If you are looking for one of the premier Civil War Round Tables in the country, go to Augusta, Ga. A few years ago, the organization had declined to about a dozen members. Now, they are an army of about 160 thanks in large part to their leader, Gwen Fulcher Young.
I had the privilege to speak to a large number of the membership last night and thoroughly enjoyed my visit. I presented a new talk, The American Soldier in Portrait Photography, 1861-1865. It is in fact part history of photography and part understanding of how it came into its own in the form of the carte de visite style on the eve of our Civil War. I was delighted with its reception, and by sales of my books and Military Images magazine afterwards.
A big thanks to everyone who made the event possible, especially Gwen, her husband Bob, and my old college pal Greg Hunnicutt.
One evening in the spring of 1863, a detachment of Union sailors moved stealthily across the grounds of a South Carolina plantation. 35-strong and heavily armed, they were attracted to the estate by a report of rebel activity. Before long they surprised a picket of nine Confederate cavalry and captured them after a brief fight.
The bluejackets served on the Kingfisher, a sleek bark that operated in and about the Sea Islands below Charleston. Her commander, 42-year-old John Clark Dutch, enjoyed a sterling reputation in these parts — and this exploit added to his luster.
Dutch’s story appears in the December 2015 issue of the Civil War News.
Lieutenant Sylvanus Backus was crazy drunk. Stumbling around the quarterdeck of the Mohongo after midnight with a drawn sword, his raucous behavior stirred the sleeping crew. The warship’s executive officer soon arrived on the scene, relieved Backus from duty and sent him below decks under guard.
But Backus broke free. The Mohongo’s commander, Capt. James Nicholson,wakened and was apprised of the situation. He ordered Backus to be confined to his room and a sentry posted at the door.
Nicholson went back to bed. “Immediately after I heard a great noise in the wardroom and got up and went into the wardroom where Mr. Backus was endeavoring to break open the door of his room. As I entered the wardroom he said ‘that damned old cuss wishes to frighten me with a court martial.’”
Nicholson said, “’Mr. Backus, unless you keep quiet, it will be necessary to put you in irons. Mind, this is no ill threat, so you had better keep suit’ — or words to that effect.”
Navy secretary Gideon Welles fretted about the safety of California after the outbreak of war in 1861. The threat of rebel privateers preying upon mail steamers loaded with treasure and secessionists seeking to take the southern part of the state was real. Welles had but six vessels in the Pacific Squadron to patrol an immense area.
The flag officer in command of the Pacific Squadron, John B. Montgomery, summarized the situation to Welles on August 23, 1861, “My very limited force of four steamers and two sailing ships will prove wholly inadequate for the protection of our commerce with the numerous ports along this coast, extending from Talcahuano to San Francisco, a distance of 7,000 miles.”
Montgomery asked Welles for four additional steamers. In the meantime, Montgomery assigned the ships at his disposal to cover critical areas. He dispatched one of his most reliable vessels, the Narragansett, to a 400-mile stretch of Mexican coast from Acapulco Bay to Manzanillo.
The Narragansett, a screw-propeller sloop that had joined the Pacific fleet a year earlier after a stint in the Atlantic Ocean, was armed with five guns. Her crew of 50 men and officers included John Sullivan, pictured her, center, a career navy man known for honesty and integrity.
Union officer Charles H. Shepley had loaded revolvers on countless occasions. But on March 21, 1862, something went horribly wrong. Shepley was loading it when it suddenly discharged. In one awful moment, a lead slug tore through him.
Shepley was no stranger to firearms. Back in 1856, soon after he and his family had relocated from Vermont to Chicago, 15-year-old Shepley joined the National Guard Cadets, a militia group formed by Col. Joseph R. Scott. The organization was taken over by the young and charismatic Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth soon after and turned into a crack drill team that toured the East. They were met by throngs of cheering citizens impressed with the discipline and precision of Ellsworth, Shepley and the rest of the boys.
When the war started, Shepley became an officer in the 19th Illinois Infantry, a regiment originally commanded by his old senior officer, Col. Scott. This was in the spring of 1861. Shepley started out as a second lieutenant in Company K and soon advanced to captain.
Sent to the South, the 19th was stationed at Murfreesboro, Tenn., when the accident happened. “While quietly engaged in loading his pistol, the weapon suddenly discharged itself, the ball passing into and nearly through his body, producing a fatal wound. He lingered till early on the morning of the 23d, when, despite all the surgical skill and kindly attention out forth on his behalf, Capt. Shepley was compelled to yield up his young life while bright hopes and well-merited honors were clustering around him.”
There’s more. “He had often expressed to his fellow soldiers a desire that if he must lose his life in the war, it might be his privilege to die on the battlefield, rather than in camp or on picket duty. But that wish was not to be gratified; and yet those best acquainted with him know that he died none the less a hero than if his life had been taken by the hand of the enemy amid the carnage of battle.”
His story can be found in Martyrs and Heroes of Illinois.
Lt. John Grimball was in the Civil War from the Star of the West incident in January 1861 through the surrender of the Shenandoah in November 1865. His story is featured in the current issue of Civil War News. An excerpt:
Later that year he reported for duty to the Shenandoah. Grimball and his shipmates hunted Yankee merchant ships on the high seas during a yearlong cruise. Their exploits inspired Southerners during the waning months of the Confederate nation and prompted Northerners to brand them pirates. The Shenandoah continued to operate for months after surrender of the gray armies and dissolution of the government. The crew had heard rumors of the downfall of the Confederacy but had no confirmation of it.
“We were now the only Confederate cruiser afloat, and as we continued our course around the world, passing from ocean to ocean, meeting in turn ships of various nationalities, I always felt that whenever our nationality was known to neutral ships the greetings we received rarely warmed up beyond that of a more or less interested curiosity, and while we had many friends ashore who were most lavish and generous in welcoming us to port, underlying it all there appeared to exist a wish of the authorities to have us ‘move on.’”
John Caskey Hall (1842-1907) served in the 16th Ohio Infantry from 1861 to 1864, during which time he worked his way from a private to sergeant in Company C. He fought in the June 3, 1861, Battle of Philippi, W.Va., considered by some as the first land battle of the Civil War.
Hall went on to participate in the Vicksburg Campaign. He suffered a concussion in the May 19, 1863, assault on the formidable defenses of Vicksburg—the first of two failed attacks by the Union army that prompted Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to ay siege to the fortress city.
Hall also served in the 102nd Ohio Infantry.
After the war he returned to his home in Wooster, Ohio, where he operated a coal business. He wed in 1874 and started a family that grew to include a daughter and two sons. His wife died in 1897, and he remarried.
800 federals, including Capt. Spencer W. Snyder (1841-1920) and his comrades in Company D of the 169th New York Infantry, were on the picket line at Foster’s Plantation, Va., when attacked by Confederate troops on the morning of May 18, 1864. The Union troops were initially forced back, but rallied.
A correspondent from the regiment narrated what happened next: “The One Hundred and Sixty-ninth went at the rebels with a yell that I apprehend neither party will soon forget. A grand charge was made by the command. The “rebs” ran like sheep, our boys driving them and gallantly retaking the original picket line.”
Snyder was wounded when a bullet struck him in the shoulder. Initial accounts state the wound was not serious, but later reports note that the bullet became lodged in his shoulder and could not be removed. At his death, he still carried the Confederate lead in his shoulder.
Union sailor Nathan Edwin Hopkins and two comrades stepped out into the Virginia countryside and wound up on a train to Andersonville. His profile appears in the latest issue of the Civil War News. An excerpt:
In mid-October 1864, Hopkins prisoner of war status ended outside Richmond along the James River—not far from where his odyssey had begun four months earlier. He and the rest of the prisoners were transferred from a Confederate flag-of-truce boat to the Union steamer Mary Washington. A newspaper correspondent was eyewitness to the event. “On coming near the little rebel flag-of-truce boat, formerly a tow tug, I found its deck full of men, whose appearances at once impressed me that they were rebels. Upon inquiry I ascertained they were our half-starved and half-clothed sailors, whose external semblance gave evidence of bad treatment and worse fare. It was a sad sight,” he continued, “to look upon these heroes, shivering under the cool breeze of the morning, many of them with nothing to wrap themselves up.”