Monday, June 28, 2021

Chemical Warfare and the Howlett Line

   In the minds of many, the War of the 1860s was a stand-up fight. Early on, armies met each other on a field of battle, duking it out until one side quit the field. That system of warfare had existed for millennia. Later, the war moved into the trenches. However, it was still a traditional fight.

   On both sides of the conflict, people, usually citizens, often proposed chemical warfare to their respective governments as a means to bring the conflict to a speedy end. There were proposals to pack artillery shells with phosphorus and hydrogen cyanide, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, and hydrogen chloride. Stink bombs (or stinkpots) were frequently proposed as an effective, and non-lethal way of driving soldiers out of their fortifications.

   Probably the only such weapons developed and used successfully during the war were incendiary devices commonly known as “Greek Fire.” “Greek Fire” was nothing new. It was possibly being used by the Byzantine Empire in the mid-7th century. They sprayed it on enemy vessels, setting them on fire.  “Greek Fire” is often described as “a fluid or solid substance that would ignite spontaneously (or upon being lit), burn on or under water, engage objects in flame, and resist being extinguished by conventional means.” There are of course many stories of “Greek Fire” being used against the civilian populations of Vicksburg, Mississippi and Charleston, South Carolina.[1] 

Fort Brady (Library of Congress) 

   There is at least one account of some form of “Greek Fire” being used against the defenders of Richmond and Petersburg, and even under the personal watch of Federal general U. S. Grant. On November 24, 1864, Grant, with fellow generals George C. Meade and Benjamin F. Butler, gathered at Fort Brady on the James River to observe a demonstration of liquid fire. The concoction was the scheme of Alfred Berney, a New Jersey citizen. Berney had been trying to persuade the Federal government to invest in his schemes. He had approached the Navy about equipping the USS Monitor with chemicals and a pump to spray fire on the CSS Virginia. While no contract for the pump was issued, the Navy agreed to supply some of their ships at Hampton Roads with the concoction. Some of these were used on Confederate positions at Yorktown on April 30, 1862, but the results were mixed. It was some of Berney’s shells that were fired into the city of Charleston later in the war.[2]

   In a test before Grant, Meade, and Butler arrived, writing from Fort Brady, Capt. H. H. Pierce, 1st Connecticut Artillery, made the following report on November 19, 1864:

   “Birney was here to try a few shots at the house near the rebel battery that fires at Dutch Gap… distance 1,500 yards. Used two common shells to get the range. Struck the chimney the first time, and made a perceptible hole in the roof the second time. Then loaded with one of his shells, which went a trickle over, owing to the greater weight, and struck in the water without bursting. Tried another, which passed in at the front door, struck the chimney on the opposite side, burst, and completely filled the building with burning liquid. Just as the fire began to appear through the roof [we] sent another shell, which burst like the previous one and in an instant almost the whole house was wrapped in flames; the most beautiful site you ever saw…”[3]

   That was just a test. The real demonstration came a few days later. The New York Daily Herald reported that during a demonstration on November 24, “Five frame houses, distance near a mile, were successively fired and burned to the ground.” Also reported was the destruction of a magazine containing shells.[4]

   Did Confederate forces make any mention of the incendiary shells? That is hard to say, given the loss of Confederate records. The New York Daily Tribune article goes on to say that on November 26, Confederate artillery opened fire on the Federal position. The Confederates “poured the shell very lively for near two hours into Fort Brady.” Nothing really coincides with the account in the Official Records, although there is an account of an engagement on the morning of November 29.[5] The Confederate position was along the Howlett Line, and under the command of Maj. Gen. George Picket. Maybe more research can produce a Confederate account of the events.

   If you are interested in learning more about Chemical Weapons and the War, check out Guy R. Hasegawa’s Villainous Compounds: Chemical Weapons & the American Civil War (2015). It appears to be the only book on the subject.

[1] Hasegawa, Villainous Compounds, 7.

[2] Hasegawa, Villainous Compounds, 17-18.

[3] Official Records, Vol. 42, 3:664-665.

[4] New York Daily Herald, December 1, 1864.

[5] Official Records Vol. 42, 3:1231.

Saturday, June 05, 2021

Site Visit Saturday: St. John’s Episcopal Church, Ashwood, TN


Patrick Cleburne 

  Churches occupy important places in our society. Many of them, and the grounds that surround them, are packed full of history. (You can check out a previous post on churches in the crossfire of the war here). One of those churches full of history is St. John’s Episcopal Church, just outside of Columbia, Tennessee.

   St. John’s was consecrated in 1842 by the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Tennessee, James Hervey Otey. It was built by Leonidas Polk, the Missionary Bishop of the Southwest. The land was donated by the Polk family, a part of a land grant awarded to William Polk of North Carolina. The church was constructed by the slaves from the various Polk plantations in the area, and served not only as a church, but as a school as well.

 During the war, Federal soldiers under the command of General Buell, on their way to reinforce Grant at Shiloh, forced their way into the church, wrecking the organ and removing some of the pipes. In 1864, as the Confederate army advanced towards Columbia, General Cleburne, on passing the church, reportedly told his staff “So this is the church built by General Leonidas Polk and members of his family? If I am killed in the impending battle, I request that my body be laid to rest in this, the most beautiful spot I ever beheld.” (Yeatman, “St. John’s-A Plantation of the Old South.” Tennessee Historically Quarterly, Vol. 10, No 4 (December 1951): 340) 

   Following the battle of Franklin, in which six Confederate generals were killed, three of them, Patrick Cleburne, Hiram Granbury, and Otho Strahl, along with two staff officers --Col. R. B. Young, Granbury’s chief of staff and Lt. John H. Marsh, who served with Strahl--were buried in the “potter’s field” section of Rose Hill Cemetery in Columbia, Tennessee. Hearing of this, Brig. Gen. Lucius E. Polk, with the help of Confederate chaplain Charles Quintard, had the five exhumed and reburied at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Many decades after the war, the three generals were again exhumed and reburied in other cemeteries. Cleburne was reburied in Helena, Arkansas; Strahl was reburied in Dyersburg, Tennessee; and Granbury was reinterred in Granbury, Texas.  Young and Marsh are still interred at St. Johns.

   There are other Confederate graves here as well, including Col. Robert F. Beckham, chief of artillery for Stephen D. Lee’s Corps. He was mortally wounded at Columbia, Tennessee on November 29, 1864. Brigadier General Lucius E. Polk, who was a nephew of Leonidas Polk, is interred at St. John’s, as is George Campbell Brown, who served on the staff of Richard Ewell in the Army of Northern Virginia, and James H. Thomas, a Tennessee delegate to the Confederate Provisional Congress. Mary Martin Pillow, the wife of General Gideon J. Pillow, is also buried at St. John’s. The form for the Ashwood Rural Historic District, for the National Register of Historic Places, states that there is a Confederate section with the dead from the battle of Ashwood behind the church.

   Carroll Van West, in her book Tennessee’s Historic Landscapes, considers St. John’s a “magnificent achievement in rural Gothic Revival architecture.” (368)  The church is no longer in use, save for one Sunday a year. But the building itself and the surrounding grounds are kept in immaculate condition. St. John’s is the oldest surviving church building in Maury County.

   My first and only visit came in May 2021.

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Ephraim Clayton and the Asheville Armory

   Chances are, you have probably never heard of Ephraim Clayton. For many in Southern Appalachia, he is an important 19th century carpenter and builder. Clayton was born in present-day Transylvania County, North Carolina, in 1804. His father, Lambert Clayton, was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. His mother was Sarah Davidson, and her parents had been killed by the Cherokee in 1776. We really don’t know much about Ephraim Clayton’s childhood, but by the 1830s, he was receiving commissions to construct buildings. These buildings included Asheville Baptist Church (1859); Asheville Presbyterian Church (ca.1847); Buncombe County Courthouse (1848); Caldwell County Courthouse (1843); Calvary Episcopal Church, Fletcher, NC (1859); John W. McElroy House, Burnsville, NC (ca.1845); Mars Hill College (1856-1857); Newton Academy, Asheville, NC (1857-1858); Polk County Courthouse (ca.1853); Ravenscroft School, Asheville, NC (ca.1840s); St. John-in-the-Wilderness Episcopal Church, Flat Rock, NC (1833-1834); Trinity Episcopal Church, Asheville, NC (1850); Tuttle’s Hotel, Lenoir, NC (ca.1843); War Ford Bridge, Asheville, NC (1856); and the Yancey County Courthouse (1840s), along with other buildings in Georgia and South Carolina.

   While Clayton often lived in the communities where he was constructing buildings, he considered Asheville his home. His obituary claimed that he was the first man to bring a steam-powered planing machine to western North Carolina. In 1850, he employed twenty-five men and owned seven slaves. By 1860, he owned eleven slaves, plus employing several free workmen. He also operated a saw and planing mill and a sash and blind factory.[1]

   Asheville was quite possibly the most pro-Confederate town in North Carolina in the 1860s (we’ll save that for a future post). Hundreds of Confederate soldiers had poured forth out of Asheville and surrounding Buncombe County. Governor Zebulon Baird Vance and his brother, Brigadier General Robert B. Vance, came from the area, as did Brigadier General Thomas L. Clingman. Asheville also served as the headquarters of the District of Western North Carolina. As early as July 1861, William L. Henry was writing Gov. Henry T. Clark with a proposal for establishing a plant to manufacture rifles for the Confederacy in Asheville. In August 1861, that idea began to come to fruition. That month, Col. Robert W. Pulliam, the Confederate Ordnance Bureau agent in Western North Carolina, began working with Ephraim Clayton and Dr. George Whitson. In January 1862 the company began producing rifles, and by November 1862, they employed 107 men. Due to the lack of a railroad, materials were sourced locally. That November, they had 200 rifles ready for shipment. Josiah Gorgas, chief of ordnance for the Confederate army, sent W.S. Downer to Asheville to inspect the rifles and the plant. Downer wrote back that while Whitson was a man of “general genius,” he had no “practical knowledge of mechanics.” The tools and machines being used were “makeshift,” and the rifles themselves “worthless.” 

Asheville News, April 12, 1862. 

  The Asheville Arsenal faced numerous challenges, from a lack of skilled workers to the threat of attack by Union forces or “disloyal persons.”  It was a combination of these that eventually drove the Confederate arsenal from Asheville. In January 1863, a locally-led raid occurred at Mars Hill, in Madison County, just north of Asheville. In September, Knoxville was captured by Federal forces. In October came a raid by Union force on Warm Springs in Madison County. In late October, the local commander ordered the machinery to be prepared for moving, which began in late November. The machinery was transported to Columbia, South Carolina. In the end, the factory produced some 900 rifles.[2]   Capt. Benjamin Sloan was assigned to command the armory, and Sloan sought to bring in new machinery and tools. He also constructed two new brick buildings to house the machines and tools. Ephraim Clayton was appointed as general manager, in charge of “all Carpenters work and control of teams and teamsters, wood choppers, Coal Burners and saw mill hands.” Undoubtedly, Clayton’s already-established factory, and the fact that the new arsenal buildings were on his land, played a role in his involvement. There were 123 workers by January 1863, although Sloan fired twenty of them that same month. The men working at the Arsenal were well paid and were exempt from conscription.

   It is unclear if Ephraim Clayton moved to Columbia or stayed in Asheville. His obituary states that his planing mill was destroyed by fire. This could have happened at the end of the war when Federal forces burned the two brick buildings constructed to house the Asheville Armory.[3] After the war, he operated an iron foundry in Asheville 1867 to 1878, while living in Transylvania County, helping to build the Spartanburg and Asheville Railroad and the Western North Carolina Railroad.[4] Clayton died on August 14, 1892, esteemed as “one of the best known citizens of Western North Carolina.”[5] Clayton was “a man of the strictest integrity, plain and unassuming, and universally respected by all for his admirable traits of character. He took a deep interest in Asheville’s progress, and was always foremost in any project that tended to the advancement of the city-a true public-spirited citizen.”[6] He is buried in the Clayton Family Cemetery, Buncombe County, North Carolina. 

[2] Gordon McKinney, “Premature Industrialization in Appalachia,” The Civil War in Appalachia, 227-241.

[3] Asheville Citizen Times, August 11, 1892.

[5] The Asheville Democrat, August 14, 1892.

[6] Asheville Citizen Times, August 11, 1892.