There’s only one thing more disconcerting that waking up and hearing strange noises in the night. Waking up and finding a stranger in your bed is worse. Even if it’s only a small child.
One of my favorite anecdotes of any Civil War general deals precisely with that situation. Like many other Civil War generals, this one got his first taste of battle in the Mexican-American War. That war, fought between 1846 and 1848, was like a training ground for many of the West Point graduates. For a brief period of time, they all fought side by side, only to fight against each other thirteen years later.
It was in August 1846 when it happened. He was on his way to the war, travelling aboard a steamer. The passengers consisted of 66 mules, quartered in the “Ladies Saloon,” a young soldier’s wife journeying to the front to find her husband, her little daughter, and my general, who at that point was a captain. He and the soldier’s wife had neighboring cabins in a section of the boat labeled, in gold letters, “Ladies Private Apartments.” The sole three human passengers reached their cabins by passing under a sign “Gentlemen Not Admitted.” That the future general was allowed to sleep there was probably an exception to give more room to the mules.
One night, the little girl apparently used the head and wandered back to the wrong cabin.
The future general wrote about it in a letter to his family the following day. “I was dreaming of you all last night & thought [our] daughter was in the bed with me & I was wondering how she should be so small when lo & behold when I awoke in the morning and found it was little Agnes. But I did not see that precious Mildred [one of his daughters].”
There’s no additional information about little Agnes and her mother; they remain unidentified and lost to history. But I’ve often wondered if Agnes, who was probably a teenager during the Civil War, ever remembered the incident and realized she had spent half a night in the arms of the now-famous general.
The general was Robert E. Lee, but it could have also been Ulysses S. Grant, Nathan Bedford Forrest, or George Gordon Meade for all it matters. The point is that none of those men were made of wax or marble; they were flesh and blood, like us. When they were at home, their children slept in their beds, and at least once, in the morning, one of them returned a lost, sleeping girl to her mother.
Literature on point
Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995) p. 113.
Robert E. Lee to Mary Custis Lee, August 13, 1846, Lee Family Papers, Mss1L51c50, Virginia Historical Society.Read More
Spycraft rose to new levels during the Civil War. One of the most interesting innovations was ballooning. These five fun facts provide a brief introduction to what was then cutting edge military technology.
- Civil War balloons were not the first balloons used for military reconnaissance. France created the Corp d’Aerostiers in 1794 to promote the use of wartime balloon reconnaissance. In the United States, Thaddeus Lowe developed balloons from a more durable material, won an army contract, and formed the Aeronautic Corps, forerunner of the U.S. Air Force. Lowe used portable hydrogen generator wagons to inflate his balloons.
- The Union Army was the first to combine ballooning with telegraph communications. That was Thaddeus Lowe’s brainchild. Balloons rose up to a thousand feet over the landscape, offering expanded vistas. Using binoculars and sometimes even telescopes for more accurate observation, ballooners observed troop movements, spotted artillery locations, and sketched maps. Troop size was estimated by counting tents. Since it wasn’t possible to shout urgent information down from that height, the balloonists used signal flags or telegraph lines to communication their observations to the ground. Sometimes the balloonists dropped handwritten notes, attached to bullets, overboard. Most Civil War balloons remained tethered to the ground. That facilitated air to ground communication.
- Confederates quickly developed countermeasures to frustrate Union aerial reconnaissance. During Lowe’s maiden military flight on August 29, 1861 over Arlington, they pointed their cannon skyward and baptized Lowe with artillery fire. That was our country’s first instance of ground to air artillery. There are no recorded instances of a balloon being shot down during the war on either side, however. The distances were probably too great for accurate fire. Confederates also created false impressions for Union airborne observers. They doused their campfires and created fake artillery by painting logs black and posing them as cannon.
- The South used balloons too. During the Seven Days Campaign, for instance, Confederate reconnaissance balloons hovered over the countryside surrounding Richmond. Robert E. Lee ordered Edward Porter Alexander to observe Union movements, for which Alexander used a balloon. Lee’s balloons were inflated with hydrogen. Johnston used a hot air balloon. I haven’t been able to find a photograph of a Confederate balloon, and if anyone knows of one, please comment and provide a source!
- Both sides launched balloons from ships: the North from the George Washington Parke Custis and the South from the CSS Teaser. Those ships were our country’s first aircraft carriers.
Have you ever taken a balloon ride? How well could you observe the ground?
Literature on point:
Civil War Trust, Civil War Ballooning
Steven D. Culpepper, “Balloons of the Civil War.” Master’s thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1994.
Howard Brinkley, Spies of the Civil War: The History of Espioage in the Civil War (Bookcaps, 2012).
More than any other event, it was John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry that lit the fuse of North-South tension and ignited the Civil War. Brown planned the raid for two years in advance, so it was no mistake that the first thing he did when he crossed into Virginia was to send a detachment to steal a sword and kidnap its owner. It wasn’t just any old sword. It was – purportedly – the sword of the Prussian monarch Frederick the Great.
Legend of the Sword
The story of why Frederick the Great’s sword fascinated John Brown is a story of the symbolism in the raid. And that symbolism helped establish Brown’s reputation as a martyr.
Brown’s preparations for the raid included sending an advance man, John Edwin Cook, as a spy. Cook moved to Harpers Ferry over a year in advance. He blended in well and even married a local girl. One interesting tidbit Cook passed on to Brown had to do with a sword once belonging to Frederick the Great and two pistols once belonging to General Lafayette. Col. Lewis W. Washington, the great-grandnephew of George Washington, had inherited them and lived only four miles from Harpers Ferry. Frederick the Great had reputedly sent the sword to Washington in 1780 with a note: “From the oldest General in the world to the Greatest.”
John Brown Steals Frederick the Great’s Sword
Brown’s raiders kidnapped Washington in the middle of the night and delivered him by carriage, along with the sword and pistols, to the U.S. armory in Harpers Ferry, now under John Brown’s command. Brown kept Washington hostage in the armory’s fire engine house and wore Frederick’s sword during the following standoff. Robert E. Lee, appointed to command the U.S. troops from Fr. Monroe present in Harpers Ferry, successfully recaptured the armory.
Brown was injured and captured. Carrying Frederick’s sword might have helped save his life. When a U.S. Army lieutenant tried to strike Brown with a saber, something under Brown’s shirt deflected the blow. That something is thought to be the buckle for the belt carrying the sword. Brown, according to one source, surrendered Frederick’s sword and Lafayette’s pistols to a black man, Osborn Perry Anderson, a freeborn Pennsylvanian who had joined Brown on the raid. They were eventually returned to Washington.
Had Brown been killed immediately, he may not have become a national martyr. His stoicism in face of the death penalty is one of the things that changed him, in the eyes of the North, from an abolitionist who had gone too far to a national saint.
Why the sword? And why the pistols?
The Sword in Symbolism
John Brown planned the raid on Harpers Ferry not only on a tactical level, but also a symbolic one. Symbolism was already reflected in his selection of the date for his raid: July 4, 1859. Only because he couldn’t amass enough men and materials by Independence Day did Brown postpone the raid to October 16.
Historians today doubt whether Frederick really gave Washington a sword. It’s impossible to determine the origins of the sword because it was severely damaged in a fire in 1911. But the point is moot, because the people of the era believed it really was Frederick the Great’s sword and the role it played was symbolic. Brown had planned from the beginning to place those national heirlooms in the hands of a black man as a symbol of racial justice.
Literature on point:
Michael Korda: Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee (Harper, 2014)
Peggy A. Russo & Paul Finkelman, eds. Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press 2005)
United States Department of the Interior; National Park Service. National Registers of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form for Beall-Air (Jefferson County, West Virginia) 1973.Read More
The Mississippi as the key to commerce
Even if the Civil War never happened, and even if Robert E. Lee never became president of Washington and Lee University, we would still probably know him today. He changed American history not only as a general and university administrator, but as an engineer. His most celebrated engineering feat? He made the Mississippi River navigable.
Let’s put that feat into perspective.
If you were a Midwest farmer in the 1830s, you’d need to find people to buy your harvest. Who would that be? Certainly not the folks from the next farm over. Before the era of the railroad, canals and inland waterways were the main types of transportation for transferring produce to the places where people needed them the most: the cities. As farmers moved further west, the Mississippi played an increasingly significant role. As Michael Korda wrote, “The great river that Indians called the ‘Father of the Waters’ was then America’s most important path of trade and communication, linking the grain of the Northwest and the cotton of the upper Mississippi with the thriving port of New Orleans…. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of these problems in the age before decent roads or railways existed in what is now the Midwest – goods in bulk moved by river or did not move at all.”
St. Louis was the major harbor for the Midwest. But that suddenly changed in the 1830s. Changing currents began to deposit silt in the St. Louis harbor, choking it and blocking shipping.
Robert E. Lee tames the Mississippi
The army sent Lee to St. Louis in 1837 to solve the problems. Lee had been working with the Army Corps of Engineers since graduating second in his class at West Point in 1829.
Lee’s genius was his ability to work with the river, not against it. Better than digging out a harbor is go to upstream and figure out how to lay new switches and alter the current. Lee figured out a way to let the water do the hard work. Directly upstream, he constructed two dykes off the points of the mile-long Bloody Island, blocking the current on the Illinois side and diverting it to St. Louis. By the end of the construction season, the channel to the harbor had already deepened by seven feet, allowing boats to enter again.
As Michael Korda notes, this engineering feat would have earned Robert E. Lee fame and the gratitude of the Midwest even if it weren’t for his military achievements. He opened the Mississippi to hundreds of steamboats and made the Midwest the granary of North America. That is a fitting tribute for today. January 19 is Robert E. Lee’s birthday.
What do you think the country’s greatest engineering feat was? I’ll vote for putting men on the moon.
Literature on point:
Douglas Southall Freeman, R. E. Lee (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1934)
Michael Korda, Clouds of Glory: The Life of Robert E. Lee (Harper 2014)Read More