Robert E. Lee’s mystery letter connected to a record-breaking cold case

 

Robert E. Lee's mysterious letter

Detail of Robert E. Lee’s letter. Robert E. Lee to George Washington Custis Lee, 11 Apr. 1847, deButts-Ely family papers. (c) Virginia Historical Society, with permission.

 

A national mystery

The Virginia Historical Society inherited a national mystery in 1981. That’s when it obtained the deButts-Ely family papers. The collection contains Robert E. Lee correspondence, and among it, a surprising letter from the Siege of Veracruz. In that letter, Robert E. Lee praised an unknown hero. But no one suspected that man was an assassin – the perpetrator in a record-breaking German cold case.

Lee at the Siege of Veracruz

General Winfield Scott masterminded the siege in March 1847 as the opening gambit to his campaign in the Mexican-American War. While General Zachary Taylor remained in northern Mexico, far from the capital, Scott planned an amphibious landing near Veracruz. He wanted to capture the Mexican port city and then march inland, following Cortez’s route from centuries before, to sack Mexico City.

The Siege of Veracruz was Robert E. Lee’s first battle. He directed the fire at an onshore naval battery. A German company from Pennsylvania’s first regiment was assigned to defending it. Eight Americans died at the battery before the U.S. won the siege, and one of those deaths made a profound impression on Lee. On April 11, he put his feelings on paper in a letter to his son Custis:

Robert E. Lee’s mystery letter

There was one poor fellow that behaved nobly. His thigh was broke by a cannon ball & he was laid in a trench at the rear of the battery for security, the balls & shells were flying so thick that he could not be borne away. A bush was stuck over him to keep the sun out of his eyes & all that we could give him was occasionally a cup of bad warm water. The men at the guns were hot & thirsty & drank up the water as fast as it could be brought. It was at some distance & the balls swept over the field & at such a furious rate that the officers would not let the men go for water except when they could not do without it. There the poor fellow lay till evening; when they got a litter & was bearing him off, when a shell fell & burst & a fragment killed him. He laid the whole day with the balls & bombs flying over him without uttering a complaint. His sufferings must have been very great, for the battery kept up a constant & brisk firing & the concussion from the 32 [pounders] & Paixhan guns shook the whole ground & must have pained him terribly. I doubt whether all Mexico is worth to us the life of that man.*

This unknown hero has been a discussion point in the literature. Why would Robert E. Lee balance American military objectives against the life of one man and find them lacking?

But no one, until now, has asked who that man was.

Naval battery at the Siege of Veracruz

Naval battery at the Siege of Veracruz, ca. 1848. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

The unknown hero turns out to be a long-sought criminal

A careful comparison of the American casualty list against descriptions of the deaths at the naval battery in primary sources such as logbooks, letters, and a newspaper account from an embedded journalist all point to a German volunteer in the 1st Pennsylvania.

Robert E. Lee couldn’t have known the man’s background. It would have shocked him. The man was the assassin in a record-breaking German cold case – 19th-century Germany’s coldest case ever solved and its only murder ever solved in the USA.

For the first time, Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee (Kent State University Press, September 1, 2017) brings these two stories together. It offers American history packaged in international true crime wrapping. You can order the book here on Amazon.

Next week we’ll look at the German case and the letter from America that provided the crucial clue.

Literature on point:

*Robert E. Lee to George Washington Custis Lee, 11 Apr. 1847, deButts-Ely family papers, Virginia Historical Society.

Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (New York: Penguin Books, 2009; discusses the letter on p. 173).

Bernice-Marie Yates, The Perfect Gentleman: The Life and Letters of George Washington Custis Lee, Vol. 1 (Xulon Press, 2003; discusses the letter on pp. 92-94).

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Little Lost Girl and the Civil War General

 

A young girl like this accidently found her way into the bed of a later Civil War general.

Morguefile free photos

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.

The Civil War general was travelling on a steamer like this one.

Steamer, ca. 1852. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

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.

Mules boarding a ship.

Mules boarding a ship over a passenger gangplank. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

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].”

Morguefile free photos.

Morguefile free photos.

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.

Robert E. Lee, ca. 1846.

Robert E. Lee, ca. 1846. Library of Congress.

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.

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Civil War Balloons: Five Fun Facts

 

Civil War balloons were used for reconnaisance.

Thaddeus Low in a reconnaisance balloon. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

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.

French ballooms preceeded Civil War balloons.

The French were the first to use military balloons. L’Entreprenant at the Battle of Fleurus (1794), public domain.

  • 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.
Hydrogen wagon inflates a Civil War balloon.

A hydrogen wagon inflates a Civil War balloon. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

  • 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.
Civil War balloons offered vistas like this one.

Aerial view of Washington, D.C. from a Civil War balloon. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

  • 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.
Launching the Intrepid.

Launching the Intrepid, one of Lowe’s balloons. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

  • 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!
Ships were used to launch Civil War balloons.

The Washington rising from the deck of the George Washington Park Custis. Wikipedia, public domain.

  • 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).

 

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How Frederick the Great’s Sword Helped Spark the Civil War

This is not Frederick the Great's sword, but a Civil War era Klingenthal sword.

This is not Frederick the Great’s sword, but a Civil War era Klingenthal sword.

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

Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great (standing) before the Battle of Torgau (1791) by Bernhard Rode, public domain.

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.

Lewis Washington

Lewis Washington, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division; public domain.

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

John Brown. LOC LC-USZ62-89569

John Brown, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

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.

Harpers Ferry

View over the historical Civil War town of Harpers Ferry, a National Park owned town, by the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, by Steve Heap, Shutterstock.com

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

Lewis Washington as a captive in Harpers Ferry.

Harper’s Ferry insurrection – Interior of the Engine-House, just before the gate is broken down by the storming party – Col. Washington and his associates as captives, held by Brown as hostages. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, 1859; public domain.

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.

George Washington & Lafayette at Valley Forge

Washington & Lafayette at Valley Forge, public domain.

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.

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Robert E. Lee, Engineer and Hero of the Midwest

Robert E. Lee, ca. 1846.

Robert E. Lee, ca. 1846. Library of Congress.

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.

Robert E. Lee did his engineering work here.

The Mississippi and St. Louis today. Morguefile photos.

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.

Robert E. Lee constructed dykes here.

An 1853 map of St. Louis, showing Bloody Island. Public domain.

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)

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