Early on the morning of February 18, 1865 — 150 years ago today — Union troops onshore and in the blockading fleet off Charleston noticed that the Confederates at Fort Sumter had not hoisted a flag above the battered remnants of the post. The monitor U.S.S. Canonicus moved slowly closer, and fired two rounds into the fort from her 15-inch Dahlgren smoothbores. The Union bluejackets waited for the inevitable response. Instead, there was only the sound of the wind and water.
Here’s a track from the album Divided and United by Shovels & Rope, the Charleston husband and wife duo of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst. You can read more about them and their recording of “The Fall of Charleston” here, or hop over to NPR for a mini-concert. A contemporary broadside of the lyrics is available here.
Oh have you heard the glorious news, is the cry from every mouth,
Charleston is taken, and the rebels put to rout;
And Beauregard the chivalrous, he ran to save his bacon—
When he saw General Sherman’s “Yanks,” and “Charleston is taken!” With a whack, rowdy-dow, A hunkey boy is General Sherman, Whack, rowdy-dow, Invincible is he! This South Carolina chivalry, they once did loudly boast,
That the footsteps of a Union man, should ne’er pollute their coast.
They’d fight the Yankees two to one, who only fought for booty, But when the “udsills” came along it was “Legs, do your duty!” With a whack, rowdy-dow, Babylon is fallen, Whack, rowdy-dow, The end is drawing near! And from the “Sacred City,” this valiant warlike throng;
Skedaddled in confusion, although thirty thousand strong—
Without a shot, without a blow, or least sign of resistance,
And leaving their poor friends behind, with the “Yankees” for assistance! With a whack, rowdy-dow, How are you, Southern chivalry? Whack, rowdy-dow, Your race is nearly run! And again o’er Sumter’s battered walls, the Stars and Stripes do fly,
While the chivalry of Sixty-one in the “Last ditch” lie;—
With Sherman, Grant and Porter too, to lead our men to glory,
We’ll squash poor Jeff’s confederacy, and then get “Hunkydory!” With a whack, rowdy-dow, How are you, neutral Johnny Bull? Whack, rowdy-dow, We’ll settle next with you!
This evening, February 17, marks the sesquicentennial of the fire that destroyed much of Columbia, South Carolina. It was, and remains, a hotly-debated issue as to who was responsible. I haven’t studied this event in detail, but I would like to point to posts by my fellow bloggers that take a closer look at the events in Columbia, and are worth your time.
This post from 2013, by my colleague Al Mackey, examines a variety of contemporary sources and points actions of the Confederate military authorities that contributed heavily to the destruction that followed, including bales of cotton stacked in the streets and set ablaze before Federal soldiers entered the city, and by looters at the railroad depot who set off a huge explosion of powder stored there. Al concludes,
As the best evidence tells us, the destruction of Columbia was a tragic accident. Retreating confederates set cotton on fire, and the burning embers were carried by the wind. Some cotton bales continued to smolder during the day, and the high winds whipped them into a blaze as well that evening, spreading more embers around. Some Union soldiers, drunk on the liquor provided them by well-meaning but mistaken civilians, set fires themselves, but the record shows that more Union soldiers tried to stop the fires but were unable to do so.
As many of you know, over at To the Sound of the Guns, Craig Swain has been sesquiblogging Sherman’s March to the Sea and up into South Carolina. In this post, he begins to lay out the evidence that some of the myths about the burning of Columbia simply aren’t true. Craig’s style is less confrontational than Al’s, but he reaches a similar conclusion about conditions in the city — that long before the first of Sherman’s troops entered the city, the scene there was one of chaos, violence and looting:
Even before the first “bummer” entered, a wave of lawlessness, looting, robbery, vandalism, and destruction was sweeping through the city. That wave may have arrived because the Federals were at the gates, but it was not composed of Federal troops. Lastly, Confederate authorities did little, and could do little, to counter the violence in Columbia. Their focus was withdrawing supplies, materials, and manpower from Columbia, not keeping order in the streets. The citizens of Columbia, while maybe not as a whole at least in part, responded to the Federal arrival by inviting celebration, and to some degree more rioting. Lastly, there is every indication that the Federal commanders attempted to bring the city in order. However, I do think everyone from Sherman down to [U.S. Colonel George] Stone underestimated the amount of lawlessness within Columbia on the 17th. The majority of the troops were posted well outside the city, leaving only one brigade to deal with the problems. And that in some ways enabled the disaster to come.
Craig follows up with an account from Federal troops from Missouri, describing the scene as they entered Columbia on the evening of the 17th:
Many of the men wandered up to Columbia, which place was on fire and burning up house after house; long lines of cotton bales had been strung through the main street, cut open and fired by the Confederates when they left; there were probably several thousand bales thus fired in the middle of the streets. The wind was blowing quite strongly, and great tufts of the blazing cotton were hurled here and there among the wooden buildings. It was at this time that some of our First Missouri Engineers, who had their homes and families despoiled in the region of Rolla, Missouri, gathered in bunches of this burning cotton and flung it down in various houses, as a slight revenge on the Confederates for their cruelty.
As Craig says, “we cannot disconnect the burning of Lawrence, Kansas from that of Columbia, South Carolina.” Reprisal begets reprisal; retaliation begets retaliation. We’ve seen this before.
The over-arching lesson in both Al’s and Craig’s essays is that the events in Columbia are a whole lot more complicated, and responsibility for what happened a whole lot more widespread, than many people choose to believe. But history tends to be like that.
The chaos witnessed in Columbia would be repeated in other southern cities as the Confederacy collapsed, including (on a smaller scale) in Texas, in Hempstead, Galveston, and Houston, among other places. Those events, that I’ll discuss another time, reflected a similar breakdown of law and order, by civilians and soldiers alike. Those events don’t get a lot of attention in the way people remember the war here. No mythology has built up around them, I suspect, because they were entirely indigenous in nature, and Uncle Billy wasn’t around to get blamed for them.
Thomas Chubb was a rather legendary and not-altogether-savory character in Galveston in the nineteenth century. He did have his moments, though. I recently came across this mention of him in the Palestine, Texas, Trinity Advocate, August 11, 1858, p. 1:
I wish I could identify the boat involved here, but the reference to “Capt. Scott” doesn’t flag anything so far.
Added: Re-reading this account, I don’t think it happened on a Texas boat, although the town whose newspaper it appeared in, is near the usual head of navigation on the Trinity RIver in east Texas. I had seen a previous reference to three-card monte being the hot new scam on the boats running between Galveston and Houston on Buffalo Bayou about this same time, but I don’t think this particular event was on either of those streams.
The 2015 Dick Dowling Statue Ceremony will be held this year on Sunday, March 15, at 1 p.m., on the esplanade at the intersection of Cambridge Street and McGregor Drive (near the Houston Zoo and the Texas Medical Center). This year’s keynote address, “How the Irish Became American: The Civil War and the Struggle for Irish Acceptance,” will be given by Brady Hutchison, faculty in the History Department of San Jacinto College.
I had the privilege of giving the keynote address at this event last year, and was impressed by the dedication and warmth of everyone I met. They’re some good people.
On Tuesday evening I had the real privilege of speaking again at the Houston Maritime Museum. The museum is a small place, tucked away in the shadow of the Texas Medical Center — though actively working toward moving into new digs on the Ship Channel — but what they lack in size now they more than make up for in energy, spirit and dedication. They have one of the best model collections in the region, ranging from the earliest oared craft to modern offshore work vessels and container ships. It’s a real gem.
The museum generously included me on their 2015 lecture schedule, to speak on the subject of blockade running in Texas. The timing was about perfect, as February 1865 was one of the most eventful periods in that entire story. Lots of folks came out, and I got to meet some interesting people before and after the presentation. I even got to sign some books at the end. It was a long evening, but a memorable one.
My friend Mark Lardas was there, as well. Mark is an active supporter of the museum and an avid modeler, although I don’t know how he finds the time for those activities. Mark made one correction to my presentation, which was both appreciated and needed. In discussing an incident during the war in which both sides expended a lot of powder and shot to no observable effect, I said that in this corner of the conflict, both Union and Confederate gunnery was “uniformly lousy.” Mark pointed out that there was one important exception to that rule, that was Dick Dowling’s battery at Sabine Pass in September 1863. They were very effective artillerists indeed. How could I forget that example? Do’oh!
Anyway, my talk is in the video above. Have a good evening, y’all!
My colleague Bobby Hughes from Savannah flags a new CNN video on the recovery of the remains of C.S.S. Georgia, part of a channel-improvement project being done by the Corps of Engineers. Pretty cool stuff, in my book.
I like this image from the video (above), especially. It’s a section of makeshift armor assembled from interleaved railroad iron. Several Union and Confederate ironclads were fitted with similar armor, including U.S.S. Cairo and C.S.S. Arkansas, both at Vicksburg. Is that cool, or what?
I’m off this evening to speak on blockade runners at the Houston Maritime Museum. Y’all be safe.
One item from the Merseyside Maritime Museum exhibition, Ships built in Liverpool for the American Civil War:
This cross-section is very similar to an earlier Laird-built paddle steamer, Denbigh. Around the outer edge of the hull are notations of plate thicknesses, and the column at right tallies up weights. The spacing of the frames at 21 inches is a bit more than the standard 18 inches, suggesting a willingness to trade structural strength for a saving of weight. We read recently about Wren‘s eventful arrival here in early February 1865; Lark‘s story will be told in due time.
The drawing above, rendered in three dimensions, would be something like this:
The Supreme Court announced this week that oral arguments in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., the SCV license plate case, will be heard on Monday, March 23.
The Supremes don’t allow cameras in the court room, but I believe they do release audio of the arguments soon after each hearing. For reasons I’ve discussed earlier, I don’t think this case is even a close call.
Added, February 7: Audio recordings are posted online on Fridays after arguments, so presumably on March 27.
A large “Second National” Confederate flag believed to have been flown at Galveston by Major Charles R. Benton, chief ordinance officer for the garrison there. Original image corrected for perspective by the author. Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
On the night of February 3, 1865, the blockade runner Will o’ the Wisp went aground and was wrecked on the beach, several miles south of Galveston.
Two days after that, on the evening of February 5, the ill-starred Acadia piled onto the sand just beyond San Luis Pass, some thirty miles south of town.
And one hundred fifty years ago this evening, February 6, the runner Wren ran aground while trying to enter Galveston by means of the Southwest Pass, a narrow swash channel that ran around the eastern end of the island. It was a very close call. The stranded steamer was sighted at dawn on February 7, and the blockaders moved in as close as they dared to shell her. According to one report, over the course of the morning the Federals fired 102 shells at Wren, three of which struck and passed clean through the ship without doing significant damage. Colonel Cook, commander of the First Texas Heavy Artillery that manned the batteries along the shore, visited the stranded steamer, as did Brigadier General Hawes, the Confederate commander in the island. A former Confederate military officer, J. D. Patton, went on board to serve as a backup engineer, and other volunteers from shore came out to the ship to provide assistance. The steamer’s captain, William Raisbeck, kept steam up all morning to be ready to move the moment she floated. That moment came a little after one in the afternoon, and Wren got under way again. Raisbeck did not know the coast, relied heavily on one of his passengers from Havana to serve as a pilot and to make soundings. The passenger was Commodore Leon Smith, the officer who organized and commanded the naval attack on the Federal fleet at the Battle of Galveston, more than two years previously.
Wren made it safely into the harbor, much to the consternation of the blockaders who felt certain they would be able to destroy another runner. Nonetheless, the editor of the Galveston Weekly News was certain these three incidents, so close together, were no accident:
There is hardly any room to doubt that the three steamers were wrecked on our coast by Yankees in disguise…. We should never forget that treachery, falsehood and deception are the peculiar characteristics of Yankees, and we believe we have more to fear from these traits than from all their power in open and honorable war…. The coast of Texas is the safest of any on the whole seaboard of this continent. The water shoals so gradually and so uniformly that, with the lead line in the hands of any but a Yankee, no blockade runner could be beached in the thickest fog, unless intentionally. We have no doubt that the loss of the Wisp, the Wren and the Arcadia [sic] is due to Yankee treachery.
There’s no evidence that anything other than foul weather, heavy fog and (in the case of Acadia) ineptitude caused these wrecks. Still, you can see why people were inclined to believe otherwise.
Having let Wren slip from their grasp, though, some Union officers were determined to destroy her anyway. That same day, February 7, they organized a boat expedition consisting of cutters from U.S.S. Bienville and U.S.S. Princess Royal, consisting of twenty seamen and three officers, under the command of Acting Ensign George H. French. Their order were to attempt to capture a pair of cotton-laden schooners, lying at anchor under the guns of the battery at Fort Point, and to destroy Wren. For this latter task, the expedition was provided with five gallons of turpentine and a bundle of oakum for kindling. French was also given six 32-pounder shells, to be placed in the boiler and around the engines “before you leave,” in the expectation that they would cook off and wreck the ship’s machinery when the fire reached them.
The expedition set out from Bienville at about 8:20 p.m., well after dark this time of year, but encountered a strong current pushing from west to east (i.e., out toward the open Gulf of Mexico). Although his primary objective was to destroy Wren, anchored farther up in the harbor, French decided he could not get past the anchored schooners without being spotted, so he attacked them first. Both were taken without incident, and French assigned a prize crew to each to take them out to the fleet. French continued trying to get up into the harbor, but found the current too strong. With the approach of daylight and his men exhausted from a night pulling at the oars, French allowed the cutters to drift out with the current. French arrived back alongside Bienville at about 6:10 a.m., almost ten hours after setting out.
While they had missed their first objective, the two captured schooners proved to be a nice plum. They were the schooners Pet, with 256 bales of cotton on board, and Annie Sophia, loaded with 220 bales. The Navy bluejackets also captured 20 prisoners on the two schooners. Pet was owned by Thomas W. House, who had lost most of entire steamer’s worth of inbound cargo on Will o’ the Wisp. (He was having a very bad week.) When auctioned at New Orleans in June, Pet brought in just under $20,000 total, which ultimately netted nearly $8,000 to be shared between Bienville and Princess Royal.
This was actually the second time the schooner Annie Sophia had been captured; she had been taken two years before by U.S.S. R. R. Cuyler, condemned by a prize court, sold, and put back into running the blockade. On this occasion, she was condemned by the prize court at New Orleans and sold for $29,145.69. After paying court expenses and turning half of the remainder over to the government, the crews of Bienville and Princess Royal split prize money from Annie Sophia and her cargo to the amount of $12,450.