Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“The passengers got the full benefit of the sparks, cinders and smoke”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on August 8, 2014

CottonTrain

 

On another forum we’ve been discussing the logistical challenges faced by the South during the war relating to railroads. My colleague David Bright argued — correctly, I think — that the fundamental problem was not just in the relatively limited amount of rail transport extant in the Confederacy at the beginning, but in the inability to expand or even properly maintain what they had at the start:

 

In my opinion, more serious were: insufficient rolling stock, lack of manpower in the CSA such that the railroads (and their supporting infrastructure — mines, foundries, etc) could not get the manpower they needed, and the inability to replace anything that was lost (rails, rolling stock, depots, etc).

 

Dave’s observation reminded me of a passage in a history of Houston by S. O. Young (1848-1926), who was a teenager during the war and who later wrote extensively on local history:

 

There were many difficulties to be overcome in the way of transportation and equally as great ones in obtaining money or credit to pay for construction. Just as the Harrisburg road got under good headway; the Houston and Texas Central got into the game. The first shovel of dirt for this road was thrown by that great railroad genius, Paul Bremond, in 1853. When he threw up that dirt he turned up more trouble for himself than generally falls to the lot of one man.
 
Of course, he did not know this, but I am convinced that had he done so it would have made not the slightest change in his plans. His faith in himself and his confidence in his ability to accomplish whatever he started out to do, was something sublime. When it came to energy he had any engine on his road faded to a standstill. He was a wonderful man, and he did not hesitate, at times, to attempt the apparently impossible.
 
When his first contractor got cold feet and threw up his job, Mr. Bremond promptly undertook to carry out the contract to build the road himself. There is where his troubles began.

 

(more…)

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“You can expect no help from this side of the river.”

Posted in Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on December 26, 2010

The Museum of the Confederacy recently announced the discovery of a coded message enclosed in a tiny bottle that’s been sitting, unopened, in the museum’s collection for over a century. The decoded text of the message reads:

Gen’l Pemberton: You can expect no help from this side of the river. Let Gen’l Johnston know, if possible, when you can attack the same point on the enemy’s lines. Inform me also and I will endeavor to make a diversion. I have sent some caps [i.e., percussion caps]. I subjoin a despatch from General Johnston.

The message is dated July 4, 1863, the same day that Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg to General Grant. Pemberton never got the message, and it would not have mattered if he had.

The message is unsigned, but the author, who clearly was unaware of Pemberton’s true situation in Vicksburg, may have been Major General John George Walker (l.), at that time commanding a division in the Confederacy’s Trans-Mississippi Department, and operating in western Louisiana. The message was encoded using the “Vigenère cipher,” in which the letters of the original message are shifted so many spaces over, so that A becomes M, B becomes N, and so forth, based on a key word or phrase known to both the sender and the recipient. Although ciphers of this type had a reputation of being unbreakable, most of the Confederate messages sent in this way that were intercepted by the Federals were quickly decoded. The fact that most Confederate messages used one of only three key phrases, “Manchester Bluff,” “Complete Victory,” and “Come Retribution,” made them more vulnerable than they should have been. (After tinkering with this Vigenère cipher generator, it seems this message used “Manchester Bluff” as its key, at least for the first few words.) As so often with cryptanalysis throughout history, the key to breaking a code often comes from mistakes on the part of the sender.

The message was decoded and its contented confirmed by a retired CIA cryptanalist, David Gaddy, and an active-duty U.S. Navy intelligence officer, Cmdr. John B. Hunter.

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Image: This Jan. 14, 2009 image shows a Civil War bottle with a message that was tucked inside at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va. The message to Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton says reinforcements will not be arriving. The encrypted dispatch was dated July 4, 1863 — the date of Pemberton’s surrender to Union forces led by Ulysses S. Grant in what historians say was a turning point in the war. (AP Photo/Museum of the Confederacy)

“Neither courier nor expressman will be permitted to go up by the trains”

Posted in Uncategorized by Andy Hall on August 29, 2010

At the height of the yellow fever outbreak in Galveston in September 1864, General Walker issued orders regarding travel by rail, as an adjunct to the quarantine he’d ordered six days previously.

Head Quarters, District of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona
Houston, Sept. 22, 1864

Brig. Genl J. M. Hawes,
Galveston

Trains will leave Galveston hereafter on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Neither courier nor expressman will be permitted to go up by the trains, the mails will be delivered to the Conductor, who will also hand the mail from Houston.

When trains are about leaving Galveston, have a guard at the depot to prevent unauthorized persons from getting on board. Trains will also be overhauled at the bridge [connecting Galveston Island to the mainland] and persons without passes taken off.

Captain Smith of the Zephine is permitted to come to Houston upon the condition of changing his clothes at Virginia Point.

J. G. Walker
Maj Genl Cmdg

Zephine was a blockade runner from Havana that had arrived on about September 10. She was a large, iron-hulled sidewheel steamer built by Holland and Hollingsworth of Wilmington, Delaware earlier that year. According to Stephen Wise’ Lifeline of the Confederacy, Zephine carried out over a thousand bales of cotton on her return to Havana, turning a profit of more than $300,000 in gold — enough to pay for the ship, crews’ wages and the inbound cargo in one round voyage.

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Images: Cotton train in Texas in the 1870s; Walker order via Footnote.com.

Q. How Old was General Hood at Gettysburg?

Posted in Media, Memory by Andy Hall on June 26, 2010

A. Thirty-two.


Hood as portrayed by (l. to r.) Patrick Gorman in Gettysburg (1993) and Gods and Generals (2003), Levon Helm in In the Electric Mist (2009) and himself in real life (c. 1865).

Picking up a thread of an idea from David Woodbury at Of Battlefields and Bibliophiles, I’ve been thinking about how film and television typically portrays Civil War figures. Most often they’re depicted substantially older than they really were. I’m not necessarily speaking of the actor’s actual age versus character’s (because actors routinely play much younger characters), but more generally his apparent age — how he’s made to look. It’s easy to see why this would be the case. When an actor portraying a Civil War figures actually is about the right age for the character, it’s often jarring for the viewer, to whom it doesn’t “feel” right even if, in fact, it is. Matthew Broderick was 25 or 26 when he shot Glory; his character, Robert Gould Shaw, was exactly that age at the time of the events depicted in the film. Nonetheless, although the actor and the role were perfectly matched for age, it still didn’t “look right” for a lot of people, and probably harmed the overall public reception of the movie. People just couldn’t see someone that young, in that role. (Being known at the time primarily for his role as as Ferris Bueller didn’t help.)

But this just highlights something that we might easily forget — the vast majority of these men, from private to general, were very young by modern standards. At the beginning of the war, Ulysses S. Grant was 39. George Meade was 45. George McClellan was 36. George Pickett was 36. James Longstreet was 40, as was John George Walker. Stonewall Jackson was 37. William Tecumseh Sherman was 41, and so on. Robert E. Lee was 54, the “old man,” not just because of the senior position he held, but because he was, by the standard of the day, objectively and factually old.

There are lots of exceptions, of course — Albert Sidney Johnston was nearly 60 when he got plinked at Shiloh — but still it amazes me how young these men were when so much rested on their shoulders.

Update: Argghh! Dimitri Rotov has stolen a march on me on this very topic over at Civil War Bookshelf.