Monday, July 08, 2024

Piracy! Smuggled Weapons! A Master of Disguise! The Capture of the St. Nicolas

   The first couple of months of the war include a series of well-documented events: Fort Sumter fell in April, the U.S. Army occupied Arlington Heights in May, and the two sides clashed at Big Bethel in June. Those are all well-known stories. Lesser known is the strange story of one of the first Confederate naval victories.

   George N. Hollis had an idea. He was going to steal the St. Nicholas, “and manning her with volunteers . . then take the Pawnee.” It was a bold and daring plan. The Maryland side of the Potomac swarmed with Federal soldiers. But, the plan just might work.[1] 

The Baltimore Sun, March 19, 1861. 

   The St. Nicholas was a packet boat that ran regularly between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., with other stops in Alexandria and Georgetown.[2] With a Confederate commission in hand, the permission of Virginia’s Governor Letcher, and cash to purchase firearms up North, Hollis set out with his two sons and five other men. Upon reaching Point Lookout, the draft for the firearms was given to “Colonel Thomas, of Maryland, alias Zarvona,” who proceeded on to Baltimore and Philadelphia to procure weapons and maybe a few more men. Hollis told Thomas to return to Point Lookout on the St. Nicholas. A day or two later, the St. Nicholas returned for its regular stop at Point Lookout. Hollis and his band boarded the vessel about midnight where he found “Colonel Thomas dressed as a woman, to avoid suspicion, as he had high, large, trunks such as milliners use; they contained arms and ammunition.”[3]

   Just a few minutes after leaving the wharf, Hollis gave the signal. The trunks were opened, and the members of the party were armed, with Hollis taking a Sharps rifle and pair of pistols. He ran to the wheelhouse and put his “hand on the captain’s shoulder,” capturing the vessel. Hollis ordered the captain to sail the St. Nicholas to Coan River, on the Virginia side of the Potomac River. He was joined by a small body of Confederate soldiers under a Captain Lewis. The passengers were landed and most made their way home. There was a group of ladies that “amused themselves by making Confederate flags out of the Yankee flags I had captured.” Hollis determined that the Pawnee was out of reach. Instead, he sailed out into the Chesapeake Bay toward Fredericksburg. He soon spotted the brig Monticello, with a load of coffee from Rio. Hollis captured the brig without firing a shot. He moved a crew under Lt. Robert D. Minor and sent the load of coffee to Fredericksburg. An hour later. Hollis and the St. Nicholas captured a schooner coming from Baltimore and bound for Washington, D.C., with a load of ice. Once again, Hollis placed a “prize” crew aboard and sent the vessel to Fredericksburg. On board, Hollis found a “splendid flag of a 74” that had been borrowed from the U.S. Naval yard for Stephen Douglas’s funeral. He used the large flag to make “a goodly number of secession flags.”[4]

   Hollis then captured another vessel coming from Baltimore and headed to Boston. This one was loaded with coal, which Hollis used to replenish the St. Nicholas. At that point, Hollis, afraid that word had gotten out and Federal gunboats were looking for him, sailed the St. Nicholas to Fredericksburg. The Confederate government purchased the St. Nicholas for “about $45,000” and turned it into a gunboat.[5]

   “Piracy on the Chesapeake” read a headline in The Baltimore Sun on July 2, 1861. The St. Nicholas was last seen leaving Point Lookout “under great speed for the Virginia shore . . . There is no doubt but that she was taken forcible possession of by parties who came passengers in her from Baltimore.”[6] By the evening, The Baltimore Sun was able to report that it was Hollis who had captured the St. Nicholas. After unloading passengers and taking on board soldiers, Hollis proceeded to capture three other vessels.[7]

   The news quickly made the rounds. “The rebels have succeeded by a coup de main in seizing and carrying off a Baltimore steamerreported the New York Daily Herald.[8] “The seizure of the steamer St. Nicholas from this port . . . proved to have been a bold piratical expedition,” summed up The New York Times.[9] The Richmond Dispatch considered the affair a “Brilliant Achievement.”[10] The New Bern Daily Progress labeled it a “Daring Exploit.”[11]

Harper's Weekly, July 27, 1861

   In 1910, the Evening Sun told the story of George W. Watts, the “Last Survivor of Col. Zarvona Thomas’ Band.” Watts stated that Thomas had sixteen men with him that night. After boarding the vessel, Watts could not find the colonel, but did notice “a mighty pretty young woman, stylishly dressed, flirting outrageously with some young officers. She talked with a strong French accent . . . That young woman behaved so scandalously that all the other women on the boat were in a terrible state over it.” Later, Watts was summoned below deck. On entering the cabin, he saw his comrades, “gathered around that frisky French lady.” Watts recognized the eyes as belonging to Thomas. Thomas “shed his bonnet, wig, and dress and stepped forth clad in a brilliant new Zouave uniform. In a jiffy the ‘French lady’s’ three big trunks were dragged out and opened. One was filled with cutlasses, another with Colt’s revolvers and the third with carbines.” Watts and the others armed themselves, then proceeded to take possession of the St. Nicholas. According to Watts, the Pawnee was no longer in position guarding the river south of Washington, but had moved closer to the city, escorting a dead naval officer to the capital.[12]

   The story of the capture of the St. Nicholas is so outlandish that it almost seems like an episode in a work of fiction. Yet, it really did happen, and the history of this strange event, though less spectacular than a battle, needs to be told along with those of Fort Sumter and Big Bethel Church.

[1] OR Navy, 4:553.

[2] The Baltimore Sun, March 19, 1861.

[3] OR Navy, 4:553.

[4] OR Navy, 4:555.

[5] OR Navy, 4:555.

[6] The Baltimore Sun, July 2, 1861.

[7] The Baltimore Sun, July 2, 1861.

[8] New York Daily Herald, July 2, 1861.

[9] The New York Times, July 3, 1861.

[10] Richmond Dispatch, July 2, 1861.

[11] Daily Progress, July 1, 1861.

[12] The Evening Sun, August 27, 1910.

Sunday, June 30, 2024

Harvard University’s Boys in Gray

 The Blue versus the Gray, or the North versus the South, is often how we interpret the two opposing sides during the war. That is true to a degree, but often forgotten is just how connected the North and South were. Cotton grown in the South by slaves fueled textile miles in New England; wheat and rye grown in the Ohio River Valley floated down the Mississippi River en route to plantations to feed workers; farm machinery manufactured up North could often be found in Southern fields. This even holds true to education. For the elite, attending a college in the North was seen as a way for  advancement.

Each of what we consider the Ivy League schools, like the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), Yale University, and Harvard University, had Southern students who, despite their Northern education, fought for the South.

Harvard University was founded in 1636. It is the oldest university in the country. Some famous graduates include astronomer John Winthrop; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story; Revolutionary War Major General Artemas Ward; and minister Cotton Mather.

357 Southerners attended or graduated from Harvard prior to the war. Of that number, sixty-four were killed in action, and twelve died of disease. Sixteen achieved the rank of general.

Major General Henry C. Wayne, class of 1834, transferred from Harvard to West Point, graduating in 1838. He fought in the Mexican American War and worked with camels out west. Wayne resigned his commission in December 1861, and returning to Georgia, was commissioned Georgia’s adjutant and inspector general. In December 1861, he was promoted to brigadier general in Confederate service. When he was ordered to Virginia, Wayne resigned, preferring to serve in Georgia. During the Atlanta Campaign, he commanded a two-brigade division of Georgia militia and cadets. After the war, he returned to Savannah and worked in the lumber industry.

Brigadier General William Preston, class of 1838, Harvard Law School, was born in Kentucky. Besides practicing law, he served as lieutenant colonel of the 4th Kentucky Infantry during the Mexican American War, served in the state house, in the US House, and as Minister to Spain. During the war he served as an aide-de-camp to Albert Sidney Johnson, was promoted to brigadier general in April 1862, and commanded a brigade under Breckinridge. Eventually, Preston was sent as an envoy to Mexico. After the war, he practiced law in Kentucky.

Alexander Lawton

Brigadier General Alexander Lawton, class of 1843, Harvard Law School, graduated from West Point, but resigned to study law. After graduation, the South Carolinian practiced law in Savannah, Georgia. He then ran a railroad and served in the Georgia house and senate. After secession, Lawton was elected colonel of the 1st Georgia Volunteers. Lawton was promoted to brigadier general in February 1861. His brigade served in Jackson’s division in the Shenandoah Valley, Seven Days, and Ewell’s Division at Second Manassas. After Ewell was wounded, Lawton took command of the division, and was wounded at Sharpsburg. He never returned to active field command. Lawton was assigned as Quartermaster General. After the war, Lawton served in the state legislature and was minister to Austria.

Brigadier General John Echols, class of 1843, Harvard Law School, was born in Virginia and served as the Commonwealth’s attorney and in the House of Commons prior to the war. He was also a member of the Virginia Secession Convention. At Manassas, he commanded a regiment under Stonewall Jackson. His action at Kernstown, in which he was wounded, led to his promotion to brigadier general. He commanded the Department of Southwestern Virginia for a time, until ill health led to his resignation. After duty on a court of inquiry regarding the surrender of Vicksburg, Echols returned to active duty, commanding a brigade in the Army of Western Virginia. In August 1864, he assumed command of the District of Southwest Virginia. He was replaced by Jubal Early on March 30, 1865. After the war, Echols was president of a bank, organized a railroad, was on the board of Visitor of Washington and Lee College and the Virginia Military Institute, and ran other businesses.

Major General William B. Taliaferro, class of 1843, Harvard Law School, served in the Mexican American War and the Virginia House and militia. Taliaferro was elected colonel of the 23rd Virginia Infantry, and by the end of 1861, was commanding a brigade. Although he was feuding with Jackson, he was promoted to brigadier general in March 1862. Taliaferro served under Jackson through the Shenandoah Valley and Seven Days Campaign, and assumed command of Jackson’s old division after Charles Winder was killed at Cedar Mountain. He was transferred to Charleston, South Carolina, commanding the defenses at Battery Wagner, and then James Island, then Savannah, finally commanding a division under Johnston in North Carolina. After the war, he returned to Virginia, serving in the legislature and as a judge.

Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, class of 1845, was born in Kentucky, and was the son of Zachary Taylor. He was a large plantation owner and served in the Louisiana senate. He was elected colonel of the 9th Louisiana Infantry, and in September 1861, was promoted to brigadier general. Taylor fought in Virginia under Jackson and was promoted to major general in June 1862. He transferred back to Louisiana, where he feuded with E. Kirby Smith. He fought at Fort Bisland, Fort Franklin, Red River Valley, Mansfield, Pleasant Hill, and then was appointed commander of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, with a promotion to lieutenant general. After the war, Taylor worked on rebuilding his plantations and worked against the Radical Republicans and Reconstruction.

Brigadier General Stephen Elliott, Jr., class of 1849, was a South Carolina planter, state legislator, and commanded a militia artillery battery. He was present at the capture of Fort Sumter, served as a company commander in the 11th South Carolina Infantry, and then rejoined the artillery. He was highly active along the South Carolina coast, later serving as the commander of Fort Sumter. In April 1864, Elliott was promoted colonel of the Holcombe Legion, seeing service guarding the Weldon Railroad and at Bermuda Hundred. He was promoted to brigadier general in May 1864, commanding a brigade of South Carolina regiments. Elliott was seriously wounded while repulsing the attack at the Crater and did not return to duty until December 1864. He briefly commanded in North Carolina but returned to South Carolina. Elliott only lived a year after the war, dying of the effects of his wounds.

Brigadier General Albert G. Jenkins, class of 1850, Harvard Law School, was a lawyer and United States Congressman prior to the war. He organized a cavalry company, then served as colonel of the 8th Virginia Cavalry. He gave up that command to serve in the first Confederate Congress, then secured an appointment as a brigadier general. He led a couple of raids into present-day West Virginia before being assigned to the Army of Northern Virginia prior to the Gettysburg Campaign. Following the campaign, he was mortally wounded at the May 1864 battle of Cloyd’s Mountain.

Brigadier General John R. Cooke, class of 1851, civil engineering, was born in Missouri, the son of Philip St. George Cooke. After graduating from Harvard, he entered the military, serving in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. Once the war began, he served as a staff officer, commanded an artillery battery, and was colonel of the 27th North Carolina. Cooke was promoted to brigadier general in November 1862. His North Carolina brigade fought behind the stone wall at the foot of Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, and was wounded seven times throughout the war, including at Bristoe Station and at the Wilderness. After the war, he founded the Confederate Soldiers Home in Richmond.

Brigadier General Bradley Johnson, class of 1852, Harvard Law School. Born in Maryland, Johnson was the state’s attorney general. Once the war came, he organized a company of men, then served in the 1st Maryland, fighting at First Manassas. He fought at various battles in the campaigns of 1862, and Stonewall Jackson recommended him for promotion to brigadier general. That promotion did not come until June 1864. Johnson commanded Grumble Jones’s brigade during Early’s advance on Washington, D.C. In November 1864, Johnson was assigned as commander of Salisbury Prison. After the war, he served in the Virginia Senate and practiced law before returning to Maryland.

Brigadier General States Rights Gist, class of 1852, Harvard Law School. Born in South Carolina, he practiced law and served in the militia prior to war. At Manassas, he served as a volunteer aide-de-camp to Barnard E. Bee. Promotion to brigadier general came in March 1862. Gist commanded on James Island, serving along the coast until May 1863 when he was sent to Mississippi, and then with the Army of Tennessee, fighting at Chickamauga, Chattanooga, the battles for Atlanta, and Franklin, where he was killed.

Brigadier General Martin W. Gary, class of 1854, was a state legislator. He served as a captain in Hampton’s Legion. When the Legion was reorganized in 1862, Gary was elected lieutenant colonel, commanding the infantry battalion. The list of battles he fought in is lengthy. In April 1864, he was commanding the cavalry brigade, Department of Richmond. He was promoted to brigadier general in June 1864. His brigade supplied the only mounted troops protecting Richmond from September to December 1864. Gary refused to surrender at Appomattox and escaped. He was a leader in South Carolina after the war.

Brigadier General John Clark, Jr., class of 1854, Harvard Law School, was born in Missouri and was a practicing attorning when the war came. He rose through the ranks, serving as a company grade and field and staff officer in the 6th Missouri Infantry. At the battle of Pea Ridge, Colonel Clark commanded the Third Division, Missouri State Guard. Clark was first promoted to brigadier by Edmund Kirby Smith in April 1864. Later, his name was passed to the senate by Jefferson Davis for confirmation. Clark commanded infantry and later cavalry under Sterling Price. After the war, Clark served in the US House, and later as clerk in the US House, and then practiced law in Washington, D.C.

Brigadier General Benjamin Hardin Helm, class of 1854, Harvard Law School, was a brother-in-law to Abraham Lincoln, who first graduated from West Point, then resigned his commission to study law. He also served in the Kentucky House, and as one of Kentucky’s state lawyers. Helm was offered a job as an army paymaster by Lincoln, but declined, raising Confederate cavalry companies instead. In March 1862, he was promoted to brigadier general, commanding an infantry brigade under John C. Breckinridge. He was seriously wounded when his horse fell on him at Baton Rouge. Helm was back with the army in Mississippi. Helm was mortally wounded fighting with the Army of Tennessee at Chickamauga in September 1863.

John S. Marmaduke
Major General John S. Marmaduke, class of 1854, was born in Missouri, attended Yale, then Harvard, then West Point. After commissioning, he served in the west. After Lincoln’s call for troops, Marmaduke resigned from the army, and joined state forces in Missouri, being commissioned colonel, but later resigned and went to Richmond, joining the Confederate army. He served on William J. Hardee’s staff, then was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the 1st Arkansas Infantry Battalion, then colonel of the 3rd Confederate Infantry. He fought at Shiloh, Corinth, Tupelo, and Prairie Grove. Marmaduke’s promotion to brigadier general came in November 1862. He participated in most of the battles in Arkansas and Missouri. He even fought a duel with Brigadier General L. Marsh Walker, in which Walker was mortally wounded. Marmaduke was captured late in the war and imprisoned at Fort Warren. After the war, he was an insurance agent, editor, governor of Missouri.

Major General William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, class of 1858 and the son of Robert E. Lee, transferred from Harvard to West Point. Lee served in the Utah War against the Mormons but resigned from the US Army prior to the 1861. When the war came, he served in various cavalry commands before being appointed lieutenant colonel of the 9th Virginia Cavalry. Both his father and JEB Stuart recommend Lee for promotion, which came in November 1862. He fought against Stoneman during Chancellorsville, and at Brady Station, was wounded in the thigh. He was captured by a Federal raiding party while recovering, and was not exchanged until March 1864. Lee was promoted to major general in April 1864. When Wade Hampton was transferred to South Carolina, Lee commanded the cavalry on the south side of the James River. After the war, he served in the state senate and the US House.

All biographical sketches taken from Davis, editor, Confederate Generals.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Circling the Wagons at Chancellorsville

    Thanks to the Westerns that many of us watched growing up, we are familiar with the idea of “circling the wagons.” In an effort to provide some security overnight, the wagons were formed in a circle, creating an ad hoc fort to ward off attacks. But did such an event occur during the war? According to an officer in the 12th Alabama, yes it did.

   Forming a defensive formation was not an alien concept. The concept of the infantry square or hollow square went back two millennia and were used by Roman legions. In forming this large box, there would not be an exposed rear for enemy cavalry to slash through. If the fire coming from the soldiers in the square was staggered, then it might present a continuous wall of fire. Plus, the wall of bayonets might deter a rush of mounted men through the formations. Infantry squares had their zenith of popularity during the Napoleonic Wars and were used at battles like Quatre Bras and Waterloo.

   It was a tactic taught to new regiments being formed in the 1860s, both Gray and Blue, but was seldom used. Those handful of times include the Battle of Rowlett’s Station and the battle of Valverde, both in Texas; and the first day at Gettysburg and at Chickamauga.[1]

   Those early training camps were probably where Robert E. Park learned of the formation. Born in Troop County, Georgia, in 1843, Park was a student at the East Alabama Male College (now Auburn University) when he received word that the last twelve-month company being accepted by the Secretary of War was being formed. Park joined that company, the “Macon Confederates,” and was sent to Richmond where the company, joined by other Alabama companies, became the 12th Alabama Infantry. He was mustered in as a private. When the regiment was reorganized for three years or the war in the spring of 1862, Park was elected second lieutenant of Company F. The 12th Alabama was in Robert Rodes’ Brigade, and was active in the campaigns at Williamsburg, Seven Pines, Seven Days, Boonsboro, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville Gettysburg, the Overland Campaign, the Valley Campaign, and ended the war at Appomattox.[2]

   In January 1863, Park, now a first lieutenant, was assigned to duty as acting quartermaster of the 12th Alabama. Park was instructed to “report to the wagon yard, take charge of the wagons with the horses and mules, teamsters, and such baggage as I might find.” The role of the “wagon corps” on a regimental level is not one that gets much press, and his descriptions of his duty are fairly significant for the study of history.[3]

   During the battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, Park was with his regimental wagons at Hamilton’s Crossing when he was told by a member of JEB Stuart’s command that Federal cavalry was approaching (see this post on Stoneman). At this time, they were in O’Neal’s Brigade, Rodes’ Division. The division quartermaster placed Park in command of the division’s wagons, “composed of quartermasters, wagon masters, cooks and stragglers.” Maybe Park’s prior combat experience led to the division quartermaster’s faith in Park’s abilities. Park then armed the band, “about ninety men,” from the ordnance wagon, “and gave them directions how to meet the cavalry when they approached. I had the wagons parked in a square, with the horses and men within the square, and the guns were stacked and ready for use, one man being on guard to each wagon and on the lookout.” To defend themselves against Federal cavalry, Park “circled the wagons.”[4]

   “Fortunately, the cavalry did not attack us,” Park wrote, “as it was very probable my entire crowd . . . would have fled without delay, upon hearing the first gun.” Are there other examples of the wagons forming a square on the approach of a possible cavalry attack? That would be great to know. Following the battle of Chancellorsville, Park transferred back to his company. He was captured at Boonsboro, wounded in the hip at Gettysburg, wounded in the leg at Winchester and captured. Park survived the war and returned to Georgia, becoming the state treasurer. He passed in May 1909 and is buried in Riverside Cemetery, Bibb County.[5]

   Park’s accounts of his war-time service originally appeared in the Southern Historical Society Papers. They were published in 1906. In 2022, they were reissued by Scuppernong Press and are available at

   You can check out additional articles on wagon trains here and here .


[1] Nofi, “Form Square! North & South, Vol. 14, No. 1, pg 7-11 (2012).

[2] Park, Sketch of the Twelfth Alabama Infantry, 1.

[3] Park, Sketch of the Twelfth Alabama Infantry, 36.

[4] Park, Sketch of the Twelfth Alabama Infantry, 38.

[5] The Newnan Herald, May 14, 1909.

Thursday, May 02, 2024

William F. Randolph and the wounding of Stonewall Jackson

   Born in Virginia in 1831, William F. Randolph had ties to some of the best families in Virginia.  It probably came as a surprise when the well-traveled Randolph enlisted as a private in the 6th Virginia Cavalry in May 1862. He was soon appointed as a courier to the staff of Richard S. Ewell. It is not clear if the idea was Randolph’s or Ewell’s, but later that year, Randolph was leading a group known as Ewell’s Body Guard. This group would become the nucleus for the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry. Unofficially, the 39th Battalion was known as Lee’s Body Guard. The members of the four companies of this battalion were often distributed to various generals to serve as couriers and guides.

   Based upon a post-war account, Randolph was with Jackson’s command during the Chancellorsville campaign. It was Randolph who helped scout the Federal lines on May 1. (It is unclear if this is a different scout than the one undertaken by JEB Stuart.) After the flank march and primary Confederate attack had run out of steam, Jackson, desirous to continue the attack, started deploying the rest of the Light Division, still stacked on the Orange Plank Road. Lane’s brigade was first in line, and deployed on either side of the road, with one regiment moving forward as skirmishers.

   Jackson, Randolph, and a few others passed by Lane’s brigade heading toward the Federal lines. It was dark, and the party, according to Randolph, was walking their horses toward the front when firing broke out nearby.

   “Jackson turned to me and said: ‘Order those men to stop that fire, and tell the officers not to allow another shot fired without orders.’”

   “I rode up and down the line and gave the order to both men and officers, telling them also they were endangering the lives of General Jackson and his escort. But it was in vain; those immediately in front would cease as I gave the order, but the firing would break out above and below me, and instead of ceasing, the shots increasing in frequency. I rode back to Jackson and said: ‘General, it is impossible to stop these men; they seem to be in a kind of panic. I think we had best pass through their lines and get into the woods behind them.’ ‘Very well said,’ was the reply. So making a half wheel to the left . . . our little company commenced the movement to pass through the line, and thus put ourselves beyond the range of the fire. A few more seconds would have placed us in safety . . . but as we turned, looking up and down as far as my eye could reach, I saw that long line of bayonets rise and concentrate upon us. I felt what was coming, and driving spurs into my horse’s flanks . . . he rose high in the air and as we passed over the line the thunder crash from hundreds of rifles burst in full in our very faces. I looked back as my horse made the leap, and everything had gone down like leaves before the blast of a hurricane . . . My own horse was wounded in several places, my clothing and saddle were perforated with bullets, yet I escaped without a wound.”

   “As soon as I could control my horse, rendered frantic by his wounds, I rode among our men who were falling back into the woods and from behind the trees were still continuing that reckless and insane fire, and urged them to form their line and come back to the road, telling them that they had fired not upon the enemy, but upon General Jackson and his escort.”

   “Then sick at heart I dashed back to the road, and there was where the saddest tragedy of the war was revealed in its fullest horror.”

   “I saw the General’s horse . . . standing close to the edge of the road . . . Jumping from my horse I hastened to the spot and saw the General himself lying in the edge of the woods. He seemed to be dead and I wished all the bullets had passed through my own body rather than such a happening as this. I threw myself on the ground by his side and raised his head and shoulders on my arm. He groaned heavily.”

   “’Are you much hurt, General?’ I asked as soon as I could find a voice and utterance.”

   “’Wild fire, that sir, wild fire,’ he replied in his usual way.”

   “This was all he said. I found that the left arm was shattered by a bullet just below the elbow, and his right hand lacerated through the palm. Not a living soul was in sight then, but in a few moments A.P. Hill rode up, and then Lieutenant Smith, one of his aides. General Hill ordered me to mount my horse and bring an ambulance quickly.”[1]

   Randolph’s account, published decades later, contains some differing accounts of events. James I. Robertson, in his biography of Jackson, places Capt. Richard E. Wilbourne and Pvt. William T. Wynn with Jackson. They were the ones who removed Jackson from his horse, and Wynn went to find a surgeon. While Robertson mentioned Randolph as one of the party, only Wilbourne and Wynn are there to take Jackson off of his horse.[2] Likewise, Dabney in his biography of Jackson never mentioned Randolph’s role.[3]

   Randolph was captured at Gettysburg and spent the rest of the war at Johnson’s Island. Was he simply mis-remembering the events of the night of May 2, 1863? It is possible. But there is probably some truth in his story.

   If you would like more information on the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, check out my book, Lee’s Body Guards.

[1] Randolph, “With Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville.” Southern Churchman, April 11, 1931, 24-26.

[2] Robertson, Stonewall Jackson, 726, 729-30.

[3] Dabney, Life and Campaigns of Lieut. Gen. T.J. (Stonewall) Jackson, 686-687.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Roderick D. Davidson and the Confederate Air Force

   Disclaimer: yes, there was an organization called the Confederate Air Force, founded in Texas in 1961. They later changed their name to the Commemorative Air Force. This post has nothing to do with them, but instead covers R.D. Davidson’s plan to build a heavier-than-air craft in 1864. 

Possible 1840s illustration of the Artisavis. 

   The idea of slipping “the surly bonds of Earth and” dancing “the skies on laughter-silvered wings” has been a dream of many for centuries. The conversation could go all the way back to the Greeks and Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. When two French brothers developed a hot-air balloon and flew in it in 1783, the overactive mind of more than a few inventors and dreamers turned toward not only balloons, but heavier-than-air craft that could greatly enhance transportation, and war.[1]

   Roderick D. Davison had a plan. He was going to build an “Artisavis” or “Bird of Air.” The “Artisavis” was, as described by one Confederate soldier, “an artificial bird to go by steam through the air that can carry a man to guide it and a number of shells which can drop on the Yankees as he passes over them which will soon kill and scare them all away.”[2] By late 1863, the Federals knew of his plan. The Army and Navy Gazette, as reprinted in a Kentucky newspapers, described the operation even further. A fleet of a thousand of these machines would be stationed five miles from the enemy’s lines. They were launched, each carrying “a fifty-pound explosive shell, to be dropped from a safe elevation upon the enemy! The Birds are then to return for the purpose of re-loading.”[3] Davison, who worked in the Quartermaster General’s Office in Richmond, believed he could drop 150,000 shells in the course of twelve hours with his fleet of 1,000 “Artisavis.”[4]

   This was not Davidson’s first idea regarding flight. In 1840, he had published Disclosure of the Discovery and Invention, and a Description of the Plan of Construction and Mode of Operation of the Aerostat: Or, A New Mode of Aerostation. The contraption that Davidson proposed was a “Flapping-wing machine” that was patterned after the American eagle.[5]

   Davidson’s new proposal needed funding, and he approached the Confederate government. After being turned down, Davidson went to the officers and men of the Army of Northern Virginia. He began giving lectures and raising funds. An estimated $2,000 was needed to build the first “Artisavis.” By March-April 1865, he had raised $1,500.[6] One newspaper reported that the “Artisavis” was designed “to fly after the yankees and fire off something that is expected to demolish them in a most frightful manner.”[7] A non-flying prototype was constructed in a lumberyard in Petersburg, at the corner of 7th and Main. A strong wind one night wrecked the model.[8]

   Some believed in Davidson’s invention. One soldier in Benning’s brigade wrote that “I was very anxious to see that man stampede the Yankee army.” Another Confederate wrote that there was an “intense excitement and joyous hopes pervading the army that the flying byrd would exterminate every Yankee in front of Petersburg.” Others were not so impressed. A member of DuBose’s brigade, after the brigade had contributed $127 to the project, considered the sum “pretty liberal patronage for a humbug.”[9]

   What became of Davidson? That is a great question. Sources cannot even agree on his first name. Some have Roderick, while others have Richard.[10] He possibly was born in Virginia in 1806 and died in the same place in an almshouse in December 1885 of Bright’s Disease.[11] Whatever became of him, it was certainly a humbling end compared to his lofty aspirations.

[1] “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee.

[2] Power, Lee’s Miserables, 265.

[3] The Courier-Journal, January 27, 1864.

[4] The Macon Telegraph, February 6, 1864.

[5] Pizor, “The Great Steam Duck,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 86-89.

[6] Powell, Lee’s Miserables, 265.

[7] The Daily Confederate, March 22, 1865.

[8] Hess, In the Trenches of Petersburg, 242.

[9] Hess, In the Trenches of Petersburg, 242.

[10] Hacker,  Astride Two Worlds.

[11] Virginia, U.S. Death Registers, 1853-1911.

Monday, April 15, 2024

The Fate of the Confederate Governors

   As the war ground to a close, orders went out for the arrest of various political figures, including both sitting governors and former governors.

Alabama had three men who served as governors. Andrew B. Moore served from 1857 to 1861. The Alabama constitution did not allow Moore to run for a third term, although he remained active in the war effort. Moore was replaced by John G. Shorter, who served one term, and was replaced by Thomas H. Watts, then serving as Confederate Attorney General. Watts served as governor until the end of the war. US Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered Moore to be arrested on May 16, 1865. He was imprisoned at Fort Pulaski in Savannah until being released in August 1865. Shorter apparently avoided arrest, while Watts was arrested on May 1, 1865, and sent to Macon, but appears to have been released by mid-June 1865.

Arkansas had three men in the governor’s chair during the war years. Henry M. Rector served from November 16, 1860, until he resigned after losing an election on November 4, 1862; President of the Senate Thomas Fletcher served from November 4, 1862, until November 15, 1862, when Harris Flanagin was elected. Flanagin served until May 26, 1865, often as governor in exile. None of these men appear to have served jail or prison time after the end of the war.

Florida had two war-time governors. Madison S. Perry and John Milton. Perry could only serve two-terms, and following his second term, became colonel of the 7th Florida Infantry. His health was poor, and he returned to Florida, dying at home in March 1865. John Milton, realizing that the war was over, took his own life on April 1, 1865.

Georgia had one war-time governor: Joseph E. Brown. He was in office from November 6, 1857 to June 17, 1865, when he resigned. Brown was arrested on May 23, 1865 and imprisoned at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. He was released after meeting with President Andrew Johnson. (The Atlanta Constitution, August 7, 1910)

Kentucky, as a border state, is complicated. George W. Johnson was the first Confederate governor. He was serving as an aide-de-camp on Breckinridge’s staff at Shiloh when his horse was shot from under him. Johnson continued on foot, attaching himself to the 4th Kentucky Infantry (CS). Johnson was mortally wounded in the afternoon of April 7, 1862, dying two days later. Richard Hawes was selected by the state council as Johnson’s replacement, often making his headquarters with the Army of Tennessee. Hawes returned home after the end of the war.

Louisiana had two Confederate governors: Thomas O. Moore and Henry Watkins Allen. Moore could only serve two terms. He returned to his home near Alexandria, but after Federal troops burned his plantation, he fled to Mexico, and then Cuba. He eventually returned to Louisiana. Hawes also lost his home to fire, and with Moore, also went to Mexico. Allen, who was colonel of the 4th Louisiana infantry, was wounded at Shiloh and Baton Rouge and died of his unhealed wounds in Mexico City on April 22, 1866.

Mississippi had John Pettus and Charles Clark. At war’s end, Pettus, wanted for questioning regarding the Lincoln assassination, went into hiding. He died of pneumonia in Lonoke County, Arkansas, on January 28, 1867. Clark was arrested and imprisoned at Fort Pulaski and was held until he took and signed the Oath of Allegiance in September 1865.

Missouri’s Claiborne F. Jackson took office on January 3, 1861, and after June 1861, was basically a governor in exile. Jackson was deposed by the General Assembly in July 1861, followed various Confederate military forces around on campaign, and died in Little Rock, Arkansas, December 7, 1862. Lieutenant Governor Thomas C. Reynolds assumed the role of governor, but really did not have a large role in political affairs. At the end of the war, he also went to Mexico, but returned to St. Louis.

North Carolina had three war-time governors. John W. Ellis led the state out of the Union in May 1861, only to die in July 1861. He was replaced by Speaker of the North Carolina Senate Henry T. Clark. Clark did not pursue election and stepped down at the end of the term in September 1862. Zebulon Baird Vance, colonel of the 26th North Carolina, was elected as governor twice during the war years. At the end of the war, he attempted to surrender and was told to go home. In Statesville, he was arrested on his birthday, May 13, 1865, and imprisoned in Old Capital Prison. Vance was released after receiving his parole on July 6, 1865.

South Carolina had three men in the role of governor: Francis W. Pickens, Milledge L. Bonham, and Andrew G. Magrath. Pickens and Bonham were limited in the number of terms they could serve. Pickens retired to his plantation, and Bonham was reappointed a Confederate general and served in the Army of Tennessee. Magrath was arrested and imprisoned at Fort Pulaski, not being released until December 1865.

Tennessee had only one Confederate governor: Isham G. Harris. After the fall of Nashville, Harris served on the staffs of several Confederate generals, including Joseph E. Johnston, Braxton Bragg, and Albert S. Johnston. The US Congress issued a $5,000 reward for the capture of Harris at the end of the war. He fled to Mexico, then England, only returning to Tennessee once the bounty was removed.

Texas had Sam Houston, who was removed in March 1861; Edward Clark, the lieutenant governor, who lost the election in November 1861; Francis Lubbock who did not run for reelection and stepped aside in November 1863; and Pendleton Murrah.  Houston died in 1863. Clark served as colonel of the 14th Texas Infantry but fled to Mexico at the end of the war. Lubbock was commissioned lieutenant colonel on the staff of Maj. Gen. John B. Marguder, and then aide-de-camp for Jefferson Davis. Lubbock was captured with Davis in Georgia and imprisoned at Fort Delaware for eight months.

Virginia had two governors. John Letcher and William Smith. Letcher’s arrest order was issued by U.S. Grant, and he was taken into custody on May 20, 1865, and imprisoned at Old Capital Prison. He was released forty-seven days later. Likewise, Smith turned himself in on June 8, 1865, and was paroled.

More information on these governors can be found in Years, editor, The Confederate Governors. For information on biographies on each governor, check out this link.