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History Briefs 2014 - 2015
By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014, 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 2017-2018 .


The First and Second Battles of Selma

On May 13, 1865 the last battle of the Civil War came to an end, or so most people say. The Civil War's battles are considered by most people to have taken place between April 12, 1861 and May 13, 1865, because this time period encompasses what are generally accepted to be the Civil War's first battle and its last battle. But not every 'Civil War battle' took place between April 12, 1861, the date of the battle of Fort Sumter, and May 12-13, 1865, the date of the battle of Palmito Ranch, which is considered to be the last battle of the Civil War. In other history briefs of the 2014-2015 Cleveland Civil War Roundtable session, I wrote about two 'Civil War battles' that occurred outside of the generally accepted Civil War time frame. One of these battles was the firing on the Star of the West in Charleston harbor on January 9, 1861, which some consider the Civil War's first battle. The other was the battle of Buena Vista on February 22-23, 1847 in the Mexican-American War, which, in a nod toward attention-grabbing unconventionality, I called the decisive battle of the Civil War.

Another 'Civil War battle' that occurred outside of the generally accepted Civil War time frame had its 50th anniversary near the end of the Civil War's sesquicentennial. This battle happened in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, when civil rights protesters attempted to march to Montgomery, but were stopped by Alabama state troopers and local police, who beat the protesters. In the context of the Civil War, this battle can be designated the second battle of Selma. The first battle of Selma took place during the time period that is generally associated with the Civil War, namely April 2, 1865, or almost 100 years before the second battle of Selma. One noteworthy aspect of the first battle of Selma is the commanders of the two armies that fought there. The leader of the Union forces was James H. Wilson, and the commander of the Confederate forces was none other than Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest needs no introduction, but Wilson is not so well known, although he holds a very notable Civil War distinction that he earned shortly after the first battle of Selma.

Early in the Civil War, James Wilson was an aide to George McClellan and then an officer on the staff of Ulysses Grant. In 1864, Wilson changed assignments to cavalry and served first as an administrator in Washington and then as a field commander under Phil Sheridan. In October 1864 Wilson was transferred to the West under George Thomas, where he fought at the battles of Franklin and Nashville. Wilson's greatest achievement was as the commander of a massive cavalry raid into Alabama, which began in the northwest corner of the state on March 22, 1865. Wilson's force consisted of over 13,000, which made it the largest cavalry force of the Civil War. The primary target was Selma, which was a major producer of iron and was second in the Confederacy to only Richmond, Virginia in the production of war materiel. As Wilson's force traversed Alabama on its way to Selma, it destroyed a number of ironworks.

Opposing Wilson were Confederate troops under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Not only was Forrest badly outnumbered, but his forces were badly scattered across Alabama, because Forrest was uncertain about Wilson's ultimate objective. Throughout Wilson's advance into Alabama, Forrest had his troops skirmish with the much larger Union force and fall back. On April 1, 1865 Forrest's Confederates made a stand in a fortified position near a chapel known as Ebenezer Church, which is about 24 miles north of Selma. Although the Confederates were outnumbered about two to one, the battle was fierce, and during the battle Forrest killed the last of the 30 Union soldiers that he claimed to have killed during the Civil War, the unfortunate distinction going to Captain James Taylor of the 17th Indiana Cavalry. In spite of anything that Forrest did at Ebenezer Church, eventually the weight of numbers led to Wilson's force driving Forrest's Confederates into Selma. Selma was encircled by formidable fortifications that had been constructed years earlier, and Forrest's troops took position in these fortifications. But the fortifications were so long and Forrest's force so small that about ten feet separated each of Forrest's men from his neighbor.

On April 2, 1865, the day after the battle at Ebenezer Church, Wilson launched an attack on Selma. Again the fighting was fierce, and again the weight of numbers prevailed and the Union troops overwhelmed the outnumbered Confederates. Forrest's men fought as they fell back, but eventually Wilson's troops drove most of them out of Selma, including Forrest, and those that could not escape were taken prisoner. By the end of the day on April 2, 1865, Selma was in Union hands. This date is notable, because on that same day approximately 650 miles to the northeast the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia was being evacuated. This means that the Confederacy effectively lost its two largest producers of war materiel on the same day.

Admirers of Nathan Bedford Forrest can rightly claim that James Wilson's victory at Selma was tainted, because Forrest was badly outnumbered, and the troops that Forrest had for that battle included many old men and boys. Nevertheless, in his memoir Wilson threw a taunt at the Wizard of the Saddle that mockingly included some of Forrest's own words regarding the tactical principles that Forrest used. Wilson wrote, "It (the Union cavalry) had fairly turned Forrest's rules of war against himself, for, without disregarding tactics, it had not only 'got the bulge on him,' but 'had got there first with the most men.'" Not only could James Wilson claim that he defeated Nathan Bedford Forrest, but he was about to lay claim to a larger prize. After the battle of Selma, Wilson's force continued eastward into Georgia, where there was a group of Confederate officials who had fled Richmond during the evacuation of the Confederate capital. On May 10, 1865, about five and a half weeks after the battle of Selma, a detachment from Wilson's force intercepted this group of Confederate officials at a place known as Irwinville, Georgia and captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The capture of Jefferson Davis was a highly symbolic milestone in the demise of the rebellion. But it should have been more than symbolic. Like the capture of one player's king in a chess game, in an ideal world the capture of the president of the Confederate States of America should have signaled the complete and unequivocal end of all aspects of the rebellion, in other words, not just the end of the Confederacy, itself, but also the end of the sentiments that led to the rebellion. However, as post-war events demonstrated, those sentiments persisted, and this is exemplified by Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate commander at the first battle of Selma, who became involved in the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War. Anyone who thinks that the Civil War reached a complete conclusion in 1865 needs only to keep in mind that 100 years later a second battle of Selma was necessary to advance the Union's victory closer to completion. Moreover, on March 7, 2015, during the 50th anniversary commemoration of the second battle of Selma, the Ku Klux Klan surreptitiously distributed recruitment literature to residences in Selma, which shows that the sentiments that led to the Confederacy still exist. Some people claim that perpetuating the spirit of the Confederacy is simply a way of preserving a part of our country's history. Certainly preserving history is worthwhile, even history that we may prefer never happened. Honoring and commemorating our nation's past is an important endeavor. But preserving history is different from perpetuating destructive causes and sentiments.

There are some who say that the Civil War is the defining event in our nation's history. For example, on the membership sign-up page on the web site of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable, there is a statement that membership "is open to anyone who shares the belief that the American Civil War is the defining event in U.S. history." In the Wikipedia entry for the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable is a statement that our group's "common bond is the belief that the Civil War was the defining event of American history." Perhaps I risk losing my membership in the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable, but I do not agree that the Civil War is the defining event in U.S. history. The defining event in U.S. history occurred in the summer of 1776 in Philadelphia. Our nation is defined in the soaring words of Thomas Jefferson, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." Abraham Lincoln acknowledged this defining moment in his Gettysburg Address when he said that the United States is "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

At the time that Thomas Jefferson's defining words were written, our nascent country was egregiously distant from the noble sentiment that is expressed in those words. But it is those words that define our nation, and the Civil War was one costly and tragic event that moved our country closer to attaining its definition. Even after all that our nation went through during the Civil War and during the time since the Civil War, we still have not achieved the full realization of our definition. In this sense the Civil War is still being fought, and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan during the 50th anniversary commemoration of the second battle of Selma are one piece of evidence that this is so. Fully implementing our country's definition is without a doubt extraordinarily complicated, if it can even be done at all. History has shown that implementing our country's definition is much more complicated than the Founding Fathers ever imagined, and the specifics of implementation are different for different people, which contributes to the complications. Nevertheless, since the time that Thomas Jefferson penned the words that define our nation, our country has made much progress toward attaining its definition. It is important that we continue in this progress, so that the words that define our nation are not just a proposition, but a way of life.


Nathan Bedford Forrest
James Wilson


A Doubly Exemplary Singular
Civil War Accomplishment

To paraphrase Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of baseball." There are many aspects of baseball that make it such a captivating sport, not the least of which is the time of year when it is played. Baseball rises from its hibernation in the spring, when the earth is emerging from another of its recurrent seasons of lifelessness. Baseball flows through the hot days and warm nights of summer as a leisurely accompaniment to the sunshine and easy living. Baseball's climax comes as autumn is putting a close on another season of beaches, amusement parks, and cookouts, and the crowning of baseball's champion serves as a reminder that the next cycle of hard, drab days is near.

Another aspect of baseball that intrigues its fans is the sport's many great players, and baseball, more so than other sports, possesses a larger and more intricate range of measures to assess a player's sustained performance. With the myriad statistics that are tracked, there are many metrics that can be used to evaluate a player's career. But sometimes momentary greatness comes to a player, such as a perfect game or no-hitter, and this exceptional accomplishment earns the player a place in baseball history. One unique feat of momentary greatness occurred in the 1934 All-Star Game, when Carl Hubbell, a pitcher for the New York Giants, struck out in succession not just five Hall of Fame players, but five of the best hitters in the history of Major League Baseball: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin. How this relates to the Civil War is that there was a Union officer who could claim something comparable in that he was the only Union officer who had the twofold remarkable achievement of defeating both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. That person is Nathan Kimball.

Nathan Kimball was born on November 22, 1822 in Fredericksburg, Indiana. He did not receive a military education, but attended what became DePauw University and became a teacher. He later learned medicine and established a private practice near the town where he was born. When war broke out with Mexico, Kimball volunteered, raised an infantry company, and was elected its captain. At the battle of Buena Vista, he rallied his company to hold its position even after the rest of the regiment fled. After the Mexican-American War, Kimball returned to Indiana and continued to practice medicine.

Shortly after the Civil War began, Kimball again volunteered and raised an infantry company. The governor of Indiana named Kimball a colonel in command of the 14th Indiana Infantry Regiment. Kimball's regiment was sent to western Virginia to participate in the fighting there, and eventually the 14th Indiana ended up in what would become southeastern West Virginia. Kimball's regiment was stationed in a fort on a mountain named Cheat Mountain. Opposing Kimball was a Confederate force that was being directed by Robert E. Lee, who had been sent by Jefferson Davis to oversee operations in western Virginia. On September 12, 1861, Lee's forces launched an attack against the fort in which Kimball's regiment was stationed. Lee's battle plan was far too intricate to be carried out by the inexperienced troops that he had at his disposal, and Kimball's command won the battle and drove off the Confederates. Thus, Nathan Kimball, the commander of the fort on Cheat Mountain, could claim to have defeated troops who were commanded by Robert E. Lee in what was Lee's first combat command of the Civil War.

In the spring of 1862, Kimball's 14th Indiana was moved to the Shenandoah Valley where it was brigaded with three other regiments (including the 8th Ohio of Gettysburg fame), and Kimball was named brigade commander. The brigade was part of a division commanded by James Shields, and this division was part of the army that was commanded by Nathaniel Banks. Two of Banks' three divisions were moved to the vicinity of Washington to protect the U.S. capital when George McClellan moved the Army of the Potomac into Virginia for his Peninsula campaign. Banks' remaining division, the one commanded by James Shields, was moved to Winchester, Virginia at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley. When Stonewall Jackson received intelligence about the Union movements, he marched his army northward through the valley to attack Shields' isolated division. Jackson's cavalry skirmished with Shields' men on March 22, 1862 on the opening day of what came to be known as the first battle of Kernstown, which is about three miles south of Winchester. During this fighting, Shields was wounded, and command on the field passed to Nathan Kimball. On the following day, Jackson's small army attacked the strong Union position. However, Kimball skillfully shifted his troops to counter Stonewall's thrusts, and Kimball's force held the field. The mighty Stonewall withdrew in what was a defeat in the first battle of Stonewall's vaunted Valley campaign.

After this battle, Nathan Kimball took part in the battle of Antietam, where his brigade fought so well against the Confederates in the sunken road that it was given the nickname the Gibraltar Brigade. Kimball's brigade later fought at Fredericksburg and was one of the units that Ambrose Burnside threw at the stone wall. In fact, Kimball's Gibraltar Brigade was the first Union unit to be sent against the stone wall. During the carnage in front of the stone wall Kimball was seriously wounded, which is ironic because this occurred near the Virginia city that bears the same name as Kimball's Indiana birthplace. Because of his wound, Kimball could not command the brigade in subsequent battles. After Kimball recovered, he was sent to the western theater and eventually commanded a division under William Tecumseh Sherman in the Atlanta campaign and later was a division commander at the battles of Franklin and Nashville. After the Civil War, Kimball returned to Indiana, was elected state treasurer, and brought about banking reform. In 1873, President Ulysses Grant appointed Kimball surveyor general for the Utah Territory, which he held until 1878. He was then appointed postmaster of Ogden, Utah and remained in this position until his death in 1898. Nathan Kimball is buried in Weber, Utah.

Carl Hubbell did more in his baseball career than his historic feat in the 1934 All-Star Game. Hubbell's career was so exceptional that he was elected into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Nevertheless, there are many Major League baseball players not in the Hall of Fame who nonetheless had some outstanding singular accomplishment during their careers. For instance, of the 23 pitchers to throw a perfect game, only 6 are members of the Hall of Fame, and of the 16 players to hit 4 home runs in one game, only 5 are members of the Hall of Fame. If there were a Civil War Hall of Fame, Nathan Kimball most likely would not have been elected to it. Kimball's Civil War career was solid, but not stellar. However, Nathan Kimball can justly claim that he defeated two of the Confederacy's greatest military leaders, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, which is a doubly prodigious feat and also is an exemplary achievement that cannot be claimed by any 'Hall of Fame'-caliber Civil War military leaders.


Carl Hubbell
Nathan Kimball


One War at a Time... Again

During the Civil War the United States Navy committed a maritime violation of British sovereignty, which caused a serious international diplomatic incident and which led some in the British Empire to call for war against the U.S. This statement can refer to the November 1861 incident involving the British steamer Trent and the U.S. warship San Jacinto in what came to be known as the Trent Affair, but everyone who is interested in the Civil War knows about the Trent Affair. This statement can also refer to the less widely known December 1863 incident involving the Nova Scotian vessel Investigator and the U.S. gunboat Ella and Annie in what came to be known as the Chesapeake Affair.

At the center of the Chesapeake Affair was a U.S. passenger steamer, the Chesapeake, which made regular runs between New York City and Portland, Maine. A group of 18 Confederate sympathizers, all of whom were citizens of New Brunswick or Nova Scotia and, hence, were British subjects, plotted to hijack the Chesapeake, take her south, and use her to prey on Union shipping. Several of these men had aliases, so their names appear in different forms in the historical record. The masterminds of the plot were Vernon G. Locke and John C. Brain, each of whom was the epitome of a scoundrel. During the summer of 1863, these men and their cohorts met several times in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Saint John, New Brunswick to make their plans.

In a feat of legal legerdemain that would make a shifty defense attorney proud, Vernon Locke concocted a scheme whereby, if the Chesapeake conspirators were apprehended, the commandeering of the Chesapeake would be classified as an act of war rather than an act of piracy, which would spare the perpetrators from charges of piracy, at least according to Locke's convoluted rationalizing. Locke had in his possession a letter of marque written by Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin authorizing a Confederate raiding ship, the Retribution, to seize Northern merchant ships and sell their cargo. The letter of marque had originally been issued to someone named Thomas Power, who transferred the letter to Locke when Locke took over command of the Retribution. After the Retribution captured some Northern merchant ships in the West Indies early in 1863, the vessel docked in Nassau in March 1863, but she was seized by the authorities because she was judged to be unseaworthy. However, Locke kept the letter of marque for possible future use, and that possibility arrived when Locke planned to use the letter to avoid charges of piracy for the hijacking of the Chesapeake. Locke's scheme involved renaming the Chesapeake the Retribution and claiming that the vessel's name in conjunction with the letter of marque constituted evidence that the Chesapeake conspirators were engaged not in an act of piracy, but an act of war.

The passenger steamer, Chesapeake

On December 5, 1863, 16 of the conspirators boarded the Chesapeake in New York City as passengers and brought with them a large trunk, which contained a cache of weapons. Sometime between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m. on December 7, when the Chesapeake was at sea off of Cape Cod, the conspirators armed themselves, seized the vessel, and put the ship's captain, Isaac Willets, in irons. During the hijacking, conspirator John Wade shot and killed the Chesapeake's second engineer, Orin Schaffer, whose body was thrown overboard. The conspirators released most of the crew and passengers somewhere near Saint John, New Brunswick, and then they continued on to Nova Scotia to refuel for their voyage south. After his release, the Chesapeake's captain was able to notify U.S. authorities about the commandeering of his vessel, and two U.S. warships were dispatched to pursue the Chesapeake. One of these warships was a gunboat named the Ella and Annie.

As an aside, the Ella and Annie had quite an interesting history. She began her existence as the William G. Hewes in 1860 and operated as a commercial steamer between the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. In April 1861 she was seized by the state of Louisiana, renamed the Ella and Annie, and used as a blockade runner. In November 1863, she was captured by a U.S. blockade ship and purchased by the U.S. Navy, which converted her into a gunboat by arming her. A few months after her role in the Chesapeake affair, she was rechristened the USS Malvern, under which name she became David Dixon Porter's flagship and also transported Abraham Lincoln up the James River to Richmond, Virginia when Lincoln visited the captured Confederate capital.

The USS Malvern (nee Ella and Annie)

For a week after the hijacking of the Chesapeake, the Ella and Annie pursued the commandeered vessel along the southern coast of Nova Scotia, while the Chesapeake conspirators frantically tried to find a large enough supply of coal to fuel their captured ship's voyage south. After one close call, in which the Chesapeake's lights were turned off so the vessel could steam away unseen during the night, the Ella and Annie caught up to the hijacked ship on December 17 when the Chesapeake was taking on coal from a Nova Scotian vessel named the Investigator. The Investigator had been contracted by the conspirators to bring a supply of coal to the Chesapeake, and the transfer was being done in the harbor at Sambro, Nova Scotia, in other words, in British territorial waters. In spite of this, the captain of the Ella and Annie, J.F. Nickels, took control of the Chesapeake and also had a party board the Investigator, a British ship in British waters, where they found and took prisoner one of the conspirators, John Wade, the person who killed the Chesapeake's second engineer. No other conspirators were found, because all of them had fled when they sighted the Ella and Annie closing on the Chesapeake. A boarding party from the Ella and Annie found two residents of Halifax, brothers William and Alexander Henry, on board the Chesapeake, because they had been contracted by the Chesapeake conspirators to serve as engineers, and the Henry brothers were also taken prisoner.

By this time, the other Union warship that had been sent after the Chesapeake, the Dacotah, arrived on the scene, and both ships escorted the Chesapeake to Halifax, where Sir Charles Hastings Doyle, Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, had been informed that a U.S. warship had taken possession of another ship in British territorial waters. When Doyle was later informed that an armed party had boarded a Nova Scotian vessel and arrested two citizens of Halifax, Doyle demanded that the Chesapeake and the three prisoners (Wade and the Henry brothers) be turned over to him. The captain of the Dacotah, A.G. Clary, who was the senior officer, acceded to this, and arrangements were made for Nova Scotian authorities to take control of the Chesapeake and the three prisoners, but not before much bluster from local authorities and newspapers about violation of British sovereignty. The indignation among Nova Scotians over violation of their sovereignty was matched by indignation in the U.S. over the piracy and murder that had been committed by British subjects on a U.S. vessel. For example, the Milwaukee Sentinel called residents of Saint John, New Brunswick "mere pimps of Jefferson Davis and his fellow traitors."

On December 19, two days after the captain of the Ella and Annie seized control of the Chesapeake and took John Wade prisoner, a Halifax police contingent was sent to take Wade into custody upon his release from the Americans. A crowd of locals estimated at between 30 and 50 had gathered to watch the exchange, and as soon as Wade stepped onto the wharf, he was rushed by some in the crowd onto a small rowboat that appeared just as Wade set foot on the wharf. Wade was then taken away in the boat, which was rowed by two men, Jerry Holland and Bernard Gallagher, who were champion oarsmen. When one member of the police contingent, Constable Lew Hutt, drew his revolver and aimed it at the rowboat, three of the locals in the crowd grabbed Hutt and disarmed him, and the rowboat carrying John Wade disappeared out of sight. Not surprisingly, this inflamed tensions even more, since Wade was the man who killed the Chesapeake's second engineer.

Following Wade's escape in the rowboat, there was an investigation of the incident, and in spite of the meticulously fortuitous circumstances of the escape, the Attorney General of Nova Scotia, J.W. Johnston, concluded in his report that the escape was not premeditated, but "resulted from means that casually offered at an opportune moment." Nova Scotia Lieutenant-Governor Doyle related to Lord Richard Lyons, the British Minister in Washington, that there was "not a shadow of evidence of concert or premeditation to obstruct (the) arrest of Wade." A 20th Century historian gave his opinion of these official statements when he wrote in one of the most understated assertions to ever appear in a history article, "This is just too difficult to believe." After his escape in the rowboat, John Wade was never apprehended and was never brought to trial for his role in the Chesapeake hijacking.

Warrants were issued for the arrest of the other Chesapeake conspirators, but only three were ever brought to trial, and these did not include Vernon Locke and John Brain, the leaders of the group, because Locke and Brain were never captured. The three conspirators who were apprehended were brought to court in January 1864 to determine if they should be extradited to the U.S. to face charges of piracy and murder. The magistrate, Humphrey T. Gilbert, ruled that the prisoners should be extradited, and one of the factors that played into the ruling was the irregularities associated with the letter of marque. However, the case was appealed to a higher court, and the presiding judge, William Johnstone Ritchie, overturned Gilbert's ruling on a series of technicalities. The prisoners were released, and they never faced trial again. This is the closest that any of the Chesapeake conspirators came to punishment for their crime.

As for the vessel that was commandeered, a court in the British Admiralty ruled that the Chesapeake's seizure was unlawful, and she was returned to her owners, which at least brought this aspect of the Chesapeake Affair to a proper resolution. The only other issue to be resolved was the violation of British sovereignty, and this was handled diplomatically by U.S. Secretary of State William Seward in a letter to Lord Lyons, the British Minister in Washington. In that letter, Seward acknowledged that there had been a violation of British sovereignty, and he conveyed that President Lincoln disapproved and regretted the actions of the U.S. Navy personnel. In response, the British government deemed the apology from the U.S. government to be "ample and unreserved," and the issue was settled.

"One war at a time." With this witty comment, Abraham Lincoln explained his reason for not allowing the Trent Affair to escalate to something more serious. Despite all the bluster among the populace of Nova Scotia, by all accounts the Chesapeake Affair, in contrast to the Trent Affair, never rose to a level where war with England seemed like a possibility. But if the Chesapeake Affair had intensified to a degree that war with England became a realistic possibility, then Abraham Lincoln already had a clever quote of his own making to defuse the situation.


CSA Secretary of State
Judah Benjamin

U.S. Secretary of State
William Seward



The Other Thirteenth Amendment(s)

The acclaimed movie Lincoln focuses on passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. But before this Thirteenth Amendment was even conceived, there was another proposed Thirteenth Amendment that was far different in its intended objective than Lincoln's Thirteenth Amendment. This Thirteenth Amendment was passed by Congress on March 2, 1861, two days before Abraham Lincoln's first inauguration. In contrast to Lincoln's Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, this other Thirteenth Amendment protected slavery by denying to Congress the power to pass either laws or a Constitutional amendment to interfere with or abolish slavery. Moreover, Abraham Lincoln publicly expressed support for this Thirteenth Amendment.

In response to the secession crisis, which increased in severity after Lincoln's election in November 1860, outgoing President James Buchanan asked Congress in December 1860 to pass an amendment that would safeguard slavery. This was an attempt by Buchanan to appease the southern states into remaining in the Union, and the House of Representatives organized a committee to draft such an amendment. The head of this committee was Ohio Congressman Thomas Corwin, and the proposed amendment that resulted bears his name as the Corwin Amendment, although Corwin did not draft the amendment. The Corwin Amendment was only one of numerous Congressional resolutions that were proposed to mollify the South and put an end to threats of secession, but of all these resolutions, the Corwin Amendment came closest to being enacted. At the time, there were twelve amendments to the Constitution, which would have made the Corwin Amendment the thirteenth upon its ratification.

The Corwin Amendment reads, "No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State." In other words, this Thirteenth Amendment not only prohibited Congress from interfering with slavery, but also prohibited Congress from passing an amendment that would abolish this Thirteenth Amendment. After the Corwin Amendment was drafted, it became the subject of acrimonious debate in the House of Representatives. In one exchange, a House member who opposed the amendment pointed out that although the unspoken subject of the Corwin Amendment was slavery, other "domestic institutions" of the states were also protected. This House member pointed this out by stating, "Does that include polygamy, the other twin relic of barbarism?" In response, another House member asked, "Does the gentleman desire to know whether he shall be prohibited from committing that crime?"

The Corwin Amendment was passed by the House of Representatives on February 28, 1861 and by the Senate on March 2, 1861 in a rare Sunday session after two days of intense debate. Ironically, the senator who guided passage of the Corwin Amendment in the Senate, and, indeed, had been most instrumental in drafting the amendment, was William Seward.  There is also evidence that President-elect Abraham Lincoln had input into the amendment. After the amendment was passed by Congress, outgoing President James Buchanan fixed his signature to it, even though, according to the Constitution, the president has no role in the ratification of amendments. Thus, not only did Buchanan improperly put his signature on something to show his affirmation, but that affirmation was given to something which was a bad idea. However, another and more highly regarded president also gave public support to the Corwin Amendment. Two days after the Corwin Amendment was passed by Congress, Abraham Lincoln stated his support of it in his First Inaugural Address when he said, "I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution, which amendment, however, I have not seen, has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service...(H)olding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable." It fell to the newly elected president to send copies of the Corwin Amendment to the states for consideration, including the states that had already seceded. Three states ratified the proposed Thirteenth Amendment: Ohio, Maryland, and Illinois (although a procedural issue calls into question the ratification by Illinois).

The secession of the southern states and subsequent Civil War made ratification of the Corwin Amendment unnecessary, but the amendment raises two interesting constitutional issues. First, is an unamendable amendment constitutional? The Corwin Amendment took away Congressional authority to amend it, but does such a provision violate the Constitution? The second issue points out a flaw in the Constitution. In the view of some, the Framers of the Constitution were closer to infallibility than the pope. But there is an omission from the Constitution with regard to amendments, and that omission is a time limit for ratification. Because of this, it is technically possible (albeit unlikely) that the Corwin Amendment can still be ratified. In fact, in March 1963, more than 100 years after Abraham Lincoln sent the Corwin Amendment to the states for consideration, a Texas state representative named Henry Stollenwerck introduced a resolution for Texas to ratify the Corwin Amendment. Stollenwerck was not attempting to bring slavery back to Texas or to prevent Congress from interfering with the "domestic institutions" of Texas. His purpose was to bring attention to the lack of a time limit on unratified proposed amendments.

We now know that the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery in the United States. But a proposed amendment that could have been the Thirteenth Amendment would have had the opposite effect by protecting slavery from any interference by Congress. As it happens, the Corwin Amendment was chronologically the second potential Thirteenth Amendment. An amendment that was approved by Congress in 1810, at a time when there were twelve amendments, was the first to have the opportunity to be number thirteen. This first potential Thirteenth Amendment, which came within two states of ratification, would remove U.S. citizenship from any citizen who accepts a title of nobility from a foreign country. Like the Corwin Amendment, the amendment dealing with titles of nobility has no time limit and can technically still be ratified. It is unlikely that the nobility amendment will ever be ratified, but if that were to happen, it is fortunate for presidential candidates of both the Democratic and Republican parties that the amendment specifies foreign titles of nobility, because this allows these candidates to maintain the U.S. citizenship that is required for the presidency while still retaining the domestic nobility that presidential candidates nowadays seem to feel they possess.


James Buchanan
Thomas Corwin


The Decisive Battle of the Civil War:
An Unlikely Nomination

One of the topics that Civil War enthusiasts enjoy debating is the question of which Civil War battle was the decisive one. As a way of delving again into the thorny subject of the Civil War's decisive battle, a nomination for this distinction is made herein. It is likely that no one will agree with this choice for the Civil War's decisive battle, but if nothing else, the selection of this battle as the decisive one can be taken as an example of how a seemingly distant and unrelated occurrence can have a profound effect on subsequent events. The two Civil War battles that are most often mentioned as the war's decisive battle are Gettysburg and Vicksburg. However, to give consideration to the nomination proposed herein, then it is necessary to accept that the decisive battle of the Civil War did not occur in 1863 in Pennsylvania or Mississippi or, for that matter, anywhere else during 1863. The decisive battle of the Civil War also did not take place in 1864 or 1865. Nor did it occur in 1861 or 1862, and it did not happen in Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, or Tennessee. The decisive battle of the Civil War happened in 1847, and it took place in Mexico. The decisive battle of the Civil War was the battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican-American War.

The battle of Buena Vista took place in February 1847. A U.S. army under the command of future president Zachary Taylor was advancing south in Mexico. Taylor received word from a scout that a much larger Mexican army under Antonio López de Santa Anna was moving to oppose him. Taylor positioned his army in a mountain pass to give his smaller force the benefit of terrain. Part of Taylor's army was positioned on high ground on the left. Santa Anna's battle plan was to try to move against and around this left flank, and he sent elements of his army to do so. In spite of the advantage of the high ground, the Mexicans were driving the Americans back, and the left flank of Taylor's army was on the brink of collapse. At this point Taylor sent forward a Mississippi regiment, the Mississippi Rifles, which was under the command of Taylor's son-in-law, Colonel Jefferson Davis. Davis's regiment managed to hold off the Mexicans, but the battle was far from over. A renewed and fierce Mexican attack led to the American lines once more being on the verge of crumbling. To drive off the enemy force Taylor sent in an artillery unit under the command of Captain Braxton Bragg with explicit orders from Taylor to "maintain the position at every hazard." What is remarkable about Bragg's artillery unit rushing forward is that it was done with no infantry support. Only 50 yards from the enemy, Bragg's unit unlimbered and drove canister into the advancing Mexicans, which brought the attack to an end.

Several anecdotes from the battle of Buena Vista are noteworthy. For example, Zachary Taylor was reputed to be astride his horse near the front when someone shouted to him that a cannonball was heading toward him. Supposedly Taylor timed the flight of the cannonball and lifted himself off his saddle to allow the projectile to pass under him and above his horse. While it is true that Taylor remained near the front in harm's way, it is almost certain that that incident is apocryphal. Also apocryphal is the purported admonition that Taylor made to Bragg to give the Mexicans "a little more grape, Captain Bragg." Since Bragg's guns were firing canister, not grapeshot, this exhortation is almost certainly inaccurate, but it was used in various forms as a slogan during Taylor's successful 1848 campaign for the U.S. presidency. One anecdote from the battle of Buena Vista that is true, and is also relevant to the Civil War, is that Jefferson Davis witnessed Braxton Bragg's bold and unsupported movement against the Mexican attack, and this incident colored Davis's opinion of Bragg to the eventual detriment of the Confederate cause.

During the Civil War, when it became clear that Braxton Bragg was wholly incompetent as an army commander, Confederate President Jefferson Davis continued to leave Bragg in command of the Army of Tennessee while that army lost more and more southern territory in the western theater. It was not until the disaster at Missionary Ridge demonstrated convincingly that the men in the Army of Tennessee had lost all respect for Bragg and all willingness to follow his orders that Davis finally made the decision to remove Bragg from command. But by then Bragg's incompetence had solidified the outcome in the western theater. A number of Civil War historians, such as Richard McMurry, have argued compellingly that the Civil War was decided not in the East, but in the West, and Jefferson Davis' reluctance to remove Bragg was instrumental in allowing Bragg to sow disaster for the Confederacy in the western theater, which ultimately led to overall Confederate defeat. Davis' sustaining of Bragg in the face of evidence that such support was not warranted had its genesis in 1847 at the battle of Buena Vista.

There is a short story titled "A Sound of Thunder" by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. The premise of the story is that a futuristic and beneficent society has developed the capacity for time travel, and this is used for tourism. One type of trip is to go back in time on a safari for the thrill of killing a dinosaur. The company that operates the service is careful to select only those dinosaurs that were about to die from some other cause in order not to disrupt the future by altering the past. A participant on one safari panics at the sight of the Tyrannosaurus rex that is the target of the group, and this person jumps off of the time travel platform on which everyone is supposed to remain in order to prevent potentially disastrous contact between the people from the future and the world of the past. After this person jumps off of the platform, he steps on and kills a butterfly. When the safari group returns to its own time, the beneficent, enlightened society from which they departed has been replaced by one that is despotic and oppressive. The lesson of this short story is that a seemingly miniscule occurrence can have substantial consequences when the effects of that occurrence become amplified through the course of time.

And so it was with the battle of Buena Vista. Jefferson Davis was so struck by the bravery and daring of Braxton Bragg that Davis continued to have faith in Bragg during the Civil War, even after all the evidence indicated that Bragg was woefully ineffective as commander of the Army of Tennessee. Davis' misplaced faith in Bragg thus played a major role in determining the outcome in the western theater and thereby in the Civil War itself. This misplaced faith grew out of Davis' observations of Bragg at the battle of Buena Vista, and the effects of those observations and of the opinion that arose from them rippled through time and played a decisive role in the Confederacy's defeat.


Braxton Bragg
Jefferson Davis
Zachary Taylor


On to Richmond!

On to Richmond! This was the battle cry in the North at the beginning of the Civil War, and it signified the objective to capture the Confederate capital and thereby bring a quick end to the rebellion. The history books state that it took nearly four years from the war's outset until that goal was attained. However, Richmond actually fell under Union control by the end of 1862, but before this happened there was a battle there that was not only the most one-sided Confederate victory, but the most one-sided victory by either side during the Civil War. Moreover, the commander of the Union army at Richmond was killed by Jefferson Davis. Of course, these statements do not refer to Richmond, Virginia, but to Richmond, Kentucky, although there is a connection between these two cities. The Richmond in Kentucky was founded by Revolutionary War veteran John Miller in 1798, and it was named in honor of Miller's birthplace, Richmond, Virginia.

Kentucky was considered of utmost importance by both sides during the Civil War, not simply because this state was the birthplace of both the president of the United States of America and the president of the Confederate States of America, but because of its geographic importance. Abraham Lincoln thought that Kentucky was so important to the Union war effort that he reputedly said in 1861, "I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky," and later that year Lincoln wrote in a letter, "I think to lose Kentucky is to lose the whole game." The Confederacy wanted Kentucky in order to have the more defensible Ohio River as part of its northern border. At the beginning of the Civil War, Kentucky, by its own proclamation, belonged to neither side, since the state made the unrealistic declaration of its neutrality. Confederate General Leonidas Polk violated this neutrality in September 1861 by having the army he commanded occupy Columbus, Kentucky, and from that point on Kentucky was in the war. Other Confederate forces later pushed into southern Kentucky. But after the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson, Confederate positions in Kentucky became untenable, and all Confederate forces there withdrew to Tennessee.

In the summer of 1862, two Confederate armies advanced into Kentucky from Tennessee with the objective of securing the Bluegrass State and validating its star on the Confederate flag. Braxton Bragg's army moved into central Kentucky, and Edmund Kirby Smith's smaller army moved into eastern Kentucky. While Don Carlos Buell moved his army north in pursuit of Bragg, a small army under the command of William "Bull" Nelson advanced from its camp, which was not far from Lexington, to meet Kirby Smith's force. On August 29-30, 1862, the same dates as the battle of Second Bull Run, Kirby Smith's veteran army and Nelson's inexperienced force clashed at Richmond, Kentucky, which is about 25 miles southeast of Lexington.

When the battle started, Nelson was still in Lexington. On the first day of the battle, there was some action that started near sunset, but was inconclusive. The majority of the fighting occurred on the second day, and early on that second day Kirby Smith's army, spearheaded by a division commanded by Patrick Cleburne, drove the Union army back in what was later characterized as a rout. At about this time Nelson arrived on the battlefield and was able to stem the flight and reorganize his line. To calm his inexperienced men, Nelson, who was a very big man at 6 feet, 4 inches and 300 pounds, walked along his line and shouted to his men, "If they can't hit me, they can't hit anything." Unfortunately for Nelson he was hit twice, although the wounds were superficial. Nevertheless, the sight of their commander being shot put Nelson's green troops into a panic, and they fled in disorder. The ensuing Confederate victory was total. Of the 6,500 Union men in the battle, over 5,300, or more than 82%, were killed, wounded, captured, or missing. Confederate losses were about 450, or less than 7% of their total force and only 8% of the Union losses.

Less than three weeks after the battle, Nelson had recovered from his minor wounds and was working with other Union commanders in making plans to stop the Confederate advance into Kentucky. An Indiana officer with the unfortunate name of Jefferson Davis was assigned to assist Nelson. Davis had been at Fort Sumter on the first day of the Civil War and then in a few battles thereafter, and he desired to return to combat. But Nelson gave Davis non-combat assignments, and Davis took to these tasks less than enthusiastically. When Nelson, whose leadership style was brusque, became upset with Davis' poor attitude, there was a confrontation between the two men. After an argument, Nelson relieved Davis and told him to leave Kentucky. Davis returned to his home state of Indiana and, still seething, met with the governor, who accompanied Davis to Kentucky to confront Nelson. Again an argument ensued between Nelson and Davis, but this time words escalated to actions. These actions began with Davis tossing a crumpled card into Nelson's face. Nelson responded by giving a backhanded slap to Davis' jaw with one of his large hands, and then Nelson stormed away. The enraged Davis borrowed a pistol on the spot, pursued Nelson, aimed the pistol at the large man, and shot him in the chest. Exactly one month after the first day of the battle of Richmond, Bull Nelson was dead at the hand of a fellow officer. Davis was arrested but was never prosecuted or punished, most likely because of the Union's great need for experienced officers. Later in the war, Davis served under William Tecumseh Sherman as a corps commander during Sherman's campaigns through Georgia and the Carolinas. After the Civil War, Davis was made the first commander of the Department of Alaska.

As for the immediate problem of the twin Confederate advances into Kentucky, these culminated with the battle of Perryville in early October of 1862. After Bragg's setback there, his army joined with Kirby Smith's army, and both armies withdrew to Tennessee. From then on there was no major effort by the Confederacy to take Kentucky, and the only Confederate action in the state consisted of some raids by Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan. For the remainder of the Civil War, Kentucky, including Richmond, remained under Union control. Lincoln had Kentucky, as he wanted for fear of losing the whole game, although opinions differ as to whether God was on his side.

On to Richmond. This goal was reached in Kentucky before it happened in Virginia, although prior to Richmond, Kentucky falling under Union control, the Confederacy won a great victory there. No less an authority on the Civil War than Shelby Foote called the South's victory at Richmond, Kentucky, "the nearest thing to a Cannae ever scored by any general, North or South, in the course of the whole war." Of the two Richmonds, the one in Virginia is certainly the more popular destination for Civil War enthusiasts. But if someone wants to visit the site of the most one-sided victory in the Civil War, then the thing to do is to go 'on to Richmond,' but to the other Richmond: Richmond, Kentucky.


Braxton Bragg
Don Carlos Buell
Edmund Kirby Smith
William "Bull" Nelson


The Fabricated Letter of Robert E. Lee

Anyone who has an e-mail account has received them: those forwarded e-mails that relate some preposterous, attention-grabbing information about some public figure and are intended to put that public figure in a bad light. President Barack Obama is a Muslim who will not recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and his birth certificate is a forgery. At a right-to-life rally, President George W. Bush repeatedly used the word "feces" instead of "fetus." Many years before 9/11, Senator Al Gore was warned by Oliver North about Osama bin-Laden. The origin of these e-mails is almost never known, but people who oppose these public figures and the causes they embrace send these e-mails around the Internet to discredit both the public figures and their causes. At best, these e-mails are misleading embellishments that bear little resemblance to the truth, and many times they are simply false. But with the Internet these e-mails can reach and potentially sway an incredibly large and widespread number of people. The Civil War had a similar fabrication that was circulated to readers as a factual occurrence, although it, of course, was not disseminated by e-mail.

The fabrication was a letter purportedly written by Robert E. Lee to his eldest son, Custis. (There are a couple of articles that can be found on-line in which detailed and conclusive evidence is presented to refute the authenticity of the letter, and anyone who is interested in this evidence is referred to these articles. See links below.)

The letter was reportedly found in Lee's home, Arlington House, and was first published in the New York Sun on November 26, 1864 and then subsequently published in other newspapers. The two-paragraph letter was supposedly written to Custis Lee when Custis was a cadet at West Point. In the first paragraph, Robert E. Lee purportedly gives advice to his son about honesty in dealing with others, and in the second paragraph Lee discusses devotion to duty.

The letter reads in part:

You must study to be frank with the world: frankness is the child of honesty and courage...Deal kindly, but firmly, with all your classmates; you will find it the policy which wears best. Above all, do not appear to others what you are not...(T)here is no more dangerous experiment than that of undertaking to be one thing before a man's face and another behind his back. We should live, act and say nothing to the injury of any one. It is not only best as a matter of principle, but it is the path to peace and honor.

In regard to duty, let me...inform you that nearly a hundred years ago there was a day of remarkable gloom and darkness—still known as the dark day— a day when the light of the sun was slowly extinguished as if by an eclipse. The Legislature of Connecticut was in session, and as its members saw the unexpected and unaccountable darkness coming on, they shared in the general awe and terror. It was supposed by many that the last day—the day of judgment—had come. Someone, in the consternation of the hour, moved an adjournment. Then there arose an old Puritan legislator, Devenport of Stamford, and said, that if the last day had come, he desired to be found at his place doing his duty, and, therefore, moved that candles be brought in so that the house could proceed with its duty...Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things like the old Puritan. You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less.

Based on the text of the fabricated letter, Lee does not come across very badly. (There are some Unionists who harbor such intense animosity toward Robert E. Lee that had one such person authored this kind of fabrication, he would have made Lee look like the anti-Christ.) Instead, Lee comes across in the fabricated letter as a caring, wise, and engaged father. The letter puts Lee in such a favorable light that after it was debunked, even admirers of Lee had difficulty accepting that the last lines of the letter in altered form are not an authentic Lee quote. ("Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less.") Since Lee is not made to look malevolent or buffoonish, what, then, is the motive of the perpetrator of this hoax? There is no definitive answer, but there are a few suppositions.

It may be that this whole incident was simply someone's prank to fool a major newspaper into publishing something that was a sham, and this may be all that the perpetrator had in mind. Another possibility that has been proposed as the motive is that the intent was to put Lee in a bad light by including the anecdote about the Connecticut Puritan. According to this conjecture, Lee and the Confederate cause are made to look bad because Lee needed to resort to a story about a Northerner in order to advise his son about devotion to duty. In this interpretation, Robert E. Lee, the most successful Confederate commander, was not able to find a suitable Southern example when he wanted to give guidance to his son about devotion to duty. Another possibility is that publication of the letter implicitly proclaimed the occupation of Lee's own home by the Union army. This letter was published in newspapers in late November 1864, after Abraham Lincoln's re-election and the fall of Atlanta, and at a time when Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was blocking the Army of the Potomac from capturing Richmond. But although Lee was holding off a Union army from the Confederate capital, his home was in such thorough possession by the Union army that even something as personal as a letter to his son was in Union hands. In this interpretation of the motive for the fabricated letter, Robert E. Lee, the personification of the Confederate military, was portrayed as being unable to protect his own home, and, by extension, Lee and the Confederacy were portrayed as being too weak to prevent defeat by the Union.

Whatever the motive for the fabricated letter, this incident shows that the practice of disseminating fabrications to discredit public figures is not a new phenomenon. The only difference is in the techniques that are employed to distribute those fabrications. In the attempt to put Robert E. Lee in a bad light by using a letter purportedly written by Lee, the written word was spread to the public by the most effective means available at the time, namely newspapers. Nowadays that mode of dissemination is archaically slow compared to the methods available to us. With e-mails sent over the Internet, fabrications can be spread not just throughout the country, but all over the world in far less time than it took Civil War newspapers to distribute the Lee fabrication. Whoever sought to discredit Lee with the fabricated letter probably would have liked to spread his fabrication by e-mail, but he was limited to the means that were available to him, and the Internet did not exist at the time of the Civil War. After all, according to an e-mail that was being circulated several years ago, it was not until long after the Civil War that Al Gore invented the Internet.

Related Links:

The Forged Letter of General Robert E. Lee @ Washington and Lee University



The Civil War: Chapter 17, Verses 1-51

The Philistines gathered together their armies to battle, and Saul and the men of Israel were gathered together. A champion went out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He stood and cried unto the armies of Israel, "Choose you a man for you, and let him come down to me." All the men of Israel, when they saw the man, fled from him and were afraid. David said to Saul, "Your servant will go and fight with this Philistine." David took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones out of the brook and put them in a shepherd’s bag which he had, and he drew near to the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took thence a stone, and slung it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, and he fell upon his face to the earth. David ran and stood upon the Philistine, drew his sword out of the sheath, and slew Goliath.

This Biblical story is the prototype of a clash in which a smaller, apparently weaker combatant defeats a larger, stronger adversary. The Confederate Navy had its own David, both figuratively and literally. This was the small warship CSS David. The David was a cigar-shaped vessel about 50 feet long and with a diameter of about five and a half feet at her widest point. The boat was designed to sail very low in the water so that she operated as a semi-submersible with only her low conning tower and smokestack above water. Her only weapon was a 130-pound explosive charge, or torpedo, projecting from the bow on a 30-foot spar. Her intended plan of attack was to sail undetected at night close to enemy ships, plant her torpedo below water on the hull of her target, and then detonate the torpedo with a lanyard as she withdrew.

The development of the semi-submersible David and the more well-known Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley was the epitome of invention being born of necessity, because the Confederate Navy was far inferior to the Union Navy with regard to conventional resources. In the seceding states that became the Confederacy, one of the prevailing opinions about fighting men from the industrialized North was to berate the Northerners as "pasty-faced mechanics," whose fighting capabilities were inferior to those of Southern men. This opinion held sway in the South, because it was felt that the agrarian lifestyle in the South made the men there more physically fit. In light of the "pasty-faced mechanics" insult, it is ironic that it was Southern mechanics, of unknown complexion, who developed some of the most intriguing naval innovations of the Civil War, such as the Hunley and the David.

The CSS David

The David was designed by Charleston physician St. Julien Ravenel, and the construction was privately funded by Theodore Stoney and supervised by David Ebaugh. The David's wooden hull was encased with metal, and her small engine burned anthracite coal, which emits very little smoke when burned and made detection of the David more difficult. Some accounts claim that her partial submersion was effected with ballast tanks filled with water, but more accurate evidence indicates that this was done by loading pig iron into the bottom of the hull. When running on the water's surface, the David could reach a speed of 10 knots; by comparison the Hunley, which was propelled with a hand-cranked mechanism that was powered by her crew, could do only 4 knots on the surface, the Monitor could reach 6 knots, and the Alabama 13 knots. According to some accounts, the David was christened with that name because of the Biblical story of David and Goliath due to the vessel's intended use to attack the large Union ships that were blockading Charleston.

The David's wartime career coincided with that of the Hunley, and their primary area of operation was the same, namely Charleston harbor. The David's first and most well-known mission involved an attack on the USS New Ironsides, which was the most formidable of the Union warships that were blockading Charleston. The attack occurred on the moonless night of October 5, 1863. (For comparison, ten days later the Hunley underwent her second test voyage, which ended with the vessel sinking and all hands perishing including her inventor, Horace Lawson Hunley.) On the night of the attack on the New Ironsides, the David, under the command of William T. Glassell and with a crew of four, maneuvered undetected out of Charleston harbor to 50 yards from her target. Glassell and another crewman were situated above water in the vessel's conning tower with Glassell, by design, steering the boat with his feet. A crewman on the New Ironsides saw the oncoming vessel and hailed her. Glassell responded with a blast from a shotgun, and the David closed quickly. The spar was rammed into the starboard side of the New Ironsides, and the torpedo was detonated.

The explosion caused serious but not fatal damage to the New Ironsides, and the huge spray of water that was thrown upward by the blast inundated the David and put out the fire in her boiler. With the vessel unable to move and small arms fire raining down from the New Ironsides, Glassell ordered the David abandoned. Glassell and two other crewmen jumped overboard, but the last crewman did not, reputedly because he could not swim. One of the men who had abandoned ship returned to the David, and he and the other crewman were able to relight the fire and restart the engine. The David managed to escape and return to Charleston, but Glassell and the crewman who remained in the water with him were captured. After the attack it was discovered that a 40-foot stretch of the hull of the New Ironsides was pushed in six inches, and a major overhaul was required to repair this damage.

A David-class torpedo boat, abandoned at Charleston, South Carolina, 1865
(U.S. National Archives)

The total number of subsequent missions undertaken by the David is not known, but she made two more recorded attacks on Union warships, one on the USS Memphis on March 6, 1864 and the other on the USS Wabash on April 18, 1864, although both attacks were unsuccessful. An unknown number of David-class boats were constructed, with estimates of 20 or more. Mysteriously, the ultimate fate of the David is unknown. When Charleston was captured in February 1865, several David-class vessels fell into Union hands, and perhaps one of these was the David herself. Whether or not these captured boats were destroyed is not known. If these boats were destroyed, then this would be an example of Goliath slaying David. But there is another possibility, and in keeping with the fact that the David received her name from a Biblical story, this possibility has a Biblical flavor. Perhaps, like the ending of a Steven Spielberg movie about the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, the CSS David now resides, securely and secretly, in a government warehouse neatly packaged inside a wooden crate, and maybe someday she will be recovered by some archaeologist who has the same first name as a midwestern state.



Repositioning History's Demarcations

In the early morning hours of April 12, 1861, a projectile from a cannon that may or may not have been fired by Edmund Ruffin flew toward Fort Sumter and became the first shot of the Civil War. The Fort Sumter garrison, which consisted of fewer than 100 men, was commanded by Major Robert Anderson and included among its officers Abner Doubleday, the mythical inventor of baseball. After the garrison endured a bombardment of over 30 hours, Anderson agreed to surrender the fort. On April 14 the Fort Sumter garrison evacuated the fort, but not until after the troops fired a salute. During this salute, a cannon misfired and killed Daniel Hough, which gave him the unfortunate distinction of being the first person to die in the Civil War.

For the most part, this very brief account of the battle of Fort Sumter is factual. There is some dispute about whether or not Edmund Ruffin fired the first shot of the Civil War, but there is no dispute that the first shot occurred on April 12, 1861, and there is no dispute that the first person to die in the Civil War was Daniel Hough. Or is there? There are some who claim that the first shot of the Civil War was fired more than three months before shots were fired on Fort Sumter, that this first shot was fired by George Edward Haynsworth, and that the first person to die in the war was Robert L. Holmes.

The alternative account regarding the first shot and the first death of the Civil War begins in late December of 1860 when plans were being made by the U.S. to reinforce and resupply the Fort Sumter garrison. The original plan was for the warship USS Brooklyn to sail to Charleston with troops and supplies. (On a side note, at the battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, it was the Brooklyn that slowed down and caused David Farragut to utter his famous "Damn the torpedoes" quote.) President James Buchanan and his advisors decided that sending a military ship would be provocative, and the War Department instead chartered the side-wheel merchant steamer Star of the West to transport about 200 troops and also small arms, ammunition, and provisions. It was thought that a merchant ship would arouse less suspicion, and the troops on board were to remain below deck once the vessel entered Charleston harbor. Moreover, the Star of the West regularly transported passengers and mail from New York City to points south, including New Orleans and Havana, and it was thought that this would further aid in concealing the true intent of the voyage.

On January 5, 1861, the Star of the West left New York City on its presumed covert mission. However, word of the mission had been conveyed to South Carolina officials by members of Congress who were from southern states, such as fire-eater Senator Louis Wigfall of Texas. By the time the Star of the West reached Charleston on January 9, South Carolina forces were on alert. These forces included cadets from The Citadel military college, who manned guns on Morris Island and in Fort Moultrie. Early on the morning of January 9, Citadel cadet William Simkins, who was on duty as a sentinel on Morris Island, saw the Star of the West enter Charleston harbor. He alerted his comrades, who quickly went to their guns. As the Federal vessel continued to steam toward Fort Sumter, the commander of the cadets, Citadel superintendent Major P.F. Stevens, ordered a shot to be fired across the bow of the oncoming ship. This shot was fired by Citadel cadet George Edward Haynsworth.

The Star of the West continued toward Fort Sumter. More shots were fired from Morris Island, and still more from Fort Moultrie. These shots flew close by the Star of the West, and a few even struck the ship. Although the damage to the merchant ship was slight, she was unarmed and, hence, unable to defend herself. When Captain John McGowan of the Star of the West saw ships approaching from Charleston, he gave the order for his ship to reverse course, and the vessel steamed out of Charleston harbor as the batteries on shore continued to fire until the ship moved out of range. The cannon fire that drove off the Star of the West began with the shot fired by George Haynsworth, which was the first hostile shot fired between a seceded state and the United States, and which preceded the shots on Fort Sumter by more than three months. Haynsworth went on to graduate from The Citadel and serve throughout the entire Civil War. After the war he became a lawyer and then a magistrate. While Haynsworth was serving as a magistrate, two feuding groups of men were brought before him by a sheriff who neglected to disarm the men. At one point these men began shooting at each other in Haynsworth's office, and Haynsworth was mortally wounded, which brought to a premature end the life of the man who fired the first hostile shot in the armed conflict between secessionists and Unionists.

The side-wheel merchant steamer, Star of the West

The action in Charleston harbor was not to be the last that the Star of the West experienced. For the next few months she was chartered by the War Department as a troop transport. On April 18, 1861, the Star of the West was anchored off the coast of Texas to evacuate Federal troops from that state, but the ship was captured by Texas troops commanded by Earl Van Dorn. The vessel was taken to New Orleans for use as a hospital ship, and after David Farragut captured New Orleans, the Star of the West was moved to Vicksburg. When Union ironclads attempted to come at Vicksburg from the rear via the Tallahatchie River, the Star of the West was sunk broadside in the river to block transit. (As an aside, the Tallahatchie is the river that is mentioned in the song "Ode to Billie Joe" by Bobbie Gentry.) After the war, the owners of the Star of the West were paid $175,000 by the U.S. government for their loss. Although the ship was sunk, the Star of the West still exists today. Each year The Citadel presents an award to the winner of its competition for best drilled cadet, and that award is named the Star of the West Medal. The medal was made by Confederate veteran Benjamin Teague and contains a piece of wood from the ship.

There were no casualties as a result of the firing on the Star of the West on January 9, 1861, but there was a casualty that resulted from the Star of the West's voyage to Charleston. Prior to the ship's arrival, tensions were very high among the troops who were awaiting the ship that they had been told was on the way to resupply Fort Sumter. On the night of January 7, 1861, two days before the arrival of the Star of the West, a nervous sentinel in Castle Pinckney, a military fortification in Charleston harbor, heard an unidentified man approaching. He raised his musket and called out to the man, but the musket fired accidentally, according to one account because the sentinel dropped the musket. The approaching man was shot in the chest and died in less than half an hour. He was identified as Robert L. Holmes of the Carolina Light Infantry. Holmes had five brothers, and four of them followed him in death during the Civil War. No one disputes that these four brothers died in the Civil War, and there are some who say that the same is true for Robert Holmes, whose death from a shooting accident preceded Daniel Hough's death from a shooting accident by more than three months.

Sometimes demarcations in history that seem beyond dispute are more murky than they appear. Depending on where these historical demarcations are drawn, something is or is not included in a particular historical event. Maybe the first shot of the Civil War occurred on April 12, 1861, or maybe it happened on January 9, 1861. Maybe this first shot was fired by Edmund Ruffin, or maybe George Haynsworth fired the first shot of the war. Maybe the first person to die in the Civil War was Daniel Hough, or maybe it was Robert Holmes. Where demarcations are drawn in history does not change the historical facts. What changes is how the facts are categorized.

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George Edward Haynsworth

The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable