The Western Conspiracies: The Long Road to Secession, Part III

 

A political cartoon from the time of the Civil War, showing John Bull (England) and Napoleon Bonaparte (France) waiting in the background for the US to be destroyed.
A political cartoon from the time of the Civil War, showing John Bull (England) and Napoleon Bonaparte (France) waiting in the background for the US to be destroyed.

How far back does the history of Secessionism go?  To the 1850’s?  The 1830’s?  1820’s?  As we saw in part II, there was a secessionist movement during the War of 1812, one which had nothing to do with slavery.  But the earliest Secessionist movement goes farther back, back in fact to before the Constitution, to the early days of the Republic.

Historians of the early Republic are quite familiar with the so-called Western Conspiracy (sometimes referred to as The Spanish Conspiracy) but it is rarely, if ever, connected with the greater narrative of the road to secession and Civil War.  In truth, there was more than one separatist movement in the years immediately after the end of the Revolution, some more serious than others.

In 1782, the Thirteen Colonies, united together as the Continental Congress, signed a peace treaty with the English Crown and the United States officially became a country—but not a nation.  Wary of the way the King of England and his Parliament had tyrannized over the colonies, the newly independent states united in a loose union, called the Confederation.  What had been the Continental Congress now became the Confederation Congress and while it had some powers, the thirteen states retained a great deal of autonomy and authority.  On the other side of the Appalachians, the frontiersmen enjoyed a great deal of freedom, but they also felt abandoned by the states they were technically part of.  Indian tribes, encouraged by both the English and the Spanish raided the settlements at will; more importantly, transporting their crops and other goods to sell at market back east across the mountains was difficult and costly.  It was far easier to build flatboats from lumber, load them with crops, meat, whisky and other goods, float them downstream and sell them at Spanish New Orleans. 

But the rub was that Spain claimed the same western territories that the United States did and after a few years began to tighten the screws on the frontiersmen, closing off the Mississippi to trade.  Of course, depending on the custom official in charge at Natchez, a well placed bribe or two could grease the wheels of commerce and allow a flatboat pass downriver.  In New Orleans, the Spanish governor was also eminently bribable.  The goal of the Spanish government, however, was to wean the frontiersmen away from the new Republic and become subjects of the crown. 

General James Wilkinson, who later became Commander in Chief of the US Army, was heavily involved in plots with the Spanish.
General James Wilkinson, who later became Commander in Chief of the US Army, was heavily involved in plots with the Spanish.

Frontier leaders were encouraged to pledge their allegiance the Spanish Crown; among their number we know were James Wilkinson of Kentucky, who later became the head of the US Army; another frontier leader was none other than Andrew Jackson in Tennessee; General James Robertson was also in contact with the Spanish.  How many frontier leaders were in collusion with the Spanish is unknown; in later days, many of those who had been involved became prominent politicians and military leaders, and their dalliance with the Spanish an embarrassment, so much evidence regarding their collusion and secessionist activity was suppressed.   

Andrew Jackson, in his earlier career, had signed an oath of loyalty to the Spanish government and was involved in the Western Conspiracy as well in the 1780's.
Andrew Jackson, in his earlier career, had signed an oath of loyalty to the Spanish government and was involved in the Western Conspiracy as well in the 1780’s.

The weakness of the Confederation government extended far beyond the danger of the western territories below the Ohio being taken over by the Spanish; in the Northwest, the British had never abandoned their chain of forts, both to protect the fur trade with the Indians and also as bases of operation for the Indian tribes to raid the American settlements.  The British had hopes of retaining the Northwest despite treaty obligations; when the Confederation fell apart, parts of the United States would be ripe for the plucking—or so His Majesty’s government hoped.  While George Rogers Clark was not involved with the British, he did enter into a conspiracy with the French Revolutionaries in the 1790’s to invade British territory from the Northwest Territory, which President Washington took a dim view of. 

On the northern frontier with Canada, Ethan Allen, the hero of the Revolution, also was part of the Republic of Vermont, organized in 1777, which had a running dispute with New York, which considered Vermont part of their state.  In the 1780’s, Allen and others in Vermont undertook negotiations with the British governor of Quebec, with a view to establishing Vermont as a British province.  During Shay’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786, Daniel Shay offered to make Ethan Allen “King of Massachusetts” but Allen turned him down. 

Ethan Allen, hero of the Revolution, was part of the Republic of Vermont and was later offered to be "King of Massachusetts" by Daniel Shay, during Shay's Rebellion.
Ethan Allen, hero of the Revolution, was part of the Republic of Vermont and was later offered to be “King of Massachusetts” by Daniel Shay, during Shay’s Rebellion.

As with the western territories, the weakness of the central government under the Confederation had a lot do with Ethan Allen and his compatriot’s secessionist movement; unlike the Trans-Appalachian secession movements, the Vermont Republic and the successive independence movements in Vermont were less motivated by economics than political autonomy, ultimately satisfied by the admission of Vermont to the Union.

There were other, less extensive, western secession movements; Aaron Burr’s little expedition down the Mississippi in 1806 could also be counted as one, although it may have been more a filibustering expedition than secession attempt. 

Aaron Burr was a hero of the Revolution and Vice President under Thomas Jefferson. In 1806, the ambitious Burr organized another western conspiracy, although what his actual intent was remains obscure.
Aaron Burr was a hero of the Revolution and Vice President under Thomas Jefferson. In 1806, the ambitious Burr organized another western conspiracy, although what his actual intent was remains obscure.

By one account, Burr was going to separate parts of the American South and Spanish Texas to form an independent country; by another, he was intending to grab Texas for the US; by still another, Burr, along with General Wilkinson, were to grab a large chunk of the American South and deliver it back to Spain—a newer variant of the original Western Conspiracy. 

What the truth of the matter really was has never been settled.  In any case, Burr and his co-conspirators were up to something nefarious, although not proven in a court of law.

 

The Western Conspiracies of the early Republic had nothing to do with the institution of slavery, but most of them had everything to do with regionalism and economic self-interest.   Was the Civil War about slavery?  Yes.  Was it ALL about slavery?  No!

Modern political cartoon about Texas secessionists.
Modern political cartoon about Texas secessionists.

For more about little known aspects of the Civil War, see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.  Forthcoming later in 2016 is Ambrose Bierce and The Period of Honorable Strife, which covers the wartime career of the famous writer and the campaigns in the Western Theater in which he participated. 

Political cartoon about the 1860 Secessionist movement.
Political cartoon about the 1860 Secessionist movement.
Advertisements

THE FALL OF FORT DONELSON: The Battle That Sealed the Confederacy’s Fate

Grant early in the War.
Grant early in the War.

February 16, 1862 was perhaps the most important date in the Civil War, the day the Confederate Army besieged at Fort Donelson fell to the Union forces led by General Ulysses S. Grant.

Why was it the most important date, you may ask?  Because, although both sides did not realize it, that was the day that the Union began to win the war.  In one blow, the Ohio River Valley was secured for the North and the system of forts guarding the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers fell irrevocably into Federal hands, opening the way into the Confederate Heartland.  Within weeks, the Rebel state capital of Nashville had fallen and with it all internal lines of communication west of the Appalachians, as well as substantial industrial resources.

Looking for Union wounded by torchlight in Winter weather.  The bitter cold at Fort Donelson killed many battlefield casualties.
Looking for Union wounded by torchlight in Winter weather. The bitter cold at Fort Donelson killed many battlefield casualties.

Had Generals Grant and Halleck not bungled the advance on Corinth, Mississippi at Shiloh on April 6, by the end of the Spring, Mississippi and much of the deep South would also have fallen to the Federals. The Confederate government would have been in the position it found itself in the spring of 1865: confined to a three state rump on the east coast, blockaded by sea and with no escape.  The intervening period between the fall of Donelson and the capture of Savannah was really just one of redeeming the mistakes made at Shiloh and Corinth.  In a sense, the spectacular success of Grant’s forces in February of 1862 were to blame for not finishing the job; Grant, thinking the Confederates had no fight left in them, grew careless at Pittsburg Landing while awaiting Buell’s reinforcements and was grossly negligent by not constructing defenses around his bivouacs, as well as not being vigilant in patrolling his positions to warn of enemy advances. His boss, General Halleck deserves some blame as well, sending raw recruits to Grant who had not even undergone basic training.  In truth, had Grant not been so careless, he would have had ample warning of the enemy’s moves and could easily have caught them in line of march as they advanced towards Shiloh and decimated the last organized Rebel forces between the mountains and the Mississippi.

But the blunders by both sides at Shiloh are best left for another time.  Let us focus on the victory at Donelson.  Originally, General Don Carlos Buell had urged his fellow department commander, General Halleck, to mount a joint operation against the Rebel forts holding the strategic junction called “The Land Between the Rivers”—that area where the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers are only a few miles apart and where both empty into the Ohio.  Here the Rebels concentrated most of the western forces to bar Union troops from invading the Confederate heartland.

Storming Fort Donelson by Union troops.  In truth, Grant began the siege without enough troops to take the fort by storm.
Storming Fort Donelson by Union troops. In truth, Grant began the siege without enough troops to take the fort by storm.

Halleck, however, spurned Buell’s plan of action, but no sooner had he done so than he authorized his subordinate, Brigadier General Grant, to lead of expedition to undertake the very same operation that he had rejected.  Grant to that date had not achieved any notable success as a field commander and “Old Brains” Halleck thought Grant too reckless.  But with a powerful flotilla to blast the river forts, Halleck thought Grant up to the task of at least establishing a foothold—after which Halleck himself would come up with more troops and finish the task.

As it turned out, Fort Henry easily fell to the Union fleet’s bombardment—largely due to its riverside “water battery” being nearly submerged by winter rains.  Another Rebel fort on the Ohio also fell with little fanfare.  Grant landed his troops at Fort Henry and then, instead of waiting on the methodical but slow Halleck, marched his small force overland to Fort Donelson, which protected the Cumberland River.  It was a risky move, since Grant had fewer troops than the force holed up at Donelson.  Fortunately, the Rebels had put all their heavy guns facing riverward, thinking the Yankees would only attack from than quarter.  Even so, it was a very near thing for Grant as both Halleck and Buell scrambled to send him reinforcements and the Confederates made attempts to break the siege.

At one point, the Confederate counterattack was on the verge of succeeding; but due to the courage and leadership of the two Generals Wallace: William L. Wallace and Lew Wallace, the Rebel assault faltered and was driven back.

General William Hervey Lamme Wallace leading his men to battle, after Ottawa mural by G. Byron Peck
General William H L Wallace leading his men to battle, after Ottawa mural by G. Byron Peck
General Lewis Wallace, the savior of Grant at both Ft. Donelson and Shiloh and author of Ben Hur
General Lewis Wallace, the savior of Grant at both Ft. Donelson and Shiloh and author of Ben Hur

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside Fort Donelson, despite their strength in numbers, the Confederates were in dire straits.  The Rebel troops had not been properly equipped, nor were their clothes suited for the bitter winter weather they endured.  Worse still, the Rebel force was led by officers who were better politicians than soldiers and when Grant proved too tenacious for them, asked for terms of surrender.

The Confederate surrender of Fort Donelson was due to a bluff on U. S. Grant's part.
The Confederate surrender of Fort Donelson was due to a bluff on U. S. Grant’s part.

Grant, who was not only fond of hard drink, but also something of a poker player, responded to the overtures of surrender with the reply that made him famous: “no terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.”  Grant then drove home his demand by adding: “I propose to move immediately upon your works.”  Ulysses Grant may never have made much money playing poker with his cronies before the war, but his great bluff worked on this occasion.

General Nathan Bedford Forrest refused to surrender at Fort Donelson and broke through the Union siege lines.
General Nathan Bedford Forrest refused to surrender at Fort Donelson and broke through the Union siege lines.

The Rebel commanders at Donelson succeeded one another trying avoiding responsibility for the surrender but in short order capitulated to the Yankees.  That Confederate commanders may have just as easily broken out of Grant’s weak siege is demonstrated by the fact the Nathan Bedford Forrest, who refused surrender without a fight, broke out along with some 1500 men.

Grant was most successful as a field commander when conducting sieges: Vicksburg and Petersburg come to mind and perhaps are more famous than this siege; but the investment of Fort Donelson, begun on an impulse, was far and away his most spectacular victory and cost the least in blood.  Even more importantly,  this was the event that set in motion the inexorable road to Union victory.

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover
Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor, served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.

For more on the Civil War, read The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and The Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.

The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer)
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.

Why We Are Is: Ambrose Bierce vs Historian James McPherson

Today, we commonly say, “The United States is going to Hell in a handbag” and not, “The United States are going to Hell in handbags” and think nothing of this grammatical absurdity.

It was Pulitzer Prize winning historian James McPherson, in summing up his 900 page history of the Late Unpleasantness, who famously observed that after the Civil War, the United States of America–which used to referred to in the plural in both popular writing and official texts–suddenly began to be referred to in the singular.    McPherson, in Battle Cry of Freedom, also noted that after the war Americans now referred to our country as the Nation, no longer as the Union, except when referring to it in a historical sense—as in “Union forces won the war.”

James McPherson, Pulitzer Prize winning scholar of the Civil War, author of Battle Cry of Freedom
James McPherson, Pulitzer Prize winning scholar of the Civil War, author of Battle Cry of Freedom

 

In his first inaugural address in 1861, Lincoln referred to the Union 23 times, but to the Nation not once.  Yet, by 1863, in the very, very brief Gettysburg Address, Lincoln refers to the Nation five times and the Union not once.  Lincoln is now talking about “a new birth of freedom,”–of ONE NATION–dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, which shall not perish from the earth.[i]

Lincoln, author of the Gettysburg Address and the man who transformed the Union into a Nation.
Lincoln, author of the Gettysburg Address and the man who transformed the Union into a Nation.

What makes this brief homily of Lincoln’s so timeless is that every phrase is fraught with meaning, every word carries some point to it.  It is not just flowery prose.  When Lincoln spoke those words, he had a specific political message to convey to the North, as well as the South.

This is why generations of school children (myself included) were required to memorize this text—and if teachers are doing their job these days, still should be.  Kindle or Google won’t cut it; it is one of those fundamental texts that needs to be seared into the memory, as a branding iron does to the flesh.

While I sometimes disagree with Professor McPherson on some issues, on this score I believe his argument is cogent and his observation of the is vs are is quite right.

While McPherson’s point was made decades ago, I recently stumbled across a reference to the very same point by Ambrose Bierce, eveyone’s famous curmudgeon, but also a battle-hardened veteran of the Civil War, someone who not only fought but bled for that “new birth of freedom.”

Ambrose Bierce, brilliant writer, curmudgeon, lexicographer and war hero.
Ambrose Bierce, brilliant writer, satirist, curmudgeon, lexicographer and, above all, war hero.

As anyone who has delved into Bierce’s life and career will tell you, one of the major problems with researching Major Bierce is that almost all of his work was originally published in serial form in newspapers and magazines, during a career spanning over forty years.

While researching Bierce’s life and work is now getting better thanks to Messrs Joshi and Schultz and a handful of other scholars, traditionally most people have only accessed the corpus of Bierce’s work via the anthologies published during his lifetime or else through his “Collected Works” which he collated late in life.  All the anthologies you may have read of Bierce since then have largely been rehashes of those old tomes.  In recent years, however, a few brave souls have gone back into microfilm archives of old newspapers, looking at the original articles and essays.  While much in these old journalistic pieces may only be of passing historical interest, here and there one finds occasional nuggets among the dust.

Fredrick Edwin Church's patriotic "Our Banner in the Sky" (1861)
Frederick Church’s patriotic “Our Banner in the Sky” (1861)

When the Spanish-American War broke out, for example, it stirred the old war dog within Bierce.  In between pontificating about current events in his “War Topics” column, Bierce began to ruminate about his own experiences of war.  Although the Jingoism promoted by his publisher, William Randolph Hearst, grated against his last nerve, Bierce too soon got caught up in the war fever of the day.

Always the contrarian, one would not suspect from these pieces written close to the turn of the century that once Bierce was a fierce idealist and a recklessly brave soldier—but I’ll leave that for another time.  More to the point, in one of his ruminations, the Devil’s Lexicographer Bierce weighed in on the whole “is” vs “are” issue.  Since “Almighty  God” Bierce is, by far, a better writer than I, it is best to let him make his point in his own words:

“In the light of patriotism’s altar fires, newly kindled and splendoring the Land of the Comparatively Free, I note a revival of that disgusting solecism, “the United States is,” :the United States does” etc. Actually, there are persons—writers, too—who believe that the laws of syntax are affectible by political phenomena, and that the word “States” becomes singular in number if the things that it represents are for some purposes “united.” They would not thing of saying: “The herded cows is grazing,” or “The yoked oxen is tired”—there would be no patriotism in that; and these excellent persons are, before all else, lovers of their country. (The shrillest and most raucous of them—a teacher in the public schools!—is chief proponent of the simple plan of making little children good and loyal citizens by compelling them once a week to perform monkey-tricks before the flag.) Tell them that this is not a political matter, but a grammatical, and they will put you down with “E pluribus unum,” the only Latin that they know. They will affirm (and not care a cent if overheard by the effete dynasties and tottering despotisms of the Old World) that these United States is one nation—one nation, sir, and don’t you forget it! We shall not forget it, nor are we permitted to forget that they themselves are one nuisance; yet Heaven forbid that any of us should say “These united intolerable is in danger of everlasting fire!” God sees them, and that is enough.”[ii] 

[i] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (NY: Oxford U. Press, 1988), 859,
[ii] S.F. Examiner, May 8, 1898.

Ambrose Bierce’s wartime career read Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife (University of Tennessee Press):

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover

 

For more about Lincoln, read The Paranormal Presidency

The Paranormal Presidency delves into the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency
The Paranormal Presidency delves into the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency

 

 

The Booth Conspiracy: How Wide Was It?

John Wilkes Booth
Booth the great Thespian and chief Conspirator; how high up in the Lincoln Administration did his connections go?

On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth; that much is not in dispute.  Twelve days later, Booth was tracked down and fatally wounded in a burning barn on the Garrett farm in northern Virginia; that, at least, is the official version of this tragic finale to the Civil War.

Lincoln's Assassination on Good Friday of 1865.  Where was his bodyguard when Booth entered the box?
Lincoln’s Assassination on Good Friday of 1865. Where was his bodyguard when Booth entered the box?

Of all the conspiracy theories that continue to circulate, none is more fascinating—or more debated—than John Wilkes Booth’s successful plot to assassinate the President.  Of course, the fact of the conspiracy itself has never been in debate: no one doubts that Booth conspired to murder Abraham Lincoln and some of his cabinet, and succeeded in that goal.

Unlike presidential assassinations since, Booth has never been characterized as a “lone assassin.”  We know he had a large group in on the plot.  Where the various alternative theories conflict with the official version of the assassination is exactly how wide the Booth Conspiracy really was.  In this regard, the debate about the Booth Conspiracy has raged long and hard and remains hotly debated to this day.

General and Mrs. Grant were also being stalked by assassins on April 14; yet those conspirators were never caught.
General and Mrs. Grant were also being stalked by assassins on April 14; yet those conspirators were never caught.

What sparked this latest entry in the debate by yours truly is the publication of a recent book on the assassination and the mysteries which surround it: John Wilkes Booth: Beyond the Grave, by W. C. Jameson (Rowan & Littlefield, 2014).  A recent book review in Civil War News, gives it generally positive reviews.  However, the book lacks footnotes documenting its assertions (a big no-no among both scholars and Civil War enthusiasts) and given that the book’s assertions are fairly radical, that seems a curious omission.  The book does apparently contain a substantial bibliography, though.

Since I have delved deeply into several different aspects of the Lincoln assassination in both Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (not footnoted) and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (extensively footnoted), needless to say, the topic interests me a greatly.

Apparently Jameson—allegedly a Booth descendent—gives first the “official” version of the assassination, then dissects all the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in government version.  There is nothing new in that—researchers have long pointed out many holes in the accepted accounts of the assassination, Booth’s escape and his alleged death.  Brad Meltzer produced an excellent television documentary delving into this issue on his History Channel’s History Decoded series and there are several other documentaries available which have also investigated this issue.  But no matter how much the Federal government at the time, or modern historians today, assert the orthodox line about the limits of Booth’s conspiracy and of his death, there have always been dissenting voices that 1) the conspiracy was far wider and deeper than the succeeding administration was willing to concede, and 2) that, in fact, John Wilkes Booth did not die on the Garrett farm after being shot by Federal cavalry. I have gone into both these issues in previous articles on The Late Unpleasantness.

How soon after the murder of Lincoln did these alternate scenarios of his assassination take shape?  Would you believe within days of Lincoln’s death?  In Ghosts and Haunts of The Civil War, for example, in chronicling Mrs. Grant’s own premonitions about going to the theater that Good Friday, I cite her own words to the effect that she and her husband were being stalked by suspicious characters that afternoon and that the general’s wife always believed that a team of assassinations had been detailed to murder her husband who were never apprehended.  You may read that chapter in GHCW for more details about the Grant’s very real dangers and premonitions; suffice it to say that, while I did not footnote it in that book, the chapter is based on primary sources relating those events.

Andrew Johnson succeeded Lincoln as President, yet knew Booth from his days as Military Governor of Tennessee.  Was he involved in the plot?
Andrew Johnson succeeded Lincoln as President, yet knew Booth from his days as Military Governor of Tennessee. Was he involved in the plot?

Even more telling than the facts surrounding the General and Mrs. Grant’s close brush with death on April 14, 1865, we have the testimony of the first person to make accusations of a wider conspiracy: Mrs. Lincoln herself.  Bear in mind that the backstage personnel of Ford’s Theatre were all friends and close associates of John Wilkes Booth; while they all denied any complicity in the crime, it remains a moot point how involved they may have actually been in the plot, denials after the fact not withstanding.

More importantly, the body guard that had been detailed to stand watch just outside the door to the box seats where the Lincolns were watching the play that night was conveniently missing at the very moment when Booth entered the balcony box to murder Lincoln.  Mary Todd Lincoln did not mince words and she directly accused the body-guard of being in on the plot.  Mary went on to accuse Andrew Johnson of complicity in the plot to murder her husband.  Much of this is detailed in the sections on the assassination in Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Of course, Mary Todd Lincoln has always been given a bad rap by historians: “crazy Mary” has always been the refrain when it comes to her actions and words.  Yet Mary Todd Lincoln was a highly educated, cultured lady—far more so than many of her male contemporaries in Washington—a fact which only increased their resentment for the Kentucky blue blood who had relatives in the Confederate army and she neither crazy nor stupid and, moreover, well aware of the danger her husband was in.  Granted, that after watching her husband being murdered before her very eyes, she was a mite upset and lashed out at all those she thought responsible; yet there is a strong ring of truth in her accusations.

Andrew Johnson "kicking out" the Freedman's Bureau.  Although a Unionist Southerner during the war, as President he took land away from blacks and gave it back to the planters.
Andrew Johnson “kicking out” the Freedman’s Bureau. Although a Unionist Southerner during the war, as President he took land away from blacks and gave it back to the planters.

Where was the body-guard that night and why was he not at his post?  Certainly there were many others willing to die defending the President had they known he was not adequately protected.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s accusations aimed at Vice-President—now President—Johnson have a ring of truth about them.

Some seven hours before the murder, John Wilkes Booth paid a visit to the hotel where Johnson was staying and left a note for the President of Vice:

“Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth” read the note.

What business did the leader of the plot have with the prospective new President?  How deeply was Johnson involved in the plot?

Although Andrew Johnson was considered a Loyalist Southerner, with political connections to Unionist East Tennessee, he was hardly a paragon of virtue and in fact had many suspicious connections.  He was a man fond of strong drink and loose women—a fact not lost on the more straight-laced members of the Republican Party.  When he was Military Governor of Tennessee, he was known to be a close associate of none other than John Wilkes Booth.  In “Right or Wrong, God Judge Me” The Writings of John Wilkes Booth, edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper (1997), evidence is presented that Booth knew Johnson dating back at least to February of 1864, when Booth performed at the newly opened Wood’s Theatre in Nashville.

According to Hamilton Howard in Civil War Echoes (1907), whenever Booth visited Nashville in his guise as actor (although he probably was already in the employ of the Confederate Secret Service) he and Governor Johnson went boozing and wenching together, sharing the sexual favors of two sisters on more than one occasion.

How deep Andrew Johnson was in the Booth Conspiracy shall never be known—but clearly Mary Lincoln was neither hysterical nor “crazy” when she lashed out against him after her husband’s death:

“..that, that miserable inebriate Johnson, had cognizance of my husband’s death – Why, was that card of Booth’s, found in his box, some acquaintance certainly existed – I have been deeply impressed, with the harrowing thought, that he, had an understanding with the conspirators & they knew their man… As sure, as you & I live, Johnson, had some hand, in all this…”  Mary Todd Lincoln to her friend, Sally Orne, in a letter dated March 15, 1866

John Wilkes Booth's death as presented to the American public.  Does this version of Booth tell the truth?
John Wilkes Booth’s death as presented to the American public. Does this version of Booth tell the truth?

We come to the person of Booth himself: actor, lover, spy, assassin; as Shakespeare once observed, a man may play many roles in his life and we know that Booth played more than a few.  It has never been proven, but many believe that Booth was not the mastermind behind the plot to kill Lincoln; certainly he had connections to the Confederate spy ring operating in Canada and residing in Washington, DC, just across the Potomac from Richmond, he could not help but have been in easy contact with the Rebel spy masters in that capital.

Unfortunately, when Richmond fell to Union troops in April of 1865, most of the Confederate Secret Service’s records disappeared—whether by accident or to purpose remains a moot point.  We shall never know exactly what secrets of the Booth Conspiracy disappeared with the loss of those files, but the suspicion remains that the loss was great.

One thing we know for sure: John Wilkes Booth was not on a suicide mission.  He had escape routes clearly planned out for himself and his co-conspirators.  What remains under debate is how successful Booth really was in making good his escape.  The accepted consensus is that he ultimately paid the price for his treachery and treason; but there are dissenters, his descendent Mr. Jameson among them.

In the years following the war, various researchers have followed the convoluted trail of evidence indicating that booth did indeed live a long life after the assassination.  Newspaper reports days after the assassination had Booth in various cities around the country—none of them seemingly true.  In the years following however, there were various accounts of Booth sightings in foreign lands in newspapers, some of which may have had some credence. The reports placed Booth in India and Ceylon, in China, in Mexico, and even in the South Seas. Common to these all these accounts was the figure of Booth as an honorable gentleman with no remorse for his deed.  Interestingly enough, most of the locations where he was sighted also coincide with locations where émigré Confederates actually did establish colonies during Reconstruction.

Abraham Lincoln guided the nation through four years of war only to die as it neared its end.  We still don't know the whole truth.
Abraham Lincoln guided the nation through four years of war only to die as it neared its end. We still don’t know the whole truth.

Some serious researchers believe Booth did make good his escape and, like Jameson, have presented their evidence; but positive proof remains elusive 150 years later.

For more on the Lincoln assassins and the mysterious life and death of Abraham Lincoln, see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi
For the first time documents Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs and experiences dealing with the paranormal. The Paranormal Presidency chronicles his prophetic dreams, premonitions and beliefs, as well as his participation in séances and Spiritualism.

 

GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF THE CIVIL WAR 3x5
True of uncanny events and unexplained encounters relating to the Civil War, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War is the most comprehensive compilation of real paranormal experiences of the Late Unpleasantness.

 

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover
Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, is best known for his macabre fiction and cynical humor, served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.

 

 

Back to the Future: George Washington’s Prophetic Vision

Washington's Headquarters at Valley Forge, where Washington foresaw the Civil War.
Washington’s Headquarters at Valley Forge, where Washington foresaw the Civil War.

At first blush, anything to do with George Washington may seem to have little connection with the Civil War. Yet there is more than one incident in which Washington, or some spectral entity resembling him, influenced the outcome of events relating to the Late Unpleasantness.  In this first entry about George Washington and the Civil War, we will look at an obscure incident from the American Revolution which uncannily fore- shadows, not only the Civil War, but perhaps both world wars as well.  For a fuller account about Washington and the Civil War, however, I refer you to Chapter 16 of Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.

One of he early publications of Washington's Vision.
One of he early publications of Washington’s Vision.

Let us go back to the winter of 1777, the “year of the three sevens” and the time when the Revolution almost collapsed. It was a starving time for Washington’s army at Valley Forge: the troops were ill fed, ill clothed and freezing in their hovels.  The Continental Congress, as Congress does today, did nothing to help.  The troops were not being paid and on the verge of mutiny.  It against this background that Washington’s prophetic vision at Valley Forge should be understood.

Our sole source for this incident was a soldier named Anthony Sherman. His account was first published in the 1840’s in an obscure journal now unobtainable.  Fortunately, his account was reprinted after the Civil War in the National Tribune, a newspaper published for the benefit of Union veterans, mainly to enable them to get pensions from the Federal Government.  As with the VA today, veterans were often frustrated dealing with the government they had defended and fought, died or were disabled protecting.  His account, having been told well before the Civil War, gains additional credibility thereby.

Sherman (no relation to the general) was an ordinary soldier, posted to Washington’s headquarters at Valley Forge at the time.  One day, General Washington emerged from his private quarters, where he had been alone for some time.  Emerging visibly shaken, he began to relate what he had experienced to a trusted aide (Sherman does not say whom, but it was likely Alexander Hamilton). Sherman was close enough to the two to hear what Washington said, and what the general had to say remained seared in Sherman’s memory.

What he allegedly heard (he was in his nineties when related it to a reporter, who apparently embellished on the tale a bit) was that Washington, alone at the time, was in his office praying.  Washington was not an overly religious, being a product of the enlightenment, when most educated gentlemen regarded God (if they regarded him at all) as a sort of divine “clock-maker” who wound up the universe and then stood back and watched it move on its own.  However, the winter of 1777-78 was “the time that tries men’s souls” and that winter Washington if fact prayed quite a bit for divine guidance.  On this occasion, it seems, his prayers were answered–perhaps.

Washington's office at Valley Forge, where a "singularly beautiful being" appeared to him.
Washington’s office at Valley Forge, where a “singularly beautiful being” appeared to him.

 

Washington was in his office, alone, when he became aware of a presence in the room.  It was, “a singularly beautiful being,” with whom the general tried to communicate.  After he addressed the figure several times, she finally responded.  The room’s walls seemed to disappear and his surroundings became luminous.

      ‘Son of the Republic, look and learn,’ she said to Washington, and then spread out her hand in a sweeping gesture several times.  Each time an angelic being dipped water from the ocean and cast it over the continents of Europe, America, Asia and Africa.  On the third such cast “from Africa I saw an ill-omened specter approach our land,” Sherman heard Washington say.  There followed visions of war and destruction, the blasting of trumpets and other scenes which seemed to presage war and ultimate victory.  Clearly, at least part of this version related to the Civil War.  This was, at least, how the reporter interpreted it.

Not surprisingly, ever since this account was first published, there have been professional debunkers ever eager to disprove its veracity. One industrious researcher located the records of a young officer of the Revolution and triumphantly announced the story a fake, because the Anthony Sherman in question had been at Saratoga and not at Valley Forge.  Of course, debunkers always go for pat answers and the fact that there very well may have been more than one soldier named Sherman in service during the American Revolution never entered his closed mind.

When dealing with prophecy of any sort, we are always dealing with a two edged sword; they are generally committed to paper years after the events have come true and when based on only one reporter’s account it is easy enough to discount. Moreover, prophecies are rarely clear declarative statements: they are more often clothed in vivid imagery and language capable of multiple meanings.  In this case, while another version of the prophecy seems to have been previously published well before the war, that original publication, like many early American periodicals, has not survived.  The earliest extant publication is by the erstwhile Philadelphia journalist and dates to the eve of the Civil War, when many such prophecies about the onset of war were in the air.

This is as far as most previous researchers are willing to relate of Washington’s vision.  But in fact, the account as published on the eve of war related far more than just the onset of the Civil War.  For one thing, “the singularly beautiful being” also says to Washington, ‘Son of the Republic, the end of the century cometh; look and learn.’ If this were just propaganda meant for the northern public on the eve of Civil War, why would it refer to future generations?

Moreover, this beatific being also interprets the visions he has seen thusly: ‘Son of the Republic, what you have seen is thus interpreted. Three great perils will come upon the Republic. The most fearful is the third, but in this greatest conflict the whole world united shall not prevail against her.’

While the first conflict she mentions is easily dismissed as the Civil War, the second and third are not. While one can put whatever spin on them one wants, it takes no Nostradamus to interpret the second and third “perils” as the two world wars, and the third conflict in particular as World War II, which was indeed the “greatest conflict” and where indeed for a time it seemed the Axis Powers would take over the “whole world.”  The professional debunkers of this prophecy conveniently leave out these parts of the prophecy, which clearly do not fit their smug theories and which, if they do not “prove” it, certainly give the story greater credibility to the modern reader.

As to the “singularly beautiful being,” several theories have been proposed as to who she was: some say the apparition was the Virgin Mary, who has been known to appear and deliver prophecies in that manner; more recently, the show Ancient Aliens theorized that she was an Alien (of course). The 1859 version makes no such assertions, so the reader is left to add their speculations to the others.

Of course, as with any prophecy, one is free to believe or disbelieve, or to interpret it as one wishes. As for me, I believe.

For more uncanny tales of the Civil War and the South, see Dixie Spirits and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.

Christmas, 1864. A Union Christmas: Washington, D.C. Civil War Christmas, Part 10

An artist's conception of the Lincoln family having Christmas dinner in the White House.
An artist’s conception of the Lincoln family having Christmas dinner in the White House.

Christmas 1864, Washington D.C.   If things were looking gloomy for Varina Howell and her “Jeffie” in Richmond, across the Potomac in Washington it was quite the opposite that December.

That Fall, General Sherman had begun his famous (or infamous) march through Georgia, but for weeks Lincoln had had no word from Sherman or his army of 62,000.

After capturing Savannah, General Sherman sent Lincoln a brief note: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah…”
After capturing Savannah, General Sherman sent Lincoln a brief note: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah…”

Finally,  on December 21 word came that Sherman had captured the port of Savannah, Georgia.  In a telegraph to President Lincoln, General Sherman wrote: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah…”

When Sherman sent his telegram to the White House, the President was both relieved and jubilant.  Lincoln telegraphed back: “Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift – the capture of Savannah…Please make my grateful acknowledgements to your whole army – officers and men.”

In contrast to his scorched earth campaign through rural Georgia, Sherman and his men were magnanimous towards the citizens of Savannah and “Uncle Billie” provided food and merriment for Christmas to the conquered city.

Sherman hosts a victory dinner on Christmas day for his officers.
Sherman hosts a victory dinner on Christmas day for his officers.

Sherman meanwhile held a celebratory supper for his officers.  He also provided for the citizens of Savannah–with victuals stolen from the farms and plantations of Georgia.

After December 1864, General George H. Thomas added "the Sledge of Nashville" to his epithet, "Rock of Chickamauga."
After December 1864, General George H. Thomas added “the Sledge of Nashville” to his epithet, “Rock of Chickamauga.”

In Tennessee, less theatrically, but far more importantly, General Thomas had performed a great service to the Union cause, decimating the Army of Tennessee at the Battle of Nashville.

The Battle of Nashville in mid December 1864 sealed the Confederacy's fate. (Attack on Shy's Hill by Howard Pyle).
The Battle of Nashville in mid December 1864 sealed the Confederacy’s fate. (Attack on Shy’s Hill by Howard Pyle).

 

It was the last effective field army the Confederates had outside of Virginia. To all intents and purposes, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was isolated, and Richmond, the Confederate capitol, was doomed.

 

 

 

 

Lincoln and his son Tad often visited Stuntz's Toy Shop in Washington, DC.
Lincoln and his son Tad often visited Stuntz’s Toy Shop in Washington, DC.

While the  Lincolns are not thought to have had a Christmas tree in the White House, it is known that the President would take Tad to the city’s best toy shop, Stuntz’s Toy Store, to buy him presents.  Unlike many parents of their day who believed in “spare the rod, spoil the child,” both Abraham and Mary Lincoln were indulgent parents, who generally spoiled their boys silly.  Likely, Lincoln and Tad would have been in Stuntz’s that Christmas.

The situation in Washington and much of the North in 1864 was summed up neatly by Thomas Nast in a famous propaganda poster for Harper’s during Christmas Week of 1864, called The Union Christmas.  It depicts President Lincoln standing at a door, with him offering the cold and frostbitten Southern soldiers an invitation to rejoin the Union and enjoy the feast.

Lincoln welcoming defeated Confederates to the "Union Christmas Dinner." Nast contrasts the wealth and plenty of the Union with the poverty and hunger of Rebellion.
Lincoln welcoming defeated Confederates to the “Union Christmas Dinner.” Nast contrasts the wealth and plenty of the Union with the poverty and hunger of Rebellion.

For the North, it would be a Christmas of anticipation and joy for many.  For the South, it was a season of diminishing hope. The South had but its pride left to sustain it—the kind of pride that goeth before the fall.

For more on Lincoln and the Civil War, read The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.  Now out is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published by the University of Tennessee Press.

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover

Ambrose Bierce is famed as a noted American writer, satirist and cynic. Less well known is Bierce’s military career during the Civil War, where he fought with distinction in many of the major battles of the war. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles his wartime experiences in depth for the first time.

 

The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer, 2012)
The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer, 2012)
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War (HarperCollins). True uncanny tales of the Civil War.

The Ghost of Legislators Past: the Tennessee State Capitol’s Civil War Ghost

The Tennessee state Capitol as portrayed on a Confederate Twenty Dollar Bill.  Ironically, the bill was not issued until October, 1862, eight months after the Capitol fell to the Yankees
The Tennessee state Capitol as portrayed on a Confederate Twenty Dollar Bill. Ironically, the bill was not issued until October, 1862, eight months after the Capitol fell to the Yankees

Let me relate a tale, for those with a nose for a good ghost story and told by one who knows it to be true, about the Ghost of the Cupola.

I was recently informed that some summer tour guides in Nashville, who may have heard the story third hand, have embellished it with fabricated details, saying the Ghost of the Cupola is Rachel Jackson, the wife of Andrew Jackson. Given the fact that she died decades before the Capitol was built and never even lived near the downtown area, that is a curious piece of fiction to come up with. Rachel may very well haunt the Hermitage, but she doesn’t haunt the Capitol. So for native Southerners and tourists alike, let me set the record straight.

In Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, I told about a number of different ghosts which inhabit the Tennessee State Capitol. I obtained them from different sources, including some people who have worked there at various times. I also recently did some freelance work which led to me visiting the venerable building on a daily basis. Although I saw none of the spectres I have reported on while there, it did give me a better perspective on its hallowed haunted halls.

The Civil War ghost of the Tennessee State Capitol—The Ghost of the Cupola–I learned about after Strange Tales went to press. Regrettably, since then I have not had the opportunity to update that chapter, so I post it here in the blogosphere for your edification and enlightenment.

For those not familiar with downtown Nashville, Tennessee, the state capitol building is the big old Grecian temple which sits atop Capitol Hill in the heart of the city. At one time it was the highest point in downtown and no other buildings were taller. These days the Nashville skyline is constantly changing, so glass and steel are replacing limestone and marble at the pinnacle of the skyline.

The top of Tennessee’s Capitol building is adorned with an ornate cupola with glass sides, on top of which sits the flagpole where the United States flag flies daily. In February of 1862, however, another flag flew there—the Confederate flag.

Fort Donelson falls to the Union army under Grant, setting off a panic in the city of Nashville, Tennessee's capitol.
Fort Donelson falls to the Union army under Grant, setting off a panic in the city of Nashville, Tennessee’s capitol.

In the early part of 1862, a Yankee army under General Grant defeated the Rebel army defending Forts Donelson and Henry, the twin bastions on the state’s border which stood watch over the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers respectively. Back then the area was called Land Between the Rivers; today it is a fisherman’s paradise called Land Between the Lakes (thank you Corps of Engineers).

General Ulysses S. Grant smoked, drank and liked to play poker.  His skills at poker came in handy at Fort Donelson where he bluffed a superior force of Rebels into surrendering to his small army.
General Ulysses S. Grant smoked, drank and liked to play poker. His skills at poker came in handy at Fort Donelson where he bluffed a superior force of Rebels into surrendering to his small army.

In any case, when the two fortresses fell, a panic ensued upriver in Nashville and all those planters and planter’s sons who had been such militant secessionists fled the city, their carriages loaded with all the loot they could carry. In some cases they fled taking their slaves with them and left their wives and children behind exposed to the dangers of the barbarian Yankee horde. So much for Southern chivalry!

Nashville in 1862.  After the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson a panic ensued and those who could fled the state capitol.
Nashville in 1862. After the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson a panic ensued and those who could fled the state capitol.

Yankee gunboats steamed up the Cumberland unopposed and, arriving at Nashville, pointed their big guns ominously at the city. Yankee troops also soon arrived in large numbers to occupy the city. Needless to say, the first place they went up to was the capitol to haul down the detested Rebel flag.

Jogging double-quick time up the hill, the color-guard, their sharp steel bayonets a gleaming in the sun, made their way up the broad steps of the capitol. Once inside the building they made their way through the abandoned hallways of the legislature, then finally found their way to the rooftop entrance and climbed inside the cupola.

A narrow, winding wrought-iron staircase inside the cupola led to the flagpole at the top.
As they neared the top of the spiral staircase, the Yankees suddenly found the way blocked by an elderly gentleman. He was the last legislator left in Nashville, all the other Secesh politicians having already fled.

Unlike the other politicians, this fire-eating Secessionist refused to leave—to all and sundry in the city he said that he would rather be dead before he would see Old Glory fly over the capitol.

There on the stair he stood, armed with an antique flintlock. He boldly proclaimed to the barbarian Yankees: “you’ll raise that flag over this building over my dead body!”

Before the young Union officer in charge of the Color Guard could answer, a shot rang out from behind him on the narrow twisting stair.

The old Rebel clutched his chest, then tumbled down the stairs. The color guard climbed over him. On that cold day in February, 1862, Old Glory flew over the Tennessee State Capitol; Nashville was, unwillingly, back in the Union.

The Ghost of the Cupola is rarely seen--and he doesn't like Yankees!
The Ghost of the Cupola is rarely seen–and he doesn’t like Yankees!

Nowadays, other than to raise and lower the flag, do maintenance workers in the Capitol have much cause to go up into the cupola—nor do they wish to. Whenever workers are up there they generally have a very eerie feeling, like someone is watching. They do their repairs and hastily leave.

On more than one occasion, however, state workmen have seen a gray mist hanging around the top of the spiral stairs. The cloudy image is indistinct, but one senses a hostile presence there. No one has ever been hurt up there—at least not by any spectre, but long time employees in the capitol know exactly what it is—the ghost of the dead Rebel state senator, still barring the way to the top. For him the war will never be over.

The Tennessee State Capitol at night, when all the ghosts come out that haunt the building.
The Tennessee State Capitol at night, when all the ghosts come out that haunt the building.

For more Civil War ghosts, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, originally published by Rutledge Hill Press and is still in print via HarperCollins Publishers.