One hundred and forty years ago, a man
hailed as a modern Robinson Crusoe made a brief appearance in
newspapers across the world and continues today to impact
genealogists, historical societies and miscellaneous bloggers
throughout the world-wide web. And he was, with all moral certainty,
Ten a.m. on March 31, 2015 marked
the 150th Anniversary of the sudden conflagration that consumed the
U.S. army transport steamer General Lyon in the storm-wracked
Atlantic Ocean, sixty miles offshore from Cape Hatteras, North
Carolina. Over 500 men, women and children either burned to death or
were drowned as the ship drifted, engulfed in flames, toward the
shore in near hurricane conditions with little hope of rescue. The
USAT steamer General Sedgwick approached and managed to pick
up 29 survivors, all men, losing its own first engineer (B. F.
Skinner of Connecticut) to the sea in the rescue effort.
Amongst those lost in this voyage
to safety from Wilmington NC to Fort Monroe VA and on to Washington
DC and New York were:
- Federal troops released on
parole from rebel prison camps, most of them still debilitated by
months and years of captivity - homeward bound at last to Ohio and
Pennsylvania, to New York and Michigan, to Massachusetts, Vermont
and other states.
- Civilians from North and South
Carolina – men and women with their children; men alone; women
alone and with children, many set on board by their relatives to
escape to “safety”. Huddled amongst the crowd, a handful of
captured rebel soldiers and one hopeful deserter. The crew of the
ship were civilians too.
- Soldiers whose time of duty had
expired and were released to go home. Two hundred and seven
members of the 56th Illinois were on board – all but five died.
Rescue efforts ceased on April 1,
1865 as the ship burned down to the waterline and was left to drift
ashore, if it did not sink first. And that introduces the subject of
a cruel hoax – one that is kept alive today through the medium of
the Internet, along with so much other misinformation. It involved
one of the 56th Illinois dead - a man named Henson G Rains.
Rains was a corporal in Company K
of the 56th Illinois and not much remains to us of his life whereas
in death he lives on in popular mythology. Even his name is a small
mystery for, although he’s carried as “Henson” on the Illinois
military records, he’s “Henry” in the 1860 Federal Census and in the
actual muster rolls in the National Archives. Then again, when his
father applied for a dependent pension in 1883, he used the name
“Henson” and so it appears in the National Archives veteran pension
records. By either name, he would have been largely forgotten by the
world beyond his own family if not for a very strange occurrence,
ten years after the General Lyon was destroyed.
On May 14, 1875 the Chicago
newspaper Inter Ocean published a letter from G. B. Raum of
Harrisburg, Illinois. Raum revealed the astounding news that Henson
G Rains, far from being dead these past ten years, had miraculously
survived and had written to his father in Galena, Illinois from
London, England pleading for assistance.
“Application has been made to the
Secretary of War,” Raum reassured the readers, “to have our minister
at London requested by cable to have Rains cared for and funds
furnished him for his return home . . . to be restored to his
The letter went on to say that
Rains, escaping the burning deck of the General Lyon and
hurling himself into the sea, had clung to a wave-tossed cabin door
along with a companion, Lieutenant Butler but they were not rescued.
Instead they drifted for four days until picked up by a schooner
which deposited them on a desert island. Butler died but Rains lived
on the island for ten years until March 1875 when he was taken
aboard the Vengeance, a “British man-of-war” and transported
to a safe berth in Guy’s Hospital, London.
“The stories of Robinson Crusoe and
the hero of ‘Foul Play’ are probably excelled in interest by the
adventures of this gallant soldier . . . (who) . . . with an
endurance scarcely to be credited, resisted death from cold, hunger,
and thirst,” thundered Raum.
From that day until June 10, 1875,
the story spread through newspapers in Illinois, New York, Indiana,
Missouri, Kansas, South Carolina and Pennsylvania. Like Rains, it
crossed the Atlantic and showed up in Edinburgh, Scotland and
Durham, England. Yet it appears not to have been published in New
York and London.
The timing seemed curious. Rains’
“letter to his father” must have reached Galena almost exactly ten
years after his family learned of his terrible fate. If only G. B.
Raum, not a foolish or cruel man, had told us details of the letter
and the envelope that contained it – did it have a British stamp and
was the letter perhaps dated April 1st, 1875?
Brigadier General Green Berry Raum
had once been the major of the 56th Illinois and was wounded when
leading that regiment and the 10th Missouri in the charge up
Missionary Ridge in the battles of Chattanooga. After noble and
meritorious military service in the war, he opened a successful law
practice in Chicago and went on to build the Cairo and Vincennes
Railroad Company in Illinois, becoming its first president. He was
elected to Congress as a Republican in 1867. Between 1876 and 1883
he was U.S. Commissioner of Internal Revenue and was Commissioner of
Pensions from 1889 to 1893. One must surely deny that a man who was
a brave soldier, a politician, taxman, bureaucrat and lawyer would
knowingly be a willing participant in a falsehood.
For it was all a hoax, as reported
in the National Republican newspaper of Washington D.C. on
July 7, 1875. Having received “letters from persons in Illinois”
(note the plurals), the Secretary of War had pursued the matter
through the U.S. representative in London, General Schenck. On July
6, the Secretary in Washington received Schenck’s official report
that “no such man as Henson Raines (sic) has been in Gray’s Hospital
during the past ten years and it is believed the whole story is a
hoax.” Furthermore, wrote the United States Minister in the U.K., “.
. . there is no such British vessel as the Vengeance”.
One hopes that the Minister had in
fact pursued his enquiries at Guy’s Hospital and the newspaper had
misreported his reply; there was and is no such hospital as Gray’s
In 1875 there actually did exist a
British second-rate “line-of-battle” ship named HMS Vengeance.
However, in 1861 it had been deemed unfit for sea-going service and
became a “receiving ship”, moored safely in harbor and used to house
new “recruits” to the Navy, often impressed men who found it more
difficult to escape from a ship than from any land-based housing.
This vessel did not sail and could by no means have sailed anywhere
near a desert island in the Atlantic and survived the attempt.
Those other “letters from persons
in Illinois” must have been the source for an additional detail in
the National Republican. Rain’s island was inhabited by
cannibals! Somehow, Minister Schenck refrained from pointing out the
distinct lack of “desert islands” in the Atlantic, let alone one
terrorized by flesh-eating natives.
But his determination of false
report seems to have made no world-wide news impact whatsoever.
There appears no letter from Green B. Raum commenting upon the
horrible disappointment that must have been experienced by Rains’
family and friends.
In the end, we are left to
contemplate a bereaved father in Galena, IL who may have received a
letter that claimed to be from his long-dead son and that:
- Likely was dated April 1, 1875
or received on that day,
- Referred to a non-existent
Lieutenant Butler (no such name is in the 56th Illinois or on any
- Spoke of rescue by a schooner,
the captain of which callously abandoned two men instead of
delivering them to safety,
- Described a cannibal-inhabited
desert island located between Wilmington NC and Europe,
- Claimed a voyage on a
- Spoke of treatment in a hospital
that had no record of such a sensational patient,
- And was not sent directly, nor
yet presented in person, to the U.S. minister in London.
It will never be known who
perpetrated this hoax and against whom it was employed. Perhaps
Henson’s father was the victim and approached Raum, a successful
lawyer and formerly a commander of Henson’s regiment, for assistance
in dealing with a complicated international transaction. Raum had
power and influence in Washington, after all. Perhaps someone wished
to damage Green B. Raum.
Whoever did it and for whatever
reason it was done, the story appears today again and again across
the Internet. Breathless enthusiasts add it, usually without
critical thought, to their websites in tones of wonder and
amazement. It even appears on the pages of more sober organizations,
including the Washington Times in 2012 where it is described
as “apocryphal” and “unverified” - when “verifiably false” would the
The story of the General Lyon
and the men, women and children who died so horribly on March 31 and
April 1, 1865 is tragic. One hundred and fifty years ago, their
voyage from imprisonment, destitution and danger in the south to the
safe havens of the north came to a fiery and terrifying end. Henson
G. Rains is one who lost his life that day and, as Green B. Raum
ended his letter so long ago, “surely truth is stranger than
fiction” and infinitely preferable.