Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Southern Spy in Northern Virginia

A Southern Spy in Northern Virginia By Charles V. Mauro

As the Civil War raged, Confederate Brigadier General J.E.B. Stuart entrusted a secret album to Laura Ratcliffe, a young girl in Fairfax County, Virginia, “as a token of his high appreciation of her patriotism, admiration of her virtues, and pledge of his lasting esteem.” A devoted Southerner, Laura provided a safe haven for Rebel forces, along with intelligence gathered from passing Union soldiers. Ratcliffe's album contained four poems and forty undated signatures: twenty-six of Confederate officers and soldiers and fourteen of loyal Confederate civilians.

A Southern Spy in Northern Virginia uncovers the mystery behind this album, identifying who the soldiers were and when they could have signed its pages. The result is a fascinating look at the covert lives and relationships of civilians and soldiers during the war.

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Saturday, May 18, 2013

August 24, 1814: Washington in Flames

By Carole Herrick

August 24, 1814: Washington in Flames is an account of the British invasion and burning of America's capital. It details the flights of government leaders, particularly the Madisons, into the surrounding countryside, and the sacking of the city of Alexandria. This catastrophic event was a very small part in the War of 1812, but its significance to the country was tremendous. The torching of Washington D.C. rallied the people, and combined with the American victory at Baltimore three weeks later, a wave of patriotism was unleashed that began a much needed unification of the young nation. This horrific event should never have happened. It was definitely preventable.

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

U.S. Prisons and Devil's Island

Devil's Island

At the top of the prison system pyramid in the U.S. are the so called Super-Maximum prisons. Super Maximum prisons are used to incarcerate “the worst of the worst”. Prisoners include terrorists, and prisoners who are too dangerous to be kept in normal prisons. Inmates have individual cells and are kept locked up for 23 hours per day. Each inmate is allowed one hour of outdoor solitary exercise per day. Inmates are not allowed contact with other prisoners and are under constant surveillance. There is only one supermax prison in the United States federal system, ADX Florence in Florence, Colorado where the U.S. government houses a number of convicted terrorists, gang leaders, and spies.

How do U.S. prisons compare to history’s most infamous prison, the French penal colony at Devil’s Island which also incarcerated “the worst of the worst”?

Perhaps the greatest secret of Devil’s Island is that its grim reputation as the “dry guillotine” was far worse than its reality…depending on who you were. Devil’s Island is the smallest of the three Salvation Islands, sitting off the coast of French Guiana. These islands together with large stretches of coastal French Guiana were used as French penal colonies from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century and have come collectively to be known as “Devil’s Island” in popular culture.

Devil’s Island itself was used for political prisoners, the most famous being Captain Alfred Dreyfus who was falsely accused of spying for the Germans. The treatment experienced by Dreyfus belies the stories of the horrors of Devil’s Island. A contemporary visitor described the prisoner’s daily routine: “…the prisoner rose every morning between 6 and 7 o'clock, had a cup of chocolate, a bath, and, if the weather permitted, a walk. While taking the bath the prisoner's wrists were tied around with a cord, one end of which was held by a warder. This was to prevent any attempt to commit suicide.”

The non-political prisoners were the most hardened and incorrigible inmates in France. Some eighty thousand men were sent to the penal camps in French Guiana. About 20,000 died of malaria and other tropical diseases, but many died of inmate on inmate violence which was endemic.

The climate was bad, but the inmates made their own Hell on earth, at least according to Henri Charrière, one of the few prisoners to successfully escape from Devil's Island. Charrière, nicknamed Papillon (“butterfly”) wrote a detailed account of life in the camps and of his numerous attempts to escape. The guillotine was used frequently on the island to punish convicts who attacked guards or to punish prisoner-on-prisoner killings.

Francis Lagrange, sentenced to 10 years for counterfeiting currency, famously said that penal life in French Guiana was not as bad as some escapees had made out. What was life like? According to Lagrange, It was no worse than any other prison for the era, and in some ways it was better. Black marketing was universal and usually operated in collaboration with the guards. Much of how the men fared depended on the manner, philosophy, and honesty of particular officers and guards. Labor was largely unsupervised. Personal problems between the men, however, often created very tense situations. Inmate-on-inmate violence was common. It was, he said, “a penitentiary, not a summer camp.”

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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Your Brother in Arms: A Union Soldier's Odyssey

Your Brother in Arms: A Union Soldier's Odyssey by Robert C. Plumb

George P. McClelland, a member of the 155th Pennsylvania Infantry in the Civil War, witnessed some of the war’s most pivotal battles during his two and a half years of Union service. Death and destruction surrounded this young soldier, who endured the challenges of front line combat in the conflict Lincoln called “the fiery trial through which we pass.” Throughout his time at war, McClelland wrote to his family, keeping them abreast of his whereabouts and aware of the harrowing experiences he endured in battle. Never before published, McClelland’s letters offer fresh insights into camp life, battlefield conditions, perceptions of key leaders, and the mindset of a young man who faced the prospect of death nearly every day of his service. Through this book, the detailed experiences of one soldier—examined amidst the larger account of the war in the eastern theater—offer a fresh, personal perspective on one of our nation’s most brutal conflicts.

Your Brother in Arms follows McClelland through his Civil War odyssey, from his enlistment in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1862 and his journey to Washington and march to Antietam, followed by his encounters in a succession of critical battles: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna River, Petersburg, and Five Forks, Virginia, where he was gravely injured. McClelland’s words, written from the battlefield and the infirmary, convey his connection to his siblings and his longing for home. But even more so, they reflect the social, cultural, and political currents of the war he was fighting. With extensive detail, Robert C. Plumb expounds on McClelland’s words by placing the events described in context and illuminating the collective forces at play in each account, adding a historical outlook to the raw voice of a young soldier.

Beating the odds of Civil War treatment, McClelland recovered from his injury at Five Forks and was discharged as a brevet-major in 1865—a rank bestowed on leaders who show bravery in the face of enemy fire. He was a common soldier who performed uncommon service, and the forty-two documents he and his family left behind now give readers the opportunity to know the war from his perspective.

More than a book of battlefield reports, Your Brother in Arms: A Union Soldier’s Odyssey is a volume that explores the wartime experience through a soldier’s eyes, making it an engaging and valuable read for those interested in American history, the Civil War, and military history.

Robert Plumb interview on Virginia Time Travel

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Friday, May 03, 2013

The Confederate Woman: Soldier and Spy

These fictional memoirs are based on the true story of a southern belle who defied convention to become a front line soldier and spy for the Confederacy. Follow Laura as she fights in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, breaks hearts, and extends the limits of glory.

This story is based on the life and writings of Loreta Janeta Velazquez. Almost everything known about Loreta Velazquez comes from a six hundred page book she published in 1876 entitled The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velázquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry T Buford, Confederate States Army. The Woman in Battle is written in the popular romantic style of the 19th century and is similar to books portraying the lives and adventures of wild west heroes such as Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp. (Velazguez talks about her own western adventures for several hundred pages after wrapping up her Civil War reminiscences). When the book first appeared, Velázquez stated that she had written the book primarily for money so she could support her child.

Shortly after its appearance, former Confederate General Jubal Early denounced The Woman in Battle as an obvious fiction. Historians are divided concerning the truth of Velazquez’s claims to have served as a Confederate soldier and spy, citing the improbability of her many adventures and her vagueness and inaccuracies regarding names and places. Most historians have found it difficult to corroborate her claims from existing written evidence, although there have been some tantalizing finds that lend some credence to the Velazguez story. Notwithstanding the criticisms, some historians note that Velazquez seems extremely familiar with key events of the time, in short, there is at least a seed of truth in her story.

Brave soldier and spy, or literary opportunist? History’s jury is still out on the case of Loreta Velazguez.

The Confederate Woman: Soldier and Spy

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