Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Civil War Oddities #23

The fearsome Confederate ironclad ram Arkansas dueled the Federal gunboat Carondelet at the mouth of the Yazoo River in July 1862. Northern courage and Southern ingenuity produced a drawn battle. Shells could not damage the ram, and the Federal boat, when shot through by cannon fire, drew alongside the Arkansas and sent a boarding party onto the decks of the ram.

Once there, the daring Yankees were at a loss, for the ram's crew merely retired below decks, slammed the iron hatches after them, and left no one to fight. A stalemate resulted.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Civil War Oddities #22

Early in the war, when Confederate invasion of Washington was threatened, field guns were placed in hallways of the Capitol and Treasury building.

The iron plate’s cast for the dome of the Capitol was raised on heavy timbers between columns of the building as breastworks. Statuary and pictures were shielded with heavy planking, and an army kitchen was set up in the basement.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Civil War Oddities #21

In the Confederate retreat as the battle of Shiloh ended, three gray-clad officers rode past Colonel A. K. Johnson, of the 28th Illinois regiment. Johnson chased and fired at one rider. The victim slumped on his horse’s neck, but Johnson, thinking this a feint, rode nearer and seized the Confederate by the hair to drag him from the saddle. A tug brought his a trophy, a wig. The Confederate officer was dead, and soon toppled to the ground.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Civil War Oddities #20

Secretary of War Simon Cameron, a Pennsylvania politician in Lincoln’s Cabinet, opposed early orders for European rifles, saying that these should be bought at home, and that the North already had too many guns for the men at hand. One result: The Confederates were able to reach some markets first, and import arms they would otherwise have lost.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Civil War Oddities #19

Secretary of War Simon Cameron, a Pennsylvanian politician in Lincoln’s Cabinet, opposed early orders for European rifles, saying that these should be bought at home, and that the North already had too many guns for the men at hand. One result: The Confederates were able to reach some markets first, and import arms they would otherwise have lost.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Civil War Oddities #18

The Union Army had one company made up entirely of pugilists. There were others composed of musicians, farmers or butchers. One Temperance Company went into battle stone sober, tradition has it. The 126th New York was the YMCA Regiment. Nicholas Busch, later Lieutenant Governor of Iowa, formed a woodchopper’s corps of German immigrants who were unable to fight, and had them cut and haul wood for Mississippi River army steamers, pausing now and then to beat off guerrillas.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Bridgett Schneider of Random Acts Of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK), R.I.P.

It is with great sadness that I report that Bridgett Schneider, best known as the primary person behind Random Acts Of Genealogical Kindness, passed away today. She was 64 years old.

The last message I received from Bridgett was on October 18 when she wrote:
RAOGK has been around with our volunteers helping other genealogists get copies of documents required to prove your lineage back to Adam and Eve (giggle). Pictures of your ancestors' tombstones were also high on the lists of requests. I hope everyone got as much service as we were able to give.

Our heart is saddened that we will be offline for quite awhile. Between computer problems (harddrive turning to toast) and the health of the administrator very questionable ... RAOGK, after 11 years, will cease to exist for awhile.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Civil War Oddities #17

Despite the neat phrase, which has come down to us, “The Blue and the Gray,” uniforms of the armies were fantastically varied, and often perplexing.

When the war opened, federal troops were often clad in “Standard Gray.” The 3rd New York, the 1st Vermont and almost all Indiana troops wore gray with black facings, just as did Confederate troops from Georgia.

The 1st Iowa dressed like troops from Louisiana. Men of Maine, Kansas, and Nebraska wore Gray.

A New Jersey battalion of cavalry wore blue and yellow, and was known as “The Butterflies.” A Polish regiment from New York wore traditional native caps, square, and blazing in red and white.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Abraham Lincoln’s Air Force

One of the more bizarre scenes of the Civil War unfolded for a stunned audience at Washington’s Columbian Armory on June 18,1861. A giant balloon, the Enterprise, inflated with 20,000 cubic feet of gas and gay with British and American flags, swayed over the capital’s treetops. She carried a full set of signal apparatus. Beneath her trailed an invisible innovation, a hair like wire wrapped in green silk, which was paid out from a reel at a station below. The master of the globe was no less spectacular that his vehicle.

He was Dr. Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe, son of a New Hampshire politician and the husband of a French beauty, the daughter of an officer of Louis Philippe’s Royal Guard.
Dr. Lowe had excited much of the country for several years with his threats to sail on a transatlantic voyage using the eastward moving currents of air high over the ocean. The balloon rose 500 feet in the June sky. There was soon the historic chattering of a telegraph key at the ground station.

The message was addressed to President Lincoln:

Sir: This point of observation commands an area nearly 50 miles in diameter. The city, with its girdle of encampments, presents a superb scene. I have pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station.
Signed T.S.C. Lowe.

Other messages were sent from the balloon to distant cities by regular wire.
Lincoln replied to his telegram and when the demonstration was over, a crew towed the balloon through the city’s streets and anchored it on the White House lawn. Lincoln inspected it from an upper window. The Enterprise spent the night there, and the next day Lincoln took a closer look. Some reporters said that he actually made an ascension with Lowe. All this was a prelude to the first formal use of aerial observation by armed forces, but through Lowe was to become the first chief of the Federal Balloon Corps, he had predecessors as an aerial warrior.

The first balloon bought for American military use was an $850.00 model of raw India silk built by one John Wise of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The officer who sponsored Wise was Major Hartman Bache, the grandson of Benjamin Franklin, who had been the first American to suggest the use of balloons in war. Wise and his gasbag reached Washington before the battle of Manassas, but they missed the fighting despite heroic efforts. A crew towed the balloon from Washington with a mule drawn wagon, dodging trees and telegraph poles for hours on a dark night, the struggling down a canal bank, the crewmen often flung into the water in an effort to guide their monstrous charge.
An officer who heard the guns of Bull Run in the distance impetuously whipped up his mules and, abandoning rope controls, tore the balloon in trees and deprived the Federal Army of its expected observation post. The repaired balloon escaped from Washington a few days later and was saved from Confederate hands only by alert troops who shot down the southbound runaway. Wise resigned amid sharp criticism, having served without pay, rations or lodging.

The first really effective balloon observation on behalf of an army came on July 31, 1861 at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, with the canny General Ben Butler as sponsor. The balloonist was John LaMountain of Troy, New York, an aerialist who had gained prewar fame by sailing 1,100 miles in less than twenty hours in an eastward trip from St. Louis. LaMountain found that Confederate camps surrounding the fort were less menacing that Butler had imagined. 

He also provoked the first known report on military aviation when the Confederate Colonel Robert Johnson sent the message: “The enemy made two attempts to inspect us in balloons.”
It was also LaMountain who used the first ‘aircraft carrier’ when he hitched his balloon to the armed transport Fanny and rose above the waters of the Chesapeake to peer at the enemy on August 1, 1861. This aeronaut added more firsts by making a night aerial reconnaissance, this time anchored to a tug near Fortress Monroe. He estimated Confederate strength within his view by counting the number of tent lights.

He provoked the first “blackout” for General Beauregard had his camp lights covered and dimmed where the balloons operated. It remained for Professor Lowe to outstrip all rivals and organize the army’s balloon corps.

He also designed the first “true aircraft carrier,” the converted barge USS George Washington Parke Custis, which he fitted for efficient balloon ascensions. Both Lowe and LaMountain, who were hired as civilians, were paid about ten dollars a day plus expenses, but the professor, though much younger and less experienced, became the dominant figure in the war’s aerial operations.

He established several ‘firsts” in his career.

The pioneer “antiaircraft” battery fired him upon in August 1861, near Arlington. His opponent, Captain E. P. Alexander, CSA, who was to become a military balloonist himself on occasion, reported that his guns threw shells so near the Federal balloon that Lowe “came down as fast as gravity could bring him.” The birth of modern artillery fire control by aerial reconnaissance was in September 1861, near Washington’s Chain Bridge; later in the war Lowe’s men directed Federal mortar fire with great accuracy. The balloon chief drew from the press ridicule that has a strange sound in modern ears. The most cutting, by a Cincinnati newspaper, was a satirical report that “an army of airborne troops” would leave Camp Whatawhooper to relieve a Federal fort in Florida. But alert officers saw the great value of Lowe’s work, and General McClellan went aloft with him several times.

Despite the intense interest of public and some military men, the corps was disbanded in June 1863, after service on both Eastern and Western fronts. At its peak it had no more than seven trained balloonists in the field, and half a dozen balloons. Some possibilities were overlooked, aerial photography, for example, which was proposed, but not used.

Only one corpsman is known to have died in action, a civilian telegraph operator from Washington, D.D. Lathrop, who stepped on a Confederate booby trap torpedo at the base of a telegraph pole near Yorktown, Virginia. The blast tore off his legs and killed him.

The balloons were made of pongee in double thicknesses, each sewn by a team of fifty seamstresses, and fashioned in gored sections. A valve at the top of the bag was sealed with a gum of paraffin, beeswax, and other substances, to be opened by a rope when he operator wished to descend. Excess gases could escape from an open tube at the bottom of the sac. The gas was hydrogen, produced in mobile equipment from the action of sulphuric acid on iron filings. Wagons carried wooden tanks that were lined for the purpose, and gases were cooled copper pipes passed through water and purified by passage through lime.

Only once, during the retreat of the Seven Days battles before Richmond, did Confederates capture aerial equipment, but they nabbed three gas generators, ready for action. The Confederate balloon service was skimpy indeed, and there are few recorded instances of its work. The first ascension is said to have been made by Lieutenant John Randolph Bryan on the peninsula below Richmond, a flight cut short by the close firing of the enemy, which soon drove Bryan to earth, where he tried to resign from ballooning. General Joseph E. Johnston declined sharply: “Absolutely not! You’re the only experienced balloonist in the Confederate army.”

On another occasion, General Beauregard is said to have sent up a balloon he obtained from private sources, but the ascent was not successful. The Creole general was undismayed; he later used a balloon in the defense of Charleston. Lieutenant Bryan got his fill of the balloon service on a final flight when his bag escaped and he drifted over Federal lines. In panic, he destroyed his identification papers and the notes he had made. When the wind changed and he floated over water, Bryan dropped his clothing overboard, prepared to swim for his life. He landed at last on land, in the midst of a Confederate camp where he was unknown. He was for a time in danger of being shot as a spy, and persuaded the soldiers that he was one of them only after a desperate harangue.

Federals once thwarted Rebel ingenuity. General Longstreet recorded that some unsung hero proposed that the South be called upon for an ultimate sacrifice, the silk dresses of its women. They came in, evidently in plenty, for the general wrote: “We soon had a great patchwork ship of many varied hues which was ready for use in the Seven Days campaign.” The only source of gas was in Richmond, and the balloon was inflated there, tied to a locomotive, and run down the York River Railroad as far as possible. One day, when it was on a steamer going down the James River towards battle, disaster struck. The tide went out, and the boat and balloon were left helpless on a sand bar. Longstreet mourned it. The Federals gathered it in, and with it the last silk dress in the Confederacy.

This capture was the meanest trick of the war and one that will never be forgotten.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Civil War Oddities #16

Slaves in Virginia could be hired for $30.00 a month in 1863, yet the pay of an Army private was $11.00 per month. Confederate pay rose to $18.00 per month the next year.

Union privates drew only $16.00, but the gold value of their pay was more then seven times greater than that of Confederates.

John M. Ozanne, a French sharpshooter in the Southern Army, became a true hero to those in gray by resigning his lieutenant’s commission in protest, saying that he could not buy food and clothing on his small pay. The resulting change in the law provided supplies for officers.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Civil War Oddities #15

A nameless German soldier with the Army of Northern Virginia lived like a hermit in every camp, and in winter hibernated like a primitive man in a hut of leaves and brush, living a life apart. His language was unintelligible, and he is said to have served through the war without exchanging an understandable word with his fellows.

Major Robert Anderson, the Union commander at Fort Sumter as the war opened, was a former slave-owner. He at first found himself at old Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor, a spot where his father had served before him, in the Revolution.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Civil War Oddities #14

One Claude Pardigon, a Frenchman en route to join the Southern cause, challenged the skipper of a blockade-runner to a dual because he did not provide toothbrushes for passengers.

Paul A. Fusz, who enlisted as a Confederate private in 1861 at he age of fifteen, was caught with two other soldiers smuggling quinine through the Federal lines. The smugglers chewed up their papers, but their captors shot the older two. The tradition is that the pardoning of Fusz was Lincoln’s last official act.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Civil War Oddities #13

Some Mexican companies of the Confederate armies gained a reputation for unreliability. Private Juan Ivra was not of this stripe. In one Western action he staged a one-man charge into the faces of forty astonished Federals, and forced them to flee.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Civil War Oddities #12

A young Confederate officer, Captain S. Isadore Guillet, was fatally shot on the same horse on which three of his brothers had been previously killed. He willed the animal to a nephew as he died.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Civil War Oddities #11

Sergeant Henderson Virden of the 2nd Arkansas went to war at the advanced age of twenty-five, and for a year had no word from his wife and children, back in Pea Ridge. In March, he found himself marching through familiar country, and was soon fighting across his own farm in the battle of Pea Ridge, or Elkhorn Tavern.

Virden was wounded and carried into his own house, where his wife tended him until he could return to his regiment. During his convalescence Mrs. Virden conceived a son, Wiley, who became the father of eight children. The youngest of this third generation, Colonel John M. Virden, was in 1960, as the Centennial of the war approached, one of the country’s most devout Confederates, and an editor of military service newspapers in Washington, D.C., after a wartime career with Claire Chenault’s Flying Tigers and a hitch as press-relations man for General Eisenhower at SHAPE headquarters in Paris, France.

Grandpa Virden lived to be ninety-three, with a Yankee Minie Ball under the skin of his back and a huge white scar on his chest.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Civil War Oddities #10

Though more than 27,000 were casualties of the battle of Chickamauga, and 4,000 were killed, only one soldier is known to lie on the field today.

He is Private John Ingraham, of the 1st Confederate Regiment, Georgia Volunteers, and an orphan who was buried by comrades where he fell and remained there despite removal of all other known bodies in development of the battlefield park.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Civil War Oddities #9

Two brothers, Jack and Jasper Walker, of Charlotte, North Carolina, fought at Gettysburg with the 13th North Carolina. Jasper, the younger, was wounded on July 1, as the fifth color bearer of his regiment to be shot. A surgeon amputated his leg. Jasper was captured and sent to a Northern prison.

On the retreat from Gettysburg, Jack Walker was also shot and lost his leg by amputation. He went to another Federal prison.

The brothers returned home after the war to become prosperous citizens, familiar in the town as they stumped about on cork legs. On Jasper’s wedding day, when he accidently fell and broke his artificial limb, he borrowed the leg of his gallant brother – a perfect fit.

This, as Confederate veterans were fond of telling youngsters, was the only case on record in which one man married while standing on the leg of another.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Civil War Oddities #8

The 8th Wisconsin regiment had one of the most remarkable mascots in the Union Army: Old Abe, a lively eagle. Abe had been brought to war by a soldier who had traded for the bird with an Indian on the frontier, in exchange for five bushels of corn. In camp, the bird followed his master like a puppy.

In battle Abe invariably soared aloft until the shooting stopped, and then returned to the 8th Wisconsin. He feared artillery fire, and flew so high during engagements that he was almost lost to sight and had only a birds’-eye view of most battles in the Western theater. He sustained at least one wound, but survived to live for fifteen years in the Wisconsin State House, and today, a gem of the taxidermist’s art, is on display in the Wisconsin State Museum.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Civil War Oddities #7

Two of the Civil War’s most famous, and bloody battles may have been fought because of trifles. Gettysburg, because a few soldiers needed shoes, and their column was sent to that Pennsylvania village for them. Sharpsburg, or Antietam, because a Confederate office wrapped three cigars with a vital army order, and carelessly dropped or discarded them. This order, found by a Federal soldier, enabled the usually cautious General McClellan to attack Lee’s divided army.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

California in the Civil War

Most people know that the Civil War, fought between 1861-1865, began with the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 in Charleston, South Carolina.  But they don't know that California played a significant role in this War Between the States, even if we are way over here on the West Coast.
California had become a state in 1850, and in 1859 the California legislature approved the division of California into two states, upper and lower California. Due to the rumors of war, this decision was never acted upon, but it signified the social, economic and environmental differences between the two regions.
Even though Southern California was part of a free Union state, it had strong Confederate sympathies. These Confederate ties were due to the large number of southerners who had transplanted to the Southern California area. This partiality was made evident in the 1860 presidential election in which Lincoln received only 25% of the Los Angeles vote.
Once the war began in 1861, the Confederacy began eyeing the possibility of gaining Southern California as a Confederate state. Not only did the state have gold, the Union blockade of all the Southern ports gave the harbors in Southern California a great appeal. Without the accessibility of Europe, the South had no market to export their cotton for income, and no source for importing the supplies needed for war.
As early as July of 1861, a group of Texans, led by Confederate Lt. Colonel John Baylor, had captured the southern half of both New Mexico and Arizona territories (they were not yet states) and named it the Confederate Territory of Arizona. In the Fall of 1861, Confederate Brigadier General Henry Sibley was given permission by Jefferson Davis to open a wider corridor to California through the upper New Mexico and Arizona territories, and to capture the gold fields in San Francisco.
The fighting raged up and down the Rio Grande River with Sibley fighting Union Colonel Edward Canby in an attempt to take control of the Union forts lining the great river, the border between Texas and New Mexico territory.
Back in Los Angeles, the danger of a takeover from within was becoming alarming. In April of 1861, the Union War Department ordered Major James Henry Carleton and his First Dragoons from Fort Tejon to Los Angeles to protect a one-man quartermaster depot occupied solely by Captain Winfield Scott Hancock, chief quartermaster for the District of Southern California. (Hancock would be a General by the battle of Gettysburg). The Dragoons settled into a temporary tent encampment just south of the depot and named it Camp Fitzgerald. This became a popular attraction because of the 36 camels the Dragoons brought with them from Fort Tejon. This camp was abandoned after a few months in favor of a new site named Camp Latham located in Culver City. This camp would not last long either, when it was decided that a post nearer the harbor was needed. The first site chosen was a half-mile from the harbor on a low sandy plain where the old and leaky tents gave little protection from the wind, sand or rain. This location was named Camp Drum and it was from this camp that newly promoted Colonel Carleton and the California Column would head out in April of 1862, to help stop the Confederate invasion of the New Mexico and Arizona territories.
When the California Column finally reached the Rio Grande River in August of 1862, the Confederate troops had retreated and the threat of invasion of California and the western territories was effectively over. Parts of the California Column were scattered throughout the Southwest, occupying the forts, dealing with the Indians and protecting the territory from any further Confederate invasion for the remainder of the war.
Meanwhile, Winfield Scott Hancock had become friends with a prominent Los Angeles citizen and fervent Unionist, Phineas Banning. Banning had become wealthy by establishing a booming freight business in the New San Pedro area, which he later renamed "Wilmington" after his birthplace in Delaware. Hancock and Banning agreed upon the need for a strong Union military presence, so Banning, along with a business partner, B.D. Wilson, "donated" a tract of land to the U.S. Government for the building of permanent facilities. Wilson, a prominent businessman in his own right, was the first mayor of Los Angeles, a wealthy rancher, and later, grandfather to General George S. Patton. Banning and Wilson would each receive a payment of $1.00 for the donated land. This area, which was on higher ground and about a mile away from Camp Drum, would become the site of the Drum Barracks. It was an ideal location because of the nearby wharf owned by Banning for receiving supplies and troops and for a jumping off point for troops going to the East.
This deal was beneficial for Banning in several ways. He was promised the military shipping contracts to supply the bases in the Southwest, he was helping to protect his state from a hostile, Confederate takeover, and the land he and Wilson "donated" would turn into an profitable investment in years to come.
Eventually California would have over 17,000 volunteers. The California 100 was a handpicked company raised in San Francisco and sent east to fight with the Massachusetts cavalry.  The Drum Barracks would be the staging area for over 8,000 of those soldiers headed out to the Southwest. This strong military presence at the hot spots of Southern hostility had the desired effect; trouble was confined to a few demonstrations and public display of the Stars and Bars for the balance of the war years and California remained a firm Union state.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Civil War Oddities #6

Of the future members of the United States Supreme Court who were fighting age during the Civil War, seven were in uniform. Four fought for the Union: Oliver Wendell Holmes, John M. Harlan, William B. Woods, and Stanley Matthews. Three fought for the Confederacy: Edward D. White, Horace H. Lurton and Lucius Q. C. Lamar.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Civil War Oddities #5

A Monsieur Chillon, a French army veteran who had migrated to California, walked cross-country to war in 1861, through Indian territory accompanied only by his donkey, Jason, with whom he slept.

Chillon was welcomed by the French-speaking 3rd Louisiana of the Confederate Army and settled down. There was one trouble: the regiment’s colonel bore a strong resemblance to old Chillon, and at bedtime Jason invariably pushed into the commander’s tent and tried to curl up next to the officer, to the joyous yelping of the troops.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Three Million Crime, Court And Convict Records to be Digitised at the UK's National Archives

The U.K. National Archives' crime, courts and convicts collection is to be transcribed, digitised and published online by brightsolid, following an open tender process.

Comprising bound volumes and loose papers dating from 1782 onwards, this vast collection includes records from the Home Office, Prison Commission, Metropolitan Police, Central Criminal Court and the Admiralty.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Civil War Oddities #4

An Irishman in Confederate service, Captain Richard W. Dowling, nineteen of the Davis Guards, won one of the war’s most striking victories. With 43 men armed with rifles and six small cannon he defended Sabine Pass, Texas, in September, 1863, driving off a Federal fleet which tried to land about 15, 000 men.

Dowling sank one gunboat, disabled and captured two others, and turned away the rest of the fleet. He took 400 prisoners, all without the loss of a man.

This was the only command of record in the war to get its whole muster roll into official reports. All the men got silver medals from Jefferson Davis, the only such given by the Confederacy.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Abraham Lincoln, The Machine Gun and the Civil War

The deadly stutter of the machine gun rang over several Civil War battlefields, thanks to the vision and persistence of Abraham Lincoln, but its value as an exterminator was lost on the nation, thanks to a stubborn Federal chief of ordnance.

In early June 1861, Lincoln met the first known salesman of machine guns, J.D. Mills of New York, who led the President to the loft of a carriage shop near Willard’s Hotel. Lincoln was an immediate convert.

The gun was mounted on artillery wheels, and atop its barrel was a hopperful of empty metal cartridge cases that dropped one by one into a revolving cylinder as Lincoln turned a crank. Each cartridge was struck by a firing pin and ejected.

A coffee-mill gun,” Lincoln said. The name stuck for the duration of the war, though Mills insisted upon calling it “The Union Repeating Gun.” Not even the name of its inventor is now known, though it was probably the conception of Edward Nugent or William Palmer, New Yorkers who battled over its patent rights.

A few days after Lincoln’s inspection, the gun was fired at the Washington arsenal before the President, five generals, and three Cabinet members. Some of the generals wanted the gun at once, and Lincoln pressed his chief of ordnance, General James W. Ripley, for action. For months he got none.

Ripley was in his middle sixties, an overworked veteran of almost half a century in the army. He presided over a tiny ordnance office of sixty-four men. He had always been hardheaded; as a lieutenant in the war against the Creeks he had defied Andrew Jackson in behalf of army regulations, and had been threatened with hanging if he did not obey orders. He had served at Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor during the first Secession crisis, also under Andrew Jackson.

Ripley believed that the Civil War would be short, and that orthodox weapons were essential. He protested against the flood of new weapon proposals on the ground that the army still lacked conventional small arms. He was secretive to the point of denying personal information to editors of an encyclopedia. After three years of war in which he struggled valiantly to arm the Union forces in his own way, he was forced to retire, derided by the press as an old fogy. He had managed to block many a promising new weapon.

Lincoln was also stubborn. He saw two or three other rapid-firing guns in 1861, and in October, when Salesman Mills returned with ten of his coffee-mill guns, Lincoln bought them without consulting anyone, at a price of $1,300 each. It was the first machine gun order in history.

Not long after, on December 19, 1861, General McClellan bought fifty of these guns on a cost-plus basis; they eventually cost $735 each.

Two weeks later a pair of the guns went into the field for their debut. The officer involved was Colonel John Geary, a seasoned hero of the Mexican War, first mayor of San Francisco, Governor of Kansas, later to become Governor of Pennsylvania. He presided over the first battle test of machine-gun fire, without knowing whether it was in the least effective.

His 28th Pennsylvania Volunteers guarded some twenty four miles of the Potomac around Harpers Ferry, and it is surmised that in one of the frequent skirmishes here in January-February, 1862, some Confederate Soldier became the first victim of the ‘rain of death.”

On March 29, in a later test with the enemy at Middleburg, Virginia, there was still no one to make an accurate estimate of the worth of the guns. But of Middleburg, at least, there is a suggestion of proof. A Captain Bartlett, in a discussion a month later at New York’s Cooper Institute, said that a coffee-mill gun opened fire on Confederate cavalry at 800 yards, cutting it to pieces, and forcing survivors to flee. The Confederates, in any event, did not know what hit them, perhaps because the guns used conventional Minie balls.

Whatever the mysterious captain thought, Colonel Geary was unimpressed, for an April 28 he returned the guns to Washington, saying that after many trials he must reject them as ‘inefficient and unsafe to the operators.”

There were other trials. General John C. Fremont, the colorful explorer who commanded in West Virginia, sent insistent dispatches to Ripley, saying that experiments with the coffee-mill guns were “satisfactory” and demanding that he be sent sixteen of them. Ripley replied characteristically:

Have no Union Repeating Guns on hand, and am not aware that any have been ordered.

When the President was called into the controversy, Ripley countered with the unfavorable report filed by Geary and Fremont was soon gone from his doorstep, defeated by Stonewall Jackson, shuffled in command, and resigned from service. There dangled from this record a mystery, however: When Jackson captured Fremont’s stores at Harpers Ferry, a Richmond newspaper listed as among the loot “17 revolving guns.

In April 1862, from near Yorktown, a New York Post reporter wrote the first account of a machine gun in action. He accurately described the hopper and crank, said that half a dozen of the weapons were used by the 56th New York Volunteers, Colonel Charles H. Van Wyck commanding, and added, “The balls flew thick and fast, and the Yankee invention must have astonished the other side.”

There were occasional mentions of the guns thereafter as McClellan advanced on Richmond. Several Pennsylvania regiments were armed with them. It was June 18, at Golding’s Farm, that George Wills, Company D, 49th Pennsylvania, emerged as the first-known machine gunner, for he got a thigh wound while firing and was embedded in a regimental history.

I few weeks later the Scientific America said a requiem for the weapons. They had “proved to be of no practical value to the Army of the Potomac, and are now laid up in a storehouse in Washington.”

Even afterwards officers ordered them from Ripley, who actually sent some to General Rosecrans in the West, though they were delayed in transit and missed the battle of Chickamauga.

Young Captain David Porter of the Federal Navy, stationed on the Mississippi, ordered four of the guns after a test; at forty yards he hit the head of a keg six out of ten times.

And from the Yazoo River front there was the tale of another test of the coffee-mill guns, when a sliver of lead flew from one of the bullets and struck General W. T. Sherman in the leg, the first reported high-brass casualty of the weapon.

Then belatedly, came a gifted inventor, Dr. Richard J. Gatling, a one-time North Carolina farm boy, who patented a six-barrel machine gun November 4, 1862, and later adapted it to use the new steel-jacketed cartridge. Gatling tried to interest Lincoln, who by then had turned to other weapons, and few of the improved guns got into service. General Ben Butler ordered a dozen, and one of these is said to have helped kill Confederates near Petersburg as the end of the war drew nigh. Three of the weapons helped guard the New York Times building in the draft riots of July 1863.

The guns were to make Gatling rich and famous, even to the point of commemoration in gangster parlance; “gat.” But the doctor bore the taint of being a Copperhead, reputedly a member of the secret society plotting to seize Border States for the Confederacy, and his reputation worked against his gun, especially since he was said to have offered it to the Confederates as well.

It was more than a year after the end of the war, on August 14, 1866, when the United States Army became the world’s first to adopt a machine gun, Gatling’s.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Civil War Oddities #3

Federal ordnance men turned down the Spencer repeating breech-loading rifle in 1860, and did not get it into the hands of troops in quantity until the end of the war. The theory fir their refusal: Soldiers would fire too fast, and waste ammunition,

Firing on both sides was so inaccurate that soldiers estimated it took a man’s weight in lead to kill a single enemy in battle. A Federal expert said that each Confederate who was shot required 240 pounds of powder and 900 pounds of lead.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Civil War Oddities #2

If the Civil War had a champion soldier, he must have been George Bernhart Zimpleman, of Terry’s Texas Rangers CSA, A private by choice, who went through more than 400 battles and skirmishes up to May 1865. He led his regiment in the number of horses shot from under him, and suffered two wounds, one of which maimed him for life.