Wednesday, November 30, 2022

A Death-Sonnet for Custer


"From Far Dakota's Cañons" was first published as "A Death Sonnet for Custer" in the New York Tribune, 10 July 1876, two weeks after General George Armstrong Custer's death. Walt Whitman received ten dollars for the poem.

 The sonnet later appeared as From Far Dakota's Cañonsin Whitman’s monumental work, Leaves of Grass.


From far Montana's cañons,

Lands of the wild ravine, the dusky Sioux, the lone-
some stretch, the silence,

Haply, to-day, a mournful wail—haply, a trumpet
note for heroes.



The battle-bulletin,

The Indian ambuscade—the slaughter and environ-

The cavalry companies fighting to the last—in stern-
est, coolest, heroism.

The fall of Custer, and all his officers and men.



Continues yet the old, old legend of our race!

The loftiest of life upheld by death!

The ancient banner perfectly maintained!

(O lesson opportune—O how I welcome thee!)

As, sitting in dark days,

Lone, sulky, through the time's thick murk looking
in vain for light, for hope,

From unsuspected parts, a fierce and momentary

(The sun there at the center, though concealed,

Electric life forever at the center,)

Breaks forth, a lightning flash.



Thou of sunny, flowing hair, in battle,

I erewhile saw, with erect head, pressing ever in
front, bearing a bright sword in thy hand,

Now ending well the splendid fever of thy deeds,

(I bring no dirge for it or thee—I bring a glad, tri-
umphal sonnet;)

There in the far northwest, in struggle, charge, and

Desperate and glorious—aye, in defeat most desper-
ate, most glorious,

After thy many battles, in which, never yielding up
a gun or a color,

Leaving behind thee a memory sweet to soldiers,

Thou yieldest up thyself.

Custer’s Last Stand: Portraits in Time

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Custer and Rain in the Face

One of the many tributes written to honor George Armstrong Custer after the Battle of the Little Bighorn was a poem entitled. “The Revenge of Rain-in-the-Face” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882).

The poem definitely took “poetic license” with the facts.  Neither Custer nor his men carried sabers of June 25, 1876.  More importantly George Armstrong Custer did not have his heart cut out (although Tom Custer may have, this is matter of dispute.)



“The Revenge of Rain-in-the-Face”
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

In that desolate land and lone,
Where the Big Horn and Yellowstone
Roar down their mountain path,
By their fires the Sioux Chiefs
Muttered their woes and griefs
And the menace of their wrath.

"Revenge!" cried Rain-in-the-Face,
"Revenue upon all the race
Of the White Chief with yellow hair!"
And the mountains dark and high
From their crags re-echoed the cry
Of his anger and despair.

In the meadow, spreading wide
By woodland and riverside
The Indian village stood;
All was silent as a dream,
Save the rushing of the stream
And the blue-jay in the wood.

In his war paint and his beads,
Like a bison among the reeds,
In ambush the Sitting Bull
Lay with three thousand braves
Crouched in the clefts and caves,
Savage, unmerciful!

Into the fatal snare
The White Chief with yellow hair
And his three hundred men
Dashed headlong, sword in hand;
But of that gallant band
Not one returned again.

The sudden darkness of death
Overwhelmed them like the breath
And smoke of a furnace fire:
By the river's bank, and between
The rocks of the ravine,
They lay in their bloody attire.

But the foemen fled in the night,
And Rain-in-the-Face, in his flight
Uplifted high in air
As a ghastly trophy, bore
The brave heart, that beat no more,
Of the White Chief with yellow hair.

Whose was the right and the wrong?
Sing it, O funeral song,
With a voice that is full of tears,
And say that our broken faith
Wrought all this ruin and scathe,
In the Year of a Hundred Years.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

“Shorty” meets President Jefferson Davis


President Davis

Capt. David Van Buskirk of the 27th Indiana Regiment stood 6 feet 11 inches and weighed 380 pounds. He was captured in 1862 and sent to a Richmond Prison. Confederate President Jeff Davis came to see him and was astounded when the Van Buskirk claimed that back home in Bloomington, Indiana, “when I was at the train station with my company, my six sisters came to say goodbye. As I was standing there, with my company, they all came up to me, leaned down and kissed me on top of the head.”

War and Reconstruction in Mississippi 1861-1875: A Portrait

Sunday, November 06, 2022

A Dear John Letter in the Civil War

A young soldier left home to join the army. He told his girlfriend that he would write every day. After about six months, he received a letter from his girlfriend that she was marrying someone else. He wrote home to his family to find out who she married. The family wrote back and told him. It was the ....mailman. 


Civil War Humor 1861-1865

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Union Troops “Not at Liberty”


Ambrose Burnside

Troops on both sides enjoyed a joke at the expense of officers.  One anecdote that made the rounds involved General Ambrose Burnside.  General Grant and his staff in Virginia stopped to rest at a plantation. Grant fell into conversation with the two women of the house, when the portly Ambrose Burnside rode up, made an exaggerated bow, and conversationally inquired as to whether the ladies had ever seen so many Yankee soldiers before.

“Not at liberty, sir,” one of the women snapped back.

 General Grant joined heartily in the laughter.

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Slavery in Massachusetts


James Somersett was a slave taken to England by his master Charles Steuart of Boston, Massachusetts.  In 1771, while in England, Somersett escaped from his master.  He was recaptured and put in chains aboard the ship Ann and Mary which was preparing to sail for Jamaica.  Before the ship sailed Somersett’s godparents, supported by British abolitionists, applied to the Court of King’s Bench for a writ of habeas corpus.  The Captain of the ship was required to produce Somersett so the Court could decide if his imprisonment was legal.  Lord Mansfield, the presiding judge ordered Somersett to be released, finding that neither English common law nor any law made by Parliament recognized the existence of slavery in England.  The Somersett case was a boon to the growing abolitionist movement in Great Britain and ended the holding of slaves in England.  It did not end Britain’s participation in the slave trade or end slavery in other parts of the British Empire, such as the American colonies, all of which had positive laws allowing slavery.

In 1773, as the people of Massachusetts railed against the Crown over matters of taxes, the General Court in Boston received the first of three petitions in which advocates for slaves argued that Lord Mansfield’s decision should apply to the colonies since people were being, “held in a state of Slavery within a free and Christian country.”  The issue of slavery was never to be decided in the colonial courts.  Relations with the Crown continued to deteriorate leading to armed rebellion. 

Secrets of Early America 1607-1816

Monday, October 31, 2022

The Value of Humor in War and Elsewhere


Humor had its place in even the toughest situations. During the Civil War, a Confederate veteran remembered many years later, “While on that raid we marched and fought for days and nights in succession. Late one dark night we were on the march; it was raining, and we were all wet, cold, tired, sleepy, and hungry. We were bunched up in a creek bottom waiting for those in front to cross the stream. Not a word was being spoken. Old sore-backed horses were trying to rub their riders off against some other horse. We knew we would have fighting to do as soon as day broke, and we had the blues. All at once Joe Leggett said: ‘Boys, I have become reckless; I've got so I don't care for nothing. I had just as soon be at home now as to be here.’ The effect was magical. While the skill and bravery of our generals and the fighting qualities of our soldiers could not have been excelled, if it had not been for those jolly spirits to animate others the war would have come to a close much sooner.”

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

A Soldier Defends a Hopeless Position in the Civil War


A soldier had lost his bayonet and whittled one from wood so he could stand inspection. He was hoping not to be discovered until the regiment had gone into battle where he could pick up one from a dead soldier. At an inspection, an officer asked to see his bayonet. The soldier stated “Sir, I promised my father I would never unsheathe my bayonet unless I intended to kill with it.” The Officer insisted he hand over the bayonet. Taking it out, the soldier looked skyward and declared “May the Lord change this bayonet to wood for breaking my vow.”

Monday, October 24, 2022

Black Soldiers in the American Revolution


During the American Revolution, the British lacked sufficient manpower to put down a revolt by a “people numerous and well-armed”.  This manpower shortage made the use of slaves all the more appealing to the British since slaves constituted some twenty percent of the total population of the colonies.  On June 30, 1779, Sir Henry Clinton the Commander-in-Chief of British forces in North America, promised in the so-called Philipsburg Declaration that "every NEGRO who shall desert the Rebel Standard, [is granted] full security to follow within these Lines, any Occupation which he shall think proper." Now it was not hundreds of slaves seeking refuge in British lines but tens of thousands.  Some one hundred thousand slaves (out of a population of 500,000 slaves) are estimated to have sought freedom with the British over the course of the next four years.  The number might have climbed even higher had slaves not feared brutal retaliation against their families if they fled from their masters.

By freeing the slaves, the British forced slave masters to guard slaves, one of their chief economic assets, instead of fighting British troops. The British were willing to emancipate slaves if by so doing they could first cripple and then crush the rebellion.  Much as in the later American Civil War, military necessity rather than morality acted as the catalyst of history. The use of slaves by the British for military purposes soon prompted the American rebels to begin recruiting blacks.  George Washington gave his approval to Rhode Island's plan to raise an entire regiment of black slaves (the state bought and emancipated slaves willing to become soldiers). Similarly, Massachusetts raised an all-black unit, the Bucks of America under Samuel Middleton, the only black commissioned officer in the Continental Army. In October 1780, even Maryland accepted "any able-bodied slave between 16 and 40 years of age, who voluntarily enters into service . . . with the consent and agreement of his master." New York began recruiting slaves in March 1781.  By June 1781 some 1,500 (25 %) of the 6,000 troops under George Washington’s direct command were black.

Who Were the Slaves of the Founding Fathers?

How Martha Washington Lived: 18th Century Customs

Thursday, October 13, 2022

The Grave of a Hero of the Titanic


One of the notables honored at Arlington National Cemetery is Major Archibald Butt (1865-1912).  Archibald Butt was the military aide to both Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.  Butt and his housemate (some say lover), the painter Francis Davis Millet, died during the sinking of the Titanic.  Butt was universally recognized for his heroic conduct during the tragedy. His body was never recovered.  President Taft who had come to regard Major Butt, “as a son or a brother”, praised him as a Christian gentleman and the perfect soldier.  Taft wrote, “I knew that he would certainly remain on the ship's deck until every duty had been performed and every sacrifice made that properly fell on one charged, as he would feel himself charged, with responsibility for the rescue of others.  At a May 5 ceremony, Taft broke down weeping, bringing his eulogy to an abrupt end.

As the Titanic sank, the crew prepared the lifeboats and Major Butt helped in the rescue efforts.  One survivor described him as calm and collected, “Major Butt helped…frightened people so wonderfully, tenderly, and yet with such cool and manly firmness.  He was a soldier to the last.”  A cenotaph was erected in the summer of 1913 by his brothers in Section 3 at a point that Major Butt had previously selected as his gravesite.  The Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain, a private memorial fountain, located in the President’s Park, adjacent to the White House, was dedicated in October 1913.  Powerful friends argued that Butt (who was an aide to the president) and Millet (who was vice chair of the United States Commission of Fine Arts at the time of his death) were both public servants who deserved to be memorialized separately from private citizens who died in the Titanic disaster.

 Legends of the Superstition Mountains

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

The Grave of the First Man to Reach the North Pole ?

 The Grave of Robert E Peary

One of the notables buried at Arlington National Cemetery is Robert E. Peary (1856-1920), an American explorer who claimed to have reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909. Peary's claim was widely credited for most of the 20th century. The first undisputed explorers to reach the North Pole were documented in 1969.  Some historians believe that Peary was guilty of deliberately exaggerating his accomplishments.

Women Doctors in the Civil War

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

The Grave of William Howard Taft


One of the notables buried at Arlington is William Howard Taft (1857 – 1930), the 27th President of the United States and later the tenth Chief Justice of the United States.  Taft is the only person to have served in both offices.  Taft and John F. Kennedy are the only U.S. Presidents buried at Arlington.


Taft is not only one of two presidents buried at Arlington National Cemetery, he is also one of four Chief Justices buried there (the others are Earl Warren, Warren Burger, and William Rehnquist). Taft was the first president to throw out the baseball at a season opener, in a game between the Washington Senators and the Philadelphia Athletics in 1910. Taft's wife, Helen Herron Taft, who died in 1943, was instrumental in bringing Japanese cherry trees to Washington, D.C.  A fourteen foot tall granite monument, inspired by ancient Greek burial steles, marks the graves of Taft and his wife. Mrs. Taft arranged with James Earl Frazer, a New York sculptor, to design this private monument for the grave. The design was approved by the Commission of Fine Arts and the secretary of war. It was erected by the Taft family in early 1932.

How Sherlock Holmes Lived

Haym Salomon: A Jewish Patriot of the American Revolution


Haym Salomon, a Polish-born Jewish businessman immigrated to New York City in 1775 and became a financial broker for merchants dealing in overseas trade.  Salomon joined the Sons of Liberty and was arrested by the British in September 1776 as a spy.  He was detained on a prison ship for eighteen months before being released.  He returned to spying and was arrested again, this time being condemned to death.  After a daring escape, Salomon made his way to the Patriot capital in Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia, because of this financial expertise and language skills, Salomon helped convert French loans into ready cash by selling promissory notes.  He also negotiated large donations from the wealthy, and donated his entire fortune to the patriot cause.

In 1781, George Washington sent for Salomon to raise money for the Yorktown campaign when no money and no credit was available.  Salomon worked his magic and Washington was able to pay the army that won the American Revolution.

How Martha Washington Lived: 18th Century Customs

Sunday, August 28, 2022

19th Century Utopian Societies That Condemned Traditional Marriage


Francis Wright

In the early 19th century, not everyone looked at the institution of marriage with a cheerful eye.  In 1826, Frances Wright's Utopian community in Nashoba, Tennessee, rejected the concept of marriage entirely.  Wright and her followers argued that love and respect, rather than legal ties, should bind couples.  When love and respect disappeared, couples should simply separate. 

                                          The Oneida Community

In New York, the Oneida Community, founded in 1848, described marriage as, "contrary to natural liberty....a cruel and oppressive method of uniting the sexes."  This Community practiced a form of community marriage where each woman was married to every man and each man to every woman.  Most Americans rejected these views and pressured young people to marry.  A man's credit rating, for example, depended in part on whether or not he was married and had children.

Love, Sex, and Marriage in the Civil War

Love, Sex and Marriage in Victorian America

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Mississippi Secedes From the Union


Photo credit: The Library of Congress:  Sergeant A.M. Chandler of Co. F, 44th Mississippi Infantry Regiment, and Silas Chandler, family slave.

On January 9, 1861, the state of Mississippi seceded from the Union giving its reasons in a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.”

“In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.”

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”

“That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.”

“The hostility to this institution commenced before the adoption of the Constitution, and was manifested in the well-known Ordinance of 1787, in regard to the Northwestern Territory.”

“The feeling increased, until, in 1819-20, it deprived the South of more than half the vast territory acquired from France.”

“The same hostility dismembered Texas and seized upon all the territory acquired from Mexico.”

“It has grown until it denies the right of property in slaves, and refuses protection to that right on the high seas, in the Territories, and wherever the government of the United States had jurisdiction.”

“It refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union and seeks to extinguish it by confining it within its present limits, denying the power of expansion.”

“It tramples the original equality of the South under foot.”

“It has nullified the Fugitive Slave Law in almost every free State in the Union and has utterly broken the compact which our fathers pledged their faith to maintain.”

“It advocates negro equality, socially and politically, and promotes insurrection and incendiarism in our midst.”

“It has enlisted its press, its pulpit and its schools against us, until the whole popular mind of the North is excited and inflamed with prejudice.”

“It has made combinations and formed associations to carry out its schemes of emancipation in the States and wherever else slavery exists.”

“It seeks not to elevate or to support the slave, but to destroy his present condition without providing a better.”

“It has invaded a State and invested with the honors of martyrdom the wretch whose purpose was to apply flames to our dwellings, and the weapons of destruction to our lives.”

“It has broken every compact into which it has entered for our security.”

“It has given indubitable evidence of its design to ruin our agriculture, to prostrate our industrial pursuits and to destroy our social system.”

“It knows no relenting or hesitation in its purposes; it stops not in its march of aggression and leaves us no room to hope for cessation or for pause.”

“It has recently obtained control of the Government, by the prosecution of its unhallowed schemes, and destroyed the last expectation of living together in friendship and brotherhood.”

“Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it. It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property. For far less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England.”

“Our decision is made. We follow their footsteps. We embrace the alternative of separation; and for the reasons here stated, we resolve to maintain our rights with the full consciousness of the justice of our course, and the undoubting belief of our ability to maintain it.”

Mississippi was the second state to secede from the Union, following South Carolina which had seceded on December 20, 1860.

War and Reconstruction in Mississippi 1861-1875: A Portrait

The Great Northern Rebellion of 1860 (alternate history)

Friday, August 19, 2022

Van Dorn's Raid on Holly Springs, Ms.

 The state of Mississippi was to see a great deal of hard fighting during the war. Major engagements were fought at Corinth (1862), Port Gibson (1863), Jackson (1863), and Vicksburg (1863). Obeying General Sherman’s orders to, “destroy everything public not needed by us,” Federal troops took the occupied parts of the state literally apart, looting stores and houses, and setting fire to warehouses, factories and foundries.

 The first raid made by Federal soldiers on Holly Springs occurred in early 1862. The raiding party ransacked the home of William Manson. Furniture was smashed to pieces, music was pounded out on the piano with the ends of muskets, and rich cushions and carpets were shredded. The soldiers poked holes in family paintings with their bayonets.

 In late November, the Union army moved south from Tennessee. General Ulysses S. Grant had set in motion a plan for the speedy conquest of Vicksburg. His line of march was parallel to the Mississippi River and some sixty miles east. He planned to sweep through northern Mississippi, carefully extending and maintaining his lines of supply as he progressed, until he reached Jackson. There he would cut the railroad line between that city and Vicksburg, at which point he expected to take Vicksburg with relative ease. On November 27, 1862 an advance guard entered Holly Springs and took over the largest and most comfortable houses. The Coxe Place on Salem Avenue was, taken over for the General Army Headquarters while the private residence of General Grant, accompanied by his wife Julia, was established at the Walter Place on Chulahoma Avenue. For two weeks a Federal army of 75,000 men rested in Holly Springs, before moving south toward Vicksburg.

A Holly Springs Home

Elements of the 8th Wisconsin infantry and a portion of the2nd Illinois Cavalry, some 1,500 men under the command of Colonel Robert Murphy, remained in Holly Springs to guard the newly established supply base.

 On Saturday, December 20, 1862, Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn raided the town. In the pale light of dawn, Van Dorn‘s men stormed into Holly Springs, surprising the Federals who emerged half asleep from their tents, firing as they came.  The Confederate 2nd Missouri dismounted and charged on foot, dispersing any infantry they encountered. The Texas brigade charged from the east, coming in from the railroad depot. Most of the Federal garrison surrendered after a token resistance. Only the 2nd Illinois Cavalry chose to fight. With sabers drawn and flashing, some three hundred and fifty horsemen charged through the attacking Confederates, suffering one hundred casualties.

Major General Earl Van Dorn

 A long train of boxcars loaded with rations and clothing was captured. The railroad depot, the Court House and many houses were filled with supplies of all kinds. The public square contained hundreds of bales of cotton. A large brick livery stable and the adjacent Masonic temple were packed with unopened cases of carbines and Colt six— shooters. From 7 A.M. to 4 P.M. Union army stores were first plundered and then burned. Van Dorn’s raid destroyed huge quantities of supplies, leaving the Union army in enemy territory without supplies. Grant was forced to return to Memphis.

Civil War Humor 1861-1865

The 1865 Fall of Richmond in Pictures

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Divorce in the American Civil War

 Authority over the family was legally vested in men, which profoundly influenced a woman's ability to control property, dissolve her marriage or insure custody of her children (there were fewer than 10,000 divorces a year in 1861).  A woman's right to own property emerged slowly.  Mississippi passed the first Married Women's Property Act in 1839.  In 1845 Massachusetts passed similar legislation, with New York following suit in 1848.  In 1855, Massachusetts far in advance of the rest of the Union, legislated to protect the wages of working married women, which were at that time, the legal property of her husband.

Laws concerning divorce varied widely among the states throughout much of American history. In New England, where the Puritans had defined marriage as a civil contract rather than a religious sacrament, secular law had provided for divorce as early as the 17th century. Like any other contract, the marriage bond could be broken when either of the contracting parties failed to meet the obligations it imposed. Adultery, impotence, desertion, or conviction for serious crimes, were all grounds for divorce. Additionally, wives could obtain a divorce on the grounds of non-support.

In most states in the early 19th century, an act of the legislature was required to end a marriage. As the century progressed divorce laws became more liberal. During the 1850s, Indiana was widely condemned for its liberal ways. A couple in Indiana could obtain a divorce on any grounds that a judge ruled “proper”. Indiana judges were far more permissive than the New York City judge who in 1861 refused to grant a divorce to a wife whose husband had beaten her unconscious in an argument over letting the family dog sleep on the bed. The judge advised the woman that “one or two acts of cruel treatment” were not proper grounds for divorce. Indiana’s liberal stance on divorce attracted a flood of applicants from other states. The influential newspaper editor and future presidential nominee, Horace Greeley denounced Indiana as “the paradise of free-lovers” whose example would soon lead to “a general profligacy and corruption such as this country has never known.”

 Among the enslaved population, divorce, like marriage, was within the master's jurisdiction.  Rules were as severe or lax as the master wished.