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.