Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Civil War Odyssey of George Washington's Silver


     George Washington Parke Custis, and his sister “Nelly” were raised at Mount Vernon by George and Martha Washington.  When Martha Washington died in 1802 her will bequeathed, "all the silver plate of every kind of which I shall die possessed, together with the two large plated cooler the four small plated coolers with the bottle castors," to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis.

Custis died in 1857 and the silver passed to his daughter Mary, the wife of Robert E. Lee.  Mary and Robert E. Lee lived in Arlington House until 1861 when Virginia seceded from the Union and Lee went south to join the Confederate army. The Washington silver was packed into trunks and sent to Richmond.  Lee then sent the trunks on to the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia for safekeeping.

Here the silver remained safe until June 1864, when Union General David Hunter raided the Valley of Virginia and advanced on Lexington.  The Washington silver was saved from destruction by the actions of the VMI Superintendent, Francis Smith and ordnance sergeant, John Hampsey. As Federal troops advanced on Lexington, Smith ordered Hampsey to bury the two large trunks that held the Washington silver.  As the buildings on the VMI campus burned, the Washington silver lay safely beneath the ground.

After the war, Robert E. Lee became the president of Washington College in Lexington (later Washington and Lee University).  In the fall of 1865, as the Lees settled into their new home, they called upon their "trusty friend," John Hampsey, to help unearth the two large chests of buried treasure.
Hampsey escorted Robert E. Lee, Jr., to the burial site, and the General's son later reminisced: "I was sent out with him to dig it up and bring it in. We found it safe and sound, but black with mould and damp….”

The Washington silver remained in the Lees' home at Washington College until Mary's death in 1873, after which the silver was bequeathed to all branches of the family.  Some of the descendants have donated pieces to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the custodians of George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate.

The Civil War Wedding, an entertaining look at the customs and superstitions of weddings during the Civil War era.

Neither Martha Washington nor the women of the South’s leading families were marble statues, they had the same strengths and weaknesses, passions and problems, joys and sorrows, as the women of any age.  So just how did they live?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Vice in Colonial Philadelphia

Independence Hall, Philadelphia

When we think of the America of colonial times and the days of the early Republic, we seldom think of the word vice.  And yet behind the fa├žade of graceful mansions and quaint cobblestone streets, vice lurked.  As early l720, when Benjamin Franklin first came to Philadelphia, the atmosphere of that city was already both permissive and hazardous. Franklin later wrote “that hard-to-be-governed passion of youth had hurried me frequently into intrigues.”  One of these intrigues resulted in an illegitimate son, whom Franklin subsequently raised.  Not all illegitimate children were so lucky. Out-of-wedlock births had become, as one contemporary put it, “extremely common in Philadelphia.” Unwed pregnancies often left poor women on the street fending for themselves.  Some turned to prostitution.  Readily available in taverns and brothels or outside in thoroughfares and byways, these “ladies of pleasure” were so numerous, observed a visitor to the city, “that they flooded the streets at night.”

The price of sexual freedom was often very high.  Venereal disease was rampant.  In Philadelphia, for example, a significant number of those admitted to the almshouse (9% of the men and 16 % of the women) were described in the register as “venereal,” “highly venereal,” or “eaten up with the venereal disease.” Infected men and women arrived at the almshouse gate because they were too sick to support themselves.

A quick historical look at murder most foul in the Virginia of colonial times and the early Republic. Behind the facade of graceful mansions and quaint cobblestone streets evil lurks.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Libby prison in 1865

Libby Prison

Libby prison, a Confederate prison in Richmond during the Civil war, was considered second only to Andersonville Prison in Georgia as hell on earth.  The prison was for Union officers.  Prisoners suffered from disease, malnutrition and a high mortality rate. By 1863, one thousand prisoners were crowded into the prison which had been a warehouse before the war.

According to the Daily Richmond Enquirer of February 2, 1864, “Libby takes in the captured Federals by scores, but lets none out; they are huddled up and jammed into every nook and corner; at the bathing troughs, around the cooking stoves, everywhere there is a wrangling, jostling crowd; at night the floor of every room they occupy in the building is covered, every square inch of it….”

Private Jackson O. Broshears, Co. D, Indiana Mounted Infantry is seen in the next picture. Age 20 years; height 6 feet 1 inch; weight when captured, 185 lbs.  Broshears was in Confederate hands three and one-quarter months, two months of which were passed on Richmond’s Belle Isle in the James River.  Food was scarce for Confederate soldiers and even scarcer for POWs.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Who is the Least Qualified and Most Divisive President in U.S. History?

Candidate Lincoln

Some regard the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as the least qualified and most divisive president in United States history, but oddly enough the honor actually goes to the man considered by most historians as the greatest U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was a dark horse candidate to become the nominee of the Republican Party in 1860.  Although one of the highest paid lawyers in America, with a gift for connecting with the common man in his speeches, Lincoln had little formal education or political experience, having been largely self-educated and having served only two years in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Lincoln defeated an impressive line-up of opponents for the nomination which included four Senators and a Governor.  Lincoln won on the third ballot.  His principal opponent William H. Seward was aghast, but fell in behind the party’s nominee.

Lincoln won the presidency by convincingly winning the Electoral College vote.  However, Lincoln won less than forty percent (39.8%) of the popular vote, with the balance being spread amongst three other candidates.  In the original #NotMyPresident movement, seven southern states seceded from the United States between Election Day and Lincoln’s inauguration.  Shortly after his inauguration four more states seceded and the nation was plunged into four years of bloody civil war.  That was "resistance" with a capital R.

Although now universally beloved and acclaimed, throughout the Civil War Lincoln was derided as unqualified for office by prominent Northerners.  George Templeton Strong, a prominent New York lawyer wrote that Lincoln was “a barbarian, Scythian, yahoo, or gorilla.”  The abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher blasted Lincoln’s lack of refinement.  Some Northern newspapers called for Lincoln’s immediate assassination.  General George B. McCllellan called Lincoln “an idiot,” and “the original gorilla.”  Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the famous abolitionist, called Lincoln “Dishonest Abe” and bemoaned the “incapacity and rottenness” of his administration.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton vowed that if Lincoln “is reelected (1864) I shall immediately leave the country for the Fijee Islands.” Lincoln was re-elected.  Stanton did not move to the Fiji Islands (the more things change, the more they stay the same).

Although we now regard Lincoln as the original “Great Communicator”, during his own lifetime editorial writers sometimes described Lincoln’s speeches as, “… involved, coarse, colloquial, devoid of ease and grace, and bristling with obscurities and outrages against the simplest rules of syntax.”

A Pennsylvania newspaper had this to say about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and they shall be no more repeated or thought of.” A correspondent for the Times (London) wrote, “Anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce.”

This is what media savants had to say about Lincoln’s words now carved in marble at the Lincoln Memorial ("With malice toward none, with charity for all …"), contained in the second inaugural address, “a little speech of ‘glittering generalities’ used only to fill in the program.”(The New York Herald), and “We did not conceive it possible that even Mr. Lincoln could produce a paper so slip-shod, so loose-jointed, so puerile, not alone in literary construction, but in its ideas, its sentiments, its grasp.” (The Chicago Tribune).

Democracy is rowdy and has not become less so with the passage of time.

The main reasons given for the South’s decision to secede from the Union, thus provoking the American Civil War, are often given as slavery and state’s rights. Both answers are correct in so far as they go. But underlying both are economic self-interest. 

Love, Sex, and Marriage in the Civil War

A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in the Civil War. The book covers courtship, marriage, birth control and pregnancy, divorce, slavery and the impact of the war on social customs.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Civil War Wedding

Esther Alden expressed the attitude of many young women in the South as the war progressed, “One looks at a man so differently when you think he may be killed tomorrow. Men whom up to this time I had thought dull and commonplace . . . seemed charming.” The famous diarist, Mary Chestnut of South Carolina, was appalled when she saw women of her own class flirting openly with strangers in public.  The diaries of hundreds of women of the time attest to the “marrying craze” sweeping the South.  “Every girl in Richmond is engaged or about to be”, wrote Phoebe Pember Yates in February 1864.  Fear of spinsterhood and natural desire heightened by the immediacy of war led to many unconventional matches, many reflecting the truth of a phrase common to the time, “The blockade don’t keep out babies.”  

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Kings of Haiti

From 1791-1859, the island of Haiti made three separate attempts at establishing monarchical government.

Slaves rose against their French masters on the colony of St. Dominique in 1791.  After a pro-longed period of struggle, the French abandoned the colony.  On January 1, 1804, the ancient Carib name of Haiti was restored to the colony and French rule renounced forever.  Haiti became the first nation in Latin America and the second in the New World to win its independence.  The decision to make Haiti an empire came in July after Napoleon Bonaparte was offered the Imperial crown of France.  A proposal that General Jean Jacques Dessalines should be nominated as Emperor of the Haitians circulated among the leading generals.  Thus, on October 8, a Breton missionary anointed Jean Jacques Dessalines as “The Avenger and Deliverer of his fellow citizens”, Emperor of Haiti.  Dessalines’ reign lasted two years and ended in his murder.

The establishment of two separate republics, in the north and south, followed the collapse of the empire.  By 1811 the northern republic had turned into the Kingdom of Haiti, ruled over by King Henri I.  (“Henri, by the Grace of God and the Constitutional law of the state, King of Haiti, Ruler of the islands of La Tortue and Gonave, and other adjacent, Destroyer of Tyranny, Regenerator and Benefactor of the Haitian nation, Creator of its moral, political and military institutions, First crowned monarch of the New World, Defender of the Faith, Founder of the Royal and Military Order of St. Henry.”)

Many of the institutions of the new kingdom were copied from the monarchies of Europe.  The court ceremonial was designed to exalt the person of majesty in the style of Louis XIV.  Of the numerous royal castles and palaces, the palace of Sans Souci, at Millot, near the foot of the Pic de la Ferrier, was the favorite residence of Henri I.  It was at the palace of Sans Souci, named in honor of Frederick the Great’s palace, that Haitian opulence reached its apex.  San Souci, the Versailles of Haiti, with its delicately carved cornices, dancing fountains, marble floors, arcades, terraces, sumptuous furnishings and perfectly drilled troops, was the king’s crowning glory.

The ruins of Sans Souci

The ruins of San Souci

Henri I struggled for a decade to modernize the country, while simultaneously fending off the encroachments of his neighbor to the south.  In 1820 the king suffered a stroke and was soon battling his own ambitious generals.  As a rebel army and thousands of scavengers descended on the Palace of San Souci, the king killed himself.  The kingdom collapsed and was incorporated into the Republic of Haiti.

Haiti’s last experience with monarchy came in the person of General Faustin Soulouque.  After seizing power in a bloody coup, Soulouque invaded the neighboring Dominican Republic in 1849, where his army was totally routed.  To distract attention from this military fiasco, Soulouque decided to create the second Haitian Empire.  On August 26, 1849 Soulouque proclaimed himself Faustin I, Emperor of Haiti.  The second empire lasted ten years before Faustin I was overthrown and forced into exile.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

United States Colored Troops (USCT)

Arlington National Cemetery was segregated until 1948.  Veterans of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) were buried in Section 27.  The 175 regiments of the USCT made up some ten percent of the Union Army.  The unit seen here was stationed near Arlington. Frederick Douglass, the most prominent African-American intellectual of the Civil War era, wrote, “[He] who would be free must himself strike the blow.” The United States Colored Troops (USCT) was the answer to that call.  Some 40,000 gave their lives for the cause.  Douglass wrote, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on the earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.”After the Civil War, soldiers in the USCT fought in the Indian Wars in the American West. 

The Civil War Wedding, an entertaining look at the customs and superstitions of weddings during the Civil War era.

Love, Sex, and Marriage in the Civil War

A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in the Civil War. The book covers courtship, marriage, birth control and pregnancy, divorce, slavery and the impact of the war on social customs.