On Decoration Day, 1871, Frederick Douglass gave the following address at the monument to the Unknown Dead of the Civil War at Arlington National Cemetery. It is a short speech, but one of the best of its type I’ve ever encountered. I’ve posted it before, but it think it’s something worth re-reading and contemplating every Memorial Day.
The Unknown Loyal Dead
Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, on Decoration Day, May 30, 1871
Friends and Fellow Citizens:
Tarry here for a moment. My words shall be few and simple. The solemn rites of this hour and place call for no lengthened speech. There is, in the very air of this resting-ground of the unknown dead a silent, subtle and all-pervading eloquence, far more touching, impressive, and thrilling than living lips have ever uttered. Into the measureless depths of every loyal soul it is now whispering lessons of all that is precious, priceless, holiest, and most enduring in human existence.
Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable.
Those unknown heroes whose whitened bones have been piously gathered here, and whose green graves we now strew with sweet and beautiful flowers, choice emblems alike of pure hearts and brave spirits, reached, in their glorious career that last highest point of nobleness beyond which human power cannot go. They died for their country.
No loftier tribute can be paid to the most illustrious of all the benefactors of mankind than we pay to these unrecognized soldiers when we write above their graves this shining epitaph.
When the dark and vengeful spirit of slavery, always ambitious, preferring to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, fired the Southern heart and stirred all the malign elements of discord, when our great Republic, the hope of freedom and self-government throughout the world, had reached the point of supreme peril, when the Union of these states was torn and rent asunder at the center, and the armies of a gigantic rebellion came forth with broad blades and bloody hands to destroy the very foundations of American society, the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm, where cannon roared and bullets whistled, fought and fell. They died for their country.
We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.
I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to hat terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.
If we ought to forget a war which has filled our land with widows and orphans; which has made stumps of men of the very flower of our youth; which has sent them on the journey of life armless, legless, maimed and mutilated; which has piled up a debt heavier than a mountain of gold, swept uncounted thousands of men into bloody graves and planted agony at a million hearthstones — I say, if this war is to be forgotten, I ask, in the name of all things sacred, what shall men remember?
The essence and significance of our devotions here to-day are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle. If we met simply to show our sense of bravery, we should find enough on both sides to kindle admiration. In the raging storm of fire and blood, in the fierce torrent of shot and shell, of sword and bayonet, whether on foot or on horse, unflinching courage marked the rebel not less than the loyal soldier.
But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic. We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers. If today we have a country not boiling in an agony of blood, like France, if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage, if the American name is no longer a by-word and a hissing to a mocking earth, if the star-spangled banner floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.
Image: Graves of nine unknown Federal soldiers in Pontotoc County, Mississippi. Photo by Flickr user NatalieMaynor, used under Creative Commons license. Text of Douglass speech from Philip S. Foner and Yuval Taylor, Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings.
Today, Nathan Bedford Forrest is more popular than ever among the fans of the Confederacy. No doubt that’s because he’s come to represent unyielding defiance, whether in victory or defeat, in the face of the Yankee enemy. More than any other Confederate officer — certainly more than someone like Lee — Forrest is the modern face of the unreconstructed rebel, the pit bull of the Lost Cause.
Unfortunately, that image doesn’t entirely square with reality — at least near the end of the general’s life. From the Galveston Daily News, June 3, 1875:
In Memphis, last week, a number of Federal officers and soldiers participated at the decoration of Confederate graves. As a result, Generals [Gideon Johnston] Pillow and Forrest addressed a letter through the Memphis papers to surviving Confederate soldiers and veterans of 1812, Florida and Mexico, requesting them to participate in the Federal ceremonies on Sunday last [i.e., on Memorial Day]. From this letter the subjoined is extracted:
“However much we differed with them while public enemies, and were at war, we must admit that they fought gallantly for the preservation of the government which we fought to destroy, which is now ours, was that of our fathers, and must be that of our children. Though our love for that government was for a while supplanted by the exasperation springing out of a sense of violated rights and the conflict of battle, yet our love for free government, justly administered, has not perished, and must grow strong in the hearts of brave men who have learned to appreciate the noble qualities of the true soldier.
“Let us all, then, join their comrades who live, in spreading flowers over the graves of these dead Federal soldiers, before the whole American people, as a peace offering to the nation, as a testimonial of our respect for their devotion to duty, and as a tribute from patriots, as we have ever been, to the great Republic, and in honor of the flag against which we fought, and under which they fell, nobly maintaining the honor of that flag. It is our duty to honor the government for which they died, and if called upon, to fight for the flag we could not conquer.”
Forrest offers a lesson that some of his most ardent, present-day fans seem determined to ignore
This post originally appeared at on the Civil War Monitor‘s Front Line blog, May 27, 2012.
One hundred fifty years ago this evening, May 23, 1865, the blockade runner Denbigh ran aground on Bird Key, a few hundred yards off the Bolivar Peninsula, near the entrance to Galveston Bay. The following morning, the stranded runner would be spotted and shelled by the blockaders U.S.S. Cornubia and Princess Royal. Denbigh‘s crew took to their boats and headed for shore; a boarding party from U.S.S. Seminole went aboard the little steamer, gathered up the ship’s papers, and set her ablaze. One of Seminole‘s crew members, Luke Robbins, was killed instantly by the discharge of his own weapon while clambering back into the boarding party’s boat; he was the only casualty of the operation. Robbins may have been under the influence, as two other members of the boarding party were found to be drunk and put in irons upon their return to the Union warship.
In all, Denbigh had made seven round voyages between Havana and Mobile and six between Havana and Galveston, the second-best confirmed record of any runner in the conflict. Years later, William Watson wrote of her:
One of the most successful, and certainly one of the most profitable, steamers that sailed out of Havana to the Confederate States was a somewhat old, and by no means a fast, steamer named the Denbigh. . . . She was small in size, and not high above water, and painted in such a way as not to be readily seen at a distance. She was light on coal, made but little smoke, and depended more upon strategy than speed. She carried large cargoes of cotton, and it was generally allowed that the little Denbigh was a more profitable boat than any of the larger and swifter cracks.
Denbigh had made it successfully in and out of Galveston a half-dozen times before this last attempt, and it’s likely that her fatal grounding happened because the Confederate troops on shore who were responsible for setting out range lights and markers for the runners’ safe navigation had abandoned their posts in the general collapse of the Texas and the Trans-Mississippi Department. The runner Lark did make it into Galveston that same night, but her master noted that the forts he passed guarding the harbor entrance appeared to be abandoned. Lark would endure another disaster the following morning, when hundreds of Confederate soldiers and civilians swarmed the ship at Central Wharf and looted virtually everything that wasn’t nailed down. Lark‘s master made no attempt to load a return cargo; that evening he got under way again, stopped briefly at a nearby wharf to pick up Denbigh‘s crew, and dashed out of the harbor again for Havana, the last blockade runner to clear a Confederate port.
It was almost the end.
 William Watson, The Adventures of a Blockade Runner; or, Trade in Time of War (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1893), 287–88.
There’s been a good bit attention recently to the revelation that Ben Affleck, participating in the historical/genealogy show Finding Your Roots, asked the show’s host, Henry Louis Gates, to conceal the fact that one of Affleck’s ancestors was a slaveholder. That segment was subsequently edited out, although Gates has said that decision was made on factors other than Affleck’s request. The credibility of Gates took another hit with his assertion that Ben Affleck’s mother, Chris, had been a Freedom Rider. Chris Affleck has explicitly denied that, saying she had done civil rights work in Mississippi in 1965, but not during the freedom Summer of 1964 when three civil rights workers were murdered (as Gates also claimed), nor during the Freedom Rides of 1961. It’s all extremely shoddy, and does not reflect well at all on Gates, who ‘s made a very successful career as a public historian by telling uncomfortable truths about how issues of race are inextricably interleaved in American history. Kevin Levin has a more apt description for what Gates, who is billed as the show’s Executive Producer, Writer and Presenter, is up to : “we are doing history on Oprah Winfrey’s couch.”
Many of you will recall Anderson Cooper’s response on another episode of the same show, when confronted with the news that one of his slaveholding ancestors, Burel Boykin, had been killed by one of his bondsmen: “I don’t feel sorry for him.” Whether you agree with that sentiment or not, Cooper at least gets props for dealing with that revelation directly, rather than trying to keep it from becoming public knowledge.
Cooper’s response got some attention at the time, but there was something else about that segment that was mostly overlooked, something that (to me) further undermines Gates’ scholarship. In the video segment of Cooper’s interview (above, in a video clip uploaded by PBS itself), Gates shows Cooper the 1860 U.S. Census form that records his ancestor’s death. Beginning at about the 20-second mark, the video shows a closeup of the document, starting with the ancestor’s name, and panning to the right to the dramatic notation, “Killed By Negro.” It makes for great teevee, but it’s faked. Here is the original document, and you can see that “Killed By Negro” appears not adjacent to Boykin’s name, but over on the opposite edge of the page. The producers of Finding Your Roots apparently used Photoshop or something similar to move the notation of Boykin’s death across the page, next to his name, as can be seen in these screen caps:
This makes for great viewing, but it’s a dishonest depiction of the actual (and critical) document, and that’s a problem. Although in this case Gates is not misrepresenting the information, he’s absolutely misrepresenting the original document. Doing that calls into question anything he and his producers do with primary source materials, and reflects very poorly on his commitment to accuracy.
Makes you wonder what else he’s shown on that series that’s not entirely real.
Today, Sunday, is the 154th anniversary of Lincoln’s Proclamation 81: Declaring a Blockade of Ports in Rebellious States. As I discuss in the blockade book, this event was one of a series of actions and reactions that expanded the conflict between the national government in Washington and that of the seceded southern states. The blockade order was, most directly, a response to Jefferson Davis’ call on April 17 for privateers to obtain Confederate letters of marque to attack U.S. shipping. Privateering was well understood among Western nations as a war act, and in fact it had been outlawed by the major European powers by the 1856 Paris Declaration, declared the practice to be illegal and amounting to piracy. The United States had not signed that treaty, but nonetheless observed its provisions on privateering and did not issue letters of marque.
One thing I found odd, though, was that Proclamation 81, while given by order of the president, was actually signed by William Seward, the Secretary of State, who had been the administration’s point man on discussing the possibility of a blockade with the European powers. Where is Lincoln’s directive in this?
Then last week Josh Marshall, publisher of Talking Points Memo, did a blog post on the exponential rise in the price of historic documents, along with a discussion of the value of the documents themselves, versus the information contained in them. Among the examples he found online was, sure enough, Lincoln’s written order to Seward to promulgate the blockade decree (above).
It’s interesting to see the real document, which Josh says “is basically the document you could argue began the Civil War.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s a notable piece nonetheless, and apparently for sale somewhere with an asking price of $900,000. Not in my budget this month, I’m afraid, but interesting nonetheless.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kK0iUqGg5c The Corps of Engineers has been recovering the remains of the ironclad battery C.S.S. Georgia at Savannah over the last few months. It’s a big project, and one that hopes to answer a lot of questions about this vessel, that is relatively little-known. One particular focus of historical research, going on in parallel with the fieldwork, is trying to locate the original copy of an image of the vessel that was first reported thirty-some years ago. Although there are contemporary drawings of C.S.S. Georgia, the only known photograph of the ship is a photo-of-a-photo, supposedly snapped at a local garage sale. Now, it appears, it was all a teenage hoax that got out of hand:
When he was a teenager in Savannah, [John] Potter, his brother Jeffrey and a friend shot a short 8mm movie about the CSS Georgia. They built a 2-foot model.
At some point, Potter decided to test whether he had the skills to become a Hollywood special effects artist.
Potter’s younger brother put on a coat and straw hat and went out to a marsh with a cane fishing pole and Potter took a photo. He took another photo of the model. He glued the boat’s image onto the photo of his brother, then used dirt and glue to “age” the photo.
If you compare the purported historic image of the ship with what Potter says is a photo of the model he and his brother made, they do look very much alike:
On Thursday evening I had the privilege of speaking at Stringfellow Orchards in Hitchcock, on the early life and Civil War military service of Henry Stringfellow. It’s a story that I don’t think has been told before in any detail, and it was made better by the fact that I got to tell it on Stringfellow’s front porch — literally. The site’s current owner, or steward, as he sometimes refers to himself, is Sam Collins III, who has taken a great interest Hitchcock’s history and the central place Stringfellow’s Orchard had in its early development.
Stringfellow is an interesting character, as you will see. He was born into a prominent family of Virginia clergymen, and was himself well along that career path himself when the war came. Within eighteen months of enlisting in the local artillery battery, the Hanover Artillery, Stringfellow was commissioned a lieutenant and assigned to the staff of John Bankhead Magruder’s new command in Texas. It was a move that changed the entire course of his life. After seeing action in the Battle of Galveston on New Year’s Day 1863, Stringfellow married a Texas girl, Alice Johnston, from Seguin. Henry and Alice decided to make their postwar homes in Texas, where Henry soon found himself wrapped up in horticulture. Stringfellow proved to be both a successful and unconventional grower, attracting much acclaim in the last decades of the 19th century. Stringfellow was almost as unconventional with people as he was with plants; he reportedly earned the enmity of other growers in the area by paying his African American orchard workers a dollar a day, when the local custom was to pay fifty cents. That’s not necessarily what one might expect from a man whose grand-uncle wrote one of the most widely-circulated tracts asserting the Christian righteousness of chattel bondage of the antebellum period.
But, I’m get ahead of the story. Sam will be giving a presentation on Stringfellow’s later life at the orchard on April 23. For now, here’s my profile of Henry Martyn Stringfellow.
This coming Thursday marks the 150th anniversary of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. That evening at 6 p.m. I’ll be speaking at the Stringfellow Orchards, 7902 Highway 6 in Hitchcock, on the early life and wartime career of Henry Martyn Stringfellow (right, c. 1896).
Stringfellow is remembered today as one of the pioneer settlers of mainland Galveston County, a successful grower who introduced new products and growing techniques in the late 19th century. But he originally came to Texas in the fall of 1862 with John Bankhead Magruder, and served most of the war here as a staff ordnance officer. He served in the Battle of Galveston, where he took command of a battery after its original officer had been struck down, and was later cited by Magruder for his “remarkable gallantry during the engagement.” Stringfellow was the son of one of Virginia’s most prominent clergymen of the time, and a member of a well-connected family in the Commonwealth. It’s an interesting and unusual story, one that I’m excited to be able to tell.
Then, on Saturday, I’ll be speaking at the annual meeting of the Texas Map Society here at Rosenberg in Galveston. My presentation there is, “Treacherous Shoals: The U.S. Coast Survey and the Civil War in the Gulf of Mexico”:
In setting out to blockade the Confederate Gulf coast in 1861, the Federal navy found itself desperately short of the ships and men needed to accomplish the task. The one weapon they did have was two decades’ worth of chartmaking done by the U.S. Coast Survey, which formed the foundation of blockade strategy in the Gulf. Over the next four years, naval officers on both sides of the conflict would use their prewar experience with the Coast Survey to try and gain the upper hand in the blockade and other major naval operations in the Gulf of Mexico.
This should be fun.
On Tuesday, April 7,
The History Channel will premier Blood and Glory: The Civil War in Color, featuring over 500 original, black-and-white images that have been colorized. Among the digital artists who did this work are Mads Madsen and the folks over at Civil War in Color. The History Channel is not especially known these days for in-depth historical analysis, but this particular show was created with the input of Garry Adelman of the Center for Civil War Photography and photgrapher/collector Jack Melton, which is a good sign.
Update: Will Hickox points out that the show website also highlights the participation of “Civil War historians Richard Dreyfuss and Ben Stein.” Ugh.
A sketch of the runner Fox, made at Bermuda. St. Georges Museum, Bermuda, via U.S. Navy.
One of the more dramatic incidents in the blockade of the Texas coast occurred 150 years ago this morning:
The British paddle steamer Fox was one the several purpose-built blockade runners that appeared in the Gulf during the last months of the war. Built of steel, she was long and lean, measuring 219 feet between perpendiculars (about 230 feet overall), with a beam of just 22 feet. Fox was a very successful blockade runner, having made eight round voyages between Nassau and Charleston before entering the Gulf of Mexico and running into Galveston. Fox’s master was Simpson Adkins, an experienced pilot on the Carolina coast. Adkins was an old hand at running the blockade and well known to the Federal navy. He was captured at least twice and both times returned to his old calling upon release. After his second capture, a Federal officer described Adkins as an “old offender” and “one of the most expert pilots on the Southern coast.” The officer warned his colleagues to watch Adkins carefully, but it did no good—by 1865, he was back running the blockade again, this time to Galveston.
Before dawn on April 1, Fox was moving along under easy steam, some eighty miles offshore, probably looking to make landfall north of Galveston and wait until nightfall to run past the Union fleet. The growing light in the east, though, revealed the silhouette of a Federal gunboat patrolling the distant approaches to the coast. A column of black smoke soon appeared over the gunboat, USS Preston, at that point lying about eight miles astern of Fox, as the Yankees poured on coal to give chase. Adkins and his pilot, a “quiet, self-possessed and fearless” Galveston man named Harry Wachsen, recognized they had little chance getting to seaward without being cut off by their pursuer, so they set their course west toward a point on the Bolivar Peninsula some miles north of Galveston, where they hoped they could stay out of sight of the main Union fleet.
Both ships were now pounding toward shore as fast as they could, across a wide expanse of Gulf, still well beyond sight of land. Fox was carrying in her holds lead, iron implements, barrels of beef and other very heavy articles; Adkins had the hatches opened and these things dropped overboard to lighten the ship.
On and on the ships raced until the shore was in plain sight ahead of Fox. Aboard the blockaders anchored off Galveston, it was yet a routine Saturday morning, with crews at work scrubbing the decks, touching up paintwork and polishing brass. At about 10:00 a.m., on USS Seminole, Marine sergeant John Freeman Mackie heard a lookout at the masthead cry, “Sail ho!” Signals were passed to the squadron flagship, Ossipee, and soon a second vessel was spotted, this one “a long low steamer about eight miles to the eastward, burning black smoke, steaming rapidly to the northward and westward.” The squadron commander, Captain John Guest, ordered Seminole to intercept this second ship, which later proved to be Adkins’s Fox.
Aboard the runner, Adkins and Wachsen spotted the Union ships at about the same time and altered course to starboard. They were now headed full speed at a right angle toward the beach. Seminole was closing, though, so Adkins altered his course again, to almost due north, and set out a pair of small sails to add a little extra speed. Captain Albert G. Clary of Seminole was ready for this maneuver and shouted orders to set the ship’s fore and main topsails, along with jibs and staysails. “In a minute,” Mackie later recalled, “the Seminole was staggering under a cloud of canvas, trimmed well aft—every rope drawing as tight as a fiddle string—causing the sea to boil like soapsuds under our bows as we fairly flew through the water.”
Sergeant Mackie, by the way, was the first Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor, for his service aboard USS Galena at Drewrey’s Bluff in 1862. To see how this Fox chase ended, check out the blockade-running book. I think you’ll enjoy it.
Added: I missed it back in the day, but last summer Craig Swain had a great post about Fox running into Charleston.