J.D.R. Hawkins

One bullet can make a man a hero… or a casualty.

Archive for the month “December, 2011”

A New Year Brings New Promise

During the course of the Civil War, many soldiers had to endure harsh winters far from home. It was especially trying for southern soldiers who weren’t accustomed to deep snow and frigid temperatures. Many were in tatters and had no shoes, so they wrapped rags around their feet to stay warm.

Four winters brought further hardships for soldiers on both sides, as well as civilians in the South, who increasingly suffered due to economic instability. By 1864, a barrel of flour in Mobile, Alabama soared to over $300, and coffee, a luxury to southerners by this time, cost between $30 and $70 a pound.

Nevertheless, soldiers on both sides held strong convictions about fighting for the causes they believed in. An example of this is expressed in the following letter, written by Sullivan Balou to his wife on July 14, 1861:

“… If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of their Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt …

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Mary Surratt

Mary Elizabeth Surratt was the only woman convicted and hung for the role she played during the War Between the States.She became a widow at age 42, during the summer of 1862. Her husband left behind a tavern on 287 acres in what is now Prince George’s County, Maryland. He had constructed a two-story house on the land that became known as Surrattsville. The house was converted into a tavern that served as a way station for the clandestine Confederate network. Mr. Surratt also left his wife a boarding house on H Street in Washington D.C. In October 1864, Mary and her three children permanently moved to that location and rented out the tavern to a man named John Lloyd.

Over the course of the next few months, 541 H Street would become the focal point in what is considered to be one of the most influential crimes in American history. John Wilkes Booth, who frequented the Surratt home, hatched his original kidnap conspiracy there. Other players who were involved included Mary’s son John, George Atzeroldt, who was supposed to assassinate Vice President Johnson, and Lewis Powell (aka Lewis Paine), who was responsible for the vicious attack on Secretary of State William Seward on the night of April 14, 1865, (the same night that President Lincoln was assassinated). David Herold, who was a friend of John Surratt and John Wilkes Booth, rode with Booth following the assassination. He was later captured at Garrett’s Farm, where Booth was shot to death by Sergeant Boston Corbett, who was part of the 16th New York Cavalry that cornered the two men inside a barn on the premises. Also participating in the conspiracy were Samuel Arnold, who was an original plotter in the kidnapping scheme, Michael O’Laughlen, who was thought to have been sent to kill Secretary of War Edwin Stanton but failed, and Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated Booth’s injuries after he escaped from Washington.

Booth intended to kidnap President Lincoln in order to force the Union to surrender captured Confederates. His plans were solidified by March 1865, but were postponed for various reasons, and proved futile once General Lee surrendered on April 9. Meanwhile, Mary Surratt traveled to her tavern on April 13, where she allegedly told her renter, John Lloyd, “to have the shooting irons ready; there will be some parties call for them.”

Following the assassination, a woman whose niece worked for Mary Surratt contacted police, saying that suspicious men had been seen at Mary’s boarding house. Subsequently, everyone else in the house, including Mary, was arrested and taken into custody. Before leaving, Mary was caught in a lie, denying that she knew Lewis Powell, who just happened to show up with a shovel, claiming that Mary required his services for digging a ditch.

At the trial, several eyewitnesses testified to Mary Surratt’s involvement in the assassination scheme, including George Atzeroldt. Several claimed that they had seen Mary conversing with Booth, who gave her a wrapped package containing field glasses that she was to leave with her tenant, John Lloyd. Although Mary’s son escaped conviction because he was in New York at the time, she was not so lucky. Tried before a military commission, the conspirators were found guilty. Mary was one of four sentenced to death by hanging. No one believed she would actually be put to death because of her gender, but regardless of her lawyers’ issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, the federal judge’s order to have her delivered to his courtroom on the morning of her execution, and pleas from her daughter, Anna, President Johnson refused to commute Mary’s sentence. Two days before her execution, the judge advocate general delivered a plea for her clemency to President Johnson, who later claimed that he received no such request until after the hanging.

Mary Surratt died in Washington’s Arsenal prison yard on July 7, 1865 with Lewis Powell, David Harold, and George Atzeroldt. As army personnel crowded into the yard to watch, the first woman to be executed by the U.S. government fell through the gallows’ trap doors alongside her co-conspirators. Whether she was actually guilty of the crimes she was accused of committing, or whether her sentence was unjustified and unfair remains a topic of debate. I highly recommend that if you have the opportunity, visit Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. In the basement is housed a unique museum containing descriptions and artifacts surrounding this inauspicious act.

Merry Christmas (No Apologies)

Here’s wishing everyone a very merry Christmas. I know I’m being unconventional by not stating “Happy Holidays,” but I have a different take on political correctness. It’s my opinion that we shouldn’t say “happy holidays” merely to avoid offending those who aren’t Christians. I tell everyone “merry Christmas” to celebrate my own Christianity. That is my belief, and I shouldn’t be put in a position that makes me feel ashamed or inappropriate.

That being said, remember the familiar adage that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” If you have the opportunity, attend a church service on Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day, because I’m sure it will inspire you. For all who have suffered loss this year, God bless you. And that goes out to our armed forces personnel as well, who are far from home, missing their families.

MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!!!

Savannah As a Christmas Gift

On December 21, 1864, after pushing his troops over 300 miles across Georgia in his “March to the Sea,” General William Tecumseh Sherman arrived in Savannah, capturing the city that was inhabited by only a few women, children, and slaves. Happy with his accomplishment, Sherman telegraphed President Lincoln. “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns & plenty of ammunition & also about 25.000 bales of cotton.”

I can’t imagine what the women of Savannah felt upon this invasion other than absolute loathing, which is understandable. By now, most of the South was aware that the war was winding down, and that they were losing. What complete loss they must have experienced at a time that was traditionally held as a joyous occasion.

With this in mind, let us rejoice in our freedom, and celebrate the fact that we live in such a prosperous country. Even though commercialism is everywhere, we should try to look past it and celebrate in honor of those who fought, suffered, and died before us for what they believed in. Without their sacrifice, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

Christmas and the Civil War Soldier

Soldiers away from home at Christmastime suffer a unique kind of homesickness that is different from the usual melancholy they usually experience. Those who fought during the Civil War were mostly Christians, so the celebration of Christmas was an especially poignant time for them. As Victorians, they believed that Christmas should be celebrated as a happy time of year. But with all the death surrounding them, it must have been nearly impossible to feel that way.

The Battle of Fredericksburg took place a little over a week before Christmas, on December 13, 1862. This battle was remarkably sad because the citizens of Fredericksburg were forced out of their homes. Some had no recourse but to camp in the woods in subzero temperatures. Union forces who invaded the town looted, burned and shelled much of it. They then went up to Marye’s Heights, where Confederate troops were waiting for them. Because the Rebels were at an advantage, the Yankees were forced to march up the hill through an open field, thus making them sitting ducks. Needless to say, thousands were slaughtered.

When the townsfolk were finally able to return to their homes, they found only destruction. Somehow, they managed to carry on through the terrible sadness that engulfed them. It is interesting to note that, during a lull in the battle, one soldier found the compassion to come to the aid of his enemies. His name was Sergeant Richard Kirkland, a Confederate from South Carolina. Without the protection of the white flag of truce, he braved the open field to provide water and blankets to the wounded and dying Union soldiers. Because of his bravery, the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” is immortalized with a statue at Fredericksburg National Military Park.

Battle of Fredericksburg

Soldiers who were away from home at Christmas suffered a particular kind of homesickness, different from the usual melancholy they usually felt. Because most soldiers who fought in the Civil War were Christians, the celebration of Christmas was a very special time for them. As Victorians, they believed that Christmas should be celebrated as a happy time of year. But with all the death surrounding them, it was difficult to feel that way, especially in December 1862.

The Battle of Fredericksburg took place a little over a week before Christmas, on December 13, 1862. The battle forced citizens of Fredericksburg out of their homes, and some had no recourse but to camp in the woods in subzero temperatures. Union forces invaded the town, looting, shelling, and burning much of it. The Yankees then marched up to Marye’s Heights, where Confederate troops were waiting for them. Because the Rebels were at an advantage, the Federals were forced to march up the hill through an open field, thus making them easy targets. Needless to say, thousands were slaughtered.

When the townsfolk were finally able to return to their homes, they found only destruction, but somehow, they managed to carry on through the terrible sadness that engulfed them. It is interesting to note that, during a lull in the battle, one soldier found the compassion to come to the aid of his enemies. His name was Sergeant Richard Kirkland, a Confederate from South Carolina. Without the protection of the white flag of truce, he braved the open field to provide water and blankets to the wounded and dying Union soldiers. Because of his bravery, the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” is immortalized with a statue at the Fredericksburg National Military Park.

Civil War Events

This weekend, several events are scheduled in observance of the Christmas season and the Civil War. At Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield near Springfield, Missouri, an illumination is scheduled. For more information,please visit www.nps.gov/wicr. Also, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine and the Monocacy National Battlefield in the Frederick, Maryland area will be participating in “Holiday Traditions by Candlelight.” See www.fredericktourism.org for more information.

 

Many historic programs and open houses taking place at various Civil War sites will feature period music, reenactors, and demonstrations, as well as festive holiday decorations. Please visit civilwartraveler.com/events/12-11.html for further information.

 

Christmas Good Will

Holiday charity was displayed frequently during the War Between the States. On more than one occasion, troops displayed reciprocity by exchanging coffee for tobacco, northern newspapers for southern ones, and songs. The Rebel bands proudly played “Dixie,” followed by a retaliatory rendition of “Yankee Doodle” from the Federals. Both sides came together as they played “Home Sweet Home,” with nary a dry eye on either side as soldiers reminisced of their home and loved ones.

The Civil War was unique in that both sides held the same basic principles and beliefs, had the same religions, patriots, and histories. The soldiers frequently came together to share stories, and then turned around and killed each other the next morning during battle. It is difficult to fathom such an existence, and indeed, many veterans expressed the same sentiment years later during Civil War reunions.

Sergeant Richard Kirkland was a Confederate soldier who displayed compassion on the battlefield at Fredericksburg, but Union soldiers also felt empathy for their adversaries. On Christmas Day, 1864, ninety soldiers from Michigan and their captain loaded up wagons with food and supplies. They then distributed them to destitute citizens living in the Georgia countryside who had been victimized during Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” The Yankees even went so far as to tie tree branches to the heads of their mules, resembling reindeer.

Nothing expresses the nation’s sentiment better than this excerpt printed in Harper’s Weekly on December 26, 1863: “Even with all the sorrow that hangs, and will forever hang, over so many households; even while war still rages; even while there are serious questions yet to be settled – out it not to be, and is it not, a merry Christmas?”

Stranger Than Fiction

New discoveries of old occurrences are constantly being made. Case in point: recently, a Civil War widow who applied for benefits was credited a pension. The only problem is that it took 147 years.

Virgil Covit from Chatham County, North Carolina was conscripted into the Confederate army in 1864. Soon thereafter, he was killed in action. It took twenty years before the state started offering benefits to Confederate widows. Mrs. Covit was denied because officials couldn’t find a record of her husband on war registries. Unfortunately for her, the search had been carried out for a “Virgil Covert.”

Researchers conducting a Civil War deaths study financed by the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources recently discovered the error. It is believed that the mistake was made when Mrs. Covit spoke her husband’s name, and because of her dialect and lack of literary skills, the misspelled name was never corrected … until now. Sorry Mrs. Covit – too little too late.

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