At the west end of Galveston Island lies San Luis Pass, a half-mile-wide channel between West Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Deep-draft vessels could not get safely over the bar across its entrance, but it was a popular spot for smaller, mostly sailing vessels running in and out of West Bay. And consequently, it was a headache for the U.S. Navy, that never seemed to have enough ships to watch every part of the coast continuously.
A little after noon on April 5, 1862, lookouts aboard the screw steamer USS Montgomery spotted a large schooner anchored inside San Luis Pass. Montgomery’s commander, Lieutenant Charles Hunter, decided on a ruse and hoisted a British ensign at the peak and a Confederate flag at his foremast, making as if he wanted to communicate with the Confederate battery on shore. In due course, a boat from the nearby fort set out for the “British” ship anchored off the bar; Hunter had the nine men aboard quickly hustled down below as prisoners. Around sunset, he sent the captured boat, along with Montgomery’s whaleboat, across the bar with orders to capture or destroy the schooner. The boats tried to get in past the Confederate battery in the darkness without being seen, but they were spotted, and the troops on shore opened fire. None of the Union sailors was hit, and now they began pulling hard at the oars to get alongside the schooner. They succeeded in taking the schooner’s seven-man crew completely by surprise, despite the gunfire from the fort. The schooner turned out to be Columbia, of Galveston, loaded with cotton and ready to sail for Jamaica. As the Union sailors were preparing to get Columbia under way, a sloop appeared out of the darkness and came alongside. In it were Columbia’s master and seven passengers from Galveston, who intended to sail in her to Jamaica. These, too, became prisoners. The officer in charge of the expedition, Acting Master Thomas Pickering, now had to deal with other problems. Both tide and wind were streaming against them, making it difficult or impossible to get the big schooner safely past the Confederate battery. Pickering ordered his men to set fire to Columbia and, with the sloop in tow, began pulling hard for the channel in their boats. They exchanged shots with the fort but succeeded in getting past it without injury. Pickering had his little flotilla anchor just inside the breakers on the San Luis Pass bar to await daylight. At dawn, the surf was still roiling, so Pickering, fearing the loss of the sloop in rough water with all on board, released the sloop and his prisoners to return to the safety of the bay. Pickering and the other two boats made it safely back to USS Montgomery. In exchange for the loss of one crewman seriously injured by the accidental discharge of another sailor’s carbine, Pickering had destroyed a large schooner and her cargo of cotton that, by daylight, was seen to be “burned to the water’s edge.”
I was coming back from Quintana this afternoon and snapped this image (top) from the bridge that now spans San Luis Pass. It’s a beautiful day here, but windy, and the water is rough. About a half mile away, you can see an almost continuous, horizontal white line of surf, with green water inside and blue water outside — those are the breakers on the bar that forced Pickering to release his prize and prisoners.
In three weeks, I’ll be giving a couple of talks, one in Arlington, that I’ve mentioned before, and one in Houston, that I haven’t.
On Friday evening, October 10 at 7:30, I’ll be speaking on “Civil War Blockade Running on the Texas Coast” at the University of Texas at Arlington Central Library, Sixth Floor. There will be a reception and a book-signing after. This event is open to the public and everyone’s invited. To RSVP, please call 817-272-1413 or email LibraryFriends@uta.edu. This will be my second trip to North Texas in the last few months, and it should be great fun.
Then, on Saturday the 11th, I’ll be participating in the Fourth Annual Houston History Conference. The conference will be held at the the Julia Ideson Building of the Houston Public Library, 550 McKinney.The theme this year, in recognition of the centennial of the official opening of the Port of Houston. My presentation is “Charles Morgan and the Genesis of the Houston Ship Channel,” a wonderful little story of economic boosterism and Gilded-Age avarice. Space is limited so advance reservations are recommended, but not required. The cost of the conference is $50 per person before October 3; $40 for seniors, presenters and exhibitors; and $25 for teachers not covered by scholarships from their respected school systems. If space allows, on-site registration will be available. All tickets include lunch and admission for a full day of activities. For more information or to enroll in the conference, visit www.houstonhistoryassociation.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The full listing for the Houston History Conference follows below the jump. Hope to see y’all there!
Cuckoo’s Bakery in Edinburgh has been tracking support for Scots independence based on sales of cupcakes emblazoned with Scots and Union flags (above). As of today, the “no” vote is running about four points ahead of the “yes,” a figure that seems to be reflected in actual polling. By this time tomorrow, we’ll know how accurate both the bakery and the polls are.
Regardless of the outcome, it’s important to note that the Scots have not gone about achieving independence by laying siege to the Royal Navy base at Faslane.
Having most of my own lineage come from every part of Great Britain, I have no great stake in this fight, or notion as to whether an independent Scotland is a good thing or not. But if independence encourages sartorial atrocities such as this, it’s just not worth it. No one needs that.
Building off a post by Kevin Levin, one of the best (and least-heralded) CW blogs out there thoroughly dismantles the notion of a “good” slaveholder, making it clear that even masters who saw themselves as benevolent patriarchs relied on the threat of intimidation and violence to maintain their authority — and did not hesitate to use it when they needed to. (You know, benevolent patriarchs like Bobby Lee.)
Big news in the nautical archaeology world — last week a team from Parks Canada discovered one of the ships of the famous Franklin Expedition of 1845-48. The expedition, that originally set out to find the fabled Northwest Passage across the top of the North American continent, vanished without a trace and became one of the enduring mysteries of maritime history.
The grisly and mysterious tale of two British ships that disappeared in the Arctic in 1845 has baffled generations and sparked one of history’s longest rescue searches. But now, more than 160 years later, Canadian divers have finally found the remains of one of the doomed Navy vessels. Legend has it that sailors on board the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, who were chosen by the explorer Sir John Franklin, resorted to cannibalism after the ships became ice-bound in the Victoria Strait in the Arctic territory of Nunavut. Search parties hunted for the crew until 1859, but no sign of either ship was discovered until now. However, tantalising clues have emerged over the years, including the bodies of three crewmen, discovered in the 1980s. The Franklin expedition’s mission to the fabled Northwest Passage had frustrated explorers for centuries and the sea crossing was only successfully made 58 years later, far further north. The original search expeditions in the 19th century helped open up parts of the Canadian Arctic for discovery. Canadian divers and archaeologists rekindled efforts to find the ships in 2008 as the government looked to assert its sovereignty over the Northwest Passage. Announcing the find, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper said: “This is truly a historic moment for Canada. This has been a great Canadian story and mystery and the subject of scientists, historians, writers and singers, so I think we really have an important day in mapping the history of our country.” “Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty,” he said. An image of the discovery shows the wooden vessel has remained largely intact, though the main mast has been sheared off. The ship was resting upright on the sea bed only 11 meters below the surface. Searchers used remotely operated underwater technology to find the ship on Sunday, although it remains unclear which of the two vessels it is. The discovery comes shortly after divers found an iron fitting from one of the boats. The myths surrounding the Franklin expedition have helped make the vessels among the most sought-after prizes in marine archaeology.
Good stuff. Nothing happens in a vacuum, of course, and the reality is that Parks Canada, the arm of the Canadian federal government that does historical archaeology work (similar to NPS or NOAA here in the U.S.), has gone through multiple rounds of deep budget cuts:
Over 80% of archaeologists and conservators at Parks Canada have lost their jobs, reducing the number of archaeologists and conservators at Parks Canada to twelve and eight respectively. The remaining twenty people are responsible for millions of artifacts and the archaeology at 218 national parks, historic sites and marine conservation areas, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. As one Parks Canada Conservator noted, “At this moment there are more people employed in a single Tim Horton’s than are employed by Parks Canada nationally to preserve and care for millions of archaeological and historic objects in storage and on display.”
Many of Parks Canada’s remaining resources re-directed toward finding evidence of the Franklin Expedition — a worthy goal, for sure, but debatable given the severely-limited resources needed elsewhere. Harper’s reference to “Canada’s Arctic sovereignty” is very intentional, because his government is pushing hard for territorial claims in the Arctic for drilling. The discovery of one of Franklin’s ships, one that is older than the creation of Canada itself, provides a nice historical exclamation point for the prime minister’s scramble for Arctic oil and gas.
Still, it’s an amazing find, and kudos to the Parks Canada team that pulled it off.
Update: Here’s a Slate story from May that provides background on Harper’s specific interest in finding remains of the Franklin Expedition.
Many years ago, Alan Lomax recorded the legend of the Wabash Cannonball, a sort of Flying Dutchman of American railroading:
The youngest of the Bunyan boys, Cal S. Bunyan, built the most wondrous railroad in the world; the Ireland Jerusalem, Australian, and Southern Michigan Line. It took the largest steel mill in the country two years, said Swede Hedquist, operating on a schedule of a thirty-six-hour day and a nine-day week to produce one rail for Cal. Each tie was made from an entire redwood tree The train had seven hundred cars. It was so long that the conductor rode on a twin-cylinder, super-deluxe motorcycle to check tickets. He punched each ticket by shooting holes through it with a .45 calibre automatic. The train went so fast that after it was brought to a dead stop it was still making sixty-five miles an hour. After two months of service, the schedule had been speeded up, so that the train arrived at its destination an hour before it left its starting point. One day Cal said to the engineer, “Give her all the snuss she’s got.” That was the end of the I.J.A. & S.M. Railroad. The trains traveled so fast that the friction melted the steel rails and burned the ties to ashes. . . . When it reached the top of the grade, the engine took off just like an airplane and carried itself and the seven hundred cars so far into the stratosphere that the law of gravity quit working. That was years and years ago, but the I.J.A. & S.M. is still rushing through space, probably making overnight jumps between the stars, by Jupiter!
This particular video is a wonderful bit of stagecraft, opening with a 1940 clip of Roy Acuff performing the song in the film Grand Old Opry, which transitions into a video clip from the Opry in 1973, which then transitions into a live performance, led by Ketch Secor and Old Crow Medicine Show. Grand Ole Opry members joining them on stage include Bobby Osborne, Marty Stuart and Connie Smith, Clint Black, Ricky Skaggs, and Riders in the Sky, among many others.
Lotta talent on that stage, right there.
I almost forgot — today, Tuesday, is 150th anniversary of my wife’s uncles, James Bradley Ridge and George B. Ridge, both of Company K, Fifth Connecticut Volunteers, marching into Atlanta at the head of Sherman’s column. Seems like a moment worth remembering. From the regimental history:
September 2d. We all move forward toward the city of Atlanta, leaving our tents standing. Our regiment has the advance, and the Fifth Regiment Connecticut Veteran Volunteers have the honor of being the first Union regiment to march through the streets of the city of Atlanta. We have certainly earned the honor, for we have made a long and tedious campaign, having been 112 days and nights continually under fire, sleeping many nights in the trenches, fighting at every opportunity, always holding the ground and routing those opposed to us, and finishing the campaign with great honor to ourselves, to the State and to the General Government. General Sherman says that we will rest in the city for thirty days, and I believe him.
I don’t have any Yankees in my own attic, but my wife does. We have a mixed marriage, you see.
Sorry for the lack of substantive posts lately; I’ve had other things I’ve been focusing on (above). Here are some small stories that don’t necessarily warrant posts of their own.
- The National Museum of Civil War Medicine will hold its annual meeting at Kennesaw on October 3-5, 2014. Looks like a great program.
- Sean Munger has a great post on how Columbus’ voyage of 1492 traces back directly to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans almost forty years previously.
- If you’ve seen the new AutoTrader Dukes of Hazzard video, you may notice that the General Lee doesn’t appear to have a Confederate flag on the roof anymore, even though they shot the car from low angles where it’s not so obvious.
- GQ has the strange story of Christopher Knight, “the last true hermit,” who disappeared into the Maine wilderness for 27 years — sort of.
- I guess James Montgomery-Ryan has forgotten that he promised to start killin’ Yankees weeks ago.
- Anti-tax guru Grover Norquist — the drown-the-government-in-the-bathtub-guy — went to Burning Man this weekend and had a blast, calling it an example of “a bunch of people who think the government doesn’t need to be here. . . [it's] Hayekian spontaneous order.” Except for the fact that the whole thing is held on federal lands and licensed by Cliven Bundy’s friends at the BLM.
- Teenagers in New York caught red-handed vandalizing a CW monument.
- They haven’t caught the clowns yet who tagged the J.E.B. Stuart monument in Richmond Sunday night.
- Luca Iaconi-Stewart is building an insanely-detailed mdoel of an Air India Boeing 777 out of manilla file folders.
- Over at The Bitter Soutnerner, writer Fletcher Moore and photographer Brett Falcon set out to retrace Confederate General Hardee’s attempt to flank Sherman’s army outside of Atlanta.
- At True Blue Federalist, Chris Shelley has three great posts exploring Lincoln’s views on race. Definitely worth your time.
- There’s increasing evidence that fatty, sugary, processed foods are not only bad for you physically, but mentally, too.
- I’m looking forward to Eric Wittenberg’s upcoming book, The Devil’s to Pay, on John Buford at Gettysburg.
Got any more? Put ‘em in the comments.
August 25, 2014 makes the 150th anniversary of the blockade runner Denbigh‘s first arrival at Galveston. The little British paddle steamer had made five runs into Mobile before that post was closed off by the Union fleet at the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5; she would go on to make a total of six successful runs in and out of Galveston during the remaining few months of the war.