Tag Archives: civil war

The Devil Dan Sickles

With Sunday’s assassination of Osama bin Laden in the news, there’s been a lot of talk this week about the War On Terror.

Today, we’ll take a look back at the Civil War, an American conflict that was far bloodier, focusing on one of its more colorful and controversial players.

Daniel Sickles was born in 1819 in New York City, and later became a lawyer. He went on to become a New York state senator and later a congressman in Washington.

Sickles was never far from scandal. When he was 33 he married a girl of 15, who he cheated on from the start of the relationship. Later, while in the New York State Assembly, he was often seen in the company of a well-known prostitute, who he even escorted into the Assembly’s chambers. He later took the woman to England where he introduced her to Queen Victoria, leaving his pregnant wife at home.

Although Sickles continued to carry on with other women, he became enraged upon learning about an affair his young wife Teresa was having with Phillip Barton Key II. Key was Washington’s district attorney as well as the son of Francis Scott Key, the author of The Star Spangled Banner.

In 1859, while a congressman, Sickles shot and killed Key in Lafayette Park, just across the street from the White House. He was arrested for murder and retained the services of attorney Edwin Stanton, later Lincoln’s Secretary of War. Sickles readily admitted to the killing, but in a stunning move, claimed to be temporarily insane at the time of the murder, the first time the plea was ever used in an American court. It turned out to be a brilliant defense, because the cuckolded Sickles was later acquitted.

At the start of the war, Sickles became one of Lincoln’s “political generals”; men who were awarded field commands because of their political connections, and not for their military experience.

Despite having no prior military training, Sickles commanded competently in the early battles of the war.

Then came Gettysburg.

Sickles was commanding troops in defense of Cemetery Ridge on the second day of the battle, when for unknown reasons, he marched his men a mile to the front of the rest of the Union troops, where they were carved up from all sides by the Confederates. The cannonball that claimed Sickles’ leg that day may have saved several lives, as he was carried away from the battle and never commanded troops in the war again.

Rather than being court-martialed for disobeying orders at Gettysburg, Sickles ended up receiving the Medal of Honor. He also began a campaign to rewrite history claiming that his gallant move during the battle was what secured the Union victory.

After the war, Sickles remained in the army and also traveled abroad on diplomatic missions, where in Spain he was rumored to have had an affair with Queen Isabella II.

In later life he worked to preserve the Gettysburg battlefield. There was to have been a statue of Sickles raised at the site of his command, but Sickles himself was said to have embezzled the funds for it.

When “Devil Dan” died on this date in 1914 in New York City, his funeral attracted thousands.

But not all of Sickle was buried at Arlington National Cemetery that week.

Following the loss of his leg at Gettysburg, Sickles personally donated the amputated limb to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, where it can still be seen today. Afterwards, Sickle paid a visit to the museum every July 2nd to catch a glimpse of the leg he lost on that date in 1863.

The Firebrand

By the time Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th President, seven Southern slaveholding states had already seceded from the Union and formed a new national government.

One of the new Confederacy’s first acts was to seize most Federal arsenals that were located within their territory.

One such facility that remained in Northern hands was located at Ft. Sumter, South Carolina,  on an island in Charleston harbor.

Lincoln had barely finished taking the oath of office when he was informed that a crisis was imminent at Ft. Sumter, which was badly in need of supplies.

Lincoln chose to resupply the troops rather than to capitulate to Southern demands for surrender of the fort. After an ultimatum was rejected by U.S. Major Robert Anderson, the Union commander at Ft. Sumter, the Confederate bombardment began at 4:30 AM on April 12, 1861 – 150 years ago today.

The war was on.

Just as someone squeezed off “the shot heard ‘round the world” that kicked off the Revolutionary War, somebody also fired the first shot of the Civil War. Who was it?

History credits many people as having had the “honor” of firing the first shot. One such individual was named Edmund Ruffin, a slaveholder and poster child for state’s rights, who was hanging around South Carolina because he was angered that his native Virginia hadn’t yet left the Union. (Something the state would do a few days later.)

When he wasn’t busy preaching secessionism, Ruffian was a noted agronomist who made valuable contributions to agricultural productivity in the South.

The first return shot fired from the fort came from Union Capt. Abner Doubleday – the same guy who somehow got woven into baseball’s creation myth.

The outgunned Union forces were pummeled from artillery batteries located on shore for 34 hours before surrendering. Miraculously, not a single Union life was lost during the shelling. Two soldiers did die later when a cannon exploded firing a volley during the surrender ceremonies. (Within months, formalities like “surrender ceremonies” would be forgotten in the war as chivalry quickly gave way to carnage.)

Four years to the day after Anderson lowered the American flag over Ft. Sumter, he was back to raise it again over the recaptured fort.

The defeat of the Confederacy didn’t sit well with firebrand Ruffin. Two months after Lee’s defeat at Appomattox Court House, Ruffin wrapped himself in a Confederate flag and blew his brains out with a shotgun.


Leave ‘em Laughing

A good comic knows to leave his best joke for the end of the show.

A few jokesters carried this principle to the extreme by being funniest just before their very last final curtain.

Take for example, the last words of French satirist Voltaire, who, when implored by a priest on his deathbed to renounce Satan reportedly replied, “Now, now, my good man. This is no time for making enemies.”

Oscar Wilde, witty to the end, sipped champagne as he left this world, quipping, “I am dying beyond my means.” (Some biographies report that his actual final words were, “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do.”)

Another funnyman who exited stage left in a tragi-comedic manner was Lou Costello. Costello, who died during this week in 1959, was the funny half of the comedy team Abbott and Costello, one of the most successful comic duos of the mid-twentieth century.

During 1943, Abbott and Costello used their immense popularity to help raise funds for the war effort in a grueling cross-country bond drive. During the trip, Costello caught rheumatic fever, which kept him from working for an entire year, and seriously damaged his heart.

Sixteen years later when he was dying from heart attacks brought on by the disease, he rose from his deathbed, drank down an ice cream soda, and said, “That was the best ice cream soda I ever tasted” … and then promptly dropped dead.

(This story may be apocryphal since reports at the time stated his last words were the more pedestrian “I think I’ll be more comfortable.)

There are several examples of last words being unintentionally funny. My personal favorite is from the Battle of the Wilderness during the Civil War, when Union Gen. John Sedgwick was inspecting the enemy lines from atop his horse. His troops tried to get him to dismount and take cover since a sniper was known to be taking potshots from the Southern lines.

Sedgwick haughtily brushed off their concerns by proclaiming, “They couldn’t hit an elephant from that dis …”

Just as some comics were funny till the end, certain curmudgeons left life with a final fit of bile.

Humorless Karl Marx, who was annoyed by a housekeeper who was trying to record his last words, was reported to have yelled, Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!”

Just Another Day?

Abraham Lincoln ...

February 12, 1809 arrived like every other day before it, with the turning of the Earth to accept the rays of the early morning sun.

But on this particular day, two men were born who would both later find themselves mentioned on the list of the world’s all-time most influential people.

Their names were Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

The men could not have had more dissimilar origins.

Charles Darwin was born that day in Shropshire, England to a wealthy doctor and financier. His mother was descended from the wealthy Wedgwood lineage (of Wedgwood China fame) and his paternal grandfather was the famous scientist Erasmus Darwin. He attended the University of Edinburgh Medical School, but found more interest in taxidermy, which he learned from a freed slave.

In 1831, young Charles embarked on a five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle to help chart the coastline of South America. Charles spent much of his time on the journey collecting specimens of plant and animal life. His studies eventually led to the formulation of his Theory of Natural Selection many years later, which brought the concept of vast eons of time and the mutability of species into the discussion of life on Earth. His writings still stir up controversy 150 years after they were first published.

... and Charles Darwin. Both born on February 12, 1809.

Lincoln was born that same day in a log cabin in central Kentucky, 5,000 miles away. Not having the luxury of wealth, he was largely self-educated. Lincoln possessed a sharp mind and a keen sense of humor, which enabled him to become a successful attorney. Unlike Darwin, he never ventured much farther from his home than the White House.

Shortly after Darwin published his landmark treatise On The Origin of Species in 1859, Lincoln found himself the leader of a divided nation: one where many citizens believed that the ownership of other humans was not only proper, but divinely ordained. Lincoln spent the last years of his life waging a war partly to insure that slavery would never again be permissible on the North American continent.

While their contributions came in far different arenas – Lincoln’s primarily political, and Darwin’s in the field of biology – both men ended up bringing about far-reaching change by making people question whether the conclusions reached by the majority were correct and by suggesting that it was time for humanity to embrace new modes of thinking.

One Nation … Indivisible

Millions of American school children begin each day by reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance,” never questioning why the phrases “one nation” and “indivisible” (which many believe to be “invisible” anyway) are contained within.

These simple words encapsulate the question of secession: whether a state in the “one nation” of the United States of America could constitutionally “divide from” that country. This question led to a civil war in America that claimed over 600,000 lives.

It can be argued that the first shot of that war didn’t come at Ft. Sumter, South Carolina in 1861, but a few months earlier and a hundred-and-fifteen miles away at a church in Columbia, South Carolina. It was there, 150 years ago today, that those assembled unanimously said adios to the United States, leaving the 33-state Union behind.

The vote for secession came about in response to the election a month earlier of Abraham Lincoln, who had promised to limit the spread of slavery during his administration. As the southern state with the highest percentage of slaves, South Carolina led the fight to keep the “peculiar institution” intact. Within two months, lame duck president James Buchanan set on his hands while six other slave states left the Union to join South Carolina in the new Confederate States of America.

The preservation of the horrid institution of African-American slavery was the reason the Confederacy was created, but the restoration of the Union, and not slavery’s abolition, was why most Northerners fought in the Civil War.

South Carolina paid dearly for leading the way on secession. After General Sherman’s Union troops completed their “March to the Sea” in Savannah, Georgia, they turned their vengence towards South Carolina, the state they felt most responsible for starting the war. In early 1865, Sherman’s troops cut a swath of destruction across the state, reducing Columbia, the “cradle of secession,” to ashes.

So, the secessionist question was answered once-and-for-all by the Union armies, right? Not so fast. In recent years, large secessionist movements have grown in states like Alaska and Texas where one poll claimed that 22% of the population believed that secession is a right granted by the Constitution.

And how is South Carolina planning to remember secession; an act intended to allow the state to forever keep blacks in forced servitude?

By having a ball.

That’s right. In an egregious display of bad taste, the “Secessionist Gala” will be held tonight in downtown Charleston, which will include a play, dinner, dancing, and the display of the original “Ordinance of Secession.” The local chapter of the NAACP plans to protest the event, which their president calls “a celebration of slavery.”

Just when you thought the wounds of the Civil War had finally scarred over, some folks just had to come in and rip off the scabs.

The Debut of “G-Dub-T-Dub”

While the opening months of World War II raged in Europe, in America it was the War Between the States that had everyone talking. On this date in 1939, Gone With the Wind had its world premiere in Atlanta, Georgia, which young Jimmy Carter later remembered as the “biggest event to happen in the South in [my] lifetime.”

The celebrations surrounding the premiere of the film stretched over three days and were attended by most of the film’s stars, including Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, who were treated by Atlanta’s celebrity-starved hordes as visiting royalty. The celebration included motorcades, elegant balls, and trips around the city. Normal life in Atlanta shut down as Governor E.D. Rivers declared a three-day holiday, asking Atlanta’s citizens to dress in costumes from the antebellum era.

Since GWTW takes place in the Civil War, it was only fitting that the stars met with some of the last surviving Confederate Civil War veterans and took a tour of the Cyclorama – the 360-degree depiction of the Battle of Atlanta. Clark Gable joked with the museum curators that the battle scene needed a soldier who looked like Rhett Butler. When I was at the Cyclorama earlier this year during a visit to Atlanta, the tour guide made sure to point out the Clark Gable mannequin that was added after his comment.

Friday, December 15 was the night of the premiere at Atlanta’s majestic Loew’s Grand Theatre, whose marquee was remodeled for the occasion to look like the Tara plantation. 300,000 people lined the freezing streets to cheer the film’s stars, as well as local celebrity Margaret Mitchell, who wrote the book the film was based on.

The celebration had everything you would expect from a party in the Deep South. Everything, that is, but African-Americans. No blacks were allowed to attend the events, including the film’s stars Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen who were barred from the premiere at the all-white theater. Clark Gable hated the way his co-stars were treated and threatened to boycott the event, but was talked in to attending by his friend McDaniel. (Incidentally, a young Martin Luther King Jr. did make it to the ball, but not as a guest. He was a member of the “negro boys choir” that performed for the all-white attendees.)

There was an earlier premiere of the film, though not an official one. On September 9, producer David Selznick and three others dropped in on the Fox Theatre in Riverside, California with the unfinished reels of the film and asked the theater’s manager if he would host an impromptu test screening. He agreed, and after the scheduled evening’s program concluded, the audience was invited to stay for the screening, but no one was told what they were about to see. When the crowd saw the title for the film and realized they were getting a sneak peek at the much-anticipated Gone With the Wind, the roar was described as “thunderous.” Selznick would later describe the response as the “greatest moment of his life.”

The Loew’s Theatre was razed many years ago and its former site is now occupied by the Georgia-Pacific headquarters building. After a major renovation, the Fox Theatre reopened this year as a performance hall.

Hattie McDaniel won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress that year for the role of “Mammy,” becoming the first African-American to win an Oscar. After she died in 1952 from breast cancer at the age of 57, she suffered a final indignity because of her race when she was denied her last request to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery, which didn’t accept blacks. In 1999, after Tyler Cassity purchased the grounds, now known as Hollywood Forever Cemetery, he offered to have McDaniel’s body reburied at the cemetery, but her family chose not to disturb her remains. Instead, the cemetery erected a marker next to the lake to honor Ms. McDaniel, and to right an old wrong.

Hattie McDaniel's cenotaph at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Seven Score and Seven Years Ago

Today is the 147th anniversary of the delivery of the “Gettysburg Address,” which was presented at the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, four-and-a-half months after the conclusion of the titanic battle which took place around the town. The address starts out in the following manner:

“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature.”

Not familiar with this version of the speech, eh? That’s because the featured speaker that day was not Abraham Lincoln, but a politician named Edward Everett who was famous for his oration skills. His 13,000-word speech (a short novel is about 50,000 words) lasted for over two hours. When he concluded, Lincoln rose and delivered his two-minute “address,” which redefined the war aims of the North by elevating the goal of freedom for all Americans to the same level as the preservation of the Union; not an easy task in only ten sentences and 272 words:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Contrary to legend, Lincoln did not write this speech at the last minute on the back of an envelope. Who could? It was actually first drafted in the White House and went through several revisions.

Everett’s words are universally forgotten, while Lincoln’s get memorized by American school children and carved into monuments. When you tweak the wording of one line in the speech to say, “The world will little note, nor long remember what Everett said here, but it can never forget what Lincoln did here,” you get a better view of how things turned out.

Which goes to show, brevity is not only the soul of wit, but of oratory as well.

A New Birth of Freedom

There are some ugly realities littering American history that I just can’t wrap my mind around – one being that less than 100 years before I was born, certain people could legally own other people.

That’s why I find it curious that September 22 isn’t a national holiday, because it was on this day in 1862 that President Abraham Lincoln signed the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that began the official process of freeing America’s four million slaves.

When the nation was founded roughly “four-score and seven years” earlier, the Declaration of Independence stated that “all men are created equal,” but the economic and prejudicial forces of the time kept these words from applying to the African-Americans that were toiling in forced servitude in the country. The Civil War came about in the 1860s largely to decide whether or not slavery would remain on the North American continent.

The Executive Order that Lincoln signed on this date was more symbolic than binding, as it only freed slaves in areas outside of Federal control. The wording of the document gave the Confederacy a way to re-enter the Union without losing their “peculiar institution.” It was a shrewd move for Lincoln, because he knew the South would never go for it, and by their refusal, he could change the purpose of the war in the eyes of the world. It also set the framework for the official proclamation that was signed by Lincoln 100 days later on January 1, 1863.

The proclamation was largely unpopular in the North where most soldiers were fighting to restore the Union rather than to end the practice of slavery. But internationally, the move doomed the Confederacy’s chance to gain badly needed international recognition.

The advancing Union armies freed more and more slaves after the Proclamation was put into effect, and 200,000 former slaves eventually served in the Union forces.

The shameful practice of slavery was officially ended in America with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, which came seven months after Lincoln’s assassination.