Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Duck Hunting with the Navy

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on August 8, 2012

The other day we had an account of the aftermath of the Fort Pillow massacre written by Acting Master’s Mate Robert S. Critchell (right) of the “tinclad” gunboat U.S.S. Silver Cloud (above). Today’s story is much more fun. Here, Critchell describes a trip on the Mississippi with a distinguished passenger, and an unusual method for replenishing the boat’s commissary.

The first day of January, 1864, was the coldest day that I ever knew in the southern country. At Memphis, where the “Silver Cloud” was then lying, the river was full of floating ice of great thickness and the pieces of ice were so heavy, hard and sharp that the steamboats were laid up, waiting for the ice to become soft and of less quantity in the stream, as it was feared the grinding of the ice would cut through the planking of the hulls and sink the boats. It was very unusual for ice to be so thick and so hard and in such quantities as far south as Memphis.
At this particular time General Sherman and his staff came to Memphis. He was very anxious to proceed immediately down the Mississippi river to Vicksburg, so one of his staff officers visited the various gunboats at Memphis and made inquiries as to the possibility of carrying the general and his staff down the river, without delay.
Our captain and senior officers decided that it was worth while for us to try it, to accommodate General Sherman, so we at short notice got on board a lot of two-inch pine plank, sawed up into two-foot lengths, a lot of long spikes, some hammers, stages and lanterns. The object of these preparations being that, in case the ice should grind our hull seriously,  we would by means of the stages dropped over the gunwales, spike on some of these pieces of plank so that they would stand the grind, rather than the hull.
Without waiting to get on board fresh provisions, which we needed to supply our distinguished company, we got on our way and, of course, went very slowly, but successfully got down to Vicksburg, where we remained for two days, giving us all an opportunity to see the wonderful place which had been surrendered by General Pemberton, C. S. A., to the Union army under General Grant on the 4th day of July, six months before this time. We then started back up the river, but still without any better provisions than we left Memphis with, as Vicksburg was a simple military post and its garrison and inhabitants had been obliged to subsist considerably on mule meat during the latter part of the siege.
While I was on deck, after leaving Vicksburg, our boat, having proceeded about twenty miles up the river, I saw a small sand island, called in the pilot’s vernacular, a “towhead,” literally covered with geese, ducks and sandhill cranes, the large number being no doubt congregated there by reason of the excessive cold weather. It occurred to me that here was a chance to lay in some fresh provisions, and, asking the captain’s permission to fire one of my twenty-four pound bow howitzers at this flock of birds, I brought the boat slowly up to the island, as near as I could, without frightening the birds away. I then stopped the boat and fired my gun and, by some extraordinary piece of good luck, happened to explode the shell just on the edge of the island. The birds of course rose with the sound of the explosion. As near as I could estimate the distance, I had fired the gun at a range of a mile. Our boat being brought to anchor, I went to the island in the cutter and found a large number of dead birds and some fluttering and badly wounded, which the boat’s crew and myself finished, either by striking them with the oars, or shooting them with revolvers. On returning, the number of dead birds we brought, turned out to be forty-three, of which the large majority were geese and ducks. I had the satisfaction of being patted on the shoulder by our distinguished passenger, General Sherman, and told by him that “we could now have some change of diet,” owing to my good shot. This proved to be the case. We gave the sandhill cranes to the crew, they having a rank flavor and requiring to be boiled, or parboiled, to get this flavor out somewhat, so that they could be afterwards roasted and eaten.
I have often told this story at dinners of naval veterans, etc., but always prefaced it with the statement that “I once killed forty-three geese and ducks with one shot,” which, from the above statement, will be seen was a fact.
Some years ago, I was called on by a little old man at my office in Chicago, who inquired for me with a peculiar high pitched and squeaky voice. I at once recognized him as a man who had been one of the crew of the “Silver Cloud.” He said he wanted my signature to some pension papers he was sending to Washington. I at first pretended not to be able to recognize him, when he pulled from his vest pocket a small  black object, which he told me was the skin of one of the sandhill cranes’ feet that I shot just above Vicksburg and that he had brought that with him to prove to me that he was the man that he claimed to be. I signed his paper with alacrity, on the production of this proof of his identity. At a dinner of a naval veteran society in Chicago, subsequently, at the Union League Club, where there were several guests invited by the members of the society, I was called on to tell my “duck story,” which, like many sailor’s yarns, was considered by those who had heard it before, as a little bit exaggerated. I was so pressed to tell the story that I did so and, when several sarcastic remarks to the effect of “couldn’t I reduce the number of ducks one or two,” were made, to my utter astonishment, one of the guests, a tall, gray-bearded old man arose in his place and said that “he saw that shot and counted the birds and there were forty-three.” I immediately said to this gentleman that I was unable to locate him and asked him for some details of his welcome corroboration of my story. He said that he was General Bingham, at this particular time stationed at the headquarters in Chicago of the Department of the Lakes of the United States army as chief quartermaster. He said that in 1864 he was captain and quartermaster on General Sherman’s staff, and was one of the party that we took on our boat from Memphis to Vicksburg, and he had always remembered the great success of that howitzer shell, particularly as it produced a lot of fresh provisions in the shape of geese and ducks, instead of the “salt horse” of which they had had so much and were so tired.


Excerpt from Robert S. Critchell, Recollections of a Fire Insurance Man (Chicago: McClurg & Co., 1909).

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.