Friday, March 31, 2017

Politicians Who Shot it Out

Andrew Jackson

Today’s partisan bickering seems mild compared to the political roiling of the early Republic, where policy differences could end up with bullets being exchanged in the early morning hours.

 John Randolph was a Virginia Congressman who was one of the primary spokesmen of a faction of the Democratic-Republican Party founded by Thomas Jefferson.  Randolph’s faction wanted to ensure social stability with minimal government interference, and decried “creeping nationalism”.  He once said, "I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality."  In 1825 he entered the Senate.  In 1826 Randolph made a fiery speech in the Senate denouncing the foreign policy of President John Quincy Adams.  Specifically he was against the President sending a delegation to the Panamanian Congress of Latin American Republics.  Randolph railed against the President and the Secretary of State, Henry Clay, intimating that Clay was a scoundrel.  The Secretary of State took offense at this insinuation and challenged Senator Randolph to a duel.

Both Clay and Randolph had been involved in previous duels.  Clay fought a duel while a member of the Kentucky state legislature.  Randolph fought a duel while a student at the College of William and Mary and again in 1815 while in the House of Representatives.  By 1826 dueling was illegal in Virginia where the duel was to be fought, but a little matter of the law was not about to deter lawmakers Clay and Randolph from fighting.

Dueling politicians were not rare in the young republic.  Andrew Jackson fought over one hundred duels before becoming President.  In those days, if you called the President a liar you were likely to have to back up your words with a sword or a dueling pistol.  Dueling in America flowed down from the ancient practice of trial by combat developed in the Middle Ages.  A test of arms between two opponents was deemed the surest way of knowing which party God favored in a dispute. 

These are the often overlooked stories of early America. Stories such as the roots of racism in America, famous murders that rocked the colonies, the scandalous doings of some of the most famous of the Founding Fathers, the first Emancipation Proclamation that got revoked, and stories of several notorious generals who have been swept under history’s rug.

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.