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This is the archive for February 2008

Friday, February 29, 2008


Thursday, February 28, 2008. 1:10 p.m.

Video camera: check
Video camera batteries charged: check
Blank video tape: go to the store
Digital camera: check
Extra batteries for the camera: check
Blank memory card: check
Notebook: check

There are a few more things to do and then I’ll be on my way to Richmond. I hadn’t planned on going back so soon, but there’s a purpose in going, as there is always a purpose in going. I asked a couple of people who had been there what they thought of Richmond. The universal response was “It’s neither here nor there.”

Having long been fascinated by what has become known as the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid I found a two-day tour, February 29th to March 1st, sponsored by the Civil War Education Association that was going to retrace the ill-fated hoof prints of Union cavalry under the command of Judson Kilpatrick, who set off to free Union Prisoners of War at Libby prison and Belle Isle. That attempt led to the death of Col. Ulric Dahlgren and the purported discovery of orders to assassinate Jefferson Davis and members of the Confederate Cabinet. Whether real or forgeries, those documents gave an excuse to the Confederate Secret Service to set in motion their own diabolical plans in the North, including efforts to burn New York City and Chicago to the ground.

Having a rudimentary understanding of the events prior to, during and after the raid, the upcoming tour inspired me to do more reading. Eric Wittenberg was more than kind to send two chapters from a biography he’s writing on Ulric Dahlgren. After all, as I told Bob Maher, Director of the CWEA, I didn’t want to find myself asking dumb questions like “What was the name of the little Shetland pony Ulric Dahlgren rode on the raid?”

Thursday, February 28, 2008

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Walter Bowie, Wat for short, broke ranks with his father and 2nd cousin Oden Bowie, both of whom favored Maryland's continuing loyality to the Union, gave up his law practice in Upper Marlboro, and rode south into Virginia, where he was commissioned a Captain in the Confederate Provisional Army. Wat, however, was not assigned to any command or Regiment. Clearly he possessed talents useful to the Confederacy beyond orchestrating men in combat. Described in an article by Earl Eisenhart as “tall, handsome, and an accomplished horseman,” Bowie possessed an intimate knowledge of southern Maryland counties, not only as defined by its geography, but by its residents as well. His role, simply defined, was to act as an agent for the Confederate Secret Service, to recruit Marylanders for service both in the army and as spies. Official Confederate service records provide sparse information beyond the fact that he enlisted as a Private on an unknown date and later served in Co. B of John Mosby’s Virginia Cavalry.

Whether Wat knew John Surratt, Mary’s son, or Dr. Samuel Mudd before the war is unclear, but he gained familiarity with both at least shortly after open warfare broke out. Both the Surratt Tavern and Mudd farm were well known among locals for providing safe haven to Confederate agents. During Mudd’s trial as a Lincoln assassination conspirator, his own slaves testified to taking food to men who were secreted on the property. Those same witnesses identified Wat by name as one of those exchanging mail and documents with Mudd on a number of occasions.

Bowie’s service to the Confederacy almost came to an abrupt end on October 14, 1862, when he was arrested by Union detectives and charged with espionage. Held at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, it’s rumored that family members bribed guards, allowing Wat to “escape.”

Seven months later he and a companion Charles Hume were arrested while attempting to cross the Potomac into Virginia. Unbeknownst to his captors, Wat had secreted drawings of the defenses surrounding Washington on his person. Escorted on horseback toward Point Lookout, Bowie and Hume made an attempt to overpower their guards. Wat succeeded in wresting a sidearm from one, killing the man in the process. Hume was less fortunate, falling dead from a gunshot wound just as Wat spurred his own horse to flight.

Three days later an exhausted and starving Wat appeared at the plantation of a relative. Taken into the house he remained as darkness enveloped the property. His boast that he had successfully shaken any pursuit rang hollow when Union troops surrounded the manor house and demanded his surrender. Seemingly always clever and quick on his feet, Wat disguised himself as a female slave and walked out the back door of the house, at the same time his Uncle John Henry Waring and two daughters were placed under arrest. His aunt found nothing funny in Wat’s laughter when he made a return visit to the property and gleefully recounted his escape on horseback. According to the aunt he had not removed his disguise.

Union authorities tried tightening their net and even offered a reward, however by this time Wat had decided discretion was the better part of valor and took his show on the road to Virginia. There he attached himself to John Mosby’s Rangers and was placed in command of Company B.

Bowie is credited in Donald Markle's book "Spies & Spymasters" with "informing General Robert E. Lee of General U.S. Grant's strategy for the Wilderness Campaign in Virginia. The date of Bowie's report is 27 April 1864 and the actual campaign opened on 4 May 1864."

As in his previous service, Mosby recognized Bowie’s value lay in the Maryland countryside. He is reported to have done recruiting service in Montgomery County, home to Postmaster General Montgomery Blair. His whereabouts were eventually disclosed to Federals, who failing to capture him, instead took the plantation’s owner William Canaby prisoner for aiding and abetting Wat Bowie.

If nothing else, Bowie was loyal to his friends. Canaby and others were confined at Ft. Delaware and Bowie began hatching a plot to free them. His plans were a foreshadowing of those later developed by John Wilkes Booth; kidnap a high-ranking government official, hold them hostage, and not only demand the release of Confederate prisoners of war, but Maryland's secession from the Union as well. Bowie’s target was Maryland Governor Augustus Bradford. John Mosby bought into the plan and placed men from his outfit under Bowie’s command to help carry out the raid.

Traversing the Potomac and traveling through St. Mary’s County into Charles County, Bowie reacquainted himself with Samuel Mudd, resting his men and horses in woods surrounding the farm. Continuing in a northerly direction the men again rested at Walter W.W. Bowie’s estate before turning east toward Annapolis. They arrived in the Maryland capitol undetected and were set to spring into action, but backed down because of the number of troops and bodyguards surrounding Governor Bradford.

With growing signs of danger, Wat directed his men back across Maryland to the town of Sandy Spring with hopes of eventually crossing the Potomac back into Virginia. Sandy Spring citizens, however, had seen enough of raiders, both Northern and Southern variety. When Bowie’s men robbed and ransacked a store on October 6, 1864, taking much needed supplies, vigilantes pursued. Even Quakers armed themselves and joined in the pursuit.

The following day, October 7th, while Bowie and his small band rested and grazed their horses in a spot just north of Rockville, the citizens of Sandy Spring closed in. According to witnesses Bowie mounted his horse and made a solo charge. The blast from a shotgun is said to have knocked him backwards out of his saddle. Wat Bowie’s body was borne home a day later and laid to rest on the family estate.

Eglington, like many of the great plantations in Prince George’s County, met their final demise after World War II, when developers began siphoning off vast tracts of former tobacco and cornfields to meet the housing needs of families. The boom took firm hold in the County beginning in the mid-seventies and has continued at an accelerated pace since.

There’s a certain irony at work here, in the sense that Wat Bowie's allegiance and belief system have been swept aside by oceans of change. The County’s wealth was the direct result of slave labor. Following the Civil War, Prince George’s became almost exclusively white and continued such until small pockets of blacks gained a foothold in towns like Glenarden in the late 1960’s. White flight set in and today the County is 70 per cent black. That racial transition transformed the landscape, both politically and economically. Once largely rural, agriculturally based, and in relative terms sparsely settled, Prince George’s today reflects for the most part a growing and vibrant community which holds the distinction of being the most affluent African-American county in the entire United States.

The bodies of Walter W.W., his wife Adelaide, and their children, including Wat, were removed from the former Eglington plantation in either the late 1960’s or early 1970’s to a small cemetery that sits beside and behind the Trinity Episcopal Church on Annapolis Road in Bowie. There are probably seventy-five to a hundred graves at most. Wat’s is the easiest to identify. Situated in a back row, close to a fence, which separates church property from a housing tract, is a white headstone engraved with the distinctive Southern Cross.

Someone had made an effort to remember Wat Bowie. I found a small wreath with a red Christmas bow laying face down in the mud, it having rained for much of the two previous days. I brushed off the dirt and a few leaves then propped the wreath against the headstone. Wat Bowie is not a hero to me, but he deserved that small gesture of respect.

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Walter "Wat" Bowie



Grave of Walter "Wat" Bowie


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Note from Donald: A number of sources were referenced in the writing of parts one and two of this post, including Walter Bowie; Rebel, Ranger, Spy by Earl Eisenhart; Prince George’s County History by the Prince George’s County Tricentennial Commission; Bowie Family Biography from Ancestor Search; Slave Schedules for Prince George’s County found on Ancestry.Com; 1860 U.S. Census records; and Confederate military service records found at American Civil War Research Database.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Considering that the Maryland County I reside in, Prince George’s, directly borders the District of Columbia, it’s surprising that no Civil War battles were fought within its boundaries. True, there was a heavy Union presence throughout the war, including troops stationed at Ft. Lincoln and Ft. Washington, but the county was a gateway to even to greater Confederate sympathy lodged further south in neighboring Charles County. Alexandria and Mt. Vernon could be seen from what is present day Oxon Hill. Perhaps the aforementioned forts, as well as Union gunboats plying the Potomac, provided sufficient deterrent to a Rebel invasion.

The closest County civilians got to combat occurred on July 11, 1864, when 400 Confederate cavalrymen under the command of Maryland native Gen. Bradley Tyler Johnson split off from Jubal Early as he neared Washington and succeeded in tearing up railroad tracks and cutting telegraph lines near Beltsville, located in the northern part of the county. Surprising too, because County residents were openly sympathetic toward the Confederate cause. And why not. 800 of 2000 families owned at least one slave, with 50 owning 50 or more slaves. The largest single plantation though, housed no more than 200.

From its founding, tobacco was king and the County was blessed with the richest tobacco growing soil in the entire state of Maryland. Not that every acre was reserved for tobacco cultivation; wheat and corn were grown in abundance as well. By 1860 the tobacco harvest was reaching 13 million pounds a year, double that produced by neighboring Anne Arundel County. The plantations utilized more slave labor than any other county in Maryland, on huge plantations encompassing thousands of acres; plantations with names like Belair, Mt. Airy, Bellefield, Marietta, Riversdale, Montpelier, and Poplar Hill. Most of these manor houses have been preserved as historic sites, although Bellefield remains under private ownership and is still a working farm.

Old money is still present in the County if you look hard enough, but large tracts of land, once part of the plantations, have been sold off over the last forty years to developers. Tobacco barns, what few remain, have been abandoned to nature. Maryland, in fact, developed a program a few years ago granting financial incentives to farmers to grow alternative crops. The irony to that program is that production was at an all time low when it was implemented, but the State did succeed in its campaign to wipe out the last vestiges of the noxious weed as a cash crop.

The 1860 population of the Prince George’s County included 9,650 whites, 12,500 slaves, and 1198 free blacks. Pigs and hogs outnumbered humans by more than 3,000 and there was one sheep for every white person. 5,000 horses and 4,000 milk cows rounded out the County's composition.

The County was largely conservative, traditionally throwing its support behind the Whigs. Locally and at the State House in Annapolis, the Prince George’s elected officials were overwhelming from the planter class. They not only dominated the politics of the County, but its economic fortunes as well. As tobacco went so went the County.

While Maryland split its vote in the 1860 election between John Breckenridge, the Southern Democratic candidate (42,482 votes), and John Bell of the Constitutional Union (41,760), Stephen Douglas with his 5,966 votes more than doubled that tallied by Lincoln. While I haven’t been able to determine how Prince George’s divided its votes, it is known Lincoln had one, and only one, brave soul jump on his bandwagon. The County had its share of Firebrands who pushed for secession, however, County residents, in three separate votes taken on the issue, elected to remain in the Union. In fact, when a statewide convention was called to vote on Articles of Secession in February 1861, the County declined to send delegates.

One of the most powerful of the planter class was the Bowie family. The progenitor was John Bowie, who emigrated from Scotland about 1705 shortly after a failed revolt against the English. Beneficed by an Uncle, John Smith, who had preceded him to Maryland, Bowie established an estate on the Pawtuxet River and found his fortune through the labor of others who toiled in his tobacco fields. His progeny and their heirs became distinguished as lawyers, politicians, merchants, and patriots in the fight for independence from British rule. Robert Bowie, a grandson, was Captain of a Maryland artillery battalion and recognized for meritorious service and bravery during the Battles of Harlem Heights and White Plains. He would go on to serve as Governor of Maryland from 1803 to 1812.

How Walter William Weems Bowie was related to Robert is unknown. I haven’t been able to trace “3 W’s,” family back beyond his father Walter, who was born about 1780, or his mother Amelia Magruder Weems. Walter W.W. was born into wealth on the Montpelier plantation and then married more wealth in the form of Adeline Snowden, a member of another prestigious Prince George’s family, who he wed on September 1, 1836.

Walter W.W. was not only able to expand upon land granted to him by his father, but earned a reputation as one of the most innovative plantation owners in the country. A scientific farmer, he lectured and wrote books on the subject, including numerous government sponsored publications. In 1860 he was recorded as having 28 slaves, while his personal and real estate was valued at $45,000, a substantial amount of money at the time. By comparsion neighbors Richard Mulikan and Tylman Crawford’s recorded wealth was $38,000 and $12,000 respectively. That paled in comparison to W.W.W.’s immediate neighbor and relation Oden Bowie who had 103 slaves and was worth close to $200,000. Oden, who would serve as a Post-war Governor, is estimated to have lost 80 slaves to the Union army when enlistment opportunities were opened to blacks.

The first of W.W.W.’s and Adeline’s seven children was born June 25, 1837 and simply named Walter, in honor of his grandfather. He would be presented with his own personal slave by his grandmother when he was three. A blessed child of fortune and privilege, he would receive a well rounded education and establish a law practice by age 22. His mother, upon learning of his violent end at the hands of a band of Quakers on October 7, 1864, became an elective mute during her remaining days, following her son to the grave three months later.

To be certain, Walter Bowie's death and the events leading up to it are the stuff legends are made of.



Friday, February 22, 2008

Today’s column, which is being run on the 266th anniversary of George Washington’s birth, features a letter written by 18th Massachusetts Chaplain Benjamin F. De Costa, who visited Mt. Vernon on or about March 18, 1862. De Costa’s letter is accompanied by photos taken February 18, 2008.

Porter’s Division

Cloud’s Mill, near Alexandria, Va., March 18, 1862

Three years since, during a trip to Richmond, the writer made a detour, and visited Mount Vernon. At that time the temple of Janus was closed, and the country seemed at peace with itself and the whole world. Visitors were then conveyed to this place by steamers, which made tri-weekly trips down the Potomac. In those days large parties of elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen visited the grounds daily. Playing on the lawns might be see troops of little boys and girls from every part of the Union, while the graver portion of the visitors wandered thoughtfully through the Mansion and visited the gardens or meditated at the tomb of Washington. To-day the scene is changed. The landing at the foot of the grounds no longer presents its former busy aspect. The civilian in his sober suit and the little boys and girls have disappeared, and a few soldiers have taken their place. Whoever visits this the great, only shrine of America, goes as the Crusader went of old to the Holy City, with arms in his hands, ready to defend himself against the assaults of the enemy. The sanctity of Mount Vernon, however, has thus far been recognized, and no actual encounter has taken place here between the Union and the rebel troops, though I was informed that a number of the latter, as well as many of the former, have several times appeared on the estate.

Since my previous visit several of the buildings have been repaired and restored to their original condition. The mansion house itself is greatly improved, and order and neatness prevail to a considerable extent throughout the entire establishment. But for the present unhappy disturbances the work of restoration so auspiciously begun, would now have been completed. I was sorry, however, to find that the association emulating the same vulgar policy which makes the Monument on Bunker Hill a house of merchandise had established a regulation exacting a fee of every person coming upon the grounds. “Only twenty-five cents” to view the bones of Washington. Fah!

Our party spent a pleasant hour examining different objects of note, lingering in the rooms now open to visitors with particular interest. The chamber which the venerated Hero was accustomed to occupy, and in which he died, is remarkably pleasant. The front windows afford a most commanding view down the Potomac, one which is even superior to that seen at the Arlington House. Formerly from these windows might be discerned fleets of peaceful wood craft, with lateen sails, creeping slowly up and down the river, but they have now been replaced by war steamers and clipper built gun boats with frowning batteries.

After gathering a few mementoes of our visit we rode swiftly back over the ten miles of ground that separated us from our camp, being greatly pleased with the excursion, which possessed additional interest derived from the spirit of the times.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

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Jimmy Price took front and center again on February 9th at the American Civil War Center to present on the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. “It’s as fashionable to revile as it is to praise Lincoln.” The fact he’s labeled as both “Savior” and “Destroyer of the Constitution,” is nothing new, it occurred from the moment he was elected. Contemporary Democrats called him an “Abolitionist Dictator,” while Radical Republicans viewed him as “dim witted.”

Lincoln is generally portrayed as the “Great Emancipator,” while a vocal minority views him as “a tyrant and war criminal,” one who “purposely and maliciously destroyed the Constitution.” Leading this frontal assault is Libertarian Thomas DiLorenzo, author of The Real Lincoln and Lincoln Unmasked. Both have sold well based on two principal arguments, that Lincoln was a racist and that he destroyed the Constitution by suspending the Writ of Habeas Corpus.

Before we go any further, it’s fair to point out that Jefferson Davis also suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus and that the Confederate States of America did not make provisions for a Supreme Court in their Constitution.

According to Price, Lincoln was neither a great idol, nor a Solomonesque dictator. His views on slavery evolved over time with age and experience, but what cannot be doubted is that he inherited his hatred of the institution from his father. In 1837, at a time when Illinois law banned free blacks from residing within its boundaries, Lincoln publicly voiced his opposition to slavery in a speech before the State legislature. He believed that slavery was “evil,” yet also condemned abolitionists. In his view slavery, while a dying institution, was protected by the Constitution, although that same document forbade expansion into western territories. Lincoln, too, saw no contradiction in defending a slave in an 1841 court case, while taking up the case of slave owner Robert Matson in 1847. For Lincoln it was a matter of following the letter of the law.

Lincoln’s views on slavery may have been influenced by the issue of free labor. Clearly there was a perceived threat that slaveholders would move part their labor force into manufacturing jobs, while threatening the livelihood of small farmers through land grabs to the west.

“The Great Awakening” in Lincoln was realized when Congress abolished the Missouri Compromise of 1821, replacing it with the mantra of Popular Sovernity” espoused in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates Lincoln objected to slavery on moral grounds, defending slaves as human beings, and urging they be given the same opportunities as whites. Lincoln did not, however, believe in equality of the races and is quoted as saying he did not believe the two races could co-exist in America.

After taking office Lincoln held to his belief of gradual emancipation, envisioning that by adopting a plan of compensation to slaveholders the institution would end by 1900. On July 16, 1862, after prolonged internal debate, Lincoln unveiled his plan for an Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. Urged by his cabinet to delay issuing the Proclamation, Lincoln made it official on September 17, 1862, announcing that on January 1, 1863 slaves residing in areas under Confederate control would be declared free.

Argue that the Emancipation Proclamation was a sham, that it would not have held up to a Constitutional challenge, that it was ruse to bolster Union manpower, that it was an effort to appease Radical Republicans, argue any way you choose, but the Proclamation was the first direct challenge to the Constitution as pertained to slavery by a sitting President. It was revolutionary and sparked dramatic changes to how the war was waged from that point on.

Lincoln “set wheels in motion” for “misapplication or misrepresentation” of his intended policies. Benjamin Butler, Ambrose Burnside, David Hunter and John C. Fremont were all examples of Union generals who had to be reigned in by Lincoln when they ordered newspapers shut down, mass arrests in areas under their military jurisdiction, or issued their own emancipation edicts. While Lincoln ordered the arrests of elected officials in Baltimore and the Maryland legislature, he argued it was necessary to maintain the security of the Nation’s Capitol. His most drastic step occurred when he ordered the arrest and exile of “Copperhead” Democrat Clement Vallandingham to the Confederacy. According to Lincoln it was a necessary step because of Vallandingham’s vocal opposition to and active counsel to his constituents to resist the draft.

Price concluded his remarks by stating there is “clear evidence Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery,” and did his utmost in complying with his Presidential Oath to uphold the Constitution. While Lincoln is “not the evil figure as portrayed” by the likes of DiLorenzo, he is “at the same time not the Great Emancipator.”

Monday, February 18, 2008

The American Civil War Center in Richmond got a jump on President’s Day on February 10th. Jimmy Price, a Visitor’s Center Associate, which he modestly said was a fancy title for a Jack-of-all-Trades, spoke at 1 p.m. on George Washington, and then, after resting his vocal cords, returned at 3 to talk about Abraham Lincoln. Both were themed on the Civil War, bearing the titles of “Liberty’s Father” and “Liberty's Son.”

Price began by posing the question of why one would associate Washington with the Civil War. The answer is fairly simply. Washington not only maintained enormous influence on 19th Century Americans, but his reputation had grown over the years following his death. As Benjamin Franklin later observed, his veneration and popularity were such that his likeness, either a painting or bust, was on display in every home in America and at least five biographies were written each year from the time of his death.

In 1792 Thomas Jefferson had appealed to Washington to serve a third term in office, stating that the Washington was the glue that bound the young country together. Washington did not reach an exalted state of mere immortality; he transcended immorality; he was worshipped as a deity. Even Lincoln recognized that on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1842, when, in one of the few speeches he ever gave before that elected body, he declared, “Washington is the mightiest name on earth…” and went on to argue that Washington was not a proponent of slavery. Eight years later Henry Clay would hold a Washington relic, a wooden splinter, in his upraised hand on the floor of the United States Senate when the debate over the Missouri Compromise of 1850 raged and warn his colleagues “Do not destroy Washington’s handiwork.”

To argue that Washington was not a proponent of slavery one has to look more closely at the man, something Lincoln did by reading and re-reading Means biography of the first President. In fact, Lincoln claimed it was one of the first books he read in his life. The younger Washington can best be described as arrogant and accepting of slavery. The mature Washington viewed the institution in a negative light and decreed in his will that all his slaves be freed at the time of his wife Martha’s death.

Item Upon the decease of my wife, it is my Will and desire, that all the slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom. To emancipate them during her life, would, tho' earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties on account of their intermixture by Marriages with the Dower Negroes, as to excite the most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences from the latter, while both descriptions are in the occupancy or the same Proprietor; it not being in my power, under the tenure by which the Dower Negroes are held, to manumit them. And whereas among those who will receive freedom according to this devise, there may be some, who from old age or bodily infirmities, and others who on account of their infancy, that will be unable to support themselves; it is my Will and desire that all who come under the first and second description shall be comfortably clothed and fed by my heirs while they live; and that such of the latter description as have no parents living, or if living are unable, or unwilling to provide for them, shall be bound by the Court until they shall arrive at the age of twenty-five years; and in cases where no record can be produced, whereby their ages can be ascertained, the Judgment of the Court, upon its own view of the subject, shall be adequate & final. The negroes thus bound, are (by their Masters or Mistresses), to be taught to read and write; & to be brought up to some useful occupation, agreeably to the Laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, providing for the support of orphan & other poor Children. And I do hereby expressly forbid the sale, or transportation out of the said Commonwealth of any Slave I may die possessed of, under any pretence whatsoever. And I do moreover most pointedly, and most solemnly enjoin it upon my Executors hereafter named, or the survivors of them, to see that this clause respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the Epoch at which it is directed to take place; without evasion, neglect or delay, after the Crops which may then be on the ground are harvested, particularly as it respects the aged & infirm; Seeing that a regular & permanent fund be established for their support so long as there are subjects requiring it; not trusting to the uncertain provision to be made by individuals. And to my Mulatto man, William (calling himself William Lee) I give immediate freedom; or if he should prefer it (on account of the accidents which have befallen him, and which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment.) to remain in the situation he now is, it shall be optional in him to do so: In either case however, I allow him an annuity of thirty dollars during his natural life, which shall be independent of the victuals and clothes he has been accustomed to receive, if he chooses the last alternative: but in full with his freedom, if he prefers the first: & this I give him as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.

When war came both North and South felt they embodied Washington’s ideals. The flag that flew over Ft. Sumter was carried back to New York City and flown from an equestrian statue of Washington in Union Square, where a crowd of over 150,000 gathered, the largest public gathering in the history of the country to that time. While the South would refuse to recognize the Fourth of July as a nation holiday, the Union celebrated February 22nd as a national holiday, one which focused on Washington’s legacy. There was no doubt in the North that they embodied the first President’s ideals. Thus the understandable reaction following a small forgotten cavalry battle at Seat Mountain, West Virginia, where a Union officer came across the remains of Confederate Colonel John A. Washington, the great-grandnephew of George. In a letter to his wife the officer angrily wrote, “Col. Washington shot in the back while in an act of treason.”

The South believed their cause was a second American Revolution and, had he been alive, Washington would have commanded their armies. The Confederacy alone embodied Washington's ideals. Jefferson Davis took the permanent oath of office in Richmond standing underneath Washington’s equestrian statue on the Statehouse grounds, a statue which contained an underground crypt built in 1858, specifically for receipt of Washington’s remains from Mt. Vernon. In addition to placing Washington’s image on their great seal, postage stamps and money featured his engraved likeness as well.

Robert E. Lee, who like Washington, was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia married the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. Lee sought to emulate Washington throughout his entire life, and paid personal homage to the man by naming his horse Traveler after one owned by Washington, and by carrying one of his swords. In time though, Lee would supplant Washington as the man who most symbolized the Confederacy. As the war dragged on and the South’s suffering increased, the more fervent Lee’s devotion to the cause grew. The South’s greatest fear of Northern victory was that successful subjugation of the rebellion would lead whites to their own enslavement.

While many at the time, and even today, claimed Washington would have sided with the Confederacy, Price voiced doubt. “Washington had strong views on the Union.” He saw the experiment of a democratically united nation as “the main pillar and edifice of liberty.”

Thursday, February 07, 2008


I think it can be safely argued that the Kennedy assassination, regardless of who actually fired the shots, did more to alter history than Lincoln’s murder. Start with this premise. It’s more than probable that Ulysses Grant would have been the Republican nominee and won the 1868 election, setting up the same existing chain of men who occupied the White House through John Kennedy. Had Kennedy survived and won a second term of office, it becomes less certain who would have succeeded him in 1968. Arthur Schlesinger, a Kennedy advisor, claimed years later that J.F.K. planned to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam during his second term in office. One thing is likely though, regardless of the validity of that claim, it would have been less likely that Richard Nixon would have been elected in 1968. It necessarily follows then that no Nixon, no Watergate, no Gerald Ford, no Jimmy Carter, no Ronald Reagan, at least not in 1980, no George W. Bush, no Bill Clinton, at least not in 1992, and finally the likelihood that none of those currently running for the office would now be seeking the Presidency.

You can use your own imagination to speculate over how different American society would have been had Lincoln and Kennedy lived, but the only likely historical change caused by Booth firing a derringer into the back of Lincoln’s head is that Andrew Johnson never would have made it into the Oval Office. I wonder, too, if Lincoln, had he served out a second term, might not have faced the same hostile reaction from Radical Republicans who may have deemed Lincoln’s own reconstruction plan too forgiving of the former Confederacy. Johnson, afterall, claimed he was following Lincoln's intended blueprint. We’ll probably never know, uncertain as we are of Lincoln’s post-war intentions, but a policy of leniency set the wheels in motion for what eventually led to epic battles between the Executive and Legislative branches and ultimately to Johnson’s impeachment trial.

Whereas Lee Harvey Oswald, the supposed “lone gunman,” was taken into custody within a remarkably (conspiracy theorists would substitute the word “suspiciously”) short period of time, Booth was on the lam for twelve days. I suppose that was considered a remarkably short period of time then for detectives and soldiers to track him down. Those who pursued Booth through Prince George’s and Charles County, Maryland, across the Potomac and into Caroline County, Virginia at least knew who they were looking for at the start of their chase.

I spent twelve hours on a Saturday a few years back riding in a tour bus with close to fifty other people tracing Booth’s attempt to flee, supposedly to Mexico. The tour, sponsored by the [Mary] Surratt House Museum is wildly popular, requiring reservations months in advance. Whereas the Museum once conducted two tours a year, one in the spring and fall, the venture has been expanded to four in the spring (sorry folks, they’re all sold out, including May 3rd) and two in the fall. A word to wise if you ever go. You better have some knowledge of the Lincoln assassination before stepping foot on the bus, because you won’t get an introductory crash course from the guide.

Last March and April I wrote a series of posts called “Radar Love in the Heart of Dixie,” a series that traced my

Monday, February 04, 2008

Bad karma is all around me. At work. In my personal life. I think I can trace it all back to Monday, January 14th. That was the day I did a post on my visit to Fisher Ames Baker’s grave at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York. It hit me the other day that the swirl of dark events may have been orchestrated by Second Lieutenant John Dwight Isbel, whose grave I visited the same day as Baker’s. Isbel’s gravesite visit had not been written up. I fathomed that chains were rattling, demanding equal time, space, and attention.

One of the interesting sidelights of my treks to cemeteries where veterans of the 18th Massachusetts are buried is that they’ve taken me to places I probably never would have gotten to. I can’t imagine what would have drawn me to towns like Franklin, N.H. or Kearney, N.J. otherwise. The same goes for Naugatuck, Connecticut.

Hardscrabble. That was the first word that came to mind when I surveyed the town. There’s nothing quaint about the place, unless you’re standing on its quarter acre town common with its Civil War monument, skating rink, and abutting churches and blind yourself to the houses that elbow one another on the encroaching hills. This was and seemingly always has been a factory town, dating to the Industrial Revolution. Home to Uniroyal, Keds, Naughahyde, and Peter Paul Mounds. Now they’re all packed up and gone away. And while I may have thought the city looked as gray as the sky, this is a place that still lives and breaths, that still passes tradition to her children by having them attend the Horgan Academy of Irish Dance. A city that still sends its sons to do gridiron battle against Ansonia every Thanksgiving. A city that, while fewer of its seeds flower in colleges than surrounding towns, instills a fierce work ethic. It is a city unmistakably blue collar born, blue collar bred, and the dead, blue collar dead.

It’s unclear if John D. Isbel was from Naugatuck, or what his ties there were. I’ve been unsuccessful in finding any Census records that list his father John L., or his mother Eliza. There are a few families with the surname listed in Connecticut records, but nothing that fits the family I’m looking for. In fact a search for John L. in the 1850 Census lists only one person by that name in the entire United States, a 12 year-old living in Cass, Georgia. The first record for John D. himself is found in the 1860 Census, which lists him as a 21 year-old Clerk residing in Springfield, MA. I suppose that employment, his appointment as Quartermaster Sergeant for the 18th, and subsequent promotion to 2nd Lieutenant serve as indicators that he was better educated than most. I don’t know if this somehow fits, but a Harlow Isbel of Guilford, CT listed his occupation as a manufacturer and, by the standards of the times, was fairly well off.

Equally mysterious is how or why Isbel joined a regiment recruited primarily from Plymouth and Norfolk counties, the closest of whose towns would have been over eighty miles from Springfield. Pure speculation, but he may have known Colonel James Barnes or Surgeon David P. Smith, both from Springfield and both of the 18th. Handling equipment and supplies for over a thousand men is not a job to be trusted to fools or idiots. Although there were others from Springfield who served with the 18th, he was the first to enlist, a full two weeks before the next man.

Isbel moved as the Regiment moved, in August 1861 from Dedham, MA to Hall’s Hill in Arlington, VA, until March 1862 when the Army of the Potomac floated down the Chesapeake Bay to Ft. Monroe, later camping amidst the