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Monday, May 28, 2012

On this day, set aside to honor those who died while shouldering arms under our Nation's flag, 146 National cemeteries should serve to remind all of the cost which allows the living to go about their daily lives with a relative notion of freedom. That men from common walks of life were willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause most just and greater than sense of self is exemplified by eight words chiseled into stone in Rowan County, North Carolina:

"Neither hunger, thirst, nor bribes affected their loyalty."


Even in the dead of a February winter Salisbury National Cemetery was strikingly beautiful. Headstones had been realigned using a laser so they were uniform in distance and height, a circular bed of mulch ringed trees, and the carefully manicured grass was still thick and plush from re-sodding that had taken place the previous year.





As an early Veteran’s Cemetery, Salisbury was originally devoted to the internment of Union soldiers, most of whom died while being held as prisoners of war in a wooden stockade that was constructed a short distance away. The town of Salisbury asked for neither the prison nor the cemetery but received both due to its location as a railroad terminus and as a place where large numbers of the dead were congregated.

The mental image most people have of Salisbury Prison is fairly benign. That is in large part due to the legacy of a photograph turned lithograph of Union prisoners playing baseball.



While Union prisoners captured early in the war were released on parole from Salisbury after relatively brief stays, the decision by the North later in the war to forgo prisoner exchanges led to predictable overcrowding, food shortages, and horrific conditions that ultimately claimed an extraordinary number of lives and placed Salisburry on nearly equal footing with Andersonville as a death trap for those who entered through its gates in 1864 and 5.

The number of Union prisoners buried at Salisbury, all of whom were interred sans coffins in eighteen 240 foot long trenches, was pure guesswork by the U.S. Government, but originally established at 11,700. Those totals have since been revised downward such that 5,000 is now a more universally accepted number.





Regardless of which of the two numbers is correct, 5,000 or 11,700, what is perhaps most haunting about Salisbury are the very small number of identified dead who lie in marked graves. Without a Dorence Atwater to compile an Andersonville-like "Dead List", most nearly all lie in those trenches, unnamed and unidentified, including two from the 18th Massachusetts, George Bryant of Co. E and Richard Rowe of Co. B.

Of the known, there are but 62.


Note: each grave can be identified by placing the cursor on the picture


Benjamin F. Linke, Co. A, 120th Indiana Infantry, died May 16, 1865, Charlotte, NC Elisha C. Sabin, Co E, 8th Minnesota Infantry, died July 4, 1865 at Charlotte, NC George W. Flint, Co. K, 129th Indiana Infantry, died July 3, 1865 at Salisbury, NC Isaac T. Bird, Co. K, 130th Indiana Infantry, died July 7, 1865 at Charlotte, NC Silas F. Jillson, Co. I, 25th Massachusetts Infantry, died July 12, 1865 at Charlotte, NC Andrew Argo, Co. C, 174th Ohio Infantry, died June 17, 1865 at Charlotte, NC


Adam M. Cherry, Sergeant, Co. K, 180th Ohio Infantry, died June 16, 1865 William A. Henry, Co. A, Co. A, 174th Ohio Infantry, died June 28, 1866 Albert R. Holley, Co. D, 25th Massachusetts Infantry, died June 12, 1865 John T. Cash, Co. I, 180th Ohio Infantry, died May 28, 1866 Sylvester E. Meek, Co. H, 178th Ohio Infantry, died May 17, 1865 James B. Smith, Co. B, 8th U.S. Infantry, died October 19, 1866


Peter Brown, Co. F, 183rd Ohio Infantry, died June 9, 1865 George H. May, Co. H, 26th Kentucky Infantry, died June 4, 1865 __ Corrman, Regiment unknown, died 1862 T.S. Pangle, 5th Tennessee Infantry, died December 1864 John Edwards, Captain, Co. D, 11th Michigan Cavalry, died April 16, 1865 James Connoble, Co. F, U.S. Infantry, died January 1, 1865 William Rea, Sergeant, Co. G, 132nd New York Infantry; died May 10, 1865


Benjamin Taft, 1st Sgt., 15th Massachusetts Infantry, died January 15, 1862 Marcellus Bassett, Co. A, 29th Michigan Infantry Claiborne W. Howard, Co, E, 26th Kentucky Infantry, died March 23, 1865 George Duffy, Co. E, 99th New York Infantry, died May 18, 1865 James M. Jenkins, Co. A, 183rd Ohio Infantry, died June 3, 1865 William Hillea, Co. D, 80th Indiana Infantry, died June 8, 1865


Hugh Fern, Ohio Jackson Morehart, Co. A, 18rd Ohio Infantry, died May 16, 1865 at Salisbury, NC Patrick Goroing, Indiana Monroe Burnett, Co. F, 128th Indiana Infantry, died September 12, 1864 at Salisbury, NC Anthony Reynolds, Co. C, 183rd New York Infantry, died June 22, 1865 Henry C. Koogle, Lieutenant, Co. G, 183rd Ohio Infantry, died June 27, 1865 at Salisbury, NC


Carlton Stevens, Co. E, 23rd Michigan Infantry, died June 22, 1865 Valentine Hart, Co. H, 80th Indiana Infantry, died June 21, 1865 Robert D. Jeffries, Co. B, 50th Ohio Infantry, died June 11, 1865 Edward Dennison, Co. I, 29th Kentucky Infantry, died June 13, 1865 Friederich Fries, Co. E, 183rd Ohio Infantry, died July 11, 1865 H. Smith, United States Infantry


J. Moore, Private, United States Infantry Moses Taylor, Private United States Army, died January 2, 1864 C. Clark, 8th Indiana Cavalry, died January 24, 1865 Benjamin F. Powers, Co. A, 5th Ohio Cavalry, died August 31, 1865 at Morgantown, NC Millers McLaughlin, Sergeant, United States Infantry John A. Shimer, Co. L, 8th Indiana Infantry, died July 6, 1865


James M. Fletter, Co. B, 129th Indiana Infantry; died July 6, 1865 William G. Dodson, Co. E, 9th Ohio Cavalry; died July 19, 1865 James Pepper, Co. A, 2nd Kentucky Infantry; died June 9, 1865 E. Mathias, Co. B, Pennsylvania Cavalry; died June 8, 1865 Edward Sheffield, 1st Sergeant, Co. H, 18th Indiana Cavalry; died July 11, 1865


John Shimer, Co. L, 8th Indiana Cavalry; died July 6, 1865 W. Antrim, Co. G, 8th Indiana Cavalry; died June 17, 1865 Isaiah Chandler, Co. D, 174th Ohio Infantry; died January 30, 1865 Edward Moore, Co. C, 25th Massachusetts Infantry; died June 25, 1865 Miletus Andrews, Co. E, 130th Indiana Infantry; died June 16, 1865 James Griswold, Co. C, 128th Indiana Infantry; died July 5, 1865


Cassius M.C. Traver. Co. G, 28th Michigan Infantry; died August 28, 1865 M.M. Woodward, Corporal, Massachusetts __ Thomas; Indiana ___ Henry; Ohio ___ Clane; 10th Illinois Infantry Alfred Smart, Co. K, 22nd Indiana Infantry; died May 15, 1865


Daniel C. Coffelt, Corporal, Co. F, 123rd Indiana Infantry; died July 11, 1863 John T. Austin, Co. A, 21st Wisconsin Infantry; died January 20, 1864


Sunday, March 07, 2010

Following in Donald’s footsteps of religion in the Civil War – I wanted to share this article from the Beaufort Gazette (which was my first real employer back in the days that Paper Boys still were under 18 and rode bikes on their route) on praise houses and their use by slaves and freedman before and after the Civil War.



The article is extremely well done and deals not only in why they were created (fear of slave revolt), the ongoing use after the Civil War (poverty and segregation) and the eventual downfall due to the acceptance of African-Americans into mainstream society. Also included is a nice slideshow of what is left of the Praise Houses in Beaufort County, which includes a narration.



In an era where the Lost Cause has tried so hard to glamorize the institution of Slavery – Slave owners treated slaves nicely because they were such valued pieces of property – it is good to see an article that shows proof, this wasn’t so.

Thursday, March 04, 2010


Not Catholic? Neither am I. But when there's the potential for an interesting story in the telling, and the telling at the Surratt House Museum on a Saturday afternoon is only a short drive away, my ears are always willing to listen to the telling, because there's no telling what one might learn.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It's always the Sunday closest to the 13th of December when the wreath and stand are packed into the trunk and the front end of car is pointed down Rt. 301 in the direction of Fredericksburg. This year that Sunday happened to fall on the 13th, one calendar day and 147 years after the turkey shoot that was the battle of Fredericksburg. "Windshield wipers slappin' time" and at a steady downpour that didn't let up during the hour and forty-five minute drive.

Sunday, November 29, 2009



While the number of men who died in the Civil War is estimated at around 640,00, more than twice that number, or a million and a half horses and mules, died during the same period. And while it cost the Federal the equivalent of $475,000 to outfit a regiment, the bill for horses alone nearly broke treasury.

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Monument to the 1.5 million horses and mules that died during the Civil War erected outside the Virginia History Society in Richmond.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


More of Paul Philippoteaux's restored Cyclorama at the Gettysburg Vistor's Center. This version was originally on display in Boston where it was viewed by more than 200,000 people between 1884 and 1892.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009


For those of you who haven't had an opportunity to see the restored Cyclorama at the Gettysburg Visitor's Center as of yet, today and tomorrow will give you a hint of what to expect. Even after three visits it's still breathtaking and magnificent.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009


The second Saturday in November is designated as Fall cleanup day around the 18th Massachusetts monument at Gettysburg.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009



Off the top of my head I can’t think of any town north of the Mason-Dixon line that was subjected to more torment from Confederates than Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. For three years running there was a seemingly annual pilgrimage, beginning in 1862 when J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry destroyed railroad property and made off with hundreds of horses and guns, not to mention a number of free black males. The fourth and last visit occurred on July 30, 1864, when Brig. Gen. John McCausland demanded a half-million dollar ransom and burnt large portions of the town when the money wasn’t forthcoming.

1863 in and of itself was neither a good year for French winemakers nor the good citizens of Chambersburg. On June 15th, Brig. Gen. Albert Jenkins' cavalry paid a less than social call by occuping the town and, in turn, burnt warehouses and bridges. Nine days later and for the next four days after that Confederates paraded through the town on their way to another town with the suffix "burg" affixed to its name. The road the Confederate troops followed upon leaving, the Chambersburg Pike, would lead them past a business establishment situated exactly halfway between Chambersburg and Gettysburg. Here, at Mr. Ed's, a local and now historic landmark, many raw and heretofore untested recruits and conscripts from the South would "see the elephant" for the very first time.

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Undernourished and underfed, it was here at Mr. Ed's that Confederate troops stripped the shelves bare, an action that not only allowed them to replenish their meager rations, but proved of utmost importance throughout the rest of the long and grueling Gettysburg campaign.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I spent four days in Massachusetts and Rhode Island last week "chasing the dead" of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry. Actually there's a lot more to the story than that, the larger part of which involved a certain book located at the Middleboro, Mass. Town Hall. There'll be more on that later. In the meantime I thought I'd leave you with these pictures of Augustus Saint-Gaudens' incredible tribute to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Note from Donald: As I'll be on a one week vacation (the first time in three years I'll have been away from work for more than two consecutive days) I thought I'd re-run some of my favorite posts.

Note: this post originally ran on April 20, 2007. No explanation as to why I like it, I just do.


I'm half-way through my latest commuting book, Scott Nelson and Carol Sheriff's "A People's War; Civilians and Soldiers in America's Civil War, 1854-1877." I'm having a love-hate relationship with the book, because, at times, it reads like a textbook from American History 101, and then the authors redeem themselves by absolutely drawing me back in their writing and subject matter. This is not meant to be a review of the book, that may come later. I did, however, want to share this little bit of trivia, which I found to be totally fascinating.

Gail Borden, Gilbert C. Van Camp, Philip Armour, and Gustavus Swift all got their start in the food industry by securing government contracts to provide items such as dressed pork and beef, evaporated milk, canned pork and beans, sausage, bologna, and a wide variety of canned fruits and vegetables to Union troops. Not only were their fortunes built on the idea of improving the gastronomic habits of soldiers, but all four companies survive today, although Van Camp, Armour, and Swift are all subsidiaries of ConAgra Foods, which also markets such items as Banquet, Chef boyar Dee, Pam, Marie Callendar, Peter Pan peanut butter, Healthy Choice, and Egg Beaters. Think food isn't big business, think again. ConAgra's net profit last year was $533 million. Borden, Inc., which produces a wide variety of products, including everybody's favorite household glue, had 1.10 billion in sales in 2006.

Still on the subject of food, the latest acquisition of 18th Massachusetts Infantry memorabilia arrived in the mail Tuesday. That item was the menu from the 18th Massachusetts Regimental Association Annual Dinner, held at Boston on Wednesday, August 26, 1891.

The menu featured Mock Turtle or Consommé Macaroni soup, followed by a course of Boiled Halibut with Hollandaise sauce. These guys knew how to eat, because I haven't gotten to the entrees yet.

The next items on the menu were Removes, featuring a choice of Roast Loin of Beef, Roast Chicken, or Boiled Leg of Mutton. Ok, I can see you're starting to loosen your belt a little. But remember, these guys were making up for the deprivation and lousy food they were subjected to while in the Army, even years later, so bring on the entrees! Lobster Croquettes, Potted Pigeons a la jardinière, Baked Spaghetti, Apple Fritters, and Chicken Salad. Now you're really getting stuffed, but here come the waiters with the Sweets: Charlotte Russe with Roman Cream and Fancy Cake with Wine Jelly. And just when you think you can't eat another bite, the dessert tray passes in front of your face, piled with bananas, peaches, plums, sherbert, and ice cream. And coffee! I can envision everyone leaning back in their chairs after the meal, pulling out cigars, lighting them, and saying, Ah! Life is good.

If the 30th anniversary dinner schedule embraced the same format as that of the 41st held in Norwell, then what followed dinner was conducted on a more serious note. It was a time spent in reflection on events that had happened three decades before, when all those in attendance answered to the long roll and long marches. The places where they fought would have been called out: Yorktown, Second Bull Run, Shepherdstown, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Mine Run, The Wilderness, Bethesda Church, and Petersburg, among others. They would have recalled comrades who had fallen on the battlefield, died in prisons in the South, or of disease in the regimental and other hospitals sprinkled throughout the North. They would have mourned the names of those who lay in marked or unmarked graves. And they would have remembered the comrades who had died in the preceding year. Harvey Hayford in Norwood of Bright's Disease; John Hughes in Taunton; Thomas Linehand at the National Soldier's Home in Togus, ME; Lemuel Pratt in East Bridgewater; Daniel Sales of paralysis in Fall River; Henry Shurtleff at Carver; Alexander Woodward of Consumption at Taunton; heart disease taking George Groves at Gilkey, Arkansas, Albert Jordan at Franklin, Edward Luther at Fall River, and Stephen Ryder at Middleboro. Consumption would have claimed James McKenney at Taunton, while Charles Wallis died at Chihuahua, Mexico due to chronic kidney disease. All a sobering reminder that after thirty years the number of veterans was shrinking and mortality was closer to claiming each of them as his own.

A moment of silence would have then prevailed, at which time all in attendance would have risen to their feet. They would have not needed a songbook, for all would have known the words written by General John H. Martindale that had been set to music by Charles Swett of the 18th Massachusetts Regimental Band. They would have sung it loudly, with tears welling in their eyes and pride swelling in their hearts.

When the battle's music greets our ear,
Our guns are sighted at the foe,
Then nerve the hand, and banish fear
And comrades, touch the elbow

Touch the elbow, comrades elbow
Elbow comrades, touch the elbow
Never the hand, banish fear
Comrades, touch the elbow

Thursday, August 20, 2009


As I'll be on a one week vacation (the first time in three years I'll have been away from work for more than two consecutive days) I thought I'd re-run some of my favorite posts.

Note: this post originally ran on February 20, 2009 and is based on a series of stories that appeared in The Washington Star from June 17th to June 20th, 1864.



Death On The Homefront - Part Two

For three years Washington had been a depot for wounded soldiers arriving by train, wagon, ambulance, and boat. Whereas crowds had gathered earlier in the war upon the arrival of casualties from battlefields, the city had become progressively inured to the masses of torn and mutilated bodies brought for medical attention. The once eager helping hands of civilians no longer assisted in the unloading of those battered by shell, shot, and minie balls. Instead, the wounded and dying were processed in seeming isolation, while hospitals, once occupying virtually every church and public building, had been relocated to the outskirts of the city. Amputees, with their empty sleeves or trouser legs, wandering through the city no longer drew notice. These unfortunates were as common to the downtown streets as newsboys hawking the latest edition of a paper. Too, after three years there was a feeling of security. After numerous alarms in years past the city was under no immediate threat. Grant was in motion with his massive army slugging his way closer to Richmond. Jubal Early and his marauding butternuts were still a month away from their approach down the Seventh Street road, while theaters, restaurants, shops, hotels, pickpockets, muggers, and whores were all doing a landmark business.

The explosion at the Washington Arsenal had done more than shake the main laboratory building. The city had quite literally been stunned. In a place overrun by government clerks and regiments drawn from the local populace consigned to nearby guard and picket duty, the fire had claimed nineteen women who lived with their working class families in working class neighborhoods on the Island, on Capitol Hill, in the Northern Liberties. Whole families had been touched by the flames even if those flames hadn’t licked at their skin. Neighbors and friends had been touched by the flames even if those flames hadn’t melted the metal hoops of their dresses. For those who had escaped and were wrapped in the arms of loved ones, guilt singed their hearts for the sin of having survived.

Edward Stanton, cold, calculating, intolerant, and feared, directed that “the funeral and all the expenses incident to the internment of the sufferers by the recent catastrophe at the Arsenal will be paid by the [War] Department. You will not spare any means to express the respect and sympathy of the Government for the deceased and their surviving friends.”

A committee of workers from the Arsenal chose neatly stained poplar wood for the construction of the coffins, which were “lined with muslim and trimmed with white satin and ginap.” All metal, including the handles screws, and tacks were silver-mounted, while the coffin-plates were silver plated. An appropriate site at the Congressional Burying Ground was arranged and James King, John Stahl, and G. Collison were in charge of procuring hearses, appointing pall-bearers, and conducting the funeral procession.

The funeral was scheduled on the Arsenal grounds for three o’clock in the afternoon on June 19th, two days after the fire. A crowd had begun forming by noon and by two o’clock more than a thousand people were concentrated outside the gates. By 2:30, when the gates finally swung open, the number had tripled and the stampede through the comparatively narrow opening resulted in injuries to more than a few. Several divisions of the Sons of Temperance and a band affiliated with Finley Hospital also made their appearance on the grounds.

Rising fifteen to twenty feet above the ground, a canopied platform draped with the American flag and symbols of mourning supported fifteen coffins. Eight bore a label with the word “unknown,” while seven, lined side by side bore the names of Annie Bache, Julia McCuin, Mrs. Collins, Elizabeth Branagan, Lizzie Brahler, Eliza Lacey, and Maggie Yonson. Each was adorned with bouquets and wreaths made from white lilies and roses, a tribute from their female co-workers.

A contingent of Veteran Reserves struggled to hold back the crowd, which tried to press closer to the platform, even as relatives of the deceased were brought onto the platform. Sobs wracked the stage as family members looked for their loved ones. Emily Bache’s family clutched at her coffin, demanding it be opened, while the sister of Melissa Adams, one of the unknown, conducted a futile search and collapsed in a dead faint.

The crowd finally lapsed into a respectful silence when Father Bokel of St. Dominic’s began reciting the Catholic burial service, sprinkling holy water on the caskets. Though earnest and feeling in his remarks, he imparted this lesson to those who looked on: “Those before them, though dead, speak to us in words of warning, that we too must die, and we know not the hour or circumstances in which the Almighty may summon us to appear before him.”

The Reverend S.V. Leech, a Methodist Episcopal minister who followed tried to console family members. “It would have been consoling, indeed, if the father and the mother could have stood by the side of the daughter and bade her adieu; but we have this consolation, that those who believed in Christ were not harmed by death, and scarcely felt the touch of fire before they were hastened to a blissful immortality…”

The police opened a passage through the crowd and the coffins were borne in line to waiting hearses and ambulances. The procession moved out through the north gate at 4 o’clock, led by the Finley Hospital band and followed in order by the Sons of Temperance, various ladies auxilleries of which Susie Harris, Bettie Branagan, and Eliza Lacey had been members, officiating clergymen, the hearses and ambulances, President Lincoln and Edward Stanton riding in a carriage as chief mourners, officers of the Washington Arsenal, relatives and friends of the deceased, and employees from the different Arsenal workshops. Forming behind were 150 hacks, other vehicles, a large procession of horses, and finally pedestrians, the whole of which stretched for miles and took about thirty-five minutes to pass one point. Moving up 4 ½ Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, the procession met a similar party assembled for Catherine McElfresh at F Street and the two combined in their slow march toward Congressional Cemetery.

As the funeral procession made its way down Pennsylvania Avenue the crowd grew and suddenly hundreds jumped from the sidewalks to the front of the line, calculating that the move would give them a vantage point at the cemetery. Unbeknownst to them the cemetery had been jammed with spectators for more than three hours.

Two large pits, each measuring six feet long, fifteen feet wide and five and a half feet deep, yawned open in the earth. Eight of the coffins were laid in one, six in the other; Catherine McElfresh’s coffin having been placed in a grave near her father and Annie Bache’s in a vault. Police had to restore order to a pushing, shoving, and clothes tearing mob before families members could be led to the gravesite, where the Reverend Leach officiated. With the repetition of the words “Farewell Sisters, Farewell,” and a final benediction, the crowd finally dispersed.

Three miles away four other funerals were taking place, those of Kate Horan, Johannah Connor, Bridget Dunn, and Catherine Hull, whose own service had taken place at the home of an uncle John King, who resided at the corner of K and Fifth Street Northeast. All were led in smaller separate processions, the largest of which encompassed twenty carriages, to Mt. Olivet Catholic Cemetery, the eventual resting place for Mary Surratt and Henry Wirz, former commandant of prisoners at Andersonville.

One year later a memorial would rise above Congressional Cemetery in remembrance of a city's lost daughters.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Note from Donald: As I'll be on a one week vacation (the first time in three years I'll have been away from work for more than two consecutive days) I thought I'd re-run some of my favorite posts.

Note: this post originally ran on February 19, 2009 and is based on a series of stories that appeared in the pages of The Washington Star from June 17th to June 20th, 1864.


Death On The Homefront - Part One

Sometime between eight and nine a.m.. on June 17, 1864, Thomas Brown, a pyrotechnist at the Washington Arsenal, laid out three copper trays filled with star shaped fireworks in the sun to dry. The fireworks were from a recipe of Brown’s own composition and considered by him less combustible than others which had been manufactured. It was routine for fireworks to be dried in the sun, even in August when the broiling Washington heat reached its apex, and as Brown would later state, there was little concern they would ignite.

Inside the Arsenal 108 young women were at work in four rooms of the one story main laboratory making both cartridges for small arms and fireworks. They all worked silently, as talking or laughter could result in dismissal. 29 of the women housed together were engaged in “choking” cartridges, a process by which they attached the ball by a machine, which, in turn, fastened the cartridge to the ball. The work conducted in the other three rooms included making boxes and cylinders, or cases.

No one was absolutely certain as to what happened, however a juror’s inquest fingered Thomas Brown’s negligence as the contributing cause to an explosion that ripped through the cartridge choking room at ten minutes to twelve. It was believed that the star fireworks, which had been drying approximately thirty feet from the main laboratory, had ignited and a burning fuse had flown through an open window causing the cartridges to explode, setting off a raging inferno. Witness accounts said the explosion sounded muffled and there was little initial damage to the brick structure, although the roof of the building reportedly lifted a foot into the air.

Panic immediately set in as some women were instantly engulfed in flames. Many made for windows and doors and more were set on fire when their own clothing came in contact with those already consumed. A Mrs. Scott stated at the time of the initial explosion she was buried under a dozen bodies, but managed to extricate herself and escape from the building with a severe burn to one leg. Others who leapt from windows in total flames were not as fortunate. In many cases hoop skirts acted as a chimney and rapidly funneled the flames upward toward the head. One woman who dove through a window was immediately grabbed by an onlooker who ran with her to the river, where both plunged into the water. Three others had their clothing ripped off by quick thinking bystanders, an action that ultimately saved their lives.

The response to the emergency was swift as eight fire companies raced to the scene and battled the fire with their hoses. Of importance was containing the blaze to prevent its spread to the barge magazine, where several tons of powder was stored. Even with their efforts a secondary explosion rocked the cartridge choking room sending debris into the air.

News of the explosion and fire spread as rapidly as the flames. A telegram had been sent to Edward Stanton at the War Department advising of the catastrophe, pleading for doctors to be sent to aid the injured. Stanton and General Henry W. Halleck rushed to the scene as did countless relatives frantically searching for family members, the crowd growing so large that a contingent of the Veteran Reserve Corps had to be called in to help control the growing number of seekers and onlookers. Thirteen of the workers, most badly burnt, had made their way to a tug docked nearby, and were ferried to the Sixth street wharf where they were then taken to friends and family. They were among the fortunate, as were Sallie McElfresh, Catherine Goldsmith, and Ada Webster, all severely burnt about the hands, arms, and face, and Julia Mahoney, badly injured while jumping from a window. Kate Plummer was hurt when a piece of iron plunged into her neck when she jumped through a window, while a Miss Kidwell, who was later found to have scraps of lead melted into her body whispered to friends “When I saw the blaze, I threw my hands over my face, and saved my eyes.”

When the fire was finally brought under control, the grim task of searching the shell of the remaining structure began in earnest. In total, 17 bodies were discovered. Those who walked through the ruin eyed a grisly scene beyond imagination. “In nearly every case only the trunk of the body remained, the arms and legs being missing or detached.”

Johanna Connor and Margaret Horan were identified by relatives who recognized small portions of their clothing that had not been consumed by flames. The list of the dead continued with Maggie Yonson and Ellen Roche, neither of whose bodies were recognizable, Elizabeth Branegan, who resided on E street south, between 4 ½ and 6th, Julia McCuin a resident of 4 ½ Street, Bridget Dunn of Capitol Hill, and Lizzie Brohler and Eliza Lacy, neighbors of Elizabeth Branegan. Rebecca Hull and Sallie McElfresh were among those taken to hospitals for treatment, but failed to pull through. One of the more tragic stories was that of Melissa Adams, the third child in a motherless family to die in an accident, one brother having accidentally shot himself during a hunting trip, while another had been killed when run over by a carriage.

The Washington Arsenal explosion occurred on the same day a lesser fire broke out at the Watervilett Arsenal near Albany, NY, one that the New York Times declared was “comparatively trifling” in terms of property loss. Both paled in comparison, however, to a fire which had claimed 78 worker lives at the Allegheny, Pennsylvania Arsenal on September 17, 1862. That tragic event had been reduced in its importance and neglected by newspapers, which instead chose to focus on the battle of Antietam.

In Washington the search for answers was quick in coming. A Coroner’s Inquest began the following day , the jury listening to testimony from Thomas Brown, Major James Benton, commandant of the Arsenal, Henry Soufferie, an Arsenal employee, Andrew Cox, an assistant to Brown, Edward Stebbins, the paymaster, Clinton Thomas, who worked in the gun carriage shop, and Charles S. Curtain, the brother-in-law of victim Johanna Connor. Conspicuous by their absence as witnesses were female employees at the Arsenal.

All fault and blame rested on Brown according to the jury. Brown, who had worked at the Arsenal for over twenty years, and by all accounts a competent and diligent employee,“was guilty of the most culpable carelessness and negligence in placing highly combustible substances so near a building filled with humans.”


Tomorrow: the funerals

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Note from Donald: As I'll be on a one week vacation (the first time in three years I'll have been away from work for more than two consecutive days) I thought I'd re-run some of my favorite posts.

Note: this post originally ran on March 6, 2009. There are only two places where this event is mentioned, a single paragraph in "Charge!" the history of the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry and two short sentences in the history of the 13th Michigan Infantry. Neither Charles Francis Adams, Jr.'s autobiography nor a thesis on the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry by a Boston College graduate student make mention of the Sutherland affair.


Sutherland - Part Two

While the 5th Massachusetts encamped, the Third Brigade swept through Burkeville, fifteen miles from Farmville, reaching Nottoway nine miles further on. By the 21st they were at Wilson’s Station, and finally on the 22nd, eight days after leaving Appomattox, within easy reach of Sutherland. One day beyond Sutherland lay the city of trenches and bombproofs that had shielded them for ten months from everything Petersburg had to throw at them, except snipers. Beyond that, after four long years for some, Richmond, and beyond that, a mere hundred miles away, the dome atop the Capitol building. Beyond that home, and children never seen before, wives who had gone without an embrace, fathers and mothers who had grayed, and younger siblings who had grown more than a foot taller in their absence. Those thoughts buoyed their every step through the Virginia countryside.

On Sunday the 23rd, dirty, dissheveled, and stomachs growling, the Third Brigade stacked arms at Sutherland Station. Men of the 118th Pennsylvania took quick note of the 5th Massachusetts camped in their front. They were put off by the cleanliness of the cavalry uniforms and the perception, real or imagined, that they were being looked down upon by black men. Some of Philadelphia’s best immediately began itching for a fight and looking for an excuse headed for the tent of the 5th’s sutler. None had money to pay for what they wanted, they simply began taking it and were joined by more comrades in the taking. Three of the 5th, assigned to guard duty, ordered the 118th to back off. That demand only drew more of a crowd, until the corporal of the guard, “a big black fellow, wishing to magnify his office, came up and undertook to arrest our men for disobeying orders.”

Sergeant Charles Brightmeyer of the 118th threw the first punch, knocking the corporal to the ground, and then all hell broke loose. Knives sliced through ropes holding up the sutler’s tent and a rush began for boxes of canned peaches, canned tomatoes, sardines, tobacco, cheese, and every other item that someone could pick up and run with. Soldiers from the 20th Maine and 1st Michigan joined in the pillaging. While a distraught sutler looked on, buglers could be heard in the distance sounding “Boots and Saddles.”

Officers from the 5th Massachusetts, brandishing swords and intent on making arrests, were immediately set upon and became participants in an all out brawl. Swords went flying into the air, while tassled hats were kicked around like balls. Samuel Chamberlain, acting Colonel of the 5th in place of Charles Adams, raced to the scene on his horse, the rest of his command in close pursuit. Fists froze in mid-punch. Chamberlain demanded officers from the three white regiments arrest those responsible and hold them strictly accountable, threatening to take action himself if his demands weren’t met. The troopers, under Chamberlain's direction, formed a line in front of the sutler's tent, ready to spur their horses forward if signaled to do so. There was no mistaking the now steeled expressions and open contempt that registered in the eyes of white men who looked at black men led by white men. An unidentified Third Brigade colonel ordered them to fix bayonets, six to eight of which were then thrust into the chest, belly, and flank of Chamberlain’s horse.

Major General Alfred L. Pearson, commanding the Third Brigade, finally arrived on the scene to restore order. Chamberlain launched an immediate protest and looked for justice, not only for his men, but his horse that was later destroyed due to its wounds. Pearson quickly sized up the situation and ordered Chamberlain to withdraw his men, cautioning the Colonel that unless he complied some of them were certain to be killed.

A month later, on May 23rd, the Third Brigade stepped out into the line of march and proudly paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue with the rest of the Fifth Corps and the triumphant Army of the Potomac, in lock step, arms swinging upward, eyes right when they passed the reviewing stand, the cheers of the crowd deafening in their ears.

The Fifth Massachusetts moved from Sutherland to City Point, where on June 16th they loaded their horses onto trains to begin a 1200 mile journey to Clarksville, Texas. They would stand vigil along the Mexican border until mustered out of service on October 31, 1865.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Note from Donald: As I'll be on a one week vacation (the first time in three years I'll have been away from work for more than two consecutive days) I thought I'd re-run some of my favorite posts.

Note: this post ran on March 5, 2009. There are only two places where this event is mentioned, a single paragraph in "Charge!" the history of the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry and two short sentences in the history of the 13th Michigan Infantry. Neither Charles Francis Adams, Jr.'s autobiography nor a thesis on the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry by a Boston College graduate student make mention of the Sutherland affair.


Sutherland - Part One

On April 23, 1865 in a small town twelve miles west of Petersburg, VA, disparate cymbals crashed against one another, part of a symphony orchestrated by bigotry and hunger and a demand for respect. It was a clash in which two opponents forgot they were part of a common cause, part of a fraternity of triumphant soldiers, and were each ready to draw the blood of comrades in blue.

For two days following the Confederate surrender of arms at Appomattox, regiments of the Third Brigade of the First Division of the Fifth Corps had drawn the unenviable task of collecting weapons, munitions, and stores left behind in the Rebel camps. According to John Smith, historian for the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry, “whole battalions had stacked their arms and left for home, taking no part in the surrender, not even signing their parole.” It was also a task performed on nearly empty stomachs, as rations had been exhausted. Railroad bridges had been destroyed preventing supply trains from reaching the area, while road conditions kept wagons from moving. Foraging parties were sent out, but pickings were slim. Beef was scarce and what little was found was “poor and tough.” Some scavengers picked the ground for corn that had been fed to horses and mules and, according to Smith, ate it “with great relish.”

Eleven days earlier and 90 miles to the east, one thousand Black troopers of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry had followed Col. Charles Francis Adams, the great-grandson of John Adams and grandson of John Quincy Adams, into Richmond. Lt. Edward J. Bartlett would write home “Today, is the most glorious in the history both of the country and our regiment.” Fannie Walker, a Richmond native, would react with “horror” at the sight of the “Negro” cavalrymen singing “John Brown’s Body” in the streets of the fallen Confederate capitol.

The Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry had been mustered into service over a three-month period, from January to May 1864. Twenty-one of its white officer cadre was drawn from the 1st and 2nd Mass. cavalries, three from the ranks of the 44th Mass. Infantry, while 12 had no prior military experience. The enlisted ranks were overwhelmingly filled by free blacks hailing primarily from Massachusetts cities and towns, including Boston, Framingham, Rehobeth, Amherst, Springfield, Marshfield, Waltham, Roxbury, Duxbury, Provincetown, Dorchester, and Middleboro. The barbers, laborers, waiters, farmers, sailors, painters, and blacksmiths from the Old Bay State were joined by enlistees from such distant locales as Pittsburgh, Raritan and Jersey City, New Jersey, New Orleans, Newbern, Goldsboro and Plymouth, North Carolina, St. John’s in New Brunswick, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Reading, Pennsylvania, Frankfort and Logan County, Kentucky, Wellsville and Cincinnati, Ohio, Chicago, Batavia and Elmira, New York, South Kingston and Providence, Rhode Island, the West Indies, and Valparaiso, Chile.

Assigned to the 18th Corps in the Army of the James, they had initially performed picket and reconnaissance duty and then became part of the general troop movement toward Richmond in June. The regiment had been engaged at the battle of Baylor’s Farm, where three of its members were killed and another eighteen wounded. They would not be allowed to further their combat record, however. In late June the regiment was reassigned to supplement companies drawn from the Veterans Reserve Corps and stand guard over Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout, Maryland, the largest of all Northern POW camps. There were reports of rough treatment of prisoners by members of the 5th and after five prisoners were shot dead in three separate incidents, including two for supposedly talking in their tent after dark, James Barnes, commanding the military district of St. Mary’s came down hard and warned the regiment that unwarranted or unjustified discharge of weapons would meet with harsh consequences.

The warning served its purpose and a cavalry regiment that wasn’t a cavalry regiment performed their duty as required. Like any regiment they had their good and bad elements, drunks, slackers, two who were found guilty of striking their sergeant, others who verbally abused their officers, or were found to be mutinous by disobeying orders, but as a whole performed well and the majority without incident. They’d continue this duty through Thanksgiving, when they sat down to a traditional New England repast, afterwards chasing a greased pig and engaging in wheelbarrow races, then Christmas, on into the fading winter, when finally, in March 1865, the regiment joined the siege at Petersburg, occupying the extreme right of Union lines at Deep Bottom as part of the 25th Corps.

On April 6th, three days after their entry into Richmond, Adams was given orders to shift the regiment to Petersburg. They remained a day before receiving additional orders to move twelve miles to the west, to Sutherland Station, to guard the Southside Railroad. Adams own stay at Sutherland Station lasted only nine days. On the 16th of April he was summoned to appear before Major General Edward O.C. Ord, then commanding the Army of the James. There Adams was arrested and charged with neglect of duty in “allowing his command to straggle and maraud,” and was further ordered to report to Fortress Monroe for trial. The charge of marauding was leveled because of complaints from Richmond citizens alleging members of the 5th Mass had appropriated horses for their own use.

The Third Brigade began its march back to Washington on April 14th. Spirits were dampened and there was no sense they were a conquering or triumphant army. Hunger and rain will do that. Officers used a carrot and stick approach, urging the men toward Farmville, 27 miles away, where rations were said to be waiting. After two days of marching through mud, the strung out column finally reached its first milestone destination and found the promised supplies waiting. As Smith recalled, “We stacked arms and laid around, and for the first time realized that the war over.” The whole scene was brightened further by the clearing of rain clouds overhead, but any feelings of contentment were shattered at 4 p.m. when a dispatch was read aloud announcing the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had won the love and devotion of the Army of the Potomac. In a display of mourning the color bearers from all regiments draped their flags in black, dyeing white handkerchiefs and any other fabric available in ink obtained from the ranks.

On April 20th the Third Brigade, which included veterans of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Spottsylvania, would break camp and resume its eastward trek along what is now Rt. 460. They had 55 miles to go before they would reach Sutherland Station and make their acquaintance with the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry.

To be continued…