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History Briefs 2016 - 2017
By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016-2017, 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 .

 

May...

The Southbound Underground Railroad

The Civil War has been called the first modern war, because many innovations that had been developed in the years prior to the Civil War saw their first extensive wartime use in the Civil War.  In keeping with this, the January 2004 Cleveland Civil War Roundtable Dick Crews debate focused on the topic of the equipment or innovation that had the most effect on the Civil War.  One of the five innovations that were discussed was railroads.  Most historians agree that the Civil War was the first war in which railroads saw widespread use and had a major impact.  For example, at the first battle of Bull Run, Joseph Johnston used a railroad to rapidly move his troops from the Shenandoah Valley to reinforce P.G.T. Beauregard.  A few months after the battle of Shiloh, Braxton Bragg moved his infantry by rail along a circuitous route from Tupelo, Mississippi to Chattanooga, Tennessee so he could join forces with an army led by Edmund Kirby Smith for an invasion of Kentucky.  Railroads were instrumental prior to the Civil War in the development of the United States due to their capacity for rapid transportation in all directions throughout the country.  However, there was one pre-Civil War railroad that operated in only one direction.  This railroad, which operated without locomotives and without tracks and was a railroad in name only, was the Underground Railroad, and it went essentially only in a northbound direction.  As Civil War enthusiasts know, the Underground Railroad was a series of secret routes by which escaped slaves fled from slave states to free states.  The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable visited the Underground Railroad museum in Cincinnati several years ago as part of our annual field trip.  Because of the geographic locations of free and slave states, escaped slaves who used the Underground Railroad moved northward, which is where they could find freedom.  However, before there was a northbound Underground Railroad to move escaped slaves toward freedom, there was a southbound Underground Railroad that moved escaped slaves toward freedom.  In fact, this southbound Underground Railroad was the first Underground Railroad that was used by escaped slaves to flee from the future Confederacy in a quest for freedom.

The story of the southbound Underground Railroad revolves around what is considered the oldest city in the United States: St. Augustine, Florida.  St. Augustine was founded on September 8, 1565 by Spanish admiral and explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.  St. Augustine, which is in northeast present-day Florida, was the capital of the Spanish territory of Florida.  The original contract with the Spanish crown stipulated that 500 slaves would be brought to St. Augustine to work on sugar plantations, but none of the slaves called for in the contract was ever brought to the settlement.  Spain's system of slavery, which was in place for centuries before Spain's colonization of the New World, differed from that of Britain.  Spanish slaves had some rights, such as the right to own property and to purchase their freedom, and it was illegal to separate members of a slave family.  Although the life of a Spanish slave was by no means desirable, it was preferable to that of a slave in the British system of chattel slavery.

North of Spanish Florida the British brought captured Africans to work as slaves in their North American colonies beginning with the arrival of 20 African slaves in August 1619 in Jamestown.  When the British established present-day Charleston, South Carolina in 1670, African slaves were brought with them, and during the 17th and 18th Centuries many African slaves worked on plantations in the Carolinas.  In 1687 the Spanish colonial governor in St. Augustine, Diego de Quiroga, reported to the home country that 11 escaped slaves from the Carolinas, eight men, two women, and a three-year-old nursing child, arrived in St. Augustine.  These were the first recorded escaped slaves from a British colony to flee to Spanish Florida.  Quiroga decided that the slaves were not to be returned to their owner, but would be allowed to remain in St. Augustine, if they agreed to accept the Catholic faith and declare loyalty to Spain.  It is not clear how slaves in the Carolinas learned of a better life in St. Augustine, or if they even knew of this, but simply journeyed in whatever direction they could away from the Carolina plantations.  A year before these escaped slaves made their way to Spanish Florida, tensions between Spain and England over their colonial territories in North America led to a raiding party from Spanish Florida attacking some British settlements in the Carolinas and removing, among other possessions, 13 slaves.  The British governor of Carolina, James Colleton, demanded the return of not only those 13 slaves, but also those slaves "who run dayly into your towns," which suggests that there had been previous and numerous slave escapes from the Carolinas into Spanish Florida.  The Spanish refused to return those slaves, and perhaps knowledge of this somehow made its way to the slaves in the Carolinas, who now knew of an escape route to freedom, an escape route that went south.

Whether or not escaped slaves knew that southward was the direction for possible freedom, the Spanish crown recognized that keeping escaped British slaves was a way to aggravate its rival, England.  Moreover, in 1683, four years before the recorded arrival of those 11 escaped slaves, the Spanish colonial government organized a militia composed of free black men to help defend against any British incursions.  To further torment the British, on November 7, 1693 King Charles II of Spain issued a decree regarding escaped slaves, in which he stated that he was "giving liberty to all...the men as well as the women...so that by their example and by my liberality others will do the same."  In succeeding years four groups of escaped slaves were recorded as arriving in St. Augustine, and there were probably more than this based on known complaints by the British governor of Carolina to the home country.  In 1724 a group of ten escaped slaves arrived in St. Augustine and claimed to have known that their freedom was guaranteed by the king of Spain if they converted to Catholicism.  In addition, these escaped slaves had been assisted on their journey by Yamassee Indians, who had earlier fought a war with British colonists and, hence, were not on friendly terms with the British.  

Due to the growing population of blacks in St. Augustine, in 1738 the Spanish governor, Manuel de Montiano, decided to allow the blacks of St. Augustine to establish a separate settlement two miles north of the city.  This decision was not made solely for altruistic reasons, because Montiano saw the black settlement as a first line of defense against a British attack.  The settlement was named Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose (pronounced Moe-zay, with the accent on the second syllable).  At the center of the settlement was a fort, Fort Mose, which was surrounded by dwellings for the people of the settlement.  The land in the area was fertile, and farming provided food for the residents of Mose. It was clear that the free black men of Mose, who were members of a militia, understood that the freedom to settle in their own town came with a commitment, because they pledged to be "the most cruel enemies of the English" and to spill their "last drop of blood in defense of the Great Crown of Spain and the Holy Faith."  Obviously this pledge was also beneficial to themselves, since resisting the British meant resisting a return to chattel slavery.

Map illustrating proximity of Fort Mose to St. Augustine


In 1740 the Mose militia had an opportunity to follow through on its pledge.  In January of that year James Oglethorpe, the British governor of Georgia, led an invasion into Spanish Florida in response to numerous slave escapes and some slave insurrections, all of which the British believed were instigated by the freedom offered in St. Augustine.  Oglethorpe's invasion was part of a larger conflict between Britain and Spain that is known as the War of Jenkins' Ear.  The name refers to an incident that occurred off the coast of Florida eight years before hostilities began.  A boarding party from a Spanish patrol boat went aboard a British merchant ship, and the captain of the Spanish boat, Julio León Fandiño, became engaged in a heated exchange with Robert Jenkins, the captain of the British ship.  Fandiño accused Jenkins of smuggling and in a fit of rage cut off Jenkins' ear.  Jenkins was called before Parliament to give his account of the incident, during which he reputedly showed the severed ear.  Numerous hostile boardings of British ships by the Spanish coupled with Britain's desire to improve its trade in North America by weakening its chief rival led Britain to go to war with Spain.  Georgia Governor James Oglethorpe was more than willing to engage in a conflict with the Spanish colonists of Florida, whom he blamed for provoking slave escapes and revolts.  Oglethorpe's invasion force captured some Spanish outposts west of St. Augustine and eventually threatened the city, itself. Governor Montiano feared that Mose could not withstand an attack by the overwhelming British force, so he evacuated all of the people of Mose into the fortifications of St. Augustine, to which Oglethorpe laid siege after capturing Fort Mose.  On June 15, 1740 a force that included Spanish soldiers and the Mose militia attacked the British-occupied Fort Mose.  The surprise attack commenced prior to dawn, before the British soldiers were awake, and the fort, after a vicious hand-to-hand fight, was taken from the British, who lost 70 men killed in the battle.  Primarily because of this setback, Oglethorpe ended the siege of St. Augustine and retreated to Georgia.

After the War of Jenkins' Ear, Spain retained control of Florida.  Mose was destroyed during the fighting between the British and the Spanish, and the Mose residents lived for a time in St. Augustine.  Mose was eventually rebuilt, although on a different site, and the free blacks occupied the rebuilt settlement in 1752, but there is some evidence that the blacks resisted the relocation and desired to remain in St. Augustine.  The governor at that time, Fulgencio García de Solís, claimed that this resistance among the blacks was not due to fear of living in a less defensible location, but due to their desire to live in "complete liberty."  In other words, after living for 12 years within St. Augustine, the free blacks preferred assimilation into the city's population rather than their own separate town.  In spite of the wishes of the free blacks, they were forced to live in the rebuilt Mose.  As part of the treaty after the Seven Years' War, Spain ceded Florida to Britain in 1763, and Spanish residents of Florida, including the free blacks of Mose, moved to Cuba.  This brought an end to the free black settlement of Mose and to the southbound Underground Railroad.  In 1784, as part of the agreements that ended the Revolutionary War, Spain regained control of Florida.  During the second period of Spanish control of Florida, escaped slaves again migrated there for freedom, but there is no evidence that the town of Mose was reestablished.  In addition, many white settlers from the U.S. moved into Florida, and Florida became a haven for slave smugglers, who brought in slaves, mostly from Cuba, but some from Africa, to sell in the U.S., primarily in Georgia.  After the War of 1812 there were incursions from the U.S. into Florida, some by civilians and militiamen and some by U.S. troops.  Eventually Spain came to realize that it could not maintain control of Florida, and Spain ceded Florida to the U.S.  Thereafter slavery was established in Florida by the U.S., and Florida was no longer a destination for escaped slaves.

A quote attributed to Horace Greeley (although there is some question as to whether he is the originator of the quote) gave directional advice to those who were seeking a better life.  According to this quote, the way to go, in a geographic sense, was west.  Although going west may have been good advice for some people who were seeking a better life, west was not the preferred direction for escaped slaves who were seeking a better life in freedom via the Underground Railroad.  For those escaped slaves, north was the way to go.  But before the northbound Underground Railroad existed, there was a southbound Underground Railroad, and this was the first Underground Railroad that was used by escaped slaves to flee from the future Confederacy and find freedom.

 

 

April...

The Rest of the Story...

"And now you know the rest of the story."  This is the tagline that was used by news broadcaster and commentator, and dispenser of Americana, Paul Harvey to close each of the segments of a radio series that he did.  In each segment of that series, which was named The Rest of the Story, Paul Harvey related a story about some person or event in which there was some kind of interesting and unexpected anecdote or connection.  This series was on the radio for decades, so there certainly was no shortage of subject material.  But if Paul Harvey ever needed another subject for his series, he could have used the front-page story of the July 4, 1863 Harper's Weekly for a segment of his program The Rest of the Story.  On July 4, 1863, the day that Vicksburg fell and the day after Pickett's Charge, the front-page story in Harper's Weekly was an account of a bold attempt at espionage by two Confederate officers near Franklin, Tennessee.  Mel Maurer, past president of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable, included an account of this story in part three of a six-part article which Mel wrote about his life in Franklin.  Mel's account of this tale of espionage appeared in the September 2001 issue of The Charger, and Mel's article is archived on the Roundtable's web site. Neither the Harper's Weekly account nor Mel's account includes the intriguing side story that is connected to the episode of attempted espionage that occurred outside of Franklin.  This history brief describes the intriguing side story, which contains a tragic romance.

The Harper's Weekly account of the espionage attempt was written by Dr. Wilson Hobbs, Senior Surgeon of the 85th Indiana Infantry Regiment, who was present during the espionage episode.  According to this account, on the night of June 8, 1863 two men rode into the camp at Fort Granger.  Fort Granger, which was east of Franklin, Tennessee and across the Harpeth River, was built to help protect Franklin against Confederate attacks and was under the command of Colonel John Baird.  One of the riders was Confederate Colonel William Orton Williams, although he had changed his name to Lawrence William Orton.  The other rider was Orton Williams' cousin, Confederate Lieutenant Walter G. Peter.  They were dressed as Union officers and were taken to Colonel Baird's headquarters, where they presented themselves as Colonel Lawrence W. Auton and his aide, Major Walter Dunlop.  Orton Williams, who did the talking for the pair, showed Baird papers, purportedly their orders from the War Department, which explained that they had been sent from Washington to inspect defenses and troops in the West.  One of the papers, which specified that the supposed Union officers were to be allowed to pass through the lines, was purportedly signed by James A. Garfield, chief of staff for William S. Rosecrans, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, of which Baird and his troops at Fort Granger were a part.  Orton Williams told Baird that he and his aide had ridden through Murfreesboro, where Rosecrans had his headquarters, and then afterward, while they were on their way to Fort Granger, they had been attacked by Confederate raiders, who captured their servant and took their coats, but that they had managed to elude capture.  Because all of their money was in the coats, Orton Williams asked Baird for $50, and he told Baird that they had to continue to Nashville that night.  Baird arranged for the money and let the men go their way.

Another Union officer in the camp, Colonel Carter Van Vleck, was suspicious of the men from the time they rode into camp, and according to one of his letters, he made his suspicions known to Colonel Baird.  Van Vleck argued that inspectors would not be sent from the East when "we already have more inspectors of our own than we know what to do with."  Van Vleck also asserted that Rosecrans would not have sent the officers unescorted through enemy territory, and he wondered how it was that the officers' servant and coats could have been captured while they, themselves, managed to escape.  Van Vleck concluded "the two men who were attracting so much attention…were certainly spies."  Perhaps Baird was taken by the bearing and assuredness of the supposed Colonel Auton. According to Wilson Hobbs' Harper's Weekly account, Orton Williams "was as fine-looking a man as I have ever seen."  Hobbs went on to write about Orton Williams, "I have never known anyone who excelled him as a talker."  Perhaps Baird was taken in by these traits, and his judgment was clouded by them.

However, soon after the supposed Union officers rode away, Baird began to have serious misgivings.  He sent a party after them, and when the men were brought back, Baird sent a telegram to Rosecrans' headquarters in Murfreesboro to inquire about the men.  The reply informed Baird that headquarters knew nothing of the men and stated emphatically that no one with those names existed "in this army, nor in any army."  Baird indicated in his subsequent telegram that the men had admitted to being officers in the Confederate army.  The telegram that Baird received from Rosecrans' headquarters in reply, which was signed by James Garfield, read, "The two men are no doubt spies.  Call a drum-head court-martial to-night, and if they are found to be spies, hang them before morning, without fail."  Sometime during the exchange of telegrams, a search of the two men was conducted.  Their real names were found in the bands of their hats, which were Confederate hats that had been covered with havelocks.  Havelocks are pieces of white cloth that covered a soldier's cap and hung down over the back of the neck. They were intended to protect against sun exposure, but in this instance the havelocks were intended to protect against exposure of the Confederate men's true identities.  In addition, the blade of Walter Peter's sword was inscribed with his real name followed by the letters C.S.A.  The blade of Orton Williams' sword was likewise inscribed with his real name, and he had on his person $1,500 in Confederate currency.  In compliance with the order from Rosecrans' headquarters, a drumhead trial was called, and Orton Williams and Walter Peter were found guilty.  On the morning of June 9, 1863, the two men were hanged.  Senior Surgeon Dr. Wilson Hobbs, who wrote the Harper's Weekly account, was assigned to periodically examine the men as they hung and determine if they were dead.  According to Hobbs' account, three minutes into the hanging Orton Williams grabbed the rope with both hands and briefly pulled himself up, but slumped back down within a couple of minutes.  At 17 minutes a pulse was detected in both men, and at 20 minutes there were no signs of life.  At the time of their deaths, Orton Williams was 24 and Walter Peter 21.

There are some mysteries associated with the doomed mission of Orton Williams and Walter Peter.  No evidence, such as a record of orders, has ever been found that the Confederate government or Confederate military had any part in the attempted espionage.  Had this been a mission ordered by Confederate authorities, it is likely that the men would have been provided better disguises or, at the very least, swords that did not have their true identities inscribed on the blades.  Because of this and because Orton did almost all of the talking when the two men met with Union officers, it is widely believed that the scheme was solely conceived by Orton Williams, and that he convinced Walter Peter to participate.  To this day the objective of their espionage is not known.  Why, then, did Orton Williams undertake this risky venture, and what did he want to accomplish?  These questions remain unanswered.

But there is more to this story than two young men losing their lives in a daring, perhaps foolhardy attempt at espionage, and it involves Orton Williams.  William Orton Williams was born in 1839.  His mother was one of three sisters who had the elegant names America, Britannia, and Columbia.  Orton's mother, America, died a couple of months before Orton's fourth birthday.  When Orton was seven, his father, William George Williams, died at the battle of Monterey in the Mexican-American War.  Orton's mother was a niece of George Washington Parke Custis, who was the grandson of Martha Washington and the person who built and lived in Arlington House.  George Washington Parke Custis was also the father of Mary Custis Lee, the wife of Robert E. Lee.  Even before the death of Mary Custis Lee's parents, the Lee family lived part of the time in Arlington House with Mary's parents, at least when Robert E. Lee's military duties permitted it.  After the death of Orton's parents, the orphaned boy was taken in by George Washington Parke Custis, and Orton lived part of his youth in Arlington House.  Orton had an older brother, Lawrence, who graduated from West Point in 1852 and served in the Union army during the Civil War.  Orton also had an older sister, Martha, who was known in the family by her nickname, Markie, and who was close with the daughters of Robert E. and Mary Custis Lee.  Orton and his siblings were second cousins of the Lee children.  After the death of Mary Custis Lee's father in 1857, she inherited Arlington, and Orton and his siblings spent a good deal of time there, in particular Markie, who stayed there so much that she often shared a bedroom with Mary Lee, the Lee's eldest daughter.

During their youth, Orton developed a close relationship with Agnes Lee, the third oldest of the Lee daughters, who was two years younger than Orton.  Eventually this relationship evolved into a romance.  Agnes and Orton frequently took long horseback rides together, and Markie reminisced years later that "it was always—where are Agnes & Orton?"  Markie recalled Agnes' appearance after Agnes and Orton returned from one long ride.  According to Markie, Agnes had "a glowing face & streaming hair" and that Orton looked at Agnes with "admiring glances."  Orton had long wanted to pursue a military career.  Orton's older brother had already graduated from West Point, but Orton never gained admission there.  With a recommendation from Robert E. Lee, Orton finally secured a commission as a second lieutenant in the army in the spring of 1861.  When the Civil War broke out, Orton was on the staff of Winfield Scott in Washington, which made Orton privy to much military information.  In early May 1861, by which time Robert E. Lee had already resigned from the U.S. Army and was in Richmond, Orton went to Arlington to inform Lee's wife that the Union army would soon cross the Potomac River and seize Arlington.  This gave the Lees time to pack their belongings, which included some items that were once owned by George and Martha Washington, and move these belongings away.  The Lee family soon followed, and as Orton had foretold, the Union army seized Arlington.  In the meantime, Orton declared his intent to fight for the Confederacy, whereupon Winfield Scott ordered him imprisoned at Governors Island in New York City, because it was feared that Orton knew sensitive information that might be of help to the rebellion.  After several weeks in prison, Orton was released when it was felt that any information he had was no longer of use.

After spending some time in the eastern theater, Orton was sent west.  He fought with distinction at Shiloh, but his Confederate military career was beginning to unravel.  His strict discipline was not well received by his men, who considered him arrogant and condescending.  In the most serious incident, Orton killed an enlisted man who resisted one of Orton's orders.  Although Orton was not prosecuted for this, he reputedly brazenly commented about the incident and about the man whom he killed, "For his ignorance, I pitied him; for his insolence, I forgave him; for his insubordination, I slew him."  Shortly after this incident Orton was transferred to Braxton Bragg's staff, and some have speculated that he changed his name to conceal his identity as the perpetrator of this killing. At Christmastime in 1862 Orton was able to visit the Lee family, who were staying with relatives in Virginia.  According to an account by one of those relatives, Orton was "handsome and charming," and he brought gifts for Agnes, "a pair of ladies' riding gauntlets and a riding whip," gifts that evoked the long horseback rides that Agnes and Orton had gone on before the Civil War.  During Orton's visit, he and Agnes resumed their practice of taking long horseback rides together.  At one point during Orton's visit, he and Agnes were secluded in the parlor, and everyone expected a proposal to take place.  But Orton "came out, bade the family goodbye, and rode away alone."  Less than six months later, Orton Williams was dead at the end of a rope.

It is not known if Orton proposed to Agnes, but in all likelihood he at least made his intentions known to her.  It is also not known why Agnes spurned Orton, but it most likely was due to a couple of factors.  On October 20, 1862, two months before Orton's Christmas visit and during the time between the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, while Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was recovering from the former battle, Agnes' older sister, Annie, died at the age of 23 of typhoid fever.  Because of their similarity in age, Annie and Agnes had a very close relationship, and by the time of Orton's visit Agnes most likely had not recovered from the loss of her sister.  In addition, the Civil War had hardened Orton Williams, as evidenced by his killing of the enlisted man and his callous comment about the incident.  There is evidence that Orton had turned to drinking, and as a result he had changed markedly from the dashing young man who captivated Agnes prior to the war.  But even though Agnes' affection for Orton had waned, she was still deeply troubled by his death.  According to a relative, after Orton's execution Agnes was changed forever.  This relative wrote, "The terrible death of Orton Williams was a shock to Agnes from which she never recovered."  Agnes was a very introspective and contemplative person, and it is not surprising that, no matter how her feelings toward Orton had changed, she was deeply impacted by the death of someone toward whom she had felt so much affection, in particular because of the circumstances of that death.

On October 15, 1873, eight years after the Civil War and 11 years after her secluded Christmastime meeting with Orton, Agnes Lee died at the age of 32.  Agnes suffered from neuralgia her whole life, and when she died, her mother had to see another of her daughters precede her in death.  According to an account written by Agnes' younger sister, Mildred, when Agnes was on her deathbed, she asked that her Bible be given to Orton's sister, Markie.  When Agnes made this request, she gave evidence that even on her deathbed she was thinking of Orton, because Agnes said of that Bible, "You know Orton gave it to me."  Just before Agnes died, she called for her older brother, Custis, and said to him, "You must not forget me when I am gone," to which Custis reassured his dying sister, "Aggie, none of us will do that."

None of Robert E. Lee's four daughters ever married.  One factor which likely played a role in this was Lee's possessiveness of his daughters.  A Lee biographer wrote, "Neither Lee nor his daughters were aware of how possessive he was, or of how much they acquiesced in that possessiveness."  Lee's daughter Annie died in 1862 at age 23, and there is no evidence that she ever had any serious suitors.  Sadly, this may have been at least partly due to her physical appearance.  Annie had a conspicuous reddish birthmark on her face, and one of her eyes was disfigured by a childhood accident, which caused her to lose sight in that eye.  Mary, the eldest of the Lee daughters and the second oldest of the seven Lee children, lived to age 83 without ever marrying or ever showing any interest in marrying.  Mary was outspoken and fiercely independent, not only by the standards of her time, but even, to some degree, by today's standards.  For example, she spent most of her post-Civil War life far away from her family on lengthy travels in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.  Mary's independent nature may have been the reason that she never married.  Mildred, the youngest of the Lee children, lived to age 59 and died suddenly and unexpectedly in New Orleans.  Although there is evidence that some men showed interest in her, there is no evidence that there was ever a serious relationship.  After Robert E. Lee's death, Mildred wrote of her father, "To me he seems a Hero—& all other men small in comparison."  It may be that living in the imposing shadow of her legendary father was the reason that Mildred never married.  Of the four Lee daughters, only Agnes came close to being married, and Agnes' suitor, Orton Williams, who concocted a mysterious and ill-fated espionage scheme that cost him his life at Fort Granger, came closer than any man to being the son-in-law of Robert E. Lee.  "And now you know the rest of the story."

 


William Orton Williams
and Walter G. Peter
 

Agnes Lee
 
 

 

March...

Destiny Personified

Destiny is defined as "the events that will necessarily happen to a particular person in the future" and is also defined as "the hidden power believed to control what will happen in the future."  For many people living in the United States prior to 1865, destiny was shackled in chains and consigned to chattel servitude.  Bondage was the only destiny that these people realistically foresaw for themselves.  However, history has shown that sometimes what appears to be an immutable destiny is not necessarily fixed in the cosmos.  In the classic movie Casablanca when Victor Laszlo was taken into custody by the police and was being led away to be imprisoned, Rick Blaine said to Laszlo, "It seems that destiny has taken a hand."  For some who were victims of what was euphemistically called the peculiar institution, destiny did take a hand.  One such person is Allen Allensworth, and because destiny took a hand on behalf of Allensworth, he was able to make important contributions to American society.  As one person wrote about Allensworth, "Born into slavery and sold many times to different owners, the future looked bleak for the young Allen.  But life had some specific plans for the gutsy, hard-working, and brave (Allensworth)."

Allen Allensworth was born in Louisville, Kentucky on April 7, 1842 to Phyllis and Levi Allensworth.  He was the youngest of 13 children, and as the child of a slave, Allen became a slave from the moment of his birth.  When Allensworth was a child, he was assigned to his owner's son, who started to teach Allensworth to read even though this was illegal.  After this was discovered, Allensworth was placed with another family, who were Quakers.  This family continued to allow Allensworth to learn how to read, and when his previous owner learned of this, Allensworth was sold to a plantation in Henderson, Kentucky over 100 miles down the Ohio River.  His new owner was careful to prevent Allensworth from becoming educated, and Allensworth was whipped if he tried to do so.  The cruel treatment that Allensworth received from this owner motivated him to try to escape, which he attempted twice without success.  After the second attempt, Allensworth was sold again and eventually came to be owned by a man named Fred Scruggs in Jefferson, Louisiana.  Scruggs owned race horses, and he trained young Allensworth to exercise the horses and also as a jockey.

Early during the Civil War Scruggs took his horses and Allensworth to Louisville for some races.  During their stay in Louisville Allensworth came in contact with men of the 44th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and he asked them to help him escape.  This was accomplished when the men of the regiment let Allensworth wear some of their clothing and march away with them.  Allensworth reputedly covered his face with dried mud to make his skin appear more pale.  After his escape Allensworth served for some time as a nursing aide, but in 1863 he joined the navy and served for the remainder of the Civil War as a steward and a clerk on gunboats.

After the war Allensworth was reunited with members of his family.  Beginning in 1868 he and his brother operated two restaurants, which they later sold at a profit.  Allen used the money from the sale of the restaurants to further his education.  He also became involved with a Baptist church in Louisville and in 1871 was ordained a preacher.  He later attended Roger Williams University in Nashville, Tennessee to study theology.  It was there that he met his wife, Josephine Leavell, who was a pianist, organist, and music teacher.  They were married in 1877, and they went on to have two daughters.  Allensworth also studied public speaking in Philadelphia.  With his background in theology and speaking, Allensworth became well known as a preacher and lecturer.  In addition, he devoted himself to educating others because of his ardent belief that knowledge was the key to blacks becoming successful in society.

By 1880 Allensworth had become prominent as a minister and educator, and in 1882 a black soldier informed Allensworth of a problem in the U.S. Army, which this soldier thought Allensworth could help alleviate.  Although there were black units in the army, these units did not have black chaplains.  The soldier urged Allensworth to fill this void, because he felt that Allensworth's background as a minister and educator made him an ideal candidate.  After much perseverance Allensworth, at the age of 44, was finally appointed in 1886 by President Grover Cleveland to be chaplain of the 24th Infantry Regiment, which was one of the units in the Buffalo Soldiers.  Allensworth served in this capacity for 20 years and retired from this position in 1906.  By the time he retired from the army Allensworth had been promoted to lieutenant colonel, the first African-American to attain this rank.

During his time as chaplain, Allensworth's wife and daughters traveled with him to the various places where he was stationed, which included Fort Apache in Arizona, Camp Reynolds in California, and Fort Missoula in Montana.  While Allensworth was stationed at Fort Bayard, New Mexico, he drew on his background and experience as an educator to design and implement a program for the teaching of soldiers and their children.  This innovative program entailed a course of study in which students were separated into different grade levels based on age.  This was of particular importance for the children, because Allensworth's course of study was designed so that children who left the post and entered civilian schools could be assimilated seamlessly into the grades of their respective ages and continue their education.  Allensworth codified his program in a booklet titled Outline of Course of Study, and the Rules Governing Post Schools of Ft. Bayard, N.M.  Allensworth's education program was so successful that it was adapted for use throughout the army, and his development of this program of age-graded education was a seminal contribution to the educational system in the U.S.

After Allensworth retired from the army, he undertook the most ambitious venture of his life.  He and his family settled in Los Angeles, and Allensworth began a lecture tour to inspire blacks to become self-sufficient through education, industriousness, and thriftiness.  While on his tour Allensworth met a man named William Payne, who convinced Allensworth to put his ideas into action by establishing a community for blacks to live free from the racism and discrimination that permeated post-Civil War America.  On June 30, 1908 Allensworth, Payne, and three other men formed the California Colony and Home Promoting Association, which had the goal of founding a town which was to be wholly created and governed by blacks.  Land that was located 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles was purchased from the Pacific Farming Company, a private firm which had been formed to assist in the development of rural areas.  This land was chosen because it was fertile, and within it was a station on the railroad line connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco.  In addition to land, it was necessary to secure water, and this was accomplished by striking a deal with the Pacific Farming Company.  The future town was named Allensworth.

At first the town was a great success.  People moved into the town, structures were built, and municipal facilities, such as a school and a library, were put in place.  By 1913 Allensworth was a thriving community with the promise of growing even larger.  However, events began to turn against the town.  In 1914 the railroad company built a spur around the town that allowed trains to bypass Allensworth, which caused the town to become isolated.  The railroad company's decision to do this resulted from a conflict between the town and the railroad company regarding hiring practices for the town's station, because the company refused to hire blacks to work at the station.  Another problem for the town arose when the Pacific Farming Company reneged on its promise to supply water to the town.  The incident that most adversely impacted the town of Allensworth was the death under mysterious circumstances of the person after whom the town was named.  Allen Allensworth died on September 14, 1914 at the age of 72 after he was struck by a motorcycle in Monrovia, California, which is near Los Angeles. 

The two young white men who were riding the motorcycle claimed that Allensworth caused the accident, although there was never a satisfactory resolution of culpability.  Whatever were the truths about the accident, Allen Allensworth was gone, and without his guidance and determination, the town of Allensworth was left without its driving force.  Allensworth, California struggled on for several more decades, but by 1972 the population had shrunk to very few.  In the next few years a movement began to save the town, and by 1976 the state of California had purchased the land and made the site of the town a state park, which is still operating.  Some might question the wisdom of preserving something that in the end was a failure, but as one person wrote about the town of Allensworth, "The fact that Allensworth ultimately failed is not the most important fact about the venture.  What mattered then is that the attempt was made.  And what matters now is that all Americans finally discover the depths of character and vision of those who, through their attempt to build a colony, tried to provide an opportunity for men and women to transcend race-based limits, and thus control their own destinies."

Allen Allensworth was born into slavery, but he rose out of slavery to become a free man and then to make important contributions to our country.  Maybe it was simply not Allensworth's destiny to live his life in bondage, contributing only to his master's horse races and remaining forever unknown to future generations.  Maybe this was not the life that destiny had in mind for Allen Allensworth.  Maybe the life that destiny had preordained for Allen Allensworth was to be an army chaplain and an innovator in education and to found a town that bore his name.  In the movie Forrest Gump, Lieutenant Dan became enraged at Forrest when Lieutenant Dan felt that Forrest had denied him his destiny.  Lieutenant Dan shouted at Forrest, "We all have a destiny.  Nothing just happens; it's all part of a plan."  Forrest's mother showed that she had an opposing point of view when just before she died she told Forrest, "I happened to believe you make your own destiny."  Later in the movie, after Forrest's mother and wife had died, Forrest stood over his wife's grave and said, "I don't know if Momma was right, or if it's Lieutenant Dan.  I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it's both."  Perhaps, as Lieutenant Dan believed, it was destiny that brought Allen Allensworth from obscurity in slavery to a place in history.  Or maybe, as Forrest stated, it was some combination of destiny and happenstance.  But I have to say that I agree with Forrest's mother.  I do not believe that some overarching hidden power deserves credit for Allen Allensworth's greatness and accomplishments and for his place in history.  The credit for all of this belongs solely to Allen Allensworth.  The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, "Character is destiny."  This quote accurately expresses the reason that Allen Allensworth has a place in history, because Allen Allensworth possessed the exceptional character to make his own destiny.

 


Allen Allensworth
Allen Allensworth
later in life
 
 

William Payne
 
 

 

February...

Rosa Parks' Historical Rhyme

There is a witty quote about history repeating itself, which conveys the notion that history repeats itself in a poetic way. The quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, although there is no evidence that Mark Twain ever said or wrote it. It is easy to believe that this is a Mark Twain quote, because its pithiness sounds like Mark Twain.  This quote exists in a few different forms with slightly different wording, but all of the versions of this quote convey the same notion.

One version of the quote states, "History does not repeat itself, but it does tend to rhyme."  This notion was expressed in a more sublime if less succinct way in the October 1845 issue of a religious periodical named The Christian Remembrancer.  (As an aside, when the October 1845 issue of The Christian Remembrancer was published, Mark Twain was one month shy of his tenth birthday, so unless he was spouting witticisms as a young boy, then the notion about history rhyming was in print long before Mark Twain began to dispense creatively crafted aphorisms, which means that he almost certainly did not originate this notion.)  The rendering of this notion that appeared in The Christian Remembrancer reads, "History repeats her tale unconsciously, and goes off in a mystic rhyme; ages are prototypes of other ages, and the winding course of time brings us round to the same spot again."  The statement about history rhyming rather than repeating is a clever way of expressing the fact that many events in history bear strong resemblance to earlier events.  

Whoever rightfully deserves credit for originating this notion, it applies in a fascinating way to a person who is familiar to virtually everyone, namely Rosa Parks.  Almost everyone knows about Rosa Parks and is familiar with what she did to earn her place in history, how, on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, she refused to relinquish her seat on a bus to a white person and move further into the back of the bus where blacks were required to sit.  More than 100 years before Rosa Parks took a stand by not relinquishing her seat, a person who is Rosa Parks' historical rhyme took a similar stand.  What's more, this incident, which happened on July 16, 1854, occurred almost 900 miles northeast of Montgomery, Alabama in a place that was never part of the Confederacy.

The person whose actions foreshadowed those of Rosa Parks is Elizabeth Jennings.  She was born into a family of free blacks in New York City.  Elizabeth's exact birthdate is unknown, and there is even conflicting information about the year of her birth.  Based on available information she was born between 1826 and 1830.  Her father was Thomas Jennings, who was a prominent member of the black community in New York City.  He was a tailor who received a patent for a dry cleaning process and is reputedly the first African-American to receive a U.S. patent.  Elizabeth's mother was also named Elizabeth, and the elder Elizabeth was a vocal advocate for the rights of blacks, particularly black women.  She is best known for an 1837 speech that she delivered, which was titled "On the Cultivation of Black Women's Minds."  In this speech, she counseled her listeners that failure to nurture the intellect will cause blacks to remain in a lower social status than whites.  In light of the parents who raised her, the younger Elizabeth received a thorough education and grew up in an environment of notable accomplishments and of strenuous advocacy for civil rights.

Like her parents, Elizabeth was very active in her church.  When Elizabeth was in her mid-20s she was the organist at her church, and on Sunday, July 16, 1854 she was running late for church services.  Elizabeth and a friend named Sarah Adams were at the corner of Pearl and Chatham Streets when they hailed a streetcar.  Streetcars in New York City at that time were horse-drawn vehicles that ran on rails, and only a few streetcars were designated for "colored persons." Because Elizabeth was running late, she did not wait for a streetcar that displayed a sign indicating that she was allowed to ride in the car.  She simply boarded the first car that arrived, and as it happened that streetcar was for whites only.  After Elizabeth and her friend boarded the car, the conductor ordered the two women off.  Elizabeth refused to leave the car, and the conductor then attempted to physically remove her.  According to Elizabeth's account of the incident, she clung to a window frame, and after the conductor pried her hand off the frame, she grabbed the conductor's coat and held it tightly.  The conductor told the driver to drive quickly, pick up no more passengers, and continue driving until they saw a police officer.  When an officer was spotted, he joined the fray, and with his assistance Elizabeth was removed from the streetcar.  Elizabeth later claimed that the officer "pushed me down, and tauntingly told me to get redress if I could."

Elizabeth and her parents were not the type to quietly tolerate the kind of treatment that Elizabeth received that day, and with or without the added incentive provided by the police officer's remark, they did not hesitate to seek redress.  A letter that Elizabeth wrote describing the incident was read at her church, and once news of the incident began to spread, there was outrage within the black community.  Elizabeth's letter was published by Frederick Douglass in his newspaper and by Horace Greeley in the New-York Tribune.  With her parents' urging and support, Elizabeth sued the streetcar company.  Elizabeth's father engaged the services of a white law firm, and Elizabeth was represented in court by the firm's junior partner, Chester A. Arthur, who later in his life held a position of greater authority than junior partner in a law firm.  Elizabeth won her case against the streetcar company, and the court awarded her $250.  Presiding Judge William Rockwell stated that the streetcar company was "liable for the acts of their agents, whether committed carelessly and negligently, or willfully and maliciously."  The judge also declared, in a less than complimentary statement, "Colored persons if sober, well behaved and free from disease, had the same rights as others and could neither be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence."  It is unclear if the judge felt that this statement also applied to whites, or if inebriated, misbehaving, diseased whites were allowed to ride on streetcars.  Nevertheless, the streetcar company ended its policy of segregated cars on the day following the court's ruling, and this ruling led to all streetcar companies in New York City putting an end to segregated cars within several years.

Not much is known about Elizabeth Jennings' life after the incident on the streetcar.  She married Charles Graham, and they had a son who was named Thomas, the same name as Elizabeth's father.  Their son died at the age of one in 1863 and was laid to rest in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn during the time that New York City was recovering from the draft riots.  Elizabeth's husband, Charles, died five years later.  Elizabeth had been a teacher most of her adult life, and she eventually established a kindergarten for black children in her home. Elizabeth Jennings Graham died on June 5, 1901 and is buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery with her husband and son.  One of Elizabeth's legacies is that an area along Park Row in New York City is now named Elizabeth Jennings Place.  The movement which led to this was initiated in 2007 by grade school students in New York City.

elizabeth-jennings-place

In an article which appeared in 1976 in American Quarterly, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote, "Well-behaved women seldom make history."  This statement certainly applies to Elizabeth Jennings and Rosa Parks, both of whom made history by disobeying rules.  When Elizabeth Jennings refused to leave a streetcar in New York City, she had no way of knowing that 101 years later a black woman would engage in a similar defiant act on a bus almost 900 miles away in Montgomery, Alabama.  Elizabeth Jennings was simply running late and needed to board a streetcar as soon as possible, but she ended up making an important if little-known contribution to civil rights.  Rosa Parks' act of defiance became much more widely known, and it would not be surprising if Rosa Parks did not know about Elizabeth Jennings, although it is irrelevant whether Rosa Parks knew about Elizabeth and was motivated by Elizabeth's actions.  What is important is that both women chose to take a stand against unjust policies and in so doing contributed to the eradication of those policies.  In a larger sense, by taking a stand against discrimination on a streetcar in New York City and on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, these two women helped to make indisputably clear that any policy of racial or ethnic discrimination is irreconcilable with our country's defining principle that "all men are created equal."  Elizabeth Jennings and Rosa Parks, two misbehaving women who were simply trying to use public transportation to go where they needed to go, rode their acts of defiance into history.  They were separated in time by a century, but they are forever linked in an inspiring historical rhyme that serves as a powerful civil rights paradigm and resonates through all ages.

 


rosa-parks
Rosa Parks
elizabeth-jennings
Elizabeth Jennings
 
 
 

 

December...

Hanukkah Gift for All Americans

American men who were born between 1944 and 1950 were automatically entered into the first of seven lotteries in which entrants were hoping that they did not receive a number that put them at or near the top of the list. This lottery, which was held on December 1, 1969, was the first Selective Service draft lottery of the Vietnam War, and in that and the subsequent lotteries the order in which draft-eligible men would be drafted was randomly assigned based on birthdates. One of the jokes that came out of that lottery was that Jesus Christ had number 84 in the Selective Service draft order, because number 84 was the number that was drawn for December 25. The birth date that led to Jesus receiving that number one of the most important religious holidays in Christianity. There is compelling evidence that the birth of Jesus did not occur in December, which not only means that Jesus should actually have received a different draft number, but also makes this religious holiday misplaced, although that birth is celebrated on December 25 nonetheless.

There is another important religious holiday that often begins in December, namely Hanukkah. Many traditions are associated with the celebrations of Christmas and Hanukkah, and in light of the tradition of gift-giving, it is appropriate during the month of December for Civil War enthusiasts to remember a Jewish man named Uriah P. Levy. Levy has only scant connections to the Civil War, for example the year of his death, which was 1862. But Levy's death was not due to any combat, because he saw no combat in the Civil War. Levy did, however, have a distinguished military career, and he has some notable legacies that came from his military service. One of these legacies is that he worked assiduously against anti-Semitism in the branch of the military in which he served. Levy also left a monumental legacy for all of us that fits extremely well with the efforts at historical preservation that Civil War enthusiasts consider essential.

Uriah Levy was born on April 22, 1792 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Michael and Rachel Levy. Uriah's father served in the Revolutionary War, as did his maternal grandfather, Jonas Phillips, who fathered 21 children (obviously taking to heart the verse from Genesis to be fruitful and multiply). Jonas Phillips was staunchly patriotic to the American cause and fervently devoted to his Jewish heritage. Both of these traits strongly influenced Uriah Levy, who came to embrace similar sentiments. Uriah also developed a love for the sea. In 1806, when Uriah was 14, his father arranged a four-year apprenticeship for Uriah with a prominent Philadelphia ship-owner, during which Uriah became educated in the art of sailing aboard large ships. By the age of 19, he had earned enough money to become part owner of a trading ship named the George Washington, which was named after not the first U.S. president, but bore the two first names of Uriah's partners, George Mesoncourt and Washington Garrison. This business allowed Uriah to hone his maritime skills, which was helpful in the next phase of his life.

When the War of 1812 began, Levy applied for and received a commission in the U.S. Navy. He was assigned to the USS Argus, which, coincidentally, had originally been named the Merrimack. During the first several months of the war, the Argus was stationed off the Atlantic coast. But her greatest contribution to the war effort came when she raided British shipping in the English Channel. In one month of raiding, the Argus captured and burned 19 merchant ships. On August 14, 1813 the Argus was engaged by a British warship and was captured in a battle in which the captain of the Argus was mortally wounded. Most of the ship's crew, including Uriah Levy, were taken prisoner, and Levy remained a prisoner in Britain until the end of the war.

After the war Levy served aboard a number of Navy ships including the USS Franklin, the USS United States, and the USS Cyane. It was fitting that Levy served on the Franklin, because this was the first ship to be built at the naval yard in Levy's hometown of Philadelphia. The United States has an interesting Civil War history in that it was captured by the Confederacy and renamed with the seemingly contradictory name CSS United States. The Cyane was originally a British warship that was captured near the end of the War of 1812 by the USS Constitution and was purchased by the U.S. Navy shortly after the war.

During the period of Levy's life following the War of 1812, his naval career was intensely frustrating for him. He faced numerous verbal insults and slow promotions in rank, both of which he believed to be the result of his ethnicity. Not one to back down from an insult, Levy, who has been described as quick-tempered and pugnacious, engaged in numerous fights with comrades who Levy felt insulted him. Levy even killed another officer who challenged him to a duel, although according to an account of the incident, Levy went to great lengths to resolve the situation peacefully, including firing into the air several times during the duel. Because of his many instances of physical altercations, Levy was court-martialed six times, and he received three presidential pardons after courts-martial ruled against him, two pardons from James Monroe and one from John Tyler.

In spite of these difficulties Levy was devoted to his service in the Navy, and an incident that occurred in 1825 when Levy was serving on the Cyane demonstrates how devoted he was. While the ship was in port in Brazil, Levy watched as a junior officer from the Cyane intervened in a dispute that involved a Brazilian military officer. At one point the Brazilian officer drew a saber and slashed at the junior officer. Levy stepped in and deflected the saber and in so doing was slashed on the wrist. The emperor of Brazil was told of the incident and was so impressed by Levy's bravery that he offered Levy a commission in the Brazilian navy on a new vessel. Levy politely declined and reputedly answered that he would rather be a cabin boy in the U.S. Navy than an admiral in any other navy in the world.

Levy's later service in the Navy was marked by two milestones. Early in his career when Levy was serving on the United States, he witnessed a flogging for the first time. Although flogging was standard punishment in the Navy at that time, Levy thought that the practice was barbaric and ineffective. In 1837 Levy was given command of the USS Vandalia. As commander of the Vandalia Levy discontinued the use of flogging as a punishment and employed different measures. Levy also campaigned to have flogging outlawed in the Navy, but there was stiff resistance to this. In 1850 the practice of flogging was banned by Congress, although it required a legislative maneuver that is often criticized nowadays. Senator John Hale of New Hampshire attached a rider banning flogging to the 1850 naval appropriations bill, and when that bill passed Congress, flogging was no longer allowed in the Navy.

Levy's other milestone occurred a little over a year before the firing on Fort Sumter. On February 21, 1860 James Buchanan appointed Levy to command the Mediterranean fleet. As a fleet commander, Levy received the title of commodore, the first Jew to be named a commodore in the U.S. Navy. Levy held this post for less than five months, after which Abraham Lincoln named Levy to head the naval court-martial board. It was ironic that this was to be the last naval service for someone who had been court-martialed six times. Early in 1862 Levy contracted pneumonia and died on March 22, 1862. Uriah Levy's distinguished service in the U.S. Navy led to the naming of a World War II destroyer escort after him. In addition, the Jewish chapel in the naval station at Norfolk, Virginia is named after him, as is the Jewish center and chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Naming the two Jewish chapels after Uriah Levy is quite fitting in light of a remark that Levy reputedly made to a fellow officer who insulted Levy for being Jewish. To this insult Levy replied, "That I am a Jew, I neither deny nor regret."

While Uriah Levy has exceptional legacies from his service in the Navy, Levy's most far-reaching legacy involves one of the Founding Fathers. Levy was an ardent admirer of Thomas Jefferson and said about Jefferson, "I consider Thomas Jefferson to be one of the greatest men in history, the author of the Declaration and an absolute democrat. He serves as an inspiration to millions of Americans." Because of his admiration for Thomas Jefferson, Uriah Levy, who became wealthy through real estate investments in New York City, was instrumental in two notable monuments to the author of the Declaration of Independence. The first monument is a bronze statue of Jefferson, which Levy funded and presented to Congress in 1834. The statue stands in the rotunda of the capitol in Washington, D.C. and is the only statue in the rotunda that was paid for with private funds. Even more impressive than that, Levy purchased and restored Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello.

Because of the Jefferson family's financial difficulties, Thomas Jefferson's daughter, Martha, was forced to sell Monticello after her father's death. The new owner, James Barclay, intended to convert the estate into a silkworm farm. Even before Barclay had purchased Monticello, it had fallen into disrepair, and this condition only worsened during Barclay's ownership. Levy purchased Monticello from Barclay in 1834 for $2,700 and then oversaw its restoration, although he did not live to see the restoration completed. This restoration was interrupted by the Civil War, during which the Confederate government seized Monticello and sold it. After the Civil War, Levy's heirs recovered the property, and the restoration of Monticello was completed under the supervision of Levy's nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, who served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1923 Jefferson Monroe Levy sold Monticello to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation for $500,000. This foundation, which is now known as the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, currently owns and maintains Monticello.

Of all Uriah Levy's legacies, the one that has the most far-reaching effects is his salvaging of Monticello. Without Levy's preservation efforts, it is not far-fetched to believe that Monticello would have been lost to posterity, in the same way that portions of Civil War battlefields have been lost. Because of his strong admiration for Thomas Jefferson, Uriah Levy preserved for all Americans the home of the author of the Declaration of Independence, and Monticello now stands as an enduring monument to the Founding Father who was the official voice of the movement that produced the United States of America. It is appropriate to remember and acknowledge Levy's preservation of Monticello during the month of December, because December has become the month of gift-giving due to the two religious holidays that fall in December, and Levy's preservation of Monticello is a gift to all of us. In light of Levy's ethnicity and religion and his deep devotion to them, Levy's gift of Monticello is not a Christmas present, but a Hanukkah gift.

 


Uriah P. Levy
 
 
 
 
 

 

November

The Union's NBA Regiment

Prior to the Cleveland Cavaliers' astonishing and (dare it be said) historic championship that they won in June 2016, the last Cleveland team to win a championship in one of the major sports was the Cleveland Browns in 1964. Unfortunately for Cleveland sports fans, the Indians did not add a second championship to Cleveland in 2016, but at least the Cavaliers ended the 52-year drought that existed since the Cleveland Browns 1964 championship. As that Browns team was preparing to defend its championship in the 1965 season, the team's head coach, Blanton Collier, reportedly told the players a sports aphorism which perhaps not everyone agrees with, and which, for that matter, may not be true. Collier said this to the team in an attempt to motivate the players so that they would not become complacent during the season that followed their championship. Collier told the team that defending a championship is more difficult than winning a championship. On October 25, 2016 the Cavaliers raised their championship banner and began defense of their championship.

If Collier is correct about defending a championship, then the Cavaliers will need as much if not more effort and focus as they gave in the previous season, and some additional personnel might also be beneficial. In order to bolster the Cavaliers' fortunes in defending their championship, one place for them to look is a particular Civil War regiment: the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This regiment reputedly had the greatest average height of any regiment in the Civil War. In particular, Company F contained 80 men who were over 6 feet in height, while the average height for Civil War soldiers was only 5 feet, 8 inches, which gives this company the appropriate physical stature for the National Basketball Association. One member of Company F, David Van Buskirk, who was the grandson of a Revolutionary War soldier, was 6 feet, 10½ inches tall, and he reputedly weighed 380 pounds. Van Buskirk was the tallest man in the Union army, and despite his large size he was never wounded even though his regiment participated in some very intense fighting.

The 27th Indiana consisted of men from south-central counties of the state, and it was organized in September 1861. While the regiment was being organized, Peter Kop, a Bloomington resident who himself was over 6 feet, 4 inches, saw David Van Buskirk and his unusually tall brothers and decided to organize a company of very tall men. This became Company F. After the 27th Indiana was mustered into the Union army, it had the misfortune of being assigned to the Shenandoah army that was under the command of Nathaniel Banks, and it had the additional misfortune of facing the army that was commanded by Stonewall Jackson.

The first major action that the 27th Indiana experienced was at the first battle of Winchester, which was one of Stonewall's victories during his Valley campaign. The 27th Indiana suffered five deaths and 62 prisoners, including David Van Buskirk, who was imprisoned in Libby Prison. Van Buskirk's exceptionally large size drew so much attention to him that he was visited by none other than Confederate President Jefferson Davis. During an exchange between Davis and Van Buskirk, Davis reputedly asked the large Union prisoner about his home and family. Among other personal vignettes, the 6-foot, 10½-inch Van Buskirk told the Confederate president that when he left with his unit, his sisters "all walked up, leaned down, and kissed me on the top of the head." (If Van Buskirk has the necessary physical stature for the NBA, then his sisters seem like good candidates for the WNBA.) While Van Buskirk was a prisoner of war, his captors used him to raise funds by putting him on display. For a fee people could look at the large Yankee prisoner. Although this was no doubt embarrassing for Van Buskirk, it allowed him to survive as a prisoner of war.

During the time that Van Buskirk was being gazed at by many Confederate gawkers, some of his regimental comrades did what the 27th Indiana is most known for. In late summer of 1862 the 27th Indiana was assigned to the XII Corps of the Army of the Potomac. On September 13, 1862, while the 27th Indiana was on picket duty near Frederick, Maryland, some members of Company F were resting in a field and noticed three cigars wrapped in papers. While the cigars were initially the main focus of the men, their immediate superior, First Sergeant John Bloss, examined the papers and saw that they contained writing of a military nature. In fact, the papers were orders from Robert E. Lee that directed the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia during the beginning of Lee's first invasion of the North. Bloss ordered that the packet, including the cigars, be reassembled as it had been found and then had the packet sent up the chain of command. The orders that were in the packet, Lee's Special Orders No. 191, eventually made their way to George McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, and their fortuitous finding by men of the 27th Indiana played a prominent role in the outcome of the battle of Antietam. It is not known what happened to the cigars.

At the battle of Antietam the 27th Indiana fought in Miller's cornfield, where it contributed to stopping an advance by the Confederates. In this battle the 27th Indiana lost 41 killed and 168 wounded, which gives evidence of the intensity of the fighting in which the regiment was engaged. The 27th Indiana did not see action at Fredericksburg due to the late arrival of the XII Corps, but at Chancellorsville the XII Corps, including the 27th Indiana, was heavily engaged. At Chancellorsville the XII Corps was positioned near the XI Corps, which took the full brunt of Stonewall's flank attack. The brigade that included the 27th Indiana played an important role in halting that Confederate flank attack, and during the battle of Chancellorsville the 27th Indiana suffered 36 killed and 114 wounded. The 27th Indiana also fought at Gettysburg, by which time David Van Buskirk had rejoined his regiment after being exchanged. The 27th Indiana took part in intense fighting on Culp's Hill, in particular on the third day when it was part of an attack that disrupted the coordination between Pickett's Charge and a planned attack by Richard Ewell's II Corps. A few weeks after the battle of Gettysburg the 27th Indiana was sent on detached duty to New York City to assist in maintaining order after the New York City draft riots. In late September 1863 the regiment was among the troops that were sent to reinforce the besieged Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga. From that point until the end of its service, the 27th Indiana participated in the Atlanta campaign and the siege and occupation of Atlanta. On November 4, 1864, four days before the presidential election, the 27th Indiana mustered out.

The 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment is most widely known in association with Robert E. Lee's Special Orders No. 191, and it is also famous for the large number of unusually tall men in its ranks. But the focus on a fortuitous occurrence and a physical oddity does an injustice to the gallant and resolute service that the regiment gave toward the preservation of the Union. Of the original members of the 27th Indiana, 169 lost their lives in combat, 133 died of disease, and 706 were casualties at some time in the war. The regiment never lost a flag, nor did it ever lose a cannon that was under its protection. One author wrote of the 27th Indiana, "Without fancy names or fancy hats, the 27th contributed blood and immeasurable service," while another author called the 27th Indiana "arguably one of the most successful and storied regiments to participate in the Civil War." Many of the regiment's members have the height needed for the NBA, especially David Van Buskirk and his comrades in Company F. Because of this, and because the men of the 27th Indiana had it in them to display such exceptional valor and determination in defending the Union, these men can certainly help the Cleveland Cavaliers defend their championship.

 


David Van Buskirk
 
 
 
 
 

 

September...

The First First Lady

September 14, 2016 was the date of the first meeting in the presidency of the second woman president in the history of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable. In recognition of that milestone, this history brief is about the first first lady. The obvious person to have the distinction of being the first first lady is Martha Washington, the wife of the first president of the United States. However, Martha Washington was never called first lady while her husband served as president. In fact, Martha Washington was typically called Lady Washington, a name that she reputedly expressed a preference for. More than 40 years after Martha Washington's death, an article by a poet named Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney complimented Martha Washington for never taking on an air of pretentiousness despite her husband's lofty stature. The compliment read, "The first lady of the nation still preserved the habits of early life." Although the title of first lady was applied to Martha Washington in this article, this was done decades after her death, and there is no evidence that this title was ever used for Martha Washington while her husband was president.

Dolley Madison was another presidential wife in our nation's early history to whom the title first lady may have been applied. This may have occurred when President Zachary Taylor reputedly eulogized Dolley Madison in 1849 by calling her "the first lady of the land for half a century." However, no written documentation exists for this statement, and even if the statement is factual, the comment was made many years after Dolley Madison's husband was president. During James Madison's presidency, his wife was called Presidentess or Presidentress, not first lady.

Based on available evidence, the first person to whom the title first lady was applied while she was living in the White House was Harriet Lane. Harriet was not the wife of a president, but the niece of President James Buchanan, the president who preceded Abraham Lincoln. Harriet filled the role of first lady for her uncle during his presidency, because Buchanan was a bachelor his whole life. Due to Harriet Lane's widespread popularity during her uncle's presidency, Harper's Weekly published a picture of her on May 8, 1858 and referred to her as "Our Lady of the White House," which sounds like a title that would be given to Mary, the mother of Jesus, if her husband, Joseph, had ever been president of the United States. On March 31, 1860, during the last year of Buchanan's presidency, a full-page engraving of Harriet appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. The caption accompanying the engraving praised Harriet by stating, "The subject of our illustration, from the semi-official position which she has long sustained with so much honor to herself and her country, may justly be termed the first lady of the land." This was, as far as is known, the first time that the title first lady was applied to a woman during the time that she lived in the White House. After the Civil War, the title grew in popularity and came to be the exclusive term used for the wife of the president. However, Harriet Lane, who was not the president's wife, but filled the role of White House hostess during her uncle's presidency, was the first woman to whom this title was applied while she lived in the White House.

Harriet Lane came to be the White House hostess because of the deaths of her parents when she was a child. She was born on May 9, 1830 in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, which is about 35 miles due west of Gettysburg. When Harriet was nine, her mother, who was the younger sister of James Buchanan, died. Two years later Harriet's father died, and she requested that her uncle, James Buchanan, be appointed her legal guardian. Buchanan diligently oversaw his niece's education by sending her to excellent schools, where she excelled in her studies of history, astronomy, writing, French, arithmetic, and chemistry. When Buchanan became secretary of state under James Polk, Harriet Lane, at the age of 15, lived in Washington. During this time she was introduced to Washington society and politics, and at this young age she began to become educated in them. The first known photograph of Harriet was taken while she lived in Washington. The date of the photograph is not known with certainty, but it was around 1845, and it is of a group of people that includes Harriet Lane, James Buchanan, President and Mrs. Polk, and Dolley Madison. After the conclusion of her formal education, Harriet continued to grow in knowledge about matters of national importance, in part by sitting in on meetings that her uncle conducted at their residence. When Buchanan served as minister to the United Kingdom during the presidency of Franklin Pierce, Harriet, at the age of 24, went to live with her uncle in London, where she not only learned the particulars of European society and culture and the nuances of social functions, but also befriended Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales, both of whom found the young woman to be intelligent, knowledgeable, and engaging. Harriet Lane so endeared herself to Queen Victoria that she routinely referred to Harriet as "dear Miss Lane." Throughout the years prior to Buchanan's campaign for the presidency, he often discussed current issues with his niece and sought her opinion, so much so that Harriet became Buchanan's primary confidante.

At the inauguration ball following her uncle's election as president, Harriet Lane caused a stir by wearing a gown that was in the European style with a much lower neckline than was worn in the U.S. This choice of gown was, in a sense, a signal that the White House would no longer be under the pall of the perpetually mournful Jane Pierce, the wife of the previous president, whose three sons all died in childhood prior to Franklin Pierce taking office as president. During the Buchanan presidency dinner parties again took place in the White House, and Harriet was responsible for their planning. Using what she had learned in London as a guide, she oversaw gatherings that played a large role in changing the gloomy mood in Washington society that had prevailed during the Pierce presidency. Harriet also deftly set up seating arrangements for dinner parties that gave appropriate and expected seating precedence to each guest while maintaining distance between political adversaries, which was a very difficult task during this time of extreme sectional tension.

Harriet Lane's cheerfulness and poise led to her popularity throughout the U.S., with women copying her clothing and her unelaborate hair style. In physical appearance she has been described as having hair that was "bright, reddish-brown, full and shiny," "a robust physicality," "healthy, flushed skin," and "a more muscularly developed neck, back, and arms which were visibly displayed by the clothing style she invariably wore at formal public occasions." Harriet also displayed traits that were progressive for her time. For example, during an 1860 visit to Washington by the Prince of Wales, who had befriended Harriet while she was living in London, Harriet and the prince competed against each other in a game of tenpins, which breached the socially accepted norm of that time that women should not publicly display physical prowess, particularly in competing against a man. Moreover, Harriet was victorious over the prince in their game of bowling. Harriet Lane's popularity led to the misconception that a popular song of that time, "Listen to the Mockingbird," was written for her. This misconception came about because the woman in the song is referred to as Hal, which was Harriet's nickname. Although the song had not been written for Harriet, a bandleader at one White House party dedicated the song to her. (As an aside, a comical rendition of "Listen to the Mockingbird," played at a rapid pace and with chirping birds in the background, was used as the opening music for some Three Stooges episodes.

Planning dinner parties at the White House was not Harriet Lane's only activity during her uncle's presidency. There is evidence that she lent public support to several social welfare efforts, such as improving living conditions on Native American reservations, establishment of a hospital for the indigent, and prison reform. After her time in the White House, Harriet gave abundant financial support to some important civic endeavors. In 1866, at the age of 36, which was significantly older than usual for women of her time, Harriet Lane married Henry Elliott Johnston, who was a banker, and the couple went on to have two sons. Two years after Harriet's wedding, James Buchanan died, and then from 1881 to 1884 Harriet lost both of her sons and her husband to death, which left her a widow without any of her immediate family. Undeterred by these personal losses, Harriet Lane Johnston used both her inheritance from her uncle and her family wealth to contribute to several projects. She donated funds for the establishment of the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children, which was affiliated with the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and which was the first hospital in the country devoted exclusively to pediatric medicine. This facility still operates as the Harriet Lane Clinic. Since 1950 Johns Hopkins Hospital has published the Harriet Lane Handbook, which is a highly regarded manual for pediatric care and is now in its 20th edition. In her will Harriet bequeathed funds for the establishment and construction of a school on the grounds of the National Cathedral in Washington, which became St. Albans School. She also willed that her art collection be made available for public use, and her collection was given to the Smithsonian Institution.

One of Harriet Lane Johnston's donations was met less than enthusiastically, specifically her bequest for a monument in Washington to her uncle, James Buchanan. In spite of the widespread negative opinion about Buchanan, Harriet remained loyal to her uncle and bequeathed funds for construction of a monument to him. Harriet died in 1903 on the day before our nation's 127th birthday, and she attached a 15-year deadline to her bequest for the monument to James Buchanan. For many years Congress failed to act on it, and at one point Senator Henry Cabot Lodge railed against building the monument by claiming that it would honor someone "upon whom rests the shadow of disloyalty in the great office to which he was elected." Congress finally passed legislation authorizing construction of the monument six days prior to the deadline, and the legislation was signed by Woodrow Wilson. The monument to James Buchanan, which was unveiled in 1930, is in Meridian Hill Park. The lofty inscription on the monument reads, "The incorruptible statesman whose walk was upon the mountain ranges of the law." There can be and certainly was much disagreement about the building of a monument to James Buchanan. But Buchanan nurtured his niece intellectually and socially, he played an important role in her precocious and consummate maturity and in her enlightened attitudes, and he inculcated in her a sincere and deep-seated magnanimity and an active and empathetic concern for the less fortunate. As such, Buchanan contributed significantly to Harriet becoming the great woman that she was. Hence, the James Buchanan Memorial can be viewed as a monument to Harriet Lane Johnston as much as a monument to her uncle.

Standing in the shadow of someone who was great can obscure a person’s own greatness, but so too can standing in the shadow of someone who was inept. This was the familial burden that befell Harriet Lane Johnston. It certainly was not her fault that she was the niece of one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. Buchanan’s incompetence as president should in no way prejudice his niece’s exemplary legacy, which deserves to stand on its own. Because James Buchanan was a woefully ineffective president, Harriet Lane Johnston's legacy is often overlooked due to our and history’s tendency to shine a spotlight on the exceptional rather than on the inadequate. But Harriet Lane Johnston was exceptional, and she merits not just our and history’s attention, but our and history’s admiration for all of her superb accomplishments. Although Harriet is widely considered to be the first person to bear the title of first lady, she was not a first lady in the typical sense of being the wife of a U.S. president. Nevertheless, Harriet Lane Johnston’s remarkable legacy of graciousness, industriousness, intellectuality, and philanthropy are not only a record that makes her truly deserving of the title first lady, but also a model that every first lady should seek to emulate.

 


Harriet Lane
James Buchanan
 
 
 
 

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