Note: This post first appeared in February 2013. I’m reprising it now on the 150 anniversary of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
U.S. Representative Joe Coutrtney (D-Connecticut) is very unhappy that Spielberg’s film depicts one of his state’s House delegation as voting against the 13th Amendment. All four House members from that state voted in favor of the measure, so he’s right on the facts. But his argument is silly:
We need to get beyond visions of the past based on what seems obvious or logical or rational in hindsight, and take time to look at what people actually did and and said at the time, which often turns out to be irrational, illogical, self-defeating, and completely out of touch with modern values. In fact, almost five dozen members of the House of Representatives, every one from a Union state, voted “on the wrong side of history” that day. Connecticut was hardly a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment, either; it had hung on to the institution until 1848, and there was great apprehension there about the impact universal emancipation would have on white labor in the state’s cotton mills. These are aspects of Connecticut’s history in the 19th century that Rep. Courtney may not know, but they were very real parts of the political landscape in 1865.
Courtney would have done better to tell the story of Rep. James E. English (right, 1812-90), the lame-duck Democrat who had voted against the measure when it first came up the previous year, but went to rather extraordinary lengths to help pass it when it came up for a vote again in January 1865:In 1863 President Lincoln, by virtue of his authority as Commander-in-Chief, issued his Emancipation Proclamation. This was a military measure, and the general question of slavery had still to be met by legislative action. Mr. English had voted for the bill abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia, and he had told the President and others that he would vote for a constitutional amendment which should forever put an end to slavery in the United States. The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in May, 1864, by Mr. Ashley, of Ohio ; but even the Republicans were not yet united on the measure, and it was defeated — Mr. English, by the advice of Mr. Ashley himself, voting against it. But in February, 1865 [sic.], the Amendment was again proposed. The Thirty-eighth Congress was shortly to expire, and, although the next House would be strongly Republican, President Lincoln was deeply anxious to have the measure passed during this session. Mr. English had been recalled to New Haven by the serious illness of his wife, and he was in attendance upon her sick-bed when word was sent him from Washington that the Thirteenth Amendment was to come up on the following day. He set out at once for Washington, arriving in time to hear the final speeches of the debate, and to vote with the ten Democrats who helped to carry the bill by the required two-thirds vote. “Well, English,” Mr. S. S. Cox, of New York, said to him when they met, “I am afraid that I cannot vote for the Amendment.” “Ah,” said Mr. English. “Well, I intend to vote for it.” When the count was called and his emphatic ” Yes ” rang forth, applause sounded throughout the House. The announcement that the Amendment had been passed by a vote of 119 to 56 was received by the members on the floor and the visitors in the galleries with an outburst of enthusiasm rarely witnessed in the Capitol. Republicans sprang from their seats, and, regardless of parliamentary rules or the Speaker’s efforts to enforce silence, cheered and applauded. The men in the galleries joined in the uproar, while ladies clapped their hands, waved their handkerchiefs, and uttered exclamations of delight and enthusiasm. Mr. English remarked to a New Haven friend, while talking over this experience, ” I suppose I am politically ruined, but that day was the happiest of my life.”
That’s one helluva story, right there. And English was not politically ruined; he went on to serve two terms as the Governor of Connecticut, and served briefly in the U.S. Senate as an interim appointment in 1875-76.
As many folks have pointed out, much of the criticism of Spielberg’s film from historians has amounted to the latter whinging that he and Tony Kushner didn’t make the movie they themselves would have made. Fine, whatever. Rep. Courtney’s criticism is much more valid, even if it’s motivated as much by home-state boosterism as it is by an interest in historical accuracy. Spielberg and Kushner could have — should have — avoided this business altogether by simply depicting the “nay” votes in the House as they really were, explicitly by name, without worrying about what their great-great-great-grandkids might think.
Earlier this month was the two-year anniversary of one of the most prominent and outspoken of the Virginia Flaggers, Norwood “Tripp” Lewis, being arrested for trespassing on the grounds of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Lewis was charged with “trespass after forbidden,” a Class 1 misdemeanor in the Commonwealth of Virginia, just short of a felony. Lewis was detained briefly and then released after being cited.
At the time, there was much shrieking from the Flaggers and their supporters that Lewis and one of his kids had been “roughed up” or “assaulted” by law enforcement. Significantly, though, two of the Flaggers’ prominent members with professional security or law enforcement experience, David Tatum and John Henry Taylor, declined to agree with that assessment.
About a month after Lewis’ arrest, Virginia Flagger Grayson Jennings put out the call for donations for his defense. The Lewis incident was bigger than the issue of one man’s misdemeanor charge, Jennings argued; the case would be an opportunity to vindicate not only Lewis but the Flaggers’ cause itself:
The forthcoming legal proceedings will offer us the chance to challenge the arbitrary and ever-changing restrictions placed on the Flaggers by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and allow a court of law to decide the constitutionality of restricting the display of a Confederate Flag on Virginia State Property, specifically designated as “Confederate Memorial Park.”
It will also allow us the opportunity to further expose the discriminatory and illegal act of the forced removal of Confederate flags from the portico of the Confederate Memorial Chapel and give us grounds to introduce this evidence into the public record via court proceedings and legal filings.
Jennings ended his appeal by including both a mailing address and a PayPal account where people could make donations. The request for funds was repeated in various SCV newsletters and at Dixie Outfitters.
Two months later, Lewis made a deal with prosecutors that the charges would be dropped in exchange for Lewis doing a certain number of hours of community service and agreeing to stay away from the private residences of VMFA officials. (Yes, a court actually had to make that an order.) Interestingly enough, according to Grayson, Lewis had originally wanted to do his community service volunteering at the chapel itself, but the SCV camp that operates it under lease from the VMFA refused — apparently they wanted no part of the Tripp Lewis spectacle, either.
Settling the trespassing case the way he did was a good deal for Lewis, but a terrible one for the Flaggers. Having solicited money to use the criminal case “to further expose the discriminatory and illegal act,” etc., they cannot have been happy when Lewis, looking square in the face of an almost-certain conviction on a serious misdemeanor charge, collapsed like a dollar-store lawn chair and made a deal that avoided a trial altogether. While the Flaggers may see Lewis as “a dedicated warrior in the battle to preserve our Heritage,” there are real limits to his dedication.
Nevertheless, Jennings and the Virginia Flaggers continued to solicit funds for Lewis, “to fund the civil lawsuits that will bring justice to those who have dishonored the Confederate Veterans who lived and died on the grounds of Confederate Memorial Park.” Lewis and the Virginia Flaggers, Jennings claimed, “have only yet begun to fight.” Jennings appended a long list of donors who had already contributed funds, as much as $250 each, to Lewis’ defense fund.
That was twenty-one months ago. Since then, Lewis has repeatedly made loud, boastful talk about filing a civil lawsuit (or several) over this incident, but it doesn’t appear that he has actually done so — which brings us to the significance of this month’s two-year anniversary.
As a general rule, Virginia law imposes a statute of limitations on most civil lawsuits. Specifically, the claims Lewis might conceivably try to make as a plaintiff — assault, personal injury, false imprisonment — all have a limit of two years under Virginia law. Which is to say, that faint bang you heard back on January 12 was the window of opportunity for Lewis to file his oft-threatened lawsuit, slamming shut.
The statute of limitations is not absolute; courts sometimes waive them when there are extenuating circumstances that would have prevented a case being filed within the specified period. In those cases, though, there is a burden for the plaintiff to show why a late claim should go forward; it’s a high bar, and it’s hard to imagine Lewis overcoming it. There is no long paper trail of discovery of evidence to sort through, the basic facts of the case have been well (and publicly) known from the first day, and much of the evidence of the confrontation has been sitting on YouTube for more than two years now. Having boasted for most of those two years about how he’s totally gonna sue and be vindicated on court — totally! — it will be interesting to see Lewis’ (and his supporters’) explanation for his inaction or, more likely, why the statute of limitations supposedly isn’t relevant in this case. It will be even more interesting to see whether the people who contributed their hard-earned money to Lewis’ efforts the “expose the discriminatory and illegal act of the forced removal of Confederate flags from the portico of the Confederate Memorial Chapel. . .” start asking for an accounting of where their money actually went.
Stay tuned, y’all.
I’d like to thank the folks who came to my talk and book-signing Thursday night at the Friendswood Public Library. We had a good time. It was the only the second or third time out for that particular presentation, “Captain Dave vs. the Yankees,” and the first opportunity to incorporate my more recent research on McCluskey’s opponent in the struggle for Sting Ray, Acting Ensign Börner. Being able to flesh those two out as individuals, with personal histories that happened to intersect briefly in May 1864 on the deck of a schooner in the Gulf of Mexico, I think makes the story of the blockade more accessible and more vivid for the audience.
And speaking of the audience, they were really engaged. At the end of my talk, one person asked about the Confederate raider Alabama, which appeared briefly off Galveston and sank U.S.S. Hatteras. (This is not a subject mentioned at all in my presentation, so it wasn’t floating around at the top of my brain just then.) In answering his question, I momentarily blanked on the name of Alabama‘s executive officer. Another member of the audience simply prompted, “Kells.” How cool is it that someone in this group knew that?
In a discussion on another forum on the effectiveness of Confederate ironclads, my colleague Mark Jenkins made an argument that, over the course of a long war, it was a lack of internal development that doomed the southern cause:
Hindsight is 20/20… or at least clearer than foresight.
I subscribe to the theory that the Confederacy died primarily of “gangrene,” of a lack of circulation, due to the breakdown of the transportation network and infrastructure, leading to supply and morale problems. It’s been fairly well documented that, as a whole, the Confederacy was still mostly self-sufficient in terms of foodstuffs even into 1865, yet there were documented cases of food riots and soldiers going on extremely short rations. It wasn’t because the Confederacy couldn’t produce enough food; it was because the food wasn’t getting to where it needed to be.
The prewar transportation system in the Confederacy, while more advanced than a large part of the world, was still not quite sufficient to needs… there was an incomplete railroad network, the railroads themselves were somewhat less than completely efficient due to items such as different gauges (widths) of track and the fact that, in most cases, railways stopped at cities and started again on the other side, requiring transshipment of goods from one side of the city to the other. In most places, this inadequate railroad network was necessarily supplemented to a large degree by river and coastal transport by small freighters (as it had been since before the railroads).
One of the important but less-heralded effects of the blockade was (completely apart from its effects on imports and exports to the Confederacy) to significantly hamper or stop the coasting trade; where before, it was possible to either ship something from (say) Mobile to Savannah by either boat or by railroad, now it was more constrained to the railroads; and this at a time when the demands on the railroads were increasing due to wartime activities.
On top of this, there was real pressure to divert iron from making and repairing the railroads to other uses, like guns, ammunition, and ironclads; even to the extent of taking up existing railroad tracks. That, in essence, is spending your principal– eating your seed corn.
So, there’s a line of thought that indicates that the Confederacy should have exerted more of an effort in maintaining and reinforcing its transportation infrastructure, particularly the railroads, and that it should have taken precedence over ironclad construction and the like, rather than the other way around. I’m not certain it would have been enough, though.
Personally I don’t see forgoing the construction of ironclads as a realistic option for the Confederacy; although their ironclads didn’t accomplish much in open battle, their mere presence at places like Charleston and on the James River below Richmond were a deterrent factor for Union strategists planning operations against those points during the latter half of the war. Those squadrons were localized “fleets in being” that significantly complicated things for the Federals and undoubtedly slowed their advance. I can’t say “they prolonged the war by X months,” but they were absolutely part of the Confederacy’s ability to hold out in those locations.
Mark is quick to point out that his observation is not entirely original, and in fact is a synthesis of much that he’s read. Fair enough, but there’s a lot of clarity and substance in his phrasing, and he makes a solid point.
What do you think?
A colleague doing genealogical research passed along this item regarding Louis Napoleon Nelson from the March 1932 issue of The Confederate Veteran magazine (p. 110). As was the case with his pension record, this is an item that seems to be consistently overlooked or ignored on the numerous websites — 3,000-plus hits on the Google machine — that discuss his activities in 1861-65. Which is odd, considering that the source, Confederate Veteran, was (and is) the official publication of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that has gone to great lengths in recent years to promote Nelson’s story, or at least a particular version of it.
On the 6th of February, after an illness of several weeks, Gen. E. R. Oldham, Commander of the 3rd Brigade, Tennessee Division, U.C.V., died at his home in Henning, at the age of eighty-seven years. Burial was at Maplewood Cemetery in Ripley, with Confederate veterans of the county as pallbearers.
At the grave, four comrades, one of them being GEN. C. A. DeSaussure, Commander in Chief, U.C.V., in Confederate uniforms, held the four corners of the Confederate flag, forming a canopy over the casket as it was lowered.
At the close of the funeral services, Lewis Nelson, an old negro of ante-bellum days, who served his master throughout the war, gave in his own words his estimates of “Mars Ed.”
As the funeral cortege left the home, the old plantation bell, which had been rung for over a hundred years, decorated with a Confederate flag, was tolled eighty-seven times.
So consider this another addition to the public record.
Thomas Tew (left) regales Governor Benjamin Fletcher of New York with tales of plunder at sea, in an engraving by Howard Pyle. Fletcher openly entertained Tew, even as he publicly denounced him as a pirate. Fletcher’s ties to Tew and men like him resulted in his being replaced in 1698 by Richard Coote, Earl of Bellemont. Tew had made his fortune by capturing a treasure-laden ship belonging to the Grand Mughal in 1693. Two years later he attempted the same feat in partnership with Henry Every, and was killed in the ensuing action.
My father has devoted a lot of time in recent years to genealogical research, and has made some interesting connections. Although he uses the Internet in his work, he has so far eschewed Ancestry and similar tree-building sites, preferring to go about his work in a more traditional way. This is probably a good thing because, although I use Ancestry all the time, it’s very easy to get off on the wrong track when picking up information from other researchers’ self-made trees. It’s a little too easy to go click-click-click and, in the space of a few minutes, throw together something that’s pretty much worthless due to a single error somewhere along the way. But I digress. . . .
Recently he shared with me the story of one John Elston (or Alston), a young man from New Jersey who was seized as a pirate in the spring of 1698. I wouldn’t ordinarily claim kinship to someone I can’t trace precisely, but in this case the circumstantial evidence seems substantial. Multiple generations of direct-ancestor Elstons lived in and around Woodbridge, New Jersey (near the southern end of Staten Island) in this period, so it seems likely that John Elston, the “Accidental Pirate” from Woodbridge, is a collateral relative. His story is told in James Strode Elston’s The Elston family in America (Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 1942):
Only a few of the highlights can be given in perhaps the most colorful experience any Elston in this country has had. In “New Jersey Colonial Documents” is a four-page account of John Elston ‘s affidavit [of] May 27th, 1698:
John Elston aged about 20 yeares Declares that about the yeare 1692 being in London shiped himself. . . proceeded on the Voyage to the Groyne where. . . they Runn away with the said ship. . . . This said Elston being then asleep knew nothing of said Action till Comeing upon Decke found the Ship under Saile. . . Saies that the first land they made was the Cape de Verd Islands. . . thence proceeded to the Coast of Guinea touching at the Gold Coast and severall other places. . . that Dureing the time of theire being on the Coast they tooke two shipps Danes and Swedes Laden with Goods for the Guinea trade takeing as many men out of them as were willing to saile. . . turning the shipps a Drift, that in the Action they had a Dispute with said shipps for about halfe an hour looseing one man . . . went for the Cape of Good Hope but stopped not there but at the Island Madagascar . . . went for the Islands of Johanna and Cornaro [the Comoros Islands] where they went on shore and traded with the Indians [sic.]. . . sayled for the Cape that makes the Gulph of Arabia on the Redd Sea. . . at this time there was added to our Company 4 or 5 sayle more. . . came into the Bay of Bengali. . . A Little before Day a ship Came by us within about a Pistoll shott after which we made say]e and after Day fired at her, whome we tooke being a ship of about six hundred Tunns a slight ship haveing only their money on board the Quantity Reputed to be about (or more then) Twenty thousand pounds. Wee kept her in Company about 24 hours takeing out what we thought proper for our own use and then lett her Goe … we fought about an hour and a halfe, she being about sixteen hundred Tunns forty or fifty Gunns mounted and others in hold. . . . We Entred her and kept her about twentyfour hours. That we Esteemed her worth about two hundred thousand pounds. . . . Further on the Coast of India. . . touched a French Island neare Madagascar. . . . Directed our Course to the Vest Indies. . . Arrived at providence one of the Bahama Islands . . . aforesaid John Elston. . . and some others who went a shore at Fishers Island … by way of Fishers Island to East Jersey.
The colonial Governor of New York, Richard Coote, Earl of Bellemont, had originally seized John Elston and William Merrick on suspicion of piracy. But in a letter written July 1, 1698, Bellemont wrote to the Lords of Trade (later the Board of Trade) that he could
find no evidence against them, so that they would be cleared on a tryall here, and I have no instructions to send them for England so that I must admitt them to bail. One of them is not now above nineteen years old, his name is John Alston, was about 12 or 13 years old and was a boy in the ship when [Henry] Every run away with her and as he said forced him away for a cabin boy, that he had no share with the rest-that he acted no ill thing with his owne hand, and could not avoid being in the ship, being forced away, his account appeared to me probable and inclines me to represent this circumstance to you Lordships that if you think fitt he may be represented as an object of His Majesty’s mercy.
The Lords of Trade in London evidently didn’t act on Bellemont’s petition for mercy in the case of Elston and Merrick, as they both remained in jail, denied bond by the Governor of East New Jersey, Jeremiah Basse, for months. But in February 1700 Basse wrote to the House of Commons complaining that “as it was his duty, [he] refused to bayle” (i.e., grant them bond). Whereupon Bellemont, “by a pretended Admiralty power forced them out of your petitioner’s hands, and set them at liberty upon insufficient bayle, to the great hazard and danger of your Petitioner.”
This was probably not the first time the governors of New York and New Jersey didn’t see eye-to-eye, and it certainly wasn’t the last.
The pirate captain Elston and Merrick allegedly sailed under, Henry Every (or Avery), was one of the most infamous of all buccaneers in the so-called “Golden Age of Piracy.” Elston’s affidavit matches, in broad terms, Every’s violent history in the Indian Ocean. This passage from Elston’s account
at this time there was added to our Company 4 or 5 sayle more. . . came into the Bay of Bengali. . . A Little before Day a ship Came by us within about a Pistoll shott after which we made say]e and after Day fired at her, whome we tooke being a ship of about six hundred Tunns a slight ship haveing only their money on board the Quantity Reputed to be about (or more then) Twenty thousand pounds. Wee kept her in Company about 24 hours takeing out what we thought proper for our own use and then lett her Goe … we fought about an hour and a halfe, she being about sixteen hundred Tunns forty or fifty Gunns mounted and others in hold. . . . We Entred her and kept her about twenty-four hours. That we Esteemed her worth about two hundred thousand pounds. . . .
sounds very much like a description of Henry Every’s attacks on the Grand Mughal’s flotilla in the summer of 1695. If so, Elston’s assertion that the pirates only took “what we thought proper for our own use and then lett her Goe” is self-serving nonsense — Every’s pirates released the ships only after brutally torturing those they captured to get them to reveal their valuables. And there were plenty of valuables — reportedly over half a million gold and silver coins, in addition to crates and chests of jewels and other treasures. Each pirate’s full share was said to be worth £1,000 or more.
I’m dubious of Elston’s claim that he went a-pirating against his will; Defoe’s General History of the Pyrates, which is a near-contemporary account of the era and is the source for much of what we know about men like Every, makes it clear that those crew members who were not part of the original mutiny that began the voyage were offered the chance to go ashore:
The whole Crew being called up, to know who was willing to go on Shore with the Captain, and who to seek their Fortunes with the rest; there were not above five or six who were willing to quit this Enterprize; wherefore they were put into the Boat with the Captain that Minute, and made their Way to the Shore as well as they could.
It’s an interesting story, because this was a time when pirates were not only executed upon conviction, but often had their corpses tarred and gibbeted at a crossroads for all to see for months after — gruesome stuff. Six of Every’s men were convicted and sentenced to death at the Old Baily in London in October 1696.
Perhaps Elston and Merrick really did convince Bellemont of their innocence, or maybe there were other factors at play. Not long before Elston and Merrick were picked up, it had become known that the Governor Bellemont’s own pirate hunter, William Kidd (yes, that one), had himself turned to piracy. Bellemont managed to arrest Kidd in the summer of 1699, while Elston and Merrick were still apparently sitting in jail. Bellemont had Kidd shipped off to England, allegedly to prevent his own ties to piracy from getting a full airing in a local trial. In London Kidd was (inevitably) convicted and executed. You might think that during this period, Bellemont would be eager to show that he was tough on
crime piracy, and hanging a pair of low-level pirates after a show trial would help demonstrate that. Instead, Bellemont cut them loose, over the objections of his fellow colonial governor across the Hudson. How Captain Kidd’s larger and better-known story may intersect with that of Elston and Merrick remains to be seen, but the cases were concurrent and all in the mix together.
It’s a curious story but, honestly, it does leave me conflicted. I’m not sure which is more embarrassing — having a real-life pirate in the family, or admitting that I’m kin to people from New Jersey.
I had to run an errand at the Texas Seaport Museum Saturday, and realized it was a sail training day. At least they had good weather for it.
h/t Barry Colbaugh
John Stauffer’s essay at The Root (“Yes, There Were Black Confederates. Here’s Why“), that claims to establish the reality of African American Confederate soldiers, has been pretty thoroughly dismantled by both Brooks Simpson and Kevin Levin. But I’d like to point out one small item that neither of them have mentioned. Stauffer cites Frederick Douglass’ oft-quoted assertion from the summer of 1861 that there were black Confederate troops at the site of the then-recent Battle of Manassas, “as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets.” Stauffer continues,
What were Douglass’ sources in identifying black Confederates? One came from a Virginia fugitive who escaped to Boston shortly before the Battle of First Manassas in Virginia that summer. He saw “one regiment of 700 black men from Georgia, 1000 [men] from South Carolina, and about 1000 [men with him from] Virginia, destined for Manassas when he ran away.”
Stauffer likely picked up this quote from an endnote on p. 467 of Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings (Philip S. Foner and Yuval Taylor, eds., Chicago Review Press, 2000). Unfortunately for Stauffer, Foner and Taylor also provide the source for the quotation — a speech given in Boston on February 5, 1862, and quoted the next day in the Boston Daily Journal and Evening Transcript newspapers. Stauffer is claiming that Douglass, writing in the summer of 1861, based his claim on a speech that wouldn’t be given for another six months.
Douglass did, in fact, hear this story, because he was the headline speaker at the Emancipation League meeting in Boston where the unnamed “Virginia fugitive” told it — but not in 1861.
Frederick Douglass was a remarkable man, but as far as I know he wasn’t a time traveler. In citing an 1862 speech as a source for a Douglass essay written in 1861, Stauffer has either (1) broken genuinely new historical ground in his discovery that Douglass had mastered the fourth dimension, traveling forward through time and space to Boston in February 1862 to collect information he would use upon his return to 1861 Rochester, or (2) shown himself to be just as sloppy and misleading in his efforts as most of the other folks who’ve taken up the mantle of “scholarship” on this subject.
You decide which of those possibilities seems more likely.
Recently I was able to acquire an original, Civil War-era CDV of a young man named Paul Borner (right). I am not generally a collector of items like this, but there were special circumstances in this case.
Borner was a junior naval officer, first an Acting Master’s Mate and then an Acting Ensign, on several U.S. Navy ships on blockade duty during the war. In May 1864, twenty-eight-year-old Borner was put in charge of a boarding party on the captured schooner Sting Ray. What happened next is described in Chapter 3 of the blockade-running book:
A lack of available ships prevented the U.S. Navy from maintaining an around-the-clock watch off the Brazos until the latter part of 1863, but attempts to get in and out of Velasco continued right through the end of the war. One of the more remarkable incidents there occurred in May 1864, when USS Kineo stopped and seized the schooner Sting Ray, nominally of British registry, some miles off the mouth of the river. Kineo’s commander, Lieutenant Commander John Watters, was suspicious of the schooner’s paperwork, which claimed she was sailing from Havana to Matamoros. Not wanting to delay Kineo’s return to the river mouth, Watters put a boarding party on board the schooner, under the command of Acting Ensign Paul Borner, with instructions to follow Kineo back to her station. (more…)