobbled together a few sentences from the Foreword of an excellent biography of Lee by Emory M. Thomas.

"People usually venerate in a hero someone who exemplifies (or who they believe exemplifies) virtues which they admire or to which they aspire…Lee has been several sorts of American hero, and within the American South he has attained the status of demigod."

"(I)t is well to remember that Lee was once possessed of flesh and blood. This is important because so many have made so much of Lee during the years since he lived that legend, image, and myth have supplanted reality."

"In life Lee was both more and less than his legend."

Whether or not Lee deserves blame for the Confederacy's defeat, there is a heroic dignity about him. Lee proved his bravery and earned his heroism in the Mexican-American War, and what he did in the Civil War only added to this, even though it was done for the wrong cause. But Lee's heroic dignity does not come solely from anything that he did militarily, and it certainly does not come from the contrived rationalizing of the myth of the Lost Cause. When the oppressive cloak of Lee's legend is removed from him, Lee can be seen to have an earnest heroism of the sort that we admire in our acquaintances: surprisingly shy, disarmingly humble, unfailingly considerate, and meticulously assiduous, with a quiet self-possession devoid of arrogance. Lee's heroic dignity comes from his humanity and from the life he lived, in spite of any personal flaws or inconsistencies or bad decisions. It comes from a lifetime spent living by a principle that he articulated in his diary:

"Dissimilar as are characters, intellects, and situations, the great duty in life is the same, the promotion of the happiness and welfare of our fellow men."

Maybe Robert E. Lee did lose the Civil War, but he never lost the qualities that made him great despite the attempts of many to take those from him by trying to make Lee more than he was or by focusing on his deficiencies and his errors.


Robert E. Lee

March…

Preston Brooks's Caning Collaborator

Tonight is the annual Dick Crews Cleveland Civil War Roundtable debate. Hopefully the proceedings will be civil. But in case things become heated, in memory of Preston Brooks, I brought a cane. As probably all of you know, on May 22, 1856, Preston Brooks, congressman from South Carolina, beat Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner with a cane in the chamber of the U.S. Senate. Brooks was incensed at Sumner because of a speech that Sumner had given two days earlier, which Brooks found insulting to one of his relatives. One thing that puzzled me about the Sumner caning is why no one who watched Brooks hammer Sumner did anything to put an end to it. That question can be answered in two words: Laurence Keitt. Keitt, a fellow congressman from South Carolina, accompanied Brooks to the Senate chamber when Brooks went to meet with Sumner for a tête-à-tête, or cane-à-tête. As Brooks began pounding Sumner with his cane and other senators rushed to Sumner's aid, Keitt pulled a pistol, brandished it at those who were trying to intervene, and said simply, "Let them be!" For these actions Keitt was censured by the House of Representatives. Keitt resigned in protest over his censure, but was then overwhelmingly re-elected to fill his own vacancy.

This was fortuitous, because Keitt's re-election gave him another opportunity to ignite Congressional mayhem. In a late session of the House of Representatives on the night of February 5-6, 1858, Keitt and Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow exchanged insults and then blows. Eventually 50 members of the House became involved in the brawl, which the sergeant-at-arms tried unsuccessfully to bring to an end. The mêlée ended only when the hairpiece of Mississippi congressman William Barksdale was knocked off, which caused both sides to break into laughter and terminate their fisticuffs. Perhaps this was the only time in history that a fight was brought to a close by a receding hairline. The deficiently hirsute congressman whose dislodged hairpiece ended the Congressional brawl is the same William Barksdale who led a Mississippi brigade in the Civil War and fell at Gettysburg.

As for Laurence Keitt, he commanded the 20th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Civil War and then eventually commanded Kershaw's brigade when Joseph Kershaw was promoted to division command. Keitt was mortally wounded at Cold Harbor and died the day after the battle, June 4, 1864, four months to the day prior to his 40th birthday, thus extinguishing a very volatile life.

As I said at the beginning, hopefully tonight's debate will be civil. But this cane is available to the debate participants in case either of them wants to emphasize some point. However, I did not bring a pistol with me, so if either of the debaters feels a need to make use of the cane to beat some sense into his opponent, he'll have to get in a few whacks quickly, before some concerned member of the audience intervenes.


Laurence Keitt

February…

Europe's Artistic Ambassador
to the Post-Civil War United States

Shown to the left is an image of the last painting in life that was made of Robert E. Lee. The painting was done in Lexington, Virginia, where Lee lived in the last years of his life. But an interesting bit of trivia is where the painting currently hangs. The painting is in Washington, D.C. in the residence of the Swiss ambassador to the U.S., and it has been there since 2005. Prior to that, the painting was in a museum in Bern, Switzerland. This may seem surprising until the identity of the artist is revealed. The person who did this painting is Swiss painter Frank Buchser, and his life history, as well as the history of this painting, is quite interesting.

Buchser was born on August 15, 1828 in the Solothurn region of Switzerland and died on November 22, 1890 in the same region. In the 62 years that he spent on this earth, Buchser managed to fashion a most energetic life. He has been described as a womanizer and aggressive, but also charming, as evidenced by his ability to ingratiate himself with wealthy and important people everywhere he went. Buchser came to his career almost by accident. At 18 he was apprenticed to a piano builder. However, that career path ended abruptly when Buchser's master found him in bed with his daughter and attacked him with a wooden mallet. Buchser managed to subdue the enraged father and escape to Paris where he studied art. He continued his studies in Rome and financed them by working as a member of the papal Swiss Guard. After completing his studies, Buchser traveled through Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East and established himself as one of Switzerland's most renowned artists.

Shortly after his return to Switzerland in 1866, Buchser was commissioned to do a grandiose painting about the American Civil War to commemorate, in the words of one of the proponents of the project "the victories of the Union." The Swiss government, mindful that Switzerland had recently come through its own civil war, wanted a Swiss artist to go to the U.S. and do such a painting to hang in the Swiss Parliament. Buchser was able to use his growing reputation as a painter and his charm to influence the patrons of the project to select him. This was fortuitous for Buchser, because not long after his return to Switzerland, he was facing jail for his part in a barroom brawl. Armed with a letter of recommendation from the Swiss government, Buchser traveled to the U.S. to complete his task.

Once there, Buchser did portraits of President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, and William Tecumseh Sherman. The Sherman portrait also hangs in the residence of the Swiss ambassador. In this painting Sherman is shown in a heroic pose. In the background is an officer sitting at a table doing some paperwork. The officer has an almost perplexed look on his face as if he wants to say to Sherman, "You look dashing, General, but don't you have more important things to do than play the conquering hero?" Buchser also did numerous paintings of blacks and their daily lives. In spite of all these paintings, Buchser had not fulfilled his commission during his almost three and a half years in America. To do so, Buchser felt he needed a painting of Ulysses Grant. However, Grant rebuffed repeated requests from Buchser as steadfastly as he had rebuffed the Army of Northern Virginia in its attempts to break out of Petersburg. Buchser decided that if he could paint a portrait of Robert E. Lee, this would convince Grant to sit for him. In September 1869 Buchser journeyed to Lexington, Virginia with the goal of painting a portrait of Lee.

The person who appeared on Lee's doorstep to ask Lee to sit for a portrait had a very distinctive facial feature which announced to everyone that this was a flamboyant person: a waxed moustache curled at the ends which hung in midair and with a wingspan of 12 inches. It is hard to imagine the staid Lee acquiescing to the flashy Buchser. But not only did Lee agree to sit for Buchser, he took a liking to his Swiss visitor, who lived as a guest in the Lee residence while the portrait was painted. Had Lee known of Buchser's many exploits with women, he might not have invited the artist to live in his house, since Lee's three surviving adult daughters, all of whom were unmarried, lived in the Lee residence. However, Buchser suffused that residence with his effervescent charm, kissing the hands of the Lee ladies and entertaining everyone in the evenings by playing the piano and the guitar and singing songs in all six of the languages that he knew.

Lee rejected Buchser's initial idea for the portrait. Buchser envisioned painting Lee in his uniform, but Lee refused, telling Buchser, "I am a soldier no longer." Lee did consent to placing his military accouterments on a table behind him, and Lee approved the final product, if only because the portrait made Lee look younger, thinner, and more robust than he actually was at that time. Buchser did this portrait about a year before Lee's death, and Lee's health was in decline. During the weeks that Buchser and Lee interacted, Buchser came to admire the old man who was no longer a soldier. In his diary Buchser wrote, "What a gentle noble soul, how kind and charming the old white-haired warrior is." Another diary entry reads, "One cannot see and know the great soldier without loving him." But Buchser's most telling diary entry complimented all the military leaders of the Civil War. "The conviction is growing in me that if the American statesmen of the last fifteen years had been half as intelligent and only half as honest and capable as the soldiers, that is the Generals Grant, Lee, Sherman, etc., then the war would never have been started."

After Buchser finished his portrait of Lee, he wrote to his Swiss patrons that this painting, not one of Grant, should be the painting to fulfill his commission. To buttress his statement Buchser wrote his patrons something about Lee that every American should acknowledge, "all agree he is the greater character." Buchser also wrote that Lee "is furthermore the ideal of American democracy. Therefore, of all my American portraits, the one of Lee is the perfect picture to hang in the democratic Swiss parliament." Somehow Buchser's Swiss patrons could not see how a portrait of a Confederate general satisfied Buchser's commission to honor the Union, and they refused to pay him. But Buchser did obtain much during his stay in America. He was able to travel and paint for five years in the U.S., a country with which he became enthralled. Born Franz, he Americanized his name to Frank and kept it that way even after his return to Switzerland. He never fulfilled his commission, and none of his paintings ever hung in the Swiss Parliament. But Buchser can rightly be called Europe's artistic ambassador to the post-Civil War United States.

MORE PAINTINGS BY FRANK BUCHSER>>


Frank Buchser



January…

Compassionate Confederate

"War is all hell." "War is cruelty and you cannot refine it." These words of William Tecumseh Sherman are familiar to everyone here. But sometimes even in the midst of hell, some small speck of heaven is present, an unexpected act of kindness for the enemy that runs counter to the primary objective of the perpetrator. One such incident that occurred at the battle of Gettysburg was the encounter between John B. Gordon and Francis Barlow. Surprising as it seems, that was not the only one.

James Jackson (Jack) Purman was a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania. In July 1862, he enlisted in the army and became first lieutenant in the 140th Pennsylvania Volunteers. About a year later on July 2, 1863, the 140th Pennsylvania was among the Union forces that fought in the Wheatfield at Gettysburg. Unable to withstand the Confederate assaults, the Union troops, including Purman and the 140th Pennsylvania, fell back. Almost 50 years later, Purman wrote, "After fighting for nearly two hours with the loss of all of our field officers and with 241 out of 340 of my regiment out of combat and surrounded by the enemy on three sides, we fell back in some disorder." As Purman and a sergeant of the regiment, James M. Pipes, were scrambling to safety, they heard a voice call out to them for help. It was a wounded comrade pleading to be carried off the field. Purman and the sergeant knew that that was not possible, but they moved the wounded soldier, John Buckley, to a nearby place of safety out of the line of fire. When Purman continued his flight from the Wheatfield, he heard Confederates yell at him to stop. Purman continued running toward his own line and was shot in the left leg just above the ankle. Purman later wrote, "Many have attempted to tell how it feels to be shot. At first there is no pain, smarting nor anguish. But that delusion soon passes, and the acute pain follows, and you know that a missile has passed through the tender flesh of your body."

Purman spent that night on the field among the many dead and wounded of both sides, in Purman's words, "a ghastly scene of cold, white upturned faces." As difficult as that night was, the following day was much worse with the hot sun and the minie balls that passed across the field. Sometime during the day, Purman was struck in his other leg. Since he was closer to the enemy's line, he called out to a Confederate soldier for water. Initially the soldier refused because he feared being shot by a Union sharpshooter. But after further pleading from Purman, the Confederate crawled to Purman and gave him a canteen. Purman then prevailed upon the Confederate to carry him to the Confederate line. Again Purman's request was initially refused when the Confederate said that, with all the minie balls whizzing by, both of them would be shot. However, Purman convinced the Confederate to crawl back to his line with Purman on his back. After they made it, the Confederate left Purman in the shade of a tree with a canteen.

Eventually the Confederates were driven back. That night Purman was transported on a stretcher to a Union field hospital where he spent the night. On the next day, July 4, his left leg was amputated. Purman later learned that the man he had moved to safety died on the field. But for his self-sacrificing heroism, Purman was awarded the Medal of Honor. Purman received one other reward for his act of heroism. When he was convalescing from his wounds, he met a nurse named Mary Witherow, who later became Mrs. Purman.

After the war, Purman sought to identify the Confederate who carried him to safety. When he was lying in the Wheatfield after receiving his first wound, Purman had the presence of mind to notice that the colors of the Confederate unit that charged past him bore the name 24th Georgia. He also noticed that the person who crawled to the Confederate line with him on his back was a lieutenant. With this information and some assistance from ex-Confederates, including Alexander Stephens, Purman was able to identify the person who saved him as Thomas P. Oliver. Purman and Oliver exchanged letters and finally met in Washington, D.C. in June 1907. Oliver died a year and a half later. Purman died in 1915, his life extended 52 years thanks to one of his enemies.

Anecdotes such as this and the Gordon-Barlow incident seem in some ways to be the height of incongruity. Here are two large bodies of men that are organized for the sole purpose of killing and maiming each other, and when one chapter of that endeavor has ended, some of the participants make an effort to heal the wounded adversaries whom they were trying to kill only moments before. In light of the overall goal of those involved in the conflict, this is completely irrational. But maybe this irrationality makes complete sense, because acts like these do not arise so much from careful reasoning, but from a common humanity. Maybe incidents like these are evidence of an indomitable compassion in human nature, even at times of utmost hostility. Maybe the lesson in this is that, despite the inhumanities that human beings too often inflict on other human beings, Homo sapiens is a species whose existence is worthy of being allowed to continue.


James Jackson Purman



December…

All Her Hopes

The phrase "fratricidal war" has been used to describe the Civil War as a way of conveying how that war figuratively pitted brother against brother. In many cases it wasn't just figurative, but literal. However, not all brothers fought on opposite sides in the Civil War, and one such example are the Moungers. John and Thomas Mounger were members of the 9th Georgia Volunteer Infantry, which was part of the Army of Northern Virginia. The regiment's colonel was their father, also named John. On July 18, 1863, in the aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg, son John sent the following letter to his mother.

Dear Mother,

I wrote you a few days ago concerning the death of our dear father, he was killed on the 2nd of July about one hour by sun. He was buried in a family grave yard 1/2 mile below Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the Chambers and Baltimore Turnpike. Capt. Sutlive had a good coffin made for him and we put him away as well as could be expected. I have the dimensions of his coffin so when we get a chance to move him we can get a box for him without any trouble. Pa died very easy Tom says, I was not with him when he died. I was detailed and sent off after cattle some three or four days before the fight. Tom took good care of dear dear Pa until he died, but he only lived a few minutes after he was shot, He was shot with a minie ball through the right breast and a grape shot from cannon through the bowels. Dear Mother we tried to carry him to Virginia before we buried him but it was impossible as the Yankeys were all around us and we could not get across the river without being captured, Dear Mother let us all try and meet him in Heaven, Tom & myself will try and be better boys. Tom kept the stars on his coat and a lock of his hair.

The person who wrote this heartfelt letter was not one of the celebrities of the Civil War. He was simply one of the multitude of soldiers who was doing in obscurity what he saw as his duty. Whenever I read that letter, I imagine John Mounger scrambling along with the Army of Northern Virginia on its retreat from Gettysburg, trying to find some time to gather his emotions about the loss of his father, and attempting to put those feelings into words in a letter to his mother.
The author of that letter survived his father by less than a year. He was killed in the battle of the Wilderness when he was shot in the head with a minie ball while directing the fire of his company. His brother Tom continued the charge and reached the Union line only to be shot in the neck and dying a few minutes later. The third brother, Terrell Mounger of the 14th Georgia, had been killed at Chancellorsville as he led a charge against a Union position.

No matter what opinion a person has of the Confederate cause, no one can dispute that the matriarch of the Mounger family did not deserve to suffer the loss of her husband and all her sons. Lucie Mounger lived the horrors of war in the devastating way that only a grieving wife and mother can. For her there were no homecomings, no joyous reunions. Life's twilight was not warmed by family, but was lived in the cold shadow of the daily realization that the war had consumed her loved ones. A note in a newspaper about the deaths of brothers John and Tom Mounger conveyed the human and personal cost of war in a clear and plaintive way. "The two latter are sons of Col. Mounger of the 9th who died at Gettysburg. Another son was killed at Chancellorsville, thus destroying the whole of this family, and leaving an aged lady to mourn over the death of all her hopes."

I am indebted to Neal Griffin, who manages a superb web site about the 9th Georgia Volunteer Infantry. Neal kindly provided valuable information about the fates of the Mounger brothers and the correct pronunciation of the Mounger surname. My sincere thanks to Neal for his generous assistance. - Dave Carrino

 

November…

General Slocum and General Slocum

Sometimes connections to the Civil War are convoluted and unexpected. For example, if I say "General Slocum," probably most of you will think of Union General Henry W. Slocum, a corps commander during the Civil War. But there is another General Slocum, and this one italicized her name because she was a passenger steamboat. The PS General Slocum was built in Brooklyn, New York in 1891 and was used for pleasure excursions in New York City. A group from St. Mark's Lutheran Church in the German district chartered the General Slocum for an excursion that took place on June 15, 1904. This excursion was an annual event for the parishioners and involved a trip up the East River to a picnic area. Because the event was on a weekday, most of the 1,400 passengers were women and children. A half hour into the trip, a fire broke out in the forward part of the ship, probably from a discarded cigarette or match that ignited a fire in a cabin used to store lamp oil. Because of the lamp oil and paint and other flammables that were being stored in a nearby locker, the fire spread very rapidly.

Once the captain and crew became aware of the fire, attempts were made to extinguish it. However, the boat's hoses had become rotted, and they broke apart when the crew tried to use them. The crew, which had never had a fire drill, found that the lifeboats were inextricably tied up; some survivors claimed that the lifeboats had been painted in place and could not be freed. Passengers discovered that the life preservers were rotted and fell apart. The life jackets were defective and dragged the people who wore them underwater rather than keeping them afloat. In spite of all these problems, the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service had inspected the General Slocum five weeks prior to the disaster and certified the boat in good condition.

The ship's captain, William Van Schaick, contributed to the disaster by not grounding the boat quickly. Instead he continued into headwinds and thereby fanned the blaze. Eventually the General Slocum sank in shallow water. By that time over a thousand passengers had died. To put the disaster in perspective, the percentage of those on board the General Slocum who died is similar to that for the Titanic. After the disaster, a Federal grand jury indicted seven people: the boat's captain, two inspectors, and four officials of the company that owned the General Slocum, including the president. Captain Van Schaick was the only one convicted. The company paid a small fine.

The youngest survivor of the General Slocum was Adele Liebenow, who was 18 months old at the time. Shortly after the disaster, her parents, both of whom survived the disaster, changed their daughter's name to Adella. About a year after the disaster, Adella pulled the cord that unveiled a monument to the 61 unidentified dead. Adella, who became Adella Wotherspoon by marriage, lived to 100 and died less than six months before the 100th anniversary of the disaster.

Fans of James Joyce might have recognized the date of the disaster as the day before Bloomsday, June 16, 1904. In fact, the General Slocum disaster is mentioned in the book Ulysses. "Terrible affair that General Slocum explosion. Terrible, terrible! A thousand casualties. And heartrending scenes. Men trampling down women and children. Most brutal thing. What do they say was the cause? Spontaneous combustion: most scandalous revelation. Not a single lifeboat would float and the firehose all burst. What I can't understand is how the inspectors ever allowed a boat like that."

In addition to the name of the steamboat, there is another connection between the General Slocum disaster and the Civil War. The person who was mayor of New York City at the time of the disaster was George B. McClellan Jr. By some accounts, Mayor McClellan performed decisively and with distinction during the disaster and in its aftermath. Evidently he inherited this capacity from his mother.

I think there is also a connection between the General Slocum disaster and our times. Too often nowadays we become exasperated or even infuriated about dysfunctional and negligent government agencies or about irresponsible and uncaring companies or about injustices in the judicial system. But one lesson from the General Slocum disaster is that these are not new phenomena, and that realization is both reassuring and troubling.


Henry W. Slocum
Adele Liebenow
George B. McClellan Jr.
 

September…

Forgotten Giants

Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. William Tecumseh Sherman and Stonewall Jackson. Everyone in this room knows the contributions of these men to the Civil War. But that war, like all wars, included contributions of numerous people whose names are not known to history. A Union soldier who fought at Gettysburg said it best. "Generals and Admirals win high renown for the military achievements of their men, but personal deeds of heroism by simple privates or subalterns are rarely recorded." Sometimes we focus so much on the well known figures of the Civil War that we fail to adequately acknowledge the heroic deeds of those whose names we do not know.

In his book, Mr. Lincoln's Army, Bruce Catton has a marvelous passage which conveys the awesome contributions of numerous men whose names are not well known to history. It is one of those passages that, after you read it, you may not remember the exact words, but you never forget that you read it.

It may be that life is not man's most precious possession, after all. Certainly men can be induced to give it away very freely at times, and the terms hardly seem to make sense unless there is something about the whole business that we don't understand. Lives are spent for very insignificant things which benefit the dead not at all-a few rods of ground in a cornfield, for instance, or temporary ownership of a little hill or piece of windy pasture; and now and then they are simply wasted outright, with nobody gaining anything at all. And we talk glibly about the accidents of battle and the mistakes of generalship.

Whenever I read a passage as good as that one, I imagine the author completing it, putting down his pen, leaning back from his desk, and saying to himself with a deep feeling of satisfaction, "Now that's good." That passage from Bruce Catton's book is really good in how beautifully it conveys that even the smallest accomplishments in battle are bought through legions of men making the ultimate sacrifice and never knowing if the objective was attained. That short passage also conveys just how insignificant battlefield gains seem in light of the costs. All of us, who enjoy studying and analyzing Civil War battles, should keep that passage in mind whenever we look at a map of a battle and look at the small rectangles depicted on the map moving against an enemy position. Those arrows on the map were put there at great price, what Lincoln called "the last full measure." Almost all of the men who paid that price are given little individual recognition in history for doing so.

We justly preserve the memory of Lincoln and Davis, Grant and Lee, and Sherman and Stonewall. These men and what they accomplished are well known to all of us, and there is no denying that every one of these men had a major impact on the Civil War. But there is also no denying that everything they accomplished resulted from "personal deeds of heroism by simple privates and subalterns," and those deeds and those men are largely unknown to those, like us, who benefited from them.

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The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable