J.D.R. Hawkins

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

Archive for the month “June, 2014”

Civil War Rediscovered

For over one hundred a fifty years, a long standing mystery appearing in a poem written by Walt Whitman remained unsolved … until now. The meteor in question, mentioned in Whitman’s famed “Leaves of Grass,” and referred to as “a strange huge meteor-procession,” really did occur. It was discovered that a painting by Frederic Church shows the meteor streaking through the sky. The meteor appeared in 1860, which coincides with Whitman’s publication. Period newspapers verified the event, which was visible from the Great Lakes to New York, but by the mid-twentieth century, the event was forgotten. The meteor actually split into multiple fireballs upon impacting the atmosphere. Earth-grazing meteor processions are so rare that few people have ever heard of them. There were also documented processions in 1783 and 1913.

Another artistic find recently discovered is a photograph believed to have been taken by famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady. The photo portrays two young African-American children dressed in raggedy clothing, barefoot, and sitting on an upright barrel. The two boys are thought to be slaves. It was discovered at a moving sale in Charlotte, North Carolina in April, accompanied by a document stating that “John” sold for $1,150 in 1854. The photograph is believed to have been taken around 1860. 

I find it extremely fascinating that old relics, photos, and historical artifacts keep resurfacing. Lost long ago, these connections to the past are an essential part of our American experience, thus making us who we are today. I hope these newly-discovered items are never again buried and forgotten.

Not Just a Southern Thing

Those who are less familiar with the War Between the States will often assume that only Southerners fought for the “Southern Cause.” Although this is primarily the case, many Northerners (otherwise known as Southern sympathizers, or Copperheads) also supported and/or fought for the Confederacy. Likewise, many foreigners fought for the South as well. Because Southerners were primarily of Irish and Scottish decent, many Scot-Irish fought for the South. Native Americans also fought for the Confederacy. In other words, it was an interesting hodgepodge of characters that made up the Confederate army.

Occasionally, new gravesites are being discovered in foreign lands that belong to soldiers who fought for the Confederacy. In the May/June 2014 edition of the SCV Magazine, an editorial discussed how a Confederate grave was recently found in Scotland. The grave was discovered just outside Dundee, and it was the result of more than 15 years of searching. Nearly 100 graves have also been found in England, with many more under investigation. Some of these gravesites belong to Americans who relocated across the pond after the war.

There are also many informative places on the web where those interested can discover more about Confederates with overseas ties. One Facebook group known as “English Friends of the South” has members from all over the world. It is dedicated to preserving Southern history.

Hot Air Balloons Are For Spying


On June 17, 1861, Thaddeus Lowe demonstrated the hot air balloon to President Abraham Lincoln. His plan was to use it as a reconnaissance tool to spy on the Confederate army. He came up with the plan when, in April, his balloon accidentally landed in South Carolina on a flight from Cincinnati, Ohio.

On June 5, 1783, the first documented hot air balloon flight took place. It was conducted by the Montgolfier brothers from Annonay, France. Three months later, on September 19, 1783, the first hot air balloon to fly with passengers took place in Versailles. Those brave souls rode in a basket suspended beneath the balloon. A year later, on June 24, 1784, a thirteen-year-old boy named Edward Warren was the first American to ride in a hot air balloon. This event took place in Baltimore.

Both the Confederate and Union armies used hot air balloons to spy on each other. Balloons were able to climb up to 5,000 feet. The Union balloon corp, consisting of five balloons, only lasted until the fall of 1861, when it was disbanded. Another interesting fact: George Armstrong Custer, who obtained fame during the War Between the States as the youngest man to achieve the status of general, and later met his demise at Little Big Horn, was one of the first test pilots for the newly-established reconnaissance operations using hot air balloons.

Battle of Brice’s Crossroads

(Painting by John Paul Strain)

One hundred and fifty years ago today, a significant battle took place at Brice’s Crossroads, Mississippi. The battle would prove to be General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s greatest victory of the war, and the best example of his strategic genius. It has been referred to as the perfect battle, and has been studied by contemporaries in battle strategy, including German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel during WWII.

On the evening of June 9, Forrest was informed that Union forces were approaching Brice’s Crossroads. When the morning dawned, he realized that the Federals would have to contend with the heat and humidity, which was something Northerners were unaccustomed to.

“Their cavalry will move out ahead of their infantry,” he told Confederate Colonel Edmund Rucker, “and should reach the crossroads three hours in advance. We can whip their cavalry in that time. As soon as the fight opens, they will send back to have the infantry hurried up. It is going to be hot as hell, and coming on a run for five or six miles, their infantry will be so tired out we will ride right over them.”

Forrest was following one of his homely but spectacularly effective combat aphorisms, one he stated again to Captain John W. Morton, Jr. while riding in pursuit of the routed Federals. “Get ‘em skeered, and then keep the skeer on ‘em.”

Forrest’s prediction proved accurate. Using the topography and heavy undergrowth to his advantage, he bluffed the Union cavalry into believing his forces were larger than they actually were. The Confederates charged, colliding with Federal cavalry. The battle devolved into hand-to-hand combat. By 12:30, the Federals retired from the field.

A half hour later, Union General Samuel D. Sturgis’ 8,500 foot-weary soldiers came up. The tremendous heat of the midday sun bore down on the men, who were given little time to rest. Forrest commanded his soldiers to charge, and the two sides again collided, resulting in close combat.

By 5:00, a final attack was made on the Federals. The charge was a classic Forrest tactic: a fierce attack in the front and a charge on both flanks and in the rear. Forrest, astride King Phillip, placed himself ahead of his Special Forces and ordered a pursuit.

Commanding his artillerists to charge the enemy with their guns, he said, “Give ‘em hell right over yonder where I’m going to double ‘em up.” His action is believed to have been the first time a commander ordered his guns forward in a charge without immediate support.

The 3,500 cavalrymen spurred into action, and as one member of the Seventh Tennessee Cavalry later reported, the fighting was intense.

When our movement was too slow to suit Forrest, he would curse, then praise and then threaten to shoot us himself, if we were so afraid the Yanks might hit us… He would praise in one breath, then in the next would curse us and finally said, “I will lead you”… guns once fired were used as clubs and pistols were brought into play, while the two lines struggled with the ferocity of wild beasts.

As before, Forrest paraded his soldiers to make them appear larger in numbers. The Confederates drove off their attackers and captured sixteen of their artillery pieces. Ordered to give chase, they fired on the retreating Federals, hitting wagons, killing horses and mules, and stampeding the Union soldiers. Drivers abandoned their wagons. Sturgis ordered the wagons burned, but Forrest’s men managed to save over 100, salvaging their contents of food, ammunition, and supplies.

General Forrest outfoxed nearly twice his opponents. His genius has been a subject of study ever since.


Battle of Brandy Station

Today marks the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Brandy Station in Virginia. It was the largest cavalry battle to ever take place on American soil, and yet, it is obscure in that most people have never heard of it. The battle was a confrontation between Confederate cavalry commanded by General J.E.B. Stuart, and Union cavalry under General David Gregg. It was considered a Confederate victory, even though it was more like a draw, and the Rebels were taken by surprise, which nearly cost them the battle. For more information, please read my novel, A Beckoning Hellfire.

On the battlefield is a fascinating piece of history that was nearly lost. The Graffiti House stands near the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. After years of neglect, the building was almost demolished, but in 1993, a discovery was made. Under layers of paint, signatures of both Union and Confederate soldiers, along with drawings they made, were written in charcoal on the walls, one of which was by General Stuart himself. Since that time, the structure has become part of the Brandy Station Foundation, and is in the process of being restored.

For more information, visit:


Turner Ashby Day

On this date in 1862, Confederate Colonel Turner Ashby met his fate at the Battle of Good’s Farm. Ashby’s grandeur so captivated the South that he was compared to a knight, a pirate, and a crusader. He was a superb horseman and a daring soldier under the command of Stonewall Jackson. He customarily rode a beautiful white horse, regardless of the additional danger. He was third generation military. His grandfather, Jack, fought as a captain in the Revolutionary War, and his father served as a colonel in the War of 1812. As was the case with most Southern gentry at the time, Ashby was an accomplished horseman. His favorite pastime was fox hunting, and he competed frequently in jousting tournaments, almost always placing first.

When Virginia left the Union on April 17, 1861, Ashby persuaded Governor John Letcher to order the state’s militia to capture the federal arsenal at Harpers’ Ferry. Arriving too late, Ashby found most of the buildings and the 15,000 small arms located in the arsenal burned by Union troops. Ashby’s Rangers remained in the area, patrolling the fords of the Potomac River, and bridges spanning from both Harpers Ferry and Point of Rocks, Maryland. The Rangers disrupted the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and obstructed the passage of boats on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, otherwise known as the grand old ditch.

Ashby was an adventure seeker, and commonly went on scouting rides and inspections alone. His appearance was striking, setting him apart from other soldiers. Along with his tall stature of 5’-10”, Ashby had a thick black beard reaching down to his chest, a swirling long mustache to match, mahogany brown eyes, and a dark complexion. His demeanor was quiet, and his manners befitted the position he held within an old Virginia family.

Like many cavalrymen of his day, he was attracted to gaudy trappings, and could be seen donning gauntlets. He secured a brass spyglass on one side of his saddle and a fox hunting horn on the other. To enhance his appearance, he always rode either a coal black horse or a pure white horse named Tom Telegraph. They were the finest horses the vicinity had to offer, and bestowed upon Ashby the knightly prowess that inspired his men to give him the moniker, the Black Knight of the Confederacy.

When Ashby lost his brother in June 1861, he became even more daring. Of Ashby’s troopers, a Federal cavalry officer complained, “They leap fences and walls like deer; neither our men nor our horses are so trained.”

On several occasions, the phantom-like Colonel Ashby on his snowy white horse could be seen sitting atop a hill above the Federals, provoking them. The bluecoats rode furiously to catch him. Ashby patiently waited until they were close. He then casually cantered off and disappeared before they arrived, only to reappear on another distant hill crest.

On June 6, 1862, the 1st New Jersey Cavalry attacked Ashby in an attempt to capture him. After Ashby’s horse was shot out from under him, he charged toward his foe on foot, but was shot through the heart. Turner Ashby died instantly. He was thirty-three years old. Because of his remarkable reputation and service record, he was deeply mourned by the Southern people. His body was wrapped in a Confederate flag and taken to the Frank Kemper House in Port Republic for viewing. 

General Jackson, who was one of the mourners present, reacted to Ashby’s death by saying, “As a partisan officer, I never knew his superior; his daring was proverbial; his powers of endurance almost incredible; his tone of character heroic, and his sagacity almost intuitive in divining the purposes and movements of the enemy.”

Turner Ashby was buried with honors at the University of Virginia. He became a legend in his own time, and so impressed people that the thought of him brought back fond memories. To this day, many Shenandoah localities celebrate Confederate Memorial Day on June 6, the anniversary of Ashby’s death.

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