A postwar image of part of Wilson’s Creek Battlefield, believed to be the cornfield behind the Ray family springhouse. Image via Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield; WICR 31376.
Like probably a lot of people, I was surprised by the scene in Lincoln where Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s modiste and confidante, says to the president, “as for me: my son died, fighting for the Union, wearing the Union blue. For freedom he died. I’m his mother. That’s what I am to the nation, Mr. Lincoln. What else must I be?”
I was unaware that Keckley’s son had died as a Union soldier, but it’s true — at Wilson’s Creek, in 1861. Over at The Sable Arm, Jimmy Price has the details.
Contrary to claims often made, when it formally took effect on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation immediately freed thousands of enslaved persons across areas of the South then occupied by Federal forces. As Eric Foner outlined in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, one of the most important of these was in the Sea Islands along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, territories that were still nominally in rebellion but had taken by Federal forces early in the war, to use as a staging position for further campaigns up and down the coast. And in the Sea Islands, there was probably no bigger celebration than at Port Royal, South Carolina, where a formal ceremony was held by, and for, the first black regiment in the Union Army, the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (later re-designated the 33rd USCT). The event was so dramatic that it forms the opening scene of Stephen Ash’s history of the 1st and 2nd South Carolina, Firebrand of Liberty.
Today, on the sesquicentennial of that event, we have three first-hand accounts of that celebration — one from an African American woman, an escaped slave, employed by the regiment as a laundress; a white abolitionist woman from New England, who had come to the Sea Islands to do volunteer work with the Freedmen and -women there; and the white officer commanding the 1st South Carolina.
Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) confers with (l.) U.S. Representative James Ashley (David Costabile) and Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) on strategy for passing the 13th Amendment.
I went to see Lincoln again on Thursday afternoon. It’s been playing here almost a month, but the matinee showing I attended Thursday was about as full as the first time I went, soon after it opened — only a few, scattered empty seats. It seems to be doing well, and it deserves to. The first time around I missed the opening scene, with the soldiers reciting the Gettysburg Address, that so many reviewers found clumsy and heavy-handed, and was ready to be turned off by it. In fact, I think it “works,” at least from the perspective of the average, non-history-nerd movie-goer, because it captures the moral core of what the Civil War had become for many in the North by the last few months of the war, and effectively frames the main narrative of Spielberg’s film.
One reason I wanted to go back was because I wanted to revisit some of the dialogue that seemed particularly sharp. One of these scenes appears relatively early in the movie, when Lincoln explains to his cabinet why he’s chosen to fight for the 13th Amendment now, during a lame-duck session of the House of Representatives whose members had previously voted it down, instead of waiting until the fall and beginning of a new Congress, when an expanded Republican majority in the House should be able to pass it easily. The time is now, Lincoln argues, because the war will soon be over, and with it his expanded authority as commander-in-chief. In this discussion, Lincoln acknowledges that Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime measure — a “military exigent,” his Attorney General calls it, and “slippery” according to Lincoln himself — that would be uncertain to survive review by the civilian courts once the wartime necessity of it had passed. He also acknowledges that as a result of the war — a far more desperate and prolonged conflict than any previous since the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789 — no one really knew what the limits of executive power were in wartime, and (as with the legality of secession itself) those things were even then being sorted out. That’s why, Lincoln felt, the Thirteenth Amendment had to be passed and sent to the states for ratification immediately, to make permanent the provisions the Emancipation Proclamation had made temporarily, by force of arms.
Tony Kushner’s script brings all this out in that scene with Lincoln and his cabinet, where in a bit of expository dialogue, the 16th President lays out the legal and political terrain of emancipation. The discussion here is between Lincoln and John Palmer Usher, his Secretary of the Interior, and James Speed, his new Attorney General.
JOHN USHER Then why, if I may ask are we not concentrating the nation’s attention on Wilmington? Why, instead, are we reading in the Herald that the anti-slavery amendment is being precipitated onto the House floor for debate – because your eagerness, in what seems an unwarranted intrusion of the Executive into Legislative prerogatives, is compelling it to it’s… to what’s likely to be its premature demise? You signed the Emancipation Proclamation, you’ve done all that can be expected – JAMES SPEED The Emancipation Proclamation’s merely a war measure. After the war the courts’ll make a meal of it. JOHN USHER When Edward Bates was Attorney General, he felt confident in it enough to allow you to sign. . . JAMES SPEED Different lawyers, different opinions. It frees slaves as a military exigent, not in any other – LINCOLN I don’t recall Bates being any too certain about the legality of my Proclamation, just it wasn’t downright criminal. Somewhere’s in between. Back when I rode the legal circuit in Illinois I defended a woman from Metamora named Melissa Goings, 77 years old, they said she murdered her husband; he was 83. He was choking her; and, uh, she grabbed ahold of a stick of fire-wood and fractured his skull, ‘n he died. In his will he wrote “I expect she has killed me. If I get over it, I will have revenge.” No one was keen to see her convicted, he was that kind of husband. I asked the prosecuting attorney if I might have a short conference with my client. And she and I went into a room in the courthouse, but I alone emerged. The window in the room was found to be wide open. It was believed the old lady may have climbed out of it. I told the bailiff right before I left her in the room she asked me where she could get a good drink of water, and I told her Tennessee. Mrs. Goings was seen no more in Metamora. Enough justice had been done; they even forgave the bondsman her bail. JOHN USHER I’m afraid I don’t – LINCOLN I decided that the Constitution gives me war powers, but no one knows just exactly what those powers are. Some say they don’t exist. I don’t know. I decided I needed them to exist to uphold my oath to protect the Constitution, which I decided meant that I could take the rebels’ slaves from ‘em as property confiscated in war. That might recommend to suspicion that I agree with the rebs that their slaves are property in the first place. Of course I don’t, never have, I’m glad to see any man free, and if calling a man property, or war contraband, does the trick… Why I caught at the opportunity. Now here’s where it gets truly slippery. I use the law allowing for the seizure of property in a war knowing it applies only to the property of governments and citizens of belligerent nations. But the South ain’t a nation, that’s why I can’t negotiate with ’em. So if in fact the Negroes are property according to law, have I the right to take the rebels’ property from ‘em, if I insist they’re rebels only, and not citizens of a belligerent country? And slipperier still: I maintain it ain’t our actual Southern states in rebellion, but only the rebels living in those states, the laws of which states remain in force. The laws of which states remain in force. That means, that since it’s states’ laws that determine whether Negroes can be sold as slaves, as property – the Federal government doesn’t have a say in that, least not yet, then Negroes in those states are slaves, hence property, hence my war powers allow me to confiscate ‘em as such. So I confiscated ‘em. But if I’m a respecter of states’ laws, how then can I legally free ‘em with my Proclamation, as I done, unless I’m cancelling states’ laws? I felt the war demanded it; my oath demanded it; I felt right with myself; and I hoped it was legal to do it, I’m hoping still. Two years ago I proclaimed these people emancipated – “then, thenceforward and forever free.” But let’s say the courts decide I had no authority to do it. They might well decide that. Say there’s no amendment abolishing slavery. Say it’s after the war, and I can no longer use my war powers to just ignore the courts’ decisions, like I sometimes felt I had to do. Might those people I freed be ordered back into slavery? That’s why I’d like to get the Thirteenth Amendment through the House, and on its way to ratification by the states, wrap the whole slavery thing up, forever and aye. As soon as I’m able. Now. End of this month. And I’d like you to stand behind me. Like my cabinet’s most always done. As the preacher said, I could write shorter sermons but once I start I get too lazy to stop. JOHN USHER It seems to me, sir, you’re describing precisely the sort of dictator the Democrats have been howling about. JAMES SPEED Dictators aren’t susceptible to law. JOHN USHER Neither is he! He just said as much! Ignoring the courts? Twisting meanings? What reins him in from, from. . . . LINCOLN Well, the people do that, I suppose. I signed the Emancipation Proclamation a year and half before my second election. I felt I was within my power to do it; however I also felt that I might be wrong about that; I knew the people would tell me. I gave ‘em a year and half to think about it. And they reelected me. And come February the first, I intend to sign the Thirteenth Amendment.
I wish Tony Kushner would spend some time writing K-12 lesson plans. Not many young people, it seems to me, have any concept of the complexity of this stuff, and it seems like it mostly doesn’t get covered very well. That’s all our loss.
Ron Wilson applauds during the opening ceremonies of the Sons of Confederate Veterans conference on July 22, 2010, at the Civic Center of Anderson, South Carolina. At this point, Wilson was almost a decade into his $57M ponzi scheme. Image via IndependentMail.com.
A couple of weeks ago Ron Wilson, former National Commander-in-Chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, was sentenced to more than 19 years in the federal penitentiary for running a $57 million ponzi scheme. The sentence of 235 months was at the top of a range recommended by a pre-sentencing report filed with the court.
This story hasn’t made many national headlines, but it should rightly shake the Confederate Heritage™ movement to its foundations. Ron Wilson was one of the hard-liners that came to prominence within the SCV in the early 2000s, bent on a more aggressive, politically-engaged course for the group, which echoes right down to the present. In fact, Wilson led the charge and , once in office, ruled with an iron fist, purging moderate members and even entire camps from the organization. The ascension of Wilson and like-minded partisans led to a split within the organization and the founding of a separate group called Save the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Ponzi schemes invariably rely on personal relationships, shared interests and trust to be successful. That was true of Bernie Madoff, it was true of R. Allen Stanford, and it was true of Ron Wilson. In Wilson’s case, a big part of his personal connections were through Confederate heritage groups. Wilson was so wrapped up in Civil War heritage issues that he made it part of his sale pitch to separate people from their life savings:
[Former South Carolina State Representative Dan] Cooper never invested with Wilson. “I never had any money to invest,” he said. Cooper attended a meeting in Greenville in 1992 at which Wilson pitched people on investing in silver. The pitch changed little in the 20 years between then and Wilson’s last meeting in March, before state officials made public their accusations that his business was a fraud. “He talked about how the value of the dollar was unpredictable, not backed by gold,” Cooper said. Recent investors say they often heard Wilson describe how a $20 gold piece bought a fine suit in the 1860s, just as it would today despite the increase in price of the suit, because of the increase in the value of precious metals.
Wilson made money, too, through the sales of books, including some particularly rancid titles. But he didn’t just sell them; he endorsed them, too:
One controversial book was “Barbarians Inside the Gate” by a discredited 1960s Defense Department official. The book is rife with anti-Semitic language and quotes frequently from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which claims to expose a Jewish plot to take over the world. Wilson promoted the book by saying on his website: “The author reveals concealed codes and goals that might be extracted from the Protocols of Zion. I thought long and hard about handling this book. I will not back away from the truth in this book. You MUST READ THIS BOOK for yourself.”
Wilson was a major player in local politics in Anderson County, and donated heavily to other candidates. He didn’t seem too concerned about the particulars of the laws concerning such contributions, so long as he backed a winner:
After the March 31 election, Putnam won a runoff against Hamp Johnson. “Ron was always the kind of guy who gave money to whomever looked like was going to win,” Putnam said. “He came to me. I never met with Ron. He wanted to give $1,000 of his personal money.” For the runoff, Putnam said Wilson offered $4,000. “In election laws, you can only give up to $1,000 per individual,” Putnam said. “We turned that down because we didn’t want to take that much money from one person.” Records with the South Carolina Ethics Commission show that several Anderson County politicians received donations from Ron Wilson as well as businesses he owns. These businesses — Atlantic Bullion & Coin in Easley and International Commerce Corp. in Greenville — both list Ron G. Wilson as the registered agent, according to South Carolina Secretary of State records.
Even so, some South Carolina Republicans couldn’t stand him, one blogger referring to Wilson as being “more fascist than Republican.” (Be sure to check out the comments for threats to the blogger posted by Wilson’s supporters — classy folks.) Wilson remained prominent in local Confederate heritage circles, andapparently hawked his dubious investments among his butternut friends. Wilson has a history of skeevy business dealings dating back to his tenure as a local elected official, some of which involved steering favors to his SCV buddies. As far back as 1996, Wilson had been given a cease-and-desist order by the State of South Carolina to stop dealing in securities. But that order was not made public, so Wilson simply ignored it. He continued operating his precious metals business, albeit more quietly than before. He slipped under the radar of state regulators and the SEC for the next fifteen years.
Over the last decade, Wilson seems to have been particularly close to the odious Kirk Lyons and his Southern Legal Resource Center. Wilson and Lyons organized a big Confederate flag rally in South Carolina in 2000, and not long afterward Wilson was added to the board of Lyons’ SLRC. Wilson helped Lyons get elected to the SCV board in August 2000, and the next year Lyons hired Wilson’s daughter to work as a case manager at the SLRC. Even after his tenure as Commander-in-Chief, Wilson continued to hold senior positions in the group, including as “Director of Field Operations.” In 2008 he shared the dais with current SCV C-in-C Michael Givens, where they were both received the organization’s Commander-in-Chief ‘s Award (PDF).
Of course, Confederate activist/performance artist/beard H. K. Edgerton (right, with Wilson’s grandkids in 2004, via Lyons’ SLRC website), thinks Wilson is just a fantastic guy. When Wilson was appointed to the South Carolina Board of Education a few years ago and critics pointed out his ties to groups like the the Council of Conservative Citizens and the white nationalist League of the South, Edgerton jumped his defense, saying that “black students and parents do not have a better friend in South Carolina that Rob [sic.] G. Wilson.“
Of course, Edgerton has problems of his own when it comes to misrepresenting his business, so maybe his endorsement of Wilson is not so surprising after all.
Investigators found that Wilson’s ponzi scheme began in 2001, the year before he took over the leadership of the SCV; his criminal activity was concurrent with his tenure in that position. And he hurt a lot of people:
Dressed in a suit and tie, [Wilson] walked into the courtroom just before the sentencing hearing. He walked quietly past investors who filled many of the 18 wooden benches and who arrived more than a half hour before the court proceeding. They trickled in one or two at a time, many older and walking slowly. One wore a baseball-style hat that said “Korea Veteran.” Seven investors testified about devastating financial losses that stripped retirement and savings accounts and left them struggling to pay bills. Some said they were trying to go back to work in their 70s. “My future is dimmer than it was,” Roslyn Stoddard told Childs. Jeffrey Cavender, 59, said he convinced his 86-year-old mother to invest with Wilson. He lost his retirement savings and felt “complete emptiness” when Wilson’s business was raided by federal officials, Cavender said. He urged the judge to “put Mr. Wilson away for good.” John Brittain, 76, said more than money was involved for investors. “He stole their hopes. He stole their dreams,” Brittain said of Wilson.
Some people will undoubtedly claim that I’m unfairly criticizing folks like the SCV, Lyons, Edgerton, et al. by simple association. That would be true if (1) Wilson’s bad acts were limited and clearly an aberration from the norm, or (2) the others’ connections to Wilson were limited and superficial. Neither of those things are true.
Wilson’s brother has been quoted as saying that Ron Wilson made a “terrible mistake.” It was terrible, all right, but it wasn’t a mistake. Shoplifting a CD from a store is a mistake. Speeding when you don’t think you’ll get caught is a mistake. Getting so angry that you momentarily lose your composure and clock somebody, that’s a mistake. Cooking the books for ten years is not a mistake. Lying over and over and over to your investors for over a decade is not a mistake. Using the proceeds from your ponzi scheme to build an elegant, private compound out in the country is not a mistake. Wilson’s actions over more than a decade don’t reveal a character flaw, so much as they reveal his actual character.
The folks I’ve mentioned here are not causal acquaintances of Ron Wilson. Up until last March, when the investigation to Wilson became public, these folks were quite happy to be associated with Wilson. They embraced him publicly, personally and professionally. They did favors for him, and got favors in return. This was all concurrent with Wilson running his Ponzi scheme, as well. Until last March, when news of the investigation broke, they were happy — eager, even — to be publicly identified with Wilson.
Since then, of course, not so much. As far as I can tell, none of these folks have said anything about this publicly, and it’s not been mentioned on any of the Southron Heritage™ online discussion boards or forums I’ve seen. That’s unfortunate, because they’ve had eight months now to reflect on their close personal and professional relationships with this crook. The Southron Heritage movement used Wilson to further its goals, and it’s clear that he actively used his own prominence with the SCV and elsewhere to draw in his victims. The Southron Heritage movement was an unwitting accomplice in Wilson’s crime, and now should be doing some serious soul-searching to figure out how such a fraud rose to the pinnacle of their movement.
They won’t, of course, because they’re not interested in rooting out reprehensible characters like Wilson in the their movement. Indeed, they embrace them, and give them prestigious awards (PDF). Sure, they’ll scream bloody murder about black Confederate “deniers,” and supposedly Marxist professors, and fluff each other into a resentful outrage because someone, somewhere, sometime, torched a paper flag, but when crooks
in their own ranks leading their organization like Ron Wilson are found out by others, the noble Defenders of Southron Honour™ remain as silent as the grave.
Wilson plead guilty back in July, so barring some unexpected development, there will be no appeal. Wilson can look forward to to getting out of jail sometime in 2029 or thereabouts, when he will be around 82 years old. He’ll still owe restitution then, of course, so maybe he’ll get a greeter job at the Walmart Supercenter there in Easley. No doubt some of his very elderly former investors will be his co-workers there. I’m sure they’ll have lots to talk about.___________
John Bell Hood is one of the most controversial Confederate generals of the war, particularly for his performance after losing a leg at Chickamauga. The disastrous Confederate losses by Hood’s Army of the Tennessee at the Battle of Franklin, at the end of November 1864, and its defeat at Nashville two weeks later, effectively destroyed it as a fighting force in the West. Much of the blame for this is usually laid squarely at the feet — er, foot — of John Bell Hood.
Now, via Kraig McNutt and the Battle of Franklin Blog, the discovery of a large collection of Hood documents, previously unknown to historians, promises to open up new insights into the general’s record and provide answers to long-standing questions.
The Battle of Franklin Trust Chief Operating Officer Eric A. Jacobson announced today at Carnton Plantation the discovery of several hundred documents, letter and orders of Confederate General John Bell Hood. While conducting research for an upcoming book on the general, West Virginia’s Sam Hood, a collateral descendent and student of the career of Hood, was invited to inspect a collection of the general’s papers, held by a descendent in Pennsylvania. In making the announcement, Sam Hood said, “I felt like the guy who found the Titanic, except for the fact everyone knew the Titanic was out there somewhere, while I had no clue that some of the stuff I found even existed.” Sam Hood added, “General Hood is certainly no stranger to controversy. During his colorful military career and with historians ever since, he has remained a controversial and tragic figure of the Civil War. Long noted for the loss of Atlanta and what some consider reckless behavior at the November 30, 1864 Battle of Franklin after a lost opportunity for possible victory at Spring Hill, he has often been the subject of ridicule and blame for the demise of the Confederacy in the West. Eric Jacobson, who has viewed a portion of the collection said, “This is one of the most significant Civil War discoveries in recent history. These documents also tell us as much by what they don’t say. One major example is the discovery of Hood’s medical journal, kept by his doctor, John T. Darby, during the war. There is no mention of the use of painkillers or laudanum by Hood at Spring Hill or any other time. Hood was much more multifaceted than how he has been portrayed by some as a simple minded and poorly equipped commander.” Jacobson has been one of only a few contemporary Army of Tennessee historians to give Hood the benefit of fatigue, fog of war and failures of subordinates as part of the breakdown of the Army of Tennessee in late 1864. Some of the items found include recommendations for promotion, handwritten by Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet. Also uncovered was wartime correspondence between Hood and General R. E. Lee, Braxton Bragg, Louis T. Wigfall, and other senior commanders as well as his four general officer commission papers with signatures. Roughly seventy post-war letters from other Civil War notables were also discovered, mostly concerning the controversy with Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and used to compose Hood’s memoir Advance & Retreat. Hood added, “This is just the tip of the iceberg on the expansive collection.” “I spent three days photocopying and inventorying,” added Hood. “I held in my hands documents signed by Jefferson Davis, Longstreet, Jackson and Lee.”
Seems to me that if Sam Hood, the general’s descendant who’s writing a biography of his ancestor, is smart he’ll start taking pre-orders for that book of his right now.
While doing some research on another topic recently I came across a reference to this item from the Richmond, Virginia Examiner of January 13, 1864. In the third winter of the war, things were looking dim for the Confederacy — though not nearly as dim as they would eventually be — and there were already suggestions that African Americans be enlisted as soldiers in the Confederate army. In this piece, an anonymous “officer of distinction” in Confederate service rejects that idea, and instead argues that more extensive use of black laborers would “restore to duty in the field forty thousand white men.”
EMPLOYMENT OF NEGROES IN THE ARMY. — An officer of distinction in the Confederate army writes as follows: The subject of placing negroes [sic.] in the army is attracting some attention. The following memoranda shows approximately how many may be of use without putting guns in their hands. Premising that we have in the field one hundred brigades, allow for each as: Engineer laborers……………………….50……….5,000
Hospital nurses and cooks & c………40………4,000
Shoemakers…………………………………20………2,000 Total…………………………………………………….20,700 [sic., 20,900] To which may be added for the various mechanical departments under the control of the Government, as labourers, & c………………………………………….10,000 And as labourers on fixed fortifications…….20,000 Making a total of……………………………………..50,700 [50,900] The employment of this number would restore to duty in the field forty thousand white men.
There are three things that are worth noting about this piece.
First, the writer is explicitly opposed to the idea of African Americans serving under arms. He makes no distinction between enslaved persons and free men of color — neither, in his view, is appropriate for service in the ranks as soldiers. Indeed, the writer’s stated intent is to show how these men may be used “without putting guns in their hands.”
Second, the author makes no mention whatever of personal servants to white soldiers, who even then must have numbered in the thousands. This is relevant, because this group includes a majority of individuals hailed as “black Confederates” today. This suggests that this “officer of distinction” in Confederate army did not view those servants as being part of the national government’s greater military effort, which indeed they are not — personal servants are personal servants, period, full stop.
Third, the citation to this news item was found in some handwritten notes from decades ago, taken from a thesis written decades before that. But the notes, and likely the thesis from which they’re taken, record it as a summary of “Negroes in employed in the Army (by the 100 brigades then in the field).” But that’s wrong; this is not a report of current status, but a prospective look at what might be done in the future. (The note-taker almost certainly did not have access to the original newspaper.) This underscores how easy it is to misconstrue an original source, which original error gets repeated by those who follow. It would be interesting to know if other secondary works report these numbers as an actual accounting, rather than a projection based on a proposed policy.
Above all, the author gives no recognition of the modern assertion that there were large numbers of African American men in the ranks, considered soldiers under arms. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: real Confederates didn’t know about black Confederates.
Update: In the comments, Rob Baker makes a very important point — this newspaper item comes just days after Patrick Cleburne’s now-famous proposal that the Confederacy embrace emancipation and enlist large numbers of black troops. While no public acknowledgement was made of Cleburne’s proposal at the time, it seems possible that rumors of it were circulating in Richmond. Could this short piece, penned by an anonymous “officer of distinction,” be part of the Confederate government’s effort to quash the idea?
While doing research on something else, I came across a couple of accounts of the aftermath of the Confederate assault on Fort Pillow, written by naval officers of U.S.S Silver Cloud (above), the Union “tinclad” gunboat that was the first on the scene. I don’t recall encountering these descriptions before, and they really do strike a nerve with their raw descriptions of what these men witnessed, at first hand.
These accounts are particularly important because historians are always looking for “proximity” in historical accounts of major events. The description of an event by someone who was physically present is to be more valued than one by someone who simply heard about it from another person. The narrative committed to paper immediately is, generally, more to be valued than one written months or years after the events described, when memories have started to fade or become shaded by others’ differing recollections. Hopefully, too, the historian can find those things in a description of the event by someone who doesn’t have any particular axe to grind, who’s writing for his own purposes without the intention that his account will be widely and publicly known. These are all factors — somewhat subjective, to be sure — that the historian considers when deciding what historical accounts to rely on when trying to reconstruct historical events, and to understand how one or another document fits within the context of all the rest.
Which brings us back to the eyewitness accounts of Acting Master William Ferguson, commanding officer of U.S.S. Silver Cloud, and Acting Master’s Mate Robert S. Critchell of that same vessel.
Ferguson’s report was written April 14, 1864, the day after he was at the site. It was addressed to Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, commanding officer of the Union’s XVI Corps of the Army of the Tennessee, then headquartered at Memphis. It appears in the Army OR, vol. 57, and the Navy OR, vol. 26.
U.S. STEAMER SILVER CLOUD,
Off Memphis, Tenn., April 14, 1864. SIR: In compliance with your request that I would forward to you a written statement of what I witnessed and learned concerning the treatment of our troops by the rebels at the capture of Fort Pillow by their forces under General Forrest, I have the honor to submit the following report: Our garrison at Fort Pillow, consisting of some 350 colored troops and 200 of the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry, refusing to surrender, the place was carried by assault about 3 p.m. of 12th instant. I arrived off the fort at 6 a.m. on the morning of the 13th instant. Parties of rebel cavalry were picketing on the hills around the fort, and shelling those away I made a landing and took on-board some 20 of our troops (some of them badly wounded), who had concealed themselves along the bank and came out when they saw my vessel. While doing so I was fired upon by rebel sharpshooters posted on the hills, and 1 wounded man limping down to the vessel was shot. About 8 a.m. the enemy sent in a flag of truce with a proposal from General Forrest that he would put me in possession of the fort and the country around until 5 p.m. for the purpose of burying our dead and removing our wounded, whom he had no means of attending to. I agreed to the terms proposed, and hailing the steamer Platte Valley, which vessel I had convoyed up from Memphis, I brought her alongside and had the wounded brought down from the fort and battle-field and placed on board of her. Details of rebel soldiers assisted us in this duty, and some soldiers and citizens on board the Platte Valley volunteered for the same purpose. We found about 70 wounded men in the fort and around it, and buried, I should think, 150 bodies. All the buildings around the fort and the tents and huts in the fort had been burned by the rebels, and among the embers the charred remains of numbers of our soldiers who had suffered a terrible death in the flames could be seen. All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy with a furious and vindictive savageness which was never equaled by the most merciless of the Indian tribes. Around on every side horrible testimony to the truth of this statement could be seen. Bodies with gaping wounds, some bayoneted through the eyes, some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that but little quarter was shown to our troops. Strewn from the fort to the river bank, in the ravines and hollows, behind logs and under the brush where they had crept for protection from the assassins who pursued them, we found bodies bayoneted, beaten, and shot to death, showing how cold-blooded and persistent was the slaughter of our unfortunate troops. Of course, when a work is carried by assault there will always be more or less bloodshed, even when all resistance has ceased; but here there were unmistakable evidences of a massacre carried on long after any resistance could have been offered, with a cold-blooded barbarity and perseverance which nothing can palliate. As near as I can learn, there were about 500 men in the fort when it was stormed. I received about 100 men, including the wounded and those I took on board before the flag of truce was sent in. The rebels, I learned, had few prisoners; so that at least 300 of our troops must have been killed in this affair. I have the honor to forward a list(*) of the wounded officers and men received from the enemy under flag of truce. I am, general, your obedient servant, W. FERGUSON,
Acting Master, U.S. Navy, Comdg. U.S. Steamer Silver Cloud.
Ferguson’s report is valuable because it is detailed, proximate in time to the event, and was written specifically for reference within the military chain of command. It seems likely that Ferguson’s description is the first written description of the aftermath of the engagement within the Federal’s command structure. Certainly it was written before news of Fort Pillow became widely known across the country, and the event became a rallying cry for retribution and revenge. Ferguson’s account was, I believe, ultimately included in the evidence published by the subsequent congressional investigation of the incident, but he had no way of anticipating that when he sat down to write out his report just 24 hours after witnessing such horrors.
The second account is that of Acting Master’s Mate Robert S. Critchell (right), a 20-year-old junior officer aboard the gunboat. Critchell’s letter, addressed to U.S. Rep. Henry T. Blow of Missouri, was written a week after Ferguson’s report, after the enormity of events at the fort had begun to take hold. If Ferguson’s report reflected the shock of what he’d seen, Critchell’s gives voice to a growing anger about it. Critchell’s revulsion comes through in this letter, along with his disdain for the explanations of the brutality offered by the Confederate officers he’d met, that they’d simply lost control of their men, which the Union naval officer calls “a flimsy excuse.” Crittchell admits to being “personally interested in the retaliation which our government may deal out to the rebels,” but also stands by the accuracy of his description, offering to swear out an affidavit attesting to it.
UNITED STATES STEAMER “SILVER CLOUD.” Mississippi River, April 22nd, 1864. SIR :-Since you did me the favor of recommending my appointment last year, I have been on duty aboard this boat. I now write you with reference to the Fort Pillow massacre, because some of our crew are colored and I feel personally interested in the retaliation which our government may deal out to the rebels, when the fact of the merciless butchery is fully established. Our boat arrived at the fort about 7½ A. M. on Wednesday, the 13th, the day after the rebels captured the fort. After shelling them, whenever we could see them, for two hours, a flag of truce from the rebel General Chalmers, was received by us, and Captain Ferguson of this boat, made an arrangement with General Chalmers for the paroling of our wounded and the burial of our dead; the arrangement to last until 5 P. M. We then landed at the fort, and I was sent out with a burial party to bury our dead. I found many of the dead lying close along by the water’s edge, where they had evidently sought safety; they could not offer any resistance from the places where they were, in holes and cavities along the banks; most of them had two wounds. I saw several colored soldiers of the Sixth United States Artillery, with their eyes punched out with bayonets; many of them were shot twice and bayonetted also. All those along the bank of the river were colored. The number of the colored near the river was about seventy. Going up into the fort, I saw there bodies partially consumed by fire. Whether burned before or after death I cannot say, anyway, there were several companies of rebels in the fort while these bodies were burning, and they could have pulled them out of the fire had they chosen to do so. One of the wounded negroes told me that “he hadn’t done a thing,” and when the rebels drove our men out of the fort, they (our men) threw away their guns and cried out that they surrendered, but they kept on shooting them down until they had shot all but a few. This is what they all say. I had some conversation with rebel officers and they claim that our men would not surrender and in some few cases they “could not control their men,” who seemed determined to shoot down every negro soldier, whether he surrendered or not. This is a flimsy excuse, for after our colored troops had been driven from the fort, and they were surrounded by the rebels on all sides, it is apparent that they would do what all say they did,throw down their arms and beg for mercy. I buried very few white men, the whole number buried by my party and the party from the gunboat “New Era” was about one hundred. I can make affidavit to the above if necessary. Hoping that the above may be of some service and that a desire to be of service will be considered sufficient excuse for writing to you, I remain very respectfully your obedient servant, ROBERT S. CRITCHELL, Acting Master’s Mate, U. S. N.
Critchell’s note about the explanation offered by Confederate officers, who argued that the black soldiers “would not surrender and in some few cases [the Confederate officers] ‘could not control their men,’ who seemed determined to shoot down every negro soldier, whether he surrendered or not,” is worth noting. That was the excuse offered at the time, and it remains so almost 150 years later, for those Fort Pillow apologists who acknowledge that unnecessary bloodshed took place at all. Critchell observed at the time that “this is a flimsy excuse,” and so it remains today.
Critchell’s letter also seems to endorse retaliation-in-kind, “because some of our crew are colored and I feel personally interested in the retaliation which our government may deal out to the rebels, when the fact of the merciless butchery is fully established.” This urge is, unfortunately, entirely understandable, and we’ve seen that within weeks the atrocity at Fort Pillow was being used as a rallying cry to spur Union soldiers on to commit their own acts of wanton violence. Vengrance begets retaliation begets vengeance begets retaliation. It never ends, and it’s always rationalized by pointing to the other side having done it before.
It never ends, but it often does have identifiable beginnings. Bill Ferguson and Bob Critchell saw one of those beginnings first-hand.
Critchell letter and images from Robert S. Critchell, Recollections of a Fire Insurance Man (Chicago: McClurg & Co., 1909).
“Prize money” is a concept very familiar to maritime history buffs, or those who’ve read a lot of Forester or O’Brian. The idea was simply to provide a monetary incentive to naval personnel not just to destroy, but to capture intact, enemy vessels that could be either used as warships by their captors, or sold at auction to private owners. (Several ACW blockade runners went through this cycle several times.) A captured ship would be put through a legal proceeding — a “prize court” — and if “condemned,” it would be sold and (after deductions for expenses related to the appraisal, court costs and sale), the proceeds divided up among the crew of ships participating in the seizure of the vessel. The lion’s share of the money would be shared by the captain and officers of the capturing ship, on the assumption that they were more responsible for the capture than individual sailors; a successful cruise might set up a lucky naval captain for life, financially, while a sailor or ordinary seaman would collect enough for a wild evening of eating, drinking, and other, uh, forms of shoreside entertainment.
Prize money isn’t mentioned much in popular accounts of the ACW at sea, but it was nonetheless an important element in the minds of sailors in the Union blockading squadrons at the time. The Federals used a relatively complex formula at the time for apportioning prize money. After deductions for expenses, one-half of the money went straight to the government. Five percent went to the commander of the regional blockading squadron (in this case, the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron), and a further 1% went to the local squadron commander. These shares combine to account for 56% of the value of the prize.
The remaining 44% was divided among the officers and crew of the capturing vessel(s). This amount was split into 20 equal shares, with the captain taking 3 shares, the officers and midshipmen taking 10 shares, and the enlisted men dividing up the remaining 7 shares between them. Clear as mud, right? Here’s a made-up example to show how it worked:
Say a Union gunboat off Charleston, U.S.S. Hypothetical, captured a Confederate ship. Hypothetical has 1 captain, 10 officers and snotties, and 70 enlisted men in her crew. After deductions for the adjudication of the prize, the captured Confederate ship has a value of $10,000. With me so far? Here’s how that scenario would break out in terms of prize monies:
You can see immediately that a lucky and industrious ship’s captain could amass a substantial amount of money quickly, and a senior admiral on a prize-rich station – say, the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, off Cape Fear and Wilmington, North Carolina – could become wealthy indeed. The disparity of prize money distribution between the senior officers and ordinary seamen (who, after all, were exposed to most of the same risks) was a perennial complaint around mess tables in navies on both sides of the Atlantic:
A British cartoon from the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The officer asks the praying sailor if he’s afraid of the enemy. “Afraid? No!,” the sailor replies, “I was only praying that the enemy’s shot may be distributed in the same proportion as the prize money, the greatest part among the officers!”
Anyway, that’s how prize money was supposed to work in the Union navy during the Civil War. The case of Planter and her makeshift crew, though, had some unusual wrinkles. First, the Confederate steamer was not really captured in action, but rather simply ran out to the nearest Union warship (in this case, U.S.S. Onward), and surrendered. More important, Planter’s makeshift crew were not U.S. naval personnel, and so not eligible for prize money under normal circumstances. Samuel F. Du Pont (left, 1803-65), the flag officer commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, wasn’t sure how to handle the question of prize money in this case, but passed the question along to Washington. “I do not know whether. . . the vessel will be considered a prize,” Du Pont wrote in his report of the incident to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, “but, if so, I respectfully submit to the Department the claims of this man Robert [Smalls] and his associates.”
Welles may or may not have sorted out the legal complexities of the case for himself, but he hardly had time to consider it regardless. On May 19, 1862 – just six days after Planter’s daring run out of Charleston – Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa (right, 1816-72), a member of the Naval Committee, introduced legislation authorizing the Welles to have the steamer and its gear appraised, and half the values awarded to “Robert Small [sic.] and his associates who assisted in rescuing [Planter] from the enemies of the Government.” The legislation further instructed Welles to, at his discretion, invest the monies in U.S. securities and pay Smalls and his companions the interest “annually until such time as the Secretary of the Navy may deem it expedient to pay him or his heirs the principal sum.” In the House of Representatives, the Senate bill was held up briefly on procedural grounds by the infamous Copperhead, Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, but it passed a week later on May 26, 1862, by a vote of 121 to 9, with Vallandigham in the latter group. The bill was formally enrolled the next day, and signed by the president on May 30, just over two weeks after Smalls’ escape. The full act read:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Secretary of the Navy be, and he is hereby, authorized to cause the steam transport boat Planter, recently in the rebel service in the harbor of Charleston, and all of the arms, munitions, tackle, and other property on board of her at the time of her delivery to the Federal authorities, to be appraised by a board of competent officers, and when the value thereof shall be thus ascertained to cause an equitable apportionment of one-half of such value so ascertained as aforesaid to be made between Robert Small[s] and his associates who assisted in rescuing her from the enemies of the Government. Section 2. And be it further enacted, That the Secretary of the Navy may, if he deems it expedient, cause the sum of money allotted to each individual under the preceding section of this act to be invested in United States securities for the benefit of such individual, the interest to be paid to him or to his heirs annually until such time as the Secretary of the Navy may deem it expedient to pay to him or his heirs the principal sum as aforesaid.
The provision for Planter’s prize monies to be invested in securities and held indefinitely at the discretion of the Secretary of the Navy is, as far as I know, virtually unknown when it comes to regular U.S. naval personnel. To be sure, as with anything associated with governmental bureaucracy and accounting, delays, lost paperwork, and missing approvals were routine, and it was common for seamen and officers to wait many months, or even years, to receive the prize monies they’d earned during the war. (I once researched a case in which a Union officer’s claim against a civilian ship went all the way up to the Supreme Court, where he lost in late 1867. Or rather, his estate lost; the officer himself had died more than two years before.) But once prize money was cleared to be awarded, it was distributed. There’s little doubt that this case was handled as it was because the recipients were African Americans, former slaves, who were assumed to be unable to trusted to handle large sums of money wisely. It was well-intentioned, but patronizing and ultimately an insulting rationalization that kept Robert Smalls and his crew from receiving direct compensation for their actions for a long time, if ever.
Welles forwarded the text of the new legislation to Flag Officer Du Pont on June 6, along with instructions to have the captured steamboat appraised. In due course, Planter was inspected and assessed to be worth $9,000; the four loose guns, intended by the Confederates for the new battery being built on pilings in the middle of Charleston Harbor, were valued at an additional $168, for a total of $9,168. That number is strikingly low for a nearly-new steamboat in good operating condition, loaded with munitions; I may discuss that in another post. Regardless, under the legislation passed in May 1862, Smalls and his crew were entitled to half that amount, or $4,584. Du Pont ultimately divided the monies as follows:
How much was their prize money worth, in modern terms? An historical economist might say, “quite a bit” or “a lot.” In fact, there’s no single, direct answer to that question. There are a variety of formulae and indices used by economists to track the value of currency over time, and they give widely (and wildly) different results. Even in a single category, tracking income and wealth, the modern equivalent of the prize money awarded the crew of Planter varies between a low of around $106,000 to as high as $12M. The equivalent using unskilled labor as a basis of comparison pegs the modern equivalent at around $737,000, which seems very roughly in the ballpark to me.
Did Robert Smalls, William Morrison and the others ever see any of the principal of the money they’d been awarded by Congress? I’d like to say they eventually did, but if fact I don’t know. For certain, there would be plenty of people, in government and out, to whom the idea of turning over a large sum of money to freedmen and –women would be an anathema, and there were plenty of ways for them to rationalize cheating Smalls and the others of their hard-earned reward. (Think about the corrupt recruit depot quartermaster in the film Glory.) I hope they did eventually receive their prize money, along with the interest it had accrued.
 Rodman L. Underwood, Waters of Discord: The Union Blockade of Texas During the Civil War (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2003), 35.
 S. F. Du Pont to Gideon Welles, “Abduction of the Confederate steamer Planter from Charleston, S. C., May 13, 1862.” May 14, 1862. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series I, Vol. 12, 821.
 Congressional Globe, Senate, 37th Congress, 2nd Session, May 19, 1862, 2186-87; ibid., 2363; ibid., 2392; Statutes at Large, 37th Congress, 2nd Session, 904.
 Gideon Welles to S. F. Du Pont, “Letter from the Secretary of the Navy to Flag-Officer Du Pont, U. S. Navy, transmitting copy of an act of Congress in the case of Robert Smalls and others.” ORN, Series I, Vol. 12, 823.
Images: Top, escape of the steamer Planter by R. G. Skerrett, from the ORN. Images of Planter’s crew adapted from “Heroes in Ebony–The captors of the Rebel steamer Planter, Robert Small, W. Morrison, A. Gradine and John Small,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 21m 1862, via Library of Congress. Gridiron’s name is given elsewhere as “Gradine”; I’ve adopted the spelling used in official naval correspondence.
In my post about Robert Smalls and the “abduction” of the Confederate steamer Planter the other day, I overlooked the last two grafs of the Harper’s Weekly story which, line-for-line, may be the most interesting of the piece:
Our correspondent sends us a drawing of an infernal machine [i.e., a mine], drawn by one of the negro hands of the Planter named Morrison. This chattel, Morrison, gives the following account of himself:
Belonged to Emile Poinchignon [Poincignen]; by trade a tinsmith and plumber; has lived all his life in Charleston; was drum-major of the first regiment of the Fourth Brigade South Carolina Militia, and paraded on the 25th of last month; has a wife and two children in Montgomery, Alabama, whom he expects to see when the war is over. I asked him how he learned to read and write. Answer: “I stole it in the night, Sir.”
Okay, okay. Calling William Morrison a “black Confederate” seems pretty silly under the circumstances. But William Morrison must, in some ways, capture all the complexities of of the situation of many African American men in the Confederacy during the war. Through his trade as a craftsman, Morrison probably enjoyed better circumstances than the majority of enslaved persons in the South, but he remained bound by the system. He suffered from a long, distant absence from his wife and children — no doubt an involuntary one. He learned to read and write not through the efforts of a kind and paternal master, but secretly, though his own initiative — “I stole it in the night.” And when he saw the opportunity to steal himself from his master, he didn’t just run off, but did so in a way that would cause the largest possible damage and embarrassment on the Confederacy, in a way that would (not coincidentally) assure his own death if recaptured. And finally, when he did reach the Federal blockading fleet, he shared with them intelligence about Charleston’s harbor defenses: a mine that, by virtue of his skills as a tinsmith and plumber, he may have actually helped assemble with his own hands.
William Morrison was neither a “happy Negro,” nor a “faithful slave.” Next time someone points to a vague reference to an African American musician or otherwise connected to the Confederate military, and then waxes eloquent about that as evidence of black Confederates fighting for home and hearth against the Yankee invader, etc., etc., ask them about William Morrison of the steamboat Planter.________________
Image: Detail of the print, “Heroes in Ebony — The captors of the Rebel steamer Planter, Robert Small, W. Morrison, A. Gradine and John Small.” Library of Congress.
Today is the sesquicentennial of one of the most audacious acts of the Civil War, when Robert Smalls, an enslaved African American trained as a harbor pilot, took his vessel out the Union blockading fleet off Charleston. It’s already been mentioned several places, with due credit to Smalls and his comrades. As Union Admiral David Dixon Porter put it in his naval history of the war, “this required the greatest heroism, for had he been caught while leaving the wharf, or stopped by the forts, he would have paid the penalty with his life.” More on Smalls and Charleston here.
So given the coverage Smalls’ actions will get — and rightly so — I thought it would be interesting to see the coverage from the other side, from the perspective of Confederate Charleston. Here, from the Charleston Mercury, May 14, 1862:
DISGUSTING TREACHERY AND NEGLIGENCE Yesterday, at daylight, the steamer Planter, in the absence of her officers, was taken by four or five of her colored crew from her berth at Southern Wharf, to the enemy’s fleet. She is a high pressure cotton boat, of light draught, formerly plying on the Pee Dee River, but latterly chartered by the Government, with her officers and crew, from Mr. Ferguson, her owner, and used as a transport and guard boat about the harbor of Charleston. Her armament was a 32-pounder and a 24-pound howitzer. The evening previous she had taken aboard four guns for one of the newly erected works, either that on Morris Island or Fort Timber, viz., a 42-pounder rifled and banded, an 8-inch columbiad, both of which had been struck at the reduction of Ft. Sumter, and 8-inch seacoast howitzer, and a 32-pounder. These guns were to have gone to their destinations early in the morning, and been mounted yesterday. Three sentinels were stationed in sight of her, and a detail of twenty men were within hail for the relief of the post. Between half-past three and four o’clock the Planter steamed up and cast loose, the sentinels having no suspicion of foul play, and thinking she was going about her business. At quarter past four o’clock she passed Fort Sumter, blowing her whistle, and plainly seen. She was reported by the Corporal of the Guard as the guard boat, to the Officer of the Day, Captain Flemming, one of the best and most reliable officers of the garrison. The fort is only called on to recognize authorized boats passing, taking for granted that they have their officers aboard. This was done as usual. The run to Morris Island goes a long way out past the fort, and then turns. The Planter on this trip did not turn. The officers of the Planter were [Charles J.] Relyea, Captain; Smith, Mate; and Pitcher, Engineer. They have been arrested, and will, we learn, be tried by court-martial for disobedience of a standing general order, that the officers and crews of all light draught steamers in the employment of the Government will remain on board day and night. The result of this negligence may be only the loss of the guns and of the boat, desirable for transportation. But things of this kind are sometimes of incalculable injury. The lives and property of this whole community are at stake, and might be jeopardized by event apparently as trifling as this. It ism therefore, due to the Service and to the Cause, that this breach of discipline, however innocent in intention on the part of the officers, should be dealt with as it deserves. Without strict discipline, no military operations can succeed.
Note that the black men who stole the boat get only a passing mention; virtually the entire piece focuses on the incompetence and negligence on the part of Confederate authorities in letting them get away with it. There’s no surprise expressed that Smalls and his companions would attempt to take the boat, so much as shock that they were able to pull it off. The newspaper story makes no hint of a betrayed assumption of loyalty on the part Planter‘s enslaved crew members to either their owners, or to the Confederate cause.
The newspaper got the name of the ship’s mate wrong; he was not “Smith,” but John Smith Hancock. He, Engineer S. Z. Pitcher, and Captain Relyea, went to trial; Relyea and Hancock were both found guilty. Relyea was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment and a $500 fine, which if he did not pay would be commuted into a sentence of two additional months. Hancock was sentenced to one month in prison and a $100 fine. Engineer Pitcher argued “in bar of trial” that the charges were vague and insufficient, and after careful deliberation the charges against him were voided.
In his review of the court martial, however, Major General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of South Carolina and Georgia, overturned the convictions of Relyea and Hancock, noting that Planter‘s owner, Ferguson, “seems to have been entirely deficient as to the deportment of his subordinates.” Pemberton found that while Relyea and Hancock were in violation of general orders, “it is not clearly shown that General Order No. 5, referred to in the specification of the charges, had ever been properly communicated to Captain Relyea, or Hancock, the mate, nor do any measures appear to have been taken by their superiors to force an habitual compliance with the requirements of those orders” (Charleston Mercury, August 1, 1862). Relyea and Hancock were released.
I’ve read online that Captain Relyea was lost at sea between Charleston and Nassau in 1864, suggesting that he got involved in blockade running. Not sure if that’s true, but he left behind a spectacular, gold-headed cane of his that was sold twice last year at auction.