The Artist as Journalist

During the Civil War, newspaper and magazine sales soared, as intense public interest demanded more. “Harper’s Monthly” quickly became “Harper’s Weekly,” and stories of the war dominated. Despite a high literacy rate of 80% for the Confederate states and 90% for the Union¹, the customers wanted images.

The newspapers and magazines didn’t have a mechanism to publish the early photographs. That “halftone” process wasn’t invented until 1880.² Publishers occasionally used engravers to render photos into a reproducible format, but mostly, they relied on artists in the field. Artists could quickly move, set up, and sketch battlefield illustrations and paintings that would be turned into engravings.

The most recognizable name of the Civil War artists was Winslow Homer, who became a famous fine artist in subsequent years.

1- Review of James McPherson’s What They Fought Forhttp://www.wsws.org/articles/1999/may1999/mcp1-m19.shtml
2- The History of Photography Timeline – http://photo.net/history/timeline


Weird Weapons of the Civil War, Part Two

Conventional wisdom says that the first tanks were used during World War One. However, there is an example of a self-propelled armored gun constructed for the U.S. Civil War, Supposedly for the Confederacy, but captured and used in a garrison role for a short time. It never saw battle.

Winan's Steam Gun

Winan's Steam Gun

The web site for the Second Maryland Infantry has a good overview of the story. Follow this link to see the Mythbuster’s show on a facsimile of the Winan’s Steam Gun.

I can’t find any actual photos of the gun, but if you have a few thousand dollars, you might be able pick up a supposed salesman’s model, although I’m skeptical that this is any more than a novelty, due to the discrepancies between the stories and the “Ross Winan’s Steam Gun” words on the model. Quite intriguing, though. Check out the photos from the auction at Cowan’s Auctions.


The Battle of Doonesbury

What Civil War site would be complete without discussing cartoonist Garry Trudeau’s slamming Confederate sympathizers and hangers-on? I enjoy reading the reader’s comments, especially, though the pervasive and ignorant comments are still there.

Trudeau confronts the major issues of why the war started, where the Confederate re-enactor claims to “fight” for states rights while ignoring the denial of human rights associated with slavery. Trudeau doesn’t address common reasons soldiers on both sides fought: adventure, money, and a sense of their duty. This oversimplification is stereotypical, and only exacerbates the need to better understand the Civil War.

More on this as soon as I get permission to do some “reprints” from Universal Press Syndicate.


What’s In a Name(sake)? Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Magnificent Yankee

I was named after Oliver Wendell Holmes, supposedly related. I’m not up on genealogy, but there’s supposed to be some lineage through the Hayes (Hays) family somewhere that links me with the two famous OWH: The senior, a physician, Harvard professor, and writer of the poem “Old Ironsides,” and the younger, best known as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who also fought in the Civil War with the 20th Massachusetts regiment, “The Harvard Regiment.”

Holmes was wounded three times during the war: Ball’s Bluff, Antietam, and Second Fredericksburg. The Ball’s Bluff wound was most life-threatening: he was shot in the chest, usually a fatal wound. At Antietam, he was shot in the neck, barely missing his windpipe and jugular vein; he was left for dead on the field. His famous father visited him on the field after the battle.

Holmes was a Unitarian, and a Transcendentalist.


John Wilkes Booth’s FIRST Assassination Attempt

The Civil War was winding to its weary close on March 4, 1865.  President Lincoln and thousands of onlookers braved a drizzly spring day for the second inauguration, “purchased” by Sherman’s capture of Atlanta two months before the November 1864 election.

Booth and Lincoln at the Inauguration

Booth and Lincoln at the Inauguration, from the Library of Congress

John Wilkes Booth apparently attempted to assassinate Lincoln during the inauguration!  The chilling story of this little-known event plays out in this letter from Benjamin Brown French, clerk of the House of Representatives:

I have little doubt that the intention was to assassinate the President on the 4th of March, & circumstances have been brought to my mind which almost convince me that, without knowing what I was doing, I was somewhat instrumental in preventing it. As the procession was passing through the Rotunda toward the Eastern portico, a man jumped from the crowd into it behind the President. I saw him, & told Westfall, one of my Policemen, to order him out. He took him by the arm & stopped him, when he began to wrangle & show fight. I went up to him face to face, & told him he must go back. He said he had a right there, & looked very fierce & angry that we would not let him go on, & asserted his right so strenuously, that I thought he was a new member of the House whom I did not know & I said to Westfall “let him go.” While we were thus engaged endeavouring to get this person back in the crowd, the president passed on, & I presume had reached the stand before we left the man. Neither of us thought any more of the matter until since the assassination, when a gentleman told Westfall that Booth was in the crowd that day, & broke into the line & he saw a police man hold of him keeping him back. W. then came to me and asked me if I remembered the circumstance. I told him I did, & should know the man again were I to see him. A day or two afterward he brought me a photograph of Booth, and I recognized it at once as the face of the man with whom we had the trouble. He gave me such a fiendish stare as I was pushing him back, that I took particular notice of him & fixed his face in my mind, and I think I cannot be mistaken. My theory is that he meant to rush up behind the President & assassinate him, & in the confusion escape into the crowd again & get away. But, by stopping him as we did, the President got out of his reach. All this is mere surmise, but the man was in earnest, & had some errand, or he would not have so energetically sought to go forward…

This story is supported by the evidence in photos of the inauguration, showing booth standing on the platform above the President. Story from the Library of Congress, American Memory Collection.

Booth on the Inauguration Platform, from Lloyd Ostendorf's "Lincoln in Pictures"

Booth on the Inauguration Platform, from Lloyd Ostendorf's "Lincoln in Pictures"


Death and Taxes – The Only Sure Things

Article on income tax during the Civil War from the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin

The Civil War brought about many changes, including the Federal Income tax. The Confederacy had much greater difficulty raising money, and attempted to cope with their lack of currency by printing paper money, resulting in near-worthless money by war’s end.  But the Union’s story is quite interesting. The U.S. Treasury Department sums this up quite well:

When the Civil War erupted, the Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1861, which restored earlier excises taxes and imposed a tax on personal incomes. The income tax was levied at 3 percent on all incomes higher than $800 a year. This tax on personal income was a new direction for a Federal tax system based mainly on excise taxes and customs duties. Certain inadequacies of the income tax were quickly acknowledged by Congress and thus none was collected until the following year.

By the spring of 1862 it was clear the war would not end quickly and with the Union’s debt growing at the rate of $2 million daily it was equally clear the Federal government would need additional revenues. On July 1, 1862 the Congress passed new excise taxes on such items as playing cards, gunpowder, feathers, telegrams, iron, leather, pianos, yachts, billiard tables, drugs, patent medicines, and whiskey. Many legal documents were also taxed and license fees were collected for almost all professions and trades.

The 1862 law also made important reforms to the Federal income tax that presaged important features of the current tax. For example, a two-tiered rate structure was enacted, with taxable incomes up to $10,000 taxed at a 3 percent rate and higher incomes taxed at 5 percent. A standard deduction of $600 was enacted and a variety of deductions were permitted for such things as rental housing, repairs, losses, and other taxes paid. In addition, to assure timely collection, taxes were “withheld at the source” by employers.

The need for Federal revenue declined sharply after the war and most taxes were repealed. By 1868, the main source of Government revenue derived from liquor and tobacco taxes.

Popular opinion and compliance of the first income tax? The Daily Evening Bulletin, (San Francisco, CA) December 24, 1862 printed an article called: Three Months under the Internal Tax Act:

… nothing should make the American prouder than the fact that al classes and conditions of men came up and put their shoulders, without a groan – under such a burden of taxation that was never dreamed of, with patience,  before the war. Men who pinched the pennies in times of peace shell out the dimes and dollars now with religious zeal, because the time has come when their money can help the country.

However, the article does mention some negativity associated with the tax:

The timid fought against its adoption, saying that it would be treated as an infernal, rather than internal act… Occasionally, a man goes on the rampages and promises to be hanged, or worse before he will pay any such &c. Then Collector Patch leaves his dignity at the corner of Clay and Battery Streets, takes his hat and cane, and visits the rampant delinquent. Of course an explanation is forthcoming, and the tax, and little breaches are mended, before they grow important.

While the tax was increasingly unpopular, the man who implemented it, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase’s portrait graces the $10,000 bill, second highest denomination to Woodrow Wilson’s $100,000 bill. The saving grace here? These bills are no longer produced.

Chase on the $10,000 bill, public domain image from mentalfloss.com.


Weird Weapons of the Civil War, Part One

Okay, ever heard of an armored train? They were all the rage during World War Two, especially in the eastern front. But I believe the first armored trains appeared as part of the plan to protect railway workers who repaired train lines from the raiders.

Check out this post, for example: http://www.korns.org/misc/Civil-War-Armored-Trains.htm

Iron Car Battery of the Philadelphia Railway

Iron Car Battery of the Philadelphia Railway

The accompanying article from the London Illustrated Times, June 22, 1861:

RAILROAD BATTERY. A SINGULAR engine of war has just been completed in the United States. The determination of the Federal Government to reconstruct the bridges on the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad, destroyed by a mob from Baltimore, has led to the construction of a railroad-battery by the Federal Governemnt at the locomotive works of Baldwin and Co., Philadelphia. One of the long platform baggage-cars has been fixed with sides and top of thick sheet iron, the sides having portholes and loopholes for musketry. A turn-table has been arranged, on which a rifled cannon is to be placed. The carriage for the gun is so constructed that it can be fired at any angle, and from any one of the portholes in the sides and end of the car. In place of shot or shell from the cannon, pieces of iron punched from locomotive boilers will be used as loads. This car is to be placed in front of a locomotive, with fifty men inside, armed with Minie’ rifles, and with seamen to work the cannon.


The Impact of the Merrimac

Damaged 9 Inch Dahlgren from the Merrimac

Damaged 9 Inch Dahlgren from the Merrimac, damaged in the March 8, 1862 battle with the U.S.S. Cumberland. Image from the U.S. Navy Historic Collection.


For two short months (or long months, depending on your perspective) in 1862, the C.S.S. Virginia, better known in the north as the captured and converted-to-ironclad U.S.S. Merrimac, was the scourge of the U.S. east coast, at least in the imaginations of many. On March 8, the Merrimac lumbered up to the wooden frigates Congress and Cumberland, and easily dispatched them. The next day, the U.S.S. Monitor appeared, and fought the Merrimac to a stalemate. While the supporting flotillas of these ships were vulnerable, The U.S. fleet off Norfolk was held at bay by the Merrimac, and vice-versa, until Huger’s abandonment of Norfolk forced the Confederates to scuttle the Merrimac on April 11.  

Merrimac Detail

Merrimac detail, showing the bow turret ports and smokestack. Image from the U.S. Navy Historic Collection.


The U.S. Navy Historic Collectiondescribes the consternation caused by the Merrimac’s successes:  

Virginia made her first combat sortie on 8 March 1862, steaming down the Elizabeth River from Norfolk and into Hampton Roads. In a historic action that dramatically demonstrated the superiority of armored steam-powered warships over their wooden sailing counterparts, she rammed and sank the big U.S. Navy sloop of war Cumberland and shelled the frigate Congress into submission. In Washington, D.C., many of the Federal Government’s senior officials panicked, convinced that Virginiaposed a grave threat to Union seapower and coastal cities. They were unaware that her serious operational limitations, caused by her deep draft, weak powerplant and extremely poor seakeeping, essentially restricted her use to deep channels in calm, inland waterways.  

Ironclad warfare was keenly noted in Europe, where historical foes England and France began to build iron ships, as noted in this April 25 issue of the Lowell (Massachusetts) Daily Citizen and News:  

IRON-CLAD VESSELS – The late naval contest between the Merrimac and Monitor has stimulated the British to an astonishing degree, lest their boasted supremacy of the sea should yet prove a dry laurel. The course taken by the French emperor in turning out formidable iron vessels from his dockyard has given them much anxlety, but the testing of such vessels has in reality been reserved for the Americans.  

England would soon build ships of iron, or iron frames, including the Confederate commerce raider Shenandoah, launched in 1864, capturing 20+ ships of Union commerce, mostly whalers, firing the last shot of the Civil War (after it was long over) on June 27, 1865 near the Aleutian Islands.  

From the April 26, 1862 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (New York), the scathing report on the continuing existence seems more like an extremist blog post, rather than professional journalism. Yet this sensationalism was probably the best way to boost newspaper sales.  

The Merrimac, supported by a flotilla of smaller vessels, made her appearance in Hampton Roads on the 12th of April, and succeeded in capturing thee small craft lying at a distance from the National fleet.  She, however, made no demonstrations, beyond exchanging a few impotent shots with the iron gunboat Naugatuck, and on the 14th, returned to Norfolk. She does not seem inclined to risk an engagement—probably because she is doing best service in keeping the Union flotilla, including the Monitor idle in Hampton Roads, and preventing its much needed co-operation with General McClellan before Yorktown. At present and if only in this respect, she is worth more than an army of 40,000 men to the rebels!  

So much for the imbecility of the Secretary of Navy! The whole Army of the Potomac is paralyzed by this “checkmating” monster,  at a daily cost equal to that of a half dozen Monitors! And yet the President retains this incubus to the nation in office, apparently ignorant of the fact that his shortcomings will be ultimately visited on his own head!  

The Union was not unaware of the criticism of the press, public support was important to the war effort. These stories probably forced the Union to launch the campaign to take Norfolk by land, depriving the Merrimac of its only harbor. The Confederates scuttled their infamous ship, and relied on the shallow waters of the James River and the batteries at Drewry’s Bluff to keep the Monitor and other Federal gunboats at bay.  With the destruction of the Merrimac, naval control was never again in question, despite some successes of other ironclads, such as the Neuse, Albemarle, and Arkansas, or submarine and torpedo warfare by a desperate Confederate Navy.  

In early 1862, McClellan’s 100,000 man army faced 40,000 Confederates, less than fifty miles from Richmond in the Peninsula campaign, and things looked so bleak for the Confederates, that they began evacuating the capital to Raleigh, North Carolina. But the existence of the Merrimac, combined with Stonewall Jackson’s offensive in the Shenandoah Valley essentially drew a significant number of troops from McClellan’s army, grinding the Union offensive to a halt, and handing the initiative to the new Confederate Commander, Robert E. Lee. How fast can you say, “Antietam?”  


CSS Virginia Home Page


Did John Wilkes Booth Escape?


The consensus is that John Wilkes Booth was killed on April 26, 1865 in a  

Reward Flyer Detail

Reward Flyer from the Alfred Wital Stern Collection of Lincolniana, American Memory Collection of the U.S. Library of Congress

shootout in the barn where he hid, two weeks after assassinating Lincoln. But there have been some doubts that the man carrying Booth’s identification papers was the assassin.   

Avid historic newspaper dealer and researcher Rick Brown recounts the story in fine detail, presenting the conflicting evidence that Booth may have escaped, leaving a patsy holding his identification papers.   

In 1903, Booth’s erstwhile alias, David E. George died in Enid Oklahoma, confessing his identity as Booth on his deathbed. A murmur of public interest stirred, beginning with this article in the newspaper, the Enid Wave:    

The Impression Growing, From Evidence,
Circumstantial and Otherwise, that
the Supposed Remains of
David E. George are None
Other Than the Remains of

His body was mummified, and made the rounds as a sideshow attraction for many years. Finally, the mummy disappeared, pulling off a possible second vanishing act in the 1940’s.   

Satan tempting Booth to the murder of the President

Satan tempting Booth to the murder of the President by J.L. Magee from the Alfred Wital Stern Collection of Lincolniana, American Memory Collection of the U.S. Library of Congress

Lincoln’s assassination fascinated much of  the world in 1865, and still does today.  This image detail illustrates the assassination as Satan’s work; note the plumed skin-tight hat Satan wears, as well as the light gleaming from Satan’s orifices. 

Details on the possible escape and cover-up can be found at www.historybuff.com, along with additional fascinating facts. Credit goes to R.J. Brown  and the Newspaper Collectors Society of America for this work. Thanks Rick!   


Historic Marker - Garrett's Farm

Historic Marker - Garrett's Farm site near where the shootout took place. Creative Commons image "Garrett Farm" by Sweet Clementine at flickr.com.


Near Fredericksburg, Virginia, the site of the shootout is in the middle of the median of busy U.S. Highway 301 a few miles into Fort A.P. Hill. There is an historic market in Port Royal, that tells you the actual site is two miles further south. Click on the picture to view waymarking information.


A Glance at the Irish Warriors

There’s a story that on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone’s Irish. Today, I wear an outfit of green, in homage to people of Irish descent, and to that supposed smidgen of Irish blood running through my veins.

I was born in New Orleans, in a hospital in a rough part of town called the “Irish Channel,” settled by immigrants from you-know-where. In the 1840’s and 50’s, New Orleans was a popular destination for Irish fleeing famine and opression. The warm weather, and the catholic population attracted many from Ireland, many of whom fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

The Irish are stereotyped for drinking and fighting, as evidenced in the 1940 book, Foreigners in the Confederacy by Ella Lonn:

“Certain racial characteristics undoubtedly contributed to make Irish troops successful soldiers. The chief of these train is his note love of a fight, & personaI fisticuff encounter with a fellow Irishman or a mortal combat on the field of battle.”

The 1904 book Four Years with Marse Robert by Joseph Stiles reinforces this stereotype with this story:

There was an Irishman named Burgoyne in the Ninth Louisiana.—Harry Hayes’ brigade, typical son of the Emerald Isle, over six feet high in his stockings (when he had any), broad-shouldcred and muscular, slightly bow-legged, and springy as a cat; as full of fire and fight and fun as he could hold; indeed, often a little fuller than he could hold, and never having been known to get his fill of noise and scrimmage. Whenever the Ninth supported Hilary Jones, if the musketry fire slackened while the artillery was in action, Burgoync would slip over to the nearest gun and take some one’s place at the piece.

Seeing us unlimber in the street, as above related, he had come over now for this purpose, seized the sponge-staff and rammed home the charge, and was giving vent to his enthusiasm in screams and bounds that would have done credit to a catamount.

Standing on the other side of the gun, with his arms folded, was a Federal Irishman, a prisoner just captured ~ a man even taller than Burgoyne and somewhat heavier in frame, altogether a magnificent fellow. Catching Burgoyne’s brogue, he broke out –

“Hey, ye spalpane, say, what are yez doing in the Ribil army?”

Burgoyne’s retort came as quick as a flash, “Bedad, ain’t an Irishman a freeman? Haven’t I as good a right to fight for the Ribils as ye have to fight for the – – Yanks?” “O. yes!”  pursued the Federal Irishman, “I know ye, now you’ve turned your ougly mug to me. I had the plizure of kicking yez out from behind Mayre’s wall, that time Sedgewick lammed yer brigade out of there!”

“Yer a – -liar,” shouted the other, “and I’ll just knock yer teeth down yer oug1y throat for that same lie,” and suiting the action to the word, he vaulted lightly over the gun, and before we had time to realize the extreme absurdity the thing, the two had squared off against each other in most approved style and the first blow had passed, for Federal Irishman was as good grit as ours.

Just as the two giants were about to rush to close qu ters, but before any blood had been drawn in the round, I noticed that the right fist of the Federal gladiator was gory and the next movement revealed the stumps of two shattered fingers, which he was about to drive full into Burgoyne’s face.

“Hold!,” I cried, “Your man’s wounded. On an instant Burgoyne’s fists fell.

“You’re a trump, Pat; give me your well hand,” said he. “We’ll fight this out some other time. I didn’t see ye were hurt.”

There’s plenty more stories about the Irish on their way, Meagher’s Irish Brigade, Berdan’s Sharpshooters, and Patrick Cleburne, stay tuned.

So what’s a “Spalpane,” anyway? OED definition #2 for Spalpeen is:, “Used contemptuously: A low or mean fellow; a scamp, a rascal.” There you go, now you can insult someone without them even knowing it.

SOURCES: Civil War Times Illustrated – July 1973, Google Books, Oxford English Dictionary