Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Strange Case of Wilmer McLean (1861-1865)

Wilmer McLean

Wilmer McLean was born in 1814, was orphaned before he was nine, was raised by relatives in Alexandria, Virginia and became a prosperous food merchant in Alexandria.  In 1853 he married Virginia Hooe Mason a wealthy widow, with extensive real estate holdings and other property. She owned Yorkshire plantation in Prince William County, Virginia, estimated to have some 1200 acres; a tract of 330 acres in Fairfax County, and two other tracts containing 500 acres in Prince William County. She also owned fourteen slaves. There were two daughters by the first marriage, Maria (born 1844) and Osceola (born 1845). Both girls lived with the Wilmer McLeans at Manassas and were described by Confederate officers as McLean’s “two pretty daughters.” Two other children were born of the McLean marriage, Wilmer McLean, Jr. (born 1854) and Lucretia Virginia (born 1857).

Following the First Battle of Manassas, Mrs. McLean and the children left the area. Wilmer McLean, however, worked diligently as a civilian with the Confederate Quartermaster Department. He worked to expedite the flow of food supplies to the troops in camp near Manassas. There was a time when the troops were down to one day’s rations. McLean’s experience as a wholesale merchant was invaluable in solving the purchasing of supplies in the fertile country around Manassas.

McLean’s most valuable contribution to the Confederacy was agreeing to let the army take over the buildings of the family plantation, “Yorkshire”, for use as a military hospital. The barn was a hospital and the dwellings and outbuildings were used as living quarters of surgeons and hospital attendants from July 17, 1861 until February 28, 1862. McLean gave his full cooperation to the establishment of this hospital. By 1862, however, he was completely disenchanted by the misconduct of soldiers and hospital personnel at Yorkshire. Large quantities of wine and whiskey were consumed by the hospital attendants. Sanitation was woefully lacking, flies covered the faces of patients. The dwellings were grossly mistreated while occupied by surgeons and attendants.

Further evidence of his disillusionment was his growing price demands on the Quartermaster. McLean apparently purchased candles and other scarce items in Richmond, had them shipped to Manassas, and then sold them to the Confederate Quartermaster for the highest price he could get.

Wilmer McLean had left the area in March 1862 as the Army retreated. From his experience as a merchant he knew that a long war would cause the price of commodities to rise higher and higher. He began to speculate in sugar and made a tidy income during the war. McLean moved his family to the quiet village of Appomattox Court House to escape the fury of war. But fate once again took a hand. The war which had virtually begun in McLean’s kitchen in Manassas, when a Union artillery shell exploded in the cookhouse at Yorkshire, ended in his front parlor in Appomattox Court House where General Lee surrendered his army to General Grant.

The McLeans left their rented house in Appomattox and returned to the Manassas area, virtually penniless. McLean still owned many hundreds of acres of land in Prince William County, but the land was virtually worthless for resale and McLean was heavily in debt.


Eventually the ever practical McLean turned his attention to politics, joined the Yankee Republican party, supported Grant in the election of 1872 and was rewarded by an appointment to a U.S. Treasury job.  Wilmer McLean died on June 5, 1882 and is buried in St. Paul’s Cemetery in Alexandria.  


Quantico National Cemetery



   Told to expand its training capabilities during World War I, the Marine Corps began inspecting promising sites in the spring of 1917.  Some five thousand acres along Quantico Creek were leased. In 1918 a permanent Marine base was established at Quantico. 

    In 1977, the Marine Corps donated 725 acres of land to establish the Quantico National Cemetery.  The cemetery was formally dedicated on May 15, 1983.  The land has been used by the military for over two hundred years. First, around 1775 by the Commonwealth of Virginia for Navy operations, and later, as a blockade point for the Confederate army during the Civil War. 

     In 1989, a monument to Edson’s Raiders was the first memorial dedicated on the memorial pathway at Quantico National Cemetery. It is dedicated to the 800 members of the First Marine Raider Battalion, which from August 1942 to October 1943, played a key role in helping the greatly outnumbered American forces push back Japanese troops in the Solomon Islands.  The Purple Heart Memorial was dedicated August 7, 1990, in honor of Purple Heart medal recipients interred at the cemetery. Additional memorials honor: Colonel William "Rich" Higgins, who was held hostage in Lebanon; the Fourth Marine Division Memorial; the Commonwealth of Virginia Memorial dedicated to honor all of the nation’s veterans; the First Marine Division Memorial; the Sixth Marine Division Memorial to honor the division that won the Presidential Unit Citation for its actions in Okinawa during World War II. 


Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town-Book Review


Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
By John Krakauer

Missoula is not Krakauer’s best effort.  This is an advocacy piece relating to the rape “crisis” on American college campuses.  Disappointingly, Krakauer never connects the dots between the campus culture of binge drinking and substance abuse, which he dismisses as “a right of passage”, and the traumatized lives of both victims and perpetrators. 

In Into the Wild, Krakauer deals with a man who engages is risky behavior with grizzly bears.  Unsurprisingly, the man is eventually mauled by a bear.  In Missoula, Krakauer describes multiple instances of college students drunk to the point of blackout or memory loss, engaging in risky behavior.  Unsurprisingly, bad things happen. 


Perhaps the take away from these books is to be responsible for your own behavior and not to expect predators to be other than predatory.


Friday, April 08, 2016

Flying Saucers Over Washington


The 1952 Washington D.C. UFO incident, also known as the “Washington Flap”, was a series of unidentified flying object reports from July 13 to July 29, 1952, over Washington D.C. and the neighboring vicinity. The most publicized sightings took place on consecutive weekends, July 19 & 20 and July 26 & 27. Radar picked the objects up over the White House and the U.S. Capitol.

On July 22, 1952 The Washington Post reported. “The Air Force disclosed last night it has received reports of an eerie visitation by unidentified aerial objects - perhaps a new type of ‘flying saucer’ - over the vicinity of the Nation's Capital. For the first time, so far as known, the objects were picked up by radar - indicating actual substance rather than mere light.” The article went on to report, “The airport traffic control center said [a] Capital-National Airlines Flight 610, reported observing a light following it from Herndon, Va. about 20 airline miles from Washington, to within four miles of National Airport.”

On July 28, 1952 the headlines of the Alexandria Gazette read, “Jet Fighters Outdistanced By ‘Flying Saucers’ Over Mt. Vernon And Potomac”.

The sightings prompted President Harry S. Truman to call the Air Force demanding explanations.



Mind bending stories from the Old Dominion. A collection of Virginia’s most notable Urban Legends, many include the true stories behind them.

Dr. Mary Walker: The First Woman POW/Medal of Honor Winner


The first woman POW was taken in the Civil War. Union army contract surgeon Dr. Mary E. Walker was captured on April 10, 1864. She was imprisoned in the military prison in Richmond, Virginia known as "Castle Thunder". She was released on August 12, 1864, in a prisoner exchange.

Dr. Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor for her service as a surgeon during the Civil War, “without regard to her own health and safety”. She is the only woman to have received the Medal of Honor. When the criteria for awarding the medal changed in 1917, Dr. Walker’s medal was rescinded along with 900 others. In 1977 the Army Board of Corrections reviewed the case and reversed the 1917 decision, restoring the Medal of Honor to Dr. Walker.

A quick look at women doctors and medicine in the Civil War for the general reader. Technologically, the American Civil War was the first “modern” war, but medically it still had its roots in the Middle Ages. In both the North and the South, thousands of women served as nurses to help wounded and suffering soldiers and civilians. A few women served as doctors, a remarkable feat in an era when sex discrimination prevented women from pursuing medical education, and those few who did were often obstructed by their male colleagues at every turn.

Slave Weddings


In pre-Civil War America, slave marriages were not recognized in the state codes. No state legislature ever considered encroaching upon a master’s property rights by legalizing slave marriage. Marriage was, “voluntary on the part of the slaves and permissive on that of the master.”

Slave marriages were regulated by whatever laws the owners saw fit to enforce. Some masters arbitrarily assigned husbands to women who had reached the “breeding age”. Ordinarily slaves picked their own mates, but were required to ask the master for permission to marry. Most owners refused to allow slaves to marry away from home. Men who married away from home were frequently absent and thus exposed “to temptations”.

Having obtained the masters consent, the couple might begin living together without further formality, or their masters might pronounce vows. Ceremonies conducted by slave preachers or white clergymen, were not uncommon even for field hands and were customary for the domestic servants. No slave marriage, however, was ever safe from the caprice of the master who could end the marriage by selling one or both of the partners. Thus, a slave preacher in Kentucky united couples in wedlock, “until death or distance do you part.”

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.

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


Friday, April 01, 2016

The Strange Case of Montgomery Meigs and Robert E. Lee




Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs (above), commander of the garrison at Arlington House and Quartermaster General of the Union Army, who may have had a grudge against Robert E. Lee, was tasked with finding additional burial grounds for battle casualties.  Meigs and Lee had served together many years earlier as military engineers on the Mississippi River.  Lee was a 1st Lieutenant and Meigs his subordinate, a 2nd Lieutenant.  Did Meigs bear Lee a personal grudge?  Some historians think so, or perhaps he was just embittered by the war itself, or by Lee’s defection from the Union army.  Meigs wrote to the Secretary of War stating that “the grounds about the mansion are admirably suited to such a use.” Meigs reported his “grim satisfaction” of ordering twenty six Union dead to be buried near Mrs. Lee’s rose garden in June, 1864. 

Meigs had graves dug right up to the entrance to the house.  This was malicious.  Meigs intended to prevent the Lee family from ever again inhabiting the house.  More than 16,000 Union soldiers were buried on the estate’s grounds. Ironically, Meigs’ own son was sent to Arlington Cemetery for burial.                                                                             

Neither Robert E. Lee nor his wife ever set foot in Arlington House again. In 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court returned the property to the Lee family, stating that it had been confiscated without due process. General Lee's son sold the house and land to the government for its’ fair market value. 
Read more: Historic Cemeteries of Northern Virginia



A quick look at women doctors and medicine in the Civil War for the general reader. Technologically, the American Civil War was the first “modern” war, but medically it still had its roots in the Middle Ages. In both the North and the South, thousands of women served as nurses to help wounded and suffering soldiers and civilians. A few women served as doctors, a remarkable feat in an era when sex discrimination prevented women from pursuing medical education, and those few who did were often obstructed by their male colleagues at every turn.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Children Soldiers of the Confederacy



Sergeant William T. Biedler

Sergeant William T. Biedler, 16 years old, of Company C, Mosby's Virginia Cavalry Regiment is pictured above.   Many of Mosby’s soldiers were too young to join the regular army.  Mosby favored these young troopers. “They haven’t sense enough to know danger when they see it, and will fight anything I tell them to,” he once said.

Charles Biedler was born November 9, 1847, and in his teens served with Mosby's Rangers. At one time, while guarding a squad of Federal prisoners in a barn, he, singlehandedly, foiled their attempted escape. One of the prisoners, whose life Biedler spared, presented his youthful captor with a golden trinket as a mark of gratitude.  Biedlar had this gift fashioned into his wife's wedding ring. Charles E. Biedler died in Baltimore, Md., on October 11, 1926.



Women Doctors in the Civil War

In both the North and the South, thousands of women served as nurses to help wounded and suffering soldiers and civilians. A few women served as doctors, a remarkable feat in an era when sex discrimination prevented women from pursuing medical education, and those few who did were often obstructed by their male colleagues at every turn.






Saturday, March 12, 2016

Disputed American Elections

In virtually every American presidential election, candidates vilify and demonize their opponents. The meme in the last several elections has been "Hitler", with everyone from  George W. Bush and Barack Obama to Hillary ("Hitlery") Clinton and Donald Trump being compared to the evil German dictator.

Historically, American presidential campaigns have always been messy, loud, and controversial. Here are some of the worst.


Saturday, February 27, 2016

Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America - Book Review







    Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history.  For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values.  Since his death along the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn River, in Montana, on June 25, 1876, over five hundred books have been written about the life and career of George Armstrong Custer, this book ranks among the worst.

     To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the book is both good and original. Unfortunately, the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.  The good parts involve the author’s heavy use of secondary sources such as the writings of Robert Utley, and James Donovan when actually talking about Custer’s career.  The original parts, including the author’s peculiar decision to virtually ignore the Battle of the Little Big Horn while spending page after page on Custer’s finances, are very bad indeed.

     The author meanders tediously through 19th century American politics, finance, and racial affairs, writing in a self- indulgent, turgid academic style.  Stiles can simply not forgive Custer, his wife Elizabeth, or the people of 19th century America, for being, well…19th century Americans, living in the 19th century and having 19th century attitudes toward race, feminism, sexuality, and nationalism.  These people should obviously have had the foresight to have been born in the enlightened 21st century.

     If you like your history with heavy, self-righteous lashings of 21st century political correctness, you will love this book.  If not, you may wish to spare yourself this pompous lecturing.


Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Love, Sex and Marriage in Victorian Times

Queen Victoria reigned over the British Empire, the largest and most diverse empire the world has ever known, from 1837-1901, and gave her name to the age. Among other things the Victorian Age has become known for its sexual prudery. In many things, including social customs, the United States mirrored what was happening across the sea in Britain. Women were allotted a subsidiary role, with patience and self-sacrifice the prime feminine virtues. Motherhood was idealized, alongside virginal innocence. The ideal of purity in sexual behavior became sacrosanct, at least in public



We think we know the Victorians, but do we? The same passions, strengths and weaknesses that exist now, existed then, but people organized themselves very differently.